Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Three Types of Writing (In My Book, At Least)

Or maybe more accurately, the Three Types of Reading. 

Over the past couple of years, as I have been examining the craft of writing a lot more intensely, I've also been taking a much closer look at HOW I read a book.  For myself, I've realized I'm able to classify the way I read books into three categories:

  1. I love the characters and just enjoy spending time with them.  These types of stories are almost review-proof in that I'm not remotely looking for, or expecting, a work of art.  A book I'm reading now (and enjoying) is "His Majesty's Dragon" by Naomi Novik.  It's a very clever story imagining that dragons are a common part of the world and have been integrated into the military.  This series takes place during the Napoleonic Wars, and the dragons basically act as the Air Force.  The main character is a former Navy captain who discovers a dragon's egg and when it hatches, they bond, forcing them to become a dragon/pilot pair.  The story is interesting and clever, but early on I realized that the plot was secondary to the joy I felt from spending time with Lawrence and the dragon, Temeraire.  They are both such interesting characters that I'd like to know personally.  There are lots of logic issues that make you scratch your head when you really think about them ("How could the world have dragons and yet end up in exactly the same situation, historically, in the early 1800's that it was in without dragons?  Surely there would have been massive historical changes prior to that, right?"), but again these don't matter because the characters are so compelling.  And this fact surprises me because I'm nornally such a stickler for logic within the books I read and films I watch.
  2. Sometimes it's just the World of the books that I love, and I don't care what characters are used to tell those stories.  Fantasy series are good for this, obviously.  I'll read any story set in George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" world.  The world and setting are what make the plot and characters compelling.  However, this can backfire horribly when an author sets too many stories within the same world and uses the same characters to tell those stories over and over.  I can handle one or maybe two major world-altering events that utilize the same characters.  But when we're on our third or fourth or tenth trilogy where the same characters are having to save the day, it makes all the stories, past and present, seem like they were wastes of time.  ("If that last thing didn't wipe out the Dark Lord, then what was the point of that entire five book series I read?").   A series that did great at telling a variety of stories within the same universe, but didn't overuse any characters was Julian May's "Pliocene Exile" series.  It told what turned out to be a brilliant looping story over the course of many many generations and across millions of years.  Once a main character had had his or her story told, they were moved off the stage for the next figure to grab the spotlight.  
  3. The third type of book I read is Author-based.  I read these books because I just like how the author writes, and don't care what the story is initially about or who the characters are or if it's in a world I know I'll likely enjoy.  There aren't many authors that I'll read whatever they come out with next.  Robert Charles Wilson is one.  He writes brilliant science fiction, with so far only one of his books being a sequel to a previous one.  I enjoy his writing style (even though it changes radically from book to book) and the ideas he comes up with.  A writer that I don't personally like, but one who seems to fit this same bill is Stephen King.  There are dozens of other major authors who fall into this category for people, but for me, there aren't many that I'll buy their next book sight unseen.  On the flipside, two of the authors I listed above, George R.R. Martin and Julian May have written many books outside of their 'universes'.  But I have zero desire to sample any of those.  I want these authors to just write within the worlds I've come to be fascinated with.  Likewise, I'm not overly interested to see what Naomi Novik does after her Temeraire books.  I wonder how the world will embrace J.K. Rowlings' non-Harry Potter books she writes in the future?  To me, it seems like the world fell in love with her characters and her world, and unless she writes more stories set in that world, I can't imagine her fans will be interested.  A book I'm reading right now, Carlos Ruiz Zafon's "The Shadow of the Wind" is perhaps the most beautifully written book I've come across in a long time.  It's a joy just to read, regardless of what's going on with the plot, or what character is currently on stage.  I can't wait to read what he comes up with next, regardless of what it's about.
 As a writer, is it possible to PREDICT how your book will be perceived?  How many authors set out to write something meaninful or filled with epic ideas, but come to discover that the reader could care less about those ideas and instead just love the characters, regardless of the story they are being surrounded by?  I know there are some writers that have gotten stranded within the series' they've created and have to stay there if they want to keep being able to write for a living.  No one cares about their other stuff. 

Obviously some authors get away with different combinations of these. 

What about you?  What if you ended up achieving incredible success with one of your first stories and it turned into a career of writing successful sequels?  Would you be happy continuing to write within that universe, using those same characters, for the next twenty or thirty years?  What if you wanted to tell other types of stories, in other genres with other characters, but your fans turned a blind eye to anything else you wrote?  Would you continue to write stuff no one wanted to read, or would you go back to the tired characters and world and tell yet another story set there? 

I don't know if I could do what some of these writers do.  I've got so many story ideas and so many characters that I think it would feel like the worst kind of prison to have to stay confined within such a narrow range of storytelling, regardless of how lucrative it might be.  As much as Rowling has benefitted from Harry Potter, I can only imagine that she's thankful to be rid of him for at least a little while. 

But... I guess I'll cross that bridge if I'm ever able to find it.

- Victor DiGiovanni

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