Sunday, February 9, 2014
A Book That Failed And What We Can Learn From It
A number of years ago a genre author of some repute decided to write a "big, important" book. The publisher got behind him with a campaign, copious blurbs from name authors, all the trimmings. The subject matter was "ripped from the headlines." The publisher was sure it had not only a bestseller, but a mega-hit. The writer was certain to move into that rarified air of the bestselling-plus-respected author. Movie rights would surely follow, maybe with Clint Eastwood attached to direct.
But the book sank like a Mafia stoolie in cement shoes.
Despite all the best efforts of publisher, writer, and publicity department, readers simply did not buy. Word of mouth failed to issue a positive vibe.
I have two things to say about this.
First, I heartily salute this author for making the attempt to do more with his fiction. Writers need to stretch, grow, challenge themselves. That always brings the risk of failure. But as The Rock famously said, "I would rather fail being aggressive than being passive."
But, second, with this book the author seemed to throw out all the fundamentals of plot and structure, as if that was necessary for an "important" novel. I kept thinking, Why is he doing this? Where was the editor?
The first two pages are especially tough. An attempt at heightened language, to impress with style alone, and no close POV character. It just did not work.
Too many characters are introduced too soon, and in an omniscient narrative voice. I kept wondering, Who am I supposed to care about? It wasn't until page 21 that he gave a single, close POV. I was relieved, and thought, This is where the book should have started.
But then the next chapter introduces a completely different POV. And the chapter after that yet another POV. And yes, same thing for the next chapter. I was confused about who this story was really about.
Another barrier is that the chapters consist of long slogs of narrative summary. Big chunks of backstory bring the already minimal forward motion to a complete standstill.
And all through these chapters, more prose that seemed designed to impress rather than tell a story.
This is why the novel failed, even with all the blurbs and publicity and push. Which brings up a few lessons:
1. Readers have the final say
No matter how much marketing you do, or how much publicity and ad buys you're able to garner, readers alone will decide if the book is going to sell. Word of mouth is the great determinant of sales success. Even if critics are impressed, it's the readers who bring the food money.
2. Hey, maybe there are rules after all
Some writers are fond of saying, "There are no rules!" What they mean is that a writer should be free to go where he pleases, not feel hemmed in, and that's certainly true. But you know what? The "rule" that you should establish a POV character we care about right from the start, might not be a bad one to follow. If I was browsing in a bookstore and cracked open this book and read the first couple of pages, I would never have plunked down $24.99 for it. Or $10.99. Or even $3.99. I might have taken it home from the remainder shelf for $2.99. That's called consumer behavior. (I actually got the book for under a buck at a used bookstore.)
Likewise, the "rule" that you ought to be unfolding a story in three acts––because that's how we are wired or trained to receive drama––is ignored at your peril. This book dragged so much in the first third that I just gave up. (I have tried three times to get into this novel.)
How about the "rule" that you should have conflict, tension and present-moment action in every scene? The long bouts of narrative summary in this book violated the über-rule of fiction: Don't bore the reader.
Or the "rule" that style should serve story, and not the other way around?
Maybe before you embrace "there are no rules" you ought to at least see what the craft teaches about what has worked over time. I bet the publisher––and hopefully, the author––now wish that had been done with the novel in question. I'm always around to help.
3. Learn from failure
The author has since moved back to more familiar genre grounds. I suspect he's better for at least having attempted to write something beyond his comfort zone. Leonard Bishop, the author of Dare to Be a Great Writer (Writer's Digest Books), said, "If you boldly risk writing a novel that might be acclaimed as great, and fail, you could succeed in writing a book that is splendid." In this case, the book was not splendid, but if the writer learns from his bold risk and craft failure, he himself may write many more superb books in his career. And thus, this whole episode will have been to his benefit, and that of his readers.
So what have you learned from a failure? Isn't that sometimes the best teacher of all?