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Book Bugs: How Style Can Destroy Story

Celine Low

Staff Writer

A dabbler in everything from painting to astronomy, Celine Low graduated from the National University of Singapore with an honours degree in English Literature, surprised that she’d managed to pass at all after failing all those Einstein courses. She decided that if she couldn’t calculate the wonders of the earth she could at least write about their incalculable incomprehensibility, so now she spends most of her time in her glass house of books, where she writes, makes coffee, reads, makes coffee, and tutors English using her giant mirror as a whiteboard. Her fiction works have been published by The Bride of Chaos and Marshall Cavendish, and her illustrated poem “Wild” won second place in the 2014 Eye Level Children’s Literature Awards. If you look for her but don’t find her, she’s probably floating around somewhere lost in the world, soaking and working out its magic through song and silence (and, of course, coffee). Until then, she hopes that the Northern Lights look as good as they do in Google wallpapers. Twitter: @celine_low_ Blog:

About ten years ago I read a book by a famous author. I shan’t name him here, since I don’t want to seem like I’m hating on anyone, but smart readers can easily find out who I’m talking about. Anyway I wasn’t impressed, never touched any of his novels again. Recently, though, I heard he was the highest-paid author in the world next to Rowling. How could I not give him another chance? I thought, maybe I remembered him wrongly. Maybe I was too young back then to appreciate his story about teens with wings. Maybe his adult novels would be better. After all, if so many people like him, how bad can he be? I have nothing against mainstream; I could probably trust, I told myself, in the taste of a public that made Rowling great. Same public, right? Wrong.

Some minor irritants in the author’s style made reading a huge chore. Still, I was patient. Tried to ignore them. But there’s only so much you can enjoy a nice walk in the park when bugs keep flying into your eyes. In this case, even if the storyline were good, it lost any effect it might have had.

Bug no. 1—Overuse of Italics

It’s okay to italicise interior monologues, but when there’re so many of them, you should either reduce these interior monologues or not italicise them at all. Especially the indirect ones. The worst italics are those overly long ones that just seem to pop out of nowhere:

“Except for a gold barrette in her hair, a lioness from a trip to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a gold choker, she was gloriously naked.”

Now, even if that were an important clue, italicising it would be giving it away, wouldn’t it?

Or take this one:

“She was remembering … [t]he beginning of everything that was happening now. This was how the complex and beautiful and very mysterious game had begun. They had agreed to meet …”

Was that a typo? Should I blame the editor, not the writer?

Then there’s those that turn minor points of emphasis into glaring headlights:

“The banging stopped. Then started up again. Downstairs.”

And those that leave you wondering if you’re reading a children’s book:

“I continued down the steep, treacherous stairs. Cautious, suspicious.

At least in children’s books there are illustrations.

Bug no. 2—Underestimating Reader Intelligence

They always say “show, not tell.” I agree. But sometimes when writers try to “show” they get tripped up with doubt about their own “showing” ability and feel like they need to bolster it with a bunch of “telling.” For example: the female character cracks a joke, “showing” that she’s funny; the male lead laughs and thinks (“telling”), ha ha, how funny! As if the writer’s afraid she isn’t really funny and needs to convince us of it. And then after several repetitions of this, like a veritable schoolteacher, he concludes his chapter with a strong reinforcement of the point: in a nutshell, in case you haven’t gotten it already, she is “wise, and funny, and pretty, too.” And so the hero falls in love.

Bug no. 3—Non-ironic Self-aggrandising

A protagonist who refers to himself as “the dragonslayer” may get a laugh or two, if we think he’s being ironic. But when this is repeated about twelve hundred times, you start thinking he’s got a hell of a swollen head.

Bug no. 4—Oversentimentality

While a Carlsberg commercial might give one a sense of brotherhood, the sentence

We were blood brothers.

(italicised, of course) certainly does not.

Talk about bromance.

Bug no. 5—Unintentionally Funny Descriptions

I can generally close an eye to exaggerated descriptions of washboard abs and other testosterone-filled parts of rock-solid bodies, but sometimes I just burst out laughing. Especially when it comes to sex scenes. Sorry Author, but “dangling testicles, … as large as a bull’s” is not something I’d ever want to see, mentally or otherwise, except maybe in a crude po-mo novel, in which case I’d laugh out loud appreciatively but probably never touch the book again.

Still, though. The numbers don’t lie; his writing pays. Why? I honestly want to know. After all, what author doesn’t want to be paid, and paid well? Maybe there’s something I’m not seeing. Do these bugs annoy only me? I’d love to hear your opinions, readers—no comment will be judged. 🙂