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Learning from the mistakes of others – 1

Posted in Irritated Reviews, and Just for Writers

We're often blind to our own faults. I find it easier to see problems in the works of other people, especially now that I have a hard time turning off my editorial eye when reading fiction (the downside of being a writer).

I can forgive a few typos, and the occasional fluffs, like a gun that starts as a .22 and ends up as a .357 — these are understandable mistakes.  They're errors of execution, not of understanding.  But there are limits…

Here, for your amusement, are some things I encountered in last night's book which I've sworn never to do myself. I've spared the author name and book title, since the point is not to heap scorn upon the efforts of someone else but to go and avoid these problems myself.

I'll post more of these Irritated Reviews™ from time to time, when sufficiently provoked.

The no-muss-no-fuss death in the family

The tops of the Blue Ridge mountains have no rivers

This thriller is set in the unnamed mountains of North Carolina (presumably the Blue Ridge). Our heroine has returned home, after the recent death of her last parent (no siblings), to her architectural home perched high up in the mountains with a view of chasms.  Her family is one of the founders of the town nearby, and her home has lots of land.

She works for a living, no reference to independent means.  There is no mention of inheritance, estate taxes, or any duties involved in dealing with the death of her mother, other than a funeral.  No mention of property taxes, which would likely be substantial.  Hard to believe she's the last surviving member of her family, or that she can support the house, or that there has been a death of a parent just weeks ago with its necessary financial impacts and unfinished tasks.  Doesn't seem to have any new inherited money or financial responsibilities.  It's a shallow plot device to give her an interesting home, but since it has none of the reality of supporting such a home or the passing of the torch, she operates in an unbelievable financial vacuum.

The river on top of the mountain

The most river you'll see high on a mountain
The most river you'll see high up on a mountain

Her high school boyfriend takes her to a cabin higher up the mountain to reminisce about old times.  It sits along a river, and there's her old canoe.

Now, in my experience, navigable (even if just by canoe) rivers do not appear high up on mountains, even the modest Blue Ridge ones.

The dimensional inversion of the suitcase

How did that zipper imprint itself on the body inside the suitcase?

The first crime victim is a young girl.  One of the clues is the marks on her back from some sort of geometric fabric and a welt that might be a zipper.  In the murderer's confession, it turns out that the girl was transported in a large wheeling suitcase which has a big zipper.  On the outside.

So how, exactly, did the girl receive the marks on the inside of the suitcase?  (This one was repeated, so there was plenty of opportunity to contemplate flinging my ereader against the wall.)

The ghost dog

Early in the book we get a scene whose POV is the heroine's dog.  The dog is named, but never identified by breed.  (And why not?)  Nonetheless, she functions as a conventional trained bloodhound and there's a tracking scene with all the right detail about bloodhound handling.  The heroine has loaned the dog to the local sheriff to use to track the missing girl.

I happen to know people who train bloodhounds and use them for search and rescue, which is clearly more than the author does.  First of all, dogs and handlers come together — you don't just loan the dog independent of the handler.  Second, bloodhounds don't train themselves — how and why did the heroine train or acquire a working bloodhound?  As an FBI agent, living alone, it would have been difficult to keep any sort of dog (long irregular hours, lots of travel), much less train one for effective search and rescue.

A bloodhound in harness at work
A bloodhound in harness at work

Now, I understand why the dog was a convenient plot device, loaned to the sheriff, and giving him an excuse to talk to the heroine and invite her to help him.  The problem is, it's a terribly shallow and unrealistic plot device that was clearly shoehorned into the plot as some sort of fix.  You can tell.

First, since part of the past events was the ambush of the heroine in her own home by a criminal, the author throws in a line about how it's too bad the dog was at the vet that day or it could have provided a warning.  (Good catch).  Then, throughout the book, she occasionally remembers that the heroine owns a dog.  We see her feed the dog from time to time and take it on long morning jogs.

What we don't see is any of the daily reality of living with a dog.  Our heroine gets up in the morning, showers, dresses, eats breakfast, and then gets around to letting the dog out.  (If you live with a dog, this should make you wince.  And if you don't, what's the very first thing you want to do, urgently, when you get up?)  Our heroine leaves the house for long drives without the dog.  There's no mention of what the dog does — no outdoor kennel, no dog doors, and apparently no puddles when she returns.  Our heroine is depressed, but the dog never shows up to shove a nose at her and distract her.

No, the dog has been sprinkled into the plot like fairy dust, but she has no reality at all.  I started thinking of her as the ghost dog after a while, rather than a character who'd had a POV scene.

The repellent herbal tea

Would you pour cream & sugar into this?
Would you pour cream & sugar into this?

Then there were minor items, like fixing a herbal tea as a frame for a recalled memory, then ending the scene by serving it (for herself and guest) with just the right amount of cream and sugar.  Now, it's just barely possible that two unrelated Americans both like dairy products in their tea, but that would be milk, not cream, and it wouldn't be herbal tea.

I'll assume this was the residue of half a dozen editorial changes of an original coffee brewing to herbal tea with one change that was missed, but it was awfully jarring.

But wait, there's more

There were other issues, such as how does a community in the mountains small enough to be named for the heroine's ancestor in 1895 get to be large enough to support several hotels/motels as well as a substantial convention center, or how it is that spring flowers are scenting the air in the late fall, but I'll spare you and pass over those in silence. After all, even Anne Rice had her hero raid a bird's nest for eggs in the fall.


Coupled with the not infrequent choice of words of more than two syllables whose definitions were a little shaky in her mind and sometimes hilariously misapplied, the author flung me out of the book one time too many and I eventually hit the delete key, a quarter of the way in.  I had no confidence that things would improve, and I don't like being thrown out of the story needlessly a dozen times.  I was left with an impression of carelessness and perhaps insufficient education.

If the advice is to write what you know, this author seems to have forgotten a lot.

An editor should have caught all of this.  Hell, a beta reader should have caught all of this.  Did anyone read this first, before me?  It had 10 reviews, average 4.6.  I despair, sometimes, of the tolerance of readers.

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  1. Ten reviews and an average of 4.6 stars? I think we talking family and friends, including two or three who couldn’t justify giving the novel five stars, no matter how much they loved the author.

    July 30, 2014
  2. Daniel

    I am writing in regards to the Blue Ridge Mountains photo you have on your blog. I absolutely love the image and am hoping you would allow me to make a copy to put on my wall at home. Please, let me know if that would be fine. Thank you!

    August 3, 2014
    • You’re welcome to use it, Dan — it’s plenty large enough. But I am chagrined to say not that I didn’t take it (no surprise), but that I can’t find it again so that it gets a proper credit. It was the result of a Google Image search for something like “Blue Ridge mountain tops”, but it didn’t turn up when I just checked now.

      August 6, 2014
  3. I like your Irritated Reviews, TM and all, but I have to quibble with one part: zippers may have the same tracks on the inside of a suitcase as on the outside, as the clothing I’m wearing does. They don’t always have a protective flap.

    Other than that, you’ve nailed it.

    And I’m surprised you made it as far as you did.

    That poor dog!

    October 14, 2016

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