I thought I’d better post this before it’s time for my March reviews (coming soon, of course).
Whilst sharing my monthly reviews with you I’ve been wondering what makes me really love some books. I often read books, even those written by friends, which are fine – no criticism – but which don’t attract my five star rating. Not because they’re badly written. Not because there’s anything wrong with them. Because they aren’t exactly right for me. So what is?
To begin with, my five star book has to have impeccable grammar. If the writer uses things like fragmented sentences they have to know what they’re doing and break the rules carefully, showing quite clearly that they know the rules in the first place and are breaking them for special effects. I can easily be ‘thrown’ by dangling participles for example, though I usually have no objection to prepositions at the ends of sentences.
Then there’s the structure of the writing. (I’ll come to plot later.) Repetition annoys me, whether it’s repeated adjectives or repeated information. It’s acceptable in dialogue where it might relate to a character’s speech patterns, but not elsewhere. Too much use of flashbacks annoys me. Flashbacks can be interesting but for me, they need to be used very sparingly and I need very clear signals that the section is not in the same ‘timeline’ as the main story. The same applies to recounts, where you find out what is going on through a letter, a phone call or a character spending time bringing everybody up to date. Changes of point of view have to be shown quite clearly, preferably by an extra line break or a new chapter. I recently mentioned Joanna Trollope, who switches point of view in the middle of paragraphs. Ugh! Information dumps are occasionally necessary but should be punctuated with action. Even in a long serious lecture real people move, cough, look out of the window etc. Characters should do this too. It’s almost unbearable when characters ‘tell’ other characters what they should know already, presumably so that the reader will be better informed. There are other ways to educate the reader. I like plenty of dialogue but find it hard to cope with the way some authors try to use a different way of saying ‘he/she said’ with every line. The word ‘said’ doesn’t shout at the reader and provided it’s occasionally changed to ‘asked’ or similar, the dialogue flows smoothly. There are better ways to tell us the character was shouting or laughing than to use these verbs instead of ‘said’.
I can accept typos as long as they aren’t frequent. There are some mainstream publishers who seem to expect their authors to do all their own proof reading and even writers like Terry Pratchett and Robin Hobb are not immune. But provided the typos are few and far between, I’m just sympathetic. Sympathy takes a nose dive when it comes to an inability to recognise homonyms and an obvious reliance on a spell checker to catch them, which it can’t. Similarly, I object when writers use long words and choose the wrong ones. Again, spell checkers are not the best judges of this. You need to know what you’re doing before you use a spell checker in much the same way that it’s better to have some kind of grounding in arithmetic before using a calculator.
I personally dislike books that can’t make their minds up about style. Some highly respected writers (e.g. Hilary Mantel) move from first to third person, from plain narrative to a kind of screenplay, etc. in an effort to retain the attention of the reader. It doesn’t do anything for me other than irritate me although I know some critics regard the practice with awe. I am less concerned about the type of admonitions given in books such as the Chicago Manual. To begin with, novels are not journalism, which is what the Manual was always intended for. Also, if you look at almost any page in any of the classics or modern classics (e.g. Lord of the Rings)the Chicago Manual and its advice (or the equivalent when the book was written) has been, thankfully, ignored. The past tense, formed using ‘was’, is sometimes essential. Adverbs have an important part to play in description. Etc. I do not want my fiction (or serious non-fiction) written in journalese.
I also find it almost impossible to read long stories in present tense. There is a growing tendency to use it. I think it’s some kind of effort to make text resemble the way films give us an immediate look at what is happening. I can read it when the writing is a very short story but anything longer and I get quite stressed at the immediacy and would truly rather keep it for films! Short passages in e.g. a crime story can be effective, provided they really are short and the writer reverts to past or narrative tense as soon as possible. When people are talking about something that happened to them, even recently, they usually use the past narrative tense. Present tense tends to be used only by people who have a poorer command of language and this is another reason I think the practice annoys me when used for characters who are clearly reasonably well educated within their ‘world’.
I also find it quite difficult to read sustained passages in italics. Sometimes authors use italics for e.g. letters but I always hope they won’t be long. I find italics visually disturbing (perhaps the very reason we use them for emphasis) and always wish I could easily change the font of the text as well as the size.
The formatting has to be reasonable. I abandoned a book in March because it had line breaks after every two lines and I simply couldn’t concentrate.
So – impeccable grammar and excellent style, with my own personal quirks attended to. I need these, and quite often I can tell within a page or so whether I’m going to get them. If one is missing, the book can still hold my attention because of the content or something else I appreciate. (With Trollope it’s her descriptions and her witty ways of expressing characters’ opinions.) Having got those or most of those, there’s the question of content.
I like well developed characters who appeal to me from the start. I’m never attracted to characters I would not like to meet in real life and don’t much enjoy reading a story told from the point of view of a villain or even someone I just disapprove of. I accept that such writing might be clever and interesting – admirable, even. All I’m saying is that it isn’t to my taste. So if, for example, a crime story starts with a look at the crime from the point of view of the criminal, I’m quite likely to abandon it without caring whether they are caught or not. I want to know the feelings of the victim or of the investigator from the beginning. This is not quite as much of a problem in fantasy or romance, of course, though there may well be e.g. romantic detective stories I have not read because of this type of introduction.
Sometimes, characters just bore me, and if after a few pages I couldn’t care less what happens to them, that’s also a signal to give up. I’m sure there are other readers who would follow their adventures with eagerness and it isn’t a criticism, just an observation that is more about me than about the writer. I find it very hard (though not impossible) to get interested in vampires, ancient Egypt, medical and technical research, or high school and college students so books about any of those have to try harder to ‘hook’ me.
My favourite characters live on in my head long after their ‘story’ has finished and I admire the writers who can create these new fictional friends for me. Sometimes I will turn to fanfiction, my own or that of other writers, to explore the further adventures of characters I love.
Once we have characters who have ‘hooked’ me we reach plot. I hate plot holes with a really fierce hatred. I have read crime stories published by the big mainstream publishers where questions are raised and never answered or where I can see the flaws in the information given. I have read fantasy or sci-fi where the basic premise of the story or world is never properly explained. I have read romances where the ‘chemistry’ between the main characters is not obvious, or not obvious enough to explain their apparent passion. In all genres there are stories where events clearly couldn’t happen the way they’re described. I know I once wrote a story where a minor character could not possibly have been where I said they were at the time stated. I caught the error and if I hadn’t my editor would have done, I hope. It’s easily enough done, but it certainly throws me out of the story and I find it hard to get back in. The same applies to other types of incorrect information. I remember reading a historical romance set in the time of the Borgias and based on some real characters. As soon as the writer had chocolates served at a party I lost all trust in her and never regained it. (Whilst chocolate arrived from South America at the end of the Middle Ages, chocolates, in the form of sweets as opposed to the drink, were not created till much later). This need for correct information is just as strong in fantasy and sci-fi. Good writers build a fictional world and must stick to the ‘rules’ they themselves lay down, whether those refer to our reality or another. And of course their editors must be aware of the pitfalls. I personally gave up on writing about a world with two moons because I couldn’t get my head round the difference this would make to things like tides and seasons.
So my favourite writers have a grasp of language and style that appeals to me. They introduce characters I can’t bear to leave. Their plots are handled deftly and I can trust their information.
Finally, they need an underlying message I can relate to though I don’t want to be preached at and I don’t enjoy fiction that is just a vehicle for pushing an agenda – I’d rather read non-fiction for that, and I probably read as much non-fiction as fiction, if not more. Non-fiction also needs good language and style as well as trustworthy information. Info dumps are slightly more acceptable but there are still ways of splitting text into manageable portions.
I want to read things that agree with my world view. I am aggressively anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, etc. I accept that other people will have different religious and political views but don’t want their beliefs pushed at me. I believe in human rights for everyone. I don’t expect all the characters to agree with me but the overall tenor of the book should be acceptable. I know that horrific acts take place in our world and am interested (though not happy) to read about them in non-fiction but would prefer my fiction to have less of a focus on the gory, the depressing, etc. unless I can be assured of a happy ending. Escapist? Up to a point – the point where my fiction and non-fiction reading diverge.
For example, a pair of books I read about a year ago one after the other were The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Preston and Too Many Fairy Princes by Alex Beecroft. The Preston book dealt in horrendous detail with the Spanish Civil War and I was mesmerised, distressed and interested enough to seek out more books on the subject. Alex Beecroft’s fantasy, whilst it did deal with a kind of civil war in a fae kingdom, gave me romance, beauty and hope, a sort of counterpoint to the realities of Franco’s regime.
I rarely read books in the same genre without a hiatus to read something else. When I give something five stars I really really mean it! Any flaws at all lead to a four star rating. Books that are good enough in their way, possible even excellent for other readers, and quite often technically good get three. Then there are those with two (lots and lots of flaws but I carried on reading) and one (dire). An abandoned book might not mean any flaws at all, just that the book wasn’t to my taste. I abandon books that don’t interest me after a very short trial. I give five start rating to books I would absolutely recommend and those vary enormously.
To sum up:
Five stars: I adored it and would recommend it highly
Four stars: I liked it and would recommend it but there are criticisms
Three stars: fine but not really my ‘thing’ – neutral about recommendations and suggest readers look at the blurb.
Two stars: fascinating enough to finish but exasperating because of all its flaws; not really recommended
One star: dire. (I rarely finish a one star book but some short stories fall into this category)
Abandoned: abandoned (!) and that could be either content or style. As with three stars, read the blurb.