Better Writing Through Reading

<— It’s a hook.

One good way to learn about good writing is to read more. That’s what the Writing for Dummies books advise, read everything: classic novels and new novels, novels in and out of your preferred genres, novels by known and unknown authors.

I decided to do that. I love the Kindle feature “Send Sample” and decided that if I enjoy this, then probably lots of others do too. The sample usually takes an hour or less to read, and is a good indication of the writing style of the author, and what the book is about, and whether it sets “the hook” or not.

The hook should be set from the first. The first chapter, the first paragraph, even the very first sentence should hook the reader enough that he or she is interested to continue reading. What will happen? What’s going on here? It should give that reader enough of a reason to devote ten or so hours to reading a book. There is a lot of competition for a reader’s precious time, so getting that hook set early is crucial.

The hour devoted to reading a Kindle sample should be enough to determine if the book will be worth reading. I decided to try reading novels that I learned about from random sources: readers on Goodreads, or word of mouth, or from author websites that I happened on, usually from a tweet that sounded interesting.

Reading outside my genre is a stretch for me though. I am always drawn to books that are about great characters, family life, maybe a little romance thrown in, but I am trying to be more diverse.

I have downloaded about fifteen reads in the last few weeks and decided to talk about a few here, and explain why it did or did not set the hook.

Happily Ever After? by Benison O’Reilly, Life isn’t always the fairy tale we were promised. “…and they lived happily ever after.” This novel deals with what comes next, after all the problems are solved, the wicked stepmothers, the sleeping potions, the imprisonment in castle towers, and the beautiful maidens are rescued by the princes who ride up on white horses to carry them off so they can live a life of bliss and domesticity. The author wonders what actually happens after the prince and princess rode off into the sunset. She does a good job of it, and her voice is honest and compelling, and I thought the writing very good. I would have happily downloaded this book, but I must admit, I’m still a bit put off by this author’s bloggery bad manners. She wrote an interesting blog, on a subject that I had written about a few months back, about how not everyone is going to love what you write. I left her a comment and told her about my post, hoping for some interest and a response. After all, we’re both new authors, right? Maybe she’s been a little more successful than I have, but still we’re not exactly talking about Anne Tyler here, we’re talking about an author who is just beginning her career, and trying to establish fans, and a blog readership. If someone leaves a comment, it’s considered in poor taste not to comment back, and I left her a comment and a couple of others after me and Ms. O’Reilly never acknowledged any of them. So I’m not buying her book, even though I might like it. But for the sake of this exercise, was I hooked? Yes.

The Gold Coast by Nelson DeMille. This is about what’s left of The Gold Coast of Long Island, home to fifty-room mansions built at the turn of the century and inhabited by the “old” moneyed, and the social elite. John and Susan are married, and both descended from prestigious families, but now live in the guest house of her family’s estate. The mansion itself stands empty, unsellable, and Susan’s parents have retreated to Hilton Head or Myrtle Beach or somewhere and John and Susan can’t afford to live in it. I also liked the voice of this author, funny at times, irreverent, and he has a way of telling a story that flows, and you go on and on with it, and get caught up in it. It was interesting, the discussions about country clubs and snobbery and how that sector of society views itself and others. It’s written in the first person, as John, and John’s wife Susan is very beautiful, and deep, and sexually adventurous, but when she gets together with her friends, can fall into elite-speak, and her husband notes that when the women do this, they talk without moving their lips, which I found hilarious. It’s good, I was hooked. And this author hadn’t done anything to offend me, so it was a Yes for me.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett. This book was recommended to me by three friends, and when I saw it as a Goodreads pick, I decided to try it too. I downloaded the sample. It’s delightful. I had wondered how a white woman would dare write a novel like this, how could the author presume to know what it’s like to be one of “the help”, such that it comes across to the reader so genuinely? But she does a great job of writing in the first person point of view, as the maid, and in my opinion, all the rave reviews of this book are spot-on. I was hooked on this one too. Another Yes.

The Last Romantics by Ruth Harris. This is more of a romance novel, but it takes place during that period of time between World War I and World War II and I was intrigued by that. But from the first page, I could see I was in for a lot of telling (as opposed to showing) and a lot of head-hopping as the point of view switched from the guy to the girl with no warning. Romance novel characters are always beautiful, or handsome, depending upon the gender. The first page starts out with over-sentimental flowery thoughts from the man’s POV as he first spies the heroine (“glowing, golden, ravishingly perfumed”) and then immediately switches to the heroine’s POV as she spots him (“lean and tall, elegantly and extravagantly handsome”). Meh. I couldn’t do it. Not hooked. A No.

Here, Home, Hope by Kaira Rouda. Despite this rather hokey title (perhaps inspired by Eat, Pray, Love?), I liked this. It is faintly comedic, subtle, not over-the-top slap-stick, like so many humorous novels tend to be. I like stories like this a lot, humor is good, but more is not always better. Notwithstanding the fact that it takes place in Columbus, Ohio, and that is where I live, and there are many references to areas I am familiar with, it could be about life in any city. It’s about mid-life crisis, about a woman who is thirty-nine years of age whose sons are near-teenagers, and how she struggles to re-invent herself, and turn her life in a new direction. I haven’t read any more than the sample yet, but I was hooked from the first by this author’s delightful voice. This is a Yes for me.

The Ballad of Bob Dylan by Daniel Mark Epstein. I’m sure this novel about Bob Dylan will be interesting to many readers, but I was hoping for more of a biography of his life. Instead, it is clearly written by a musician and the music-speak is above my head. There is a lot of details about D chords and frets and descriptions of lyrics, and is very well-written, but it didn’t hook me. It did make me want to listen to the early music of Bob Dylan to try and figure out what the author was talking about. Maybe this book should be sold with a supplementary CD because I didn’t recognize the folk songs described here. I am sure this will be very interesting to some but for me, I have to give it a No. No hook.

Beach Music by Pat Conroy. This book was mentioned on Goodreads, and the reviewer said “despite the wide swing in reviews for this book”, she liked it. I happen to know a bit about the author of the review, that she is about my age, and we have a lot of the same tastes in reading, so I was interested. I looked at other reviews of the book on Amazon, and they were widely varied. I am always intrigued with books like this, which have the love-hate thing going on. It’s not out on Kindle, so I couldn’t get a sample, but I reserved this at the library and read enough that it would count as a downloaded sample. I think I’m going to keep reading at least for awhile, but there was a lot about this book I didn’t care for. I didn’t connect with the POV character, and the language… Here is an example. “Rome was both sublime and imperishably beautiful, a city that melted into leafblown silences…”. Leafblown silences? To me, this tries too hard to be literary genius. It sounds like the author might have come up with this phrase while under the influence of some substance or another and figured his readers would be amazed by his artistry, but really, when I read something like this, it’s off-putting. Pages later, I read, “She granted me a beauty I did not have and my soul turned proud in the fury of her centered wanting of me.” I don’t think so. This book is nearly 800 pages and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to devote that much of my life to it. No hook.