Friday, May 7, 2021

Words in Review: Picture Perfect Murder and Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder, and then what happened

Full disclosure:  I obtained a Kindle copy of Picture Perfect Murder by Jenna St. James when it was offered free on Amazon.  I borrowed a Kindle copy of Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder by Joanne Fluke via Amazon Prime.  I do not know the authors nor have I ever communicated with them in any way about their books or any other subject.  I am a traditionally published author of historical romances, and self-published in contemporary romantic suspense and miscellaneous non-fiction.

Further disclosure:  I read both books in their entirety.

Review of "page 1" is here.

Openings are important.  If the opening of your book fails to hook the reader, you aren't going to be there to urge her to take a second look, read a few more pages, give the story a chance to develop.  The sooner you grab her interest, the less chance you have that she'll give up. Remember, there are hundreds of other books out there for her too choose from.  You can't count on her being one of those readers who reads everything and loves it; she might be, or she might not.

If, however, she does continue to read, you now have to continue the story.  All the rest of it is the ". . .and then what happened" part of the book.  At any point in that ". . .and then what happened," your reader still has the opportunity to give up, quit, toss it aside, DNF* and WNRTAA**.

(*DNF = Did Not Finish; **WNRTAA = Will Never Read This Author Again.)

Readers come to your book with expectations, and this is especially true for genre fiction.  The two books currently under discussion are categorized as "cozy mysteries," which means they are expected to follow certain conventions.  These include, but are not limited to:

1. Generally a small-town or rural setting.

2. Murder but not too gruesome, and generally not committed on the page.

3.  Amateur sleuth who has informal connections to law enforcement but is dismissed by them, until of course she gets lucky and solves the crime for them.

Both Picture Perfect Murder and Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder take place in small towns.  In the former, Ryli Sinclair tells us on page 1 that she lives in "my small hometown of Granville, Missouri."  She works for the local newspaper, so we learn right away that she qualifies as an amateur sleuth.  Hannah Swenson operates a cookie bakery and coffee shop called The Cookie Jar in her hometown of Lake Eden, Minnesota.  

Picture Perfect Murder opens with Sinclair called in to take photographs of a murder victim.  

 This dead body was spread out over the kitchen table, naked from the waist up, covered in blood, and missing a heart.

St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Locations 57-58). Kindle Edition. 
Because this is on page 1, it kind of breaks the rules/conventions/guidelines of the cozy mystery genre regarding the gruesomeness of the murder.

Hannah Swenson, on the other hand, doesn't even discover the murder victim until page 23 (of 289), at the very end of Chapter One.  All the preceding pages are devoted to background information about Hannah, why she's come back to Eden Lake (from somewhere else), about her family, about her cat, about her bakery, about every detail of her morning from six o'clock to approximately half past eight, when she finds the deceased.

Ryli, on the other hand, did not herself discover the body, but has been called by the police to take photographs.  After the announcement on page 1 of the murder, she (in first person viewpoint narrative) proceeds to dump a bunch of background information, primarily about herself and about the chief of police, who is on the scene as well.

Both books suffer from the same problem: The author fails to integrate background information with action.  Ryli is there in the kitchen -- whose kitchen? -- with various police officers and a mutilated corpse, but she stops the action to give some of her own history, the chief's history, her sexual attraction to him, and so on.

Is any of this background information, as presented in both books, absolutely necessary?  Maybe some of it is, or will be, but almost none of it is necessary at this point.

The key to keeping your reader reading is to mix necessary background information with action and/or dialogue.

The writing of a novel involves three distinct skill sets, two of which you may even remember from high school.  A hundred million years ago when I was in high school, those skill sets were labeled "Form" and "Content," and every paper we turned in was graded separately on each aspect.  "Form" was the writing technique skill set: the grammar and spelling stuff.  "Content" was the meat of the paper.

In writing a novel, "Form" is still the grammar and spelling, the punctuation and proofreading.  "Content" becomes the plot and story construction.  But then there's "Style," something our high school teachers didn't bother too much with.

A novelist's style consists of how she tells the story.  Does she stop the action to give fashion show descriptions of each character's wearing apparel?  Is she able to give each character a distinct voice and personality?  Are the characters' actions and interactions rational and justified?  Does the whole book have an internal consistency that allows the reader to believe this story could really have happened?

This can almost be summed up as: Was this book easy to read, hard to put down?

One page leads to another and another.  The flow of words and action is so smooth that there aren't any convenient stopping places.

Both Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder and Picture Perfect Murder had far too many places where the reading became difficult and the books became easy to put down.  I nearly gave up on Picture Perfect Murder several times because there were either stylistic absurdities or internal inconsistencies.

For instance, were Ryli and the chief of police, Garrett Kimble, actually dating?  Did she just have the hots for him but hadn't gone out with him?

I tried staying clear of him when he first came to town… mainly because he makes the spit in my mouth dry up. Whether it’s from sheer terror or sexual frustration, I don’t know, but more and more lately I’ve been thinking of finding out.

St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Locations 81-83). Kindle Edition.
suggests in the first scene that she's not had any social interaction with him.

Just a few pages later, when Ryli is snooping (!) in Kimble's office, he comes in and we get this:

I was almost nose-to-chest with him.

He reached out and lifted a curl from my shoulder, winding it around his finger. “Leave the investigating to me.”

St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Locations 282-284). Kindle Edition.

Later, Ryli and Kimble have been invited to dinner at her brother Matt's house, and she is arranging to leave work early to get ready for this "date." The following conversation takes place among Ryli, the owner of the newspaper she works for, and the owner's wife:

“What’s going on?” Mindy asked.

I didn’t know if I should tell her. After all, she’s my friend, but she’s also my boss’s wife. What do I say? That I’m going home to shave my legs because I may or may not fool around tonight.

“I’m going to Matt’s tonight for dinner,” I said. “I wanted to stop by the store so I can bake a dessert.”

Hank snorted. “One death this week isn’t enough?”

“Bite me,” I said.

Mindy laughed. “Hank! Be nice. So just the three of you?”

I stared at her. How does she do that? Like she knows I’m hiding something. “No. Garrett is picking me up. We’re going together.”

Mindy squealed. “You know what this means, right?”

“It means she’s probably gonna go and get herself knocked up,” Hank growled.

St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Locations 587-597). Kindle Edition.
Ryli is the newspaper's only employee, filling the roles of reporter as well as photographer.  Granville is described as a town of some ten thousand population; the paper is a weekly.  Ryli also helps Mindy with the layout of the paper.

So, okay, newspaper owner Hank is a jerk; no real boss in 2015 would be able to get away with that kind of comment to an employee.  But there are other aspects of Ryli's employment at the newspaper that just didn't ring . . . right.

Picture Perfect Murder has a copyright date of 2015.  When I worked for a small town weekly paper in the late 1990s, the staff numbered about 20: six or eight reporters, at least one full-time photographer, two editors, four office staff, five of us in the layout department.  Some layout was still done manually then, but much was already computerized.  There's no way Granville's weekly can be put out with a staff of three.  

Then there's this, as Ryli is finishing her photographing of the opening crime scene:

Half an hour later I finished off my last roll of film. I took plenty of pictures because after my run-in with Kimble, I didn’t want to take any chances of not getting everything possible.

St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Locations 173-175). Kindle Edition.

After Ryli leaves the murder location, she heads to the police station, to which she has a key.

I rifled through my keychain until I came up with the key to get into the station. Claire, the dispatcher for the graveyard shift, should be inside. Running the last few feet to the door, I unlocked it

St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Locations 218-220). Kindle Edition
Why is she at the police station?

“Hey, Claire. It’s me, Ryli. I wanted to drop off the rolls of film for Chief Kimble before I went home.”

St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Location 222). Kindle Edition.
Apparently Ms. St. James doesn't know about digital cameras.  I'm not a professional photographer, but even I have had a digital camera since 2003. 

These are the things that take a reader out of the story.  Most readers won't notice.  Most readers just see the words and turn the pages.

But here's something interesting I found just today.

This book was published in 2014; over the past seven-plus years, it has garnered over 5000 ratings on Amazon for an average of over 4.5 stars.  On 7 May 2021 (today) the Kindle edition of the book is offered free.

The second book in the series is priced at $4.99.  Though it was released almost seven years ago, it has only 400 ratings for about the same average.

 Looking at the third and fourth books in the series, the number of ratings has continued to decrease.

This doesn't necessarily mean the books aren't selling, but it does suggest that fewer people are reading -- and liking -- the books.

Looking at the 1-star reviews for All Eyes on Me gives the impression it's the form and style that tend to turn people off enough to leave a negative, rather than the content, or story/plot. 

Remember, I'm only one critic.  My word is not the final judgment on your writing.  I may be totally wrong, and your book that breaks all the rules may turn out to be the next million-seller.

The odds, however, are against you.  

As Stephen King has written:

And no matter how much I want to encourage the man or woman trying for the first time to write seriously, I can’t lie and say there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers.

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft (p. 141). Scribner. Kindle Edition. 

Friday, April 30, 2021

Words in Review: Picture Perfect Murder and Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder, Page 1

Full disclosure:  I obtained a Kindle copy of Picture Perfect Murder by Jenna St. James when it was offered free on Amazon.  I borrowed a Kindle copy of Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder by Joanne Fluke via Amazon Prime.  I do not know the authors nor have I ever communicated with them in any way about their books or any other subject.  I am a traditionally published author of historical romances, and self-published in contemporary romantic suspense and miscellaneous non-fiction.

Further disclosure:  I read both books in their entirety.

Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder was originally published by Kensington in 2000 as the first book in the series of cozy mysteries featuring amateur sleuth Hannah Swenson.  The digital edition is dated 2019 but contains no indication as far as having been revised and is also published by Kensington.

Picture Perfect Murder is copyrighted 2015 and published by the author, Jenna St. James.  This is the first book in the Ryli Sinclair cozy mystery series.

Both books have high ratings on Goodreads, as these screenshots from 22 April 2021 show.



The Fluke book may have negatively benefited from being older and added to Goodreads at the site's beginning, circa 2007, when critical reviews were less likely to be pulled down by thin-skinned authors. The over-all rating for this traditionally published book is only 3.70, where St. James' effort, though published by the author, received 4.24.

It is a sad truth that after September 2013, Goodreads became much less friendly to critical reviewers, especially those who might not have read the whole book or were basing their criticism on something the author had done outside the actual writing of the book.  This action on the part of Goodreads was precipitated by the almost-publication of a book by a young self-publishing author who got some negative reviews even though her book had not been officially published.  Readers flocked to her book to give it five-star ratings -- even though they couldn't have read it because it wasn't published -- in sympathy to the negative reviews she received.  This ultimately evolved into what became known as the Great Purge of 2013, when certain critical reviewers were banned from the platform. . . and critical reviews brought risks to the reviewers.

The message had been sent that Goodreads, as an arm of Amazon, was in the business of selling books, and bad reviews don't sell as many books as good ones.

Setting aside, then, the ratings on Goodreads as potential gauges of writing quality, how do these two books compare?

Picture Perfect Murder is pretty terrible.  Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder isn't a whole lot better.

Of course, that is only my opinion, and I am only one person, one reader, one writer.

Reviews are for readers.  If you've read any of my writing on reviewing, you  know how adamant I am that reviews are not for writers, that writers would do well to never read their reviews and do better to never confront their reviewers.  But writers, especially the self-publishing authors, often claim that they have an interest in those reviews beyond just wanting to know if someone liked or disliked their book.  Whether they feel entitled to it or not, they want those reviews to provide feedback, to help them improve, to tell them what it was that made a reviewer not love their book.

Most readers aren't in a position to do that, and they should never feel obligated to do so.  As I have said often enough, a reader may not even be qualified to render the kind of advice the writer wants.  Sometimes the reader may be entirely wrong in their criticism, whether it's about grammar and punctuation, factual research, story structure, or anything else.  If the writer herself isn't sufficiently knowledgeable, she may take that advice and make what's already correct about her book incorrect.

Writers who want feedback on their work should ideally get that feedback before the book is published, so that the product reaching the reading public is the very best it can be.  For the writer who goes the traditional route, the publisher will presumably fix all the problems since they have a substantial investment in making sure readers don't find problems.

The self-publishing author, however, has only herself to rely on.  If she can afford a professional editor, that may help, but not all those who bill themselves as professional editors really are.  Some of them are no better qualified to edit than the authors themselves.  How is an author to know who to trust?  If the author's own skills aren't top-notch, she may indeed not know.

In a few words, it's a crap shoot.

I can't "fix" every book that falls short.  I can't turn every manuscript into a best-seller.  Nor am I even proposing to try.  But I think what I can do is offer the kind of feedback some writers may be looking for through a detailed analysis of books I personally have found to be seriously lacking in quality.

It's one thing to review a book and say "The characters weren't relatable."  What does that really mean?  That's the kind of question I hope to answer, with specific examples from the books.

In previous posts, I've mentioned some of the reference materials I've relied on in my own writing career.  The ultimate goal of everything is to create a written work in which the written words disappear, leaving the reader immersed in the world of the novel. Though it's not reasonable to expect any novel to be absolutely perfect, every writer should still strive for perfection -- the invisible novel.

The very first step to making your author-published digital novel invisible is to format it correctly. 

If your very first page is divided into block paragraphs -- no indent, extra space between paragraphs -- I as a reader know you don't even know what a book is supposed to look like.  Writers read, and real writers know what real books look like.  That means indented paragraphs; save those extra blank lines to indicate a transition of time or place.

I mention this here because it is the nature of copying and pasting from Kindle pages that they automatically delete all paragraphing, regardless of format.  For ease in reading small snippets, I've put the quoted sections into block paragraphs, but this should never be done in the actual published version of the book.


So, how is it that Picture Perfect Murder and Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder fell so far short of perfection? 

Let's start with a look at the very beginning, the opening page of Picture Perfect Murder.

I hate looking at dead bodies. And believe me, I’ve seen a lot of them in my twenty-eight years. There’s nothing that can prepare you for that first glimpse of death.

In college, I worked part time at Jaworski Funeral Home. It was one of those small, family-owned businesses. They were great about working around my class schedule. They were even better about including me as family. A few holiday dinners and family gatherings later, and Ryli Jo Sinclair had become an honorary Jaworski.

For four years I did everything from flower arranging to consoling families. I didn’t deal with the actual prepping of the dead body. But still, a dead body was a dead body as far as I was concerned.

St. James, Jenna. Picture Perfect Murder (A Ryli Sinclair Mystery Book 1) (Kindle Locations 50-56). Kindle Edition. 

So, what's happening?  We're in the viewpoint of a first-person narrator, one Ryli Jo Sinclair, and she's . . . thinking. We don't know where she is or what she's doing or why she's thinking about not liking dead bodies.  Instead of getting right into the action of the story, author St. James indulges in some of Ryli's background.  While this information might become important later on, it's not important now.  There's nothing going on that would make it important.

The mere mention of a dead body in the opening paragraph sets up some anticipation, but the author doesn't follow up on it.  In fact, the next paragraphs provide contradiction to the opening: If Ryli spent four years working for a funeral home, why didn't she get accustomed to dead bodies?

You may be stepping back and saying, "But it's only three paragraphs!"  And that is absolutely correct.  However, if the author is already, in the first three paragraphs of the book, resorting to non-essential character reflection, it doesn't bode well for the rest of the book.  (Spoiler: Holiday dinners with the Jaworski family are never mentioned again.)

Let's look at the opening to Chocolate-Chip Cookie Murder.

Hannah Swensen slipped into the old leather bomber jacket that she’d rescued from the Helping Hands thrift store and reached down to pick up the huge orange tomcat that was rubbing against her ankles. “Okay, Moishe. You can have one refill, but that’s it until tonight.”

As she carried Moishe into the kitchen and set him down by his food bowl, Hannah remembered the day he’d set up camp outside her condo door. He’d looked positively disreputable, covered with matted fur and grime, and she’d immediately taken him in. Who else would adopt a twenty-five-pound, half-blind cat with a torn ear? Hannah had named him Moishe, and though he certainly wouldn’t have won any prizes at the Lake Eden Cat Fanciers’ Club, there had been an instant bond between them.

Fluke, Joanne. Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder (Hannah Swensen series Book 1) (p. 11). Kensington Books. Kindle Edition. 
Because this book is told from a third-person point of view, we aren't quite as directly in Hannah's thoughts, but neither are we out of them.  And just as in Picture Perfect Murder, the opening gives background information that may or may not be important later on.  Hannah is remembering, rather than doing.

If Ryli opens with a reference to a dead body, Hannah opens with nothing.  We don't know what she's doing or where she's going, and there's not the slightest hint of a mystery.

For contrast, let's look at the opening to Martha Grimes' The Man with a Load of Mischief, the first of the Richard Jury mysteries as published in 1981.

Outside the Jack and Hammer, a dog growled.

Inside, his view of the High Street obstructed by the window at his shoulder, Melrose Plant sat in the curve of the bay drinking Old Peculier and reading Rimbaud.

The dog growled deep in its throat and started barking again, something it had been doing intermittently for the last fifteen minutes.

Sun streaming through the cerulean blue and deep green of the tulip-design of the leaded panes threw rainbow colors across his table as Melrose Plant rose up to peer over the reverse letters advertising Hardy’s Crown. The dog sitting in the snow outside the public house was a scruffy Jack Russell belonging to Miss Crisp, who ran the secondhand-furniture shop across the street.

Grimes, Martha (2013-03-26). The Man with a Load of Mischief (Richard Jury Mysteries Book 1) (Kindle Locations 55-60). Scribner. Kindle Edition.
What's different about this opening?  Melrose Plant isn't thinking.  He's doing.  And he's doing something in response to an action over which he has no control, the dog's barking.  He doesn't know what the dog's barking means, but it has aroused his curiosity enough that he has gotten out of his seat and gone to look out the window.

Instead of merely the describing the window as having colored glass in a tulip design, Grimes makes the sun streaming through that glass an active force in the scene.  Though it's not a particularly mysterious or murderous scene, the participants are active, and it's much easier to imagine this scene visually -- cinematographically -- than the opening to either Picture Perfect Murder or Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder.

The reader knows these three books are murder mysteries; they aren't unidentified manuscripts being read cold.  The reader therefore comes to the opening with an expectation that regardless how the book starts, there's going to be at least one murder and someone is going to solve it.  Is it absolutely necessary, you ask, that the murder take place on page 1?  Or that it be referred to on page 1?  

No, it's not.  But what is necessary is that the author begin as she means to go.  If the author resorts to character introspection or retrospection before there's even been any action, does she plan to continue in that manner?

As Shelly Lowenkopf points out in his 1982 article "Creating the Rejection-Resistant Novel," many beginning writers -- and maybe some more experienced ones, too! -- often include in their opening pages "bits and pieces of background and detail the author needs to know in order to back off and let the characters tell the story.  More often than not the reader doesn't care about these bits of trivia and resents being told them."

Yes, the author needs to know how Hannah acquired her cat.  The author needs to know Ryli worked part time for the funeral home.  The reader doesn't need to know this, at least not yet.  Will the reader mind being told the Jaworskis made Ryli feel like a member of the family?  Will the reader resent being told Hannah and her cat had bonded instantly?  Probably not.

However, if that background information is important to the plot, it ought to come out as a result of the plot's unfolding rather than the reader just being handed those details out of the blue.  It's especially annoying in the St. James book because a reader who has been tuned in to the Jaworski story that ends up going nowhere may end up disappointed at not knowing the relevance!

In contrast, the opening to the Grimes book gives the reader a lot of needed information with no introspection.

1.  The dog is growling outside the Jack and Hammer.  Even though we don't yet know exactly what "the Jack and Hammer" is, we know it's the "inside."

2.  Melrose Plant, despite the non-gendered name, is "he."  Even though we may not know what Old Peculier is, we know it's a beverage of some kind because Melrose Plant is drinking it.  We may not know who or what Rimbaud is, but it's somehow connected to reading material, because Melrose Plant is reading it.

3.  The dog growls and barks again.

4.  Sunlight is streaming through the window, letting us know it's daytime.

5.  The dog is sitting in the snow -- it's winter -- outside the public house. Now the reader knows the Jack and Hammer is a pub.

As screenwriter Josh Olson has written:

It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.

(By the way, here’s a simple way to find out if you’re a writer. If you disagree with that statement, you’re not a writer. Because, you see, writers are also readers.)

Many, and perhaps most, readers aren't going to be as analytical as I am.  Many, and perhaps most, readers will read for pleasure and skip over the flubs and errors and inconsistencies that drive other readers bonkers.  It's possible for a writer to get away with this kind of writing in the age of digital publishing because there are far fewer gatekeepers.  Low-priced or free ebooks will almost always find a few readers, and unless the books are really outstandingly terrible, the authors can count on establishing at least a bit of a following.

That level of success may be sufficient for many, and perhaps most, self-publishing authors.  The collection of hundreds -- even thousands -- of glowing five-star ratings and reviews may also be sufficient.  On the other hand, if you really want to improve your writing so you can establish a following of readers who will pay more than the bare minimum -- or only read your books if they're free -- maybe give some of this criticism a thought or two.

After all, that's what you said you wanted

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Words in Review: Reviews for Writers

 Full disclosure:  Unless otherwise noted, I obtained Kindle copies of these books when they were offered free on Amazon.  I do not know the authors nor have I ever communicated with them in any way about their books or any other subject.  I am a traditionally published author of historical romances, and self-published in contemporary romantic suspense and miscellaneous non-fiction.

Yes, as of this date, 18 April 2021, Be Still, My Heart will be publishing reviews.  

But not just any old reviews.  You folks have Goodreads and Amazon for those.  Those reviews are, as I myself have said repeatedly over the past ten years or so, for readers.  For years and years, reviewers have been burdened with the claim that they owe writers feedback, that their reviews carry an inherent obligation to either promote the books for the writers' profit or provide constructive criticism for the writers' improvement.

Be careful what you ask for. 

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Words on Deaf Eyes

I started the draft of this blog post in the summer of 2013, continued to add to it through the whole Goodreads purge plus the fiverr reviewer debacle, then abandoned it in the Great Well of Drafts.  Prior to today (14 April 2021), the last edits I made were in December 2014.  I held off on publishing because I wasn't sure there was really any purpose to it then.  Maybe now the audience has changed.  Or maybe not.  At any rate, I've taken the draft, expanded and revised it, fixed a few things and updated others. 

More than likely, the intended audience for this will never read it.  If they do at least read it, they will more than likely believe it doesn't apply to them.  Even if they believe it does apply to them, they will more than likely insist that it's wrong.  They will offer excuses, or claim that their situation is different.  In the end, however, they won't pay any attention and will go on as before.

That's their choice.  I can only put the information out there; I can't make anyone do anything.

So why do I do it?  Why keep  this draft around for well over six years and then resurrect it?

I honestly don't know.  But I do, and I did.

Every night I do my best to keep a promise to myself of squeezing in at least one half hour of reading before falling asleep.  My Kindle is great for comfortable reading in bed, so when I can't keep my eyes open a second longer, all I have to do is slide the Kindle into its pouch, turn off the light, and give myself up to dreams.  The Kindle's drawback is that I can't easily embed detailed notes, but I can highlight and always have paper and pencil handy if something really important comes up.  Yes, paper and pencil in bed.

One night's reading back in 2013 was full of really important somethings, but unfortunately I was too tired even to reach for pencil and paper.  The best I could do was highlight some areas before I gave up reading and went to sleep, hoping I'd remember the purpose of those highlights in the morning.

I did.  That's how this draft began.

The book in question won't be identified, not because this wasn't a review blog in 2013-14 -- and at the moment it still isn't, not really -- but because the issue goes across many books over the intervening years, far too many to be cited here.  In fact, I've changed the details so that most of the examples can't be identified.

What became apparent very quickly, both while I was reading the book that night and while I was scribbling down the notes the following morning before they could evaporate from my brain and right up until I re-read it today to verify some details, was that the story had enormous potential.  The genre is outside my historical romance comfort zone and so I wasn't sure if all my observations were entirely valid.  Some, however, involved issues virtually universal to all genres of popular fiction.

To start with, the formatting was flawed.   

Real books have indented paragraphs.  

Look at a few.  Look at the best sellers on the Amazon Kindle list.  They all have indented paragraphs.  All of them.  When I see an author-published book formatted in block paragraphs -- or even worse, indented block paragraphs --  I know instantly that the author is not a reader, does not even know what real books are supposed to look like.

Block paragraphs, however, were only one problem with this particular 2013 digital edition.  Several paragraphs were split in the middle of sentences, probably where the writer had hit a hard return while composing rather than a space, and the publishing software created a new paragraph, complete with blank line.  Had this happened only once or even twice, I might have overlooked it, but combined with block paragraphs, these additional breaks were frequent enough to be distracting in the first dozen or so Kindle pages.

Had the author not even looked at the finished product to make sure it had the basic appearance of professionalism?  Did she even know what a book was supposed to look like?

She's not the only one.  This is a not infrequent complaint: Even though paragraphing glitches are easily spotted on a careful proofreading pass, they're common in a lot of author-published digital books.

Punctuation errors abounded, particularly with dialogue.  The most common and most annoying involved commas and periods outside the quotation marks:   "Mary is such a sweet child"! my aunt often told us.  "You should strive to be more like her".  This was not a case of different conventions for American and British usage; the errors were inconsistent, indicating either lack of care or lack of knowledge.

Again, this is not uncommon.  Punctuation helps the reader make sense of the words.  "Let's eat Grandma" means something very different from "Let's eat, Grandma."  Far too many self-publishing writers make far too many mistakes.  If called on it, they shrug and say, "Well, you know what I meant."

Maybe.  Maybe not.

Returning to that 2013 book:  Words and phrases, especially those referring to people, were frequently repeated to such an extent that they became glaring.  The point of view is first person, and the narrator begins with an account of her childhood.  In one scene she describes a tragic accident that happened while she and several young relatives -- siblings, cousins, etc. -- were playing a game they'd been strictly forbidden because it was dangerous.  One of the children, younger than the narrator, is referred to as "our little cousin."  Though identified earlier with a given name, she is never called by name in this particular scene.  "Our little cousin" warns of the danger, but "our little cousin" goes along with the older children anyway.  "Our little cousin" resists joining in with the risky play, but "our little cousin" is eventually persuaded to participate.  "Our little cousin" proves to be most adept at the game, and "our little cousin" is roundly applauded for her skill, to the point that "our little cousin" becomes more and more daring.  "Our little cousin" forgets her earlier caution, until the other children begin repeating "our little cousin's" earlier warnings back to her.  "Our little cousin" ignores those warnings, and of course tragedy becomes inevitable.

At that point I realized how desperately this book needed editing.  I was on page twelve.  The only note I posted on the Kindle was "This would never have got through our critique group."

In the years since, I've seen these and similar problems dozens of times.  Sometimes I never make it through twelve pages.  So many basic issues with a book could have been fixed before the author hit the "publish" button if only she had had a competent critique partner . . . and listened to their advice.

These aren't plot problems or research errors or character inconsistencies; they're basic fiction writing skills the lack of which can ruin the best story.  Many readers won't even be aware of them as they're reading, but some will.  And if you're going to put in the time and effort just to type all those thousands of words, doesn't it make sense to put in a little more effort and make them the best thousands of words possible?

Another book that may or may not have had a great story buried under the words opened with a long  paragraph in which every single sentence began with a participial phrase.  Wiping bitter tears from  my eyes . . . Climbing the dark stairs . . . Arriving at last at the door to my mother's room . . . Knocking tentatively . . . . Praying there would be an answer . . . Turning away and swallowing the lump in my throat . . . . . .

Once again, this would never have got through a competent critique group.

It's not just the repetitiveness of the phrasing.  It's also the heightened risk of a misplaced or dangling modifier.  Turning away and swallowing the lump in my throat, a low growl came from beyond the door.

Another book I read more recently began with the main character pushing her way through a crowd.  In the very next sentence she pushed her way through a door.  Before the first page ended, she pushed her way through a noisy party.  And before the second page ended, she pushed her way through another door . . . into another crowd.

Is it possible this was a deliberate stylistic choice meant to convey the character's frame of mind?  Perhaps, but if so, it wasn't a good one.  Nor was it the only instance of repetition. Remember "our little cousin" from the book that started all this?  The "pushing through" book also referred to the woman throwing this party as "the elegant hostess," "the Senator's elegant wife," and "the elegant woman," all within those first two pages.

I didn't read any further.

Although I still put Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey at the very top of the list of books every writer should read, Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft contains some of the best insights on the actual writing process, word after word, sentence after sentence, page after page.  While King does get into the "rules" of writing a little bit, the grammar and stuff, he seems to be more into how to use these tools -- he even calls it the toolbox -- in a hands-on way rather than theoretical.  

Most of what we get in school is theory, applied only to class assignments and then in rigidly defined form: book reports, essays on current events, research papers, and so on.  The same tools still apply in writing fiction, but they can serve far more functions than our teachers allowed us to practice.

One of King's most trenchant observations, which he himself considers perhaps controversial, stuck with me.  After describing what he calls the four levels of writer -- bad, competent, good, and great -- he posits limitations.

. . .[W]hile it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft (Kindle Locations 1605-1607). Scribner. Kindle Edition.
For most of us, our teachers aimed to make us competent.  They gave us the rules as tools to use constructing our assignments and that was all they cared about.  There was no effort on their part to make any of us good writers, and no concept of turning any of us who might naturally be good writers into great ones.  (I tend to agree with the notion that truly great writers are born, and their greatness has nothing to do with how many copies they've sold or how big their movie deals are.)

The question then becomes how many of the writers of these badly written books are bad writers beyond any realistic hope of significant improvement, and which (if any) are competent writers who just haven't yet been turned into good ones?

Are readers expected to know the difference?  Are readers expected to alert the writers? Are readers expected to alert other readers?  Or are all of us just supposed to accept whatever is thrown at us?

The more I look at books like those described above but that still garner hundreds and sometimes thousands of five-star reviews, I wonder if anyone cares.  Nora Roberts is still going to sell millions of books.  Stephen King is still going to sell millions of books.  The rest of us will be lost in the maelstrom of swirling garbage, bad writers, competent writers, good writers, all thrown together.

The reviewers certainly aren't helping when they throw around five-star reviews like Mardi Gras doubloons.

Reviewers have the right to review as they choose.  I know there are accounts on Goodreads that have literally hundreds of reviews/ratings and perfect 5.0 GPAs.  (Goodreads Promotional Average.)  If they've ever met a book they didn't love, they've never written a word about it.  

In doing some research for this post, I found a Goodreads account that has over 9,000 reviews.  The account has been active since 2011, so approximately ten years.  That's 3653 days or so, and if in fact the reader actually read all those books since opening the account, that's roughly three books a day, every day, for ten years.  Her GPA was a modest 4.86.  Do I think she read them all?  I don't know.  Do I think she was being honest about her ratings?  I don't know.  

Do I think the ratings for a lot of books are inflated by reviewers such as she who almost never give anything lower than five stars?

Yes, I do.

I spent a lot of time in 2014 and 2015 documenting the literally thousands of purchased reviews posted on Goodreads and Amazon, reviews paid for by the authors and written by "gig" writers on various sites but  primarily fiverr.  The belief was then, and perhaps still is, that if an author-published or small independent press published book got enough five star ratings and reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, the algorithms would push those books onto readers' recommendations, readers would buy, and the authors would become instantly rich and famous.

The key to success, according to this philosophy, was that promotion and reviews were far more important than good writing or good storytelling.  In fact, skill and talent were unimportant!  Throw together any old crap, buy a bunch of five-star ratings on fiverr, and you've got it made.

For the most part, it didn't happen.  The review writers probably made more money than the book authors.  Many thousands of reviews were removed from both sites, many dozens of reviewer accounts were terminated.  (Many reviews and reviewers returned under new accounts, but that's another issue.)  And for all I know, it's still going on.  I did what I could to keep Goodreads and Amazon reviews honest, but they apparently weren't having it. 

So the avalanche of five-star reviews rolls on.  And reviewers who don't give all five to every book run the risk of being insulted by the authors, doxxed, and threatened with bodily harm.  (See author Lauren Hough's release day explosion of name calling on 13 April 2021, literally while I was in the midst of assembling this.)

The forces are arrayed against honest critical reviews.

Furthermore, I think the failure -- regardless of the reason -- of reviewers to give critical reviews encourages readers to accept bad writing uncritically because they themselves don't know any better.  It's a vicious circle, and far too few people -- readers, reviewers, other writers -- are willing to speak out to break that circle.

 Who benefits?  The established writers.  The traditional publishers.  The agents.  The unscrupulous freelance editors.

But maybe the bad writers benefit, too, because they get to believe their writing is good, that people legitimately love their books, that they don't have to work to improve.

So in the end, does it really matter?

I don't know.  I honestly don't know.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Reading the words, not just seeing them

I almost never watch television. When I do, it's a cable news channel and I listen more than watch.  I'm also almost always doing something in addition to listening to the program.  Sometimes I'm reading or writing a blog post or editing photos for my Etsy shop or sewing or making jewelry.  The idea of sitting and watching television and doing nothing else is almost beyond my comprehension.

Movies are the same.  I don't "go to the movies."  That's a concept even more outrageous to me than watching television.  To sit in the dark and do nothing but passively watch other people doing things on the screen, and be surrounded by a bunch of strangers?  Nope, it's just not for me.

Reading is different. Reading requires me to participate in creating the action.  There are words on the page, but there are no sights, no sounds, no hot or cold or windy or rainy.  No smell of freshly baked bread or new-mown hay or exotic perfume.  My brain has to supply all those things; I have to complete what the author has begun.  Ours is a collaboration, or at least it should be.

Tonight I tried to read one of the many (hundreds?) of free Kindle books I've recently acquired.  This was a boxed set of four "cozy mysteries" packaged under the title Ouna Bay Cozy Mystery 4-Book Bundle by Deany Ray.  The copyright date is 2016, but there's no other publication information in the books' front matter nor on the Amazon listing.  I'm going to assume, safely or not, that Deany Ray publishes her own books.

Whether or not she has an editor of any kind is questionable.

I will at least credit Deany with making the first of the four books look like a real book.  Paragraphs are indented without extra spaces between them.  

Beyond that, I don't have much good to say about the eight pages I was able to read before giving up.  My eye muscles can't take that much rolling.

After reading those eight pages, then reading them again two more times, I couldn't make much sense of the story, but I did get a sense of how someone could write something like that.  I've seen this before many times over the years and I've tried to explain to the writers what's wrong with it, but I never understood why they didn't get it.  I think now, finally, I do.

They are writers who don't read, or if they do, they watch more television and/or movies than they read -- and they've been doing it longer.

The bottom line is that they don't know how to read.  They see the words, they know what the words mean, but they don't know how to convert those words into mental images and sensations, into tastes and smells and textures. Therefore, when they write, they just put down words that don't -- that can't -- create the experience a reader wants.

Let me explain.  Or at least try to.

This is the opening paragraph from Barbara Bretton's 1986 contemporary romance The Edge of Forever.  I have never read it, though I have the digital edition on my Kindle.

Joe Alessio stood on the top step of St. John's Episcopal, poised for escape. All around him, New England was ablaze with color, the great rush of splendor before the winterkill. It would be easy to pretend he was a tourist, come to northern New Hampshire for a little leaf-peeping R&R, but the heavy wooden doors of the old church weren’t thick enough to keep the minister's words from spilling out and bringing reality with them. 

“. . . so I tell you that Anna Kennedy isn’t really gone . . . “

Bretton, Barbara. The Edge of Forever: A Classic Romance - Book 4 . Free Spirit Press. Kindle Edition.

Here's what Ms. Bretton -- whom I met a couple times at RWA conferences more than 20 years ago and that's about it -- has shown the reader already.

Joe Alessio is standing outside a church and he doesn't want to be there.  He wants to escape.  It's autumn and the trees of New England are changing color.  Joe lives here or at least he used to, because he's not a tourist.  Whoever Anna Kennedy is, or was, the reality of her death is something Joe would like to be able to deny but can't.

A reader who is accustomed to reading doesn't even think about this; it's taken for granted because that's the way readers read and the way writers write.

The reader is also brought into a situation that's fraught with emotion.  There's been a death, and even before we get to the next paragraph, we already have a taste (pun intended) of Joe's feelings.  Maybe he's glad that this Anna Kennedy is gone, but I don't think so.  He wanted to escape, remember?  That's probably a metaphor for wishing to escape the reality mentioned at the end of the paragraph.

As a reader, I'm already intrigued.  Who is/was Anna Kennedy?  What does Joe feel about her?  Why didn't he go into the church, or why has he already left it while the minister is still speaking?

What's crucial here is that each sentence builds directly on what the previous sentences have started.  The focus is on Joe Alessio, standing on the church steps but wanting to run, surrounded by New England autumn, hearing the minister's words that he doesn't want to hear.

It's very much like the opening scene of a movie, but the reader has to do the camera work.  Tight in on Joe, then pulling back to show the church, then the trees in their fall foliage, finally the minister's voice.

This is showing, not telling.

Two paragraphs, no more.

Now let's look at the opening two paragraphs of Deany Ray's first book of the boxed set, A Sweet Chunk of Madness.

The sun blazed through my beige drapes as I opened my eyes and directed them to the alarm clock on my nightstand. Ten to seven. Ten more minutes of sleep until the alarm went off. Only I was so excited to bake the recipe of sour cream rhubarb coffee cake that I jumped out of bed, almost knocking the lamp on the nightstand.

After a quick shower and a quick look in the mirror, I put on my favorite pair of jeans and the light blue t-shirt I worked in and headed off into town.

Ray, Deany. Ouna Bay Cozy Mystery Box Set (4-Book Bundle) (p. 6). Kindle Edition.

At this point, the reader knows not even a fraction about what's going on that she knows after reading two paragraphs of the Bretton book.  No setting, no emotion, no tension.  We know the color of the drapes and the character's t-shirt. We don't even know what she sees in the mirror.

Am I being unfair?  Why?  Barbara Bretton did it; why should Deany Ray be held to a lower standard?  Is it because the two books are in a different genre?  Does Deany get a pass because her book is free?

Here's the next paragraph of Deany's book.

My name is Becky Chambers and I live in Ouna Bay. After my parents died in a car crash, I took on their pastry store-slash-coffee shop. Well, actually, my aunt and uncle took on the business since I was only five years old when the crash happened. When I was twenty, they moved to Florida and I continued to run the café, which came only natural to me, since I spent almost every free minute there.

Ray, Deany. Ouna Bay Cozy Mystery Box Set (4-Book Bundle) (p. 6). Kindle Edition.
Besides the fact that this is rather lackluster writing style, the information doesn't show the reader anything.  There's nothing in this paragraph to help the reader visualize the scene or any action.  Why is it important that the reader know now, right away, on page one, that Becky's parents died in a car crash when she was five?  Why is it important for the reader to know, right now, on page one, that Becky's aunt and uncle moved to Florida when she was twenty?  

Where is Ouna Bay?

Why should I care?

I gave Deany Ray, Becky Chambers, and everyone in Ouna Bay eight full pages to hook me into the story. It never happened.  

Deany Ray is telling me things, things bout Ouna Bay and about Becky and about her friend Rosalie, but there's no story happening.  Not until page eight, when the newspaper vendor Dev informs Becky that some man asked for directions to her café, is there even a hint of anything the tiniest bit mysterious.

“Oh, before I forget. There was a man here earlier asking about your café,” Dev said. 

That caught my attention and I looked up. 

“A man asked about my café?”

Ray, Deany. Ouna Bay Cozy Mystery Box Set (4-Book Bundle) (p. 8). Kindle Edition.

If you're a reader who is accustomed to automatically creating the action of the story in your imagination, page eight is way too late.  Remember how much drama Barbara Bretton was able to pack into her opening two paragraphs?

When I wrote in an earlier post about Christopher Vogler's book The Writer's Journey, I also mentioned an article published in the February 1982 edition of The Writer magazine.  Written by Shelly Lowenkopf, "Creating a Rejection-Resistant Novel" explains what needs to go into a novel's first three pages to grab the reader's -- editor's, agent's -- attention.  In today's publishing environment of free digital downloads. that applies to consumers as well.

 "Start with important action," Lowenkopf advises. "Involve someone of consequence in an event of consequence or with a threat of significant impact."

Setting aside the measurement of just how much is "three pages," after eight pages of Deany Ray's book, nothing has happened. I know a few things about Becky -- her friend Rosalie is forgetful and Becky buys lots of magazines and someone is jealous of Becky's brownies -- but so what?

Deany Ray hasn't made me care what happens next.  Maybe Becky is going to go through her day and nothing worse will befall her than she mismeasures the sugar for her cake. 

I want more than that.  I want a hint that there's going to be more, and I want it at the beginning, not somewhere after eight pages.

Maybe it's just me.  Maybe I'm the same generation as Barbara Bretton, and we grew up reading books rather than watching television all day.  Maybe the problem is ours.  And that may very well be true, because books like Deany Ray's A Sweet Chunk of Madness  seem to get a lot of five-star ratings on Goodreads and Amazon.

Here's the stats block as of 9 April 2021 from Goodreads: 

 The book has 140 ratings, of which 98 are five- and four-stars.  Only four readers rated it one-star, and only one of them left a review.

Are all the other readers lying?  I don't think so.  What I do think is that they read the words but don't take the time or make the effort to put those words into  a viable context.

A few years ago, a friend of mine recommended a book that she considered one of the best she had read in a while. The Kindle edition was free, so I "bought" the book and tried to read it.  On something like the first or second page there was a glaring error, the kind of mistake where one character is standing to another's left and then without moving they're to that character's right, or some such.  It was so noticeable that I went back and reread it several times, trying to figure out how it could not be the writer's mistake but instead be mine.  It wasn't.

So I asked my friend if she had noticed the error. Oh, no, she didn't notice, but she said she never pays attention to things like that.  She "just reads." 

Maybe that's how everyone reads, and I'm the odd person out.  But then there's that single one-star review on Goodreads:  "This read like a fanfic, and not the good kind," reader Annemarie wrote.  She described the writing as "clunky," and I have to agree.

What does that mean?  In the case of A Sweet Chunk of Madness it means the writing doesn't flow.  The individual sentences are all right, but as Goodreader Annemarie writes, the text had ". . . sentences awkwardly put together to make longer ones."  

In good writing, one sentence leads seamlessly into the next.  In the opening paragraph from Barbara Bretton, the first sentence is about Joe Alessio.  The next one is about what's around Joe.  The next is about what Joe is doing there, and then about what he's hearing.  Each sentence carries on what the previous sentence started.

That's almost completely missing from Deany Ray's writing.  The sun and the beige drapes don't enhance our understanding of Becky's waking ten minutes before the alarm.  She's excited about baking, then she's in the shower, then she's heading into town . . . and then she's telling us about her past.  

And then we get details about her café and Ouna Bay.  Those details make no sense at all.

The Blue Bay Café was situated in the middle of Ouna Bay, attracting the town natives as much as the summer tourists. Ouna Bay is located near Lake Erie and it borders the mountains on one side and the sea on the other. The view of the beautiful bay and the small but charming harbor in the distance can be savored from the two wooden tables by the window. Those tables are the most coveted in the entire café.

Ray, Deany. Ouna Bay Cozy Mystery Box Set (4-Book Bundle) (p. 6). Kindle Edition.  

Wait a minute.  Is Ouna Bay an actual bay, as in a part of a body of water, or is that just the name of the town?  Oh, it's "located near Lake Erie," so I'm going to guess it's a town not actually on the lake shore but inland some short distance.  But mountains? What mountains?  And sea?  What sea?  Lake Erie is one of the Great Lakes, a body of fresh water hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean.  There are no mountains along the lake.  And how does the border the mountains on one side and the sea on the other?  Wouldn't they border the town?

I'm getting confused.  A second reading doesn't help much.

If Ouna Bay is a town located "near" Lake Erie, how can this little café have a view of "the bay" and a "charming harbor" in the distance?  Is the harbor in the bay?

Does Deany Ray even know what these words really mean?

If the café isn't right on the waterfront, it's not likely to be able to afford a view of the waterfront. This is optics, or physics, or topography, or something.

A reader who takes in the words on the page and turns them into a mental vision is going to be stumped trying to translate these sentences into a "scene."  On the other hand, a reader who just sees words and doesn't want to or need to make them into a coherent whole may be able to enjoy this kind of book just fine.  Kinda like Jabberwocky.

One of the criticisms leveled at Chris Vogler's The Writer's Journey is that it lays out such a rigid template that film makers -- more than creators of books or other forms of Story -- are unable to experiment with other narratives, and that this is why Hollywood keeps remaking the same tired stories over and over and over.  What happens, however, when a writer strays from the tried and true template?  Do we get the wow factor in a "new" template?  Or do we get incomprehensible drivel that doesn't satisfy anyone?

The new writer has far more freedom to experiment than the new producer playing with someone else's millions of dollars.  Just as we have conventions of grammar and spelling to make our writing comprehensible for all readers, so we have conventions of plotting and characterization to make all Stories comprehensible to all readers.  If the new writer wants to ignore those conventions, they're allowed to.  They can make up their own spelling, their own alphabet, their own syntax.  But then they have to deal with the audience that doesn't get it.  

When a reader embarks on the adventure of reading a book, she does so with certain expectations, but each individual reader has her own expectations.  The author who assumes (!) all readers have the same expectations runs a risk of disappointing some, and perhaps most, of those readers whose expectations are . . . different.

Whether the differences are intentional or just the result of incompetence, Deany Ray's stories in Ouna Bay Cozy Mystery Box Set just didn't meet my expectations.  I gave them a chance; I'm not going to read any more.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere: Deconstructing Jamaica Inn by Daphne DuMaurier



Part of this analysis was originally written and posted on BookLikes during a Halloween Bingo buddy read in October 2016. Now that BookLikes is essentially dead, I'm moving some of my material here for further exploration.

Be warned: This analysis contains major spoilers.  If you have not read Jamaica Inn and don't want to know ahead of time what happens, you might want to skip this.

Daphne DuMaurier's Jamaica Inn was published in 1936.  In 1939, Alfred Hitchcock turned the book into a film, with lots of major changes.  I do not recommend watching the movie as a substitute for reading the book.  The book is considered a classic of gothic romance; though there are no ghosts or other paranormal elements, the constant threats to the heroine amid a dangerous mystery set in an isolated and atmospheric location qualify for that genre.

Daphne DuMaurier, who lived most of her life in Cornwall, exquisitely uses setting to establish the whole tone of the novel.  She evokes not only the atmosphere of Cornwall but also its contrast to and isolation from the rest of the world.  The real Jamaica Inn still exists on the windswept Bodmin Moor.

Unlike many novels of the later 20th and 21st centuries, Jamaica Inn starts in the middle of that locale, with the atmosphere to create anticipation and mood, but then retreats into detailed backstory.  (I found the same to be true of Gwen Bristow's Jubilee Trail.)
I had originally read Jamaica Inn about forty years ago, and hadn't read it again until that rereading in 2016.  Even though I remembered the basics of the plot and one of the major "twists," this was very much like reading it for the first time. I was, however, much more aware of details, of structure and foreshadowing, and the whole use of language as an artistic medium, even when the composition was sometimes, well, sloppy.

Suffice it to say Jamaica Inn was not a satisfying read this second time around.

If you want a mood piece with fabulous descriptions of the harsh isolation of Bodmin Moor, this is it.  If you want a portrait of the worst of nineteenth century Cornish smuggling and wrecking, this is it.  If you want a coherent story with well-developed characters, this is not it.

For seventeen years, Mary Yellan and her widowed mother struggled to maintain a small farm near Helford, at the southern end of Cornwall.  To comply with her dying mother's wish, Mary sells the farm and all her belongings and moves to Jamaica Inn on windswept Bodmin Moor, where her Aunt Patience lives with her husband, Joss Merlyn, the landlord of the inn.  Mary soon discovers her uncle-by-marriage is deeply involved in a huge smuggling operation.

Wow!  Great potential!  But . . . .

At age 23, Mary is not a minor in need of a guardian, even though she is female.  So I'm not sure why she was forced to sell the farm.  The only motivation is that she was doing as her mother wished, but given what her mother had been through during seventeen years of widowhood to hang onto the farm, why let it go?  Maybe that sort of thing didn't occur to the young DuMaurier, who came from comfortable wealth.  After all, Mary had struggled, too, from early childhood to help her mother run the farm, and now she just up and sells it?  Doesn't make sense.  Why would her mother want her to?

Even so, what happens to the money Mary gets from selling the farm?  There's no mention of it, nor of debts that had to be paid off or anything else.  So Mary walks away from the only home she's ever known in a town where she at least knows people and presumably has some prospects for marriage even if she doesn't want to continue to operate the farm.  Okay, fine.

From this beginning, Mary Yellan never came across as a very sympathetic character to me.  First it was because no matter what I did, I couldn't rationalize her selling the farm with no other motivation than her mother told her to.  Had Mary been destitute like the poor, orphaned classic gothic heroine turned out upon the mercy of strangers, this might have made sense, but DuMaurier never describes Mary as penniless and having no other option than to seek shelter at Jamaica Inn with an aunt she hasn't seen in years.  She just mindlessly does it. Later, as the story progressed, I developed an active dislike for her  because she's a.) weak, and b.) inconsistent.  One minute she's saying her life is over and she doesn't care if she lives or dies, the next minute she's plotting her escape from her Uncle Joss.

In many ways, I felt Mary was TSTL -- to stupid to live -- but even more than that I felt she was just poorly created.  There were so many aspects of her characterization that made no sense whatsoever, that I began to see her as a kind of tour guide to Bodmin-in-Winter and not really as a person involved in the drama that was unfolding around her.

DuMaurier could have sent Mary to Jamaica Inn as a companion or help to Aunt Patience, but the opposite is stated.  Patience is set up as the (unnecessary?) shelterer for the orphan.  This proves untrue.  Throughout the book, Patience is little more than a fluttering idiot, completely beaten emotionally by her horrible husband.  And frankly, Mary herself isn't a whole lot better.  Neither is any help for the other.  After I had finished the novel, I began wondering just how many more of DuMaurier's female characters were spineless like Mary and Patience -- and of course the nameless heroine of Rebecca comes to mind -- and why she would write someone so unsympathetic.

I've come to believe that DuMaurier was not writing Mary Yellan's story as much as she was exploiting the gruesome history of Cornish smuggling and wrecking for plot and the oppressive isolation of Bodmin Moor for atmosphere.  There are too many holes in the plot for this to be a character-driven story.

The descriptions of the setting are superb, though I have to admit I'm sometimes a bit confused as to how much Mary can actually see in the dead of a rainy night.  It's not like there would be urban light pollution to illuminate the moors.  That's what I mean by sloppy writing.

For another example, a window is broken out at the end of December, and no one seems to notice or care, neither from outside the inn nor inside.  There's no mention of shutters that could be closed to mitigate the damage from rain or discomfort from the cold. Small things like this bothered me, took me right out of the story, and prevented me from suspending disbelief enough to get back into it.

None of the characters is fully developed except the villainous Joss Merlyn, the huge and vicious leader of the smuggling ring.  He has no good qualities at all, and it was difficult for me as a reader to imagine Patience, who is described as having once been pretty and happy, falling in love with him.  Even when Mary notices the occasional grace of Joss's fingers, that's not enough to redeem him even a tiny bit. His fingers?  Seriously?

So Mary leaves Helford and ultimately finds herself at Jamaica Inn, in the middle of a band of cutthroat smugglers, and she stays because of Aunt Patience, who used to be bright and happy but now is mostly a mumbling, mindless idiot.  Mary, who presumably was born and raised in Cornwall, apparently has no previous experience or even knowledge of "free-trading" and wrecking, which were basic facets of life in Cornwall for centuries.  So when she witnesses several murders connected to Joss and his operation of Jamaica Inn, she seems relatively unaffected by them.  Oh, it's awful, of course, that her aunt's husband and his confederates lure the ships onto the rocks, then drown or bludgeon the crew and passengers to death in order to salvage the cargo, but Mary somehow shoves it all down into the back of her mind and goes about her daily business.


For entertainment, she wanders the moors, and it's on one of these rambles that she meets Jem Merlyn, Joss's much younger brother.  Jem is a horsethief and lives in a pigsty of a cottage on the moor.  He has very little to recommend himself, but Mary falls in love with him anyway.  Why?  What's the matter with these women that they fall for absolute losers and don't question it?

Mary also meets the vicar of the church at Altarnun, the albino Francis Davey.  Davey is another character who held enormous potential for development and examination, but he became instead just a cardboard villain, the exotic "other" who must be inherently evil, like the albino assassin in The DaVinci Code.

As soon as there's a hint that Joss Merlyn isn't the mastermind behind the smuggling operation, the identity of the true leader is left in little doubt.  Mary, who can't seem to figure anything out, foolishly alerts the vicar to Joss's plan to escape Cornwall, and this spurs Davey to take action to protect himself.  Both Joss and Patience are murdered, and Mary is kidnapped, but the local squire, assisted by Jem Merlyn, arrives to save the day and rescue Mary.

With her aunt and Joss both dead, Mary once again is at loose ends.  She has no family, no home, and she rejects the squire's offer of domestic employment.  She decides to return to Helford, maybe hire out as a farmhand until she can buy her own little place.  (On farmhand's wages? She'd be lucky to get room and board and a pound a year, hardly enough to buy a farm.) But she runs into Jem on the moor; he has packed all his personal belongings on a wagon and is headed off to parts unknown.  Mary just hops up on the wagon with him and they ride off into the sunset.

Huh?  What about her personal belongings?  And Patience's? And what about Jamaica Inn itself?

Just as Mary inherited her mother's farm and sold it, only to have the cash not be mentioned in the story, either she or Jem Merlyn should have inherited the Inn.  Joss Merlyn bought it from the squire, so upon his death it should have gone to either his wife and her heirs, which would be Mary; or it should have gone to Joss's only living relative, which would be his brother Jem.

Though there were hints of some irregularities in Joss's purchase of the inn -- he probably used proceeds of smuggling to come up with the cash -- the squire never seemed to contest Merlyn's ownership of the property.  Yet after the smuggling ring is broken up and the principals dead, the squire just sort of announces his plans for the inn's future.  How did he regain possession of it?

Through the reading, I felt DuMaurier really didn't care about her characters, especially Mary Yellan.  They were props, providing a little bit of action so she could move them around on the stage of Bodmin Moor and describe it.  Mary had no spine, and no sense, and when she impulsively took off at the end, I again got that impression of someone just writing her off the scene.

There's a particular scene where Mary is walking out on the moors, I think when she goes to warn the Vicar about the smugglers, and she covers an enormous distance in a remarkably short period of time.  The notes I made on this excursion in 2016 have been lost in the BookLikes graveyard, but I'll try to find the information in the book, which I still have.

Ultimately, though, the book as a story fails; it's an atmospheric piece at best.  The characters are both unlikable and unrelatable; the plot is nonsensical.

"I have done a very senseless thing in coming here," [Mary] said hopelessly.  "I thought it clever, and I have only succeeded in making a fool of myself and of everyone else."

Yep, that's pretty much it.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Words on Writing, Part 1: The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler

 If I were asked to recommend the single most essential book for writers of popular fiction, I would not hesitate to name The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler.

 If your budget only has room for one book, get this one.  I know other teachers and bloggers and mentors will recommend others, but you asked me, so there's my answer.

I currently have two copies, the first edition from 1992, which is subtitled "Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters," and the third edition published in 2007, with the subtitle as above.  There is also a 25th Anniversary Edition which was released in 2020.  Even though I have two of the earlier editions, I just ordered the new one.  It's that important.

So, why this book?  Why not Strunk and White's Elements of Style?  Or Stephen King's On Writing?  Or Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird?


I've never liked Elements of Style.  While it may be a good resource for grammar and syntax, its emphasis on brevity doesn't work as well for fiction as it does for non-fiction.  Grammar, spelling, and writing style are important facets of skill no matter what you write, but fiction requires something way beyond that.

King's book is half memoir, half how-to, and while his personal history is interesting and gives insight into his writing, that very intimacy relegates the how-to half more to a "How I do it," as though what Stephen King does will work for everyone.

I've never read  Bird by Bird.  I never felt the need to.

I didn't discover The Writer's Journey until 1997, right before a writer's conference at which Christopher Vogler was going to be one of the featured speakers.  I bought the book a week or so before the conference and devoured it.  Vogler's presentation was supposed to last an hour; it stretched into almost three.  He was far and away the best speaker I've ever heard.

That still doesn't answer your question.  I'm getting to that.

Writing fiction, and in particular book-length popular genre fiction (as opposed to literary fiction, whatever that is), requires two skills: the ability to write and the ability to create stories.  Most of us can be taught the basics of how to write. We learn the rudiments in school, even if we forget most of them and/or never use them after they're no longer required for graduation.  Creating stories, on the other hand, isn't so easy to learn or to teach.  It's more a process of recognizing whether or not you have that skill and then putting it into practice if in fact you do have it.  If you don't, well . . . .

That may not be a popular opinion.  No one who really wants to  be a writer wants to be told they don't have the requisite story-telling talent.  And in this age of digital self-publishing, even being told that isn't a barrier to publishing.  It remains a sad fact, however, that there are many, many, many author-published books out there that just aren't very good.

For many of them, the author didn't have sufficient writing skill; even if there were a decent story in there, the writer couldn't bring it to life.  For many others, the writing is passable, but the story isn't.

If the story is there, the writing can be fixed.  If there's no story, no amount of fixing the writing will help.

The Writer's Journey explains what "story" is, how it's constructed of various parts, how those parts work together to complete the whole.  Perhaps most important, Vogler explains how and why this structure is virtually universal, over time and across genres and through various media, by giving numerous examples.  

"But but but, my story is different!"

No, my dear, it almost certainly is not.

Think about it.  What makes us keep reading, keep turning the pages, even if they're only digital pages on electronic screens.  "I need to know what happens next.  Will they be eaten by the monster?  Will she find her lost sister?  Is the grandmother the killer?  Will the volcano erupt?  Who changed the nuclear codes?"

"I need to know what happens next."

That's the essence of story structure: How each element logically, naturally, and emotionally satisfyingly leads to the next.   

Vogler's analysis is based on the works of Joseph Campbell and C.G. Jung, but being familiar with them is not at all necessary to understanding The Writer's Journey.  While Campbell analyzed myth as a historical -- and universal -- form of narrative, Vogler applies the form to the process of contemporary storytelling.  Campbell explains the hero's journey; Vogler shows you, the writer, how to create your own hero's journey and then make the journey with them.

As Shelly Lowenkopf pointed out in his 1982 article in The Writer magazine, "Creating a Rejection-Resistant Novel," you have to hook the reader at the beginning. Back then, the first person who read your (laboriously typed) manuscript on its journey to publication (or, more likely, rejection) might give you as many as three double-spaced pages to set that hook.  Lowenkopf knew even then that many beginning writers are shocked to learn editors, agents, and the other gatekeepers of the traditional publishing business don't routinely read the whole book. 

"But but but, mine is different!"

No, it probably isn't, and if it is, you still have to prove it.  And you have to prove it in the first three pages.  Or less.

As Josh Olson has written, 

It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you're in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you're dealing with someone who can't.

(By the way, here's a simple way to find out if you're a writer. If you disagree with that statement, you're not a writer.  Because, you see, writers are also readers.)

Josh Olson, "I will not read your fucking script," Village Voice, Sept 9, 2009.
There's an even older adage that goes, "Write chapter one, write chapter two, throw away chapter one."  In other words, you've probably put too much "stuff" in the first chapter that really doesn't need to be there.  Get to the effing story already.  The reader wants to know what's happening.

And that means starting your characters, your hero, on the journey.  Where they will go, what adventures they will have, what problems they will encounter, what defeats and victories they will experience, all are part of that journey.  

If you're not already a voracious reader, you probably won't be successful as a writer, but don't take just Josh Olson's word for it.  Throughout The Writer's Journey Chris Vogler gives example after example of movies and books that follow the same mythic structure. You can read the books, you can watch the movies.  The structure is there.

Vogler states clearly that it's not a "format."  You can't just plug your individual characters and setting into a template and walk away with a successful, satisfying novel, regardless of genre.  It's more of a palimpsest, an older, almost erased document of which parts remain and on which newer tales have been superimposed.  

When I write, that structure is always at the back of my creative mind, the blueprint on which an entire novel will be built.  It's also at the front of my mind when I'm writing a review.  Is it there when I'm reading?  I hope not!  I want to read for enjoyment; I want the words on the page to disappear so completely that I'm immersed in the scene, the action, the emotions of the book.  If I'm not, then the writer has done something wrong.

If you're a writer, do something right.  Read at least one edition of The Writer's Journey.  And if your budget allows it, buy a copy that you can have on hand to reference whenever necessary.  You'll be tested on it later.