I know; two posts in a year! I’m trying to spend more time writing in 2018, because to write well, I have to slow down. I need active and passive think time, and the ability to walk away for a while, days even, and let questions and analyses dribble out of my brain. I have to clean house and read the whole internet first (too bad it’s so much longer than it used to be). I would really like to slow down.
And lately I’ve been especially struggling with two brains–one, the technical side that wants everything to be correct, the one that runs hot, the one that remembers how to hyperfocus, and details from that time before we were showered with praise for multitasking, and the other the curious, analytic brain that makes predictions and sees patterns and appreciates the bigger picture. When those brains are on at the same time, they’re both the worse for it. How do you turn off half your head? Also, I’m procrastinating on something I don’t want to do by writing this post. Yes, I am suitably ashamed and also sort of pleased that I am doing something I’m not supposed to. (Roll your eyes at flimsy rebellions here; spare me your disdain. I’m trying.)
But what I’ve been thinking about even more is reading. I’ve had a half-dozen different people ask me, just recently, how to become a better writer. Maybe how to improve their first crack at writing a story, or whether they should take some course or follow some career path, or go to some event. I want to say: Wait! The best thing you can do for your writing is read more.
Reading–and reading well–is a whole post on its own. But taking my advice in hand, painfully, as I’ve pinched a nerve somewhere, I am working on a very modest goal of reading 100 published books in 2018 (manuscripts don’t count), and I’m on track for that. I’ve read a handful of picture books, some middle grade, adult fantasy and nonfiction, graphic novels in MG/YA/adult, and and some genre and contemporary YA. And one…I don’t know what it was besides a pointless mess and I have no idea where it came from or why it was a book but I must have downloaded it by accident. I bounced out of two of the books around the 50-page mark, but I’m not missing out on anything, I promise. And you don’t have to read all of books if you don’t want to. It’s not my job to like things, and it’s not yours either.
I have more of a walking commute than a train one, and I get carsick reading on the subway. Most of my all-pleasure reading so far has happened on the subway platform (thanks MTA for regular overcrowding and delays that average I dunno 3 hours a week on lines I ride) and escalators (really deep stations), and I’ve also been trying to schedule 20 minutes before bed. I’ll probably finish book #32 tonight. If you need a kick in the pants, start with a small kick, like reading a chapter of a book a day, and you’ll find the groove. And I hope you’ll be finding polished work that you can absorb, enjoy, analyze, and be nourished by.
All of that leads up to: I read a book. I’m no longer in the business of reviewing what I read, and I could write a whole post on that and who gets to review and when and why bad reviews are good indicators that you’re reaching an audience beyond friends and family…
Anyway, I read a book. I’m going to be very vague about this book, because I know full well it’s typeset now and all, and written years ago at this point, and frankly, when I’m going to describe could have happened in any number of books.
I got to the last quarter and there was a kissing scene.
It was a good kissing scene!
Here are some reasons I thought it was a good kissing scene:
- I found the characters who were kissing to be interesting. (Let’s not have the “likeable” discussion right now. Your eyes are probably glazed over already if you read this far.)
- There was physical tension in the scene–the characters were in close contact, and aware of each other before they kissed. There had been other opportunities for them to kiss, but those hadn’t panned out, for various reasons, so there was a will they/won’t they vibe, too.
- In the kissing, there was a nice mix of feelings and emotions and descriptions that were familiar along with unexpected, exciting, vivid sensations!
- There was plot tension, because the stakes were changing around the characters–and the fact that they kissed meant that the stakes got an extra layer of change.
- There was relationship tension; it was clear that the kiss signaled a verification that the characters had passed some point of no return, and that they were probably going to have a lot more points to deal with in the future, based on this moment.
- There was emotional tension, because the characters both represented things that the other hadn’t dealt with yet. (In fact, it was a play on a classic romance trope! And was working in that moment.)
- The characters liked and wanted the kiss! I liked the kiss! I’d have that kiss! (Other kinds of kisses: not discussed here.)
- And in all, when those tensions were finally resolved, finally (always make the reader, or at least me, wait for it), they were more changed and renewed–there was new tension, instead of straight resolution!
A lot of the time, kissing scenes are boring and unbelievable, and don’t feel necessary or useful to the plot, and I don’t really need them to be in every story, and I’ve honestly read so many that it feels like there’s nothing new in most of them, so when there’s a good one, I’m extra pleased! Delighted! And this was like the third good kiss I’ve read this year!
So…why was I utterly dissatisfied, even disgruntled, afterward?
I flipped back through the (e)book. The writing wasn’t absolutely amazing, but it served the story and mostly didn’t throw me into editor brain mode. There was plenty of action and adventure, an interesting antagonist, and enough world building that I knew what was going on, and not so much I felt infodumped on. I hadn’t been excited about the premise, yet it had me engaged well enough to keep turning the pages instead of picking up something else. The characters were familiar types, but different enough and developed enough that they weren’t stock or mere outlines of interesting people, people that readers are often told to think are interesting instead of the characters just being interesting. I was, in the grand scheme of things, satisfactorily entertained.
What was my problem? I even went to Goodreads to see if I was missing something, and of course, as you can expect, the 1-star reviewers all had some different, or conflicting, reason why they hadn’t been happy readers. P.S. If you’re an author don’t read your reader reviews; they’re about the reader and not you and maybe not even really about your book; I didn’t like it so I gave it 1-star is not about you; plenty of people use the star system for reasons other than ratings, etc.
Anyway, here’s what I think, and I’m curious if there might be other reasons.
- First, the two kissing characters didn’t get enough page time together, and when they did, they weren’t interacting with each other in sustained ways. By that, I mean that while they were on each other’s minds (at least in one direction; the POV was 1st person) for plot reasons, there wasn’t a lot to go on in terms of why they’d like each other enough to kiss. Or, hey, hate each other enough to kiss, because that was possible too!
- When they met, in scenes, their interactions were brief and often utilitarian, or focused outwardly on action only, without an undercurrent of more…anything, and the longer scenes had a power imbalance that meant the smaller clues that they’d eventually be kissing didn’t land as much as they might have if the power imbalance had been addressed more or more intertwined with attraction (and attraction doesn’t have to be about, or all about, thinking a character is hot–it’s often as good or better if there’s some other sort of connection, or some other sort of connection that’s tied up with a little physical or mental want). In fact, there were a lot of weighty themes that weren’t directly addressed in the overall action plot, and didn’t necessarily need to be–but if if they’d been addressed in the emotional plot, that would have strengthened things a lot.
- I knew the characters would kiss, but I wasn’t anticipating it because of the characters; I was anticipating it because I know how stories work. I didn’t get, say, a moment where they had to repeatedly grab hands to enter a throne room in the customary way turning into a comforting warmth turning into fingers entwined just a little too long. Or a irritatingly wry comment turning into a phrase that makes the character smile to outright funniness leading to appreciative laughter. (Neither of these examples is from the book I read.) There were some hints, of course, but they weren’t linked, and didn’t build on each other in a way that said these two characters would be interacting in a way different from how those two characters would interact with characters they would never kiss.
- I’m sticking this in the middle because I don’t even remember if this was in the book–story details drain out my ears as fast as I pull them in through my eyes, much to my ongoing dismay–but I just want to generally complain about the word “falling” and the phrase “falling for them.” Please, if you love me, and even if you don’t, find some other way to say this. Or find something else to say.
- It wasn’t until, oh, 10% of the book leading up to the kiss that the characters got to spend significant time together focused on their characters over/in tandem with their immediate actions, to go through things that involved making decisions together, to show the reader how they’d work together or react to things if they had to be a team instead of individuals–and even then, that section fleshed out the non-POV character and didn’t show me why that non-POV character liked the POV character so much.
Don’t get me wrong–there was lots I did like about the book, and I picked up the sequel right away. I figured out I’d also pre-ordered the author’s book coming out later this year, too, so good job me using up those ebook credits. I’ll probably stay up irresponsibly late tonight finishing the sequel.
Overall, though, a lot of ideas were laid out on the page but never fully examined, never pushed beyond what had to happen, minimally, for the plot to move on, never used to drive things in as razor-sharp a way as they could have. There was plot! I wished for more, though, and the book had a framework for something awesome that didn’t quite come to be.
I can see what I think this story wanted to be, and I wish I could have read that book. And then, highest honor, have read it again. I guess I just wanted to drag this story up a mountain, yelling at it to keep trying to get what it deserves, to go for every bit of better it could be, and be able to slap it on the back and tell it YEAH when it made it to the highest peak.
The moral is: it’s tough to trace and balance all of the different plots and types of plots, if you want to use those terms, all the way through a whole book. How is…another post. Happy–when this posts it will be–Wednesday!