When you talk with kids, it's a given they are going to want to know about your favorite titles. Mine are Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Little Women, Charlotte's Web, and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth (in fifth grade, I adored this title, because I so closely identified with the heroine). I'm always delighted to share why these books captivated me, but I wasn't prepared for the boy, who raised his hand and asked, "Okay, so what is your least favorite book?"
Long after I stumbled through an answer, which I'll share in a minute, the question lingered. As a writer, it's just as important for me to know what doesn't work in a book as what does, or I am likely to step in that same quicksand (and believe me, I have). Since we've already been treated to three weeks of fantastic favorites and what makes them great, I thought I'd be a rebel this month and explore the characteristics of those books I just had to put down. What happened? Where did they go wrong?
So here they are - the qualities that will earn a book a place on my dreaded, dusty bookshelf of forgotten titles:
Characters that don't care: I need to know what the hero wants, and I need to know fairly quickly. If I don't understand what is motivating a main character, how can I champion him or her? When the hero doesn't have a driving force (or it's muddled in the writing), it makes it tough for a reader to stick with the book, even if the plot is fast-paced. What's action without purpose?
Convoluted storytelling: I am always game for quick writing, dueling story lines, plot twists, alternating points of view, and yes, even time travel (though that darn space-time continuum can get under my skin at times). However, when there is SO much going on that I am confused about who said what to whom and why and when, or I have to flip back and forth to try to remember where the characters are and how they got there, I am likely to put the book down and go for ice cream.
Dialogue of the doomed: This is one of those 'you know 'em when you see 'em things.' Cheesy, useless, or cliched chatter will make me cringe, but my pet peeve is when ten-year-old kids are, suddenly, conversing like adults having dinner at the sushi bar. Dialogue should reveal more about the characters and advance the plot. It should be fresh, necessary, and, above all, honest.
Secret-keeping: I like a tale that unfolds layer by layer, but I get frustrated when characters have secrets I am not privy to. I am willing to travel in the dark for a few chapters, but then I start to feel like the author is stringing me along. I feel cheated. If a character has a secret, let him keep it from the other characters, not from me.
There are many more undesirable traits that can turn readers off: a plodding plot, inconsistent characters, a rushed ending. I am sure you have some, too. What is likely to get a book on your Least Favorites list?
Of course, I knew the boy who'd asked the original question was waiting for me to mention a specific book and, not wanting to disparage another writer's work (because no writer sets out to do these things deliberately), I told him I didn't find the telephone book particularly gripping. That got a laugh. And me off the hook!
But between us? I'm not so crazy about vampires.