An American Editor

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?

October 8, 2010

On Books: Brandon Sanderson and David Weber — 1 Up, 1 Down

If you recall, a few weeks ago I wrote The Problem Is: Publishers Don’t Read eBooks! in which I swore I would not again buy a TOR/Tom Doherty/Macmillan book in both hardcover and ebook formats. Well, I did, and I was shown, yet again, that TOR/Tom Doherty/Macmillan only cares about something other than quality. Maybe I learned my lesson this time.

I am a big David Weber fan, ever since I was introduced to the Honor Harrington series. Because Weber is a favorite, I buy all of his new releases in hardcover so I can read them and add them to my permanent library, something I can’t do (i.e., add them to my permanent library for eternity) with a DRMed ebook. But Weber’s newest book, Out of the Dark, was released just as I was leaving for the Finding Your Niche conference. I wrestled with not buying the ebook version (the hardcover was already on its way as I had preordered it) but I lost the match and bought it in ebook form so that I could read it while at the conference.

Exactly what was wrong with Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings ebook is wrong with Weber’s Out of the Dark ebook: no one read it for errors after converting it to ePub (and probably not after converting it to any other format, although I don’t know that for certain). I can hear the call of TOR: Suckerrrrr! Suckerrrr! How difficult is it to fix problems like “A” rather than “a” in the middle of a sentence?

Enough — let’s move on to a review.

Brandon Sanderson’s book is an interesting read. The Way of Kings is disjointed in that you go back and forth between characters and scenes without something connecting them. What is the relationship between the various characters? Where will their paths intersect? The answers lie in volumes 2 and 3 of the trilogy.

At first I was concerned that I wouldn’t stick with the book — it is long, 1008 pages — because of the disjointedness, but instead, I found myself compelled to keep reading. The Way of Kings demonstrates why Sanderson is the new force to be reckoned with in fantasy fiction; it’s just too bad he is hooked up with such a sloppy publisher. Sanderson’s narrative is compelling and interesting. Each segment almost stands on its own and someday I will discover the connection between the characters who appear to be the primary characters of the story. In the interim, however, I’d give The Way of Kings 4 stars (out of 5). The writing is taut but leaves too much up in the air to warrant 5/5, plus Sanderson needs to take some responsibility for the poor ebook formatting. He and/or his agent should have insisted on review-before-release rights.

David Weber’s new book, Out of the Darkness, however, is a major disappointment. Here is hoping that subsequent volumes live up to the PR claims.

Weber’s new series was touted as another Honor Harrington series, implying that it had the punch and quality of the Harrington books. Sadly, it has the punch and quality of a wet noodle in a paper bag. I expected the book to at least match the Harrington books but hoped that after years of honing his writing craft, it would be even better. It is much worse than even the first Harrington book.

In Harrington, Weber created a character about who we could care; one who was interesting in her own right and who had interesting and compelling associates. Out of the Dark, in contrast, has no character about whom I care. The plot is somewhat trite and too much of the text is an exposition of military hardware, as if the hardware was to be the star of the series. I didn’t read the short story that was the original basis for this series (I’m not a lover of the short story form), but perhaps this worked better as a short story and should have been left there. Or perhaps Weber has too much to do in writing additional volumes for his other series, such as the Safehold books and the Disciples of Harrington, whose books are of infinitely better quality.

Combining the poor quality of the ebook with the less-than-stellar story, I would give this book — by stretching a bit — 2 stars (out of 5). I think if Weber wants to salvage his reputation as a master of military science fiction, he needs to work hard to improve this new series in future volumes. For those of you unfamiliar with Weber, this is not the book to buy. Better to read nearly any other of his novels. For those of us who are Weber fans, the only reason to buy Out of the Dark is to have a complete collection of Weber’s novels; otherwise, best to pass on this book.

Like Sanderson, Weber, too, needs to insist on review-before-release rights for his ebooks or find a more caring publisher. The combination of a lackadaisical novel and poor ebook quality could start a decline in interest in Weber’s work, especially when a novelist like Sanderson is available.

January 29, 2010

The eBook Wars: The Price Battle (II) — Starbucks 1, Publishers 0

On January 23, 2010 The New York Times had a front-page article titled, “On Kindle’s List, the Best Sellers Don’t Necessarily Need to Sell.” The article went on to discuss the phenomenon with which most savvy ebookers are familiar: many of the “bestsellers” on any ebook bestseller list are free titles. More important to publishers is that many of those bestsellers are always-free public domain books, not paid-for ebooks being given away temporarily as promotions.

The article went on to discuss publisher approaches to freebies, how freebies are promotional, and other good reasons why giving away an ebook is good and/or bad. (Sadly, the article neglects to mention some of the best sources for free ebooks such as MobileRead and Feedbooks. Free ebooks at these two sources are well-formatted and generally well-edited by a caring community.)

Let me say upfront that I like free ebooks–afterall, who doesn’t like free. Free ebooks have introduced me to authors whose work I never would have read otherwise. But let me also say that with rare exception, I have not proceeded to buy other books of the new authors I have liked. (I do, however, buy a lot of ebooks and hardcovers — more than 100 of each type in 2009.)

Free ebooks are a two-edged sword for publishers and authors. On the positive side, it introduces readers to authors they might not otherwise have read. In my case, it introduced me to David Weber, author of the Honor Harrington Series, and now I buy all of his books in hardcover. On the other hand, it also introduced me to Fiona McIntosh, author of the Quickening Series. I liked her writing but have not bought either of her newest two books (books 1 and 2 of her Valisar Trilogy) because the publisher set the ebook prices higher than the paperback prices.

So, problem #1 is that many publishers still have no clue about what differentiates an ebooker from a print copy buyer. In the case of David Weber, Tor/Baen gave away older Weber ebooks and reasonably priced new ebooks, thereby gaining a new reader, whereas for Fiona McIntosh HarperCollins/Eos gave away the ebook then threw away the reader with excessive pricing.

Problem #2 is that publishers are creating reader pricing expectations. Readers expect that sometime down the road an author’s newer books will become freebies too, so why buy now, especially at exorbitant pricing. Once the impulse buy is lost, readers tend to forget the author and move on. Yes, the Times article quoted some success stories, but remember this: It is still very early in the ebook revolution (ebooks account for only 5% of the current book market) and what happens today doesn’t indicate what will happen tomorrow. Let me repeat: The ebook bestseller lists are stacked with freebies, not paid-for ebooks.

Let’s consider consumer thinking for a moment. Many people rush to their Starbucks and plop down $4 for a coffee. Within minutes the coffee and the $4 have disappeared, neither to ever be seen nor savored again. This is the Starbucks law: Make the product a one-time consumable and require new payment for the next one-time consumable.

Contrast consumers’ willingness to buy the coffee with their willingness to pay for ebooks. An ebook, unlike the coffee, can be savored over many hours and can be resavored 2 years later. Read that $5 ebook 5 times, and each reading has cost $1; try drinking that same cup of coffee twice let alone 5 times — it simply can’t be done. The coffee is $4 for a one-time thrill whereas an ebook is multiple thrills that cost less each time. This is the anti-Starbucks law: Make the product consumable multiple times  with each consumption costing less. Yet, consumers balk at paying for an ebook and publishers feed the freebie frenzy.

Clearly, publishers aren’t making their case about value very well. Isn’t there something amiss when Starbucks can convince someone to part with $4 for a one-time, short-lived thrill but publishers can’t convince anyone that their product has greater value because it is a long-lived thrill. Perhaps the time has come for publishers to demote the bean counters and promote those who give value to their product. There is no financial future in free books for any publisher or author.

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