Friday, December 23, 2005

The hallmark of re-readable science fiction and fantasy?

Hubby was reading a fave Mercedes Lackey book yesterday for the umpteenth time. I've been debating signing up for the new 2yn class. This combination led into a discussion that resurfaced several times throughout the day: the question of what makes a certain novel, or more specifically series of novels or even worlds of novels eminently re-readable.

Now I know that not everybody re-reads novels. I always have. It may have something to do with the fact that I never lived within reach of a public library until I was an adult. Even my schools didn't have libraries until I was in Junior High, but each classroom had a cupboard in the back with some books we could take home. So odds were that if I wanted to read (and I did) I was going to read something over again. Hubby didn't grow up in as rural of places as I did, but reading was always his escape. He reads faster than I do (and I don't read slowly) and a wider variety. He also re-reads.

And so we talked about the books that we re-read looking for common threads. Two authors that we both enjoy are Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey. I used to read through the entire Pern series every year. Lackey's Valdemar series hasn't received quite that much attention from me although I've read it twice. Most of her other series don't catch my attention, but hubby will read anything she writes. Some things he came up with were 1) her voice. That may be obvious; if you read everything an author writes, obviously you like her or his style. That's how I felt about McCaffrey for a long time, though I think there's been some slippage in recent years. 2) Intelligent animals working in tandem with people, be they dragons, horses, gryphons, or hawks. 3) Music. I don't think this one is as important for me as it is for Hubby., but then I'm not a musician or vocalist, and he is.

There's something more, something intangible (at least so far) that keeps us coming back to certain worlds, certain authors. Obviously both of the above authors had to resonate with enough readers early on to create demand for more stories set in those worlds. And that brings me back to the 2yn. How can I create that kind of world? Something that draws people back over and over again? Something I could write in for many years and keep sparking demand for, and drawing new readers into? Is there a magic formula?

Some authors have what I consider a magic formula but don't seem to catch on with the general public. In my opinion, Laura Resnick should be a household name. Her fantasy trilogy (published in 2000-2003) is set in one of the most complex worlds I've come across, with intricate built-in conflicts. It has all the hallmarks of great storytelling, and the worldbuilding is par none. Hubby didn't finish the series.

Ann Marston wrote a great little double trilogy in an innovative world in a similar time period. I love them, but they're out of print already. How many have heard of Ann Marston? How come her stories didn't break out?

As a reader, how do you gauge a story's power over you? If you re-read, can you figure out WHY that book, series, world, or author particularly calls you over and over again?

The real question is how to build that power into a story. That's what is mulling in the back of my mind.


Karenee said...

Thanks to both of you for pointing out Mercedes Lackey to me. I enjoyed her books, also. Perhaps I'll even read them over a couple times, not ALL of them. There were a few, though... hmmm... *fights a sudden desire to run off to the library*

I know books have to be well written (English-wise) first, for me to enjoy them.

I also tend to like books that bring me such intimacy with the character that I forget he/she isn't real. Oh, real is sooo much of it! How very important it can be when you're talking about fantasy is sort of ironic.

I need characters I understand and sympathize with. I must know why a character is struggling, why they don't do something other than what they did, and that their actions fit who they are and the culture of their world.

Give that character I care about something important to change or fix, and I'm hooked. I love being dragged through a book, biting my nails at every page turn, wondering how he/she manages to survive and whether or not everything will resolve.

Oh, that's the other thing. There must be the possibility of a failure that wouldn't destroy the story. What I liked most about McCaffrey was the fact that the initial success was a let down. There was always something left to fix. By the end of the book, the big problem for that story was solved, but I didn't always know what that problem really was until after the character had gone through their own little world-change and thought they'd acheived their heart's desire.

That's the layering effect, I suppose. Having a massive event hovering over the horizon while the characters fight tooth and nail for something that doesn't really seem related...

*shrug* I'd better stop or you'll owe me $2.50 instead of the usual penny. *grin*

HawkOwl said...

Holy comment!! Personally the only author I've read of those you mention is McCaffrey and I thought it was the most pretentious, hollow drivel since Villette. I've never touched Mercedes Lackey because I find her books unattractive on the shelf.

So speaking only about McCaffrey, I think it's a question of tapping exactly into the psyche of her particular audience. The key demographic seems to be nerdy late teens / early twenties girls, and what's easier to sell to that kind of reader than a talking pet that is exclusively devoted to you all the days of its life and makes you queen of the world?

She also has some really helpful marketing machines like the Pern MOOs.

And as for why that particular concept can sell umpteen different titles... I think it's because she has had the brains to mine it for all its worth. People who buy these things don't judge each book individually, I think. Although they can be turned off by sustained low quality (e.g. The Wheel of Time), generally if you can hook them once, all the other books are much, much easier to sell than the first.

Personally I read the whole Fortress in the Eye of Time series (whatever the real title is) and would have bought more books if Cherryh had written them. Same with Dune, The Lord of the Rings, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. It's a brand thing. If I'm going to buy books, I'd rather buy books similar to the ones I know I enjoyed before, than new things I know nothing about.

So to answer your question, I don't think it's about creating something powerful at all. I think it's about creating something safe and easy to sell, that gives you enough room to write lots and lots and lots of the same stuff.

Valerie Comer said...

Wow. Thank you both for your comments. Good points, Karen, on the character and her struggles, and the over-arching world problems. Certainly something to keep in mind.

And Hawkowl...I certainly wasn't a nerdy late teen when I found McCaffrey, and my husband fits your profile of McCaffrey readers much, MUCH less. Definitely most of her earlier Pern books are much stronger than the later ones, which do depend heavily on her fans' desire to read anything at all with her name on it. I'll accept that not everyone will have similar reading tastes, but...there were some pretty broad statements in your comment!

HawkOwl said...

Clearly. But then I said "the key demographic," not "the only people in the whole world" who buy McCaffrey.

You were asking why some authors can create that kind of demand and some can't, well, I gave you my opinion: it's a marketing thing. Some hit a market window and sell to it, and some just don't. Depth doesn't have a whole lot to do with it.

Writing good books and writing best-selling books are quite different skills.

lindaruth said...

Well, I, too, am a fan of the Pern books and I especially loved the Harper Hall series, and I didn't read them until I was well into my 20s. :) With McCaffrey at least some of the draw was the world building -- it worked for me. But the coolest world and the coolest dragons wouldn't have held me if the characters hadn't been engaging.

Someone else who totally sucked me in was Ursula LeGuin, though I haven't cared as much for her more recent stuff.

If I look at other books I've read multiple times, it often has to do with a quality I think of as "visiting old friends." Whether its the March girls in Little Women or Scout and Jim and Dill in To Kill A Mockingbird, or the nuns in Brede Abbey (in a book called In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden), I feel like I'm not so much reading their story as I am spending a pleasant vacation with them. This also applies to the Lord of the Rings and Narnia books and Pern books. Oh, I could go on and on, but I guess I won't.

I think I share your desire to create something that will hold up to multiple readings. I want my characters to feel like old friends to someone someday. :)

lindaruth said...

I meant Scout and JEM and Dill -- sorry for the typos!

Valerie Comer said...

*Visiting old friends.* Yes, Linda, I think that's very applicable. Good point. Hmm...

Katie Hart said...

For me, the ultimate in rereadable fantasy is The Chronicles of Narnia. Why? I think a big part is wish fulfillment. Who doesn't want to push aside old coats and find a new world? To wear beautiful yet comfortable clothes? To have swords and arrows and magic horns as just a matter of course? To be once a king or queen of Narnia, always a king or queen? To ride on a lion's back?

Also, there's the unescapeable feeling that Narnia HAS to exist, somewhere, somehow.

Gina Burgess said...

Val, I think what makes something rereadable or reviewable (movies) is the familarity (old friends) but also the execution of the storyline. I don't reread mysteries because I know the end, but I know the end of Pride and Prejudice, yet I'll reread it or Scarlett Pimpernell. So, I think it is mood. I want to feel good so I'll reread a Georgette Heyer book to laugh and feel good about love again. Or I'm in the mood for crying so I'll rewatch Romeo and Juliette for the 1000th time.

And to go along with Katie, delicious anticipation. I know what's going to happen but I love the anticipation and build up that leads to the ending.

Anyhoot, that's my 2 cents.

Valerie Comer said...

Thanks for the weigh-in, Katie and Gina. I agree about mysteries, though if you wait long enough between re-readings, you forget some of the nuances and fun figuring out whodunit, even if you remember the *who.

But yes, wish fulfilment has to be part of it in a fantasy, though some series have so much nastiness before the perfect ending (Tad Williams' Memory Sorrow and Thorn trilogy) that it's (almost) not worth re-reading.

Hey, Gina, I used to read a lot of Georgette Heyers for a number of years. There were some pretty fun ones!