Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Short Treatise on What Gets Published

For the past two years (nearly), I've been submitting queries and, in a couple of cases, the manuscript of my historical novel to publishers and agents in an attempt to find someone who will bring it to the reading world. This post is not meant to talk about that experience but to talk about an apparent inconsistency in the way publishers apply the "rules of good writing," based on a published novel I just finished.

The book in question is The Falconer's Knot by Mary Hoffman, published in 2007 by Bloomsbury. (And in the interest of full disclosure as required by the government, I bought this book at my favorite used-book store). I had read a synopsis of the book online while shopping for something else, thought it sounded interesting, and even put it on my "wish list" for my favorite online bookstore. When I found the used copy, I was quite excited and pleased to have the chance to read it.

Excitement and pleasure turned rather quickly to disappointment and disbelief. I'm sure my husband got tired of hearing me say each night, "I can't believe this book was published." Let me temper what I'm about to say by saying it's not that I don't think the book has any merits at all; there were some characters who had potential to be sympathetic, and the idea for the plot was interesting. But this book also violated some of the most basic (in my opinion) rules of good writing without having any other qualities that made me willing to forgive the rule-breaking. Let me review some of the lapses that bothered me most.

1) Maintain a consistent point of view. Generally speaking, storytellers are advised to choose a "viewpoint character" and then to tell the story through the eyes of that character. All action in the story is interpreted through that character's mindset, even when the character interprets things in the wrong way (which I think provides some fun for the reader who can see the flaws in the interpretation). Granted, an author doesn't always have to limit him/herself to a single character's viewpoint; I can think of some books I've enjoyed that have had two viewpoint characters. There is also that third-person omniscient viewpoint that is sometimes used (but less effectively, for reasons I will discuss later).

This book had multiple viewpoint characters. In fact, it seemed that any time the plot needed to have something explained that the main character wouldn't know about, that the voice of the story shifted over to the thoughts of some character who could explain it - even if those characters were only minor players in the story. I'm not going to take the time to go back and count every instance, but I can think of about 10 different characters the book utilized as the viewpoint character. I personally found that unsettling, because it led to what I see as the second broken "good writing" rule.

2) Characters should be well-developed, fully-rounded people. This may be what disappointed me most about the book, because there were some good characters outlined in the story. The young nobleman who is wrongly accused of murder is compelling. The young woman who is forced into a convent by her cheap brother is very compelling. Yet as a reader I didn't really connect with either of them, because there is a distance that exists from the way the story is told. These two characters, who ought to be the heart of the story, get lost in the shuffle of all the other characters who vied for space on the stage. At one point, I found myself thinking, "What a waste of a wonderful character!" I would have loved to get to know Chiara (the unwilling novice) more intimately, to have been able to get inside her head and feel what it was like to think you are trapped inside this stifling, limited life when there is this attractive and interesting young man in the friary next door who doesn't seem to be any more committed to the religious life than you are. OK, I'll admit my prejudices; I'm a sucker for character-driven stories. This book is more of a plot-driven story. But even that aspect of the book breaks the good writing rules.

3) The plot should be logical and reasonable; it should never make the reader say, "WHAAAAAT????" I don't want to give away plot points. I'll just say that the entire story was built around a series of murders and the effort to find who was committing the murders - sort of a historical thriller. Except it wasn't that thrilling. The two characters who were under suspicion from everyone else in the book - the young nobleman and his mentor at the friary - obviously are not the people who committed the murders. There is no suspense that maybe these guys we like are not who they seem to be, that they are hiding something from us. There aren't even good clues that we as readers can put together to have the story as a "whodunit." About three-fourths of the way through, there is a single sentence that tells who committed the first murder, clearing the young nobleman. The other series of murders are solved in the last couple of chapters, when the young nobleman and his mentor suddenly realize (two dangerous words for good writing) who has committed the crimes. And the culprit is a minor character who has made maybe four appearances in the book otherwise. Just disappointing.

The romance plot is not much better. We know the young nobleman and the unwilling novice will end up together, and they do. But it really stretches the imagination that he would ask her to marry him and become his baronessa when they really haven't talked to each other all that much, constrained as they are by the separation between the friars and the nuns. The mentor and his former lover get together too, even though it requires him to give up his religious vows - and he's given a very convenient "out" to do that.

That leads to the last broken rule:

4) Show, don't tell. Long passages of exposition that tell us how people feel and why they are doing what they do are to be avoided - at least according to everything I've ever read about writing well. There is so much more emotional punch to watching characters act out a scene and listening to their dialogue than having the author/narrator tell us how the characters feel. Take the young novice, for example. Instead of telling us that she thinks the young nobleman is attractive, it would be so much more effective in terms of the story's impact to tell us she feels jittery when he's around, that she can see him from the corner of her eye past her white veil even when she's not supposed to be looking, that her heart races each time he speaks. Don't tell us she's attracted to him; give us the symptoms and let us figure it out. That's a lot more fun for a reader, in my opinion. Again, I think this problem relates to the use of too many viewpoint characters (that third-person omniscient viewpoint) and the fact that book is plot-driven; when trying to juggle so many people, it's hard to slow down and let us watch the story develop. It's easier to just tell us what's happening and move the story along.

All that leads me back to my frustrated question. How did this book get published? The rules I've given above are staples on the blogs of agents who are telling people how to improve their writing to increase their chances of catching someone's eye. If those rules were applied consistently, I honestly don't see how this book made it out of the slush pile. The only thing I can give as a possible reason is that the book cover says, right under the author's name, "Author of the STRAVAGANZA series." Hmmmmm.....I haven't read that series, but from what I understand by reading descriptions of it, it is a fantasy series with a really intriguing hook - a 21st-century boy with cancer is magically transported to a world similar to 16th-century Venice, where he is not ill and becomes involved in a struggle between good and evil. Sounds like it had some success and popularity. I bet The Falconer's Knot was never even in a slush pile. Since the Stravagnza series was catchy enough to get someone's eye, Mary Hoffman had her "in" -- and no one was holding her to the same standards for later works.

I'm beginning to think being published is just a crap shoot. Sometimes it's about good writing; sometimes it's about a catchy idea; sometimes it's about something that will sell; sometimes it's about something that will sell a lot. But good writing is not necessarily a prerequisite, no matter what the agent blogs say.