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Learning stuff from "just-okay" fiction - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Learning stuff from "just-okay" fiction
We got a box of galleys (pre-pub in most cases, hence my non-mentioning of names) the other day, and I've been reading the supernatural stuff because, well, I'm the one in the department who likes ghosts and ghoulies. I'm on my second of them, and so far, there hasn't been anything uttlerly bad, the kind of published books that make me think I should read fanfic full time because it's saner, but both of the ones I've read are in the "it's just a'ight, dawg," category. The second one--the one I'm currently reading--is a lot better than the first, and may well cross the border from "a'ight" to "pretty darned good," but both are competently written just... not quite there.

So, always wanting to learn something, I asked myself what the problems were.

In the first (already out in the UK), a standard haunted house tale, you've got a stepfamily coming together in an old house the stepfather is fixing up. It is, of course, haunted. This isn't a spoiler, nor would it be much of a spoiler if I told you the entire plot, if you've ever read a haunted house story before. All haunted house stories are pretty similar; that's not necessarily a fault. Bad thing happened, there's still an imprint, someone needs freeing, etc, etc. The characters aren't great, but they aren't awful, either, and they work well enough together.

The first problem was that the supernatural element was introduced too quickly. I don't mean, OMG, give us pages and pages of backstory. I mean, build it. They're still unpacking when a kid with no previous reason to believe starts having hallucinations, and he believes it way too easily. This, I think, is where Stephen King is masterful--his characters who believe all have some inclination to believe in the first place, and his charcters who don't believe take some time to come around.... or they're still trying to process it when it gets them (as in Carrie). The supernatural enters the stories very naturally. It takes story time to do this, though--trying to push it all through in the first week they're in the house with a conveniently timed dinner date for the parents as the only thing that spurs the climax... doesn't quite work. In the case of this one, it requires too many instances of characters saying, "Oh, don't be dense, there are no ghosts, so let's have a seance to prove it and ZOMGTHEREAREGHOSTS!" It's a very mechanical development, rather than one that's so organic to the characters that the reader has no choice but to believe it.

The second problem is that the external character conflicts don't matter. The author goes to great lengths to establish that the sister is having trouble with the new stepfamily and the older stepbrother thinks the sister is nuts, and the two younger kids--the narrator and the younger stepbrother--are forming a tentative bond... but nothing is done with it. I was half-expecting, with the banter, that the two older kids were going to end up in a romance of their own (and wasn't sure how I felt about that), or that they would have one of their screaming matches at a point that would cost the heroic ghost fighters an opportunity, but ultimately, their interactions went nowhere. Nor did the bonding between the younger boys. There's a trick with characterization, and that's to get it to do double-duty with the plot without seeming like it's only there to serve the plot. The elements just can't be as separate as they are here.

Finally, the lesson I picked up was to not make a big deal of something if it's not a satisfying plot development. Not every plot development has to be smashingly brilliant. Something bad happened, someone did it, and in this case, it's the expected person about whom no one in the story cares, and that's okay; the plot is more or less about ending the haunting rather than understanding psychology. Perfectly fine. But over and over, the writer harps on about how they can't see the face and it's a big mystery who the ghosts are... but there's no mystery, and more importantly, there's no emotional component to the killer's identity. With that much work-up, you expect it to be a knife-twist of some kind. Instead of the disliked and emotionally unconnected person it seemed to be, it would turn out to be the person they'd sought refuge with. Or something. But after all the work up, it turned out to be uncompelling emotionally. If you're going to do the expected, that's okay... but don't telegraph something else. Hang the plot on a different question. (Where are the bodies buried? instead of Who's the killer?, for instance. Or, if you want to get gothic, what made the killer kill them?)

The second galley I read is a lot better. The characters' interactions work and the supernatural is better introdued (if still a little abruptly, given that it's supposed to be something that's been happening all the main character's life), and the storyline isn't something that I've seen a hundred times before--it involves the ability to leap back into one's ancestors and speak to the dead and cast one's own image into other times and places... pretty good stuff, and it's the first in a series, so I'm hoping it will go along well. It only has two major problems, and I'm hoping they'll fade as the author gets more comfortable, rather than get more pronounced.

The first is that it's claustrophobic. (The haunted house one was as well, but that was a far distant fourth in terms of problems.) The author gives slight hints of life outside the story, but never anything convincing. So the main character goes to school and is almost late once... great. But isn't he at all worried about his grades? The other kids? Anything other than what is happening in the story at that moment? Doesn't his cousin think about the boyfriend she broke up with or how all of this is too weird to talk about in boarding school? Or... you see what I mean? They have lives mentioned outside story time, but not lives that are lived outside story time.

The second issue is related to it, but not the same thing--personal conflicts just resolve too neatly. Character and cousin had a falling out and character is upset. But, hey, so what? They immediately start hanging out together again and the little flare-ups are inconsequential. So why bring them up in the first place? One of the main characters is a dead man who abandoned his family, and the daughter is the main character's mother... who is allowed one moment of acknowledging that this might cause some slight bitterness, but otherwise just talks about him casually. People are weird. They have all these conflicts and they work together anyway. But they need a reason, and the conflicts will still flare up, often at totally inconvenient times.


Anyway, that's what I'm learning from just-okay books. Even though I have high hopes that the second book will surpass this.
1 comment or Leave a comment
From: (Anonymous) Date: February 27th, 2006 03:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
It sounds like some of the things you're learning, you already know- esp. the blending of characterization and plot. You're pretty much aces at that. Hope book two is living up to your hopes. :)

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