Sunday, July 22, 2012


I critiqued a novel for a new author last year. It was military science fiction, which I read steadily but not frequently, and had some unique attributes. The author was enamored of these unique elements, so much so that - while the first chapter opened with battle - we spent several pages watching his gaze drift lovingly over the individual parts of his war machines. In a movie, this would have been a musical montage laid over scenes discolored to indicate they belonged to someone's memories, and would have taken 10 seconds. It takes significantly longer than 10 seconds to read three pages, especially when they are laden with layers of minute detail.

This battle scene was told by a single perspective, a commander dealing with strong emotions due to something bad happening in the past and then - after we see a fight but have no idea who is battling who, or why, or whether this is a daily skirmish or The Final Battle - more strong emotions after a few of her troops are killed.

I advised the author that, while there was some tension and drama, the opening was not engaging. I didn't know this person, and while I made polite, sympathetic noises in my head, I didn't care about what she was going through. And the disproportionate way in which he'd focused on his mental inventions made me feel as though we were seeing the full footage for an upcoming advertisement, before it was edited down to a sleek, sexy 30-second spot.

He dismissed my comments, saying that, because I didn't read more in the genre, I couldn't understand and therefore wasn't a useful beta reader*.

Eyebrows rose.

My comments weren't critical because I was giving him a didactic assessment. They were the criticisms of someone who likes to enjoy what she reads, and there were ways to make it more enjoyable. Hundreds of thousands of books are published in the U.S. each year. That's new books, adding on to the MILLIONS already available. How do readers select their next read? Sometimes by word of mouth, purchasing a novel because a trusted source suggested they do so. More often, the reader picks a title up or clicks on it online, opens it and reads the first few pages.

My takeaway from the first chapter I read? Something happened featuring unique machines and it upset a character.

What I wanted to find? Something happened and it upset me. 

Not that I'm going through life looking to be wounded by fictional people, but I want to engage. I want to be drawn in and made to care. And yes, I want that from the beginning. Even after I've purchased a book, I am so busy that if something inside of that story doesn't plant a hook and maintain a connection, I might never pick it back up. That's even easier with an e-reader where there's no physical reminder that pages await. And that connection is independent of the genre. I often give books outside of my go-to genres more time to grab hold of me, because the fact that I'm stumbling is generally due to my lack of experience, not poor writing.

Sometimes stories aren't engaging through no fault of the author. Reading is entirely subjective. One reader might be on their third copy of a book since they re-read the first two until the binding surrendered and the pages fell out. Another might not be able to remember if she even read the book collecting dust on a shelf.

That's fine.

But, dear aspiring authors of the world, please don't refuse to give readers a chance to fall in love with your stories. That leaves us all poorer.

*Someone who reads in order to give constructive feedback rather than a pleasure reader.

Monday, July 16, 2012


Since shortly after I began writing for publication, around the time in fact that I began receiving edit letters, I became exceedingly aware that vagueness could be a Very Bad Thing.

This hadn’t occurred to me as a writer. Before I wrote (meaning actually finished stories and wondered if someone else might pay me to print them), I existed as a reader. I encountered vagueness but it was in finished books, so I could wonder or marvel or gripe at it, but I couldn’t change anything. It was what it was…speaking of vagueness.

Now I have a better sense of whether an author is vague on purpose. If a character’s dim past is mentioned three times but never revealed, for instance, I’m going to call that a choice. I won’t always be right.

When you’re slogging through the valley of a story, you know what came before – though you can no longer see it – and you have an idea of what should be coming up – though it doesn’t always pan out as planned. So Writer Me (or Writer You, in your case) finishes a story, dusts off and climbs out of the valley, thinking I’ve written something in which A happens so B happens while C is occurring, at which point either D or E must occur – and if it’s D we’re all hosed and if it’s E, then we’ll all party like it’s carnivale meets Mardi Gras (insert action and smexiness as necessary). And that’s when the strangest and most terrifying thing of all happens.

People read the story. 

That’s the terrifying part. The strange part is that they come back to Writer Me and say, “What a great/awful/slightly frenetic story of L happening, then M occurring, followed by a great big B, then a lovely little J – however did you think of it?” And I have no answer because I’m frantically scrolling through the manuscript trying to figure out what the hell this person read. Also, I’m jealous because that story sounds far more awesome than what I wrote.

So how does a writer make sure they story she wrote is the story that will be read? The simple answer is that she can’t. Reading is subjective, and while it’s difficult to skew “Dick and Jane run” – even with a plethora of personal experience in Dicks, Janes or running – it become easier the more characters, situations, backgrounds and variables are introduced into a story. And that’s where the challenge lies.

Certain events or elements must be clear in order for the story to make sense.

The reader has to know that Batman was born Bruce Wayne. 

The reader has to understand the simple pleasures of daily life in the Shire. 

The reader has to know that magic and tech are at odds daily, and sometimes hourly, in Atlanta.

The rest of the story is darkness and clarity. The reader will identify things known to him: certain pop culture references, the taste of unripe grapefruit, how it feels to stand at a bus stop in the rain for so long that you become sure you’re never going to be picked up. And the reader’s mind will fill in the gray areas, whether they are left intentionally or not.

An intentional gray area would be the motivations of the character Mr. Wednesday in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Does he wish good or ill on Shadow, the protagonist? The readers don’t get to step inside Mr. Wednesday’s mind, but we do get to ride about in Shadow’s, and therefore this gray area concerns us. Some readers believe he’s rotten to the core. Others have sympathy for him…I won’t spoil it, but there’s a compelling argument for sympathy.

A potentially unintentional gray area might be the environment. Most of my stories take place in winter. I know what 32 degrees Fahrenheit (freezing point) feels like on bare skin. Many people do. I also know what -50 degrees feels like. I would hazard that most people don’t. I could state the temperature and move on, or I could describe it: the sharp touch and instant shivering; the way that exposed muscles try to curl in on themselves to escape it; how deep the piercing sting of being dropped in lukewarm water after being outside for too long.

Is the temperature important? It’s omnipresent and potentially fatal, so if my characters go outside – and they do, those crazy kids – it’s important.

So vagueness isn’t always bad. Sometimes the details are unnecessary. Sometimes the mystery is intriguing. I’m more aware now of which elements need to be clear to tell the story I intend, which the readers are likely to be able to fill in themselves, and which may require some additional description. Rooms are my nemesis, which is a bit pathetic on my part, but there it is.

I’ve been told I have “white room syndrome”, a terrible affliction in which the places my characters exist are known only to me. I’m working on it. I keep paint and molding and stairs in a little shack in my storytelling valley. It’s a shanty really, a single story of roughhewn wood, with a blackened stovepipe that’s been hammered nearly flat on the south side. Can you see it?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


What's that old fantasy? If I had a million dollars...

If I had a million dollars...I'd probably put most of it into a retirement account, because I'm paranoid and frugal.

But if I had another million dollars or two (why limit it to one if this is a speculative fantasy), I'd probably fly around the world, following phenomenal meals people are tweeting about. So, you know, if I follow you, be sure to make a little extra. And let me know what to bring.