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.
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!