Monday, May 9, 2011

The "Look What I Know" Syndrome

I'm going to make a confession. I'm an avid reader of Entertainment Weekly, especially when it comes to the book and movie review sections. Most of the time I think the reviewers are pretty spot on when it comes to the latest film out in theaters or the newest hardcovers lining the shelves. So, it came as no surprise that I came across an interesting review by Keith Staskiewicz and his thoughts on the newest novel by Paul McEuen entitled *Spiral.
Spiral by Paul McEuen

This is what Staskiewicz says concerning McEuen's novel:
❝There is a certain tendency among authors, particularly of thrillers, to exhibit something I call Look What I Know syndrome. Symptoms include unnecessary technical specificity (a rifle is never simply a rifle, it's an M4A1 carbine with adjustable scope), acronym overload, and awkwardly shoehorned dialogue on topics like Masonic history and airplane manufacture that reads like Wikipedia articles in quotation marks.❞
When I read this, quite frankly, I laughed. How completely true is Staskiewicz's assessment of what some authors choose to use when it comes to drawing a picture for the reader. Although I have yet to read McEuen's thriller, this, my friends, sounds like a classic case of telling and not showing. How many of us out there suffer from this syndrome?

Let's start by taking a look at some of the more obviously placed clues in the above quote. Dan Brown, it seems, has become the whipping boy for bad writing. You will find wonderfully written (sarcasm intended) and oddly in-depth descriptions, with rather clumsy phrasing, in Dan Brown's novels The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol. According to The Telegraph, Edinburgh professor of linguistics Geoffrey Pullum says, "Brown's writing is not just bad; it is staggeringly, clumsily, thoughtlessly, almost ingeniously bad." This article, entitled "The Lost Symbol and The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown's 20 Worst Sentences," is quite humorous with wonderfully bad quotes from numerous Brown novels. If you need a laugh, check it out. I wanted to point out a couple of quotes column author Tom Chivers uses; ones that clearly show Brown firmly entrenched in the "Look What I Know" syndrome.
The Da Vinci Code
by Dan Brown
The Lost Symbol, Chapter 1:  He was sitting all alone in the enormous cabin of a Falcon 2000EX corporate jet as it bounced its way through turbulence. In the background, the dual Pratt & Whitney engines hummed evenly.
The Da Vinci Code, Chapter 17:  Yanking his Manurhin MR-93 revolver from his shoulder holster, the captain dashed out of the office.
Just a little too much information is going through the character's head. What do you think?

Brown is also found guilty of the overuse of acronyms in his novel Deception Point, which, surprise, surprise, is about a four-letter agency called NASA. But enough picking on poor Dan Brown. There are other writers out there who suffer from the "Look What I Know" syndrome. Perhaps you're one of them?

But how do we avoid this pitfall? As writers, we want to show our knowledge and that, yes, we did the research and we know what we're talking about. Let's see how you can fix these problems in your current WIP:

  • Look at your current manuscript and take a scene containing dialogue. In that scene, are you trying to explain something to the reader that the characters already know? If so, then you're suffering from the "Look What I Know" syndrome. In order to correct informative dialogue, move it into the thoughts of your viewpoint character.
  • Information Dumps -- I think each and every writer suffers from information dumps. I've read many books where it seems the author felt the need to dump large blocks of info into the text at inconvenient, pace-slowing places. Don't stop the action of a scene to describe every little bit of what's going on in the scene. Keep that action moving and bring out parts of necessary information as the scene is moving forward. In all, keep a steady pace with the action.
  • If you're considering using an explanation of something technical or historical that pertains to the scene at hand, then make sure this information is understandable through your character's POV. Don't have a construction worker notice every element going into a medical scene. If that character doesn't know the first thing about medicine, then let the reader see that. Bring it down (or up) to that character's educational level.
  • Make sure your character has time to notice what he/she is doing, or else your description will sound ridiculous. Let's take the The Da Vinci Code example above -- Is this character actually going to notice he's holding a Manurhin MR-93? No! The scene is moving to quickly for him to even care about what he's holding in his hand. Sometimes simply deleting the details makes a story more believable.
Now that you know what the "Look What I Know" syndrome consists of, go back to your current manuscript and see if you suffer from the same symptoms as does Dan Brown and many other published authors out there on the market. Cut back some on the overwriting and you'll see that this simple task can create a much cleaner, coherent manuscript. Don't worry, we all make the mistake of adding more than we need to when it comes to our writing. In short, as always, show don't tell!

Do you tend to suffer from the "Look What I know" syndrome? What symptoms do you display that lead you to believe you over explain too much in your writing? Who's an author who really grates on your nerves because he/she does way too much overwriting?

*This review can be found in the April 1, 2011 publication, edition #1148.

*Stop by The Random Book Review and check out the thriller I reviewed this week!


  1. Sister Mary, Mary a very timely and mordantly insightful post. Indeed, Dan Brown and those of his ilk attempt to compensate their awful writing with technical data, but on the same hand we are bombarded with demands of knowing, experiencing and being savvy about our writing subject. People complain that Dan Brown made mistakes in describing geographical locations; other writers are criticized for being historically or linguistically inaccurate. So what can a poor writer do but show off a little even to the point of exasperating reader and critic alike?
    I am a failed historian which explains why I write historical fantasy, and I confess that it gives me great pleasure to include plenty of historical data in my texts. In fact, Betas have pointed out that I tend to take for granted my readers' expertise on the subject. I usually throw in names or historical episodes and I don´t stop to explain who o what they are. So I am guilty of another horror: the “Look what I am not explaining” syndrome!

  2. What a timely post! I'm getting ready to submit a manuscript with a bit of software and computing terminology about a radio station getting a digital revamp and, I'll be honest, there is at least one scene in which the characters suddenly sound a lot like a wikipedia entry. One of my characters calls the other on it, though, so I don't know if that makes it excusable. Haha!

    This was great, thanks!

  3. I wonder if this is a side effect of how often writers are urged to get specific? In most workshops I've taken, the instructor will tell us not to describe the buzz of insects on a summer night long ago, but clicking produced by the contraction of the cicadas' internal tymbal muscles at 8:04 p.m. on August 3rd, 1954. ;-)

    A few of us have taken Kirt Hickman's class: he says, "Use concrete details. Not bugs, but locusts and flies. Not flowers, but crocuses, pansies, or marigolds. If your character is drinking soda or wine, name the brand. If she's reading a book or listening to a song, name it." (From "Revising Fiction.")

    That kind of advice, if applied too liberally, is going to lead to exactly the kind of problem you describe, Mary Mary. I'm so glad you point out how completely distracting and even unintentionally hilarious it can be when an author works a little TOO hard to be specific all the time!

  4. Ladies, when it comes to descriptions, we all have to be careful. We need to know when too much is, simply, too much (like Stephanie's cicadas clicking at 8:04 p.m. on August 3rd, 1954). And not just too much sometimes, but when is it good to have great description and when should we hold back? In the end, I guess it's the writer's decision.

    Violante, believe me, I know historical can be tough, especially when you're using a historical scene (i.e. a battle, a presidential election, an assassination, etc.), but if we just write about it till the cows come home then the book will end up sounding like something John Jakes wrote. It's such a fine line of creating a great scene and not telling your audience the ins and outs of history.

    Bottom line (I guess) is don't be be too specific all the time! (Like Stephanie said : ) )

  5. As usually, the subject of lack of equilibrium creeps up into our discussion. Are we idiots that don´t know when we over expose or over explain? No, but again, it´s the amount of cross messages on the topic that makes us uncertain and uncomfortable.
    I miss my childhood years when every novel (even the ones in Spanish) that fell in my hands had footnotes. Sometimes, they were placed there by the translators, sometimes by editors. I wonder if it was a Spanish publishing quirk, but it was very helpful.

    PS: Sister May, Mary (blush, blush) I loved John Jakes!

  6. That's funny, I thought the same exact thing that Stephanie did! I've read in several articles and writing books that you should "be specific" (in fact, the example that comes to mind is exactly that one: "don't say gun, say a 45 colt single action revolver" (or whatever the case may be.)

    My conclusion? Read a variety of writing guides and then find the median among the conflicting advice (because there WILL be conflicting advice.)

  7. "Read a variety of writing guides and then find the median among the conflicting advice." I wish I could say "read the masters" has been any better than the myriad of opinions from how-tos. The masters of the craft, though, have just as many ways of going about things as the dispensers of advice! Somehow, it does help to see how they do it in context, though. How-to manuals can be tricky because, although they do quote passages, you don't really get a sense of how to apply their advice.

    "As usually, the subject of lack of equilibrium creeps up into our discussion. Are we idiots that don´t know when we over expose or over explain? No, but again, it´s the amount of cross messages on the topic that makes us uncertain and uncomfortable." Violante, I hear you, sister. Sometimes I think we should just sit in a cave with a typewriter and not be allowed out until we've cranked out three or four novels, gestated in total isolation. Then again, I see the undeniable value of advice and feedback. It's very tricky!

  8. Perhaps the masters wrote in caves. Writing is like having a baby, you feel lonesome and desoriented, you want advice, but the cross references sometimes drives you nuts.

    Over this past week, I have shed the writer´s hat and wore the reader's, and it´s a completely different POV. Especially when it comes to literary merits. As a reader, all I want is a good story and characters to die for. Everything else is tertiarty.

  9. The problem with reading the masters *too much* is that according to agents/editor/you-name-the-industry-professional, the classics "wouldn't be published nowadays" (I have serious doubts about this assertion since--obviously--people are still reading these books and they print a new edition every year.) BUT, for the sake of argument, let's say we immerse ourselves in this type of literature. Wouldn't we have the tendency to emulate their methods and use elements that are now frowned upon? (ex: long descriptive passages, omniscient narrators, slower pacing, many characters/subplots, etc.)

    But I agree with you that sometimes manuals seem too "theoretical".

  10. Sister Violante, I have also noticed a big difference in reading "like a reader" and reading "like a writer." (I was just talking to Suze about this today.) Reading like a writer doesn't let you enjoy the book in the same way. You're constantly counting adverbs and noticing all those little rules that keep getting broken. When you read "like a reader" you allow yourself to "feel" the book, characters, story and it's a much more enjoyable experience. However, the more I learn about the craft, the harder it is for me to get immersed in a book and simply enjoy it.

  11. Violante -- I love John Jakes! It was his writing that really started the wheels turning in my head when it came to writing historical novels. I love how he places his characters into real events. Sometimes he does a great job of it, but other times, like in his novels Charleston and Savannah, the story just gets lost in all the "facts" he wants to shove into his novels. He's a great example of a writer who way over writes historical facts.

    It's hard to separate the writer from the reader when it comes to reading fiction. I've noticed this a lot with the books I review. When I read genre fiction, I notice right away how predictable it is and what will happen according to the formula. Formula's fine as long as you like to read it, but come on! Shouldn't we give the reader a little credit? Genre fiction feels like the author is always spelling it out for the reader. Going back to my love for Entertainment Weekly, I recently read an article about a new show on AMC called The Killing. The whole season centers around one murder (kind of Twin Peakish) and one of the actresses says the following concerning the instant popularity of such a dark storyline: "This story shows the very truthful ripple effect of that kind of tragedy (the murder in the show) and shows you the day after the horrible event and how you keep going. I think audiences are ready to have responsible storytelling across the crime genre." I think as readers we should demand the same, especially after having delved back into the crime thriller genre this week.

    What do you think? Should we, the readers, demand more responsible storytelling instead of the same old same old?

  12. Oh man, too funny! I must admit, the Dan Brown sentences made me giggle. You're so right, and I'd never quite thought of it that way.

    Another "syndrome" I see a lot is the "As you know, Bob" syndrome. Writers try to impart information by having one character say it to the other, despite it being something both characters know well and would never have to speak about. They're only saying it because the author wants the reader to have that info. Toooootally bugs me every time I see it!

  13. Sister Lorena you took the words off my mouth. Why write like the Masters when the industry does not consider them as such? I do believe that if Tolstoy or Thomas Hardy attempted to query today they would get more rejections than me. Back in college (late XX century) my teachers used to say “Nobody would try to write like Victorians today. It’s not fashionable”. There is such a thing as literary fashions and fads.

    I don´t think we read like writers. It's worse than that. We read like “the-agent-we´ve-just-queried-would”. How sad we´ve both reached the same point. We can’t enjoy reading anymore. I much rather be a reader than a would-be-published writer.

  14. Sister May, Mary, if readers ran the industry and viewers controlled TV programming….it would be an apocalyptic spectacle! But hope springs eternal…and readers should be the ones running the show.

    Charleston and Savannah were boring compared to the early Jakes (North and South and The Kent Family Chronicles)

    I like Meagan’s “As you know, Bob” Syndrome. That comes from the “try encapsulating backstory and information in dialogues”

  15. Many writers have been guilty of this at some point. The great trick is to not let it become habit. Great post with wonderful examples!

  16. Meagan, I like your "As you know, Bob" syndrome! So true indeed! It bugs me as well.

    Sylvia, it's true that we have to learn how to keep our writing in focus and not let the little things we love to do (but ultimately things that overwhelm our manuscripts) get in the way of our story and our writing.

    Violante, Yes, I'd say if someone wants to read John Jakes, then read his earlier works. I love North and South. Too bad viewers and readers don't control the industries. I don't get movies either. Lately they've been experiencing a bad slump in sales, and yet the price for a movie ticket goes up and up. Do they just think that things will magically get fixed and that they will somehow draw the moviegoing public back to rehashed crap on the Silver Screen? Some originality certainly helps interest the viewer in a good storyline.

  17. I heard they want to set up bingo parlors and serve food inside movie-houses to increase their audiences. That it´s so sad, but movies go beyond cinema houses. The problem is content and depth, words seldom associated with audiovisual entertainment. Hollywood turns up a lot of material every year and most of it is crap. TV is quite similar. You have a hundred realities for anything closer in quality to "Lost". After "Lost" I gave up in American series. Mad Men is the sole exception. As you say, readers and public in general complain about lack of good books and bad movies, but those in charge do little to change the state of things.

  18. Your posts and comments are always equally helpful. This is one of my favorite blogs. I am a recovering overwriter, but not because I use too much information...I still worry my novels lack specificity, but becuase I over describe. I'll be sure to watch for this syndrome when I start my newest sci-fi. With all the research I'll be doing, I could see where I might try to show it off! christy

  19. Christy -- I think many of us are overwriters (there should be a support group of some kind for people like us) so be comforted to know you are not alone. Best of luck on writing your newest sci-fi!

    Violante -- I think it's just a tad bit sad that the movie-going experience has resulted in a lot of gimmicky attempts to bring in an audience. One of my least favorites is bad movies being made into 3-D just so they can fleece the movie watchers of a few extra dollars and say the movie is more popular than what the numbers really reflect. Same for a lot of tv programming lately, especially when the show tries TOO hard to be a hit that it just bombs. Same goes for a popular series in literature (Twilight, anyone?) when the writing is just plain awful. Junk sells, I guess!

  20. Sister Mary, Mary.I don´t hate series per se. I don´t even have a beef with Twilight. What kills me is the clonification of formulae. Everything is so predictable, so like the previous entry, and yet the industry buys them and encourages writers to continue with the assembly line novels.
    What I love in trashy novels in the past is that they were different, original and fresh

  21. Mary - Wonderful post and very timely for me as well. Somewhere I read about how much research should be included in a book. It ended up somewhere around 5% of what you learn - including jargon.

  22. Kari Marie, I'm glad this post was very helpful to you! It can be so hard sometimes when it comes to drawing the line at how much research you add to your manuscript. 5% seems amazingly low to me, though. With historical writing, most everything that goes into the novel comes from research because what the world is like now is nothing like it was twenty, fifty, or a hundred or so years ago. You want your story to reflect all your hard work, but not to the point that it reads like nonfiction!

    Sister Violante, I hear you on the cloning. So many copies of the same thing, but there are so many amazing stories I hear that have never seen the light of day. Rather disheartening, if you ask me.

  23. There should be a place where unpublished writers could expose their manuscripts. Even if they don´t get paid, just so they couldhear readers' opinions, just so those amazing stories don´t die with their authors.

  24. I couldn't agree with you more! Shall we start our own coffeehouse and have open mike night for novelists? Hey, they do it for poetry!

  25. Hey Sisters!

    There's an open mic session in the conference I'm attending tomorrow (we're supposed to read our work in front of editors and editors, gulp.) I've never been to a conference like this, and I'm not sure I'll have the guts to stand up and read my work... I'll let you know how it goes.

  26. Jokes aside, we should take advantage of the Net. Have you seen all the FanFiction sites? I know a girl in my country that landed a contract with Random House because of her Harry Potter FanFiction. Now, of course such a place should only be for hopeless doomed manuscripts that have no place in the market. I would never advice an author to post excerpts from a novel they are still sending to agents

  27. Your Sister´s prayers will be there by your side.

  28. You should so do it, Lorena! I have in the past and I think it's great! It's nerve wracking that first time, but I think it's definitely something every writer should take advantage of.

    The FanFiction market is kind of crazy. I don't think I could ever write anything based off of what others have written (look at the whole sequel Gone With the Wind debacle). I think it takes away from some of that fresh creativity readers want to see on the page. But like most ideas, if it can be recycled into another form, it certainly will be.

  29. Long before Internet, I was writing FanFiction and everybody made fun of me because it was akin to plagiarism. I think it's a great way for kids (most FF is written by teenagers) to excersize their skills before actually tackling something of their own. I'm too old for it, my mind is crowded with my own tales, but it just shows you how the virtual world offers you spaces that could become a sort of pre-vanity press.

  30. I don't THINK I do this - but sometimes I think it's hardest to spot the clangers in your own work...

    Poor old Dan Brown. He's quite the poster boy.

  31. I agree, Adina. Sometimes we write things that just don't work on the page and it takes another set of eyes to point it out.

    Yes, poor old Dan Brown. Kind of sounds like a song . . .


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