K is for Kit and Kaboodle (Knox, Kostick, Kaaberbol, Kerr, Koller)

What I read: Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Saga by Conor Kostick, The Shamer's Daughter by Lene Kaaberbol, Children of the Lamp: The Akhenaten Adventure by P.B. Kerr, and The Keepers: A Wizard Named Nell by Jackie French Koller.

I believe that children and YA fiction is, on average, better written than adult fiction. That doesn't mean there isn't good adult fiction out there, just that the amount of badly written adult fiction greatly outnumbers the amount of badly written children and YA literature.

As I say to my students, "You can persuade an adult that something is good when it isn't. You can't do that with kids."

Consequently, I have plundered the children and YA sections of bookstores and libraries all my life. The one major difference between my younger years and my older years is that I now read much more adult non-fiction (it's relaxing!) than in my teens and early twenties.

The one similarity is that I'm still not enamoured of series. Which is not to say that I'm series-free. I have read Eddings' Belgariad series, some of the Earthsea books, most of the Chrestomanci books, Pratchett's Bromeliad series, the Chronicles of Narnia, the Lord of the Rings, and McKillip's Riddlemaster series. However, with the exception of the Chronicles of Narnia (well, they are short) and Eddings' Belgariad series (which is rather like reading a Cliffnotes of Fantasy Motifs), most of the series I have read and enjoyed have been three books long--no more. I seem to be psychologically prone to closure or pay-off.

This doesn't explain, though, why I would be reluctant to start series in the first place. I've begun to think my brain chemistry actually alters when I pick up the first book of a series. I call it a "brain void"--a pit of disinterest (not dislike) expands like a black hole through my synapses, and I put the book down again. It seems to have little to do with the writing style or the subject matter--just "uuuuuhhhh," and I move on.

I decided to analyze this "brain void," so for "K," I selected the first book of five series by YA/children's authors: Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Saga by Conor Kostick, The Shamer's Daughter by Lene Kaaberbol, Children of the Lamp: The Akhenaten Adventure by P.B. Kerr, and The Keepers: A Wizard Named Nell by Jackie French Koller.

I gave up on the first two--Dreamhunter and Saga--after one chapter. I gave up on The Keepers within five pages. I will probably give up on Children of the Lamp but should mention it as an exception to the first three. The writing is fun in its own right, including passages such as the following:
"A Near Death Experience," John said matter-of factly. "You know. When you're having surgery and you almost die and you travel through a dark tunnel into the light and get mugged by an angel at the other end."
The last, The Shamer's Daughter, is the only one where I went ahead and got out book 2. Before I get to why The Shamer's Daughter stood out, I'll cover my physiological reaction to the others. Did I have a "brain void"?

Well, yeah, in all three cases. I felt more or less the way I do when I'm waiting for my car to be fixed--less bored but sort of treading waterish. Or the way you feel when you do to the DMV and FIRST you have to fill out the little card and THEN you have to get the little ticket and THEN you have to sit in the little chair and THEN you have to watch three million people go to the window before you, and the numbers are never in order because they have that weird A versus B system, so people get different tickets for different issues, and FINALLY, your name is called and then you have to pay money for something.

That's how I feel with most series, even P.B. Kerr's. Eventually, I give up and skip to the end of the book, and guess what! The children have discovered they have powers or the sisters have conquered something or other or the hero or heroine has been awarded kudos or made peace with his or her family, and my reaction is, "Couldn't you have told me that in the first chapter?" (Couldn't you just deal with my ticket problem, now?) I mean, I had to wait and wait and wait and wait and wait and meet more and more and more and more people and have more and more and more information thrown at me and . . .

And I realized that I write the way I read. One of my biggest flaws as a writer is that I tend to start mid-story. For example, in "Her Society," I start the story AFTER the guy has already committed his crimes and been sent to live with Safrina and actually, most of the 30-day socialization has already passed because, well, frankly, I just don't care about any of that set-up stuff. Treading water.

But it does place me in the awkward position of either having to use flashbacks OR have editors write me annoyed notes saying, "This is well-written, but I had no idea what was going on!"

Unfortunately, it also means that I have a hard time getting into series. I just don't care about all the stuff that leads up to people having confrontations. The question that interests me most as a writer and reader is "What if?" not "How did we get here?"

Still--I can understand the fascination with "How did we get here?" or beginnings. I usually develop a fascination with beginnings after I've read a whole bunch of ends. I know the characters, and then I develop a desire to read the prequel about where the characters came from and why they do what they do, etc.

But I can appreciate that many people like the information to unfold chronologically/sequentially. I'm going to call it the "soap opera" effect, but I don't mean that negatively. I could also call it the "gossip" effect, and I wouldn't mean that negatively either. It's the human fascination with knowing people--what happened to little Johnny Smith? who did he marry? how many children does he have? etc. etc. etc. My lack of interest in the soap opera effect may be the reason I never remember where people work (I often remember what they read!), and the reason I was never good at the clique/gossip stuff in high school. So-and-so is dating so-and-so? They started dating three months ago? Huh.

Regarding The Shamer's Daughter: each book appears to have an individual focus with the problem being presented immediately. I also happen to like the narrator's voice. I've decided that selecting the narrator's voice is a writer's most important job. I've had story ideas that I just couldn't get going until I knew who was telling the story. Likewise, when reading--especially a series--I have to enjoy the narrator. I've given up on series because the narrator was humorless or morose or simply dry.

End result: I feel a little closer to understanding my "brain void" when it comes to series!


Cari Hislop said...

When I ask "What if" it usually refers to a story idea or a type of character. Once I start writing the characters dictate the story so I have no idea what they're going to do. Sometimes they make me brainstorm, but even then they know what they want, I'm just the idiot secretary who has to find all the options and let them choose. Once it feels right I know I'm going in the right direction.

I write with the mentality that all stories are never ending...they have no begining, they have no end...to me, the formal start and stopping points are merely the best moments to empower the chosen part of the story being told. There's nothing worse than an excellent book with a rubbish ending. This one book I read last year was gripping right up to the second to the last chapter and then the story just slumped like a drunk in the street.
The editor should have told the author to end it earlier.

As for series, what I really hate is generational stories or series where characters you come to like or love in the first book die off and you're left with characters who you never wanted to get to know, who aren't remotely interesting, yet the writer expects you to care about these non-characters. I hate that!

Another irritating thing about series is you usually have to read the preceeding books to understand what's going on. Most series are just one large book chopped into printable sections. I don't think I could ever write a "series" I think I'd die of boredom. My stories at the moment all inhabit the same universe and many characters interact and show up in other stories, but the stories are not necessarily linear and they all stand alone. I think I write to find out why...I'll have to think about that. As usual your post has made me think...

Kate Woodbury said...

I have to say I really like series which are actually separate stand-alone books which use the same characters. I love seeing characters from a new perspective as long as, as you say, I'm not required to read all those other books!

In terms of writing, I always see myself as completely in control of my characters . . . until about half-way through a story. At that point, I realize that there are natural next steps for the characters to take, and if they don't take those steps, I will be manipulating the text to produce a false ending. If I want that ending, I have to go back and change the characters. So I'm still in charge, but my choices are limited.

On the other hand, the most effortless stories I've ever written were ones that I "unburied," so to speak. That's how Stephen King pictures it in his book On Writing (great book!) where he compares writing to unearthing a prehistoric skeleton: you do it a piece at a time, but the whole structure is there waiting for you. If that happens to me, though, it usually happens in my head before I put it on paper.

When I was a kid, I would act out a story before I put it on paper, and I sometimes still speak the dialog aloud before transferring it to paper. For a while, I even considered majoring in Theatre. I ended up in English which was the wise choice—I took one playwriting class as an undergrad and discovered the theatre major people were as competitive and highly strung as they were in HS drama club. I hate competition, so I wouldn't have lasted long. English, at least, is bland enough to apply to just about any career.

Although, of course, I was supposed to be a wealthy writer by now! It was such a shock to me to realize (somewhere in my late 20's!) that there are very few writers who just write. Even New York Times bestseller writers usually have to do other things to support themselves. They should warn people! Put it on the back of novels: FICTION WRITING MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR ECONOMIC STABILITY.

Cari Hislop said...

I think it's fascinating how different people find their stories. I'll have to look up Stephen King's On Writing, I haven't read that one.

I wonder if there's some sort of correlation between personality type and how individual authors construct their plots and characters. (I love the Myers Brigg personality test) My guess would be that someone who needed to be in control of their plot and characters would be J's while the wing-it's, like me, would be P's.

Happy writing!!!