Oh, you didn’t just write that!

by Amanda S. Green

When I write these Sunday posts, I can usually tell if they are coming from the editor side of me or the writer side.  Every once in awhile, they come from the reader side.  Today’s post comes from all of the above, but mostly from the reader side.

A little background first.  Several years ago, I was part of an online discussion about whether or not writers should read in the genre in which they were writing.  Most everyone taking part agreed that, yes, a writer should read in their genre.  The reasons ranged from knowing what agents and editors are buying to knowing what readers want to knowing how to write in the genre.  After all, several people pointed out that the best way to figure out the writing”rules” of a genre is to be familiar with it and the only way to do that is to read it.

There was one aspiring author, however, who almost violently took the opposite side in the argument.  This wannabe writer felt that reading in her genre would “taint” her own, very original voice.  She was convinced that no one had ever written anything like what she had and that there was no way she could learn anything by reading what was already out there.  She argued long and loud – or as loudly as you can over the internet – about how reading what had already been published was like reading pabulum and would only cause harm to any aspiring author.

Now, I’ve seen this argument from authors who strive to be literary.  It’s no secret that a lot of them look down on genre fiction – just as many genre authors laugh at those who strive to be literary.  But I have to admit I’ve never seen that argument from an author who wants to write genre.

Anyway, back to the discussion . . . I have to applaud the author for her ego.  We all need a healthy ego to weather the road to publication and beyond.  Without that ego, without that conviction that we have a short story or novel that ought to be published and that people will want to read, we’d never toss our babies into the sea to see if they sink or swim.  It’s that sort of ego that gives us some very bad writing as well as some very good.

However, when that ego gets in the way of learning, it can be a death blow for the writer.  You have to read the genre you want to write.  You need to know what is selling and try to figure out why.  Part of that is learning the pacing of the successful books, the characterization, how to plot.  Most writers don’t know how to do this instinctually.  It is something we have to learn.

I can hear it now, those voices saying they can learn the same thing from watching TV or movies, from reading graphic novels.  They don’t have to read “books”.  Wrong.  If you don’t believe me, go to the nearest bookstore or library and check out a couple of noir books by established authors.  Now, go to Amazon or B&N or your favorite e-book retailer and download samples from new authors.  I’ll lay odds that only a couple of the new authors will have the pacing and the voice “right”.  The others will be but a pale shadow of what noir should be.

I chose noir for this example because it is one of the most difficult — at least to me — genres to do right and one that is most often thought to be the easiest by new authors, especially those who love noir movies.  They think if you throw in a streetlight, an overcoat and a fedora, you have it down.  Wrong.  Those are merely window dressing.  It’s the voice, the pacing and the characterization that makes it noir — along with the plot.  So, to know how to do it, you need to READ it.

Another easy example is science fiction.  How many of us have read a short story or novel proclaiming to be science fiction and the only thing that differentiates it from a period piece is that it takes place on a space ship or a planet named something other than Earth?  The characters wear period clothing.  They speak in formal English.  Every detail about their lives and their homes — be it on a distant planet or some spaceship – is familiar.  There is, in short, no SCIENCE in the science fiction.

That isn’t to say you have to have page upon page upon page of scientific theory or description of advanced space drives or weaponry.  For one, a lot of readers don’t want to read that sort of info dumping.  For another, if your science is bad, it will be pointed out to you, often in great detail.  But it does mean that there has to be something that makes it science fiction and not just romance or mystery or suspense.  Two books that do that very well, in my opinion, are Dave’s Slow Train to Arcturus and Sarah’s Darkship Thieves. But even more importantly, in my opinion, even though you are aware of the science behind their stories, it doesn’t overwhelm the story, the pacing or the characters.

Not only does a writer have to read the genre — or sub-genre — he wants to write, he needs to continue to learn.  This is where the writer’s ego has to step back a bit and admit that the writer doesn’t know everything.  This means not only the research that has to be done with every title, but also learning about trends in the market, changes in publishing and how to treat writing as a business. But that’s for another post.

So, what brought on this post?  Part of it was reading Dean Wesley Smith‘s post about writers needing to get past the myth of knowing it all.  But most of it comes from my frustration with the book I’m currently reading.  After more than a week of very intense work at the day job, I needed to take a few hours this weekend and just relax and read.  I needed to read something not associated with work or with NRP or with my own writing.  So I picked up a title on sale from Amazon for 99 cents. I chose it not only because it is in one of the genres I write, but because it is similar to several titles NRP has and will be publishing.

It started out great.  Interesting premise, pretty solid writing and an intriguing opening scene.  The voice was true to the period of the piece as well as to the genre.  I wanted to read more.

Unfortunately, that has changed.  After the first five or six chapters, the author forgot not only the period of the piece he’s writing, he forgot the voice.  Nineteenth century England is now late 20th century America in everything but dress and the names of places in the novel.  Gone is the snappy dialog and fast pace of the opening chapters.  Gone is the father character we could cheer for — a man not willing to be put upon by his wife any longer, a man willing to do whatever is necessary to protect family and country – replaced by a wimp who won’t stand  up and protest when he knows something is wrong.  Gone is the confident, level-headed main character.

But what is worse, in my opinion, is that the author has become so bogged down in showing unnecessary detail at the loss of voice.  We don’t know what the main character is thinking or how she is reacting to the sudden — and necessary – changes to her life.  For example, when she is hit, we don’t know if it stung or if she’s outraged or if she feels she deserves it.  We know nothing except the physical action of the slap.  It’s the same when she comes across a gruesome scene that should have some sort of reaction or recoil on the character’s part but there is nothing but a description of the scene.

In short, this author forgot that we are reading and not watching his story.  He’s forgotten that plot includes more than just the actions of going from point A to point B.  And I am so very thankful I didn’t spend more than 99 cents for this book and, no, it isn’t an indie.

So, as a reader talking to writers, read the genre you’re going to write in.  Then read your own word with a critical eye and see if you meet the requirements of the genre.  Then give your manuscript to trusted beta readers to see what they think.  Listen to them, especially if several are telling you the same thing.

Just as word of mouth helps spread the news of a good book, it also spreads the word of a bad one.

 

12 Comments

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12 responses to “Oh, you didn’t just write that!

  1. Stephen Simmons

    I find that I can either read OR write. I do read, a lot. But when a story really gets its teeth into me, every moment I’m not *required* to be doing something else is spent butt-in-chair, moving that story forward.

    I also find that I read differently now than I did before I started thinking of my self as “a writer”. I used to totally immerse myself in stories, and wallow in those worlds. Now, unless the book is VERY strong (like DST or Impaler), I find myself “standing here beside myself” (as the line in “Short Circuit” put it) — being both a reader enjoying the story, and a fellow writer analyzing what the writer did how, and why it was done that way.

    Your comment about the readers letting you know about flawed science made me laugh, since I just finished Niven’s “Juggler of Worlds” last week. The fan-feedback on the physics of Ringworld are legendary … and he’s an acknowledged Master.

    • Kate Paulk

      Ah, yes. Once the inner author-observer is awake it never shuts up. For me now a good book is one where the internal critic doesn’t kick off until AFTER I’ve finished the book.

      • Kate, absolutely. There are few authors anymore where that happens. But, when it does, I tend to treasure it. When it doesn’t, well, I tend to snark the book. After all, a girl has to have fun. Right?

    • Steve, when I’m writing, I tend to read from a completely different genre — if I’m not reading non-fiction then. The main reason for that is I don’t want to lose the voice which can happen if I get too deep into whatever book I’m reading. As for Niven, I’ve heard about some of the feedback. But, to be honest, I was thinking more about some of the heated debates that get started on the bar about Weber’s science sometimes.

  2. (chuckle) I read the first bit about not knowing the genre and said Winterson and Atwood. (especially the former, who IMO write stale concepts which would have been novel in the 1930’s sf, and then say ‘but it’s not Science Fiction, that’s bad, with squids in space and talking cabbages.’ You do know what they’ve read, don’t you? ) Then I saw the literary part and realised I’d been premature. Stop learning, stop accepting dispassionately criticism, and start watching your writing go downhill.

    • Dave, LOL. They were two I thought of as well when I started writing the post even though neither are the author I was actually referring to. Atwood’s protestations have always amazed me. In a way, it’s like Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances who insisted on pronouncing her last name “Bouquet” and putting on airs because she wanted to be more than she really was.

      As for your “stop learning…” all I can say is, “YES!”

  3. Even with pure fantasy, you have to research. Double check. Yeah, I’ve got magic horses, but most of the horses are normal, and have to travel at a reasonable speed. Double it for the magic few, and that’s about as far as you can push it. Sword fighting. You’ve got to have some grasp of the terms and what they mean. Travel by boat. Ditto. Even if your POV character is ignorant of what’s going on, what he’s looking at has to bear some resemblence to what would really be happening.

    You have to ask, and you have to accept some criticism. When the fencer I have on tap (the kind with an epee, not a hammer) tells me that the sequence of moves I’m using isn’t really possible, or perhaps I’m not understanding the terms and really ought to take a few beginners lessons, I really do have to listen. The only thing worse than being wrong, is staying wrong and looking stupid in print.

    • Pam, absolutely. In fact, in fantasy you often have to do more research and certainly more checking and cross-checking. If you don’t have rules for your world — and stick to them — it shows. If you break those rules without a darned good reason — and a realistic explanation for how and why — you will get pinged on it.

      Asking for and accepting criticism is also crucial, as long as you don’t turn into one of those writers who accept every suggestion and critique and then input it into your work. I’ve seen writers like that and work that had potential was killed by too many critics being taken at face value.

  4. Mister Snitch

    Most sci-fi sounds like most other sci-fi to me these days. I think these authors spend too MUCH time reading each other’s work, and they can’t shake it out of their heads.

    • That’s symptomatic of the industry right now. It’s not that the authors can’t get it out of their heads — although I’m sure there are some with that problem — it’s that it is what the publishers want. Look at all the Twilight clones. Look at all the wannabe Harry Potter novels when those where THE books to read or the Da Vinci Code-lite novels that came out right after that book made the best seller lists. For all the lip service legacy publishers have given about wanting to find that unique voice, they really want authors who will keep writing mash-ups of what has been selling and that is just one of the many problems that are plaguing the industry right now.

  5. I watched a movie called ‘Never Let me Go’.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Never_Let_Me_Go_%282010_film%29

    It was all very deep and meaningful about young love and suffering, but I couldn’t connect with the characters.

    It was suposed to be SF but the science was so far out of date. Why rear children until they are in their 20s just to take their body parts when people need a spare liver or heart? Why not grow the spare organ in a vat from the person’s own tissues?

    Even if it is set in the 1970s the rejection rate for organs makes the whole thing non viable.

    Why did the character never do anything but talk about how unfair it was and how they wanted to live? If they filled out a form in triplicate they could get out of their fate, only it turned out this was a myth.

    I really could not relate to it. I wanted to shake the characters. But that’s just me.

    • Rowena, I hear you. Movies — and books — like that always make me think that the writers felt they have to preach and show us the error of our ways. That’s not so bad, if done with a subtle hand. Unfortunately, too many of them only know how to use a sledgehammer. Add in their desire to be literary and, yes, I swear there are screenwriters who aspire to be literary just like there are author who do, and I want to scream. I’d much rather have a well-written script with well-acted dialog than something that is designed to make me think.