Friday, July 6, 2012

What Works

by Sheila Connolly

This past weekend I read a book by an author I know and admire.  It wasn’t a recent book, but rather one that crawled out of my endless To-Be-Read pile (I'm trying to sort through my books, and papers, and supplies, and…).  I don't recall when or where I got it.  

I like this writer.  I've read a number of her earlier books and enjoyed them.  Actually, I enjoyed this book too, but kind of in spite of myself.

On the plus side:  she has a great voice—sharp and funny.  She's honest about the fact that her male characters (mostly macho military types) tend to think from, uh, below the belt—and they acknowledge it, although that doesn't stop them.  She's great at portraying romantic confusion, and almost all her lovers are definitely starcrossed (and communication-challenged).

So why am I complaining?  Here's why:
Too many characters.  In the writer's defense, I will say that she writes a kind of multi-character series that focuses on only a few characters (and usually pairs) in each book.  So in theory we know almost all of them each time we dip into the latest book.  But in this case…I flat out lost count.  I believe there are at least ten major characters, equally split between the genders, and they all end up paired off by the end, if they weren't already.  Or weren't in an earlier book before some of that miscommunication happened and one or the other stormed off in a confused huff, usually to some dangerous foreign assignment where people shoot at them.

But even recognizing a few of the names here didn't help.  I simply couldn't keep them all straight, and worse, the chapters bounced around from one to another willy nilly.  Two names even started with the same first letter (not fair!).  Look, I liked all the characters, and found them convincing, or at least entertaining—but not all at once, in the same book. (I did have to wonder how the heck the author kept everybody straight when she was writing this—she must have had a massive whiteboard or a whole lot of sticky notes.)

Where's the plot? As I said, I really like this writer's voice, so I didn't mind letting things unwind at the author's pace.  It's not a short book (477 pages in hardcover), so there was no hurry to get the story rolling.  But…by the time I reached p. 122 and still had no idea what the plot was going to be, I began to worry.  Maybe if I were to go back with a microscope, I might find a few hints of what was to come, but my general response was, when's this thing going to start?  I'll concede that the author did pull it all together by the end, but she took her own sweet time about it (I guess if you're a New York Times bestseller, you can get away with that).

Why do I care?  Well, I'm a writer and I want to know what makes a book work.  I've read—or more accurately, started—quite a few books that I dropped after a few chapters, saying, this really isn't working for me.  Sometimes I can say why, like the characters are simply not believable, or the language is clunky and dull.  But sometimes I can't put a finger on what I don't like—I simply know that I don't.  And life is too short to read books you don't like.
I've also read books that I loved, where the plot looked like Swiss cheese but I really didn't care because I was so caught up in the flow of the author's words, or the excitement of the story, that I just kept plunging right along.  It's a guilty pleasure—but I don't have to critique everything I read, do I? Can't I just enjoy, now and then?

That's why this particular book was such an anomaly for me. I finished it. In fact, I spent a lot of this past weekend reading this book (because it was cooler than doing anything else, like moving).  I did finally get caught up in it, somewhere in the middle.  But what it proved is that the characters and the voice trumped the pacing and the plot for me, as a reader.  I'm not sure how to use it myself.  Note to self:  make sure your characters are appealing and well-drawn.  And throwing in some sex doesn't hurt either.

What draws you into a book and keeps you reading?  Character, plot, style, or some combination of all of those that just clicks for you?


JJ said...

Good post, Sheila. For a book to grab me, I want to know where I am, who I'm following, and be given a reason to care. All that, and I'm happy. I finished a book this weekend that had me frustrated, too. This one was about a family of women who all sounded the same, had something to say about everything, and minded everyone's business but their own. It was like being locked up in a cat house in a small town. I never did find a plot. In fact, that was my review: a bunch of characters in search of a plot. Hated the whole thing. Glad I never have to read it again. As you can tell, I feel your pain.

Susan said...

I'm a beginning writer and, as such, am still reading a great deal of advice. When I see how difficult it is to get anything published, I don't understand how books like this make it past the gatekeepers. How do you explain that?

Dru said...

A good plot and characters will keep me turning the page.

Sandra Parshall said...

Writing that instantly sets a mood or raises a compelling question. The writing must be graceful enough to keep me reading. If I stumble over too many clumsy sentences, I'll give up. I also want a story that goes beneath the surface of the characters. Non-stop physical action bores me.

Anonymous said...

I truly can't specify what makes me like or throw down a book!!! I could say, a great plot? Exquisite setting? Some character that just draws me right in? No, in my humble opinion, what draws me is what draws me to a person - there is that indefinable something - you cannot describe it. It either IS or it ISN'T! Thelma Straw in Hott Manhotten!!

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