It is fascinating how a book can sizzle for one reader and totally fizzle for another. What is it that brings a character alive, makes him part of your dreams, stays with you while you scrub your sink? Are we hard-wired to like technological thrillers or historical romances? Were we nurtured to find elves fascinating or to solve mysteries. Perhaps, similar to Jean Aule’s Clan of the Cave Bear Neanderthals, are we predisposed to books that trigger ancestral memories?
But it is not enough to connect with the reader on some subconscious level. The author needs to weave a spell, enchanting and entrancing with every chapter, paragraph, sentence and word. When this happens to me, the book doesn’t leave my side. I walk and read, eat and read, cook and read. Sleep becomes something that happens when my eyes can no longer stay open. I am captivated by the author’s vision of another world. My earliest recollection of this happening was reading Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I was in grade school, it was in the darkness after midnight, and I should have been in bed. Instead I was in Atlanta, falling in love with a rapscallion, while saving Melanie (the loyal unwanted friend), and watching fire and war destroy all I love. Last Saturday morning, Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III, wove its spell over my weekend. I stepped back into my world on Sunday night, a better person for having read it (see August’s Book Review-coming soon).
Authors want to give their readers this all-engaging experience. But what is it that prevents this magic? For me, here a few downers that make it easy to set a book down:
- Overuse of adverbs:
- I remember learning that adverbs are fine in a first draft, but when writing the final version, replace most adverbs with description. I’m struggling through reading a fantasy this week. Within the first three paragraphs I realized the book was littered with adverbs: patiently, gently, briskly, etc. Adverbs have a place, but they are not useful when painting a picture. In Jodi Picoult’s House Rules, when a son was separated from his mother, she could have said told the reader that “Jacob touched the glass longingly, as though he is embracing me.” Instead she offers this gem: “…he closes his eyes. He sways forward and rests his cheek against the window, spreads his arms as wide as they can go” (page 223). She turned the adverb into action, a time-consuming yet necessary literary step.
- Obvious chapter-ending ‘keep reading’ cues:
- An example of a too-obvious segue is “She wondered, what would happen next?” Guess what, she can just keep wondering, ‘cuz I’m going to bed now. Compare that to Yann Martel‘s closing to Chapter 38, when Pi approaches a group of men on a sinking ship: “When they took hold of me and lifted me in their strong arms, I thought nothing of it. I thought they were helping me. I was so full of trust in them that I felt grateful as they carried me in the air. Only when they threw me overboard did I begin to have doubts” (page 105). Now I want to know what happens next!
- Telling, not showing.
- Although I enjoy a good romance, one popular romance author doesn’t make it to my reading list. The book that ticked me off had a decent plot about a woman, whose marriage is seemingly over. She finds friendship and love in another man’s arms, only to decide to return to all she’s left behind. It was a good story, but had little character development. Throughout the book I was told at least 50 times what a wonderful, kind, caring woman she was. Everybody said she’s lovely. But I never saw it. The author didn’t show her sneaking out in the evening to work at a homeless shelter, or getting up at the crack of dawn to check on the three-legged dog she had rescued from a bear trap. I just had to trust the judgment of the book’s equally underdeveloped supporting characters.
- Characters not acting in character.
- Perhaps most annoying is when a character you believe you know and understand, does something completely out of character. To me, the greatest books are about characters that stay true to their whole self, flaws and all. Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind saved Melanie and developed Frank’s business, but Mitchell made it clear that Scarlett’s every action was based on selfish and self-centered motives.
If you love reading, help us writers out: What annoys you? What keeps you reading?