This is an essay from 2014 - and it appears on page 74 of my book, A Little Bit Sideways - but it (sadly) never grows old. There's a whole new generation of young (and older) men who are ridiculously clueless when it comes to romance and Valentine's Day in particular:
My new editor asked me to write my February column about romance. Borrowing from the great Bugs Bunny – “She don’t know me very well, do she?” Poor thing probably hasn’t had time to read many back issues and doesn’t realize what my track record is.
But I take pride in doing what I’m told (sometimes). And I relish relaying romantic tales. So here goes.
Valentine’s Day means a lot. To women. Not so much to men. Most men do what they’re told to do by their woman in order to maintain the household peace. This I know with certainty, because I have three adult sons and have had three semi-adult husbands. I believe this makes me an expert in the romantic gifts and gestures department, or—perhaps more accurately—what not to give the woman in your life if you ever expect to have intimate relations again.
After all, every man hopes that giving the right gift will lead to what we women call romance. The men call it something else that I can’t say here. The smart ones realize that a thoughtful, mushy gift will open a woman’s heart and make her feel all warm and tingly inside. Which leads to a long walk in the woods, then some playful swapping of baseball caps, then a relaxing soak in twin bathtubs outside in the yard while watching the sunset. Oh. Wait. No. That’s a special pill commercial.
Most men these days do know that most women are wired differently and require a little schmoozing. They don’t understand it—because, honestly, all they need is a simple nod toward the bedroom, and they’ll be out of their boxers and under the sheets before you take three steps down the hall—but if some affectionate gestures and canoodling make his woman want to jump his bones, a man will comply. But this is where some of the worst stories come into the picture. Seems that even what comprises those gestures is a mystery to men. Just when they think they’ve got it nailed and are doing something romantic, it can all blow up in their faces, poor things. A few things not to do:
Shoulder rubs are wonderful and most women will welcome one—but not when standing at the kitchen sink scrubbing pots—you’re likely to get hit over the head with a frying pan. Better idea? Gently nudge her away from the sink, dry her hands, pour her a glass of wine, and you finish the job. By the way, this only works if you do a good job of it, not the old - I’ll do a crummy job, and she’ll never ask me to do it again ploy. Because that just pisses her off worse and gets you further from your goal. Much further. You have no idea how much further. One of the best pieces of advice for a male cohabitating with a female is to learn early on how she likes certain household tasks done, then actually DO them that way. If more nookie is what you’re after, listen and follow my directions. Doing chores badly only makes her think of you as she would an irresponsible teenager. Someone she needs to supervise—so she’s still on duty, not relaxed. And if your woman is the weird exception that finds a grown man who acts like a petulant teenager a turn-on, well, it’s up to you, of course, but I say there’s a whole lotta trouble coming your way. If you stay, then you deserve what you get. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Don’t tell her you’ve planned a romantic evening, have the wine poured, get her all comfy on the sofa, then have a porn movie start playing when you hit the remote. (Unless you know, for a very, very, solid fact, that she’s into it. Come to think of it, get that in writing and have it notarized.) Women will compare themselves with the gorgeous, but anorexic, girl with huge boobs on the screen and wonder why you need to look at her to get turned on. Which leads to massive feelings of inadequacy and lower confidence and not so much fun in the bedroom—if the door hasn’t been slammed in your face already.
Do not write her a poem that has any words rhyming with bucket. Just don’t.
In addition, do not give her the following ‘gifts’—all courtesy of my exes: Fencing lessons when she’s never expressed ANY interest in it. A white yarn mop head (without even the accompanying mop stick to put it on). Yeah, wish I was kidding you on that one. A box of real coal chunks in a pretty box from the most expensive jeweler in town. No jewelry hidden inside, just the chunks. A used coffee mug. A scrub brush for the car. And a framed picture of your mother.
You are welcome.
One of my greatest fears from early childhood was that I’d fall into the three-quarter-inch gap in the seaside boardwalk planks in Asbury Park, New Jersey. We lived a few miles inland and would go to the boardwalk amusements every once in a while. I remember so vividly the smell of tar mixed with the tang of salt air. Every time I smell tar, I go back to childhood and the boardwalk. Here’s the weird thing—I love when that happens. I love the smell of tar. But for some reason, the little gap in the boards absolutely terrified me. In my mind, they were a foot wide.
Such is the strangeness of childhood fears. What’s also strange is how we all remember what those crazy fears were. So, I’ve been asking people about theirs, and, to a person, they had no trouble dredging up an example from early in their lives.
One man was completely freaked out by Winnie the Pooh. Screamed bloody murder when he saw the cartoon or, heaven forbid, came face-to-face with a stuffed one in the toy store. He can’t figure out why, though. Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet? No problem. Only the cute little soft-voiced, gentle bear made him cringe.
A more common one was mannequins. That, I can understand. Some of them creep me out, even now. Especially when they’ve been made to have facial expressions. I saw one recently whose face was cast in a freakish wide-mouthed laugh. He had heavily painted eyebrows that pitched together over his nose and way-too-bright blue eyes. He looked maniacal, like something the Joker would leave around to taunt his next victim. How that mannequin was an asset in selling men’s clothing was beyond me. What store owner would buy him? I ponder the good judgement, not to mention the sanity, of such a business owner. He’d be the type to have a trap-door in the dressing room or a secret two-way mirror.
An older man confessed to a paralyzing dread of chalk as a kid. Chalk? He had this fear long before the jumping into Bert’s sidewalk chalk drawings happened in the Mary Poppins movie, so we can’t blame Walt Disney or Dick Van Dyke. Maybe his mom banged the dust out of chalkboard erasers near him when he was an infant?
One little girl went nuts if she saw colored sprinkles. All-brown chocolate ones were okay. Just the happy and festive multi-colored sprinkles gave her nightmares. In an unexpected side note, clowns, known for multi-colored faces and outfits that universally give us the willies, didn’t affect her at all. You’d think they’d trigger the same reaction.
Speaking of nuts, a boy had a near-panic attack if confronted by peanuts. Not peanut butter, but the nuts. He didn’t have an allergy. All he can fathom now, as an adult, is the Mr. Peanut icon spooked him.
Product mascots when we were young were everywhere and pretty bizarre, come to think of it. The Jolly Green Giant? I was leery of him. Thought he was always about to squash those cute little green sprouts dancing around him. Speedy, the Alka-Seltzer boy? On the old black and white TV, he looked like a demented ventriloquist’s doll, and I hated those things. The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man with his stupid tilted sailor’s cap? I can’t explain why he creeped me out, but he just did. And why did he look so much like The Michelin Man? And for the life of me, I couldn’t comprehend Mr. Clean. An adult man who helped women clean the house? Oh, Please. My dad never cleaned anything, except the grill and the lawn mower. None of us kids fell for that one.
We were supposed to like and trust these icons? We were supposed to be happy to eat Charlie the Tuna’s friends? I submit that maybe the reason for our childhood terrors had more to do with the Madmen's three-martini lunch where they dreamed up such stuff, rather than anything actually being wrong with us.
Have you ever seen the aftermath of an exploded, spoiled can of cranberry sauce?
When I was a kid, I didn’t like the taste of cranberries. Mom taught us how to string them with popcorn to make Christmas tree garlands, but eating them? Nah. By my teen years, my palate had matured, and I realized Mom’s homemade cranberry relish was pretty darned good. Made with oranges, a few spices, and not too much sugar, it became my go-to for consuming cranberries. This was way, way before sweetened dried cranberries—Craisins—were temptingly dangled in front of us on TV like the California dancing raisins’ long lost cousins.
The problem with having a mother who made most things from scratch, and very well at that, is almost nothing served by others—individuals or restaurants—measures up. So I tend to take a pass on canned anything. Sometimes my Thanksgiving guests will come with donations for the dinner, which is so very thoughtful and nice. For the record, I prefer fresh flowers or wine as a hostess gift. But once in a while, that donation is a can of cranberry sauce, which I conveniently forget to open and serve. At the end of the meal, I’ll politely slap my forehead and apologize for forgetting. While cleaning up, I feel heartless just tossing it, so the can gets shoved to the back of the pantry. Perhaps my guilt will go away, and I’ll throw it out in a week or two?
Several years go by. I legitimately forget all about it, and if I haven’t cleaned out the pantry (which I almost never do), disaster strikes. Purplish-red gooey stuff goes everywhere. It’s sticky, and it stains, and it’s a pain in the rear to wash absolutely everything down. True confession here, though—it’s only happened once. But once was enough. Some might say I got what I deserved, but I really, really, really hate serving that gelatinous goop. I don’t know why they call the jellied stuff that slides out of the can cranberry sauce. It looks and acts more like Jello. I suppose it tastes like cranberries, in a way. But it’s a far cry from real cranberries.
Another reconfigured and reconditioned Thanksgiving food I can’t stomach is fake mashed potatoes. There are people who buy a box of dried potato flakes (I guess they’re flakes, I really don’t know), mix them with water or milk, and the resulting mush is supposed to be instant mashed potatoes? It’s shocking. That sounds blasphemous on top of unappetizing. Plus they have all sorts of chemicals added to them. I guess I don’t understand, because boiling potatoes, then mushing them up with some milk and butter, is one of the easiest things to do in the world of cooking. There’s nothing complicated about it.
The English and Irish were able to do it, for crying out loud. No offense meant to either nationality, but you are not famous for your great food. We love you for other reasons. (I do have English and Irish in my mixed-mutt heritage). And real potatoes taste good. So I don’t get it. According to info I found on the Internet, instant mashed potatoes have been through ‘an industrial process’ of cooking, mashing, and dehydrating—resulting in ‘a close approximation’ of mashed potatoes. Ewwww. Sounds yummy. Not. Unless you’re cooking for Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, where he uses a gallon of mashed potatoes as a sculpture medium, please try to do it yourself at least once. Your grandmother would be so proud.
What I never figured out was—why Teri Garr made enough potatoes to satisfy a famished fire department when they had three little kids who each probably consumed a couple of forkfuls. But then Spielberg would have had to make Dreyfuss raid his kids’ Playdough stash, and that would have been too hard?
There’s a lot I don’t understand about movies. Like why Bryce Dallas Howard’s heels didn’t snap and break while doing all that running from dinosaurs—through the forest, over rocks, on asphalt—those were some impressive shoes. Or why babysitters open the closet or basement door, when they know darn well what’s behind it? I spent much of my adolescence in babysitting mode, and that is just plain insulting.
I suppose there’s much I don’t understand about a lot of life’s mysteries. But I do understand the wonders of homemade, from scratch—food.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!
Author J.D. Allen tackles two difficult subjects in 19 Souls. One is male rape. The other is female serial killers.
From the first line, the plot grabs you. I won't spoil it, but there are several twists that surprise in this story.
The male rape aspect is told well, from the male point of view. Still, today, in many quarters, the whole idea of a man being able to be raped is considered preposterous - making it that much more difficult for the victim to come forward or make a complaint without worries of being lampooned or ostracized. Allen's take on it feels believable. She manages to be in the man's mind and makes us understand.
Apparently, getting deep into people's heads is Allen's specialty. Because the race through this fast-paced book also puts us into the female serial killer's mind. She does it so well, that I almost - almost - started rooting for the crazy killer.
It's a fast, good read. Give it a try.
(First written for and published on Janice Hardy's Fiction University Blog - Dec. 2017)
When you’re starting your writing career and finish your first full manuscript, what should you do next? Besides celebrating by opening that emergency bottle of bubbly you keep in the back of the refrigerator? What was that? You don’t keep a bottle of Champagne on hand? You absolutely should, because finishing the first draft of a novel is a big deal. So take an evening to celebrate, then get back to work.
Should you write a synopsis, or two, or maybe even three, so you’ll have a single paragraph one, a one-pager, and perhaps a multiple pager? Do your homework and drive yourself further down the road to a nervous breakdown as you write, and seemingly forever rewrite, your query letter to send to literary agents?
Well, yes. But not yet. The first draft is only the beginning. A thorough self-edit or two comes next, along with finding a few beta readers to give you feedback. More about choosing those later.
What you absolutely must do, if you want to produce the best book you can write, is take a good, hard look at your ego. Because it’s about to get seriously banged up if you don’t prepare yourself. When we type The End, it feels like giving birth. And that baby, your book, is as precious and perfect as a baby. To you. To everyone else, not so much. (The book, not the baby, who I’m sure truly is/was perfect and precious.)
This is a tough lesson to learn, and you are far better off if you learn it early. If you don’t, your pride in your accomplishment will blind you to any faults in the manuscript. Beta readers and a critique group, if you choose them wisely, will tell you things you don’t want to hear. You’ll go on defense, get mad, and argue with them. You’ll refuse to accept advice from seasoned writers who are trying to help you. Basically, after all that work, not getting your ego out of the way for the next steps is like shooting yourself in the foot.
And, if you do, over time, get the ego under control and ask for help once more, those same people who you sniped at the last time are not going to want anything to do with it—and quite possibly you—again. You’ll have marked yourself as difficult.
Find a few beta readers. They cannot be a relative, in-law, or a good friend. Because they love you, and no matter how many times you stress that they should be absolutely honest with you—they will not do it. If your book is terrible, they will lie and say it was great, while swearing they are telling you the truth. This is not a bad thing. The people who love us want to protect our feelings. It’s kind of their job.
So—how to find readers who will be honest? Ask your friends who belong to book clubs for the names of members you don’t know who regularly go for your type of book. Or call that friend who reads a lot, they’re bound to know others who do also. Don’t ask someone who reads/loves thrillers, horror, or fantasy, and zero cozies at all to read your cozy mystery. When you find these people who do not know you, call them and ask if they’ll read a PDF copy. Then ask if they think they can be brutally truthful. Explain to them that you’re most interested in getting any weak spots corrected before you send it out to agents, and they’d be doing you a wonderful favor. That the only way to be sure you’re sending out your best efforts depends on them. That way, you’ll have given them a mission. They’ll want to be helpful and will make notes about pages or sections that weren’t clear or anything else that bothers them.
This is where a lot of newbies panic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “But how do I know they won’t steal my book and try to publish it as theirs?” There are a few reasons that won’t, and doesn’t, happen, but perhaps the best way to allay any such fear is—these days, when you create a document on Word or Libre, or whatever you’re using, it’s immediately time/date stamped as being created by you—using your name. The software does it automatically. And every time you make a change, it notes that as well. You’ve got an iron-clad chain of custody for proof that it’s yours. So take that worry off the table.
When they’ve finished the book, ask them questions. Lots of them. Take notes. And listen. Don’t interrupt their answers with a defense. Take your ego out of it. Ask them if the oh-so-clever plot twist you put in Chapter Twenty surprised them or did they see it coming? What part or parts of the book dragged for them? Did they find themselves skimming over pages? Which ones? Why? Do any of the characters seem shallow? Like they’re out of central casting? Which ones did they like best/worst and why? Was the ending good or predictable? Did the overall plot make sense? Did they get a solid image/understanding of the setting or time period? I could go on all day, but you get the idea.
After many years of training, I finally have my mother able to give me honest feedback. I want hers because she reads everything. She’s voracious. If my plots or characters seem trite or done to death elsewhere, she’ll tell me. But I think my mother is the exception to the rule, and it did take years to get her there.
I’m telling you all this because I wish someone had told me in such an unvarnished fashion. I didn’t get belligerent way back when, but I did put up defensive barriers. In doing that, I delayed my progress as a writer. In not knowing the advantage of putting ego aside, I found criticism and rejection so hurtful. Had I known to find avid readers to test-read my book, I would have saved so much time in getting to the polished version it finally became.
Do yourself a huge favor. Send your ego on a long vacation.
That’s what my older sister, my dear departed Stephanie, labeled the weird phenomenon of always—as the old knight in the Indiana Jones movie said—choosing poorly.
You walk into a bar with a few friends. There are enough vacant stools, all looking perfectly fine. You choose one. While the others in your party take their seats, you hang your purse on the hook under the counter, then boost yourself up on your stool. And it’s the one with a leg shorter than the other three. It’s the tippy barstool. Every bar has one, and you’ve picked it. Again.
My family excels at this. Welcome to our world. A world where your brand new package of three pairs of socks has a sock missing. You have five socks, not six. The package hadn’t been opened—it was simply a freak from the factory. Or your seat on the plane is in front of the only kicking toddler on board. You get the idea.
Nowhere does Tippy Barstool Syndrome kick in as hard or as often than at the grocery store. First you select a cart. So many to choose from, yet you take the one with the sticky wheel. The next has loud, squeaky wheels. A third has gum stuck to the underside of the handle. Around you, other shoppers are putting no thought at all into cart selection. They simply grab one, and off they go happily—on silent and gliding wheels.
As you peruse the store, placing items in the cart, Tippy hovers like Eeyore’s dark cloud. The first bag of flour you lift has a rip on the bottom that you don’t notice until it leaves a trail of white powder and the floor feels slippery. You glance down to notice your new shoes are dusted white. The first jar of jam you select has its little safety bubble already popped. The yogurt container’s sealed top has a slit in it. The bag of M&Ms was opened via the bottom seam by somebody sneaking some out, and they spill everywhere when you pick it up.
You’ve completed your list. Now you scout out the shortest or fastest line. You zip past all open lanes. For each line of customers, your brain is calculating, rapid-fire, what types of people are in that lane and how much they’ve got in their carts. A line may have fewer people with fewer items, but experienced shoppers know if more than one of those waiting are elderly, skip that queue. You don’t want to be smiling politely while grandpa can’t figure out the debit card or granny endlessly searches for her checkbook, then takes five excruciating minutes to write the check. Are there any harried moms with screaming toddlers? Does the cashier look new? Does the bagger pack slower than sludge? So many factors, and your brain calculates them brilliantly.
The analysis from your logical quadrant reports in, and you get in a line. Two people soon stand behind you. And this is when TBS kicks in. The customer at the register realizes she bought a wrong thing. She panics, says “I’ll be right back,” dashes out of line, and disappears down an aisle. The rest of you make small talk about the drivel on the gossip magazines’ covers in the checkout rack. Which, I have to say, are so unfair. Either the celebrities are too skinny or they’re too fat. Whatever the starlet weighs, it’s never good enough for the tabloids. Alien babies, however, are never criticized on those covers.
I’m digressing. After a few minutes of us showing incredible patience and restraint in resisting eye rolls and sighs, the lady scoots back, apologizing. Those who can’t fake a nice reply merely nod. She pays and vamooses. The next person does everything right, but the register runs out of receipt paper.
It continues like that as the lanes on either side flow effortlessly along. I often tell people I meet in line to memorize my face. If they ever see me in line again, they’d be smart to get in a different one.
Some folks just hate to say goodbye. We all understand. We’ve been there. Separation brings tears when your baby gets on the school bus for first time. When your best friend moves across the country.
When children go to college - Wait. No. Most of us throw a secret party when that happens. We love our teenagers, but by the time eighteen rolls around, everybody needs a break. I remember thinking, don’t let the door hit you in the patookie on the way out. He knew everything, and I knew nothing. Boy, did he need to get out in the world.
Of course, the final goodbye is the hardest. And there are some who simply can’t handle the departure. Will never handle it. I like to think that those who have passed on to their soul’s next phase are at peace, maybe at long last. We who are left behind are the ones who endure the pain of loss. But for a strange demented few, they do pretty bizarre things - as I’ll explain in a bit.
It’s October. Halloween month. Creepy stuff displays are in the stores. Some of it way too icky for me. Especially the pretend corpses shown in various states of decay. I know lots of people who love that sort of thing as Halloween décor, but I am not one of them. How in the world did the idea of displaying fake ‘dug up’ corpses ever become a thing?
Well . . . it stems from real life episodes over the centuries where people did exactly that. Dug up their deceased loved ones and moved them back into the house. Yes, really. There are references all through our history of folks doing it. Not a lot, thank God, but enough to make it not unheard of. Now, why the people way-back-when did it isn’t really explained, but the knowledge that they did do it was passed on. And on. And on. And now it’s a decorating thing in the age of glorified zombies.
Granted, a person would have to be missing more than one belt loop to even imagine committing such a gross act for real. But the human population has always had its percentage of loopers, hasn’t it?
A Detroit man moved his father’s body into a basement freezer because he was convinced Dad would come back to life. Ickier was a woman named Jean. Jean and her twin sister, June, were very close. When June passed away from cancer in 2009, Jean had her dug up after a few days and placed in a spare bedroom. But they weren’t alone. Jean had also been living with her husband’s corpse propped up on a couch for ten years. Ultra-ickier still, a man in Vietnam slept in his wife’s grave for years, until his kids made him stop. So he moved her into his bed, where he slept with her for another five years.
It’s not an ‘only lately’ kind of quirk. Nor is it limited to western nut jobs. There’s an island in Indonesia where the locals exhume their ancestors’ mummified remains every year. It’s like a holiday. They clean out their graves, put new clothes on them, take them for a pleasant walk about the village, then place them back underground.
The kicker is, from the pictures I saw, the poor dead people are at the mercy of their descendants’ fashion sense. This one poor old man got paraded around in a suit with a Hawaiian-print shirt and a red, green & white plaid tie. Lesson? Throw out your ugly clothes you kept meaning to give away before you kick that final bucket.
Yes, some folks just can’t bear to say goodbye. And if your skin isn’t crawling at the thought of these stories, it’s time to check your belt loops.
POV stands for Point of View.
It's writing/viewing the scene from inside the head of a particular character. Usually, the deeper you can get into a POV, the more connected a reader feels to that character. Obviously, the writer doesn't always want you to know what's in every character's mind, so part of the creation process is deciding how many, and whose, POVs to write from for the story.
It's not always easy to determine, either. I know lots of authors who have gotten halfway through a manuscript before it dawns on them that the POV should be from a different character.
Here are the basics:
First person POV - is when the main character refers to themselves as 'I'. The story is viewed/experienced from that one character's point of view. Sometimes an author will do a 2nd or 3rd POV in combination with that - either from the first person or the third person. Diana Gabaldon does that in her Outlander series. Claire is always written in the first person, and Jamie - her husband - and all other characters - are written in the third person.
Example of first person from my book, Blinke It Away - When Bess Blinke is up on Mount Kaala
The air smelled sweet and clean. I picked up the scent of something earthy and - apples? Hawaii didn't have regular apple trees, but rose and mountain apples grew there. I climbed and searched for them. Soon, a group of mountain apple trees were within sight, bursting with massive clusters of the small, red fruit. Smashed ones lay on the ground under and surrounding them. I hurried closer, hit something slick, slid downhill, and landed when my back slammed into a tree trunk. The impact made the pain in my head throb all over again.
Third Person POV - is when the 'narrator' (the author) tells you what a character is thinking or doing.
Example of third person from my book, Alias: Mitzi & Mack - From Stanley & Catherine's first meeting. It's in Stanley's POV. Notice that, although I'm telling you both characters' actions and words, you only know Stanley's thoughts, not hers.
If she wanted sympathy from him, she wasn't going to get it. "Just the same, I don't like being treated like that. I still think we should forget the whole thing. Don't worry. I'll never tell a soul I was here."
"Please don't go." She stood, then approached him. "I'd like to find out more about you. I'll pay you a thousand dollars if you'll simply sit once more."
A thousand dollars to sit? "Okay." As he sat, he wondered if she also threw money from the car windows for the fun of watching poor people fight for it.
I have a workshop presentation for POV that goes into much further detail. Contact me if you'd like me to present it for your group.
I'm a little late to the Billy Boyle party. Just finished book one in the series. There are ten more, if I've counted right, and I'm looking forward to all of them.
James R. Benn created a delightful character in Billy. He's a young man - early twenties - thrust into WWII and trying to survive the best he can. He was a newly minted detective with the Boston police when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Military service was inevitable, and his family scrambled to use any avenue they had to get Billy a good posting.
Fast forward to England, and Billy's been assigned to Gen. Eisenhower. He's expected to use his detective skills.
He fakes it till he makes it - does the best he can. He reminded me so much of my sons in their early twenties. A very charming character. Benn does a terrific job conveying both England and the era, as well as the military brass.
I'm not thrilled with the fate of some of my favorite characters, but hey - it was wartime. Read the book(s.) You'll love them.
Read enough writing advice books, and sooner or later, your head's going to ache.
'there are rules - but nobody knows what they are' - is a common meme among writers.
I've been lucky to belong to a very tough critique group since 2004. We know 'the rules', and sometimes, the rules must be ignored. The bottom line is - does your story keep moving, does it keep the reader engaged? Or do they yawn and put it down - perhaps to never pick it up again?
One of the things we've discovered for sure is - when the writing is chock full of 'had's, 'had been's, 'that's, and 'ly' adverbs - it 'slows' everything down. Oh, it doesn't matter so much in a paragraph or two, but if such boring, extraneous words populate your entire book, it can lead to lethargy. It just 'feels' slow. The reader doesn't know exactly why they don't pick up the book again, but they know it makes them not interested enough to continue.
Everything you do as a writer should be aimed at one goal - make the reader keep turning pages. Make them not want to put it down. Getting rid of unnecessary 'that's and 'had's helps with that - it makes the reading feel more active.
So, when are they unnecessary? here's an example of when you can get rid of the 'had's (and a 'that'):
Four years earlier, she had designed the woman's penthouse. She had purchased that ten-thousand dollar sofa that had been such a boondoggle. The woman had been thrilled when it arrived.
So - a more active way to write it:
Four years earlier, she designed the woman's penthouse. (since we've told the reader it was four years ago, the had is not necessary.) She purchased the ten-thousand-dollar sofa that became such a boondoggle. (Don't need the 'had' or the 1st 'that'.) The woman loved it when it arrived. (Got rid of the 'had' & by using 'loved it' instead, we also get rid of the passive 'was thrilled' that would have replaced the 'had been thrilled'.)
Read over your sentences, and if they make sense without the 'had', 'had been', or 'that' - leave them out. It just reads faster.
I believe the only way to get through the slings and arrows life throws at all of us is to find the humor.