Thursday, February 25, 2010

Get a Grip

By Nichole Giles

Part of my job as a writer/author is reading. It’s important that I see what’s selling, what’s out in the market, and where trends are taking us. Really, truly the best way for me to hone my skills and my own style is to read work put out by other authors.

Needless to say, I read a lot. Recently I read a series of books that was extremely compelling. The author’s style is very different—third person present tense—but the characters are solid, likeable with faults, and the story line intriguing. These are all important elements of a good story. I read the first book in the series (one that had been sitting on my dresser for more than a month) in one evening.

It’s the kind of book you pick up and don’t put down until you’ve finished. I love those books. Anyway, the next day I had to go buy the second book, because of course, there were no copies available in the library. So I bought book number two, then tracked down details on the release of number three, which, as luck would have it, was a week away.

Remember, I loved book one, so I was way excited to know I was going to spend two more books worth of time with these characters and this story. Unfortunately, book two was something of a letdown. The characters and style were still wonderful and compelling, but the plot—well, let’s just say there were several plot elements that fell apart in the realism department.

The sad thing is that the breakdown was preventable. The things that were wrong should have been researched, just a little, for the sake of realism. Because, in my opinion, if you’re going to set a book in contemporary society, even if you’re working with fantastical elements, you still have to stay true to that society setting. So, we have these fabulous characters and this killer dialogue, great setting, but the author doesn’t bother to check her facts, and ends up taking the story into a gray area that is obviously, glaringly impossible, thus unbelievable. So basically, the reader can believe the made-up fantastical elements, but we’ve now lost our balance because we’ve surpassed the plane of realism in the plot.

Thus, the reason book two flopped. But I still loved the characters, still felt compelled to read, and moved on to book three. Luckily, book three veered back on course and got back to where the story should’ve gone in the first place, and the author redeemed herself in that aspect. Still, the book two issue shouldn’t have happened. As I mentioned before, it was preventable with a little bit of extra work.

Why am I telling you this? I think as authors it can be really easy to lose our grip on character, plot or other important elements of our writing. Even once we’ve written a fabulous bestselling book, it’s possible for us to go off on a tangent, into an area that our characters or our story really shouldn’t explore. It’s our job to be careful of these dangers, because otherwise we risk letting our readers down.

My teenage son also read the series, and as soon as he finished book two, came running up to me to voice his frustration—which turned out to be the exact same one I had. So, I wasn’t the only one who picked up on the plot fail. YA writers take note: kids are every bit as smart as us. The only difference between adults and teenagers is life experience, which they’re getting every day.

As you develop your story, ask yourself a few questions: Would my character really do this? Would the other people in the story really allow this to happen the way I’ve written it? Have I missed an important step between two plot points? Is this scene, chapter, or storyline relevant to the outcome of the book or series? How relevant? And one last one: Is there someone I can call who will verify facts and procedures in my most important scenes? (This is a big one. Just because we see it on TV doesn’t make it realistic.)

Tip: if you need verification on something, get out the phone book and make some calls. Call a police department, the FBI, a science lab, wherever, and tell them, “I’m writing a book and have a few questions about____. Is there someone I can talk to who can chat with me for a few minutes?” In most cases someone in the office will jump at the chance to help you out. I encountered this when I had to call the national archives to get court documents as research for my book, The Sharp Edge of a Knife. Those guys practically jumped through hoops for me. Try it. It’s actually not only educational, but fun.

Give it some thought, then go read some more books. Oh, and incidentally, I’ve finished my entire February reading list and then some, and am now up for suggestions on what to read in March. Ideas? Thoughts?

Until next time, write on.


L.T. Elliot said...

An excellent point, Nichole, and one of the biggest reasons why I set a book down. THANK YOU for telling it how it is. I'm going to do my best never to let down my readers like that. Thank heaven for betas and crit groups!

Karlene said...

Which makes me wonder where their editor was...that's part of their job, to keep authors from embarrassing themselves.

Braden Bell said...

Thank you, Nichole. That is an excellent point and I appreciate the reminder. I am intrigued and curious about the book--it sounds like a fun read.

I appreciate Karlene's point about editors--my first book is being published this spring and I am really trusting my editor will prevent me from looking stupid.

Nichole Giles said...

You know, Braden, it was a fun read. Even after all my complaints. I'd recommend it, except I don't want to give away what I'm talking about. I'd like people to form their own opinions on this one.

Yes, Karlene, I think the editor should've raised a red flag too. But I also wonder if it isn't the author's job to fact check in the first place? Fine line, I guess.

L.T., you said it! That's why I love my critique group.