A thread on Romance Divas made me think this week. The topic: the worst book you’ve ever read.
What interested me about this discussion was not only the fact that some peoples’ worsts reads were others’ keepers, but also the reasons the readers found stories to be such clunkers.
The reasons, I think, are instructive.
In character, in setting, in dialogue. This gets a bit to the discussion going on at Dear Author about how accurate historicals need to be (do you really want to read about how badly they smelled or how wretched the teeth were, or how drafty and uncomfortable the living quarters could be?). But it also gets to inconsistency of plot, and of character. If your plot is headed one direction and then, inexplicably, takes a hard right turn, that’s going to leave a reader hanging out wondering what happened. If your character is supposed to be virginal and innocent, having her giving blow jobs to random guys in the hall is going to throw the reader off. There are all kinds of ways to be inconsistent, but it boils down to the expectations of the reader. If something in the book throws the reader completely off stride, it’s hard to come back and convince them to love the story.
It’s one thing to have unsympathetic villains. I mean, they’re supposed to be the bad guy, so you can get away with that. But the hero? The heroine? That’s a fast train ride to Hateville, right there. In romance, especially, the reader wants to like the characters. They want to enjoy going through the adventure and angst with them. It’s very hard to do that if the characters are unsympathetic. On the one hand, you can have characters which skirt the line – characters who aren’t angelic or even particularly good, but are sympathetic. One of my favorites like this is Linda Howard’s John Medina. He’s not really a nice guy. He does what he thinks is necessary and doesn’t have any real guilt about doing it. He shot and killed his own wife because she was about to cause catastrophic damage to US security. He isn’t tortured about it, he just sees it as necessary. Because he isn’t tortured about it, he could easily become unsympathetic. But Howard manages to make his priorities so clear, and to make his relationship with the heroine so intense, he never quite crosses the line into unsympathetic. Some authors really like skirting the lines here. Rhage in JR Ward’s Lover Eternal does a lot of line skirting. Enough line skirting that it really pissed off some people.
Breaking the rules.
There are some rules in Romancelandia. Rules like Happily Ever After (or at least Happy for Now), or like not killing off the main characters (this is how Nicholas Sparks likes to think he gets out of being a romance author). Or like the hero and heroine aren’t supposed to cheat on each other on screen. Now, with menage and open relationships, it’s not cheating. You avoid this problem because of the expectations of the characters and the openness of the interaction. But, no cheating. When authors break these rules, you often default to the numero uno rule above – veering off the reader’s expectations. And we already talked about that.
This is the most technical of the reasons, I think, and the hardest to pin down, while simultaneously being the easiest to recognize. Sloppy writing, repetition, bad flow, broken rhythm, stilted dialogue, hosed up sentence structure, odd word choices, bizarre imagery. Any of these things can interrupt the reading experience, and when enough of them stack up, the reading becomes painful. This is, I think, a bigger problem now than ever before, simply because there are more and more books being published – through the big houses, through small press, through e-pubs, through self-publishing and through vanity publishing. Many of these books are good. But there are going to be a lot of stinkers. And when the stinkers are bad enough, it can taint everything around it. But, the point here is that basic craft skills can and should be employed. And if they aren’t, the book is going to smell. Badly.
There you go – four big categories of why books stink. But flip them on their head, and you get four reasons good books are good. And that is the lesson for today, grasshopper.