Monday, July 23, 2018

Show me the bones

Q: Overheard at a recent convention: “I don’t read the way I used to before I was a writer.” Is this something you can relate to? What does it mean for you? Pros and cons? 
- from Susan

A: Good question and my answer is sometimes, depends. If I’m reading narrowly within my genre – a traditional mystery – yes, I read differently most of the time. I can’t help it. I am alert to the red herrings and buried clues, to the too casual way something is dropped into the story and then ignored for the rest of the book until the ultimate scene and revelation. I am paying writerly attention to character arcs and secondary plot devices, and am conscious of the places where the author is pulling it off or where she’s too obvious. One thing that bothers me is where I see slackness, paragraphs that go nowhere, don’t add even peripheral value but may be there to stall while the writer digs around for what to do next, or are just adding padding to a light manuscript.

Once in a while now, a writer of traditionals will grab me with a great story – be it leisurely or fast-paced – and not let go. Excellent writing, sly humor, a character who is too wonderful to take my eyes off, a setting that is alive and breathing. These are the gems I hope for every time I buy a book and open it to page one. When that happens, I’m into the book and don’t have any desire to step out of it to look at the craft. The craft disappears into the product.

It’s easier for me to set aside my writing hat when I’m reading thrillers or psychological suspense or most police procedurals because the form is different enough that I can’t anticipate what might come next. I imagine, though, that if I wrote those, I’d soon have the same experience of looking at how the writer is doing it.

Pro or con? Both. I learn from the good and from the not so good books. As a writer, I’m always looking for ways to improve my own work, to make the next book better than the last. Because the outstanding novels I read shut my critical brain off, I can enjoy them wholeheartedly, so I don’t think I’m missing anything.

One reason I read other kinds of fiction and read a fair amount of non-fiction is precisely because I will take it as is. I may critique the ideas or the literary value or the prose itself, but at least I won’t be peeking under the hood to see how the engine works.

BSP: My latest traditional mystery just came out and is available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. I’ve been having a great time at bookstore events, sharing the stage with Cara Black, who writes about a part of France – Paris – as different from my rural village as it cane be. But still, Vive le France!


Unknown said...

That sums it up nicely, "the craft disappears into the product" - that's the acid test of good writing, I think. And easier said than done, too!

Lyda McPherson said...

Great question this morning. Susan, I agree with RM, nicely stated. A blurb on an author's website struck a chord with me. It said her "writing did not get in the way of the story." Love it.

Susan C Shea said...

RM and Lyda, Some writers seem to do that more easily than others, book after book. I'm avoiding specific examples but I will admit that a few bestselling authors don't live up to that standard for me. Conversely, some authors who are stuck in the mid-list do it brilliantly, so I guess it's a matter of what readers want in a story and how closely that look at the prose.