Recently I’ve been dipping my reading time and my pen into the Young Adult genre. It’s through my obsessive viewing of booktube that I’ve been exposed to some very creative stories in the fantasy and science fiction genre.
Along with that, I’ve been abusing my Amazon prime membership by purchasing many of these books that have gorgeous, colorful hardback covers and dust jackets that look beautiful on my shelves. Since finishing book three of A Song of Fire and Ice, I’m taking a reprieve from adult reads and soaking up some YA loveliness.
Except that it’s not all lovely. Last week I read a heavily hyped YA science fiction adventure novel that is an object lesson in how not to write a book. I won’t mention it by title because its authors have already suffered enough abuse, but the mistakes they made can be a note of caution to every fiction writer.
Picking up any book is an act of faith. As a reader, I am trusting that the writer will pull me into a journey where I can lose myself on some level. This is usually achieved when I, the reader, identifies with the protagonist. When it’s done well, it is seamless and unconscious. I am with that character throughout the story, feeling his pain, glorifying in her victories and acts of vengeance. When I’m thoroughly engaged, I am not even conscious that there is a book in my hand, that my stomach is growling or that I really have to pee. I am one with the story. I am slaying dragons, solving a murder, escaping the clutches of a serial killer, or falling in love.
I recently had that longed for moment of complete immersion of reader and text when I was reading the fight scene (with its delicious erotic undertones) between Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth in A Storm of Swords. Told from the Kingslayer’s point of view, it was the perfect scene that described the blow-by-blow action sequence in tandem with the interior battle of a man who is trying to kill a worthy adversary at the same time acknowledging that his admiration for her is growing with each strike till the fight is nearly turning into an act of lovemaking. Quite a writing feat.
Not many of us are as skilled as George R.R. (not your bitch) Martin, but we can learn what NOT to do.
Below is a list of cardinal sins (not conclusive) every writer should avoid.
If you set up your protagonist as a killer with a conscience (I can get into this, trauma turned her heart cold but underneath is a tender spirit begging to be set free), you can’t then make her a sadist who savors the crack of a victim’s neck only to have her cry about it later. Actually you can do this, but you have to be highly skilled to pull it off. This writer wasn’t.
Again, it’s about trust. If your main character is inconsistent, I (the reader) feel like I’m on a leaky raft when I’d be better off just swimming to shore (add bad metaphors to the list). But seriously, it’s a major problem when you break the sacred writer/reader compact by making your character (especially the protagonist) do something completely out of character. It makes the reader lose faith in your character and you as a writer. It makes the reader disengage, which is the opposite of what you as a writer want.
Your protagonist should grow and change, but not develop a new personality in the course of the story or flip-flop between behavioral extremes without any explanation why. Confuse me; you lose me. And worse, you piss me (the reader) off.
Incomplete or Illogical World-Building
If you are going to accept the awesome challenge of playing God and creating your own unique world of fantasy of science fiction space opera glory, you better have the chops to pull it off. Again, I look to George R. R. Martin as an exemplar. Building a world is more than just putting a pretty illustration of a map on the flyleaf and moving your characters around it like Candyland (always a boring game). You have to build it in your mind and on paper a system (or series of systems) that has its own logic, in the physical world and in how the characters respond to it; their inner world as it were.
Martin’s Game of Throne series is successful because the world of Westeros and beyond is something we recognize: the characters are very flawed with desires we secretly understand, the terrain is earthly to an extreme, the references are historical/medieval we’re all familiar with through movies and mythology. In other words, the world is so completely integrated in reality that we accept the fantasy—the dragons, giants, and white walkers. It’s a system so complete we as readers feel secure exploring it. If, however, the author were to suddenly drop down a couple from the present time who are wearing suburban mall clothes (please no!) and driving a Subaru beyond the Wall, we might have some problems accepting it.
In the YA scifi novel I just read, I so wanted to get off the spaceship because I didn’t trust the characters who were flying it. And it wasn’t just because the characters had weird traits (unusual skin tones, implants, scales, web feet), it was because there was no reasons given for the physical differences. Did they come from different planets? It was never explained.
Creating a science fiction world would be an awesome challenge—and one I’d love to attempt one day—but if there is no science in your fiction, then something is wrong. If you create an impenetrable spaceship only to have it easily penetrated, you’ve violated the law you’ve established and (worse) messed with the reader’s mind. If it is only penetrated by an evil genius applying some never heard of technology that surprises the reader and makes perfect sense in the physical laws of the world you’ve built, then you’ve created an aha! moment that astounds, titillates, and inspires. Now you’re onto something.
You can’t have the law of gravity established one minute then change it the next unless something happens to make the transition from gravity to no gravity make sense: the spaceship surges into a no gravity space zone, evil agitator messes with the controls, someone thought it would be fun to float around for awhile, etc.
The list goes on….
But I’ll stop for now. I will add to this list as I continue to read the good, the bad, and the just plain awful while reminding myself as I continue my writer’s journey to never make the same mistakes.
Reading a bad book can be very instructional.