writing tips

The Unlucky 13 Finishes! 2, 1

Great catchSo far, I’ve been talking about the tangible stumbling blocks that show up in text; you can count them like the drips in a Chinese Water Torture chamber.

They’re the little flaws that naturally creep into the first draft, but don’t get cleaned out of the final draft. (But it’s great practice to mentally re-write an offending sentence or paragraph when you find one!)

In this, the ultimate edition of the Unlucky 13 series, I’m leaving those smaller flaws behind and taking a look at something bigger and less tangible: the issues that will stop me reading a book altogether.

Fence posts fading into the distance
“This is you. Your growth, as our author planned you.”
“I like it. I’m a fence, disappearing into the distance. Anything could happen.”
“No, you’re the lichen. Nothing changes in your lifetime.”

2. Character flat-line

It’s called an arc for a reason!

Recently, I read a book where the protagonist’s biggest challenge was whether to stick at his new job where he’s not doing well, or to go back to his old job that he didn’t like.

Now that can work well in the right context: they say Einstein failed at maths at school but he stuck it out and now we have E=MC². And we all know where we’d be without it, right? (no big bang = no universe. We’re here thanks to Einstein, apparently.)

Or what about someone working at something ground-breaking in history, like Emma Stone, Australia’s first female doctor; or Flos Grieg, our first female lawyer (both of whom were initially told that due to a lack of women’s toilets they wouldn’t be allowed to practice).

But this was Fantasy/SciFi, and our protagonist, let’s call him Bernie, was no different to you or I choosing between supermarkets to shop at.

If Bernie learnt anything on his journey, it was too subtle for me. If there was something at stake, win or lose, I didn’t see it. He was a passive bystander in his own story, and as a reader I felt like I was being driven through his home town, looking out the window, and not stopping.

I mean, aren’t we all wondering what to do with our careers? And isn’t fiction about escapism?

Bernie never had to make a real decision, so I never learnt from his strength, admired his guts, cried when he cried, because there wasn’t anything for him to do.

Why couldn’t he be faced with a sadistic choice? Or any tough choice for that matter?

Instead, no-one was hurt, everybody smiled a lot, and everyone got exactly what they deserved.

Yawning cat
Wake me when it’s over.

In another novel, the protagonist (let’s call him Jed) had an erratically spiked arc. At times I thought I’d missed whole chapters because the interplay between Jed and his love-interest didn’t make any sense.

They were supposed to be resisting the irresistible, but it was forced and inconsistent.

Sometimes they were cold, as though something had happened between them, other times they were intimate, and other times ordinary and professional.

But not in any kind of sequence, and we never found out why their feelings changed.

I came to the conclusion the author was running late on the printing deadline – the editor spotted some gaps in the buildup to their relationship, the author rushed to fill the gaps just in the nick of time, but no-one had a chance to re-read before printing.

I forced myself to finish that book from a purely research point of view.

There’s only one thing that will make me put down a book faster. Drum roll please….

A long line of trekkers in the snow
“So why does it take all 22 of us to go check the fish trap?”
“The author just wanted us all to die together in an avalanche.”

1. What’s driving this story anyway?!

Sometimes there’s nothing to inspire me turn the page. In fiction, this could be as obvious as either not having an inciting incident, or having an unrealistic one.

In non-fiction, it could be there is no link that ties the narrative together. Or after presenting a problem, the book doesn’t explore its resolution.

Let’s look at them separately: fiction first. I have a standout book in my mind. It’s called Liner; I can’t remember who wrote it, but it was a struggle to finish.

The author kept hinting at how terrible things would be if the ship had an accident. I think he even used the ellipse of suspense…

But nothing ever happened…
Well, it did…
They had an accident…
But nothing came of it….
Everyone lived happily ever after…
Gosh weren’t they lucky because it should have been so much worse…

Cue scary music from Psycho…

So why were we following this story? Nothing happened to kick it off, nothing changed to increase complexity, no-one faced any challenges, and everyone lived happily ever after.

As for unrealistic inciting incidents, nothing beats the crazy idea in Johan Harstad’s 172 Hours on the Moon to send non-specialist teenagers to the moon on our first return visit in 40 years.

(But – Harstad proves you can break rules and still have an outstanding story! This was possibly the best YA I’ve read for a long time!)

And in my only non-fiction example in any of these blogs, I recently bought a book on vigilante groups in the UK. The chapters were divided into different types of cases – attacks on rapists, retaliations on people who cheated cab drivers, etc – and after a short intro, each delved into the different attacks, punishments meted out, or mistakes made by members of the public seeking revenge and/or justice.

It’s one of those topics that fascinates us humans, the fine line between justice as seen by the law, and justice as meted out by violent vigilantes. It’s a brutal, sharp topic, and it’s all real. And sometimes, the vigilantes get it cringingly wrong.

But it was a disconnected series of true crime stories. There was no link. No resolution offered or argued. I wasn’t even sure what the author was getting at. Was he saying vigilantism is wrong? Right? Getting worse?

I never finished it.

So now, with that out of my system, I’m back to my own writing, to weed out all the suddenlys and felts and exclamation marks and stepping forwards. And to hope like Hawk that I have the talent to finish, not to mention get published.

Happy reading everyone (and writing!).

If you enjoy reading about these, then why not catch up on the ones you’ve already missed:

13: “Insert pithy comment here,” he laughed.
12: How to use adverbs dramatically, enticingly and generally really really well.
11: I felt a feeling.
10: Fun with exclamation marks!
9: “She cried a little, didn’t she?” “Don’t exaggerate. There were only a number of tears.”
8. Continuity issues. Don’t they just get in the.
7. Characters can’t speak without stepping forward.
6. ‘Don’t ask me, I’m just a placeholder.’
5. In defiance of every law of physics, he paused for a moment.
4. She started to run but forgot to tell him to finish.
3. “What a dramatic opening chapter line you have there!” “Yes it is! Now, while I’ve got you…”

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