Six impossible things

What you like

When all your friends are bookaholics, one of the things that inevitably happens is that they recommend books to you and to their other friends, frequently in glowing terms. Quite often, other members of your social group will read those books before you do, will also love them, and will second, third, and fourth the recommendations in equally glowing terms.

It is always a bit awkward when you finally get around to reading this much-ballyhooed book and discover that as far as you are concerned, it is at best OK. It’s much worse when you read it and decide it’s awful.

I’ve had that happen a number of times over the years, and my first reaction is always “Ohmigosh, what am I going to say to all those friends who love it so much?” After a small delay, my second reaction is usually “What the heck do they see in this, anyway?” and my third is “I’m really tired of hearing about how great this is when I disagree.”

That’s the point at which I generally pull up my big girl pants and admit to everybody that no, I didn’t think the couple were absolutely adorable, I thought they were idiots and spent most of the book wanting to smack them upside the head, or that the style was so wooden that the characters never came alive for me, or that no, I didn’t think that plot was particularly clever and original, I thought it had long gray whiskers back when Homer was looking for subplots for the Odyssey.

Fortunately, most of my friends react to this with long, productive discussions about what each of us likes in a book and why, rather than with tar and feathers. One of the first things that becomes obvious when you do this is that every reader seems to have a particular itch or two. If a story doesn’t scratch that itch, it doesn’t matter what else it does right; the reader won’t like it.

For instance, a while back one of my friends highly recommended a story that she’s read many times; I thought it was fairly decent, but I’ll never go back to it. The difference is that for her, plot is paramount, and this story had it in spades; it was a convoluted spy thriller that never dropped a thread or faltered in pace or atmosphere. I could appreciate that, but I didn’t actually like any of the characters, which dropped it from good to decent for me. More characterization might have helped, but the author seemed to be relying on characterization tropes that anyone who regularly reads that sort of spy thriller would be able to fill in, and since I read them by fits and starts, I couldn’t.

The first and most obvious conclusion to reach from all this is that the writer can’t please everybody. Some things are incompatible: you can’t do a book that’s both sweet, light, and fluffy and bitter, dark, and edgy. You also can’t write a story that has both a simple, spare, transparent style and a convoluted, lush, dense style at the same time, nor can you write simultaneously in first person and third person.

You could, theoretically, write a book that is neither one thing nor the other; that has light bits and dark bits, that’s fluffy in some spots and edgy in others, that has passages that are simple and spare and passages that are convoluted and lush, that alternates between scenes in first person and scenes in third. What usually happens when somebody tries that, though, is that they don’t get a story that appeals to everybody; they get a mish-mosh that doesn’t appeal to anybody.

Trying to give equal time to every possible thing that some reader might like ends up not giving enough time to anything to scratch any reader’s particular itch. It also tends to pull the writer’s attention away from the story and on to matters of technique, which is fine if the writer is trying for a technical tour de force or if he/she is trying to learn as much as possible as fast as possible by juggling as many things as possible. Focusing on technique to the exclusion of story is, however, not usually the best way to end up with a story that other people actually want to read. This is why writing exercises are called “exercises” and not “recipes for stories you can send out and sell.”

On the other hand, a story that is particularly strong in one area – one that does a really, really good job at scratching one particular, and particularly common, itch – will often find a large audience even if it does a lousy job with a lot of other things. It’s not always obvious just what itch the story is scratching, especially if one happens to be one of the folks who doesn’t care about it. This is the kind of book where people start off “Well, the characters are kind of cardboard, and the basic premise is pretty stupid, but…” and then they tell you why they love it anyway.

Ideally, of course, one wants to write something that is strong in as many compatible areas as possible. One may not be able to write a story that’s simultaneously slow-paced and fast-paced, or that has both a straightforward, linear plot and a convoluted one, or that uses a simple style and a dense, lush one at the same time, but one can certainly write a fast-paced, convoluted plot using a simple style, or a straightforward plot using a dense, lush style.

This is obvious once somebody says it, but too often it gets taken for granted, especially when writers of a particular genre – say, action-adventure – have realized that a particular combination of elements – say, fast-pacing, simple style, linear plot – works particularly well for whatever they’re writing. If enough writers adopt it (and they will, if it’s effective), that combination of elements becomes a standard for the particular genre, so much so that writers and readers don’t even notice what’s going on any more, until somebody does something different. It’s good to at least think about, though, because mixing things up can be a lot of fun – and can attract new readers.

  1. Very true. Because there are so many different things that scratch people’s itches, the hard part is in knowing what advice to take.

  2. I have this problem with a certain series that’s making the rounds lately, that multiple sources have claimed puts sliced bread to shame. I tried the first one and… it’s not the worst book I’ve read, but that’s about the nicest thing I have to say about it. Cue sudden change of topic with friend who loves it; I don’t want to harsh her squee, but we’re probably both happier if we read different books.

    (Apropos of nothing, the tag cloud on the blog seems to be leaving things out again; looks like any tag with less than seven uses isn’t displayed? I noticed it when I went looking for some of your wisdom on “endings” and “humor”.)

  3. Have you written anything on pacing by chapter length? I really noticed this in Modesitt’s Imager Portfolio series. The first two books chug along, but the third has longer chapters to start with and seemed to slow it down. I think it still is a very good book.

  4. I usually don’t read a book once too many people have gushed at me about it, unless I’ve already read and enjoyed other things by the same author. The Harry Potter books, for example: I read the first one and enjoyed it, so I read the rest. If I hadn’t read the first one before everyone started screaming about the series, I would never have read any of them. Any book hyped that much is going to be a disappointment, because *nothing* can live up to that reputation. Then I can just say, “Oh, I haven’t gotten around to reading that one,” and change the subject, rather than risk harshing someone’s mellow.

  5. Yes, I’ve noticed this a lot, too. Take Homestuck ( for example; a very popular webcomic of which you may or may not have heard. Some people are hooked immediately, some take two or three or ten tries to get into it, some people hate it. It does seem to have to do with whether you like plot or characterization or dialogue or world-building etc. best.

    In fact, I’ve been meaning to ask you about this webcomic for a while now. It does a lot of weird stuff with plot and narration, and it apparently has a wordcount longer than the Odyssey. Can I get your opinion on it?

  6. It can go the other way around. When Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire” was made into a movie, some people gushed about it to me. I had read the novel about ten years prior and said so. It rather killed conversations.

  7. This happens to me often. As a child I read literally anything I could get my hands on, but as an adult I find I am extremely picky about what I read – I have really low tolerance for bad writing, writing centered on mushy romance, and ESPECIALLY for poorly done characters. People keep thinking I like all the popular fantasy books being published these days because I love some old-school fantasy books from when I was growing up (Enchanted Forest Chronicles, mostly anything by Diana Wynne Jones, Harry Potter, etc.). However, I really don’t like a lot of the newer fantasy/sci-fi being written – especially all the dystopian stuff. I feel like they’re all kind of the same and filled with WAY too much angst. But I never want to insult the people who keep giving me books to read.

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