Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Book Review: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

Why is she reading this? you may ask. Trust me, I wouldn't have gone out of my way to read a Dan Brown book. Several years ago I read "The DaVinci Code" and enjoyed it tremendously. Then I went back and used it for a writing exercise. You were supposed to copy several paragraphs from a book you'd enjoyed reading and then try to emulate that style in a paragraph of your own.

Oh. My. Word.

The pace of "The DaVinci Code" is so hectic that I'd never noticed the poor quality of the writing. The subject was fascinating (to me) and certainly controversial. It was a pretty good yarn.

I tried a couple of his other books, but the only thing that stood out was the same poor writing. And they didn't have the hook of "The DaVinci Code." I stopped reading anything he'd written. So why did I read this book? Well, the Friends of the Pima County Library had a book sale two weeks ago and, for two bucks I figured I couldn't go too far wrong. Besides, "The Lost Symbol" has been on the bestseller list for a long time, so it must have something to recommend it, right?

Uh, no. I kept thinking that if I had submitted writing like this to my critique group, it would have come back with deletions and highlights all over the place. For example, from page 377:
Outside the tank, her voice muffled but audible, Katherine could be heard tearfully begging for Langdon's release. . . . He scanned the grid intensely, searching for some clue . . .
With each passing second, Langdon had begun to feel an eerie numbness overtaking his body. It was as if his very flesh were preparing to shield his mind from the pain of death. The water was now threatening to pour into his ears, and he lifted his head as far as he could, pushing it against the top of the crate. Frightening images began flashing before his eyes.
Well, you get the idea. Adverbs. Passive voice. Beginning and as if. It makes me wonder. Agents, editors, and critique partners would ding a newbie writer for not using stronger verbs and for so many weasel words. But obviously the reading public doesn't have the same opinion. So how did Dan Brown get this stuff past the gatekeepers and onto the bestseller lists?

The technical stuff isn't the only thing I had a problem with. For one thing, there were just too many puzzles. One would be solved, only to reveal that there was yet another puzzle. It got tedious. I skimmed the end of the book, wanting to finish it but not really interested.

I wasn't really interested because a lot of the end was an infodump. Now, he didn't put all this background information at the beginning, so I guess Dan Brown gets points for that. But all the explanations at the end also got tedious. Did I really need to know all these details? Not really. But, in one last gasp to use his research material, Dan Brown seemed to want to cram as much in as he possibly could.

And, finally, one of the big reveals at the end was something I'd figured out almost from the beginning. I couldn't believe that it would be that transparent, but it was.

I don't like to write scathing reviews, but I suppose Dan Brown won't be too upset by this one. His fame and his bank account will certainly cushion the blow. And the Friends of the Library will be getting another book to sell (again).

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Birdwalking at Tohono Chul Park

No, there aren't any pictures this week. I know I promised. I even charged up the battery for my camera and remembered to take it this morning. But I never took the camera out of my fanny-pack. Do they still call them fanny-packs? I suppose it doesn't matter.

I did get up out of bed this morning, eat breakfast, shower and dress so I could make the 8:30 start time for the docent-led bird walk. It wasn't as hard as I'd thought it would be. I guess getting up at 5:30 every morning during the week leads to a habit.

I thought I'd be late, but I made it with ten minutes to spare. As I rushed up to the ramada, where all the walks through Tohono Chul Park start, a male docent asked hopefully, "Are you interested in the bird walk?" Since there were two of them and only one person there for the scheduled walk (me), I understood the "hopefully" all too well. It was a beautiful morning in Tucson, warm, sunny with the air fresh and clean. I was surprised that no one else had shown up yet, but not too surprised, since Saturday mornings are made for sleeping in and running errands. If most people are like me, it's a struggle to get going after the work week.

We were just about to start out because the expected docent hadn't arrived either when a woman docent rushed up and apologized for being late. It was her first time to lead the birdwalking tour and I think she was relieved that I wasn't an avid birder who would ask difficult questions or contradict her if she said something wrong.

I can't say I learned a lot about the birds. We only saw a couple of species that I hadn't seen before. There was a Cooper's hawk perched in a tree near a nest that apparently is one of a pair that have lived in the park for the past four or five years. We saw a phainopepla, which has a crest like a cardinal but is black instead of red. The others I'd seen before. Lots of house finches and lesser goldfinches. A few hummingbirds and a gila woodpecker or two.

But it really wasn't about the birding for me. It was about walking outside in the park instead of being cooped up in a house or office or battling the weeds in my yard. The bonus was that the docent and I had a wonderful chat as we roamed the park looking for birds. She was originally from Atlanta and, since my son went to Georgia Tech, we had an immediate connection. I was almost sorry the walk had to end after an hour. No pictures, not many birds, and I'd already seen the gardens and paths we walked through this morning, but very satisfying nevertheless.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Wow!

It's amazing that I chose this book to read right after my post about how hard it was to just enjoy reading a book because I've learned to read like a writer. This book had it all and enabled the very thing I was bemoaning a short time ago. The world is fully developed, the characters are unique and sympathetic, and the stakes couldn't be higher.

The main character, Katniss, has taken on the role of provider and caretaker for her family after her father is killed in the mines. Her mother, unable to adapt to the death of her husband, takes to her bed. Her sister, Pim, is too young to care for herself. So Katniss takes the bow and arrows that her father has taught her to use on illicit hunting trips to provide fresh meat to eat and to trade for the necessities of life. It's a brutal existence, but it's the only one she knows.

But there's more. Each year, two tributes from each of the twelve districts of Panem are chosen to participate in the the Hunger Games. These are adolescents and the "games" are a fight to the death. Only one will survive.

For some reason, I kept thinking of Robert A. Heinlein's "Tunnel in the Sky" as I read this book. There are similarities in both premises. Teenagers are plunked into a strange world with minimal resources and the object is survival. The hero and heroine are forced to use their brains and their skills to cope with the dangers in unexpected ways. And, while you know that the protagonist will survive and conquer, there is always some doubt, some new danger thrown in his or her path.

This storyline of a child forced to be a grown up because the adults won't accept the responsibility resonates with me. I won't go into details (this is supposed to be a book review after all), but it reflects the family in which I grew up. I must not be alone since there are so many YA books with this theme. You can include Harry Potter in this classification. Since so many adults read these books, it must be true not only of teenagers, but adults, that they want to be the heroes of their lives, take control and defeat the world.

Maybe that explains the popularity of thrillers as well. The world is in danger and only one man or, less often, woman can save it. We all like to imagine that we are that one person. And, because of books like "The Hunger Games", we can.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Validation -or- A Change of Plans

Writing is a difficult avocation. You do it all alone, just you and your computer or a notebook. You see flashes of scenes in your head and try to make them come alive in the printed word. It can take years to produce a book between the planning and the researching and the writing and revising. And, while you do most of this, there's no way to know whether what you're working on will be good enough to be published or not.

I was always a good student. In school, you get grades as you go along. Your homework is graded. Your tests are graded. At the end of each quarter, you get a report card. There's constant feedback on how you're doing.

I haven't quite figured out how to get the equivalent feedback on my writing. One of the ways is to join a critique group, but finding the right one is often a challenge. I've belonged to three of them and found problems with all. The first one was good for me for almost a year. I learned a lot from my critique partners and, hopefully, they learned a lot from me. But one got a publishing contract, one dropped out for other reasons, and we never got back the momentum even when we tried to add new members. The second one wasn't a good fit at all. The writers wrote in different genres, didn't get mysteries, and there was at least one member who, although he never submitted any writing of his own in the time I attended, seemed intent on ripping apart everything the other members submitted.

Most recently I've been a part of a large online critique group with loose rules. Because of the nature of it, there's a lot of new writers who haven't learned the basics. I've been having trouble finding potential critique partners who are better writers than I am and those who can give me useful feedback.

So, in an attempt to get better feedback on the quality of my writing, I entered two national writing contests in February. Both promised scoresheets with critiques of your submission and I thought that this might be a way of gauging where I stand. I also hoped I had improved enough to make the first round cut in at least one of them. Yesterday I found out that I hadn't done that.

After a few tears and a splurge at the Friends of the Library book sale, I did some serious thinking. You see, I'd given up a lot over the past two years to put in time on my writing in an attempt to create a publishable novel. My priority for the weekend is always writing, revising, blogging, or critiquing. Last weekend I skipped a friend's concert because if I went, I knew I wouldn't accomplish my writing goals

And the question became, do I really want to give up hiking in Saguaro National Park, enjoying Sabino Canyon and Tohono Chul Park and the Botanical Gardens for the rest of the spring? Do I want to miss movies in the theater and farmer's markets and quilt shows and all the other things that other people do? No.

There's about two months before the temperature soars to the 100s and you just can't do anything outside in Tucson. Summer in Arizona is like winter in the northeast. People stay indoors, in air conditioning, rather than braving the hot, dry sun. I want to take walks after work instead of hurrying to my computer to critique another chapter of someone else's work or fight with a revision of my own. I want to spend my Saturdays enjoying the gorgeous spring in Tucson, visiting and revisiting some of the places I love to go, and resting from the week at a job I really hate.

With any luck, that will mean more pictures for my blog. At the very least, I'll get healthier. And, maybe once we hit the scorching summer, I'll feel like writing--with joy--again.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Reading as a Writer

The curse of learning the craft of writing is that you learn all the "rules." You learn to avoid adverbs, changing "he ran quickly" to "he galloped", look out for weasel words, limit the use of adjectives, pare down backstory, pay attention to the difference between which and that, and all kinds of other things.

Now, this isn't a bad thing for your writing career, but it does change the way you read other people's work. I first noticed this when doing a writing exercise that was supposed to teach you about voice. It suggested that you read a page of a book you enjoyed and then try to write a paragraph in the same style. Being new to the whole writing thing, this sounded like an interesting exercise to try.

I chose "The DaVinci Code", a book I had raced through, caught up in a story I found hard to put down. After just a few sentences, I stopped to reposition my dropped jaw. Dan Brown had broken all the rules in this bestselling novel. Adverbs and adjectives abounded, gerunds were plentiful, and the quality of the writing, according to the rules, was awful. How had I not noticed? Moreover, how had so many people not noticed that it became a mega-bestseller?

That's when I learned that most readers don't pay attention to the rules. Yes, a poorly written book will generally not sell many copies; but story trumps all. Including, apparently, poor writing.

But not for a writer. Once you become attuned to what is good writing and what is bad writing, or perhaps a better way to put it would be strong versus weak writing, you can never read a novel in quite the same way again. Reading for pleasure becomes more difficult because you get distracted by sudden switches in point of view and infodumps and passive sentences. It takes an unusual book to make me stop paying attention to how a book is written and focus on what is written.

This week I started reading "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." I had read other writers' comments about the quality of the writing, but the idea of a hacker as a main character was intriguing. And, after all, it's been on the bestseller list for over a year. But, after fifty pages, I had to quit. Those first fifty pages were all backstory, the most onerous example of telling versus showing that I've read in a long time. There was only so long I could push through it and try to get to the good parts. I'm not sure there are any good parts and I doubt that I'll ever go back to the book to find them.

Is it me or is it the book? Have I changed in my reading habits to such an extent that I now miss good stories? I will tell you that it takes an outstanding book for me to ignore the technical details of writing in it. Dennis Lehane does that. I started to reread "Gone Baby, Gone" to study the technique. I bought a new copy to mark up with notes. But I got so wrapped up in the story, I forgot to make any notes after the first chapter. But most books are disappointing. And I do miss getting lost in a story.