I recently completed reading a novel that I, personally, thought had a number of flaws – both in general structure and, on occasion, the writing itself. The story premise was interesting – I bought it based on the intriguing blurb on the back and a quick scan of the first three pages. However, as I read it I became disappointed. In fact, the first time I tried to read it I had to put it down with a grimace because it wasn’t at all what I expected and I felt cheated. But, I returned to it over the last week or so and ploughed my way through the manuscript which, fortunately, did get better and – once focused on the central characters – had a good story behind it.
I’m not going to name this novel, nor am I going to review it in the traditional sense. What I am going to do is list what I have learned from this author’s approach and how it might help me become a better writer. There were a number of things that realy grated on me whislt reading the book, and I figure if I as a reader disliked these, then I, as a writer, should make sure that I am not guilty of them in my own manuscript.
So, here goes:
This is not something that I would consider a problem usually. I use multiple viewpoints in my own writing and believe it can be a valuable tool to explore a story from more than one side. The issue I had with it in this particlar novel was that there were so many of them.
Within the first one-hundred pages I counted seven different viewpoints deliniated by breaks in the text with the named character as a title signalling a change. One of these characters actually got only a page and a half dedicated to her view and then it jumped to another character who mentioned that she had died. The worst thing was that none of these characters were the main protagonists – of which there were three. The remainder of the novel did concentrate on these three women, but not exclusively. In fact, there were another three characters who were given view point sections just to reveal information that these woman did not know. One instance of which the supposed viewpoint character did not enter the scene until half way through!
Not to mention, that toward the end of the story, the author mixes some scenes with all three protagonists sharing the viewpoint – leading to some head-hopping between them.
What can I learn…Not to confuse a reader by diluting the story across too many characters and making sure I know whose story it is.
I was bored throughout the first one-hundred pages, waiting for the appearance of the main protagonists mentioned in the blurb who were not even born yet! While I understand why the author wanted to give the historical context of each characters background, I found the technique by which it was done clumsy and labourous for a reader. The later slip into minor character viewpoints were necessary for the reader to understand a few of the story threads, but again there could have been a better way to do this without leading away from the main characters.
The story was firmly set in the lifelong relationship between three women and I felt it should have been explored through only their view. Giving prominence to bit-part characters (like the one who died!) was unnecessary and made me wary of every viewpoint thereafter. There was no consistency to this approach and I felt it weakend the overall arc of each character.
Issues of Time
There were two obvious issues that I identified regarding timeline during my hasty reading of this novel. One when a character goes out to lunch with someone on a Friday, who then mentions it is a Wednesday. And another when that same character goes to visit someone, apparently spends ‘all afternoon’ there but the text clearly states that she arrives at five o’clock and leaves at five fifteen. This really grated on my nerves. Issues like this should be caught by editors at least. It makes not just the author look bad, but casts aspersions on the publishers too – and the book is published by a major publisher.
What can I learn…Don’t trust my distotred view of what happens in my own work.
It’s easy when you have to write a book over a few months – or sometimes years – to lapse when discussing time throughout it. To my characters events only take a few hours or days, whereas to me they take weeks and months. But, that doesn’t mean this shouldn’t be rectified in the revision process. I admit that this is an element I take for granted in my own writing – I couldn’t really tell you over how many days my current WIP really happens over – but it’s something I know I need to work on. If not before reading this book, certainly after.
The author provided her characters with a wealth of problems – not just stemming from their differing upbringings but also the conflict that arises between women as they grow up together and their own individual journeys. Having said that, some of these issues were clearly unresolvable in the confines of the five-hundred page novel. So much so, that when one character secretly spends 30million of someone else’s money, this is neatly fixed by his wife randomly depositing 25million into his account after nothing more than a single conversation that hints he might be jealous of the fortune she possesses (despite him being supposedly wealthy in his own right).
Not only this, but the prologue of the novel opens with the terror of a woman who has been looking after her friend’s child who then goes missing. Rather than that being the inciting event, this is the set up of the black moment – when their friendship is tested beyond all measure. When the reader finally gets to this point in time in the main text the crisis is over in less than thirty pages, the child is safe and the novel ends without resolving if these women will ever make it past this betrayal of trust. A disappointing ending if ever there was one.
What can I learn…Make sure I tie up all the loose ends to my novel and don’t disappoint my reader.
This novel was a saga; it did not just deal with the three women and their lives, but the lives of their parents and – in one case – the generation before that. However, unlike a saga it simply ended on a huge question of ‘what happens now?’ that was hinted at right at the start of the novel in the prologue. While the events leading up to that situation give us a suggestion of how the issue may be handled, it never actually provides a solution. That is down to the reader to infer from what has gone before. As a reader, I don’t want to do the author’s work for them…I want to see the conflict play out and know what happens: not try and have to guess for myself.
Unique character voice
Despite all those characters from whose viewpoints the reader ‘sees’ the story, I didn’t feel able to recognise a single unique character voice. Now, the manuscript was written in third person, so it is fair to say that the story is being told from the writer’s narrative rather than perhaps the characters. However, the omniscience of the narrator still didn’t distinguish between characters through dialogue. There were some instances where it was obvious who was speaking – the stilted English of a Russian mother for example – but between the three protagonists, whose backgrounds were clearly set out as being distinct from one another, it was not always clear whose voice I was reading. This led to some re-reading of conversations, especially between the three of them to try and work out who was saying what.
What can I learn…Characters should have a voice separate to mine as a writer.
I’ve come across this already in my own novel; the need to ensure it is the character telling the story, rather than me as a narrator. It’s an interesting debate over whose voice needs to be strongest – the character’s or the authors, especially when publishers often talk about taking on authors for ‘their unique voice’. Things like sentence structure, vocabulary and speech patterns can help deliniate between characters in dialogue, which – in my opinion – should never be tainted by the author’s voice.
Repetition of adverbs
This is one of those ‘nit-picking’ examples that I think could cast me as a very negative reader. However, had it happened once or twice I might have been able to forgive. It would also perhaps have been easier to forgive if the text hadn’t been so laden down with adverbs and also didn’t repeat ones within a page of each other. I often got ‘deja-vu’ when reading the book – “hasn’t that just been said?”. Well, yes – turn back a page and there it is: not just individual words like ‘majestically’ and ‘placatingly’ (which, if the text is clear shoud be a redundant adverb) but whole phrases like ‘she affected not to’ and ‘a few more’ and my personal favourite: “spent an unusual and unusually exciting few days”.
What can I learn…to line edit ruthlessly and identify key places where my writing needs to be more precise.
I know I have a habit for repeating myself. Not just because I’m a fairly ‘new’ writer and want to make sure my readers understand my characters, but also because I catch myself making this exact mistake. It’s like my brain uses a word and then, a few paragraphs later thinks ‘Oh, that word from earlier is perfect for this sentence’ and slots it in again.
All of this is not to say that the novel did not have it’s good points. Despite the repetition of adverbs and lack of original voice for some characters, the story as a whole was well written and did provide some excellent descriptions of places in order to ground the action. Fortunately, the story itself was a good one in the end and I felt this carried it. I did actually like the characters – once the text had turned to focus on them – and thought that their pasts were well thought out to demonstrate how their motivations and goals contributed to them as individuals. Perhaps because the author took so long to mould them, they seemed like real people – not stereotypes or flat versions of characters. They had contradictions and habits that defined them and these appeared to be demonstrated.
All in all, while I wouldn’t recommend this book to other readers is does provide me with a number of lessons in what not to do with my own novel, thereby standing me in good stead for the future (I hope).
Have you read books that remind you what ‘not to do’? What issues do you hope to avoid in your own writing?