What Breaks Your Book

I just came across this post again:

Why I Quit Reading Your Book

Back then I thought she had nailed it.  I still think she does, as do some of the commentators.  I agree with Roughseas that it’s more than just Voice; but I also agree with Virginia, there has to be Voice.

In the Land of Fairies and Storytellers

Ireland is amazing.  (I knew it would be.)

Almost everyone I encounter here is a natural storyteller.  So it’s hard to understand, if this comes so natural to people here, how others can struggle to write so it engages the reader.

You write a story the way you would tell it to a crowd of avid listeners.

Those passages that make you blush?  Strike them from the manuscript!  The parts where your audience starts yawning and looking around?  You know you’ve lost them, you need to intensify the writing.  Maybe lie lower on the description; lose a few distracting details; or use more magnificent words.  Maybe it’s the rhythm?  Iain used to talk about the “music” of the writing.  He was quick to spot when something fell out of the rhythm.  Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” has this lilting storytelling rhythm, so musical at times his prose reads like poetry.  That effect alone fascinated me through many of the passages in the book.

So what breaks your book?

I could give you a quick check-list – a short list for a long learning curve.  It is by no means meant as a course in writing (how presumptuous that would be), or (heaven forbid) submissions guidelines!   But it will help you along the line, to make your book unputdownable.

1. Story going nowhere.

Sorry:  If your story has a boring plot, there is very little you can do about it.

I said, very little.  Not, nothing.  You could bring in a fascinating sub-plot (it will take over and become your main plot).  Or you could change the plot, add something paranormal, something hilarious or something so irksome the reader can’t help getting annoyed too.

But honestly – if you don’t really have a plot, the best idea is to ditch the story, and start a different one.  (You are allowed to bring the same characters on board if they’ve passed their “auditions” very well.)

I used to hate writing a synopsis.  I’m still not sure I can do it for my own books – it is a service we authors should exchange amongst each other, in fairness, just like an author can’t write his own review.  But a synopsis is the Number 1 tool to discover if a story actually has a plot.

2. Weak characters

IMO this is the single worst stumbling block.  Your characters can’t be weak.  Stay away from clichee.  With “weak” I mean, formulaic, predictable, fits expectations.  The gorgeous heroine, so strong, so infallible.  Never sets a foot wrong.  Never has a glitch.  Never puts both feet in her mouth and has to apologize.  Do we want her?  NO!!  Nobody can relate to her.  But likewise, nobody can relate to the victim “anti-heroine” who chronically mopes around feeling sorry for herself.  The answer to the paper doll style character is not, a whimpering negative character.  We reserve those for the villain’s sidekick.  (The Villain himself must be strong – just like the hero.  Or super-vile.  Or – teachable.)  But the worst of characters is the one that has no discerning characteristics.

Realize that there is no such a thing as “average”.  Every individual in this world has a personal story, of woe and of wow, moments of intense joy and ditto, pain.  The person who has no emotions is in fact the freakiest of the lot:  The psychopath.  Learning to emulate emotions, first to blend in socially, and later to manipulate others, this psychiatric disorder actually has no own feelings.  So we start feeling a bit freaked out when we are supposed to identify with a “flat” emotionless character.

Caveat:  All characters are good – within limits – if it is revealed through the story that they do after all have human characteristics, need some help, need to learn humility maybe, or need to grow a self-image. So, your best character is one that grows.

3. Lack of action.

So you have a great plot and good, strong characters (quirky individuals or admirable, real people), and now… nothing keeps happening.  The characters chat, hang out, look at the landscape, wait for the curtain to go up so the show can start…  how long will you keep the reader waiting?

Jump right in!  Start the opening scene with a bungee-jump wedding.  I mean, why not?  Isn’t it ten times more exciting to watch people go “I do – eeeaaaaaaahhhhhh!!!” than watch them converse over cups of tea?

Once you’ve set the pace, I’d love to say, don’t slow down – but sooner or later there will have to be a moment of reconnaissance between the reader and the character.  You’ll know where to put that in.

4.  Lack of world-building.

On a subtler level, just as you need to make your reader identify with your character by making the character real enough, you need to draw your reader into the world you are creating.  You build it around the reader.  One burnt coffee pot and half-scribbled note at a time.   Fail to do this and you’ll get reader disconnect – this disoriented feeling of “where am I?” from your audience.

5.  Too much world-building.

Hugely popular books when I was a child, were the wild-west (and wild East) stories of Karl May.  He lived 1842 to 1912, and the first of his novels that you read was like a badge of courage.  It proved you were a Reader.  They were tomes:  600 pages of finest print (probably Point 9 Times New Roman), a lot of us needed glasses after finishing his nigh-endless series of books.  I had a friend who could finish one of those books in 3 days.  We were twelve.

Those books were amazing.  The world-building:  He could go on for 2 fine-print pages describing a scene in detail.  But the action also never stopped.  You were in that world, creeping up on the enemy on toes and fingertips to minimize tracks (boy those people could read tracks!), between their tents, to free some friends from the Torture Pole where they were going to be ritually sacrificed (or sometimes just tortured a little until the chieftain decided there was a reason to stop – sometimes it was just to test their courage).  Wild stories!  The crack of a twig or an enemy’s horse getting a whiff of you could end up with you being tied to said pole. (There’s something to be said for regular baths even in the Wild West.)

But authors who try to emulate that amount of world-building, very often fail to keep the reader’s attention.  World-building needs to be subtle, interwoven with the story if possible.  Picky readers (that’s many of us) will even put down famous bestsellers for such reasons.  I couldn’t finish reading Stephen Donaldson (any of his books!) because he spun on too long about fairies dancing in the moonlight.  Picturesque, sure:  Give me a poignant image, one that lodges deep, and then keep the plot moving.  Have I waffled on enough about world-building?

6.  One last one:  You’ve got to care!

If you’re only putting in descriptions to fit some invisible script, some rules in your head, rather don’t.  If you’re saying things like “it looked just like any ordinary house anywhere”, rather don’t say it.  That description comes included for free in the word “house”.  Anyway, could you describe what houses look like “anywhere”?  Which anywhere had you in mind?

Your “Action Card”

Today:  Revisit and upgrade your manuscript.  Your reader will thank you.  And so will your bank account.

Soon to be launched in Durban:


7 thoughts on “What Breaks Your Book

  1. Reblogged this on Just Can't Help Writing and commented:
    Here’s a terrific follow-up to a post of mine, “Why I Quit Reading Your Book.” The Red Ant hits some specifics that resonate for me. Especially this one, which addresses a problem I’ve seen over and over:

    “So you have a great plot and good, strong characters (quirky individuals or admirable, real people), and now… nothing keeps happening. The characters chat, hang out, look at the landscape, wait for the curtain to go up so the show can start… how long will you keep the reader waiting?”

    Folks, something has to happen–fast. Not necessarily a bomb going off, but something. Some really great advice from a conference i attended: Start with conflict, not crisis. Get those characters arguing about something that’s got to be taken care of. They’ll start talking, and you and your readers (me, at least) will soon be taking sides!

    I also echo the points about finding the balance between too much and too little world-building. Exposition and description piled up in the first pages are static. Get people doing things, and let their world settle into place around them.
    More great advice in this post. Check it out!

  2. Pingback: No, we don’t offer a free… – the red ant

Your thoughts on this:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.