Sunday, March 30, 2014
What I've Learned From The Less-Than-Brilliant (and Sometimes the Brilliant)
I try to read widely and sample a lot of different authors, genres, and styles. Lately I've been off on a different sort of reading jag: I've been reading bad science fiction which sells well.
Now, let me explain that. In my view it isn't really bad if it sells well, because we write these books to entertain, and if lots of people find a book entertaining, it has succeeded in its essential purpose. It has "lived a life worth living." That said, these books do not meet the normal standards for good writing, and I don't just mean for flowery literary fiction; I mean the standards for the genre itself, science fiction. Nevertheless they sell. So what's going on there? That's what I wanted to find out by reading them. I'm not a cynical guy and I have no contempt for my audience, so my baseline assumption here is that they are doing something right which readers recognize but lots of us writers don't.
I believe in reading good writing as an essential way of improving your own writing, and I'm by no means giving up on that. But it occurred to me that when you read an author who does everything right, it's hard to tell which of those brilliantly executed passages are critical to her success and which are pleasing but less essential. But when you read an author who does almost everything poorly, but whose books still find a wide readership, you can be pretty sure that whatever he's doing right is pretty important. And finding it isn't exactly like finding a needle in a haystack.
I won't tell you which authors I read for this experiment because I'm not in the business of running other authors down, even by means of faint praise. I'm not a critic, I'm a writer. But what did I find? Good characters? Absolutely not. At worst they were annoying stereotypes; at best they were skill sets with one quirk thrown in to make them "colorful." Great description? No. Strong sense of theme? Nope. Redemption and a moving character arc? No way. Exciting action scenes? Sometimes, but not always or even most of the time. Imaginative world building? Nuh-uh. Intricate, original plot? Pah!
No, here's what I found those writers were very, very good at: pacing.
The one thing they seem to know well is how to move a story along briskly, scene after scene after scene. They don't lumber the front of the story up with lots of backstory.( Sometimes this is because they don't seem to have thought much about backstory, but that's a different issue.) They don't have long draggy parts in the middle where characters flounder around for pages searching for meaning and fulfillment. Scene follows scene, conflict draws the reader along. They are, in short, "page turners," if nothing else. And to be honest, sometimes they are not much else, but they are at least that.
Coincidentally, not long after I finished that reading project I picked up Harlan Coben's "Tell No One," his very first New York Times best-seller from back in 2001. Coben has become a go-to guy for crime thrillers, a solid and respected genre author, and it was fun to read this early work of his. Man, does he know how to pace a book! Kept me up until 2:30 in the morning finishing it. He has a lot of other things going for him as well, but there are also some thin parts of the plot and some places where character motivation doesn't bear too critical an examination. But the pacing just sweeps you along past those and I mostly didn't notice until I thought more about it afterwards.
So what have we learned today? I am beginning to think pacing may be the single most important determinant of success in mass-market genre fiction, and by success I mean reader satisfaction. It is the beating heart of what keeps a reader reading, what keeps her involved in the story page after page..
And the great thing is that brisk pacing does not exclude any other technique. All the chops you can bring to bear on character, plot, setting, theme, and language don't get in the way of pacing one bit if you do them right.