Monday, April 16, 2012

The Quest for Best

Why is it I like the books I like?

I suspect this isn’t a question readers ask themselves too often—if ever. Pinned down with a gun to their dog’s head, the answer might be an insightful shrug of the shoulders, or a clever, “Who knows why? I just do!” Or if the victim happens to be a bit full of themselves, they might reply, “Because they’re good,” implying anyone disagreeing has bad taste. Readers have the luxury of remaining oblivious as to precisely what they like in books, sitting like Caesar in a box seat as an endless parade of new offerings are presented for their thumbs verdict.

Writers are not so fortunate.

Authors endeavor to write good books, and so it is important to understand just what makes a book good. They can’t rely on the axiom, “I know it when I see it,” because they are required to make it. Every author has made a practice of learning what separates a good book from a bad one, just as every cook learns to make a good, rather than bad, soup. Some might start with a base, then add ingredients until it is perfectly seasoned. Others might work from a strict recipe, but each knows what they are working toward.

When I started work on the Riyria Revelations, I paused to ask myself this very important question: Why is it I like the books I like? Before I could answer, I had to determine what books I liked. This might seem obvious, but what I really wanted to know was what did I think were the very best books I’d ever read. It turned out to be a harder question than I thought because I also had to first answer what did I mean by best?

Some books are magnificently written with poetic prose, which inspires awe at the manner in which geniuses can use the written word. Some can capture reality to such a degree that you see people you know moving on the page. Some make you think, or see sides of something you never thought to consider before. Some can transport you so fully to another place you can smell the bacon, or flowers, and feel the grass and wind. And some can create characters and places so wonderful, so personal, that you love them more than real people, because in many ways they’re better. As I pondered this question of best I concluded that the novels that did all of these things had to be the best. Most annoyingly I also realized that I’d never found a book that achieved this all these goals. Few, if any, so much as achieved two of these magical criteria, and I suspect never will for the same reason no single food could cover all your culinary desires. While I might like chocolate ice cream, barbequed potatoes chips, a perfectly grilled steak, and pizza, I wouldn’t care for all of them in one dish.

So I needed to decide which of these wonderful effects did I prize the most?

When learning how to write, I loved studying the poetry of prose. I was fascinated by the manner some authors had of turning something as mundane as the description of a beach ball into a work of literary art. I wanted to know how to do this, and I dissected writer’s works and practiced to find the secrets of this amazing technique. Yet when I thought about it—really thought about it—the pleasure came from learning how to write, not from reading. If you’ve ever done figure drawing in a class that uses a live nude model, you might understand. You might feel self-conscious…until you begin drawing. At that moment you lose the idea of the person and see only forms and the challenge to capture them. Likewise, in studying the play of words, I would lose track of the bigger picture. I realized that while I could appreciate poetic prose, it wasn’t the kind of book I loved reading.

When I read books that captured reality so vividly, I was staggered. A conversation in an Updike novel could have been an exchange between my own brother and mother right down to the subtle hand gestures and body movements. I was fascinated and memorized to think this could be done. Yet again, like finding a dramatic cliff, or compelling desert isle, you might stare in fascination, perhaps visit it several times to gawk in awe, but that isn’t the place you’d chose to build your home.

I am fond of books that teach me something (other than about how to write), but almost all are non-fiction, not novels. I’m likely in a small minority here, but I can’t recall any fiction book that I’ve read, or movie I’ve seen that “made me think,” introduced me to an idea I was unfamiliar with, or influenced me in any way beyond entertainment. I’ve heard books have had this effect on others, and I believe them. I’ve just not experienced it myself. I also tend to think this sort of thing can’t be consciously inserted into a book except in a heavy-handed, “I have a message which is the reason I wrote this” sort of way as would be the case of 1984 or Atlas Shrugged. This kind of writing doesn’t interest me as it always seems so preachy. I suspect the most profound effects a book has on someone has more to do with the reader than the book itself. If they can identify with part of it on a personal level, then that book will speak to them in ways the author could never anticipate. So planning to enlighten strikes me not only as futile, but arrogant as it presumes you know something fundamental the rest of the world doesn't.

By this point I was becoming frustrated as these realizations pretty much nixed the vast majority of novels that I had thought to be in the running for the best books. Not that they aren’t great in their own ways, but as far as I’m concerned, they aren’t the best.  For example, as much as I enjoyed reading them the first time, I could never imagine re-reading Moby Dick, The Count of Monte Cristo or For Whom the Bell Tolls. It was this realization that provided me with the tool I needed—the map as it were—to finding the treasure. I had to answer yet another question: What books would I happily read a second, third, and perhaps even, a fourth time?  For surely any book that I would invest the time and effort to sit down with already knowing the outcome, had to be profoundly wonderful.

As I considered this I realized there were very few books that fit this bill and all them were fantasies.

Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, are books I actually have read several times. J. K. Rowlings Harry Potter books I’ve also re-read. Richard Adams’s Watership Down, and Stephen King’s The Stand also made the list.

These—oddly enough—(and even I was a little surprised to discover) were, the best books I’d ever read. The next question was—why?

 What did these books have in common? What about each appealed to me so much they would beat out the classics, the contemporary award winners, the fascinating science fiction books, the exciting thrillers? I actually pondered this for several days. It was important to get right, because what I was ultimately looking for was the key to writing a great book. Perhaps not what everyone else thought was a great book—maybe not even what anyone else would think was a great book—but one I would be happy with. This quest I was on then was a search to find the soul of the kind of stories I would devote myself to writing. The kind of books I wanted to read. Such things shouldn’t be rushed.

My wife is the sort of person who makes spreadsheets. She breaks things down to numbers whenever possible. I don’t work that way. I function in patterns. I see paths in the forest and cartoon faces in the tile work of my bathroom. I reflect, sense the direction, and then move. This is how I approached the problem—a very scientific method I trust you will agree. I did pretend to be Sherlock Holmes if that helps.

I assembled the suspects into one room and tapping a finger against my upper lip (does anyone know if this really helps?) I proceeded to deduce the answer. All four author’s works are fantasies, but all take place in vastly different settings. They also use vastly different character types: animals, hobbits, humans. This method of reasoning wasn’t getting me anywhere so I shifted to what parts of the books did I like best, what drew me to want to read them again? I finally settled on three things.

Characters, setting, and plot.

Before you laugh, let me explain. Of course all books have these, but these books in question have very specific types of each.

They each have a high number of appealing characters. Not just appealing—lovable. Individuals who even though they were fictitious, I admired and cared about. They are the friends I wish I had. Of course I would want to spend time with them.

While each had bad areas, awful locations where terrible things happened, they also had wonderful places too. Homes, villages, schools, and hills so beautiful, so warm and comfortable that I wanted to visit—these were homes I wish I had. So again, of course I would like to return there.

In each, the story made sense, something significant occurred, and in the end turned out mostly happy for the majority of the characters. These are the kinds of events I wouldn’t mind experiencing.

Re-reading such books had been appealing because these were more than just books, these were doorways to places I loved and old friends I had missed. And in coming to this understanding, I discovered why I did not care for so many other books. Some might have likable characters, but they lived in worlds I hated. Or they had interesting worlds, but the characters were unpleasant. I liken reading to going to a party. If there isn’t going to be anyone there I like, and if the place I’m going isn’t at least partially pleasant, I’d rather not go.

If I were going to write books for other people to read, then this was the sort of book I wanted to provide. I didn’t want to create something pretty, or momentarily thought provoking, I wanted to build a happy shelter that people could take with them where ever they went for the rest of their lives. As far as being profound goes, I’m not sure you can hope for more than that. 


  1. What an interesting piece yet again, Michael. All the points so valid. There is something else I would venture to suggest which I have also recognised in your work. It is the ability for those great authors to reach down deep into your heart and somehow leave an influencing cell or DNA, if you will, of their own life experiences. Which enriches your own, I think a revisit is an inner longing to re-ignite that first spark. Reminds me of my and my wife's first meeting. Had to go through Google by the way. Where there's a will...William

  2. Very nice step outside the usual "on writing" fare. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Once again, thank you for your insight. Characters, setting and plot... and I agree. If you look at any successful franchise, books, TV series, etc. they all share those same elements in just the right mix. (Star Trek, Star Wars, MASH, etc.) The books you name do the same.

    A story is about its characters and how they react to what is going on around them, everything else is just so much 'eye-candy'.

    Again, thanks so much for your thoughts. Your passion for writing shows thru. Continued success.

    S.M. Muse

  4. Michael, I've been mulling this over for days, so thank you for a thought-provoking post. Characters, setting, plot - yes, but my requirements are a little different from yours. I don't need the characters to be lovable or like friends; I don't necessarily look for a mostly happy ending; and I've never yet encountered a fantasy world I would actually want to live in (I'm too fond of the modern conveniences of life - chocolate, constant hot water, the internet, my Kindle, pizza).

    What I do ask of my fantasy is that it's believable. The characters have to be fully rounded human beings (or elves or dragons, of course), with all their quirks and foibles, not cardboard cutout heroes or villains. The world has to feel completely real, magic and all, with a credible climate and topography, settlements, flora and fauna, history, languages, transportation. Not that the author necessarily has to create twelve different languages, nine races and seven religions from scratch, of course, but the reader should believe that they exist, all the same. And the plot should follow logically from all of that, with the characters always behaving in understandable ways.

    And I think, if an author does that, then the deeper themes will emerge naturally and it will be a book that 'makes you think'.

  5. Tyler, thanks for posting. And thanks for the compliment. And don't spread the DNA planting secret around, we're trying to keep that a secret ;)

    Thanks Rob. I actually haven't written a writing tip in months now. Maybe I should, if I can think of something I haven't covered.

    S.M. thank you. And I agree about Star Wars especially. That's a good example of good characters, plot and setting working well without a lot of excesses complexity weakening the story.

    Pauline thanks for posting and for being honest about your opinion. I appreciate it even if I am going to sort of disagree a little.

    It would appear that you are in the realism camp as I described in the paragraph that began, "When I read books that captured reality so vividly..." The John Updike (or similar author) literary view where realistic portrayals and a real world is more important than the plot, or the likeability of either the characters or setting. You have a lot of company in that opinion, and many literary prizes are awarded to authors who are masters at that.

    For me however, realism in novels whether they are contemporary, or invented world fantasy, is nice, but not enough. I don't hold the same opinion that if the characters are fully rounded, and the world is perfectly built that these elements will of themselves result in a good story (I realize you wrote "deeper themes" which doesn't necessarily mean the same thing.) The Pulitzer and Noble Prize winning "Rabbit At Rest" is perhaps the best I've ever read for this and yet, as a novel it isn't interesting to me at all beyond an artistic appreciation of the writing. The reason I suspect is because of it's super realism and the fact that most of reality is rather boring. I am surround by real people and real world settings every day and yet, they quite often fail to be as interesting as a good book. So for me realism isn't the end-all. I'd much rather read a book that doesn't make quite as much sense but has good characters and a great story.

    Still I agree that having credible characters and settings are important to suspend disbelief. While I don't feel that every aspect of a world needs to be perfect, or explained in detail (I actually feel this obsession with explaining the mechanics of worlds is a huge problem in fantasy and one that prevents more people from picking it up.) I certainly believe that a book that breaks it's own rules is a huge problem.

  6. Michael - thanks for your response. I like that you always make me think about these issues even if we don't agree!

    Realism, to me, isn't quite the same as believability. A fantasy world can be totally believable without remotely describing the real world. Chris Wooding's Braided Path trilogy is a good example of a brilliantly conceived secondary world which is believable without being realistic (in that sense). I read fantasy largely to escape from the real world, although the best fantasy will always shine a light on real world issues, by giving them a new perspective.

    And of course you're quite right that fully rounded characters and a perfectly built world don't necessarily produce a good story. In the end, it's the story that matters.

  7. While characters, setting and plot are all important, for me it's the essential idea that makes the book worthwhile. Without the "ring that must be destroyed" you wouldn't have "Lord of the Rings", without The Hunger Games you wouldn't have "The Hunger Games". The list of books I feel are re-readable, however, differ from yours. I could never bring myself to re-read "Lord of the Rings" as I felt it dragged too much in the first place. But I would have no problem returning to high-concept, albeit preachy works, like "1984" or better yet "A Brave New World" if the fancy strikes. I know, I am weird like that.

    Anyway, I am about to try to get your first book on Kindle so I can review it. If it's not on Kindle, I'll have to try B&N.

  8. Thanks Pauline, I do so hate when we argue ;)

    Nick, I think you'll find my books are available in just about every format possible, (except perhaps Cuneiform engraved clay table) and most certainly on Kindle. Thanks for trying them.

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