Friday, June 26, 2015

MASTERS OF FICTION: HOW DO THEY DO IT?



When was the last time you truly lost yourself in a book? I don’t mean you liked it okay or you thought it was well written or even you thought the lovers were meant for each other. I mean when was the last time you opened the cover (or turned on the Kindle), read the first line and stepped off a cliff—and just flew?

I just spent the better part of a week reading Stephen King’s sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep. I had a house full of family while I finished this story of now-grown-up Danny Torrance vanquishing demons both internal and external. People would speak to me and I wouldn’t hear them. Three-way conversations flowed around me while I followed only the words on the page. Cats chased each other around the room, the toddler tried in vain to catch up with them, the toddler’s mom struggled to rein in the toddler. I was oblivious. There was only The Book.

Until the book was done and, fortunately for my family, its grip on me was released.

Most of you know I am a huge fan of Stephen King and his skill as a writer. But he’s not the only one who can hold me in thrall like that. Early in my marriage I used to love a writer of complicated thrillers named Robert Ludlum. I had to give up reading his novels or lose my neglected husband. I literally disappeared to the real world when I was reading them.

What these writers have is rare. You can say it’s why they get paid the big bucks, but other writers also have millions of readers and ride in First Class, but can’t hold my attention for a paragraph. If the idea of fiction is to create a world, fill it with believable people and tell a story about that world and those people that will sweep the reader along, then a handful of writers, like Stephen King, must be called masters of fiction, while the rest of us are mere scribblers.

For me, and I suspect for many of my fellow writers, the experience of being swept away by a master writer is increasingly hard to find. Largely this is because time is a factor and reading strictly for pleasure is like candy on a diet. I read to keep up in my genre, to judge for contests, to edit my endless drafts, to track my writer friends across all genres and subgenres of romance and SFR. Sometimes in all of this reading I’ll come across a gem. Most of the time, the writing is merely competent. Occasionally (mostly in the judging cases, but not always) it’s actually dreadful. Never, not once, have I encountered an unknown master of fiction. 

You did note that I include myself in that list of “not a master of fiction”, right? (Depending on the day, I can consider myself to be anything from first-draft dreadful to mostly competent to occasionally gemlike.) But the question is, how does a master do what he or she does? How do they manage to grab you and not let go? And even more importantly, how can we, as individuals and as a genre, up our game to the next level?

Of course, if I really knew the answers to those questions, I’d be a master, and not an apprentice (well, okay, maybe a journeyman). But maybe a few things to consider:

--Master the basics. This is a given. Characterization, pacing, setting, dialogue, mechanics must be shiny. No one is better at giving you a two-or-three-sentence character description than Stephen King. And pacing? Are you kidding?

--Understand the deep stuff. Themes. Internal vs. external conflict. Symbolism. Yeah, even in so-called genre fiction, if you use those literary devices, they resonate.

--Length. I’m sorry, digital-first publishers. You just can’t explore some ideas fully at 40,000 words. Most ideas. The problem with writing at shorter length is that some writers just cram a novel into a novella length by sketching out the plot and characters and eliminating any subplots. The original idea of the novella was that it was a longer short story (instead of a shorter novel). The short story requires a lot of attention to choosing exactly what you include to illustrate a very particular theme or idea. So a novella provides a little leeway. By contrast, King routinely writes 600, 700, 1000 pages. He has lots of ideas and themes. His readers don’t complain.

What else? I’m sure there are a dozen other ways to lift ourselves up. Tell me what you think. And while you’re at it, tell me the last book that had you ignoring the spouse and the pets!

BLANCA UPDATE!

Thanks to all who wished Blanca well. Our trusty vet gave her meds for a suspected urinary tract infection and she is on the mend. She’s not very happy with her mom, though, since the new food is yucky and having a pill stuck down her throat once a day is no fun! **MEOW!**

I will be out of town on vacation next week, so no post. See you in two weeks!

Cheers, Donna



3 comments:

  1. The New Hunger by Isaac Marion. And just 165 pages.

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  2. How does a writer grab you? Great question. Me, I became totally and completely absorbed in LOTR when I first read it in my twenties. When I finished it, I read it again. And again. The story spoke to me. I cared about the characters. All the way through.

    Wish I could do that to somebody.

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  3. LOTR? Oh,me, too, Greta! I read it the first time @ 16 and I've been reading it every couple of years since then. Grabs me every time. And, Pippa, it doesn't ALWAYS have to be long--Hemingway and Poe wrote short, too!

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