Things I’ve Learned about Writing from Writing Book Reviews – Part 2

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On Wednesday I posted Part 1 of the things I’ve learned about writing from writing book reviews, which included:
*There are three universal things that make a great book (plot, characters and the writing itself)
*Sometimes being great at one of those things is enough (if you do it so well that a reader is mesmerised)
*Sometimes it’s the little things that will stay with the reader (those moments that make us sigh or gasp or cry and make us want everybody else to have the same reaction)
*Don’t use writers’ tricks (because readers might not know that they’re writers’ tricks but they know they don’t like them)

Here’s a few more to round out the list.

Bodily Fluids and Functions Do Not Equal Great Literature
“Contemporary writers of literature are a peculiar breed of writer who seem to think certain topics make their writing realistic and gritty. The reality is, however, that readers wonder why it is necessary to include them. Those topics include pooing, peeing and masturbation. Normal, everyday occurrences but also often distasteful, boring and unnecessary to the story being told.”
From my 2 star book review of Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

“Maybe it’s the time period, 1829, with no running water and a real lack of attention to hygiene that kept making me want to take a shower (there seemed to be a lot of peeing of pants and a strange focus on urine and faeces – what is it about ‘literature’ that the authors have to describe it in such detail?).”
From my 3 star book review of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Not once in my entire reading history have I ever read a scene in which a character goes to the toilet (for either number ones or number twos) or indulges in a little self-love and thought to myself, “Wow! That was fantastic! And so important to the narrative.” Instead, most of the time when I read these things, the internal count in my head that adds up what a book’s final star rating will be keeps subtracting points.

I’ve previously written about the one and only time I wrote a peeing scene into the first draft of one of my books. The two main characters were camping in the middle of nowhere and I just thought it was unrealistic to have them hold it the whole time. But my beta readers were very quick to slap the scene down. They didn’t care about realism; they didn’t want to read a toilet scene. So I just as quickly took it out.

I’ve also written previously about the “realism” genre and how it is an idealised version of real life. If a novel was written that accurately portrayed real life, it would be a very boring book. We read to avoid the real, the banal, the boring bits in between the excitement in our lives. Even biographies leave out days, months, years in order to get to the good stuff. Novelists should do the same.

Linear or Non-Linear, the Story Still Needs to Be Understandable
“My uncertainty stems from the narrative jumping around, back and forth between time periods, so I was never really sure about when everything was happening. I found myself continually thinking, “So is this before or after?” The sequencing was jumbled and while this might have been for effect, the ultimate result was merely muddled. There’s nothing wrong with a linear story. Conversely, there’s nothing wrong with a non-linear story as long as it’s written in a way the reader can clearly understand.”
From my 3 star book review of The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

“I sometimes think when disjointed narratives like this are used it is because the story isn’t strong enough to exist in a linear format. I definitely think that was the case here. The confusion it causes helps to mask the defects for a while, but once the reader has figured it out, it’s not enough to cover for what is lacking.”
From my 2 star book review of Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas

Linear stories are so twentieth century, right? So passé. So done to death. Yes, they are classic. But often the reason things become classic is because they work so well. So if you decide to write a non-linear story, you have to ask yourself why you want to write it that way.

The best example of a non-linear story format is the film Memento. But it still requires a lot of commitment and concentration from the audience. And, ultimately, the audience can find the linear story within its non-linear presentation.

If a reader struggles to identify the linear story in the non-linear presentation, then regardless of whatever reasons you have used to justify presenting it in this way, you will have failed in what you are attempting to do.

Don’t Try to Do Too Much
“The problem with this book is that it can’t decide if it wants to be dystopian fiction or romance fiction, so it tries to be both but it fails at both. The genre confusion is compounded by a story that isn’t interesting or original. In the acknowledgements, Howey apologises for his Y chromosome but the fact that he’s a man isn’t an excuse for being bad at writing romance. Nicholas Sparks certainly doesn’t have any difficulties.”
From my 2 star book review of The Shell Collector by Hugh Howey

“One of the downfalls of this book is that it tries to cover too much. Is it about grief? Is it about mental health issues? Is it about family? Is it about peer pressure? Is it a coming of age story? It tries to be about all of these things and ends up not addressing any of them adequately.”
From my 3 star book review of The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

Readers want to read good books. That’s it. Simple enough. So if a writer tries to write two books in one or gives the character within that book more than any one human can possibly cope with, the likelihood is that it will derail at some point. And not just derail but come off the tracks and plunge engine first into a canyon instead of carrying on over the bridge like it should have.

Readers don’t want to pull a book out of one category in the book store only to find when they get it home and start reading that it’s another genre entirely. If you try to do too much, readers will resent it. Simplify. Ask yourself, “Does that really need to be in the story?” And if the answer is, “No,” then get rid of it.

It’s Okay for Characters to be Ordinary – In Fact, Sometimes It’s Preferred
“I’m not sure why authors need to imbue their main characters with unique talents – it’s very reminiscent of this era in which all children are being brought up and told they are special and can do and have anything they want in this world. Honestly, I’d like to start reading more books about people who have reasonable talents and have to compete with many others who have the same talents. I’d like to read more books about people who achieve something but fail just as often, having to watch others succeed ahead of them without it being the end of the world (literally). There are several times in the book when characters are threatened with losing their powers and being reduced to amaurotic status, which means just being a normal, everyday human. Oh, no! How could this be tolerated? Well, the rest of us manage it okay. The “special” people should try it sometime and realise it’s easily tolerated. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with actually having to work hard to have a skill instead of just being born special.”
From my 2 star book review of The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

In this day and age of comic book superstars with their superpowers and their supercars dominating everything, sometimes it’s nice to read about characters who don’t have these things, who aren’t special, who don’t have a destiny, who live interesting but normal lives and don’t have everything just fall in their laps.

It’s important for writers to find some balance and a place for the normal people. After all, which is more powerful? The pre-destined leader or the average Joe (or Jane) who has to become a leader even though they don’t really want to. Let’s ask Katniss Everdeen what she thinks.

It Has to Be about the Writing
“In Chapter 4 he takes a very obvious pot shot at the former Californian Governor and actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger (without actually naming him), about using his authority to provide executive clemency to a political ally’s son, who was convicted of killing a man. The pot shot is over a page long and I actually stopped reading the book and Googled the anecdote to see if it was true or part of the plot. It was true. I agree with Connelly that it hardly paints Schwarzenegger in a good light but it was so poorly done on Connelly’s part that it loses its power. And instead of being angry with Schwarzenegger, I am angry with Connelly for including such disruptive paragraphs. If he were anyone else, I doubt his editors would have let it through because it completely throws the reader off and actually has nothing to do with the story.”
From my 3 star book review of The Crossing by Michael Connelly

“The author is himself a renowned expert on the perpetration of frauds with a side interest in writing and has spent significant periods educating the public on how to avoid becoming a victim but I think I would have preferred if he were an expert in writing with a side interest in frauds.”
From my 2 star book review of Chasing the Ace by Nicholas J Johnson

“The events are also a cautionary tale for writers. Because once they publish, they will forever be associated with their writing. Harold Stewart and James McAuley were never able to shake their tags as the authors of the Ern Malley poems and they ended up resenting it. Perhaps they would have faded into obscurity without Ern Malley. Perhaps they would have gone on to develop reputations independent of him. But they never got to find out.”
From my 4 star book review of The Ern Malley Affair by Michael Heyward

In the end, it has to be about the writing. Readers don’t want to be lectured. They don’t want education masked as entertainment. And whatever a writer publishes will be forever associated with them. You can’t wind back time, especially in this online age where the internet seems to be permanent and even if you delete something, someone somewhere will have taken a screen shot and then written about what you posted to keep the story going.

So when you do publish, when you do hit that button, make sure, make really sure that you are happy to be associated with it forever. Because that’s how long you’ll be associated with it as long as we have access to search engines. At least until an EMP wipes out everything electrical and technological. And who knows how far away that might be?

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