Does it have to be this hard?

by Alex

In between catching up on all the STUFF that piles up when one is finishing a novel…  taxes, vet appointments, eye exams, thank you notes, gardening…

I’ve been letting myself do a lot of reading.  (So nice, to be out on the porch, in the Spring, in one of those classic rocking chairs, just – reading… watching plants grow and the world go by…)

This time, uncharacteristically,  I am not reading with a particular project in mind.   See, I’m not one of those writers who can’t read other authors while I’m starting/in the middle of/finishing a book or script.   I don’t tend to pick up on other authors’ styles.   Not at all, actually.   I have too many of my own special issues which color every word and character and theme that I put to a page to worry about duplicating anyone.   It’s just not really conceivable.    I wouldn’t be writing anything, at all, if there were already something out there that I could read instead of having to write it.   To be blunt (and not for the first time) I just don’t like writing that much to bother, if it already exists.

So I tend to read a LOT of similar books in my genre when I’m writing on a project, for many reasons, not the least of which is to remind myself that if I don’t write this, I’ll never be able to read it,  because no one ELSE would be fool enough to write it.

And because I’m not officially working, I get to read ANYTHING this week.   I have let myself be very eclectic… very, very eclectic… what some writer friend of mine refers to as foraging…  because I want to be absolutely sure what I want to write next before I commit to it.

I wrote something really hard this last book.   It’s a great idea – high concept premise, great characters (“So CASTABLE!!!!  as we say in Hollywood…).  But very difficult emotionally.   I had to go to very dark places.  It wasn’t a lot of fun.   I’m writing something at least as hard this next book.

And I was kind of wondering if it really had to be this hard. 

So I’m reading a wide range of books, including a lot of books that are bestsellers, but not particularly hard books.  Those I’m not going to name so that I can be more honest about them.    As usual I didn’t find much that gripped me, and as usual I didn’t bother finishing most of them because I wasn’t engaged enough to care.   Out of probably four dozen books there were only two that I really read:  Barbara Kingsolver’s PRODIGAL SPRING and Denise Mina’s THE DEAD HOUR.  I’ve read a lot of Kingsolver, I’m a huge fan.   I’ve never heard of Denise Mina, but I’ll for sure be reading her again.

Now the bestsellers I read are all recent titles by established writers –  not the breakout books that made these authors bestsellers to begin with.   Still, I understand why the books sell.   It’s pretty much about premise.   The books have big, thriller premises.   You can pitch them in a logline and GET what the story is and think, “Yeah, I’ll try that story.”    There’s a fairly unique hook.   The books are also competently plotted – the stories are taut, and flow well, there’s (on the surface) a good cast of characters with good balance between protagonists and antagonists). 


I just didn’t care.

I like reading for premise and plot.   I do it often.   But what was missing was actual empathy with the characters.   What was missing was a sensual feeling of actually being INSIDE the story, of having it happen to me, too, instead of just watching.   Very bad things happen to the people in these bestsellers I was reading, including to children, but I shed not a hint of a tear for them.

In PRODIGAL SPRING, on the other hand, Kingsolver had me weeping – I mean completely dissolved – over a lost duckling.   I’m STILL mourning that duckling and it’s been over a week and it’s barely a paragraph of the book.   But the effect on the characters was devastating, and because I was completely devoted to those characters it was devastating to me, too.

In THE DEAD HOUR, a co-worker of protagonist Paddy Meehan’s is seriously injured and the scene where the Paddy walks into the hospital to visit her friend, not knowing what she’s going to find, is excruciating. 

I’ll remember those characters, because those authors made them live, and made me feel what they were feeling.   I can’t walk even around the neighborhood now without being acutely aware and exhilarated by the lushness of Spring all around me, because Kingsolver just made me see and feel and smell and pay attention to it it all in such intricate detail.

It’s an extra layer of complexity and emotion that makes most other books look like mere outlines of books in comparison.

So I guess (she said gloomily) I’ve got the answer to my question.

Yes, it has to be this hard.

Because anything less, and you’ve missed an opportunity to touch readers in a way that won’t be forgotten – that might actually change them a little.    A way that means something.

So how can we not?

Damn it.

So I want some more books that are not just outlines of books.   Genre or non-genre (well, preferably genre!)   Read anything realy good lately?   Something that maybe even made you cry?

14 thoughts on “Does it have to be this hard?

  1. Louise Ure

    Alex, you found two extraordinary examples of great writing with the Mina and Kingsolver books. I think you’d feel the same way about their other work, in particular, Mina’s debut novel GARNETHILL, and Kingsolver’s POISONWOOD BIBLE.

    I feel the same about Sara Gran’s DOPE and Laura Lippman’s EVERY SECRET THING.

    What do these books have in common? Great writing, of course. Plus loss, fear and introspection on a human — rather than global — level.

  2. billie

    A book I read this year that really moved me was Refuge by Dot Jackson.

    I was in the car driving to the feed store in S. Pines and heard her interviewed on NPR. The novel came from an old family secret that she had learned as a girl, and when she grew up and wrote the book she kept the ms in the freezer for some ungodly number of years to keep it hidden until certain family members died.

    That was enough to pull me in, but when she read from the book itself I headed directly to the bookstore in S. Pines and bought it.

    It did not disappoint. It was one of those books that you get to the end of and almost wish you could develop amnesia just so you could pick it up and read it all over again, not knowing the outcome.

    I believe I did cry.

    And I think you’re right. For the really good books, it does have to be hard.

  3. pari

    Alex,I’ve been skating around in kidlit and nonfiction (about insects . . . don’t ask) lately and don’t have any profound suggestions.

    But there are some storytellers that I adore, authors I go back to from time-to-time because I like their ability to convey that depth of character.

    One of my favorites is Orson Scott Card. I really think he’s superb and bringing the reader into minds — even of creatures we don’t recognize.

    THE SPARROW by Maria Doria Russell is a gorgeous and devastating science fiction book that looks at big questions in a unique and moving way.

    I also really like Lois McMaster Bujold for sheer story telling when it comes to her Miles Vorkosigan series. It’s not “deep” reading on one level, but the world building she does and the wonderful character of a “mutant” in a culture that values fitness, and the ability to fight, is very pleasing.

    Funny that all of my suggetions are in the fantasy/science fiction realm. I guess that’s where my head is at right now.

  4. toni mcgee causey

    I’m actually glad it isn’ easy, Dusty’s reasoning being a good point. Also, I don’t want it to be easy — I’d be bored as hell, and I am easily bored, so it’s got to be tough to do to hold my interest. Hopefully it works for the audience as well.

  5. Annie C

    I agree with everyone about THE DEAD HOUR. It’s a wonderful series. And I love to read anything by Denise Mina…

    What I’ve read this month that I simply cannot forget, and am recommending to anyone who’ll listen, is the remarkable book THE COLLABORATOR OF BETHLEHEM by Matt Beynon Rees. Amazingly, it’s his first fiction work and it is a mystery, first in a series featuring Omar Yuseff, a freethinking schoolteacher in the West Bank. Rees is a former Jerusalem Time Magazine bureau chief who has written fine non-fiction about the Middle East in a most even-handed manner (CAIN’S FIELD). But COLLABORATOR was a revelation to me and I cannot recall very many mysteries where I learned so much or one that was as thought provoking. Sarah Weinman reviewed it in April for Newsday that review’s one reason I had to buy it. It’s quite unique with its insights into a culture most of us know little about, and it is well worth anyone’s time.



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