February 27, 2013

Would I Like My Own Novel?

I'm reading a novel that I'm not enjoying as much as I'd hoped, and one of my complaints falls into the category of "wanting to read a different story than the author chose to write." I consider this a less valid or useful type of criticism than commenting on, for example, problems with pacing or believability, but it's a common reason that readers fail to connect with a book.

In this case, the story starts with a big disaster, and my complaint is that so far I haven't learned much about how the general public experienced the disaster or how the city is coping with the event. The reason I don't know these things is that the story is about one specific person and the unusual things that happen to him as a result of the disaster. It's not a flaw that the other stuff is backgrounded, because that's not the point of the story, but unfortunately, I'm feeling like I'd rather be reading about the other stuff than about what the author chose to focus on.

Even more unfortunately, as I was thinking about this problem I'm having with the book I'm reading, I realized that what I have described is exactly the problem a reader could have with the book I'm writing. How does the description of my novel start? "When an earthquake devastates the Bay Area." How much does my novel focus on the disaster scenario of the earthquake? Not a whole lot. The protagonist of that other book at least faces obstacles that originate in the disaster, whereas my characters mainly ignore the earthquake and whine about their family dysfunction.

Would I find my own novel supremely irritating? This isn't the first time I've been gripped by this fear. These are some reactions I've had lately to novels I encountered descriptions of and decided not to read: "Oh, it's about someone going home to see their parents, so of course they have to uncover some deep dark secret." "Ugh, it's misery heaped on misery. That sounds way too depressing." If you're not sure why I'm feeling like a big hypocrite, take another look at the description of my novel.

One thing that frequently annoys me in stories is when a problem could be easily solved if people would simply communicate. I'm one of those people likely to yell at the TV, "Just tell them what's going on!" And yet I've written a novel with a plot that revolves around people keeping secrets from each other, lying, misunderstanding, and repeatedly failing to divulge the crucial piece of information that would make everything okay. I'm in the middle of a bit right now that's all about Character A believing that Character B agreed to something that B didn't understand he was agreeing to. Just communicate better!

I would like to think that in all cases I've sidestepped these peeves and written something that transcends the potential flaws. I would like to think that as a reader, I would enjoy my own novel. But sometimes I'm afraid that I'm writing a story I couldn't stand to read.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ On the Office of Letters and Light blog, Susan Bell sings the praises of the revision stage: "Editing is not the clean-up, it's the meal. Look forward to it, because when you edit, the discovery of problems is cause for celebration (where else in life is that so?). Rejoice each time you find a sentence or character or chapter that doesn't work, because if you don't find a flaw, you can't fix it."


Alison said...

I'm one of those people likely to yell at the TV, "Just tell them what's going on!"

Ha, I do this too! I can't stand watching most sitcoms for this reason, because the whole plot of each episode is usually based on a misunderstanding that could have been easily avoided. I find it embarrassing too, watching all these people in discomfort.

I feel bad in this situation too ("wanting to read a different story than the author chose to write.") But it does happen, and I think it's a reasonable thing to happen. We all start books from different points.

I still can't wait to read your novel, despite your qualms!

Lisa Eckstein said...

I've been reminding myself that in real life people fail to communicate for all sorts of reasons, and whether it's accidental or on purpose, the cause is usually something that makes a lot more sense than most sitcom plots. In my story, people keep information from each other for reasons that seem very good to them, and I think even if readers believe the characters are doing the wrong thing, they'll recognize the motivation behind it. I hope!

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