Saturday, March 29, 2008

Bookbuilding - ANALYSIS

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.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Word Dares - Spring Equinox Edition

The official first day of spring - March 21 - has officially come and gone. Oblivious (or mocking, depending on one's point of view), monumental snow heaps continue to blight the landscape in Apprentice Writer's corner of the world, where the possibility of breaking the record for most snowfall ever recorded in a single March is within reach. In honor of this apparent defiance of global warming, here today's word invention:

Marzivan , (noun): the thick layer of pristine snow topping your vehicle, making it resemble an iced fruitcake on wheels.

Wordsmith: Maribeth Graham Source: The Toronto Star

Friday, March 14, 2008

Where in the World....

On homework patrol, one of the things Apprentice Writer tries to drum into junior apprentice writer #1's consciousness is the importance of setting the scene. It is a rare book (or language arts homework assignment) that doesn't open with some description of the weather/place/country in the first paragraph, if not the first sentence.

"Why?" junior apprentice writer #1 wants to know, meaning 'Better go straight to action instead of boring old rain or fog or sunset or .....'

"Because" says his mother, "giving clues about where the story takes place gives the reader instant feelings and expectations about what will happen, a helpful shortcut if used right." It is doubtful junior apprentice writer #1 is convinced, but she stands by her point.

Story set in India? Tigers and elephants, ancient civilization and monuments, multitudes of colorful people and languages form an instantly intriguing backdrop. Paris? Mention of cafes, art, and romance is expected. Space? There will be talk of currently unavailable technology, alien races, and unisex jumpsuits will figure prominently in fashion regardless of planet.

Wise authors can use setting associations to their advantage. They may set their stories in tried-and-true locations that deliver certain ingredients readers expect to go along with those places, or they can strike out into little know territory, giving jaded readers something new to pique their interest.

Apprentice Writer's work-in-progress Cupid and a Suitcase is set in the alternative travel industry, with arctic, antarctic, desert, jungle, and south sea chapters. With any luck, readers will find at least one type of geography to suit their tastes. Friends and authors Wylie Kinson and Amy Ruttan have set soon-to-be released stories in the Carribean - Law of Averages in Bermuda , and 'Fox's Bride' in Jamaica- a brilliant move considering how countless numbers of readers would love to spend time in such a blissful climate, meaning reader goodwill would be high before the first page was even read. Rowena, blogging at, wonders if there are any Polynesian set-romances out there.

Three of Apprentice Writers favorite books of all are historical suspense stories. Two are set in Egypt and peopled with archaeologists (among others): Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters (see: Laughter Reviews -Keeper) and Mr. Impossible by Loretta Chase (to be reviewed). Another is the Falco series, set in ancient Rome and its farflung outlying provinces, beginning with The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis (to be reviewed).

One of Apprentice Writer's favorite authors, the late and brilliant Christine Monson, chose fascinating locations for her characters to fascinate each other: revolutionary Hungary, colonial Burma, medieval Spain and the Holy Land during the Crusades. Definitely not ho-hum.

Enquiring minds want to know. What have been favorite settings for Gentle Readers? And what other kinds of settings would Gentle Readers like to see?

Friday, March 7, 2008

Notable Quotes

"I think we associate many words with novel writing.
'Bleeding' is a good one, but 'fun' should really be in there!"

Chris Baty
(Founder of 'National Novel Writing Month', which had 100,000+ participants last November)

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Laughter Reviews #16

Time for another book review with the focus: funny or not?


Career woman specialized in teaching men how to communicate with women is personally betrayed, with professional consequences.

What Works
The main plot elements showed promise: successful woman with thriving practice, quartet of equally successful female friends, and sensitive, good-looking husband is thrown for a loop when she discovers he is cheating. Worse, news of her divorce is leaked to the press, bringing her business to a halt since no-one wants to be couselled on cross-gender communication by someone who failed at it in her own life. To combat the client drain, Lynn decides one well-publicized, decisive victory will save her professional life, and sets out to capture a famous tycoon chauvinist as poster client. All ingredients for what could have been a good story.

What Doesn't
The writing style (at least, in this book) is pedantic. Over-explanatory and on the fussy side, it makes sense for the protagonist's character but means heavy going for the reader, too often approaching the threshold where reading feels like work instead of fun.

The tycoon character is a collection of cliches, from his somewhat dated expressions, to his choice of girlfriend, to his lifesyle description.

There is a TSTL moment when personal details have been leaked to the press for the second time with disastrous results and Lynn calls the newspaper in outrage. Among other details, she is informed that the informant left a contact number, but she fails to demand it to verify who will pick up. Instead, she spends another quarter of the book trying to figure out the identity of the culprit.

She does eventually, via an interesting method. But even this is unsatisfactory. Unless she is in a philosophical, literary-fiction frame of mind, Apprentice Writer wholeheartedly believes in Oscar Wilde's famous quote that

"The good end happily, the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means."

When Lynn confronts her antagonist, the culprit explains the motivation behind the undermining actions, and that's that. No real consequences beyond losing Lynn's friendship, no punishment, no negativity for that person, meaning freedom to inflict similar malicious behavior on the next victim to come along. This may be the way things often work out in real life, but Apprentice Writer gets plenty enough day-to-day proof of 'Life's Not Fair'; she doesn't need to read books for more of the same.

From dustjacket accolades including "rollicking", "snappy", "hilarious" , Apprentice Writer expected more.

But does it make you laugh? NOT NEARLY ENOUGH

There was a single bit which Apprentice Writer thought truly funny, involving the heroine going through so-called 'scripts' taken from various working life situations to train the male client on proper verbal interaction. She instructs the chauvinist tycoon to practice phrases to help him bond with his female employees, such as "I don't know how you metabolize dessert, but that chocolate mousse I had last night went straight to my thighs." His horror is palpable.

That's it. A good bit, but repetitive, and unless one is a loyal fan of this author, not enough to make reading the entire book worthwhile.