Except for a brief hiatus when my vision started failing, I’ve always been a big reader. I’ll read anything that keeps me turning the pages. Any genre, fiction or nonfiction–makes no difference to me. A good read is a good read.
Though I’ve often been a voracious reader, I never knew or cared much about the technical aspects of the story. Ignorance is bliss. If I found it entertaining, it was a good book. A lot of so-called great books weren’t that entertaining to me. That’s fine. To each his own.
Now and then I’d run across a book that failed to keep my interest. I’d set it aside without giving too much thought to the reasons why it failed to keep my interest. That I didn’t like it, for whatever reason, was enough.
There was one exception. I quit reading Stephen King after It. He’s a great story teller, but starting a sentence in one chapter and finishing it in the next pissed me off. I mean really, where am I supposed to stop reading so I can go to sleep or get something done? A chapter end is a stopping point–it’s a rule and King breaking it was enough to put me off of him for a long time.
Then I joined a group of writers. They threw around terms I hadn’t heard since high school literature classes and applied them in meaningful ways to the pieces we critiqued. They’ve taught me a thousand rules I never knew about novel writing.
I’ll never read a book the same way again.
In the best case scenario, as I read I’m thinking about how the author applied the rules. This was true for most of The Hunger Games trilogy. In places I disagreed with the choices author Suzanne Collins made, but I admired the way she used the rules. Though perhaps a tad predictable, it’s a well-crafted story.
Same with The Help. Kathryn Stockett isn’t as technically skilled as Collins, but she still uses the rules to her advantage. Noticing takes a little bit away from my reading enjoyment. I guess that’s a relatively small price to pay in light of everything I learn in the process.
My group talks about how the standards are different for first-time vs. established authors. Breaking the rules guarantees a rejection. Successful writers can do whatever they want because the publisher knows devoted fans will buy hundreds of thousands of copies.
Last week I finished South of Broad by Pat Conroy, a longtime favorite author of mine. Frankly, I think the story would have been much improved with a good edit by any member of my group. He bounces around in time too much, which wouldn’t be so confusing if we had some idea about the kind of story we were reading. I understand the challenge because even after reading it, I can’t tell you. There’s a lot going on…it’s a mystery/thriller/ romance/ coming-of-age/reunion/success story. The whole mystery comes together with an implausible piece of evidence involving a key with a tag indicating the apartment complex for the door it fits. Totally unbelievable and my group would have jumped all over it.
Now I’m reading Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L James. More accurately, I’m listening to the audiobook read by Becca Battoe, a woman with THE most annoying voice I’ve ever heard. I’m not far enough in to offer a real critique–I’ve just reached the part where the kinky stuff comes up. But I can tell you that so far, Ms. James has used more than fifteen adverbs in critical places in ways that detract from the overall story.
You need to know that I am a fan of the well-placed adverb. Some say all adverbs should be abolished. When it comes to dialogue tags, I agree (he said enthusiastically). Adverbs are a cheap and easy way to tell things a good writer shows through dialogue and action. Based just on her use of adverbs, Ms. James is not a good writer. I’m enjoying her book, but again feel like her manuscript would have been much improved with a trip through our writers group.
Most readers don’t know or even care to know the finer points of crafting a good novel. I know I didn’t. But now that I do, it’s ruined the pleasure reading I do here in…
My Glass House