I don’t buy every book I read. I wish I could, because I know what sales mean for authors, especially those who haven’t hit the big time yet, but there’s only so much money to go around. So I check out books from the library. Between requesting books from the consortium (a group of libraries in my state that have come together to share their catalogs with each other to help patrons find what they want more easily) and placing orders through the national inter-library loan system, I bring home a whole lot of books every week. But I’m also writing my own books, which means that the books I get my hands on had better wow me right off the bat. I give each one fifty pages – if I’m still paying attention to the page number at that point, I’ll give up and move on to the next book. I’m too old to waste time on books I don’t love.
Sometimes I just can’t connect with the characters. I don’t even require that I love the main character, as long as someone in the story takes hold of my heart. If I get to page fifty and realize I wouldn’t care if the Great God Lumpcrush reached down and ate every single character in the story, I know it’s time to move on. Sometimes the story doesn’t progress in a way that makes any sense. JoeBob and Angelixa set out on a quest to find her missing magician father, but along the way Angelixa ditches JoeBob, forgets her original quest and decides to join a woman’s knitting cult. Yeah, nope, don’t care any more. There are lots of things that can go wrong in a story, and an author worth her salt knows when things have gone off the rails, knows when to take her story in hand and make sure it’s still doing what she intended.
The thing that bothers me most, though, is the author who has an amazing grasp of language, who weaves a gorgeous tapestry of world around me, enveloping me in the velvet smoothness of description and beauty, but who never tells me a story. When I read a book, first and foremost I’m after a story. I want things to happen. Describe the world in the loveliest language imaginable, but it won’t matter if there’s no story in the end. I’ve picked up more than a few books like this in the last few years. Most recently, I was listening to a book on CD. It was unabridged, so I could hear every word, and I was excited to get my hands on it, because it had been lauded up and down the internet for months. Surely this was going to be a fabulous read. I put the first disc into the player. By the second CD, I was ready to return it to the library, because in all that time, nothing had happened. Oh the characters were fully fleshed. They were so well-described I’d have known them on the street. The world was as real as anything I see outside my window. But nothing was happening. I couldn’t even guess what might happen in the future. It was a little like a painting done with words instead of paint. A beautiful moment in time, completely expressed, but standing still. That doesn’t work for a story.
A story needs to be many moments, moments that don’t just show me a world but that build on each other and come to a climax that I care enough to stick around for. Description is important, and world-building is vital, but I don’t care who you are, how magnificent a vocabulary you have or how impressive the publishing world decides you must be – if nothing’s happening in your words, then you haven’t written a story. Throw me some conflict, some troubles, and a lot of action. Make me lean forward to catch every word. Trust me, I’m waiting to listen.