What do you do when you read a book (or start reading it) that everyone on the planet seems to like and get and you don’t?* Stop reading is the obvious answer, but I’m a writer, and I can’t stand the idea of giving up on a book. I also hate thinking that I’m not getting the book somehow. That I’m at fault, because if everyone else is falling in love with the book, why can’t I? It’s also a writerly quirk where I want to dissect the way a book works. I don’t dissect books that I like because I enjoy them and because it’s easy to see what works (for me, that is). It’s really tough to figure out how a book works if you don’t like it. Especially that hard-to-define something that captures the heart and imagination of a reader. That something that we all want to make happen in our books. (could I repeat the word book any more in that paragraph? And I’m not even going to edit it because I’m so danged tired. It’s the end of the semester, doncha know).
Today I wrote a line I really liked. Just one out of a whole bunch. Really didn’t like the rest of what I wrote at all. Wow. I like one whole line. Maybe tomorrow I’ll like an entire paragraph! Okay, self-mockery aside, let’s talk about why I didn’t like my writing. For one thing, the characters feel a little cardboardy to me. I’m working on that. The other thing is the scene seems to be poking along. It’s an opening scene for this work, which means it has to have strong tension. Even if it’s a slow scene, it needs that tension to make a reader turn pages. I don’t think I have it, nor do I have character connection. The question is, what am I going to do to find them?
Well, first, I’m going to finish the scene. Like it or not, I need to get it out . It’s not just to be able to revise it, but I need to explore the characters and the situation. I will discover much more if I try writing it than if I just sit around staring into the air and thinking it through. Or walking around and thinking it through. Or doing dishes, gardening, cleaning toilets . . . You get the idea. I do a lot of good work just staring into the air, but right now only words will show me the way.
I will therefore write and get more acquainted with my characters whom are already showing signs of not being who I thought they were. There’s a possible romance brewing and I expected these two to be in a state of permanent dislike with one another, and for good reason. I don’t want romance, at least not between these two. I’m doing my best to steer away from it. Trouble is, they seem to be steering toward it. Which goes to tell me that I don’t know them well enough. It doesn’t help that I set this book in a place I’ve never been (though have researched), and in a part of American culture than I’m not that familiar with. In other words, research is my friend and savior. Still, because I’m not that well acquainted with the place and the culture, I’m having to think things through more carefully instead of working more off instinct. I have not yet internalized enough.
The second thing I have to try to do is analyze my own work the way I would a novel that I don’t like. If it isn’t working, why not? Only in this case, I won’t have the reassurance that it works for other people. I have to assume if it doesn’t work for me, then it won’t work for my readers. I have to love my work in order for the words to sing and right now, I’m feeling like I’ve written a really discordant version of Kum Ba Yah (or however you want to spell it–there are lots of ways). Remember William Hung from American Idol fame? (Or infamy). Like that. Or worse.
What was the line I liked? Well, it isn’t even that great, but I do like it for the way it captures the character. Even if it’s kind of clunky: “One thing she’d learned in her life was proper manners, and it was harder than she liked to overcome the habit.”
*Twilight is one of those for me, but there are a fair number of others that I just don’t get.
How do you deal with a scene that isn’t working right? How do you analyze a book you don’t like?