Monday, August 19, 2013

Don'ts of writing a novel

I asked my Tumblr followers whether they'd like to see me cover any particular subject on my blog, and one of them wrote this:

embodiedspirit answered: Don’t’s of writing a novel :) Cliches to avoid, overused plots/character traits etc.

That is a really big question, embodiedspirit.

My biggest problem with it is that almost anything cliché, overused, or tired can be given new life if framed in an interesting way. So I think rather than list a bunch of don'ts that TVTropes has already done to death way better than I could (followed inevitably by massive caveats and exceptions), I will instead discuss a very general overview of what not to do.

First, a very simple formula:
  • Bad Idea + Bad Execution = Bad Book
  • Good Idea + Good Execution = Good Book
  • Bad Idea + Good Execution = Good Book (usually)
  • Good Idea + Bad Execution = Bad Book (usually)
In other words, it's all in the execution. And giving someone guidelines to good execution is NOT an easy thing at all!

Without naming names, I will give some examples of books that fall into these categories and explain why what the author did resulted in a good or a bad book. You may be able to recognize what books they are by how I describe them, but I would appreciate if you wouldn't try to call them out in the comments if that happens. 

Bad Idea + Bad Execution

I hesitate to say anything is a bad idea, actually, because most bad ideas can be executed in some way that at least provides an opportunity for redeeming factors. So for my example here, I'm going to have to go with something that is problematic at its core. I once came across a book that was set during America's pre-Civil-War slavery era . . . and its protagonist was a white man who was kidnapped and sold as a slave in a revenge plot. Measures were taken to somehow change both his appearance and his behavior so that he "passed" as a black man and a slave. This was not science fiction or presented as alternative history--it was written as if there were realistic ways a man could be disguised unwillingly as a slave and reeducated in a camp to make him speak, move, react, and respond like a slave, and it was framed as though this could have actually happened in the American South.

Completely ridiculous premise aside, it was also offensive to attempt to swipe slave narratives and graft them onto a white man, and to frame the entire debacle as an injustice mainly because it "unfairly" happened to someone who was not black. (The author's self-written descriptions insist that the book is "historically accurate," even though it includes descriptions of white people being kidnapped and having their skin dyed, with this practice presented as widespread due to lack of black people to enslave. What.)

Anyway, the execution was a little less terrible than the premise, but it was still extremely poorly written, full of offensive presentation of black people as being "built for" slavery while the poor white protagonist is not and ohhh how he suffers because of this, and in no way containing an authentic portrayal of how human beings talk, interact, think, or feel. It also had a disturbing tendency to launch into graphic descriptions of rape and violence, which aren't terrible if the book's intention is to disgust you, but I was alarmed by how common it was for everything but the violence to be glossed over and relayed dully--as if the author was enjoying writing the grisly scenes and only filled in plot and character so these things could happen to someone and she'd get to write it. (Happily, this book is self-published and no legitimate reviewers have ever praised it, so at least there's no one but the author to blame for the travesty.) Both conceptually and writing-style-wise, the execution was awful. This book was a Bad Book.

Good Idea + Good Execution

It seems a simple enough plan. There's a tradition that states the next princess has to come from a certain place, but none of the girls there know how to be a princess, so they establish a school to train the potential princesses and one of them will get to marry the prince. But of course the main character isn't necessarily sure she wants to become a princess, considering what she learns in the course of her education, and someone else is probably a better choice. It's such a catchy premise. So much potential. So much room for development.

Another book with a good idea
and good execution, IMO.
And--surprise!--the author delivers! But not only does she satisfy all the complicated requirements of a book about arranged marriages; she also gives us immensely in-depth character development. We know exactly why the protagonist feels the way she feels and why she does what she does, and there are also very organic elements woven in--we experience natural understandings of the protagonist's culture, of her family relationships, of her own psychological development, of her changing from who she was to who she's to become. The author takes a plot that affects a kingdom and makes it personal, so its bigness doesn't make its characters get lost. And on top of that there are very unique cultural and interpersonal aspects invented for the story that I've never seen before. It made for such an enjoyable, immersive read that I had no trouble "diagnosing" this as a Good Book.

Bad Idea + Good Execution

This may be controversial, but yes, I think this premise is extremely silly. Aliens come to Earth. They want to enslave the human race. And the only thing standing in the way of their complete domination of humanity is . . . a group of middle-school kids who can turn into animals. How anybody read this idea and decided it sounded like a good plan for a book is beyond me.

Turns out it's absolutely phenomenal. The way the author took these characters in this ridiculous situation and made it about children going to war--and how it took their childhood away--was mind-blowing considering the improbability and goofiness of the plot. There were all kinds of reasons why the premise is ridiculous, and sometimes the characters had to say/do things that seemed inauthentic in order to keep the plot going, but the author did almost everything right to keep the action character-driven and realistic. She acknowledged every character's strengths and weaknesses, had them grow and change based on these, and had them play off each other. She had them developing loyalties, pushing their limits, and experiencing lasting psychological change based on what happened to them. And she did something children's authors almost never do: She depicted a gray area between good and evil, which enabled some of the villains to be sympathetic and some of the heroes to do terrible things. I wince whenever I try to tell someone what this title is about, because despite how silly it sounds, this is a Good Book.

Good Idea + Bad Execution

When I encountered a book with an attractive cover and a wacky premise, I thought I'd be in for a great ride. The author, in a Lemony-Snicket-like fit of absurdity, decided that children are too young to go to Hell after they die, and created a special place where children go if they were bad. The idea was appealing because hey, that has so much potential--not to mention that it echoes a classic: Inferno by Dante Alighieri.

Unfortunately, not a single aspect of the book delivered anything I wanted to see. The main characters had no authentic emotions and came right out of prototype boxes (you know, because you can't have a nerdy, goody-two-shoes character unless he is also frequently bullied, wears glasses, has one of the first three names you'd assign to a caricature of a nerdy guy, is afraid of everything, is allergic to everything, and is very intelligent).

The supporting characters were walking, talking jokes, and the jokes weren't funny. The premise made no sense because it couldn't decide whether being bad while on Earth was something children would be punished for or respected for, and the internal consistency of the world was a mess because everything was engineered toward making a joke, not making sense. And the author apparently believed that if you throw enough poop and fart jokes into the mix, children will be entertained (even while the story also makes repeated literary and historical references that will go over their heads). I stress that I was put off by the potty humor and I am a fan of Captain Underpants.

The idea was so much more promising than the delivery; it was bewildering how un-fun it was to read, what with the narration seeming to congratulate itself on its hilariousness as the humor was delivered. You could practically hear the author slapping his own knee and saying "Get it? Get it?" In my opinion, it would have been a fun book if someone else had written it. Instead, it was a Bad Book.

SO! I think the takeaway point here is that execution is pretty much everything, though you also need to be able to sum up your book in a non-ridiculous-sounding pitch statement if you ever want to get past the querying stage. I can't give you a don'ts list other than don't write cardboard characters, don't disconnect your plot from its people, don't write a world or plot that is internally inconsistent, and don't employ poorly written narration/dialogue. And let's be honest, that list basically tells you "don't suck." Nobody means to suck.

If you want to not suck, I recommend looking at books that are executed well. Don't look at what they did; look at how they did it. When you tell your friends about your favorite books, do you tell them what happened, or do you tell them that you fell in love? Very few things, other than the obvious, are non-negotiable "don't" list items. When you realize that just about anything can be a good book if it's executed well--and that not executing it well can make even the best ideas fail--you start to focus less on the what and more on the how.

Make your readers fall in love with your characters, which will make them care what the characters do and what happens to them. Make a believable setting for your characters, and present it naturally. Make your writing accessible and clearly rendered so we forget that we're reading words and just let the story wash over us. If you can do that, it doesn't matter if your concept is overused or if your character has cliché traits or if some of your plot elements are predictable.

Make us want to read it and you'll be allowed to do anything.

Want to share books you've read that fall into these categories? What are your Good Books and your Bad Books, with combination of idea and execution? Sound off in the comments if you want!

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