Friday, April 4, 2014

Avoiding DNFs and Hooking Readers

If you are a fiction writer (or a fiction reader), you know that there is a certain structure that most narratives should follow.  The climax can't come before the introduction, for example.  Most world-building and character introductions have to happen in the first half of the book.  After the climax, the book can't stop all action and insert a gravy recipe written in limerick form.  Probably.

Not all books are the same, of course, but having the introductions and plot points fall in their logical places means that a reader can get a feel for the flow of the story without having to work for it.  Caring about a story shouldn't be something you earn through dedicated effort, it should be the reward for opening the book.

I understand that some people will disagree with me on this, and that's fine.  Everyone is free to like what they like.

As a non sequitur, I want to give an example of good writing that has nothing to do with books to demonstrate the importance of hooking the audience.

The Mass Effect trilogy is a series of role-playing video games with a science fiction setting.  After the initial setup, you are thrown into the world.  The player learns that humanity has entered the intergalactic stage, but is considered a secondary race.  You and your ship is being sent on a superficially unimportant mission which actually has galaxy-changing repercussions.  Your hero/ine is being considered to be inducted into a prestigious order - a first for humankind.  Your should-be simple mission goes horribly awry, including an alien invasion and several deaths.

This is the first five minutes of gameplay.  At this point in the game, I was sitting on the edge of my seat, knowing that "I am responsible for the safety of the other crew members with me, the reputation of my ship and my captain, and possible the safety of the galaxy."  I had to complete this mission.  It was important.  And I was the only one who could do it.

If only all books could grab a reader's emotions the same way!

I do understand that this is a video game, and has the added benefit of being an interactive, visual medium, but the same principles apply.  If the first five minutes of the game showed my character reading a textbook about the political ramifications of methane mining on planetary moons, I probably wouldn't care.  I also understand that "saving the galaxy" is an extreme example.  However, a book needs to have something to make a reader care.  A hooked reader will forgive any number of flaws if you give him/her something to care about.

There are many different ways to do this, but not all possibilities will apply to all genres.

Make a character relatable/sympathetic.  As an example, there might be an underdog character who's having a bad day.  Perhaps the protagonist just found out the love of his life is cheating on him.  I want to have someone to root for in the book.  Please, please give me one.  This should be the first and foremost thing any author does.  Harry Potter was an underdog kid with mean relatives, but he was still a good person.   A reader wanted Harry to have a better life...perhaps one filled with magic and friendship?

Set up a mystery.  In The Egyptologist, the introduction (a letter written by the titular character to his fiance) insinuates that Howard Carter might have murdered the protagonist.  Instantly, my historian brain said, "Is this a murder mystery?  A sort of alternate history?  How did this man meet Howard Carter?  Why would a famous archeologist kill someone?"  I'm five pages into the book and I want to know.

Make a character fascinating - or reprehensible.  George R. R. Martin starts his series with so many of these possibilities it hurts.  Let's just say if you can "love to hate" a character, you're on track.  Cersei Lannister, anyone?  How about the Freys?  It's hard to find a fan of these books that doesn't have a strong feeling on one of these people.  For a more happy example, read Fortune's Pawn.  Devi Morris is full of herself, incredibly ambitious and almost obnoxious and I fell in love before the first chapter was over.

Start with a bang.  If I remember correctly (which I might not) Crown of Midnight starts with Celaena bringing the head of a man she assassinated to the king she hates.  Blood and action!  Only then we find out she didn't murder the man after all and is risking her life to maintain this deception.  Suspense!  Also, I like our heroine a little bit more - and fear for her - because of this dangerous masquerade.

In media res. Often known in my head as "I don't know what's happening but I'm excited!"  Something important or riveting is happening and it sounds either important or exciting and now I care.  Bam!  You hooked a reader.

Make your setting matter.  Boneshaker starts with a brief description of a character and her place in an alternate Seattle where poison gases seeping from the ground after a botched experiment have turned the city into a hive of zombies.  With that, I have the setting and an idea of its ramifications.  Also, it's interesting!  How does this setting affect this character?  How does the character affect the setting?  Generally, I would prefer this to be a secondary option.  Generally a reader needs a person before they can relate to a place.

Humor.  Again, this won't apply to all books, but if the first chapter makes a reader laugh, they have invested their emotions into the words on the page.  It might not be enough to carry the entire story - there needs to be something else there - but it's a start.  Lamb starts with a funny story about Jesus Christ as a kid resurrecting lizards for his baby brother to play with (it doesn't sound funny here, but it is).  Any Christopher Moore book will have something the first few pages to at least make you smile.

Moral of this long-winded post:
Resolution for 2014:  A book gets 50 pages - or 10% of the book's length, whichever is longer - to hook me.  It doesn't have to make me drool, it doesn't have to make me cry, it doesn't have to make me jump up and down screaming with joy.  But I want to care about someone or something in the story by that point.

The most damning thing to be said about a book is not "it's badly written" or "it's stupid" but rather "I don't care about anything/anyone in this story."  This hurts me because, despite my cantankerous nature and cold, reptilian heart, I really do want to invest a part of myself into a book.
The most damning result of a truly "bad" book.

Do you have any "instant hooks" that you prefer to find in books?

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Book Review: Song of Scarabaeus

Song of Scarabaeus  by Sara Creasy
Book 1 of "Scarabaeus"

Trained since childhood in advanced biocyph seed technology by the all-powerful Crib empire, Edie's mission is to terraform alien worlds while her masters bleed the outlawed Fringe populations dry. When renegade mercenaries kidnap Edie, she's not entirely sure it's a bad thing . . . until they leash her to a bodyguard, Finn—a former freedom fighter-turned-slave, beaten down but never broken. If Edie strays from Finn's side, he dies. If she doesn't cooperate, the pirates will kill them both.

But Edie's abilities far surpass anything her enemies imagine. And now, with Finn as her only ally as the merciless Crib closes in, she'll have to prove it or die on the site of her only failure . . . a world called Scarabaeus.

Rating:  3 of 5 stars.

One downside of an addiction to Mass Effect (yes, the video game series) is that I now find myself searching for books to give me just one more fix.  This is sort of where Song of Scarabaeus comes in.  Reading the blurb, it sounds like space adventure with a female lead and a splash of romance - just the recipe I crave.

Here's where I confess this is the second time I attempted to read this book.  I succeeded this time, of course, but had it not been for my overwhelming desire for another ME hit, combined with the fact that I was captive on an airplane, I probably would not have bothered finishing the book.  Again.

It's not that the story is bad or the characters suck or anything like that.  The story is even reasonably solid.  The real downside is that the story didn't suck me in right away.  It starts with a bang - a kidnapping, guns blazing, people dying! - and it should be riveting from the get-go.  For some reason it comes off a little flat, like a soda that's been sitting out all day.  Drinkable, but nothing you'd go out of your way to have again.
Eh.  Whatever.
I think the problem is that, while the world is interesting and the intro scenario has drama, the reader has not yet bonded with the characters.  Unfortunately, when it comes to SF/F (or perhaps especially with SF/F), the real-world reader needs a reason to sink into the story, a guide to this strange new world.  If the protagonist isn't ready for that responsibility, then something else has to take the lead.  In this case, it feels as though the author chose to try to hook the reader with drama and tension.  This strategy can totally work sometimes.  This time it was only moderately successful.

However, I was on an airplane, so I was going to read the book no matter what.  I'm happy to say that, after the not-quite-hook, the story moves along decently and maintains enough interest to make the payoff worthwhile.  The splash of romance I mentioned earlier attempts to be present, but sort of drifts in and out of the story and never really becomes a "thing."  Perhaps this is done because this book is the first of a series and the (female) author didn't want to be labeled as a "sci-fi romance author" (which I understand) but the result is that you have a lackluster relationship between two characters that could feel the "empathy void" left by a reader not entirely bonding with the protagonist.  Without someone (or someones) to care about, the narrative is left with only action.  This can work for a story, but it will never make a classic. 

As for the writing style, I really shouldn't complain....but you all know I'm going to anyway.  The story is littered with words that are one letter away from an actual English word, making it entirely clear what the meaning is.  This just begs the question:  why not just use the actual English word?  It felt like a blatant attempt to announce "this is futuristic science fiction with relatable-yet-highly-advanced technology!  Be excited for this space adventure!"  This probably won't bother most people, but then again I am jaded and impossible to please.

If you want fun Sci Fi with a strong female protagonist, I would recommended Rachel Bach's Fortune's Pawn over this.  If you don't really care and just want the printed equivalent of a popcorn movie, then Song of Scarabaeus will suffice.