Saturday, September 14, 2013

WHAT MISTAKES BUG YOU IN NOVELS?



Hi folks,

What are the things that bug you in novels? Below is a short list of some of the things that bother me. I’d love to hear what irritates you as well.

1. When a character in a novel smells “cordite.” All I can figure is that it must be really old ammunition, since cordite hasn’t been manufactured since just after WWII. Kind of hard to believe anything that follows once someone is able to smell something that’s been extinct for almost 70 years...

2. When a character in a supposedly bad-ass novel uses words like “shiv”. Especially if the character is either in prison or is an ex-con. The only time I’ve ever heard this term is in old movies like West Side Story or in novels written by people who have never done time or been a criminal. In the joint, it’s always “shank” or… simply a knife. When I was in the joint and overheard a newbie using this term, I was pretty sure this is someone new to the criminal life and got his info from bad movies and books. Looks like a guy who isn’t going to do well inside…

3. When a character calls prison guards “bulls” or “screws.” Inside, it’s either “hacks” or “guards” or “officer.” “Bulls” and “screws” come from… you know, bad novels and Hollywood… who make a lot of their movies from bad novels... The exception is the U.K. where these terms are still used. And, in novels set in a period before the sixties.

4. When a professional—soldier or a cop or other like professional—is having a radio conversation and ends it with saying, “Over and out.” Anyone who’s been in the service is just naturally going to quit believing in anything that author puts on the page thereafter. “Over” means “invitation to transmit” and “Out” means “end of transmission.” They’re never used together, except by writers who’ve never been in the service or law enforcement and get all their knowledge from reading other bad writers… Probably the same writer who has his characters armed with shivs and sniffs cordite… Related, is the character who says “Wilco.” This means “Order received: will comply.” Except, it was a communication ordered not to be used shortly after WWII.

5. The thing I hate the worse though—is that one little paper towel they hand you after they print you. For all the tax dollars citizens send in, you’d think they could give us at least enough towels to wipe all the ink off… The money sure isn’t being spent on the food… This one isn’t in novels, but just something that’s personally irritating.



There is a reason the writing advice to “write what you know” is valid. The better advice is “write what you can convince the reader you know.” That doesn’t mean the writer has to have actual experience in whatever world he or she is creating, but it does mean the writer should have done enough valid research to be factual. And, “valid research” doesn’t mean relying on other bad novels to figure out what’s truthful, but to conduct actual, viable research.

There’s a very popular author who I can’t read any longer because of his egregious factual errors. Errors which could have been avoided very easily by doing actual research. What makes this guy’s work even worse is that he holds a doctorate and teaches in a university. Although, these days that doesn’t mean the guy’s much of a scholar…

In a single novel, this guy had four major mistakes. One would have been bad, but four make him simply and totally unreliable, at least as far as I’m concerned. The first three were related. He had his protagonist/detective pick up a handwritten letter and from that deduced that the writer was an elderly, lefthanded man. Well, there are three things handwriting analysis cannot reveal: Handedness (right or left handed writer), age, and sex. This turkey had all three! A phone call to a reputable graphologist would have taught him that. And the fourth was perhaps the worst of all. The protagonist was searching for his girlfriend who had been missing for about a year. When he found her body, he also “discovered” that her nails and hair had grown appreciably. By “appreciably” I mean her hair had “grown” almost a foot, and her nails several inches. If he had just asked the average fifth-grader who’d paid attention in science class, he would have known that hair and nails don’t grow at all after the body dies. This is perhaps the oldest old wives’ tale in existence. Years ago, before embalming, people would sometimes dig up bodies and they thought the hair and nails had grown as they “looked” as if they had. Not to the extent this “author” made his gal’s hair and nails grow—just a tiny bit. They hadn’t, but they appeared to because the tissues had shrunk and it made it appear as if they’d grown a tiny bit. If this writer—who has a doctorate—had just asked a knowledgeable fourth- or fifth-grader who hadn’t slept through science class, he might have avoided embarrassing himself. Although, I doubt if he’d be embarrassed. After all, lots of people buy his books.

Not to mention there’s probably some budding writer out there who may have stumbled upon his book and will end up going out and writing his own novel and use the info he gleaned there for his own story. Instead of—you know—doing bona fide research… It happens…

So, what are the things you see in novels that just irritate the crap out of you and make you quit reading the author?

Blue skies,
Les


24 comments:

Heath Lowrance said...

That one about nails and hair growing after death annoys me too. I'm always a little amazed when someone still believes that old chestnut.
This is going to sound a bit petty, but I wish writers would stop referring to someone being "hung"-- it's "hanged", not "hung", unless you're a damn painting on the wall.

Mister Ramsden said...

There's fifteen errors in Martin Amis's Lionel Asbo, which must be a world record. Schoolchildren pass exams that haven't existed since the eighties, prisoners 'muck out', it's 'slop out', abandoned in the 90s etc. Guy doesn't know his own country any more, esp the underclass which he often patronises.

These things have to be said after he had a go at Thomas Harris!

Les Edgerton said...

Good one, Heath. Here's another that's now passed into usage. Years ago, there was a big flap over writers saying "She lit a cigarette." English teachers really hated that one and it was a bit of a national furor. The "proper" way was to write, "She lighted her cigarette."

As far as hung, thanks for that one. My wife obviously has it wrong when she tells everyone I'm "hung." And, when she reads this, I'm pretty sure I'll be "hanged."

Mark, Amis wasn't the "popular author" I mentioned, but it sounds like he's cut from the same mold... Thanks, guys!

Les Edgerton said...

Good one, Heath. Here's another that's now passed into usage. Years ago, there was a big flap over writers saying "She lit a cigarette." English teachers really hated that one and it was a bit of a national furor. The "proper" way was to write, "She lighted her cigarette."

As far as hung, thanks for that one. My wife obviously has it wrong when she tells everyone I'm "hung." And, when she reads this, I'm pretty sure I'll be "hanged."

Mark, Amis wasn't the "popular author" I mentioned, but it sounds like he's cut from the same mold... Thanks, guys!

Jason W. Stuart said...

Or well endowed. Hey o!

tom pitts said...

One thing handwriting can reveal: That the printer is broken.
Something that bugs me in books and movies is how they're always stabbing someone in the neck with a syringe. If you're gonna jab someone in the flesh, why not aim for a shoulder? Nobody's hitting a jugular vein at a 90-degree angle (or without aiming) and sticking the needle in up to the hilt! Don't get me started on the "truth serum" that the point is loaded with either.

austincarrscrimediary said...

Can't remember where I saw it, but some author screwed his "silencer" (It's really a noise supresser) onto the muzzle of his revolver. Good luck keeping that quiet.

Anne Gallagher said...

Of course I'm coming from a totally different genre, but the thing that bugs me in historical romance novels is when the author uses contractions. Yes, some contractions were used, but only by the lower classes. The upper echelon did not use them, as they thought it kept their class distinction distinct.

Thomas Pluck said...

Good ones, Les. I admit I used "shiv" in a draft and I thank you for correcting me. This is why it's good for a writer to keep the day job, or switch to one that gets you face time with real people if you don't NEED another job. Work retail if you can hack it, you'll get enough humanity to last you a lifetime.

My peeves?
Gun lingo. There is no manual safety on a Glock. You can't cock a Glock or release the safety. No one expects you to be a gun expert, but if you're going to write about guns, take a safety course at a range and shoot the shit with the range master. They love talking guns.
They had a firing range trip at a Bouchercon last year and I was tempted to go and see how accurate whatever 1911 they had was.

Here's another hint. There are no "silencers." There are suppressors, which work on semi-automatic and full automatic weapons. A revolver cannot be silenced (except for a few rare antiques) because of the design. And suppressed firearms make noise. You can make a one-shot suppressor with a plastic soda bottle.

There are books by violent professionals... soldiers, bodyguards, etc who explain many details of weaponry, real reactions in a fight, and so on, that I highly recommend. Rory Miller, Marc MacYoung, Dan Grossman. For PI's there's the excellent Guns, Gams & Gumshoes site:
http://writingpis.wordpress.com/
They have ebooks that show you how a real modern PI gets the job done.

It pisses me off in a modern book when someone wastes pages of a story for something the protagonist can find in 5 minutes on the Internet, unless they have no computer or smart phone and no reason to have one, and don't know anybody who can use one.
It's lazy writing.

Another thing are characters who don't have a job and don't have any worries over money. Unless you're Bertie Wooster and inherited a fortune, you gotta hustle. Or you squat and steal and panhandle, which is a job of sorts.

Rant over.

Les Edgerton said...

Good one, Jason! And, Tom! And, good point about syringes, Tom. In the ongoing writing class I teach, one of our most-valued members is Dr. Mary Edelson, who keeps us on the straight and narrow about things like this. Jack, great point about silencers... er, noise suppressors. Also, I love those movies where they just keep on working, shot after shot. My understanding is they begin to break down effectiveness quickly. And, thanks, Anne--I learned something! That's valuable info. You guys are terrific!

Les Edgerton said...

Excellent, Tom. A guy I highly recommend for gun and police stuff is Lee Lofland at is site at http://www.leelofland.com/wordpress/

One that irritates me in movies and TV shows is when they show the guy with a .22 rifle and then the sound of a shotgun erupts... with the kind of hole a rifled slug (not shot) would make. Sounds of different firearms are so different, but in movieland, they seem to prefer loud over everything else.

Two other things that bug me are seeing: I wonder who he is, she thought to herself. Like... who else would she be thinking to?

And, one of my biggest is the amateur's attempt at showing sorrow with that "single tear coursing down her cheek" which makes me wonder is the event only half-sad or is perhaps her other tear duct clogged up?

These are great, folks! Keep 'em coming!

Matthew McBride said...

As far as handwriting analysis goes, it is pretty easy to tell when someone left handed writes a sentence. Because left handed people "push" their pen/pencil across the page, from left to right, the way we read, as opposed to the traditional "pull," as the rest of the (right handed) population does.

Les Edgerton said...

Uh, actually, Matthew, I'd respectfully disagree with you. The slant letters make depends on the personality, not their handedness. It's a common misconception to think slant indicates handedness or even pressure, but they really don't.

A left slant indicates a person who doesn't trust as much as others. It's often found in writers who were abused as children. Engineering is one profession with a lot of left slant in their script. A right slant indicates a person who's one of those sales types who become instant friends with people. A straight-up slant is indicative of one with balance. Of course, it isn't possible to tell much about a person with just one trait. It takes assessing dozens and dozens of traits to begin to make an accurate assessment.

It's like thinking that small, precise letters indicate feminine writing and it has nothing to do with the sex of the person. Or that large, "sloppy" handwriting indicates lesser intelligence. Actually, the sloppier handwriting is a positive sign for intelligence while "perfect" scripts indicate a writer lower in intelligence. But, again, one trait doesn't tell us much. It really takes dozens of traits to make a sound judgment.

BTW, handwriting analysis is legitimate. It's recognized in all 50 states (or all 57 states if you're the prez...) in legal courts. Several universities, including UCLA offer classes in it. It takes about two years of intensive study to be able to pass the testing to be a graphologist. I'm surprised more crime writers don't study it more. A good place to start is with Andrea McNichol's "Handwriting Analysis: Putting It to Work for You." Andrea has solved hundreds of crimes via analysis, including the Hillside Strangler case.

Matthew McBride said...

Respectfully: Where did you come across this information? Writers who were abused as children tend to write with a slant? I actually took a police handwriting analysis class, and you can usually tell. Almost always. I'm by no means an expert, or anything close, but you can tell because a left handed person physically writes different. Because they have to physically hold the instrument different since they have to avoid smearing the fresh ink as they write (lefties are "pushers." Righties are "pullers.") Generally people who write left handed have a very unique penmanship, and sometimes it varies depending on whether or not they're able to turn the paper they're writing on at an angle.

Les Edgerton said...

Matthew, I'm certified. I studied graphology for four years (an average of 10 hours a week of intensive study) and took the national test for certification. The national secretary of the nat'l assn lives in our town and she took me under her wing years ago. It's a fairly common fallacy to think that more left-handers slant their writing to the left. The same percentage of left-handers as right lean to the left and lean to the right. There is almost no difference between the writing of either. The only difference is the way some lefties cross their T bars. 50% of lefties cross their Ts from right to left when using a separate stroke to cross the T. The other 50% cross from left to right ass do nearly 100% of eighties.

Please let me clear up one thing. I didn't say people who were abused as children write with a slant. Every single writer writes with a slant. What I said is that a left-leaning slant usually indicates a person with trust issues. Often, those are created in childhood. But, I have to keep qualifying this by saying no one, no matter how good they are, can tell much about a person by one or even several traits. It takes dozens and dozens to come up with an accurate picture. One very negative trait is if you have an acquaintance who never writes "perfect" script and suddenly you notice his or her writing begin to approach perfection, i.e., that "copybook" perfect writing that many were taught in grade school. That is a huge warning sign that that person may be close to a suicidal state. I actually saved a student of mine at the University of Toledo who was close to suicide by noticing this. One of those times when studies pay off!

It takes an awfully long time and a lot of study to become proficient in graphology. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of things to look for and measure, etc. That's why it takes most people at least two years to know enough to be proficient and accurate. And, that's two years with many hours of study each week. I've got a library of over 30 books on analysis and graphology and refer to them often. Again, from my studies, I maintain there are three things no one can tell from analysis: age, sex or handedness.

Good discussion!

Les Edgerton said...

Another way to think of slant is to picture the way a person stands when talking to a stranger. The body language of such a person would tend to be leaning back, i.e., a "left-leaning slant." A person leaning forward and toward the person shows a person more trusting. A person who adopts a more "neutral" stance, i.e., straight up, is someone in the middle--neither a complete trusting person nor a complete distrusting person. Writing is determined by a person's emotions and not through "inherited" traits or physical traits. It very accurately mirrors the person's emotional state... at the time of the writing. Writing changes as the person's emotional state changes. In fact, there was a Colorado program where teens at risk (delinquents) were forced to use positive traits in their writing and eliminate negative traits and their behavior changed commensurately.

Matthew McBride said...

Very informative, thanks. I've always been fascinated by the subject. Was probably forming [most of] my opinion based on the class I took, and the fact the lefties I know all have shitty handwriting.

Les Edgerton said...

Ha-ha! That means they're all probably pretty smart people! That's a positive sign, depending. An intelligent person thinks quickly and usually writes quickly also, which leads to a script that comes across as "sloppy." A more plodding intellect usually takes his/her time, just like they do in other actions, and that renders their handwriting as "better-looking." Also, the smarter the person is, the more apt they are to figure out shortcuts. Most smarter folks use a combination of cursive and print as it's faster. The more obedient and less quick-thinking students are the ones who stick to the form taught them the longest. One exception is the signatures of people who sign their names a lot, such as doctors. Their signature is notoriously degenerated and it's simply a function of their job--after signing so much, their writing deteriorates. A person's occupation has a lot to do with their script.

BTW, folks, in case you don't recognize the name, Matthew McBride is one of the best writers out there. If you haven't read his FRANK SINATRA IN A BLENDER, you need to, asap!

Lee Lofland said...

I'm left-handed and have a fairly neat handwriting. I do the contortionist thing when writing - curl my hand and wrist so that I pull the pen or pencil across the page instead of pushing. My writing has a definite right-leaning slant, but I do cross my t's from right to left.

As I'm sure you know, DaVinci was left-handed and often wrote backward. Some say it was to prevent people from reading his notes. Well, I can do the same. In fact, I can write backward with my left hand and forward with my right, at the same time - mirror images. I wonder what that says about the workings of my mind, and of my character.

Oh, revolvers do not eject spent cartridges as the shooter fires the weapon. People are not propelled backward when shot (they merely fall down and bleed). And the term "perp" is regional, and is not used by most police officers.

Les Edgerton said...

Wow! Lee Lofland is THE EXPERT on both firearms and on police procedures. It's a decided honor to have him comment here!

RE: revolvers--that's why I preferred them when I was in the life. No casings and also they don't misfire nearly as much as a gun with a clip. One thing (please confirm, Lee) about clips is that if the owner doesn't take out the shells and replace about each day, the clip spring tends to weaken and that creates misfires as much as anything. Never see this in books/movies and I think that while it's not common, it's not uncommon, either.

Lee, I recommend Andrea McNichol's book to you, especially. She's solved dozens and dozens of crimes and was instrumental in solving the Hillside Strangler case with handwriting analysis. She dispels a lot of old wives' tales about handwriting and her book is extremely accessible.

In fact, I've told many people how they could become a millionaire within a year or two, by becoming a handwriting expert and opening a shop to help women make good choices for their partners. I had a friend who was a lawyer who took my advice and did just that--only she helped lawyers pick juries via analysis and she's now in the high six figures a year, less than five years after opening her business.

BTW, almost all Fortune 500 businesses use handwriting analysis for all their major hires and promotions. Many use it for initial hires (there's a firm in Louisville that handles the majority of these, world-wide). If you apply for a job and they ask you to "just write a paragraph or two about your goals," that's what it's for, only they won't tell you that.

Which reminds me--there's a hugely negative sign that will almost always prevent a firm from hiring you if they spot it and use a handwriting analysis firm--it's referred to as the "felon's hook." Over 90% of inmates have it in their script while incarcerated... I saw it in my wife's handwriting in a note once and called her on it and sure enough--she had written a lie. She will never use cursive any longer when writing me...

Lee Lofland said...

Handwriting analysis may soon be a thing of the past since many schools are no longer teaching cursive.

Les Edgerton said...

I know. It's really sad. They did this in Mexico years ago and education slumped even more there.

The thing is, it won't affect graphology tremendously as it doesn't depend on cursive to be revealing of personality. In fact, an analysis can be done easily for preschoolers who haven't yet learned to write.

Wish I could make one of your events, Lee! My students tell me how much they learn and how much they enjoy the experience. Don't know if you remember Mary Edelson and Maegan Beaumont, but I'd referred them to your blog several years ago and then they took the workshop and loved it. Maegan's first book is doing fantastically and she got a lot of her material from you.

Lee Lofland said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee Lofland said...

I'd certainly like to see you at a future WPA, Les. It's a fantastic event, and this year was the largest and best ever.