Recently I've plunged myself into reading a certain genre of novel--young-adult historical fiction--for research purposi. I'm writing a novel of this genre with a fantastic bent and am on a mission to see how other authors handle the genre. That is how Black Duck fell into my hands. This was a Prohibition-era story by Janet Taylor Lisle.
While I enjoyed learning about rum-running in the time of Prohibition, I almost gave up after a mere twenty pages. Then I remembered the oft-repeated advice that writers should read ALL THE THINGS: the good, the bad, and the ugly. So I kept reading, determined instead to use Black Duck as an object lesson in what NOT to do.
It was a labor of learning, but here's what I got out of it:
Inception-style storytelling, while bad-ass in a movie, is not effective in narrative. The format of this story is a boy interviewing an old man named Ruben in the present day. During the interview, Ruben gives a first-person account of events that happened when he was a kid. Most of the book is written this way, which is fine, but now and then we break away from Ruben's story to return to the third-person present-day interview. It's a story inside a story, like a dream inside a dream inside a boring dream, and it's distancing and disinteresting and confusing as crap.
Dialogue without quotation marks do not a scene make. There are lots of stories where the dialogue is not in quotation marks (matter-of-factly, I wrote a story using that convention). But these stories are usually told either in first-person or in third-person limited omniscient. That puts the lens all up in the main character's grill. It makes the reader feel like they're deep in the character's consciousness, and therefore intensifies the intimacy. But in Black Duck, the point of view has a distant omniscient feel, and because the dialogue is written without question marks, every scene in the present-day interview feels like its written in summary, not in scene. And that, my friends, is Snoozeville.
Characters ain't defined by what their daddies do. To put it bluntly, every young male in this story was the same kid. The characterization was poor--and there were enough boys running around the pages that I regularly confused who was who. The story telling style (see my first bullet) only made this worse because I couldn't remember which boys were in the present and which were in the past. The only way I could keep these kids apart was by recalling what their daddies did. Because at least that was defined. But I got news: good characterization is not telling the reader what a guy does for a living or what music he likes or what posters are on his wall. Characterization is made in gestures, dialogue, and action.
In conclusion, reading even the ugly things may be very instructive, but boy is it torturous. I sure hope I don't have to read anything like that again soon. Whew.