I have read some very fine genre novels lately, all of them Book 1 in a longer trilogy or series. Take a look at the “books I have read” list on the left hand bottom sidebar. The authors include Joe Abercrombie, Patrick Rothfuss, Kate Elliott, David Coe, C.S.Friedman. Every single one I thought a great read – and I’ll be buying book 2 of each as soon as it comes out, if I haven’t already done so.
And reading those books got me to thinking about what makes a good read, and why some good books don’t sell and some not-so-good books sell like icecream to kids on a hot day at the zoo. And then I read this excellent interview with an American editor, Chuck Adams.
And I thought Patrick Rothfuss’s book “Name of the Wind” summed it up beautifully for me. I’ll get back to that in a minute.
First some things about my own writing:
—I like complex characters who change as the book progresses. People who learn things and – as talented as they may be – are never great at everything.
—I like “subverting” the tropes. Genre is full of “tropes” and sometimes you get reviewers making snide remarks about goatherders who turn out to be the lost prince or great warriors, etc etc – see yesterday’s post. I like to use established tropes to lull the reader into thinking something is going to happen, and then give the trope a twist. I love surprises.
—I like world-building and making my worlds different as well as complex and realistic within the rules of that world. You won’t find too many medieval castles in medieval towns with ordinary medieval things going on in my books.*
Those are probably the three aspects that govern my intentions at the beginning of each of my books. Conversely, I am often bored when reading books that adhere too strongly to tropes, or where the story revolves around a Mary Sue or Gary Stu*, or it’s all set in a world where there is no “wow, this is cool” factor in the world itself or, at the very least, in the magic of that world.
I might add, that – given my age – I have read an awful lot of fantasy, and ideas which appealed to me 20 years ago as new and fresh, would now bore me to tears as done to death. Readers relatively new to the genre might find lots to excite them in books that bore me.
So then I read “the Name of the Wind”. There were 722 pages of it. It had the worst Gary Stu I’ve ever come across – no, wait. Maybe that should read the best Gary Stu I’ve ever come across. By the end of the book he is just 15 years old and the list of his accomplishments reads like an unrealistic wish list that most of us had for ourselves as an internal fantasy at one stage or another.
It was full of the usual fantasy tropes; there weren’t any real surprising moments where I sat stunned and thought, “Hell, I didn’t see that coming!” There was nothing about the world or the plot twists or the magic that made me think, “Wow, that’s really neat!” or “I wish I’d thought of that!”
I loved this book.
I couldn’t put it down.
When I finished, I wanted to reach out and grab Book 2 immediately.
There may not have been a huge “wow” moment for me, the somewhat jaded fantasy reader – but there was never a dull moment either. I didn’t skip a single word. Nor did I even notice how the book had been put together or the mechanics of the writing. I just read.
So how did this writer do all the things that usually bore me to tears, and get away with it?
You see – Rothfuss is a fine writer who creates atmosphere and tension well, and even more importantly than that, or maybe because of that – he is a great storyteller. None of the other stuff – tropes and Gary Stu and such – none of it matters in the hands of a consummate storyteller, one who just entertains. I hope that as Rothfuss gains experience he will veer away from the Gary Stu and subvert the tropes too; then he won’t just be a brilliant storyteller, he’ll also be a brilliant writer.
Let’s go back to some of the things Chuck Adams had to say in that interview.
“The first thing is the voice. If it’s got a strong voice, I’m going to keep reading. And if a story sneaks in there, I’m going to keep reading. To me, those are the two most important things. I want a voice and I want to be hooked into a story. I believe very strongly that books are not about writers, and they’re definitely not about editors—they’re about readers. You’ve got to grab the reader right away with your voice and with the story you’re telling.” …
“I think beginning writers tend to not think about a reader. They tend to think about themselves. They think about making themselves sound smart and good, and they forget that this is really all about telling stories. I used to joke that I was going to put a big sign over my desk that said, “Quit writing and tell me a story.” The problem is that they just write. They fall in love with their own voice. They write and write and write, and they lose sight of the fact that they’re trying to entertain somebody. You have to reel them in.” …
“There’s a tendency of publishers to pooh-pooh books that are really commercial. You get this at writers’ conferences sometimes. “Oh, how can you edit Mary Higgins Clark?” People just shiver because they think she’s not a great writer. I’m sorry, she’s a great storyteller, and she satisfies millions of readers. I’m all for that. Again, Harlequin romances—give me more of them. (…) I think literary fiction is great, and the ideal book is one that is beautifully written and tells a great story, but if it’s just a great story that’s written well enough to be readable, that’s good too.”
So my advice to anyone who likes fantasy: Read “The Name of the Wind” for damn good storytelling.
And my advice for anyone trying to write publishable fantasy: read “The Name of the Wind” once just to enjoy, and then read it again to try to suss out how he does it. How does he turn age-old tropes, a Gary Stu, not terribly innovative magic and a fairly ordinary world, into something that you want to know about? How does he make you want to keep turning the pages? Because that’s what you need to learn.
[*Oddly enough, some reviewers are so caught up in the idea that fantasy books are set in medieval worlds that even when you write something that is palpably NOT medieval (The Isles of Glory – set in an early 18th century sub-tropical islands being discovered by mainland explorers) the reviewer will still refer to the medieval setting!]
[*A quick word about Mary and Gary – this is where your main protagonists is head and shoulders above everyone else in, well, in just about everything. They are beautiful, talented, wise beyond their years. They are save-the-world-before-breakfast people. All the other characters revolve around them and talk about them. They are shining heroes. Often this makes them sickening, but in the hands of a good writer they can be wonderfully heroic as well as interesting: e.g. Francis Lymond in Dunnett’s Lymond Saga. See the wikipedia entry for more.]