At one time of my life I was involved with amateur theatre. I loved it. Rehearsals were a blast. Meeting the cast, who became your family for the run of the show. Costumes, make-up, staging– it kept me coming back year after year. Opening nights were the best. The air buzzed with excitement. Players vibrated with nerves and anticipation. The energy backstage could have powered the stage lights. When the curtain went up, we reached out to that audience with both hands, determined to shake them out of their seats and send them home amazed by the talent right there in their home town.
The second night, meh. . . The actors were exhausted from the effort they’d put into opening night. We had to work at putting energy into the performance. Second night audiences always seemed uninvolved. Even though the show might be technically more polished than opening night, it usually felt flat to the cast. We just hoped the audience wouldn’t notice how hard we were trying.
The book I just finished, felt a bit like second night at the theatre to me. It wasn’t wrong, it just wasn’t right. If this had been the author’s second book, I’d have put its shortcomings down to time pressure — an editor or agent demanding a new book in a few months whereas the first one took a year or maybe years. But this was the third book. What happened? How can we avoid this let down in our own writing?
I’ve just finished reading a book I anticipated with joy. Unfortunately, the actual book disappointed. I’d read two of the author’s previous books with pleasure. The latest had the same WWII, England setting. The main characters were a group of women, just like in the earlier books, yet this one relied on too many co-incidences, too many unmotivated changes of heart, and too easy resolutions to the conflict.
Have a Big Idea
Sometimes, with the pressure to produce a new work in less than your comfortable timeline, an author may jump at the first idea that presents itself. If it’s a small idea it may work for a short story, but won’t be enough to carry a whole novel. Even if you are a pantser, try to jot down a few turning points to be sure your idea will carry a whole book.
Do You Have a Passion for this Book?
That first book, was likely a story that had been brewing in your imagination for some time. You just had to write it. You were in love with the characters. The setting was a place you knew well, whether real or fictional. You couldn’t wait to spend time in that place with those people.If you are now writing on command from reader or publisher expectations, you may be creating a less interesting place with one dimensional characters. Even if you are under pressure, make sure the story you tell is one you love.
The Editor on Your Shoulder
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could “un-know” much of what we’ve learned as we wrote those first words? In blissful ignorance, we plunged right in and let the characters tell the story any way they wished. We didn’t worry about head-hopping, or point-of-view, or beats, or three-act structure. Now, all of those writing crafts are important. Learning them and using them in your own process will improve the quality of your book in second and third drafts. But all that stuff can clutter up your brain in the rough draft. Replace that nagging editor with a bluebird of happiness — one who chirps “great line”, “too funny,” “I’m crying.” That’s the voice you want to listen to when getting the story onto the page. When you’re ready to edit and revise, set the bluebird free and let the nagging editor do her job. Just don’t let her try to edit the blank page.
Remember the Rules of the Craft
After years of writing and a bunch of manuscripts, it’s possible to go on automatic pilot. That may have been what disappointed me in the book I just read. First rule, we need conflict and it has to matter.
In this book, the conflicts were real and important, yet they were easily resolved with a single conversation, or even a character just having a change of heart for no particular reason.
Character development. In this example, the characters had a sameness to them although they came from very different backgrounds. There wasn’t enough difference in their speech or in their inner dialogue to make them stand out. And they were all “nice.” We all want nice people in our real lives, but in fiction they are bland and boring.
Go Deep on POV. It seemed to me that this author had given us an outline of her story rather than the finished product. She set up intriguing situations but only scratched the surface of the characters and the conflicts. Even the setting was given a mere glance. Rationing, food shortages, enemy bombers, black marketers . . . these are all riveting elements for a novel, yet I was never really afraid, or hungry. Mostly I was disappointed. An author that I know can write a gripping tale, had short-changed me on this one. I don’t know why. I just know I’ll think twice before putting down money for another of her books.
And that is the real lesson for authors in this experience. It is a truism that you are only as good as your last book. Don’t kill your career by putting out something that is less than your best.