Good storytellers may not be good writers.
Good writers may not be good storytellers. They’re brilliantly boring stylists.
But when I find a book that tells me a good story, telling it well without calling attention to its style, I’m in heaven. And yes, I’ve found a few in recent months. More on them in a bit.
In the past year I’ve visited 62 independent bookstores and loved nearly every minute of it. It was a wonderful series of encounters with towns, shops and shopkeepers all over Ireland. Some were familiar, some were new to me. All were worthwhile. I bought – and have read – 74 books from these stores. And I’ve also finished off the 30-odd books that were sitting in my TBR pile before I started my pilgrimage. So…in the past year I’ve read over 100 books. Some at home. Some on the road. Some good. Some absolutely brilliant. Others? Maybe not to my taste. [Remember that line about not always being able to tell a book by its cover?]
Here’s what I’ve learned…
Some writers pay more attention to style and structure than to story. They’ve never told a story to a live audience, where it needs to grow organically from scene to scene with a character we give a damn about. Instead, each new chapter is a new character or topic. There are rarely common scenes or links to characters we’ve already become familiar with. [I’m not a big Dickens fan. But writing newspaper serials forced him to create these links from week to week, chapter to chapter.]
Please, if you want to give me a puzzle, put it in your plotline. Don’t give me a bunch of chapter-long puzzle pieces that may or may not come together in the end, where I need to play Agatha Christie. I’d rather go back a bunch of pages to find a plot point I missed than to deal with a jumble of them the final pages.
Writers, please get out into the real world of storytelling. Tell – and listen – to tales in a pub. If you’re sitting in a writers’ group, actually listen to other people rather than mentally rehearsing your own piece. See how plots develop and characters are introduced on stage and in film. Then – and only then – go back to your notebook or keyboard.
Oh, and one more thing: Are editors a thing of the past? Did they ever really exist to the extent we’re led to believe? I’ve seen far too many typos and grammatical errors in published books [and not just the self-published ones, either.] Who and what’s to blame – author egos? Laziness? Publisher budgets?
So much for my rant.
In my travels I relied on staff recommendations, cover design and prize-winning plaudits. But not all prize-winners – or prizes – are equal. You have your taste. I have my taste. Then there are those people with no taste at all. We all know some of them. I found some outstanding fiction I otherwise would have missed.
You have your taste. I have my taste. Then there are those people with no taste at all.
Here’s what I’ve been reading and writing about for the past year. If you’ve found that we share a common taste, please help yourself to some wonderful books.
My personal book of the year is Anna Burns’ Milkman. Even though it won a Booker Award, I’ll admit to being a bit worried about picking up a 300+ page monologue [see my rant on style, above]. A few pages in and I was in love. I heard a friend’s rhythm and pacing in the narrator’s voice, recognized the neighborhoods and characters. If you recognize Northern Ireland, great. And even if you don’t, you’ll recognize the people.
And the rest of the year’s reading – all bound for other places. Friends will get first dibs, followed by a nearby used book store, so I can use their credit slip to buy more books. And the rest? To a local charity shop, where people with tastes like mine can enjoy a bargain.