Monday, March 5, 2012

Compelling writing

I'm trying to figure out what keeps me reading a book. I pick up any number of thrillers and mysteries and find myself putting them down, picking them up after a couple of days, reading only because I want to finish the book -- in short, plodding through. The concept is good, the writing is at least OK, the characters are all right, but somehow it's falling flat. For instance, I recently started Karen Dionne's Boiling Point, which is set in Chile and is about global warming, volcanoes, and so -- an environmental thriller. I enjoyed reading her Freezing Point a few years ago. Karen runs the Backspace conference and has a big following in the publishing world.

I'm not getting into it. There are too many characters, and the two women protagonists seem an awful lot alike (one is African American, the other is American Indian). There's a lot of busy-ness as Dionne clearly is setting up a lot of strands to weave together. I may stick with it and finish it, but probably not.

I suspect some readers have similar problems with my book. You hear things like it's too slow at the beginning. The slow development doesn't suit some people who are perhaps less fascinated than I am by simply being in Constantinople and in 1910. They don't have the patience to stick with the early part even if the overall concept appeals to them.

Good writing can pull a reader along in spite of all this. My classic example of this is Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song. There is no way I was interested in Gary Gilmore, his crime or his execution, and yet I consumed the thousand-page book because the writing itself was so compelling.

My other non-starters these days have been Ian McEwan's Solar -- the protagonist is revolting -- and Amos Oz's Don't Call It Night -- where the two main characters are so self-absorbed it seems to reflect the author's own narcissistic tendencies.

Clearly, as my former agent Stuart Krichevsky told me, it's important for the reader to care about the characters. His example was Dennis Lehane's Mystic River, where the characters were each flawed in their own way but you cared fiercely about them nonetheless.

Casting about for something I would actually enjoy reading, I seized on David Kazzie's The Jackpot after reading his account of how Kindle Select promotions provided what may turn out to be a breakthrough for his thriller set in Richmond, Va. Now this is a book that's hard to put down. Yes, part of it is the violence, the turns it takes and the suddenness of unexpected death. Part of it is the quirkiness of the characters; Kazzie takes the time to explore each character and endow them with surprising qualities. The concept -- what happens to the winner of a super-jackpot lottery -- is a great one, with lots of natural suspense. The writing, if not exactly scintillating, is much better than just competent.

But it's true that one of the main attributes is that from the first page you care about the characters. There is Julius, who is watching the lottery drawing with good-for-nothing cousin and realizes he actually has the winning number. There is Samantha Khouri, the ambitious associate who has just been passed over for partner at her law firm when Julius turns to her for legal advice about his ticket. You're on their side. But even the heavies, like Samantha's stressed-out boss at the firm, or the eccentric bounty hunter sent to find the ticket, draw more sympathy than antipathy from the reader.

Caring about the characters is not enough by itself. My disappointment with Mark Young's Revenge stemmed from his getting lost in plot convolutions. His protagonist, Travis Mays, was someone you could care about, though Jessie, his love interest, was never fleshed out enough to really care about. What's important for me, too, is the sense of place, and both Kazzie and Young excel at that. But I ended up plodding through Revenge (who knows, the same may yet happen with The Jackpot, but I doubt it).

Do people care about Lord Leighton? I hope so. They seem to care about Elena. I suppose it has to start with the author caring about these characters. I'm writing a new book in the first person for the first time -- does that automatically make the reader care for the protagonist?

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