Choosing Reads

A few weeks ago, I realized I didn’t want to read, which is a huge red flag for me. I’d had a stretch of books that either weren’t great or required more emotional bandwidth than I had handy. Since “not wanting to read” is pretty antithetical to who I am, it was time to employ emergency measures:

I picked a book to re-read. A book I already knew I loved, and a book I was sure would be exactly what I wanted.

A sad consequence of doing most of my reading on an e-reader is that I don’t re-read as often as I used to, because I can’t wander around my shelves and wait for a moment of yes, THAT’S what I need to read right now in quite the same way. But even scrolling through the e-reader library, I have that aha moment when I pass the right one, and it occurred to me that moment itself is telling.

I know there are people who never re-read, but it mystifies me. For me, choosing a given book to re-read says a lot about my mood, for one thing, and what my brain is working on—particular questions of identity, grappling anew with themes addressed in a work, a reflection of the mood I’m experiencing or feeling the lack of. And re-reading these books is a way of reaffirming myself, what matters to me and who I am, and I find re-reading to be an immensely clarifying, cleansing, and centering experience.

(Also I can skip to my favorite bits.)

In this case, the books I re-read (five novels and three novellas from Meljean Brook’s Guardians series, for the curious) underscored a trend not just in what I’ve been drawn to in re-reading, but also the kinds of books and writers I’ve been reaching for.

My to-read pile of books that are denser, require more time or thought, and especially ones that I know will require more emotional bandwidth (hello The Fifth Season, which I’ve started and is AMAZING and is also still waiting on my nightstand) are piling up. I’m in a state as, I think, many are, where I’m just about at my capacity to deal with all the awfulness going on around me. I have about as much challenge as I can stand, and I want more escapism.

Which is not to say I’m reading books that don’t deal with serious or complicated issues; I have perhaps less patience than ever for books with, for instance, unacknowledged sexism, or books that are fundamentally stupid or depend on me pretending to be. But one reason I realized I’ve been picking up book after book by Martha Wells is that I can trust I won’t be smacked in the face with unanticipated sexism when all I want was a transporting read.

These days the books I’m craving, the books I’m reaching for, aren’t just good, nor are they just thoughtful or inventive, as if those weren’t already rare. They’re comforting. They have optimistic outlooks and happy endings. They contain deep personal growth and beautiful friendships, adventure and exploration of worlds and ideas, and I don’t have to worry about being side-swiped by sexism, racism, queerphobia, ableism. They’re warm, welcoming, fun, and if not precisely light, then at least not grim. They’re hopeful, at a time when I could use more hope.

And they’re hard to find, because that’s a tall order. I’ve developed my own list of authors and books I trust, and no doubt yours won’t look the same, because we all pull different things from stories and need different things at any given time.

But, as I’m not just a reader but also a writer, it seems only logical that I should be writing the kind of stories I want to read, because maybe other people need them, too.

I’ve been vague-tweeting about a Secret Project for a few months now, but I’m nearly ready to share it with you all. So look for more details here next week… =D

Critique and Target Audiences

I spent last weekend at Cascade Writers Workshop and had a blast. Thank you again to my critique group for being awesome and insightful. I have a solid idea of where to start editing not just in this section, but the broad strokes to keep in mind all through the novel and in other projects.

I love critiquing and reviewing, though the one should not be confused with the other. In critiquing, my goal is to help the author identify how they can edit to match their writing with the story they want to tell. Note, that is not the same as telling the author what they should or must do, nor is it fixing the story for them, nor is it recommending ways to change the story to one that I would like better.

In reviewing, my goal (and this differs greatly among reviewers) is to help readers find books they will like by promoting the novels, the particular aspects that worked for me or didn’t, and why. This is also not the same as writing what I think the author should have done or be doing with their story: it’s what works for me, and why.

That why is the critical bit. That’s what tells me what needs to change and how, if at all. For instance, if you don’t like the protagonist because they’re clearly a bad person, well, if that’s what the story needs I’m not going to change it. If you don’t like the protagonist because you don’t understand their motivations or stakes and thus don’t care about their character arc, that’s something I need to address.

In receiving feedback, it’s important for me to get multiple points of view, because often two people will totally disagree with each other’s assessments. If multiple people are pointing out problems in the same area, even if their “why”s are different, I know where to look for the bit that isn’t working properly.

For me, the very best kind of critique is when the reader is able to understand what I’m trying to do (without any direction from me outside of the text) and can tell me whether it worked. If they say, I see what you’re going for, but it’s not quite there, because of x reason, that is THE MOST HELPFUL THING. This is why I usually request feedback from fellow writers, to help me identify the “why”s when something is off with the craft.

My second-favorite kind of critique is from people who are not my target audience.

I get the impression that’s not common? And I understand that there are some forms of feedback that I’ll take with grains of salt from, for instance, non-genre readers, because it may be a trope or tone issue throwing them out that’s totally fine. But it might also be something that I haven’t explained sufficiently. It might be a world-building issue or plot hole that a genre reader will gloss over but that causes the non-genre reader to cease suspension of disbelief.

Target audience, though, can be complicated, because it goes beyond subgenre. In fact, writing with a group of other reviewers at Fantasy Book Critic has been an object lesson in target audiences for me. My reading tastes overlap with several of our reviewers: a few of us will often read the same epic and high fantasy, or the same urban fantasy, or the same YA books, even if our thoughts aren’t all posted on the site.

And yet the three of us can read the same book, write a joint review, and have COMPLETELY different opinions on why it worked or didn’t.

(This has actually come to be a recommendation marker for me: if two of us actually agree on a book, I tend to trust that assessment, because it’s very much not the default. Mihir and Liviu’s joint review got me to pick up The Thousand Names, for instance.)

Just because we’re readers of the same subgenre doesn’t mean we’re looking for the same things in our stories. Target audience is more complicated than whether someone wants or hates vampires in their stories. It’s about the kind of story and how it’s told.

It’s also why I think it’s important in reviewing to isolate that I’m talking about “why”s, because even within the genre reader tastes vary. Huge amounts of expository detail, for instance, are not my thing. There are only so many trees and hills you can describe before my eyes glaze over (I’m looking at you, Tolkien).

Some readers LIVE for that sort of detail, and that’s fabulous for them! But when I write my review, I will mention that for me it slowed pacing down, but I won’t call it a bad book, or say that the author doesn’t know how to write exposition. I don’t think my role is to judge; it’s to analyze and isolate parts that will help readers decide whether a book is a good fit.

And in critique, I will point out concerns, issues to consider, places that don’t work for me, and why, so the author can judge for themselves how much weight to assign to any piece of feedback. Awareness, for me, is the key. Maybe the author is dead, but their stories are alive in the hearts and minds of readers.

They’re different animals, reviewing and critiquing, but I love them both and I hope people find my feedback helpful. It makes me appreciate even more when people are willing to take the time to consider artistic work carefully and thoroughly, because I think it helps us all as a community to push ourselves to be better, to expect better. And especially, thank you again to all who have critiqued or given me beta feedback. You’re the best =).