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.