Writers- Honor Your Contracts

January 21, 2011

I took a day or two off to read. While writing is inordinately satisfying, I get carried away and forget to make time to appreciate other people’s writing.

I immersed myself in ‘The House at Riverton”. It was a good read. I have problems with stories told as memories – it is beyond belief that a very junior housemaid would always be on hand to hear plot-important conversations, or that she would remember word for word so many conversations after 80 years had passed. But that is a necessity of the style, so I can live with it. What is not part of the style is lapsing into the heads of other characters. That bothered me.

What really bothered me was the ending. After leading up to it carefully, with well-placed hints and nice flow, the ending was a shambles. The characters acted completely outside their well-established modes, and then, instead of fleeing as fast as possible, they stood about waiting to be discovered so that a tragedy could ensue. Grrrrr!

And if that wasn’t bad enough, a sweet little ‘coincidence’ of relationships in the present to the characters of the past is insane. If the movie writer had indeed researched as carefully as she was indicated to have done, she would have known her relationship with the family she was writing about. Questions of inheritance also rose in my mind. Given his specifically described determination to avoid scandal, the apparent father would never have disowned the child – who should have then inherited her mother’s estate. But didn’t. So who did inherit, and how?

You should never leave the reader with holes that, once they start poking, only lead to more and bigger holes.

I once read a marvelously absorbing story  – three volumes of it. Careful, detailed, elaborate depiction of the protagonist’s life. And then at the end, the author suddenly reverted to fairy tale: “Some say she did this. Some say she did that. We’ll never know the real story.”

WHAT?

A book is a contract you make with your readers. You don’t suddenly change the rules. You don’t introduce abrupt ambiguities at the end that cannot be supported by the characters and plot-lines you’ve established over several hundred pages. You don’t insult them with cop-out endings. If you truly can’t decide how to end it, flip a friggin’ coin. But never ever write a cop-out.

Another recent read – one of the tiny genre of Austen-or- Edwardian -but-with-magic romances. I could never decide if the author thought she was writing a spoof or  a straight story. Several Austen plots thrown together with modern embellishment in the behavior of the characters, but then at the end – the climax scene reads as if everyone imbibed LSD Kool-Aid. Totally bizarre behavior.  Completely unreasonable actions and comments. And a smugly-sweet ‘epilogue’:  “We’ve been so happy for 50 years and we’ve done so many wonderful things, but that’s another story.”

Is it that conclusions are that hard to write? Or is it that the authors in these examples were trying to throw in a bunch of stuff they hadn’t been able to work in earlier, or wanted to pave the way for sequels, or what?

I panic after reading books like these. Have I made my characters act or speak inconsistently with their natures? Have I introduced scenes or allusions that are out-of-place? Have I resorted to ‘hand-waving’ instead of consistent explanation?

Even sci fi and fantasy require a predictable structure. If magic exists in the world one creates, its rules must be absolute, and revealed either out-right or by implication. You do not just wave an omnipotent hand and say ‘let there be whatever I’m in the mood for in this scene’. If you premise faster-than-light travel, then you can’t have a culture that doesn’t have any better data-storage than a cd.  You don’t have to explain the physics, but you do have to be consistent.

If a character has to act in a certain way at the conclusion that is contradictory to the way they have been presented, you need to go back and rewrite – show the character developing this personality trait. You cannot in any fairness to your readers simply decide to change the premises you’ve established.

Now – to be fair to the above criticized books. I have discovered that it is extremely hard to catch all these little points as I write. As I edit, I can still slide past them, although I’m beginning to see a mental agitation-pattern that I think is my brain saying ‘Look! Right there! Hand waving!” Now I am training myself to stop instantly and really look at what I’ve said, not just gloss over it with ‘hey, it’s no biggie.”

It is big. I want to create a world that won’t jar the reader, that won’t push them out because something is unexplained, or doesn’t fit what I’ve said before. Once I get them into the world I create, while they’re in it, I want them to feel it is real.

I’ve always wanted well-written books. Genre never mattered as much as quality. But I used to be able to accept more than I can now. I used to slide through books, knowing I’d reread them if I liked them, and get more detail next time around. I didn’t question unless something really stuck out, like bad grammar or totally ridiculous characters.

I will here mention again “Troll” by Sinisalo. Entirely satisfying. A slightly ambiguous ending, but meticulous build-up of hints to give ideas about that ending. No one acted contrary to their described character, none of the scenes rang false, or even questionable. Her twist at the end set the seal on a wonderful story.

So a down side of writing is that I am unable to enjoy as many books now due to a more critically assessing reading style.

The pluses: I appreciate true craft far more than I used to, and,  hopefully I will make fewer egregious errors in my own writing. It is a heartfelt hope.

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