Saturday, May 26, 2012

Got Story?

Some books are a breeze to read, even when they run over 800 pages, and some books, no matter how long or short, are more like slogging through muddy clay wearing lead boots. Books like that often have excellent grammar, wonderful similes and metaphors, and the writing is sublime, but something is missing. An important ingredient didn't make it into the final product, like leaving the chocolate out of a hot chocolate. All that's left is hot milk and that is just gross. A little vanilla would help the taste, but chocolate makes it tasty.

Finding the reason why the book plods instead of zooms along has been the focus of my review work for the past 9 years of my professional reviewing life. After a box full of such books, I long for Stephen King, Dan Brown, or even an old favorite like Andre Norton. The genre doesn't make nearly as much difference as the writer. Stephen King loads on the horror, and I'm not averse to that. Dan Brown's technique leaves a lot to be desired and he loves information dumps, but he makes it all seem so effortless, if a bit facile at times. Andre Norton wrote what would now be considered YA (young adult) novels, but to me they were passports to worlds of magic and warfare and the stuff of dreams.

I recently read Moonfire by Marion Zimmer Bradley, whose Darkover series I devoured whole. The short story was disappointing and I couldn't quite put my finger on why. I'd loved so many of her other short stories and novels, and series, so why wasn't it jelling for me? Why did I feel like I was plodding through that muddy clay pit in leaden shoes again?

I've been switching between E. L. Doctorow's All the Time in the World and The Flatey Enigma, both books that I have to review, and the leaden boots were getting heavier. A few of the stores in Doctorow's anthology were interesting but most seemed pointless. I chalked up having trouble getting through The Flatey Enigma as a fail in translation between Norwegian, the author's original language, and English. It happens sometimes, but then I enjoyed
Juan Gomez-Jurado's The Traitor's Emblem, despite a few plot inconsistencies. Maybe translations problems were not the source of my struggle with the book.

I put both books down and decided to read Charlaine Harris's Grave Sight, the first book in the Harper Connelly series. I have to force myself to put down the book so I can get some sleep or write for a while. It's that good. I have had the same reaction to most of the Sookie Stackhouse series by Harris.

That's when it hit me. I couldn't put the heavy plodding down to lack of characterization, bad grammar, horrid sentence structure, no technique, or being so in love with the words and creating beautiful and memorable passages. It's much more basic than that. There is no story. That's why I had to put A Dance with Dragons aside for a while and why Terry Pratchett's Pyramids got stuck going on the downslope. The authors did what so many authors fall prey to; they forgot the whole point of writing is to tell a story. Among all the witticisms, great battles, wonderful characters, and marvelous prose, the story was lost, and a good story is the only reason for a book to exist.

That's what Dan Brown, Stephen King, Andre Norton, and even Marion Zimmer Bradley when she's on her game, do so well. They tell great stories. The genre isn't important; that's a matter of taste. Story is important.

Literary, horror, adventure, thriller, science fiction, fantasy, romance, mainstream, none of that matters if the author keeps to the whole reason for books, if they tell a good story. Scheherazade would have been killed long before she got through her first night of storytelling for the king if she had been dressed it all up with fancy words and intelligent technique and forgot to tell an entertaining story that was so good the King had to keep listening, needed to know what happened next.

I read a considerable amount of literary novels but some authors leave me cold, no matter how many awards they win. I enjoyed Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending and couldn't get through John Banville's The Sea. Banville left me cold and Barnes's almost novella enticed me with wondrous prose, detailed descriptions, and a memorable character. Barnes's story was worth the read. I still can't get through The Sea.

Jasper Fforde's Thursday series has caught my interest and his stories are stories within stories, as has Ian McEwan's Atonement. I still haven't gotten to read any more of his books, but there are plenty in my to be read pile. Salman Rushdie enchants me with exotic fare and Terry Pratchett almost always makes me laugh while the tale ends far too quickly. Pyramids was an aberration -- or at least I hope so.

We are all children putting off having to go to bed, wanting to stay up just a little longer as our parents read just one more chapter of Peter Pan or Wind in the Willows or even Harry Potter. We want to hear a story, even a made up story, as long as it is a good story. Forget all the pyrotechnics, academic prizes, and prose stylings. All of those are as satisfying as a masterful and artistic wrapping job on a box that contains the good, in this case a story. Just tell me a story and make it a good one. I can live without the trimmings as long as there is sufficient meat on the bones. Books like that take no time at all to read because a wondrous story is at the heart of it.

When a writer forgets the basic premise of putting together a book, none of it matters if the story is not there or only half there. If you've got story; you will have readers, faithful readers who will snap up everything you write.

Charlaine Harris is not a prose stylist and her books are a joy to read most of the time because she tells fascinating stories. Harris unlocked the mystery that I have struggled with for so long, reminding me of what is important and why I write. It's all about the story. Where would Scheherazade be without a compelling story? As a storyteller, without listeners, but as a woman trying to save her life . . . dead.

Give them story.

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