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What throws you out of a story?

Even RWA seems to be asking what throws you out of a story with their question about adding a DNF rating to the RITA judging. So today, we’re going to have an informal Kate wants to know poll.

I’ll start it off with a particular dislike of mine. Info dumps. I was reminded of this recently when I read a smashing story that had me turning the pages even as I grumbled about the numerous info dumps. These were on World War II and I imagine many readers wouldn’t know this information, but I do, and while some were added cleverly, some left me shaking my head. The one that had nothing to do with the story had me gnashing my teeth. I don’t care how interesting you find it, if it has nothing to do with the story, leave it out!

Then there’s the really? character action that makes me want to shake the author. No jet lagged forty year old male when kept from his bed late at night by a mysterious summons is going to look in the mirror and think about the dimple in his chin and other facial features. That really? moment nearly stopped me near the beginning from reading The Da Vinci Code, which I enjoyed. TSTL heroines who go down into the basement in their nighties knowing there’s a homicidal maniac on the loose are the best really? character actions in the movies.

I know one author who can’t get past a misplaced modifier without making a note of it. Having been laughed at by any number of critique partners over the years, I am a recovering misplaced modifier in training.

Bad editing, bad grammar, bad proofreading. We’ve all seen it.

I’ve been taken to task by English readers of my English set stories for using Americanisms in my stories. Guilty as charged. I do better each story, and make a new mistake.

Please add to Kate’s poll with your own favorite reasons for throwing the book against the wall or just giving up on the story. And let us know how many chances you give an author before you are thrown out of the story for good.

Kate Parker tries not to be guilty of all these failings on a daily basis. Check out the Victorian Bookshop Mysteries and the Deadly Series to see if she ever succeeds. www.KateParkerbooks.com

38 responses to “What throws you out of a story?”

  1. Elizabeth Langston says:

    I’ll stop with obvious mistakes about the setting. If you’re going to write about the South, then you wouldn’t have someone jogging in August midday in sweats–not unless you want them to collapse of heat exhaustion. Or leave Charlotte in a car and arrive on the Outer Banks an hour later. A quick check of a map could tell the author that’s wrong.

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    • Kate Parker says:

      Beth, I’d like to reach Charlotte in an hour! Yes, setting has to be correct or anyone familiar with the area will see every mistake. And if you write historically set stories, transportation and costuming errors will be seen by everyone familiar with that time in history.
      Thank you. Setting can drive readers nuts.

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    • Tracy Brody says:

      Amen. Please, do your research because, while we make up fiction, if you get facts wrong that tends to take me out of a story as I figure if you don’t care enough to do your research, where else are you lazy in your writing.

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  2. Jennifer Bray-Weber says:

    As an editor, I’ve seen it all and I have my pet peeves. Incorrect use of setting, faulty or amateurish grammar, repetitious thoughts which are repeated again in dialogue, I could go on. But the one thing that really annoys me—don’t laugh because I see a lot of it—is talking during couple’s most intimate moments. More times than not, it’s not natural or is jarring, especially if the reader is given a play-by-play.

    Great post, Kate.

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    • YES! Especially when it’s the dude getting chatty. I’ll allow for personal preference and artistic license, but I need a semblance of verisimilitude …

      I think it’s tough to write an action scene with no dialogue. It’s basically choreography at that point. I wonder if that’s part of it?

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    • Kate Parker says:

      Dialog discussing the finer points of the plot during lovemaking would be painful to read. Thanks for stopping by, Jennifer

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    • Liz Talley says:

      Well, I like a little word play. I find a little talking kinda sexy. I mean, not gross stuff, but sexy, fun stuff? Yeah, I like that. but each to her own 🙂

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      • Well, hey, we all have our quirks!

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      • I’m with Liz. I love a bit of organic talk during a love scene. In one of my books, the heroine finds that the buttoned up hero has a tattoo of a compass on his body, and this discovery opens the door to the hero’s backstory, which IMO adds to the intimacy of the moment. Great post!

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  3. Beth Trissel says:

    Excellent post and comments. I totally agree. Thanks!

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  4. Tamara Hogan says:

    Oh, Kate – nothing will cause me to DNF a book more quickly than mechanics problems: uncorrected spelling and grammar errors, punctuation problems, typos, and homophone errors such as your/you’re, to/too/two, there/their/they’re, and rain/rein/reign. (<– I encountered this last one just last week. I wasn't sure whether the queen was supposed to be wet, riding, or ruling.)

    From a dialogue mechanics perspective, too many occurrences of "he/she thought" will also pull me out of the story. (Picture me muttering, "Of COURSE 'she thought.' The scene is written from HER POINT OF VIEW.") And when it's repeated three times on a single page? Ooof.

    Inaccurate research, of course. I recall reading a published novel where a female ice skater was described as doing an arabesque. Nope. On ice, that's called a spiral – which I know because I spent too many long, shivering hours learning how to do one when I was a kid. When judging unpublished contests, I occasionally see romantic suspense writers use terms like 'medical examiner' and 'coroner', and 'killed' vs. 'murdered', interchangeably. (They're not.) Mistakes like these cause me to read on with somewhat of a mental asterisk, because I no longer entirely trust the writer.

    I won't put down a book for exhibiting my 'he/she thought' personal pet peeve; one of my favorite writers does it all the time. I think I can get past one or two research errors if I find other aspects of the story fulfilling. But mechanics issues? Repetitive spelling, grammar, tense and typo issues? Life's too short. My TBR pile is tall. Next!

    I can’t wait to read, and learn from, others’ pet peeves!

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    • Oh, shit! What’s the difference between killed and murdered?!!

      Your ice-skating example shows that we all have our specialities, and if someone happens to be writing about our area of expertise, they’d better get it right! I know nothing about ice skating and that mistake would fly right by me.

      A fellow writer sent me a manuscript a couple of years ago because she wanted to be sure she got her details right. I think it was set in an exotic animal rescue, and I’ve worked in zoos. She’d worked in vet clinics and had a similar knowledge base, but wanted another layer of assurance. (Plenty of writers would say “close enough” and not bother to contact anyone else).

      The manuscript was mostly accurate, except for a single word that was sort of critical — anyone coming from an exotic animal training background would’ve known she’d gotten it wrong. It was “enrichment,” the term for giving an animal treats and toys and new experiences to keep it from getting bored. Really common in exotic animal care, not so much in domestic animal care. She’d called it something else (to her additional credit, she said she knew she’d gotten it wrong).

      I wish more writers would find something like an expert in the field to read their work before publishing! Publishers certainly don’t go about this work on our behalf.

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      • Kate Parker says:

        That’s a good reminder, Jamie. There’s so little I’m an expert at that I’m constantly calling on experts. Since I write historical novels, I have to use books for technical details, but I don’t mind. 😉

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      • Tamara Hogan says:

        –> Oh, shit! What’s the difference between killed and murdered?!!

        Heh. 😉 Killed means dead, sometimes by someone else’s hand, but murder is a legal term meaning a defendant was charged, tried, and found guilty of killing another person in an unlawful, premeditated manner.

        One person can kill another person, but if the killing was accidental and not premeditated, the killer might be charged with manslaughter rather than murder. If the killing occurred in self-defense, the killer might not be charged at all; their actions might be deemed justifiable and thus lawful.

        So, all murders are killings, but not all killings are murders. Does that make sense?

        Where I usually see the word “murder” used incorrectly in romance fiction is, say, during a scene where a law enforcement team responds to a report of a dead body. They see the DB has a gunshot wound to the head. One detective theatrically turns to the other and says, “We have a murder here.”

        Nope. Murder is a legal, end-state term. It’s not the first responders’ job to legally interpret the scene anyway. Absent an eyewitness, all they know at this point is that they have DB with a gunshot wound. Investigation and evidence collection will be required to fill in the gaps.

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    • Kate Parker says:

      Tamara, I go nuts in everyday life about to/too/two, so mistakes of that type in books would drive me batty. Thanks for those pet peeves. I think you share them with a lot of readers.

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  5. My biggest pet peeve: bland writing.

    I seem to have read a lot of perfectly competent but desperately unimaginative writing lately…totally coincidental with Rita season, I assure you.

    What I despise, specifically, is when a scene makes sense and all the basics are fine — the setting is explained, it’s obvious whose POV we’re in and who is talking — but it’s just so fucking boring. There’s no poetry or drama in the construction of the sentences and paragraphs and chapters. Nobody says anything interesting or surprising. There’s no X-factor, no spark. It’s slow reading, and often doesn’t use enough contractions and short sentences. There’s no sense of rhythm, no kick drum, no cymbals. The author’s voice is dead on the page.

    I feel like some books have been auto-tuned for a commercial audience.

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    • Kate Parker says:

      Jamie, that is something I fight in my own writing. As soon as I start getting bored with my story, I know it’s time for a major rewrite-or as my husband says “Kill somebody.”

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      • It’s not really about plot, though — I’m talking about the way in which the plot is presented. The writing. Some people can tell a great story in a really boring way!

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        • Liz Talley says:

          I get you. I know what you’re talking about – it’s like a story you’ve read before…but you haven’t. But it seems like you’ve read it before because it’s so blah. Nothing technical, characters okay, but…not even the good kind of vanilla. I’ve run into this quite often with series books (like HQ). They all seem the same. And it often happens with writers who write LOTS o’ books. No time to make it luscious because there is another book due in three months.

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          • “No time to make it luscious.”

            Love that, gonna start using, like about dinner: “No time to make it luscious. Bedtime’s in thirty minutes!”

            Seriously, sometimes I think I have too much time to make it luscious. Like, I’ll spend a day petting a page because I CAN. Because no one is asking me for anything. I could do with a little more “ain’t nobody got time for that!” in my life.

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    • Tamara Hogan says:

      –> it’s just so fucking boring. There’s no poetry or drama in the construction of the sentences and paragraphs and chapters. Nobody says anything interesting or surprising.

      THIS.

      My suspicion is that this observation is related to the Cult of Productivity we were talking about here at the blog a couple of weeks ago. For a lot of us, making our writing more interesting takes time – time I fear more and more writers simply don’t feel they can take or make, given time-to-market pressures.

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      • Hmmmm….the author of the book I was actually flipping through as I wrote that comment published 5 full-length novels last year. I mean, maybe they were old manuscripts or re-pubs or something, and maybe the other ones were hot stuff and this one just fell a little flat. Or maybe she’s making good money (she’s a bestseller; there’s no sport in complaining about an amateur) writing perfectly competent but kinda rote books and doesn’t need to try any harder.

        I will say, for the record, it’s possible to be fast AND good! I just think it’s difficult and takes a pretty special writer. (Like our Vivi!)

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  6. Gwynlyn says:

    I’m with Tammy. Mechanics and grammar activate my internal editor. Once that beotch is engaged, enjoyment is wishful thinking. Redundancy is annoying, too. After saying the same thing five different ways, if you’re reader doesn’t get it, it’s not going to happen, so give it up. PLEASE.
    Poor research is a serious threat to my teeth. If I have to put the book down to check a fact (because I make mistakes, too), and the writer is out in left field, without a mitt, for the second or third time. I’m done. Gone. If the fact is correct, however, I’ve learned something, and continue reading.
    Contrivances drive me batty. In fact, of late, I’ve found contrivances so prevalent, I can’t recall the last book I actually finished. Sad.

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    • Kate Parker says:

      Gwyn, are there any contrivances you’re seeing a lot of lately? I’m curious, and I may just learn something.

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      • I think the one that bites my butt the worst is the gun, knife, book, photo, or whatever that materializes from thin air at just the right moment.

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        • Kate Parker says:

          That’s something I have to go back and add in foreshadowing on about the 6st rewrite (I rewrite a lot). I haven’t noticed this happening in books I’ve been reading, but either I’ve been lucky or unobservant.

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          • Gwynlyn says:

            How about characters that suddenly abandon their characterization–not a minor alteration, mind you. Complete 180–so the writer can make the next plot point work (at least, that’s the only justification I can think of for it). And then, there’s the one kiss wonder. I can’t help but wonder when a young woman of good breeding kisses the hero once and turns into Lady Round Heels. Really? Did he put a date-rape drug in his Chap Stick?

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  7. I guess I’m just stubborn because I think I can count the number of books I’ve started and not finished on one hand. It takes A LOT for me to get disgusted and stop reading. I think for me it all has to do with characterization. If I genuinely do not care what happens to the hero and heroine then I can put a book down. Otherwise? Yeah. Stubborn.

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  8. Cynthia Huscroft says:

    I rarely give up on a book & for the most part try to read through to the end. The last book I did give up was so unbelievable I just couldn’t wrap my head around it:) That one I did give up on! Another thing that will put me off is if the language is too “raw” or “foul”…& bad grammar unless it is germane to the story.

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  9. Liz Talley says:

    I give up on books quite often. I probably should be more stubborn, like Vivi, but I don’t want to waste my time with something I don’t enjoy. But oftentimes it’s not because the book is bad…just not my cuppa.

    I will say that one of my selections in a recent contest was a solid book. I really enjoyed the story and cared about the characters, loved the authenticity and though the actual writing good; however, the grammar was atrocious. Sigh. It’s not that much to hire a proofreader. Heck, give a local English teacher a $100 and a coffee from Starbucks and he/she’ll do it. It totally ruined it for me and it screamed “I’m not a professional!”

    So that was annoying.

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  10. Tracy Brody says:

    Kate, Think most of my pet peeves have come up. Not researching things, grammar and flat writing. But, Kate, if I don’t like or care about the characters, I will quit reading because I’m not invested in them story or HEA. Another thing, Kate, that drives me nuts, is when they keep using the character name instead of using pronouns or in speech. You get me on that , Kate? 😉

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  11. Hywela Lyn says:

    Thanks for a fascinating post and discussion. There aren’t many books I won’t finish, even if I find a lot of faults – as long as I am invested in the characters! The one thing that really annoys me though, is (usually in historicals) where the heroine or hero always rides a stallion. I’ve ridden several stallions myself, and some of them have been sweet, wonderful rides. However, on the whole, a stallion can be a difficult animal to handle, especially around mares, and a gelding is a much easier ride, as are most mares. So unless it is essential to the plot that the character rides a stallion, it is far more logical and believable that they ride a gelding or mare.

    Another pet peeve is ‘disembodied body parts’. I just read an otherwise enjoyable SF adventure where the heroine’s eyes ‘bounced across the room’ urgh!

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