The first course in the McDaniel Romance Writing Program was Reading Like a Writer. I never used to read through a writer’s filter. Now, I think I read every book that way. I recently re-read one of my favorite Jayne Ann Krentz books – Family Man. JAK hits the reader right up front with the two main characters and the main conflict. She gradually adds in a host of other characters, keeps the main conflict right up front throughout and circles right back around to make the last scene echo the first scene. All of that is stuff we learned that is supposed to be there. All that stuff makes for good fiction.
We learned lots of don’ts, too. Don’t start with sitting and thinking, or worse, driving and thinking. Be careful with lots of narrative description right up front, avoid loads of backstory, start when the conflict starts, etc. However, I have read books that I enjoy that do those things that shouldn’t be done and they don’t get in the way of my enjoyment of the book. I loved Death Angel and Up Close and Dangerous by Linda Howard and there is a lot of narrative description and backstory without action on the part of the main characters for pages. Nora Roberts changes point of view in a single scene. I know that drives a lot of people crazy but doesn’t bother me when Roberts does it. One of my favorite NR books is Angels Fall which starts with driving and thinking. Some of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ books have stretches in the middle where the two main characters aren’t in the same state, much less the same scene. Of course, these are all examples from great fiction writers with long lists of best sellers to their names.
At the same time, there are books that I read after all I learned in Reading Like a Writer in which the author does some of those no-no’s and I’m tempted to throw the book against the wall. A few of these have been best sellers, even super-mega-sellers with movies made from them and I can’t finish them, and certainly don’t understand how so many people thought they were so good.
I keep reminding myself of these personal preferences as I struggle through my current manuscript (which is giving me a horrible, overwhelming fit right now). Every scene in the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. There can be stretches of narrative, sitting and thinking, head hopping, and backstory. It just has to be on the page. And maybe some of those no-no’s will stay because they work. And some will go. Hopefully, some readers will love it. And I know some will want to throw it down the stairs.
Do your reading preferences conform to the rules of good fiction? Do you have pet peeves in reading that translate to your writing?
This is interesting. I read lots of stories that have all the faults you mention but I still enjoy them. I do think that interesting characters, a great narrative voice and strong story line can atone for a lot of technical ‘craft’ flaws. Or perhaps it’s just that illusive sparkle that you seem to get with some books (great dialogue and a genuine connection between the H and h can do this).
The things that books I read do tend to have in common are more structural. Most romance (that I read anyway), whatever the idiosyncracies within scenes, conform really closely to a three-act structure – particularly around the first turning point, the no way back moment around 50% (and this is so easy to see on kindle) and the dark moment.
That’s an interesting point, about the stories you like having a similar structure. I think mine might be related to character. Character arcs is one of the main reasons I like romance. I can’t get into the series books that have the same character who doesn’t change, just keeps solving problems, or cases, or whatever.
What Rachel said. I’m a more observant reader these days, but I don’t mind if the author breaks a few ‘rules’ as long as she does it well. I just re-read a couple of Elizabeth Lowell historicals, and she changes POV mid-scene all the time. She does it clearly though, so you always know whose head you are in, and it doesn’t bother me at all. And I have to say I’m a sucker for a good sittin’ and thinkin’ scene – if a character thinks things through in his own, sees the light, and then goes out and acts on it, I’m happy with that. There’s no shortage of Dain’s solo internal monologue in Lord of Scoundrels, and those are some of my favorite bits, especially as they’re usually followed by his (hilarious) reaction to whatever he’s just decided.
I’m re-reading a Lisay Kleypas historical and she head hops, too. But like Lowell, you know she has done it. It’s an old one so I don’t know whether she still does. I also don’t mind some scenes that don’t have conflict. I’m a sucker for a good resolution scene.
Me too (the resolution scene). I can even go for the odd epilogue. I don’t like it when the hero and heroine are whisked off the page the very second they’ve got together – I want to bask in the glow of their happiness for a bit!
I just read a romance where the A subplot didn’t get resolved until the epilogue. Note to self: never do that.
Or when the subplot is never resolved because ti was just stuck in there to create a problem. I just read one (I can’t remember which one) that left me thinking, “What happened to so-and-so?”
The thing about The Rules is that they are like a first aid kit. They should only be brought in when something is Not Working. If those descriptions and headhoppings and other things feel absolutely right to you, then there’s no need to bring in the first aid kit. But when something is wrong, then you need them to fix the problem. It’s kind of like a checklist — got conflict? got characterization? got sympathy and/or empathy?
The Rules also change according to the fashion of the time. Ann Radcliffe’s *The Mysteries of Udolpho* was hugely popular in its time. Several of Jane Austen’s characters in *Northanger Abbey* admired it greatly — both ditzy and non-ditzy. But good lord, the going is as rough as the mountain roads that Emily’s stupid father chooses to travel upon. I’m only about 10 percent through, so it may redeem itself in the end.
Or it may not, and I won’t ever get those hours of my life back . . . .
The writing cap and the editing cap really seem to be two different things, and I think for me, it’s extremely counterproductive to try to “save time” by wearing both of them simultaneously.
But wearing the editing cap and the reading cap at the same time? I have to admit, it makes me more impatient with mediocre stories, and more patient with average but well-structured narratives, and it makes me glow with appreciation at a great book.