Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Learning From the Books We Can't Finish

A long, generous rope. My patience is epic when I'm reading a book.

I slaved over Stephen King's The Stand for months as a teen. This summer, I've slugged through 81 pages of Moby Dick, but I'm not quitting. Unfortunately, I had to stop reading a historical novel recently for lack of interest, and frankly, it killed me to admit to it, late one afternoon, with a hand on its cover: "I'm just not into you." Sniff.

I view giving up on a book more as a personal failure. "It's me, not you. You're a good book. I'm the one with the problem." But my thinking has changed a bit as I've been trying to write fiction. I do feel greater empathy with other writers. I want to give them a chance to capture my attention. But with family, my own writing/revisions, social media, laundry, I have to get real.

So I stopped reading Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness by Sheila Kohler last week. I wanted to like it. The cover was pretty. It coincides with a country and time period which I am also writing about: France, pre-Revolution. I figured I could learn a few historical details for my romance. Plus, Kohler is an award-winning writer. I thought the book would be a pleasure. It wasn't.

I started to let it sit for days. I couldn't recall the names of the main characters. In one chapter, the mother dies, and by the time I had picked up the book again, I'd forgotten that detail. Oops. Kohler's writing is sharp, but the story wasn't compelling me to hang with it. And, this is my take-away: books we don't care for also help our own writing.

I probably wouldn't have understood why her story didn't intrigue me unless I had recently taken a workshop with suspense novelist Robert Dugoni. Dugoni is a popular writer of high-tension books, and he's also on the circuit for writing conference. In his session about creating plots for page turners, he focused on the characters, particularly the protagonist. He suggested several key points for strong stories in regard to the main character:

1. The story must be personal to the protagonist. It must affect him/her on a deep level. Example: If you begin a story with a murder and your main character is the police investigator, why is this particular murder of consequence to him/her? Is the dead person a former lover, a streetwalker who was an informant, the spouse of a colleague who s/he was having an affair with? Make it matter and soon.
2. You must show early what your protagonist wants. To win (what?), to escape (what?), to retrieve (what?), to stop (what?).
3. The character(s) must experience obstacles. Torture them. Put things in their way and more than once. What stands in his/her way, major and minor?

His ideas identified, in part, why I didn't connect with Kohler's story. I wasn't sure what the main character wanted, what the story was going to offer me and why I should care. Granted, she wasn't writing suspense. She was writing historical fiction, where there are usually no smoking guns. But I wanted to feel something for her people, and I couldn't muster much. It could be a matter of taste. Dugoni hated Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I liked it. He thinks J.K. Rowling is a genius. I haven't felt like picking up her books (maybe next year).

I still feel a little like I failed in my attempt to read Bluebird. That's the compassionate side of me, but it's not typical of most fiction readers. They want the goods, and we have to give them compelling reasons to stick around.

This post was first published on Aug. 31 on Tabitha Blake's blog.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Jen! Thanks for following me on Twitter. I typically feel badly when I can't finish a novel, but learning the craft of writing has helped me identify why I don't like the story more easily. Good tips about holding reader interest. I do love to torture my characters. ;) Good luck with your writing. Jen

    P.S. Moby Dick was SUCH a labor to read in high school--I hear ya!


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