Category Archives: pet peeves


First person vs. third person

It seems like I’ve been receiving a lot of manuscripts/sample chapters written in the first person lately, and while this is absolutely fine if it works for that particular story/genre, I wanted to use this blog post as an opportunity to explain some common misconceptions about the different narrative points of view.

  • The idea that a third person narrator is not as intimate as a first person narrator is false. When I ask authors why they chose to write in first person, the response usually has to do with telling an intimate story. A third person narrator can be just as intimate—he/she can express the thoughts, fears and dreams of the character, as well as take a bird’s eye view of the action, which leads me to my next point
  • First person isn’t easier to write than third person. In fact, you could argue the opposite. As mentioned, writing in the third person grants you a lot more freedom—it allows you to write a story from any perspective you want. On the other hand, first person narratives can severely limit the author’s options. The author can’t write about events that the character doesn’t witness or the emotions and thoughts of other characters. It can be restrictive. Worse yet, if a reader doesn’t connect with a character’s voice, that kills the book right there. But perhaps most difficult of all, I find that writers tend to overemphasize emotions, which quickly becomes unbearable. Don’t, I repeat, DON’T put me in a glass case of emotion.


will ferrell glass case of emotion


  • Third person isn’t necessarily better than first person. While it should seem clear by now that I prefer the third person, it is in no way, shape, or form the better point of view. Certain genres work very well in first person, particularly YA. Furthermore, some books just work in first person regardless of genre. Think about your classic unreliable narrator, Holden Caulfield (although The Catcher in the Rye would probably be considered YA nowadays). The Martian and The Bookseller, and The Rosie Project were great in the first person…or so I’ve heard (only actually read The Martian). First person can work, don’t get me wrong. I just prefer third person.

I’d like to hear from our readers. Which point of view do you prefer to read? To write? Why?


Arrogant liars and emotional ninjas

Sharon and I were discussing our taste in books earlier today (shocking, I know) and both confessed to a fondness for unreliable narrators.  Likewise I have a real soft-spot for any protagonist I love in spite of myself.  Clever, wry, horrible jerk I’d never want to know in real life?  Sign me up!  I’m the type of person who loves Lucifer in Paradise Lost more than any other main character in classic lit.  But I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea—and I think it’s harder to do it well than to write a likeable protagonist well (though that’s not always an easy feat either).  I’m no fan of gimmicks, in general, but if you try something that seems like it can’t possibly work and actually win, you get my undying devotion in return.  I don’t advise authors to stack the odds against themselves, because I’m a fairly risk averse person, but the ones who do and actually pull it off are my gods.

My pet peeve: writers I can see trying to pull my heartstrings.  I described myself earlier as unmovable, which is an exaggeration, but I definitely have more of a heart of stone than the average reader.  I’m all for something that does move me, but if you try too hard to do it I am going to check out.  I need to be lulled into a false sense of security and then wham! tears out of nowhere.  Can you make me cry on the subway* when I’m tired and grumpy?  If so, I’m in.  But if I see it coming, it’s never going to happen.  The icy walls clamp down around my heart, and I start rooting against the hero or heroine.  (Told you I was naturally contrary.)  Chances are the author is trying no matter what, but I need stealth emotion, not transparent manipulation.

I’m just all about any book that can best my natural tendencies.

But we all have our things: the quirks that we look for even though we know they drive others nuts and the things we can’t stand even though everyone else is enthralled.  What draws you in, and what do you tune out?

*Making me forget I’m on the subway is inevitably going to be worked into my pitches. Three real world examples off the top of my head:

“There’s a point in the book where everything just clicks into place, and I actually yelled ‘Holy shit!’ out loud on the train when I read it.  But I was so excited I didn’t even have time to be embarrassed or see how my fellow commuters reacted, because I needed to find out how it was going to go down.”

“I was so wrapped up in what was happening that I completely lost track of time and tuned out everything else.  Even when I finally realized I had missed my stop, I got off the train and walked home while still reading, in the rain, holding my arm across the top of my e-reader so it wouldn’t get wet.”

“I didn’t even know that I was afraid of being forgotten, but the next thing I know I’m just bawling on the subway, imagining what it would be like if my family and friends couldn’t remember I had ever existed.”


Just read the @&$%#*! book

I represent a lot of children’s and young adult authors, which puts me into contact with more children and young adults than I have in my real life. I don’t know much about children. I understand that they start out as cute, sweet-smelling bundles of joy that never let you sleep, morph into walking, talking time bombs, then get cute again for a few years, then get an influx of hormones and only communicate via text message. Correct me if I’m wrong.

I set Google alerts for my clients so that I can keep up with what the internet is saying about them, which is like a great, free news clipping service (if anyone remembers those). But the internet doesn’t just have news, and I get a lot of junk links, too. But my favorite links are the ones that pop up at least weekly on Yahoo! Answers, that go about like this: “What is the theme of X novel? Who are the main characters and what are their motivations in Y? I need to write a book report; what happens at the end of Z?” This is Cliff’s Notes for the 21st Century. Sadly, it gets worse. Sometimes these same poor souls email the authors directly, begging for help on a paper. They really can’t figure out the central conflict of the book, but you can surely help, author! Amazingly, I have even gotten such emails from students, imploring me for help getting the answer from my author. I’ll give this to teenagers: they’re ballsy!

So, I was tickled today to find this link (via PW Daily) about author D.C. Pierson’s answer to a similar question about his book. I’ve been dying to find the appropriate response (please see title for what I’m tempted to say) for students who ask me such questions, and now I have an answer I can point them to. It won’t be the one they’re looking for, but it just might be the one they need.

What do you think was the theme of this post? Can you identify the central conflict? Let me know if the comments, or just find out on Yahoo! Answers.


Speed readers.

I’m currently exactly half way through Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, which weighs in at a hefty 624 pages of small type. I’m hardly complaining—I love Tartt’s writing and I picked up this book without even paying much attention the jacket copy, enamored as I was with her first novel, The Secret History. Creepy and beautifully written, both of these books are completely engrossing.

I’m not here, however, to gush about Donna Tartt several years after she’s produced anything new. No, I’m talking more about the time it’s taken me to get even this far into a book I am enjoying immensely. I don’t know the exact number of days (I know it’s more than a week), but it’s embarrassing me. Not that anyone else in the world cares how long it takes me to read anything, unless I’m on a deadline or they’re waiting for feedback, but it’s a little pet peeve of mine that I can’t shake. It might have something to do with the teasing from my family when I was growing up if I took more than two days to read anything or it might just be that I’m used to doing things quickly—though I’ve been hearing consistently, from teachers and others, since I was eleven years old that I finish my work too quickly.

Obviously, I’m busier now than I was as a child, and if I get down to it, I can read just as quickly as I was ever able to, but it still irks me. There’s no rhyme or reason, and it’s actually quite nice for a novel that’s as compelling as I’m finding this one isn’t over so soon after I start, so I really should get over myself, right? As my sixth grade teacher scolded me, once, “just because you finish first, Rachel, it doesn’t make you the best.”

I suppose the only logical excuse is that there are so many other books out there waiting to be read, and if I don’t move quickly enough, I’ll never get to them all. That’s the excuse I’ll go with, and we’ll pretend I don’t have this silly hang up. What about you? Is it all about leisure or, do you begin to feel the pressure when a book has gone on for too long?


Clichéd clichés

Full disclosure:  I’m on vacation as of end of business tomorrow.  I need this vacation like oxygen.   As a matter of fact, my brain is functioning as if it’s a bit oxygen starved right about now.

As a result of being vacation/oxygen deprived for so long, I’ve been finding myself spouting things like “it is what it is” or “we need to think outside the box” or “money doesn’t grow on trees” instead of providing well thought out, intelligent commentary to questions posed by clients, co-workers, and my five-year-old.  Clearly, I need to go off and relax a bit so that I can come back refreshed and stop speaking in clichés.

Then I saw this piece in the HuffPost and remembered reading a historical romance recently where the author used a wink, wink variation of “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”  Anachronistic? Yes.  Annoying cliché? Yes.  Funny?  Mildly.

Thing is, sometimes only a cliché will do (and sometimes repetition is a wonderful literary and oratory device, and sometimes using dialect in a novel is not a criminal offense, but very rarely are those things deployed with enough brilliance and verve to be effective) mostly, however, they make my teeth ache from excessive grinding.  Writing well is all about expressing ideas, feelings, emotions, storylines, character development, in original and fresh ways.  Using clichés instead of coining a new phrase is about as lazy as you can get as a writer and speaker, in my opinion.

What are your favorite clichés and which ones do you find most egregiously used and misused?


Throwing Books

Awhile back, I was hiding out from the aspiring authors at a writers’ conference (social as I am, I need SOME breaks), and reading the ARC for a much hyped young adult novel that was yet to be published. It was one of those novels with a huge six-figure advance, oodles of promotion, and people lined up ready to call it the second coming of great literature.

It started off strong, and I was pretty hooked. About 100 pages in, I started to have questions. So. Many. Questions. It was a fantasy novel set in a universe entirely created by the author. A world in which nothing made any sense. The world-building was scattershot at best, but based on the beginning of the book, I was ready to stick it out. After all, everyone loved this book, so I was sure it would get better.

It didn’t. Around 200 pages in, I was so frustrated that I hurled the book across the hotel room. I’ve heard people say they threw a book across the room. I had never believed people actually did it. And I had certainly never done so myself.

What killed me was the wasted promise. It’s one thing for a book to just be terrible. But for something to start out fantastic and devolve into stupidity is infuriating. For it to happen in a book getting a ginormous push? That made me want to start throwing pies at all involved—the author, the editor, the agent. Somebody should have realized that the book was constructed on a foundation of sand. And yet. And yet.

Imagine my delight when the book came out and became a bestseller. I mean, it’s possible I’m wrong about its qualities… No, you’re right. I couldn’t be wrong. Too unlike me!

What about all of you? Have you ever gotten so mad you literally threw a book across the room? And do name names–just because I have to be discreet doesn’t mean you do!


Since you asked, Vampire Weekend, I do.

Reading news can be a dangerous thing.  Horrible stories abound and good news seems to come around rarely (or gets taken for granted enough that it doesn’t get publicized), so when you have the chance to read a story that ultimately isn’t really that big a deal, it can be kind of refreshing.  Still, sometimes you’ll catch a headline that just shakes you to the very core.  Like this one, from Galleycat:

Oxford Comma Dropped by a University of Oxford Style Guide

Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!  Rest easy, serial comma fans, because it turns out that was just from the U of Oxford PR department.  The Oxford comma is still in favor in Oxford after all—or at least from the part that gets to make these calls.  Nonetheless, I was deeply saddened.  I know plenty of people have good reasons for hating the serial comma.  I know I’m an over-comma-er.  My mother was a newspaper editor when I was growing up, so I’ve heard it all before.  I think serial commas are clearer, and they please me aesthetically.  Sometimes it means the difference between saying what you want to say and saying something much more amusing.  They’re not always strictly necessary, but I can’t support a rule that says “only use this if you think people might get confused if you don’t,” because I think people rarely recognize when the things they are saying can be interpreted more than one way.  I like consistency.  You can have my serial comma when you pry it from my cold dead hands.  Or you can have it in this sentence where it’s helpful, pleasing, and attractive.  See?  Wasn’t that nice?

The other somewhat outdated stylistic choice I cling to is two spaces after a period.  You’ll likely note that these sentences are followed by single spaces.  And that’s true as you’re reading them, but not as I’m writing them, because the designers of HTML are trying to hurt my soul.  I’ve heard the answers.  I’ve been berated by people who work in jobs where such things matter.  I know people who know things about fonts and the history of typography who have explained persuasively that single spaces are just the right thing to do.  I can’t.  I won’t.  I just believe in two spaces.  I find it easier to read.  I find it more attractive.  I’m stubborn and ridiculous.  But if double spaces are wrong, I don’t want to be right.

I’m not a writer (other than emails, pitch letters, rights list blurbs, and Facebook status updates, the extent of my writing is this here blog), but I’m still not ready to let go of these things.  In what ways are you writers out there attempting to halt the tide of language evolution?  Anyone willing to join Team Serial Comma and Double Space, or do you all think I’m insane?

Update: Apparently the HTML auto-conversion that single spacifies doesn’t work if you use the Paste from Word function in WordPress.  Victory for Double Spacers!  (Surely now by going in to update this that single spacification will kick in.  And, yes, I am the sort of person who uses made up words like spacification but gets all sad about where people put commas.  Tragic, I know.)

The other somewhat outdated stylistic choice I cling to is two spaces after a period.  You’ll likely note that these sentences are followed by single spaces.  And that’s true as you’re reading them, but not as I’m writing them, because the designers of HTML are trying to hurt my soul.  I’ve heard the answers.  I’ve been berated by people who work in jobs where such things matter.  I know people who know things about fonts and the history of typography who have explained persuasively that single spaces are just the right thing to do.  I can’t.  I won’t.  I just believe in two spaces.  I find it easier to read.  I find it more attractive.  I’m stubborn and ridiculous.  But if double spaces are wrong, I don’t want to be right.

Peevish on Punctuation

Noreen Malone’s piece in Slate decrying the overuse of the em dash made me smile mostly because I am a flagrant offender. I can also be profligate with commas, semicolons and parenthesis, despite the fact I do know better.  Cognizant that I live in a glass house when it comes to correct punctuation, I am nevertheless weirdly annoyed by the ellipse used in any fashion beside the standard one, namely, as an indicator of text deliberately omitted or an unfinished thought. Back when I was an editor, I worked with an author who used to write me letters that looked like this:

Jessica…I got your edit memo…I am responding to your queries…I should be finished by week’s end…Yours…M…

I always wondered what M was leaving out, what those little dots concealed.  Perhaps the real, unexpurgated note read this way:

Jessica, you thankless taskmistress, I got your edit memo and was, frankly, astounded. I am responding to your queries, which are so numerous and onerous that I am nearly speechless with outrage. Assuming that I work round the clock, exhaust myself utterly and type ‘til my fingers bleed, I should be finished by week’s end. Yours are the most impossible edits that I have ever encountered.  Mad as Hell.

Do you have any punctuation pet peeves?