Grace's Mosaic Moments

Saturday, April 4, 2015

How Not to Write a Book

Happy 12th Birthday to our Ice Skater who won a 2nd & 3rd at her first major competition in Tampa
Woe is me, I'm moving. (In May.) Aargh! Bye-bye, Jellison Street


I had something else in mind for this week's Mosaic Moments, but I ran across a book I sent to my Kindle's Archives at the end of Chapter 3. Which has to be a new record. When encountering a book I don't like, I usually plow my way through to the very end, even though I know early on that I won't be downloading this particular author again. But this was a new low. And not because the writing was bad, or even badly presented. So I pass along my reaction as a lesson to us all. And as a warning about the Big Five Ws mentioned over the last few blogs. In an effort to follow the reporter's classic rules of Who, What, Where, When and Why, it is possible to overdo it. In fact, I couldn't help but wonder if this particular author - who shall, of course, remain anonymous - is a reporter, sticking to the newspaper and TV code of duly reporting "just the facts" from as many points of view as possible.

So what's wrong with that? 

In this particular book I quit after Chapter 3 because by that time I had learned all five of the Ws above. The facts had been presented by a variety of characters, each in his/her own point of view. Nothing had been left to the imagination. I had seen inside the heads of the heroine, the victim, multiple villains, and a witness. And then the POV went back to the victim, and the cycle of multiple POVs began all over again. But what was left to tell? The details of how all this happened could not be enough to catch my interest. Even the hunt for the villains had dulled as I knew exactly who they were and what skulduggery they were involved in.

Maybe if I'd continued to read, there would have been a surprise. For the sake of other readers, I certainly hope so. But for me the author had already slit his/her own throat. There was no mystery, no suspense. Just exposition. People reciting what they experienced, what they saw. (This was not a romance, so I didn't expect that except peripherally.) 

Yet this was a story with a good plot, interesting characters. It had enormous potential. But no-o-o, I beg you, please don't tell me everything up front! Give me clues, make me, as a reader, struggle as the heroine does to find the answers. Jack Higgins is one of the few writers I know who can show you a villain, even present sympathetic aspects of a villain, and a reader eats it up, not minding in the least. But in this case the villain was presented merely as a villain, a character without depth, a cardboard menace. Readers are also presented with the thoughts of his partners in crime. Again, "just the facts, ma'am." Here we are, the bad guys, all lined up in a row. 

You will recall that in my series on Settings, I pointed out "Why" doesn't have to be included in the Who, What, Where, and When of your book's opening paragraphs. You can leave the "Why" to be dealt with over the entire course of the book. Now, however, I have to add "Be careful" - don't overdo the first four Ws. Keep it simple. And for Heaven's sake, don't shoot yourself in the foot by allowing a whole host of characters to expound on his/her Point of View. It's not only boring to go over the same scene again and again, it destroys all mystery, the surprise of putting off certain revelations for the future.

Telling all upfront kills the story.

I can hear someone out there protesting, "But it's my book, I can do what I want." 

Fine. Go ahead. Just don't be surprised if no one comes back for seconds. We have all had to adapt over the years, and no, I didn't particularly like "writing down" to suit what the New York market wanted. But sometimes compromise is necessary.

Which, of course, is why I love the freedom offered by indie publishing. I embrace it, I profit from it. I am grateful for the opportunity it gives me to venture into realms NY would have rejected. But I want my readers to be satisfied. More than satisfied. I want them to thoroughly enjoy the tales I tell. Therefore, I hug a great many details close, whether in a simple romance like Lady Silence, which continues to sell year after year. its major revelation scene held to the very end,  Or Tarleton's Wife, which has had four incarnations (2 print, 2 e) and has continued to sell year after year for the past 15 years. TW is full of surprises - and clearly that's what readers cherish. I also suspect that's why my Regency Gothics sell well. In addition to the spice of romance, readers enjoy the challenge of attempting to figure out "who done it."

In romance, "telling all" is the equivalent of viewing the story through the eyes of not only the hero, heroine, and possibly a villain, but through the eyes of more than one of the villain's cronies, and the eyes of some of the hero's or heroine's friends. Of explaining all the details of the story's conflict—for example, what the stern father or ex-boyfriend thinks of the h/h's relationship, and what their friends think about it, including the details of how the couple broke up - all in the first 3 chapters. Again, leaving the story with absolutely nowhere to go. 

Plots and characters need to be developed step by step, thus catching and holding readers' attention. Who are these people? What's going to happen next? Wow, I can't wait to turn the page and find out.

Building character, building a plot, are key to creating a good book. Scatter intriguing bits right from page one, and keep on doing it to the very last page. Don't give it all away upfront and leave yourself hanging with no place to go. The gist of this week's Mosaic Moments:

Do not tell readers the entire story in the first three chapters!

Avoid too many Points of View. It's distracting and frequently reveals too much information. 

Post Script: In an interesting coincidence I just began to read a book which also takes the episodic approach - jumping from one set of characters to another, telling a mini tale in each chapter. Not until the end of Chapter 6 does the author begin to tie together the various events. And yet the book works because each chapter is left "hanging," presenting enough mystery to keep a reader turning the page. The physical settings are clearly identified, the characters clearly identified, except in the case where it's obvious the author intended the character to remain mysterious. I am beginning Chapter 7 and looking forward to seeing how it all comes together; i.e., the antithesis of the book described above where by Chapter 3 the story has been laid bare, with no questions left to ask.

So which book would you rather read? 

Update: At just past the half-way mark, the book above is suffering from multiple viewpoint syndrome - just too many stories to tell, which makes the book lag, keeping it from being the taut tale of suspense I suspect it was meant to be. Not a mystery, however, as the villain has been revealed well before the half-way mark. The author has, however, created such an intricate and complex plot that I will most certainly finish this book. But I am inclined to think it would have been a better book if it had not gone tearing off in so many different directions. (I haven't counted the Points of View, but I suspect it's at least ten.) My advice: don't do it!

Later: Just finished the book. It has a great plot, wonderful characters, and is well-written, with as harrowing a climax as one will ever read. But it was in sad need of a ruthless editor, who would have trimmed the "fat" and made the book into a sure-fire best-seller.

Repeated moral of the story: watch those multiple Points of View - don't let them lead you into the "rough," cluttering up the story you're trying to tell.

~ * ~

Next week - a look at Blair's Golden Beach books.

Thanks for stopping by.

For Grace's website, listing all books as Blair Bancroft, click here.

For a brochure for Grace's editing service, Best Foot Forward, click here.



1 comment:

  1. I love a good mystery. And for me, hunting the clues is part of the enjoyment. But it's not just clues, the whole thing has to have a good story with great characters, otherwise there's nothing there. And if I can figure it out before it's half read... I skip to the end. It's all a matter of careful weaving, red herrings and all.