I’m in the midst of reading A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles and for the most part like it. He creates a version of Soviet era Moscow that is overly benign, to the point of being cute, and the premise that the protagonist would be confined to house arrest for years if not decades in the finest hotel in Moscow is a bit much.
But he isn’t trying to recreate reality. He’s using a real place and time to pursue an ambience and atmosphere similar to movie director Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. The similarities between the movie and book are fairly stark though not in the stories they tell, largely.
Anyway, what struck me through the first third of the book—and my point—is that Towles displays a significant writer’s Achilles heel. These are issues that all writers have and they consistently pop up in our work almost no matter what we do to get rid of them. In my case it’s the repetition of certain phrases or words such as suddenly, additionally, merely, etc. To help me avoid their overuse I’ve created a list that I add to as I identify additional problematic words and phrases. When I finish a piece of writing I search for these phrases and words and revise to remove them.
Common Achilles heels include overloading sentences and/or paragraphs with too many ideas or concepts so that they are long and unreadable or book and chapter openings that meander as the writer works to find their way.
In Towles’ case, he uses the phrase had been to such a degree that it became hard to read the book. In one paragraph he used had been five times. Ugh. Too much. One would think that his publisher would have noticed this and encouraged him to revise some of these instances, but it didn’t happen.
Obviously, people still love this book and I like it, too. But I had to put it down a few times. The over use of this phrase—as well as passive voice in general—was enough to pull me out of the narrative and show that Towles is an excellent storyteller but relatively new to creative writing. Perhaps he isn’t, but that’s the effect it had.