Why Did I Have Trouble Picking up The Book Every Night?

I just finished a book that was so well written with such great characterization that I couldn’t understand why I avoided reading the thing. I love good writing whether it’s lyrical, clean and concise, deep and moody, action-packed, or–whatever. And I love well-written characters whom the author brings to life with telling brush strokes. SOMEONE KNOWS by Lisa Scottoline was both well-written AND had great characterization. And I put it down more often than usual, which surprised me. I couldn’t understand why it didn’t grip me.

It took me a while to figure it out. And I think it’s a personal preference thing. But every single chapter had the same rhythm. The chapters were all short, from different POVs, hitting a character in the midst of a telling scene that would change their lives. Gripping right? But the entire book was formatted that way. Short chapters. Each showing a character in torment, trying to deal with something they didn’t want to deal with. Dramatic. But it happened over and over again. EVERY chapter was like that. We meet Allie. Her sister Jill is dying. Next scene, Jill dies and her mother falls apart. Next scene, her father compensates by planning a 5K run for Jill, and his wife doesn’t want to come to it. Next scene, the run’s a failure. People don’t come. His wife falls apart. Over and over again. People in crisis. Until…I didn’t care. I was overwhelmed.

And then I’d put the book down, and it took me days before I wanted to pick it up again. The characters were so well done, I wanted to know what happened to them. I wanted to know who put the bullet in the gun when the kids met in the woods. But I needed a break between scenes. The truth was…I was bored. Too much of the same thing. The short, punchy scenes stopped building tension and started to make me crave a break.

This book is an editor’s pick on Amazon and has lots of stars. A bestseller. But I got tired of the constant, staccato, short chapters. I felt battered and the tension fizzled because I didn’t care. But I cared enough to pick up the book again and finish it. But I prefer books that grab me and hold me until the last page. And this book didn’t do that for me. And it was because of the format. Short, punchy chapters. High drama. Over and over again. The same exact rhythm. They should have built tension, but the book didn’t grab me until I met Allie’s husband, Larry, a caring, wonderful man who wasn’t hiding a secret. He just made me love him. He loved his wife so muc, and felt so bad that their marriage might not make it, that he immediately grabbed me. And I cared.

Lisa Scottoline is a marvelous writer, but I struggled through this book. And it made me think a lot about what grabs me and keeps me. And I realized great writing isn’t always enough. A few scenes with a different pacing, maybe even humor, would have helped me a lot.

Writing Goals 2013

I’ve been reading more books that are outside of my usual tastes lately, and it’s been good for me.  It’s made me think about what makes a good book.  When I read my favorite authors, I expect them to deliver certain things really well.  And they almost always do…that’s why they’re my favorites. But when I try a new author or a new genre, I don’t know what to expect, and I end up paying more attention to how the plot is constructed and the characters are developed.  It makes me think more about what works and what doesn’t…and how I’ve told my own stories, and how I can tell them better.

Things I’ve learned:

1.  Great scenes do not necessarily create a great book.  I’ve read quite a few novels lately where each scene is entertaining, and I keep turning the pages, but when I finish the novel, I realize something was lacking.  I enjoyed the book, but I didn’t love it.  The book didn’t demand much from me, so I didn’t invest much into it.  The novel’s a great one-shot read, but I wouldn’t go back for more.

2.  Repetition kills tension.  Every author knows that repeating information in a novel is redundant and loses a reader’s interest, but using the same technique over and over again gets old too.  I quit reading mystery writers who killed someone every time their plot started to sag.  I’m not against a death here or there to keep tension up, but enough is enough.  And glopping on more gore doesn’t make the scene more original.  The same goes for battles in fantasy novels.  Even if the writer adds a new element each time to keep the scenes fresh, the technique gets old.  The writer needs to change it up and surprise us.  Don’t be predictable.

3.  Angst isn’t enough to make me like a character.  Every protagonist has a problem, or an author wouldn’t have a story.  I’ve read a few stories lately where the writer straps a bad choice/experience onto the main character, and she carries it everywhere with her.  It affects the way she interacts with others.  I like that.  It adds depth, but it’s not enough.  The character has to come alive as a person to hold my interest.  She does this through her actions, not her thoughts.  What she does says more about her than lots of internal dialogue.

4.  Balance is hard to find.  My favorite books get it right.  Every main character comes to life.  No character fills a “slot”–this is the love interest, this is the bad guy, this is the potential body when someone has to die, etc.  There’s internal and external conflict, and there’s tension between characters.  Every scene has a purpose and conflict of some kind.

5.  Knowing the rules of good writing and doing them are two different things.  But my goal for 2013 is to try to grow as a writer, to make my stories more powerful or to involve the reader more.

Also, I want to thank anyone who’s taken the time to write any kind of feedback for my stories or novels, from long reviews to one sentence opinions.  I appreciate it.  Constructive criticism is a blessing.  It makes me think.

I hope 2013 is a great year for all of you–whatever your endeavors.  And if you’re an author, I hope you flex your writing muscles and your stories are better than ever.  What’s your favorite novel?  And why?