Reading Across Genres

by Intermittent Rain ~ January 20th, 2017

I like to read across genres.

Some years back I discovered Google’s list of best books of 2012 and I read them without paying attention to what the title might hint, reserving judgement as long as I could. The 2013 list wasn’t as good and that was the last I saw. Since then I haven’t found a reliable way of finding material across genres worth looking at.

Recently I realized that, just as I’ve used Pulitzer, Giller, and Booker prize long lists to give me literary novels to read (often by authors I’m unfamiliar with, which is the other bonus) I can use awards from other genres to help me find titles.

So I started with the Edgar nominees for mystery, then the Hugo awards, the Rita, and now the Thriller awards.

The Lady from Zagreb (A Bernie Gunther Novel) was better written and was more entertaining than I expected. At the start I was hesitant because I’ve read enough Nazi Germany fiction for my needs but this Marlow-like detective just happens to live during that period. The Goblin Emperor was also well written but I lost interest in the detailed description of ceremonies and procedures. When I read unfamiliar authors I usually research afterwards and one reviewer pointed to the focus on court intrigue rather than on events; that’s where I lost interest too. I stopped reading about a third of the way through.

I tried two Rita nominees, but the first was written at a 12 year old reading level and the other at a 15 year old level. The characters were real enough, but boring because the internal narrative focused exclusively on how hot their intended looked. Not exactly Jane Austen. I won’t mention the titles because they’re not well written and I’d rather forget about them, and hope others do the same.

There were also two YA novels that I read and I’ve forgotten where I found their titles, perhaps in the library suggestions themselves. The first was Uninvited,which fell miles short of Divergent or The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and I didn’t finish it, and the other was Revolution, which was an interesting creation of parallel life stories in modern times and during the French revolution. Because of the history lesson included within I can see why school libraries like it but I felt shorted in the modern character’s resolution and evolution.

Now I’m into Fever: A Novel which is pretty well written though heavy on interjected backstory snippets and it constantly jumps POV from the girl to her father to her brother. I’m to the point where the fever is just making its presence felt but it’s not been a smooth read to this point. The POV jumps and backstory interjections make me fell as if I’m winding up a string of Christmas lights when I’m used to rolling up a plain electrical cord or a garden hose. Snaggly. Hoping it will smooth out as we get further into the story.

So I haven’t found a good award to suggest romance or YA titles yet. I think there probably are some, as well as ones for other genres I haven’t tried yet (Western; meh, Memoir? Humour? Woman’s Lit? Horror?).  There are sub-genres too but I’m hoping the larger ones will include those, like the Hugo included “The Goblin Emperor” which is more fantasy than science fiction.

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I realize that if I’m abandoning so many novels unfinished, one might ask why I bother looking for award lists for recommendations?

It’s because in order to find something to read I need the title to be presented to me. It used to be that I’d find a book that I liked and then I’d read everything that author had written (like all 51 Hardy boy novels when I was in the sixth grade; it wasn’t until recently I learned that they were written by different people) but these days I want to go across genres and read different things all the time. I want some authority to give me the ‘best’ available to increase my chances of discovering something I like and I’m not interested in what the readers like or I’d try Goodreads or Amazon. I want some evaluation of the quality of the writing. Then, asked Phaedrus (or was it Lila?), what is quality? Apparently that’s up to me, the reader, with a little qualification from the internet.

Talking Heads

by Intermittent Rain ~ September 4th, 2016

hanging heads

I just critiqued a short piece where some friends are driving home from a party, gossiping about others they just left. There is some description of the drive, but the piece was almost entirely talking heads. Worse than that, since we get no description of the speakers, they’re disembodied talking heads, without the fake smile and coifs of a newscaster to look at.

Granted, the dialogue is what this story is about; showing how these friends cut others down. The problem for the reader is that we’re not there (or even watching the scene on television) and if the writer doesn’t give descriptions of setting, expressions, and vocal inflections, we have no means of getting there.

Talking heads are great for an intense discussion in a novel. The reader’s focus is driven exclusively toward the words exchanged, heightening their importance, but that’s in the context of a longer story where the personalities, relationships, physical descriptions and objectives are already set. Even then any emotions arising from the words exchanged should be supported with actions, expressions, and vocal inflections.

“Give the character’s some business” is one oft repeated piece of advice, and in the story I just read that’s what the writer’s interjections of traffic does. But traffic is what the characters might notice, not what the unfamiliar reader needs to see.

“Put yourself in the character’s situation and describe what you see” is another aphorism that might have been applied, but what the character sees and what the reader needs (wants) to see are different things here. The reader is there in the car, but is not familiar with the characters the way the characters are with each other. What would a new kid in town notice or an invisible passenger wonder, or what is a movie camera going to capture?

More importantly, if we were directing this scene, what have we told the cameraman to focus on? What expressions, what camera angles, what shots of passing scenery or around the inside of the car are important to getting this scene across? We (the writer/director) already know what’s going on and we need to select visuals (and for the writer, other senses as well) to communicate the point of the scene.

Again, traffic might be what you, travelling with old friends through familiar territory, are most aware of, but there are backstories and unspoken agreements and known shared and conflicting perspectives and familiar tones of voice and expressions that an outsider isn’t privy to, that reassure and explain more fully the meaning of the words. Giving the reader only dialogue and traffic descriptions limits the reader to poor vision, as if we are very nearsighted and can only make out shapes and gross movements. It also keeps us far in the distance and makes it difficult to believe or to connect to the characters and the story.

If you give the characters some business, don’t just stop at relevant. Don’t pass up on the opportunity to chose business that helps to define the personalities or the characters’ relationship to each other or to the friend left behind, or to provide a metaphor for the point of the scene or of the story overall.

Don’t throw in the first thing that comes to mind just because it fits .

 

 

Double Duty

by Intermittent Rain ~ July 9th, 2016

I’ve been working and thinking a lot about various things related to writing.

One is layering.

long exposure 38s f/11 - Bulb Mode

By layering I mean multiple levels of meaning or connection so that there is more than one thread connecting every phrase to the plot, the setting, the personalities, or the themes. In other words, why describe the light as “clear and bright” when you can say “cutting through the darkness like a knife” if the threat of a knife and cutting adds to the mood or the tension (and the cliche isn’t too painful), or “illuminated the dust hanging from long forgotten spider webs” if one of your themes is memory or time.

Or, as a writer you know you need to mix bits of setting or description of actions with your dialog, so rather than have the waiter ask about refills, have a baby in the next booth start to cry because one of your characters has a problem with her repressed childhood memories.

This is what I mean by double duty. It could be even triple duty; a beat to let the dialog settle in the reader’s mind, a description to add strength to the setting, while also a metaphor for one of the themes of your story. Or any other sort of multiple purpose use.

What these multiple layers do is weave a denser tapestry so the fabric of your story is supported in numerous ways. Not all of this hard work will be obvious to the reader but subconsciously they will get the feeling that yes, this characteristic of this person is clear to me because of this, this and this, but there will be these other subtle supporting connections that they cannot list unless they spend the time with your story like you did writing it.