Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What makes you pick up a book ... and what makes you keep reading?

The infamous "they" says not to judge a book by its cover, but you have to start somewhere, right?

Before you start calling anyone Ishmael or can nod knowingly that it was in fact the best and worst of times, there has to be a reason that you picked up the book in the first place.  Perhaps it is an intriguing title, a favorite author, or a glowing review that catches your eye, and most likely once it does, rather than start reading right away, you flip the book over or turn to the jacket flap for more information, more reasons to keep going.

Just as it is unrealistic for someone to say, "Check out the intelligence of that girl," based on a glance across a crowded room, a potential reader can't spot a strong hero up on a shelf.

Personally I am as much of a sucker for the feel of a book as I am the sight.  I test the weight in my hand.  I fan the pages to get a feel for how they will turn.  I finger the pages to decide if the quality of the paper appeals to me.  I run my hand over the cover.  (I tend to prefer soft, matte covers to those which are shiny and embossed.)  But I still have to be enticed close enough to the book to pick it up in the first place.

Sure there are recommendations from friends and reviewers.  ("She's got a *great* personality!")  Maybe these friends know your tastes well, and maybe you are familiar with the reviewers, but it is still you who must make the final decision of whether to start reading.

Which has more weight?  An endorsing quote or a summarizing blurb?  Is a few sentences enough to pique your interest, or does the entire back cover need to be filled?  If it is the latest book in the series featuring familiar and beloved characters, do you even want a hint as to the next adventure, or are you willing to take a leap of faith and be surprised?

I recently read the Fablehaven series in quick succession, and after the second book, I found myself avoiding any mention of the events to come in subsequent books.  I wanted to immerse myself in the story, watching as the plot unfolded and the characters grew.

Once your initial criteria are met, and the book has been in your hands for a moment or two, what happens?  Do you stand or sit in the store (assuming that you are not shopping online, of course, which presents an entirely different scenario) and read the first paragraph?  First page?  First chapter?  How long does it take to convince you that you want to get to knows the characters and find out what happens to them?

A common recommendation to writers is to start the story in the middle of the action.  Grab the reader's attention and hold on for dear life.  Somewhere out there is a quote to the effect of telling the author to "grab the reader by the throat and sink your thumbs into his windpipe."  Or maybe it is the jugular vein.  Either action ought to get someone's attention and hold it at least until the person passes out.  If a writer can hold a reader's attention even after the reader has relinquished consciousness, so much the better.

There are probably as many recommendations to begin a story at the beginning.  Once upon a time and all that.

I like it when things are already hoppin', as long as the author doesn't leave me in the dark for too long about the basic backstory of how the characters got to where they were when I joined the fray.

The author's style and vocabulary are major factors for me, too.

I can be hooked by a sentence, a paragraph, or a page, but I try to get through at least a chapter before passing initial judgement.

Then the real work begins for the author.  Once he or she has your attention, the job becomes keeping that attention all the way to the final page (and beyond if there is a sequel or two or six).

For me, it is all about the characters.  Yes, characters need to have something to do, but if I don't make some sort of connection with or have some sort of strong positive reaction to the characters, I don't make it through to the end, no matter how intriguing the plot.  On the flip side of the character coin, if I have too strong of a negative reaction to a character -- even if the character is supposed to be the despised villain -- I'll stop.  (Jean-Claude in the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, series is one example.  I get that vampires are evil.  I'm all over it.  But he doesn't even have the stones to be truly, sexily evil.  He's just one more manipulative jerk pressuring a woman into a relationship she doesn't want.  It's not sexy.  It's not attractive.  And once Anita caved, I was pretty much done.  I think I made it through one more book after that.  I think I stopped after book four.  The series is now up to something like twenty.  It's too bad.  I really liked Anita.)  That scenario is a little less common, especially if I am really pulling for the hero.  On the edge between the two sides is when a character I like does something which is completely and unbelievably out of character (and I am not talking about outright deception but rather something to fit a formula or as a plot device) or which derails the plot (which is not the same as a plot twist or surprise).  Usually it happens when romantic/sexual relationships between characters end up being conveniently inevitable without really adding depth to either the story or helping the individual characters grow.  (That subject could be a whole separate rant all its own.)

Balance between plot and character is key to the successful telling of any story, and tilting too far in either direction throws off that balance, but I still look for characters first -- people or creatures who inspire an emotional reaction or connection so that I want to find out what happens to them and how they cope with and adapt to their circumstances. A compelling or intricate plot will not keep me reading if I do not have a vested interest in the characters, but interest in a fascinating character will keep me reading through a less than riveting plot.  I get entirely too wrapped up in the lives of imaginary people and thoroughly enjoy doing it.

Now you know (some of the reasons) why I read and what makes me keep reading.  What starts and keeps you reading?  Plot?  Characters?  Language?  Bragging rights?

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