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Author Topic: Is This Normal?
Meredith
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For a writer, anyway. [Smile]

I'm still reading that book I mentioned in another post about withholding, trying to figure out why it gets such good reviews on Goodreads. I haven't come close to figuring that out, yet. It's hard because there is, in my opinion, more than just that wrong with it.

But, what I do notice is that my imagination is playing with how the story could have been fixed. Move the reveal to the beginning so the reader is onboard from the beginning. Well, that's obvious. Also, at least I think that the withholding is forcing a distance from the character that is inconsistent with this kind of first-person narrative. I want to know what's going on inside this character's head, but, of course, the writer can't do that without revealing the secret that should have been revealed to begin with.

There's a smaller withholding because of this. A minor plan that the MC puts into action, but the reader can't know what he's doing until after it's over, only a chapter later, because the narrative never really gets into the characters thoughts. It's like a distant third person told in first person. I find that frustrating.

Another problem that at least I have with this story is the author skipping over interesting parts. For example, there's a scene in which the MC is forced to try to ride an unbroken horse that then runs away with him. But, but she skips over that part. The horse runs off as the chapter ends and the next chapter starts with the character laying half in the river where he fell off waiting to be found. Don't you think his struggle to stay on the horse might have been interesting?

So, with just about every chapter, my mind is working on the "How this could have been fixed." I have to wonder why some editor at Scholastic didn't do the same thing.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Meredith:
So, with just about every chapter, my mind is working on the "How this could have been fixed." I have to wonder why some editor at Scholastic didn't do the same thing.

Because publishers don't do much developmental editing anymore. They forgot how from focusing on sales.

Yes, this is normal for a writer in developmental editing mode. You're building reworking muscles. Structure or craft is a great area to do that. Audience accessibility and appeal, and voice, too. When you get to aesthetics, like theme and extended subtext and symbolism and imagery, wow, things really start to come together: writing and reading.

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rcmann
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I do that with almost everything I read now. It's painful.
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MAP
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I do that too. With every book, every movie, every TV show. I'm always thinking of how they could be fixed to suit my tastes. [Smile]

So, I think you're normal.

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enigmaticuser
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I do this a lot, but I'm finding that it really reflects on the quality of the work I'm reading. I noticed that when I read Hunger Games, I simply didn't think of it for most of the series. Later, I did start to notice the use of elipses, but for most of the story I was just in the story. I'm reading Children of the Mind right now, and for most of it I get the same sense, except that the editor pops up from time to time to say "Wang-Mu doesn't sound like that!"

So I think the editor is normal for a writer and good, but when the writing is good enough it shuts off. Which is good because that lets you know that eventually you'll come back to your own stuff and say "it's done."

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Meredith
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Yes. When I'm reading something really good, which unfortunately hasn't happened recently, I don't find myself thinking "Well, that could have been done better." With most things I read, I might pick up a couple of things here and there that wake up my inner editor. This one just has the editor on full time. Such a mess.
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pdblake
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I do this unless it's a good enough book to make me not do it, and I think that goes for all writers to be honest.
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Tiergan
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Nearly every book I pick up I feel this way about. The real bad ones, I reword sentences as I read.
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wise
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I do this more with movies than with books. I think with books I try to give the writer the benefit of the doubt, at least for awhile, thinking, "there's a reason they're writing like this". Until the point where I get frustrated or bored and put the book aside.

I think it's easier to pick apart movies because it's all over in 2 hours (whereas a book takes longer, especially since I almost never take time to devote hours at a time reading). It's laid out for you to instantly critique with whoever you saw the movie with (rarely do I find someone who's reading the same book I am so that we can discuss it as soon as we're finished).

TV shows are the same as movies, though I don't watch much serial TV. I have gotten really interested in "Breaking Bad", though. I am in awe of the writing of that series. If you want to know the meaning of irony, BB will show it to you.

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rcmann
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Might be useful to remember that a lot of this is subjective, though. Romeo and Juliet is the original "idiot plot" that only works because the characters are idiots. But people love it. The Illiad is deus ex machina out the butt. But it has hung around nearly as long as human civilization. The story of Gilgamesh has a few flaws in it too, by modern standards. But it's still here.

Just because someone, me for instance, sees aspects that I consider flaws doesn't mean that I'm necessarily right. It could just mean that I am opinionated and impossible to please.

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Robert Nowall
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It's perfectly normal for us writer types, it's just how our minds work. I know (usually) how something in a movie is going to develop; if I don't see some plot twist coming, and it doesn't seem like some idiot plot device, I'm happy. (I liked the final joke in Brave, which did come out of something mentioned before.)

And I do read books, even the classics (of SF, at least), and think this or that could be change. J. R. R. Tolkien, lose those chapters about Bombadil and the Barrow-wights, they're not as tight and not as necessary as the later chapters of The Lord of the Rings. Frank Herbert, why wreck what came before in Dune by launching a jihad in the sequel? Terry Brooks, how about showing some of the stuff that happens in The Sword of Shannara rather than tell us about it later?

(On the other hand, I'm usually satisfied with most of the stuff I find. And there's nothing wrong with a lot of what I mentioned.)

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extrinsic
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What about what works? Reading along and not a speed bump or hiccup in the text and too engrossed with the story to analyze why the setting, plot, idea, character, event, or discourse is strong. Read again to work on figuring out why what works works and get caught up by the story again. Three times through or a dozen or two until the storycraft and voice start to unravel because it has become rote. Less normal or, actually, uncommon.

Yet reading for locating virtues and strengths is far more illustrative and dynamic for writing-skill growth than locating vices and shortcomings. Not mistakes, not errors, not wrongnesses, not badnesses: vices and shortcomings. The more virtues a writer can locate in the works of other writers, the more the writer can incorporate them, the more resonant the end result.

Since nothing can be perfect, arguably, perfection like beauty is in the eye of a beholder, what gets published is just what's a degree stronger and more virtuous for the most part than what gets passed over. Fewer vices and shortcomings. More vitrues and strengths.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Great suggestion, extrinsic. Of course, that depth of study can run the risk of burning you out on a book that actually worked for you, but I definitely recommend it as a way to learn from good stuff.

Meredith, this is one reason why I find it hard, as a reader, to say more than "this was a book I was happy to get back to" about anything I read any more. The more you learn about writing, the harder it is to keep the editor from kicking in as you read.

I have to say that I admire your perseverance with this book. I fear you will end up frustrated, though, and following extrinsic's suggestion might provide a better use of your reading time.

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Meredith
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
What about what works? Reading along and not a speed bump or hiccup in the text and too engrossed with the story to analyze why the setting, plot, idea, character, event, or discourse is strong. Read again to work on figuring out why what works works and get caught up by the story again. Three times through or a dozen or two until the storycraft and voice start to unravel because it has become rote. Less normal or, actually, uncommon.

Yet reading for locating virtues and strengths is far more illustrative and dynamic for writing-skill growth than locating vices and shortcomings. Not mistakes, not errors, not wrongnesses, not badnesses: vices and shortcomings. The more virtues a writer can locate in the works of other writers, the more the writer can incorporate them, the more resonant the end result.


Ah. I've done that, too. Though perhaps not quite enough to really get down to the brass tacks of what makes it work so well. There are a couple of books I may have to re-re-read now. [Smile]
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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury:
Great suggestion, extrinsic. Of course, that depth of study can run the risk of burning you out on a book that actually worked for you, but I definitely recommend it as a way to learn from good stuff.

Meredith, this is one reason why I find it hard, as a reader, to say more than "this was a book I was happy to get back to" about anything I read any more. The more you learn about writing, the harder it is to keep the editor from kicking in as you read.

I have to say that I admire your perseverance with this book. I fear you will end up frustrated, though, and following extrinsic's suggestion might provide a better use of your reading time.

Thank you, Ms. Dalton Woodbury, for the validation.

I started with a few short stories fastened onto my test bench, notably Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," Algis Budry's "The Stoker and the Stars," O Henry's "Gift of the Magi," Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," and Mark Richard's "Her Favorite Story." Roughly five thousand words each. I progressed to novellas: George Orwell's Animal Farm, Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, for example. Then on to novels, too many to name, but Thomas Harris' Hannibal Lecter saga, four novels, was instrumental and illustrative.

Dozens of reads each, closer and closer inspection, hammer and tongs, vises, cutting torches, sandblasters, zirconium encrustred tweezers, electron microscopes, comsos-spanning telescopes. Over time and with practice, the process became second nature and reading is now a much more vivid experience for me.

There were dark times, a phase where I felt the joy of reading had died. A phase where all I accomplished was finding fault. A phase where I required making an effort to rediscover reading's pleasures. What the latter came down to was locating strengths and virtues. My writing feels like I'm no longer floundering in the dark. However, I realized how much farther I had to go and how much effort, determination, and time writing artfully really demands.

Whether or not I achieve my writing goals, my reading goals have been more than met. It's worth burning the midnight candle.

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StephenAZ
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I belong to a literary writing group that reads and discusses one 'great' 20th or 21st C. novel a month. Having a dozen of us read the same book with the intention of finding what this writer did that we can avoid or use in our own work and then discussing it for a couple of hours seems to really help us uncover a lot in a short time. Our internal editors seem to be working full-time, as many have suggested in this thread, so turning that energy into something useful for all of us was a natural step. We nominate our novels individually, vote on them as a group, and require that the nominator present craft points to study before the vote. We've run the gambit from Faulkner to Sherman Alexie, Robert Olen Butler to David Mitchell, Malcolm Lowry to Kobe Abe, and more. I wonder, is there any place on this site for that sort of work?
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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by StephenAZ:
I wonder, is there any place on this site for that sort of work?

"Discussing Published Hooks & Books" thread.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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What extrinsic said, StephenAZ. Please, go ahead and start something there (either your current book, or one your group has already discussed, would be great).
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MartinV
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Guilty as charged.

To all writers reading this: whatever you do, do not watch the movie Prometheus. Your storybuilding part of the brain will explode from the shame of it.

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Meredith
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Okay, now I see:

See couldn't show what happened when the unbroken horse ran off with the MC because . . .

. . . He really did have some control and that's when he stole the sword and she couldn't show that . . .

. . . Because then she'd have to tell us why he stole it . . .

. . . Which she still hasn't really explained.

Yeesh.

"Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive."

I think I'm going to give up wondering why people seem to like this thing and just go back to writing the best stories I know how.

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extrinsic
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Meredith, I think the writer knew the motivations and stakes and such of the "MC" in her imagination but they missed the page. Missed-the-page syndrome.

[ July 16, 2012, 03:29 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Robert Nowall
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It happens in real life, too. This morning, there was this story on the news, along the lines of "Two died in Texas yesterday. It was raining and they took shelter under a tree..." and I didn't have to hear any more of the story to know what happened.
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Meredith
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
Meredith, I think the writer knew the motivations and stakes and such of the "MC" in her imagination but they missed the page. Missed-the-page syndrome.

Yes, but if you don't know how to do it, then that's what you need critique partners, beta readers, and a workshop that includes people who know more than you do for. To help you see gaping problems like that.

Seriously. I think in five or ten years this author may be seriously embarrassed that she published this. She actually can write, although she has a nasty tendency toward adverbs in dialog tags. (By the way, how do you say something "hungrily"? Even if the character is talking about food. Why not just say that his mouth watered or his stomach growled?)

I know that I am continuously grateful that no agent ever requested even a piece of the first novel I wrote and queried. I didn't know it then, but I know now that that one was not ready.

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MartinV
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You can always publish that first novel when you're famous, Meredith. [Wink]
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Meredith
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quote:
Originally posted by MartinV:
You can always publish that first novel when you're famous, Meredith. [Wink]

Actually, it's being rewritten as middle grade. [Smile]
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MattLeo
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Well, Meredith, I notice you often offer the advice of not over-censoring yourself before you've got a draft done. I just wanted to add that shutting off the voice of the inner critic is an important thing to do when reading for pleasure, or even sometimes when doing a critique.

When critiquing you don't want to confuse "I wouldn't do it that way" with "this was done the wrong way." You don't want to encourage another writer to sound just like you, or limit himself to themes that you'd write about.

What you want to do is to keep that inner critic on a tight leash until you've got a fresh impression of a story. You don't let him decide what worked and what didn't work; you find out *empirically* what worked or didn't work for you, then let him figure out why.

The second reason to hold back the inner critic is to preserve reading for pleasure. *Every* book ever published has faults. Many very good books have obvious, even serious craft faults. I suppose it depends on why you read, but I don't read to appreciate the craft of the writer; I read to have my imagination and emotions engaged. Enough faults of course will spoil that, but I have yet to find a story that works for me simply because it avoids making mistakes.

The misuse of adverbs is a common blunder. It's fingernails-on-the-blackboard annoying. Yet some very effective writers do it. I wish they didn't, but they can still be wonderful writers despite that.

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Meredith
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:

The misuse of adverbs is a common blunder. It's fingernails-on-the-blackboard annoying. Yet some very effective writers do it. I wish they didn't, but they can still be wonderful writers despite that.

Of course. In this case, it wouldn't have mattered. I think, in retrospect, my main complaint about this particular book is that the (IMO wrong) choices the author made forced the narrative to stay at a distance from the first-person main character. I never really got to know what the character thought, felt, or was really trying to do until two-thirds of the way through the book. It wasn't an unreliable narrator, which I maybe could have understood. It was a very clumsy attempt at a plot twist. And it ruined the story for me. The adverbs were just an additional annoyance.

Any way, I've moved on to (hopefully) better stories.

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Robert Nowall
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I remember a book back in the late 1970s by one Arsen Darnay (I think), a writer who seems to have long disappeared from SF, far as I know, but whose work I liked and whose book here I liked a lot. But there was one scene where a character was attacked and a sentence read something like: "They would kill her and cut her into pieces---probably in the shower." (I don't have a copy in front of me---inaccessable files.)

All I could think of was the "probably in the shower" part seemed like unnecessary detail, and the whole thing jerked me right out of the story. Writing something that kills the mood seems a deadly sin for a writer. I made a note of it in one of my notebooks at the time (again, lost in my files), and resolved to try never to write anything like that in my stuff...

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Meredith
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I. Do. Not. Believe. This.

I finally finished that other thing. Picked up another book with good reviews, winner of a fairly prestigious award.

It's B-O-R-I-N-G. It started out all right, but then they start traveling--and traveling--and traveling. The highlights are the meals--too skimpy--and the baths.

(I mean, the Fellowship traveled a lot in LotR, too, but stuff happened, too. They were chased by the Nazgul, forced down off Caradhras, went through the Mines of Moria, were attacked by Orcs. You know, stuff. Tension. Conflict. Action.)

So, I glanced ahead, just to see if things were going to pick up any time soon. Guess what? It's another first-person narrative in which the main character conceals his real identity--from the reader--until the end.

I do not understand. But I guess I don't have to. I'm not reading any further in this one.

That's three in a row. One that ended with a deus ex machina and two that relied on withholding.

Surely, the next one has to be better.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Whatever the traffic will bear (which is from Frank Norris' THE OCTOPUS, a "realism" novel of the last century).

YA is selling right now, so publishers are selling YA.

YA is selling right now, probably in part because YA readers are hungering for it, and will take anything they can get--and they are getting anything.

Eventually, things will settle down, I suspect, and we can hope that people will become a little more selective.

We can hope.

I have to confess that I wish you would tell us which books these are, though. So we won't waste our time on them, and to help further the more selective future we are hoping for.

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Meredith
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quote:
Originally posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury:
Whatever the traffic will bear (which is from Frank Norris' THE OCTOPUS, a "realism" novel of the last century).

YA is selling right now, so publishers are selling YA.

YA is selling right now, probably in part because YA readers are hungering for it, and will take anything they can get--and they are getting anything.

Eventually, things will settle down, I suspect, and we can hope that people will become a little more selective.

We can hope.

I have to confess that I wish you would tell us which books these are, though. So we won't waste our time on them, and to help further the more selective future we are hoping for.

The deus ex machina is in Rae Carson's THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS.

The first book I cited that relied on major withholding was THE LOST PRINCE by Jennifer. A. Nielson.

The latest, with the interminable boring travel, is THE THIEF, by Megan Whalen Turner. (Technically, I think, middle grade rather than YA, which only makes the boring, nothing-is-happening-here chapters even more mystifying.)

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Thanks, Meredith. I think I've seen covers, at least, for the Nielson and the Turner.
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History
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A couple of caveats, if I may...

1. "Withholding" is an important part of an author's arsenal. There would be no mystery genre if every story opens with the equivalent of a body found stabbed and shot and decapitated in a locked room, then the detective wonder's aloud, "Who did this?", and immediately the butler says, "Oh, I did sir. And here's how I did it..."

What is important is to withhold honestly. When the reveal comes at or near the climax, the readers then enjoy an "Aha!" moment and either pats themselves on the back for anticipating it from the clues that have been sprinkled craftily in the tale up to the reveal, or they nod in appreciation as they recognize the hints in retrospection.

I've only attempted this in the "B" storylines, for example in my Kabbalist stories (which are urban fantasy mysteries by design), and I believe this works better than attempting a withhold within the "A" storyline. Using a withhold in the "B" storyline carries less risk of a reader feeling cheated and permits the "A" storyline to serve as a cover or distraction to what, I hope, is received as an unexpected but delightful extra twist.

2. Tastes differ. What one reader hates (and gives a 1 star review) another may love (and awards 5 stars). E.g. Many have found JRR Tolkien's The Silmarillion "Boring!" and complain it "Reads like the Old Testament!" I think it is a masterpiece of fantasy literature (but, of course, I like the Old Testament [Smile] ).

Thus I treat critic's reviews of books and movies and television with skepticism (e.g. I enjoyed Disney's John Carter).

I find I need to come to my own decision about any work (although I may wait for the paperback or ebook or the DVD rental). [Wink]

Respectfully,
Dr. Bob

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Meredith
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quote:
Originally posted by History:
A couple of caveats, if I may...

1. "Withholding" is an important part of an author's arsenal. There would be no mystery genre if every story opens with the equivalent of a body found stabbed and shot and decapitated in a locked room, then the detective wonder's aloud, "Who did this?", and immediately the butler says, "Oh, I did sir. And here's how I did it..."

What is important is to withhold honestly. When the reveal comes at or near the climax, the readers then enjoy an "Aha!" moment and either pats themselves on the back for anticipating it from the clues that have been sprinkled craftily in the tale up to the reveal, or they nod in appreciation as they recognize the hints in retrospection.

I've only attempted this in the "B" storylines, for example in my Kabbalist stories (which are urban fantasy mysteries by design), and I believe this works better than attempting a withhold within the "A" storyline. Using a withhold in the "B" storyline carries less risk of a reader feeling cheated and permits the "A" storyline to serve as a cover or distraction to what, I hope, is received as an unexpected but delightful extra twist.


@History: Allow me define my terms a little more carefully.

What you cite is not what I'm calling withholding at all. Usually in a mystery, the main character also doesn't know the answer to the mystery until near the end. Readers of a mystery go along with the character trying to solve the crime. What the writer knows but doesn't share until the climax isn't withholding.

What I'm referring to as withholding is something that the main character already knows, has very good reason to think about, but isn't shared with the reader through that character's thoughts. Something like, I don't know, his identity, which is exactly what was being withheld in the two above examples.

For example, in the Harry Potter series, we readers spent six and a half books not knowing for sure which side Snape was really on. But, Harry didn't know either and since for the most part we were following Harry pretty closely and knew mainly what Harry knew, it wasn't withholding. We didn't feel cheated by that. At least, I didn't.

It's particularly egregious, at least to me, in a first-person narrative (which both of those were) because it results in a narrative distance that I find at odds with the use of first person. With first person, I want to feel like I've crawled inside the character's skin for the duration of the story. If something basic is being withheld, it becomes difficult for the writer to let the reader in on the character's thoughts.

As KDW pointed out above, there are examples of actual withholding by established authors (in that case, Mary Stewart) that can succeed. I'll have to read that book at some point. I've enjoyed some of Mary Stewart's work and not just the Merlin Trilogy (and THE WICKED DAY, a totally awesome take on Arthur's ultimate defeat from Mordrid's point of view).

I think it was in the episode of Writing Excuses on capers that Brandon Sanderson talked about his very careful use of withholding in MISTBORN. I confess I didn't even catch that one. It can be done well. These two books didn't do it well, IMO.

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Meredith
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Well, fourth time may just be the charm--it's Rachel Hartman's SERAPHINA, btw.

The (again) first-person main character has a secret, but it is disclosed to the reader in chapter 3. (It only took that long because she took the time to show us how the character herself found out about it.) So now I can go along with this character and worry with her as she fears that her secret will be exposed. I can't say I'm in love with the writing style (a little stiff for my taste), but I'll cope with that in exchange for a really good, well-told story.

Let me try to explain why all this (ham-handed) withholding is driving me slightly nuts. I'll use THE LOST PRINCE as an example.

In this story, the main character is ostensibly an orphan boy named Sage. In about chapter 43 it's revealed that Sage is actually Jaron, the lost prince and why he has been hidden as an underfed orphan boy for four years. (The reason isn't really very good.)

But . . . but, from chapter 1 Sage is one of three orphan boys selected by an ambitious, ruthless, and sadistic nobleman to try to impersonate the prince (who Sage really is). Throughout those first 42 chapters, Sage is repeatedly abused, told that he will never learn the things that the prince should know, and that he doesn't even look enough like the prince. He makes choices that seem insane at the time, even chosing to be whipped rather than surrender a worthless rock, because the reader can't understand why he makes those choices. (The rock was his father's last gift to him, along with a note on how to use it to prove his identity if he ever needed to. It would have been nice to know that rather than think that Sage was just too dumb or stubborn to live.)

At one point, he is told that the entire royal family--his family--has been murdered. There's no emotional reaction to this news at all. Of course, Sage has to hide his grief from the other characters. But the reader never gets to see how this affects him because that would reveal the secret.

I mentioned before, in a first-person narrative I want to feel like I'm almost inside the character. Withholding this key piece of information meant that the author could never let me in on anything the character was thinking or feeling, holding me off at more than arm's length. In a distant third person narrative, it might not have been as frustrating. In first person, well, it would have taken a much better and probably more experienced writer to pull it off.

I'm sure the reader thought it was a clever plot twist. From the reviews, some readers even seem to think so. To me, it was just a cheat. Revealing the secret (to the reader) early on so that we could understand Sage's motives and actions--and also appreciate what was really at stake--would have resulted in a much better story.

Off my soapbox, now.

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rcmann
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The unfortunate thing, to me, is that when YA fiction is written that way it influences young readers into intellectual laziness.
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extrinsic
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The normal about withholding I suppose is every reader must experience at least once each the stories with appreciable shortcomings. Like the joke ending or shaggy dog or Tang in the jar or Abbess phone home, the kitchen sink plot or Rembrandt comic book, the absurd revelation ending, and so on stories where readers are the butt of the absurdity.

The same shortcomings in one story are in another story their artful reveal or anagnorisis or peripertia. Roald Dahl's "The Man from the South" for example, has a revelation ending that's sublime for both its anagnorisis and peripetia, First person too. O Henry's "Gift of the Magi," same, sublime revelation. O Henry's specialty is sublime revelations. Absurd revelations though, phbt, reprobious raspberries.

Every reader is entitled to one, deserves one so that the heuristic process encourages readers' critical, conscious thinking. Writer, editor, publisher, one each, but there are many story and plot shortcoming types to go around. When a new market opens up, like the ascendent popularity of young adult literature has, the good old clever darlings that were done to death, trite in other literature categories populate the whey. And new generations of writers and readers are ripe for the good old trite gimmicks. Cream rises and is rarer than the whey. Without failures to measure successes against there'd be no differences. Tel est la vie d'écriture et la littérature.

[ July 20, 2012, 12:29 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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rcmann
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cogito ergo gripeth
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