Thursday, January 09, 2014

The whole story and nothing but the story

Photo: Satiray in Flickr. Creative Commons License
While I post book reviews regularly on this blog, I decided years ago not to publish a negative review of a book by an independent author. I also promised never to publish a positive review unless I really meant it. My reviews are candid, and while I hope to promote independent authors, I won’t lie about a book’s quality. I just will not review a book I don’t think is good. I don’t see the point in tearing down a book by an author who is probably struggling as hard as I am to sell books. I would rather spend my time promoting deserving authors.

While I have read many excellent author-published books, the one I’m currently reading, which I will call “the book” for the rest of this post, disappoints me. It was written by a best-selling, independent author who has done a lot to promote the credibility self-published authors.

I expected an engaging story, but instead, I found a frustrating one. Getting through this story is like wading knee-deep through adjectival phrases, similes and adverbs.

Take this example (with key words changed to disguise the identity):
Bernard von Bauben saw her before he was halfway across the lobby. Mary Lynn was sitting in an overstuffed lavender chair beside the Baby Grand Piano, dressed in mauve and lace, smiling at him. Von Bauben walked immediately to her, and she stood and kissed his cheek. Her lips were warm, and von Bauben saw a fire burning deep within the coloration of her eyes.

Or this one:
The Elite Apartments were cloaked in peace and solitude as they were advertised to be. From the outside, only a dozen or so lights were visible in the windows, and the faint sound of a radio playing Scott Joplin’s ragtime disrupted the stilted silence of a day fading into night. 
As he climbed out of the car, Brent Haymire thought he glimpsed a nervous rustle of curtains on the third floor, and he wondered if someone was up there watching him. In his line of work, there were eyes everywhere. General Tom Regan often accused him of being stricken with an acute case of paranoia. Maybe he was imagining things. Maybe not. The mind did have a habit of playing tricks sometimes. But the subconscious was also the best warning system that man possessed, and Haymire knew that, thus far, his paranoia, real or imagined, had managed to keep him clear of those sordid things, legal and ominous, that go bump in the night.
 Good grief! Anyone with the slimmest grasp of English could cut those passages in half without losing any information.

Combine that with the number of times the author dedicates two paragraphs to describing a scene or a feeling, then does it again three pages later, and you can imagine my reaction:

“Get on with the story!”

Coincidentally, I watched Cloud Atlas on DVD last night. (Okay, so I still use obsolete technology. I also listen to a transistor radio when I work out.) That movie disappointed me, too, for a similar reason: the writers were more focused on their own writing cleverness than on telling the story.

Cloud Atlas banner by CochiseMFC
Cloud Atlas was based on a novel with a great reputation (I haven’t read it, and I don’t think I will, now) and had a strong cast, but failed to tell the story. The novel features six “nested” stories that begin in the south Pacific in 1850, move through the 20th century to a dystopian and post-apocalyptic future, then goes back to the beginning. Each story is interrupted at a crucial point by the next story, which picks up a character or an object from the previous one. It was a clever idea that earned the author a lot of praise for his writing skills.

I think that the movie’s writers tried to be as clever, and ended up creating something so complex as to be baffling. Instead of nesting six different stories, the movie jumps around from story to story quickly, with no apparent reason and no apparent pattern, other than beginning and ending with the post-apocalyptic story of Zachry — in effect, turning the novel’s structure inside-out.

The cast, which included Tom Hanks, David Broadbent, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon, had roles in most, if not all of the stories. This was more of a distraction than an addition, especially with actors changing gender or race — Halle Berry as a Jewish refugee in 1935, or Doona Bae as a Korean clone in 2144 as well  the daughter of an American slaver in 1850. I found myself saying “Oh, that’s Tom Hanks with a skin wig and a beard and heavy makeup!” or “Hey, that’s no lady! That’s Hugo Weaving in drag and a blond wig!” Worst, I had to look up the cast on my iPad. “Is that Roger Daltrey? No, it’s Hugh Grant with a curly wig and old-guy makeup!”

Nearly three hours later, I could not see the movie’s point. I think the directors and writers tried to make a statement with the actors playing different roles in different stories, but what that statement was, I cannot tell.

The most important part of any story: the audience
The filmmakers behind Cloud Atlas and the author of the book that disappoints me spent far too much time admiring their own abilities, and not enough asking whether they’ve connected with their audience.
Image courtesy Creative Commons

What do you think? Did you watch Cloud Atlas? Did you read the novel? Have you ever read a book that seemed to have more to do with showing off the writer’s abilities than telling a story to a reader? Tell us all about it in the comments.


  1. It's a fine line between convoluted and complex, or between vague and subtle. Most people, even great writers, rarely find the balance. But when they do it's pretty amazing. I guess it's worth reaching for even if you fail (which most do) for those rare instances when it rises above the simple and obvious and takes you with it. Mind you can't say that's happened to me recently. "Great" books don't live up to the hype these days - and they get hyped a lot, which is maybe part of the problem.

    Moody Writing

  2. I don't even think those paragraphs you've included are very well written, never mind the superfluous words. I am frequently surprised and frustrated by the books that sell well! Very much agree about the 'showing off' element in some books, too - so many indie authors appear to use their novel as a vehicle to display their knowledge about a particular subject. Lovely for them, tedious for the reader!

  3. I loved Cloud Atlas the movie, and the book is on my to-read list. I think the point of each story was that the struggle for generosity and forgiveness and kindness as well as freedom from humanity's baser impulses is worth the cost in blood. Regarding the indie author's prose, all I can say is I completely agree with you. There's nothing more frustrating than when over-written prose gets in the way. If the writing itself is beautiful and worth savoring, that's one thing, but when it's not (as this is not), just tell the damn story.