On Being A Reader

My friend Jen asked a question in a thread on my friend Nancy Pickard’s blog about what all of us wanted 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 to stipulate that the writer is doing all the basics (plot, character, etc) right and narrowed 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 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 a-ha 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 way too 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 shows with her before and I’d really like to see 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 you 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 that 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.

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. Wyrdsmith’s 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.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog July 21 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)