Thursday, September 12, 2013

Watching Paint Dry

Writer's quote of the day, courtesy of @adviceToWriters:

"Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."
      ANTON CHEKHOV

I wish more writers would take this advice. I just finished a couple of romance novels, both of which I found somewhat less than romantic. Mostly they were boring, and I don't use that word lightly. I think the word "boring" or "bored" is overused. I myself am never bored. The world is too full of things to do and think about. Some writers try to bore me with bland prose, a paltry collection of tepid adjectives, and sine-wave story arcs. They fail because I either speed-read my way to the end (paper) or start skipping tracks (audio). If it's really awful, I'll just throw in the last disc if I care to hear what happens at the end. I will not let them win. You can't bore me: I quit!

OK, I wasn't going to name names, but the last thing I tried to read was "Honeysuckle Summer" by Sherryl Woods. I should have known I was in for a rough ride when I saw it was the last book in the "Sweet Magnolias" series. "Honeysuckle", "sweet", "magnolia"...do your teeth hurt, yet? Woods is not a bad writer, but these kinds of books just leave me wanting to stab myself with a fork so I can at least feel something. The phrase "watching paint dry" sprang to mind frequently. This happened a year or so ago, before I started my quest to research romance novels in a more methodical way, when I picked up a couple of Debbie Macomber books at the library. She's local to me, and I love her tea house in Port Orchard, so I thought I'd give her a look-see. I can't remember if I made it past the first chapter of either book, but I do remember that they were the equivalent of sitting in the "fellowship hall" at church listening to nice, wholesome, yet bland people talk about their grandkids, golf games, the altar guild, and what they were planning for Sunday dinner.

Writing about ordinary people does not have to be coma-inducing. Rosamund Pilcher did it all the time, and I adore her novels. Then again, there's usually some kind of social or relational Macguffin in a Pilcher story: a regretted affair, a lost love, a buried secret like a hidden past life. Sprinkle that with some interesting events like, say World War 2, a natural disaster, a tragic accident, the appearance of some kind of villain, all contrasted with vignettes of charming but quirky everyday life, and you have Pilcher in a nutshell. That may sound boring, and it may be to some people, but she is so skillful with her writing that it isn't.

I think that's what writers like Sherryl Woods are trying to do. There is some past drama, a medical malady or two, and even a homicidal ex-husband, but she just doesn't have the chops to keep me interested. The only reason I bothered toughing out "Honeysuckle Summer" is because it was read by Mary Robinette Kowal, who writes wonderfully ("Shades of Milk and Honey") and is a talented Voice Over artist as well. She had her work cut out for her in trying to make this bland story interesting. She did succeed in making me want to listen to the last chapters, but it was a tough haul.

Major problem #1: Woods is very obviously trying to raise awareness about agoraphobia and anorexia (two different characters), but manages to harp on them constantly without actually educating us in any meaningful way. If you're going to be preachy, at least cover the issues in some detail rather than just giving the same surface treatment over and over.

Major problem #2: "Twilight syndrome" or "I only have ten adjectives and you're going to hear them over and over!" Please don't tell me that the hero is "handsome", tell me why he's handsome. Don't tell me the girl is "sexy", tell me why the hero finds her sexy. Points off also for overuse, any use, really, of "rugged".

Major problem #3: Lavish descriptions of things we've already seen multiple times. Things like the protagonist's back yard or the hero's broad shoulders. Also included here are lavish descriptions of cooking and meals. I don't care what they're having for lunch, unless it's pertinent to the plot or unusual in some way. I also don't care what color his or her shirt or jacket is unless, again, it's noteworthy for some reason. Can terrorists fast-rope in and start taking hostages already?! Ahem.

Here's hoping for some romantic romance in the near future.

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