Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Don't Go There

Sharon Wildwind

I spent time this summer redoing my mystery data base. These are short notes I keep about most of the mysteries I read. I’ve been keeping it since April 2007, and to date have racked up upwards of 200 plus books. That’s not a lot, considering I know avid fans read that many in 6 months.

Most of the books I’ve read were enjoyable. Some were down-right spectacular, to the point that I was ready to give up writing after I finished them, because I could never be that good. A few are so bad that those authors won’t get a second chance with me. My cut-off points seem to be pages 1, 3 and 10. If a book isn’t my cup of tea, I’ll probably stop it on one of those three points.

I hear some of you screaming, you’re not giving those authors a fighting chance. How can you be sure after only 1 or 3 or even 10 pages that the book won’t be any good? I take counsel in this from the mystery writer, Denise Tiller, who said, “The captain of the Titanic didn’t need to see the entire iceberg to know he had a problem.”

Here are some of my criteria for banishing a book to the don’t go there pile:

Prologs. I admit a personal prejudice here in that I think 99% of prologs are what the writer wants to tell me, not what I need to know. I routinely skip prologs, going back only if I’m so totally lost that any clue—even a prolog—would be welcome. I particularly don’t want to be inside the killer’s head as he/she commits a horrendous crime. Contrary to what some writers espouse that does not help me feel sympathy for the victim.

Second personal prejudice, characters that come off more as a pastiche than as real people, particularly where the portrayal is offensive to the group of people portrayed. I’m particularly sensitive to writers who find humor in showing Appalachian folks as dirty, lazy, and inbred.

Blurbs and acknowledgments that give away key story elements drive me crazy, particularly when the characters go around for most of the book asking themselves, “What can these strange objects possibly mean?” or “Why would a person behave like this?” Having already read the book blurb, which said the protagonist had stumbled on a voo-doo altar, or the acknowledgment where the author thanked two physicians for their input on dementia related to Creutzfeld-Jacob disease, I already know the answers to those questions, and I get testy that the characters can’t figure it out.

Indications that the author looked through old magazines, catalogues, and photographs of the time period when the book is set and tried to include every detail and every brand name she found, so I will realize how hard she worked.

Shallow point-of-view characters, who think the book is about me, me, me.

Poor plotting. If I have no idea what the plot is by page 10 or if the plot seems to be confused, shallow, or muddled, that book’s not for me.

I’m going to pass on books written in first person, present tense. My brain can not follow that style choice.

Finally, of course, the big three; those things that come up in every writing workshop as no-nos. Guess what, all of those writing teachers are right. The surest way to kill a book is by
1) Telling instead of showing.
2) Creating cardboard characters.
3) Including far too much back story.

There, I feel so much better having gotten that rant off my chest.
Quote for the week:

Try to leave out the parts that the readers tend to skip.
~Elmore (Dutch) Leonard, mystery writer


Paul Lamb said...

I think you may be doing yourself a disservice by putting down books so soon. Many of them probably have rewards if you can push on and get past what seem like mistakes or bumps in the early parts. You might be missing a lot of good stuff.

Anonymous said...

"All those writing teachers" were full of baloney.

Greg Lyons

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I'm on Sharon's side (and the writing teachers') on the big three: telling vs showing, "far too much backstory" (note she did not say "delete all backstory"), and cardboard characters. Sure, plot-driven novels with flat characters sell--when they make the movie, Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp will inhabit those characters and round them out very nicely. I don't give up as soon as Sharon does, but I sometimes wish I had. My personal pet peeve is flat or caricatured women. I've lived a lotta decades without devoting as much attention to the length of women's legs and the size of their breasts as some authors (male and female) do in the course of a single book.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great points!

Life is too short to read something that isn't grabbing us.

But...maybe hang in there through the prologue. :)

Mystery Writing is Murder

PK the Bookeemonster said...

The Readers Bill of Rights
I am guided by Daniel Pennac's Readers Bill of Rights, and I want you to be too.

1. The Right to Not Read
2. The Right to Skip Pages
3. The Right to Not Finish
4. The Right to Reread
5. The Right To Read Anything
6. The Right to Escapism
7. The Right to Read Anywhere
8. The Right to Browse
9. The Right to Read Out Loud
10. The Right to Not Defend Your Tastes

Sometimes it is just not the right time to read a book for whatever reason. No need to force yourself to read something that isn't clicking for you ... this isn't a test and no one is watching.

Sandra Parshall said...

Sharon, which books did you find spectacular?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all of the pro and con comments. I love it when we have good discussion.

Sandra, certainly not the complete list, but on my spectacular list are books by Anne Parker (mysteries set in Leadville, CO in the late 1800s), Earlene Fowler (California, present day) and Vicki Lane (North Carolina, present day)

Kathy D. said...

This is so interesting.

I have to say I agree with much of your criteria. One point jumped out at me and I so agree with it. I absolutely do NOT want to be inside the head of a psychopath or sociopath plotting a murder or other horrible violence. It turns me off right away when a prologue does that, even with authors I usually like.
I like the reader's bill of rights.
I usually give a book 50 pages and sometimes I don't get into it until even later, but if I really think a book is idiotic or too violent or is flat or pointless, I'll stop before that.
Would love to see more of your "favorites" list. Get reading ideas from other readers' lists.