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This page is an examination of the writing style found within Empress Theresa. This includes not only the style itself, but how Norman Boutin chooses to use characters, motifs, etc.

Norman Boutin has participated in a few writing forums, many of which banned him. Because the advice given in those forums were helpful, some of it will be used here, with sources quoted.

Story Edit

Narrative Edit

Norman Boutin chose to write his book from a first person perspective, since that was popular in the young adult (YA) market. However, he finds a problem at the beginning, where Theresa is supposed to be ten years old,[1] and yet does not sound or speak like a ten-year old would. Instead, she sounds "several years older," as if the Theresa of the future is recollecting her youth.[2] Her use of the phrase "I was cute as heck at age ten" further implies that Theresa is speaking from a future date, rather than telling the reader something which has just happened.

One noticeable trend of Norman Boutin is his tendency to info dump. At the very beginning of the book, the story "seems to actually start at the end of the sixth paragraph; almost everything previous to this is backstory."[3] Much of the book, in fact, is needless exposition, or exposition which brings the story to a complete halt. One of the biggest offenders is the BBC report that Theresa watches after she wakes up in London; the narrative literally comes to a screeching halt as the reader is bombarded with exposition after exposition, and much of it details the reader does not need to know.

Description/Atmosphere Edit

Description is something to which Norman Boutin is very hostile. He believes that, in order to cover as much of the book's events as possible, he has to "keep things moving along quickly."[4] It is his belief that "today's people want a fast read" and hence he writes in such a way that "it's like watching a movie."[5] He also finds it absurd to describe major cities or other well known locations because "everybody already knows a lot about them."[6] He believes that he should merely state plain facts and "leave the rest to the reader's imagination."[7]

The unfortunate truth is that Boutin's hostility to description shows in his story. Events in the book often happen "very quickly," and with "very little description or atmosphere."[8] The result of this is that the reader feels like "too much attention on the little things," but "not enough on big events," which makes the whole story "feel highly uneventful."[9] One comparative example is how much time is spent describing the fox which hosts HAL, contrasted with how much time is spent a few paragraphs later discussing Theresa cooking bacon and eggs.

This is a violation of something called the Law of Conservation of Detail.[10] That is, the amount of time spent on detail is equal to how important it's going to be to the reader. If it's not important, don't spend too much time describing it. Ironically, Norman takes an extreme view of this with characters (see below), but not with details and exposition. Something minuscule and unimportant for the reader to know about is treated with the same amount of detail as something the reader should know about. This is something which editors and beta-readers often look for, but Norman has spurned the advice of both.

Plot Structure Edit

Empress Theresa does not have a single or underlining story arch - that is, there is no concrete beginning, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Instead, it is simply about Theresa gaining superpowers and then responding to a variety of world issues with them. Norman Boutin has outlined[11] no less than fourteen tasks Theresa has to deal with:

  1. Escaping from the jet fighter plane
  2. Figuring out what HAL is and how he works
  3. Getting control of HAL
  4. Providing rain
  5. Getting the world through the winter with a year’s crop totally lost
  6. Keeping ocean levels under control
  7. Preventing the oceans from overheating
  8. Finding a new source of oil
  9. Giving the Israelis 24 hour daylight
  10. Giving the Israelis a way to evacuate Israel in one day
  11. Providing a new home for the Israelis.
  12. Taking control of a Boeing 747 and landing it
  13. Liberating the North Koreans
  14. Eliminating the threat of 200 new HALs

This causes the storyline to feel episodic in nature, which if done right can be entertaining (as with the films Time Bandits or Labyrinth), but if done wrong can make the reader feel bored. It makes one feel as if the story is going nowhere. It feels like one event leading into another event with no real connection or development.

This is compounded with Norman's distate for details and a desire to simply move from one even to the next. Some have suggested to Norman that he make the book a trilogy, in order to give the story room to breath.[12] Norman, however, has said that he believes a YA audience would not read a trilogy,[13] even though the book that inspired Empress Theresa, The Hunger Games, is part of a successful YA trilogy.

Suspension of Disbelief Edit

Because Norman chooses to spend more time on minute details than on the important details, there are times where he fails to present a convincing case for unorthodox moments in the book. The most infamous example of this is when Theresa is permitted to keep a collection of coke bottles with her at all times, even when she is strapped into an F-22. He spends more time describing Theresa's escape plan and how she carries it out, but forgets to explain how it's possible in the first place; as a result, it comes across as entirely unbelievable.

Characters Edit

Mark Twain once said, of a story by Fenimore Cooper, that the person reading "dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together."[14] This could likewise refer to the person reading Empress Theresa.

Character Development Edit

If characters are "not significant characters in the story," Norman chooses not to develop them at all.[15] For example, he would rather just say that Edward and Elizabeth Sullivan are "good parents" and leave it at that, rather than write them acting and behaving good parents and let the reader discover this for themselves.

Even with major characters, however, Norman violates the prime rule of "show, don't tell." He even begins the book itself with a long, formal introduction from Theresa, which offers no action and "is something that the reader can find out within the story, rather than having it told to them as simple fact."[16] Instead of writing Theresa in such a way that the reader can discover her in the way you discover a person in real life, he simply tells the reader everything they need to know. This is see in the introduction of the characters Jack and Steve as well; instead of showcasing their personalities through their actions or dialogue, Norman simply has Theresa say, "Jack was like this," and "Steve was like this." He even resolves the issue of exposition by having Theresa find college profiles on them, and simply tells the reader their personalities and backgrounds (another fine example of violating "show, don't tell").

Compare this with an example of George R.R. Martin's development for the character of Roose Bolton in his A Song of Ice and Fire series:

Roose Bolton was seated by a hearth reading from a thick leatherbound book when [Arya] entered. "Light some candles," he commanded her as he turned a page. "It grows gloomy in here."
She placed the food at his elbow and did as he bid her, filling the room with flickering light and the scent of cloves. Bolton turned a few more pages with his finger, then closed the book and placed it carefully in the fire. He watched the flames consume it, pale eyes shining with reflected light. The old dry leather went up with a whoosh, and the yellow pages stirred as they burned, as if some ghost were reading them. "I will have no further need of you tonight," he said, never looking at her.
She should have gone, silent as a mouse, but something had hold of her. "My lord," she asked, "will you take me with you when you leave Harrenhal?"
He turned to stare at her, and from the look in his eyes it was as if his supper had just spoken to him. "Did I give you leave to question me, Nan?"
"No, my lord." She lowered her eyes.
"You should not have spoken then. Should you?"
"No. My lord."
For a moment he looked amused. "I will answer you, just this once. I mean to give Harrenhal to Lord Vargo when I return to the north. You will remain here, with him."
"But I don't-" she started.
He cut her off. "I am not in the habit of being questioned by servants, Nan. Must I have your tongue out?"
He would do it as easily as another man might cuff a dog, she knew. "No, my lord."
"Then I'll hear no more from you?"
"No, my lord."
"Go, then. I shall forget this insolence."[17]

George R.R. Martin could have simply written "Roose Bolton was mean and creepy" and moved on, just as Norman Boutin would have done. Instead, he demonstrated this through Roose Bolton's actions and words. Readers, by and large, aren't stupid; they're able to understand what kind of person a character is by the way they act and speak. Even in the YA genre, readers are capable of understanding subtle character traits.

Relatability Edit

Because of Norman's poor character development, most readers have found it difficult to relate with characters in the book.

One problem is Norman's flat portrayal of his characters in regards to their personalities. Good characters are simply good, while villains are simply villains. The worst offender of them all is Theresa herself, who is spoken of and treated by other characters as having absolutely no flaws. Norman Boutin explains his reasoning for this in the introduction of the book:

Write a book about a decent girl and some critics will say every character must have serious flaws. I might have made Theresa another kind of personality, a less desirable and troubled kind of girl which would satisfy certain critics, but then people would come at me with a noose complaining, “This was our only chance to see a super-powerful girl in action and you messed up. Why didn’t you give us a loveable, [sic] inspiring Theresa?”

Here we see that Norman completely misses the point that critics were trying to say. It's not that every character needs to have "serious flaws"; rather, every character needs to have traits that demonstrate they're not perfect. A character needs to have some kind of flaw. A hero needs some fault within them, just as a villain needs some redeeming quality. When a character has some trait about them that makes them imperfect, it makes the reader say, "I can relate to that," or, "Yeah, I know someone like that." It makes the characters believable, and gives them worth to the reader. No one on earth is perfect, and therefore it becomes hard to relate to a perfect character.

Another problem is that many characters simply serve to react to Theresa, or serve merely as exposition. The character of Jan Struthers is one of the prime examples of this. Nothing about Jan stands out to the reader in regards to her wants, needs, or desires - she simply serves to provide back story and give plot information. When she disappears, no character shows any concern for her well being, let alone her life. No one at all seems concerned that she might be dead. Given Jan's lack of development, neither does the reader feel any sympathy or remorse for her; she simply served to give exposition, and was replaced by other characters who give more exposition.

Norman has openly admitted that some characters were written with very little character development in mind. He's stated that Peter Blair and Benjamin Scherzer were written only for "filling in the slots of the kind of people I wanted around Theresa," adding, "We don’t have time for side issues. There’s a world to save."[18]

Interestingly enough, Norman has a very minimalist view of what makes a character relatable. When someone on Amazon suggested to Norman that he strive to make Theresa a relatable character, Norman replied:

Theresa is not a prima donna ballerina, real estate mogul, billionaire's daughter, Secretary of State, Olympic gold medelists [sic], or any other of those walks of life that litter romance novels in order to give the book glamour. Theresa has no job at all. She's a student. People can relate to that.[19]

Norman seems to think that social status or position alone is relatable; Theresa is a student, and people are or have been students, ergo, Theresa is relatable. This, to Norman, is the extent of being relatable to someone. Theresa was even meant to originally be a figure skater, but Norman changed her into an everyday young woman because he believed "few people could relate to an Olympic figure skater."[20]

Norman seems to forget that relatability is more than just that: the fact someone can relate to what the person is going through. Theresa's time as a student is secondary to everything else going on in the story, and hence it has no real affect on the reader. What's more, Theresa experiences much more than being a student: she experiences being someone infected by an alien, and holding great power that permits her to do things such as lift continents out of the ocean. Since no one is capable of doing any of that, then by Norman's own standards, no one can relate to Theresa.

Likewise, by Norman's logic, no one can relate at all to Henry V in Shakespeare's play by the same name, because he's a king, and only a small percentage of Shakespeare's audience are kings, hence no one can relate to his character. However, people throughout the centuries have related to Henry V, because his struggles have mirrored our own: he deals with insurmountable odds; he deals with being responsible for people under his command or authority; he deals with turning to God in times of troubles; etc. It doesn't matter how many watching Henry V are kings; Shakespeare fleshes out Henry's character enough so that even the common people can relate to him as a character.

Errors Edit

Spelling and grammatical mistakes are found throughout Empress Theresa. Their existence has been one of the most consistent complaints from critics across the internet. Due to the fact his "prose is choppy," with constant mistakes, typos, and awkwardly written sentences, Norman's style "makes the reader stop and wrestle with what the heck [he] meant."[21]

One of the most common grammatical mistakes made by Norman is the absence of punctuation after dialogue quotes. Whether it's supposed to be a comma or a period, Norman repeatedly fails to include them before the last quotation mark.

Sometimes the errors involve continuity, which gets violated in the typos. For example, Steve tells Theresa that Ginny is "Steve's old high school girlfriend." If this were the case, then why is Steve suddenly speaking in third person, and why isn't he upset that Ginny is hanging out with Jack? This is because Ginny is actually Jack's old high school girlfriend, and Norman has made a serious typo that he hasn't managed to fix in all the years he supposedly spent fine tuning his novel.

References Edit

  1. http://www.writingforums.com/threads/134037-Empress-Theresa-what-do-you-do-with-unlimited-power?p=1573166&viewfull=1#post1573166
  2. http://www.writingforums.com/threads/134037-Empress-Theresa-what-do-you-do-with-unlimited-power?p=1573641&viewfull=1#post1573641
  3. http://www.writingforums.com/threads/134037-Empress-Theresa-what-do-you-do-with-unlimited-power?p=1573641&viewfull=1#post1573641
  4. http://www.writingforums.com/threads/134037-Empress-Theresa-what-do-you-do-with-unlimited-power?p=1573914&viewfull=1#post1573914
  5. http://www.amazon.com/review/R1U460R88DR2E2/ref=cm_cr_rev_detmd_pl?ie=UTF8&asin=B00MJPIX26&cdForum=Fx32NQR1MUHPCVO&cdMsgID=Mx1EBTZKXT5NF58&cdMsgNo=676&cdPage=68&cdSort=oldest&cdThread=TxQA03WM82RZXF&store=digital-text#Mx1EBTZKXT5NF58
  6. http://absolutewrite.net/forums/showpost.php?p=8619496&postcount=35
  7. http://www.writingforums.com/threads/134037-Empress-Theresa-what-do-you-do-with-unlimited-power?p=1573166&viewfull=1#post1573166
  8. http://www.writingforums.com/threads/134037-Empress-Theresa-what-do-you-do-with-unlimited-power?p=1573641&viewfull=1#post1573641
  9. http://www.writingforums.com/threads/134037-Empress-Theresa-what-do-you-do-with-unlimited-power?p=1577435&viewfull=1#post1577435
  10. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheLawOfConservationOfDetail?from=Main.LawOfConservationOfDetail
  11. http://www.writingforums.com/threads/134037-Empress-Theresa-what-do-you-do-with-unlimited-power?p=1573914&viewfull=1#post1573914
  12. http://www.writingforums.com/threads/134037-Empress-Theresa-what-do-you-do-with-unlimited-power?p=1578138&viewfull=1#post1578138
  13. http://www.writingforums.com/threads/134037-Empress-Theresa-what-do-you-do-with-unlimited-power?p=1578240&viewfull=1#post1578240
  14. http://www.pbs.org/marktwain/learnmore/writings_fenimore.html
  15. http://www.writingforums.com/threads/134037-Empress-Theresa-what-do-you-do-with-unlimited-power?p=1573166&viewfull=1#post1573166
  16. http://www.writingforums.com/threads/134037-Empress-Theresa-what-do-you-do-with-unlimited-power?p=1577531&viewfull=1#post1577531
  17. pg. 896-897. Martin, George R.R. A Clash of Kings. New York: Bantam Books, 2011. Print.
  18. http://www.catholicfiction.net/blog/there-s-a-world-to-save-an-interview-with-catholic-novelist-norman-boutin.php
  19. http://www.amazon.com/review/R1U460R88DR2E2/ref=cm_cr_rev_detmd_pl?ie=UTF8&asin=B00MJPIX26&cdForum=Fx32NQR1MUHPCVO&cdMsgID=Mx3UFO6WX013EOA&cdMsgNo=718&cdPage=72&cdSort=oldest&cdThread=TxQA03WM82RZXF&store=digital-text#Mx3UFO6WX013EOA
  20. http://www.catholicfiction.net/blog/there-s-a-world-to-save-an-interview-with-catholic-novelist-norman-boutin.php
  21. http://www.amazon.com/review/R1U460R88DR2E2/ref=cm_cr_rev_detmd_pl?ie=UTF8&asin=B00MJPIX26&cdForum=Fx32NQR1MUHPCVO&cdMsgID=Mx155K5IXNFNNMR&cdMsgNo=678&cdPage=68&cdSort=oldest&cdThread=TxQA03WM82RZXF&store=digital-text#Mx155K5IXNFNNMR

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