Professional Courtesies

For complicated reasons, I’m ramping up my involvement with fiction writing. Specifically, fantasy fiction. As part of the process, I’m resolving to read successful books by other authors.

This creates a bit of a moral conundrum. I know a few people enjoy reading my blog posts about writing. I’m learning all sorts of things about the fantasy field through my reading — some subtle things, some not so subtle. But I need to be very discreet about sharing my observations.

These other writers aren’t just “the competition.” They’re my colleagues. If (when!) my own work is published, I may run into some of them at conventions. How will that encounter go, if I have savagely trashed their masterpiece in my blog?

My basic approach, since the world of books is huge and my patience is limited, is to read the first 100 pages of a novel. At that point I feel qualified to draw some conclusions about what the author is up to. Yes, the story may take an unexpected turn on page 150, but if the author hasn’t hinted about it by page 100, that in itself is a defect.

In the last few days I’ve delved into two different novels in this manner. One has no plot at all, and the other has too much plot. And there’s almost no way to explain what I mean by that without providing examples from these specific books.

Plotting is a tricky business. What it boils down to is that you want the reader to be wondering what happens next. You want the reader to want to keep turning the pages.

The plotless book is mainly just an unrelieved litany of depressing events. After a hundred pages, I’ve given up wondering if something wonderful is going to happen next. The main character, a boy 9 or 10 years old, is mainly an observer. He has no power to affect anything, and doesn’t even try. I feel no desire to keep wading through his misery.

In the book with too much plot, the main character has a clear goal — to rescue her father, who has vanished. She faces terrible dangers, and takes some decisive actions. That’s all to the good. But she’s not just the main character — for the first hundred pages, she’s basically the only character. (The book’s title is her name, in fact.) We know she’s not going to die in any of her horrible encounters with monsters at every turn in the road, because if she died, the story would end. And for quite a stretch of time, she has no companions who might be gravely injured, or disappear into a crevice in a glacier or whatever.

Eventually — big surprise! — she will run into a handsome young man who will turn out to be a both a prince and an expert swordsman, and they will fare onward together. Even then, we can be confident that the young woman will emerge victorious from her next agonizing difficulty, just as she did from the last one. And there’s nothing else to care about. No matter how nasty the author makes her journey, she is in no danger at all. As a result, her travails, no matter how harrowing, soon become tedious.

You know who I like? Carl Hiaasen. I read his books clear through, from beginning to end. They’re not fantasy, of course; they’re crime novels. But he keeps you wondering what’s going to happen next. Things that you don’t expect keep popping up, in part because each story has several viewpoint characters, and in part because he has a well-developed sense of whimsy. Some would call it sarcasm. He’s clearly having fun making up the story, and he wants you to have fun too.

That’s not the only way to make a plot that will grab readers, but it’s a good one.

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