What I Want to Read

I don’t see the point of obsession about genre. Yes, I understand that some people like westerns, while others like s.f. (that’s how science fiction is abbreviated in literature), and a well-populated territory of readers prefer romance. But I’m not one of them. As far as I’m concerned, there are only two genres: good and bad.

So what makes a bad book?

1. Poor research

I get that no one knows everything. I get that some things are missed. But by the time a book goes on sale, someone along the way should have gone through it to check the facts and the culture and the setting and so forth. If it’s a story about mediaeval Britain, I don’t want to see anyone drinking coffee–unless it’s a time-travel story. I don’t want to see a discussion of equal treatment of transgendered people in a romance set in the American Civil War. That is an admirable attitude to take, but no one in the period would even understand the subject. These are obvious examples. The point is that characters and events need to fit into the time and place of the story. If you only want to express the values, styles, interests, and technology of the present day, write stories only about the present.

2. Flat characters

Barney Fife is funny. He’s a cardboard cutout, but that’s o.k., because his purpose is to be a laughingstock. But if your characters are a symbologist (there’s actually no such thing), a hot cop-chick, a pasty white monk, and Gandalf, you shouldn’t make them all sound exactly alike. You shouldn’t insert them into a scene just because you need something done there. Characters need to be human–even if they’re Vulcans. That means that they have personalities. They have life histories. And most importantly, they have motivations. Those will be in conflict with someone else’s motivations. That’s what drives a good story.

3. Plot, plot, and more plot

Speaking of what drives a story, some writers are of the opinion that every chapter must end with a cliffhanger. The story goes from thrill to thrill to thrill, but not because of the motivations of the characters. It does this because the author wants us to have the constant feeling that Sister Martha is coming right now to check our work. But a well-written story rises and falls. It has a natural rhythm that includes periods of calm. Sensory overload may keep the reader plowing ahead to get to the moment when everything ends, but it doesn’t make for any depth.

4. Bad grammar, spelling, and diction

If your characters have had only a third-grade education, their speech should sound that way. When we’re in the character’s head, we should see the world through that perspective. But the author had better know what is breaking the rules and what isn’t and had better be making that choice deliberately.

5. Mystery for its own sake

I have nothing against the profound or the mysterious. I don’t mind being asked to work to understand the writing. But what I can’t tolerate is when the writer is being intentionally dense for the purpose of looking smarter than the rest of us. A lot of popular writing fails the previous items, but literary fiction runs into trouble here. You aren’t being important by finding a particularly obscure way of saying something simple. You’ll impress some people who will buy your book only for the purpose of displaying it for others to see, but none of them will read it, and those who can plumb the depths will realize that you’re all gas–thick, heavy gas.

6. Preaching a sermon

When you’re telling a story about a submarine captain who wants to escape an evil empire, don’t stop every few pages and inform us of the flaws in said empire’s political theory. Show me bad things happening. When the aliens have destroyed our major cities and blown up the White House, don’t have the president deliver a syrupy speech about how we’re all Americans now–unless you’ve hired Morgan Freeman to play the president. If you must give a speech, watch Lt. Col. Frank Slade’s near the end of Scent of a Woman. The art of oratory and the art of giving good sermons can be learned, but until you do so, just tell a good story, and let the actions and motivations of the characters tell me what the point is.

Those are things that make a bad book. What makes a book good? Sorry, there’s no magic formula for that. Avoiding the faults that make for bad writing is just the first step. But either way, I’ll read what you’ve written, and I’ll work with you–if you’re willing to go through the process that is needed to make good writing. Until then, keep reading, keep writing, and keep submitting.

One thought on “What I Want to Read

  1. Pingback: Why I Like Science Fiction | oghmacreative

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