Author-Reader Trust: The Key To A Great Book

This weekend, I went to the library’s annual book sale. Most of the books I bought, I’d never heard of – but the synopsis looked interesting, or they dealt with topics/genres that I’m currently involved in. The only book I was curious about previously was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend + Short Stories. I like that many of Matheson’s stories are about being alone, which is relevant to my NaNo novel, and he’s just a classic pillar of sci-fi.

Anyway, the book I actually started reading was Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox. Knox is revered as an elegant author and the series has supposedly decent world-building.

I’m 40 pages in and I’m constantly editing her prose in my head. On the very opening page (of a prologue -_-), I’m like “I DON’T CARE ABOUT THE TREES. This description is awful! You’re just throwing pretty words into a run-on sentence with places and other Proper Nouns that you haven’t defined!” About three paragraphs in, she brings in a sentence with a setting’s name, a main character, what they’re doing, and some intriguing aspect of their situation, and I’m like there. Why isn’t that your opening line? Everything that came before this doesn’t matter, and THIS is your good sentence.

I have this problem with a lot of books. In fact, it leads me to abandon many these days, and almost table-flip reading entirely. While I recognize that Knox writes like a professional, I find myself overly critical of her. Why? I’ve never even heard of her. All I know is her writing in this one book. And I’m not enjoying it.

It’s not just because I write fast-paced commercial fiction. I’ve also read slow, cerebral novels I’ve enjoyed enough (like Never Let Me Go) because what they lack in action they make up for in intrigue. And there have been some recent reads that my mental editor did not mind. As much as I disliked Hazel and Gus in The Fault In Our Stars, I never mentally edited Green’s prose.  I also enjoy House of Leaves – and so far, I can’t think of anything that I would change about it. Just when you think Mark is going on some tangent about nothing for three pages, his concluding paragraph relates it all together and you’re just like “AHHHH.”

What does this come down to, really? Why can I be patient when Dashner takes his time setting up questions in The Maze Runner, but I’m desperately waiting for Knox to spell out her world in Dreamhunter? Why do I give Mark Danielewski the benefit of the doubt during his tangents, but in other books, I would skim such rants? Why can I look past the poor prose of some novels if I enjoy the characters and story? It’s because for some unexplainable, astral reason, the ‘good’ authors are the ones who gained my trust. They successfully created enough of the fictional dream – the verisimilitude – for me not to care about what rules they break.

I’ve also been reading Gone Girl. The first chapter is awful. It’s boring. It’s clunky. The prose tries way too hard, making you far too aware of the author. The narrator, Nick, is just whiny cardboard.

Then, the second chapter switches tenses, time, and narrators, and suddenly the book is interesting. I’m left wondering why this isn’t the opening chapter, because Amy’s voice is actually interesting. It’s natural. There is motion. I’m less doubtful of Gillian Flynn now. I trust her a bit more, because chapter two proved that she can write. And that’s why I keep reading.

I can’t pinpoint what makes me trust an author. In the end, I can’t say I really enjoyed Never Let Me Go or The Fault in Our Stars, but I did finish them. I finished them because the authors kept me gripped enough by….something. Some sense of trust and investment in them. So, one of my continued exercises is to figure out how readers can trust me. My main tool is a strong opening and an attempt at strong voice. I also try to be really direct. I want to give the sense that the world is deeper and broader than what is on the page, but I don’t want the reader to ask questions every second line.

In the end, you can’t please everyone. My father and my friend Greg both read Paradisa. Dad complained about the book in a very specific way – a way that made me realize he did not trust me. He questioned everything from line one, while Greg kicked his feet up and just ‘went’ with it. In the end, Greg understood the novel nearly as well as I do, and Dad was left lost and bitter about ‘the worst thing he’d ever read.’ How can one truly be ‘right’ if the other one exists?

I think we all have different expectations out of an author we trust, which is one of the primary influences on our ‘taste.’ It’s the reason we gawk at how some books were ever critically acclaimed. It’s the reason we sometimes enjoy stories that most of the population scorns. For whatever reason, those authors gained our trust, and I believe that’s the foundation for a subjectively great book.

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5 thoughts on “Author-Reader Trust: The Key To A Great Book

  1. It’s difficult to turn off our internal editors. I find mine likes to jump in even with the better known authors. I’ll muse about JK Rowling’s over-description in The Cuckoo’s Calling (though I love the series) or Stephen King’s head-hopping in The Shining and some other books when I don’t think he’s really going for an omniscient narrator. But I notice the wonderful stuff, too. “I love this way he did this” or “what a clever clue to plant,” etc. The constant editing can be frustrating, but luckily, if I get caught up enough in the action, I can turn it off. Eventually…

    • Yeah, I find flaws in everything. The difference between books I quit and books I finish is whether or not I can forgive those flaws. It’s sort of like being in a relationship! We’re a lot more willing to forgive the errors of people we love, even huge errors, because we can see the bigger picture of who they are. Whereas, we might be more quick to judge and dismiss a stranger when they bother us. I’ve noticed head hopping in otherwise good books, and I’ll usually just say “Meh. That’s weird,” and read on. If I notice it in an otherwise bad book, it’s only more damning for the poor novel.

  2. Oh man, I was so that way with Time Traveler’s Wife. I loathe the way Jodi Piccoult writes, and sometimes I’m happier with a more straightforward book that is consumed with so much dense prose. I don’t know. It’s about taste but as a writer I’m sure you can escape that internal editor.
    I find myself doing that alot to these indie free books I get from Book Bub. I actually found some words formatted in red in one, like they’d been edited but never formatted correctly. Weird.

    • The Time Traveler’s Wife has a terrible first chapter. Really unbelievable dialouge, characters thrown together and sleeping together on page five (!). I remember thinking “whoa, this is going really fast…” and eventually she won me over somehow and I enjoyed the book. In later years, I’ve grown out of the characters, but I still enjoy some of the metaphors and prose in it. I think Audrey is a good writer, but such an insufferably pretentious person that she makes equally insufferable characters. Anyway, I could totally see how the first impression of that book could fail to amuse, and therefore fail to ever capture a reader. And I could also understand people who liked it at first but were ultimately dissapointed.

      I think with an indie book, I’d almost go in with lower expectations (I know, that’s sad, but when there’s no gatekeepers you can stumble across anything). If a book was well formatted and the author had a decent grasp of the craft, to the point where I’d almost believe it was traditionally published, I could probably enjoy it. With traditionally published books, I expect them to be the best of the best of the best. And when they aren’t, I just get pissed, lol.

      To the credit of indie books, they do tend to be more straightforward. So many agents get caught up in “beautiful voiced fluff” that no actual person cares to read and they end up publishing crap.

  3. Pingback: NaNo 2014 Day 1 | Side Quest Publications

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