Sunday, September 02, 2007

How Not to Win Friends and Influence Readers

I'm reading a book set in the deep south during the depression and the author definetely knows the local color. I'm getting a good feel for shadows falling in the swamps, and the wild barking of dogs as predators hunt in the dark. The main character, a well read but not formally educated ex-marine who is now a cop, is also well drawn. I like him and am rooting for him. But by about two-thirds through the work I've largely lost interest in the story, and the scene I just finished this morning really left me flat.

The problem for me is the absolute action scene failure. An early chase on horseback of wild dogs in the swamp wasn't too bad because the swamps were well described. But then we had a car chase in the night along country roads. Gunshots were being exchanged. And I felt not the faintest emotion. Nor apparently did the characters. In fact, at one point I had to page back to see that they were indeed "chasing" someone. And other than some description of the headlights bouncing up and down on the bumpy road I couldn't put myself physically into the chase.

Although I'm still not quite sure how to describe exactly what was wrong with the car chase, it's the next action scene that is making me want to cut my losses and bail on the book. A man who is suspected of murdering a young woman is in the hospital and is very ill. It's been building throughout the book in the mind of the reader that this guy might be a werewolf. Apparently it's true because he attacks the doctor who is caring for him and there are metamorphic changes accompanying the attack. Here's the problem. The reader doesn't get to see the attack directly. The main character--the ex-marine--hears of the attack and rushes to the hospital. The doctor then describes the attack for him, and for the reader. The description is handled very badly. The author is torn between trying to dramatize the attack and having the doctor tell about it, and the result comes off completely false. One paragraph is telling, the next paragraph is showing, but that paragraph is written in some bizarre combination of flashback and dialogue. We can never settle down and "experience" the scene.

I don't like to abandon books when I'm over 100 pages in but I knew I was in trouble when I found myself paging along to find out how much more I had left to read, and not because I hoped it would be a lot. I'm going to start scanning today rather than really reading so maybe I can stumble my way to the end. I won't end happily, though, and I probably won't buy another book by this author. I want to tell them:

Dramatize, dramatize, dramatize. It's the only choice for critical action scenes

16 comments:

Lynn@ZelleBlog said...

You know what? I say put it down. There are so many thousands of books. Move on to another. You can always come back. You might want that kind of writing.

Sometimes I am moody with reading and I am on overload and dont WANT intensity. Sometimes I do.

Nice to meet you, by the way!

Angie said...

It sounds like part of the problem, at least with the doctor scene, is with characterization and POV. Having the doctor tell the story second-hand could work very well, using cues in the dialogue -- some stuttering or broken sentences, some pauses or run-ons or other signs that the doctor was either very upset or trying very hard to keep iron control on his (her?) emotions. Throw in some facial expressions and body language and there you go, it could come across as quite intense just from the doctor's reactions.

From your description, though, it sounds like the writer might've been unsure of how the scene was going and tried the switching back and forth (from the character relating the story to a flashback) because they were afraid the first mode wasn't working.

I think picking an attack and then sticking with it is better than going back and forth. If there's some doubt that something is working, you can always write a second version of the scene in a different mode and then compare the two (or three or four or...) and choose which to use.

But just from what you've described, it sounds like that writer was feeling sort of off balance and was flailing a bit.

And I agree with Lynn -- if your To Be Read pile is anything like mine, there aren't enough hours in the year to waste even a few on a book that can't hold your attention. [wry smile]

Angie

Christina said...

Sounds like the description is strong. I got chills with some of the parts you quoted, but in the end, it really is the characters that keep us reading. I just flipped through a short story on the same lines as that. It just couldn't hold my interest with the characters.

Jon said...

I agree. Unless there's something to be learned from this writer's failure, cut and run.

Lisa said...

Sounds like you've gotten everything you can out of this book -- unless I had a really good reason to finish (maybe it was written by a friend?), I'd probably cut my losses too.

Erik Donald France said...

Yeah, I'm more into dropping books (and movies) if they flag too much. There are too many other ones to get to.

Gotta watch for those wild hogs, though. Shouldn't be too hard to dramatize them!

A lot of good car chases -- just saw again the ones central to Bullitt and The French Connection. Those are dramatic, and based on novels.

Charles Gramlich said...

Lynn, thanks for dropping by. I appreciate the feedback. I'll check out your blog.

Angie, I think that's it exactly, the author couldn't decide how to present the information and the result was a mishmash. It would have been to do it all one way, although letting the characters and reader experience it directly would have been best.

Christina, the characters were really the only thing that has kept me reading. They're kind of interesting. I just wish they'd have been given a better stage.

Jon, good advice. I think I've learned all I can.

Lisa, no written by someone I've never met but who knows the landscapes around where I live.

Erik, I don't know if it's my Catholic upbringing or what but I feel almost guilty quitting a book when I've gotten decently into it. I need to get over that. Life is short.

Steve Malley said...

Charles, I too suffer from BAI: Book Abandonment Issues. It's a daily struggle.

1. More books are published every year than can be read in threescare and ten.

2. Classics and favorites deserve reading too.

3. Some books are like old friends, to be reread many times.

4. I deserve to walk in the sun.

5. Under current technology, I continue to grow no younger.

Sadly, these things add up to...

6. I must be merciless with the culls.

My resentment and growing anger at bad writing do me, the book and its author no favours. Moving on will at least help one of us.

jbwritergirl said...

I have a stack of books that are unfinished. It is hard sometimes to keep up the momentum and trying to force yourself to keep reading something you are not into rates right up their with trying to stiffle a yawn. I say put it on the back burner and return to it only when you are dying of boredom.
JB

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Charles, sorry I came in late. I have read books like the one you describe, I sometimes wonder if the author tried what would be the better way (or his/her evil agent told him/her to do this) and changed it to the way you described. I look at writing like a movie, I need to describe what the audience can see, otherwise its like 28 DAYS LATER on FF.

the walking man said...

Read the last chapter and be done with it.

mark

Bernita said...

I blame it more on the adages and proverbs pounded into my head as a child. "Finish what you start" being one,and irrespective of religion.
I'm with the Walking Dude - skip to the last chapter.

Such books are useful, though, to analyze what Not To Do.

Shauna Roberts said...

There are a lot of "rules" floating about concerning POV, such as: Always tell a scene from the POV of the character who has the most at stake. Always tell a scene from the POV of the character who has the strongest goal for the scene. Never use the POV of a character only once.

It sounds as if this scene should have been told as it was happening from the cop's POV. Has the cop appeared elsewhere in the story? Because I'm wondering whether the author was trying not to break the third "rule" above.

Charles Gramlich said...

Steve, good points to live by. I think I'm going to print these and keep them up near my reading nook.

Jbwriter, I usually read several books at time kinda for that reason, so I can switch back and forth between them. I'm only doing two now so maybe that's part of my problem.

Wayne, exactly.

Mark, Bernita, I actually finished scanning it yesterday evening. Bernita, part of the problem was that everything was told through the cops POV so the writer must have felt they couldn't just switch to the doctor's POV. But as I scanned the end I saw she did switch POV at one point to a female character. It was kind of a mess.

the walking man said...

must a had an uncle in the publishing business

Michelle's Spell said...

I hear you on this one, Charles! I hate getting into a book and having it go bad. I used to think that I couldn't not finish a book and still kind of do. But sometimes a bad book teaches me things as well -- what not to do.