A Word or Two to Aspiring Writers (or My Laugh is an Evil Laugh…)

I was going to blog today about books I wish you’d all read, but this morning I finished 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 by name . . . to protect the innocent.

I bought the book because the premise sounded intriguing—psychically connected sisters 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 of the plotline, fine by me).

I knew the book had problems when I found myself reading the same dialogue over and over . . . at different locations and 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? I want to trust him. I don’t want to trust him. I …
“Trust me! I’ll protect you!”
“Okay.”
“Good. Let’s get out of here.”
“No! I can’t trust you!”
(Repeat as needed, with varying degrees of mild physical violence.)

At some point the heroine realizes (after a detailed sex scene in which she tries to kill her doctor / lover but ultimately heals him using her powers) that he really does love her. They’re psychically linked by now so she KNOWS he loves her . . . and yet, the scene repeats: he tries to save her, she pushes him away, for a variety of reasons, he follows, catches up and holds her—reprise. 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 third party to this odd quadrangle is the heroine’s crazy sister. The fourth is the crazy sister’s doctor (also in love with his patient) who is portrayed through the eyes of the 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 (I kept seeing Wesley from Angel). 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. Then 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 the narrators have distinct voices. When the supposedly sane “control” characters are as irrational and emo as the allegedly crazy ones, the reader gets well and truly lost.

First word to the aspiring writer: Please don’t intentionally lie to your reader in order to create or prolong suspense. 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 feel betrayed.

Anyway, when this second male protagonist combined with our hero and heroine, a third repeated scene was added to the cycle. By the end of the book the plot had become a dizzying repetition of five scenes: 1) a dream sequence that showed how the sisters had become estranged, 2) a dream sequence that showed How This Will All End Horribly, 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 locales were different, the circumstances were different, but the same conversations (and fisticuffs) recurred with Ferris wheel regularity.

What made this even more frustrating was that when the characters would come to some sort of new plateau in their understanding of their situation, by the next refrain that ground was lost 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 tickled my funny bone for reasons that will best be understood by those of you who have ever heard BVC’s own Seanan McGuire perform “My Laugh is an Evil Laugh (Ha-ha-ha—Die!)” This exclamation occurred no less than 30 times in the story. Far less, however, than the number of times a character’s dialogue would end with a broken sentence—

—that another character would finish.

Second word: 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 book, I suspected that even if I were generous, there were fewer than 100 pages of original story in a 241 page book.

Third word: Be watchful of your literary habits. If I’d been this author’s editor, I would have commented on the number of times she had characters finish each other’s sentences—often the same sentences in the repeated dialogues.

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 read until I get thrown out of the story. I just read three excellent manuscripts at the Worldcon writers’ workshop that I read through completely before going back to critique. But here was a published work by an experienced writer that I simply could not read in that spirit, in part because of a few things the author did (or failed to do) that kept me from connecting to the characters.

  1. As I said, there were no reliable narrators. I couldn’t trust any of them.
  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 never see the beginnings of her relationship with the hero. We are told about all this after the fact. I felt very much as if I’d walked into the middle of a story in progress. 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 her as something other than a shattered woman who was either cringing in terror into the hero’s arms 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. And he makes no appearance in the dreamscape until late in the book when suddenly one of the characters just thinks about his alter-ego. In neither realm is he someone the reader is invited to engage with.
  4. The sisters had Deanna Troi Syndrome. Having given them super-human psychic powers that they demonstrated defensively to great effect, throughout the book, the author had to conveniently ignore those powers at points where their use would have cut the tale short and saved everyone a lot of agony. The climactic scene, in fact, which happens when the two sisters are 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.

Fifth word: If you read How To Write books or hang out at writers’ conferences or workshops long, you’ll hear it said that you should jump right into the action 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 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 he throws a roundhouse kick at their heads. He has, I think, found that balance, and it’s been instructive to me. The lesson I learned was this: My characters need to feel like real people before my reader can care about them. Ditto, the “villain”. In order to make the threat credible and personal, the reader needs to have a sense of the villain’s presence and his personality. Yes, even if he’s a hidden villain. The reader ought to at least have a suspect or two to worry about.

Sixth word: 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 to women who’ve shown Darth Vader-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 all out of my system.

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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A Word or Two to Aspiring Writers (or My Laugh is an Evil Laugh…) — 4 Comments

  1. I am a big fan of common sense. Characters have to act like they have brains! The sex-while-under-surveillance thing is a fine case in point; do these people know about YouTube?!? It is cheating to make them idiots for just this scene; plots that depend upon sudden stupidity are called idiot plots for a reason. And, while we’re at it, larger entities have to have common sense too. Mordor is not going to invade Rohan just so that you can have keen battle scenes; it has to make sense on the editorial pages of the Ithilien DAILY NEWS-COURANT.

  2. Brenda, you make excellent points.

    Sometimes when things happen in a movie or TV show we’re watching, I’ll suddenly be compelled to slap on my writer cap and exclaim, “Now why the heck did he do that?”

    Jeff looks at me drolly and says, “Because if he didn’t, there’d be no story.”

    When I find myself at that point in a book, more than once, it makes me want to put the book down. When I ask myself about my own characters’ motives (“Self, what would make your ultra-calm character blow his stack?”) the answer cannot be simply that I need him to. As you suggest, the motives and incentives have to arise out of the circumstances and, even more importantly IMO, the characters themselves.

    The worst things about the book, to me, were that the characters never felt like real people, and the settings never felt like real places. If the writer—who was clearly talented—had spent more page space fleshing out those elements, it could have been an exciting and satisfying read. As it was, I did get swept up in the plot simply because I had to see where she was going with all this. (I should note that the story clearly “ended” with a sequel in mind.)

    But when I analyzed what had actually happened in that 241 pages, I realized how little story there was and how tight the focus was. My overall impression, in fact, and the main reason I didn’t get a sense of the villain’s identity was that the four central characters felt like the only ones in the world through much of the story. Which was quite instructive.

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