I’m a writer of fiction, as anyone who’s glanced at the sidebar will already know. But I’m also a reader of fiction, and not merely because I need to “keep up with the competition.” Reading is my principal pleasure. I read between 150 and 250 full-length novels each year. When I don’t have any satisfactory reading material available, I get grouchy and difficult to be with.
(Yes, yes, I’m no great pleasure to be with even when I do have good reading material available, but the lack of it seriously exacerbates the syndrome. Actually, it’s worse than that: I start doing ill-considered things. Why, just yesterday, faced with a total dearth of enticing but unread books, I went out and bought a television. So the condition threatens more than my sociability.)
There are a number of immediate disqualifiers that will cause me to toss aside a book from anyone, regardless of all other considerations:
- A tired premise, or reliance on over-exploited elements (e.g., vampires, zombies);
- An obvious lack of writing skill, especially with regard to fundamentals;
- Preachiness, especially overt religious or political polemics;
- A “never ending” design that promises an endless series of sequels.
The overused-premise problem is particularly acute. Some of the most popular writers on Earth commit that sin with every novel. As “popular” implies “selling a lot of books” and therefore “making a lot of money (for a writer),” those writers inspire emulators. This is a violation of good marketing. You want to differentiate your product. You don’t want to pitch your wares in a market segment overflowing with competitors, especially highly regarded competitors. You want to go where there’s little or no competition: where your chance of becoming a standout will be greatest.
As for writing skill, I’m not talking about the ability to spin verbal arabesques that would turn Joyce or Faulkner green with envy. I mean attention to the low-level details of the trade:
- Viewpoint control;
- “Show, don’t tell” characterization;
- Detail inconsistency;
- After all else, grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
Innumerable writers “head-hop” from paragraph to paragraph...even from sentence to sentence (if, indeed, they bother to write in sentences). They’ll also tell you, direct from narrator to reader, about what values their protagonists cherish and what motivates them in every scene. And no small number, whether out of parsimony or penury, fail to engage an editor who would detect inconsistencies in matters such as characters’ names and miscellaneous details of their ages, backgrounds, and exploits.
Preachiness has become an especially irritating problem, largely because of the domination of Pub World – i.e., the “above-ground,” conventional world of publishing that produces books the New York Times might deign to review – by that contemporary phenomenon called “political correctness.” As Arthur Herzog has told us, cant elicits counter-cant. Thus, with the emergence of the independent writers’ movement, we see a great many who regard their newfound freedom as a license to preach, with emphasis on what the “social justice warriors” who rule Pub World would censor as heresy or blasphemy. But people read fiction principally to be entertained and diverted. If your principal reason for writing is to produce polemics, you shouldn’t be writing fiction.
Finally for this emission, the trend toward series. The writers of popular series, in which a protagonist or small group thereof go from book to book confronting ever-greater challenges to their prowess, have made a great impression on the world of fiction. They’ve dramatized an important truth about popular fiction: An attractive protagonist with whom readers can identify is a powerful asset in acquiring a loyal readership. But they’ve also rubbed a sore spot in writers’ psyches: the terrible difficulty of creating such protagonists.
Series protagonists seem to be everywhere these days. The mystery writers, of course, made the series protagonist their bread and butter long ago: Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, C. D. James’s Adam Dalgleish, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, Sarah Paretsky’s V. I. Warshovsky, and Bill Pronzini’s “Nameless Detective” are fine examples. But the mystery field has special requirements and a unique readership. What works there can become tedious and off-putting in other sorts of stories, especially if the writer lacks sufficient creativity to devise new and challenging situations for his hero to conquer.
Lately, what’s irked me most greatly about series writing is the suggestion that I must follow the series with no promise of eventual closure. The series gives no hint of when it might come to an end. I’ll grant that some stories need more than a single episode to be properly told; who could imagine, for example, John Conroe’s exceptionally creative Demon Accords stories being reduced to a single volume? But purveying an open-ended series gives your fiction a strong hint of “planned obsolescence” – and that, Gentle Reader Who Writes, is something no one wants to return from its grave, Apple’s marketing strategy notwithstanding. (I am of the firm opinion that Apple’s customer base, especially the ones who buy the latest model iPhone every year, is a “cult.”)
So for the moment at least, I seek books:
- That exhibit genuine originality, especially in their premises and principal elements;
- Whose authors display proper respect for the rules of storytelling and English;
- Who don’t preach their religious, economic, social or political convictions;
- And who bring their BLEEP!ing stories to a BLEEP!ing end!
Don’t disappoint me, Indie Writers. I have a television and I’m willing to use it! Though that has its drawbacks, too...