Jilly: Reading Week Lessons Learned

For reasons best left unexplained except to say all’s well that ends well, last week I spent a few days out of action, followed by a few more recuperating on my sofa with a restorative book or ten.

When I’d soothed myself with all my favorite re-reads, I decided to try a highly rated fantasy series. It’s been on my radar for ages but I never bought the books because while I like the premise, the blurb and the reviews, the story is written in first person, present tense, which isn’t my catnip. The POV character (in this case, the heroine) is telling the story, so either she’s using present tense to describe something that happened in the past, which seems affected, or she’s providing a running commentary in the midst of the story action, which suggests she’s not fully engaged in what she’s doing. If the heroine isn’t all-in, why would I be?

No matter. I wasn’t going anywhere, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

The writing was good—good enough to get me past the first-person-present-tense obstacle. The characters were engaging, and the world fascinating. The chemistry between the heroine and hero was credible, with plenty of zing. Sadly I stopped after Book One of the trilogy, for two main reasons.

One (the lesser of the two) was that the book didn’t have a self-contained storyline. The characters grew and changed, but the book was a collection of unanswered questions that will no doubt be resolved over the remainder of the trilogy. So there was no moment of thrilling catharsis at the end of the book, just a vague feeling of “to be continued…” .This was a light-bulb moment for me, since the edit report on my first Alexis book (edits still on hold until I finish the prequel story) said I was guilty of this same folly. Aha. Okay. Must cogitate.

The second issue, which really annoyed me, was the author’s persistent use of deus ex machina at critical plot points. (According to Wikipedia: deus ex machina is a plot device where a seemingly unsolvable problem in a story is suddenly and abruptly resolved by an unexpected and seemingly unlikely occurrence, typically so much as to seem contrived). The story may be a fantasy, but that does not give the author the right to wave her magic wand every time the plot gets too difficult for the characters to resolve on their own.

Every time the H&H got into really dire straits, either the heroine discovered hitherto latent magical superpowers, or she called on the gods, who intervened to help her survive and/or smite the baddies. Worse still, there was no way the reader could have anticipated what would happen. As a reader, I was infuriated. I thought the author cheated, and I felt excluded. It was as unsatisfactory as reading a murder mystery where the important clues were withheld and the detective identifies the culprit by means unavailable to the reader.

Fellow Eight Lady Michille has said in the past that she doesn’t read fantasy/paranormal because (paraphrasing here) she doesn’t enjoy this kind of plotting. At one improbable juncture I thought I heard Michille’s voice in my head saying, “And suddenly…I can fly!!”

Memo to self: force your characters get themselves out of trouble, and make sure the reader knows in advance exactly what weapons and superpowers they have at their disposal.

Now I’m back to wrestling with my WIP, refreshed and enlightened.

What did you learn this week?

6 thoughts on “Jilly: Reading Week Lessons Learned

  1. That problem of “And suddenly… I can fly!” reminded me of a joke contest I participated in when I was an undergraduate. The task was to complete in 25 words or less the story of what happened to the beautiful maiden tied to the train tracks as the train approached, with the villain in his cape curling his mustache and telling her she must pay the rent. The winner of the contest wrote, “And with a single bound, she was free!” It was funny, but it was also a lesson in storytelling to me. You have to show how characters solve problems, not tell readers the outcome.

    I’m afraid that the thing I learned this week was that I’m no longer capable of writing a decent FBI story. And I noticed that all my writing sprints are weird, paranormal-ish, and I’m wondering if that’s something I should be looking at more closely. Unless that’s just a way to wind up a sprint without needing to work too hard.

    • Well, at least now you know the FBI story isn’t for you right now. And maybe it’s not a bad thing that you’re not mentally in the kind of dark place you’d need to be to write one of those books.

      A paranormal caper, however, sounds fun and cheerful, just the ticket. You’ve written something like that before, right, with Apollo and Artemis, or some other deities? If that’s the way your sprints are all turning out, maybe you should give it a try for a week or two and see what turns up 😉

  2. I want to say that in some cases, especially fantasy, there just isn’t enough book (in traditional publishing) for the plot to play out. Bujold’s the Sharing Knife Series (in the Wide Green World) is, minimally, two stories spread out over four novels — or as many people argue, one long book that had to be broken up over four volumes in order for people to be able to fit it on their lap while reading . . . . There are several of her books that are really one-story, two-books, but they often do stand-alone just fine. When I want to read about Miles’ marriage, I always read the Komarr/A Civil Campaign duology. When I want to read about Cordelia’s early adventures, I invariably finish Shards of Honor and go straight to Barrayar (and Baen conveniently packaged SoH/B in one book called Cordelia’s Honor; they weren’t quite as successful with Miles in Love, I feel, but that may be because I got the hard cover, and it’s just too big to fit in my school bag).

    That said, Bujold almost always leaves us as a good ending spot without a million unanswered questions, and it doesn’t sound like this series does.

    Second, ideally, one would have all the powers available and pretty well defined at the beginning. However, in the course of writing, you get those great and crazy ideas that delight! Then the dilemma is, do I go back and stick a lot of foreshadowing in? Or do I just hope my readers go with the flow?

    I love coming up with a surprise twist in the middle of writing, but I’ve been pretty lucky that those twists are part of my universe, and don’t seem too out of left field (I hope). LOL, I usually start my stories in left field, anyway. (I think the reader isn’t always aware they are in left field, though, until the shortstop hits them in the face.)

    I did love a series in my youth where the writer added more and more fictional powers and characters as she wrote. However, it got to the point where the characters suffered — I wanted to see more of X, while she was busy showing off the gee-whiz of Z and the next alphabet. I often feel like she should have started a different series (well, technically, they WERE a different series, but only a taste of X, and not enough Z-development for me to get hooked). Marketing, though, it probably made sense to keep it in the old, familiar universe. (But the marketing team lost me as a reader, so . . . there’s a limit to marketing wisdom.)

  3. I read your ‘deus ex machina’ paragraph and my first thought was “I hate that.” And you are absolutely correct – that’s why I’m not a paranormal fan. I just read a contemporary romance that did that, which is hard to do when the rules of our world are tough to change for fiction.

    On a different note, I’m glad you’re back in the writing saddle. I’d like to get back in it myself. Happy writing.

  4. Pingback: Kay: Finding The Voice – Eight Ladies Writing

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