Wednesday, November 09, 2005

More Food Analogies

Candy over at Smart Bitches posted an interesting entry about Good Writing versus Bad Writing. I thought about commenting, but since it had been a few days since the entry and I couldn't manage to come up with a coherent sentence to save my name, I didn't.

Then I read the latest ATBF over at AAR, where some of the AAR reviewers discuss how they go about assigning grades to books they review and how hard it is when you get into that gray "average" territory (this topic is near the end of the column, so you have to scroll way down).

All this got me to thinking about why I love some books and why others leave me cold. Or why I might love a book even if the writing is sloppy versus why sometimes sloppy writing irritates me so completely I can't even focus on story so I end up not even bothering.

Naturally my first answer to such a question is that certain themes or plots appeal to me while others simply do not. I'm a sucker for any sort of rescue story, I prefer big strong alpha male heroes, and heroines who can hold their own, I don't mind a healthy dose of dark, and I always appreciate a book that makes me laugh. On the flipside, I can't stand Big Misunderstandings, I hate simpering females, secret babies and kid costars in general leave me cold, men who are rich just because aren't that appealing to me (although I do prefer an earl or a baron or a duke), and nothing makes me shut a book faster than too stupid to live behaviour.

But even assuming that I've picked up a title with a premise that I should love (ex-spec op hero is charged with rescuing tough as nails reporter from the clutches of maniacal madman), there are many more steps before I can say I love or hate the book.

If within the first chapter, I'm gritting my teeth over any grammatical issues or amateurish tics (such as charcters who say the other character's name in every single line of dialogue), no matter how great the story I most likely won't finish the book. I just cannot get past the crap to see the potential gem beneath it.

If the book passes that first hurdle, it's pretty much ennui that'll kill the book for me. If I just don't care what happens. If I put the book down and forget all about it or have no urge to pick it up again, that's when I designate the thing a flop. It might be well written. It might be technically perfect. But if nothing about it compels me to keep reading, then that's all she wrote.

Over the weekend while in the car I listened to Linda Howard's All the Queen's Men on audiotape. In general I've found Howard hit or miss; have loved some of her stuff (Mackenzie's Mountain), found other stuff pretty good (Mr. Perfect, A Game of Chance), and can't comprehend why some is successful and beloved (Mackenzie's Pleasure). But for the most part, I look forward to opening a Howard title and have several on my TBR pile.

That being said, I enjoyed ATQM quite a bit. It wasn't perfect from a craft standpoint. For example, at one point in the story, the heroine, Niema, asks the hero, John, what physical requirements it takes to gain entry into the elite Navy BUD/S training program. Instead of the normal guy response of "Had to run and swim in a certain amount of time, pushups and situps. That kind of stuff." John launches into a very precise recitation of BUD/S requirements culled straight out of a brochure. It was as if Howard was dying to show everyone that she had researched but didn't feel like making the effort to turn text speak into novel speak. I literally laughed out loud.

Too, there were some obvious plot holes. The hero and heroine were apart for too much of the time. And one major point of conflict for keeping hero and heroine apart emotionally was glossed over so easily and quickly that I wondered why Howard even bothered with it in the first place.

Even so, I liked this book. I liked the characters. I liked the story. I finished it and was sad when it ended. Not Hemingway, but entertaining.

Which leads me back full circle to what Candy was saying over at SB. Just because something isn't well written - a fact that can be imperically stated to some degree - doesn't mean it can't be enjoyable. One person's crap is another person's gold.

And to follow the food analogy, I liken the romance novel to the potato. There are dozens of ways to cook a potato. For the most part, I like potatoes cooked any way. But I do have my favorites; the French Fries, the au gratin, the mashed. Some writers cook scalloped potatoes from scratch while others make it out of the box. Different effects, sometimes worth the extra effort and sometimes not. And just because the French Fry isn't the hardest to cook or the fanciest or the best for you, I can still love them all the same. Add to this the fact that I prefer McDonald's French Fries to Burger King French Fries, and you have the component of author voice and style.

In the end, though, I have to chalk my selection of keepers to the je ne sais quoi. I can't put my finger on it or describe it or quantify it. Perhaps it's simply the perfect blending of story and character and style and voice, like the mysterious blend of spices that make a dish taste so marvelously good. You can't separate the flavors but you know when it's right.

And you can only hope and pray that someday you figure out the secret recipe.

No comments: