Reading For the Sake of Enjoyment

A question I hear often in critique groups is, “Is this moving the story forward?” An ancillary question is where to insert backstory … the events before the time of the story that contributed to its direction or, more often, a character’s development.

And we writers are told by a thousand how-to books that we need to grab the reader in the first line. Get things moving. Bottom of first page is too late.

I have been reading two stories in my critique group from gifted writers who work humor into every line. I keep feeling pressured by conventional wisdom to suggest moving the story forward.

Then I began reading Deacon King Kong, by James McBride. Literary fiction, to be sure, so anything goes by way of structure, but the book starts with the obligatory precipitating event—but then gives the reader twenty pages of double-over-laughing backstory. Which brings up the question: Why do we read, anyway? For pleasure, right?

I guess I’ll cut back on the cookie-cutter critique and just enjoy my friends’ prose.


5 thoughts on “Reading For the Sake of Enjoyment

  1. Good point, John.I just finished “The Black Swan of Paris” and one of the truly enjoyable things about it was the way in which the author weaved the backstory into the main part of the story. The setting is the occupation of Paris during WWII, and everything really hangs together. If the story were condensed only to the plot line, a great deal of what makes it enjoyable would be gone.
    In Fatal Cure, we’re also seeing the story being more enjoyable because of it’s links with the backstory about Joe and Weezy in earlier novels.

  2. Thanks, John. Yes, and one of the things that animates your stories is your experience and knowledge about foreign service. (Readers: John’s published work is Crosshairs on Castro, fiction that weaves the reality of Kennedy-years Cuba and a good thriller plot.)

  3. I don’t think you’re cookie cutting your critiques. It’s only when something isn’t working that we start trying to figure out why. And I know I’m guilty of wanting to plug people in, a la Matrix, and download the whole history all at once. Reader’s, it seems, don’t care for the experience, and you’re right to call someone out on it if they’re doing it. Oddly enough, if what McBride wrote didn’t feel like an info dump, then I don’t think it was one.

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Tied in Knots

I have not been plagued by writer’s block. I generally skipped over the myriad blogs, papers, podcasts, and articles about it feeling vaguely superior.

Then I ran into a wall with my current novel, Fatal Cure. The plot is complex. I’m a hybrid writer … I do outline, but only broadly. Within the broad limits of the outline, I’m a pantser, letting the character and situation drive the story.

Nothing seemed to come together. “Write, just write something” didn’t work; the something I wrote was clunky and uninspired. Frustrated, I tried more outline detail: spreadsheet detailing what who was doing to whom and when, calendar of events, and so on. Nada. Rien. Zip.

Finally, just to do some writing calisthenics, I picked a character and a situation in the novel and forgot the outline … And, of a sudden, the writing flowed again, and the outline seemed to make sense.

Feels like the time I almost capsized a canoe … frantic countermoves to try to offset the oscillations. No forward progress. But when I stopped trying to control the situation, the canoe settled down … and then I could make forward progress.

1 thought on “Tied in Knots

  1. Glad that you got going again. That particular writer’s trick is a good one. Much of the exploration of a character may never get into the finished piece, but it gets you going, gives new perspective, sparks ideas. It’s one of the techniques that I offered to my creative writing students.

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