A few decades ago comedian Chevy Chase starred in the movie Funny Farm. A main component of the plot was that Chevy’s character was a journalist who retired to write a novel. In the film, he takes his wife to a hotel where he makes her read his completed work while he watches. When she reaches the end, she cries. The writing is so bad that she cannot believe they traded their dreams in on his potential writing career. Chevy’s character tries to explain to her “why” it is good and “why” it is funny, and finally just argues that she doesn’t understand “good” writing.
I don’t think any writer sets out to pen a bad or even just semi-good story. It’s not as if the general public is storming the kingdom for additional reading material. A book isn’t like making a knock-off of some famous designer brand. It takes hard work and a writer puts his ego and his soul on the line. But as we know a dream and an idea are not the only ingredients to a well written novel. I’ve written lines that upon rereading make me cringe. Still many published books are simply unreadable or at least un-finishable (Yeah I make up words).
Joining me today for Insights is blogger and author of the Amsterdam Assassins series, Martyn V Halm, to discuss the deal breakers in books. Those little things that make even the most committed reader close the cover and say, “no more, please, no more.”
WIDW: I know it’s not intended to be humorous but your blog reviews of unreadable books are hilarious. In fairness, however I think you go above and beyond in offering evidence for your conclusions. Why take the time?
MVH: Short version: I dislike lazy writing. Long version: I think authors should be held accountable when they try to cut corners when writing, researching, and publishing. I read many books that start off quite well, but quickly take a nosedive in one of these areas. Often the writing has not yet matured, which is shown in clunky awkward prose. Research is glossed over because ‘hey, it’s fiction’, but sloppy research ruins the verisimilitude.
WIDW: Let’s take a brief pause and look up the definition of verisimilitude…okay, back to you Martyn.
MVH: I like to think the author knows what he is writing about. If an experienced assassin kills someone by throwing a battery-operated radio in their bath, I know the author doesn’t know the first thing about what’s necessary to electrocute someone. And publishing, well, if your book is badly formatted and edited, it just shouldn’t be published. By ‘publicly shaming’ an author who messes up all three of these issues, I hope to educate inexperienced authors to avoid these pitfalls and only publish when their work meets a certain standard.
WIDW: Defending the work and a desire to “explain” our writing choices is a natural response. What do you think a writer should take away from a critical review?
MVH: Well, like you said, writing reviews, especially thoughtful critical reviews, takes time and effort. So the first thing going through an author’s mind should be gratitude towards the reviewer to take their precious time and effort to craft a review. We all have a limited amount of time on this earth and we had better not squander it. Second, seriously consider the negative aspects mentioned by the reviewer. Apparently, the reviewer cared enough about the book to write a review, so care enough to read the review carefully and see if any of it helps to improve your future work.
WIDW: Just because I love movies doesn’t mean I should make one (okay I did and it was bad), but novel writing is open to anyone with a computer. But writing well is difficult and few of us are truly masters. Why do you think that in today’s environment so many people believe they can write a novel?
MVH: It’s not just today’s environment. Many people believe they can write a novel, because they got a B on an essay in college. Usually, if they were persistent, they would print out their manuscript and send it to a publisher, where it would languish in a slush pile. Same with people writing ‘a letter to the editor’ in the hope that their opinion made it into a column at a magazine. The difference is that now, if you want to spout your opinion, there’s blogs and other social media where you can scream into the void. And you can circumvent the slush pile by publishing your manuscript yourself on Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, whatever, and, presto, you’re a published author.
WIDW: I’m not suggesting a writer necessarily needs to, but there are masters degrees in creative writing. What writing tools, based on your experience, should every author have before he types, Once Upon a Time…?
MVH: I think the primary tool of the writer is words, so you need a large vocabulary. To acquire a large vocabulary, you have to love words and read voraciously. Reading ‘as a writer’ also helps you recognise structure and plot in novels, and how other writers build a character in a limited amount of words. As to writing itself, I think there is only one real ‘rule’ and that is ‘you have to engage the reader’. Many writers have written essays and books on how to write fiction, but even in non-fiction, if you fail to engage the reader, none of the other ‘rules’ like ‘show, don’t tell’ matter. If you’d ask me, how do you engage a reader, I’d say, make the reader curious. Curiosity is one of humanity’s prime motivators. Many inventions originated with the inventor’s curiosity. So give readers something that invokes their curiosity and try to string out that curiosity by providing answers to their questions that only create more questions.
WIDW: I wrote probably a hundred short stories and countless business documents before I wrote a novel. Do you think would-be authors should practice smaller pieces before attempting a novel?
MVH: Novel-length stories suit me best as a writer, so I started writing long manuscripts. Short stories are structured differently, so they require another approach. It’s not like a short story is a condensed novel, or a novel is a padded short story.
After I’d written Reprobate, the first novel in the Amsterdam Assassin Series, I got the idea of publishing short stories between the novels to keep readers engaged in the series. As subject for the short stories, I decided to delve into the past of Katla Sieltjes, the freelance assassin protagonist, and write about the contract killings she’d executed before the events of the first novel. That’s how the Katla KillFiles were born.
Some people will be drawn to writing short pieces with a simple plot, a limited amount of characters and only one or two story lines, others will lean towards longer works with more characters and story lines, and a more convoluted plot. Both have their advantages and drawbacks.
WIDW: Readers are fair minded and many will forgive the occasional typo or mis-constructed sentence. What are the big “deal-breakers” for you?
MVH: I think I’m getting harder to please as I grow older. My time is limited and I will never be able to read all the books currently in existence, not to mention the ones that haven’t been published yet. So my taste has become more discerning and, where I used to finish a book that was hard to read, if a book disappoints me, I don’t finish it. The main deal breaker is lazy writing, which shows in a variety of ways. I have some pet peeves, mostly dealing with huge gobs of back-story that drag down the pace. Another is misrepresented facts. If something is verifiable, make sure you verify it. If you don’t, someone will, and throw it at your feet.
WIDW: I think once you’re famous, readers will forgive errors that they would crush a Indie Author for making. Case in point, Stephen King’s Under the Dome. In my copy (it may have been corrected), the main character’s army rank changes. What is the biggest “small” thing in a story that drives you mad?
MVH: That army rank change sounds like a simple continuity error, and I’ve seen plenty of those in work by Indie Authors without ‘crushing’ them. I think most small errors will be forgiven if your writing is engaging. What irks me probably won’t annoy the average reader. I’m used to self-edit my work before I give it over to editors, so I will spot small errors that will constantly undermine my ‘suspension of disbelief’. Example: a writer used a ‘pitcher of coffee’. While pitchers, carafes, jugs, decanters, and coffee pots are all related, they are not synonymous. Pitcher is for beer or water, carafe is for water or wine, jug is pretty much any cold liquid, decanter is for wine, and a coffee or tea pot is for coffee or tea. The worst error I read was about a decapitated head. To decapitate means ‘to remove the head’. So you can have a decapitated body and a severed head, but not a decapitated head. That just makes no sense. Also, people rubbing their stomach. The stomach is one of your intestines, you have to cut open your belly to rub your stomach. I’ve seen descriptions where women admired a man’s taut stomach and I would get this mental image of a man crucified and disemboweled, with his distended stomach peeping from the yawning wound.
WIDW: I was in a Goodreads forum and we were discussing our own weaknesses in writing. Specifically the overuse of certain words and types of punctuation. Mine was “like,” another writer realized that she was always “realizing” something in her story? Do you have a “machine gun” word of your own? And which ones drive you mad in other books?
MVH: I have a whole list of ‘crutch words’ that I use when I self-edit books, using the search and replace function to stamp them out: a number of (change to “several”), about (e.g. “about three feet tall”), about to, actually, almost, alright (should be “all right”), and, anyway, as, been, began/beginning to, being, end (result), even, felt/feeling/feels, gerunds (nouns ending in “ing” at beginning of sentence), going to, got/get, had (had been)/have/had/has, -ing to (double verbs), just, laughed, like, -ly (adverbs), manage to/managed to, notice (verb), of, of course,, okay, over (to convey quantity – use “more than”), pretty (as a qualifier, not meaning “beautiful”), really, realize, seem/seems/seemed/seemingly, smiled, so, some, somehow, started to, still, such, that, then, to, very, was/were/is/are (passive voice), well (in dialogue), and I probably forgot a few…
WIDW: Yep, several of these are “Pretty Much” on my list. We could argue all day over the difference between exposition and info dumps in a story. How do you define the latter?
MVH: Exposition will be short and slow down the pace briefly. Often it will be something the author wants to make clear to the reader, so they plonk it down in a bit of dialogue. “Betty, don’t forget, Reginald, your brother who is currently serving in Vietnam, will return home tomorrow.” Betty would be an awful sister if she forgot who Reginald was and what he was doing and when he’d return from a tour of duty.
Info dumps are extreme amounts of exposition that bring the story to a grinding halt. A dump is an overabundance of information without direct relevance to the story. The worst version, to me, is the one where a person in authority picks up a personnel folder and starts interviewing the protagonist citing directly from the file about details the author deems necessary for the reader to understand the story. Often it reads like a resume, which you don’t want to put in fiction. “I read here you graduated summa cum laude from West Point in 1989.” “I did? Wow, I’d completely forgotten about that.”
I consider exposition a minor infraction, but info dumps insult the reader’s intelligence.
WIDW: Information dumps are an important but controversial topic. One that even reviewers don’t agree on. I have an entire chapter in my first novel that one reviewer who allegedly is an “expert,” called an info dump. The Kirkus reviewer opinion of the very same section was, “As he conveys the national scope and consequences of the outbreak, he describes events such as the secession of Texas with compact excellence.” I don’t think it means we can fall back on “it’s a matter of opinion” but instead be self-critical of our goal and the manner in which we convey information. In reviewing others work, does it ever enlighten you to ways to improve your own work?
MVH: In many senses you can learn more from what *not* to do in bad prose than you can learn from reading the classics. Whenever I read something and I want to put down the book, I re-read the last bits and wonder why my attention flags. So in my own work, I try to avoid ‘boring’ scenes, although my idea of boring might differ from that of the reader.
WIDW: Honestly, I have become a better-educated writer reading blogs and GR comments. (Except that I still like modifiers like “better” educated). For example, I read a bloggers post on the common use of “they” instead of “him/her.” Still, I wouldn’t send my novel out into the world without an editor. What is the worst criticism you ever received for your own work and did it make a difference in your future writing?
MVH: I received a lot of constructive criticism, none of which I consider ‘bad’. However, I do my beta-testing before I publish something. If you publish something, it should be finished. With every new book I publish, I have to update the published books so they show the new book in the back matter. You know, ‘Also available in this series…’. When I do that, I also update the files. So if a reader spots a typo and sends me feedback, I will correct the typo for the next update, but I’d be mortified if there would be some glaring plot hole or continuity error. I aim for error-free books, which is virtually impossible, so that keeps me humble.
WIDW: It’s not always easy to find one, but I am sold on using beta-readers before publishing. I think it makes for better work. And speaking of work, where can readers find you?
MVH: I have a website called Tao of Violence [http://tao-of-violence.weebly.com/], and I have a blog where I write articles on writing, Katla’s Amsterdam, and book reviews [http://amsterdamassassin.wordpress.com/]. The Amsterdam Assassin Series is available in e-book only at every major retailer, Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, Barnes & Noble. The first pages of my blog and website contain direct links to the books.
WIDW: Martyn, thanks for joining us today for this discussion and while I love your critical reviews, please stay the heck away from my books LOL.
About the Amsterdam Assassin Series
The Amsterdam Assassin Series revolves around freelance assassin and corporate troubleshooter Katla Sieltjes. Under the name Loki Enterprises, Katla specialises in disguising homicide and providing permanent solutions for both individuals and corporations.
The first novel in the Amsterdam Assassin Series, Reprobate, marks the first time Katla breaks one of her own rules, and how this affects both her personal and business life.
The second novel, Peccadillo, shows what happens when you attempt a hostile takeover of an assassin’s legitimate business cover.
The third novel, Rogue, has Katla taking a contract she shouldn’t have taken, which brings her to the attention of international intelligence communities.
A fourth novel, working title Ghosting, is in development and slated for release in 2014.
While the novels are stand-alone and can be read out of order, reading them in chronological order might be more enjoyable.
Between the publications of the novels, the Amsterdam Assassin Series will also feature stand-alone short stories, the Katla KillFiles. The Katla KillFiles chronologically precede the novels in the Amsterdam Assassin Series. Each KillFile features Katla executing one of her contracts before the events in Reprobate, and, while not mandatory reading, each KillFile provides insight both in Katla’s work methods and skill, and additional background information in her character and personal history. The KillFiles can be read out of order, as the contracts are random samples from her past.
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