Friday, May 8, 2009

THE FIRST 100

3 novels I could not finish reading & why

It is well known in the fiction writing world that writers get three chapters to dazzle a potential publisher before their life’s work is tossed into the scrap pile. That’s why most literary agents request that we only send the first three chapters, the conventional wisdom being that no worthwhile novel can survive the grim specter of short attention spans beyond that point.

I find that to be a gross and often inaccurate generalization based, no doubt, more on reluctance to invest the amount of time and effort necessary to truly discern whether or not a novel is worthwhile. In other words, it’s far easier to insist upon a system than to pour through piles and piles of potential time-wasters.

In my opinion, one cannot really know whether or not someone’s book is a waste of time until somewhere around the 100-page mark. I write that with the full knowledge that the average person doesn’t have the attention span to read that many pages of a book that isn’t grabbing them.

I have chosen three novels from years gone by that I stopped reading at the 100-page mark. They are “Creature” by John Saul, “Angels & Demons” by Dan Brown & the first Dresden Files novel entitled, “Storm Front.”

“Creature” by John Saul- Synopsis: The author has often, perhaps harshly, been referred to as the poor man’s Stephen King. His stories tend to be similar in theme if not tone and nobody can deny his huge success in the horror field. Unfortunately, “Creature” was a misfire that affected my views on Saul for years to come. The novel takes place in one of those small towns where football is the main religion and those who don’t play it or like it are ostracized. In traditional Dean Koontz style, there is a secret laboratory creating…wait, this is a John Saul novel, right? So I guess he bears a resemblance to two established authors. Anyway, the geeky teenage protagonist fits within the latter category, much to the chagrin of his old-fashioned thinking father. The secret lab might have the answer, though. They are pumping kids full of all sorts of steroids and other enhancements in an effort to create the perfect physical specimens. Naturally, something goes horribly wrong when the geeky kid undergoes the procedures.

Reason I Stopped Reading: At some point along the way, I stopped enjoying the premise and realized there was little else tying the events of the story together. All the clichés were there, including the “beautiful” girl the protagonist can’t have and the abusive jocks that see him as a flyspeck on the wall. The story is supposed to pick up once he becomes the creature of the title but sadly it goes nowhere fast, descending into adolescent angst and revenge fantasies. Around page 100, I grew tried of being inside this self-pitying protagonist’s mind and of the fact that nothing was happening except cardboard cutouts were being given dialogue and closed it never to open it again. Anyone I’ve ever challenged to read this book has had the exact same reaction to it.

“Angels & Demons” by Dan Brown- Synopsis: Contrary to the order of film release, this is Robert Langdon’s first adventure in the revised history universe of Dan Brown’s apparent quest to convince us that all history is BS. In this novel, Langdon is recruited to assist with the investigation of murders being committed in Vatican City during the selecting of the new Pope. Naturally, this is no simple case. In a bizarre and woefully inaccurate portrayal of the Illuminati as angry freethinkers bent on revenge, Brown creates elaborate deaths for priests as Langdon…sigh…races against time to solve the mystery.

Reason I Stopped Reading: This one was loaned to me a few years ago by a co-worker who didn’t want it back. She claimed to really enjoy it though and considered it to be quite the page-turner. I suppose if one can define that as the reader flipping through pages to find the interesting parts, she was correct. I have so many issues with Brown’s writing that it would take an entire post or twelve to truly illustrate all of them. Suffice to say in this case the “Davinci code” prequel is filled with so many clichés that it becomes almost amusing to read along and predict the next turn of events. From the “beautiful” female academic to the stern yet reasonable security force officer and the times murders our heroes arrive to mere seconds too late, this novel comes off as a first term creative writing assignment. Brown’s annoying tendency to throw in often incorrect historical factoids is bad enough, but portraying the Illuminati as this wrongfully persecuted group of well-meaning scientists from the Middle Ages ignores all evidence of an occult connection. The Catholic Church is a big ol’ easy target and Brown has no problem with descending to the lowest common denominator to sell books.

“Dresden files: Storm Front” by Jim Butcher-Synopsis: Recently two of the writers in my writers workshop who also happen to be associated with COM Publishing handed me the first two “Dresden Files” novels, sure that I would love them as much as they did. For those unfamiliar with this bestselling fantasy series, it revolves around a modern-day wizard who advertises his services and works as a consultant to the local police department.

Reason I Stopped Reading: Harry Dresden uses his magic for…well, as of this writing I don’t know what he uses his magic for. 100 pages in and he has yet to use it. That’s not the only issue I have with this book. The characterizations are annoyingly bland. Dresden is a pantywaist that spends all of his time dreading normal things like women and electronics. Apparently a wizard can’t use things like TV’s and computers because of the energy they generate. A pretty cool gimmick that, but this novel is nothing but gimmicks. The murder mystery is interesting enough but it doesn’t go anywhere. Dresden is a weenie and not likable in the slightest and his supporting cast of cynical women and one cynical man and an animated skull that employs flat sarcasm makes it feel more like a cheesy TV show than a novel. One of the workshop writers informed me that the first two novels aren’t that great but it really picks up after that. I am not a series reader. I rarely invest in anything that is longer than a trilogy (see earlier posts for more on this) and I don’t see enough in the concept to make me want to read further. F. Paul Wilson’s “Repairman Jack” series has nothing to worry about.

As you can see, these three novels are very different from each other but they do share one common thing: They all did extremely well. Despite my dislike of them and my theory that 100 pages is enough to determine the potential lousiness of a novel, these three books are very popular.

Imagine, then, how many great novels have been overlooked or discarded because of the three chapter rule~

6 comments:

Who Am I? said...

I haven't read any of these books but three chapters sounds generous to me. I'll be honest. These days a book has to grab me by the end of chapter 1. I will also quit in the middle if I lose interest. I had an interesting 3 chapter experience in reverse and that was Harry Potter. I thought the first 3 chapters were quite good, then I hit chapter 4 and (for me) the slogging through started. I realize it may be heresy to say I don't read the Harry Potter books, but I could never finish the first one so have never tried again.

PSGifford said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PSGifford said...

Interesting thread. As a huge fan of John Saul- he is the reason I am a writer- I urge you to finish Creature- and indded his more recent books. Faces of Fear is fantastic! For my money he is a consistently scarier author then either King or Koontz.

ca nadeau said...

Nora,

I have never read more than a few pages of Potter. I am well-known on another blog for not being a fan of the franchise. It's not heresy at all.

PS,

Welcome. Hopefully you will return to these...pages? Screens? Anyway, I love accepting challenges. My library has most of Saul's voluminous collection so why don't you give me a book to read and I will review it right here. Not Creature though, good lawd a'mighty not Creature!

American Guy said...

i actually slogged through angels and daemons as i have this annoying ocd thing that once i start a book it's extermely hard for me to put it down no matter how bad it is.

(in fact i think in my life there's been exactly one book that i started but didn't finish - it was some horrid treatise on all the 'connections' between lincoln and kennedy that offered 'proof' of some consiparacy or something blah blah blah.)

(but back to the matter at hand)

And this one (A&D) was beyond terrible. All cliches and in the absolutley worst use of foreshaddowing i've ever seen, the main character learns some minor point about the physics of parachutes that had NOTHING to do with the story other than to scream at the reader HEY! THIS IS IMPORTANT! HE'LL USE THIS KNOWLEDGE TO SAVE HIS LIFE IN THE LAST ACT!!!

Hideous

ca nadeau said...

I kept reading because everyone around me thought it was such a great novel. They were wrong. So is Hollywood.