I seldom finish a book I don’t like, but I recently got all the way to the end of a romantic suspense audiobook that I almost gave up on. Since I was usually exercising or doing housework while I listened, my tolerance for the book’s shortcomings was greater than if I’d been sitting and reading, and I had two reasons to endure the whole thing:
One: To find out how it would end.
Two: To learn from the author’s mistakes.
Obviously, reason number one says she did something right. Even close to the end, I had no idea who committed the murders. She laid the clues well, along with effective red herrings. I thought I knew “who done it,” but then I realized I was wrong. It came as a big surprise. I didn’t like the main characters, though, and the writing was noticeably flawed. As I said above, the flaws were educational. Each time I noticed one, I thought: I’d better not do that. Here are some examples.
- Overused words. Characters in this book don’t turn their heads, shift in their seats, or look around; they twist. “I twisted my neck” occurs particularly often. Between reading aloud and getting input from critique partners, I catch more and more of my habitual words, but I’m afraid I acquire new ones as I cure myself of the old.
- The descriptions of settings and actions are excessive. Detail has its place, of course. It’s useful that she gives the layout of the male lead’s house, because it’s an important setting as well as an unusual structure. But she also describes the complete décor of a rental cabin we’ll never see again, right down to the color scheme of the braided rug. A man doesn’t simply open a package, he takes a pen knife from his pocket, unfolds the knife, slices the paper diagonally, etc. Sex scenes are so long and so much alike, I could have skipped them and picked up the story again without having missed a thing (and half-way through the book, that’s what I started doing.) Sometimes it’s okay to tell, not show. Or at least to show a lot less.
- Not only is the food described in excess detail, far too many scenes take place in kitchens and in bars and restaurants. Yes, we all eat three meals a day, but in fiction, conversations can have more varied settings. Sameness gets stale.
- Secondary characters keep popping in uninvited, showing up on the street, or in those bars and restaurants, in order to deliver plot points. Some even fly in from another country to have an argument face to face rather than on the phone. Their presence feels contrived. I need to make the main characters’ choices and actions drive the plot, instead of using too many convenient intrusions.
- The main characters are stunningly attractive, and yet they eat huge unhealthy meals (always with dessert), drink a good amount of beer, and they never seem to exercise. How does he have that amazing rock-hard muscular body? How does she have a figure that makes everyone stare at her and desire her? They ought to look ordinary, not above average. I can be unrealistic and not notice—one of many reasons to keep getting multiple critiques. I do plenty of research, but beta readers have still caught things I overlooked.
- Every single person in the whole book is white. I’ve never lived anywhere so homogeneous, and since I use real towns and cities as settings, my characters reflect the diversity of those places. But do I fall into some other kind of unconscious pattern with my characters? I’ll have to look for it.
- The book is padded with conversations that could have been summed up in a sentence or eliminated altogether. I suspect the author was so fascinated by her characters and by exploring their relationships that she couldn’t bring herself to kill these long, dull darlings. My pantsing first drafts are full of material like this. I discover a lot by writing it—but it needs to take place offstage.
- Characters echo each other’s words. “I saw him.” “You saw him?” “Yes, I saw him.” Even if people occasionally talk this way in real life, it slows down the story. I should start dialogue where it counts, not with the warm-ups.
- The revelation of who committed the murders comes through a spate of expository dialogue in which the two conspirators tell each other what they already know, having an argument full of “That was our plan” statements. The protagonist is a witness to this, but she’s tied up, and until that moment she never had a clue what either of them was up to. The police show up after she’s heard it all and is in mid-escape. I can’t let the mystery be solved solely by accident and chance. And if I want to reveal a secret or backstory through dialogue, I need to set it up with conflicts, questions, and challenges to bring out the information in a believable way.
I picked up some valuable reminders from this audiobook, and most have to do with cutting and revision. I need to know more than my readers do, and then choose what to tell them and how.