For me as a writer my number one guideline is believability. I, as the writer, have to make you, as the reader, believe in the reality I am creating. If for some reason I fail to do that the reader will take notice - perhaps only subconciously - and they won't have as enjoyable a reading experience.
That doesn't mean stories have to be feasible to everyday reality - hardly. In fact, most stories are completely otherwise.
The reason a book that does so well with a cast of vampires isn't because vampires themselves are necessarily believable, but that the author has created a reality where they are. That's a foundation of the story.
To be a successful writer of fiction you have to set the stage for certain points that are reality in the story. You create the setting for these truths, you introduce the truths, and you must absolutely stay true to those foundations throughout the entire story. If at any point you step outside of those parameters, it's a failure.
Why am I bringing this up? I'm a voracious reader. I usually read a book every week to ten days, and I generally read fiction - for the most part popular fiction. Books that have been published in this arena have normally been very well edited and checked for these kinds of things, but just recently I've finished two novels where, to me, there were failures.
I won't name the authors or the titles because that's not important. Both books were enjoyable and for all other intents and purposes well written. But here's what bugged me:
1 - In one novel the reader is presented with one main character following another to a specific destination for a certain length of time. This is followed immediately afterwards by a scene where one of those characters is doing something completely different before arriving at the same final destination. After reading it twice I'm convinced these two scenes were meant for the same section of time in the book, almost as if one should have been cut; or it should have been re-worked to be better integrated with the timeline or along a different timeline.
To me this is a failure of editing. As someone who writes I can see missing this, though I would hope I would catch it myself. Then, it should have been flagged in the process before publishing. The end result is the reader is left confused - no longer am I enjoying the story but I'm asking myself what the hell just happened?
If I ever get published and something like that happened to me, I'd be thoroughly mortified.
2 - In another novel the reader is given a reality where much of the story happens in flashbacks. The father is telling the daughter a long forgotten tale involving the disappearance of her mother. At first the flashbacks are presented in short, one-on-one conversations, but later when the father inexplicably disappears the rest of the flashback is presented as a letter written to the daughter.
The problem for me here was the letter was over 300 pages long and was presented as something written in a fairly short time, a time meant to roughly coincide with the father's planned disappearance. The "letter" was also extremely detailed, recalling conversations and minute details from 20 years previous, which also entailed scenes where scenes from 20-30 years earlier were recalled with the same detail.
Sorry, I just can't buy it. The facts were good, the story was good, the characters were good - but I couldn't buy into the concept of 50-year-old conversations being recalled clearly to the tiniest detail sans notes or anything else.
Great story, but it lost me by asking me to buy into a reality I just couldn't.
It's true my experience with this two particular novels may not be the same as someone else's. But, as a writer, I have to strive to create a reality where everything I present and everything my characters do is true to that reality and the parameters I set, be it time, place, technology, character traits, or anything else.
Last thing I want to do is end up an example in someone's blog talking about something that didn't work for them.
Characters have to follow the same rules. When a writer presents a character to the reader s/he is given certain characterstics, certain truths - if the character then does something much later in the book that seem incongruent with how a character was presented, it's going to catch a reader's attention and detract from the enjoyment of the story.
I've also found myself more and more looking at these types of things critically as I read. Part of me is learning how to be better at the craft of writing, while part of me is also looking for things I perceive as failures in order to not make the same mistakes.
Before it was just reading for enjoyment; now it's just as much research - but in a good way.
This are the things that keep me awake at night - or might anyway, if I got more than five hours of sleep.
Any other writers out there read like this? Or have any other examples of something in a book that really lost you as a reader?