Monday, January 26, 2009

Round-table Discussion: What Do You Look For in Fiction?

“Tollers,” Lewis said, “there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to try and write some ourselves.”

The Lewis in the above quotation was C.S. Lewis, and Tollers was his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien. Or did you know that?

Once a month or so, we at Novel Matters plan to host a round-table discussion, in which one of us will throw out a topic, and three of us (give or take) will pitch in. And then it's your turn.

This is the first such discussion, and the question I'd like to ask you and the ladies of Novel Matters is, what do you really like in stories, that you would like to see more of?

If you've read previous posts and comments, you may have guessed that I enjoy a sense of play, a kind of high-wire act in the theme of a novel, in the tone, or the way it is written. I like the writer to take risks. Tolkien, after all, was walking the wire when he wrote The Lord of the Rings. There was no fantasy genre, no deeply layered fairy stories for grownups, before he invented them. A more recent example would be Walter Wangerin Jr.'s The Book of the Dun Cow, a richly woven epic full of crashing battles and deep insight into the nature of good and evil. Not such an unusual theme, except in this case, the main characters are farm animals. It all works beautifully, and it proves my point that spectacular achievement often comes of childlike courage.

Katy's reference to Tolkien reminded me of what I really like in a good novel. I like something that is clearly understandable close to --if not right at-- the beginning of a novel. It can be a character, a setting, or a situation. A good writer will layer meaning, description, innuendo, details onto what's firmly in the reader's mind. In a mystery, it will be clues and cliffhangers. In a character or dialogue-driven novel, it is rich details revealing personality. (Okay, time to confess that I adore Faulkner for that very reason.) The author can then delight me with legitimate surprises, arrest me with insightful descriptions, and keep me coming back to see what new layer he or she will reveal.

I love slice-of-life stories with fully developed characters, refined and elevated craft, and stories downright delicious for their use of language. My first exposure to this genre, sometimes known as women's literary fiction, was a chance encounter with Elizabeth Berg's Durable Goods. Nothing blows up in Berg's books. She reveals only a keyhole look at life through beautifully crafted characters. No epics here. What wins the reader are authentic characters and seamless, never self-indulgent, narrative. Clean. Sharp. And then, never missing a beat, she sticks a description that leaves me breathless. And I do love historical novels like These is My Words by Nancy Turner and The Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas. Oh, oh...mustn't forget Gap Creek.

Most important to me are the characters. I want to be able to identify with them deeply. The plot is secondary, for if the characters are real, I'll follow them anywhere. No matter who they are. I can as easily identify with young Scout Finch as I can Jack London's Wolf Larsen. I want to know the cadence of their voice, want to hear what their words alone don't convey. I want to be so caught up in their world I wouldn't dare skip a word of their story. My co-authors at Novel Matters create these kinds of characters. Step in and get acquainted. . . and find yourself immersed.

When I was a kid my sister (three years my elder and an avid reader) asked me what kind of books I liked best. I replied, "I like the ones about people's lives." And I still like these best. I don't wish for faery wings with which to fly, I don't obsess about 'who dunnit'. I may pat the occasional hobbit on the head, run along side the rare outlaw on the lamb, even don a cloak and grab a dagger, but what I love is fiction that helps me understand human nature - the human experience. Two recent books I love? Joy Jordan Lake's Blue Hole Back Home, and Susan Meissner's The Shape of Mercy.

I look for everyday sorts of characters with whom I can identify, but who become 'heroic' in some sense. They usually rise above obstacles without fanfare, and at the same time, a resilience or greatness is revealed in them. For example, a father and daughter in Anita Shreve's Light on Snow are struggling to overcome grief when they find an abandoned infant. Their struggle may not be perceived as 'heroic' to others, but their choices have the potential to heal or to destroy what is left of their family. I also enjoyed Elizabeth Berg's book What We Keep, which is also about family dynamics.


Nichole Osborn said...

I like novels with believable and relatable characters. Growing up I related to Scarlet O'Hara, she usually got what she wanted, and so did I.(In about the same manner, pouting) As I read Roxanne Henke's Coming Home to Brewster series. I related to Olivia the most. I think because we shared a few life experiences. I love the quote. My oldest son is studying C.S Lewis for a project he is doing for school.

Kathleen Popa said...

Nichole, good for your son, for studying Lewis. I had to discover him on my own - not a word about him in college. Is he aware of this website?

There's a lot of great material listed in the side column. Earl Palmer is a great authority on Lewis, and he has some audio lectures listed there.

Also, your son might check out the "Live at The CS Lewis Centre" section of my favorite podcast, The Kindlings Muse. I recently enjoyed the cast about a book called "Planet Narnia" by Michael Ward. And anytime you can listen to Earl Palmer about anything at all, he's just a delight.

Bonnie Grove said...

Nichole: Relatablitily is so important. It's one of the factors that makes fiction so personal and so popular at the same time. We see ourselves (or parts of ourselves) in the characters. Hmm..even as I type that, I'm aware of how I'm not capturing the fullness of what I mean to say. But I agree with you!

Nichole Osborn said...

Thanks for the links. I'm sure he will enjoy them. Right now he and I are reading The Screwtape Letters. He wants me to write the angelic side of the story.(not sure I'm up to that but I told him I would try)

Country Mom said...

I love books with high stakes, a believable world, and well-rounded characters, to put it into a nutshell. :0) Probably this is why I enjoy reading and writing fantasy so much.
I love the quote! Lewis and Tolkien are two of my all-time favorite authors.

Kathleen Popa said...

Scribblegurl, I love Lewis and Tolkien, too. Ever wonder what our fiction (and non-fiction) would be like if they'd never written? God bless the Inklings!

Rachel said...

I believe relatability is important to a good book, but what I enjoy is a great "take away". When I finish the last page of a book do I say "Wow, I am a better person for reading this." or "Man, why did I let the laudry go unfolded and the dishes be neglected for this." If there is a redeeming value that runs like a scarlet thread throughout the novel, then I am all about it. I have a two-year-old and a one-year-old - so my free time is limited. I select books that will encourage and strengthen me, while throwing in a little fun in the process.

Kathleen Popa said...

Rachel, I think you would love Sharon K. Souza's Lying on Sunday. Not only does it have beautiful things to say about the ways we handle sorrow and rejection, but there's this character in the book, Professor Ian Beckwith, who has a lot to say about the scarlet thread running through the story.

Unknown said...

I understand what Sharon is saying about wanting a deep understanding of a character. But maybe I'm impatient. (Or maybe it's the crashing understanding yesterday that overcame me, when I realized I probably will not live long enough to read The Harvard Classics and all the novels I want to read on my shelves right now. And write my own books.)

By impatience, I mean that if an author has not given me a reason to care about the character within the first couple of chapters -- made him/her unique, put them in mortal danger, given them an "issue" I'm interested in -- I probably won't keep reading for all that great character development.

And of course, I once heard a prestigious editor say publicly that if a manuscript did not "grab" her in the first page, she went on to another.

Maybe I'm not the only impatient reader?

MD Laidlaw said...

I love "fish out of water" tales. The kind where your main or secondary characters are completely out of their element and everyone around them has the upper hand in the situation. The story line can then progress as that character reaches a deeper level and arc. The story itself can be predictable, but that's half the reason why I love them! = )

I also prefer good introductory physical descriptions of characters. It doesn't have to be wordy or 2 pages long, but it drives me crazy to walk through a book thinking that a peripheral character is 5'4" with blonde hair and lo' and behold, she's actually 6'1" and a redhead. It's hard to shift so dramatically in my imagination when I've come to know her as something different. Many authors do an excellent job of describing the main characters, but can often fall behind on secondary.

Bonnie Grove said...

MD: Predictable? Predictable??
Of course! :) There is a need - it really feels like a need, doesn't it? for the fiction in our hands to be reliable in some way.

Familiar - we don't know the story, but we know it's going to take us somewhere we are willing to go, have gone with other books. Maybe the path is different, but the happy ending is assured! (or whatever it is we expect from the book - the villian is caught, the boy gets the girl, the greater good is realized, etc).

There is a comfort factor, even within the pages of books that stretch us, make us think, where we can relax and have faith in the journey to the last page. Where we can agree with what's being said.

What do we do with books that say things we don't agree with? We tend to throw them with great force (as Dorothy Parker liked to do) like a baby in her bathwater.

Or, perhaps, if you're like me, you read them anyway and have outragously one sided arguments with the book - an exercise of mine that has, happily, never been caught on tape.

Nichole Osborn said...

It's good to know that I'm not the only person that argues with a book! My family thinks I'm crazy. I'm surprised they haven't taped me, for future use. LOL!

Anonymous said...

Latayne, I agree. If you don't capture me in the first page or two, then I won't continue to read. But once I'm there, I want to become intimately acquainted with the character. I've read too many books to count, but the ones that stay with me are the ones whose characters came to life.

Speaking of capturing a reader, the opening paragraphs of your Latter-Day Cipher are gripping! I can't wait for everyone to be able to read it.

MD: With my last two books I put together a collage of my characters, searching "headshots" until I found ones that represented my characters as I saw them. Then I posted them where I would see their faces as I wrote. But I try only to weave in a few of the features as seems fitting to a scene, rather than give a point0by-point description of the characters as they're introduced. As has been so wisely said by some great sage, when I write I try to avoid the parts people skip over.

As a reader, I like to see the characters in a book with the eye of my own imagination. But I agree, it can be jarring when my vision of a character crashes into the reality of the author's description when it comes out later in a novel.

And predictable? Oh, heavens. I want a story to take me where I least expect to go. It's the only way I comfortably step outside my safe world. I'm such a wuss.

So, what are some of the fish-out-of-water books you like best?

Bonnie Grove said...

Latayne, I need to be interested right away too - My mom is an avid reader and I've heard her complain about the book she's reading "It's not interesting". I'm like, "So stop reading it." She looks at me like I've just suggested she pop her head off and leave it on the counter for awhile. "I can't do that! I started it, I have to finish it!"

I have no such invisible reader police looking over my shoulder. If I'm not interested the book turns into a doorstop.

Nichole, you and I shall have to avoid reading in the same room. We could become a dangerous weapon with all the book flinging.

Sharon, okay, sure, books need to take us where we don't go by walking out our front door, but isn't there also a small part of the experience familiar? I mean - we expect a happy ending, or for good to overcome in the end, or the bad guy to get his come-uppance. The terrain is new, but the theme leads us to comforting places - right? Or are you reading commando stuff overthere that absconds with you to unexpected places rendering unexpected results?

Bonnie Grove said...

Oo Oo, fish out of water books:

The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher by Rob Stennett - A man becomes the pastor of a mega-church but he doesn't believe in God. (its been called a satire, but I think Canadians have different ideas of satire than Americans do - it's far too apolgetic for satire, but it is a good/fun/fast read).

And Katy Popa's The Feast of Saint Bertie has all the elements of a great fish out of water story - a well to do woman living in a shack in the woods - and visiting a homeless shelter - not to mention a night on the beach. But my oh my how Bertie learns to swim!

I'm not one to toot my own horn - but my own creation, Kate Davis in Talking to the Dead is a fish out of water story as well. She's young, widowed, and hearing the voice of her dead husband - after that, things start going badly.


Anonymous said...

Bonnie, I agree. It's very important where the story ends. It won't always be happy, won't always be good, but it must be right, and therefore satisfying.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

Hi, I just found this blog (forgive me, I don't remember where) and I think it's delicious that I wrote my "magna carta" post (a list of my un/favorite elements) just a couple days after you started this conversation.

If anyone else has made their own lists like I did, I'd love to see them.

I'm what could fairly be called a beginning novelist, trying to balance a felt calling to write fiction (never a high-value, historically speaking, in the church) with an equal conviction-- though less-burning, so I'm praying about that-- that I'm to homeschool my children.

Poking around this blog has been interesting.

Kathleen Popa said...

Amy Jane, I love your Magna Carta! Now I want to write one of my own.

No, the church hasn't placed much value on its novelists, has it? Why is that??? Hmmm... sounds like a blog post to me, but I'd love to hear from our readers on this one.

Now look, Amy Jane, in one comment you've added two items to my to-do list. Was that necessary?

For what it's worth, I started writing my first novel while I was homeschooling my youngest son. I'm happy I did both.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

Wow! it's awesome to hear about someone who *finished* a project while homeschooling. I'll love to hear more about what you did.

Kathleen Popa said...

Amy Jane, homeschooling for me was pure delight, and not as time consuming as I'd expected. Generally it looked like a mom and kid curled up on the couch (often in pajamas) poring through books together for an hour or two in the mornings. Then he had work to do on his own, and I had my writing. If you have more than one child, that may or may not make a difference. In general, home-schooling takes much less time than classroom schooling.

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