This post was first published in March 2010, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. As I wind up the first draft of a new project–I’m in that mad, almost love-drunk rush that comes with knowing the end is nigh–I keep drifting back to these three questions:
1. Can I wrap this up without leaving a tangled mess of loose ends?
2. Have I revealed enough for the end to work, or is it just a poorly fashioned deus ex machina?
3. Am I forcing my leads into roles they don’t want?
And these three, in turn keep bringing me back to the ultimate two: Will my book be satisfying? And is it engaging?
ETA: the original Catching Fire image was having issues, so I’ve replaced it with these German covers instead. I like this much better, anyway.
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See my follow-up, “What Makes a Book Satisfying?” here.
Reading is quite the investment. Not just in terms of monetary cost, but in terms of time spent reading the story, digesting the story, and, if it’s a very good book (or if you’re a deep reader), thinking about the story afterward. Some books are clearly worth the investment (Pride & Prejudice anyone? Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle? L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time?), while others are a win-some-lose-some deal. And then there are the books we give our hearts to freely, only to have the world’s most unsatisfying ending snatch them away.
So what makes a book satisfying? It’s hard to pin down, partially because it’s easier to work out what’s unsatisfying.
This month, I’ve read four books, two of which (Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire and Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey) had supremely unsatisfying endings. The latter hurt my heart/brain/squeeglesquawk so much that it kept me up the better part of last night.
Picking over the bones of these stories, and a few others I’ve found unsatisfying over the past year or two, I’ve found that the majority of unsatisfying books are those that don’t wrap up properly. At the end of the book, it’s hard to say exactly what it’s about, why we loved/hated it because we don’t really know it. For me, these books are like a song I only kinda-sorta know–the chorus gets stuck in my head, but I can’t recall the singer/band, or resolve the melody without depending on an annoying Hey Jude like fade.
Although it may seem unfair to count Catching Fire as a book I found unsatisfying because it’s part of a series, I think a series book with a frustrating wrap-up is actually worse than a stand-alone book with a frustrating end. Series are all about trust. Trust that–
- the story is going somewhere
- the story is not just a dream, and will not end “and then I woke up”
- the author will reveal key facts as we need to know them, instead of hoarding the answers for a Columbo-esque reveal at the end
- the characters won’t be forced into a happily-ever-after/crappily-ever-after
- the storyline will resolve
Even with series books, there should be a resolution, because while a series has one long arc, the books have smaller arcs that feed into one another. In the first book of The Hunger Games, the main goal is for Katniss and Peeta to survive. Whether or not they achieve their goal doesn’t matter (well, it does, but we’re talking technical stuff here), as long as the issue is decided one way or another, and we have a clear answer–and a resolution of the smaller arc. And the cliffhanger ending? In the best series books, the cliffhanger opens a new arc, but doesn’t journey along too far, for three reasons:
the reader should be able to pick up the second book without re-reading the first one
a new reader should be able to pick up the second book and make sense of the story
if the new arc continues too far, the lack of resolution becomes frustrating rather than a reason to read the next book
Reasons a book may be unsatisfying after that very last page turn:
- Storyline doesn’t resolve
- Romantic entanglements don’t resolve
- Subplot(s) are forgotten about/don’t resolve (notice the trend, yet?)
- The characters are pulled out of the paper bag rather than finding their own way out (deus ex machina)
- In fantasy/science fiction, the world is never fully realized
- There’s a forced happily-ever-after/crappily-ever-after
Happily–or Crappily–Ever After
While I’m not against happily ever afters, books where the story wraps up too neatly and everyone gets kisses and cake are unsatisfying because they’re oh-so-sweet and unrealistic. One way to tell if a story’s happily ever after is too neat? Try imagining the characters’ lives after that last page turn. Can you see them continuing on, getting involved in new stories? Or are you stuck at the riding off into the sunset point?
But where neat, happy wrap ups are somewhat unsatisfying, forced unhappy wrap ups cross into pitch-the-book-across-the-room territory. This isn’t to say all stories need happy endings–they don’t. Some stories, like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, or, in YA, Wendy Mass’ A Mango-Shaped Space are better for their sad, tear-jerker endings. (To be fair, Mass’ book did make me cry in a couple of spots, but it does have a generally happy end.) Sometimes, though–particularly in fantasy and science fiction–an author’s need to make a point or echo their world’s bleakness results in a forced, overwrought crappily ever after. In these stories, the author piles on difficulties and throws obstacle into the characters’ paths in the last few chapters without giving them the chance to overcome. Sometimes, a technicality–one mentioned only in passing–prevents the happy ending; other times, a subplot comes to back to bite the reader, wrenching the happily-ever-after away for no real gain.
So what makes a book satisfying? I’m still working that out–but I’ll have a post about it on Tuesday.
What have you read lately? Was any of it unsatisfying? Why?
Good morning, book people! It’s been hectic around our house lately, hence the intermittent blogging. I’ll be keeping up the coffee breaks (I love writing these) this week, and should get back to the 5 day a week schedule next week.
Excitement this morning! Jennifer Egan has won the Pulitzer for fiction with her novel, A Visit From The Goon Squad. Although the book is technically adult–it appears to be a collection of short stories–it has a couple of kidlit elements, and there’s an extract available over at the Guardian’s children’s book site. The extract is a short story formatted as a Power Point slideshow, and definitely worth checking out. (And I’ll have more on Egan and using technology in books sometime soon.)
Next up, a useful critique from ex-agent Nathan Bransford. More interesting than the critique, though, are his thoughts on learning to trust yourself as a writer. I’ve struggled with this on an off (particularly so when I’m sending out queries), as have most writers I know. And I can’t help but wonder if perhaps it’s part of the process of tapping into our own unique skills. What do you think?
Over on Tumblr, my friend and former bookseller Melanie has started up blog, Yay Kidlit! Go give it some love–she has some great links and book coverish posts already, including a (perhaps more realistic) cover for Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach which did actually make me laugh out loud.
In some heartening Hunger Games news, the actors cast to play Rue and Thresh have been announced–and they’re actually POC. Granted, the movie probably couldn’t have weathered the backlash if the studio had cast white actors for the two roles, but it’s nice to see them sticking to the ethnicities in the book this time around. Congrats to Dayo Okeniyi (Thresh) and Amandla Stenberg (Rue)!
Not exactly kidlit related, but The Economist has a great, well written, and thoughtful piece on two books about Pakistan, “an important but confusing country which has been driven, partly by American intervention, into strange ways.” Although I don’t read much outside of YA and kidlit these days, I’ve always had a soft spot for books about Pakistan and India, since large parts of my family history are rooted there. Are your reading tastes ever influenced by your family history?
Also at The Economist, Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson has been accused–by CBS News–of “fabricating some of his stirring tales.” Three Cups of Tea was a best seller and is now a picture book.
And finally, some sad geek news - Elizabeth Sladen, better known as the Doctor’s companion, Sarah Jane Smith, has died. She was the star of a surprisingly good Doctor Who spinoff for kids, The Sarah Jane Adventures.Read More
Good morning, book people!
Some more whitewashing discussion on The Hunger Games this morning. This post by author Malinda Lo (Ash) makes some great points–Lo discusses color and class, and reading cues for racial background. Here’s the description of Katniss from early in the book:
straight black hair, olive skin [and]… gray eyes
That could definitely be taken as ambiguous, though with that, and the fairness of Katniss’ mother and Prim, I’ve always read her as biracial–particularly since she shares the “Seam look” with the rest of District 12, and her mother and Prim do not. (To my mind, she also identifies more with the Seam than with her family.) Make sure you read the comments on Lo’s post, too.
JJ, an editorial assistant at St. Martin’s, talks about her read of Katniss as white over at Uncreate Conscience. I don’t agree with her whole post, but it is a thoughtful critique worth reading. An important point from the conclusion:
Here’s a question I have about speculative fiction (including science fiction and fantasy): if race is not specifically mentioned, or the world has a different idea of “race” than ours, how does one go about indicating ethnicity? If it’s important to the author that a character in a work of spec fic be of a specific race, how can one indicate that? If ethnicity isn’t important, what can s/he do to change the default assumption of “whiteness”?
At the WSJ, Jeffrey Trachtenberg fills us in on a Random House/THQ Inc. deal. THQ is a developer and publisher of “interactive entertainment software” (read: video games). It’s mostly paid content, so it might be worth stopping by a Starbucks with your laptop/phone/iPad if ebooks and interactive books/games are your cup of tea (or coffee).
Over at Lightning + Lightning Bugs, agent Weronika Janczuk posts more about agents and self-publishing. Some useful commentary, some nice summations. Expect a few more posts like this–as my friend Livia pointed out at our last critique group meeting, a lot of agents were putting out their thoughts about ebooks and self-publishing last week. True, it’s probably not all tied into the Amanda Hocking news, but her St. Martin’s deal has lent a certain amount of legitimacy to self-publishing–legitimacy I think the big houses and agents have been waiting for (but unwilling to bet on) for a while.
Cory Doctorow has a new column up at PW, on the “the Baroque process of getting a book listed on both Lulu and Amazon.” It’s long, but Definitely Worth Reading. If you read only one thing from this list today, make it this piece.
And finally, a bit of fun–bookish webcomic Unshelved reviewed Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan last week. Here’s a snippet; click through for more. (via Scott Westerfeld)Read More
Good morning, book people! Mir and I are still sick, but we’re over the worst of it. How are you doing? We’re tricycling (I know, I’m sorry, but he’s cute, okay?) around the interwebs this morning–there’s a lot of interesting stuff to read.
The Guardian’s Robert Crum blogs about conservative politico (and Education Secretary) Michael Gove’s new stance that UK children should be reading 50 books a year. The statement has excited a lot of debate in the UK, and authors such as Phiilip Pullman and Anthony Browne have come out against it. The Guardian also asks–which 50 books should kids be reading?
I’m a little torn over this. I hate the idea of forced literature, but I do think kids–think everybody, really–should read more. Incentives to read, like the prizes offered at our school as part of the MS Read-a-Thon charity drive (people sponsor you to read x number of books in a given time) really only work for the readers. (And some of us are ineligible–I was miles ahead of my class, reading around four books a week, so they took me out of the running.) Gove’s idea might be a bit off the rails, but at least it’s doing something: making us talk about reading.
The Google Book Settlement has been rejected! True, a lot of people probably saw this coming, but it’s still big news. Wired has a pretty clear rundown on what the settlement terms were, and the result.
Next up, at The New York Times, a piece on using Theatron, a VR program, to help students stage virtual productions of Shakespeare and more. The Theatron website is a bit of a mess, but it looks like a fun program to work with, and much more enlightening than the 30 minute claymation versions of The Tempest and Macbeth we had to watch in school.
Also at The NYT, David Greenberg on why last chapters so often suck disappoint. Do not fear, though–your last chapter probably does not suck. Greenberg is writing specifically about books “aspiring to analyze a social or political problem.” These aren’t alien concepts to kidlit, but the scope is definitely different. Useful reading, though.
Over at The WSJ, Meghan Cox Gurdon on children’s books set behind the Iron Curtain and writes a thoughtful review of Ruta Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray. YA & kidlit people definitely need to read this.
Now that we know Jennifer Lawrence will be playing Katniss in The Hunger Games movies, speculation is wide-open about who’ll play Peeta. People has a quick rundown of the contenders so far. Please, please, please, people, don’t let it be the kid from Glee! Also, does seeing the double “e” in Peeta make anyone else want coffee?
A lot to read at The Shatzkin Files today, but both of these are worth the time. First up, Mike on what Barry Eisler’s decision to turn down a $500,000 advance means. One point not raised, that I’m curious about–how much did Eisler’s CIA background–probably a promoter’s dream–skew the publisher’s offer?
Mike’s second post is also self-promoting–he’s announcing a partnership with Michael Cader, Publishers Launch Conferences, which will “deliver live events…on publishing and digital change.” This post isn’t as concrete as the first, but it’s a good look at how some of the top digital books folks are thinking–and monetizing–so if you have the time, do read it.
Eric at Pimp My Novel has a rerun of a post on publishing myths, but it’s still a great post, so head on over.
ETA, 9:36 am: Michael Gove is Education Secretary.Read More
Good morning, book people! It’s daylight savings in Massachusetts now – and this is the second day we’ve slept in! Of course, it can’t all be blamed on daylight savings–there were several hours’ worth of screaming toddler, too. And now for something completely different…
Author Maureen Johnson ran a hugely successful campaign–over $14,000 worth of successful–to raise money for disaster relief in Japan this weekend. Although her campaign is now closed, you can still donate to Shelterbox. Never heard of Shelterbox? Here’s why they’re awesome:
We respond instantly to natural and manmade disasters by delivering boxes of aid to those who are most in need. Each box supplies an extended family of up to 10 people with a tent and essential equipment to use while they are displaced or homeless.
In January The Hunger Games movie was given a release date–and now it may have its lead actress. Variety is reporting that Lionsgate is close to reaching a deal with blonde-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned actress Jennifer Lawrence. I’ve written about why The Hunger Games needs an actress who’s closer to Katniss in terms of physical description in the past–and I stand by that now. Lawrence may be a skilled actress, but casting someone who’s clearly not “olive-skinned” to play Katniss is a Big Deal. Why? From my original piece (at PopMatters):
Although physical description is, generally speaking, a less-significant detail, Katniss’ status as a non-white heroine is important because she’s that rare commodity: a big time, mainstream non-white heroine.
Over at the Blue Rose Girls, a bit of fun - pictures from a children’s book bar! The murals are by Ludwig Bemelmans, the original illustrator for the Madeline books. I love Madeline – and the pics are definitely worth a look.
At The Guardian, David Barnett fills us in on the latest genre wars – as in last year’s Franzenfreude, the fracas is all about marginalization. Author Stephen Hunt is accusing the BBC of bias against his genre, science fiction. He’s taken his crusade one step further, though, and has launched a petition for one genre “to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.” Do you think SF (and its counterpart, F) are marginalized?
Graham Moore at The NYT has a review of Death Cloud, Andrew Lane’s attempt “to update and adapt Sherlock Holmes for a new generation, much the way Guy Ritchie has done with a swashbuckling Sherlock on screen.” The book follows 14 year old Sherlock, and sounds like a fun read. (I’ve read the entire Holmes series several times over, and will definitely be picking this up.)
And finally, at The WSJ, Helen Schulman writes about the process of constructing a novel: Write. Rewrite. Obsess. Repeat. Go read it now, especially if you’ve ever tottered at the edge of the Great and Terrible Abyss of Writerly Indecision.
And that’s all for now! I’ll be back later with the next installment of Cover Notes.Read More