Best Seller Vs. Best Read
I have not made an index of the Reviews series yet, but you should be able to find the previous ones with a search on this blog.
This is a review, but it dovetails into many topics we've examined under a microscope of such high power that most people find it boring, or incomprehensible. Most of what we've discussed in this Tuesday Alien Romance blog is exciting only to people who have attempted to write a story or novel.
The main advice to begining or aspiring writers is, "Just Write!"
Until you get your head into a place where your fingers will cooperate and just make some words, you simply can not learn this stuff. After you've done some writing (the worse the product the better it augers for your career), then and only then are you able to comprehend these craft topics.
If you just want to enjoy a good read, I have three novels here for you today. If you are up to reading to learn how to structure your story, not just a story, reading these novels will constitute a giant leap.
None are romances.
If you aspire to a career in Romance Novel writing, reading books like these and analyzing why they work for some readers but not for you, is the most efficient way to get a solid hold on how to craft your own, personal, novel.
It is efficent, but boring.
Two of these novels are not hot, not steamy, not sweaty, and not sweet.
That is why you, who want to write great Romance, can learn from reading them.
Novels that you get caught up in are necessary fodder for new writers. They show don't tell what you want to do with your life.
Novels you love twang a response from your heartstrings -- and you aspire to twang other readers' heartstrings in the same "key" or "chord."
You learn to do that fastest by reading through, all the way to the end, novels you absolutely hate -- or better yet, novels that absolutely bore you to death.
Those boring novels will make you rear up on your hind legs and scream, "NOT LIKE THAT -- LIKE THIS!!!" And you will blast out a true Master Work and found a career.
Many who read a best selling Romance react just like that to the sappy, sacharine, helpless-heroine, befuddled couple, victim-of-bodily-lust Characters who can't help themselves or exercise good judgement.
And they produce novels such as two of the ones I have here from really giant Publishers of Best Sellers.
Taken together, these three novels will teach you all about expository lumps, worldbuilding, and THEME-CHARACTER INTEGRATION.
Last week, we considered Creating a Prophet Character as Part 11 of Theme-Character Integration.
The week previously, we looked at Creating A Prophecy as Part 17 of Theme-Worldbuilding Integration series.
Index posts listing Theme-Character posts and Theme-Worldbuilding posts are here:
The index to Theme-Worldbuilding Posts is here:
As you can see, we've been chewing away at these complex topics for years. It all remains an amorphous sea of hazy ideas in the back of your mind until you put it into operation. The first step in implementing these concepts and views is simply to read sets of novels such as the set we'll talk about here.
Yes, it is often like reading textbooks in school.
But in this case instead of reading to pass a test some teacher makes up and holds as a club over your head to bludgeon your imagination into line with the "approved" academic opinion (usually found in Cliff Notes), this time you will read for the purpose of creating the exact emotional response in your readers that you, personally, want to create.
This is learnable stuff. It has been said anyone who can write a literate English (or whichever language) sentence can write fiction and sell it. That is not art. It is craft. Art can't be learned. Craft can. But it is not usually fun.
The "steamy romance" sub-genre often fails to attract a wider audience because of faulty theme-character integration. Faulty theme-character integration turns a perfectly logical, completely spiritual Soul Mates Romance into pure porn that just does not "work" for any reader looking for a story.
Without theme-character integration, you put your reader into a frying pan not a sauna. They don't sweat; they flinch.
Switching point of view -- as a means of conveying information to the reader because the writer has been too lazy to work through the boring business of learning the craft -- produces more flinches and glazed-eyed bordom than panting and sweating through the suspense and release. Adding sex scenes doesn't cure the problem. Helpless protagonists overwhelmed by lust don't cure the problem.
So many writers reach for worldbuilding details to cure their problem with readers not understanding what the story is about.
The more worldbuilding detail you lard on top of a faulty theme-character integration problem, the worse the novel becomes.
When you fall in love with a fictional world you have built (even if it is a view of our real world that your readers see on the TV News), and that world is the reason you want to write this novel so you create Characters to tell the story of that world, you will very likely produce a first draft full of expository lumps.
Two skills necessary to eliminate expository lumps ...
... are Depiction and Theme-Plot Integration. Plot is pure show-don't-tell narrative of deeds and events. Depiction can include description.
So, proceding on the assumption you have read and absorbed those previous posts on the craft of fiction writing, I have a book here from a major publisher, a novel that enraptures a reader looking for international intrigue with sympathetic characters (as opposed to villain vs villain and the most viciious one wins). It is a best seller from a St. Martin's Press imprint called Griffin.
On Amazon it has 4 and a half stars from over 700 readers.
It pleases READERS -- which could be why this editor chose to accept the manuscript in its current condition. If it were a Romance, or Science Fiction (or even Western, or Police Procedural) it would have been sent back for rewrite - maybe two or three more times.
Note it is a novel in a best selling SERIES -- so there could have been time pressure to get the thing into print with the shoddy patch job that screams out to the practiced eye (but would not be noticeable to the reader!).
I don't know the editor who bought this novel personally, but I have sold two novels to St. Martins as hardcover originals now in Kindle (and Kindle Unlimited), new Trade Paperback, and the St. Martin's Hardcover is still available ...
...and so I have learned vast respect for their editorial staff. None of them would have let me get away with the clumsy expository lumps in SAVING SOPHIE.
Read SAVING SOPHIE with the blog entries I linked above in mind, but mark and analyze the spots where your eyes glaze over and your mind wanders. There are a couple spots where some readers will set the book aside and never pick it up again.
Find those spots. You can't find them when reading in your favorite genre. They leap out at you clearly when reading in a genre you just don't particularly care for but will read "if it's a good story."
Most readers will read anything "if it's good." They have no idea what they mean by good except how it makes them feel.
SAVING SOPHIE is a "feel good" novel -- the whole novel consists of the classic opening scene of a movie - SAVE THE CAT.
The title is the THEME -- "saving." Sophie is a 10 year old girl (mark that age because the next item to contrast with this novel is about a 10 year old in a similar situation.)
After you've read SAVING SOPHIE, keep reading my commentary here.
SAVING SOPHIE is set in a series, but reads just fine as a stand-alone.
That's a good trick, but it actually is not well pulled off. My editors at St. Martin would not have allowed this error.
SAVING SOPHIE is billed as a novel in a detective series where the lead Characters are amateur detectives, Liam Taggart and Catherine Lockhart.
What's wrong with that?
Nothing -- you know I love series! I have pointed you to Faye Kellerman's Decker/Lazarus series that started with her award winning THE RITUAL BATH, which is actually as much Romance as Mystery -- and with real appeal to science fiction readers.
I've read every one in that series, and loved them all, but the "Romance" genre aspect disappears into the domesticity of raising kids in a policeman's household.
And I rave about Gini Koch's similar series with more Fantasy/Paranormal/Science Fiction worldbuilding, ALIEN.
So my criticism is not a question of taste, but of simple mechanical craftsmanship.
SAVING SOPHIE reads well if regarded as an early draft or as fan-fiction of the intrigue drama genre.
The editor would have had to STOP publishing and START teaching writing to bring this novel up to my standards. Editors are not paid to teach writing craft, and most of them don't know it (Fred Pohl, who bought my first story for a magazine and later bought my first non-fiction book, STAR TREK LIVES! being a prime example of one who does.) But editors are not paid to teach. They are paid to "develop" writers.
This editor at St. Martin's Griffin imprint is a master developer. Just look at the Amazon profile for Rondald H. Balson to see that.
So what would I have preferred to see fixed in this excellent novel?
The expository lumps. Faye Kellerman doesn't do expository lumps, but her husband is a best sellding novelist so probably clued her in to how to avoid lumps at the outline stage.
Gini Koch doesn't do expository lumps (and has finally tamed her dialogue issues).
Both these series are similar to SAVING SOPHIE, and don't have this problem.
The Kellerman series is about a husband-wife detective team with the wife good at detecting but not employed as an actual police detective.
The Koch series is about a human and an Alien-living-on-Earth who become a kick-ass mobile combat unit turned politicians, and the human woman is one of the finest intuitive detectives ever to grace the pages of a novel series.
So my criticism of SAVING SOPHIE is not a matter of taste.
I saw a tweet the other day on Twitter from a novelist who wondered why she came out of a movie theater rewriting the script when she doesn't want to be a script writer. I replied that is what writers do that annoys people!
And that is why I have so many problems with SAVING SOPHIE as a novel (not as a story!). It occurs in our real world, and accurately depicts the international situation as it is unfolding in 2017. One day it will read as a Historical that is uncannily accurate, like the Rabbi Small Mysteries I've pointed you to.
How do these writers avoid expository lumps?
It really is very easy.
When you find you must write page after huge block paragraph filled pages of EXPLANATION before you can TELL THE STORY (i.e. start the plot rolling), when the world you have built (or researched for a Historical or Contemporary set in the real world) is more interesting to you than the Characters -- you will commit the cardinal sin of the Expository Lump.
In your heart, you know the reader will not get the emotional impact you intend if the reader doesn't know what you know -- all of what you know.
Before you can tell the story you must explain the world.
When that happens to you, you can be certain your novel is lacking an important character -- the one that shows (depicts) the information in that expository lump, and brings it alive to your reader, makes that "information" into intuitive and personal understanding rather than a list of facts to be explained.
One of the reasons for exposition in novels is to CONDENSE. In commercial fiction, length matters for reasons having nothing to do with Art and everything to do with market.
Exposition burns through material much faster than show-don't-tell.
But people believe what they figure out for themselves, not what they are told.
You can't evoke emotion in your readers. The readers must do that for themselves.
So you must break up your expository lumps.
One method of doing that can be learned from any or all of the novels by Andre Norton (you can get omnibus ebooks of her works on Amazon). By highlighting in different colors (which you can do on Kindle) each sentence's components by type (Exposition, Narrative, Dialogue, Description) you can see how to orchestrate using these tools and keep the plot moving while the reader is unaware of learning anything from the exposition (but absorbs it unconsciously.)
So mere word-work can expunge most expository lumps. Failing to use this 4-part harmony tool is just plain lazy writer syndrom and has no place in commercial fiction.
But editors don't get paid to teach that word work. They may "catch" a violation here and there, but will flag only the worst to avoid messing with the writer's style and voice.
That basic word-work is where "style" and "voice" are conveyed. Only practice can bring those elements up to snuff.
But a severe case of Expository Lump as you find in the first third of SAVING SOPHIE has another, structural source.
There is a Character Missing.
So the writer sat one of his Detective Pair down with an Expert and wrote out in dialogue all the exposition he was sure the reader didn't know and had to know to understand the motives of the other Characters.
I peg this as a Craft failure and simply as a beginning writer not knowing the techniques needed to avoid the Lumps, as pure laziness caused by publishing deadline and length pressure. Rewriting to add the correct Character would have taken maybe a year's work.
This is the kind of Character who has to be built in from the first 1-paragraph summary Idea.
In the case of SAVING SOPHIE, my opinion is that the missing Character is The Enemy of The Adversary.
In this novel, The Adversary is the grandfather of Sophie, the 10 year old girl. He is a big-wig Palestinian with pride of heritage, very Islamic (as opposed to the ordinary Muslims). Sophie's mother has died - (we later find out she was murdered by her father, this Grandfather). The American court awarded custody of Sophie to her American father, with visiting rights to the Palestinian Grandfather. One day, as part of an intricade, decades in the making plot, the Grandfather absconds with Sophie, takes her to the Palestinian part of the city of Hebron.
The Grandmother is depicted as a non-entity, totally squashed by her husband, worse than a slave.
But her daughter, Sophie's mother, is depicted as a woman with gumption who is master of her own mind and opinions. That is, ultimately, why the grandfather killed his own daughter (she married her American Soul Mate).
The missing Character in this story-structure is the Palestinian enemy of the Grandfather.
The author goes to great expository lengths laced with contrived dialogue to convince the reader that SOME (probably most) Palestinians are not Terrorists, disapprove of Terrorism as a political tool, and loathe the kind of Muslim who thinks they have a duty to kill people.
And that fact just happens to be true in our everyday reality. The trouble makers are few, the trouble they make is huge.
Instead of lecturing and posturing on this topic, the author should have used a show-don't-tell technique to create a Character who is the enemy of the Grandfather/kidnapper/terrorist. The Grandfather is part of a plot to kill thousands of Israelis with a bacterial infection, which he used to kill his daughter for her crime of marriage to the man of her choice.
The detective pair is hired to bust this international terrorist plot.
And incidentally, also to solve the mystery of what happened to millions of dollars during an international bank transfer.
The problem with this marvelously intricate (and completely logical, well constructed plot) is that it is NOT the "story of the detective couple."
The detective couple are supposed to be the main characters. They don't even belong in the story, never mind in the plot. They are external to the drama. SAVING SOPHIE is not about them. They do bring a bit of relationship/romance to the book, but they don't belong in this book.
Note how Kellerman's husband-wife team is always integral to story, plot, theme of all the Mysteries they solve. The cases the professional detective husband encounters (not all of them, but only the ones Kellerman chronicles) are actually ABOUT the dynamics of the couple's Relationship.
I infer that the reason this detective couple are in this novel is that the first novel about them (set in Ireland) was a grand, commercial success. The editor probably asked for another one.
The story of SAVING SOPHIE is ripped from the Headlines, as I've talked about on this blog quite frequently. It is topical, which is another reason it had to make deadline, flaws and all.
So, to make the point that most Palestinians just want peace to raise their kids, what should the author of Saving Sophie have done?
My answer (which is not the only answer, just the most obvious) is to create another Palestinian Character who is fed up to here with this nonsense and kidnaps Sophie from her kidnapper-grandfather, possibly with the grandmother's help.
The point is made that the Grandfather loves Sophie -- but he doesn't. He sees her as another female to dominate.
The Character Development weakness in the writing is that Sophie is a wimp.
Yes, many 10 year old girls are wimps and wouldn't fight. But Sophie doesn't "adjust" to circumstance, she pines and whines. This makes her an object not a plot moving Character.
So making a deal with a good Palestinian and her Grandmother to get herself kidnapped out of the Grandfather's clutches, while finding out enough about the sinister plot to kill thousands to rat them out to Mosad, would make this an interesting book with ABSOLUTELY NO EXPOSITION, and even less need for the Liam Taggart and Catherine Lockhart detective team.
Sophie's father, who is hell bent on rescuing her, is the one set up as a patsy for embezling the missing millions of dollars. He's fleeing authorities because of that frame up, which hampers his ability to rescue her.
That's enough story for a novel.
One of the other sources of expository lumps that will not yield to these standardized techniques of word-work and Character Illustration is cramming too much material into one book. Very often, the unwieldy expository lump is unbreakable because what you actually have is several novels condensed into one book.
This story may happen in the career of this detective couple, Taggart and Lockhart, but there is no reason to chronicle this incident in their life. It doesn't change anything for them, and they don't learn a Life Lesson from it (just a lot of Near Eastern History and Politics).
In other words, the basic structure of SAVING SOPHIE is absolutely contrived and very flimsy because of it.
As a result, though the story-logic is excellent, and the depiction of our reality is spot-on perfect, the whole book is crazy boring. Nevertheless, (check Amazon comments) readers of this genre love it. It is woven of hot-wire topics, ripped from the headlines. And editorial work patched it up well enough to please this readership.
But I love kickass heroines, and I know 10 year olds, and I just do not believe this 10 year old girl -- but if she's "real" she is boring.
Notice I use the word boring a lot here, today. It is because it is a favorite word of another 10 year old Main Character in a novel series about a couple.
That couple is Kirk-and-Spock, and the novel series is Leslie Lilker's Sahaj Series.
I was asked on Twitter to do some blogs about FAN FICTION, so I am tiptoeing up to that topic here.
Leslye Lilker is the pen name for Leah Charifson, who has a Sahaj Continued Group on Facebook where we talk a lot about all the Star Trek incarnations, including fanfic and TV shows inspired by Trek.
Sahaj is the 3/4 Vulcan son of Spock whose mother (a Vulcan Ambassador) who was a really nasty character but has recently died in the novel, THE AMBASSADOR'S SON, which catapults Sahaj into a situation similar to the one that "Sophie" of SAVING SOPHIE is in.
You can get THE AMBASSADOR'S SON online in various formats HERE
https://sahajcontinues.com/ is the top of the site with a Chronology of the stories. "Sahaj" is a whole universe, and one of the most influential in all Pre-Harry-Potter fanfic.
Sahaj handles his situation much more the way I would have handled it at 10 years old, and Sophie does not handle her situation.
Sophie is a cypher character, a place holder of no value in and of herself. She's the object, the McGuffin, while Sahaj is a real person, with real problems -- much more a Victim (in this plot) than Sophie ever was.
McGuffins are a device to eliminate from your writing by use of Plot-Character Integration. A MacGuffin (a.k.a. McGuffin or maguffin) is a term for a motivating element in a story that is used to drive the plot. It serves no further purpose. Sophie is a tear-jerker character with no other purpose. That technical craft problem is so easy to solve that fanfic writers can't get away with using a McGuffin device.
So the second novel to read to analyze the difference between a BEST SELLER and a BEST READ novel is my nominee for this year's Best Read, THE AMBASSADOR'S SON. (and yes, the rest of the series - there are links in the back of the book.) You don't have to know anything about Star Trek: ToS to have a walloping grand time reading THE AMBASSADOR'S SON.
Even so, THE AMBASSADOR'S SON whirls you into Sahaj's story without expository lumps, lectures, or instruction. Yes, it is fanfic, leaning on ST: ToS -- but even without remembering any of it, the novel makes sense and is a compelling read.
Leslye Lilker is a byline to memorize and search for. Excellent craftsmanship, never a beat missed, and a vast, truly broad appeal that extends far beyond the usual Star Trek fanzine readership.
Sahaj fails to extricate himself from his plight -- but that does not stop him from trying again, and again, from figuring angles, and driving toward his goal in a single-minded, entrepreneurial, success oriented methodology (with unfortunate results). Eventually, (years and novels later) he does achieve his goal, and acquires other goals along the way. When he does achieve a goal, the reader deems him worthy.
Sahaj is dominated by an Alien Entity attached to him by his villainous mother for the purpose of making him hate Spock and then for the purpose of killing Spock to get back at Sarek and the Ancient Family Spock is descended from.
Sahaj, when we first meet him, is the trojan horse in an interstellar intrigue plot bigger than any of Ronald H. Balson's paper-thin Palestinian Characters, and going back even more centuries of Vulcan politics and the adoption of the non-Emotion based culture.
In the plot, Sahaj is the victim. In the story, Sahaj is the hero. In the end, Sahaj gets the last laugh. You want to read all the Sahaj stories -- Lilker has dragooned a number of other (creative, talented and craft proficient) writers into creating in her alternate Trek universe because Sahaj is worthy.
More than that, if you are a Romance reader who loves Alien Romance, who loves Paranormal Romance, you will be glad to know there is Alien Romance in Sahaj novels being worked on in 2017.
Read it as an example of an intricately "built" world cradling a heart-rending multi-generation saga -- all without expository lumps. You know the world; you know the Characters -- but you never have to be told. You figure it out, and the figuring is fun.
Sophie will never be worthy because she has no personal investment in her fate.
So in SAVING SOPHIE, the Characters, Plot, Story, Theme, and Worldbuilding are all independent elements that just do not belong together, can not be "integrated" as I've discussed in many of these series, and sit there like oil and water in layers.
The missing Character could have been the soap necessary to integrate them -- but that would require eliminating the Detective Pair they probably intended to use to market this novel.
Success begets success -- but you don't want it to come so early in your career that you bomb on your second or third novel, before you've internalized the craft tools needed to fit an Editor's stringent requirements.
"Write me another book about this pair of Detectives."
Well, SAVING SOPHIE is not about the pair of detectives, but that is what it is marketed as.
That is a very hard writing assignment, and the failure of this writer is easy to sympathize with. Writing a novel for commercial reasons is very hard if the detective pair was not originally created to be the foundation of a series. And using material ripped from contemporary headlines for a plot can make it even harder to execute the Pair Of Detectives Roam The World Solving Insoluble Problems For The Powers That Be trope.
International Intrigue is a genre that uses multiple points of view to tell a coherent story. Point of View Shifting is a major craft technique (which is also a bit shaky in Ronald H. Balson's writing). It requires integrating almost all the individual techniques we've discussed.
The third novel to include in your contrast/compare study of the Expository Lump and the Best Seller Vs. Best Read issue is actually by Pete Earley, a writer who achieved Best Seller status all by himself, and here collaborates.
VENGEANCE is the novel.
It is another example of creating a novel specifically to sell to a particular readership -- and this time, the grand Best Selling Author name in a huge font on the cover is Newt Gingrich (whose wife has been confirmed as Ambassador to the Holy See (i.e. Vatican).
The former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich (architect of the contract with America that a group of Representatives signed while campaigning to enact a specific economic agenda, which they actually did do), has gone on to become a producer of video, other novels, non-fiction books, children's books with his wife, and is seen on TV almost every night.
His name SELLS BOOKS.
He is a pretty fair writer, by himself. He has apparently (I don't know him personally) learned to take editorial direction and has good editors. His work is pretty sound. So his NAME on the cover in blazing huge type is not exploitative of popularity, as it often is with celebrities.
Many celebrities of such stature have their names on books they barely looked at before publication -- the sweaty, boring (Sahaj's favorite perjorative term) business of writing a book is beyond them or beneath them.
The work is done by ghost writerrs -- who often don't get their name on the cover, nevermind with "and" before it.
Pete Earley has many books to his credit (search him on Amazon), but this is the third in a series, and it avoids all the problems I highlighted with SAVING SOPHIE.
Every Character driving the plot explicates a thematic element that is part of the psychology of revenge or vengeance. It is Art at it's best. The title is the THEME (just like THE AMBASSADOR'S SON is the theme.)
Note how SAVING SOPHIE is not the theme but the McGuffin.
Earley is proficient with all the craft tools we have discussed, and picks them up for a word or phrase or two, and lays them aside gracefully, never missing a beat with the pacing.
I suspect Gingrich wrote the Presidential Oval Office Speeches (which are short, move the plot, deepen characterization, provide motivation, and illustrate what show-don't-tell is all about) because I have heard him on TV saying very similar things.
I suspect he provided some of the Washington D.C. "color" details from his years in that environment.
By the acknowledgements, I see they have expert consultants, and from reading this novel I think they listened to their chosen expert.
It is well edited, and well copyedited, published by Center Street imprint of Hatchette. Top drawer operation, and no significant fails in this novel.
OK, maybe you won't like the politics -- but forget that. Both SAVING SOPHIE and VENGEANCE use the material of the Middle East Conflict, both include a full blown tutorial on the vast, deep, and meaningful history of that conflict (just exactly as you must do if writing about ghosts, djinn, Harry Potter, or Aliens from another planet and their interdimensional or galactic wars.)
No created story world is complete without the war-history of the clashing cultures.
The content of that history, or at least the part you choose to reveal to your readers, has to highlight, underscore and illustrate (in show-don't-tell) all about your THEME. The nature of the content is not important. The way you present that content is VITALLY IMPORTANT to the emotional responses of the reader.
Since both SAVING SOPHIE and VENGEANCE are about the Middle East Conflict, the world-girdling religious wars currently in progress (often not mentioned in headlines), you must read them both, together or in rapid succession to grasp my point here.
Both major best sellers, but one is boring and riddled with amateurish errors never permitted in fanfic, and the other is fascinating, smooth, and easily a candidate for Best Read of the Year despite being pure Best Seller material exploiting previous successes.
They are a pair, and the difference between them is best explained and illustrated by reading THE AMBASSADOR'S SON.
The difference is Theme-Character-Integration.
You can read about this craft technique for years and still not be able to do it. But read about it and read these 3 novels all at once, and you will suddenly see why your submissions are rejected or relegated to the bottom of the heap.
Yes, they are not "Romance" per se, but that makes it easy to focus on the craft techniques and see immediately how to use them in Science fiction Romance.