Last week I read three books, which is about my usual average. When I read, I like to see how other authors construct different aspects of their novels.
Two of the books I read were recent publications, both highly recommended by numerous reader-reviewers at the Big Bookstore in the Sky. The first one was a 2018 mystery published by Thomas & Mercer. This Amazon company publishes mysteries and thrillers, and the novel was written by a well-known British author.
The second book was published in 2020 by Tor Books and was a fantasy novel by a high-profile American author.
The final book I read was published by Doubleday and written in the 1980s by another well-known British author.
I’m not going to name these books or their authors because while they were good enough books, I wish to focus on the negatives I found in the diverse works I read.
Before I do that, I must say that I did enjoy the books, but in my view, they were three-star books, average and acceptable. The flaws I’m going to discuss didn’t detract from the overall story arcs. The main characters, for the most part, were engaging. I just didn’t like them enough to review them on my blog because I only review books I think are worth four or more stars.
I say the characters were engaging for the most part. Book Number One’s title proclaims it to be “an absolutely gripping whodunit full of twists.” No, that is not a tagline or review quote. The publisher has the gall to put that in the book’s title, something no indie would ever get away with.
If nothing else, it’s a shining example of what not to put in your book’s title.
Despite the glowing title, I was disappointed, but it did offer me an education on what I don’t want to do in my own work. This is actually a “2.75 star” book, in my opinion. It only gets three stars because of rounding up to the next higher number.
It began well. The protagonist was given to making snarky comments, which I thought livened things up. I would have connected with her if not for one fatal flaw. She was made less engaging by the author’s continual reference to her size and amazing sexual desirability.
The protagonist is a caterer who solves mysteries. She is continuously described as Junoesque, ample, vast, chubby, size eighteen, fat, large…and on and on. In every chapter, at least once and usually twice, we are given a visual description of her, along with indications of how she affects the males around her.
These mentions were meant to emphasize the author’s perception of her protagonist as plump but irresistible to the males. However, as the book wore on, it became jarring and unnecessary. Those distractions made it difficult to remain engaged in the book. For me, lesson one was that I had a visual picture of the caterer in the first chapter, and one or two mentions further on down the road would have been fine.
The overall arc of the mystery was good and carried the story enough to keep me reading. However, I will probably avoid buying any more books written by that author.
Book Number Two, the Fantasy book, had a 2020 publishing date. It had a good story arc, but it was clearly a novella that had been stretched to novel length. Of the three, this book had the most engaging protagonist.
Unfortunately, the way the author and publisher stretched this book’s length was to have the main character recap previous events whenever a new character entered the story. I should have expected it because an earlier book in the series had the same flaw.
Book Number Three was a police procedural, written and published in the 1980s, and was the best one of the lot. The one flaw was the continual reference to the protagonist’s pipe. Every scene involved fumbling with the tobacco, the ashes, etc. It was a distraction that jarred me out of the book.
Books One and Three bring up the question: when we are trying to convey our protagonists’ personalities, how do we go about it? Frankly, we walk the knife’s edge, balanced between too much and not enough.
Protagonist A is a larger woman, and she has sex appeal. After the first three references, we knew that.
Protagonist C is a sharp, personable detective with a dirty habit. After the first three references, we knew that.
In books One and Three, I felt that the authors did their protagonists a disservice by pointing out these character traits too often, from the external omniscient God-like view. Once I can visualize how the other characters see the protagonist, I want to see what the protagonist sees from that point on.
Reading those two books, I realized that an occasional observation of the main character from another character’s POV would have been a better way to show how the other characters saw them.
I would think this especially works if there is a blossoming love interest.
Book Number Two raised a different specter: padding the narrative with repetition to stretch the book.
What would you rather be known for writing? Would you want to be known as having written a brilliant novella or an average novel? Book Number Two could have been a brilliant novella had the padding been removed in the editing process.
These flaws, harping on character traits and fluff-dumping, are “sins of repetition.” In all three of these books, the bulk of the story was told from the close third-person point of view which worked well.
This week, I am working on characterization in my own work. I am in the revision stage and strengthening how my protagonists are represented and shown.
We authors can see our characters so clearly. We love them and can wax poetic about specific characteristics each person has. The great difficulty is to convey those traits naturally and in such a way that the reader isn’t beaten over the head with them.
At 70,000 words, my current novel may be a little short when compared to other fantasy novels. Fantasy tends to be longer than some different genres, but I refuse to introduce padding to get the word count I want. 70,000 words is novel-length.
So, no one new will die, and no dramatic elements will be introduced just to fluff up the book-length.
If the finished product is a little short for a fantasy novel, that’s fine. If I can get my characters clearly drawn and balanced within that length, I will have achieved my goal.