As I entered the coffee shop Paddy was angrily tossing a book into the trash.
“Didn’t like it,” I suggested.
“Do publishers of novels still have editors?” he asked.
“As far as I know,” I answered. “What’s the problem?”
“It’s the damn characters for one thing,” he growled. “Half of them have names ending with the letter “s,” which means there are too damn many apostrophes. Most of the time you can’t sort out the singular from the plural, or whether it’s a possessive.”
“Yeah, I guess that could be annoying,” I allowed, “but it doesn’t seem serious enough to jettison the book.”
“Well, that’s not all,” he went on, “there was a Jane, a June and a Jana. I couldn’t keep track of the buggers.”
“You’re right,” I agreed, “It’s difficult to follow a story when characters have similar names.”
”And another thing,” Paddy stewed, “the characters were often in environments where there was absolutely no reason for them to be there. For example, in one scene two company executives met in a movie theatre with absolutely no explanation as to why.”
Paddy fell silent for a few moments.
“It bugs me,” I said to restart the conversation, “when character development jumps back and forth from the first person to the third person. I understand that the first person allows the author to provide more insight and the third person gives the author more freedom, but I still find the back-and-forth disconcerting”
“Another thing a lot of authors don’t seem to get,” observed Paddy, “is that the best stories are about people, not about events, buildings, mountains or countryside. Too much time spent describing events, buildings, mountains and countryside often results in long, boring block paragraphs that cause me to start turning pages looking for dialogue.”
“Being compelled to turn the page because you’re bored doesn’t cut it for me either,” I said, “But, speaking of turning pages, I really like the Jack Reacher novels because author Lee Child always provides a positive reason to turn the page. He crafts his stories so that you just can’t wait to find out what happens next.”
“I remember you telling me one time that you don’t like flashbacks,” Paddy said.
“I don’t like too many of them,” I answered, “and I don’t like them at all when they compete with the plot rather than contribute to it.”
“Also,” I went on, “dialogue should move the plot along, so it always has to be meaningful. I don’t want any throwaway dialogue in the novels I read. I hate meaningless exchanges.”
“Me, too,” Paddy agreed, “and characters should be identifiable both by what they say and how they say it. All the characters in that book I just threw away sounded the same.”
“Another thing that annoys me,” I added, “is too many pronouns; especially when the antecedents aren’t clear. I hate having to go back and reread in order to determine who said or did what to whom.”
“Yeah,” Paddy said, “you made that point in your column last week about non-fiction writing.”
“It’s equally important in novels,” I said.
“Getting back to people rather than scenery, it must be hard to decide exactly how much detail to put in,” Paddy observed. “You’ve written a bunch of books; how do you decide?”
“I’ve never written a novel,” I pointed out, “but I can give you an example of how I think detail should be used. I would never just say the dog was begging. I would say: the nine-year-old poodle named Tikka stood with perfect posture as she placed her front paws on my lap to beg for a tidbit with the dignity that only complete self-assurance can inspire.”
“I think an author has to turn ideas into images,” I went on. “It was a cheap, old car, is an idea. It seems to me that the author has to paint a word picture that will lead the readers to decide on the adjectives themselves. Saying The car’s best days being behind it, Barry wasn’t sure it could manage the mountain road seems more effective to me.”
“I remember reading somewhere,” Paddy said, “that if there’s a gun in a drawer in chapter one, it’s got to be fired before the end of the book.”
“Agreed,” I said, “and there should also be an explanation as to why there’s a gun in the drawer in the first place.”
“Another thing I hate,” Paddy said, “is when the first five pages are all background. I get bored, and it’s never good to be bored that soon.”
“Absolutely,” I agreed. “I like novels that get right into the story. Background can be introduced a little bit at a time.”
“Do you agree that there always has to be conflict?” Paddy asked.
“Definitely,” I replied. “There has to be conflict; but there also has to be resolution. And conflict and resolution by themselves don’t make a good novel. It’s how the characters handle the conflict and reach the resolution that makes a good novel. Also, the main character has to resolve whatever needs to be resolved in an interesting and plausible way. Another thing is that all plots and sub-plots need surprises.”
“How many sub-plots can you stand? Paddy asked.
“I don’t know,” I allowed, “as long as the central theme of the plot remains clear I guess it doesn’t matter.”
“How would you define the ideal novel?” Paddy asked.
“One in which every time I think I’ve figured out what’s going to happen, something different does,” was my answer.
“Sounds like we know how to write a novel,” observed Paddy, “why don’t we?”
“Can you think of a plot?” I asked.
Paddy, after a moment’s thought, got up and left without a word.