This one’s going to wander a bit, so I don’t have a good title for it.
First, last week I read one novel and three novellas by two different authors. All were very easy to read. I’d start one and by midday be at 80 pages without even realizing it.
This week I started a new novel by an author I’ve read for decades, but it’s like pulling teeth to get through it. There was two pages of description of some sort of device that I didn’t care about. At all. I skimmed, which is not normal for me.
So I’ve been thinking a bit about what makes a book an “easy” read versus a hard read. And this is not the difference between a Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, which are to me very engaging authors who are not fast reads, and someone like a Sophie Kinsella, whose shopaholic books I also found engaging to read but were fast and easy. I think the difference between those two types of books is more about the number of layers to the story.
This is more about different genre books aimed at a similar audience. Why are some easy, fast reads and some a slog?
Part of it is sentences and paragraphs and chapters. I think authors who started out thirty-some years ago or more tend towards longer paragraphs and chapters and more dense description. (In general, not all, blah, blah).
So that’s part of it. Looking at a dense page with no breaks for pages and pages for me, someone who reads for ten minutes at lunch, at dinner, and at bedtime, is an ugh moment.
But I’d be okay with it if I were sucked into the story. Which is why I then ask myself, what sucks me into a story?
I think readers need a “why”.
(I as a writer am actually particularly bad at this one. At least with my cozies. I just finished narrating book four in the series and the mystery doesn’t show up until chapter seven in the book. Yikes. I still have readers because they like my characters, but not as many I could if I had better focus on my genre.)
The books I read last week that were so engaging set the goal of the story very early. If you ever read JD Robb (the book I read last week was not one of hers, but she’s a good example) you will see that the crime that needs investigated happens in the first chapter. Maybe in the fifty books she’s written there might be one where it’s in the prologue or chapter two instead, but it’s always up front and center.
I read those books to see how Eve and Roarke and Peabody and Mavis are living their lives, but the core of each book is about a police officer solving a crime and so that’s the focus at the start of every book.
In romances you put the meet cute or the relationship up front so readers know that whatever else happens, these two people are going to find a way to be together.
The books I was reading last week were all fantasies where there’s a challenge to be overcome and that challenge presents itself within the first three chapters each time.
This book I’m struggling with now is also a fantasy and there is a goal for the series, but this is book two and the goal of the book wasn’t clearly presented at the start.
From what I can see, the author is sort of treating this book as a continuation of the last book and so didn’t seem to feel the need to bracket the book with a goal.
They also didn’t remind me who the characters are and how they fit together, so I felt lost for the first forty pages. Is this a romance because this one seems to like that one? But wait, isn’t that one married? And if it is a romance, why was this much time spent on this other idea that’s not part of the “world” I’m used to from this author?
I think you can take readers on any journey you want. But I think to do so, the way the story is presented has to say, “this is the type of trip you’re taking” and then stay consistent to that promise.
So, mystery start with the murder or the disappearance. Romance start with that meet cute or introduce the two characters.
Fantasy and sci-fi can be trickier, because sometimes it’s about exploring a world. But I think a lot of the successful fantasy and sci-fi actually contain a different genre as the core. So, yeah, it’s a cool world, but there’s a mystery to be solved or bad guy to be defeated. Or you have the academy structure where the world is learned through the character going to school.
Another thing that I think about, too, is alignment of values. And maybe this is more true for me now than it was when I was younger, but I can be kicked out of a story nowadays when the author has a very different set of values from mine. The book I’m struggling through now started with a first sentence that put me off because it went counter to my current values. I’m sort of done with royalty being considered special so I was already on my back foot when I started.
You know, it’s funny. We can talk about all the things that do or don’t work in novels and then someone will come along and say, “but X book…”, and it’s true.
Books can do things that aren’t what a reader would ideally like and still sell. I have read twenty-two books at this point by an author whose sex scenes annoy the hell out of me at this point. I don’t know if I’m alone in that. Probably.
But it’s possible that someone would point to that series and say, “but X author writes Y type of sex scenes and sells like gangbusters” and be factually correct in that statement. At the same time that the books sell despite that not because of it…
I mean, I mentioned my cozies above. I think what I actually wrote was a small town family saga about finding your tribe that just happened to involve murders and mysteries. And if I had enough readers someone might point to that series and say, but X book is a cozy series and the mysteries don’t start until chapter six or seven but it still sells. And they’d be right, but it would be a bad example of how a cozy should be structured because the books were selling for a different reason.
I know that I could improve the appeal of my books if I could rein myself in enough to put a genre framework around what I write.
I’m not sure I want to do that, though, which is my ongoing challenge and why I end up writing so much non-fiction.
I know by now the basic “how” of things, I just have no strong desire to follow it…
Anyway. Read your genre. Note the patterns. And understand that the exceptions to those patterns may be hobbling themselves not proof that the patterns don’t work.
At the end of the day you can write whatever you want however you want you just have to be prepared for the consequences of that choice.