Monday, 22 April 2013

Story Spectrum


We can all agree that there are two kinds of books: good books and bad books.

What we might not be able to agree is which ones are which. 

There are obviously a broad array of genres and sub-genres. And there are also people with varying tastes and preferences.

But surely we can agree on some basic requirements for a good book. A truth, so to speak, universally acknowledged.

Let’s start with the most basic of basics. The writer has to be able to write to a decent standard, right?

Weeeell, not exactly. 

There are plenty of bestselling books that are somewhat grammatically challenged. I don’t mean they aren’t full of beautiful, lyrical prose, I mean:

"The room was familiar; it had been belonged to me since I was born."

That’s an example from Twilight, but she’s by no means atypical. Dan Brown, Clive Cussler, Jeffrey Archer... these are all multi-million selling authors and they very often have passages in their books that seem to have been translated from some foreign language by Google.

And yet, people enjoy their books, pay money for the hardback version, eagerly await the next one.

But wait, there are some things that never work.

Don’t start with a character waking up (Hunger Games), don’t have it all be a dream (Alice in Wonderland), don’t make children’s books over a certain length (Harry Potter), a good romance has the protagonists end up together (Wuthering Heights). Frankly, you think of a reasonable piece of advice about writing and I’ll give you an example of a world famous book that did the opposite.

Times change, though. What was once popular isn’t going to get the same reaction today. People don’t want to see the same story over and over.

Really? Really? Have you seen the bestseller list lately? Watched a movie in the last thirty years? Stories aren’t just about new and original and broadening minds. It’s also about escapism and comfort and reassurance. Thrillers and romances, the two major genres, serve a purpose, and they can serve it and reserve it in a very familiar package with no loss of interest from the paying public.

Yes, but once a character has done what they have to do, that’s their turn over. Bring on the next guy.

Actually, I think probably the opposite is true. If a character does something well, people want to see them do it again and again. Even if some get bored, many don’t, and new people are being born all the time.

In fact, if the character deviates from their normal behaviour, it can lead to uproar. And if the author dies, the publishers just hire someone else to keep milking the cash cow.

The point of this post is to say this: there is a broad spectrum of types of stories, and there are fans of every part. If you are a writer and you’re not sure if people are going to want to read what you come up with, be assured that there are.

That’s not to say you’re guaranteed a spot on the New York Times bestseller’s list—I’m sure there have been many wonderful books that never got noticed and nobody’s ever heard of—but the thing stopping you isn’t a lack of a market for what you’re selling.

A passionately written tale will transcend many of the sins of poor writing or clichés or being unfashionable. I’m in no way suggesting you shouldn’t try to write well and in something approaching serviceable English, but first fall in love with your story and tell it in a way that conveys some of what you feel about the characters and events. 

Every book is a good book or a bad book to someone. 
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24 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Very true! There is always a book (or many) that break the current rules and do so successfully.

mooderino said...

@Alex - I talk so much about how to improve writing I don't want people to think that's all there is. It's just the easiest thing to talk about, but a good story is the main thing.

whatistheobject.com said...

Nice post. What compels the average reader and what turns him/her off has been my primary focus of study this year. I've taken on the venture of writing genre fiction (particularly thriller and romance). It's a personal challenge, to see if I can craft a story with blockbuster potential, while dipping into more popular markets and hopefully boosting my income in the short term. It's pretty fun. Romance, in particular, is a strange new land for me. Haha.

Karen Jones Gowen said...

"Every book is a good book or a bad book to someone." We who write books should always remember that! Not everyone will like our work. Some people will hate it. One of the first Goodreads reviews I got on Uncut Diamonds was 1 star with the comment "hated it." But it didn't stop me! So what if she hated it? Obviously she wasn't my audience and read one of the free copies my publisher had passed out to book club members. Meh.

Nancy Thompson said...

"...if the author dies, the publishers just hire someone else to keep milking the cash cow." I HATE THIS!! Michael Crichton is a prime example. "His" last book, Micro, was truly awful and not at all written like any of his others. Why? Because it was not truly written by MC, but by another hired by MC's publisher. I felt duped.

As for poor writing, I once was able to ignore it. (Yes, I did, at one time, enjoy Twilight) but now, no way. The writing better be tight, tense, and active for it to keep my attention. I figure, if I could learn how to write well, then the rest should, too.

WHAT A GREAT POST!!

Janeal Falor said...

This is so true! I'm always amazed when I love a book and other hate it or vice verse. And for me, sure good writing helps, but it's really about whether I can fall into the story and character.

mooderino said...

@what - sounds like the right way to approach it.

@Karen - the quality of writing comes down to which qualities are important to each reader. You can't cover all tastes.

@Nancy - tastes should change and develop, would be pretty boring otherwise.

mooderino said...

@Janeal - A combination of factors are what make a book work for most people, and the individual ingredients can change book by book. Judge each on its merits, I say.

Patricia Lynne said...

Wise post. People react to books differently - like snowflakes, every reaction is unique. Sometimes I think that can be temporarily forgotten when a bad review is received. Recently, I was reminded on how a book can invoke a spectrum of emotions from people when I read a book that I didn't care for that had lots of good reviews.

Al Diaz said...

I realized of this fact when the worst story I've read in my life got published in a e-magazine and actually got good comments. To me it was real garbage but there was someone who actually didn't mind to read women instead of woman and then instead of than and two words together.

mooderino said...

@Patricia - i have quite specific tastes but I've stopped expecting others to have the same (even though they obviously should).

@Al Diaz - people like what the like. Of course ten years later they see a photo and can't believe what they thought was cool.

Fairview said...

I am always impressed at the examples you come up with to illustrate your point. Love this one in particular.

Sarah Chafin said...

What an encouraging post. Thank you.Simply Sarah

Carrie-Anne said...

I've hated a lot of books that won awards and have won popular acclaim. There's one certain book in my historical genre which was published within the last decade and is extremely popular, but I HATED it and couldn't even finish it. Just thinking about the obnoxious, gimmicky narrator and his constant parade of spoilers makes me angry. I had to keep my mouth shut when everyone else was fawning over it in my YA Lit class.

I tend to write very long books, as is traditional in historical, and I could care less what the modern-day "word count" police think of it. More than a few books by debut published writers in recent years have been over the so-called approved maximum of 100,000 or 120,000 words.

I'm originally from Pittsburgh, and I know some of the Pittsburghese expressions I use would come across as bad grammar to people not familiar with that area. I say or write things like "the plants need watered" and "the place they were at." I never even realized that was considered improper grammar till other people pointed it out to me.

Rachna Chhabria said...

"But first fall in love with your story and tell it in a way that conveys some of what you feel about the characters and events." Super advice Mooderino. Completely in tune with your thoughts. Fall in love with your story and it shows.

mooderino said...

@Fairview - Thanks.

@sarah - you're very welcome.

@Carrie-Anne - some people can be quite obsessed about those sorts of things, but in the end a writer's voice isn't meant to be the same as everyone else's.

@Rachna - I know it's probably not the most earth-insight, but one worth mentioning, I think.

Lynda R Young said...

Everyone's taste differ, but a good story will always shine through.

Empty Nest Insider said...

As with anything else, there are plenty of people who break the rules, and end up being successful. It's also about timing, and word of mouth.

Julie

Elise Fallson said...

"...they very often have passages in their books that seem to have been translated from some foreign language by Google." LOL

Yes, there is a book out there for everyone. I have three categories I place books into: Good, Bad, and Meh.

mooderino said...

@Lynda - I hope so.

@Empty - And for everyone that makes it that way, hundreds don't. We just don't get to hear about them.

@Elise - Most books go from meh to bad, in my experience.

Lexa Cain said...

I LOVE this post! You just succinctly put what I've begun to believe over the past year. Querying put me in a serious funk, but I inexplicably came out the other side, better off. The truth is there are no rules, and very little makes sense, so just do the best you can.

Stephsco said...

I tend to think if a book is weak in one area, its strengths are in another. With Twilight, mediocre writing, but at least with the first book, she nailed that average teen girl longing to be recognized thing. The ultimate fantasy of having the hottest most mysterious boy in school have eyes (and fangs) only for you. That's what sucked me in six years ago. I'm sure if I read it again now, I'd cringe, but the story is what I remember.

mooderino said...

@Lexa - there are probably things you can do to improve your work, but they're specific to you and your writing. Universal rules just don't exist.

@Steph - I think any story that makes you feel an emotion is of value, at least to the person affected.

Kathryn Hector said...

Loving your story - the root of all good.
K

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