My daughter went through a phase where she dotted her i’s with little open circles that look like the ones in the Disney logo. She’d make the dots at the bottom of her exclamation points the same way. She thought it made her unique. Given that she was only eleven at the time, I just smiled, pretty certain that when she was a world famous scientist on the verge of a cure for cancer or the first female president of the United States, she’d have outgrown this silly affectation. Sure enough, at the ripe old age of fifteen, her dots are now simple points of ink on the tops of her i’s and the bottoms of her exclamation points.
Sadly, some writers demonstrate writing affectations that they don’t seem likely to outgrow any time soon. And while they may feel that these “stylistic” choices make them unique or stand out, in reality I find that they serve only to pull me out of a story quicker than the offer of a hot fudge sundae.
Dictionary.com lists the following definition for affected: adjective: assumed artificially; unnatural; feigned. The more traditional Oxford American Dictionary takes a harsher viewpoint when defining the same word: affected: adjective: pretentious, or designed to impress.
The older I get, the more I lean toward Oxford’s opinion. Indeed, in some cases a pervasive affectation will actually annoy me, especially if it openly flaunts the tenets of basic English grammar for no good reason that I can understand. Not only to I feel frustration with the author for doing it in the first place, my disgust encompasses the editors who let what I view as a blatant error cover the pages (or screens) of something I’ve paid good money for.
For example, I’m in the middle of a book I’m reading for review, and the author has decided that using a comma in place of a period is perfectly reasonable. Thus I’ve come across such run-on beauties as “I shook my head and didn’t even wait for Drew to respond, I went off to find the bathroom on my own” and the nearly unreadable “The pounding started again and I looked at the door, I had no idea what time it was, but Brandon had called right before ten, so I knew it was really late now.”
When I first encountered this, I thought perhaps she’d made a mistake. But when I encountered this multiple times on every page, I realized it was a writing choice. An affectation that no editor in the entire process from submission to printed page ever thought to stop as something that was just plain wrong. So now, even if this story turns out to be a literary masterpiece on the level of Jane Austen, I’d never know it because I’m far too busy trying to parse all of the run-on sentences that litter the whole book.
A smaller if no less irritating bad-writing habit are what I call literary tics. For example, a writer who puts character names inside every other line of dialogue is displaying a literary tic. In real speech, Bob, we do not constantly repeat our companion’s name. So, Bob, seeing this on the page jerks me out of the story and sets me to counting how many time Character A says Character B’s name in the course of their conversation instead of listening to what they have to say. Surely, that’s not what the writer wanted, Bob. That or she thinks her readers are incapable of remembering characters’ names from one minute to the next, Bob.
Another literary tic I encountered recently was a writer’s use of italics to emphasize certain words. She didn’t do this once or twice over the course of a chapter, she did it many, many times on each page. The result was an odd up-and-down cadence in my internal reading voice, a sing-songy effect that kept me from fully engaging with the characters or the story being told.
Affectations and literary tics will usually cause me to downgrade a book and perhaps even not finish it if other aspects are equally frustrating. Worst case, some affectations contradict what the writer is trying to accomplish.
When I first began reading the Black Dagger Brotherhood books, I found the slang-like language used by J.R. Ward’s uber-masculine vampire heroes to be fresh and unique. By book four, the same slang seemed absolutely ridiculous in the context of the world she had created and the types of alpha heroes she was trying to sell. These guys can practically kill you with a mere look, don’t so much as wince when they are dealt near-mortal wounds, and wear leather the way most of us wear cotton. Yet they say and think things like:
“You just say the word, ‘kay?”
When the waitress brought freshies, John glanced over at the redhead…
“I’m outtie then.”
He made her shift her weight onto one foot so he could pop off her stillie and shuck her Sevens free…
Okay, what person over the age of 13 would seriously say “I’m outtie then”? And ask any random man to name the correct term for a stilleto and I’ll wager 99 times out of a 100 the answer would probably be “those spikey heel shoes” not stillie. I’m supposed to believe these guys are stone cold killers who inspire fear in everyone they encounter when they’re telling each other to just chill, ‘kay?. This affectation creates a complete mental dissonance because their language doesn’t match their descriptions. Shortening words and ending them with “ie” as a form of slang doesn’t make these guys metrosexual chic. It doesn’t make them in touch with their feminine, sensitive sides. It doesn’t even make them guys with a surprising knowledge of women’s fashion and incredibly good taste. It makes them ridiculous. And ridiculous isn’t really that scary.
When a writer has positioned him or herself in the cultural zeitgeist by proving to be a talent above all others, that person can feel free to e.e. cummings to their heart’s content. Until that time, however, I would say that affectations are something to be avoided if at all possible.
Because as vivid and complex of a world that a writer has created, as compelling as her characters may be, as intricate of plots she manages to weave, if her style of writing is so unbelievably affected that it yanks me out of the story time and time again, it’s all that comes to mind when I think of her books. I no longer can lose myself in the story because I’ve reached the point where I’m actively looking for examples, and I squeal in glee when they pop up every few paragraphs. I certainly can’t take the author seriously because it’s the literary equivalent of dotting their i’s with little swirly circles.
Are there any affectations or literary tics that will turn a story into a wall banger for you?
– Jenna Harper