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There are great books and not-great books.

The joy of a great book is getting swept up in the narrative so that we forget the laundry that needs doing, the garden that needs weeding, the kids that need watering (kidding/not kidding).

Thing is, when we get swept up in a book, it can be hard to see the mechanics behind the thing: to discern where the scenes begin and end and where the author uses exposition; to follow the plot points and point to where the plot lines converge; to chart the character development; to consider the themes. And so on.

3 things a not-great book can teach us about writing:

The data dump: or, your research is showing

Any book takes some research; to write a historical novel takes a ton. Been there. The trick is digesting all your research so that it comes out through the natural interactions between the characters as they go about being testing and wrung out by the machinations of the author before coming out the other side changed. Whew!

A not-great historical novelist will reveal his or her research; often you’ll see it plunked down without much artistry in chunks at not-so-strategic points. Listen hard and you can hear the book’s editor saying: “You need to set this part of the story in time here; don’t forget World War Take-Your-Pick was going on…”

Backstory as dialogue: or, real people don’t talk like that

Novels are not screenplays, and vice versa. Screenplay writers have it tough. All scene (the showing part). No exposition (the telling part)! A little stage direction maybe–but, still, that’s tough stuff.

With exposition at our disposal, we fiction writers have it easy-ish. Exposition is an efficient way to dispense necessary information about the time and place where our story is set, about a character, or anything else. Exposition is also a good way to tell your reader about a character’s past (or backstory). It’s better than wrenching backstory into dialogue, which sounds kinda like this:

Character 1: “Remember the time we went on that train ride, and we met Jesse James, and fought Al Capone, and stopped for ice cream with Marilyn Monroe? And remember I said that was the best day ever and I felt like I knew what it was I needed to do with my life, and so here I am?”

Character 2: “Yep. Now, tell me more about that time I remember.”

And so this inane conversation goes…

I’m not saying I have backstory all figured out. More on my little backstory addiction here. But rather than try to wrench backstory into conversation, we can make it exposition. Or, think long and hard about whether that backstory is needed at all.

Got to start somewhere: or, an author’s earlier books

I’m a big fan of Amy Bloom, author of Lucky Us and Away. But, while I love these novels, which are later works of hers, her first book–a collection of stories called Come to Me: Stories–is the one I’ve studied. If you love to write and want to get better at it, give this a try: find early books by authors you admire and see how they crafted their stories.

Want to know what historical novel prompted this post? Hop on over to my FB page. And please share if you like.

What are you reading and writing this week?

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13 thoughts on “3 things we can learn from a not-great book

  1. I admire how you reveal parts of your creative process without revealing too much (e.g. plot details, etc.). Does the process of story creation feel natural to you? If I were to try writing fiction, I’d be activating little-used parts of my brain. I don’t think I’ve ever imagined a plausible conversation between two people. I just imagine moments. Maybe that’s a reason I was drawn to photography. Btw, I just read a Christie novel that is mediocre at best, Appointment with Death. It is not an early novel. It’s like it was written with a deadline she resented.

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  2. Story creation has never felt natural to me, really. I admire natural storytellers. But I like working hard at things, and that’s what the process of writing fiction is for me. Especially for my short/contemporary fiction writing, I start with moments–images that have a good feeling behind them–and go from there. I’m not a writer who has the entire story planned out. As for Christie, it’s comforting to know that even the best writers falter. Makes them seem more human!

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  3. Great points, Rebecca. As writers get better, they certainly notice things like this in the books they read. This can destroy a book they might have previously enjoyed, but it does teach some valuable lessons 😊.

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  4. We talk about exposition and data dumps in my crit group all the time. It’s almost become a shorthand note. “Unless characters are being wistful or condescending, chances are they wouldn’t say that much.” We lovingly call it “plot vomit”. Great post as usual.

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