Monday, May 10, 2010

Reading and Reviewing As A Writer

I read a book this past weekend, in between cleaning up after my stomach-flu ridden children (so much for a mother's day!). It's a book I've been wanting to read for at least six months, one which I had every intention of loving and reviewing.

It's probably the fact that I was hoping – no, expecting – to love it that set me up for such disappointment. But when I thought about what it was the frustrated me so much about the book, I realized it was the things I notice as a writer that maybe the ordinary reader doesn't notice.

Things like overdosing on similes. Half-way through reading I looked up at my husband and said, "someone needs to give this author one of the dozens of writing books that says, use similes sparingly." They came at a rate of almost one a page, some of them really reaching, and some making no sense at all. One gangly boy was described as having legs that "splayed like a stickbug."  Seriously? I actually stopped reading to get a mental picture and ended up busting out laughing. I'll wait now while you imagine it with me.

In the span of less than half a page, a girl has pills swimming in the fishbowl of her bulging cheeks, sobbing seeps through the grout and soffits and plaster and becomes part of the brick and mortar, and her mother searches for answers like they are a visible tattoo instead of a scar on the heart. Any one of these? Maybe they would have worked. One after another? Too much.

Some comparisons I'm sure sounded good, but I didn't get it. Sharpies that smelled like licorice. I've smelled sharpies. They don't smell like licorice. Kids markers, maybe, but not sharpies.

The simile that literally had me thinking for days: music that beat like blood. Maybe I'm dense but for two days I went around thinking about this, convinced it meant nothing. It was senseless. Nice alliteration but meaning-wise? I finally figured it out. but in my opinion, anything you have to think that hard about is detracting from the story.

There were other things that bugged me. There were small, brilliant words that had a wow factor the first time they were used. Then less so the second, and by the third time, I thought, okay this is now overdone. I know as a writer it can take months – years even – to write a book, and so when you find a brilliant phrase one month and want to bring it back four months later, it doesn't seem too soon. Trust me, as a reader who reads an entire book in one or two sittings, it's too much. If you find a great phrase or word, a great description or comparison, once is enough. More dilutes it, and even mocks the greatness of it.

Also, most scenes were less than three pages: hardly time to get to know a character or let anything really develop. It was like a series (a very long series) of vingettes that showed tiny pieces but not ever a fully developed one. And yet, almost every one of those scenes had to end with some dramatic and thought-provoking sentence. One of those meant to make the reader stop and think. One of those, "wow, that was an amazing bit of writing right there" kind of things. Except every three pages ended up being more funny, in an eye-rolling sort of way.

Some things that bothered me were purely opinion that I'd never criticize knowing others might prefer otherwise. For instance, the characters were extremely stereotyped, there was not a likeable character to be found in the book, there was no happy ending, parts of it felt lifted directly from news reports instead of fiction.

Maybe readers don't notice these things. After all, this is a best-selling author, and this book is a best selling book with far more positive reviews than negative. I think writing has made me a much more critical reader, but in turn, I hope, reading has made me a much more careful writer.


  1. aw, I like the 'legs splayed like a stick bug' line. I think it's a good image. Was this a YA or MG book? they sometimes need to have shorter scenes. My long ones are getting chopped left and right by my editor.

    But, all in all, maybe some of it a bit overdone??? Funny how writing novels can sometimes ruin the fun of reading them. I've had that happen, too.

  2. At least it serves as a good reminder when you're writing. I'm reading a mystery that keeps harping on about the detectives personal life and I'm just keen to get back to the story. Reminds me to cut out all that backstory that I thought was 'cute' in my WIP. :-)

  3. Tess - ha ha! I guess it is all so subjective! :)

    This is a 700 page adult fiction book, so the pacing of the scenes seemed really fast to me. Many of them were less than a page. I guess it kept the book moving but it kept me from getting really connected or involved. I can see how MG or YA would want shorter scenes.

    I think before I knew all the things you shouldn't do, none of this stuff bothered me. :) It does make me appreciate the really great writers though! I know how hard it is to write beautifully.

  4. Charmaine - I think you're right! Sometimes the stuff I love to hang on to in my own writing is the very thing that bugs me in reading. As I was reading this, I realized that I have a few of those precious words that should only be used once that I've done several times.

    Book read...lesson learned! :)

  5. I've only read a couple books lately, out of so many, that I liked. I am much more critical now. Makes me want to go back and read Twilight. I loved it then. Would I love it now?

  6. I read a book like that once. It had a comparison in almost every paragraph. It probably didn't but it felt like it. Now that I've written a book, I find it interesting to go back and read books I loved and see why I loved them.

  7. I feel your pain.

    I think maybe it is a consequence of being a writer. The better, tighter, cleaner my own writing becomes the more I notice the flaws in others work. I don't say this to be arrogant, I think I still have a lot to learn, but I do think I've become a lot more "aware" when other people make mistakes.

    It's frustrating, especially when you know how hard it is out there in the battle to get published. I'm often left wondering how on earth those things got passed the editor ... or how it was even accepted for publication at all.

  8. I love reviews like this, when a reader talks about specific things in the book that just don't work for them. I've read books like this where the writing gets in the way of the story. Sounds like a bit of self-consious writing actually, you know trying to be just too too literary.

  9. Ruth - I know what you mean. This writer is one of those that gets published because she's put out a couple really good books and now people buy them because of her name and not because the writing is great.

    Although, to be fair, the reviews by readers are way more positive than negative, so maybe it's just me.

    But I agree that the more I read the better a writer I become, even if I'm learning from other people's flaws.

  10. I hear you, Heidi. The more I write, the more I tune in to what works and doesn't work in books I read. Makes me wonder if I've lost the ability to simply enjoy a story! ;-)

  11. I'm with you on this one. I notice this stuff too and it makes me crazy! Loved "splayed like a stick bug"!!

  12. I guess it kept the book moving but it kept me from getting really connected or involved. I can see how MG or YA would want shorter scenes.
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