Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Friction with Fiction

Recently I was asked to review an unedited draft of a novel written by a friend.  Most of the other reviewers were writing their own books and so they also asked me to read their drafts.  I started noticing trends that were reducing my reading enjoyment and I would like to share them with all the budding authors out there.

Research, research, research
The dean of a hospitality school tells me that when his students are asked to prepare menus, he tells them to start with what they know.  He also tells me that the students often ignore his advice and so every semester, members of the faculty have to choke down inedible "gourmet" dishes, served with a side dish of humble pie.  Similarly, a few stories would have been better received if I wasn't distracted and irritated by the author's ignorance.  Lately tales involving special forces members have been all the rage. It would have been nice if the author I was reviewing had actually looked beyond Wikipedia for information.  His ex-special forces crime fighter was appropriately alpha male but somehow had missed on all the team building that I thought he would have received at some point in his SEAL training.  I also got a bit stabby when reading a chic lit that featured a football team.  It was beyond my acceptance of narrative license when this supposedly professional team had no problem with the heroine 1) entering the locker room and interrupting the pre-game chat to 2) deliver her own "inspiring" speech that 3) entirely changed the game plan and was 4) supposedly better than the coach's advice to his own players.  I would like to see a football team win with only one plan of attack, which they received five minutes before kickoff. Wait, no I wouldn't.

Fictitious fiction
As I mentioned above, I like a good tale but please don't ask me to suspend logic along with belief.  I can enjoy that Pi survived in a small boat with a bunch of predatory animals because of the story within the story.  I also enjoy science fiction because of its creativity within plausibility.  Heck, you can even get me to read fantasy as long as you remember that shifters, vampires and were-whatevers are sexy but don't ever try to make a zombie sexy.  However, if you make some ridiculous crap up or unleash an improbable set of coincidences because you are stuck on how to make some ends meet in the story, I will lose my plot upon your sorry plot.  There are exceptions to this warning but I haven't come across any good ones lately.

Hammering the point
This is the most common of all mistakes that I have observed.  Please have confidence that your reader can put two and two together.  If your character exclaims in distress, you really don't need to spend then next three sentences discussing that she is distressed.  I like to be able to discern the mood from dialogue or action.  And by dialogue, I do not mean internal dialogue.  Please do not present me with paragraphs of what the character is thinking.  Even in a first person narrative there are golden opportunities for subtle expression of intent that should not be wasted.  Almost all of my DNF (Did Not Finish) books were thrust aside after one too many instances of the author stating explicitly and verbosely exactly what a character was thinking/feeling/intuiting.

Every breath I take
Sometimes we get caught up in presenting a picture for the audience and we go beyond what is necessary.  Most readers enjoy descriptions of places and objects of interest.  If you have a historic setting, the (accurate) attention to detail can be greatly appreciated.  Please weave a beautiful image of the scene for me but keep it from becoming its own story.  An author whose characters bonded over Roethke got a bit carried away with talking about him with no relation to the rest of her story.  If she had tied in his biography to something regarding to the characters it would have made sense but instead I just got distracted from the story.  I have also read descriptions that have gone on and on..and on.  Ask yourself what the purpose is before committing a page to describing the virtues of your paragon.

The finish line
If you are like my former roommate, you have gone from an energetic start to your own personal hell. You have hit roadblocks, wrong turns and dead ends on you path to literary greatness.  You have been subsisting for months on coffee, cigarettes and booze.  And you smell funny because you aren't bathing regularly anymore.  But finally, you can see the end in sight.  You had planned this moment, where you would dig deep in your reserves and approach completion with steady strides and a photographic finish.  It would be a magnificent culmination of all your hard work and the crowd would go wild.  Instead you lose all composure and lurch frantically for the red tape, collapsing in the middle of the road where you are stretchered off.  Why, after building a compelling narrative, would you end it in a screeching finish?  Why??!!

Well, I hope that I have accomplished something beside airing my reviewer peeves.  My final recommendation is this: Margaret Atwood, when asked for advice by students at Cornell (that's for you, Ulie), replied, "Write every day no matter how awful you think it is."  Many other famous writers say the same and I agree wholeheartedly.  If you think my writing is drivel now you need only look at the beginning of this blog.  I figure in another couple decades years, I'll be ready to write my own story.  It might involve Navy SEALs who quote Roethke while rushing to end a mission.  There will be no internal dialogue.


ulaca said...

Gore Vidal got it right: "'Write about what you know" is the advice we give to people who shouldn't be writing at all.'

Writers without the capacity to imagine won't be very interesting even when reporting their direct experience, no matter how bizarre.

architart said...

Ulie, I can only hope that you don't give me the "writes about what she knows" blog award at the end of the year.

ulaca said...

Perish the thought! However, you are angling for the "Tease the Middle-aged Men who are Desperate to Replace Horrible Old SB" Award!

I like Atwood's advice, by the way - so much that I practise it religiously. I would say you write well, but for the fact that you would put me straight onto the above-mentioned category.

architart said...

Aw, shucks.

Poor SB often has to be the harlequin in my story.