Each week, I download multiple books to my e-reader.
Some I will finish and be excited that I’ve discovered great writing, a new author.
Some I will finish because I’ve discovered an innovative plot line.
Some I will finish because there is witty dialogue, superlative character development, or the use of literary device that is a struggle for me.
Many . . . many, I will not finish.
I’ll return them through my Kindle Unlimited – or simply delete from all my devices and take a hit on the cost.
Because reading time is precious and obvious mistakes in the first few pages of a book, does not bode well.
Sound pompous? Sorry for that, but it doesn’t change the fact that there are only 24-hours in any daily calendar.
After the writing, a bit of cooking, straightening, more writing, research, networking, working (the day job), family, more writing/editing . . .
You get the point.
Time is too precious of a commodity to waste on bad writing. (As a writer, I understand bad writing – only too well. However, that bad writing is edited to good writing or it goes into the delete folder. What doesn’t it do? See the light of readers’ e-readers.)
This mini-rant focuses on DETAILS.
Ancient adage: the devil is in the details.
This is never truer than in writing – good writing, that is.
Whether VIRGIN (newbie writer) or SEASONED PRO (established author), basic mistakes are unforgiveable to the reader.
I’ve chosen one selection from the many that have recently visited my e-reader. For the sake of literary discussion, I’ll term the selection: the red dress book. (Not anywhere in the title so don’t bother with a search.)
Why purchase this particular e-book?
Cover: Dramatic. Eye-catching
Book blurb: Concise, Enticing
Even better it was listed as 9th in this author’s series, but it was billed as a stand-alone.
The problem with my purchase started on page 1 and continued through page 4.
Perhaps, the problem went further.
I did not.
The first 4 first pages of dialogue - whining dialogue, I’m sorry to say – contained no scene-setting, little character introduction, no backstory, or emotional meat. Who were these characters? Where were these characters? Why were they here in this moment in time, and MOST IMPORTANTLY – why should I the reader care about them?
Broken down into simplest form:
QUESTION: What did the characters reveal to the reader through their actions/observations?
ANSWER: Almost nothing.
Let’s start at the beginning. The characters are captured in a ‘surprise’ attack, held ‘somewhere’ by ‘someone’ for ‘some’ reason. Oh yes, they were chloroformed during the capture.
Have you ever undergone general anesthesia?
Been to the dentist for major oral work and received lots of Novocain?
Received muscle relaxers or pain meds while recovering from an injury?
Cement that instance in your mind.
Did you wake up instantly?
Or did you come back to your surroundings slowly? Take stock? Hear muffled sounds? Feel the sturdy bed beneath you? Or the cool sheets against your skin? Was there a stale taste in your mouth? Did you roll your shoulders, flex your fingers, or stretch your legs?
Chances are - what you didn’t do was immediately start into a bickering conversation in full sentences, filled with biting innuendos. Yes, you guessed it. That was the writing sin of the characters in the red dress selection.
If you, brilliant writer that you are, can’t accomplish this linguistic feat, neither can your characters.
Let’s return to our chatty characters.
QUESTION: What did the author reveal through the characters’ eyes?
ANSWER: read on . . .
The characters are restrained, sitting back to back, tied at the wrists. How? It’s a mystery as the author chooses not to tell and, more crucially, not to show.
Did I, as the reader, feel abrasive rope? Biting metal handcuffs? Sticky unforgiving duct tape? The cutting edge of ‘cop’ zip ties? Nope, because the author missed this small, but important detail.
The characters were sitting on the floor. What kind of floor? Was it cold concrete? Smooth laminate? Damp dirt or shifting sand? Again, the reader doesn’t know because the author missed the opportunity to scene set.
The female character wore an expensive red evening dress -- one she valued because she lamented its loss, but that's it. One tiny detail revealed. The size of the room: did it echo their whispers? Or muffle the sound? Is there cool air against (bare) arms? – I’m speculating on that evening dress – or humid heavy air? How dark is the dark? The pitch black of nothing? Or light edging around near/distant windows? Were there any other sounds? The hum of equipment? The scratching of mice/rats? Any noise from outside? Traffic? Wind? What smells were in the room? Damp and dank? Clinical and antiseptic?
Does an author need to put all those answers on the first four pages? Absolutely not.
Details in an opening scene can be likened to inviting a first-time guest into your home. Said guest will use all of his/her senses upon entering. Does each detail register to consciousness? Of course not. But if you’ve burned dinner – they’ll know. If the electricity is out and it’s dark as a tomb or hot as a Texas summer afternoon – they’ll know. If kids are slamming doors, exchanging sibling love at full holler – they’ll know.
So the author’s choice, more succinctly put, the author’s obligation is to present details.
Details add to the scene.
Details reveal or ‘show’ more than plain dialogue.
Details enhance the readers’ enjoyment.
Once again, back to our chatty character:
QUESTION: What did the author reveal about backstory?
ANSWER: Read on . . .
What relationship existed between the two characters?
1) Lovers – current or ex?
2) Professional associates?
3) Business adversaries?
4) Arch enemies?
Why was the female with this man? Right then? At that exact moment when the story began?
None of these answers were revealed during the 4-page conversation.
However witty the dialogue, if it does not move the plot or scene forward, then it is wasted page space.
What did the author reveal?
The characters had been taken during a surprise attack. Both of them. Both were PIs, or at least trained as investigators of some type. Both surprised from behind. Neither suspected. Neither heard anything. Neither felt the air move behind them, heard twigs snap, doors ease shut?
If the author doesn’t provide a reason on page . . .
that makes the character inept, newbies, or TSTL (too stupid to live).
Inept or newbies can be trained during the story’s evolution, repaired by another character, or simply highly humorous. Case-in-point: a Stephanie Plum novel or a Pink Panther movie.
TSTL is not repairable. It’s replaceable. Characters must be cheered on, rooted for, and supported even, and especially during, their darkest periods. Only characters who are worthy of investment will keep readers turning the page.
Final QUESTION: What were the characters’ emotions on page?
ANSWER: No shock. No fear. No panic. No sense of urgency to be free. Unfortunately, the author provided a void of reaction.
Do we, as readers, believe that lack of reaction?
Do we commit to the characters?
Do we keep reading?
Answer - I didn't.
My surprise - this was the 9th book in this series by this author. How had this author missed so many, tiny and grand, details?
If you, as an author,
1) Aren’t utilizing ‘beta’ readers, you should.
2) Don’t work with critique partners, you should.
3) Especially an established author - haven’t had your recent work critiqued, you should.
We’re never too smart to learn.
We’re never too busy to edit/review/critique.
We’re never too highly published to work the craft.
VIRGIN or SEASONED PRO – the devil’s in the details.