|*sigh* Another 5-page info dump!|
I used to be a dream reader for all you authors out there. When I plunked down $5.99 (or more) for a book I could hold in my hands at a brick-and-mortar bookstore, I considered that a contract with the person who wrote that book. I made a commitment to give the book a chance. And, unless the thing was truly dreadful, I read it through to the end.
In this brave new world of e-readers and digital publishing, of self-pubs and small presses and the decline of the bookstore and the book-in-your-hand, I’m not nearly so accommodating. I may pay $5.99 or $2.99 or $0.99 or nothing for the books I read on Kindle; price is no longer any indication of anything. But when I set out to read a book now, it had better be good. I no longer have any tolerance for poorly-written stories.
There used to be gatekeepers in the publishing world. The gates have been crashed and we readers are being overwhelmed. By choices, yes. But in some cases, by not-so-good stuff. Reviewers do their best to sort it out and identify the good stuff, but we all know there are also trolls out there who like to spread the hate. Tags help, but they are limited in scope, particularly when it comes to SFR. Book clubs, websites, word-of-mouth? Yes. More, please.
So in an effort to stem the flood, let me just put up a few of my own levees. I’m not an agent or an editor; I’m a reader who has been forced to act like one. But for any of you newbie writers who might be wondering, there are reasons why readers stop reading in the middle of a book and hit Delete. Here are a few of mine:
--I’ve been reading a fair amount of SFR lately, and the Number One killer of SFR stories, like their SF counterparts, is backstory, oodles of it, in info dumps of epic proportions in the beginning of the book. This passes for “worldbuilding”. Stop. Let me discover the world your characters inhabit, little by little, not all at once. Show me, don’t tell me. And, by the way, the omniscient third POV was last used to good effect by Charles Dickens. Or maybe Somerset Maugham. You can’t talk about this character and that character on board a ship as if you are God introducing them to the reader. Do it for yourself and keep it in your Notes file. Leave it there.
--Whose story is it? Pick a point of view and stay with it, at least for a scene at a time. No shifting from the hero’s POV to the heroine’s in the same scene! This is called “head-hopping”, and it drives me crazy. If you shift POV, mark it with an ellipsis or an extra space between lines.
--And speaking of the hero and heroine, make them lively and likeable. If they are flat, unbelievable, irredeemable or unmotivated by anything I can discern, then I won’t care what happens to them. Then, make sure they meet within a reasonable length of time. If this is a romance, your hero and heroine can’t spend half the book wandering around looking for each other.
--Pick up the pace. Now, there are novels where a languid pace and dense prose are appropriate. But unless you are Tolstoy or Proust, you probably want your readers turning pages a little quicker. I recently gave up on a planet-based SFR adventure that bogged down hopelessly in the middle chapters. Not only was the external plot going nowhere, the romantic arc was lost in a vague triangle with not much sizzle. This book was part of a series. I suspect the author plans to resolve all these issues in future books. I’ll never know.
--A good story takes time (length) to develop. Few of us are good enough at what we do to develop character, plot, setting, a believable SF world and a satisfying romance within the scope of 25,000-40,000 words. Short stories and novellas take a special kind of writing; they are not just sketches of a longer novel with key pieces missing. This is one of the most frustrating developments of the digital age. You would think that with minimal production costs, length would be no object. Instead, e-books are often much shorter than hard copies, and too many of them short-change the reader on depth.
--Spellcheck does not an editor make. Your computer’s grammarian may suggest changes that are inappropriate for your style. Equip yourself with a good set of dictionaries and grammar references and use them. Then latch onto a good editor as if your life depended on it. This may be one of your beta readers with professional experience, a pro that you pay for (if you are self-pubbed), or, if you are extraordinarily lucky, your editor at the publishing house that buys your manuscript who just happens to have time to edit your work. In this day and age editors rarely have time to really edit manuscripts in detail. Much of that is up to the author. I still see way too many published novels with grammatical mistakes and diction errors that Spellcheck will not catch (“rein” in a horse; “reign” of a king, for example).
Some readers (and writers!) will argue that some of these things don’t matter, that it’s the story that counts. I would counter that all of these things combine to make the story. Without character, POV, pace, proper use of backstory and good use of language, there is no story, there is only an idea. Lots of us have ideas—wonderful, creative ideas. Very few of us are writers. Readers can recognize the difference.
Laurie, you found some great things on the News Feed! I particularly loved the “Five Things That Cost More than Space Exploration”. We seem to have such skewed priorities in this world! I missed ABOUT TIME. Guess I’ll have to catch it on Netflix. STARCROSSED has already been panned by reviewers as being dull as deck plating, but I’ll watch Colin Farrell in anything, even if it’s called THE LOBSTER. :-)
Pippa, this business has more ups and downs than the Dow Jones, and takes as much resilience, I think, as acting. So, Keep Calm and Carry On, as the saying goes on your side of the pond.