I believe that noticing what we've done wrong in our previous books is a natural part of growing as an author. I see it as a positive thing and an important learning experience.
Since I published my first dystopian sci-fi thriller Entanglement, I've learned a lot about writing. I've read a book on craft and tried some new strategies in practice while working on my new novel. I've discussed the intricacies of writing with other authors and analyzed reviews and private feedback that I got from readers. I've become more mindful of the things that work and don't work for me while reading other people's books. Looking back at Entanglement, I see many things I'd do differently now.
I'm not saying that I'm an expert on writing. I am aware that this is just the beginning of my journey, and this is most likely not a complete list of what I did wrong. I think (and hope!) that after publishing my second book, I'll find mistakes in it as well, that I'll keep learning and growing. Maybe this will be the first in a series of similar posts.
I'm not trying to diss my own book. I refuse to uphold the harmful belief forced on kids at schools around the world and ingrained in our adult mentality that making mistakes is a bad and shameful thing. No, making mistakes means we're trying something new. No skill can be mastered without them.
Let's take a look at my mistakes then.
I often enjoy exposition as a reader. I like being in the characters' heads, knowing what they are thinking and feeling. A well-set scene with sensory descriptions creates a sense of immersion, and a good flashback at the right time can rock my world.
There are two ways in which I screwed it up in Entanglement.
First, I relied on flashbacks and memories a lot to tell the story. The book starts in the middle of the action, so this was a natural way to fill the readers in on the characters' backstories and what led to the bizarre mess they found themselves in. However, it was simply too much.
The problem with flashbacks is that they tell us about the things that have already happened instead of the things that are happening now. By definition, they are less urgent and impactful for the reader. They don't move the plot along, they just provide more context.
Don't get me wrong, context is important, and flashbacks can be immensely moving. Think of a flashback that reveals crucial information, providing the missing piece of the puzzle at a vulnerable moment. The reader is already invested in the story and is dying to gain a deeper understanding of a character or events — finally getting an answer can feel cathartic!
However, it's not what I did in Entanglement. The flashbacks told ordinary and interesting stories about the characters' past interrupting the action.
In the very beginning, when one of the main characters cuts his implant out of his palm and runs away from home, this otherwise tense and exciting scene gets interrupted by memories and rumination. The first chapter is definitely not the right place for this sort of thing!
The narrative keeps switching back and forth between the present and memories in the first half of the book.
A character hacks a passenger drone to get to the criminals who can provide him with a new identity. While he's stuck in an air jam, he relives the events that led to these drastic steps. The drones move, and he's back in the moment. He gets stuck again and dives right back into his memories. The drones move again and he flies over a roof that reminds him of a conflict he had with a friend. He's steering the drone again. He can't believe he's cut his implant out and starts thinking about the role of implants in the world and their history, including his friend's personal tragedy — and that's the whole chapter.
Most of these things are important for character development and world-building, however, this is not the right way to tell them. First, they take about 90% of the chapter, which should be exciting and tense — the character has just left his whole life behind, he's breaking the law, his future is unknown. Second, the transitions are vague, and some readers found it hard to follow the story. It required extra effort, which means I definitely lost some readers there. Third, all of these things should have been revealed later and not in one chapter, but rather as snippets seasoning the novel.
It slowed the pacing down, diluted the tension and repeatedly brought the readers out of the story, sometimes making it hard to follow.
I would start with pure action. I might include some of the character's doubts because the vague line between the virtual and the real and the constant uncertainty on whether it's all just a simulation is a significant feature of the world. But even if I did, those would be hints, glimpses of thoughts that might get explored in depth later in the book.
I would drop hints of backstory here and there, in various ways: a conversation, a dream, an object that reminds a character of something, a call from someone from the past. Bits of information that would slowly allow the readers to assemble the world and backstories. I'd do that in the slower and calmer parts of the novel, somewhere in the middle, when the readers are already hooked and want to know more about the characters they've started caring about. I'd distribute snippets of backstory across the novel, so that they didn't overwhelm and fit into the narrative instead of interrupting it.
I would tell less of a backstory and focus more on what was happening at present.
My characters go through a lot. They do extremely difficult things, change their whole lives, find themselves in crazy situations they aren't prepared for, take drastic and dangerous steps. That can't be easy, but it all goes relatively smoothly. Not in a Mary Sue 'I'm immediately good at everything and everyone loves me' sort of way, but easier than it should have been.
The plot is entertaining enough, carried forward by twists and unexpected reveals, but I missed the opportunity to build more tension that would lead to a more intense and satisfying resolution.
The plot is less gripping than it could have been.
I'd throw lots of increasingly difficult obstacles every step of the way. I'd make it so hard that my characters would barely make it. They'd have to earn the resolution with blood, sweat and tears.
There are many opportunities I can think of where a few good obstacles would build tension, excite the readers and allow the characters to reveal the depths of their personalities. That instead of some of the exposition would make the book stronger and provide a more thrilling reading experience.
There is a character who sort of stops being relevant to the plot halfway through the book, but I didn't want to cut her loose. She had suffered such a horrible and unfair thing that I wanted to give her a chance of a new beginning. Besides, I thought her plotline was pretty cool – a tribe living in the forest, ceremonies with mind-altering substances (those who know anything about my current unfinished novel will recognize the trend ;) providing an opportunity for a bit of mysticism and some poetic moments.
But this plotline is only related to the main story in a minor way and does not advance it. It is entertaining and reveals a certain important thing, but it goes nowhere. A few readers told me they didn't care for this plotline and one wanted it to be more developed.
The plotline drew the readers' attention away from the main story, slowing down the pace and diminishing potential tension.
I probably wouldn't give that character her own POV (point of view) at all, focusing on the other two protagonists. That would allow me to develop them more and tighten the plot. If I used her as a POV character, I could kill her off after she stopped being relevant providing more drama. If I decided to continue her separate plotline, I would find a way to tie it to the main story and make her crucial in the final confrontation.
The whole novel has been leading to this moment. The protagonists are about to risk their lives confronting the villain — a mysterious and menacing figure with immense power who has ruined their lives. They are going to stop him, but they also hope to finally find out why he did those horrible things to them. One of the protagonists has a hidden agenda, too.
That should be pure action and drama, a struggle, a near failure and a very difficult win that would glue the readers to the pages and provide them an intense relief once it was over.
But it's not. See, when one of the protagonists gets to talk to the villain, he shows her a simulation that explains everything. And to be fair, it's a grand, mind-bending reveal with a plot twist I guarantee you won't see coming. This novel has a certain idea behind it that remains invisible until this moment. Sounds exciting? Sure, but I did it wrong.
First, the reveal takes a really long time, and it comes right in the middle of the climax. Which means that the action stops and all the tension is lost.
Second, it's mostly a retelling of what the protagonist sees in a simulation that the villain shows her. This is the most emotionally distant way to tell a story. I'm not a proponent of generic advice like 'show don't tell' — there are times to show and times to tell, and distinguishing between them is important. But such a crucial reveal should happen in the most emotional way possible, and retelling doesn't do it.
Third, it involves quite a complex concept, and the way it's told makes it hard to follow and grasp.
The action is interrupted, the tension is lost and the reader has to make an effort to understand what's going on, which diminishes the impact of the reveal and the reader's excitement at finding out the truth.
I wouldn't interrupt the action with the reveal, since it's pretty long and takes time to unravel. I'd make it happen at a different moment. The protagonists could discover it while investigating and preparing for the final confrontation. Or if their initial plan failed (which it should have!), maybe one of the protagonists would be captured and find out then, while their life hung in the balance and they didn't know what had happened to their friends. I could even do it in an epilogue — after defeating the villain the characters put the simulation on and finally learn the truth.
I'd also make it easier to digest, both by making it shorter and using any means other than retelling. I'd have to try it out to see what would work, but even a conversation with the villain could have been better. It could be combined with a vivid scene from the simulation to drive the point home and make it more emotional, giving the reveal the power it deserves instead of watering it down.
This is related to the second point. The final confrontation with the villain should be the most difficult thing my characters have done. It should be intense and devastating, and they should almost lose. Instead, they go in and almost everything goes according to plan apart from one of the protagonists doing an unexpected thing. It ends too quickly. They get close, one of the characters goes in, there is a lengthy reveal that completely takes the readers out of the action, and then after a very short action scene, it's over.
To add to your disappointment, the ending is open. Yes, you've found out the reason behind all the mysterious things that have been driving the plot, and it's not what you expected. But the characters are facing a new force that's way more complicated and powerful than they could have imagined, their whole world is turned on its head. And the story ends there.
The potential impact of the ending gets drastically reduced, it doesn't provide enough of a resolution and might feel disappointing.
As I've said before, I'd make it extremely hard for the characters. I'd turn the confrontation into a few chapters that would put my characters on trial, making loss a real possibility. I'd throw in a devastating failure that could only barely be turned around by the titanic effort of everyone involved. I'd make it intense, fast-paced, possibly bloody. With the reveal at the right moment, it would be way more satisfying and emotional.
However, I don't know how I could end the story in a different way. Maybe an open ending is right for it, and leaving the reader there, alone to deal with the perspective shift is a good way to finish it. Alternatively, I could write a sequel — at least one reader wanted it. But it was my first book and I wasn't ready to turn it into a series. Finishing it was hard enough. And writing a sequel now would be a waste because I'm sure the mistakes I've made resulted in losing many readers. If I ever decide to write a series, I'll make sure that the first book is gripping.
I see the mistakes that I've mentioned as the most critical ones that stood in the way of the story reaching its full potential. That's my opinion at the moment, and it might change in the future as I learn more. There were other things that could have been done better but were good enough (like character development or world-building), some things that were out of my control (like not being able to afford a line editor or a proofreader, which resulted in some lingering typos and a few sentences some readers found unnatural) and some things that I totally nailed (unpredictability and plot twists!).
Later, when I had money, I hired an editor. I didn't want to rewrite the book, but I couldn't resist improving small things. I changed that final reveal to a conversation with the antagonist and made it much shorter (but it's still pretty long!), and I made the final action scene longer and (hopefully) more exciting.
In the end, Entanglement is not a bad book. It is a good story in an interesting setting with likeable enough characters that could have been told in a much better way. Some readers loved it, others were tepid, a few people hated it, and I think it's a success. I'm working on making my second book way better though :).
Featured image by Patrik Houštecký.