There are countless pitfalls against which a novel writer must guard. Weak opening hook, dialogue with no spark, unfortunate use of exclamation marks…the list stretches on and on. It is a wonder that more writers don’t just give up and channel their creativity into baking cookies or making Youtube videos.
But that’s not how writers function. Somehow, some way, they have to keep going, producing more and more word strings in ever changing mixtures, studying what works and what doesn’t in the novels of published authors and pre-published peers. Apprentice Writer has long clued in to the wisdom of calling such study “work-related research” which sounds more productive than simply “reading”. It allows her to figure out what works or not in bookbuilding.
Today, a pitfall so powerful it can leap genres in a single bound. Apprentice Writer calls it: SETTING STATICUS, leading directly to: MOMENTUM MORTUS.
In other words: beware of how keeping main characters in one location for a long period of time kills pace – along with reader interest and goodwill. Some evidence:
THIEF WITH NO SHADOW, a fantasy novel by Emily Gee,
opens with the heroine up a dying tree, a stolen necklace round her throat and a snarling dog below, desperate to be on her way to save her hostage brother from magical fire creatures and not understanding how the dog saw her while she was invisible. Called to the scene via his telepathic link with the dog, the hero is equally desperate that the precious necklace, intended as payment to a magical sea creature for lifting the family curse and saving his sister, has been stolen. A punishing moonlit chase ensues until the protagonists come face to face outside the fire-creatures den. With energy at lowest point and emotion at highest, the initial clash between protagonists is huge, the necklace having already been handed over in exchange for the near-dead brother.
Great opening hook? Absolutely. Flying pace? For sure. Well-written first pages? Very much. Potential for fascinating developments, given the magical creatures, unusual personal abilities, and equal but opposite life-or-death stakes involved? You bet.
And what does the author do with this fantastic beginning? She proceeds to place the characters in a derelict farmhouse and keep them there, snarling and misunderstanding one another, for WELL PAST HALF THE BOOK.
Spectacular waste of a rocketing start. Apprentice Writer nearly wept.
Dramatic interest does return with later developments and more scenes with the fascinating fire and sea creatures (as well as tantalizing bits about magical earth and air creatures elsewhere in this world; Apprentice Writer assumes they will play a central role in the author’s next book), but by that point, this reader was seriously annoyed. Apprentice Writer only kept going because of how much she liked the writing in the first two chapters, and was rewarded by how beautifully done the interaction between hero and heroine is in the final scene. Overall, the strengths of this book outweigh this and a few other, smaller weaknesses, and make it a worthwhile read. But the seemingly endless middle stretch is a hurdle not all readers will take; one hopes that the follow-up book isn’t afflicted with setting staticus again.
(EDIT: This novel has just been listed as one of the nominees for 'Best First Book' by the Romance Writers of America.)
Moving on, we come to THE BAREFOOT PRINCESS, a historical romance by Christina Dodd.
It opens with the heroine conspiring with her servant to kidnap the hero, an aristocrat whom she plans to hold for ransom. Apprentice Writer has come across more than one book involving heroines being abducted, on purpose or accidentally, with the subsequent story more often than not involving the torrid relationship which develops between captive and captor (genre fiction is rife with case studies of Stockholm Syndrome). But the heroine as abducting party? That was a new plot device, and the hero's outraged astonishment at the audacity of a woman cooly carrying out such a plan and ignoring his demands and intimidation attempts to set him free were easy to understand.
So again: fresh premise = great reader interest and goodwill towards story. What happens? The reader spends page after page (after page after oage) in the cellar of the buidling where the hero is imprisoned. A cellar. Without even a secret tunnel or buried treasure or longlost letter containing significant clues to liven things up. Alas, even after the unbounded relief of climbing the steps back out again and setting staticus was overcome, the rest of the story didn't manage to recapture Apprentice Writer's interest. This was her first Dodd book, and Apprentice Writer can only conclude from this author's tremendous popularity that it wasn't an example of her writingat its best.
Next week: a bookbuilding pitfall by the name of PRIMUS IMPRESSIO FALSUS
wherein a book's first chapter gives an entirely wrong impression of what to expect.
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