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Spot the Technique

on November 17th, 2009 by Shannon

There are so many books in the world, and so little time to read them. This is not new insight, I’m aware, but it is something I struggle with both as a reader and a writer. After all, how can I justify putting a book down just because it hasn’t held my attention as closely as I might have liked, especially knowing the sweat, tears, and copious amounts of caffeine that have gone into its production?

On the other hand, is it really fair for an author to expect me to spend twenty minutes reading a detailed inventory of the shrubbery in their main character’s backyard when I have laundry and children and my own writing deadlines to worry about? (Actually just the kids and the writing. I just threw in the laundry crack to see if you were paying attention.) Even if there is a serial killer lurking between the rhodedendrons and the lilacs, I don’t care! And I obviously don’t know how to spell rhodedendron.

So I’ve decided to split the difference, and I’ve invented a game I like to call “Spot the Technique.” Not to be confused with Spot the dog, fun-loving and mischievous companion to Dick and Jane.  Spot the technique involves sticking with a book, good or bad, for the purpose of spotting those things they are always drilling into our heads at writer’s workshops. Show, don’t tell! Dialogue must advance the story! No prologues!

I’m still fuzzy on the point system (right now it involves a shot glass and hard liquor), but basically a book is awarded points for techniques they’ve done well, and subtracted points for amatuer mistakes.

Take Dan Brown’s newest, “The Lost Symbol.”  Don’t get me wrong. “The DaVinci Code” remains to this day one of my favorite books, mainly because it grabbed me and refused to let go, which is really all I ask of my reading material. And my husband.

But “The Lost Symbol” wasn’t doing it for me. Let’s play Spot the Technique and see if we can figure out why.

1. Prologue. In the words of every writing professional I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking with, prologues are dead! Minus 2 points.

2. Pointless flashbacks. Or, to be more accurate, flashbacks whose point it is to tell us something very important to the plot, but which occur at really convenient times. And by convenient, I mean for the reader and not the main character, who happens to be RUNNING THROUGH THE CAPITAL BUILDING while nostagically recalling one of his recent college seminars. Minus 10 points.

3. As you know, Bob dialogue. This is a term I love, because it means exactly what it sounds like. If you feel the need to adance your story with dialogue that sounds like “As you know, Bob, I am your father, which means that we share certain DNA and if that match just came back negative, then we have a real problem,” you’re just not trying hard enough. Nor is Dan Brown, I’m sorry to say. I mean, there are only so many times the words freemason and obelisk come up in casual conversation.

4. Bringing someone back from the dead using advanced scientific technology. Sorry, I know that’s a spoiler for some of you, but it must be addressed. If you’ve got the balls to kill off your main character, then you darn well better have the balls to see it through. There aren’t any takebacks in writing. Except for rewrites. And science fiction. And alternative dream sequences. Okay, so there are takebacks. But that doesn’t mean I have to like them.

(In the interest of fairness, I did award Mr. Brown some bonus points for torturing his character. I mean, Langdon and his requisite big-brained beauty really suffered in this one.)

I could go on, but you get the idea, and my fingers are tired. Suffice it to say, The Lost Symbol’s rating didn’t come in very high. On the plus side, I finished the book, and I learned a little something along the way.

Which is why I am encouraging you, faithful readers, to do the same. The next time you encounter a book that you just don’t think you have the time to finish, as yourself if it wouldn’t be more interesting with a little game of “Spot the Technique.”

Especially if it’s mine.

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