Friday, February 3, 2012

The Merits of Subtlety

I fretted over posting this for some time because I don’t want to inadvertently offend anyone, but I think there are points worth making here. However, I would like to begin with a little disclaimer that this is truly based on an amalgamation of some of the books I’ve read recently and is in no way a pointed attack on any particular author. None of these comments are inspired by a specific book or writing style, and I sincerely hope that my comments will be taken in the spirit in which they were intended. As I mention in this post, I myself am guilty of all of the missteps I’ve outlined, so I am throwing rocks at my own glass house by sharing this. 

So here goes. Gulp.


As I have begun wading into the pool of self-publishing, I have been doing a lot of reading to gauge the sort of sharks I’ll be swimming with. After all, we all benefit from sharing our experiences and learning from each other. Self-publishers do have a central weakness: the lack of a professional editor. Yes, we have access to paid services, but in many ways these do not provide the hyper-critical laser beam focus that a publishing house’s editorial staff would provide. Certainly, a paid service will make sure you don’t mix up “accept” and “except” or “past” and “passed,” but their job is not to tell you that your plot is clichéd or that your main character would benefit from a frontal lobotomy. This opens the door to a host of common problems in self-published novels, and these problems do tend to impact the success of independent authors as a whole, although nowhere near to the same extent they once did.

The majority of my reading has been romance novels incorporating a mystery, a paranormal slant, or both, so my comments are definitely directed primarily to those genres. As a compulsive reader, it takes a lot for me to walk away from a book without finishing it. I mean, I read cereal boxes. For entertainment. Including the list of ingredients. If a novel is too painful for me to finish, this is a really bad sign. Unfortunately, the frequency with which I have done this has increased dramatically since I began specifically reading self-published books.

In my recent reading, one overwhelming detail that I have noticed is that writers often fall into the trap of heavy-handed narratives, practically beating their readers over the head with their characters’ emotions. This error is further compounded by over-used devices like the wisdom-spouting stranger, the psychological profile from a close friend/family member/bartender, and the grand romantic gesture. I’ve committed all these sins myself. So how do we recognize the pitfalls so we don’t fall in? 

Know your enemy!


Since I don’t want to quote anyone in particular and then have them come after me with torches and pitchforks, I shall create over-the-top faux examples of each common boo-boo.

1) The “Strong” Heroine Who Cries


“My grandfather died twenty years ago,” I whispered, my eyes filling with tears. They quickly spilled over as I continued, “He was killed in a freak Zamboni accident during an earthquake right after I lost my parents to freedom fighters from North Dakota. I miss him so much every day, but I know he would have wanted me to go on. So I have continued to pursue my dream of becoming the first macramé artist in space in honor of him and everything he taught me.”

“Flexis, you are the strongest woman I’ve ever met,” Stud said, gripping my arms in hands that shook with repressed emotion.


A character’s back story can be sad without tears, and if you want inner strength and fortitude in your heroine, having her cry over her misfortunes is not the way to achieve it. This is especially true when the past misfortune happened so long ago that any normal person would be able to at least relate the story without tearing up. Also, strong female characters do not cry every time they receive bad or even confusing news. She never knew her family secret? Okay, have her be concerned, muddled, upset, impatient, or questioning… but don’t have her blub about it like an infant and then turn around and call her strong.

2) The Amateur Shrink/Dr. Phil Wannabe


“He won’t let anyone get close to him ever since his cat died in Afghanistan. And then when our mom joined the circus train, it just reinforced his lack of faith in relationships. But a good woman would make him see the light,” Dirk’s sister said, spastically winking as she nudged me repeatedly with her elbow.


If someone starts talking to me like this, they’re usually drunk.

3) The Flouncer


I couldn’t believe my eyes. There he was, tossing a salad in my kitchen as if he had the right! It was a clear message to me that he would never take me as seriously as Suzanna, who would have been able to master the fine art of salad preparation. And to make his point with salad, knowing as he did that my own mother was killed while standing at a salad bar! How had I ever thought I could love this man? Furious, I turned on my heel and stormed out of the apartment, getting in my car and driving away in a cloud of dust. If I never saw him again, it would be too soon.


The overreaction doesn’t make this moment more dramatic – it just makes the heroine sound like a freaking lunatic. When the man (inevitably) goes after her to apologize for his salad insensitivity, I always want to smack him for not recognizing a blessing when he sees one. I wouldn’t wish that kind of a relationship on anyone. Also, if you want your readers to take a romantic relationship seriously, please don’t use the old “had they just communicated with each other” device to bring tension. Judging someone you supposedly love without talking to them and giving them a chance to respond really doesn’t sound like love. It sounds like high school.

4) The Egotistical Wallflower


I was shocked that he even looked at me twice. There was nothing special about me. My glossy, chestnut hair fell in long waves down my back, my skin had the delicate translucence of a Spring rose, and my eyes were a cold fire of gold and green. And yet Ethan had called me beautiful. It didn’t make sense. What was he seeing that I didn’t?


First of all, ever since Twilight became popular, the number of romantic heroines whose skin is described as “translucent” has reached truly ridiculous proportions. I get the lure of pale skin in a vampire novel, I do – but for the love of all that’s good in the world, PLEASE invest in a thesaurus. Second, if your heroine has a poor self-image, low self-esteem, or a lack of self-confidence, that’s fine – just try to make her not sound like she’s trying to hump her own leg while protesting that she’s ugly. If you want to show that she’s really beautiful and can’t see it, that’s why God made things like other characters and dialog. Just saying.


I could go on and on, but I’ve exceeded my rant quota for the day, so I’ll wrap this up. 

Think about the books you love: the ones that capture your imagination; make your heart go pitty-pat; or bring tears to your eyes. Think about the scenes that touch you most, and I can guarantee you that they all have one thing in common. Subtlety. Just a word or a phrase that hints at the underlying emotion or internal struggle. That’s all that’s needed. No long-winded explanations that make it impossible for the reader to feel any suspense or tension. Write what engages you – which isn’t the images running around in your head as you read. Look at the actual passages you respond to as opposed to the mental pictures you’ve painted, and hopefully you’ll see what I mean. 

And if not, I’ll be up late, watching for torchlight reflecting off your pitchforks.


ButterflyBetty said...

I will respectively disagree with you on some of your points, but I can agree with others. It's not always beating the emotion into your characters, but making sure your readers can connect with them.

Just my opinion, though.

Elizabeth Lawrence said...

I do agree with you, and I now realize I should have added that these comments are just my opinion. Charles Dickens is a revered author, and I can't stand his books. Just because it's not my cup of tea does not make it inherently wrong.

ButterflyBetty said...

This is why I love you. We can disgree, respectively, and not let it become a big deal. Though, I do agree that some writers, and I have to admit that I am guilty of this, too, use some these things as a tool.

Shah Wharton said...

This post is fantastic and made me laugh out loud and say "Holy shit, thats bang on!" at every turn. Love it. Now I'm going to re-write my entire manuscript LOL

I gave you the Versatile blogger award. The post where you can collect it is here: Have a great day. :D

Wheelie said...

I needed the late night laugh. If there's a blogger of the year award, you're taking it, sweetie!