Liking the Writing, but Not Liking the Story – a Conundrum

BXYkp_ICYAAcNAIThe combination of purple and orange in my Halloween display was serendipitous – I’ve been loving how it looks.

I’ve been reading a book by an author who writes in one of the same genres that I do, a genre I love to read. This is the second book of hers I’ve read – both of which I picked up due to enthusiastic reader responses. I didn’t like the first book, but I thought I’d give this new one a try. They’re unrelated stories. Maybe I just didn’t click with that book?

But this new one isn’t working for me either.

But in a funny way, because – as with the first one I read – I’m finishing it. Regular readers of this blog know I have the 25% rule. I commit to reading 25% of every book I pick up. If I’m not engaged by then, I can bail without guilt. (If I really hate it, I can stop before that. But most books I try to give 25% to hook me.) I have a fairly high percentage of DNFs (Did Not Finish). My reading time is precious and I don’t need to waste it on books I’m not enjoying.

In this case, I’ve kept going. Even though I *knew* by 10% in that I didn’t like the story or characters very much. It’s bizarre to me, because the writing is smooth and polished. I enjoy the author’s voice. I find her interesting in her blog posts and so forth. I’ve met her and find her to be a lovely person. I even like her story premises and get excited to read the book. As I read, however, I get that sinking sensation that I don’t like how she’s telling the story. I never emotionally engage with the characters. There’s far too much angsting and emotional retread for me and I find myself growing impatient with it all. But I still want to know how it ends.

I mentioned this on Twitter and one of my editors chimed in saying this was the most difficult kind of manuscript submission for her to deal with – the polished writing and engaging voice, but a story and characters that fail to grab her.

I realized, during this conversation, that I hear that kind of response from editors and agents all the time. I suppose I always interpreted it as a sort of faux excuse. They’ll say “love the writing, love the voice, but the story didn’t work for me.” And then they’ll add the reminder that this is just their personal opinion and someone else will likely love it.

After all this time, I suddenly get what they’re saying. You can love a writer in every way, except the actual stories they tell. And there’s nothing wrong with this.

I’ve been known to say that I love Ann Patchett’s writing so much that I don’t care what the story is about – I’ll read her regardless. Then, the unthinkable happened – I didn’t like her last book. I didn’t like what happened in the story, particularly something that occurred at the end. So, has that changed things for me? Yes. Now I’ll look at what the story is about. A minor shift perhaps.

There’s been several instances lately where authors of very popular series have ended them in unpopular ways. Charlaine Harris and her Sookie Stackhouse series is a good example. Just this week, Veronica Roth came under fire for the way her trilogy ended, prompting arguments over what authors owe readers – especially manic fans. I’ve seen numerous fans say they won’t read anything Roth writes again, because they feel they can’t trust her now. I never read the books, but – having heard the spoilers – I think, as a reader, I’d feel the same way.

At the same time, as an author, I respect her right to stay true to her vision and do as she wishes with her story.

I suppose, what this all comes around to, is what we’re “buying” when we commit to reading a book. In that link about Veronica Roth, John Green says, “Basically, I would argue that books are not primarily in the wish fulfillment business.” Yet, I know I do read so I can be transported. I do want my wishes fulfilled. I don’t expect that in life, but I do want it in my entertainment.

In the end, it’s a more or less democratic process, I suppose. We buy what we want to read. I can hope that readers enjoy what I write.

But neither team can control the other.

Writing What You Read

BFQ6OC9CUAARMjsMy office assistant, Isabel. At least she’s not on the keyboard, right?

The other day, I saw this tweet:

D’ya think it’s poss to write a YA zombie book without ever having read ANY zombie books at all, like ever? Recommendations please folks?

This isn’t anyone I follow or who follows me – I saw it because someone I follow retweeted it. So, Unknown Person who asked this question by flinging it upon the waters of Twitter in good faith, if you see this, please don’t think I’m dissing you here. I had a long answer to your question. Longer than Twitter permits.

Plus I admire this person for asking the question in the first place. So very many people don’t. And I think it hurts them as writers.

See, there’s this idea that there’s an artistic purity in working from a vacuum. I’m not quite sure where it comes from. But people love to tell stories about the guy who never studied painting, ever but produces this amazing, unusual work. Or the young girl who spontaneously starts creating symphonies. We’re fascinated by the idea of this kind of genius, that seems to spring out of nowhere.

It also maybe is alluring, because we get the idea that we can skip a few steps and be successful anyway.

Really, I think this rarely happens. In fact, I suspect it never happens and stories meant to convey that idea are heavily massaged. There’s a reason interviewers ask bands about their influences, why people are forever asking writers who they read. Creativity comes out of richness, not a vacuum. Ideas lead to more ideas. Also, learning your craft means studying others who’ve gone before.

After all, no one really wants to hire an architect who says “Oh, I didn’t go to school because I didn’t want my creativity to be influenced by the establishment.” No CPA should touch your taxes who says she hasn’t read all that IRS stuff.

It’s great to want to be a rulebreaker, but you have to know what the rules are first. For a writer, that means reading. A lot of reading.

A few years back, I had a friend who was writing a vampire book. Only hers was a going to be a special vampire book – not like all the others. In fact, she’d never read a book with vampires in them. She had a fair amount of contempt for the genre. When I suggested a few books or authors who’ve greatly influenced that genre, she dismissed the idea. First of all, she didn’t want to waste her time reading books like that. Secondly, she wanted her book to be unique, untainted by the tropes. She planned to mix it up and do something Fresh, Exciting and New.

Who doesn’t want to do that?

Thing was, because she hadn’t read, she didn’t know which rules she was breaking. So, she would ask me, hoping for the benefit of all the energy I’d invested in reading those stories. I found that, not only was it difficult to answer a question about vampire nature – after all, according to which author, which tradition? Laurell K Hamilton’s vampires are not Charlaine Harris’s vampires are not Anne Rice’s vampires are not Bram Stoker’s vampires are not Stephenie Meyer’s vampires – but I resented that she wanted to write a genre she didn’t care enough about to read.

That’s what it really comes down to. If you’re writing something you don’t love to read, why the hell are you writing it?

This is a kind of literary carpetbagging. The sort of person who swoops in on the lucrative opportunity, with no real investment in the thing itself.

Not that you’re thinking that way, unknown Twitter person. Because you, at least, cared enough to ask. The short answer is sure, it’s possible to do it. There’s no guarantee for how your book would turn out if you do or don’t read. But why wouldn’t you? Take two weeks and read everything you can get your hands on. If you’re feeling the YA zombie love, then it should be a fun assignment for yourself. Spend a little time enriching yourself, creating a nice thick stew of ideas and images and emotions to draw from.

Don’t worry that you’ll be derivative or duplicating – if your creative heart is in the right place, your own story will come out of it. But do spend a little time studying the genre.

It will be an investment you’ll never regret.

Careless Conclusions About Genre Reading

So, I read this essay yesterday in The Atlantic Monthly, that ostensibly exhorted people to make a conscientious effort to read more.

Now, I’m all about that. I love to read. I love to talk about books. I should be all about this essay.

But no.

Because the author just HAD to go there. She had to draw a line between good and bad reading. Which I’ve just really had quite enough of. Thus, she pissed off the genre-reader in me. Also, she failed to properly cite her data sources and, worse, drew spurious conclusions. Now she’s annoyed the neuroscientist in me.

You can go read the essay if you wish. It’s fine – the author creates an analogy of the healthfulness of the Slow-Food Movement to her proposed Slow-Books Movement. Not really the same thing, but the metaphor works in general.

This is the section that gets me:

Also excluded: non-literary books.

Why the emphasis on literature? By playing with language, plot structure, and images, it challenges us cognitively even as it entertains. It invites us to see the world in a different way, demands that we interpret unusual descriptions, and pushes our memories to recall characters and plot details. In fact, as Annie Murphy Paul noted in a March 17 New York Times op-ed, neuroscientists have found plenty of proof that reading fiction stimulates all sorts of cognitive areas—not just language regions but also those responsible for coordinating movement and interpreting smells. Because literary books are so mentally invigorating, and require such engagement, they make us smarter than other kinds of reading material, as a 2009 University of Santa Barbara indicated. Researchers found that subjects who read Kafka’s “The Country Doctor”—which includes feverish hallucinations from the narrator and surreal elements—performed better on a subsequent learning task than a control group that read a straightforward summary of the story. (They probably enjoyed themselves a lot more while reading, too.)

Literature doesn’t just make us smarter, however; it makes us us, shaping our consciences and our identities. Strong narratives—from Moby-Dick to William Styron’s suicide memoir, Darkness Visible—help us develop empathy. Research by Canadian psychologists Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar suggests that reading fiction even hones our social skills, as Paul notes. “Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported … that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective,” she writes. “This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels.”

Let’s break this down, shall we?

First of all, she cites someone else’s op ed and interpretation as a data source:

In fact, as Annie Murphy Paul noted in a March 17 New York Times op-ed, neuroscientists have found plenty of proof that reading fiction stimulates all sorts of cognitive areas—not just language regions but also those responsible for coordinating movement and interpreting smells.

At least she linked to it, right? So I went and read that. I’m familiar with some of these studies, which that essay does review in detail, with citations. As I suspected, these are very interesting studies that show when someone reads about an action, the brain “lights up” in the same way as when the person actually performs the action. Fascinating stuff. The thing is, to keep things simple, always a key point for scientific experimentation, the researchers used children’s stories. Thus references to lines such as “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.”

Still,  pretty cool, huh?

But our essayist goes directly to this conclusion:

Because literary books are so mentally invigorating, and require such engagement, they make us smarter than other kinds of reading material…

Okay. I’m scratching my head, wondering how she went from “Pablo kicked the ball” level reading to mentally invigorating literary books. But then I see – she has another study to cite. Her logic is a little reversed, but really it’s just the way she composed the sentence, finishing the thought with:

…as a 2009 University of Santa Barbara indicated. Researchers found that subjects who read Kafka’s “The Country Doctor”—which includes feverish hallucinations from the narrator and surreal elements—performed better on a subsequent learning task than a control group that read a straightforward summary of the story.

Anyone else spot the flaw in the conclusion here? Yeah. the study found that reading the story itself has a different effect than reading the freaking summary. It did not compare The Country Doctor to Interview with the Vampire. (I’ve read both, by the way – full disclosure.) I couldn’t find out more about this particular study, which sounded interesting, since she didn’t include a citation. Alas.

So then she states:

Literature doesn’t just make us smarter, however; it makes us us, shaping our consciences and our identities.

Her opinion, not supported by any data that I can see. Though she appears to connect the assertion to the following summary:

Strong narratives—from Moby-Dick to William Styron’s suicide memoir, Darkness Visible—help us develop empathy. Research by Canadian psychologists Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar suggests that reading fiction even hones our social skills, as Paul notes. “Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported … that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them, and see the world from their perspective,” she writes. “This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels.”

Our essayist is back to citing another essayist’s summary of research. Okay. So I went back to Paul’s essay and confirmed that, yes, her summary still just says “fiction” – not a mention of Moby-Dick or any William Styron in sight. (And why not mention Sophie’s Choice? Far better known. Too commercial?) Then I looked up Oatley and Mar’s work. Again, no citation provided – don’t English majors have to learn this stuff, too?

I wasn’t able to access the actual papers (*sigh*), but I could review the publication list for their research. Scientific paper titles tell you a lot, because they’re intended to encapsulate exactly what was tested. Such as Exposure to narrative fiction versus expository nonfiction: Diverging social and cognitive outcomes. There’s also Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds.

Yeah – you’re all clever people. You see it, too. They’re comparing fiction to nonfiction. Some of the other titles are less definitive, referring only to narrative fiction. Nowhere did I see a comparison of literary fiction to genre fiction. I’d be interested to see the studies, frankly. However, I suspect most scientists wouldn’t touch an experimental design like that, because of the difficult of defining what is literary and what is genre. Fiction versus nonfiction is a reasonably clean demarcation.

Our essayist says: Best of all, perhaps, serious reading will make you feel good about yourself. I would point out that what she’s really saying is that what she considers to be serious reading (not really a definable term, scientifically) makes her feel good about herself. More power to her! Choose your reading and enjoy it!

But please, people, let’s exercise a bit more caution with conclusions. Literary fiction might be “better” for us than genre. I’m willing to be persuaded.

Your strong opinion is not enough, however, no matter how you might mix and match the data to suit your purposes.

25% For The Win

So, this is my To-Be-Read (affectionately known as the TBR) pile. Most of it. There is also a stack of books on my bedside table, with a few more in the drawers. This does not include the five pages worth of books on my Kindle.

The worst  part is, a lot of these books were in my TBR pile when we moved here 2 1/2 years ago.

You know how it is. You buy a book on a whim. Or you get it free at a conference. Or – the very worst – someone lends it to you, saying you must read it. And there they sit. Languishing. For Years.
 
You see where I’m going with this.
 
Yes, I’m thinking about the new year and what I want 2012 to be like. Now, yesterday on Word Whores, I said I’m not a fan of posting resolutions. I referred to previous rants on the topic, but a few people said they’d like to hear why. So, if you’ve heard this before, feel free to skip the next paragraph.
 
I think resolutions, like charity, should be kept private and anonymous. Otherwise you risk doing it only for ego, which is dangerous. See, the whole point of a resolution is to make a change in your own life, not to show off how neat you are to other people. Similarly, with charity, the point is to help someone else, not to dazzle everyone with your selflessness and generosity. If you make a resolution just to tell people your plan, then you run the risk that you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, which means it will never “stick.” Doing stuff to impress other people just doesn’t last. It’s a false reward, sweet tasting at first, but without nutrition.
 
Anyway.
 
That said, I am breaking my own rule today. (Self-aggrandizement is me! I laugh in the face of my distorted ego!) I’ve been feeling, not only the weight of my huge and moldering TBR pile, but that I really want to read more. I miss reading. Some of that energy goes into writing now, which is a deliberate choice. But a lot of it gets spun out elsewhere. I really want to reduce this pile of good intentions gone astray.
 
A huge part of the problem for me is that many of these books are ones I actually have started. I get a few pages in, don’t love it and put it down to try again. Then, when I try again, it’s been so long I have to back up to remember the story, I read a few pages, don’t love it and put it down to try again.
 
I know, right?
 
DEFINITION OF INSANITY, ANYONE???
 
*ahem*
 
So, I developed a plan and bounced it off a few other inveterate readers on Twitter, especially with the woman behind the pig at Pearls Cast Before a McPig. She confessed to having many barely started books in her TBR pile, too. Slowly accreting.
 
This is the plan.
 
Because I feel wrong setting a book aside after only a few pages, I will commit to reading 25% of each book. That should give the slow-starters plenty of time to draw me in. Because there have been many books that I didn’t love at first, but that grew on me. After that first 25%, though, if I’m still not loving it, I can get rid of it with a clear conscience.
 
25% FTW!
 
I think this could totally work. Anyone else want to play?

Sneaking in the Back Door

When I was a kid, I lived and breathed books. I suspect a lot of us were like that, among my faithful blog-gobblers. I consumed books by shelves and by authors, by topic and genre. Over time, I came to feel like certain authors were my friends. I spent a lot of time in their heads, in their worlds. It’s an illusion, I know, but I think we often come away from reading books feeling a real connection to the author, that they somehow understand us the way no one else ever will.

So, part of this connecting for me was having conversations in my head with these authors. Anne McCaffrey and I talked on and on about her stories. I’d point out little inconsistencies and make suggestions. She, of course, found me brilliant. I fantasized about how we would someday meet, how I’d show up at DragonHollow, help her feed her horses and we’d become instant friends.

This was before I understood the concept of stalking.

Now that I understand that it’s not the best idea to hunt down the writers I love and tell them how to make their amazing books even better, I’ve discovered the back door route: become a writer!

The last several weeks I’ve been privileged to read new books from the fabulous Marcella Burnard and Laura Bickle. As I was reading – and making notes on how to strengthen here and there – I took delight in seeing the little inside jokes from our conversations come out. And here would be the knotty plot problem we’d tossed around in theory and there would be fleeting evidence of my fingerprints – a concept I’d suggested.

And I realized, these authors are totally my friends.

It’s every bit as wonderful as I thought it could be, too.

Does anyone have Anne McCaffrey’s phone number?

And on the Eighth Day…

Today I decide what to work on next.

It’s an interesting place to be. When I was a reader only I felt this way when I finished a book. I’d turn to my always-towering TBR (to be read) pile and select what came next.

Sometimes the choice was obvious and I would dive into the next in the series. Other times I’d want to switch genres entirely. Every once in a while a book would be so powerful I’d just dream about it for the rest of the day, or a few days even, before I would be ready to move on to another.

I’ve realized recently that I used to identify periods in my life by what I was reading at the time. The auras of those books permeated how I thought and felt. That isn’t so true anymore. Perhaps because I don’t read nearly as much as I used to. Perhaps because I don’t immerse in books the way I did when I was younger. But largely I think it’s because I’m writing instead.

I’m noticing that my thoughts and feelings are now heavily infused with what I’m writing at the time. (I’m also noticing that I’ve started using “now” way too much. Allison pointed it out and it’s like a freaking verbal tic that’s driving me nuts. I tried to use “now” twice in the previous sentence. I need an exorcism…) I’ve finally moved into a place where I’m able to write longer works, by working on them every day. That means I dream about what I’m writing the rest of the time, which is really useful when it comes time to sit at the keyboard again.

But it means I don’t mull over what I’m reading as much. Maybe this is a natural transition.

So, (I so want to type “now” here – argh!) here I am, between works. I finished the novella yesterday and sent it off. Obsidian is off with a couple of agents. After I finish this blog post, I’ll need to work on something. One thing I’ve found, and I resisted this for many years when other writers gave this advice, it’s really much easier if you write every day. I don’t know why, but it’s as if the pipe starts to crud up if you don’t run water through it every day.

How to decide which project to work on next? I have no shortage of ideas and six projects in various stages of completion. If I had an agent or deadlines, I would know what project was jostling up to the front of the queue. I wouldn’t have a choice, really.

So I should enjoy this freedom.

Hmmm. Maybe I’ll switch genres.

Reading Time

I’m so amused that I have to share.

I bought an ebook yesterday from Fictionwise for my Kindle. This is one of the sites that sells ebooks and emags, that ISN’T Amazon. (I know — who thought it was possible?) Fictionwise seems to be a pretty decent site, though I paid more for this ebook than I have for any so far. They promised me a 50% rebate, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it and finally decided it wasn’t worth $7 to me to screw around with it any more. A little bait & switch-y there, but so it goes. Along with the traditional book information, they give this:

Available eBook Formats [MultiFormat – What’s this?]:
Adobe Acrobat (PDF) [895 KB], eReader (PDB) [317 KB], Palm Doc (PDB) [312 KB], Rocket/REB1100 (RB) [278 KB], Microsoft Reader (LIT) [277 KB] – PocketPC 1.0+ Compatible, Franklin eBookMan (FUB) [306 KB], hiebook (KML) [699 KB], Sony Reader (LRF) [364 KB], iSilo (PDB) [259 KB], Mobipocket (PRC) [322 KB], Kindle Compatible (MOBI) [379 KB], OEBFF Format (IMP) [450 KB]
Words: 96890
Reading time: 276-387 min.
Microsoft Reader (LIT) Format: Printing DISABLED, Read-Aloud ENABLED
Adobe Acrobat (PDF) Format: Printing DISABLED, Read-Aloud ENABLED
All Other formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED

My favorite part is the offered “reading time.” I suppose this kind of thing is inevitable in a culture where every minute is squeezed for maximum effect. But, is it just me? This seems like such an odd quantification for pleasure reading. I mean, sure, when I was in college or grad school, I figured out my approximate reading rate, so I could plan how long a particular text would take me to get through. Like I would any job. As a consultant, I have to be very good at knowing how long, in terms of billable hours, a given project will take to accomplish. Both by me and anyone on my team. What I do for work or schooling, though, rarely applies to my leisure time.

For those who don’t want to do the math, the reading time suggested here varies between 250 and 350 words per minute. My reading rate is generally around a page a minute, if I’m being pretty direct about it. We already discussed here the whole “paragraphs as mountains” concept and that “industry standard” for genre is 250 words per page. Denser works have more words per page. I find it really interesting that the supposed industry standard for genre matches the bottom end of Fictionwise’s reading rate.

I’m sure there are people who sit around and figure this kind of thing out. All part of product development and placement. Still, as much as I believe I’m jaded and cynical now, things like this continue to surprise me. Which probably shows my enduring naivete in the face of the world’s attempts to toughen me up.

Despite it all, there’s a part of me that’s still the little girl who always had her nose in a book. The girl who picked out the thickest books on the library shelf, because they would last longer. I want to immerse, to lose track of time, to slow down in the second half, so the story won’t end too soon.

Let my reading be timeless, please.