I’ve been thinking about reading fiction a lot lately. Particularly about how we read fiction today. Not so much as how it relates to the fiction I write, though of course I think about that, too. We have more reading opportunities today than ever before. How has that fact affected your reading habits? Are you a thinking reader?
A Thinking Reader
There is a book called, How to Read a Book: The Ultimate Guide by Mortimer Adler. Originally published in 1940, it identifies and explains ways people read. It also instructs how one should read the different genres from nonfiction to imaginative fiction.
I’m not asking are you a thinking reader and expecting a reply any of the academic ways to describe reading. More accurately, I’m asking what do you think about when you are reading a story. Are you thinking or are you more viscerally or emotionally bound to the story?
How I Read
When a story is engaging and well written with a compelling plot, I immerse myself in the story and read fast and straight through. I’m “feeling” the story without pausing to think. After I finish reading, I think about the story and the writing. If there are lessons I can learn from the writing, I go back and analyze the story and the writing.
However, when a story has flaws I tend to read more slowly, more thoughtfully. Sometimes I quit reading because the flaws overwhelm the story. I can’t find enough enjoyment to continue.
I read a book recently that I expected to be much better than it was. Written by a well-known, independent author it appears to be quite popular. So I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit. Why didn’t it work for me when it clearly works for other readers? Why does it work for them, when it didn’t work for me?
I won’t name the book or author I read recently because I found it flawed in a way that frustrates me. This book is what I consider a successful book. It has more than 1000 reviews on Amazon with an average of 4 stars and ranks in the top 10 in two of its categories.
Now, as with every book, not all the reviews are positive. And some of the reviews agree with my assessment. But the majority of reviewers thoroughly enjoyed the book.
The story premise in this book is interesting. It’s not brilliantly original but it is an original twist. That’s one of the reasons I picked the book up.
The story premise is the simplest expression of the foundational ideas of the story. The one sentence that I discuss in The Best Writer’s Tool.
There were two primary characters in this book. They were likable but shallow. The author took obvious pains to give these characters backgrounds that were interesting and could have had depth but didn’t.
The secondary characters were all plot devices. No single secondary character stood out as a person with needs and desires of their own.
The viewpoint used in this story was shallow at best and at worst so scattered, that I doubt the author understands viewpoint. For me, as both reader and writer, this is a major flaw.
Some reviewers of this book took exception to the plot as being unrealistic. The plot is not well executed. It’s built for drama, not to further challenge the character’s goals or needs. Therefore each event feels equal. That does not make for a satisfying read.
Plot is the sequence of actions characters take in order to achieve their goals. I don’t demand a book’s plot be realistic. But I need the right set-up or build up. The author must either set it up (as in the character acquires or has superhero abilities) or build the character up to the point where it’s believable within the story.
The plot events must build to a climax, challenging the heroes or heroines more and more. The challenge is what makes it exciting, not the explosions or the drama.
Tone and Style
The tone of a book is a gestalt of the author’s choices. From words to viewpoint characters to secondary characters to events, each of them can be used to create a tone. For the tone of the book to be successful, all the parts must be moving in the same direction. Otherwise a reader will feel that something is off.
The style of the book has to do with word choices, paragraphing, and voice. Style is the difference between Ernest Hemmingway and Toni Morrison. If you want to read more about writing styles read Famous Authors and Their Writing Style.
The Author’s Journey
When I read an author for the first time, especially when the book is flawed, I try to take the author’s journey into account. Meaning, is this the author’s first book? Does the author read in the genre?
This book I’m discussing, is the first fiction book I’ve read by this author. It is not the first book this author created. The author is knowledgeable of the genre. But the book in question was published six years ago. Hopefully that means the author has developed technique and style over the years. So, I will give this author another chance and read a more recent book.
When You Read
When you read, do you think about the story premise? Do you have a type of character(s) you prefer to read about? What about plot, or tone and style, or something else?
What is the one thing the story must have for you to enjoy the story? Must it have more than one?
What one thing will ruin a story for you?
Are You A Thinking Reader?
When I ask are you a thinking reader I do not mean to imply you must think deeply about every book you read. And I’m not really asking if you are a discerning reader. Of course you choose the genres, books, and authors you enjoy. But what is it you must have in a book in order to enjoy it? What do you think about when the book goes off course? Do you finish the book? Or do you throw the book in the trash? Do you write a negative review? Perhaps you never pick up another book by that author. Tell me what you’re thinking readers.