It’s been below average cold in south central PA, so I’ve been using the opportunity to get ahead of my reading goal so I won’t feel so badly in the summer when I fall behind. Today, I finished reading The Last Victim, by Karen Robards. First, I didn’t realize it fell into the paranormal genre or I probably wouldn’t have read it. I’m generally not a fan of the genre, but this book (the story itself) wasn’t so bad. Actually, I was more a fan of the genre and story than I was of the actual writing.
If you’ve ever picked up a reference book on writing, there are a few bits of advice that seem to be universal.
1. Show, don’t tell.
2. Keep adverbs to a minimum.
3. Use only said and asked for dialogue tags.
4. Always, ALWAYS use a shorter, more common word in place of a bigger, less common one.
Every writer tends to break a rule or two while writing. Most do it in a way that either the reader doesn’t notice, or they notice, but it works. That was not the case here.
As I mentioned, the story itself was good (Minus the fact that Charlie is having ‘dream sex’ with an apparition who also happens to be a serial killer?!?). And oddly, for someone who doesn’t care for paranormal reads, I liked the (apparition) character, Michael Garland, best. I didn’t feel most of them were fleshed out, no pun intended, as well as they should have been. Garland was the only character who had snappy dialogue and I enjoyed reading his parts. I believe it was his dialogue that added a level of dimension to him. (Crane and Kaminsky’s snarky dialogue was not the same as fresh, crisp, snappy dialogue)
But my biggest complaint with the book was in the actual writing. Now I realize that Karen Robards is a very successful writer with many titles under her belt. As I’ve never read any of her other works, this one might be a fluke. Rather than to just review it, I am going to give detailed examples and explanations.
First, I could not help but feel as though this author was boasting her vocabulary throughout the book. She totally blew the rule of replacing larger, less common words with shorter, more common words. I knew the meaning of all of the words I am going to list, except for one, so I did not have to consult a dictionary, but I’d be willing to bet many did. Miasma, intransigence, coalescing, sinews, stygian, gossamer, abattoir, prevaricating. How many of those words did you know the true meaning of? Several of them the author used multiple times. Everyone knows what a slaughterhouse is, so why use abattoir? And there are dozens of ways to say unpleasant smell, so why use the term miasma? Sinew? Tendon works better. I’ve never admired work where the use of uncommon words was thrown in here and there to boast a vocabulary that makes the book more difficult to read for many in the targeted demographic. *For the record, spell check has underlined stygian and prevaricating!
To another extreme, after realizing the book is peppered with five-dollar words, I felt like I hit a roadblock when I came across, “…hands slid down the silky stuff of her nightgown”. Silky ‘stuff’? Stuff, thingies, doohickeys, whatchamacallits…. With certain characters (Alice, in Still Alice) and under certain circumstances, those words are acceptable. This book was not one of those circumstances. It read as though the author used that word in her initial rough draft and forgot (or didn’t bother) to replace it with a stronger, more detailed word during revisions.
Another example of where I felt the author was off her game was the overuse of certain words. I once read a book where the author used the word ‘gaslighting’ no fewer than twenty times. The word is too unusual to be used so often. In this book, the phrase was ‘coffee grounds’. When one of the victims is found buried in the sand, the author felt it necessary to describe the sand four times, each time using the phrase coffee grounds. Once was enough for me. If she felt it necessary to describe the color of the sand (mixed with blood) more than once, the writing would have been stronger if she had changed the description up a bit.
Using said and asked as dialogue tags is one of the best pieces of advice ever given to any new writer. They are virtually invisible so readers tend to skip over them and not interrupt the flow of reading. If you’re a voracious reader, as I am, you’ve noticed that all of the best writers adhere closely to this rule. An occasional ‘snapped’ or ‘whispered’ can be used for effect, occasional being the operative word here. Here are two examples of where this author uses something other than said or asked and the result is a jolt from the flow.
“Lock this door. Stay put,” Kaminsky threw at her without waiting for Charlie to finish…
“Wait right here,” she flung over her shoulder.
Granted, with a moment’s thought, you know what the author was trying to say, but even if only for that split second, threw and flung take you out of the flow of the story. Threw what? Flung what? Since we don’t throw and fling words, it causes that split-second pause.
(Another observation, ‘Charlie’s eyes collided with his’…. hard not to imagine eyeballs bouncing off the floor after the collision, huh?)
The biggest part of being creative is exactly what the word creative implies. To create. So naturally, the use of cliché’s, idioms and such should be avoided or at the least, kept to a bare minimum. And I have found that if using one is necessary to get your point across, it should be subliminal. ‘Dollars to donuts’ and ‘gone over like a lead balloon’ (among others) are not subliminal. There were a number of different ways the author could have gotten her point across without using such obvious cliché’s.
I realize this reads like I am dissecting the author’s work, but I did as to ‘show, not tell’. Overall, it was a good story. I just felt that there were things the author could have done to aid in the flow and comprehension. Just because I’m a word nerd and know the meanings of many uncommon words doesn’t mean I want to read a story that is bogged down by them. And not everyone is a word nerd. I imagine those readers might find that this book should come with a dictionary.
Karen Robards is a New York Times best-selling author with many titles under her belt. Quite an accomplishment. Sometime in the near future, I would like to read another of her works, for comparison.
Have you read the book? Share your thoughts below.
Kathy Reinhart is the author of The Red Strokes and the award-winning Lily White Lies.