Saturday, May 24, 2014

What Subpar Novels Teach About Writing

A review copy of a writers debut novel arrives in my mailbox. The cover has a pleasing aesthetic with a balance of primary colors and an exotic beauty and a promising title. Its premise sounds intriguing: a young man feels guilt over having bypassed two tragic events, 9/11 and the Asian tsunami, by convenient circumstances. A blurb from a well respected author calls the novel "smart and insightful."  The opening line, though somewhat wordy, indicates upcoming events will be different from the rest.

Twenty pages in, mired in back-story and confusing plot, I stop reading. Instead of moving forward, the story stalls, restarts, and stalls again like an engine missing a spark plug. Ive seen this device in other novels, and sometimes it works, but not in this case. I skim the rest and gladly set this one aside.

I'm reluctant to write bad reviews because I know how hard it is to write a novel. This one obviously has enough merit that a publisher is willing to spend time and money on mailing out advance copies. In the Q&A at the back of the book the author discusses how the story transpired. The novelist cares about this work and took care to construct it, but I won't be writing a review of this book.

The problem with the novel is not in the writing, per se. The author constructs pleasing sentences and descriptions.  A lovely poem from one of my favorite Polish poets acts as an epigraph, so the author pays attention to literature.

Ultimately, though, the book's structure falls apart. Allegedly the tale surrounds the young man I will call George, who has a guilty conscience. I quickly grow confused by shifting viewpoints and gratuitous back-story. I'm the back-story queen, and tend to rely on it too heavily in my own drafts. Later, in subsequent drafts, all that stuff only I need to know, or the reader can figure out for himself unravels in action or dialogue. This process often takes multiple revisions.

The dependence on back-story in this novel makes me wonder: just whose story is it? Is George our protagonist? If so, why are alternating viewpoints, written in third person by numerous characters, used throughout as a structure? If George is in fact our hero, alternating points of view in first person about George can work. But in this case the novelist appears to be giving several characters stories equal time where a.lot of attention was given to a grandmother character. (Granted, I didnt read it; I only skimmed it.) Is it ultimately granny's story? Perhaps George is not the protagonist. Maybe hes the antagonist.

Why am I reading this? If I need to work this hard trying to figure out why I should be reading something, I dont finish it.

This unnamed-novel-with-the-lovely- cover fails on several levels:

Rooting Qualities- Who am I rooting for? Why?

Structure- Where is this tale going?

Show Dont Tell- back-story explains too much.
Let the reader figure it out. The reader will form a deeper connection
if you dont tell him/her how and what to think.

I wish this author good luck and book sales. Now that he/she has written and published a novel perhaps his/her next novel will demonstrate improved story telling skills.  

Happy Writing.


  1. You make excellent points. Like you, I wonder how a publisher could ever pick up such a structural mess.

  2. I think sometimes it's a matter of being in the right place at the right time. The story for some reason appealed to the editor.