Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Washboard Prose by Andy Scheer

I started reading two novels this weekend. I'd not meant to begin the second so soon, but after several attempts to engage with the first, I gave up.

Outwardly, the two were similar: mass paperback international thrillers published in 2010 by New York houses. The first involved a quest for the tomb of Alexander the Great—the subject of at least three other novels I've enjoyed. The second promised a search for an ancient lost religious artifact.

Despite my interest in the first book's topic, the prose quickly reminded me a trying to drive a washboard road. (If you drive only on pavement, it's a poorly maintained gravel road that's developed a series of closely spaced ridges—like an old-fashioned washboard.)

I'd encountered such a road a few weeks ago when trying to visit a waterfall in Colorado's San Juan Mountains. The online guide said the three and one-half mile drive from the blacktop to the trailhead was well maintained. But I suspect that description was placed by a company that sold replacement tires and performed wheel alignments.

Our view as the road snaked up the side of the mountain was gorgeous, but I was so concerned about not damaging the car, I couldn't enjoy it. If Zapata Falls hadn't come so highly recommended, I'd have turned around after the first half mile.

I remembered that road as I tried to read the Alexander story. Page after page I was distracted by the kind of elements I've told people for years at writers conferences to edit out of their drafts. The author did okay with narrative summary, but his dialogue was piled high with telling. And his characters seldom said anything. Given the choice, they'd grin or laugh their words—or, in a more serious moment, demand or insist them.

If you can write this way and get published by a New York house, why bother to polish your prose? Or so I wondered for a few more pages—until I had to put the book down. I just couldn't get into the story. The writer's technique—if I could call it that—kept calling attention to itself and pulling me out of the story.

So I picked up the other novel—and quickly found myself seventy-five pages in, enjoying the characters, the setting, and the action. It reminded me of driving the previous weekend to La Veta, Colorado, to catch a ride on the Rio Grande Scenic Railway. Smooth pavement, no steep grades, the curves and intersections well marked. Just as it should be.

The weekend after Labor Day, we're considering a return trip. And this weekend, I got another story by the same writer. I think I'll enjoy it.


Rick Barry said...

This post is a reminder that simply getting a manuscript published doesn't mean a writer has "arrived" or has little more to learn. At writers conferences I admire multi-published authors who aren't too proud to sit in workshops to learn from other writers or editors.

Davalyn Spencer said...

Your experience is one I've also had. It's frustrating as a new author to read a book I know I could improve - and I'm not trying to sound arrogant. I've cringed at some books and wondered how they found their way into print. Yet they also encourage me to sharpen my own prose. I can always learn something - even if it's what *not* to do.

sally apokedak said...

I am also often pulled from a story because of bad writing. But what I find interesting is that if I like a story, I am blind to the technical blunders. I have a friend who is an editor and she's stuff I don't see at all.

She told me once that Harry Potter is full of "He remonstrated" and other ridiculous dialogue tags. I didn't believe. I pulled down one of the books and opened a page at random and I counted something like 23 bad dialogue tags. And I had not noticed a single one when I read the books.

sally apokedak said...

she's stuff? I don't know what happens when I type fast--SHE SEES STUFF

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Excellent analogy! I have been driving on some roads like this in upstate NY lately. Makes you wonder where all that tax money goes...

Dustin Turner said...

I had the exact same experience after editing my manuscript. I've stopped reading several times to say to my wife, "look at this, I just took this out of my story!" I just assumed that when you are a successful writer, editors are less likely to critique your work.

Linda Glaz said...

If I have to read about one more man who barks and snarls and growls, I'm going to stop buying romance. I do understand your frustration. And then again, an author I've never heard about before might have me pulled right in with the stellar writing.