Recently, I had the dubious honor of serving as a judge in a writing contest. I received my packet of books in the mail, ripped it open, and spilled its contents on my dining room table to see what goodies I had received.
Only to cringe back in horror.
There on my dining room table lay a book emblazoned with an author’s name that brought cold dread sliding down my back. I won’t name the author or the title of the book, but I will tell you honestly: I took one look at that book and knew I was going to hate it.
Now, there are several things that can be called into question here. As a judge in a writing contest, I should be impartial and give this book its due. I should approach my duties as a judge with as much open mindedness as I approach most things. As a writer, I should cut this author some slack. It’s really hard to write a book.
But the most basic part of me, the part that is purely and completely a reader, roared up and said, I really don’t want to read that book.
But I did read it.
And I hated it.
I spent a much coveted Sunday reading the whole thing from cover to cover, and the reader in me spent Monday in a very bad mood, feeling as though I wasted a good reading day on a terrible book. The writer in me who was to be the impartial judge in this contest took a step back. I had to be fair in my assessment of this book, and I needed to be objective. So I asked myself –
Why do I hate this book so much?
I’ll give you a little background without giving away too much. Once upon a time, I read a series of books that had a HUGE impact on my life. HUGE. Or HUGE BIG if you come from the country in which these books take place. These books directed the course of my life in more ways than one.
The hated book from the contest was an exact replica of these books. Exact. Replica. It had all the same plot points. It had all the same characters. It even used some of the same dialect! And yet, I HATED it.
So I went over to the writer in me, knocked on her door, and said, hey, what’s up with this?
The writer in me looked up from my current WIP and said quite simply, There’s no Jamie and Claire.
The book was all plot. One plot point after another. One harrowing escapade after the next. One terrible, gripping adventure followed by another.
But there was no one in the story I cared about.
Readers don’t remember plots. They remember characters. Readers don’t revisit stories. They stop by to see their fictional friends. This book that I hated on sight was just that. Plot. Storylines. Characterless. While it tried to create a hero and heroine as lovable as those mentioned above, it fell spectacularly short. The couple always got along. The couple never disagreed. The couple always supported each other. Did you fall asleep just there? I did. (Full disclosure: Many peanut butter M&Ms were consumed in the reading of this terrible book to stay awake.)
Writer’s tip: It’s about the characters not the story. If you want to write a great story, think about why people can tell you who Indiana Jones is but not the name of his pilot in the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Are you now trying to remember where the heck a pilot came into the story at the beginning? Exactly!)