Have you ever read a book that not only disappointed you but it put you off reading for a while?
I suffered through one such book that I was reading to review. Worse for me, it also put me off my writing. I won’t give the name of the book, since someone else might like it. It was a later book in a series, originally published in the UK but that was now being imported to the US. I kept struggling through it in the hope the author could pull off a satisfying ending, but she didn’t. I’d spent months forcing myself through her verbage, and I ended up giving the book a tepid review. Here I’ll go into my problems with it, specifically where it broke the rules of good writing. (You can of course break any writing rule, but the key is you have to improve the story by breaking the rule. In this case it reinforced why the rule is taught.)
Let’s Get It Started: Alfred Hitchcock famously described an instigator of a plot as the MacGuffin. It was something that was of vital interest or value that got the story started. Not all mysteries have them, nor did Hitchcock use them in all his films. “Rear Window” and “Strangers on the Train” are two examples of MacGuffin-less stories. Probably the most famous MacGuffin was the black bird in “The Maltese Falcon.” But the key with a MacGuffin is it must not seem false or artificial to the reader/viewer. In this book, there’s an unusual circumstance that attracts the attention of the heroine and gets the story moving, but it’s quickly dismissed and has no more bearing on the book. It turns the MacGuffin into a cheat – in effect the author got me to read under false pretenses. For an excellent dissection of the MacGuffin, click here.
Who’s Line is it Anyway?: A key writer’s rule is not to change narrative perspective mid-stream of consciousness. If you’re telling the story from the viewpoint of one character, don’t switch to another character without an obvious change such as a new chapter or a space-break within a chapter. Otherwise the reader can become lost trying to keep track of who is talking. In the book I read, there were a half-dozen or more viewpoints used, and they sometimes changed in the same paragraph. It ruins the flow of the story if you lose track of who’s speaking.
Stereotypes (and Bad Ones at That): The majority of the story took place in a small town, with a major subplot revolving around a young newspaperman, his hypochondriac and harridan of a mother, and the young nurse who’s in love with the newspaperman. If this roughly sounds familiar, that’s because it’s been used multiple times in books and movies throughout the years. In this book, though, the mother has no redeeming qualities and the son is completely cowed by her, so much so that it affects his work. The biggest mystery in the whole book is why it takes the nurse 300 pages to understand that if she marries the son, she’d be inheriting the mother as well. There’s also an art expert in the story and of course he’s portrayed as an over-the-top artiste. You find yourself wishing you were actually in the story, simply so you could slap the characters for being so frustrating.
I Could Tell You But Then I’d Have to Kill You: There’s an espionage plot grafted onto this story that ties in with the Cambridge spy ring that almost fatally damaged British Intelligence in the 1950s. This has already been a fertile ground for writers – most notably John LeCarre with “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” In the end you find that the central mystery is a cheat tied in with British Intelligence, but the author skips on illuminating the story by using the Official Secrets Act. While it would have some basis in reality, the reader never signed on to keep the secret. It comes off as a cheap way to forego research.
The editor I write reviews for has told me that if it happens again, simply to let her know and stop reading the book. Lesson learned. It is frustrating though that this book was published where other authors struggle to get better books accepted.
My antidote for this experience was to read several books by authors I enjoy, to cleanse my palate as it were. I read a recent John Sandford Prey novel as well as “The Dirty Secrets Club” by Meg Gardiner. If you haven’t read her books and you like thrillers, you need to read her. Her stories race along with twists and turns that surprise; your heart will beat faster. (Meg’s also a gracious person whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting a couple of times now.) Right now I’m finishing “X” by Sue Grafton. I also read an excellent non-fiction book about the heroin epidemic in the US entitled “Dreamland” by Sam Quinones. I’m planning to write more about this in the next couple of weeks. I also got back to the novel I’m currently writing and have started a new short story.
I saw I hadn’t put a new post here in quite a while. My apologies for that.