Friday, December 15, 2006

RWA Contests: The Over-the-top Story

Often when I'm judging a writing contest (and not infrequently when I'm reading a published book), about three pages in I'll roll my eyes and think, "Oh, come ON! That's just SILLY. I don't believe it for an instant." The published book moves straight to my library donation box, because life is too short to read bad books when there are so many good ones awaiting my attention. But when I have that reaction to a contest entry, I have to keep reading--and to keep all my comments and suggestions kind and tactful, because somewhere out there there's a real writer who loves that story as much as I love any of mine.

Sometimes my inability to suspend disbelief springs from a big factual/historical error. In that case, my job as a judge is easy. I point out the issue, striving for tact no matter how obvious whatever bit of reality the writer botched seems to me. (Because I am human, this sometimes requires pacing around the house grumbling about idiots who don't READ, and doesn't anyone do RESEARCH anymore, and why do people who don't care about history attempt HISTORICAL fiction. But I don't let myself comment on the entry until I'm past Outraged Historian mode.) I then try to offer a suggestion that would fix the error without drastically altering plot or character.

More often what throws me out of the story is that everything is just TOO something. Too big, too serious, too goofy, too black-and-white. In other words, over-the-top. I usually suggest striving for greater subtlety and working in some moral gray areas in both characters and situations.

But I always feel weird giving that advice, for two reasons. One is that books that strike me as over-the-top and ridiculous do get published, so maybe I'm telling a writer to fix something that ain't broke. I do try to set my personal tastes aside when judging, but it's not easy, and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between "not to my taste" and "bad."

The other reason is that on some levels genre/popular fiction is supposed to be sweeping and over-the-top. Fantasy protagonists save the kingdom, or even the whole world, often over and over again. There's a strong thread of historical fiction where the hero just happens to meet all the important people and play a crucial role in every critical battle of his era. Romance heroes and heroines love on a grand scale. And I'm fine with all that. Phedre no Delaunay of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel books can save Terre d'Ange a dozen times, and I'd be happy to read each new adventure. I love seeing the Peninsular War through Richard Sharpe's eyes and WWII through the Henry family of Wouk's Winds of War/War and Remembrance. All those books are GOOD over-the-top, IMO. And I think there truly is a qualitative difference between those books and the ones I want to throw at the wall--an art to the writing, a certain subtlety in the midst of the epic sweep, a certain humanity in the protagonists allowing me to identify with them no matter how much braver, smarter, or magically gifted by the gods with world-saving powers they are than I could ever hope to be.

I know the difference is there. But I don't know how to define that difference in any way that's helpful to some struggling writer who's entered a contest just hoping for some useful feedback to help her improve her book.


belmanoir said...

I think this is a really good point, about genre fiction being *supposed* to be over the top. I mean, isn't that what we love about it? But the thing is, there has to be that illusion of reality. It's not a satisfying fantasy if it's obviously fake. If you're going to take a big jump into fantasyland by, say, having your hero leap on top of a moving coach and fight off ten French spies, fine, but everything ELSE better be pretty damn real--the kind of coach, the clothes, the weapons, the way the hero feels about being a lean, mean, fighting machine--so that you've got trust built up. The fact that on some level I *want* to believe you isn't going to help you if you aren't believable. It's like, if you love your scumbag bf, you might believe him because you want to if he tells you he's working late, but if he tells you he fell from a ten story building and was in the hospital despite having no bruises, you're going to have to admit to yourself he's lying.

I think this is one reason I don't read many contemporaries. It's easier for me to suspend my disbelief when the h/h are an earl and a governess than when they're a software magnate and a schoolteacher. And I would express that as "It's just not ROMANTIC!" but I think what I really mean is that I can't suspend my disbelief and accept the romance, because those are things I KNOW (not that I know a lot of software magnates or anything) and I know that they DON'T ride off into the sunset holding hands.

It kind of reminds me of something I read recently on lj, and I wish I could remember where, about the use of the "mystical soulmates" plot device in fantasy novels, and how it's ridiculous because it's very easy to suspend disbelief about, say, magic, because magic doesn't exist and so I'll believe whatever the author tells me about what it's like. But relationships are something that everyone has experience with, so if you're going to include them you'd better make them realistic, because otherwise people are just going to feel like you're trying to pull one over on them.

Susan Wilbanks said...

Mystical soulmates don't work for me because it takes all the suspense and interest out of the love story. The couple doesn't have to be well-matched, and it doesn't matter what conflicts they have to work to overcome, because everything is predestined.