Monday, April 29, 2013

Why Some Books Are "Meh"

So one of the books I read recently made me pause and think about all the others like it. Yes, all the others. Because I often find that there is a specific type of YA book that will set itself apart while the rest mingle together in this one giant shelf of "meh." Maybe some of this isn't new to write, but I figured that it would be better to have my expectations of books out there, for you, at least, to see whether our tastes align.

To avoid the great shelf of "meh," do not include these elements.

Too much narration. You know what really gets me sometimes about YA? It's that sometimes the characters spell everything out for you in their thoughts as if you would not understand that a frown is sadness or that this information really hurts the protagonist or etc. etc. Yeah, most of the times the narration that is there is easy to read, but that's about it. I'm more for you cutting back on the narration and using that free space to give us more scenes with your characters. Think Kristin Cashore. (Of course the opposite is having way too little, so little I can't even sense your writing and character voices. Watch out for that.)

Villain tells all speech. I've posted about this before, but I was thinking recently about how much more satisfying in general it is to have the protagonist and other characters figure out what the villain is up to. Or think that they know. If you do that, it gives you so many more chances to make the plot more complex and also to make the villain more complex; if the characters were wrong about the motivations/what's being planned, well, hmm, does that not pique your interest already?

What comes with insta!love. I had a conversation about insta!love with my critique partner, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized my problem isn't completely with insta!love itself so much as what often comes with it. The dependence. This is not an effect isolated to high school; I am not as close with some friends because they are attached to their partners. So while maybe a part of me could understand the intensity that comes with having an all-consuming crush, the rest of me no longer sympathizes with any sort of ultra! dependent behavior.

Tragic past. We all have tragic pasts of sorts, even if some of ours are more tragic than those of others. But what gets me about this is that often I find that the tragic past is what supposedly differentiates the character's voice. It's not enough to say that the character is grieving so the character needs to control everything around her; is that a characteristic of our world, of our times? That could be applied to any time! Think of all your favorite protagonists... and I will provide some popular examples. I think Katniss is often used as the model nowadays, with people writing their protagonists with a skill like Katniss's skill in archery. But having a character who's good at kendo and thus can fight isn't on the same level as Katniss's archery. You see, her skill is more entwined in the world. It allows for her to provide for her family. It allows for her to break the law every day. It allows for her to win the Hunger Games etc. etc. You see how many layers are entwined in that one skill? It's the same with the tragic past and the character voice. Convince me that this character can ONLY live in your world, that your character is a PRODUCT of that world.

Information dump conversations. I'm not a huge fan of the info dump conversations which are sometimes used to build worlds. Certainly it makes it easier to read if it's all broken up into conversation, but I would much rather read about the world in gradual pulses... or if you need to do an info dump, do it in one paragraph. I often find my attention wanders when there's multiple pages of you telling me why your world is so fascinating. Of course this depends on the reader, whereas I think the other points are much more universal in applicability.

Predictable plots. Generally I don't dock a book for having a predictable plot, because I think most of YA books have predictable plots (and sometimes there is no way around that, i.e. contemp. romance, so they function on a level of anticipation). I think the trend for predictable plots could be a function of them mostly being about character growth and coming of age and hero(ine)'s journey etc. etc. etc. But what I will sometimes remember is when a book breaks my expectations, because even if I think the rest is crap, I will still remember that it took me along for a great ride.

Stereotypical characters. This is a total duh. But at any rate, you know why J.K. Rowling is so successful? It's because if you think of any character in the HP series, you can probably think of a few scenes that really define the person. Harry is the stereotypical special orphan, but he's also much more than that. Think of a few critical scenes that really highlight what you want your readers to know about your characters.

A lack of meaning. For me, it really isn't just symbolism or metaphors. Most of my favorite books have this underlying core that I can relate to. Shadow and Bone - the struggle for power and belonging. Divergent - the need to label ourselves. etc. etc. There are questions embedded into these narratives about how these characters act and whether that's justified. To what lengths would you go? I think my critique partner once put it as shining a mirror onto society, and that's true. Maybe not necessarily a criticism of society, but for me at least, my favorite books have something about what it means to be us. These are the kind of questions that will stick with me long after reading the book.

Romance that's executed poorly. This is worse than not having romance.

Of course, I doubt anyone sets off writing a book with these in mind, thinking that they will include a poorly executed romance... but hey, maybe there'll be greater levels of awareness, and with that fewer books in the slush pile of "meh." Who knows?

Do you agree/disagree with the qualities I've listed above? What makes a book "meh" for you?


  1. True, but honestly I think having an annoying MC is what pushes the book away from the "meh" pile to the DNF pile for me.

  2. I agree on the poorly executed romance Christina! And the instalove dependence, that's usually what bothers me as well. I can absolutely believe in an instant attraction and even feelings that develop really quickly, particularly in dystopians when the world is falling apart and survival is questionable, but I don't deal well with emotional dependence. :)

  3. yes, definitely re: the impacts of war/dystopia/etc. For some reason, this immediately reminded me of Harry Potter & the discussion of Bill/Fleur... Anyway, it's always in the way the romance is packaged--what works for one dystopian may not work for another, but the heavy, heavy emotional dependence is a complete no, no.

  4. You have the most incisive, thoughtful posts about writing. I want to say that up front because not all bloggers really focus on craft, and that's something that you do and do WELL. It's what really keeps me following your blog religiously. Anyhoo, I agree with every single point you have here. I think there can be good books that break one of the rules, but in general, those are all things that I've noticed a lot in books that I either don't pick up, don't finish, or don't remember.

    Where instalove is concerned, you have a great point about the dependence. It's clingy and eerie. I wouldn't even mind it so much because teenagers can really get that way. It's normal for them to think 'this is the one' and that they'd die for them. What I think is lacking is an authorial sense that that kind of dependence is NOT the same as real love. Too many authors write it like these two people are actually meant to be together forever from the very start, rather than looking at it as attraction and infatuation that may (or may not!) lead to something deeper and more lasting.

    Writing style is something that can really make a 'meh' book for me. I think too many authors focus on the plots and characters without honing their style. Take Amanda Hocking. I thought her books had a lot of potential but were in many cases poorly cut and edited. Too many adjectives, unnecessary scenes, a little sloppy around the edges. Obviously she's a millionaire and the world doesn't care what I think, but for ME, it made her books 'meh' rather than good. Writing doesn't need to be fancy or "literary." But it should show a good sense of diction, realistic dialogue, consistent point of view and voice, and a uniqueness that distinguishes YOUR writing from any other YA author. At least, I think so.


    Sarcasm & Lemons

  5. I feel the same as you with some of these - information dumps are just the worst! Have you heard of the Liebster Blog Award, because I've nominated you! Check out my post about it to see what it's all about!

  6. I have heard of the Liebster Blog Award :). Thanks for nominating me.

  7. Thank YOU. You always leave such thoughtful comments. More craft posts in the future then :)!

    Yes.yes.yes. Exactly what you said about insta!love. Even the writers who poke fun at it still portray that kind of dependence without censor. That's part of the reason why I love some books like Prodigy or Insurgent, where the main couple faces the normal difficulties in their relationship. Those are so much more compelling than the paranormal/dystopic/etc. worlds forcing them apart...

    "Writing doesn't need to be fancy or "literary." But it should show a good sense of diction, realistic dialogue, consistent point of view and voice, and a uniqueness that distinguishes YOUR writing from any other YA author. At least, I think so."

    Yes, I agree with you too ;). And Amanda Hocking was actually who I thought of when I was writing the narration part.

  8. Hell yes I agree! I hate the dependent behavior that happens with insta!love. I'm a big hater of the insta love. And the villain tells all speech! GAWD! I recently had that in an indie book I read....yeah I just sat there through it rolling my eyes. I can't handle it when the narration is overly descriptive....I get tired if there is to much *this is what everything looks like, feels like, smells like* You should be able to convent to me in way less than a paragraph the atmosphere and look of a place....not every freaking paragraph has more details about you're walking down the hall and the gilding on the whatever, and the floor/wall panels and lighting bla bla bla.

  9. I agree with this whole list! Especially the dependency with the insta love. It doesn't seem healthy to be so attached to someone you just met. Also, the stereotypical characters bother me too. Like the blonde cheerleader mean girl who rules the school.

  10. I love your discussion posts so much, Christina! They're always so thoughtfully considered, and bring up a lot of good points.

    I agree with all of your points, most particularly the "bigger meaning" one. I don't mind predictable/fluff books either, but the ones that really move me, that really affect me, are the ones that have something to SAY--even if they're not technically perfect! It's partly the reason I'm so stingy with my 5 stars, there aren't a lot of books that reach that level of awesome for me.

  11. Yes, the villain tells all speech comes very close to inducing the eye-roll. Ahhh, I'm not a huge fan of being overly descriptive, but I think it may bother you more than me. (I actually like a lot of sensory details--but yes, so long as it doesn't go overboard). The overnarration makes me think of the times when the protagonist is explaining that he/she is hurt or summarizing what's already happened as if we couldn't put two and two together.

  12. The blonde cheerleader mean girl who rules the school could totally become someone who is awesome to follow, if there are other scenes you could think of that she's in that don't involve some aspect of that identity. I think one good example of that specific stereotype turned on its head is Alona from The Ghost and The Goth.

  13. Thank you, Wendy :). Yes, the ones that have something to SAY -- that's a much better way of putting it. There are so many books out there; they've got to differentiate themselves somehow, and I'm probably not going to connect with them unless there is that underlying core!

    (...though there are some books I'd give 5 stars to that are just plain fun like Richelle Mead's series. Don't think there's a HUGE theme going on there.)

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  15. YES. I read 'meh' books all the time, but I really love it when characters/worlds don't fall prey to the many dangers you point out.

    And this: Convince me that this character can ONLY live in your world, that your character is a PRODUCT of that world. This point is what sets my go-to authors apart from all the other YA writers. I'm a very decent shot with a bow and arrow - however, it's not illegal for me nor am I relying on it for my sustenance. That's what makes Katniss such a great MC.

  16. "Convince me that this character can ONLY live in your world, that your character is a PRODUCT of that world. This point is what sets my go-to authors apart from all the other YA writers."

    Same. And there's nothing wrong with including those other skills, but if they're going to get attention, they should be more layered into the story.

  17. I agree with almost every point. I don't mind predictable plots THAT much, as long as there is enough story to enjoy. One of the things that makes me feel "meh" is an annoying MC. Someone who is whiny and lacks of a backbone - or a character who is too perfect. I need to feel connected to them.


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