Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Everyone’s a Critic

Just finished reading two books over the long Labor day weekend. I actually took a vacation, too, which was why I didn't post a blog last week. J

When I initially wrote this, I intended it to be a well-considered, thoughtful review of a few writing techniques that I ran across in my reading. It turned out to be a rant and a very politically incorrect rant, as well. Sigh. Best laid plans and all.

So anyway, I finished 'The Sleeping Doll' by Jeffry Deaver and 'The Shape of Sand' by Majorie Eccles.

***** Out of 5 stars, I give 'The Sleeping Doll' 5.

**********'The Shape of Sand' by Eccles gets 10. I know I said there was a maximum of 5 stars, but Eccles reminds me of the reason I wanted to be a writer in the first place, and why I writhe in despair when I read an author like her. I'll never be that good.

My writing will ever be as exquisite as Eccles' but I keep trying. Eccles reminds me that descriptions done properly are not really descriptions at all: they are the character's emotions and perceptions of the world around her. You cannot remove the descriptions without losing most of the characterization and mood.

If you can remove a description and you only lose the color of the wallpaper, then the description is pointless.

Anyway, regarding the ratings…don't get me wrong. Deaver is a best selling author and totally fabulous. But 'The Sleeping Doll' (for me) just wasn't up to quite the same standards as some of his previous works, or the Eccles book. I really don't like book-bashing and 'The Sleeping Doll' is an excellent book. I seriously doubt anyone else would have any of the issues with it that I had. It's very enjoyable.

Maybe I just wasn't in the mood. Readers' reactions are so subjective. That's why you really can't always read someone else's review and take it as THE TRUTH. It is, generally speaking, only true for that person, at that time. A reader may even find their own reaction changes at a different point in time.

When I was very young, I found P.G. Wodehouse to be unbearably boring. Now, I love him. Perceptions change.

And I feel a little guilty about not liking the Deaver book so much, but I can't help my reaction. But I did learn a few things and identified what to me were mistakes. I hope to avoid these particular ones in my own writing. (I'd prefer to continue making other, more egregious mistakes ;-) as any reader of my book will no doubt confirm.)

The biggest issue for me was that by the end of the book, I really did not like the main character—the heroine. I didn't like her because she was too perfect. Too good to be true. It's the same reason I haven't like any of the Star Trek re-treads. The original Star Trek's characters got angry with each other, bickered, had terrible faults and angst. Even Spock fretted over and fought his human 'half'. They were more like real people with recognizable faults. And I love human frailty because it is our faults that lead to our greatest achievements.

Therefore, for me, the goody-goody characters in the more recent Star Trek re-treads were too nauseatingly polite and kind to each other to be sympathetic. They suffered from the dreaded disease: uber-goodness. Call it Politically Correct (PC) if you want. I call it emotional degeneration. It is a recurring nightmare of mine: that I'll go to sleep and wake up in a world where "we're all friends here, dear" and everyone spends their day smiling and doing good deeds for each other. It gives me the cold chills just thinking about it. It is so intrinsically revolting to think of humans falling into such a sheep-like, mindless state of perfection.

It is our anxiety, our fears, and our compulsive need to be better or have more than the next guy that makes us strive to achieve, makes us invent or discover the next miraculous thing. If Edison was perfect and had the perfect life, he'd have invented nothing. When you reach emotional and social nirvana, there is nothing more to strive for. You are, in essence, emotionally dead. Stasis is death.

I don't like characters who are emotionally dead. Who have nothing more to strive for other than some vague, morally righteous goal to do good.

Wow, that was a rant. Didn't mean to go there, but really, while the beginning of 'The Sleeping Doll' was perfectly fine, by the end, it felt like a lecture—with examples—on 'how we should all be PC'. The sad thing is, at the end, I prefer the character that is supposedly a horrible, vengeful person that the uber-perfect heroine wants to prosecute. (I'm not going to give anything away—read the book.) But Deaver is not alone in this. I've noticed a lot of writers seem to be using their fiction as a platform to show the rest of us low-brows what is PC and what is abhorrent in an enlightened human being.

So…I'm a knuckle-dragging caveman (cavewoman?) who prefers regressive, non-PC characters. Go suck an egg.

That sums up my first reaction. I just didn't like the heroine by the end of the book. I doubt I'll read anything else featuring her. She set my teeth on edge.

But there were a couple of other things that got to me, too. There were two instances where the author told you "such and such" happened. And then a chapter or two later, the author sort of laughs and says, 'Gotcha' and then tells you that "such and such" really didn't happen, something else did. I can't tell you how irritating this is. It's a slap in the face to the reader. First off, it's like the author saying: I'm smarter than you are and knocking you on the back of the head to prove it. Second, it violates that rule that Alfred Hitchcock put so well when he said, "knowledge is tension". If you see two men sitting at a table with a briefcase on the floor next to them, and the briefcase suddenly explodes, it's shocking, but there is no tension. If you see two men sitting at a table with a briefcase on the floor next to them, and you're told the briefcase contains a bomb set to go off in two minutes, you are on the edge of your seat with tension for those two minutes. And if you are introduced to the men and know all about their families, dreams and aspirations, you're screaming at the men to get out of there. There is tension.

By Deaver making you think that a situation was resolved one way and then punching you in the eye with a surprise a few chapters later—there is no suspense—there is nothing except irritation at his deliberate "hiding of the truth". I accepted the first time he did it. The second time, I wanted to throw the book in the ocean. And it's not like he just misdirected the reader the way a mystery writer will. He deliberately misstates the truth and then flips it around later. I suppose it's meant to be a surprise. It fails.

The sad thing is that I've read other books by him and he did not do this—at least I never noticed it before. But then, I've never read his more popular suspense novels like this one or his Lincoln Rhyme books, so maybe this is just his style for these types of stories. I've noticed that I tend not to like suspense, with a few exceptions, because of similar issues.

I'm actually glad to have read this book. I've had problems in the past really understanding what Hitchcock meant about tension. And a lot of my manuscripts lacked tension because I kept information "back" from the reader in order to spring something on them later. I never really understood how this affects the pacing and tension, but I sure do now. If you don't let the reader know what is going on, you may be able to surprise them later, but you also lose about 90% of the tension in favor of a surprise that lasts all of one sentence or two. Not a good trade-off. And you don't want to make your reader feel stupid. Or worse, make your reader feel like you think they are stupid and that you, the author, are so much smarter because you can throw them a curve ball from way out of left field.

Finally, the last thing that drove me absolutely up the wall was his constant use of the word "kinesic". He tells us what it is in the beginning and tells us that the heroine is very good at using this technique during interviews to spot lies, evasions, etc. It's basically body language combined with other language skills. So he gives us a definition and explains the heroine's job. Then a few pages later, he uses the word again, and gives us another definition. Then a few pages later, he uses the word again and in case we didn't understand the previous definitions, he tells us how his heroine is using it and how good she is at using it. And then, just in case we missed that, he tells us again a few pages later how the heroine is using kinesic techniques and how she knows what is going on because she's using them. He keeps on using that word over and over again, right up until the end of the book.

Now, I can understand the first few examples. But after the first 1/3 of the book, I think we've got the freakin' message. We know the heroine uses that technique. We don't need to be reminded of it on almost every page. Let the heroine just do what she does and spot the lies. It is unnecessary to keep defining it for us and reminding us that you, Mr. Author, know a fancy new term. Who cares? Would the heroine really be thinking: hmmm, I'm really good at kinesic techniques which I can use to spot liars and I can see, using my great kinesic skills, that Mr. X is defensive because his arms are crossed over his chest. And my kinesic training tells me he may even be lying when he uses evasive phrasing such as, "I was unaware at the time…". Or is it more likely that she would just think, he's being evasive when he says "I was unaware at the time"—I need to dig deeper…

And I see, now, why I've been drifting toward crime novels instead of suspense. Because in crime novels, pretty much everyone is a rotten, miserable, scheming individual (although one or two may have a few redeeming qualities like a macabre sense of humor). There's nothing like a scoundrel to make for interesting reading.

Hopefully, this blog won't aggravate too many people. If it does, well, it's completely unintentional. But hey, we're all entitled to our opinions and sometimes we need to blow off a little steam. I just hope I don't have that Perfect World nightmare tonight. ARGH!

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