Writing gurus opine about plot, character, setting and a whole host of other factors that ensure a book’s success. But does every author really need to Save the Cat while tackling story elements Bird by Bird? This month the Paper Lantern Writers share favorite books that wouldn’t win awards, but captured their hearts nevertheless.
Michal Strutin offers up a classic that takes a while to get where it’s going.
I love Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. But it took a while. For one thing, my dog-eared copy is 800-plus pages long. In 1749, when Tom Jones was published—one of the earliest English novels–novels did not have to compete with movies, TV, or much of anything. Those with leisure time could devote it to books. For another, there were no MFA programs or editorial scaffolding to guide writers. No one told Fielding, “Hey, man, fifty pages of backstory is no way to begin.”
I struggled with Tom’s early history, but finally arrived at the action: Tom Jones in all his randy exuberance pursuing life and loves, with great dollops of comedy. Each main section (“book”) begins with a piercing, often waggish look at the foibles of English society. Worth reading for those alone.
The Penguin edition says Tom Jones is a “hugely entertaining story of a foundling and how he arrives, through sexual misadventures and elaborate disasters, to claim his legitimacy, his fortune, and his true love.”
If you haven’t read Tom Jones, try it. But consider skipping the opening infodump. My second read that’s what I did.
Edie Cay shares some fan fiction that hits the mark.
I think a good book can be badly written, especially if it taps into an emotion that people are needing to feel. For instance, there is a very popular fantasy series that begins with a Beauty and the Beast type of trope. Through the course of many books, the reader is twisted in a few directions, learning more of the magical world as the human main character also discovers more. By the time the fourth book comes around, the book is a short, holiday book that has very little plot. It is meant to give a happy respite to these characters who have been tortured (sometimes literally) through the course of the series. It is not a good book. The prose is pedestrian, the plot is barely existent, there is little to no character development, and hardly any emotional growth. If one skipped this book, it would have no bearing on the rest of the series.
However, judging by the instagram buzz and the fan art, it is a success of a book because it portrays these very tough and powerful characters as having fun and letting off steam. They play, have a snowball fight, call each other names, give each other gifts. The book is fan fiction written by the author themselves, and the readers seem to love it.
So can a good book be badly written? Yes. Just ask the fans. They are the ones whose opinions matter, and whose dollars will be spent to support it.
Mari Christie looks to one of her own early manuscripts for an example of a good story with room for improvement.
I think it is fair to say that good story can outshine any bad writing, which, I expect, is because storytelling—therefore story-hearing—is in our DNA, from, quite possibly, the earliest forms of language. Story itself exists almost without the trappings of words, and so yes, a good story can be badly written; a bad story can be perfectly penned. It could also be poorly told by someone in a monotone voice, or it could be acted by professionals, depending on time and circumstance, and much like a well-written or poorly written book, one would be decidedly more pleasant to observe.
By way of example, is it fair to use one of my own manuscripts? My first book, which I am currently reworking, was a great example of a fabulous story and wonderful characters, both of which I love with all my heart, hampered by every mistake a young novelist can make. It is simply unpublishable in its present form, but the story that exists as the soul of the book is still among my favorite I’ve ever written.
As for me (Kathryn), I find that some of the most memorable books from my past were probably not all that well-written. I remember diving into page-turners like the Twilight Series or The Da Vinci Code and not surfacing until I’d sadly turned the last page. Were they critically well-received? No. Did they spur me to drop everything? Yes.
As a teen and young adult, I loved to armchair travel via James Michener’s novels. His research-heavy tomes introduced me to foreign countries and unknown histories that were compelling and inspiring. Today we would say he was guilty of way too much info-dumping. But in an earlier era, when attention spans were longer and diversions were less plentiful, his books took me places I didn’t even know I wanted to go.
Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.