As I mentioned before, I’ve been reading a lot this year, which has involved buying books I wouldn’t normally buy but I’m so desperate for good reading material I’ve been branching out even more than normal. And that means that I’m bumping up against more books that are outside my comfort zone, which has prompted some writerly thoughts.
So here goes.
I’ve decided that there has to be a certain amount of common viewpoint or perspective between reader and writer to achieve the type of full immersion that pulls the reader quickly through a book.
As an example, this week I read a book where someone was being poisoned and they were trying to figure out who it could be. At the same time a neighboring ruler was massing troops on the border as part of military exercises. Now, me, I’m thinking that person who wants to invade your country is the first person to suspect.
But instead the character in this book kept dismissing the ruler of the other country in favor of suspecting their bodyguards and anyone else other than the leader of the other country because the leader of the other country wrote them a nice letter that said of course they weren’t poisoning them or trying to invade their country.
And it kept happening. At least three times in this book others would say, “Don’t you think it’s that leader of that other country?” and the person would be like, “No, of course not. I knew them once.” (And they were driven and manipulative even then, by the way.)
This annoyed me as a reader so much that not only did the book get banished to my “I’ll never read this book again, so you’re welcome to it” room, it took book one of the series with it.
I have no doubt that other readers would’ve skimmed right by that issue. Not a problem to them. Either because you don’t doubt their friends so would’ve never suspected that other ruler or because they really just don’t have an issue with characters doing something like that. But for me, it was a deal-breaker.
That’s where I think alignment between reader and writer comes into play. It didn’t work for me and what I need in a book.
In other books I’ve been turned off by priorities a character had in a given situation that didn’t match what my priorities would’ve been. Or things they did that were incidental to the story that just didn’t sit right with me.
But if someone says they had linen in that particular culture when it wouldn’t at all have been possible, that’s going to slide right by me.
So alignment. There’s really nothing as authors that we can do about this, but I think it’s important to keep in mind. Because sometimes a bad review is down to bad alignment and when that happens you need to be able to set aside that reader’s opinion and focus on the readers you do have alignment with.
I often see newer writers ask if you can do X. Can you have a series where the viewpoint character changes in each book? Can you use really short chapters? Can you use really long chapters? Can you use a non-linear story technique? Can you use a prologue? Blah, blah, blah.
And when that happens there is almost inevitably someone who chimes in with “Author X did it” and the implication is that because Author X did it that anyone can do it.
And in one sense, that is true. My golden rule of writing is that if it works, it works.
There are brilliant books out there that have broken accepted rules. Les Miserables is the king of info dumps, but it’s lasted hundreds of years because it’s compelling. I wanted to read about the sewers of Paris if Victor Hugo wanted to tell me about them.
The problem is, just because someone else pulled it off successfully does not mean that the average writer can do so. And sometimes it doesn’t even mean that it was the best choice for that writer who seemingly pulled it off.
I’m reading a book right now that I think somewhere below the surface has really interesting world-building and a gripping story. But it’s told in two alternating timelines and uses footnotes, both of which detract tremendously from the story.
So if someone asked, “Can you use footnotes in a novel?” I am sure there would be someone who answered, “Oh yeah. Such and such did and that book was a Kirkus whatever whatever.”
But the honest answer should be, “You can. Such and such did and was a top release of their year, but honestly, the book would’ve been better without that and I wouldn’t recommend that anyone else try to do it. At least, not using that as an example of success.”
Even if this author had pulled it off–and I want to say that I’ve read a novel that did–the advice should probably be, “I’ve seen it done well, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea.”
It’s tricky, because you don’t want to discourage someone from being unique and original. But at the same time, just because Famous Author X did that in the tenth book they wrote, doesn’t mean Joe Average Author can do that in the first book they write.
Issue Three: This is just a personal one, but I need to start reading the preview for books before I order them. More than once this year I’ve started to read a book that appeared to be a pure fantasy book based on the blurb but the first chapter revealed it to be something else.
In one case it turned out the first chapter was like a computer report so I assume it was actually some mild version of litRPG. In another case the first chapter showed it to be set in the contemporary world when I’d been lead to believe it was alternate-world fantasy.
For me personally as a reader both of those put the book at a disadvantage up front because it was immediately jarring.
Now, granted, 2020 is just a year so I as a reader am probably being much more cranky than normal. But I do think there are lessons to be learned in my rants above for any author.
One, seek readers who align with what you write. Two, represent your book accurately to readers so that you can effectively find those readers. Three, make sure any writing trick you use actually enhances the story rather than detracts from it.