2013 Book #6 – Just This Once, by Rosalind James

Without a doubt, the best part of my initiative to read as many books as possible in 2013 is the fact that every book I’ve read has either taught me important things about the craft of writing or provided itself as a great example of various craft elements. Just This Once, by Rosalind James is exactly the kind of book you can use to talk about elements of writing.

just this once

First of all, I downloaded Just This Once for free on Amazon. It was at #1 on the free list when I stumbled across it. I was drawn to it because it was set in New Zealand, and since I will soon be writing a contemporary romance set in Australia, I wanted to read something along the lines of what I plan to write. I am almost 100% sure this is a self-published novel.

On the one hand, Just This Once is probably the most well-written self-published novel I’ve ever read prose-wise. Ms. James writes with a clear, fast-moving style. She knows her grammar and how to construct an interesting sentence. That’s not something you see in self-published books every day, I’m sorry to say.

That being said, I only gave it three stars on Amazon. Why? I just said it was one of the most well-written self-published books I’ve ever read. Well, unfortunately, this novel lacked two basic essentials of storytelling: an external plot and an antagonist. In fact, while it was a sweet narrative of a man and a woman meeting and falling in love, that was all it was. At no point were the stakes any higher than they were when my coworker who had been living with her boyfriend for two years was wondering whether he was going to propose to her. Furthermore, the hero and heroine didn’t even fight or disagree until one scene about 7/8ths of the way through the book. Nothing happened.

Now, with all due respect to Ms. James, I’m sure she thinks that something did happen: the hero and heroine got together. The problem is, even in Romance, there has to be an external plot that impacts the internal or relationship plot. True, in Romance the internal plot takes precedence, but there has to be an external plot in which the internal plot takes place. Maybe it’s a hurricane or a hijacking, maybe it’s a village that needs to be saved or a treasure that needs to be found. The external plot could make the story a thriller or a comedy or a slice-of-life story, but it has to be there.

I haven’t read a lot of Contemporary Romance like this in years, but I used to read Nora Roberts religiously. I remember a series she did that involved keys. The whole series took place on an island, and each heroine in the series was just trying to navigate a relationship with her hero in the muddy waters of modern-day love. But the external plot of those keys and their significance, the mystery behind them and the forces working to get their hands on them, gave a context to everything that was happening to the hero and heroine as they fell in love.

Speaking of which, Just This Once had no antagonist. There was no identifiable person whose goals and motivation were in direct conflict with either the hero or the heroine who threatened either the central relationship or their external goals. This means that there was no one to drive the tension up, to raise the stakes, or to leave you with the question of would the hero and heroine get together. You could argue that in Just This Once the heroine’s past, losing her parents at an early age and having to more or less raise her brother and sister, and the hang-ups she had because of that were the antagonist. But if that’s what Ms. James was going for, she didn’t work hard enough for it. To me those issues – the exact same issues of independence that I personally have – seemed like more of an annoyance than a plot point.

I will say this though. Ms. James did an absolutely brilliant, fantastic, amazing job of capturing the “En Zed” lingo and culture. The hero of the novel, Drew, was supremely real in detail. I think I might have kept reading the book just to “listen” to him talk. That aspect of the novel was terrific. It also made me realize that I need to do some serious research about Aussie lingo in order to write the book I plan to write.

However, that being said, nowhere in the book was there anything about the author. Nothing. I consider this a major faux pas for a self-published writer. First of all, I wanted to know where she lived. Is she a Kiwi? Has she lived in New Zealand? Australia? Why is it that she’s so awesome with painting a vivid picture of NZ and how does she know so much about rugby? As a reader, I want to know all these things. [I did look her up after writing this and discovered that she’s older than I thought she was and she spent 15 months living and working in Aussie and NZ! That’s the kind of stuff readers want to know!]

So all-in-all, I did not waste my time by reading Just This Once. But I can’t say I loved it.

Up next, a blind date of a book! And it looks like it’s a suspense/mystery, which I don’t usually read. Should be interesting!

3 thoughts on “2013 Book #6 – Just This Once, by Rosalind James

  1. Interesting. It’s fun to hear what people come away with when they read books. One thing that sort of bothered me, though: when I hear someone give a criticism of a book that’s along the lines of, “They broke tradition in this way,” I always want to hear WHY it was bothersome or made the story less enjoyable. You say the book had too little plot and conflict, and no antagonist. I can totally see that that could cause major problems with a story, but I’d like her a lot more about how those problems come across in the experience of reading it, instead of just the fact that it breaks the traditions of storytelling. When it comes to rules of writing, I always want to know why the rule is there, so I can break it with intention and awareness if I want to in my own writing. Obviously, I’m making a completely unreasonable critique and there’s no reason why you should have to put that in a book review 🙂 But I really enjoy reading these posts about the books you’re reading, and I’d appreciate it if you went into that aspect of things, because it would help me more as an aspiring writer.

    • Well, it’s not so much that you need to have the conflict of an external plot and antagonist in a novel because it’s tradition, but rather because that’s what makes a story gripping. I’ve had many teachers and writing workshop leaders give the example that you can have nice people with easy lives where everyone gets along and everything works out perfectly, but that doesn’t make for an interesting story. On the other side of that, conflict, opposition, and turmoil might not be fun to experience, but they keep you turning the page, waiting to see what happens next. The Lord of the Rings, for example, is not a pleasant book about the lives of Hobbits. There’s a threat and the least likely hero has to resolve it.

      So in the case of this book, I felt like it wasn’t a story so much as a narration of the chain of mundane events that happened to these two characters. At no point did I worry about what would happen to them because there were no ourside forces that threatened to prevent them from achieving their goals.

      One of the best writing lessons I was ever given centered around identifying and working with your character’s “GMCs”: Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts. Each of your main characters has a goal (to return the ring to Mordor), a motivation (because if they don’t the world will end), and a conflict (the forces of evil are doing everything in their power to stop them). In Romance, quite often the heroine and hero’s goals, motivations, and conflicts are directly opposed to each other, and one has to change their goals in order for them to get together. But in practice a story, even a Romance story, is more compelling if an outside force provides the conflict that keeps them from their goal. Take a look at some of your favorite novels and observe what the main character’s GMCs are. It’s a really useful writing exercise!

      Also, GMCs change throughout a story from the beginning to the middle to the end based on how a character reacts to the cause and effect of the plot.

      It’s a lot to think about, but it can also make your writing much better! That’s why reading so many books improves your writing. 🙂

  2. Well, I don’t know! A lot of people seem to like it! 🙂 I don’t think that you always have to have a “bad guy.” I would disagree with you there. On the other hand, it was my first book, and I do think I got better as I went along. To my surprise, the “favorite book” among my readers seems pretty evenly divided, proving that they respond more to the characters and the story, whether it takes hold of them and moves them, than to what I consider my improved technique.

    And I must say I absolutely disagree with you that I should somehow have interjected “myself” into my story. Why? I’m not interesting. Do I care who Jane Austen was? No, I do not. In fact, reading about the actual author pulls me out of the story and makes me enjoyment less pure. Much as knowing what a dickhead Tom Cruise is now makes it impossible for me to enjoy any movie with him in it.

    Thanks for your kind words about the writing, anyway! Sorry you didn’t like the book better. You might try Book Two, “Just Good Friends.” That one has a good creepy Bad Guy for you. 🙂

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