Tuesday, September 09, 2008

On Being A Reader

My friend Jen asked a question in a thread on my friend Nancy Pickard's blog about what we all want from a book in terms of being readers:

...forget about genre, plot and characters, as a reader, what are your favorite elements of craft to encounter in novels?

She then went on further down the thread to basically stipulate that the writer is doing all the basics (plot, character, etc) right and narrow the focus to other stuff. I find it a fascinating question. Perhaps, what lifts a competent book to the level of a fantastic book? Or maybe, what delights you as a reader beyond just finding something you can like?

It's very difficult for me to answer. How do I come up with criteria that encompass the best of Terry Pratchett, Robin McKinley, Tim Powers, Martha Wells, Tony Hillerman, Lois Bujold, six or seven literary authors whose names I can never remember, etc?

Well, one thing that springs immediately to mind is depth of world. Every one of these people is writing stories in a place that feels real to me, one where there is a sense that the set extends beyond the scenes we're seeing and into the distance where other stories are playing of which we know absolutely nothing.

Another is clarity. The writers I like best don't leave me wondering what really happened in a scene. Nor do they leave me saying things like, wow, what poetic prose! Here's a music analogy. I may occasionally pick out a note as very funny, or beautifully written, or particularly sharp, but mostly I don't hear the notes, I hear the song. The prose serves the story. It doesn't dominate it.

Illumination. This one is harder to lay out. What I'm talking about are moments that light up the inner workings of the characters in a way that makes me believe in them as people. They can be funny moments, a la Pratchett, or poignant moments of the Robin McKinley sort, or just simple nothing but the facts moments of the sort that Hillerman is so good at. They can even mix and match as Wells so often does. The main thing is the aha moment were I can really understand and empathize with the character.

Speaking of which, likeability is very important for me. I know it's not everybody's bag, but if I don't like the characters I'm spending time with, I stop spending time with them. Life is to short for me to want to stand around and watch people self-destruct, even if they do it in really fascinating ways. I saw enough of that shit when I was in theater. Sure Jane Doe is possessed of a fascinating set of neuroses and makes for great soap opera. Sure I've done six show with her before and I'd really like to see her get her finally get her comeuppance. Sure she's about to go head first into the chum grinder that is the director running out of patience. No I'm not going to have anything to do with it. I'm going to go have dinner with the three other people in the cast who also have better things to do. If I'm not rooting for I'm gone.

Finally, it has to matter. The characters have to be striving for something that I can agree is important. It can be big and important; the fate of the world. It can be small and important, getting onto the path back from personal hell. Whatever the scale, it has to be an important goal. Also, they have to achieve something important. It may not be what they set out to do, people may die in the attempt, it may not be what you would call a traditionally happy ending, but if I don't feel all the stress and pain the characters have gone through has been genuinely worthwhile, I will put the book down and never come back to the writer.

Anybody else want to take a shot?


Anonymous said...

Yay! Thanks for answering that, it was fascinating to read.

I did not even think of world-crafting, but I should have, and of course you would. You've posted before about how, as a writer, you use your worlds as a major departure point for storytelling, and I assume there is some relationship between your value of world-building as a reader and your enjoyment of it as an aspect of craft. As a writer, I don't do much world creation, and as a reader, I'm ashamed to admit the paltry amount of detail I pick up about the characters' worlds on a regular basis, even when I'm reading sf&f and I know someone has gone to great lengths to create it, but at least I notice when someone has done an exceptionally fine job of things.

We share an enjoyment of what you're calling illumination. I'm more of a character writer/reader myself, and those moments are some of the best brain candy EVAH for me.

And how funny that I was making a music metaphor at Nancy's as you were making one over here. :)

Larry Kollar said...

Like I said at Nancy's, or rather as I quoted Asimov, stories are about people (the essay in question is called "The Thunder Thieves," written in the early 1960s). A beautiful world full of cardboard cutouts isn't going to make a story worth reading.

Plus, the world itself is shaped by, and shapes, the people who inhabit it. Kim Stanley Robinson wrote in his Mars series, "we terraform Mars, and Mars areoforms us." You can have a stranger in a strange land, but the stranger has to interact with the natives somehow… and somehow the stranger and the land impact each other. Without those elements, what do you have really?

Anonymous said...

I like to be able to surrender to a book and let it carry me along. I don't really care how that's achieved, but it starts with a trust that the writer knows what she's doing. If a writer fails at the basics, I'm less likely to enjoy the book.

If a writer can convince me that she's got basic writing chops, then I'm along for the ride, wherever it takes me, however it gets me there.

Until I bump into a wall of stupid. The stupid can be as simple as a misconceived scene, an implausible deduction, or a series of clumsy sentences. It can also be a philosophic difference with the writer. Rarely, is it the story I don't like, but if the stupid gets to deep, the book will lose me.

The easiest way to capture me as a reader is by being witty, clever, or funny. Funny usually equals smart to me, and I like to read books written by people who are smarter than I am. Since that is a standard which is pretty easy to meet, I usually end up liking most of what I read.

Kelly McCullough said...

So, I realized, looking at this again, that I need to make a distinction between obtrusive beautiful writing and beautiful writing that serves the story. Our own Bill Henry does the latter better than any other writer I know. When I read something of Bill's it's so clean and clear and bright that the occasional clunky sentence is really surprising.

DKoren said...

Very interesting question!

I need likable characters, and I also need to see them change, in big or small ways, throughout the story. The character who walks away at the end has to be different from the one who started the adventure.

I also need escape. But this is less a subject matter issue, as something that goes along with your world building comments. I really look for stories to take me out of my house, that suck me into their worlds, characters, and adventures and don't let go. I'm not entirely sure what quality of a story functions as that "grab" (most likely it's a sum of a lot of parts -- solid writing, those likable characters, caring about what's at stake, nifty world) but it's absolutely critical to me as a reader (and writer).

Bill Henry said...

Aw, thanks, Kelly!

If I can put this briefly, and without going clunk too hard:

I'm one of those strange-thinking types who disbelieves the (widely understood) idea that "content" (i.e., the story, what happens in it) and "style" (the writing, how it's written) are separate—or even separable—things.

All's there is is words, y'know?