Have you ever read a book that you found yourself halfway through, and suddenly had to fight a strong urge to go find a cliff and violently toss it off? Yeah, me too.

And have you ever read a book that was so good, so moving, that you knew it would forever be a cherished member of your personal library? Complete with memories of how you relished the haunting tale for days after you finished it? Yup, me too.

I recently came across two books that exemplify such noted reactions. I'm constantly working to sharpen my writing skills, so I took the opportunity to try and compare just a few of the ways that these two books did -- or did not -- work for me.


I was very eager to read THE REINCARNATIONIST. The title alone suggested that the story would most likely be of interest to me. (In brief: it's about a man who keeps flashing on a life he lived in Rome, and the powerful love affair he had at that time. In modern day, he is caught up in the cliche 'web of lies' about some powerful stones that are relics found at a dig... from, you guessed it: the same time period he is having recall about.)

As someone who is usually willing to read all the way to the end in order to give a book a fair chance, it speaks volumes that I made it 2/3 of the way through this book and then refused to finish it. I really tried hard to like it and gave it my all. It certainly had a plot that was non-stop in motion, and one could argue it carried the book. But the lack of character development was so irritating it became a distraction; the cardboard characters literally bored me out of the story so much that I could not struggle through another page. I spent all my time considering how to fix what was bothering me. I mean I was literally yelling at the pages, Why are you doing this to me?! That kind of thing.

I simply could care less what happened to the characters. This is probably the Golden Rule of Writing, if ever there was one: the reader has to care, at the very least be curious about even one of the characters within the story (I'm being very generous, here). Otherwise, we fall asleep. We slam it shut, or we fantasize about destructive measures: if it was not a library book, I would have tied it to the bumper of my 4X4 and taken it for a long hard ride up the Wildcat, just to teach it a lesson and maybe beat some character into it (the Wildcat is a country road into the mountains here by my home. I live about 5 minutes away from thousands of miles of acres of wilderness known as the Lost Coast).

This book was the perfect example of all form and no substance, I am sorry to say.

But then, thankfully right after this sad disappointment, I picked up another book that a friend had assured me I would love: THE HERETIC'S DAUGHTER. (The story: this is a fictional recount told from the view of a young girl, about her family and how they endure the accusations and fall-out from the witch hunts in 17th century Salem, MA. The author is a descendant of one of the main characters, which gives it a certain amount of street-cred.)

At first blush I was plodding along and I admit I started to lose interest. It was slow. I was fresh off my let-down from That Other Book, so things did not look good at first. The difference? The plot was good, not as "exciting" as TOB, but it was good enough that I stuck it out. And I was compelled to continue...

Why? It was the characters, people. They slowly drew me in, deeper and deeper, and I began to truly want to know what was going to happen next? Not because of the plot leading me there like a carrot, but because I had developed feelings for the people in the story.

I'm no expert, and I'm not even near being published, so you can take my opinion with that proverbial grain of salt, but with these two books I feel like I finally really got an aspect of what elevates a good novel to great novel that I've read about in so many "how to" books. (Yes, I read those books, too. Some of those suck as well. Some don't: D. Maass' THE BREAKOUT NOVEL is the best I've read so far.)

Let's compare passages from each book, to show you what I mean:

From THE REINCARNATIONIST (M.J. Rose 2007) with commentary included:
[Wherein the main character is lamenting yet another event of past life recall]

Insanity was frightening.
Of course it is. Therefore this sentence is basically an over-used cliche [yawn]. We have various moments in the book when the lead character, Josh, laments over feeling 'crazy' because of his flashes of past lives, but we never get a good sense of how he is affected by the feeling of insanity from past life information 'invading' him, only laundry-lists of physical sensations about it. This is a lost opportunity to develop concern for the main character. It is important to give sensation and descriptives, certainly. But now, as a writer, I see how important it is not to rely on them. We are shown the past life that haunts him via flashback, but sadly even in that lifetime our character is still merely a cut-out version of what he could be. Let's continue:

Josh didn't want to analyze and dissect what was happening to him anymore. He just wanted it to cease. He wanted to return to a time before the accident,
Annnnnd... yet another lost moment to connect with the reader: even just a few more words to give us a sense of how he felt from 'the accident', like "a time before that day of the accident, when he was ripped away from all sense of reality, and would never eat hot dogs again." Not seriously, here, but you know: something. Throw us a bone! This is not a unique occurrence, this bland reporting of events, but happens again and again, and with each character. (I decided to leave out my take on the character with a two year old, who seems to care for her child as much as cardboard would, and is obviously just a Plot Tool. Yuck. As a parent, I was insulted.)

with recollections that started when he was four years old and got his first camera and he and his father went out into Central Park in the snow so that he could take his first roll of pictures. (p210)

This last bit here perfectly exemplifies and drives home -- again! -- this whole book's routine lack of character development. We know Josh has recollections of better times, and they are valuable enough to him, meaningful enough that he wants to return to them, instead of being in his current state of feeling some 'insanity.'

Great! So what happened that day back in the park?! Take us there! Draw us in with even a few well-chosen sentences to convey the sense of.... what? What did he feel that day? Did his father have some profound insight into life and photography that set Josh off on a path for the rest of his life? What?? I can't say because we don't know, because the author didn't let us in on it! This is one of those moments that I wanted to throw the book across the room.

At first glance, maybe you're thinking this isn't all that bad, right? (I'm afraid maybe even I write this way, in fact, which may be why this all struck me so hard.) But the point is that the whole book is like this -- a whole lot of 'telling' to get through the plot, and no true 'showing', or depth of characters. Hence: a lot of form, no substance! There isn't anything wrong with the former as long as you have the latter. It's a balance, a blending of all the necessary ingredients left to simmer up that perfect batch (or book).

In order to care about the character, we need to understand him or her: what makes them tick? Give us an illustration of a moment in their life -- even one, well done, can suffice -- that helped to create who they are, and therefore how they most likely will react to unfolding events. (This by the way, is also an opportunity to set the stage for some good tension: if I make you think the character will respond a specific way due to his history or inner world, and then he doesn't -- that can also draw you in or keep you reading. Now I've added complexity to the mix as well, which makes a more satisfying, less cardboard-chewy, character.)

Now, let's look at a passage from THE HERETIC'S DAUGHTER (Kathleen Kent, 2008):
[The main character, Sarah, has been sent ot live with her Aunt's family]
As the day's shadows deepened into evening, I sat in my dark corner like an invading spirit and followed their movements about the house. From under my lashes I watched my two cousins, Margaret and her brother, Henry, studying us in turn.
In this brief passage, we already learn that she feels like an unwanted outsider in her environment, that she is willing to be devious to assess and learn how to handle her situation and the people she now is living with. She is obviously very self-aware and observant. I know more about this character, the young girl Sarah, from these two sentences than I ever learned of our dear friend Josh in over half of the TOB. When a book gives us this much with seemingly little effort (in other words: pithy!) -- it is like the perfect blend of spices, filling a reader's head with wonderful aromas and a promise of a hearty feast. But wait, there's more!

...Once, when [Henry] thought we were alone, he crept up behind me and pulled hard at the tender hairs on the back of my neck. My eyes watered but I said nothing and waited. The next morning he found the piss barrel upended over his shoes. (pp32-33)
Here, the narrator, Sarah, is sharing with us about a time in her life, not teasing us (thank you!). We are shown clearly who she is dealing with, and what kind of person she is in response. We are not simply told "there was this time, when I was bummed with my cousin." We are shown a simple event that conveys a wealth of information, tension, and foreshadowing. He's a devious jerk she needs to watch out for, and yet she is not afraid. In fact, she is stoic and determined, and will not easily be intimidated. Powerful information, especially given the events that will eventually come down the road in this tale about the men, women and children who were hung for witchcraft in Salem.

I could cite countless other paragraphs, but I think my work here is done. In my humble opinion, form is necessary but it is worthless without substance. Substance infuses a decent book, but can elevate a good, tight story to great. Plot devices and tools are wonderful, but empty events without characters that come alive.

I'll end by saying that THE HERETIC'S DAUGHTER does not disappoint, and is a haunting tale I will not readily forget. It does not just tell the story of an era that is a blemish on reason and justice in our history, but reminds us of how tenacious the very human weakness for blame and judgment is. How hurtful and far-reaching gossip can be, and the consequences we all pay for those who will not speak up, or even more frightening: those who refuse to listen.

And yes, this book is now a cherished addition to my personal library.

K

2 comments

  1. Sandra Hamlett on February 7, 2009 at 4:58 AM

    I have the same strong reactions to books. I like to call it the "hurl across the room" reaction. Just recently, I went through the same situation in reverse. I was reading Richard Price's 'Clockers' and was in love with every aspect of the book. I was growing sadder when I realized the book was ending. Even though it was a world of drug dealers and over-worked and cynical police officers, I was so "there" with them.

    Then I picked up Kate Atkinson's "One Good Turn". I had read a number of good reviews about her writing. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. I found myself groaning through the pages as I felt the writer tried too hard to stretch thin characters and a thin plot.

    As a writer I think it's a great lesson to read- the good, the bad and the ugly. It allows us to be able to put really identify what we don't or do want to do with our writing.

     
  2. KA Cole on February 8, 2009 at 8:24 AM

    Hi Sandra,

    As a writer I think it's a great lesson to read- the good, the bad and the ugly. It allows us to be able to put really identify what we don't or do want to do with our writing.
    -------

    Well said! I agree. (Accept in the case of THE REINCARNATIONIST [cough]). Halfway through gives a writer more than enough to learn from!

    K