When I started this blog, health issues not withstanding, I thought it would be easy. No one loves to read as much as I do. When authors got in line to send me their books to read, I was over the moon. Then came the shock. For every story that transported me to a place of wonder for a few hours, there were five that I had to drag my way through. Let me be clear, these authors aren’t hacks. Every one of them is a talented writer with a book so full of potential it is heartbreaking when it doesn’t quite get there. I haven’t read one bad story idea. I am just often left sitting there, bewildered, while the story goes off in a direction I can’t follow.
Recently, a follower on Twitter asked me what I look for in a book? Overlooking the 140 character limit, let’s face it, being succinct is not my strong suit, the answer to that question is so subjective I have a hard time putting it into words. I suppose, really, it is not about the book, but rather the author. Is the author of the book a writer or a storyteller. I want a book that makes me read like a child again.
Children have it so good. They are not weighed down by harsh reality. Bizarre plot twists only make the story better and a certain animated prose could be all that is needed to make a completely unbelievable story into a bedtime favorite. My own child is a concrete thinker and he has a very literal imagination. At 12, he has learned to temper that and enjoy an occasional tall tale, but he still looks for realistic fiction and his reading preference leans heavily in the direction of non-fiction. I remember being blown away, when at the age of 4, he used the most eloquent terms of his preschool vocabulary to explain to me why a favorite book from my childhood was never going one of his. He is a tenacious talker so he had plenty to say, but it boiled down to a few salient points. To paraphrase… (bolded to show hands-on-hips, forehead furrowed emphasis)
l Cats do not wear hats
l Parents do not leave young children alone in the house while they run errands.
l Cats do not talk.
l Cats do not balance things or take baths.
l There is no such thing as a Thing, much less two of them.
l Did I mention that cats DO NOT wear hats?
Dr. Seuss was never going to be high on my little one’s reading list. True, he loved the nightly routine of hearing The Sleep Book read to him, mostly because I had done so every night since birth. He learned to enjoy Green eggs and Ham, mostly because it was a mom and son fully interactive experience complete with parts and voices and vocal dynamics. In truth, he just couldn’t wrap his head around the strange looking creatures and lyrical turn of phrase. The conversation we had about elephants sitting in trees hatching eggs went pretty much in the same direction. It did get me thinking though. For the most part, kids read with a large suspension of disbelief. The story can have plot holes big enough to drive a truck through, but as long as there is some element that makes sense, wonder, awe and great turn of phrase will convince kids to read and re-read a book until the pages fall out. They don’t want to weighed down by reality, they just want to be told a story.
That sense of wonder is what I look for in a book. Recently, as I noted in a previous post, I read The Martian by Andy Weir. Mars has been obsession in this home since long before the Cat in The Hat debacle and in fact, my son’s first video report, was a story on the Mars Rover, carefully recreated out of his Hulk mobile on an improvised Mars tableau of the discolored pock marked concrete of our front walk (talk about suspension of disbelief!).
The Martian is well told story that kept me turning pages. It wasn’t until I read an article about the movie, in Popular Science magazine, that I remembered thinking about a passing story point ::SPOILER ALERT:: Dust storms on Mars would not be nearly as volatile as those here on Earth and really didn’t make sense as the reason for the main character to have been stranded. ::SPOILER ALERT:: The truth is, though I knew that fact and many others, I just trucked right on by because Mr. Weir had already hooked me into a story that I had to get to the end of. In short, he is a storyteller and I was his rapt audience.
I don’t think that I am overly critical and I am certain every book I have read that doesn’t quite make the mark could become a classic with another re-write and some hard choice editing or maybe just another beta reader. I have spent my life in libraries and used book stores and I still had no idea how many terrific storytellers there are in the world. I have been blessed to connect with so many of them over the past months. Five books that just don’t do it for me, is such a small ticket price for that one that sends me on a journey.
¨ Tell me a story. Start at the beginning and make me crave the ending and take as long as you need to to get there. If you can tell your story in 100 pages then awesome. If you need 14, thousand plus page books to get there, then that is even more awesome (just don’t drop dead before you finish, because that is just not fair to anyone).
¨ Tell me the story that you want to tell me. If you need lots of words to paint a better picture, then don’t be afraid to use them. If you can get straight to the point, I appreciate that too.
¨ Make your characters real and make me want to know their story. However, absolute realism and believability are not nearly as important as having a reason to be personally invested in characters’ outcomes.
¨ Finally, occasionally use a thesaurus. Readers really do notice that one overworked word, especially if it is a little used term. You get brownie points from me for finding the perfect word to describe the situation, even more if I have to look the word up. Clever or not, it is still a one trick pony.
So many stories, a lifetime just isn’t long enough.