The Bite of Reality

I haven’t been writing much recently, which is a result of my head being in too many directions at once to focus on a story. What I’ve been doing, in hopes that it will jog my muse into action, is reading. This can go one of two ways: I’ll be inspired by really good writing, or my muse will spitefully say ‘I can do better’ when I run into the bad.

What I’m not sure it will do, is the mediocre. I was reading a series – two, actually, by the same author – which I won’t name as I’m not going to be kind to them. It’s not an author I know or who knows me, so breathe! Both of them shared the same problem. As a matter of fact, I started reading the second series to see if it had the same issues as the first. Don’t get me wrong – I finished both series, a total of eight books (Indie novels, so shortish) – the author will get paid. They weren’t badly written, technically sound, just… the premises were fantastic. The delivery was sheer wish fulfillment.

There was no real tension or conflict in either series. Sure, there were contrived moments where I could tell the author intended the reader to feel some alarm for the characters. There was even a plot point where I wondered if a secondary character (and a child) would be sidelined to the main characters plans and goals (this did not happen). Overall, though, everything the MC wanted, the MC got. One of the series involves the MC giving up her freedom, which set my teeth on edge. I don’t know if it’s just me, having been in a position where I had no autonomy, but the MC shrugging and going along with it almost had me walling the book (gently, as I was reading on my phone). In both series, the MC is given almost unimaginable power that will grant them everything they could possibly desire, and there’s no consequence to it. Not really. Some unpleasant jealousies, but never any real danger.

I was talking to a couple of friends when I finished the second set of books, about my irritation with them. One of them, who may be the best judge of character I’ve ever met, pointed out that it’s likely the author has never had to deal with real hardship in their life. It’s difficult to write a try fail sequence that has real weight until you know what that feels like. Or at least have sufficient imagination to model it in your characters. I’m not actually saying you need to have an awful life to write conflict. You definitely do not. But you must realize that life isn’t about getting everything you want, without a few scars along the way (both mental and physical).

The other problem that played into this feeling of wish-fulfillment is pacing. Since the books were short, there was little time to spend on developing the plot points. Which meant that there was more telling than showing, especially when it came to character development and (sigh) romance. Characters trusted one another far too easily and quickly. Alliances formed that felt all too convenient to the author, without any real foundation built for them. It was all too easy.

Which likely means my muse is going to be a cast-iron b^%$ to the next story I dive into… l apologize to my characters in advance!

I read for escapism, so I don’t mind unreal books. I really love a good happy ending. I resent when that is given too cheaply to the characters. You know what’s a really good book with a happy ending? Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice. It’s not an easy book to read, it’s based solidly in very real war, pain, and tragedy. But the ending is… wonderful. Hopeful. Makes me hug the idea of it to my heart where it can warm me and give me courage to keep on.

39 thoughts on “The Bite of Reality

  1. I second “A Town Like Alice.” And for once I also recommend the PBS mini-series as well. The lows are very low, but the character growth and ending are fantastic.

    1. Reading it, I was reminded strongly of the narrative in Louise Spencer Reid’s Guerilla Wife, which is non-fiction. So I knew that A Town Like Alice was grounded in real-life women.

  2. A Town Like Alice is on my perennial list of favorite re-reads.

    I have an odd resistance to Nevil Shute — there are a couple books of his I still haven’t read — but every time I break down and read another one for the first time (just did that recently) I am charmed again.

    I like low-key characters (looking at you, Nathan Lowell), and not too many people feature them as primary characters, which gives Shute’s books novelty. Most of the conflict comes from external circumstances.

      1. I do believe I was the one who warned you, and the funny thing is, I didn’t even get to his really odd books. (Not bad, just… odd.)

        The fact that I did not subject you to an extended lecture on him is also a bit surprising. I may be a bit of a fanboy.

        1. You were the most recent to warn me, but certainly not the first to wax enthusiastic about him! Dave Freer has been talking about his work for the last twenty years to me. I’m very stubborn, if you hadn’t noticed.

          1. You? Never!

            Nevil is one of those authors whose books I have not read every one of, not because I dislike him, but because I can’t bear the thought of having No New Shute to look forward to.

    1. Nevil Shute is one of my favorite authors. In addition to “A Town Like Alice”, I also enjoy “Trustee From the Toolroom”, “Round the Bend”, and “In the Wet”. Lovely stories, also with low-key characters. And yes, Nathan Lowell is another favorite.

      1. Second those recommendations, and I’d add “No Highway” (the movie is good too) and “Ruined City.”

          1. I first read it during my adolescent SFF phase, never having heard of Nevil Shute before. I think it fails both as SFF (which it wasn’t really trying to be, from a genre perspective) and as story — way too depressing (a common judgment, esp. considering his usual upbeat endings).

        1. Amusing personal point about the movie for “No Highway” (movie title: “No Highway in the Sky”). I was just about to go to bed one night many years ago when it cropped up on the cable channel the TV was tuned to. I had never heard of it, and the combination of a Nevil Shute story, Jimmy Stewart, and Marlene Dietrich decided me to miss a couple of hours of sleep and let work deal with it the next day. Then, about halfway through, the cable went out! So I missed a good deal of sleep and still didn’t get to see the movie.

          Years later, thanks to DVDs, I was able to see the whole thing. It was worth the effort. In another direction, “On the Beach” is my least favorite Shute novel. Entirely too depressing.

      2. I would probably rate his Very Best as (more or less chronologically):

        Ruined City
        Pied Piper
        The Chequer Board
        A Town Like Alice
        Slide Rule (his autobiography of his life as an aircraft engineer)
        Trustee from the Toolroom

        But there is always room for debate (I almost included Most Secret and maybe even one or two others), and even his “bad” books… aren’t.

  3. I’ve been listening to the latest of David Wong’s (Jason Pargin) novels. If This Book Exists You’re In The Wrong Universe. The others in the series are John Dies At The End, This Book Is Full Of Spiders, and What The Hell Did I Just Read.

    These books are about the absolute opposite of what you describe. The characters start out with all kinds of mundane problems (physical, mental, financial) and then supernatural events occur which make things much, much worse.

    And yet, these books are amazingly fun. There is a thick vein of very dark humor (in the spirit of the British “You’ve got to laugh”) running through the books. The main characters face truly horrific events with a refreshing fortitude and ingenuity. Lacking any of the conventional weapons against evil, they improvise and are willing to attempt the most insane chances because they have so little to lose.

    The town of [Undisclosed] where the events take place is both fantastic and very real. Like Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Sunnydale, [Undisclosed] is a place where the fabric of reality is thin and evil forces break through into our world, but in Wong’s world the effects result in real world suffering as well, businesses close and everyone who can leave moves out. It could be any number of Midwestern towns after the manufacturing went overseas.

      1. Things actually get marginally better for the characters as the series progresses. The series doesn’t have happy endings in the sense of “happily ever after” but more in the sense of “we made it through this crisis, we can handle the next”.

    1. My only experience with any of those is the trailer for the film adaptation of John Dies At The End, which had the brilliant tagline “Whatever you do, do not give away the ending of John Dies At The End!

  4. Bad stories are more useful because you’ve already started on the serial numbers.

    But not invariably.

      1. On my blog I have an entire category called “Irritated Reviews”. Sometimes it’s the only way to let off steam. I anonymize the targets when they are obscure authors.

        Even Mark Twain has a choice example, on The Last of the Mohicans.

        1. Twain’s “Literary Sins of James Fennimore Cooper” is hysterical, but also somewhat unfairly exaggerated. He makes a big deal out of how Hawkeye could not possibly know the direction a cannonball was travelling from the impression it made when bouncing off the ground, while Cooper makes explicitly clear in the scene that, no, Hawkeye does not know, he makes a 50/50 guess, and turns out to be correct.

          There is plenty to criticize in Cooper’s books (dear gods, the “bear” scene in Mohicans!), but Twain was not above telling a few stretchers to attain his desired effect, which makes his stuff funny, but a bit suspect at the same time.

          1. Oh, yes. For instance, he doesn’t realize that the boats of the place were smaller than he was used to. Also that the different widths of the river turned on different factors — actual width, where the undergrowth didn’t cover the water, and the actual navigable channel.

          2. He had a spiteful streak, old Sam Clemens, and although I’ve never read Last of the Mohicans, I’ve always taken Literary Sins with the same grain of salt I would apply to a Siskel & Ebert review.

            1. Siskel & Ebert usually balanced each other out. Once Ebert was on his own, he became far more insane.

              If you’re going to read just one Cooper, it should probably be Mohicans. But why would you do that when there is so much Walter Scott to read? 😀

              1. True that. I kind of liked Siskel even though I usually didn’t agree with him (he tended to be more down on SF&F stuff IIRC), because I felt like he was relatively honest; he would beat an arthouse darling up about a given issue just as hard as he would a scifi b-movie. Ebert seemed to bend with every fashion.

                Good point about Cooper and Scott.

      2. It’s not like you have to read the whole thing to rip it off.

        Besides, not all books, good or bad, will inspire the muse. (FORTUNATELY!)

  5. One thing that bugs me about series is when every book is exactly the same. I’ve recently been reading a cozy mystery series like that and it gets very irritating to see the same old shtick over and over again.

    1. That’s why I gave up on Janet Evanovich. What kind of car will she blow up this time? What nasty small animal will do something disgusting in her hair? Which Mr. Wrong will she be hanging around with this time?

    2. There’s an author whose books I have read two of. When I identified the villainess in the second one in the third chapter because she was the one with no visible flaws. . . .

      1. That’s part of a chapter ending to Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice. The man narrating the story is not a main character in it, and it wasn’t until that thought continued that I understood why he was narrating it. To say more, without the context of the rest of the book, would be very wrong.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: