I’m currently reading this romantic suspense series that is really not good. I got the first book for free and then needed to know what happened to the characters, so I bought the rest of the series. I don’t want to call out the author, so I’m not going to name the series, and that’s beside my larger point anyway. But here are a few things the books do wrong:
1. The whole setup is kind of implausible. (It’s unclear if it’s wishful thinking or ignorance on the part of the author; I suspect the former, but that doesn’t make it okay.)
2. The writing has a plodding, deliberate writing style, devoid of rhetorical flourishes. Straightforward writing has its place, but at times, some of the narrative reads like an article in Foreign Affairs.
3. So much detail! It wouldn’t even be that bad if it weren’t so repetitive. We get a lot of insight into the main characters’ morning and evening routine. None of it has any bearing on the plot of the novel. I mean, I assume the character brushes his teeth every night right after he walks his dog. I don’t need to read about it.
4. The good guys are saints and the bad guys are the greatest evil ever visited on civilization. There is no gray area.
5. Well, except that the narrator often acts in ways that I, personally, dislike, but I think that we the readers are supposed to nod and smile and be all, “You are a big strong man, I like it when you get forceful.” Which, no.
6. The corollary is that the narrator comes off as a Mary Sue. Or a Gary Stu, if you like, since he’s a man.
7. And this is really the sticking point. There’s very little emotion involved in the romance. A lot of the development of the relationship between the narrator and his love interest happens off the page. The author generally seems more concerned with the suspense plot(s) than with the romance, which is fine, but we the readers are supposed to buy that this narrator and the person he romances are part of some big epic love story, and I just don’t see it there. (See also Thor. In the movie, Thor and Jane meet, Jane hits him with her car a couple of times, they have one Deep Conversation, and then we’re supposed to buy that they’re so passionately in love with each other that they will work to bend time and space to see each other again? Really?) I also don’t feel a particularly strong connection to the characters or have a strong sense of anyone who isn’t the narrator.
So I was thinking about that and then I read this article by Sarah Wendell about books one can’t finish, the sorts of things that will make a reader put a book down. It’s rare that I abandon a book (I mean, obviously, if I’m now about a third of the way into the third book in this series I don’t even like) but my particular bugaboos include being bored and unlikable characters. I’ll go with whatever your premise is if it’s executed competently.
I have a point for mentioning all this!
I love a trashy book, obviously, and sometimes a ridiculous premise is enough to get me to buy it.
But more than that, I think there’s some value to reading bad books for writers, to taking the time to pick them apart, to figuring out exactly what’s not working for you and how to avoid that in your own writing. Reading a book with an analytical eye and talking about what works and doesn’t is a good exercise.
There are few books where nothing is redeemable. In my above example, the second book in the series has a really intense twenty pages or so that are really tense and suspenseful in the best way. And for a fairly stoic romance series, the love scenes are pretty hot. And I’ve read a few books with ludicrous premises but really compelling characters (and a whole lot of the reverse—really interesting premises that fall apart in execution). And as much as I can look at a bad book and go, “Well, that’s what not to do,” so, too, can I read something good and say, “I like that, how can I do something like that?” I primarily write books that I would want to read, so knowing what I like and don’t like as a reader goes a long way.
CAN I GET AN AMEN?
So I was a loyal Jane subscriber back in the day and was kind of interested in Jane Pratt’s new internet venture. But I kind of hate it? It’s the kind of cheeky faux-feminism that really annoys me. Like this completely insane piece about a lady who monitors her husband’s masturbatory habits. And then this piece, which I’m sure you lot will have a lot to say about: ‘Game of Thrones’: Proof that if you put enough dirty sex in a nerd show, girls will watch it too.
I have been watching Game of Thrones. I am a lady. I’m a little nerdy. I have not read the books (which the article calls obscure, which I don’t think is true). I started watching because my friends were watching, and also because I’m among the few in my social circle with HBO, so everyone’s been piling on my couch on Sunday nights. The group I’ve been watching it with is all female and they’ve all read the books (or are reading them now) and were really excited for the series. I’m not sure if I will read the books; I’ve been told I will like them but high fantasy is not really my thing.
Still, I like fantasy and sci-fi in my visual media. So I figured I’d check it out while I wait for True Blood to return.
I have a lot of mixed feelings about the show. I found it hard to follow in the beginning. (I still do, although less so. I do cringe whenever there’s a new face on my screen, because it’s another character I’ll have to keep track of.) There’s a lot of icky stuff happening, violence and incest chief among them. (I have zero problem with nudity on my screen, but graphic violence makes me uncomfortable.)
Here’s the thing: critics keep saying, “the sexy times are for the ladies” but let’s review. The first episode gave us incest and rape. Subsequent episodes have had lots of scenes that involved two characters in bed, in a bathtub, or otherwise naked while they provide exposition. There was one episode that featured a lady servant providing a hands-on demonstration (*wink*nudge*) to the woman she served for how the woman should please her husband. We, granted, got a nice shot of Jason Momoa’s butt in there, which, okay, for the ladies, but otherwise, a lot of the sex scenes have been kind of icky. There are elements of sexual violence and/or misogyny. The settings are dirty. The characters are related to each other. Sex is being used for purposes other than gratification, or a male character surrounds himself with naked women to prove his manliness. Which, maybe this is historically accurate, but how can you say, “this show has nudity for the women viewers” when the sex scenes are so off-putting? (Alternate example: this past week’s episode featured a scene—uh, spoiler?—between two male characters who are clearly lovers. One shaves the other’s chest before sinking to his knees and… Now, I am normally all for homosexual naked hijinks on my television, but the scene seemed completely devoid of any sexiness. I was, actually, terrified that the one character was about to cut the other’s nipple off all through the chest shaving. I think that scene was supposed to be sexy. It really, really wasn’t.)
Plus, this week’s episode was the first in which I actually felt invested in what happens to the (IMHO underdeveloped because there are too darn many) characters. And, you know, it turns out that women have brains and tune into television shows because interesting stuff is going on: there’s political intrigue, there are moral dilemmas, there’s a kick-ass little girl, there are warriors and creepy dudes and knights and queens and fighting and all kinds of stuff going on. That’s why women tune into the show.
So can we lay off this meme? Besides, I’m sure there are plenty of hetero guys who like all the naked breasts just fine.