Saturday, May 31, 2008

Things My Critique Group Won’t Let Me Get Away With

My book club is going to hate me.

I read our book club section this week, a popular book by a popular author and was so very disappointed. This was a best seller, with a starred review in Kirkus. I don’t get it. There was a family secret, a mean mother, cute brothers, a murder, a suicide. All of the elements for dramatic tension. So what wrong with the book I just read?

Since my book club is tried of my curmudgeonly reviews, I’ll vent here.

Here’s what happens. I’ll be reading, along, trying to get lost in this new world, and a buzzer goes off in my head. You know the sound. The game show contestant has given a wrong answer. AAAAAANNNN! That awful sound. Wrongo. My buzzer goes off whenever I hit a major sin the writer has committed. A sin my critiqueers would have circled and given back to me for revision.

Look, writing is hard. I know that. I’m in the midst of the 600th rewrite of Ocean Waves, the third Dewey book. But there are certain things that just don’t fly.

I’ll take “Things My Critique Group Won’t Let Me Get Away With” for two-hundred, Alex.

Car breaks down in the town she’s traveling to. AAAAAANNNN! Coincidence? No. Something my critique group would never let me get away with. Rethink this, they’d say. You can come up with a better reason why she’s in town. Something that will reveal a bit about her character other than she has no money for a good vehicle.

Four hundred: Stock characters: silent Indian, rebellious teen, hard-working single mom, aunt who loves her nephews more than their mom. AAAAAANNNN! Cliché, my critique group yells out. As run of the mill as the tattoo on the teen’s lower back, as treacly as the barren aunt’s love for her boys, as boring as the one-note I-was-poor-and-now-I’m-rich mother.

Six hundred: Heroine does not investigate. There was a murder years ago, the facts of which are crucial to the story. Halfway through the book, when she literally stumbles into the library, the heroine looks up articles about the case. Because she’s never heard of the periodic guide, she looks at microfiche for four years worth of news, and finds out stuff. But does she go talk to the reporter? Who is, after all, the brother of the woman she’s befriended. No, not until much later when the pseudo-hero suggests they talk to the newspaper reporter. Who is instantly accessible AND has easy access to the courthouse files. Do I need to tell you after all this, these files amount to nothing? Critique group hits the buzzer. AAAAAANNNN! Where’s the payoff? What was the point?

Eight hundred: Daily Double!!! Change points of view strictly to make the storytelling easier. Make no effort to have unique voices. AAAAAANNNN!

One thousand: Final act. Teen goes missing, running away into a dangerous spot in the middle of the night. Heroine and pseudo hero go after her. But only AFTER they know she’s okay. Hello? Talking about diffusing the tension. The Heroine and pseudo hero have a four hour car ride ahead of them. But who cares? We already know the kid’s fine, being looked after by a kind stranger. AAAAAANNNN! Loss of tension.

I know I’m lucky to have the best critique group ever. (You may get lucky, too, as one of them is writing a book on critiquing.) I know writing has ruined me for reading. But don’t these things bother you too? I think they do, even if you can’t quite figure out why. It’s like good food. You may not know the specific ingredients that go into a dish, but you sure as heck know when it tastes good. And when it doesn’t. AAAAAANNNN!

This next sentence should be read very fast and in a very low voice, like a late night announcer. A word of warning to any wannabe writers out there. Writing professionally will ruin you for reading for pleasure. If you like being swept away, put your laptop down. Now. Pick up a book and start reading.

13 comments:

beckylevine said...

LOL the whole way through!

Here's how I look at it (or try!)--if I'm writing as many hours as I'm supposed to, I have less hours for reading. As painful as that can be, it does make me "pass" on more of the AAAHHHH! books than I would have before. So I'm being more selective, right? And I'm learning exactly what DOES make close a book on page 3!

Kathryn Lilley said...

I empathize with your reaction to that book Terri. One additional thought about minor characters--while minor characters (the cab driver, the clerk, the receptionist) can be "types," the writer has to work extra hard to make them come alive by giving them a bit of interesting characterization that hints at more background and depth. We hint at a deep, rich story behind that character, but that's not the main character, so we only get a clue. Does that make sense, or is it too early on a weekend morning when I haven't finished my coffee yet?

Terri Thayer said...

You're making sense, Kathyrn. But I wasn't complaining about minor characters. Those were the major characters! Okay, not the leads, but secondary characters with a lot of face time.

I try to view reading books like this as a learning experience or at least, good fodder for the blog.

ellen said...

When we're learning to write (and we never really stop) a bad book is as useful as a good one. It teaches what not to do.

Kathryn Lilley said...

Oh, absolutely I agree with you, Terri! Even though a character (major or minor) might be a "type," we have to keep them from falling into Cliche Land. I was just making that point that even the most minor character shouldn't be a total cliche--they need something to give them a hint of life. I'm always amazed by bestsellers that have "types" as major characters with very little characterization behind it. The leggy blonde girlfriend, for example, who plays a big role but never becomes in the least bit real. That's when I throw the book across the room!

Tami Cowden said...

Critique groups are useful for all stages of a writer's career for exactly the reason you say - they keep you honest.

That said, though, I have to admit that I was much less critical of the books I read before I started writing! In some ways, learning craft spoils reading.

Jess Lourey said...

Great post, Terri! You're right that writing makes it impossible to read a bad book, but maybe it also takes our appreciation of a good book to a whole new level? Or does it just replace it with jealousy? :)

Jess Lourey said...

Great post, Terri! You're right that writing makes it impossible to read a bad book, but maybe it also takes our appreciation of a good book to a whole new level? Or does it just replace it with jealousy? :)

Jess Lourey said...

Great post, Terri! You're right that writing makes it impossible to read a bad book, but maybe it also takes our appreciation of a good book to a whole new level? Or does it just replace it with jealousy? :)

Jess Lourey said...

Great post, Terri! You're right that writing makes it impossible to read a bad book, but maybe it also takes our appreciation of a good book to a whole new level? Or does it just replace it with jealousy? :)

Jess Lourey said...

Great post, Terri! You're right that writing makes it impossible to read a bad book, but maybe it also takes our appreciation of a good book to a whole new level? Or does it just replace it with jealousy? :)

So, what do you think made this bestseller a bestseller, anyhow?

Jess Lourey said...

Great post, Terri! You're right that writing makes it impossible to read a bad book, but maybe it also takes our appreciation of a good book to a whole new level? Or does it just replace it with jealousy? :)

So, what do you think made this bestseller a bestseller, anyhow?

Monica Ferris said...

Holy cow, Jess! We heard you the first time! LOL

I agree with everyone here: writers groups keep you honest, even minor characters need *something* to hint they might be real, being a writer spoils some books for reading when they are badly written, and reading a fantastic writer makes me ache with envy (Terry Pratchett, for example).