Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Dead On Arrival, a Novel Autopsy, or: "The Why Incision"

One little fringe benifit of my new Amazon Kindle is that there are quite a number of free, or nearly-free books in the Kindle store. Some of these are older works that have lapsed into the public domain.

But others are much more recent, including some past best-sellers and award-winners that are being offered up free to promote still-working authors or ongoing series. That whole, "The first one is free, little boy," thing

I downloaded a few of these "free books" the other day. One is an older book by a best-selling author I've never read. The second is a genre award-winner, first in an award-winning science fiction series I've long meant to read.

The third was a wild card, apparently a thriller by an author unknown to me. But it had a decent cover, the premise sounded interesting, and the price was right, so I decided to give it a try.

It's book number-three in this group that I'm blogging about today. No, I haven't read all of it. According to the Kindle's little "gas meter" readout at the bottom, I read about a quarter of it, but that was enough to tell me everything I needed to know about this book.

On closer examination, despite the rather professional presentation, this appears to be a self-published book. The author is a professional in a technical field somewhat related to the subject matter of the book, and this may be a first novel. Or not.

If it is a first novel, it's a pretty good one.

For a first novel.

Or to be honest, for a second or third. It's not a bad effort. It's just not quite up to professional standards. The author may have tried to sell it to major publishers, but if they did, it almost certainly got bounced for reasons that quickly became obvious to me as I read it..

No, I'm not going to tell you the author, or the title of the book. It's easy to find, and if you poke around a bit, you can probably figure out what book I'm talking about, but that isn't the point. I'm not here today to criticize a book, or savage an author whose worst crime is turning out a book that almost made the cut.

I'm here to see what we, as writers, can learn from a book that was, as it turns out, dead on arrival.

Like I said, it's not bad work in a lot of ways. To be honest, I've seen a lot worse writing over-all between the covers of books from major publishers. Based on that, you could argue that this book didn't sell simply as a matter of chance. It just didn't land on the desk of a less-descriminating editor on an off-day.

But I don't think that's it. Badly-written books often get published, even turn into best-sellers. But usually this happens because they have less-obvious virtues beyond their obviously rough prose. (Unquestionably and completely bad books do get bought and published on ocassion, but you can write this off to chance and politics. Sh#t happens.)

This book had most of the obvious virtures, but few of those less obvious ones, and therefore it just wasn't going to sell to the major house. As far as they were concerned, it was the worst thing that a book can be, after being flat-out terrible. It was mediocre.

I'm sure editors (or at least the assistant editors who are reading slush) see these every day. Based on my little experience in reading slush, they can be the most frustrating of manuscripts, because they don't give you any obvious reason to stop reading, but they don't reward your patience either.

Which, and this important, is a lesson on how editor's read. Unless they have some particular reason to look on your manuscript with enthusiasm (they've published you before, you're a writer known to them, you're a major award winner, you're really good in bed and demonstrated that to them just the night before, you're on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, etc.) they aren't just looking for a reason to stop reading (which most slush manuscripts readily supply in the first page, if not the first paragraph), they're looking for a compelling reason to go on.

If they don't find it in a page or two, then odds are, they're going to be out of there, even if you've otherwise done nothing wrong.

I know, some of you by now are saying, "that's not fair!" To which we respond, "boo-hoo." Publishing isn't fair. Get over it.

"But wait," you say, "readers aren't like cynical, evil, editors! They'll hang in until I get to the good bits on page 75!"


Certainly, they may not kick out as quickly. After all, the very fact that a book is published between two professional covers and sitting on the shelf or rack at a real bookseller gives them some reason to believe there's good stuff in there. And heck, if you've paid good money for a book, you're less likely to (But wait, this was essentially a free book, and a Kindle book as well. Epublishing appears to be a rapidly growing part of the business. What then? We'll get back to that later.)

Certainly, most casual readers have been preserved from the horror that is slush, and therefore aren't as jaded as a publishing professional will be.

But readers can be harsh too, and less forgiving of your missteps. An editor will sigh, put the manuscript aside, and (usually) instantly forget your name, if they ever noticed in the first place. Readers are like jilted lovers. They can be bitter and vindictive, and remember you till the end of time, cursing your name to their friends and writing bad reviews on Amazon of books they haven't even seen. Thank the editors who save you from such readers.

Let's get back to our cold, clammy, book on the slab.

Remember I said that I actually read a quarter of it. That seems pretty good, and in a way, it is. I didn't throw it against the wall long before that time. (Okay, it was on my Kindle which I wasn't about to throw against the wall. But I would have deleted it with prejudice.)

But while I'm not an editor, I'm far more critical than the typical reader, and a bit more jaded. Much earlier in the book, I had a pretty good idea that I was on the slow-train to nowhere. I kept reading simply to verify my suspicions, and to see what I could learn along the way.

Okay, let's talk about the specific problems with this book, which is trickier than if I just came out and gave you the title and the link. But like I said, I want to preserve the author's dignity (they came that close!) and heck, there are elements to their book that may yet find them an audience in spite of its flaws. I wish them well, and certainly don't want to stumble them up.

Okay, remember I said that this was apparently a thriller? Allow me to elaborate...

As I said, the book had a pretty nice cover that would have looked at home on an airport book-rack. Simple, striking, attention-getting, iconic, and tied to the premise of the book. The book had a catchy title too, to go with the cover design. Two words. Memorable, with a bit of word play. Good title.

In other words, a nice, professional, package in keeping with an aspiring best-seller. Though there was nothing explicit about it, it looked like a thriller. (Pretending for a moment too, that I was just an average reader, and not the person I am, the package might have given me a good deal more patience with the book than I otherwise would have had.)

The blurb was pretty good too. It spelled out the concept, which intrigued me. Without being too specific, think Michael Crichton (in his "Jurassic Park," "Timeline" phase) crossing into "Di Vinci Code" mythic pseudo-mysticism.

(Marketing lesson to take from this: even on an ebook, the package is important. It sets reader expectations, and you want to set those high, then deliver.)

Sounds commercial enough, right? It is. There's no reason somebody couldn't write a slam-bang thriller based on this concept. This book, unfortunately, is not that thriller.

First of all, and I can't stress this enough even though it should be obvious. A thriller should be thrilling. That means there is stuff. Happening. All. The. Time.

Every page of a thriller should be exciting. Every page should build the reader's interest. Every page should ratchet up the suspense. It should be packed with shocks, surprises, mystery, and twists.

This book. Not so much. Barely at all, actually.

Let me tell you too, something about thrillers especially (though it applies to books in general). Get down to business. Do not announce to the reader that they should "hold onto a post or handrail as the train is about to leave the station." Throw them on the train while it's at full speed, land them off-balance and on their asses before they know what's happening. And make them love every minute of it!

Okay, our subject book doesn't totally fail in this respect. The book does have an opening, and a hook. It does start with something which is, if not action packed, at least puzzling and unusual enough to be interesting. That puts it ahead of at least 90% of slush books right there. But while weak is better than none, it is still less than good.

Again, trying not to give too much away, the book opens in a familiar, high-security, setting, one that any reader will recognize, one that is mundane, but still open to the possiblity of violence, intrique, and Bad Stuff Happening.

Our protagonist is there, but he is behaving most strangely. Trying to avoid identifiable specifics here. Think: showing up to a wedding in a gorilla costume strange. He meets characters who remark on this strangeness, seem suspicious of it, and yet are strangely not surprised by it.

Okay, all this strangeness draws the reader in. What is going on? Is this guy trying to get away with something? Or is somebody out to get him? Are bad things about to happen?

Eventually something does happen, though in a rather anti-climactic fashion. Turns out our hero is a security consultant, and he has been trying to penetrate the high-security situation in order to test it. He's succeeded in his task, making us glad he is on our side, but also making us wish it had happened in a more exciting and interesting fashion.

The initial interest really doesn't pay off. If an editor had gotten this far (and they might have), this is almost certainly where they'd have put it aside. A typical reader would be vaguely disappointing, possibly without knowing why. They'd likely plug on, hoping that things would get better.

Sadly, they don't. The job is done and we never go back to it or us it in any of the quarter of the book I read. Make sure you have all your belongings. We're moving on here. Don't look back.

Next scene introduces us to our protationist's situation. We're told about his business. We meet his family/co-workers. We see where he lives and works. It's all colorful enough in that TV-series-pilot kind of way, but rather cool and bloodless. We glance along the surface of the characters without even getting a hint that there's anything underneath. Clearly the author has thought this all out and planned it well, but it's all completely artificial and calculated. There's nothing genuine or organic about any of it.

Mind you, it's all smoothly and professionally written. The character tags are there. It's clear who is who, where we are, and what is going on. Again, well beyond the typical slush level. It's just that none of it sparks. None of it is compelling or interesting in more than a superficial way.

We move on. A mysterious messenger shows up with a package. The package has a job offer in it, but the potential employer is mysterious as well. They want him to do strange things as part of the hiring process, and he being a suspcicious security guy, does not play along. Instead, he investigates.

Okay, now we have a little mystery, a little interest here, and this is a good thing. Don't get used to it. Like the opening, the pay-off is weak.

The investigation involves a neighbor, who May Be Important Later, but is completely forgotten in the part of the book I read. It also involves some other people who will at least reappear at the end of the book (I peeked), but who don't show up again in that first quarter of the book.

Mainly this investigation serves to impress his future-employers (you knew he was going to take the job, right?), since they're quite happy to discuss with this near stranger all the secrets of their ancient and powerful, yet totally secret organization that is having trouble with the launch of their web site.

This doesn't seem credible or make a lot of sense, but it's necessary to the plot.

You can tell. This is when you realize that the author has designed your novel experience to the last detail. You are sitting in a little car, and you can hear the clanking of the machinery moving you deeper into the ride.
Clank. Clank. Clank.

That is to say that the events of this book do not arrise naturally from one into the next. They were all planned, in advance, and you are expected to hold on and ride the shiny rails all the way to the end.

This is not, in itself, an unforgivable crime. Writers, especially thriller writers, do this all the time (so does Disneyland, but never mind...). It's how some people write, and that's okay, with a couple of qualifications. Unlike Disneyland, where you know you're on a ride (and even there they work to help you ignore the fact), the machinery should never draw attention to itself.

Second, the scenery should flow as seamlessly as possible from one point in the journey to the next. Where there are gaps or seams, they should be disguised, smoothed over, or LOOK, A UNICORN! (The author should distract the reader from the discontinuity.)

Finally, as in Disneyland, the experience should be exciting and enjoyable enough that they're happy to ignore the glimpse of the machinery, the slightly-fake explosions, or the fire-exit door clearly visible in the back of the jungle scene.

Not so in this book. No, it wasn't terribly distracting, but you could never, ever, stop hearing the click of metal wheels rolling over steel rails, and the author offered few distractions or rewards to help you in the task.

So, Our Hero takes the job and after a few detours, is whisked away to the Secret Organizations' headquarters. Yes, there is some minor strangeness along the way, but far less than you'd expect working for Donald Trump, much less this kind of outfit. There are some new characters with colorful tags to identify them (but again, no sign of depth behind the tags).

Let me take a little side-road here. There's another thing about this book, related to the "riding on rails" effect. It's the "everything has its place" effect. There's a neatness to this book that the reader cannot help but notice. Characters are introduced, and you just know they're there for a reason. They may have a secret, a hidden agenda, an Important Plot Function, or they may just have tap-dancing skills that the hero will apply later, but they are there for a reason.

This can be useful to a writer, when the reader realizes that a character is important, but doesn't know why or how. Are they what they appear to be? Are they friend or foe? Do they have a machine gun under those priestly robes? Stuff like this keeps the reader involved.

But there's not much of that here. We just dump in some guy or gal. Remember them. We'll use them later.

I'm going way out on a limb here, but I notice from their bio that the author is (among other things) a computer programmer. I know just enough about programming to be dangerous, but one thing I know is that in programs, you declare things before you use them. Program variables, subroutines, things like that. If I had to venture a guess, that's the way this author approaches these characters:


Declare Protag: Sam Savage (class) PI
Declare Sidekick: Bobby (class) NERD
Declare Antag: Vick Olive (class) MOBSTER
Declare MiscChar: Willie (class) DOORMAN
Declare MiscChar: Beth (class) BARISTA

You get the idea.

Anyway, we rejoin our visit to the Ancient and Secret Organization already in progress. This is the part of the book where you've just got to weep for the missed opportunities to tweak reader interest, establish some sense of foreboding, and build suspense.

As our hero is shown around, are there secrets withheld? Questions left unanswered? Uneasy silences? Unmarked doors with scary looking guards? Dangerous looking artifacts half-glimpsed beneath dusty tarps? Insincere smiles that seem to mask lies and fear? Do and of the people he meets react with anger or suspicion? Must our hero sneak about after hours, steal a file, or bluff his way into a secure area (as he has already demonstrated the skills to do) in order to learn more?

No, no, no, and no to all of these. No, the hero is taken on a very. Long. Tour. A tour to establish what the place is, and what it does. There may be secrets there. Probably are. But the author doesn't as much as hint at this.

Instead, he's taken on a detailed tour. Our Hero(and by extension, the reader) is told everything, from soup to nuts about the Secret Organization. People -- people who don't even know who he is, or what he's doing there -- fall all over themselves to reveal information.

Lots and lots of information. History, backstory, proceedures, on and on, like an employee orientation at an insurance company. VERY much like an employee orientiation at an insurance company. And yes, this is just as exciting as you imagine it to be.

Okay, by this point, my saintly patience is wearing very thin. This is the point where I looked down at the little meter and notice: I'm a quarter of the way through.

Think about this. I am a quarter of the way through the book, and all we have done is introduce our hero and introduce the high-concept premise on which the book is based. And we are not even through introducing the premise.

Also, still looking at the meter, we have been told a couple of times that Something is Wrong at the Secret Organization, something he has been hired to find. Something that could threaten the entire existance of the organization (which at this point we aren't sure is good or bad, and so aren't sure if we should care, or why). But a quarter of the way through the book, we don't have a clue what this problem/threat is.

Refer back to what I said earlier: Any book, but especially a thriller, has to get down to business.

And if for some reason, you can't immediately get to the main business of the book. then you'd darned well keep the reader entertained, interested and involved with some secondary business until the main business comes along.

And incidently, when you switch gears from the secondary business to the main business, you can't leave the reader feeling like you've been wasting their time until then, or that you've mashed together two unrelated things and left them to wonder why they're in the same book. No, the secondary thing must lead into or relate (thematically or otherwise) the main business in some way. No, this isn't that easy to do, which is why you're almost always safer cutting straight to the main business in the first place.

So as I said. Patience -- gasp -- wearing -- choke -- thin... At this point, nothing at all is keeping me reading except a desire to verify some of my suspicions, and morbid curiosity as to how far the author could get into the book without ever establishing their central problem.

To be honest, if this had been a printed book or manuscript, this is the point where I'd be flipping to the last page. But it was on the Kindle, and having had mine for just a couple weeks, I couldn't figure out how to flip quickly to the end. So I just kept reading.

For about two more pages.

What threw me out? We'll, remember when I said that every new character in this thing very clearly has a purpose?

Well, a new character is introduced.

A woman.

The Most Beautiful and Perfect Woman in the World, Who Every Man Desires But None Can Have.

Can you say, "love interest?" I knew that you could.

Again, this is full of lost opportunties. Not only is it obvious that this is the love interest, but there is no "meet cute," as they say in the romance game. They do not spark or conflict on meeting. They do not argue, despite a hidden attraction. They are not kept apart by her posessive and possibly abusive boyfriend.

No, despite the fact that our hero makes a complete ass of himself staring and drooling and leaking other fluids (okay, figuratively), she takes an instant liking to him, and within a few paragraphs, they've set up a date.

At this point, I develop a burning, overwhelming desire to find a "flip to end" function in the Kindle. There must be one, and if I can't find it, I will write one myself.

Soon, my determination bears fruit. (It all has to do with those little "location numbers" at the bottom of the screen.) I skip to the end. The Secret Organization is still there, though it has apparently been purged, or reformed, or some such. About what I'd expected. Of course the hero has hooked up with the obvious love-interest. Of course our hero lives happily until Wednesday. (Who believes in "ever after" any more?)

The end.

Only, not quite.

This being a basically free book, so it's of course a come-on to get you to buy an upcoming sequel. There's a short sample of said book at the end of this one. (One instant realization. That threw the meter off. When I bailed out before the central problem, I was more than a quarter of the way into the book!)

Nothing wrong this idea on the face of it. Good marketing in the ebook age. Lots of people are doing it.

Trouble is, this book will leave nobody burning with desire for a sequel. It didn't leave me with a burning desire for the last three-quarters of the book. That's a marketing lesson in itself. The fisherman will catch nothing unless the bait is good.

But I'm curious again. I take a look at his sample of the sequel. Has he learned anything? Does it look any better?

Actually, its possible the author did learn something. It opens with a historical prologue that's pretty interesting. Bad stuff is happening, and someone is checking in with the Secret Organization, leaving something with them. Clearly, this person expects to die soon. Very soon.

And... Wait for it... The person is revealed to be a Very Bad and Well-known Person from History!

Okay, that's a much stronger opening than the first book. We might be getting somewhere.

Flash to the present, where our hero is...

Busy explaining the same damned premise that introduced the first book, in the most uninteresting way possible, to the least interesting person possible.

This goes on for several pages before my mind goes blank. Possibly I stopped reading, or deleted it, or screamed, or something. I have check, and my Kindle is still fine, so that's a good thing.

We who do not learn from our mistakes, are doomed to repeat them. Or better yet, we can learn from other people's mistakes and not make them at all.

And thus the autopsy endeth...