Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Style and Language or Plot?

What makes you love someone's books? Yes, it's the genre or the subject or the characters. But a novelist who writes different kinds of novels can still command a following, simply because they write so well that you feel like you'd read anything of theirs! I've felt this way about a few writers over time - Elizabeth Berg, Anne Tyler, Alice Munro, T.C. Boyle (even though at times TCB is so confronting!), to name a few.

Recently I read a Berg novel that left me floundering. Dream When You're Feeling Blue was a great read - I was particularly interested in how she dealt with historical details - until I reached the last 20 pages. At that point, the plot took a bizarre turn that, as a reader, I totally rejected. Perhaps if she had extended the novel by another 20 pages or more, she could have convinced me that what the characters did at the end was believable. Instead I felt short-changed, and somewhat tricked. Nevertheless, I do love her writing, her way with words, her ability to create a 'real' world and engaging, complex characters.

Sometimes we continue to read an author because they deliver the same quality goods, time after time. And then you grow out of it. I have loved Janet Evanovich's novels for years, and judged them by the number of times I laughed out loud or at least smiled. However, by Number 13, the whole scenario felt tired, very tired. There are only so many times a character can bounce between two hunky guys while solving crimes with a multitude of disasters along the way. When dollars for book buying are scarce, this is the kind of book I've stopped buying.

And sometimes, thanks to the public library nearby, we try someone new, or someone we haven't read for a while, and see how it goes. Some years ago, I did read a Nelson DeMille book - Plum Island. It was OK. And I watched the movie, The General's Daughter. So while browsing my public library shelves (something that's a lot harder to do online!), I thought I'd give The Gate House a try. Now, I have to admit that the story didn't totally grab me because the main character seemed a bit lame. Writers - beware lame characters! But at some point, around a third of the way through, I became aware that something strange was going on with the writing.

There was one chapter where the two characters kept smiling. He smiled, then she smiled. Then he smiled, and again, and she smiled. He smiled a lot more than her, maybe because he was lame and couldn't come up with anything more to offer her. But... hang on a moment ... isn't that the writer's job? To give us more from the characters than just a whole heap of smiling? If Mr DeMille was trying to convey that the main character was lame and all he had in his armoury of responses was a smile, then I think he needed to do a bit more work on his writing. From this reader's point of view, it wasn't technique, it was lazy writing, and maybe his editor needs to take this into consideration, too. (I know everyone always blames the editor, but I've worked with some great editors who do pay attention to this stuff and don't let you get away with it.)

Oh well, maybe I'm starting to sound like all those people who complained about JK Rowling's over-use of adverbs and dialogue tags. But writing is a craft, and a major part of that is both your use of language and your ability to rewrite and give the reader something that feels fresh and alive. That's what we have to work with - words. So let's make the most of them!
Have you got a great example of lazy language to tell us about? Or maybe you think that plot is more important and you can cheerfully ignore ordinary writing?


Anonymous said...

Sherryl I love your blog. My teenage daughter is writing a novel and I regularly pass on your posts to her - I hope she pays attention to your wisdom and experience!

I am bored or disappointed in so many books, I agree wholeheartedly with you about a 'series' becoming stale (the same series actually) and yet I don't actually like a 'difficult' read, being a somewhat lazy reader. We have a heated discussion at my book club about this on a regular basis. Some of us (myself included) can't see the point of finishing a book that is disappointing, boring or badly written (life is too short?), while others passionately declare they have to finish it, no matter how bad it might be.

My current passion is audio books and through the wonderful volunteers at librivox, I am discovering (free) much classic literature that I have never read (it is all public domain stuff so mostly published before 1923 in the US). Mind you, some of that is boring or badly written as well....

Sherryl said...

Thanks for your comments! I agree - life is too short for boring books (or bad wine). I know most e-readers now come with at least 100 classics that are out of print. They may start a whole new craze on old books.