Dancer Fred Astaire was one of Hollywood’s best box office draws during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Some say he was the most popular music dancer of all time. Although his style appeared effortless, those one take sequences on film were the result of hours and hours of rehearsal. Previous to Astaire’s success, Hollywood musicals concentrated on large chorus lines, filmed from different angles, resulting in a kaleidoscope effect. Astaire changed all that, presenting a solo dancer or couple in full-figure with minimum edits and camera angles. When you watch Fred Astaire, you see the real thing, no cameral magic to cover a misstep.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were before my time but I’ve always enjoyed watching them in old movies. I never thought of him as much of a romantic hero – too thin, too small, slightly balding – but I admired his dancing. Recently I saw an old movie clip of Astaire that segued into a modern dancer performing the same routine. I was astonished. The difference was so stark even a layman like me could see the difference. The modern dancer was competent, never missed a step. But Astaire was grace and elegance and fluidity and style with a capital S. Despite having watched his movies, I never really appreciated his talent until I saw a poor comparison.
As writers we’re encouraged to study our heros. Find an author we admire and enjoy. Study her methods. Read and re-read her work. Dig out what makes her words special and then incorporate what we’ve learned into our own writing. I admit that lesson doesn’t produce good results for me. I’m so overwhelmed with admiration for the authors who write with energy, and style and grace and elegance and verve and . . . that I forget I’m supposed to be pulling the story apart and doing a critique. I also find it hard to put my finger on just what it is that makes a particular author’s work so compelling for me.
Now, using my experience of watching Fred Astaire and an also-ran, I’m studying a “bad” book. This is an assigned reading for my book club. Otherwise, I’d have tossed the novel after the first five, boring pages. There are no “rules” for writing but there are certain conventions and expectations. For readers of fiction, I believe the first expectation is to be entertained, from the very start. One of the blogs I follow, Writers Unboxed, has a regular feature called “Flog a Pro.” Here the writer community is asked to comment on the first page of a best-selling novel and determine if they, as an editor, would turn the page. I’m sure the first page of this book would receive a “fail” in his test. It does not engage this reader, nothing happens, there is no story question, there is no pithy dialogue, there is no appealing character. In short, the beginning is boring.
Note to self: Reread first page of manuscript and be sure there is action, a question or a character who is so engaging the reader can’t help wanting to know more.
Most teachers of creative writing suggest limiting the story to one or two point-of-view characters. This book has four at least plus a couple of secondary POV segments. Not only does the story bounce around from one POV character to another, it bounces around in time from pre-war, to present day, to London Blitz, to post-war England and other points in between. When the author finally caught my attention, she jumped to a different character in a different time. When I got involved there, she jerked me to yet another time and character. By this time, I’d forgotten the initial question and I no longer cared.
Note to self: Teasing the reader with tidbits of information to draw her along in the story is a useful technique. Driving the reader nuts with endless, unresolved cliff-hangers will see your book make a splat on the wall.
The “heroine” of this book, is an unlikeable character. She is deceitful, conniving and self-absorbed. Tragedy in her personal history does not excuse her outrageous and damaging behaviour.
Note to self: Make your heroine likable. Flaws make a character more believable, but if the character is your hero/heroine, there must be some redeeming features. (S)he must grow, change and present the reader with an admirable personality by the end of the book.
Thank you Mr. Astaire, and the also-ran dancer who showed me the true genius of the master. I still wish I hadn’t had to read the last book, but you’ve shown me how to learn from a bad example.