Friday, October 12, 2012

An ongoing discussion

Okay, so, here's the background on this post. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you might have noticed that I'm detail-oriented. (I prefer "detail-oriented" to "OCD about everything inside the four corners," thank you very much.) Some time ago, in response to a post of mine about how to manipulate details within settings, another editor challenged me (privately, and no, I won't tell you which editor) by claiming that none of that kind of detail matters. Only the plot matters. If the plot works, the book works.

This has led to an ongoing, behind the scenes debate about whether a book with a good plot and bad mechanics can still be deemed good. Obviously, I disagree with her position. I believe that plot is just one of many story and narrative elements that must work in order for the book as a whole will work.

And I think I have found the book that will allow me to declare permanent victory in this debate. I'm not going to humiliate the author here, because I'm not into that sort of thing. But here's the short rundown on the good aspects of this book --

-- I cannot fault the plot. If I were editing this book, I would have only one plot note to make, and that has to do with a secret that should be revealed a bit earlier. You know the old saying -- if a conflict can be resolved with an honest conversation, it's not a real conflict. This book has one of those, but it is not the only conflict, so resolving it early would free up the plot to focus on the real conflicts. This is a fairly minor plot note, and fairly routine. The fact that it is the only plot note speaks pretty well of the plot.

-- In fact, the other aspects of the plot are sort of fascinating. The amazon comments that give the book 4 and 5 stars all focus on these aspects of the book, these plot aspects and the mystery angle. It works, and it works well. The book has sold semi-decent numbers, and I suspect it's on the strength of this aspect of the story alone.

Those are the pros. Here are the cons.

-- The pov fluctuates wildly. It took me about 30 pages before I knew who the heroine was, mainly because of the way the pov bounced around secondary characters at the beginning of the book. The character I assumed was the heroine died in the second chapter. Some of the 1 and 2 star reviews on amazon complain about their inability to connect to the characters, and I blame the pov for this. It's hard to cheer for a protagonist you can't even identify, and it's hard to relate to characters who keep bouncing in and out of the text and dying off.

-- Each page contains at least one, and usually several, strikingly difficult and awkward sentences. Nobody line edited this thing, I promise you. It's a mess. Again, the weak amazon reviews sometimes refer to this by talking about how they had to re-read passages to understand them. "Confusing" is a word that comes up over and over again in the bad reviews.

-- There are far, far too many characters, and at least half of them don't matter at all. One amazon reviewer spent a very long paragraph trying to explain the relationships between all these secondary characters, complete with lots of ??? and !!!. It's too much, and it's confusing. (This is aggravated by the fact that so many of these secondaries have pov sequences.)

-- The description was almost comically bad. Several poor reviews note the clumsy handling of setting descriptions and the strange fascination with describing body parts that aren't usually described at all, let alone in such detail and with such frequency.

-- Typos and mechanical errors abound, and the reviewers mock many of them. With good reason. Some of the homonym errors, in particular, are laughably bad. I can guarantee that this book was not edited properly.

-- The pacing was disastrous. I lost count of the number of reviews that said they'd skipped over major chunks of text or had read only dialogue or only the first line of each paragraph. Even some of these complainants mentioned that they enjoyed the plot, but found it took too long to unfold.

-- The major characters were a bit wobbly. Most readers approved of the heroine (once we all knew who she was), and most of them found the villain to be cartoonish and clumsy. I didn't see any criticism of the hero, not even in the good reviews, but I also didn't see any praise for him. He read like a placeholder to me, a character with a clear plot function but not much else. Both the hero and the villain needed revision.

Several of the reviews noted that they had received the book for free but would never download anything else by this author. Several of them noted that they had been unable to finish the book. I could go on, but will spare you. My point is mainly to show that I am not the only one reacting to the book this way. It doesn't take an educated reader to spot the flaws and still see that the plot is good. The bottom line? I win the debate. A good plot cannot save an otherwise bad book. So this is the part where I throw down the mic, yo.



Anonymous said...

I don't know about anyone else in here, but were I the author I'd most definitely take what you said to heart and re-do my work to clean it up as best I could.

Chihuahua Zero said...

You got a good stance. One element can't save a book if all the other ones bury it.

Maybe I'll link this to a writer's forum and see what they think.

ABE said...

You definitely win. I can't count the number of books I haven't bought because the sample available was AWKWARD.

Kudos to you for reading far enough to even find that the plot was okay. I'm amazed - you must be a professional editor (grin), because no one else would continue to the point where they could say that the plot, ALL the plot, was good except for a small point.

I could not read several very well-regarded bestsellers because the pov skipped around arbitrarily AND unnecessarily. I can't see going from the heroine having a reasonably solid third person pov, to another character in a different scene not being very solid third. Then, in a group of characters, two of whom seemed to spend their lives together (two gangster types), the pov seemed to just wander around (so it was really the narrator).

Pick a pov and stick to it. If you rotate, make it obvious and planned.

But back to the first point: you win.

Edittorrent said...

Chihuahua Zero, I agree. But my colleague really though she had the right end of the stick.

ABE, I confess, it was a challenge to finish the book. And I probably would not have finished, except that the plot was evidently strong and I thought, "Aha! I may have found the perfect specimen to win the argument!"

So I guess the real lesson is, don't pick a fight with me! lol


Jane George said...

Man, I wish you were in my budget! I shall keep working toward that goal. In other words, I completely agree with you.

Adrian said...

"I believe that plot is just one of many story and narrative elements that must work in order for the book as a whole will work."

I guess it depends on what you mean by "work". For the readers who gave the unnamed book 4 or 5 stars, the plot was apparently enough to save the book. No book is universally appealing, so the fact that it isn't liked by everyone is not proof that it doesn't "work".

I can think of some commercially successful novels that are widely regarded as terrible in some aspects. Is commercial success a measure of whether or not a book "works"?