Taking my Peeve for a Walk

This reader has a few pet peeves. Most of the time I just avoid them, but once in a while I put them on a leash and take them for a stroll, because I am also a writer, and knowing where the peeve has gone lets me avoid annoying my readers. Just be careful where you step…

Why are there no more small stories? I don’t mean short stories, although I have just finished reading an excellent collection of crime stories by Frederic Brown that were perfectly small, and wonderful to read. No, I mean stories that aren’t about saving the world (from the last humans, of course), or the universe (ditto those evul hoomans), or about the last two people on earth (who should totally not reproduce, because Malthus). I ran across an article that is geared more toward films and games, but it applies to writing, as well. Perfectly wonderful tales can be constructed over no more than “whodunnit” to hark back to my reading this week. Dave Freer’s Crawlspace, if you haven’t read it, is a lovely story of rats, aliens, and murder in the wake of war, set in the Rats, Bats, and Vats universe. Even had I not already been a fan of the setting, I would have enjoyed it, and wanted more (I do, I do!). So why are we obsessed with the epic, the grand scale, the supremely awesomely apocalyptic view of the world? Genevieve Valentine writes,  “The truth is that some stories are folk tales, not sagas; a tighter focus doesn’t make them inherently less worthy, and their stakes are no less crucial to the story for being closer to home.”

Which brings me to the other thing that makes me back away slowly from a book, series, or author. Huge, epic, sagas. Yes, those neverending, bulky goatgaggers that RR Martin has become so well known for, or the series that Robert Jordan died on, with no sight in end. I love big books, and have been known to shop based on spine thickness if I needed something to occupy me. Dave Freer has a beautiful series in the Heirs of Alexandria books along with Flint and Lackey, some of which are very long books, but they don’t annoy me. Why? I think it’s because they have a plot, and don’t meander all over the place info-dumping (Honor Harrington, I’m looking at you) hundreds of unnecessary pages. I used to avidly read the HH series, but have pretty much given up on it. Also, the longer a series goes, even if they aren’t fat books, the more attenuated they become. We were talking about the Xanth series the other day, and it seems everyone agrees that up through about book 5-6, they are fun, light reads, well worth the time. Afterward, they become bloated pun-fests the author himself despised, but couldn’t afford to stop writing. Are his other works any good? I don’t know. I read one other of Pier’s Anthony’s works, and it disturbed me on a level that makes me unwilling to ever open another of his books and risk that emotional response again.

I particularly can’t stand a book with no ending. I have bitter memories of trusted authors who did this (Tom Clancy), although with him there had previously been signs that the decline was coming. I don’t want to have to wait another year or more for the other half of the book. Why aren’t there more stand-alone novels? I reviewed one a while back, David Welch’s Chaos Quarter, which had a satisfying ending, and was tickled pink by that. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a series. I adore the Vorkosigan books. I wait eagerly for Kate Paulk’s next con book. There’re characters I laugh and love, and live with, not my own, but creations of another author’s mind, and I would be poorer without them. But these writers finish the story, they don’t just leave the poor heroes hanging out off the edge of the cliff, looking up sadly and saying ‘little help here?” for years at a time.

As a writer, I can take away that I need to make my characters worthy of my reader’s attention. I can put them in relatable situations, and it doesn’t have to be saving the universe. I must cut my books back from unruly hedgerow to neatly trimmed if I expect my reader to make their way through the plot maze without encountering a man-eating plant or something even more menacing. And above all, I must end my story. Leaving an opening for a sequel is fine, but as Daniel Hoyt taught me, the characters need that cigarette moment, to relax, and enjoy the afterglow, and the reader along with them.

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Filed under advice for writers, Craft of writing, Dave Freer, readers, reading, reading expectations, reading habits

69 responses to “Taking my Peeve for a Walk

  1. Pingback: Taking My Peeves for a Walk | Cedar Writes

  2. JMS

    I find myself in my own writing falling back on the old “save the world” trops and storylines; it can be quite hard to get away from! I think it stems from the wish for your story to have a meaning, to have value, and we mistakenly put value on grandiosity instead of connectivity. It’s a shame really; one of the best stories I’ve ever read was about a man, his wife, his unborn son and his mistress.

    • Because I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, it’s even easier to fall into, especially when you have characters wielding far more power than we mere mortals could dream of!

      • JMS

        Same here; massive sci fi fan, so every story is always “okay guys, right, so there’s this thing, right, and it’s all future-y and techy, right, and then there’s this guy, let’s call him some weird futuristic name, and he has to save everyone from this future-y techy thing, which is bad, for some reason. Also weird futuristic guy is future-y and techy too, but is not bad for some other reason”.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        One “Peeve” is when an author introduces a character in a “save the world” story but follow-up stories with the character deal with much lesser problems.

        • Because it’s really hard, once you’ve saved a world, to think about smaller things. “Right, men, on to save the Galaxy! The Universe! To Infinity, and even further!”

          I’m not advocating doing away with saving the world, mind, I’m attached to it. But smaller stories, like a single family, or one man’s journey to theive from a dragon and what he learns about himself on that adventure.

        • Yeah. They need to start with the smaller problems and tackle saving the world after they’ve trained up to it.

  3. Egad, I knew Anthony was horrible, but I never realized he was THAT horrible.

    I hope to god he doesn’t have kids.
    And his neighbors don’t.
    In a five mile radius.

    • Laura M

      I wish I hadn’t looked. At least I didn’t read the excerpt.

    • Yes… I read part of Firefly, couldn’t finish it, and will likely never read his work again.

    • Same here. Bio of a Space Tyrant creeped me out, so I mostly stopped reading him after that. I didn’t realize it got WORSE after Bio.

      I find he has an extremely compelling style. Once I start reading his work, I keep reading. But when I finished Bio, I wished I hadn’t.

    • He has at least one daughter…. :/ I remember sort of “checking out” where he wrote somewhere about how cute his daughter’s zits were. Like, I hope it came from a good place, because he was talking about how self-conscious she was about them, so he started describing them as cute? But… yeah.

      I read far more of his works than I really should have. I was too young to really understand what was “weird”/”off” and just learned not to touch most of his non-Xanth stuff. And then I started getting those weird/off feelings from Xanth and stopped reading entirely. The only thing of his I read at all anymore is Kilobyte and even that is very problematic.

    • Thanks to that man I nearly gave up on fantasy forever.

  4. Laura M

    I love space opera and epic struggles, but often wonder about what is happening back on Earth. Did it really mobilize that fast? Did the governments immediately jump at the chance of their populations leaving to colonize other words? Who were the factions screaming the aliens weren’t real? It’s hard to buy into the unanimity of a whole planet when we live on this one every day. Logistics can be interesting, too.

    I’m guessing part of the reason saving the universe is a good plot line is because it leaves lots and lots of rooms for different threads and tangents. I would lose track, myself, but it’s fun to read someone else doing it.

    • And each thread and tangent could be its own, fascinating, smaller story. Or boring – depends. Right now I’m contemplating a ‘traders in space story’ or rather, a couple of them, as I re-examine my Hudson’s Bay universe.

      • Robert Asprin’s Myth series did some of that, told from the viewpoints of different characters. One I remember was the story of the group who was assigned to disrupt the Army from inside. They were assigned to Supply, but their attempts to screw things up kept backfiring and they made the whole thing more efficient.

      • Bob

        Hugh Cook, RIP, did that in a way. He started out with different characters, in separate but same universe books, characters that were facing the same world, and dealing with the various plots and occurences in their own way, only occasionally intersecting with each other. His stuff turns into goat-gaggers, but intricately plotted goat-gaggers, with fairly flawed characters that look much different from the outside than from within. Togura and Drake Douay handled the world in very different ways, but both were the protagonists of their own books in the same series of events.

  5. TXRed

    I wonder if the weight of the visual culture has something to do with it? Folk tales, small cozies, the hero coming home and sweeping his wife off her feet (and finally getting that d-mned leak in the bathroom fixed, and patching the roof over the back porch) don’t always lend themselves to visual description, and a lot of authors seem to lean on visual over all the other senses.

    Plus in many ways it’s “easy” to write mage battles and deep-space wars compared to keeping readers hooked through quiet moments and changing diapers, especially if you don’t have a “normal” family life. *shrug* Just my speculation. And if you’ll excuse me, I have a visiting toddler to intercept before something really interesting happens. :)

    • Dorothy Grant

      Leaning on the visual over other senses… how much of that comes from a solid foundation of television and movies? I’ve seen that when beta reading, too: the ten page intro designed to mimic the sweeping panoramic opening shots for setting place and time, before the first line of story starts.

    • How about a hero changing a diaper before turning back to the control board to Save the World? I’d read that… LOL

    • Luke

      Witness the phenomenon of The Hobbit movies. The book is pretty tightly focused on Bilbo and his growth. The movies are much more interested in “kewl” things that might have been going on nearby.
      I’m evidently an oddball for finding this annoying.

      • J.P.

        The Hobbit movie trilogy is definitely a *different* story than Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I happen to like both, but there’s no reason that everyone who enjoys one story will necessarily enjoy the other.

        Chase scenes sure seem to film very nicely. But books can do character development and the inside of a characters head really really well.

        I was watching The Hunger Games movie recently. I consider it a decent adaptation in that the movie story is recognizably similar to the book adaptation, but those actors sure have to work hard to deliver only a part of the emotion impact I got from reading Collins original story.

  6. I don’t get to read as great a variety as many others here, largely due to lack of funds to buy enough books for that, but I don’t see a lack of smaller stories, myself. Maybe it’s self-selection, but I have a lot of stories that are more local and less epic.

    In fact, some years ago, I was reading an article about a dearth of epic stories, with the article implying that authors had become timid. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I saw it, so it might have been in one of the copies of Analog or Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine I have around the house, which are over 20 years old, and may account for the difference.

  7. From my earliest daydreams of “wanting to be a writer,” I’ve been told, urged, lectured, and schooled to write the big stories. In fact, told that, if a story isn’t THE biggest, newest, most original, possessed of THE mightiest, most vasty, echoing themes and memes to last generations, it stands little or no chance of being published. Told, in sum, that I’m not ALLOWED to write small stories. No cozy SF. No tea-and-crumpets space opera. No Nero Wolfe of a million worlds. No Time Travel She Wrote. Afflict the comfortable, damn ye!

    M

    • OOOH! Nero Wolfe of a Million Worlds, please.

    • I’ve read books that analyzed Best Sellers, and the “Big Theme” seemed to be a fairly consistent requirement.

      I’m not sure why, that size of a problem seems to require a protagonist who operates at that level, and I’ve always tended to start with moderately young characters who just aren’t ready for that challenge yet. Now taking them to that level, that’s fun.

      • Hmmm, reading the threads up to here, maybe I’m doing something right. The Dr. Mauser story takes him from being just a blacklisted electrical engineer who is basically forced into the world of Evil Mad Science, and he climbs up in that world mainly because his goal is he wants to be left alone to do his research. In the end, (spoilers) he does develop a world-saving invention, and then just gives it to the world with a sort of “There! Now will you leave me alone?” Although as it goes, he actually learns to enjoy it.

        • It sounds good! I love mad science stories, though :)

          • Coming up with plausible mad science though is hard. I won’t give in to Treknobabble.

            I’ve actually been posting chapters on my DeviantArt account for fans of the shorts to read as I work on it. Although it seems that the kinkier stories get a lot more attention.

            • There are things in the news now that lend themselves well to mad science… printing body parts. Fecal biota transfer, and related, how the gut biome affects our mental processes. Plant virids… All those, just this semester of Microbiology.

              • In this world, Mad Geneticists have a rather short life expectancy, typically because they are often prone to attempting to improve their own DNA before they’ve fully verified their findings, and well, the results are not pretty. And the Virologists are simply taken out with extreme prejudice by the “Forces of Justice”.

                • Yeah. There’s got to be a minor ghost town of secret lairs somewhere– that no one is stupid enough to break into. Untill… ;-)

                  I actually had a RPG session where they found a biolab– the nursery. They were unphased by the old blood, age and damage and discarded biomatter (don’t ask) yet.. lost it over the teddy bear with teeth marks.

                  Go figure?

              • My next series (The Affinities of Magic) — which begins as soon as I finish the current book — will have a magic system based on an internalized cell engine, like mitochondria, that is a magic generator, and the uses to which it is put by living beings, from bacteria on up. It will all be about the microbiome. The hero is going to start an industrial/tech revolution as the principles are finally worked out, like moving from alchemy to chemistry.

                Can’t wait to get started, but gotta wrap up the current series first (book 4 won’t necessarily be the end, but it will hold it for now.)

  8. subspike

    Some thoughts: Sarah has said that long form pays much more (per word) than short stories, so there is an economic reason not to do shorts. I like that your work does include short stories, that are self contained tales with a beginning, middle and end. And do paint a complete picure of the characters and the place.
    I agree that waiting for the next Game of Thrones segment just got too hard, and never completed the questions from the last soI stopped reading.
    Finally, Jerry Pournelle mentioned in his blog that his wife was pushing him to finish the next Janassaries novel, which so far have been complete tales, but leave the beyond this planet intrigue hanging (for 3 novels so far.) But a good military sci-fi is always worth the read.

  9. Martin L. Shoemaker

    People make fun of Star Trek and especially Next Generation for their “reset switches”, their tendency to end the episode more or less where things began. But as David Gerrold wrote in his book on writing “The Trouble with Tribbles”, that’s necessary if you’re going to maintain an episodic series. The only alternative is to raise the stakes episode after episode until the whole thing collapses.

    And one benefit of this return to normal is you can then tell normal stories. In one episode, they can face the cataclysmic intersection of parallel worlds; and in another episode, they can show a bunch of junior officers wondering about their chances for promotion. There’s room for both kinds of stories.

    • There’s reset switches, and then there’s the Time Plot, where in at least one Voyager episode, at the end the entire experience you went through suddenly un-happened, and a potentially exciting development became a waste of time.

    • Bob

      One of the complaints I have heard of the 1920-30′s Weird Tales stories was that they wound up with the various horrors and their resulting havoc damping out without hardly an echo through madness and death of all the witnesses, government cover ups and general avoidance by the sane survivors who wanted to stay that way. I always thought it was to make the horror seamless with the real world to make the horror more approachable. It could also be that, say, once Cthulhu has returned from R’lyeh and turned the Solar system into a parking lot, there is not much story you can squeeze out of the world you’ve built.
      Even smaller baddies like the Deep Ones, once you get a grip on them, could become an Invasive Species issue like Zebra mussels and Mitten crabs.

  10. Synova

    I know exactly the point where I gave up on Honor Harrington and I’d actually want Weber to know this, though at this point I’m sure he didn’t see any drop in sales and won’t… I gave up on the book that didn’t conclude. I *think* it was the one where Honor was captured. Every single book up until then was a complete story with a beginning, middle and end. It wrapped up at the end. That one left me hanging and waiting. I no longer *trusted* Weber to deliver the pay-off. (I will, however, wait another decade or two to get to the end of the Oath of Swords series, but I more or less knew that was a series when I started.)

    • “In Enemy Hands”? I read that one, but I was damned close to throwing it at the wall. One character spent a couple of pages recounting all of HH’s accorded glories so far while mentally debating with himself how to say good morning. And when the ultimate humiliation promised in the blurb turned out to be regular strip searches…. Well, HH is made of sterner stuff, I guess, because she just stoiced it out.

  11. sanfordbegley

    My objection isn’t even the “big stories” it is the huge volumes/series that make them up. I see quarter million word books that would read better at 150k with a decent editor. I see movies like Dances With Alsatians that screw up a good 90 minute movie with 2.5 hours of mindless extra scenes. I see good stories and characters turned into caricatures of them selves by volume 16 (David Weber I gave up).
    I remember on the other hand, The Door Into Summer giving me a pleasant day’s reading. Audie Murphy covered the story of the most decorated soldier of WWII form birth to discharge in about 150K. Tell me that every battle needs 280,000 words to cover! Bring back commuter novels, something I can read without a spread sheet to keep track of the characters.

    • My point of departure was when he deformed and “modernized” the Catholic Church. A friend of mine started reading ahead of me, and found it first. Fortunately it did not ruin the fledgeling friendship, but it was a near thing.

      To be fair to David Drake, however– Fr. Andrew Greeley did it first in *his* foray into science fiction.*wince* No, I don’t recommend it. Not just for that. It’s… painful. Sigh…

  12. I have another Pet Peeve, one which I’ve run across three times in the last month: stories that start out small and personal, and then turn into save the world/universe/everyone stories on the one hand PLUS all that saving is gone over extremely superficially in a short span of pages. And then the world is saved.

    The stories lured me in with excellent writing, interesting small set of characters, great storytelling – and then changed scope so rapidly my head whirled. Only one of the three then returned to the small story to finish it properly.

    Don’t mislead your readers, folks – the ‘feel’ of a story should be promised in the opening, maintained in the middle, and delivered in a tied up package at the end. I won’t buy those writers again, and I feel cheated because I invested so much time in stories that then went nuclear in the middle – with absolutely no warning. You can stretch things, but not turn a child’s balloon into the Hindenburg. It is annoying. It shows bad plotting skills: if you know it’s going to get gigantic and pretentious in the middle, at least telegraph it some way in the opening.

    • Foreshadowing may be the hardest thing to learn to do properly. I’m still working on it, and I don’t know that I will ever be good at it – I am always afraid I will give something away too early. One of my writing mentors, a few years back, sent a story back after reading with the three words that have had the most impact out of all the advice I have ever been given. “Your foreshadowing sucks.” He was right, I think I fixed the story, but more important, I have learned to go back over my tales and insert clues.

  13. CF

    If I listed all my peeves, your server would collapse — into a singularity of Hate.

  14. I feel quite guilty to admit that Crawlspace is part of a bigger arc – not a ‘save-the-world’ or universe one, but a bigger story. I just have to write it. But the Bolg stories, my current (2nd) WIP Joy Cometh with the Mourning, and The Witch’s Murder… all are small drama. :-)

    • I think all of us will happily take a bigger story in that universe. And yes, I hadn’t thought of the Bolg stories while I was writing, but they do fit in with what we noted about mysteries, even though the main characters are constant, the conflicts change and rarely involve the fate of the known universe.

  15. A related pet peeve of mine are any stories where the protagonist is essentially omnipotent. Or becomes so in the story. I call it the Skylark of Space problem (where by the fourth book of EE. “Doc” Smith’s story, the protagonist was swapping solar systems between galaxies).

    Omnipotent characters are uninteresting. Its why Batman is always a far more fundamentally interesting character than Superman who essentially lacks any character at all.

    • Funny. I Call it the Q problem– from TNG. But then, I was raised in the SF world by errant Trekies. (They hate the term Treckers FYI–and tended to be DS9 Fans–unlike every other Treckie in existence) Q managed to be both annoying and boring all at once. The only redeeming quality was how much he reminded me of a PoMo bored teenager.