Thursday, June 24, 2010

Are You Readable?

Lately I've been thinking a lot about what makes a book readable. And not just readable, but unputdownable. The kind of book you take with you everywhere because the thought of having a spare moment without it at-the-ready is horrifying. The kind of book you hunch over protectively, obsessively, like Gollum over the Ring, desperate to get as close to the words as possible so you can take them in even quicker and more effectively. The kind of book you are ready to re-read the moment your eyes (reluctantly) settle over the words The End on the final page.

The kind of book that might possess you to do a ludicrous thing like this:

This is my brother and I both trying to read The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan at the same time. Probably not an all-time favorite, but still a good book. And clearly, quite readable. (I can only imagine what kind of wrestling match would have ensued had we been reading The Hunger Games or Harry Potter at the same time.)

In less than a month, I am going to the Highlights Foundation's writers conference in Chautauqua, NY. In an effort to make sure I have a printed manuscript on hand while I am there, I have been frantically editing the holy heck out of Ephemeral, my YA fairy tale, trying to make it thoroughly presentable. Trying to make sure it is strong enough to stand up to professional scrutiny. And desperately hoping it is readable.

Which brought me to the point: what makes a thing readable?

Obviously there are certain elements--fluid prose, good character development, engaging plot, etc.--that are staples of the kinds of books that suck readers right in. But the question remains: what nudges acceptable or good writing over into the realm of the Unputdownable? Like so many things in the book world, I think it largely ends up being subjective. Having to do with taste. But I have another theory.

I think it also has something to do with how much fun the author is having.

For example, J.K. Rowling. You know she didn't start Harry Potter (on a train, on a napkin, as a single mom) because she thought it would be wildly successful. She started it because she couldn't help herself. And when you read her writing, you get the distinct impression that she's having just as much fun writing the story as you are reading it. Same with Stephenie Meyer. And Suzanne Collins. Now, granted Suzanne knew the market when she wrote The Hunger Games, so her genius can't necessarily be chalked up to innocent, self-indulgent fun, but it is clear she was enjoying herself enormously while she wrote it.

It's widely established that writers should write what they want, and not what is popular. Toni Morrison famously said, "If there is a book you want to read but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." And we've all heard, "Write what you know." But how about, "Write what brings you alive"?

If we love the books that were written purely out of love, then it follows that we should try and write books with the same motivation. Love. In my last post, I bemoaned a lack of passion born out of an attempt to cater to the needs and wants of publishing professionals. Thank the Muses, I'm back to having fun with my Word Documents. And it's because I'm writing selfishly, out of love for the story I want to read. Sometimes I think that's the best I can do.

Of course, my opinion is subjective. And I'm still a WIP, after all. (*Smile and wink*)

What about you? Do you love what you write? Does your writing bring you alive? What are some books you've found Unputdownable, and what do you think makes them so engaging?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Staying in Love (With Writing)

The world wide web is positively brimming with advice. And for writers, this advice sometimes seems to be leaking from every electronic orifice in existence. What's more, it usually is not faulty or bad advice; the tips one finds online are often fabulous, helpful, and insightful--born out of hard-earned experience and bloodshed.

It's tempting sometimes to read everything with the attitude of a dehydrated camel: drinking it all in with the determined intent to store up and use it later. I am continuously finding myself thinking things like, Of course! That's the problem! That's why I don't have an agent yet! and then immediately setting myself to the task of reorienting my writing habits to accommodate whatever new tidbit of advice or knowledge I have just found.

But here's what I've discovered lately: it gets overwhelming.

When I was in highschool, I played softball. (Yes, it's amazing, I know.) Before I began to play at such a competitive level, I had had very little technical training. My batting, for example, had never been critiqued; but even so, I was a fair enough hitter. In fact, I had a respectable store of home-runs on my record. But on my high-school team, there was a certain way of batting that every player had to learn--regardless of how well one could hit on one's own.

It transpired that I was absolute rubbish at the new technique. But I pressed on at my coach's insistence; learning her method, drilling the old way out of me until... I simply couldn't hit at all. Either way. An infield grounder on average was my best hit, and I bid farewell to anything better than shallow right-field on a good day. All the advice and training my coach was convinced would make me a better player actually killed both the promise of any improvement and the talent I had come in with.

Now, I'm not saying that we shouldn't try to learn writing techniques from those who have gone before, or those who have more experience. We should. Those methods are full of wisdom, and have been tested and deemed successful. But we also shouldn't focus so much on what we think we should be doing that we lose all the natural writing instinct we came into this job with. The instincts and talents born out of an unsullied love for reading, or a pure desire to tell stories. Because when we lose those, I believe we also lose our ability to write with passion and love.

Also when I was in high-school, I wrote my first book. And I won't say it was good (it wasn't), but I loved every minute of it. I wasn't concerned with making it publishable, or writing a story readers would adore, or appealing to agents and editors. I didn't even think of trying to publish it. All I thought was that I had a story I needed to tell, and that I had to get it down on paper or die from the effort of holding it in. I wrote in a spiral notebook which I carried everywhere, and I stole every possible moment to scribble down words in it.

It was intoxicating, that kind of storytelling.

Lately, I've lost that passion. With the desire to publish has come an obsessively ambitious drive that sometimes makes it difficult to write purely for the joy of writing. I want to criticize everything that drops onto the page, search it for all the elements I feel I should include in a publishable story. I shove out my natural impulses in favor of the advice I have read. And it is all good advice. But that advice should not come first. I believe, first and foremost, we should tell a story organically; the way it comes most natural to us. And then, we should try and test it against the methods and elements we believe it should include.

Because how else can we write with passion?

What about you? When you write, do you ever find yourself caught up in a list of To-Do's, trying to include a billion things you know should be present, rather than just letting yourself write? How do you handle it? And if not, how do you keep out the extra stuff and allow your instinctive writer to take over?