Years ago, a friend hooked me on romance novels. For a while that’s all I read. Almost every Saturday, I’d pack up the stack I’d recently read and trek down to the used bookstore where I’d trade for a new stack. I have no idea how many books I’d cycled through when it dawned on me – the novels were all the same story. I know some people love a formulaic romance story but, it turned out, not me.
My major complaint is that none of those books stick out in my mind. I can recite off the formula but not a single character name. Stumbling upon Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, hidden on the same shelf as the others, dragged me out of my formulaic rut. Even though Outlander is at it’s heart a romance, it has so much more going on and a protagonist I relate to and remember.
I now look for more complex stories preferably set in fantastic environments like a far off space station or a medieval world drenched in magic. Overly flowery prose bogs me down, and I prefer action to keep my attention (if a book is critically acclaimed as literary fiction I’m unlikely to read it even if doing so would make me a better person (what this really means is I’m happiest reading entertaining fluff – but don’t tell anyone)).
Some books draw me in and I can’t put them down while others languish in perpetuity with a bookmark part way through (I never pick them up again).
Recently, I came across a space opera series with cyborgs that I couldn’t put down (The Fallen Empire series by Lindsay Buroker). While one the other hand, I tried to read two other space opera books (which were the first in series) where I didn’t even make it halfway in either book before I realized I just didn’t care. Based on the description, I should’ve liked all three series – so why did only one of them strike a chord with me?
Pinpointing what draws me into a story has been a challenge – it’s like unpacking ikea furniture and trying to determine if all the pieces are there. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
- The protagonist needs to be imperfect but basically moral – and I need to like her/him (I know the anti-hero is a current trend, but that just doesn’t work for me). They could have terrible pasts where they’ve done less than moral things requiring atonement in the present. They can even be committing crimes in the time frame of the story with good reason.
- I need a diverse cast of characters doing believable things. I want secondary characters to be interesting, even quirky – and I want to be able to tell them apart (unless they’re clones). Recently, I put down a book because it painfully failed here*.
- The writing needs to be accessible and friendly with a touch of optimism. A requirement I’m currently testing by trying some Horror (Bird Box by Josh Malerman, which is creeping me out but I can’t put it down).
- Every book has a typo somewhere – and I’m okay with that. However, continuity errors drive me nuts. Recently, I read a book with a ton of characters. Partway through the book a few of the characters ran into each other. They had never met or made contact of any kind – yet they knew each other’s names. I put down the book at that point.*
- Bonus points for any story that can pull off a bit of humour (The Space Team books by Barry Hutchison pull this off well, kinda like the Guardians of the Galaxy movies)
So, what draws you into a novel?
* as a note – I will only be sharing titles of books I’ve enjoyed and recommend as I’m not comfortable writing negative reviews – the exception is Crime and Punishment, reading that left me clear on two points: killing two women with an axe is a crime and punishment is making me read about the protagonist wine about it.