Back on the shelf, unread

posted in: Writing Advice | 1

Unread BooksSince the beginning of the year, I’ve been trying to keep track of what I’m reading and what I thought of the writing, plot, dialogue and story structure by leaving reviews on Goodreads. But lately I’ve noticed a disturbing trend: I’ve got a pile-up of books abandoned on the “currently reading” bookshelf.

I’m not reading them – I gave up reading them. I just can’t bring myself to move them to the “read” category because it doesn’t seem quite right. And yet they don’t quite fit on the “Want to Read” shelf. They’re back on the shelf, unread.

I returned The Secret History to the library without finishing it, a bit of a surprise considering how much I loved The Goldfinch. I blame a couple factors. The Secret History is a big, fat book and we were only granted three weeks together. That just wasn’t enough time! But I also wasn’t sufficiently hooked into the story. I’d reached the part where the protagonist learns that most of his classmates had been involved in a murder. I knew there was another death coming – that’s revealed in the opening of the book. But I just wasn’t driven to stay with the book for another 400 or so pages.

I had to send Yiddish for Pirates back as well. This book has most certainly earned the mountains of praise heaped on it – it’s an unusual story written by someone who takes absolute delight in words. Gary Barwin isn’t bound by the conventions of Merriam-Webster or their ilk. Where a word doesn’t have the right feel, where it lacks the right punch, he makes up another. The entire book is a mash of English, Yiddish and a third language that Barwin seems to have invented. In other words: this is a dense read. It takes time. You need to sink into it. And since we too were granted only three weeks together, I didn’t get much further than the shipwreck before it had to make its way back to the library!

I’ve also set down A Trick of the Light for now, although I fully intend to return to Three Pines and the world of Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache. I just had other things I needed to read – The Secret History being one! – and some reading I needed to do related to my writing.

That led me to Tana French’s The Likeness. I’m attempting to write a literary crime novel and French is considered a strong voice in literary crime writing. I read her In The Woods debut a couple years ago and remember sections of it pretty vividly. But I didn’t finish The Likeness. (Actually, come to think of it, I didn’t get all the way through In The Woods either!) I cheated, skipping to the end to see whodunnit and then sent it back to the library without getting much past the detective’s arrival in her doppelganger’s home. (A really compelling premise – the detective is sent in undercover when a murder victim turns up looking like her identical twin.) The book felt a bit repetitive to me – the plot moved incrementally, with our heroine learning teeny, tiny facts and the action stopping now and again for a reflective think. Knowing as I did that the “whodunnit” wasn’t nearly as dramatic as I’d hoped, some of the tension deflated for me and I just wasn’t engaged.

I’m deep in the outlining phase right now, where I think a good deal of effort should be made to really get clear what’s integral to the story and how to get scenes and storytelling to be as lean and mean as possible.

I think what I’m learning from what I don’t finish is that a) I’m a little scattered right now and haven’t fully committed to the idea that writers need to be readers; b) I need to invest in books, not just rely on my library; c) I might be a bit ambitious in how much I am trying to read right now; and d) long, immersive writing still has to be compelling writing. It can’t just be pretty writing. It’s got to move the story. In other words: I want story, not just character.

(Photo courtesy of Unsplash)

One Response

  1. Andrew Perrin

    Interesting. Thanks Karen. I’m going through a similar phase right now and have my own pile of half finished books on the bedside table. I put it down to a diminished attention span and for that I blame my addiction (let’s call it what it is) to reading on my smart phone. I’m a whore for content, but I don’t have a meaningful relationship with any of it. Consume and scroll. Consume and scroll. But that’s not the point of my post. I was interested to hear your support for the detailed outline. My wife and I discussed outlines the other day. She reminded me that Stephen King in On Writing argues against plotting, preferring instead to discover the story as he writes. I realized when she said it that not once in my journalism career did I ever plot out a story, and I wrote some long ones. Horses for courses, I guess. Good luck with the book. Cheers, Andrew

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