But I’ve learnt there’s so much more to a good book than just those elements. Let me use music to illustrate my point.
A piece of music may be quite rudimentary and simple, or not even have much of a melody, but a good arrangement plays up its strengths and finds ways to make its weaknesses attractive. There are so many elements that can be brought together in different ways–think of all the instruments in a big band, or an orchestra.
For the past few years, I’ve been working on a novel. Last year, I was able to find some very kind beta readers to go through it and give feedback. This past week, I had the chance to pay that kindness forward. In doing so, I’ve come to realise how differently I read books now that I’ve spent so long working on one myself. It doesn’t matter if I’m reading to critique, or reading for fun; I now cast a critical eye on any writing that I come across.
Bringing a novel together is not so different from arranging music. The author may have a basic plot in mind, but it then needs to be augmented. There are characters and subplots to consider. Pacing, characterisation, settings, mood, and themes must be carefully orchestrated. Plot threads must be carefully managed and finagled so they don’t end up snarling or hanging out as loose ends. Characters must be constantly evaluated to determine their purpose.
Then there’s also the fine-tuning after the core harmony is in place. Verbs should be descriptive, and create vivid imagery. Sentence length and cadence must fit with the mood of the scene. The vocabulary must fit into the overall tone. And that’s just to name a few of the elements that have to come together.
So now I find that when I read, I instinctively look for these things. As I go through a book, thoughts will come unbidden: Why do we never see any meaningful impact from a particularly important subplot–was it only to increase tension across one or two chapters? Or, The tone is uneven and jarring when it swings wildly from serious to ridiculous like that.
I’ll pick out how certain words or actions are overused, where the author is trying too hard to dump a pile of information on me, or characters that are cardboard cutouts to do nothing but prove a point or progress the plot. I’ll take note of where authors start and end scenes and chapters, how often they change points of view, plot points that the author starts and promptly forgets about.
I’m not sure how I feel about this new, critical way of examining the books I read, but I find I get a different enjoyment out of taking apart a story and examining how the pieces fit together. When reading a well-written novel, such as Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay, I come away with a great appreciation for how everything comes together in a beautiful symphony. Instead of just enjoying the novel itself, I also appreciate the craftsmanship and techniques that went into it. In Tigana, every event has a purpose, whether symbolic or to further the plot. Every character plays a key part in drawing the novel to its climax. It’s a bittersweet climax that takes the scattered plot threads and brings them together in a dramatic battle and aftermath where everyone’s plans and fates collide, and the book’s main theme is fully realised. The writing is simple yet powerful, perfectly matched to the theme of love in its various forms–love of a country, of a son or daughter, of a friend, of a lover–and the great and terrible things it makes people do.
There are times when I miss the carefree way I used to enjoy stories, accepting them as they were without worrying too much about the niggling issues. Or even jumbo-jet-sized issues. There are times I’d like to simply read without thinking, and get an easy emotional hit for the day. But as an author, reading critically is a way of reading I’ll never give up. It shapes me into a better writer as I learn what to do and what not to do, and take notes along the way. Even as it pains me to annotate my books, the more I do it, the more I learn. And perhaps one day, the world will enjoy my own symphony of words–as others pore over it and learn from my strengths and mistakes.