Saturday, December 13, 2008


Photo by Andif

Yesterday's book dissection was lively, fun, and illuminating. The group decided that the book we were studying works because:

1. The author is not afraid of phobias. She uses them to scare the reader. We realized that in at least three of her books that we could remember, she uses claustrophobia, for instance, though without ever once calling it that. She put her victims in tight, dark, scary places. The most interesting thing about this from the viewpoint of the writers attending the group yesterday was that several of them admitted they had never had the nerve to write about things in their books that really do scare them in real life. After our discussion, they decided they might just give that a try. ::scary grin::

2. The author builds suspense by telling you what's going to happen and then delaying the happening. You know a character is going to be--for instance, and not from this book--buried alive, and you're made to wait and wait and wait until it happens.

3. The author is a master of using a limited time frame to build suspense, and she repeatedly reminds the reader of the passing of that time.

4. There are extremely high stakes.

5. Character is sacrificed entirely to plot. Every character is there to fulfill a specific plot function, and they are like individual puzzle pieces which, when dropped into the frame of the book, provide the picture.

6. Despite that ^^^, every character has his or her own resolution at the end, to tie up loose ends and to fully satisfy the reader.

7. The author gives readers both a mystery and a suspense novel in the same book. Someone in the group told us that mystery writer and teacher Carolyn Wheat says that in a mystery the reader is two steps behind the detective, while in a suspense novel, the reader is two steps ahead of the protagonist. The author of this book does both. Kudos to that.

I love my book dissection group!


Nancy P said...

My apologies to any lurker or regular who isn't all that interested in this stuff. Now and then I have to remember to pretend that I'm doing a writing blog. :P

Also, that I'm a mystery writer doing a writing blog.

I forget. :D

Paul Lamb said...

I think these kinds of groups are tremendously valuable for a writer (and for a reader). I belong to several book discussion groups, but they go after the literary and social worth of the novels rather than the writing. Even so, the insights I gain from this kind of evaluation helps me with my own attempts at the craft.

Nicola Slade said...

Ooh, thank you, Nancy, for going to a book dissection group so I don't have to! That's a useful piece of analysis and I'm going to 'borrow' it and refer to it when I start rewriting my current book. (Though I couldn't sacrifice character to plot, just can't work that way, but there's plenty of food for thought.)

AndiF said...

That's an interesting analysis and it does explain why some readers will excuse the book's flaws and go ahead and read it. But what it doesn't explain is why enough readers will do that to make it a bestseller (instead of, say, a mid-lister).

So I've been thinking about it since yesterday's discussion and I suspect the missing ingredient is that the author gives the readers what they want, and usually without anyone (characters or readers) having to work for it.

I've seen quite a few Twilight fans admit that the books are really badly written and poorly plotted. But they still just "love it". Well Twlight is about a girl who is loved by a gorgeous, talented, rich, gorgeous (let's just say three or four more times) boy (well, ancient vampire) for absolutely no reason. He just loves her, he does. And he keeps on loving her, no matter what she does or what happens or what anybody else dose. Complete and perfect devotion from the kewl kid and without you (oops, I mean Bella) having to do anything to earn it.

And that's what I've noticed about a lot of bestsellers -- they have a fairy tale ending that even a lot of fairy tales don't have. No matter how horrific the events, no matter how evil the bad guys, no matter how many other people die, all the people who count all live perfectly ever after, all happy and completely unscathed by all the trauma of the preceding 399 pages.

Anonymous said...

I love it when you do writer stuff, NP! :-) Someday I'll actually print all these great suggestions and keep them somewhere besides in my teeny weeny brain.

A day of errands and putzing around ahead, and hopefully some beach time, now that the cold front seems to be weakening. Slowly getting ready to fly into Ice Storm Hell on seemed like a good idea to go to NH early when I made the least Sis' power is back on.

Happy Sunday, everyone! Watch football for me!

Maria Lima said...

Popping in to wish everyone a lovely Sunday. Must pop out again as there is a book I have to finish (this time, reading). I've been pwned by Elizabeth Bear's Promethean Saga.

The woman can WRITE. Characters and plot.


Jen said...

The author builds suspense by telling you what's going to happen and then delaying the happening. You know a character is going to be--for instance, and not from this book--buried alive, and you're made to wait and wait and wait until it happens.

I think is it hilariously paradoxical that this works as well as it does, but we all know it does. This kind of calculated march toward the dreadfully inevitable can be so much scarier than gesturing at monsters who may or may not be under the bed.

Also, Andi, I think that is a great observation. Fantasy-fulfillment seems to be a very powerful element of the most popular writing, whether it's ultimately in books or shown on screens.

Nancy P said...

Hi, Paul. Yeah, regular book clubs are really different than what we're doing, which is--I think--kind of inventing a new thing.

Nicola, can you imagine sacrificing character ENTIRELY for plot? Mind-boggling, but then it's not as if Hansel and Gretel had all that much character development and this is kind of like that. Without the hidden political message, lol.

I've read a couple of Twilight books, Andi, and I didn't mind the writing--and I marveled at her ability to form an entire book basically around nothing but dialogue between two characters--but what I could never get over was that ageless vampires chose to hide their identities by GOING BACK TO HIGH SCHOOL, lol. After having been to Harvard, among other schools. No. Just no.

Nancy P said...

Lucky Maria has been captured by a series!

Beth, nooooo. Don't go back to ice storm hellllllll. . .

Jen, your comment made me realize this book combines fantasy fulfillment + worst fears vanquished. No wonder it's potent.

maryb said...

It is true, as Jen says, how surprising it is when an author tells you what is going to happen and then it does and yet there's still all this suspense.

it does explain why some readers will excuse the book's flaws and go ahead and read it. But what it doesn't explain is why enough readers will do that to make it a bestseller (instead of, say, a mid-lister).

I don't know, maybe it does.

I've noticed with acquaintances of mine who don't read much, they are so PROUD when they finish a book that they tell everyone. And tell everyone to go read the book they just read. So keeping an easily distracted reader's attention is no small feat - and accomplishing that feat means you start getting free word of mouth publicity. Especially as they assure other non-readers that "don't worry, it's NOT hard".

Try recommending a book because it's complicated and worth every bit of effort. 9 out of 10 people who hear you will immediately (and probably intentionally) forget what you just told them. Recommend a book as one that has great suspense and "trust me" it's not hard to read at all? Everyone you know will read it - except that 1 in 10 person who is looking for depth.

Kelly McCullough said...

Have cold, will sniffle.

Or something like that. Very punchy this morning--lack of oxygen.

bono said...

:-) I love these discussions. I would love to go to such a book discussion group. The more I learn about writing from you all, the more I enjoy the books I read. Thanks for sharing.

And, Maria, I totally love finding a new series to enjoy. Good for you.

Feel better soon, Kelly. Everyone around here is sick. I blame it on the 20 degree weather one day followed by 50 degrees then back to 20. :-p

Happy Sunday to everyone.

katiebird said...

In his best books, Michael Crichton was great at plotting and not-so-great at character development. In his worst books, that lack of character turned the books into the slam-against-the-wall-in-disgust genre.

I think that a GREAT author (turning and staring at a couple of ASMOL residents) can do both plots and character in a way that makes a book beyond an enjoyable "read" (a term I hate) and actually a memorable experience.

Off topic (but related to something at MaryB's Blog): I've decided to cut back on book buying and am using my old public library. So, I went to their site to see what sort of reader's advisory pages they've got these days. And I found THIS list of Romance Fiction. Does anyone else thing there's something insultingly absurd about it?

bono said...

Farf? Kelly? Ghost? was referring to Marcel doing his own mime funeral the other day. I saw this comic on the 'net today and thought they'd appreciate it.

Lisa M said...

Man, I go out of town and y'all have this cool book dissection talk.
Love that kind of thinking.

Tool talk and finding elements to inject into my own writing--Now that's entertainment.

Andi, thanks so much for a snorting good laugh about Twilight. I tip my hat at Meyer's way of capturing teen angst. Which is the intended audience. Not this old curmudgeon.

Nancy, I am so with you about no way living my eternal life back in high school.

Nancy, I'm interested in going about the author book thing from the other end.
I'm interested in who you think ARE quality writers. Say 3-5 good suggestions in suspense, thriller, mystery.

I'm willing to give some authors more of my time. I can appreciate elements of their writing even if it all isn't fantastic.

Bono--I'll expect to see pictures from you soon.

Thanks to all the interesting comments from readers and writers on this thread. New writer needing all the tools I can get.

Conda V. Douglas said...

Yes, I agree with Beth (Beth 3 inches of snow here)I too so enjoy and get so much out of your "writerly" posts.

And is it cheating to tell us the author and book title? Although I have to be in the right mode to read such fabulous books, otherwise I beat up on myself for not being as good!

Nancy P said...

Maryb, yeah, there's a reason for the phrase, "beach read."

katibird, you mean a list of romance novels and almost none of the authors are women? Yeah. I wonder if there might be a bit of purposeful switch and bait going on there--they headline it romance, which most people stereotype as written by women for women, and then they list mostly male authors. Maybe they were trying to show that "romance" is a broader category (pardon the pun) than commonly thought. Or, not.

Nancy P said...

Lisa, good question, but I think I'll avoid it, though anybody else is welcome to take a crack at it. There are so many good ones and tastes differ.

Maybe we could narrow it down.

If you--or anybody--has questions about which authors do some particular thing really well, that might be cool to think about and helpful. Like, if there's some part of your own novel that you're struggling with, maybe some of us can think of authors who cope with that kind of challenge successfully. Like, once when I was struggling with the beginning, I studied how Dick Frances did it, 'cause he's great at that.

Nancy P said...

p.s. He used to be great at that; I don't know about now, having not read him for quite a while.

Nancy P said...

Conda, e me if you're dying of curiosity. :)

katiebird said...

Nancy, You got it, exactly. All those men, writing romance novels. Sure, whatever. It _is_ that they want to show that "romance" is a broad category: men write it too! But, I think they're cheating with that list. Sure those books have romance. Nearly all fiction has a romantic element of some sort. Don't they?

The people looking at that list shouldn't be patronized like that. There are VERY good women romance authors. Women who can put together great sentences and stories.

Why not lead readers to the GOOD romance authors?

Because librarians (and I KNOW those particular librarians) won't admit to reading romance writers. (and that's the tie in to MaryB's post)

This list was the closest they could come. The other odd thing is that so many of the novels were so OLD. Ancient. What's with that?

I think they should ask their patrons to recommend Romance novels if they can't cough it up themselves.

boran2 said...

Hi all. Checking in at the end of a very busy weekend.

OT, b2 boy's slot car b-day party was a great success, at least in the mind of nine 9 year old boys.

Lisa M said...

A part of my novel I'm struggling with?
Chapter endings that keep the reader wanting to turn the page.
I can identify good places, but I worry about doing it too much and feeling too episodic or melodramatic.
My YA audience isn't willing to hang on for a leisurely pace. Want to give them a good roller coaster ride.
Who writes a good page turner?
This is not a genre specific question either. I've read all types that make me look forward to getting in bed for my evening's read.

Nicola Slade said...

Re 'good page turners' - if you get the chance watch 'Wallander' starring Kenneth Branagh, a 3 part BBC tv series based on the books by Swedish mystery writer, Henning Mankell. I haven't read the books but the series is terrific and Branagh is an eye-opener.
I haven't read the books but will surely do so.

AndiF said...

Mankell's very, very good but I don't think I'd ever describe his books as page-turners. If you liked Sjöwall and Wahlöö's Martin Beck books, you'll like Mankell.

Well I guess no new post means I can try to answer Lisa.

Lisa, I've got some YA authors to recommend -- Meg Rosoff (How I Live Now, Just in Case, What I Was), Robin McKinley (anything), Blue Balliet (Chasing Vermeer, The Calder Game).

Morning all.

Lisa M said...

Morning All.

Nicola, thanks for the show suggestion. I'm always looking for interesting shows and I do love Kenneth Branagh.

Andi--you never cease to amaze me with the depth of your literary knowledge. Thanks for the suggestions. Beautiful picture.

28 this morning Wind Chill 19 and a blustery day.
Eeyore Sigh.

Marvelous Monday to All. Last week before holiday!!!

Anonymous said...

Brrr, Lisa! A friend in CDA called yesterday at 1pm - -21 wind chill, 30mph winds. More of the same predicted all week. She was congratulating my escape...

A WRW friend recommended I study Dean Koontz for pace and page-turning. Spefically Intensity. I didn't like the book, but sure couldn't put it down.

Wrapping up loose ends today, getting ready to fly north tomorrow. Packing woolies - 80 and drizzly here, sigh. Remind me why people go NORTH for the holidays instead of coming down here?

Happy Monday, y'all!