For many years I’ve kept a running list of awkward expressions, misplaced modifiers, and other syntactical anomalies that run the risk of distracting a reader. And by “distracting the reader” I mean jerking the reader out of the story.
Most often, this is a result of inserting unintentional humor into a serious scene. If the scene is also meant to invoke feelings of sadness or despair or tension, the inadvertent insertion has an even stronger effect.
One of my favorite authors once wrote that a character “kicked her horse up a hill.”
Of course, she meant to write that the character “spurred” her horse up the hill. But she caught that before it was published.
That instance was truly unique, too. Aside from the occasional “her legs raced down the road” or “his nose pressed itself against the window” or “her hip leaned casually against the railing,” these anomalies more often have to do with eyes than with any other human attribute.
Writers routinely have eyes performing all sorts of stupid eye tricks.
I’ve seen eyes popping out of heads, eyes flying around the room, eyes lighting on lapels, and eyes wandering dreamily along a garden path, among many other actions that eyes generally won’t take on their own.
Now just for the record, I don’t go looking for these things unless I’m being paid to copyedit a work. Otherwise I’m just another reader, reading (or trying to) for pleasure.
But when I’m jerked out of the story by some inane word or phrase, that’s strictly the responsibility of the writer.
I made the latest addition to my list this morning. And I took it from a passage an author used in a pull-quote on a website to advertise the book. Seriously.
II won’t mention the author’s name or website or gender or the name of the book. Here’s the sentence:
The baron shifted in his seat and raked his eyes across everyone at the table.
My first reaction was a grin. He did what now?
The second was a snarky, “Wow, dude, that must’a hurt.”
Of course, any tension the writer hoped to create with the excerpt was gone.
Seriously, can you imagine what pain the poor baron must have gone through in “raking his eyes” across those folks?
And they must have been thoroughly grossed out, as evidenced by the very next sentence in the pull quote:
Several members began to protest….
I actually laughed out loud. And for me, just like that, the passage the author used to entice me to buy the book had the opposite effect. The book was a definite no-buy.
Now understand, this occurred in a serious, tension-filled passage in a serious, tension-filled book.
Of course, I know the author meant the baron raked his “gaze” across those at the table. Or that he “glared” at them. Or something. Something that didn’t involve trying to make me (the reader) grin or laugh.
When I mentioned this sort of thing during a presentation at a writers’ conference, a writer in the audience said, “But the reader will know what I mean.”
Yes. The reader will know what you mean. The reader will figure it out. And it takes only a second or two for the reader to go through that process. That’s much less time than it would take you to actually learn the craft, eh?
But figuring out what you meant is not the reader’s job. The reader’s job is to relax and be entertained.
And that second or two might well be all it takes for the reader to put down your book and find something enjoyable to read.
Reader annoyance is cumulative, and chances are if you distract the reader with some inane phrase or formatting once, you’ll repeat it through the book.
Still, as a reader I’ll used to give a story a chance. I would “figure out” what the writer meant and fight to stay down in the story a few times. But the fifth or sixth or tenth time I was pulled out of the story, I stayed out.
These days? Not so much. I have a Kindle and I love finding new (to me) authors. Almost every night I lie back and start a book. I don’t “look for” anything. I just read the story, or try to.
But I no longer force it, because I don’t owe the writer anything. I spent the money on the book; the writer owes ME something. So the first time the writer puts his or her ignorance of the language on display, I get the same feeling I’d get if a mechanic held up a fan belt and said, “What’s this thingy?”
Then I delete the book from my Kindle and open another one.
Will “most” readers go to that extreme? Probably not. But if they have to fight to get through your book as they “figure out” what you mean, how soon do you suppose they’ll buy another of your books?
‘Til next time, happy writing.
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