(Today's guest post is by Guido Henkel, author of the Jason Dark series. See the first, Demon's Night, in multiple formats at Smashwords)
As I finished reading Moses Siregar’s “The Black God’s War” and began looking for a new book to read next, for some reason, I asked myself the question, what is it that makes me like and favor certain authors?
The entire world fawns over Stephen King, for example, and each of his books turns automatically into a bestseller. While I don’t dislike King, I do not consider myself a fan of his, either. To me, he wrote good books and bad books, and among them, a handful of true gems. Too often, however, I feel as if he’s getting lost in his own stories. I once said that if a director needs 3 hours to tell a story, then he’s doing something wrong — my case in point at the time was James Cameron’s “Titanic.” I still stand by that sentiment with maybe one or two exceptions, such as “The Lord of the Rings” movies and stories that contain so many side plots that it would actually harm the film if it were cut down for length. There is certain epic material that commands more length, clearly, but the story of an Atlantic crossing and the included sinking of a passenger ship is not one of them.
To me, the same is true for books. If an author needs over 1000 pages to tell a story that others manage to tell in 700 pages, I am getting dubious. Despite his commercial success and critical acclaim, to me King makes the same mistake over and over again — he strays. I recently read a book called “The Swarm,” which made the same mistake. Thunderously thick, the book takes almost a third of its length just to set up the story’s actual premise. That ain’t right… Don’t waste my time. It is every bit as precious as yours.
So, what is it then that I do like about certain authors? To me, it is usually a case of intrigue. I don’t care much for literary gimmicks. If an author feels he has to prove to me that he can find the most exotic words in his Thesaurus, he makes a huge mistake. Not only does he take me out of the experience of the story because the word sticks out like a sore thumb, he also belittles his readers who might not be familiar with the word. I am not advocating dumbed-down writing, but I think there is a fine line somewhere along which an author can still show his prowess and connect with his readers without talking down to them.
Sure, there is a market for so-called literary books, but when it comes to commercial, mainstream writing, I think finding the right tone is crucial.
The same goes for metaphors. Metaphors are great when they work, but some writers have a tendency to force them, pulling noticeably at straws, just to come up with something that might seem imaginative. To me, that is bad style, plain and simple, regardless of genre, on par with convoluted sentences that make you reread them three times to figure out their meaning. Why would someone write like that?
To me, good writing is like good verbal storytelling. I have never met a really good storyteller who speaks in super-injected sentences that make you ask him to repeat them, just so you can fathom out what it was he was trying to say. No, a good storyteller makes sure the meaning gets to you before he even says it. A good storyteller hooks you and takes you onto a journey. Imagine, someone told you a story that would suddenly take you down paths that are entirely irrelevant to the story, unraveling infinite details and story facets that lie a hundred years before the actual events, including people who have been dead three generations before the story actually took place and have nothing whatsoever to contribute to the plot… If you’re anything like me, you would simply tune out.
But books are different than verbally told stories, many people will say. Well, that is certainly a point that is up for discussion, and it is one point I honestly beg to differ. Are they really different, or is this just something the book critics want us to believe? That good books must have superior literary aspects? Should I really feel bad that I actually enjoy reading Clive Cussler’s adventures, easy-on-the-reader as they may be?
You may disagree, but in my opinion, good books are every bit like stories that are being told. They are to the point. They stay on topic. They hook the reader and pull him along. Most importantly, though, to me, a good book is written in the language of its readers. It makes you forget that thousands of others may read the same story. A good book makes you feel that it was written specifically for you!
There are masters out there who do an amazing job at this. When I first read Mark Frost’s “The
List of Seven,” the book instantly became my all-time favorite. Not because it had frilly language, not because Frost tried to impress the world with his vocabulary. All that is there in the book, but the way he put it all together made you forget everything around it. The story and the language were one, he made masterful use of the most powerful tool any writer can wield. He used magic! The magic to make me forget I was reading a story, the magic to conjure up images in my mind and dazzle me with deviously schemed plots. So much so that when the book was over, I sat breathlessly and asked myself, “Oh my god, what am I going to read now, because everything else will feel bland from here?”
To this day, about 20 years and uncounted books-read later, “The List of Seven” is still the epitome of a great book to me. Untouched, religiously revisited every other year or so, it is the book I wish I would have written.