An American Editor

December 5, 2012

On Books: Gatekeeping eBooks

Filed under: On Books — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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In pre-ebook days, gatekeeping was done by the traditional publishers; today, with the rise of ebooks, especially self-published ebooks, it is the reader who is responsible for doing his or her own gatekeeping. The problem is how to do it. All of the traditional tools are still available with the exception of the traditional publisher’s staff. Some of the tools are less valid, today, such as “customer” reviews than they once were, but even the less-valid tools offer some guidance. For me, I’ve added one tool to my armory: dreams.

I know it sounds silly, but I realized that dreams are a result of some environmental stimulus — good or bad. They don’t just happen in a vacuum; something happened during waking hours that has stimulated my imagination. Consequently, I have realized that one of the ways I distinguish between an ebook worth mentioning to friends and an ebook I hope to never hear of again, is dreaming.

A quality read is one in which the characters are stimulating, are “real,” are “people” I want to know better, who have adventures I want to share. A second attribute of a quality read is that these characters are participants in a well-told story within which I, the reader, want to participate myself.

I am setting aside the usual problems of which I complain, such as poor grammar and rampant misspellings. I admit that I have read several ebooks recently where grammar and misspellings were annoying but the characters and story were such that I was willing to overlook the problems. Such books war with me: Do I recommend them to friends or not? For the most part, I decide to not recommend them because the problems are too overwhelming, too distracting.

It is these authors and ebooks for whom I feel most sorry. It is clear to me that they failed to invest in their book after they completed the manuscript, or if they did invest, they did not invest wisely. Yet, they clearly have a topnotch tale to tell. A good example of this paradox is Franz McLaren’s Clarion of Destiny series, which I reviewed in On Books: The Agony of Reading Franz McLaren’s Clarion of Destiny.

But I digress. Great characters and a great story are all-important when it comes to writing. A grammatically perfect manuscript is of little value if the story and characters aren’t compelling and grabbing. Thus my dreaming as gatekeeping.

I know I have hit the motherlode of characterization and storyline when I dream about a book I am reading. When in my dreams I try to anticipate the plotline, when I try to play matchmaker among the characters, when I take the characters on a new adventure that I think naturally evolves from the author’s storyline, I know that I have found an ebook that rises from the slush pile.

What I have come to realize is that dreaming is my gatekeeper when it comes to fiction ebooks. (I read nonfiction books for different purposes than I read fiction and thus do not find myself dreaming about the nonfiction books I read.) I realized in recent months that if I am not dreaming about an ebook’s characters or story, I am generally not satisfied with the ebook — whether it be because the characters are not well-formed, the story is plodding, or there are so many errors that I can’t focus on anything but the errors — and so delete the ebook without completing it.

The ebooks I read from beginning to end are those about which I dream favorably. Like most readers, I recognize that there are many more ebooks available for me to read than there are hours left in my life in which to read them, so why waste time on ebooks that cannot evoke a positive dream?

Interestingly, I also realized that there are levels of intensity to my dreams, by which I mean that some ebooks evoke a fleeting dream, a dream that is enough for me to finish the ebook I am reading but not intense enough to induce me to read more ebooks by the same author. My reading habits are such that if I find myself enthusing over an ebook, as soon as I am finished with it, I rush to buy and read the remaining ebooks available by the author. Good examples of such authors are Shayne Parkinson and Vicki Tyley, both of whose ebooks I have reviewed here multiple times.

The hard part for authors is figuring out how to capture that enthusiasm, how to encourage the dreaming. Alas, there is no easy formula for doing so. It is clear to me that there is something more needed than fundamental writing skills. This is obvious when I note how I treasure books by certain authors but not books by other authors. It is also clear to me that good characterization and storyline can only go so far; disinterested professional help is also needed. (Perhaps an editor should be viewed as being a psychologist for a book in the sense that a disinterested professional editorial perspective can help an author surmount problems that might otherwise not be surmounted or even identified.)

At least for the foreseeable future I have my own built-in ultimate gatekeeper. As long as I continue to find ebooks that encourage positive dreaming, I will be a happy reader.

April 4, 2011

Characterization: How Important is Reader Emotional Involvement?

In past book reviews of fiction (my On Books series), I have noted whether the author’s characterizations, particularly of the lead character, have emotionally involved me as a reader. Did it really matter to me what happened to a character? Was I moved to react to a character’s fortune or misfortune?

Those who read my most recent review (On Books: Murder Down Under), will recall that I distinguished the 5-star ratings I gave to the murder mysteries written by Vicki Tyley from the historical fiction novels written by Shayne Parkinson by this very criterion. The result was that although both authors deserved a 5-star rating, Parkinson actually deserved a higher 5-star rating (what I called “plus a smidgen more”) because of how Parkinson got me (and my wife and friends of ours who read the books on our recommendation) emotionally involved.

Consequently, the questions are: How important is reader involvement, and if important, how do you rate for it or for the lack of it?

At a personal level, I think how well an author creates a link between the reader and the author’s characters is an indication of the craftsmanship of the author. An indifferent character leads to an indifferent book. It may still be a good read, but it won’t be a memorable read. If you are in my age bracket (old and getting older by the minute), you are likely to have read thousands of novels in your lifetime, and it is novels on which we are focused. Of those thousands, how many characters can you remember? How many can you identify by name, description, and traits?

Storylines and plots are much easier to remember, largely, I think, because there seems to be a finite number of storylines and plots. Authors simply recycle them using different environments. For example, how many novels, when stripped to their core, are really remakes of Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey? How many are variations on the theme of My Fair Lady? How many romance novels don’t have bodice ripping, girl meets boy and heart thumps, boy meets girl and becomes an Arthurian knight, and similar plots? How many murder mysteries don’t have at least one dead body and a nonpolice officer as the hero or a police officer as a hero but with a civilian sidekick? Familiarity with the broad scenario makes remembering a book on a broad basis relatively easy compared to remembering a character.

Think about characterization. How many of us remember Scout and Atticus Finch, but not the specifics of the plot of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird? How many of us remember the characters in Leon Uris’s Exodus or who the lawyer-heroes were in John Grisham’s The Firm?

To me, feeling empathy/sympathy for the lead characters is important – because it keeps my interest in future books and makes me remember the author. I see that as the single characteristic that distinguishes between an average writer and an exceptional writer. It is not that the average/mediocre book cannot be a great read; it is that the average/mediocre book is an enjoy-today-then-throwaway-and-forget book, whereas books that involve my emotions compel me to read every book written by the author, especially those that include the characters that have moved me. In contrast, when an author’s characters do not move me, I may well buy and read everything by the author that is currently available because they are good read-once-and-toss buys, but am likely to forget about the author when I have to wait a year or two for the author’s next book to come out.

Two good examples of why I think creation of a link between the reader and the author’s characters is important — especially for the author — are traditionally published David Weber’s science fiction books, which are built around the character Honor Harrington and her universe of family and friends, and indie author Richard S. Tuttle’s fantasy books.

My discovery of the first Harrington book (On Basilisk Station, free at the Baen Library) hooked me. Honor Harrington became a character I cared about. I not only have bought and read every book in the series (12 so far that directly involve Harrington and more than 6 others that are from her universe) and preordered those to come, but Weber got me to spend money on buying books that I have never bought before because I do not like the genre: short story anthologies. I studiously avoid short stories, whether as part of an anthology or standalone, except those that relate to the Harrington universe and Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep world (she has one free short story available, All I Want). In addition, because of the Harrington books, I also bought and became hooked on Weber’s newer Safehold series (which began with Off Armageddon Reef).

Perhaps more important for authors in today’s indie age, is my experience with the fantasy books of Richard Tuttle. He has authored 27 ebooks and I have purchased and read every one because his characters involved me. (His Young Lord of Khadora, Book 1 of Forgotten Legacy is a free ebook.) I admit that the characterizations did not remain equally compelling over 27 books, but they remained compelling enough to induce me to look for and buy every fantasy ebook Tuttle has written. Isn’t this what every author wants — readers who make a special effort to look for and buy their books?

Importantly, unlike the average/mediocre books that are good reads but not compelling enough to remember, for those authors who entwine me with their characters, every couple of months I search to see if there is another book scheduled for publication that I can preorder. If I can’t preorder it, I make a note in my calendar to remind me to check again for preorder availability. Shayne Parkinson’s Promises to Keep series is a good example. Parkinson was supposed to have another book available in her Promises to Keep series but it is still being worked on. Yet I keep looking for it, a good year after I finished the quartet and the short story. Similarly, it took 1.5 years before I found new ebooks by Richard Tuttle, but I kept looking, and I have calendared to preorder forthcoming Weber books. 

Even more importantly to the authors, these are the books that I keep recommending to other readers. Which novels that you have read do you keep recommending months, if not years, after you have read them? Think about why.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that crafting characters that make readers react to them, to events that occur in their fictional lives, and to the world around them is profoundly important to both readers and authors. I am also increasingly convinced that the ability to craft such characters and worlds is what distinguishes the memorable author from the average/mediocre author. And, finally, with the single exception of editorial quality (i.e., few grammar and spelling errors to distract the reader), whether the author crafted characters and worlds that involve the reader at the emotional level is the most important criterion a reader can apply when evaluating and rating a novel.

What do you think?

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