No Fair Cheating . . .
By M. Stephen Lukac
No Fair Cheating . . .
The dust jacket caught my eye from across the store. Praying for Sleep, by someone named Jeffrey Deaver. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but the muted blues and purples on the cover intrigued me enough to walk across the sales floor and check it out.
Boy, am I glad I did.
Spoilers follow, so any of you who might want to read this, be warned.
The novel follows two parallel tracks. The first is told from a woman’s perspective; she lost someone in a horrible murder years ago, and testified against the man eventually convicted of the crime. The second track follows the murderer, who has escaped from prison, and is relentlessly traveling to the woman’s house. At first glance, it seemed like pretty standard thriller fare, but Deaver’s prose style kept me reading.
Four chapters from the end, Deaver pulled what my best friend and I call “A Waid.” (Named for the comic book writer Mark Waid, who has an uncanny ability to deliver phenomenal plot twists out of left field. Check out The Flash, Volume 2, Number 75 if you want proof.) In Deaver’s book, the author reveals that the “murderer” is, in fact, the woman’s protector, and he’s making his way to her in order to save her from the real killer.
That’s a 180° shift, if you’re keeping score.
When I reached “THE END” I did something I rarely do: I went back to Chapter 1 and reread the entire novel. I was impressed with Deaver’s plotting skill, but I was sure he had to have slipped up somewhere. Four hours later, I reread “THE END” and Jeffrey Deaver earned a permanent spot on my library shelves, and a warm place in my heart.
All because he did it right.
Watching a writer pull a GOTCHA! successfully is a wondrous thing to behold, but lately, it’s become the literary equivalent of a Perfect Game in baseball. Many pitchers get close to that elusive accomplishment, but eventually somebody flubs a pop-up fly to short center, and the record books remain unchanged.
But, in the world of fiction (whether in print or on film), while the GOTCHA!’s are equally few and far between, the pitchers (to continue the metaphor) often claim the crown without earning it, and in many cases, cheat along the way, further tarnishing their dubious achievement.
The prosecution submits the following:
The Pelican Brief by John Grisham. This was John’s last chance with me, and he blew it. I read The Firm, and enjoyed it, but during the Blizzard of ’92, I spent three days slogging through A Time to Kill, and after reaching Grisham’s execrable, dues ex machina denouncement, I chucked the paperback into the stream that ran behind my duplex (feces are biodegradable, right?). I took a chance on his third book hoping the first was a fluke (remember, A Time to Kill came out before The Firm). I soon learned to trust my instincts.
In The Pelican Brief, the Julia Roberts character (and yes, I know I’m mixing media in my descriptions) investigates the murder of two Supreme Court justices. At one point, she enters a law library, and when she comes out, she knows who the murderers are. All well and good, but Grisham never shows us how Julia figures it out, because he doesn’t know. What’s worse, those salient details weren’t important to him. All that mattered was the result.
As an aside (I know, big surprise), when I finished the book, I told everyone that would listen how that crucial scene would play out in the movie. Julia Roberts would enter the law library, and a montage would begin, accompanied by the requisite Final Jeopardy music. We’d see Julia leaf through some books, scroll through some microfilm and punch a computer keyboard. We’d see her making notes throughout until presented with the big A-HA! moment.
I guess the director was reading my mind.
My second exhibit is more recent, the newly released, highly anticipated follow-up to The DaVinci Code, The Lost Symbol. I read it. I read all of it. My shame at making this statement can only be surpassed by Dan Brown’s shame for writing it. Or Random House’s for publishing it. Or, the myriad reviewers for assigning it any stars at the end of their reviews.
There’s a lot of shame to go around.
In the interest of my sanity (reliving trauma only magnifies it), I’ll confine myself to describing one scene. Robert Langdon is tricked into traveling to Washington, D.C., supposedly by a representative of one of his mentors. This subterfuge is shown via flashback, a plot device I assume Brown found a sale on, since he employs it so often.
The first flashback detailing the deception is plausible, if clumsy. None of my friends that would call for a favor has a personal assistant, but none of my friends is the curator of the Smithsonian. Brown recounts the entire invitation, including Langdon’s reaction, and then returns to the narrative. All well and good.
Several chapters later, Langdon encounters a secret lock requiring an unknown doo-hickey to open. The other characters in the scene exchange puzzled looks and serious discussions regarding the doo-hickey, but Langdon is strangely silent. Silent, because he’s busy preparing for another flashback.
Because, he suddenly remembers the protruding bulge in his briefcase.
We travel back to an earlier encounter between Langdon and his mentor, in which the mentor gives Langdon . . . wait for it . . . a mysterious doo-hickey to keep safe and secret. Then, we head back to the present with a brief stop in the less distant past, and we hear the mentor’s pretend assistant ask Langdon to be sure to bring the doo-hickey to Washington.
Give me a break.
As writers, we create these wondrous worlds and captivating plots, but we have to go all the way. Half-assed doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) cut it, unless, of course, you’ve written one of the best-selling books of the 1990s. The coolest plot twist in the world is worthless if you haven’t set it up properly, or executed it well.
Now, I’m not advocating any specific plotting process. I know there are many “how-to” books out there on writing fiction, but think about this: How many fiction sales has that self-help author –that supposed “expert”- made?
Those who can . . .
As readers, we need to stop allowing authors to get away with sloppy work, and the only way we can do that is to vote with our wallets. I have a unique situation; I can read just about anything I want for free (working in a brick and mortar bookstore has its advantages), so I only buy the books I think are worth reading. Now, I’m sure my spending habits don’t have any New York Times bestsellers shaking in their booties, but maybe they should.
I talk to a lot of customers every week.
But Then Again, You’ll Have This . . .
M Stephen Lukac has been reading since he was three, writing since he was seven and selling other people’s books since he was twenty-eight. At forty, he realized it might be time to get serious.
He loves stories set in coherent worlds, where the rules and situations –no matter how fantastic they may be- remain consistent across the author’s body of work. Experiencing the creation of a fictional universe –whether overt or subtle- is akin to peeking over God’s shoulder. Inhabiting those creations, regardless of the medium, is his second favorite thing.
His favorite thing is definitely not talking about himself in the third person.
But Then Again, You’ll Have This . . .
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