In the olden days of print publishing and agents and editors, the average reader could pretty much count on the book on the store shelf being reasonably readable. Most of the unreadable ones never reached the shelf.
And in those olden days, agents and acquiring editors didn't waste their time reading the unreadable ones either. The standard manuscript submission was outline/synopsis and a couple sample chapters. That's all the agents and editors needed to determine if the book was worth reading any more of and possibly publishing.
Many of the agents and editors had learned -- because it was part of their job -- that two or three pages of the manuscript (roughly 500 words) was more than enough to tell them if the author had any writing skills at all. If the writing was competent, the agent or editor would take a look at the synopsis to see if the story was any good. Over and over and over, writers were told they had three pages to prove their writing ability or be consigned to the mailroom for immediate return.
Don't just take my word for it:
In Romance Writers of America, the only professional writers' organization that was composed of 90% non-professional writers, the lesson was learned so well that unpublished writers trying to win contests were known to polish the living daylights out of their first few pages or even have those first few pages professionally rewritten/edited in hopes of getting past the first hurdle. In other words, they knew their writing needed improvement, but they were hoping their story was so fabulous that the editor would be willing to do all the rewriting to make the book the best-seller the author was sure it would be.
Digital self-publishing changed all that. Today any old piece of crap can be published. Many readers still think every book has been edited, even if only poorly. (Read some of the Amazon reviews of the crappy books; people are still writing "This book doesn't look like it was edited very well" and similar comments. The truth is the crappy books have never seen the eye of anyone even remotely resembling an editor, other than those editors and/or agents who summarily rejected them.)
So why did I give up on Evelyn MacQaid's Sweet Surrender after only three Kindle pages? In my initial review, I stated three points. Here's the expanded analysis.
1. Poor (or no) line editing.
Line editing is often done not by the acquiring editor but by a specialized line editor whose job it is to find errors of fine detail. These may be errors that involve a character who joins a conversation before they've actually entered the scene. Or the same window being closed twice without being opened. Or the unnecessary repetition of a phrase.
When I read the first of Jude Deveraux's Velvet series back in about 1981, I pretty much lost interest when the phrase "night rail" was used far too many times on a single page. Six times? Seven? I don't remember now, but it was too often. I started seeing only the printed words on the page, not the mental images the author was trying to conjure. Good line editing fixes this kind of unnecessary repetition and keeps the story flowing smoothly.
Both of the opening paragraphs of the MacQuaid book contained the phrase "cloud(s) of dust." If I had been already sucked into the story, I might not have noticed this repetition, but it came at a particularly sensitive time. My imagination hadn't yet visualized the scene, so each detail assumed extra importance. Successful writers know this. They're aware of the value of writing in a way that has been called cinematographically. The director of a motion picture would not focus on the clouds of dust twice in the very opening seconds of the film when there had been no other details presented.
I might have been able to overlook this admittedly picky detail -- I never deny that I am very picky -- had it not been for the author's use of the word "coif" in the first paragraph.
The opening blurb to the book has already identified the character of Olivia Tarrington as English. She would not use, not even in narrative point of view, a distinctly American informalism such as "coif." She would use/think "coiffure" or just "hair" in this instance.
Having read two paragraphs and had two red flags already up and waving, I addressed a third that had kind of poked the top of its pole up to snag my attention.
The author refers to the stagecoach driver's companion in the driver's seat as his "gunman." While that word usually refers to an outlaw type character or one who lives by the use of his gun, I assumed in this case the armed man was there to protect the cargo and passengers from bandits or other attackers. The more familiar phrase would be "riding shotgun," but that's grammatically inaccurate for identifying the person himself. So I went with the assumption . . . until the other flags shimmied up the flagpole.
"Gunman" might be technically correct, but it doesn't feel correct. It pulls this reader out of the story, makes me wonder if that really is the correct term.
Three strikes and you're out.
2. Logic errors.
Let's start with transportation.
Olivia is going from England to Montana. This is clearly stated in the book's description. Given the distance and the time, sailing directly from Europe to the west coast of the United States was an arduous and dangerous proposition, but it was also the only means of reaching the west before the building of the railroads. Yet on the same page that MacQuaid claims her heroine had to travel by storm-tossed sea, she also says mudslides slowed her travel by train.
If there were trains, why did she make the far more dangerous sea journey around Cape Horn?
It's also not logical that her husband-to-be wouldn't have met the train at whatever station and escorted her personally to her destination. But maybe there's a reason he didn't. I'll not count this one against her, but it's still sitting in the back of my mind as a nagging question. Where is he and why didn't he meet her train?
But the third error of logic has to do with this Lady Dubuque, who is identified as Olivia's chaperone(sic). Well, yes, titled ladies in straitened circumstances might take employment as a companion, but MacQuaid then describes said chaperon as a wealthy widow! And Olivia envies her independence so much that she hopes to become Lady Dubuque's companion after going through with a sham marriage to get her father out of debt.
Sorry, but to put it bluntly, that don't make no sense no how.
A wealthy titled widow in 19th century England would be traveling with servants, regardless where she's traveling. If she is doing otherwise, then the author needs to provide at least some hint of explanation for things not being "normal."
And how does Olivia even know her husband will allow her to walk out of the marriage? According to the book's blurb, the husband is supposed to pay off her father's debts and let her sisters marry according to their own wishes rather than be sold like a prize broodmare the way Olivia has been.
Three strikes in three pages.
3. Too much telling, not enough showing.
In these first three pages, the reader is given some description of the setting -- the clouds of dust, the stagecoach, the robbers -- and some backstory. No dialogue, and very little action. Eventually there's some conversation between Olivia and Lady Dubuque, but this is a stagecoach robbery, for crying out loud! There should be excitement! Action! Suspense!
"Throw down the gun," the man on the fractious red horse ordered in a surprisingly calm voice.
Olivia winced at the sound of the weapon hitting the hard ground. She desperately wanted to watch what was happening, yet at the same time fear was making her squeeze her eyes tightly shut.
"Now climb down, driver first."
The coach tilted to the left as the overweight Mr. Hicks maneuvered his bulk from the driver's seat to the ground. Olivia fully expected to hear a gunshot next, but there was only the continued prancing of the horse and its occasional nervous whinnies. When Olivia dared to look again through the narrow slit between the leather curtain and the window frame, she barely made out the horse because his restless hooves had stirred up so much dust. The other three animals stood stock still.
Or at least that's a suggested way to do it.
Nothing in the first three pages of this novel has aroused my interest in continuing to read. I already know what the basic plot is -- Olivia's been sold into marriage to a wealthy rancher -- and this opening hasn't given me any more insight to her or him or any of the other circumstances. There's no immediacy, but there are lots of mistakes. Self-publishing authors don't have the benefit of editors unless they pay them, and most of the affordable freelance editors aren't very good. Instead of learning their craft, the authors rely on the "well, it's free; what do you expect?" excuse, or they throw tantrums when reminded that the readers are also investing their time.
Am I being unreasonable? Of course, I am. But if you're an author reading this review, I've just given you (as I have done so often in the past, you ungrateful little wretches) a couple hours of my time and an express company's strongbox full of writing lessons.
Evelyn MacQuaid, your writting didn't make it past the three page test. Other readers might like it, but more than likely I won't be going back to it. I want to be sucked into the story so thoroughly that I don't see the words on the Kindle, on the page, on the computer screen. I want to feel the grit of that dust between my teeth, smell the sweat of the horses, hear the pregnant silence while the driver stands vulnerable and waiting to be shot.
I want you to make the book invisible. You didn't do it.