Some of you may remember that line from the ‘Sixties TV comedy series “Get Smart” starring Don Adams as the bumbling spy Maxwell Smart. (Maybe you caught the movie remake a few years ago, in which case, sorry.) Smart was always within a hair of catching the bad guy or recovering the stolen secrets, but due to an unfortunate tendency to blow things up or trip over his own feet he invariably “missed it by that much”, a quantity indicated by the space between his thumb and index finger.
That little space might as well be as much as a parsec when we’re talking about the difference between a good book and a great one. Laurie hinted at this problem in her post this week when she mentioned how much she’d been enjoying a recent read until she got to the end, where it seemed to run out of steam. What could have been a great book was instead just a good one. Missed it by that much.
I began to wonder about this after I encountered a spate of good-not-great books, all of them SFR and all of them from the same well-respected e-publisher (who will remain nameless). Some of them I found problems with from the beginning; at least one of them was terrific until the very end, when it let me down. But as I began to think about it, I realized there are any number of ways a good book can go wrong.
Plot holes you can drive a starship through. These can derive from a faulty premise (the worst kind) or simply from carelessness (that is, hoping no one will notice that you said the stardrive wouldn’t work in null space in Chapter Two and now you have your hero using it to rescue your heroine in null space in Chapter Ten—just an example, not something I came across.)
One of the books I did read—and I hope I don’t offend here—postulated a planet with a sun so hot it would almost literally fry the skin off you if you were out long enough. And yet before I knew it the hero and heroine were stripping down for a passionate encounter in the blazing sun! Ouch! Talk about a hot scene—and I don’t mean in a good way. That author needs an afternoon with my critique partner, who upon reading such a scene would have taken the author’s skin off with a single look, never mind the white-hot sun.
The outdoor scene wasn’t the most puzzling plot hole of this book, however. The real problem was the premise at the heart of the story, which I won’t describe for fear of giving away the book and its author. The point is no matter how great your characters are, no matter how beautiful your style is or intriguing your ideas, you cannot have a great book with a plot that doesn’t hold together from beginning to end.
Heroes or heroines made out of cardboard. This one is subtle. As a reader, you might not even notice it at first. You might be reading along, and just become aware of a feeling of vague dissatisfaction. Something is wrong; you’re bored with these people, or they don’t respond to the situation the way real people would. Eventually you want to shake them: Wake up! you want to scream. Do something! Smack him! Love her! Really? Is that all you have to say??
The problem is most noticeable with the H/H, but it can also apply to secondary characters. And it is worse with SFR because so many of its writers come out of the science fiction tradition of “ideas first”. Too many writers figure if you get the world-building right, you’re home free. Not so, especially if you hope to create a romance within the pages of your book. For that you need real people.
No villains or villains missing in action. Just because you are writing a science fiction romance does not mean all the conflict must be internal (between the H/H). Or just because you’re in space does not mean all the external conflict must be at a distance. Too many of the books I read either had no identifiable villains or had them “out there” in the enemy ship only. I never saw them, felt them, smelled them. They had no names, faces, thoughts.
Several of the books had a villain, but he didn’t make an appearance until halfway through the book—way too late to make a difference in building conflict. Some editors hate flashbacks, but if that’s what you have to do to introduce your villain early on, I say take the hit for the flashback rather than wait until Chapter Twenty to show your reader the villain's ugly mug. A flashback at least has the advantage of a scene playing in “real time”, rather than having a character “tell” us about what happened years ago to make him hate an invisible villain.
A great villain is indispensable to a great book. Don’t leave us hanging without one.
Where’s the romance? I don’t care what the heat level is, if you have set out to write a science fiction romance, you have to pay attention to the relationship between the hero and the heroine. That means the relationship is equal to the other parts of the story. Sexual tension between the characters builds in an arc the same way the story line builds in an arc, the same way change happens within the characters themselves. It leads to something in the end. If you don’t know what I mean by all that, you will frustrate and disappoint any readers (like me) who hope to see your hero and heroine find love with each other. You will make us wonder why there is a man and a woman in this story at all. Why not just a guy or just a woman? Or two buddies?
Is that all? The biggest disappointment of all my reads was one terrific story that had me tearing along at a great pace with fully developed characters, enough sexual tension between the H/H that I could overlook the fact that they were not going to actually consummate the relationship and even the hint of villainy, when skreeeeeee! the thing skidded to a halt in what seemed to be the middle of the story. I sat there with my e-reader in my lap going, “Huh?” I had to read back over the last few pages of the story to realize the author had wrapped up the “mystery” of the tale in the midst of a chaos of fighting.
Okay, so we could maybe have spent a little more time with that, ya think? The ending of a book is crucial—all the pieces must come together just so, like an elaborate dinner that has to hit the table hot and perfectly garnished all at the same time. It can’t look too easy—like in the book Laurie read—or we won’t believe it; it can’t leave things out or gloss them over, or we’ll miss them. The pacing has to make us want to stay up until all hours turning pages, but it can’t drop us in a pile heaving and sweating at the end. I think the word we want is denouement. Wrap up all the loose ends. Make sure we know where your H/H are going next. Make us want to read your next book.
Is that a lot to ask? Yeah. But the great books do all that and more. The ones that don’t miss it by that much. And that much is everything.
Congratulations, Laurie, on your contest success this season and particularly on snagging the interest of at least one publisher for your manuscript with the Gotcha! Contest. I share your frustration with the feeling of being “stuck” in second or third place, without a first-place win. My own Trouble in Mind seems to have the same problem. I wonder if it’s not simply our relatively unpopular SFR subgenre being forced to compete against the more “acceptable” vamps and werewolves, demons and angels. TIM is more clearly SFR from the get-go, where my first manuscript had a more romantic suspense feel to it and got a few first-place wins. Just a thought.