I must say, the readers of Mysterious Matters are quite a dishy group. My last post, on the topic of "Forgotten Greats," netted me about a dozen emails all asking the same question: Which two books, alluded to in the first paragraph of that post, were so awful? AUTHORS AND TITLES, my readership demanded, along with all the gory details that made them such horrible pieces of dreck.
Well, I can't be that specific. I have a very karmic approach to this industry, and I never bad-mouth anyone who hasn't been dead for at least five years. But I think I can offer a few suggestions to aspiring writers regarding what those two books did so horribly. Like the manuscript in that infamous episode of I Love Lucy, I can use them as an example of what NOT to do.
One of the books was what I call an "MWA Book"--you know, the type where MWA members line up to blurb it, so much so that the entire back cover and flap are filled with superlatives from friends. I must say, after being burned by several such books in the last few years, I am starting to regarding them with a lot of suspicion--especially when the blurbs are from people I've never heard of, which seems to be happening more and more lately.
The main problem with Book #1 is that the author simply cannot write. Those are harsh words, because there's a continuum of writing competence, with "less competent" on the far left and "more competent" on the far right. The issue here wasn't that the author couldn't put a book together. The plot, though dull and derivative, was serviceable enough. No, this author induced a cringe on every page: stilted language, dull (and I do mean DULL) dialogue, terrible jokes that dropped like lead to the ground, sentences that simply did not make sense. What a train wreck! I kept waiting for the joke to be revealed, but the joke was on me.
I should have been suspicious when I read the acknowledgments, which some of the more gushy writers are choosing to put upfront rather than in the back of the book, where they belong. This has become another red flag to me - a sign that the book/author has gotten published through a powerful agent, or "community connections" in which the agent wears down the poor editor with enough promises of built-in publicity that the editor says, "OK, fine, I can't take it any longer." The acknowledgments here were awkwardly written, and my first thought was that somehow a young teenager had managed to get his/her first hackneyed attempt at a book published. And things went downhill from there.
I suppose much of this could have been forgiven if the author had managed to create even one moderately interesting character. The heroine, God love her, is quite possibly the most boring woman I've ever encountered, in fiction or in life. Just being near her sapped my will to live. The book's characters seemed to be drawn to her, for reasons explicable only in a fictional universe, or for reasons required by inexperienced plotters. She's involved in a milquetoast relationship with the requisite feminized man who lives to serve her. The plot meanders and goes nowhere for hundreds of pages, only to be resolved by a coincidental observation in the last 20 pages.
LESSONS TO BE LEARNED: Put your acknowledgements at the back of the book. Imbue your characters with some personality. Write compound-complex sentences with occasional participles or gerunds, just to mix it up and move beyond the simple sentences that my five-year-old grandchild can write. Have some conflict between the main characters; all that sickly sweet love doesn't make the pages fly by. Stop writing under the influence of Klonopin, or Valium, or Ativan so that your characters have some affect and you can see how incredibly ridiculous your story is.
Book #2 was, if possible, even worse. Definitely better written--but by an author who absolutely adores the sound of his/her own voice. This author's philosophy: Never say in five sentences what you can in ten. Find a horse and beat it to death, and even when it's dead, keep beating it.
The problem here--other than the plot, which doesn't kick in until half the book is over, and then fades away yet again so that the author need not be distracted from the self-love of his/her prose that is lavished on every page--is an absolutely hateful, self-absorbed protagonist. Hey, we all have our self-absorbed moments; and some very funny characters have been created this way. The self-absorbed either (a) exist to be mocked, or (b) learn their lesson and eat some humble pie. Not this protag, who is surrounded by loving friends and family but who does nothing but complain about them. I wish I could be more specific about some of the things she does to make her such a truly awful romantic partner/ parent/ friend, but that would be giving away too many details.
The worst part about this is: The author has absolutely no idea that the protag is a beast. How out of touch is this author, thinking that a character like this would be appealing to anyone? (While we're at it, we might also ask what the agent and editor, copiously thanked in the self-absorbed front-of-the-book acknowledgments, were thinking, too.)
For the three nights I suffered through this book, my poor wife had to suffer through my harangues. Finally she picked up the book, read the first ten pages, and asked me why on earth I continued to torture myself. A good question - and the answer has to be: I've heard of this author, I've read reviews, I've heard good things...so surely there is some redeeming value in there, somewhere? No, there is not.
I got a quite a kick when I went to Amazon after turning the last page to find a plethora of 1-star reviews with titles along the lines of "I'd give this zero stars if I could" and "the worst book I've read in decades, perhaps my entire life."
LESSON TO BE LEARNED: Learn some lessons, or at least have the characters do so. Stop to think about what the characters are doing and how readers will perceive those actions. If you're going to have a series character, it's fine for that person to be flawed. But not so flawed, so annoying, and such a generally terrible person that readers are repelled. (If you're doing satire, that's a different story, of course.) I've never seen a manuscript that couldn't have 10,000 words cut from it; this one could have had 30,000 cut, which would at least have dulled the pain. So be on the lookout for extraneous words, scenes, dialogue that add nothing. In short, please think about THE READER instead of yourself at all times.
One final thought - I know I have opined in the past about the need for moderation in reviews; I am the first to complain about those malicious Amazon Vine reviews, as well as the Amazonian 1-star reviews by mentally ill people working out emotional problems/grudges electronically. But the experience of reading these two books has made me understand, a little more, why people can be compelled to write really vicious reviews. In my case, I have so many books I want and need to read, books by talented writers who need readership. The ten or so hours I spent on these books is time I'll never get back. And I truly can say nothing positive about them, which is rare for me; and that's why I feel so damn furious about this whole thing.
Off soapbox! (But it felt good...)