Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Why a Well-Written Novel Can Still Stink

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A writer can do everything “right” and still have a novel that doesn’t engage readers.

I recently finished a novel by an author I like. Their previous series was wonderful and I eagerly dived into the new one, expecting to enjoy yet another exciting tale. Instead, I found a technically well-done novel that left me flat. From the reviews I later peeked at online, I’m not the only one who felt this way.

It was sad, because this author went from “auto-buy” to “wait and see the reviews” with one so-so book. And it didn’t have to happen.

Taste vary, of course (which is why I’m not sharing the title), but the first series was wonderful for several reasons:

1. An original premise done very well.

The concept was unique, and integral to the story itself. Solving the mystery, figuring out the truth, and seeing the protagonist grow was all interconnected and built upon each other to form the story.

2. A protagonist readers liked and rooted for.

All the characters were strong, even the ones you didn’t like (by design). But the protagonist was endearing and “skilled” in the premise concept, and their skills made you like them all the more.

3. An intriguing conflict that kept readers guessing.

Figuring out the truth behind the situation and even the world drove the plot and character arcs, and every clue revealed opened the door to more questions, and that kept you hooked. You wanted to know the answers because the questions were so fascinating.

4. An emotionally and intellectually satisfying resolution to that conflict.

Dangling a cool mystery for hundreds of pages is tricky, because the payoff doesn’t always live up to the hype. But this one did, and it worked perfectly with the protagonist’s growth as well as the plot itself.

With the exception of very plot-heavy novels, such as thrillers or procedurals, these four things appear in just about every satisfying read (and even the plot-heavy ones often hit these points anyway). It’s a mini-blueprint for “how to write a great novel.”

(Here’s more on hooking the reader's brain and heart)

Why This Book Didn’t Work

Easy. The second series failed on all four points.

1. The premise lacked originality, and much of it was concepts I’d seen many times in other stories.

This by itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but if you use an old idea, you’d better have something else really good to compensate. For example, I love a good underdog sports movie, but it has to have a setup that’s fun and characters I can like and root for, or it’s just another bunch of bland athletes with issues who pull it together and win.

These ideas weren’t bad, they just didn’t bring anything new to the premise. Had there been only one of them, the book probably would have been okay, but there were multiple “seen that before” pieces making up the story. But they felt added on to make a general idea “cool,” not a cool idea that drove the plot.

(Here’s more on exploring an idea vs. solving a problem)

2. The protagonists were blah, and had nothing special about them to make me care.

The protagonist’s “skills” weren’t unique or interesting, and even though they were good at them, the skills themselves didn’t really matter to the overall story. They worked as the right device to create the plot, but any number of things could have had the same outcome.

The characters also didn’t have enough personality to stand out as unique people, and at times, I forgot which POV I was in. Even their individual problems were basically the same, just with different details. For example, they were both “trying to escape a bad person trying to kill them,” and they both “were lying about who they were,” and they both “were afraid to tell anyone the truth.”

And again, there’s nothing wrong with any of those things, but how those concepts were played out in the story were also basically the same, further blurring the lines between these characters.

(Here’s more on making characters come alive)

3. The conflict didn’t matter, and it didn’t leave many story questions that weren’t easy to figure out.

For a book so focused on the “adventure,” this was a serious issue. But the adventure was barely more than a McGuffin story (where an object or device serves merely as a trigger for the plot), and I never understood the point of the McGuffin. It seemed as though everything everyone did (more or less), was to “get rich” and “avoid death.” Which didn’t leave much for the reader to worry about.

It also suffered from a “nowhere for the stakes to go” issue. The protagonists’ lives were in danger from Bad Guy X at the start, and they stayed that way all book. No escalated stakes, no reveals, no deeper personal connection to make things worse. So the story felt repetitive after a while, because it was just the same problem over and over with slightly different tactics to try to kill them. Again, that can work in the right story, but here, it wasn’t enough.

(Here’s more on asking the right story questions in a novel)

4. The ending was obvious, and then it wasn’t really sure what it wanted to be.

For a been-done idea with a straight-forward, low stakes plot, the secrets had to be huge to make this book work. But the “big reveals” were telegraphed from ten miles away and easy to figure out, so the characters looked like idiots for not figuring it out sooner.

Even worse, the secrets didn’t matter, since the point of those secrets held no real consequences and didn’t really affect the plot. One of them wasn’t even a secret to readers, but a “when will another character figure out who that protagonist really is?” question. And since the answer to that was also obvious, it didn’t work as a hook.

In the end, they survived, which wasn’t a surprise to anyone. The secrets were finally revealed (also not a surprise to readers), and a minor romance subplot for Protagonist A was pushed forward and felt like it was supposed to be the “win,” and even though it was nice, it held no emotional impact. Protagonist B’s win involved settling an old score and “escaping the bad guy.” Neither ending was satisfying or worth the time it took to get there.

(Here’s more on what makes a satisfying ending)

But here’s the thing…it was well written from a purely technical standpoint.

Which, as a writer, is terrifying. The writing was strong, with smooth prose, elegant description, and scenes with all the right goal-conflict-disaster elements. Yet it still failed to grab me as a reader.

If the author revealed this was their first book that they dusted off and sold after they’d hit the bestseller lists, I’d believe it. It has all the markings of a first novel before a writer found their voice and learned how to do more than illustrate a plot.

It’s a lackluster novel, but it doesn’t technically (in the literal sense) do anything wrong. It just lacks that spark that takes the description of action and turns into a story readers connect with.

Craft and writing skill is important, but so is the intangible spark that turns a plot into a story. It’s not just about getting the text perfect, but about building a story that surprises readers and draws them into that story.

Because a well-written novel can still fail if it doesn’t have that spark.

Have you ever read a bad “good” book?

If you're looking for more to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. I found the final book in Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear series to be extremely disappointing on many fronts.

    1. It's been decades since I've read those, but I do remember the books changing significantly after the few couple.

  2. I just read a mystery where I liked other of the author's books (even though the author seems to have trouble getting to know the characters until the end of the first book in the series), then I found this one blah, the characters yawn. Disappointing. Well, luckily I read book 4 in one of the series first so didn't just drop it. Well written yeah, but perfectly' written is less important to me the reader than good characters and interesting happenings. 'Cave Bear' didn't do anything for me either. I appreciate your website. thanks.

    1. Personal taste also plays a role. I just stopped reading a trilogy that has five-figure four and five-star reviews on Goodreads. Obviously others liked it, but I lost interest because of how it was written and some things the author choose to do.

  3. Your breakdown of why it didn't work is a useful list to help me with revisions!

    The flip side is also true... a not-so-well-written book hits the best seller lists because the plot is engaging, the story's well paced and it has characters the readers connect with and care about.

    Working out why readers (friends and strangers) love a book with writing I found pedestrian at best and confusing at worst helps me understand pacing and character.

    1. Oh good!

      I think as writers, we tend to put more importance on technical skill than story sometimes, especially when we're just starting out. Readers aren't nearly as picky as writers :) People slam Twilight all the time for its "bad writing" but few books have as rabid a group of fans as Meyer.

  4. This is frightening. Maybe that was something a good editor wouldn't allow to happen? Or maybe they knew it wasn't that strong, but deadlines... ? Your post sets a new genre: author terror. Lol.

    1. Oh no! hehe I didn't man to do that. It could be personal taste, or what I saw as tired and overdone that editor saw as fresh (not everyone reads the same things). Or they liked that concept regardless of how often they'd seen it.

      I doubt they published a "bad book" on purpose, so someone liked it. If it hadn't had the first series to compare it to, maybe it wouldn't have seemed as much of a letdown. I certainly expected more from this author based on that.

    2. Don't worry, I'm over it hehe. I get what you mean. I love Robin Hobb, but I couldn't read Rainwild series cause it was boring (albeit well written). Even so, she is stis still Robin Hobb and lands great books. Her last books were even better than the first ones.

    3. Good :) Her books have always been hot or miss for me as well. Some I've loved, others just weren't for me.

  5. This happens to me as a reader fairly often. I will read several books in a row that fall short, and wonder if it's my fault somehow due to boredom. But then I'll start a book that has that spark (often by my go-to authors) and realize it really is all in the execution of the story. I do think authors are pulled in many directions and may not be putting the time in to the writing. Maybe readers are also more demanding because there are so many books to choose from, we can move in to the next.

    1. That happens to me a lot mow, as well. I almost always try the sample first, and if I want to turn that last page, I buy the book. Physical books are saved for my go-to authors.

      I think it probably has to do with multiple factors. Time, obligations, tastes in the reading public, expectations, etc. Everything has gotten faster. I do agree that the ease in which we can move on to the next book probably plays a role, too. And the amount of free books (many lower quality ones) has shifted the bar down a bit.

      It's a changing marketplace for sure.