Friday, December 12, 2008

Paw paw and maw maw were sittin' in a tree

Photo of pawpaw leaves, by Andif.

So today, Saturday, I'll be leading a "dissection" of a certain best-selling suspense novel that is so badly written that it makes professional writers slam it shut in despair and wail, "Why do we even trryyyyy?" I won't name it, because I won't do that to any author, at least not on my front page. I wouldn't like it done to me, soooo. . .

It's going to be interesting to take the book apart and try to figure out where the magic lies, because there *is* magic in it. It casts the kind of spell over a reader that makes her keep flipping pages even as she wonders, "Why can't I stop reading this?" And that's our question for today in my group: why can't people put that book down? When I say it's badly written, that is an understatement. It is illogical, impossible, manipulative, cliched, infuriating, and it beggars belief in dozens of ways. Nevertheless, to this day I can remember exactly where I was sitting when I first read it many years ago. I was in a hurry to get somewhere, but I just kept reading.

This post has no satisfying ending. I don't know why the hell that book works. If I find out from the other writers and readers today, I'll let you know. I'm sure they're going to say it has to do with a compressed time frame, the highest of stakes, a heroine to root for, a villain to loathe, and a good setting. Okay. That's all true. But the negatives are *so* negative that in most books they would out weigh even those features of good storytelling. In this one, the negatives make no difference at all, except to keep the literate reader asking herself in dismay and wonder, "Why am I reading this?!" And then she turns to the next page. And all over the globe, for several decades, millions of readers have done, and are still doing, the same thing.


katiebird said...

This might not be fair to the rest of the gang (since I know which author & book your talking about) but, I've always found that author to be totally unreadable. If there's magic in her writing, I've never found it.

I'm looking forward to finally finding out what the fuss is all about.

katiebird said...

(sigh) when I said "your talking", I meant "you're talking"

(shaking my head)

AndiF said...

Well I thought I might know thebook until katiebird (hi kb) said "she" and now I have no idea. But there are so many bestselling books whose popularity mystifies me that I'm sure I don't get the recipe for bestseller success.

Morning all.

AndiF said...

Almost forgot.

Saw a really nice review of Maria's Blood Bargin [LINK]

bono, the Canon Powershot cameras come in a wide range of prices and features. I've had several and they've all been very good. The ELPH series is nice because they can slip in a pocket (but don't skimp on features) but if you like a camera with a grip, there's the A series.

Jen said...

But there are so many bestselling books whose popularity mystifies me that I'm sure I don't get the recipe for bestseller success.

Where do you get the clarity to be this diplomatic this early? I had to delete four drafts at a comment because I would someday like to do paid work in the literary market, but yes, I also have a "failure to get the recipe", let's just call it that, lol.

AndiF said...

Heh Jen, it's not diplomacy; it's genuine befuddlement.

Jen said...

Oh. Well, if we're being honest: I understand it, I just refuse to participate in it.

Maria Lima said...

Morning, all! Andi, thanks for the link. :)

I'm not sure of whom you speak, Nancy, but I do know of at least one of two of those type of books and I'm also befuddled. Analyzing what makes them tick is fascinating.

IMHO, some mega-bestsellers are purchased for the "me, too" factor and I doubt that the books are actually read. In any case, I sure wish I knew that magic formula!! ::g::

Spending the day writing and napping after a loooong work week and a very unhappy salon visit last night (brow/leg wax with a very nice young female tech who was quite incompetent--not pain so much as poorly done).

TTFN and have a super Saturday!

AndiF said...

When you get back to doing more posting at hour place, Jen, I'd really love to read your take on it.

Anonymous said...

I have a writer friend who keeps reminding me "It's the story, baby" when I bemoan the horrible writing I find in so many books. It gives me a wee bit of comfort that if someone will print THAT, I have a decent shot. :-)

The class sounds like fun, NP - sorry I'm too far away! Off to an old Florida bar for live music this afternoon, then watch the boat parade this evening. 54 degrees tonight - the locals will be wearing their woolies!

Happy Saturday from sunny, windy Florida...

Nancy P said...

Maria, I'm thrilled about that review of your new one, because the reviewer really gets you. Or maybe I should say the reviewer agrees with me, lol, that one of the irresistible strengths of your series is how you leave mysteries still to be answered. I especially love how Keira, herself, doesn't know the final shape her power will take. I'm so eager to read the new one!

Nancy P said...

Hey, kb--see you at the dissection?

Morning, Andi and Jen!

Beth, you feeling better?

Probably, the secret of that book's incredible and long-lasting success was her ability to build suspense and keep it going. I don't feel that suspense now, after reading it a few times over the years--looking for its secrets--but I recall feeling it the first time. "Time," btw, has not helped it. A lot of plot and character stuff she got away with years ago just wouldn't wash now, if it were a new novel handed in by a new writer.

Anonymous said...

Okay, at some point I need to know what book this is!

Better but still wimpy, Nancy. Coughed half the night. Guess my body is still fighting to heal. Hopefully I'll be all better by Tuesday. Thanks for asking! I'm hoping to go to the beach tomorrow and bake the remnants out...

maryb said...

Well my first reaction was that I wouldn't want to take the time to analyze a book that was poorly written.

But that's not really true.

I occasionally find myself caught up in the "magic" to my own chagrin and THEN I'm interested in why I'm compelled to continue to read a book (or a series of books) that my rational mind finds to be a waste of time - especially when I'm feeling commercially exploited. I felt that way when I was reading Janet Evanovich mysteries this past summer.

Kelly McCullough said...

One of the things to remember with the mega-bestsellers is that in order to hit that sweet spot they have to draw in a lot of people who are only occasional readers at best, and those readers bring a different set of tools and expectations to the book.

For example, many of them don't see cliche at all because they don't get exposed to it often enough. Take one of the best selling recent works in fantasy (rhymes with tarragon). I've yet to meet a regular reader of fantasy who has read it and really enjoyed it,* and even the ones who've thought it was okay didn't think it was a terribly sophisticated or well written book**. But they're not the target audience.

I suspect that this is why so many reviewers and other authors are baffled by the success of certain books that read to us as bad books--they're simply not written for us.

*Having said that, it will now be revealed that I just happen to have talked to a weird set of readers.

**I've been told by four or five people who know me well not to read it because it would give me hives.

Nancy P said...

Exactly, Maryb. My "dissection" group is made up entirely of mystery/suspense writers and readers, so we have a very specific focus. We have a lot of fun figuring out why some books work and why others don't, at their various levels, and we dig into them at a technical level that "book clubs" don't (or can't) do. Even if this book only really works well on one level--suspense--the author may be a master of that one ingredient, and we can learn from her. It's like having more tools in the ol' tool belt, so one has more choices when building a cabinet. I will look *anywhere* for better tools, and am not above stealing them from bad carpenters. heh

Dina said...

Hi, all. I would love to know what books you guys are discussing but since I read very few bestsellers I haven't a clue. Though now of course, with Charlaine Harris having so many I can say I have read bestsellers, they just weren't bestsellers when I read them. And I am sure it isn't Charlaine's work that is being discussed.

An obviously confused blogger here.

maryb said...

The combination of Kelly's comment and Nancy's is interesting. I love the bad carpenter analogy. Stealing the tool doesn't mean YOU will build a bad house.

On the other hand I think Kelly is right, that often these books are written for an audience of occasional readers with a specific set of expectations.

Combining these thoughts, I guess you can have a carpenter who isn't really a bad carpenter but is using his skills only to build tract housing rather than custom homes (or, because she's a best seller, she's building McMansions).

It seems to me that you have to keep your analysis straight as to which way it is flowing and why. The McMansion publisher (I mean home developer) goes out and looks at quality custom homes, analyzes how they are made, analyzes his market and realizes there are people who only care about a few aspects of those homes. If he can nail down what those aspects are, find people who are good at building those aspects, he can cut costs by focusing only on those aspects, create what that group of customers wants and make a lot of money much easier than being in the custom market.

So, to analyze the McMansion is to analyze tools and methods that were already developed in a more interesting way by someone else, which were then analyzed by the McMansion developer to make profit. This, I guess, is useful from a profit perspective if you want to develop cheaper tract homes - because again you strip out what YOUR market doesn't care about.

But what if you are entering the carpentry trade? Yes, the carpenter employed to build the McMansion or the tract home might be, as you say, VERY good at one particular thing which is the one particular thing the developer is looking at. And I guess if you are just starting out and want to learn the rudiments of building you could learn something from him.

But you could learn the same rudiments from someone building a custom home. And more.

Nicola Slade said...

No idea who you're talking about but I recognise the syndrome! I read a book not long ago because it was recommended by a friend. Bit of a romantic saga which isn't always my thing, but I'm always game to try. Hmmm, it was like wading through treacle but I HAD to keep going and it drove me nuts. The story was banale, the writing trite, the language simple and the sentences short. But I still had to finish the wretched book. Afterwards I felt as if I'd overdosed on marshmallows - and yes, it too was a good-, if not best-, seller.

Kelly McCullough said...

I should probably note that not all mega-bestsellers fall into that rubrick. Stephen King and J. K. Rowling have both done some really astonishingly good writing. They've also done work that was less good, but I think that's true of every author. It's just that most of us can't get our laundry lists published, much less on the bestseller lists.

Jen said...

Andi, fwiw, I could just say "what Kelly said" in both of his posts in this thread.

Also, since I'm a roomful of writers let me add this bit in terms of general clarity: when I say I "don't want to participate in it", meaning writing the sorts of mega-bestsellers to which Kelly referred in his first post, sometimes people interpret that to mean that I think I'm above it or something but that's not at all where I'm coming from. I'm just chasing a different dream, is all.

bono said...

So, it's the end of the day. Is there a back page you could tell us what book you dissected? ;-)

Thanks for the suggestions, Farf and Andif. I kept the Canon flyer from Sunday's paper because I remembered hearing several here talk about it.

Thanks for allowing this non-writer, avid reader the opportunity to "listen" to writers talk about their craft.

Glad you're feeling better, Beth. Hope you're having fun at your girls weekend, Lisa.

Long day running about and out celebrating the season. Waves to everyone.

Nancy P said...

e me, and I'll tell you. :)

nanpickard @

(take out spaces, of course)

boran2 said...

Kelly, I think that part of the appeal of that tarragon book was the extreme youthfulness of the author, age 16 (or thereabouts) I believe at the time of the first book. And the first books were sold without benefit of a publishing behemoth. All very interesting but nothing to do with content. I've read a fair amount of fantasy myself but still found the original book interesting, if not innovative.