Category: Pet Peeves in Fiction

Fiction Pet Peeves Part 2—Settings

winter landscapeIt’s wintertime. I think this is a popular season for reading, mostly because sitting under a blanket with a book and a cup of coffee sounds a lot better than going outside and shoveling snow. Summertime is great for being outside. Not winter. (To those of you who enjoy skiing, snowboarding, building snowmen, or making and throwing snowballs, I apologize. I just don’t get it. I hate being cold.)

But I digress.

I’ve been reading a lot, and thinking about some of the books I’ve read brings me to my next pet peeve. Settings in fiction. Please be patient with me on this one. I know setting a scene is necessary. But there is a right and a wrong way to do it.

1) I don’t like it when a description of the setting is the opening of a book.

Yes, there are some people who could describe the contents of my refrigerator and make it sound like a wonderland. (J.K. Rowling, I mean you. Herman Melville, I do NOT mean you.) But notice that the greats of our time start with something more exciting than the dirty gray brick of the bank the POV character is about to enter. I’m not a huge fan of in media res beginnings. I want to meet the character before the building explodes. That way I know how I should feel about the explosion. But given the choice between the soot-stained walls or the explosion that turns them to rubble, I’ll take the explosion. Every. Time.

2) Purple prose is pretty, but it’s out of place in contemporary fiction.

I know I’ve been guilty of writing like this in the past, so I almost hate to mention it. But descriptions that turn poetic just don’t fit in today’s genre work. We’ve all read probably every adjective possible to describe a sunrise or sunset. And shorelines. Forests. Mountains. Fields of wildflowers. Those descriptions had their day. Now, unless a writer can focus on an unusual detail or give me a reason why this area is unique—or at least important to the POV character—just saying where the character is probably is enough. Save the description for things we’re unfamiliar with. Or for things that are important to the characters.

3) Big blocks of writing to describe the setting can slow my reading pace.

Again, I know setting a scene is important. But it can be done with less intrusion. Do you want a description of the room written like a list? No. But if you have a character interact with things in the room, we’ll get the picture without the dictionary entry. I like it when setting is revealed by a character tripping over a red oriental rug, slamming her knee off the corner of an antique table, and knocking a Tiffany lamp onto the floor. That way, we see the action and we see the decor. And when that same character worries not that she might have chipped a bone in her leg (even as she limps to the camel-backed sofa to sit) but how she’ll pay for the damage she caused? Well, then we get character information, too. It’s a win-win.


So, there you have it. Things that bother me about poorly-handled settings in fiction. Yes, every scene should ground us in the space. But not to open a scene, not with dozens of useless details, and not as a boring list. I’ve read too many novels lately that fail one or more of these criteria, and that bothers me. New York should know better. We should expect better. (And yes, we, as writers, should strive to write these settings better.)

What about you? How do you feel about opening a book or scene with description? Purple prose? Lengthy lists of detail? Is there something I missed? Share this with other readers and writers, and let’s all talk about it.

Fiction Pet Peeves Part 1—Cover Art

Do not judge a book by its cover.I know, I know.

Authors shouldn’t talk about writing and publishing. They should talk about the works they offer, their works-in-progress, and themes their stories cover.

Today, I’m trying something a bit different.

Out and About Front outlineI’ve been thinking a lot about covers lately. A lot. Out and About, Book 2 of my Cathedral Lake series, just released in December, and Mind Control, Book 2 of my Medici Protectorate series just shipped to my editor (set to release this spring). So, yeah, just with my own work I’ve been kind of cover-obsessed lately.

But then I saw a post in a forum about covers. And a post on a blog I follow. And emails from several people selling their services as cover designers or selling products that are supposed to make cover-design easier.

They say not to judge a book by its cover, but let’s face it. In today’s world, where tens of thousands of books hit the market each day and attention spans are at their all-time shortest, if you can’t snag someone’s attention with a kick-butt image, you’ve already lost the sale.

That said, I do have a couple pet peeves when it comes to covers.

1) As you’ve probably already surmised, I don’t think covers should be the first hurdle writers have to jump toward attracting readers. 

I’ve seen gorgeous covers on sub-par content. I’ve seen less-than-lovely covers on fabulous stories. I’d like to make the argument that some covers are ugly because many indie writers don’t have the money to hire good designers, but the fact is, I’ve seen terrible covers on NY-published books.The problem is, while there are “rules” for what makes a design good, in the end, covers aren’t judged by scientific algorithms. They’re judged by emotional people.

You can do everything by the book (sorry for that pun) and still have a crappy cover. You can break all the rules and knock it out of the park. But what it really comes down to is opinion. Yours and mine undoubtedly vary; what you love, I might hate. And vice versa.

So, I’m making a plea. Readers, please don’t judge a book by its cover. Read the back blurb and a sample before you make your decision.

2) Cover models that misrepresent the characters. 

I have a great publisher. Oghma Creative Media has a policy that the writers are allowed input on the cover design. Not total autonomy and final decision-making, but still, much more say than most publishers give writers.

That said, I have two very different cover styles. My mainstream novels (published by the Foyle Press imprint) focus on one vital image. My romance novels (published under the Lagan Press imprint) have people on the cover.

bleeding heart 600Apparently, the norm in the romance genre is at least one person, maybe the couple. Another trend is to show just parts of a body, often scantily clad. I was overruled on my romance covers. There are people on them. I’ve heard a lot of compliments on the cover of Bleeding Heart (which just goes to show that cover art is subjective), but I’d prefer an object or location instead. (Note: That’s not to say I don’t like this cover. I do. I just would like it better without the models who, in my opinion, do not look like my characters.)

So, maybe I’m in the minority here, but I don’t like that. I don’t want a cover to show me a model that I then need to picture as I read the book. I want the author’s words to paint me an image of the characters so I can “see” them the way that best appeals to me.

I especially hate it when the work is later made into a movie or television show. Then I have my impression of the characters, the cover art depicting them differently, and then the actors who play them on film. It annoys me.


So, there you have it. The things that bug me about covers. There are many more things when we get into the nitty-gritty details, but I don’t think anyone wants to delve into the minutiae of design right now.

I am, however, interested in your take on covers. Let’s hear from readers, writers, designers, publishers… What do you think? Who should have final say on the design? Should cover art even matter, or is content king? People or no people? Or just parts of people?

Share this with your friends and colleagues, invite them to weigh in. And please leave your thoughts below. I’m curious to see what others think.

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