Saturday, September 20, 2014

When Books Take Flight

Photo help/credit goes to Adrian Gaucher (@nobodieshero). He's got skillz!

In meme theory, there's this idea that ideas are alive, subject to evolution, reproduction, death and extinction like any other creature. The theory can sometimes be questionable at best, but I think in the case of stories and books, it is absolutely true. Any reader will tell you a novel is alive, that a story has the ability to completely transform them and their worldview, as well as remain alive in them for many years.

A good book, story, snippet, quote, semblance of words, whatever, has the ability to touch on deep human emotions. It inspires and sparks something in you, even if it's as simple (and "simple" is of course taken with a grain of salt) as your enjoyment or a love of a character's witty or sassy voice, something resonates there. The best books stay with you for years, you dwell on their ideas and characters, spend time creating fanart or participating in discussions, write fanfiction, reread the book, and most importantly, talk about it with those you care about. When we find something really special, we want to share it with others around us. This is where the meme theory comes in. Truly well-composed books that resonate and inspire want to be shared, and meme theory argues that it is not us sharing them, but the stories controlling us in order to live on and reproduce, like any other creature.

Not long ago I took a look at my bookshelf and noticed something odd. Almost all my shelves were filled with books I didn't particularly enjoy, or that I had given up on, or that I read but hated. But, when I thought about my reading experience, I didn't remember bad books. I remembered all the wonderful stories that I had read, the ones that truly made me feel and motivated me, and realized that, one by one, I had given them all away.

There are some collectors out there that are probably aghast at the thought that I have lost so many books simply by "lending" them out to people and then never seeing them again. Some were given away with the knowledge that they weren't coming back, such as with giveaways, where I get so excited about a book that I have to give it to someone, anyone, so long as they'd appreciate it. I like to think of it as the best books growing wings and taking flight, ideas growing and wanting to spread and evolve. The ones that are the most alive, the most vivid, end up flying off in the hopes that someone else will be touched and inspired by the story.

A book is often not born of one person anyway. Sure, there is someone who sits down and pens the story, but writing a book, as the acknowledgements will show, is never a one man job. There are editors involved, agents, beta readers, friends and significant others and writing partners that offer tips and ideas and changes. All of these edits and ideas are offered through so many different lenses. Seemingly, a writer doesn't write the book at all, and it comes to being all on its own. Wouldn't that be nice. The metaphor definitely ends there, as any writer knows that though sometimes the ideas seem to come together out of nowhere, it definitely takes a butt load of uphill work before anything looks remotely story-like.

It may seem like a whimsical and silly way to look at writing and creativity sometimes, but often when I get touched by something really special, like Dreams of Gods and Monsters and the rest of the Smoke and Bone trilogy, it makes me want to believe in whimsy and magic. At the end of the day, behind every bit of magic, there is hard determination and passion. And as a fellow writer, I'm always trying to dissect what about a book makes it so magical, and how I can achieve similar responses in my readers. After all, isn't it every writer's dream to write something that has that bit of magic in it?

I've learned a lot of things from studying the books that have really touched me. What makes them so magical? Of course, they need to have the fundamentals down.

1) A solid plot with little to no flaws or holes with intricate devices that keeps the story interesting and interwoven. Loose ends and holes can sink even the strongest stories.

2) Dynamic characters with conflicts between each other that are both interesting and sympathetic. The best characters are those with well thought out flaws and strengths with places to grow and fail as the story progresses.

3) A consistent tone/voice that sets it apart from the competition.

4) They must touch on something real.

Real? What is real? It's that bit of magic that turns a good book into a great book. That bit of heart that takes it to the next level. Donald Maass, literary agent, once wrote that it involved touching on timeless human experiences that many people can understand or relate to. A superhero book by Perry Moore called Hero did this by touching on the real lives behind his superhero characters, the wounds in their lives, whether they were physical, emotional or otherwise, and his main character who learned the true strength of his healing powers. Though this story was told through the lens of a superhero world, it still involved real world issues that people can relate to, even just emotionally.

In Dreams of Gods and Monsters, many could say that Laini Taylor's Eretz and its struggles of independence are no different than any other major fantasy story out there. What truly sets it apart, of course, is the originality, tone, and its ability to really touch on why this dream is so important to these characters. Yes, they want to save their world, but at the end of the day they just want to be together, in peace, in a world where people didn't have to hide and fight and die. But the way Taylor presents it is such a raw, emotional way that you really feel the loss of war and the yearning for the dream. The heart behind it is what elevated this book out of good to great, from bookshelf quality to taking flight.

Whenever I sit down in front of my computer, or my typewriter (nerd alert) I always ask myself what feeling I intend to inspire with my writing. What piece of humanity am I trying to touch on? In this scene, right now, what is the reader feeling? Are you only focusing on entertaining them? Because that will always leave you on the bookshelf.

They say every idea has been done. And it has. The difference is the execution, and how much of a heart you give the creature you're creating. A story with a strong heart will fly from reader to reader so it can spread and live on for a long, long time. No heart? No life, and your book will face plant before it can ever take flight.



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