Words I Never Want to See Again
When I started reading slush I noticed a few words cropping up in nearly every single submission.
They appeared mostly in romance and women's fiction, but also in military S.F. (who knew?) and I'm sick of them. The following annoy the hell out of this editor:
Smirk Lordy, I loathe this one the most, so it goes first. Bullies smirk at their targets while doing bullying things and that's more appropriate than when characters of equal standing who like each other are interacting. The girl smirks at the guy, the guy smirks at the girl, it's one big, fat, annoying smirk-fest. Well, smirked rhymes with irked, which is how I feel about the word. If the only reaction the writer can think of is to have characters smirking all over themselves, then it's time to go back to the reading list and expand the mental borders. I'm currently tweaking some of my early works and found a smirk in it. Yes, I strangled myself. (I got better.)
I started reading a book now that was pretty well done, but the writer has employed this word often in character interaction. Once, I can let pass, but the two protags are ping-ponging their smirks. It's a middle-school, even high school thing, right down there with eye rolling. I didn't finish this book.
Eye rolling It's a physical action and I've already done a post on it (The Eyes Don't Have It) so I won't repeat myself. It's childish and I expect better of adult characters. I've had to stop reading books by a writer whose early works I loved. Since NYTimes bestseller status success hit her like a train, the quality of writing (doubtless to meet deadlines) has declined sharply. The female protags in two supposedly different series roll their eyes a dozen times per chapter -- or so it seems. The author is using eye-rolls as a shortcut to deliver a comical reaction. It ain't funny. The characters, far from being clever and delivering a verbal riposte in response to whatever inspired an eye-roll, just roll their eyes.
That author's co-writing books now, and I can tell which chapters are hers. Her co-author is the better writer, funnier. The co-writer is thinking, the other one is just filling up pages with words to meet a quota.
Groan/groaning This one is at epidemic levels in certain kinds of romance/women's fiction and it nearly always means the male protag is having an orgasm. However, my interpretation of groan is that someone is in extreme pain. I took on an otherwise pretty good book, but it had the man groaning his way through the love scene like a Civil War soldier getting his leg cut off. Ew. I'm okay with moan, but groan is right out when it comes to sexual pleasure for either party.
Eyebrow waggling Unless one of your characters is Groucho Marx, you can leave this one at home in the junk box. I'm sick of it. I read three books in a row (comedy, dark urban fantasy, and a romance) that had characters waggling their damned eyebrows. Who does that???
Winking I ask again, who does that??? I expect it from Joan Blondell in a 1930s musical, but not in a 21st century novel. When one character aims that action at another, it comes off as heavy-handed, as though the writer couldn't think of anything better, and likely didn't. If you have one character in the face of another and the first one WINKS I am jarred right out of the narrative. The most common use for a wink is for one character to reassure another about something. Guess what, this editor is put off and backing away. Delete that one from your list of character reactions.
Stomach clenching / heart clenching It's usually a female protag's reaction to some sort of bad news or the anticipation of bad news. This one started appearing in romances and romantic suspense about ten years ago. It's had a fine run, but it's time to retire. Hands can clench. Stomachs and hearts, not so much. That's way over the top.
Such shorthand is a sign the writer is just phoning it in, she's not actually thinking about the words, their context, and what it says about the character. Or worse, maybe she IS and thinks those reactions are appropriate. In some cases -- like a farce intended as mind candy -- they're useful, but only use them once. If they're all through a book they get old, fast and I don't buy more books, like that suddenly successful writer who substitutes eye rolling in place of real comedy.
One way around this is imagining who would play the character in a movie. I tend to run a movie in my head, and if I spot a character who needs a bit of a boost, I look around for an actor to buck up the part. Would that actor be winking, groaning, body-clenching, eye-waggle/rolling, and smirking through the part? Probably not.
I recognize that this is in personal taste territory, and many of you see nothing wrong with any of those word/actions. Just be aware that I'm seeing them in everything and that means they're well into cliche territory. Please don't make this editor groan, because it means I am truly in pain.
You be a better writer than that!