Friday, August 2, 2013

What do they MEEEEAN dept., BOOKS div.

Often when people talk about a book that we've both read (and sometimes that we've both reviewed), I marvel that we could both have read the same text and have gotten such different mileage out of it. Readers are constantly amazing me as far as what they come away from my stories with. I often think I am telling a tale of redemption, and they come away with a completely different take on it, all about revenge and payback time. It's always illuminating to hear about this, because I can often go back and find the clues they found (even though I meant them to mean something else, at least on the conscious level.)

But the way I, a baby boomer, read appears to differ from the way most Gen X/Gen Y/Millenial readers read. We are apparently looking to get different things out of our reading. While storytelling is archetypal, the way in which our culture has traditionally handed down stories to its children is changing. Readers have very little patience now, and I think that's a shame, because sometimes it's good to take your time.

For instance . . . when someone says a book is "slow" or "sluggish," I often agree, IF the problem is something like the first three chapters being nothing but a character waking up in the morning, getting dressed, making coffee, thinking about what he's going to do today and what happened yesterday and where he went to college and how he just broke up with his fiancé and yadda yadda yadda. Stephen King and Michael Crichton seem to be able to get away with introducing a character by having her wake up and think about all this rot before a single bit of plot-related action begins, but not too many other authors can do this.

I generally find fault with books that begin with "false" prologues pulled from the middle of the book followed by a first chapter heading reading "Six Months Earlier." They used to do this all the time because they thought there wasn't enough oomph and hooky action in that first chapter. Related to the bit I just mentioned that King gets away with is the opening that freight-trains several overworked introductions of a bunch of characters with stuff like "she took her bachelor's at CalTech and then her Ph.D. at Stanford--she went on her Rhodes scholarship; she married and divorced a Welsh miner; blather blather" as if I am supposed to say, "Oh, boy! This character is my superior! She is superwoman and a size 4 to boot! I must luuurve her!" (I don't.)

What about the "false promises" book that starts off with three polished chapters (probably chapters that have made the rounds of workshops and contests for a while) and then continues in quite a different tone, possibly even another genre? I see this with things that start out like thrillers and then hit the brakes.

Frankly, some authors can make this sort of thing work. Off the top of my head, I can think of a blockbuster book (okay, Michael Crichton's TIMELINE) that has at least two of those faults. And in some contexts, the techniques are not really faults.

But most of the time, everyone will agree that these tricks should be replaced by better storytelling.

On the other hand, I hear people calling a book "too detailed" and saying that they didn't understand why there were details about spiders, earthquakes, or whatever. Well . . . in one of my books, the murder might have been committed by a person who put a rare poisonous spider on the victim while he was passed out after an evening of drinking. Thus my sleuth needs to find out about spiders: who in the area knows about them, who raises them, who might HAVE one. Because most tarantulas and similar spiders are not poisonous. An Australian spider that's venomous gets imported (smuggled in) to North America now and then for fanciers. This sort of "detail" is something the sleuth has to investigate if she's to go to the police with some trumped-up tale about a spider bite. In another book, there's an explanation of the various types of gluons. Why? It has to do with the nefarious mad scientist's plot. The reader needs to know this stuff.

Maybe some readers feel that they don't. If they're not trying to put together the pieces of how the crime could have been committed and follow the trail back to the person who could have done it, I suppose it doesn't matter. If they're happy enough to read a book in which the author seems to have just chosen a murderer at random (with little motivation or reason) and hasn't bothered to follow the rules of fair play, all right. But my books aren't going to be like that. There is going to be enough evidence for a reader to put together a case against at least two suspects, and the red herrings can be interesting sidelines to follow. I don't think that equates to "too much detail."

It all goes back to what a reader expects from a book. If they're expecting a fast parachute jump with shiny distractions in the form of gunfire and explosions, they'll be disappointed in my books. However, I feel there's still an audience for the sorts of books I like to curl up with. They'll be meaty and philosophical and mostly character-driven, and they'll explore at least one question that's similar to "how should we live?" and "what is right action and how can we live morally in a world that has discarded its old moral compasses?"

You'll find a theme in ANY book. I promise you. The theme may be lame or not explored properly, but it's there. You might as well accept that any book with no theme is going to be unsatisfying and leave readers mystified as to why they spent so much time reading an empty shell. So when I read reviews that say a book took itself too seriously, I feel kind of disappointed that the message was transmitted too heavy-handedly. What ever happened to subtlety and subtext? Part of the problem is the disapproval of complex sentence structure. Some concepts just can't be condensed into soundbites.

Soundbites are fun, but remember, they're a "bite" and not a satisfying, nourishing meal.

The next time you start skipping "those boring details" because you feel they have nothing to do with the story, rethink it. Perhaps the author could have done it better, but if it's in the book, he or she thought you needed to know it or would be edified by it. Often an important clue is buried in "meaningless detail," and if you miss it, you might miss part of the experience of a good story.

The thing that bugs me the most is when a reviewer comes back saying that he or she didn't like encountering words that weren't immediately familiar. I don't just mean when someone complains about a word like "numinous," even though I think you could probably get that one from the context, and what are we doing wiring ourselves up with online dictionaries and encyclopedia when we aren't going to use them? No, I am talking about readers who aren't trying. A reviewer of Ray Bradbury's SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (an incredibly evocative and dense text that tells a terrifying tale) said that he didn't like Bradbury's use of words. "For example, he says that one of the carousel horses had teeth 'the color of panic,' but never explains what that means." Well, DUH. If you don't get an image from that phrase and you want it explained, you are not my kind of reader. Use your imagination and figure things out. And sometimes you don't need to always KNOW EXACTLY WHAT IT MEANS. "A poem should not mean, but be." (Princess points to those who get the reference.)

I don't know. Maybe I'm just a crazy old curmudgeon. Probably.

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