I’m listening to an audio book I don’t like. I’ve listened for about 5 hours, but I’m not giving up. It bothers me that I can’t figure out why I don’t like it. A writer I admire said, “Find the books that gives you feels, and then figure out why it is giving you feels. Then write books with scenes like that.”I just finished Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. It was a fantastic book. And before that, I enjoyed the Raven King series by Maggie Stiefvater. I felt that, as a writer, I took away a lot from both titles. So now I’m reading a book that isn’t dreadful, so much as completely unremarkable. And that, to me, is probably a worse crime at this stage in my writing career.
So the opposite holds true. Find the books with “feels”? Find the ones that make your eyebrows arch. The ones that make you exclaim “No no no!” because every time I read a passage, it’s like the shaggy dialog gave my eyeballs carpet burn. Or when I see a scene is so clogged with crap, I want to call a septic tank guy.
I understand that it’s not because I’m necessarily a better writer than this author. At least I don’t think so. I don’t know how well I can sustain a scene, because I’ve never written more than 20 pages of the same thing, before I grow tired of what I am writing, and feel the urge to move on. It’s because, for me, at least, the cardinal sin of a writer is this: don’t write stuff that pulls the reader out of the world you’re trying to create.
But think of it this way. You want to immerse yourself in a story you can’t put down. Every time you binge-watch a series on Netflix, you are basically doing the same thing: you’re jumping into into a world. And you watch that second episode, that third episode, and the fourth, even though it’s after midnight, and the fifth (my lord, I have to be up at 6AM): every episode is all about putting your heart into the characters, or the plot; simply said, you’re in the “world” of that story.
That’s all easy to admit, but hard to define. What interests me to day is the things that rip your eyes away from a story? What makes a bad story bad? What makes you want to check your watch or think, halfway through a story, “I should really call my car insurance broker. It’s been awhile since we’ve had a really good chat”?
For this book1 the first thing I noticed were its cliche phrases. I am annoyed by characters who constantly “peer owlishly” or who “mutter peevishly.” People who “sit ramrod straight” or have a “furious scowl”.
There is a wonderful quote from the movie Dead Poet’s Society:
Avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys–to woo women–and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do.
The character was teaching boys in a 1950s preparatory academy, so the slight sexism can be forgiven, maybe? The point I’ve always taken away from this scene was this: language is powerful. And lazy language is the opposite. Choosing exactly the right word (if I can conjure it): that is one luxury I will always have as a writer. So why waste it with “sparkling eyes” and people who “flounce in?”
Another thing that bothers me about this book: characters are dressed like paper dolls. The goth, the jock, the nerd, the heroine, the cheerleader. You don’t know a person by how they dress, even though you can describe a pleated cotton miniskirt, or pom poms, or whatever. These characters move around mechanically, reacting exactly the same to whatever situation, whether they’re being attacked by monsters, or confronted by teachers, or greeting one another. They are, in a word, dull.
A few years ago, I played The Sims. Maybe you remember the game. The player would create a character, and then you would build them a house. The Sim would announce its basic needs, for example, its urge to pee, and as the creator, you would need to supply them with a bathroom. They could tell you about being hungry, but they wouldn’t cook or eat, without you. The sims were like little cornhusk dolls, and you created the story around them. They had form and substance, but you provided their soul. You could make them flirt with neighbors, or buy a pet, or remodel a house. You could choose their job. Each choice made your character who they were.
Without soul, we are ugly little cornhusks. And so, like them, are any flat characters writers create. It isn’t enough for a character to have a goal. You need a reason behind that goal, or else the character’s life isn’t really worth reading about.
With that thought, a final quote from the Dead Poets Society:
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. So medicine, law, business, engineering… these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love… these are what we stay alive for.
I can only hope that the characters I write are never monotonous. I hope I can always learn when I read a story, even if it’s just a counterexample from a badly-written book.
1I’ll refrain from mentioning the author or the title of the book I’m not enjoying, because I don’t want anybody to rush out and buy it on my account.