Because I don’t have enough meaningless self-imposed projects, I’ve decided to put something else in my inbox: The Subway Novel Project.
Being an eagle-eyed, New Yorker, I’ve noticed that novels are often advertised throughout the mass transit system. I’ve also noticed that these books tend to not be written by authors like, say, Paul Auster or Joyce Carol Oates.
No, they’re usually either brand-name best-selling authors like John Patterson, or people aspiring to be brand-name authors who get blurbs from guys like John Patterson because they have the same imprint at ConGlomCo Books.
Or they belong to the totally ignored world of Urban Fiction. These are authors with only one name, who have no qualms about naming sequels to earlier books the same way you would a movie (e.g., Around the Way Girls 2 through 4). You will never see these authors in the NY Times Book Review, even though their tomes outsell Phillip Roth’s last 14 novels.
The reason I’m doing this: I’m trying to get back on the Fiction Horse. I’ve spent much of the last few years writing non-fiction, and I’ve been stuck at 100 pages of a novel that needs to be finished before it has any hope of seeing the light of day. Because this is such a fantastic time to be working on fiction. (For those unfamiliar with entertainment market fluctuations, it ain’t.)
So why read this stuff? Because years ago, I did some freelance copyediting/proofreading for mass market fiction. And next to earning an MFA in fiction writing (pause to pat self on back), reading this stuff was the best writing instruction I ever received. No, of course the writing in these novels wasn’t very good. But what was so instructive was how they weren’t very good.
One hallmark of all the books I read: An obsessive-compulsive urge to use adverbs, especially when “describing” how people talk. (“‘I bet you get around,’ Frank said devilishly.”) Rather than insert clues about your characters’ true motives, or describe a compelling scene, just throw -ly at the end of the word and call it a day. It’s so much easier!
Or, start a chapter with someone doing some mundane everyday task–walking the dog, taking out the garbage, etc.–while reminiscing about something that’s happened between when the last chapter started and the next one began. What tense is that? I think it’s called past-imperfect-and-totally-unnecessary-framing-device.
Romance novels were the worst, although not for the reasons you might think. Sure, the love scenes were overwrought and full of some of the most ridiculous prose ever. My favorite line of all time, describing how a woman felt as she stared into her man’s eyes while in the throes of passion: “She felt captivated, as if by a wizard.”
A WIZARD! That killed me. I had a mental image of the cover of this future masterpiece: Woman: bodice ripped, cleavage heaving. Man: shirtless, ripped, leonine hair. And behind them, a totally bitchin’ Frank Frazetta poster.
But what really bugged me about the romance novels: they constantly endangered their characters for no discernible reason except to move the plot. The author’s handprints were smeared on everything they did. And the only kind of danger that existed in this world were a villain (more often than not, a villainness) who existed for the sole reason to stand in their way. Or the threat of physical danger, the cheapest arrow in a writer’s quiver.
Once the villain(ess) had been dispatched and the lovers had no more obstacles, one (or both) of them would get into a car accident. I must have read 20 romance novels over the course of my freelance work, and this happened in at least 15 of them. All because the author had ended the book too soon and had no idea how else to threaten their characters. And had no idea how to write a book in which their characters were not constantly threatened by their mighty pen.
Long story short, I think I’m in need of some of this instruction again. So I’m going to pick a Subway Novel, read it, and review it here. Then do it again and again until I either finish my novel or kill myself.
But before picking a book, I wanted to solicit the audience and see if there’s any book you’ve seen advertised on the subway. I will also accept books you’ve seen people read on the subway. And I will also accept books you’ve seen on the bus. I will not accept books you’ve seen people reading while driving to work, because I hope you’d call the cops if you saw someone reading while behind the wheel.
However, in order to maintain what little integrity this project has, I’ll need some sort of evidence that you’ve seen this book on the bus or subway. Presumably of the photographic variety. Or a drawing. Or just describe the scene really well.
So, any suggestions? Speak up.