Tag Archives: quality

What makes a good story?

BooksI spend more time reading than I probably should. There are many other things I ought to be doing: laundry, ironing, writing… I console myself with the thought that somebody-or-other said that to be good at writing, you should spend a lot of time reading.

This month, I haven’t been having much luck with books. I’ve started reading several, and ended up just not feeling the love. One book was so not-feeling-the-love that I gave up completely after 15% and resolved never to read anything by that author again (at least, until someone tells me he’s stopped doing the really annoying thing he’d started doing that has made me abandon a series six books in). Another, I kind of enjoyed, but couldn’t get into, and found myself distracted by something else.

Luckily, someone recommended that I read Radiance, by Grace Draven. I burned through that in a day or so and reviewed it. It was like being thrown a lifeline: suddenly, I was reading something that I enjoyed. All my mind was on the characters, and their predicament(s), not on how much left there was in the book, and how long it was going to take, and whether I really ought to go and do some ironing instead. And when the ironing starts sounding like a good bet, you know you’re not enjoying the book.

It did, however, make me start thinking about what makes a good story for me, personally.

  • Characters. Personally, I don’t like characters who are too nice. Maybe that’s because I’m just not a very nice person myself, but give me a character who’s at least a bit grey. I particularly loathe good, self-sacrificing heroines. A heroine I particularly like at the moment is Kim Harrison’s Peri Reed: Peri is a materialist. She likes expensive cars and expensive tech. She likes having a job that gives her power and influence, and she’s not into self-sacrifice. Personally, I think we have a few too many heroines who – regardless of how ‘kick ass’ they’re marketed – still go all goody-two-shoes and self-sacrificing at the drop of a hat. I think it’s because there’s still a lot of social conditioning over what ‘nice girls’ do and don’t do – and admitting to materialistic impulses (except when it comes to clothes and shoes) is a no-no.
  • Relationships. I like a romance story every now and then, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. One author I’m continually banging on about how brilliant he is, is Jim Butcher. His Dresden Files is one series I’d hate to give up – and one of the reasons the series is so good is because of the relationships Harry Dresden has with the supporting characters. The poor guy almost never gets laid, but Butcher has surrounded his MC with a circle of friends, enemies, acquaintances, and others who are all fully fleshed-out characters in their own right. This makes the stories much more  complex and multi-layered (insofar as a series based on noir detective fiction can be complex and multilayered). Benedict Jacka’s Alex Verus series is touted as the London equivalent of the Dresden Files, and I can see why. But – despite the fact that Alex Verus is English – I still much prefer Butcher’s books. The reason, I think, is that Alex, despite several books in the series, is pretty much still a lone wolf. It limits the stories, and besides, I find myself thinking that anybody with any sense who gets attacked as often as Alex Verus does should start building his own power bloc out of self-preservation if nothing else. But the lack of people in Alex’s life really makes the books feel a bit flat.
  • Emotional connection. I like a book where I feel I know the main character – their personality, their motivations. I abandoned a very well-regarded book recently because I just couldn’t connect to the main character. It was very well written and everything, and I could see why it gets such good reviews – but I just found myself not caring what happened. Book abandoned. On the other hand, Jim Butcher (again!) is great at emotional connection. Harry Dresden is definitely a bit of a prat at times (a lot of times in the earlier books!) but he’s very easy to make a connection with, even if you’d like that connection to be your fist and his teeth. Crucially, though, Butcher himself manages to write the books through Harry’s eyes, and still show Harry as being a bit of a prat whose prattishness makes him lose out to the less testosterone-poisoned persons around him. You may sometimes want to punch Harry, but you always care what happens to him.
  • Plot. To be fair, this is a bit of a strange one. For me, I think the characters are the most important thing. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Guns of the Dawn doesn’t have what I’d call a plot so much as it has a character arc, but I still really enjoyed the book. But whatever it is, it has to be coherent, and it has to make sense. If people do things, those things should be believable (bearing in mind that people are not always logical in real life). Also, don’t dangle things in front of the reader then fail to follow up. One of the things I disliked in The Late Scholar was the mention of a couple of land law/tax concepts that made me think there was going to be a really cool land-law/tax mystery. Then there just wasn’t. Those mentions were just left dangling, as if the author had thought of doing a cool land-law-tax mystery, then found the research to be too difficult/boring and given up.
  • Meta-plot. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two types of series: ones with a metaplot and ones without. The Dresden Files is one of those with a metaplot. Every book (after maybe the first one or two) advance the metaplot to some kind of conclusion that Butcher already has planned. One of the things that make the Dresden Files so brilliant is that you can see that Butcher has carefully plotted the route to the final destination. You read one of the later books, and you can see ideas and plot points that were carefully seeded several books earlier; seemingly minor events suddenly turn out to have been important. The alternative is the non-metaplot type, where the hero’s situation generally does a sort of reset-to-start between books: the classic example is the noir detective who is always poor, always on the brink of bankruptcy, and always single – if he ever gets the girl, she leaves him or dies. Both – metaplot or no metaplot – are valid options, although I prefer the former. However, if you are going to have a metaplot, you need to advance it. You can have a book where the metaplot takes a back seat (or appears to), but in general, each book should take the plot a measurable step towards resolution. Otherwise, readers start getting impatient and wondering what the hell is going on. Likewise, it’s useful if your readers can tell what the metaplot is. If you just appear to have all this stuff going on, people start to get confused.
  • Not stopping the story to add a sex scene/sermon. This is a deal-breaker for me. Sex scenes irritate me much less than being preached at, whatever that says about me. But if you’re going to add a sex scene, make it mean something. Otherwise, I will just skip it (because unless I’m in the mood for a sex scene, it will bore me), and you wrote all those words for nothing. And other readers might end up skipping the whole book, or even all your books. People are funny about sex that way. However, preaching is to me what explicit BDSM-orgy-erotica is to the Clean Romance reading market. If I detect it, not only will I skip that part, I will skip the entire rest of the book, rest of the series, and quite possibly the rest of the author’s work for the rest of my life. One of my favourite authors is Terry Pratchett, and at his height, he was a master at including political and social concepts in his books. But – at his height (he got a bit obvious later on) – he never preached. The message came through the plot, and through the characters’ actions, and was far more powerful for it. I cry every time I read the passage in Going Postal about John Dearheart’s name being kept alive in the overhead. I’ve never forgotten the way he laid out the unpleasantness of Jingoism and false nationalism in JingoNor his skewering of racism in Thud! and, to a lesser extent, SnuffNight Watch deals with the revolutions, and the hypocrisy of revolutionaries who find that they have not only the wrong kind of government, but also the wrong kind of People. I could go on and on about the important political and social concepts dealt with in Pratchett’s Discworld books. Many authors who wish to make a social or political point should go and read Pratchett, and realise that the best way to make an impression on your readers is not to harangue them, or preach at them, but instead to show them – through the actions and reactions of your characters – what you mean, and why it’s important.

So, there we go. I’m going to go back to reading The Death of the Necromancer, which I first read years ago. I just found out it was really cheap on Amazon Kindle, so I’ve got myself a Kindle copy. And it’s just as good now as it was then.

What do you think?

Copyediting: the agony and the… whatever.

This month, I have got no writing done whatsoever. This is because I’ve been copyediting someone else’s book. Well, copyediting sounds a bit posh; what I was actually doing was reading it and marking comments in the margin like: Terry Pratchett says using more than one exclamation mark is a sign of insanity. And: Meteorology is the study of weather; metrology is the study of measurements. It is important not to confuse the two.

The interesting thing here is that my friend had already edited it himself and given it to someone else to edit, and he thought that two passes through would have got rid of all the stuff that needed getting rid of. This proved not to be the case, and I made enough comments to justify my continued existence. It was, however, a learning experience all round.

The most important thing my friend learned, of course, was that he hadn’t caught all the errors. When you’re self-publishing, this matters. You can blame your publisher if you like, but when that’s you, it’s a bit counterproductive. If you’re an indie author, when a reader spots the error, he doesn’t say “Poor author, why couldn’t his publisher pay for a decent editor?” – he says “Why is this bloke publishing a book? He’s clearly illiterate.”

Take home lesson: three sets of eyes is good. (Different people, obviously. Otherwise it’s… unusual.)

For me, I learned:

  1. Two people can read the same sentence in quite different ways. (“Oh, so that’s what you were after. I get it now.”)
  2. You have to concentrate more when you get to the climax because you’re more likely to miss things. (“This is a flying saucer battle! And you expect me to concentrate on whether a comma or a semicolon would be better?”)
  3. I’m quite good at spotting errant commas, and I have an unnatural love of, or possibly obsession with, semicolons.

I also learned some things about writing; copyediting someone else’s work forces you to slow down and think about what you’re reading. Pacing was the main one: my friend’s book was beautifully paced. Everything flowed naturally, the plot cantering along, until it accelerated into a gallop for the climax, and all the threads came together. It’s something I shall have to try to replicate in my own writing, if I can.

All in all, it’s an experience I would definitely recommend to anyone else thinking of self-publishing. If only because once you’ve checked someone else’s, it should be relatively easy to guilt them into doing yours…

Feedback: Bad is the new Good

Today, I had a short but thought-provoking conversation with a colleague.

I forget how we got onto the subject, but he told me that his wife was keen on watching The Apprentice – I got the impression that this was mostly because (as a teaching assistant) she enjoyed watching arrogant young people getting what was coming to them for once.

The premise of the show, as I understand it, is that the various candidates are divided into teams and given tasks to do. Gradually, their numbers are whittled down until only one is left, who wins the prize of getting to work with Alan Sugar. However, in one particular show, which involved designing a posh pudding and selling it (how hard can it be to sell cake?), the team that came last was given a particularly excoriating assessment of their failure.

“But we did market research!” they said (or so I was told). “And lots of people said our pudding was wonderful!”

Aha,” said Lord Sugar. “You shouldn’t be listening to the people who say it’s wonderful – you should be listening to the negative comments.”

And Lord Sugar, when you think about it, is exactly right.

The feedback we want to hear is that our product (whether it’s cake or a book) is amazing, wonderful, and so on. We don’t want to hear that our book is tedious trash with cardboard characters and a nonsensical plot.

But it’s necessary to be brave and listen to the negative feedback, because those are the people who are pinpointing potential weaknesses. You can never please all of the people all of the time, no matter how hard you try (one look at the reviews on Amazon will tell you that), but if you’ve got several people all telling you that your main character is as dull as dishwater and they don’t care what happens to him or her as long as the story ends soon, it’s a fair bet you need to make some changes.

Good feedback is great for the ego – but it’s the negative feedback that tells you where you need to improve.

Authors I admire: Jim Butcher

Jim Butcher is one of my favourite authors. Nobody is going to accuse him of writing great literature, but his books are damn good fun. However, what I admire most about his books is not the characters, or the world-building (though they’re both pretty good) – it’s the plotting.

With Butcher’s books, I can tell that he has plotted not only each book, but the whole series, in advance. Little incidents in earlier books turn out to be important in later books. Major characters don’t just show up; they’re hinted at earlier.

Take Butcher’s latest book, Skin Game (Harry Dresden book 15). One of the new characters in it, who turns out to be quite important, and whom there are signs that we will see more of – was foreshadowed in an earlier book. Not in any obvious way, but the groundwork for believing in him as a character had already been laid. So we, as readers, already have a conceptual slot to put him in, and we also have some background knowledge that fleshes out the character without Butcher having to do any tedious explaining.

In another incident, a character does something appallingly stupid, meaning that a whole bunch of assumptions that readers have made over previous books suddenly have to be junked. Now, when some authors do that, it’s really disappointing. You feel cheated. The author has suddenly changed direction on you with no warning, and that’s just wrong. But when Butcher does it, once you’ve got over the shock, you sit back and you think “Yeah…. he’s absolutely right.” Because this particular incident made me re-evaluate that character, and made me realise that I’d been wrong (and so had everyone else) all along. That what I’d expected would happen wouldn’t have been the right thing at all. That the stupid thing that the character does was not the result of Butcher needing a sudden plot change and sacrificing readers’ expectations for the quick fix, but entirely due to the fact that Butcher knows those characters and his world a lot better than his readers do. The incident to which I refer did not end up making me feel betrayed, but instead made me realise that I’d been wrong about that character all along – and that the ‘stupid thing’ was actually inevitable. The character would have done it, or something like it, sooner or later. In some ways, that moment of revelation was one of the best parts of the book.

This beautiful plotting means that you never have one of those “WTF???” moments, as a major baddie suddenly appears out of nowhere, or the series as a whole gradually veers off course (and possibly over a narrative cliff). Instead, you not only have a great story, but – as you read the series – you get to sit back and admire the sheer artistry of what Butcher is doing with the series as a whole. Everything interlocks, like a puzzle. There are no flabby bits flopping around looking significant at first but turning out to be irrelevant. It’s tight; it’s efficient. It works. Things move on, move forward.

He’s also subtle. You don’t get big flashing lights that say “Hey! Small but significant point here!” It’s only after he gets to the denouement that you figure out where all the little signposts were. Not only does this preserve the excitement of the books because you can’t always predict what’s going to happen next, but you also get to re-enjoy previous books as you realise the true significance of bits to which you hadn’t really paid much attention.

Butcher’s Dresden Files is the best demonstration I can think of that careful plotting means that a series of books is greater than simply the sum of its parts. And you know what? Spotting the hooks in Skin Game makes me want to read the next book just to find out what they mean…

National Novel-Writing Month

National Novel-Writing Month. Everybody’s talking about it. Everybody’s blogging about it. So I thought I’d better write something about it, just in case somebody has passed a law while I wasn’t watching and failure to comment on NaNoWriMo is punishable by death.

You can’t be too careful.

So, am I doing it?

No. I thought about it, I really did. Then I thought again, and decided that I didn’t have time.

Maybe next year, although maybe not. I live in a world of deadlines as it is, why would I want one more? Also, my poor novel (proto-novel; and it’s been that way for more years than I want to admit to in public) has been going on for so long that I don’t want to shock it by demanding that much activity of it all at once. It might have a heart attack and die, and then where would I be? That novel has been my constant companion since girlhood. It knows me better than my husband does.

My novel has changed out of all recognition since I first started it, but then, so have I. I’ve grown upwards and outwards (characterwise, I hasten to add. Not in dress size. Or, unfortunately, height). Characters have changed names and changed, well, character. Sometimes slightly, sometimes completely. Some characters have been added, some have been deleted. The writing style has changed, too. I hope it’s improved. If it hasn’t, I’m in trouble.

I always wanted to write, but I was a very, very practical child. I wanted a job that would earn money, guaranteed money, even if it didn’t promise fame. I may have made a mistake on the type of job, but I’m trying to rectify that now. But even if I don’t manage to, I’ve still got my career.

But I’ve decided that if I’m going to write, I need to actually get down and do it, seriously. It’s all very well to talk about it, and dream about it, but the time comes when you have to either put up or shut up. Career-wise as well as book-wise, this is my year for the leap into the dark.

But NaNoWriMo is not the right sort of thing for me. Not only do I have other deadlines in November, but I don’t want the pressure of having to write 1700 words every day for a month. My novel (future novel) has been in progress for so long now that there doesn’t seem to be much sense in rushing it. I don’t care about quick; I want it done right.

When I’ve finished, I want to be proud of it. Even if it only sells three copies, all to people with the same surname as me, I want to know it was the best I could possibly do (although naturally I would like it to be a runaway bestseller that catapults me to instant fame and fortune). If it totally fails, then I shall know that I did my very best, and I did not make the cut. That my skills as an author were weighed, measured, and found wanting.

But I will know.

If I rush my novel, trying to hurry it through its extremely slow gestation (it’s not a book about elephants, but possibly it ought to be), then it will probably be less than my best. And if I publish it, and it fails, then what will I know?

I will know that my book that took me cough-cough years to write, and which I finished in a hurry, bombed. But I will not know whether it is because I do not have it in me to write well, or because I did not take the time to make it my very best effort.

In order to find that out, I will have to write another novel, and this time, make it my best effort.

This does not seem to me to be an efficient use of time, let alone a fitting fate for my faithful, neglected, much-revised, long-suffering first novel. The poor thing deserves more respect from me than that, after all the help and satisfaction it has given me over the years.

So, no. I will not be taking part in National Novel-Writing Month. I wish the very best of good luck, and happy writing, to those who do. But I will not be joining them.

Quality, quantity and…. being a lady?

Joseph Stalin said “Quantity had a quality all its own.” However, the important point to remember here that he was speaking of Soviet tank production and the size of the Soviet army. Soviet equipment had a reputation for being very simple: simple to make, simple to operate, simple to fix; very suitable for a large but mainly unskilled conscript army.

Those of us who are not planning to invade Western Europe and are therefore unconcerned with conscription and tank production, however, should strive not to equate quality with quantity.

Being new to blogging, I do look around a bit to see what else – and who else – is out there, and I keep finding people I don’t agree with. Actually, this is a good thing – finding people one disagrees with forces one to re-evaluate one’s own views. I like thinking; sometimes it’s like having an adventure in your own head. You get to explore things you’ve never really thought about before, only assumed. And sometimes you find that it’s not the other person who’s wrong – it’s you.

Anyway, back to the topic. Quantity and quality.

Today’s post is prompted by a couple of other blog posts which could be described – by me, at least – as being by people who were prizing quantity over quality, and being made unhappy and stressed thereby.

Case Number One was a cultural studies student who seemed to feel that if she wasn’t reading every book published, watching every film, etc, then she was somehow failing. Books became tasks to be accomplished and ticked off as quickly as possible, rather than enjoyed and understood.

Case Number Two was a housewife who, finding that she was spending several hours a day on social media sites to the detriment of her Real Life lifestyle and relationships, cancelled nearly everything, even the useful ones. Many comments indicated people’s support for this move.

These two people seem to epitomise, to me, the modern emphasis on quantity rather than quality. Being able to say that you’ve read lots of books (even though you may have enjoyed or understood few of them) is better than having read a small number of carefully-selected books.

Having lots of ‘friends’, most of whom you hardly know, is seen as better than having only a very few ‘friends’ but whose company and contact you value.

It’s better to say lots but communicate nothing of value, than it is to stay silent until you have something of importance to say.

How did this happen? When did it become de rigeur to tell the world what you had for breakfast? Why?

I would suggest that this is due to two factors: ease, and our desire to be famous.

Everybody, I should think, deep down in our hearts, wants to be a celebrity – even a little bit. Certainly bloggers do; otherwise why would we post our thoughts on the internet? We must believe that what we write is so important and interesting that it should be shared with the whole world. Otherwise, we’d just talk to friends, or write a diary. And social media, of course, make sharing our every passing thought so easy.

Back in the old days, communicating with someone who wasn’t close enough to talk to was difficult. People only did it when they had something important to say: Immanuel Kant was a great communicator; he almost never left Konigsberg, but he corresponded widely by letter. But then, his thoughts were so important that they made him a celebrity (in philosophy circles, anyway). If you didn’t have anything important to say, then sending a letter was too much trouble and too expensive.

Even when the telephone arrived, and still later when everyone had one, you still had to pay for every minute you spent on the phone. So you’d only ring someone up when you had something significant to say; if it was a general ‘catch-up’ call without any specific object in mind, it was safe to say that the person on the other end would be someone to whom you were extraordinarily close, and regardless of the words, what you were really saying was ‘I love you’.

But now, we can communicate with everyone, and since we mostly pay monthly for internet and phone access, we don’t have to watch what we say. So we can kid ourselves that the world is hanging on our every word, desperate to hear what we had for breakfast and whether we’re going to the gym now or later.

Communication has turned from quality to quantity.

But what should we do about it? Is there anything we can do?

I think there is. The first thing to do, as with practically every problem, is to recognise that there is a problem, and then define it. Only then can you work out a solution; quite often, defining the problem suggests a solution.

If you feel that you are constantly reading books but not having time to enjoy them, like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland running hard just to stay in the same place, then acknowledge that you can’t read everything – and then work out what you absolutely need to read, and then what you would like to read on top of that. And ignore everything else.

Social media – how much of your ‘communicating’ is just meaningless fluff? How much real information do you impart? What do social media actually add to your life, really? Social media are tools to be used; if they’re not useful, drop them. If they are useful, keep them. But only use them when they’re the appropriate tool for the job.

Acknowledge that fame and fortune are unfortunately not everybody’s destiny. And if you are destined to be famous, it will probably not be because you routinely tell the world what you have for breakfast. At least, not unless you make a habit of eating live snakes or something equally interesting.

We need to concentrate on quality in our lives: in our communication, our reading, in every aspect. If we go for quality rather than quantity, then we should be happier and less stressed, and also have time for more (quality) pursuits.

And that brings me to the ‘ladylike’ bit of the title. What’s that about? Being a lady is all about staying at home wearing a pretty dress, looking after your pretty children, while your husband goes out and does Important Men Things, isn’t it?

No; actually, that’s the conflation of two ideas: the idea of being a lady, and the old-fashioned notion of a woman’s place. Being a lady is not about what you do: it’s about how. The old saying “A lady is never rude… by accident” springs to mind. A lady can be as appallingly offensive as anyone else – but never by accident, only when the target deserves it, and always with style. It’s about quality rather than quantity: a really well-crafted, well-deserved insult has far more impact, especially coming from someone who is usually very polite.

If you Google ‘how to be a lady’, then you get lots of results, many of which have the same theme. It’s all about quality over quantity. If you are with someone, give them your attention; don’t chat on your mobile phone or update your Facebook status. Don’t burden people with personal information about you that they don’t want or need (who cares what you had for breakfast? Unless it was live snakes, of course. Then I’d be interested). Even personal possessions: have relatively few, but high quality, clothes – you’ll always look nice, you’ll spend less money in the end (quality lasts longer), and you’ll find it easier to decide what to wear.

If you Google ‘how to be a gentleman’, then you get lots of results too, and they all have the same theme as the ‘how to be a lady’ results – just in different words. It’s quality over quantity, all over again.

So maybe we ought to be looking with a bit more attention at being ladylike and gentlemanly? Not because we want to return to the days of Jane Austen, but from the purely selfish perspective of clearing the clutter – both physical and mental – from our lives and concentrating on what really matters?

I think I might give it a try myself, and see how I do.

And the next post is on social media, and the ideas I’ve had for making sure that you reap the advantages without wasting your life online.