Thursday, April 28, 2011

Another Negative Review - And I Hate That

You may think, from reading my posts on this blog for the past months, that I am a negative and difficult-to-please reader. I hope that is not the case, and if it is true, it's not something I've been trying to cultivate. It just seems that several of the books I've read lately have some pretty significant problems in terms of what I've come to view as "good" writing, a view that is learned not only from my years as an English major but through following several blogs by successful literary agents and editors over the past few years. And believe me, I'm disappointed, not satisfied, to be noticing these issues.

My latest disappointment is especially sharp, because it comes from a writer with a top-notch reputation. Scott O'Dell is a HUGE figure in historical fiction, the writer of 20 or more books, the winner of the Hans Christian Anderson Award and the Newberry Award. Heck, he even has an award named after him - the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, for the best work of historical fiction for young adults in a given year. I was downright tickled to find a copy of his book The Serpent Never Sleeps at my favorite used bookstore. Colonial America! Jamestown! Pocahontas! What could be better?!

Well....to be honest...this book could be better. The story follows a young woman named Serena Lynn who leaves England to go to the Jamestown settlement with the young man she's madly in love with (even though he has murdered a man and is running from the king). They suffer through a terrible hurricane and spend a very long time stranded on an island in Bermuda before actually making it to Jamestown. Well, Serena makes it - her crushee is lost at sea. Once in Jamestown, Serena takes it on herself to find Pocahontas, since she's the only one who can save the starving colony by convincing her father to give the settlers corn and hold off his attacks. She befriends Pocahontas, survives an attack by unfriendly Indians, and finally marries one of the settlers and stays in the new colony.

Although I might have changed a few things, I'm not arguing with the plot. The story is fine. But the telling of the story seems simply soul-less to me. I honestly didn't care about any of the characters (which I believe to be one of the most fatal flaws a book can make). I found certain plot points (like Serena's first meeting with Pocahontas) to be a little too hard to swallow - the "willing suspension of disbelief" was strained just a bit too far. Even though I finished the book about a day ago and have been mulling it over ever since, I can't identify any overarching theme - the universal truth the readers should be able to take away from the story.

And you know why I think some of these problems plague this book? Once again, it's a matter of "telling" versus "showing." (Yep, here I go again on that!) Here's an example:

(the king's guard has just come on the ship to arrest the man she loves, Anthony Foxcroft) "Anthony and I were standing at the rail, close to the Great Cabin, but someone shut the door and we heard nothing else. It was a terrible moment. If Admiral Somers decided to turn back, Anthony would be given over to the captain of the guards and taken off the ship. Anthony always carried a dagger. He had his hand on it now. But what could he do with it? If the ship turned back, it would be of no use to him. There was no way he could ever withstand a dozen armed guards."
First of all, Anthony Foxcroft has to be the most underdeveloped character in this book. I can't for the life of me understand why Serena is attracted to him. He's a spoiled brat who quarrels with one of the king's favorite young gentlemen and who murders a servant in a fit of rage. There's nothing that explains the attraction Serena feels for him that makes her willing to run away from home and risk a scandal and take on the challenges of an unknown, dangerous life. (Maybe he's just really hot...)

Secondly, don't tell us "It was a terrible moment." Give us details that will make us say, "Gosh, that's a terrible moment" in the back of our minds as we are reading. Now, I don't pretend to be a Newberry-Award-winning writer of prose, but think how much more engaging that scene would be if it had gone something like this:
Anthony edged along the rail toward the Great Cabin, and I followed, keeping my hand on the back of his arm as if he might be pulled away from me just by getting closer to the captain of the guards. Just as we came close enough to hear their raised voices, someone shut the door, and I could no longer make out words, only the sounds of argument. I pressed closer to Anthony. My heart was pounding.

"If Admiral Somers agrees to turn back, you'll be given to the captain of the guard," I whispered. "They'll take you off the ship."

I felt his arm stiffen and saw his hand move toward his belt, where I knew he always kept his dagger.

"I'll not go," he said. "They'll not take me."

That could be improved with editing, I'm sure, but already I think it's more interesting and builds a sense of character and of what's at stake for those characters better than the original does. Why? Because it shows details that let us surmise what's going on in the characters' heads instead of taking all the fun away by simply telling us.

Some arrogance, eh, rewriting for a Newberry winner? Sometimes lately I've thought I'd like to do that with several of these books that have disappointed me - take the plot line and the basic framework of characters and rewrite the book to show instead of tell. I first had that thought about Pioneer Breed. Now it's this one. You can't copyright ideas, right, only the expression of ideas. So what if I wrote my own book showing the way a girl who runs away to follow her lover to Jamestown is changed by the experience......

1 comment:

lil red hen said...

Your version was much more interesting. Some things left to the imagination are best.