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The Making of a Novel: The Lessons of a Bad Book

The Making of a Novel: The Lessons of a Bad Book
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I have to drive a relatively long way to teach my weekly class at UCLA, and I listen to books on tape while I drive. I find that I arrive in a much better mood if I listen to a story than if I listen to music or, heaven forbid, the news. The book I am currently listening to, however, is irritating me. The voices of the actors reading it are irritating, and the story itself is irritating. It's 12 CDs long -- which is very long -- but I am reluctant to stop listening because the opportunity to learn something important is very strong.

If I am listening to a story I adore, or reading one, I find myself so immersed in the universe of the story that I stop paying attention to the structure of it. The idea that there is a creator falls away -- until, perhaps, a particularly lovely line that makes me swoon and think, "This author is so brilliant!"

Listening to a story that I don't like so much, however, forces me to answer the question, Why? This particular book, which I don't want to name, has done very well in the marketplace. It's a book with a lot of buzz. Odds are good that lots of people are enjoying it. So why not me? If I can identify why I don't like the book, then perhaps I can make sure not to make the same mistakes in my own work. (Of course this begs the question of whether or not this makes sense. Shouldn't I want to emulate a best seller?)

I try to separate out the angry voices of the actors reading the story, and pay attention to the story itself. Here's what I have so far:

  • It's a very slow story. Time passes very slowly, and not much seems to happen. This is irritating because there seems to be no reason for the slow passage or time and the lack of action. I can't help but think that the author set out to write a long book, come hell or high water. Lesson learned? Let the story take up the space it needs. And always make sure something is happening.

  • Every single person in this story has the same occupation/hobby. At last count, there were seven people who do this one thing -- but the story is not ABOUT this thing. It's not like the author said, "I'm going to write a story about wood choppers" and then developed seven wood-chopping characters. It feels somehow arbitrary -- not organic. As I listen, and keep being introduced to wood choppers, I can almost feel the author saying, "Look! Another wood-chopper! And another! Did you notice?" I know that's not a fair assessment, but it's how I feel. Lesson learned? Anything that takes the reader out of the story is bad for the story.
  • I don't buy the motivations of the main character. I don't believe that he would do what he is doing without some other spark. The seed of doubt about his veracity has grown to the point where I find myself thinking, "Of COURSE he happened to go to the store to buy milk. How HANDY for the story." The lesson learned? Character motivation must be thorough and pervasive
  • Every scene feels like it ends with anger. The characters seem so angry. The anger is relentless. The lesson learned? A little modulation of emotion is a good thing.
  • I have three more discs to go. I still have hope that the story will be redeemed. I'm pulling for redemption, actually. But so far, it's not looking good.

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