Thursday, March 01, 2007

Magic Carpet Rides

You know what it’s like to lose yourself in a book, to read so fast and furious, with so little awareness of the passage of time that you don’t want to stop to eat or go to the bathroom, let alone to go to sleep. Finally reaching the end of the book, you turn out your bedside lamp only to discover your bedroom filled with the soft light of dawn. You’ve read through the night.

It’s the kind of experience we all long for when we read. Yet I find that kind of joy less and less these days. Why?

Part of it may be my own fault. I seem to have so few free hours, and I suspect it requires dedicating blocks of time to a book to achieve that near hypnotic, “sucked in” state. Then again, I can reach for one of the favorite books on my shelves, open it at random, and soon find myself whirled away into another world.

So perhaps it isn’t a matter of dedicating time. Perhaps it’s something about ME. Perhaps it becomes harder and harder to enter that fiction fantasyland as we grow older, especially if we grow older deconstructing novels and analyzing prose and story arcs and all the rest of fiction’s constituent parts. Except, the fact that I spent years studying martial arts doesn’t mean I no longer enjoy watching something like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. On the contrary, it enhances my appreciation of a master’s technique.

We all have a tendency to assume other people experience life in pretty much the same way we do, but of course that isn’t always true. I don’t think we can assume that all readers lose themselves in books. Many people skim a book, reading for plot and dialogue, skipping over descriptions, internal monologues, etc. They experience a book the way my daughter experiences a movie while she’s checking her email, talking on the phone, and applying fingernail polish, all at the same time. If a book engaged me in such a limited way, I’d put it down.

Another fascinating aspect of the can’t-put-it-down syndrome is that not all people have the same reaction to the same books. I could never make it past the first few chapters of Dune. And Lord of the Rings? Forget it. I don’t even have the same reaction to all of certain authors’ books. I was whirled away by The Secret Life of Bees, but never finished The Mermaid Chair. One of my favorite romance writers, Laura Kinsale, would hold me enthralled for the first half of her books, then lose me entirely. But those first halves were so wonderful, I kept buying her books anyway.

We talked about the source of this “sucked in” phenomenon in my Monday night writers group, and Charles blogged about it over on Razored Zen. We talked about fascinating characters, about pacing, about intriguing situations that pull us into a story world, about graceful, thought-provoking prose that is such a pleasure to read little else matters. Yet I never felt as if we truly grasped the essence of the experience or its causes.

I am now in the process of crafting the proposal for my next thriller, THE BERMUDA EFFECT. I find myself looking at my first chapters with an increasingly anxious, critical eye and thinking, Will this suck my readers in? Will this give them that can’t-put-it-down experience? Because “I couldn’t put it down” is surely what every writer wants to hear. I want to craft someone’s magic carpet ride.


liz fenwick said...

My book club enlightens me every time we meet. Each of us approaches each book so differently. Our latest read was Notes on a Scandal. I am still reading it ( I find it difficult to read when in writing mode - too drained I think). I find it an interesting book but not unput downable. In fact as it is in first person I need to back away from it to gain space from the voice. Yet several of the other readers couldn't put it down.

Yet the the one book I loved and couldn't put down was The Thirteenth Tale. The prose captured and transported me. Others enjoyed the book but were not moved the same way.

The only book that has received universal accliam was Kite Runner and I feel that was purely emotional. Looking back on the book I don't see the writing but feel the emotion.....maybe that the answer.....creating emotion???? Kite Runner although well out of all of our experiences hit universal emotions. I think few books can cover an audiance as wide as that one. Any way just my opinion.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think you're right, that we didn't really capture the essence of the sucked in feeling in our Monday Night discussion. But maybe the experience is so subjective as to defy capture.

cs harris said...

Liz suggests something, I think, that we missed, and that's the emotional response a book arouses. I was sucked into the Kite Runner to the point I read it walking down the street on my way to physical therapy after I hurt my shoulder. Everyone in the PT building thought I was nuts to be reading, let alone reading while walking!