This is the first installment of a writing advice series that focuses on certain pitfalls of writing. In particular I’m looking at the all-too-common belief that up-and-coming writers would do well to replicate every aspect of the work of a successful author in order to gain at least one route to success.
In fact, our favorite authors make both major and minor mistakes and get away with them all the time. The major mistakes are never part of the reason for their success, however; the errors are forgiven because they are weighed against the triumphs and found negligible by comparison. The problems for new authors arise when they imagine that bestselling novels by say, John Grisham, are virtual success formulas that, by definition, cannot contain mistakes. Grisham ends more than one book with the awful cliché of the hero literally sailing off into the sunset. If you are to copy the idea of a cliché wrap-up, thinking that if Grisham did it, it must be good (or at least imagine you can get away with it because he did) then you have to be every bit as good as Grisham right up to that point. Chances are, you are not every bit as good as Grisham and you are not doing yourself any favors by allowing yourself to make a recognizable error. What is more likely to happen is that you will be weaker on what Grisham does best while at the same time adding your own pile of errors to his. It’s closer to a failure formula than it is to a secret of success.
So, the question becomes: How do you recognize which facets of a book were useful techniques and which were regrettable errors? To kick off this series, I’m going to illustrate the main argument by examining a particularly egregious Point of View (POV) inconsistency. POV is the narrative mode forming the perspective and detail in which a story is told. These modes are commonly termed first person, second person, third person, omniscient, and so one. Authors have a wide latitude in making these choices, something I define, further discuss, and examine in more detail in Today You Write the Book: The Keys to Starting Your Novel. For our purposes here, let’s just say that whichever POV mode you choose, the key to successful deployment is consistency. From consistency will come clarity. No reader wants clarity to be a struggle.
David Lagercrantz has taken up the task of continuing the beloved Millennium/ Girl with the Dragon Tattoo novels, of which there were three created and written by Stieg Larsson. I have tremendous respect for anyone willing to tackle the restoration of a series possessed of a high level of sophistication. Lagercrantz brings a superb ability to fill in character details, no doubt aided by his long experience writing biographies. His latest work in the succession is The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye. By book five of the series he’s got the characters and situations down, and he’s created the continuation of the storylines and mysteries. It’s not a flawless imitation, but it will make a lot of people happy. What he got wrong is his attempt to imitate Larsson in all respects, including his errors. That includes a failing I call “POV drift.”
When J. R. R. Tolkien created a POV inconsistency, famously shifting perspective at the end of a scene from one of the hobbits to that of a fox, some critics very reasonably referred to this as “a charming error.” Whenever Larsson made a POV switch three quarters of a way into a scene, and then a switch back, he committed a less-charming confusion error. Most writers continually evolve to filter out their POV inconsistencies, and most editors catch and correct them. Typically, later novels by the same author have fewer writing mistakes. In the course of Lagercrantz’ tribute, and his faithfulness to Larsson and his style, he actually ends up badly exaggerating Larsson’s errors, especially these notable, characteristic POV mistakes. Two variants of Larsson’s themes are the use of Evil Twins and Disadvantaged Twins. The Evil Twin in literature is often used to illustrate that the same set of powers can be used for good or ill, but that good is inherently better. Therefore, all things being equal, good must triumph over evil. (But it even works when the deck is stacked against good, as in Star Wars when we expect that Luke’s positive use of the Force will prevail over Vader’s more experienced employment of the Dark Side of the Force).
If a scene shows both of a pair of twins, the worst thing you can do is mix their POV’s. This is what Lagercrantz does repeatedly and sloppily until you can’t be sure that you’ve sorted them out. He does this throughout book five. While the novel is still enjoyable, and in fact has a marvelous ending (but for two aspects to be discussed here in future articles), not knowing what individual characters were thinking at various times in their encounters with each other was a disappointment. The only reason I pick the Millennium Series continuation as an example is that even the most stubborn fan of across-the-board imitation will notice the problem once it’s pointed out.