Monday, February 9, 2009

What Not To Do

I just finished reading a book that will probably go straight from my nightstand to the trash can.

This was the second book from an author whose first book achieved some critical praise and better-than-expected sales. I didn't read it, but I heard good things about it. The second book was given a beautiful cover. The jacket copy made it sound like just the sort of thing I enjoy. I read the first page and liked what I saw, so bought the book.

Usually that's the trifecta of indicators that I'll like a book: good cover, good copy, good first page.

Unaware of what lay before me, I started reading. The first 100 pages were so confusing that I almost put the book down then. Characters were introduced all in one clump -- and by "characters," I mean, "enough bodies to fill a cathedral." These scenes of introduction consisted almost entirely of dialogue tagged with a character name. And by "dialogue," I mean, "cocktail party chitchat about their children, celebrity gossip, and other trivia that damned well better not be the basis for a plot."


One hundred pages in, I had more or less figured out who were the main characters -- more or less. I was wrong about one of the characters who started strong but dropped out of the book without so much as a whisper. And I thought I had figured out what the plot would be. All of the scenes to this point revolved around an impending event. People discussed it (at least sometimes), and prepared for it in various ways, or at least thought about it in passing while they were doing other things. The event was in the near future and there was a feeling, albeit subdued, that something important might take place at that event. It was the only unifying factor that tied all these chitchatting bodies together. My thought was that the first 100 pages was an elaborate set-up, and that the plot would take hold at the event.

It didn't.

In fact, that's where it all fell apart.

The event came and went with remarkably little worth mentioning, but that didn't prevent the author from spending 30 pages on it. The next 400 pages of the book took place over an eleven-year span. That amounts to roughly 36 pages per year. I know. I did the math. It was one of the little tricks I used to try to keep out of a coma during the long middle of the book.

For about 300 pages, we moved from one character to the next, skipping entire years in this or that character's life, dropping in on another character for a cup of coffee and a light gossip. This one's mother is ill. Oh, dear. (Does the illness have any effect on anything? No. The next we hear of it is years later, when someone reminisces about mom's fever.) Another one visits her uncle and he's in a bad mood. Poor old man. (Does his bad mood have any repercussions? No. His relationships are unchanged.) One of the male characters takes an interest in sports, and so we sit in the bleachers with him for a scene. Go, team.

And so on.

Don't get me wrong. There are actual scenes here. People do things. They go places. They talk to one another, and sometimes they want things.

But it's all disconnected. We spend one afternoon with one character in July, then skip forward to another character in October, then to a third character in December, and nothing leads us from one scene to the next. They're just sort of there. I'd describe it as a bunch of short stories under one book cover, but that might give you a sense of coherence that simply doesn't exist.

So after perhaps 450 pages and nearly 11 full years in book time following no fewer than 6 major characters, a rumor is started about one of the characters. She denies it. People don't believe her. About 50 pages from the end, she admits that it's true. People shrug and go back to pruning the roses. The End. (Whaddya mean, what about the other major characters and their verging-on-subplot story lines? Who cares! We're out of pages! The book is over!)

This book inspires me to make a top ten list of what not to do in novels:

1. Don't give us the entire cast in a single page, especially when the cast numbers in the dozens.

2. When you introduce a character, give us something to remember him by. Hint: The character's opinion of white bread probably won't do it unless you plan to have him eat a lot of sandwiches.

3. Oh, yeah. This is important. Don't forget to have a plot.

4. Don't create major point-of-view characters in the first 50 pages, and then forget they exist.

5. Don't expect subplots to substitute for plot.

6. Don't let time gaps drain any sense of urgency from the events.

7. Don't let major characters feel complacent. If they don't care, why should we?

8. Don't tack on a false crisis as a way to end the book. Hint: If you don't know how to stop writing, but could easily go on for a few more pointless decades, you might not have a handle on your story.

9. Unless you want your readers to be very bored, don't pick a theme like, "Nothing changes, and so what if it did."

10. Don't create a whole whack of story threads that lead nowhere and accomplish nothing and are never resolved.

who believes she may have accidentally read a hifalutin post-post-modern nihilistic literary novel dressed up like genre fiction.


Edittorrent said...

5. Don't expect subplots to substitute for plot.

This is so true!!!

Edittorrent said...

And in this case, we could have used a corollary:

5a) Don't expect a cluster of paragraphs to substitute for a subplot that can't substitute for a plot.

Did I mention how much I hated this book? I actually felt a sense of relief when I threw it in the trash.


Edittorrent said...

I'm going to email you and ask the title.

Riley Murphy said...

This post inspires me to make a short list of what not to do to Theresa:

1. Don’t piss her off!

The end.

Edittorrent said...

LOL, Murphy. This isn't anger, though. This is strongly worded opinion. I hardly ever get angry, but opinionated? Every moment of the day.


Riley Murphy said...

Strongly worded opinion? I like that.

Edittorrent said...

Murph, don't let her fool you. You were right the first time. Never piss Theresa off. :)

Ian said...

I know it's unprofessional of you to tell us the exact title and author, but don't you owe us, your faithful readers, the responsibility of a warning?

I mean, you don't have to say, for example, Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. You could say D'wilight by D'ephanie D'eyer and we'd get your drift.


Lisette Kristensen said...

I am more amazed it got published!

To Ian's point, save us Theresa or I won't be buying anything over 350 pages for a long time to come.

MAGolla said...

Yeah, I just read one like that-- Well-known romance author. This must have been book 5 or 6 in a series and she threw in all the previous characters in many of the scenes. Oh, did I mention they ALL had some sort of affliction. Yep, I think this was taking the 'give them a physical imperfection' a wee bit too far. I honestly don't know why I finished it, probably because I spent money to buy it.

Edittorrent said...

I don't think it would be right for me to out the author, even in igpay atinlay. Not after a rant like that.

But I will say the book was well over 600 pages in hardback.

Riley Murphy said...

Theresa may have had me laughing my butt off -- but believe me, there was no wool pulled over these eyes. She can call it whatever she fact, the next time I am taking someone off at the knees...I er ah mean, giving them my 'strongly worded opinion' and they gripe about it? I'll be directly quoting her. :D (insert hee, hee here)

Anonymous said...

Hilarious! I just finished The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, written back in the 1930s. Fits this description nearly to a tee.

Now I'm reading World Without End by Ken Follett. Jury's still out on that monster. At least there *is* dialogue and a plot setup in the first 30. Writing isn't great, but if the story bubbles, I'll deal.

PS: don't mess with your comment settings. Bransford's done it at his blog and I can't post. Whaa. :-(

Jennifer Ricks said...

I'm with you on this one. It's the worst thing ever when you spend money on a book that turns out to be lousy! Such a disappointment!