- by Patricia McLinn
This is a tale of two books.
These two were not the best and worst of books, but rather two books that each received outstanding reviews. Each was billed as suspense, and shelved with mysteries. Each was written by a well-known author. I can be a cranky reader, but both authors displayed writing skill that kept my crankiness at bay. I’d read previous books by each author and enjoyed them enough to read more. These two books I happened to read back to back.
Book A I read over a period of five days, interspersed with other reading.
Book B I read in less than 24 hours, not reading anything else during that spell and staying up late to keep reading – a true page-turner.
Which book would you rather have written?
The publishing industry says Book B, hands down. It had action from the start, short chapters, fast pace, significantly shorter word-count, intercut POVs, action, action and more action.
Book A had longer chapters, paragraphs and sentences than book B. It also employed multiple POVs and intercut scenes (mostly toward the end.) It had a spattering of action.
After finishing Book B, I read the author’s acknowledgments and learned that the editor of the book was a familiar, well-regarded professional who had participated on a conference panel that is vivid in my memory. The panel listened to the first page of works by anonymous volunteers and commented on how they would respond if these efforts came across their desk as submissions.
Time after time, this editor and every other editor on the panel criticized an opening for not jumping immediately into action. “Don’t waste my time with all this stuff about who the people are, just get to the action,” another well-regarded editor on that panel said, and all the others nodded in agreement.
List the what-happens-next events of Book A and Book B side by side, and Book B is going to look far more exciting.
Which book would this editor rather have edited?
It’s not a stretch to guess Book B, hands down.
So what’s the catch? (And you know there’s a catch, or why would I bother to write this.)
Actually, there are a number of catches, with ongoing consequences for my reading relationship with these authors’ works.
The first catch is that in turning the pages of Book B, I skimmed. A lot. What author wants readers to turn his/her novel into a Cliff Notes version of itself?
Flipping back through Book B, I realized that much of what I’d skimmed had to do with character development. Ah-hah! I can hear the editors on that panel saying, So more of that “who” should have been cut, since the reader skips it anyway.
But I didn’t skip it in Book A, and that book had gobs of who. I read it all. And enjoyed it. I read that book more slowly because I read it, rather than skimmed it.
Book A was a good meal in a relaxed restaurant. Book B was fast food.
By its lopsided emphasis on what happens next, Book B signaled to me as a reader to not care much about whom “next” was happening to.
That is unfortunate for the author, since this book centers on continuing characters. Yet, after book B, I feel no more attachment to or affinity for(with?) those ongoing characters than I did before I read it. In fact, less. This action-packed trip didn’t bring us together; because it kept my focus on what next, while the characters were shunted to the background, putting great distance between them and me.
Okay, you’re thinking, but one reader is only one reader, and the publishing industry is . . . well, the publishing industry. Those editors on the panel are the people who decide whether or not to buy a proposal, and they’re buying what happens, not who.
I can’t argue with those views on what’s being bought by publishers, though I can regret it.
Because I’m not alone as a reader. I know this from conversations with many readers. But if you’re skeptical, I understand that. Check your reactions to what you read. Ask other readers. Read readers’ posts about their favorite books on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter. And consider this: How many times have you heard readers proclaim their love for a book by saying “Event A, B and C were thrilling” vs. saying “I just love Peter, Mary and her little dog Wolf!”?
I encountered this again when I returned both these books to the library. The twenty-something woman behind the desk and I have talked books before. She had read both A and B. I asked her what she thought of them.
She gave a recap of Book A, mentioned a plot element that had scratched at her, but mostly focused on two primary characters and a sidekick, recalling details of their characterizations and saying she’d like to read more about them.
“What about Book B?” I asked. She paused, then frowned. “I don’t really remember it.” She handed me my books and added, “Isn’t that odd?”
My trip to the library leads to a final catch: The next day, I ordered a copy of Book A for my own shelves. I wanted to re-read it and to own it. Book B had already faded in my mind, as it had for the librarian.
Given a choice in the future of which author to read, which one do you think we’ll choose? And which one will we buy?