Sunday, March 22, 2009

Battling Meh

We talk a lot about making our writing sparkle, different, unique. We talk a lot about finding that pure voice, the one that’s ours. And there are many variables that can make writing, ‘meh’. Meh – it’s serviceable. It’s technically proficient. But it doesn’t resonate.

A lot of us writerly types, myself included, advocate working with critique groups. I’ve run the gamut from sending out to crit partners and beta readers privately to posting excerpts and query letters publicly – both here and at other boards and blogs. I’ve heard people argue about doing this, some of which is laughable and some of which has a point. I can’t just take every rewrite suggestion, input it into my work, and voila – fixed. I think some people do just that. You have to think it through though and try to figure out 1) if the suggestion is subjective and doesn’t fit with your vision 2) if it is the work that’s off, how do you fix it? A lot of critters will tell you exactly how to fix it, but keep in mind, what works for them might not work for you. The point to me is not to work by committee but to get a completely outside opinion of something that I can’t possibly see clearly. Let me tell you, there are a number of things I’d never have noticed if I hadn’t spent so much time critting and being critted. Critting others, by the way, has taught me more than actually offering up my own stuff.

But Meh, as I stated earlier, is more than technical proficiency. Critting helps with that, but it can’t give you the X factor. Sometimes it’s purely subjective.

I just read a book that made me cry three different times during the course of the reading. That’s not usual for me. That’s not even usual for me in real life. X factor. There are parts of that novel that just roped me so far in I could feel it. X factor. BUT, big but here, one of the main story lines bugs the living hell out of me.... meh. Someone please tell me why, when it’s a novel about two women or four women or whatever, it’s always the character who gets married and has a family and is giving to everyone else and not at all self or career oriented... she’s always the one who dies of a terminal disease... WHY? What, single professionals never get cancer?

It’s a legitimate storyline, but it bugs ME. That’s subjective. Okay, it’s also overdone, but you can have overdone if the writing is good and the writing was good in this one... but I still felt, ‘meh’.

So how about you guys? Is there a specific storyline that will always make you feel ‘meh’ regardless how well it’s written? Have you nailed down why some things fall short for you, is it a subjective thing or is it always in the writing itself? Is meh always fixable? For me, the story in question would have been much better if it was another character that gets struck down. I’m sorry; I’ve seen it too many times. Or how about if they actually survive it... doesn’t that happen occasionally too? All ME issues, not necessarily something wrong with the actual story.

When’s the last time you read something that was off for you? Did it not have the X factor? Or did the X factor just fall short of propelling you past your own subjectivity?


Travis Erwin said...

When I worried that it was my book that made your cry when it was supposed to be funny.

I'm sick of step kids causing roadblocks in relationships. Sure it happens but I'm sock of it as a point of conflict.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hey Travis,

Well, I did wipe away a few tears reading PLUNDERED BOOTY, but they were from laughing.

You know, I don't read enough women's fiction lately for that one to have bugged me much... so I'd probably be okay with that conflict a few times... though I can see where it gets old if you read a lot of it.

And the one in question was women's fiction... I think a lot of writers went nuts on that storyline after Beaches though, it's been a regular storyline for a long, long time.

Erica Orloff said...

I have a hard time reading anything with selfish mothers. I get that, you know, cleaning up after kids is thankless, but those books where the women wish for a new life and get to switch lives or whatever. I don't get them. I don't WISH for any life but this one, so it's definitely personal. As such, I loathed A Year by the Sea, and couldn't get through Eat, Pray, Love. I wanted to like them. I really did. But . . . I don't know. Maybe I just don't feel "lost," so relating to those women is impossible for me.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Erica,

You know, I couldn't get through Eat, Pray, Love either... For me it wasn't so much that I don't 'get' being lost, I think maybe it was just the way she went about finding herself... I got turned off the minute she gave her husband every penny of what she'd put into her marriage because she felt guilty... I just don't get that and I don't get the extremes she felt she had to go to... to me, finding myself is internal. There's a lot of places I'd like to see, but none of them will give me more clarity than I can find at home.

So yeah, I didn't get that one, either, though I think maybe for different reasons... sometimes meh is subjective.

pjd said...

Can't say there's a particular storyline that's meh for me... but I wanted to pipe up and say I completely agree with your critique comments. All of 'em.

Sarah said...

"What, single professionals never get cancer?"

So true!

Meh, is pretty flexible for me- has more to do with how the story's told than what it's about. There are a few things I don't like:

A woman who's obsessing about her body. She's always talking about dieting. Or she's just wishing men would leave her alone because she's more than her body ... cry me a river.

Lots of fantasy- unicorn fantasy, I call it- though I love Pratchett's Diskworld. If the elves are amazingly attractive and use bows as their primary weapon, I'm out of there.

I'm sure there's more, but that tops my list.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Pete,

Ya... and that kind of makes it difficult because I think most writers need a critique group, someone to give them some feedback... but so many of them just see the negative things and think it's a waste of time... those are usually the people who most need a critique group, too. :-)

Hi Sarah,

You know, I think when one work gets popular, it starts getting over-done... Bridget Jones' Diary - I loved it, but it was mostly the voice and I thought it had a great sense of humor. The dieting notes didn't so much bother me... but then a lot of other authors started doing that, and yeah, I get bored talking about my own diet, I don't want to hear about fictional ones:-)

There are some fantasy elements that are overplayed, but I think it often depends on the plotting and finesse of the writer. There are some I've seen that have used descriptions that've become universal from previous works (because really, these fables start to become standard almost like history)... but it depends on how deep they go with their characters. I'm willing to ride along with beautiful elves that excell at archery, if they have their own story and character that makes them different and unique in other ways...

As a side note, you might like my middle grade - my elf has a bulbous nose and is stocky rather than lean and graceful... he does use a bow, though... sorry about that :-)

jjdebenedictis said...

it’s always the character who gets married and has a family and is giving to everyone else and not at all self or career oriented... she’s always the one who dies of a terminal disease

This is not recent--just look at Little Women! It's always the selfless, good, sweet one who gets to croak, because that's oh-so-tragique.

I'm pretty meh on romance. I like a love story, but when the rest of the plot feels like it was constructed just to let the love story happen, I start to resent it.

Given how popular romance is, I know I'm the odd one out!

Jennifer said...

Hi Merry. I mentioned this on Erica's blog awhile ago, but I am having a really hard time with Monica Ali's Brick Lane. Part of it is the stereotypical images--I have a hard time reading steretypical characters with little nuance, but it's something else, because I get that there are usually some people who do meet a certain stereotype. But something about it just feels contrived to me, and I cannot connect with it. Still, it is for me one of those books I feel like I should read. But I don't know if I'll ever finish it.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi JJ!!!

How have you been? You know, I was thinking of Little Women when I was writing this post, because you're right - Beth wasn't married yet but she was the same kind of character...

I'm kind of eclectic - I can read a good romance here and there, though they're not my regular genre, but like you, there has to be story. When it's just about the romance, it's not enough... I tend to like it when the romance is a side plot to the main.

Hi Jennifer,

I used to be one of those people who had to finish the book - I think I just felt bad not giving the author my full attention, not that they'd ever know I put it down. I don't do that anymore... there are a few that I went back to years later and tried again, and found that it was more my own place and perspective to blame, it's funny how you can love something at one place in your life but think "eh, not so much" if you read it at a different point. I did that with Moby Dick, the first time I picked it up I thought it was dry as dust... I didn't appreciate the writing until about ten years later.

The thing with stereotypes for me, sometimes they do fit the character, we do meet people in life just like that - but fiction is not life, it's lifelike. The anecdotal, but I really do know this person, thing authors do to justify it doesn't work... doesn't matter if it's true to life if your readers don't buy it.

Colleen_Katana said...

Hey! I've actually been doing a TON of reading about story creation, 3 act structures and character development lately. And the things I'm learning are probably things that everyone here already knows!

A Meh story can be any number of things but, essentially, I'm discovering that when I can't connect to an aspect of a book, it usually lacks some sort of honesty or it lacks subplot. A strong plot is important, and sometimes I'm sure that I just can't get invested into whatever the author has chosen to focus on, but subplots are sometimes what breathes life into our secondary characters and usually come full circle into the main plot.

Um, does that make sense? I feel like I'm rambling. In any case, as for the moms who get cancers--well, it's the more dramatic death. The single, working girl never dies of cancer because, while of course it would be sad, there's not that same tension that occurs when you see a child/husband saying goodbye to the one woman who matters most in their world. At least that's what I think...maybe...

Merry Monteleone said...


That makes total sense. Sometimes 'meh' is really subjective... but often I think it just didn't go deep enough (like you mention, with not enough subplot).

And yeah, I think the mom cancer story is geared to be high drama, and it works - but I've seen it so many times now that it just kind of annoys ME, I know it's a me thing, but there it is. That was the weird thing with this book. The writing was good enough that it should have made me overlook the fact that I don't like that storyline, but it didn't. Something for us writers to keep in mind - you can do everything right but not catch the set of eyes it will resonate with...

Colleen_Katana said...

No, I'm totally with you on the "mom getting cancer" thing. Sure it's easier and garners for better drama, but as writers, we shouldn't be looking for the easy tear-jerker, but perhaps something more innovative. Creative. A twist that people don't see coming...

But that's just my thought. I've had enough moms with cancer in my life.. =)