2) Confuse Me and Lose Me
This one is a natural extension of the first. You have a riveting story. There’s action, suspense, intrigue, a quirky secondary character with a funny name who collects artisanal bongs and believes the government is secretly stealing his skin. It’s all there.
And the first page starts out:
Dell couldn’t believe it. He was sure it was him that had followed him. Because she was on it when it happened, and she wasn’t there with her. The thing she believed most of all – that God had transported from space and was now there with her – was troubling, but not enough to keep Dell from defending herself from the robot ninja dinosaurs.
Okay, so if you’re like me, you instantly zeroed in on the fact that God came down from space – a highly bizarro and (possibly) fascinating concept. Also, there were robot ninja dinosaurs. Which, as everyone knows, make everything Instantly Awesome.
But I had NO FROIKIN’ CLUE where these character/set pieces/flaming hot piles of radicalness belonged in the story. I THINK Dell is the main character. But I’m not sure if Dell is following or being followed. I don’t know what “it” she was on, or what “it” happened. Heck, I don’t even really know if Dell is a boy or a girl.
Now a sad reality of life is that books are becoming viewed more and more as consumables, less and less as treasures. A few hundred years ago if you could read and you bought a book and it was difficult, you muscled through it. Because it was something that educated people did and because you wanted to be able to impress yon maeiden faire with your impressive myte and knowledge, true. But also because it was likely the only book you could afford, or even the only one you were going to see for a while. It was a treasure.
Now, books are less and less treasures and more and more consumables.
That is great for authors in that people like to read and are plowing through tons of books. It means, though, that a lot of people are going to take any confusion as an excuse (if only subconscious) to put the book down. They’ll watch a show, or feed the kids, or even get another book. Because it’s easy to do all those things, and why try to figure out Dell’s relationship to the robot ninja dinosaurs if there’s probably a TV show on that will explain the legend of RNDs for her, no thinking required?
Books don’t have to be dumbed down. They can be challenging. But I firmly believe that they should say something clearly. If you want to build in layers so that the reader discovers more under the surface on a second (and third and fourth and fifth) read-through, then by all means, do that!
But the first read-through should be understandable. Not just on a macro-level, but a micro-level. Chapters should contribute clearly to the work as a whole. Paragraphs should contain coherent thoughts. Sentences should be phrased so there is no question as to what pronoun refers to what antecedent. Words should be chosen with absolute care.
A few “writers” get all testy about this. “But… but… that’s so much work.”
Yeah. Being a writer is a LOT of work. I used to be a big-city lawyer. Now I’m a laid-back writer. Guess which “me” works longer hours. If you’re afraid of spending time getting it right, go do something easier. Brain surgery, or quantum physics.
You’re a writer. Suck it up.