I’ve been reading more books that are outside of my usual tastes lately, and it’s been good for me. It’s made me think about what makes a good book. When I read my favorite authors, I expect them to deliver certain things really well. And they almost always do…that’s why they’re my favorites. But when I try a new author or a new genre, I don’t know what to expect, and I end up paying more attention to how the plot is constructed and the characters are developed. It makes me think more about what works and what doesn’t…and how I’ve told my own stories, and how I can tell them better.
Things I’ve learned:
1. Great scenes do not necessarily create a great book. I’ve read quite a few novels lately where each scene is entertaining, and I keep turning the pages, but when I finish the novel, I realize something was lacking. I enjoyed the book, but I didn’t love it. The book didn’t demand much from me, so I didn’t invest much into it. The novel’s a great one-shot read, but I wouldn’t go back for more.
2. Repetition kills tension. Every author knows that repeating information in a novel is redundant and loses a reader’s interest, but using the same technique over and over again gets old too. I quit reading mystery writers who killed someone every time their plot started to sag. I’m not against a death here or there to keep tension up, but enough is enough. And glopping on more gore doesn’t make the scene more original. The same goes for battles in fantasy novels. Even if the writer adds a new element each time to keep the scenes fresh, the technique gets old. The writer needs to change it up and surprise us. Don’t be predictable.
3. Angst isn’t enough to make me like a character. Every protagonist has a problem, or an author wouldn’t have a story. I’ve read a few stories lately where the writer straps a bad choice/experience onto the main character, and she carries it everywhere with her. It affects the way she interacts with others. I like that. It adds depth, but it’s not enough. The character has to come alive as a person to hold my interest. She does this through her actions, not her thoughts. What she does says more about her than lots of internal dialogue.
4. Balance is hard to find. My favorite books get it right. Every main character comes to life. No character fills a “slot”–this is the love interest, this is the bad guy, this is the potential body when someone has to die, etc. There’s internal and external conflict, and there’s tension between characters. Every scene has a purpose and conflict of some kind.
5. Knowing the rules of good writing and doing them are two different things. But my goal for 2013 is to try to grow as a writer, to make my stories more powerful or to involve the reader more.
Also, I want to thank anyone who’s taken the time to write any kind of feedback for my stories or novels, from long reviews to one sentence opinions. I appreciate it. Constructive criticism is a blessing. It makes me think.
I hope 2013 is a great year for all of you–whatever your endeavors. And if you’re an author, I hope you flex your writing muscles and your stories are better than ever. What’s your favorite novel? And why?