Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Ten Things About Modern Novels I Can Do Without

Most people don't read nowadays, it's true. There are several reasons for this and there are several groups who have their own theories. The literati don't care as the common man is beneath them, the YA crowd think their novels aren't dark enough, and the genre fiction people tend to specialize in their chosen genre to the exclusion of outsiders who are clueless. They don't all do this, of course, but rarely do they appear to have much concern with the fact that their chosen profession is shrinking in size.

I know some people who don't read and while there are many reasons for it (usually because they're rushing from point A to B all the time), there are certain peeves about books nowadays that instantly turn them off, as they do me.

The following is a list of both the things I dislike about modern books, and what others I've met seem to dislike about them. This isn't an all-encompassing list, obviously, but a few of the more annoying parasites in the written story world that just won't go away and in fact seem to be getting worse every year. As always, prepare for strange tangents!

Ask someone why they don't read and you're guaranteed to get various responses all ending in the reveal that books are pretty boring. But of course, that's not true. Movie adaptions of novels are as popular as ever and even some of the most well known action movies (such as Die Hard and First Blood) were actually based on books!

The Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games series have been big successes at the box office, yet still people don't go out of their way to find the next great book in their library or book stores. Why is that?

Here is a list of ten things I've overheard and surmised from discussions over the years, as well as my own dark period where I hated reading (And it wasn't because "books are boring", I'll have you know!) when the world of books felt more like a poison pond to me instead of the life-enriching pool of storytelling they are. Thanks to the modern world and swill like Political Correctness, the mainstream is infected with stories that can't quite shake their stink, leading readers to prefer letting Captain Beatty burn the pointless books than suffer through another rotten novel of complete emptiness.

#1 - Self-referencing & Being Obscure

The telling mark of arrogance. Audiences don't like being winked over or talked around, as they don't in real life (gasp and shock). No, they like to be told a story and talked to. It is the writer's job to make the point of the story crystal clear to the reader to transmit your story directly to them. Making it purposely obscure for your reader to understand what you are saying is contempt for the audience and is the number one problem any reader will have with any book.

The story you are writing is not about you and how clever you are or how many veiled references you can sneak into a paragraph. It is about communication between the author and the reader, and nothing else. If the reader does not understand your book, you have failed at the single most important aspect of your job. Why would someone want to read a book by someone who doesn't think much of them?

Books are about stories, not about how you can fool your readers or talk around subjects. Storytelling is not a gameit's communication.

#2 - Purple prose

Everyone who has ever written a story at any point in their lives has suffered from this. We always try to make our writing seem better and "fuller" than it is, but we also tend to grow out of it.Some authors do not.

While we don't tend to deal with reading a page about how green a forest is or how striking the princess's eye color is, there are other forms of purple prose. Deconstruction tends to use it in place of storytelling (nonsense descriptors with clever winks that have nothing to do with the story) just as amateurs like me use it when unsure of what else to write. Any passage that distracts from the central theme and story to describe a subject that has little to do with the story must be clipped.

It's a crutch, and one readers no longer have the patience for. That said, it would sure help if reviewers would stop enabling it by praising books with no point that go on for pages about nothing because the imagery is pretty. They should call it for what it isa waste of the reader's time.

But then, that would be assuming they care if little Ralphie continues reading once he graduates high school. In this day and age, chances are he won't. If all reading is such a waste of time, why should he?

#3 - It's because of "Bad Parenting tm"

Motivations of characters are fairly important to anyone who loves a good story. Why exactly does the main character choose to get up in the morning? Why is the villain so wretched? There are good answers to these questions and there are bad ones. The most prominent being that they were raised wrong and are thus incapable of doing the right thing. In other words, it's not their fault! We're all really good guys (except parents, apparently)!

Now, I have a bad parent in my novella, While You Were Dancing, who is one of the people my main character dislikes. But the difference is that his mother is not the reason his life is currently messed up. The story repeatedly shows examples that when he is given the choice to do something he chooses the wrong path because he wants to or the right path because of reasons he doesn't quite understand. He uses his mom as a punching bag for his choices but, as it is shown, she is not the reason he decides to do what he does at any point in the story. He is fully responsible for his choices, as the way it should be.

The problem is that in most stories, the bad parent is the entire motivation a character has for being evil. Staples such as "I was struck as a child and now I'm going to strike everyone else," or "My parents abused me so I can't love anymore" are beyond tired. Give your characters free will, and not have them be limited by the choices of others to stunt their growth or as a crutch for easy conflict.

#4 - The Good-looking Outcast

This is the cliche I would have figured teenagers would have seen through long ago and thrown into the waste-bin for being totally unrealistic. You've seen it beforegorgeous female protagonist who hangs out with flawed male companions that all love her unconditionally and everyone outside of her inner circle find her striking as well. In other words, she's only an outcast because she hangs out with freaks, otherwise she is an ideal. Because the popular gorgeous girls hang out with the geeks regularly, right? How is this character an "outcast" if everybody loves and worships the ground she walks on? The answer: she isn't.

This is like writing a character who is intensely popular at school with the cool kids, but is frequently left speechless and has no real verbal skills in crucial social situations. How exactly do you get popular in school without social skills? You don't.

Outcast characters are outcast for a reason, not merely because of who they hang out with. Social problems are a bit more complex than that.

The biggest flaw with this one is rather obvious. It screams "wish fulfillment" and doubles as the character's personal flaws instead of giving the character real ones. Because of they're an outcast, that's a good enough struggle for them to face, no?


#5 - Life is essentially worthless

I am regularly puzzled at the praise books like Catcher in the Rye get from people who apparently "cherish" childhood and look down upon adulthood. This is a book where nothing happens except the main character whining about things he is too lazy to find out on his own and who has no real problems to speak of, yet somehow spouts "sage advice" to people who should know better. He values children because they're stupid and don't know any better and hates adults because they apparently lie for no reason despite no real proof on his end.

Now, maybe it was because I had actual problems as a teenager, but there is nothing of value to be gained from this character and this essentially worthless story. (Sidebar: I've heard people say you're "supposed" to dislike Holden Caufield and find him shallow. Problem: Learn anything about Salinger himself and you'll know that's not what he intended. Hijacking the book for your own selfish gain never proves a point in an argument.) All you're left with is the fact that human beings are either liars or stupid and life is terrible so don't expect anything good to come of it.

So what's the point of reading this book besides looking down on others?

If I had actual problems in my life, why would I want to read a book about someone who doesn't, but thinks he does, and then whines about it for the length of an entire novel? I could be reading The Outsiders instead and actually getting a good story with a message that isn't essentially pointless and would potentially add something worthwhile to my life.

Guess which ones they prefer to teach in schools?

#6 - Everything is a trilogy

Fantasy authors, listen up. Lord of the Rings is not a proper trilogy. It is one long story bound into three volumes when they were first printed because of paper shortage in the war. So you do not need to make your epic quest span pointlessly over three books EVERY time you think one up. Sometimes I want to sit down and read a standalone fantasy book, but can't because every new story must be a trilogy making the plot unwieldy. Even Science Fiction authors have gotten into this act. Stories get padded in order to be made longer and in the process what would have been a really good 250 page book becomes an 1100 page slog.

Why can't a story just be a one and done deal? One book, one story, and a complete arc? Who said an epic story can't be done in one book?

A trilogy is supposed to be three separate stories that connect into a larger arc of a character or theme. C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy is like this, Lord of the Rings less so. Trilogies are not "one long story divided into three books," so please stop labeling them this way. Where this gets annoying are publishers wanting every story to be a trilogy, so the author ends up sacrificing the story in order to make more short term profits. If you can find more than a handful of people who actually liked Mockingjay or the final Divergent book, I would be surprised.

I've said before that my stories are interconnected but they are all standalone. I have a certain amount of stories to tell with the world and then I am done and need to move on. Would a publisher make me squeeze them into something they are not, the result would be terrible and would negatively impact them all in the end. I have yet to come across a trilogy made in this manufactured way that was any good that has lasted over the years.

Natural trilogies are fine, but they are supposed to be rare for a reason. Not every story can be made into one.

#7 - "Little did he know . . . Author Intrusions Would Annoy Him"

I liked it when in The Fellowship of the Ring when Tolkien went on to describe what happened to a set of ponies after they exited the story. It was cute, funny, and added charm to the scene. It involved no spoiling or telegraphing of the plot because the ponies had nothing more to do with the story. That's the type of author intrusion that works.

What doesn't work? A prologue that exists for the sole purpose to show the reader who the bad guy is and then followed by a story where we have to wait for the protagonist to catch on to who the villain is. You're playing with the audience.

In other words, don't talk down to your audience by parceling out information to create a story. simply tell the story.

#8 - Pointless Sex Scenes

There are sometimes stories where a story-related intrusion on an intimate scene can add power to the plot or a strange comic touch. It's exceedingly rare, but it does happen.

Otherwise, descriptive sex scenes have no real place in a story. A scene of sexual acts will always slow the plot down and is usually unnecessarily gratuitous. These scenes add nothing to the characters, and I have never met anyone who enjoyed reading them that didn't already have a pornographic obsession.

Rule of thumb, if it doesn't further the story or the theme, don't include it.Sex scenes rarely ever do.

#9 - Every Character is Vile Except the Saintly Protagonist

Your poor main character is being mistreated! Every person in the world is being a big meanie mean to himand he doesn't even deserve it! Please. This is basically making every character in your story a one dimensional stereotype without any motivations for being the way they are. And it usually results in the story being nothing but propaganda from the writer.

People don't put up with this in the films and TV shows they love, so novels have no excuse to revel in this practice. The fact of the matter is nobody wants to read about a whiner being put down by everyone else because they just don't understand your deep character who is basically you in all but name. That's spoiled teenager talk. The tale being about such a spoiled character is fine, but at some point they have to realize they're wrong and need to change, and hopefully before the end of the book.

This isn't just about every character except the protagonist being a bad guy, but about general likeability. Every character you write has to be likeable on some level even if its a so-bad-they're-good level. Your protagonist isn't Jesus, he is not a saint, and he will have flaws. Conversely your antagonist is not Satan, he is not a demon, and he will have traits that are human floating somewhere inside even his malevolent acts.

This isn't about being morally ambiguous or any other tired fad the PC crowd clings to, but about being fair to the characters you are writing. If you do not love them all, your audience will not love any of them.

#10 - Villains Need to "See Themselves as Heroes" to be Believable

I know this is sort of an extension of the previous point, but this is actually quite the opposite flaw and by far the worst advice floating around out there. It's a massive misunderstanding of Good and Evil. It also almost always leads to a cheesy speech about how the villain was really such a good guy once you get to know him but you didn't because your evil, evil protagonist killed him. Oh, and he was only misguided! How diverse.

This is about as lazy as making good guys wear black clothes and bad guys wear white clothes and calling it an ingenious inversion of classical tropes. Your characters are only wearing new hats. There is absolutely nothing creative about it whatsoever. So why are we pretending it is? Why are we pretending there are now bad people out there who want to be bad and maybe even enjoy it?

People like this exist, so I fail to see how it's bad writing. I can even give examples from real life to back me up.

Richard Ramirez, "The Night Stalker", was a real life serial killer who was not only a satanist, but reveled in the fact that he thought he was a bad person and enjoyed torturing people to death. Franklin Delano Floyd has done some of the most vile acts the modern world has known, thinks he was given a raw deal, but not only does not consider himself a saint, is a tremendous liar. Because of his craftiness, he was only arrested for one murder, but what he did might even paint Ted Bundy in a better light. Oh yeah, Ted Bundy. Did he think he was a good guy? These are real life "Black Hats" and, if you have ever read anything about them, have many reasons and explanations for why they turned out the way they did and why they revel in it. None them involve mistaking their actions as nobility. All are decidedly human with motivations for their acts.

Bad guys thinking they are good guys is simply not the way the world works. Bad guys typically don't care about who they crush underneath their boots, and have no illusions about what they're doing. They either know they are doing evil and love it, or they don't believe in evil because its all relative so they can run roughshod over anyone they please. That's pretty much how it works in the real world. To write them as anything else is ridiculous.

Where the complexity comes from is the villain's motivation, not how he sees himself. It involves why they chose to do the wrong thing despite knowing they are doing a rotten act. Pretending they are not doing bad things kills the only interesting aspect of the villain and makes them stupid.Only an idiot kills because his mommy spanked him when he was a kid, and only a vile human being would claim they were doing good while keeping three women locked in a basement for over a decade. How dumb do you think the people who do this and get away with this for years are? Nobody is stupid enough to kill people and ruin others lives and think they are good guys unless they are sufficiently insane people.  And insanity is a weak motivation for a character in a novel.

"Heroic" villains are shallow in real life. People like the woman who convinced a teenage girl to commit suicide because the woman was mentally stunted, or Michael Skakel murdering Martha Moxley because she didn't want to date him. They both thought they were doing a good thing at the time. What exactly is striking or worth writing about there? These acts are vile on a childish level and not worth a second thought or contemplation. We know why they did this, because they are not very smart people. There's nothing complex or worth discussing here.

There is only one way to write a villain who thinks they are a hero, and not making them a whiny stunted child, and that is making them exactly like Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin. And of course that stereotype is such an original treasure trove of original ideas, isn't it? Can you even name a classic book in which the villain thought they were the good guy who wasn't a tyrant who murdered many people? Probably not.

So don't do it.

Whew, that was long.

Well, there's my top ten. Of course, you're free to disagree with any of these, I mean, I'm guilty of following some of them myself, but that doesn't change the fact that these are the most annoying aspects of modern novels that irk me. If you have one of your own I'd love to hear it, or if you think modern novels are perfect I'd be fine with that, too.

At the end of the day, we all enjoy stories, and want the best we each think we deserve. Personally, I just want more stories in the vein of the classics and the old adventure novels. Here's hoping my wish comes true and we get less of the above in the future.

It sure would be nice.

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