This blog will touch on the experiences I have as a writer (not to be mistaken for my experience as a writer, i.e. how many books I've written, etc); the pleasure and the pain, the joy and the grief, the satisfaction and the frustration, the magic and the reality - have I left anything out, oh yeah, the rejection, rejection and more rejection, the humiliation and the embarrassment, the jealousy and the resentment - that pretty much covers it, except for why I do it which perhaps I'll realize along the way. Are you totally confused? Good, let's begin.
I want to thank Violet Augusta for her hard work and commitment to this worthy endeavor.
Meg lives an idyllic life in North Carolina. I mean it’s cliché idyllic – a devoted, successful husband, three perfect children, even a nanny.
The first chapter of The Law of Diminishing Returns chronicles an average afternoon in Meg’s life picking up the kids from school and taking them to their extra curricular activities. If author Violet Augusta wanted to show just how dull Meg’s life is she succeeded, but it doesn’t make for a very good opening hook.
The following chapter contrasts Meg’s life with the life of Vatusia, a single mother living in the Ivory Coast. Vatusia’s son Anjani has schizophrenia and is being treated by missionaries Ernest and Jeannie, who are Meg’s uncle and aunt. The missionaries have arranged for Anjani to go to America for treatment and schooling
Back in America a group of wives are going on vacation to Vegas where Meg’s friend Kat decides to experiment having gay sex with a stranger.
Chapter four is Meg reading emails from her uncle and aunt about the civil war in the Ivory Coast and the deteriorating conditions.
Chapter five is Kat telling Meg her marriage to Tom is at risk because she told him about having sex with a woman in Vegas. This sends Meg into deep introspection about her life – several pages of backstory that read like a year-book morphing into a job resume.
This is contrasted by the following chapter chronicling the life history of Vatusia.
And so it goes with a great deal of the story being told through emails.
Violet Augusta’s story is not very original, but really when was the last time you read an original story? It contrasts the idyllic life of Meg in America with the hardship faced by Vatusia in Africa and the gradual merging of their lives for the mutual benefit of both. Even though predictable The Law of Diminishing Returns still has a lot of potential.
The problem is not so much in the story, but in the telling of it.
Augusta’s writing is passive, the characters are one dimensional, and the narrative is bogged down in many places with huge chunks, indeed, entire chapters of backstory.
So first, let’s talk about passive writing or telling instead of showing.
If you want to engage the reader's heart, mind, and imagination, you must learn to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ your stories. You must devise incidents complete with specific details that show the characters’ traits in action.
Character traits are abstract and general. Behavior (action) is concrete and specific. Don t tell the reader your character is brave, show your character in a situation where he displays bravery.
There should also be a sense of immediacy in your writing with the reader feeling they’re in the middle of the action, actually witnessing or participating in the events.
Here’s and example of how the author has her main character, Meg, describe the relationship with her husband Jeff:
Their love was both comfortable and passionate, a rare combination based on what Meg knew of her friends’ marital arrangements. Jeff was a handsome, stable man who let Meg be whoever she chose to be, no matter how many times she shifted course. He had opinions, but usually expressed them without patronizing Meg.
This is classic ‘telling’ using generalization instead of specifics. The reader would have been better informed and entertained if Augusta, through action and dialogue, would have describe the passion, and even the comfort, had given examples of her friend’s dysfunctional marriages, described the features of her handsome husband, defined stable, gave of examples of who and what Meg has wanted to be in the past, and let us in on opinions her husband holds, non-patronizing or otherwise.
Other blatant forms of ‘telling’ are the author’s extensive use of emails from one character to another to advance the plot. These could be developed into scenes with action and dialogue and would have been far more entertaining than presented in this sterile manner.
Augusta’s characters are not believable. Meg’s only flaw is she smokes the occasional cigarette in the privacy of her car. Jeff is a cliché of an upper middle-class husband and father. Ernest and Jeannie, Meg’s missionary uncle and aunt are pure and good. Vatusia is the typical third world victim using her skill in traditional crafts to eke out a living and support her ever-grateful-for-the-opportunity son studying in America. The only real person is Kat, the friend of Meg’s who decides to experiment with gay sex.
When Kat confides in Meg that she told her husband and he’s upset about her infidelity, Meg asks, “Why did you tell him?” To which Kat answers, “I wanted to provoke a reaction from him.” Why did she decide to have gay sex with a stranger in the first place? “I thought I was entitled to feel good,” Kat says.
Now this is getting interesting. Why did Kat have sex with a woman and not a man, or is she unable to “feel good” having straight sex and is there maybe something Kat wants to confess to her very best friend Meg?
We never find out because Augusta kills this story line almost immediately with Meg’s advice that Kat go back to her husband and beg forgiveness, “to grovel if she has to.”
If the author is afraid to go there then why is this brief episode even introduced?
Another flaw is the author’s use of backstory, information the reader may need to know to better understand the characters and their situation.
The Law of Diminishing Returns devotes entire chapters to backstory which, besides being boring, interrupt the narrative and pull the reader out of the reading experience.
Ideally this type of information is invisible – readers learn needed facts and information without knowing those facts were forced upon them. For this to happen backstory must be timely, relevant, motivated and above all minimal.
You want to keep the story momentum going and building and avoid anything that distracts from this experience even momentarily.
These are three major writing flaws that would have been pointed out by any writing instructor, critique group, maybe even impartial beta readers had the author taken the time to seek them out and not rushed to publish.
Before publishing you must have at least a few people who know something about writing, and who are not your family and not your friend, give your work conflict-of-interest-free assessments to point out things like backstory dumps, weak characterization and passive writing.
Assessments like this one.
Just as being able to cook doesn’t make you a gourmet chef, being able to write doesn’t make you an author. Both take study, training and lots of practice.