Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Why shouldn't I use alternate scenes?

Question:  A member of my library reading club (yes, I did let them read my mystery-in-progress) complains bitterly that I "skip around too much." The others say nothing, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. But she is adamant that real readers would just "throw the book against the wall" in frustration because the action goes back and forth between the two main characters who each have their own suspenseful (everybody agrees on that) problems to solve. I did that deliberately. I wanted to ratchet up the tension by going from one crisis to the next. Am I wrong?

Answer: I don't think so. I think you left that reader wanting to know more. That's not exactly a bad thing to do. Bet she cared enough to finish the whole thing, didn't she?

I had exactly the same complaint from a couple of inexperienced readers (family members that time) when they offered to read my novella, The Drowned Land. It is a story about a  hurricane, with the men aboard a boat in Chesapeake Bay and the women trapped in the house at home with the water rising. As soon as the men got one problem solved, I put the women in danger. If they got to a place where something worse was about to happen, I switched off and went back to the men and the storm. I did it for the same reason you did -- to ratchet up the tension. To make the reader keep turning pages because they cared what happened next.

Now, this story was the first one I ever wrote. But I had talked to men who had been at sea in a hurricane. I had, myself, survived all alone through Hurricane Hazel, that had tides 10 and 12 feet above normal high tide. So I had personal experience there.

I gave my characters a lot more problems than I ever had and I meant the readers to be scared, worried about the characters, and to gnash their teeth when the scene changed. The story did, however, collect more than its share of returns, including the worst note I ever got from an editor, "No blue chips for this stinko!"

Eventually, a member of my writers group (whose comments ranged from "too folksy" through "everybody has storms, so what?" and on to "I don't know about the sailing details. I sail, but have never been in any storm like that one!" suggested I might want to enter it in a State-sponsored contest for novellas. Surprise! It won. Later, my then publisher entered it in the first Epic Awards where it was a finalist.

So what's the point?

The point is, everyone has an opinion. The be st thing you can do is to write the story the way you want it to be. If everybody who reads it, comes up with the same criticism, then think about what they say. But if only one person complains about something, smile, thank them for their input, and go home.


  1. Some days I'd give half what I own for a first reader; other days I'm grateful not to have had to be subjected to such opinions before the book was finished. Nowadays, I don't know what I think. Having paid for a professional edit in hopes of a publishing contract, and after two years still not even having found an agent--I don't know whether any help is useful. It seems a writer just has to luck out--or not.

  2. Well here's one publisher who's always interested.