Reading as an Author

For the most part, being an author has only enhanced my ability to enjoy a good book. It also lets me know pretty quickly when I won’t enjoy a story either. I can usually tell how far I am into a book based on what’s happening, guessing what the hook, plot points, midpoint, and climax are as they happen. Sometimes I get so held up on understanding the narrative structure that when the book diverts from that path, it really bothers me. I get too focused on what the story is doing “wrong”, I no longer see what it’s doing right.

I used to review movies back in college. My internal critic got to be so powerful that I eventually had to willingly turn it off. I made the conscious choice before a film that I was just going to sit back and relax. I try and do the same with my reading as well, I mean if you’re into stage magic and you’re at another magician’s show, can you still enjoy it if you know all the tricks?

The answer, apparently, is yes!

I’ve been reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell and I’m just continuously blown away both as a fan and an author.

As a fan, I find the story fascinating. I’m intrigued with the plights of the primary protagonists and it’s scratching the itch Shogun left behind that so far no other book has been able to salve and believe me, I’ve tried a lot!

As an author, I think I appreciate it more!

The descriptions are sparse, but exact while the dialogue is rich and verbose. It’s like reading a play at times. So much worldbuilding comes out through the dialogue its insane. There could be five or six individual references in someone’s speech — so it reads accurate to the time period the novel takes place in (this is historical fiction after all) — but each of those references is easily its own area of research. I haven’t dug into the behind the scenes stuff yet because I don’t want to spoil the ending of the novel for myself by accident, but I’m interested in Mitchell’s research process. I’m surprised something was written at all and he’s not stuck down what has to be many, many rabbit holes.

This play-like style is further reinforced by the narration. The characters speak for themselves, but the exposition is very straightforward for the most part. My favorite, I think was when a nervous Jacob was going to talk to someone about the woman he’s infatuated with. It reads something like:

“Jacob lost his nerve. Jacob regained his nerve.”

Just like that. Back to back. It pulled a chuckle from me as I understand what Mitchell is conveying. In anyone else’s hands, that would have been some internal strife as Jacob came back around to the idea. But it works here in two sentences that definitely tell and don’t show.

Another interesting point is that while the novel is divided into parts, it doesn’t follow a typical seven point structure. That would normally bother me, but Mitchell’s words are enchanting. He presents this world so thoroughly that while my fan-brain is just wide-eyed in wonder at what’s going to happen, my author-brain is taking notes. Except instead of “oh I see how he did that,” it’s  more like “I can’t believe he got away with that!” And he does. Every time.

I’m only halfway through and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is wonderful. Even if it stays on the same emotional plateau and doesn’t escalate in any way, he’s got me to the end.

So I suppose my big takeaways are this: Sometimes you just need to shut it off and let yourself be entertained. Other times, the artist in you is looking for new experiences like a jazz musician soloing with notes that are more difficult than aurally pleasing. And if you find a work that combines the two, then well, you’ve got something special indeed!

Slave to the Narrative

Ever hear about plots being on rails? Or maybe characters being a “slave to the narrative”? Those are both descriptive ways of explaining that the plot is the driving force of the book, overshadowing everything else. Things happen because the plot demands it, not necessarily because it feels natural to do so.

I’ve always known of the concept, but it never hit me as hard as it did now. I’d gotten some good advice from an agent about my manuscript Altered Egos and wanted to implement it into the most recent draft. In the book, my protagonist is a supervillain who’s freed from prison to stop a serial killer. Now there are plenty of things vying for his attention and trying to keep him under someone’s thumb, but I realized that I too fell prey to making him a slave to the plot.

I thought I’d covered my bases pretty well by having him always be scheming for ways out, but then I went back and reread scenes of him running head first into danger. I had to stop and ask myself why. Well, I knew why, because I needed him to blow up that mech or to save that guy for whatever reason. But would my protagonist really do that?

The short answer was yes. He needed to accomplish these tasks to further his own plans. The longer answer was yes, but he’d have reservations. I needed to do a better job of explaining that in the prose. I was missing the entire emotional piece of how he felt about the matter. I just had him moving about like a chess piece. Yeah, he’s an intellectual guy and I had him examining many of these situations from an intellectual angle but I don’t care who you are, if bullets are flying over your head and things are exploding left and right, you’re going to be on the verge of peeing your pants. But none of that was in there.

It made those scenes feel hollow. Here I had a protagonist with a strong character voice, but we never really got into his head. It wasn’t some parlor trick I was going for, it was just weak writing.

I’ve never been one of those authors who say their characters are dictating the story as they go along. I need an outline and I need to move my pieces around from Point A to Point B, but there are times I can do a better job of explaining how my characters feel about those elements. More often than not, readers are enticed by the plot, but they stay for the characters. It’s the emotional connection a reader forms with a protagonist that has a lasting effect, but they can’t form that emotional connection if the character doesn’t actually emote.

Glad I got that advice and caught it when I did.

Just a reminder that my book Fairfax Cleaners is for sale on all major e-retailers. And you can of course get a print on demand version from Amazon.