James Holden: some thoughts on literary pet peeves

I’m always intrigued when people publish lists of tips on writing – not because I believe they are indispensable to writers, but because it is also a window into people’s prejudices and personal tastes. So, I not only enjoyed Ellmore Leonard’s tips for writing, but also Jackie Collins’ rebuttal in an article in the Guardian after his death (in response to the suggestion that you should only two or three exclamation marks every 100,000 words, Collins said “what?!!!”).

Last week the Guardian ran an article by Moira Redmond which set out her own Literary Pet Peeves one of which really caught my eye – “books where the author and characters live in North London”. At first I was a bit puzzled by this – is a lot of fiction based in North London? Is it where a lot of characters in short stories and novels reside? Maybe it’s the books I read, but the only books that I can think of off the top of my head that are really rooted in North London are by Zadie Smith, and in particular White Teeth and her recent story The Embassy of Cambodia. This isn’t to say that books I’ve read aren’t set in North London – it could be something that I’ve just not picked up on. But over-reliance isn’t a phenomenon place is only part of the overall jigsaw for a successful story/ book.

After being puzzled I then got a bit peeved myself, because I found part of her comment a bit petty – her criticism wasn’t just about characters that live in London, but about authors that live in London. One thing that people are seemingly advised is to write about what you know – there are flashes of family friends and locations that I know about in my stories. Writing about what you know – no matter how much you apply your imagination to settings, characters or situations, helps to ground a piece in reality and make it more realistic for the audience. It can also be a rich source of inspiration. I can understand if her complaint is that people who live in North London only write about North London. But, unless I’m mistaken, I don’t think that writers have such limited horizons. People end up living places for all sorts of reasons and shouldn’t count against themn.

This said, the rest of her list is quite interesting. Her other pet peeves were:

• Spelling

• Misquoting poetry

• Phonetic dialogue

• Using anything other than “says” or “said” for dialogue. This is feedback that I have been given in feedback from a competition that I entered. I was a bit annoyed at first, but having looked at the way that speech is reported, or at least speech in writing that I like, it’s not that common to find speech marked with anything other than “says” or “said”. And now that I have realised this, I find that it *really* irritates me when I find it a lot in other people’s writing because it is incredibly distracting.

• Using food phrases

• Using adjectives that describe a character when that could be achieved through their actions.

• Technical references to electronic equipment

• Showing off your research

• Using the word “selected” rather than “chose”.

If you want to read the full article you can find it here.


About James Holden

Brought up in Yorkshire, James has washed up on the shores of London. He spends his days working as a political geek. His short stories have previously been read by the Liars League.
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