Shaken Author Syndrome

Old enemy, New victim - by Tony Matelli

Maybe it would be better to title this post – The Things Other Authors Do That Make Me Want to Grab Them and Shake Them.

Quick disclaimer – it is not my intention in this post to lessen the importance of shaken syndromes and rest assured, no authors were shaken during the process of this writing.

A writer reviewing the work of other writers is on shaky ground. I admit that I don’t read the way I used to before I had struggled through the many hours it has taken to plan, write, revise and edit two novels. But when I read with reviewing in mind, I try to read as a reader, not a writer. I think about the genre the author has listed the book under and I read with that context in mind. I don’t expect a romance to be a literary novel or a thriller to be a comedy.

Though I’ve said this before, I think it bears repeating. I would never claim any kind of expert status as a writer. But I’ve been reading novels since I was eleven years old and I do feel I’m as close to being an expert reader as I’ll ever be.

So – lengthy preamble or what? What follows is an abridged list of the rants that have never made it into my reviews. I either don’t review the book because I can’t give it four or five stars on Amazon or I let a particular rant go because the book turns out to be so much more than that one thing.

Getty Villa - Bruce Witzel photo

Okay, here goes. The use of an unusual word – use it once and I’m thinking, oh, that’s fresh and new. Use it twice and you’ve disturbed the flow of my reading. Use that word a third time and watch out. I really want to shake you.

Then there is the case of endless pages of dialogue written phonetically to resemble a particular dialect. I get that you want to set a tone. I get that people speak a certain way. Give me a taste of it; go ahead and set the scene with a broad brush stroke. But please, for the love of all that is sacred in writing, do not slap me in the face with this stuff. Or, you guessed it, get over here so I can shake you.

A big rant of mine is irrelevant (to the story) bits and pieces that are clearly the author’s agenda jammed into his or her characters’ mouths. It’s the writer’s job to make the reader believe that every single thing a character says fits with who that character is. I don’t have to like what a character says but I better be able to believe those words would come from that character’s mouth. If not, right – you know the drill – let me shake you.

Information dumps can come in other forms and are no more acceptable to me. Like the chunk of irrelevant material that drops smack dab in the middle of story like a piece of space debris. There was this book I read a while ago. Out of the blue an entire chapter on dog breeding was wedged into the narrative. What the heck – come on over here and let me give you a good shake.

Then there is endless repetition. I read a book in which the author told me so many times in the first chapter that the main character was tired, I thought I would fall asleep myself. How about you just give yourself a shake on that one?

Montreal Metro2

Point of view issues can be problematic. I’ve had a couple of reviews of my books that said my style of writing, with multiple point-of-view characters, results in a complicated and at times fractured narrative. Fair enough. I want the lens focused from a number of directions. But it’s my job to make darn sure that readers are aware of whose point of view they’re reading. Head hopping within paragraphs is a big no-no. Throwing in a sentence that indicates the internal feelings or thoughts of an obviously non-point-of-view character is bad form. Writing an entire book from one person’s point-of-view and then adding in a paragraph or two that switches things up – no, no, no. Do not do this, unless of course you want a good shake.

I don’t want to forget to mention my rant about the police procedural in which the author introduced me to a serial killer and then described this maniac’s crime over and over and over. I get that serial killers kill multiple times. I get that serial killers use the same MO, but seriously? Do you really want to write that grisly scene time and time again? I’ll tell you one thing – I don’t want to read it again and again. Figure out a way to make it fresh or guess what? A good shake is coming your way.

Picasso - Head of Satyr - Bruce Witzel - photoLet’s talk about the likeability of characters. There are no rules that say an author has to write likeable characters. Believable – yes, but likeable – not necessarily. You’re taking a risk, though, if you go out of your way to make your main character totally irritating by repeating and elaborating every bad habit, picky phobia, and selfish trait they possess. I can only take so much of this before I am convinced that you want me to detest this person. After that happens, don’t ask me to feel sympathy for this character’s fate because if you do – that’s right – here comes a good shake.

And another thing about your characters – if you decide to write an elaborate description of a character, tell me what this person thinks and feels and cares about and then you kill this character off after the first chapter – what can I say? Unless this person is coming back as a ghost, shake, shake, shake.

A word about words – they matter. The English language is chock full of words. Have you ever glanced through a Roget’s Thesaurus? That book is thick. Given the number of words a writer has to choose from, answer me this question, please. What were you thinking when you used the same word repeated in every one of your first three sentences? And I’m not talking the regular, run-of-the-mill words that I expect will be repeated. I mean something like using the word freighter three times in a row. I can’t really give you a shake because I didn’t bother to finish your book.

Alright, already. Enough is enough. I’ve ranted on and if you’re still with me, I thank you for your endurance.

Bruce Witzel Photo

Here’s your chance to weigh-in. Though of course you would never give into such a base emotion – what makes you want to shake an author?

A Structural Editing Outline

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Deep into the editing process for The Light Never Lies, I had an idea for getting a better picture of the overall structure of the novel. The book consists of fifty chapters, approximately three to six sections per chapter and about 140,000 words in total. It’s easy for me to lose sight of what’s happening at the beginning of a section or chapter and what happens at the end.

So, here’s my brilliant idea. I created an outline of the entire novel that consists of a page for each chapter. Listed on each chapter page is the first and last line of every section. It took a while to put this together but even as I worked on it, I saw where immediate changes needed to be made.

One chapter got a total rearrangement. Looking at the starting and ending line of each section made it obvious that a middle section needed to be moved to the end for better flow. After the rearrangement, the chapter concluded on a much stronger note.

I was able to pinpoint a couple of problematic point-of-view issues. My novels get in the heads of a number of characters but I try not to head hop in such a way as to confuse the reader. A section usually starts from one character’s perspective and ends that way, as well. Of course there are exceptions – a large gathering might include a few character voices. Studying the starting and ending lines for each section had me patting myself on the back at times for my genius and throwing my hands up in the air, at other times, when I realized that the line that established the essential point-of-view was halfway through the first paragraph instead of right at the beginning.

I had suspected that I had fallen into a lazy habit of ending scenes with people slamming out of doors. Alas, it was true. With my handy-dandy document printed and in front of me, I underlined the actual number of times this happened through the entire novel – yes, it was way too many. I made the appropriate changes.

I haven’t yet begun to mine the information contained in this fifty page document. Last night, I was able to pinpoint the exact spot where every major story revelation occurred. I asked myself if the timing was appropriate. I woke up in the middle of the night knowing an additional section was needed, near the end of the novel, to reinforce an epiphany for one of the main characters.

Here’s an interesting aside. It is only at this stage, that the strength of the overarching themes in my writing become clear to me. The story is revealed to me in ways similar to how it is revealed to the reader.

Just as an outline of major points helped guide the initial creation of this story, an outline of how each section begins and ends helps me to see where the structure needs reinforcement. I know this idea can’t have originated with me. After all, there is nothing new under the sun. But, I did think it up on my own and I’m thrilled by the manner in which this structural editing outline has become another valuable tool in my writing workbox.

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Brit says – seems like a brilliant idea to me, Grandma. Now let’s go for a walk.In love