Only Words Will Show the Way


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?

Hide the hammers.

Hide the hammers.

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?





16 comments to Only Words Will Show the Way

  • I definitely set aside books I’m not enjoying. I used to give ’em 50 pages, but now it’s down to about 25. Not fair, I know, and I can list books that got better around one third or one half way through. But there are so many books out there, and I have such limited reading time…

    (FWIW, I *do* read for different reasons. I read TWILIGHT and 50 SHADES to see what the hoopla was all about — finished both, because I thought that the endings were important to making the diagnosis. “Diagnostic reading” I tend to finish, even if I hate, because it’s, you know, work.)

    (And I like your sentence, for the way it tells us about your character!)

  • “How do you deal with a scene that isn’t working right?”

    Hard to explain. I’ll read it over a few times, soak in the tub or just talk out loud to myself over it, maybe get some happy muse water (blame Chuck Wendig for that name). Then I tend to gut the pieces that aren’t working and put them in a Word file, just in case I come back again later and be all, WHAT WAS I THINKING?! Then splice the fixes in. With luck and some skill, the word flesh comes together looking like a professional plastic surgery stitch and not a Frankenstein stitch. 😉

    “How do you analyze a book you don’t like?”

    I purge it with fire and copious amounts of liquor, trying to forget I ever read it. Actually, I can only read a bad book for so long. I can’t even analyze why others love it and think it works. Maybe I should try harder.

  • Lots of whiskey. No, wait. 😉 Actually, I think what works best is that I talk to myself in writing, in my “whatever” file. I ask myself, “What needs to happen?” and I make a list. That usually prompts me to realize what’s not working, or a “ZOMG” connection (and yes, I type ZOMG to myself). If need be, I’ll give the story a reading. It’s a different way of tapping into my subconscious.

  • I usually consider the words “best seller” more a warning sign than recommendation. I find Stephen Donaldson, David Weber, Dan Brown, Robert Jordan, and the already-mention Stephenie Meyer and E. L. James unreadable. Mindy says she gives a book fifty pages; maybe I’m overly sensitive to crimes and misdemeanors against prose, but I often abandon such a book within the first or second page, rarely making it as far at ten pages. There are too many good books out there to read for me to waste time on bad or mediocre ones.

    Why such books gain popularity is beyond me, but part of the reason seems to be an anti-intellectual reaction against academic and scholarly pursuits. Good writing is actively shunned. I mentioned to a writer friend of mine that I prefer any book that is well written, and by that she thought I meant florid and dense and loaded with words such as “tergiversation” and “sesquipedalian”; whereas of course I meant lean, vigorous writing featuring sympathetic characters who make reasonable attempts to resolve whatever situation the author has placed them in.

    I’ve heard people say that they’d rather read a good story than good writing. Why can’t have both? Has developmental editing been thrown completely out the window by the accountants? As Clive James said, “Fifty years ago, even bad books were well written.”

  • * works best for me, that is. And I agree, it’s hard to pick apart books I enjoy. Or if I do, it’s only after it goes through my mind several times and then I realize what I didn’t like.

  • sagablessed

    Analyze books I don’t like? I don’t because I do not finish them.
    As to scenes, I use the same as you. I move on to another part and find the scene comes to me as I work.

  • I used to make myself finish a book no matter how much I disliked it. Not anymore. Maybe it’s awareness of my own mortality, but I don’t get enough time to read to feel that I can waste it on a book I don’t like. I have no one way of analyzing such books, because I rarely dislike two books for the same reason. But it’s usually something that will annoy me, or continually pull me out of the narrative.

    In my own work, I deal with stalled or incoherent scenes by pushing through them and getting SOMETHING written, my thinking being that I put the scene in there for a reason — it must serve some narrative purpose. And better I should repair a bad scene later, than find a huge hole in my plot and not know how to fill it. But that’s just me.

  • I’ve also stopped forcing myself to finish books that aren’t well-written, or for that matter well-written books that aren’t to my liking. I’ve never really thought about analyzing why I don’t like them, other than the writing is really bad, or the author hits on one of the tropes I hate!

    When I’m stuck on a scene, historically I have highlighted the scene somehow and made a vow to return to it later. Getting back to fix those scenes, howevver, has not historically been one of my strengths–I’ve tended to simply move on to something new rather than take the time and put in the effort to fix something I know isn’t working. That’s the biggest change I’m trying to make with my current WIP.

  • Razziecat

    First can I just say how much I love this: “I will discover much more if I try writing it than if I just sit around staring into the air and thinking it through.”

    And this: “Only words will show me the way.” ‘Cause I love these a lot! 🙂

    As for books, I’ve gotten waaaay more picky than I used to be. I’ll give it a chapter or two, no more than three. The books that lose me quickly are those that are badly written, contain elements or themes that I hate, and books in which Nothing. Happens. Over and over. I don’t analyze them more than that.

    Now, it’s off to the place I got stuck in my WIP, because hey…Only words will show me the way!

  • I still read the whole book, even if I don’t like it. At about the time I realize I don’t like it, I start doing ~critical~ reading, usually with a red pen or yellow highlighter. I read the book with my internal editor fully on, trying to figure out how to make it better. Or how not to write like that. And I’ll admit, I rarely try to read the “popular” books. I’ve never been interested in reading any of the Twilight books, or Laura Hamilton’s vampire books, or 50 Shades, or…

    For my own, well, I’m a linear writer. I can’t just skip a scene that isn’t working. I’ll write it anyway, even if it is ugly-clunky-wrong-terrible. I finish it so I can get on to the next part. It gets flagged though, and I’ll come back to it the next time, and try to fix it. And the next time. And the next, until it works.

  • Mindy: One of my students told me that her librarian told her that you should read 100-your age. The concept is that the older you are, the less time you have to waste on bad books. I have begun to be less and less patient with books I don’t like. That makes me feel bad when I spend money on them. I’m not sure I’m getting any more careful about choosing. Thanks on liking the sentence. Like I said, the only good one of the whole damned bunch.

    Daniel: I LIKE happy muse water. And happy muse confections. I don’t know about keeping reading a book you don’t like. It’s weird. If you don’t like it, can you figure out what others like? Maybe it’s better to listen to readers. I just don’t know.

    Laura: I’ve done something fairly similar. Sometimes it works, sometimes not.

  • Wolf: I agree on a lot of what you’ve said, though I don’t know if it’s ant-intellectual or something else.

    sagablessed: It is really hard to finish what I don’t like. I try to look at it as research, but sometimes that’s just not enough.

    David: I’m the same with the mortality thing. Plus I have less and less time to read these days. I’m kind of the same on the scene. Part of that is because I’m a linear writer and I have to go through to overcome.

    Sisi: I can’t mark it and move on. I rather envy that you can.

  • Razziecat: 😀 You’re awesome! Do you feel guilty for spending money on books you don’t read? I’m not sure how I get around it.

    Lyn: I’ve not done the highlighter thing. I never thought about considering how to make it better. I tried Twilight. Didn’t get far. Just couldn’t do it. I used to read Laura Hamilton’s Anita books, but stopped when they seemed to lose what make them good.

    I’m a linear writer, too. I can’t skip, either. YOu do pretty much what I do.

  • Razziecat

    Hey Diana!….No, I don’t feel guilty about it (much) because, being so picky, I buy fewer books than I used to. I try to borrow them at the library first, if possible; if I love the book then I’ll buy my own copy. If the library doesn’t have it and I really wanna read it, I’ll get the Kindle version; then if I’m not happy with it, at least I’ve spent less money. But, sometimes if I really love the book I’ll get both e-book and paper book, so it kind of balances out 😉

  • Di (just swinging back around here…) – the 100 minus your age measure is suggested by Nancy Pearl, who is a librarian in the Seattle Public Library system. She’s a wonderful spokesperson for reading in general, and she promotes moving on from books that Just Aren’t Working 🙂

  • quillet

    Extra late to this party! I work in a florist’s, so Mother’s Day week is very…er…searching for a polite word for it…um…nope, polite words won’t do 😉 so let’s just move on. Anyway, I don’t finish books I don’t like. Life is short and the books are infinite, so I don’t like to waste my time, even if it’s a book with hoopla. I can usually tell why it doesn’t work for me, but why it works for other people tends to remain a mystery to me. I just shrug. Everyone’s different. Nor would I wish to study a book I don’t like, successful or not. I have to write what I like, not what I think other people might like. That way lies madness! 😉

    When I get stuck on a scene, I tend to stay stuck for a while. It usually means something’s not right with the scene, and I worry that what follows won’t work either if I don’t figure out the problem. But I’m not sure that’s such a good approach! Spinning one’s wheels is the wrong thing to do when stuck in snow, after all. Maybe I ought to back up first, before I try to go forward. Hmmm…