Writing: can you do everything right, and it doesn’t work?

I just finished two books that I’ve been wanting to read for a long time.  The first was, in my opinion, flawed…but I can’t wait to go out and buy the next book.  The second book had great writing, a great voice, characters that I liked, depth, surprises, tension…and I probably won’t buy the next book.  And that stopped me short.  The author had done all of the things that I list as essentials for a good book, but I felt as though I’d run a marathon before I finished the last page…and I’d barely survived.

I bugged my poor husband about it.  (He loves it when I get technical about writing–NOT.  But he loves me and tolerates my tirades pretty well).  When I finished all of my theories and questions, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “You either liked it or you didn’t.”  But that’s what I couldn’t understand.  I did like the second book.  It just made me tired.  And being the “read for fun” person that I am, maybe it demanded too much from me.

I have a wonderful writer friend at Scribes (our writers’ group) who constantly reminds the rest of us that we didn’t give her any place to “rest.”  We get so serious about plotting, pacing, and keeping the tension tight that we cram one cataclysm (emotional, physical, or action packed) after another into our stories to keep conflict on each and every page.  Her advice?  The reader needs a place to catch his breath, think things through, and gird his loins for the next drama.  And I think she’s right.

Fluff scenes don’t work.  They don’t move the plot in any way at all.  They feel like filler.  But my favorite writing advice book of all time is Jack Bickham’s Scene and Sequel.  His advice is: action/reaction.  There’s a time for the protagonist’s emotional response to what’s happening, his reaction to what’s worked or failed, and his plan for the next step to accomplish his goals.  Of course, that plan never fully realizes his goal until the end of the book, but it gives the reader a chance to follow his thoughts and feelings.  But…the second book had that, briefly, and I was still exhausted at the end of the book.  Why?

I finally decided that some authors take the advice, “Start with a problem that screws up your protagonist’s life to the point that he has to fix it to be happy.  Give him a plan to make things right, and then don’t let it work and keep making things worse for him until he hits the big, black moment,” a little too seriously.  At least, for me.  The second book got LOTS of great reviews.  TONS of readers loved it.  I’m maybe the only one who read it and raised my hands in victory that I’d made it to the end.  Because I felt too beat up.

I don’t need my protagonist to barely survive before the end of a book.  I don’t need him/her to be beat up, zapped, near death before the last page.  I’m going against conventional advice, but those scenarios feel contrived to me, most of the time, to give the reader a BIG ending.  And I’m not a fan.

I’m still not sure–and believe me, I’ll be churning it around in my little brain for a while–why a nearly perfectly written book, that’s in a genre that I enjoy, didn’t work for me.  I mean, it did.  I’m glad I read it.  But will I buy the next book?  No.  But I think part of it is that I need some light moments in a book.  A place to rest and feel good, to catch my breath, before I get hit by the next big conflict.  Or else, by the time I finish the last page, even if it’s a happy ending, it’s cost me too much psychic energy to want to put myself through that again.

(P.S.  I won’t be posting a blog next week.  Helping my grandson move into his apartment for college.  Oh, the joy:)  Sweat equity for teenagers.  But I’ll get to see him a little longer…and he’s pretty much fun to be with.)


6 thoughts on “Writing: can you do everything right, and it doesn’t work?

  1. Action/reaction great idea. I probably but too much action in my writing and forget about the reaction part which might really be the most important. How we react to something is how we can come to understand who we are.


    1. I never really thought about reaction/sequel enough until I read Jack Bickham. His book is awesome, but it helped draw me into my characters. I understood them and their wants/needs better once I started thinking about not only how they’d ACT, but how they’d REACT and FEEL. Emotional impact is a big part of writing.


    1. Thanks. Ty’s move is turning into a caravan. Our neighbor’s hitching a trailer onto his Jeep to haul Ty’s double bed to college. My sister and I are driving down in her mini-van with his HUGE desk and tons of boxes, and he’s loading his car full of his clothes, mini-fridge etc. It feels like an event:)
      Are you married now? Congratulations!!!!


  2. I always learn so much from your blogs. Great ideas all.
    Hope you enjoy the snap shot of college life! Who knows, maybe your next novel will take place on a university campus…


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