Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Last week, having finished reading a cozy mystery, I began a book some call a “classic.” Either the author, or that book, made the New York Times bestseller list, so I hoped to learn something useful. However, as for priorities, which Kristine Kathryn Rusch wrote about in her blog last week, having a book of mine become a bestseller on the NYT is not even on my list.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that almost everything I’ve learned in the thirty years I’ve been writing was ignored by that author. I won’t divulge the name, but it is a woman, and the book was first published in the early 1970s (forty years ago) by one of the Big Six (now Five) publishers. It’s apparently a backlist title reissued for the current market.

So what are the writing lessons that I’ve been learning since the 1990s that weren’t observed forty years ago?

Let’s start with Viewpoint. One could call this book omniscient, although there were times it seemed mostly in the viewpoint of one woman. However, it didn’t stay in her viewpoint. It head-hopped from time to time into her husband’s, her mother’s and her boss’s. Often within paragraphs.

Whether because of that problem or simply lack of character development, I had no interest in that person. I didn’t like or dislike her. I just didn’t know her enough to care. I had no emotional attachment. She was a mere paper doll, being pushed here and there, all “tell,” no “show.”

Backstory. Yes, there was lots of that and it was right in the first few chapters. I almost gave up reading then, but reminded myself this was supposed to be a great book and I should stick with it awhile longer to get to the good parts. Never happened. True, the character did some slightly interesting things: married and had children, got a good job, had an affair, got divorced. Not exactly Wonder Woman things, but maybe people liked to read about commonplace domestic life back then.

The setting of the novel was a period even earlier than the 1970s and the author managed to drop in every detail of the era, whether relevant or not. From who was president, to what went on in other countries at the time, to fashion, hairstyles, food, films and books. Her research was impressive. Did I care? No.
Dialogue: Very little, and that irrelevant or amateurish.

I’ll sum it up and give the reading experience a grade with points from one to ten. For Plot: five points (I’m being generous here.) Characterization: two points. Reader involvement: zero. Sometimes old novels should just be left to die in obscurity. Even as a mere $2.99 e-book.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch
New York Times


  1. Excellent post. I have a few books I dearly love and have read yearly since the net was something you wore over your hair. Even so, I struggle with many pov shifts, often within the same paragraph, as you stated. There's language usage that borders on the dreaded purple post, and on and on. Writers must be able to change with the trends.

    1. Vonnie:
      Thanks so much for your comment. "Change with the times" is so important, and not just to give the characters a cell phone.

  2. Boy isn't that the truth Phyllis! I've picked up books that I loved many, many years ago and wondered what the heck I was thinking back then. The truth is that like other forms of entertainment (TV, movies), books have undergone change, too. It doesn't mean that some still don't stand the test of time, but we have a faster paced culture and publishers know that it's too easy to drop anything that won't hold a person's attention for long.
    Great post!

    1. Thanks for your insightful comment. Reading about a bygone time can be a pleasure - we love historical novels - but old-fashioned writing habits are a turnoff. At least for me.

  3. Interesting ... When I was querying my first novel, "Tom Named By Horse" (never did get published) - I queried Tony Hillerman at Curtis Brown Lit agency - Of course it was my naivety that caused me to query him, but by golly if he didn't write back. Said he loved the story, my emotions and characters, but I should read some books by modern modern authors so I could learn many things. He did not recommend his own books, but did recommend Nora Roberts ... Sadly he passed away before I finished "We'll Have The Summer" - but I think of him often ... I'd sent out the normal - way too many queries - he was the only one to offer comments -


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