You know, when our kids were growing up, each of them went through a phase when they kept asking, “Why?” And you’d give them one answer, then another, then another, and then you never wanted to hear that word ever again, because an answer just led to another question. I sometimes feel that way when I try to seriously think about books I’ve read.
When I finish a book, HH always asks, “How did you like it? Was it good?” And then we have a great discussion about books and writing. But every once in a while, I frustrate him, and I really frustrate me, because I say, “Everything in the book was great, but I just couldn’t get into it for some reason.” And, in all honesty, that drives me a little crazy. Because then, the next logical question is “Why?”, and I don’t always have an answer.
When I finish reading a book, I want to know what in it worked for me and what didn’t. I learn a lot from that. So when I say, “It had a great plot, great characters, lots of twists and turns, and a solid mystery,” and then I add, “but it didn’t hold my interest.” I mean, I have to ask myself, What else is there? What was missing? Why did I like the last book in the series but had to work to finish this one? And I’ve had that happen to me a few times lately. And it’s annoying. Mostly, because I’ve picked up a few books that were only written sort of haphazardly–not the best word choices or character arcs or spelling–and they kept me entertained from start to finish. So what’s the deal?
I finally figured it out this morning. I can forgive the occasional sag in a plot, the occasional lackluster description. But when the protagonist is as clueless about where the plot’s going as I feel, and I can’t see where the clues or events are headed, I know I’m in trouble. Now, some authors I trust enough that I know eventually they’ll find their way. But my reading enthusiasm gets mired in the meantime.
This inspiration was good for me, because I’ve always wondered why I’m not a fan of P.I. fiction. So many of my friends go on and on about how wonderful a certain P.I. is, and I read the same novel and make myself turn the pages until the end. Because it’s just not my thing. When I read a P.I., I feel like I’m just following a person around until he irritates enough people that he’ll get beat up, and once he’s licking his wounds, he might find the one right person who can give him the answer he needs. He solves the case mostly because he’s so stubborn and through dumb luck and elimination of other possible suspects. Okay, I’m not going to win over any P.I. fans with that description, but a gumshoe doesn’t feel like he has the same finesse as a Hercule Poirot who relies on his little grey cells.
I feel the same way about a protagonist in a series I like when she comes up against a case where she doesn’t seem to know which end’s up. She feels lost, trying to solve the case, and so do I. And I don’t like it. I much prefer when the clues just stack up, one on top of the other, and they feel like they’re moving in the right direction. I might not be able to point to the criminal and say, “Aha!”, but I feel like I’m getting closer. Knowing that, I understand why the two books I struggled with bothered me so much. The heroines couldn’t make sense of any of the clues. When they added them up, they didn’t mean anything. And I was frustrated.
Of course, the fine balance in a mystery is to give enough clues to keep the reader involved, but not so many clues that he solves the case too early. That being said, though, I often know who committed the crime and I still enjoy the story. I want to see how the protagonist catches the villain. That, in itself, is satisfying to me.
What about you? What slows you down when you read an author you like, but the book falls short? Do you have any pet peeves? Happy reading…and writing!