Tuesday, March 8, 2016

This Stinks. Publish It. by Andy Scheer

Being in print doesn’t mean it’s good.

A few weeks ago at a used bookstore, I bought a mass paperback by a “New York Times Bestselling Author.” I didn’t recognize the name, but the title and blurbs promised a story that fit my mood.

My mistake. From the first page, I found myself accosted by the litany of amateur techniques cited in courses for novelists.

I should know. For ten years I edited courses and mentored students for a legitimate writing school. The first fiction lesson advised immersing readers in the world of your story. He advised authors to avoid any device that reminded people, “you’re only reading a book.”

No matter how amazing the plot or imaginative the action, stories depend on the mortar of dialogue to hold their elements together.

That’s where so many newbie authors fail: not trusting readers to catch the meaning from the characters’ body language and their words. Rather than use a simple “she said,” they slather on telling descriptors and hyperactive action tags.

Then for fun, they add awkward characterization and backstory dumps. Here’s glimpse from page 20:

… Gathering up her notes, she left her office – only to encounter an unexpected face in the corridor.
“Matt!” she exclaimed. “How are you?”
“Fine, thanks!” replied Matt Trulli, giving her a hug. The spike-haired, slightly overweight Australian submarine designer had helped Nina on her previous adventures, risking his own life to do so, and on her recommendation had decided to accept a somewhat quieter job at one of the IHA’s sister agencies. Nina still wasn’t used to seeing him in suit, although he retained some vestiges of his old beach-bum look – today his shirt had three open buttons and his tie’s knot was about level with his heart. “You and Eddie just got given the keys to the country. Nice one.”
“Thanks. What’re you doing here? I thought you were in Australia with UNARA.” The United Nations Antarctic Research agency was gearing up to explore the unique ecosystems of the prehistoric lakes beneath the ice sheets of the South Pole.

(I assume Matt is a spike-haired slightly overweight Australian —not a designer of slightly overweight Australian submarines, but who cares.)

Beneath the clunky technique, there may be a fun story. But it’s not one I’ll try to excavate from the debris of clichés and amateur mistakes.

Some aspiring authors try to learn their craft from what’s in print. But what sells isn’t always the measure of what’s good. (Think of the nearby eatery that sells the most hamburgers, versus who makes the best burger.) This mass paperback, from a major publisher, was this author’s third title. And this book was in its fourth printing. The publisher was on to something.

The craft stunk. They published it anyway. People bought it.

But I won’t read it. Based on that sample, would you?


Julie Dibble said...

Thank you for this wake-up and encouragement to discern great writing examples.

Andy Scheer, Hartline Literary said...

While it's good to know what's being offered in your genre, it's also good to learn from its best practitioners.