Ah, the non-teaching part of the year, and the best part about that is that there's time to read for pleasure! Of course, this doesn't mean I stop reading as a writer, but still it's nice to read something that I have to think about purely for me and not with any other motive.
So, the first book I've tackled was a change -- I decided I'd like to give Matthew Reilly a go. I've bought two of his books along the way, with the intent of reading them (obviously!). I think as writers, no matter what type of fiction we're writing, it's interesting to go and have a look at the writers who are selling megacopies, because obviously they are doing something right. Now, I was at a writers' group meeting awhile ago and Matthew Reilly's name came up, and those who had read him (iirc) said that they couldn't finish his books, that they were badly written. Hmm. Always interesting. He's not had one book that has sold megacopies but many. Readers don't keep coming back to writers whose books they don't finish. Not everyone, it seems, feels the same way that my friends do.
So, I sat down, prepared to be entertained. And within a few pages I could both see why my friends (writers) didn't like his writing, and why lots of people (readers) do. Matthew Reilly is doing something right. I finished the book (all 700 pages of it) in two days (and I'm very happy to see that the other book that I have has the same main character -- maybe they all do?). So, that might be my next read -- though I had said that these holidays would be my Harry Potter catch-up time.
Anyway, for the writers out there, here's my analysis of what I think (and it's only my opinion of course), MR is doing right, and what he's doing wrong. (And Matthew can laugh all the way to the bank, clearly.) I'm just going to pick three things for each argument.
What he's doing wrong:
infodumps -- oh, my goodness. Does this guy love to infodump. We tell our students not to do this -- do not stop the story to give information. Try to weave it in some other way. MR has infodumps on missiles, aeroplanes, ice -- you name it. Now, here's a little admission, I go quite gooey with any information that's vaguely aeronautical (well, especially anything pertaining to space/rockets/astronauts) so I actually didn't mind some of these infodumps, though there might be better ways to handle them. The thing is that there's so many that doing them other ways might not be possible. So the real question becomes: how much of this info is absolutely essential to the reader?
description -- MR tackles this the same way that he does infodumps -- stops the story to deliver it. Usually, it's better to show the protagonist (or other characters) interacting with the scenery, e.g. rather than "The gantry was made of steel and painted blue. It spanned the chasm between the two platforms. David ran across it", it could be something like: "David ran across the steel gantry, his feet sending slivers of blue paint plunging into the chasm between the two platforms". (These are all my words, not MR's.)
suspension of disbelief -- okay, this is a high-octane story, and everything's happening in the last second before disaster strikes, but sometimes this goes a bit far. The baddies are all bad shots. The good guys are not. (MR attempts to explain this away with an infodump about weaponry that helps, but doesn't solve the problem.) One small team against a much larger force of the world's best? Hmm. But it's also the little research things -- a doctor with no equipment diagnoses how a person died by spotting lactic acid in the dead guy's throat. Really? I don't think so. There were a few moments like this for me. But still I'm prepared to give a little here, for two reasons: one is that I was being swept along, and two is that I think it's a hard call for writers to be expected to get every little thing right. Clearly, we are not experts in every field, and while I do think it's important that we endeavor to get things right, I recognise that it's not always possible. Some writers employ researchers to do the research for them, but even so surely there must come a time when we say enough is enough? If not, we could spend all our time researching and never get around to writing. There must have been about a zillion things Reilly had to research for this book. I can't tell how many things he got right and wrong, but I suspect they're mostly right. I'm prepared to cut him some slack here, but I do notice them, and they do pull me out of the story.
Let's look at the other side of the coin: what he's doing right:
plot -- most bestsellers are strongly plotted, and MR's book is no exception. This book is as tightly plotted as they come. MR does all the things a good plotter should do -- he takes his characters, puts them under pressure and then tightens the screws. He puts his characters under intense pressure, makes it as hard for them as possible, constantly backs them into corners where they seem to have no escape, and then he makes it worse. Not a page passes without something happening. A new writer could do far worse than study Reilly to see how he handles plot. Hell, I could do far worse than study how Reilly handles plot...
pace -- make no mistake, this book zips along, even despite the infodumps, and that's no mean feat given there are so many of them. Never did I feel bogged down or impatient. No, those pages were flipping over. His writing style is clean, not overly laden with adjectives, and written simply in a manner that doesn't impede the reader's progress. Still, I think the pace has a lot to do with the plot -- there being so much action and conflict -- and lots of dialogue.
scene endings/cliffhangers -- lots of these. Nearly every chapter ends on a cliffhanger. Sometimes this is overdone and verges on the Goosebump-type endings that drive me nuts, but Reilly never really crosses that line. A cliffhanger, of course, drags you on to the next scene. You have to find out what happened, and so the book becomes unputdownable. Not a bad thing for a book to be, of course!
Final word: the other book I've bought has an interview with Reilly at the back, and he addresses the question of how he interacts with his two military advisers, and says that he sometimes eschews their advice to better serve the plot. It's not a bad point, but then if credibility suffers, if readers do find their disbelief no longer suspended, then really the plot hasn't been served at all -- something we all should think about, and maybe it's a game of risks, and speculating about how many readers are going to be affected by any one error. I had an award-winning book ruined for me once, because at the beginning the main character was talking about the Morlocks in the War of the Worlds. Trouble was the Morlocks were from Wells's "other" book, The Time Machine; the Martians were the bad guys in War of the Worlds. It's all about the way the information was delivered -- it made the character lose all credibility for me. Another reader may not have been bothered (though it was for an audience who might be expected to know this).
Final final word: the real test is will I read another book. Having discovered that the two books are based on the same characters, I have to say that I will definitely read this second book. Will I buy another? Trickier question, because I see in the back of this other book that they're not all based on the same character. So many books... I might buy another based on this character, but maybe not his other books. Then again, I might not. This isn't my usual genre, and that's really where I want to be doing most of my reading. Still, it has made for a good diversion for a couple of days.