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A Cautionary Tale for Aspiring Writers (I Review an Anonymous Book)

Samurai moon

A while back I read a book that made the editor in me rear up and tear her hair out. This is a book I could only recommend as a cautionary tale, so I’m not going to mention it or its author by name to protect the innocent.

I bought the book because the premise sounded intriguing—psychically connected sisters (one of whom we are told is insane) battling evil forces, Buffy-esque Watchers, a secret Kabal, a race against time, hints of romance. Exciting, right? And all from a Nationally Bestselling Author (whose name I will not reveal. If you figure it out from the description, fine by me). 

I knew the book had problems when I found myself reading the same dialogue over and over . . . in different scenes. There was a repeated dream sequence that, at each recap consumed at least half a page, often more. If that had been the only repeated element, I’d have been fine with it, but it wasn’t. The hero and heroine literally fled from place to place and re-enacted the same “push-me-pull-you” dialogue at each new stop. 

Sometimes a new piece of information would  be brought forth or an epiphany would occur (to be promptly forgotten), but most often, the dialogue was simply repeated in its essentials.

It went something like this (broadly paraphrased): 

“Trust me,” he says. “I’m here. I won’t leave you.”

“I can’t trust you,” she says. “I can’t let anyone in. I’m crazy!”

“No, your sister’s crazy. You’re wonderful. And I’m going to help you.”

“Really?” Can I trust him?

“Trust me! I’ll protect you!”

“Okay.”

“Good. Let’s do X.”

“No! I can’t trust you!” 

(Repeat with varying degrees of mild physical violence.)

At some point the heroine realizes (after a very thorough sex scene in which she tries to kill her would-be savior but ultimately heals him) that he really does love her. They’re psychically linked now so she KNOWS he loves her . . . and yet, the scene repeats: he tries to save her, she pushes him away for Reasons.

Whatever the situation, whatever new pieces of plot fell into place, the overall story arc remained the same: He and She run or are taken to a new place, in which they have the above dialogue. 

A another party to this odd quadrangle is the crazy sister’s doctor (also in love with his patient) who is portrayed through the eyes of the book’s unreliable narrators (sometimes including himself) as evil incarnate . . . or someone in very difficult circumstances doing the best he can to save the woman he loves. This could be a really great plot element—except that the writer outright lies to the reader, giving this character thoughts that are not just ambiguous but that hint at perfidy. But turn the page, and his sincerity is soul deep.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love unreliable narrators. But they only function well if these narrators have distinct voices. When the supposedly sane “control” characters are as irrational and emo as the allegedly crazy ones, the reader can feel well and truly lost—and as if her trust has been betrayed. 

A word to the aspiring writer: Please don’t intentionally lie to your reader in order to create or prolong suspense. To me, that’s cheating. Most readers love being deked if it’s done with elegance and wit or by hiding things in plain sight. I know I do. I love realizing how cleverly I’ve been fooled, but when a writer out and out lies to me, I write increasingly sarcastic comments in the margins of their book.

Anyway, when this second male protagonist combined with our hero and heroine, a third scene was added to the cycle. By the end of the book the plot had become a cycle of five scenes: 1) a dream sequence that showed how the sisters had been separated, 2) a dream sequence that showed How This Will All End, 3) the Get Away / Don’t Leave Me dialogue between the heroine and hero, 4) the Trust Me / I Want to Kill You dialogue between the sister and her doctor, 5) the I’m Your Only Hope / I Want to Kill You dialogue between the two male principals. The places were different, the circumstances were different, but the same conversations (and fisticuffs) occurred with ferris wheel regularity. 

What made this even more frustrating was that when the characters arrived at a new plateau in their understanding of their situation that ground was lost at the next refrain and we were back to square one. 

It did not help that one of the repeated elements was an intrusive dream sequence that always ended with a truncated line and the single, word paragraph—

Die!

This exclamation occurred no less than 30 times in the story, and tickled my funny bone for reasons that will best be understood by people who have heard author Seanan McGuire perform “My Laugh is an Evil Laugh (Ha-ha-ha—Die!)”

So, another word to the aspiring writer: When you write a story, please make it more than just a rehash of the same action over and over again. By the time I got to the end of the 240 page book, I suspected there were fewer than 100 pages of original story in it. 

I habitually enter a reading experience with the intent of suspending my disbelief. Whether I’m critiquing or reading for enjoyment (which was the case here), I’m just a reader until I get thrown out of the story more than once. I had just read three excellent manuscripts at the Worldcon writers’ workshop; I read them completely through before going back to critique. But here was a published work by an experienced writer blew my suspended disbelief to smithereens, because of things the author did (or failed to do) that kept me from connecting to the characters.

  1. There were no reliable narrators. I couldn’t trust any of them. And they weren’t ambiguous, they were dishonest.
  2. The reader enters the story when the heroine is already well into her downhill slide. We never know her as a loving, caring, intelligent healer. We don’t see the beginnings of her relationship with the hero. We are told about all this after the fact. I felt as if I’d walked into a movie 20 minutes in. Given that the author felt the need to pad the book by repeating a handful of key sequences, that attention to character development would have lengthened the book and allowed me to know the female principal as something other than a shattered woman who was either cringing into the hero’s arms in terror or shrieking at him like a banshee. 
  3. The real villain of the piece, though he’s introduced fairly early in the book, is essentially a cipher. He’s not someone the reader engages with. He had so little weight as a character that I’d forgotten about him by page 93—and he appears on page 92.
  4. The sisters suffered from Deanna Troi Syndrome. Having given them super-human psychic powers that they demonstrated defensively to great effect, the author had to conveniently forget about those powers at points where their use would have cut the tale short and save everyone a lot of agony. The climactic scene, which happens when the sisters were allegedly at their most powerful, calls upon these two strong-willed women (who have bulled their way through every obstacle) to forget how to defend themselves using their powers AND to be so distracted by conversation that they’re unable to heal their dying mother. The result of this forgetfulness is predictable and tragic.

Need a handOkay, aspiring writer—more words for you: If you read How-To Write books or hang out at writers’ conferences or workshops long, you’ll hear it said that you should start where the action begins. Or write your book and then go back and cut the first three chapters. This book read as if the writer had done just that. The truth is, there’s a balance between boring the reader with character introductions and tossing them into the turbulent stream of the characters’ lives and expecting them to swim. Whatever faults he may have as a writer (and I’m not saying there are any) Dean Koontz is a master at getting the reader to care about his characters the moment before (or the very moment) he throws a roundhouse kick at their heads. He has, I think, found that balance; I took notes. 

Your characters need to feel like real people before your reader can care about them. Ditto, your “villain”. In order to make the threat credible and personal, the reader needs to have a sense of the villain’s presence and purpose. Yes, even if he’s a hidden villain. The reader ought to at least have a suspect or two to worry about.

No matter what genre you’re writing, strive to make your characters self-consistent. Don’t make a brilliant cryptographer suddenly unable to crack the Sunday Crypto-Quote. Don’t have your Oxford don talking like Eliza Doolittle pre-‘enry ‘iggins. And don’t have two women who’ve shown Jedi-like abilities when threatened, suddenly helpless in the face of a confrontation they’ve been prepping for throughout your whole book.

Well, I’m glad I got that off my chest. 

Oh wait—one more thing. Please don’t have your characters get naked and frisky when they know they’re 1) about to be overrun by forces inimical to their existence or 2) in a secret installation under surveillance. You don’t want your reader thinking about how embarrassing it’s going to be for everyone involved when the bad guys / rescuers show up.

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1 thought on “A Cautionary Tale for Aspiring Writers (I Review an Anonymous Book)”

  1. Thanks for discussing some of the issues I find all too frequently when reading these days. I especially hate that repeated-pattern relationship stuff — the characters just keep repeating the same arguments and issues until I want to shake sense into them. I guess the writer thinks it creates suspense with emotional obstacles, but it’s just frustrating and ultimately boring.

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