by Christina Lay
Like most people in this era of the New Weird, I’ve found myself stuck at home with a lot more time on my hands. And, like most people, I suspect, my eye has turned to the many neglected projects and pockets of irritation in my house. One dire enemy of my serenity is clutter. Being a writer, I have enormous piles of paper everywhere. Even though I rarely print out entire manuscripts anymore, I still have an abundance of notebooks, random papers, sticky notes, folders, and all sorts of failed attempts at organization. My cabinets and closets overfloweth.
And then there are those piles. You know the ones. Books. Teetering towers of to-be-reads covering coffee tables and blocking passageways. Now normally, I don’t consider books clutter. They have a clear reason d’etre and are not to be filed away. Each one is like a little work of art just waiting to be opened and savored. Nevertheless, at some point one has to acknowledge the growing fire hazard and do something to organize the stacks. This process got me to thinking on a certain phenomena: the abandoned book.
Most of the books stacked around are still waiting for me to crack the cover, but there’s another class of book altogether: the ones I started but never finished, usually with a bookmark or feather stuck somewhere about halfway through the pages. They create a sense of unease in me as I pick them up, read the back copy, and try to remember why I stopped reading.
I’m a writer, so I can’t help analyzing books as I read, even if it is on a low simmer in the back of my mind. If a book really grabs, I whisper to myself; how did the author do this? How did they get me to forget these characters are fictional and convince me stay up late, read just one more chapter, worry about their fate even when I’m not reading? And then I look at my own work and wonder if I’m achieving that magic.
The flip is also true. If I find myself losing interest, or being kicked out of the story too often, or actually getting pissed off, I ask myself why. That’s usually more obvious. It’s been a while since I’ve flat out thrown a book across the room, but I have decisively put certain books aside. More common though is the Slow Drift. The loss of interest. The putting down and actually forgetting to pick up again. I didn’t really mean to abandon those books, I just found something better to read. These books for the most part are well written, and good enough to get published by a major publisher, but they stumbled when they could’ve soared.
I’m not really interested in giving bad reviews, so I’ve been gathering notes and keeping them to myself. I’ve got a compendium of mental notes on “How These Books Became Clutter”, and thought I’d collect them to share them with you. Mostly these are books that I received for free at writers’ conferences, where publishers will give away large stacks of books in order to create buzz. Mostly they don’t. Learn from their mistakes and don’t do these things:
Spend a lot of time building up to one big event or conflict, and then have it happen off-stage, or not at all. In the particular book I’m thinking of, I was stunned to realize the author had jumped ahead a decade or so, completely bypassing the big conflict (a war) that all the dramatic tension had been leading toward, or so I thought. Stoking the fires of expectation and then dousing them with disinterest is never a good idea. And yet, I kept reading, because the author was very good. And then, they did this:
Suddenly switch genres. This again plays into readers’ expectations. Up until the point where I lost interest in the book, it had been an alternate history in the steampunk vein, with little hints of magic here and there. Then, after the above referenced time jump, a new cast of characters was introduced, one of which was a magician cat shifter. Now normally, I’m all over that sort of thing, but it was like I was reading an entirely new book and everything that had happened before didn’t matter. I lost interest.
Develop interesting characters and then abandon them. Multiple points of view are awesome if you’ve got a good knack for voice and characterization and I don’t mind chapter-to-chapter head hopping at all. However, I do expect to revisit a character after I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know them. In the book in question, there were several POV characters and imagine my surprise when I discovered that one who I’d considered a major protagonist was dead, murdered off stage with barely a mention. I never did find out what happened because I set the book aside and forgot to pick it up again.
Have allegedly smart characters make mind-numbingly stupid choices. I shouldn’t even have to point this out, but it continues to happen. In service of the plot, a writer forces a character to do something that is so obviously wrong, bad and doomed to crushing failure that even the least attentive reader will be going “No, no, no!” Now, characters are human, they are flawed, they make big mistakes, sometimes whopping ones, but they have their reasons. Might not be something we’d do, but we can understand why they might do it. The choice that enrages your reader is just never good (although kudos on making them care!)
Create a relentless atmosphere of gloom and doom and fill it with hopeless, unlikable people. Now if you’re writing grimdark horror, maybe this is okay, but in your average novel, the reader needs something to root for. Sometimes protagonists are not likable. Sometimes we might root for their failure and comeuppance. Sometimes a dark and evil world might be fascinating in it’s own right. But if the main protag is a jerk, and everyone else is a jerk, and there’s no hope of any redemption, then at some point I’m going to ask myself why I’m reading this story. And then I’ll stop reading it.
Explain to the reader in excruciating detail all of the protagonist’s emotions and the historical reasons for those emotions. Repeat ad nauseum. I’m exaggerating this particular flaw, because that’s what I do, but I find a book is so much stronger if I feel the emotions alongside the character, rather than having them explained to me. This is one of the trickiest and most rewarding skills in writing; creating emotion without saying “Fred was sorrowful because his parents died horribly when he was a wee lad”. Instead, let me know about Fred’s parents and then show Fred acting out in his own special way, or not. Show the reader how that event affects him to this day.
Hide the fact that the book is part of a series and not a stand-alone. Boy, does this one grate on my last nerve. I’ll be about two thirds in and start to notice that the remaining pages are rather thin. There’s no way the author is going to be able to wrap this up in that many pages, I think. And then, I get suspicious. I start scanning the interior matter and that’s when I’ll find buried somewhere in a tiny font that this is Book One out of fifteen. Perhaps I don’t abandon this book if I’ve been enjoying it, but if it ends on a cliffhanger without warning, I’m much less likely to rush out and by Books 2 through 15, because I’m pissed. This is easy to fix. Just put Book 1 on the cover. Or the name of the series, at least. Hiding the truth will not earn you any fans.
I suppose that’s enough for now. I’m sure I’ll have another long list of not-to-do’s as I work my way through these piles, but hopefully, I’ll have a longer list of to-do’s. Readers want to love your book, they really do. Don’t make them set it aside.