Writing heresy

- by Patricia McLinn

This is a tale of two books.

These two were not the best and worst of books, but rather two books that each received outstanding reviews. Each was billed as suspense, and shelved with mysteries. Each was written by a well-known author. I can be a cranky reader, but both authors displayed writing skill that kept my crankiness at bay. I’d read previous books by each author and enjoyed them enough to read more. These two books I happened to read back to back.

Book A I read over a period of five days, interspersed with other reading.

Book B I read in less than 24 hours, not reading anything else during that spell and staying up late to keep reading – a true page-turner.

Which book would you rather have written?

The publishing industry says Book B, hands down. It had action from the start, short chapters, fast pace, significantly shorter word-count, intercut POVs, action, action and more action.

Book A had longer chapters, paragraphs and sentences than book B. It also employed multiple POVs and intercut scenes (mostly toward the end.)  It had a spattering of action.

After finishing Book B, I read the author’s acknowledgments and learned that the editor of the book was a familiar, well-regarded professional who had participated on a conference panel that is vivid in my memory. The panel listened to the first page of works by anonymous volunteers and commented on how they would respond if these efforts came across their desk as submissions.

Time after time, this editor and every other editor on the panel criticized an opening for not jumping immediately into action. “Don’t waste my time with all this stuff about who the people are, just get to the action,” another well-regarded editor on that panel said, and all the others nodded in agreement.

List the what-happens-next events of Book A and Book B side by side, and Book B is going to look far more exciting.

Which book would this editor rather have edited?

It’s not a stretch to guess Book B, hands down.

So what’s the catch? (And you know there’s a catch, or why would I bother to write this.)

Actually, there are a number of catches, with ongoing consequences for my reading relationship with these authors’ works.

The first catch is that in turning the pages of Book B, I skimmed. A lot. What author wants readers to turn his/her novel into a Cliff Notes version of itself?

Flipping back through Book B, I realized that much of what I’d skimmed had to do with character development. Ah-hah! I can hear the editors on that panel saying, So more of that “who” should have been cut, since the reader skips it anyway.

But I didn’t skip it in Book A, and that book had gobs of who. I read it all. And enjoyed it. I read that book more slowly because I read it, rather than skimmed it.

Book A was a good meal in a relaxed restaurant. Book B was fast food.

By its lopsided emphasis on what happens next, Book B signaled to me as a reader to not care much about whom “next” was happening to.

That is unfortunate for the author, since this book centers on continuing characters. Yet, after book B, I feel no more attachment to or affinity for(with?) those ongoing characters than I did before I read it. In fact, less. This action-packed trip didn’t bring us together; because it kept my focus on what next, while the characters were shunted to the background, putting great distance between them and me.

Okay, you’re thinking, but one reader is only one reader, and the publishing industry is . . . well, the publishing industry.  Those editors on the panel are the people who decide whether or not to buy a proposal, and they’re buying what happens, not who.

I can’t argue with those views on what’s being bought by publishers, though I can regret it.

Because I’m not alone as a reader. I know this from conversations with many readers. But if you’re skeptical, I understand that. Check your reactions to what you read. Ask other readers. Read readers’ posts about their favorite books on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter. And consider this: How many times have you heard readers proclaim their love for a book by saying “Event A, B and C were thrilling” vs. saying “I just love Peter, Mary and her little dog Wolf!”?

I encountered this again when I returned both these books to the library. The twenty-something woman behind the desk and I have talked books before. She had read both A and B. I asked her what she thought of them.

She gave a recap of Book A, mentioned a plot element that had scratched at her, but mostly focused on two primary characters and a sidekick, recalling details of their characterizations and saying she’d like to read more about them.

“What about Book B?” I asked. She paused, then frowned. “I don’t really remember it.” She handed me my books and added, “Isn’t that odd?”

My trip to the library leads to a final catch: The next day, I ordered a copy of Book A for my own shelves. I wanted to re-read it and to own it. Book B had already faded in my mind, as it had for the librarian.

Given a choice in the future of which author to read, which one do you think we’ll choose? And which one will we buy?


  1. Pat, what you’re saying reminds me not only of many of my own reading experiences, but also of a great phrase I read recently, in writer/director Nicholas Meyer’s autobiography A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE. The phrase is: “action porn.” And his explanation of it completely resonated with me.

    Pornography is, of course, a bunch of random sex scenes loosely strung together, and the whole POINT of the movie is the sex scenes. So there’s little (if any) plot, character development, theme, etc.

    Meyers describes “action porn” as the a movie featuring a bunch of action scenes loosely strung together, with very little plot, character development, or theme.

    Like Meyers, I am usually disengaged and bored in such films; and even if the film is so slick that I am NOT bored, but instead enjoy myself… I still never watch it twice. Because, as he notes (and similar to your reaction to book B), careening madly from action scene to action scene to action scene means… He never gets invested in the characters, doesn’t invested in their goals, doesn’t feel absorbed by their story, doesn’t get invested in the theme (if there is one), etc.

    Whereas a good film is one, of course, where you get so invested in the characters and their goals that, while watching it, you lose track of your own life, and you think and talk about the =characters= after seeing it–sometimes for YEARS after seeing it.

    Whereas, if you enjoyed an action porn film, you instead talk about (for example) how great it was when such-and-such blew up, or when the car chase hurdled straight through a jazz funeral, or whatever. You talk about the WHAT, not the WHO… And with films like that, you usually don’t even remember the WHO. They’re not characters–they’re “the guy in the ice cream truck that blew up,” or “the girl,” or “the Bruce Willis character.”

  2. Excellent post (and response)! This resonated with me because I was frustrated with a novel I read this week. It was not an action/thriller by any means. It was what I suppose would be described as “women’s fiction”, meaning it focused on the events of a woman’s life.

    It was well-written, with interesting, flawed characters. However, the author felt the need to tease the reader by withholding the formative events of the woman’s teenaged years until the very end.

    I was pretty sure I had guessed what had happened in her past (and I was right), but I found myself skimming when I shouldn’t have been because I wanted to confirm my guess. That meant that I missed some of the emotinal arc of the story.

    I can’t decide whether: a) the writing just wasn’t compelling enough to keep me from speeding through it to get to the answer, or b) it was a bad choice on the author’s part because this book wasn’t meant to be a mystery. Either way, I didn’t put this author on my “buy her next book” list.

    So I wonder if the keep ‘em guessing mindset is starting to infect even books where it becomes counter-productive. I hope this was just a bad choice on one author’s part and not indicative of a trend.

    OTOH, I do enjoy a really good thriller, but, as you both said, it’s ALWAYS the characters that make it worth watching again.

  3. Laura,

    “Action porn” is a fabulous phrase for this. It’s particularly interesting that it comes from a director.

    I’ve suspected that some of this publishing industry view stems from movies/TV. In fact, just saw advise saying one of the things novelists can learn from TV is to jump into the middle of the action. (That sound you heard was my wail of protest.)

    What it fails to recognize is that those visual media give us the who by the very fact of having an actor on screen. As viewers, we connect faster with the characters as people because the actor IS a person. And good actors can add nuance and engage empathy while doing the action sequences.

    And yet, here’s a movie director saying too much action without a strong sense of who is acting is “action porn.” (I do love that!)

    The written word IMO requires more of a run-up to give the reader connected to the who.

    Visual can get us faster into a story, while written can draw us deeper into a story — and that deeper is WHO.

    The truth is stories almost certainly need both. With no action, no what next and all who, the story becomes an exercise in navel-gazing and that is no treat, either.

  4. “So I wonder if the keep ‘em guessing mindset is starting to infect even books where it becomes counter-productive.”

    Absolutely, Nancy, judging by my experience.

    Is that because you and I guessers? Do other readers not get caught up in I-think-I-know-and-want-to-see-if-I’m-right? I don’t know. I know there are lots of guessers (g).

    “I can’t decide whether: a) the writing just wasn’t compelling enough to keep me from speeding through it to get to the answer”

    What fascinates me about this, Nancy, is that it sounds as if the book otherwise did have your attention. In effect, the author handicapped herself.

  5. Pat, that’s it exactly! The writer had caught me in so many other ways that were more interesting. It was a shame to jerk me out of the deeper aspects of the book with the unnecessary teasing.

  6. Speaking as an inveterate ‘check the last page before buying’ reader (I know, I know…castigate me at will)…I don’t like it when the ‘tease’ becomes more important than being true to the character. It makes it hard to suspend disbelief by putting the author’s tricks out in plain view instead of keeping them decently hidden.

    Even if I know the ending…I am also an inveterate re-reader…it is the characters that pull me into the book and through the book. If the creator doesn’t take time to give them some kind of story, as they all too often don’t in blow-‘em-up or gross-‘em-out movies and books, then you don’t want to spend any more time with them.

    ‘Action-porn’ can be fun, but it is the emotional core of the hero that brings us back for the sequel…John McClane’s love for his family, Neo’s struggle to accept his role, etc. When the film-maker loses that — as in the succeeding Matrix films — even the faithful won’t stick around.

  7. “when the ‘tease’ becomes more important than being true to the character”

    Yup — that’s it, Cynthia.

    (And I’ll join you in checking out the last page. At least with authors I don’t trust.)

  8. I recently came across something great in David Morrell’s excellent LESSONS FROM A LIFETIME OF WRITING. In it, he is discussing E.M. Forster’s take on story vs. plot. (Don’t get hung up on if you define story/plot the same way; the important element for this discussion is that there is a distinction.) Morrell writes:

    “…. A story, Forster says, is based on the progression of time. This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. … ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is Forster’s famous example of a story. A plot, though, is a more sophisticated form of narrative and is based on causality. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief.’ ”

    And then Morrell quotes Forster:

    “ ‘The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.’ This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development . . . Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say ‘and then?’ If it is in a plot we ask ‘why?’ That is the fundamental difference between these
    two aspects of the novel. A plot cannot be told to a gaping audience of cave-men or to a tyrannical sultan or to their modern descendant the movie public. They can only be kept awake by ‘and then–and then–‘ They can only supply curiosity. But a plot demands intelligence and memory also.”