Friday, March 6, 2009

That's NOT how I would've written it . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

A decade or so ago, I was an avid reader but not a published writer, unless you count newsletter articles for various publications, a family history for my children, and a really cute (at least I thought so, and the parents agreed) play written by me and performed by my cub scouts, Den 23, back in the seventies. The play centered around the adventures of a sock lost in the washing machine that eventually found himself in the land of lost socks. We even had a cardboard box turned washing machine as a character. Unfortunately, that particular literary treasure was lost to posterity, probably stuffed somewhere in my files ages ago. Where was I?

As a lone reader, snuggled up in my favorite chair with my favorite cup of tea nearby but no one to discuss my favorite books with, plot holes and other author errors sometimes bothered me. Most often I didn't know why. Most of my friends didn't read the same books.

When I started writing and connecting on the Internet and at conferences with other readers, writers, and reviewers, I began to hear discussions about what worked and what didn't in various books. I began to understand the difference between authors who skillfully wove in clues so that at the end of the book you smacked yourself on the forehead and said: "I shoulda spotted that one," and authors who out and out cheated the reader by holding back important clues and/or dropped a totally unrelated solution in at the end of the book. Ever hear a reader/reviewer say that she/he loved the book right up to the ending, whereupon it looked like the author had gone out to lunch and never come back?

I finished a book last night which shall remain title-less because I don't want a law suit, and I didn't like the ending. I'll give you the gist. Subject appears to be an uninterested stranger. Subject finds dead body in the home of the victim (subject entered vic's home unannounced in order to ask for assistance.) Police dismiss subject as a suspect because he IS a stranger. Another suspect (who proves to be innocent eventually but who threatens others with a weapon) is accidentally killed by authorities. Authorities assume this is the end of the case.

Several suspects confess to subject/stranger that he/she *could* be the killer because no one liked the victim, but no one wants anyone else to go to the slammer for it. One of those "he got what he deserved" victims. Even though the now-dead suspect would be perfect to pin it on, they can't seem to leave it like that. Hello?

End of book, stranger/subject confesses to a relative of victim that he is the real killer and why. Relative, NOT rushing out to find the cops and report subject, instead begs subject to stay. Subject knows it would be impossible to have a relationship and leaves. Meaning leaves forever. I stare at the words, THE END. Say what?

First: if I knocked at the home of a stranger in order to get help, and NO one answered, IF it wasn't a true medical emergency, I just needed help for a car out of commission, I wouldn't then enter that home, unannounced. Subject did. That bothered me. I'd find another home to get help, even in a remote area.

Second: Subject immediately agreed to help someone he'd never met before cover up what really happened to the victim, so that cops would suspect a wandering stranger, and not that particular rather beautiful family member. Uh huh. Second red flag.

Third: Cops so quickly dismissed subject as a suspect because he was a stranger. I mean, really! The person who finds the body is second only to the spouse as a suspect in a murder case.

I'd have made the cops more suspicious of the subject, eventually discovering the truth. And I wouldn't have allowed the subject to simply walk into a stranger's home, or two suspects to fall in love with each other within seconds of meeting, with a dead body slumped between them. Sigh.

Sooo, do you ever spend hours/days after closing a book, figuring out how YOU would have written it? Ever throw a book across the room?

Personally, I'm not a book thrower. I was raised--by an elementary school teacher, mind you--to have far too much respect for a book to ever throw it. Rather, I slide it carefully into the tote bag of books-to-be-donated-or-sold-as-long-as-they-are-out-of-my-sight. And try to forget it. Sigh.


Sheila Connolly said...

Do you still feel guilty when you give up on a book, with or without throwing it?

I have heard tales of editors who never read their authors' books, which is one possible explanation.

I have read books where the language and characters are so wonderful that I really don't care about the giant plot holes.

But I agree with you: any well-written book should adhere to basic principles of plotting and characterization. You have my blessing to rid yourself of that book and all of its kind.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Hi Shiela,

No, I don't feel guilty about giving up on a book, no matter how popular it is or how much I paid for it. Too many books, too little time syndrome. And I do often peek at the ending, so I don't feel like I've wasted it. Usually I pop said book into that tote bag and dash for the next.

As to well-written books, Julia Spencer-Fleming books fall into the "caring more about the characters and language than the plot" category for me. I'm not saying her plots aren't good, but simply that I get so caught up in Russ and Claire's relationship that I miss the rest of the story. I didn't even realize this until someone asked a question on DL about the ending of her second or third book and I realized I hadn't a clue whodunit. But I COULD remember in vivid detail everything that happened to her two main characters.

Paul Lamb said...

There are some books I read where I find I'm dissatisfied because of what I felt the author left out (or left in). The best books, in my humble judgment, are the ones that I consider perfect as they're written, without the need to add or subtract.

I have to say, though, that I sometimes think the mystery genre insults its readers. The insistence that every mystery must be resolved at the end, that all of the clues have to be available to the reader, that the perpetrator must be introduced early in the story, (and that there must be a murder) are tired, old conventions that I think need to be scrapped. In real life, not all mysteries are solved. Not all clues are available. Often the perpetrator is the last person the police discover. And there are plenty of daring and compelling mysteries in our lives that don't involve murder.

Sandra Parshall said...

I don't finish books that try my patience or insult my intelligence. I've probably abandoned more books than I've finished in the last few years.

I agree with Paul that we've probably become too obsessive about following the "rules" of mystery writing -- but the truth is that most readers expect certain things of a mystery and are dissatisfied when they don't get them. I don't know many readers (including myself) who would be happy with a mystery that simply ended, with no solution. I would feel that I'd wasted my time, and I would not have kind thoughts about the writer.

Meredith Cole said...

Now I'm wondering what book it was, Lonnie--mostly so I can avoid it!

One writer who frequently leaves her readers' hanging is Donna Leon. At the end, the killer is usually not captured or there is no justice, and the policeman shrugs. I enjoy her books, though--I just can't read too many in a row.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I also thought of Donna Leon. It's not that Brunetti doesn't solve the mystery and figure out what happened. He does. But as you say, Meredith, justice is not done--and that's Leon's comment on Italian politics.

jwhit said...

Re the question of how I respond to books that have 'problems', I find myself editing it in my head as I read nowadays. And that is sad for me because I am missing the enjoyment of the story itself.

I'm also not fond of books by good writers, like Dean Koontz, who seem to always include some preaching of beliefs along the way. I just don't care what the writer's opinion is of some philosophical point. It's generally done in a narrative rather than even being attributed to a character. If it were the character's view, I might care, but certainly NOT the author's.

I don't throw books. Something else I do care about might break in the process.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Wow, great comments, everyone. Thanks!