Why this topic? Why now? Perhaps an explanation is in order. Recently I had to send a white paper I had written several years ago to a colleague having similar problems. Prior to sending it, I took the time to read it and almost spent the rest of the day rewriting it. Obviously, my goal in writing this blog was making a difference. Unfortunately, with everything else happening in this world, I have allowed myself to be distracted from writing. To be honest, with all the suffering, mistruths, outright lies and rampant egos, I felt powerless to affect the situation. That’s when I remembered why I wanted to be an author.
You could say my love for science fiction started the first time one of my teachers proclaimed science fiction was written mainly for entertainment and had very little redeeming value. From that time on, every time we had a reading assignment, my choice was science fiction. I’d show them hidden meaning.
You can read a lot into that statement. I had a rebellious nature, my teachers did not understand how to create a love of reading, I was already headed down that dark path of becoming an engineer… I know, different times, different folks. If the goal was to destroy love of reading, it looks like the educators may have succeeded. Nowadays reading seems like a lost art.
The thing is, my teacher was very, very wrong. While I was happily soaking up all the science fiction I could, I was being introduced to all sorts of political concepts, moral concepts and in many cases, science. I think that’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to realize. Very little of the literature I enjoy is simply entertainment.
When I started my journey into science fiction, the local bookstore had one tiny rack devoted to science fiction. At some point still many years ago that tiny rack evolved into two fairly large racks but it was still a very limited choice. I read everything I could get my hands on. I haven’t tried it but I’m willing to bet that I could spend at least a day trying to get a handle on all the science fiction books that Amazon currently offers. There’s a price to this variety
Back when we still had bookstores, it was very expensive to have your book published. This meant that there was a significant amount of chaff winnowing to select the books that were going to be sold. That process gave publishers and editors a tremendous influence on the way we thought.
Being able to self-publish killed a lot of that. I’m finding the selection unfortunate because it means we have hordes of really poor authors competing with the better authors and readers looking desperately for better authors. It also means the good authors don’t have to work nearly as hard to stand out. Think of it like being chased by a lion. You don’t have to be fast, just faster than your former BFF.
At a time when we are flooded with reviews, suggestions, popularity lists and even a smattering of AI (designed mainly to get our money), it still doesn’t answer how do I find a good book. At one time, in order to sell your book, you had to be a good author, now all you have to do is be a mediocre author with good SEO skills. This has caused me to go back and reread a lot of the stories that I grew up with. To be honest, some of those authors aren’t nearly as good as I thought they were but they still stand out over the daily flood of recommended mediocrity. On the other hand, by going back and rereading these stories, I was able to examine a lot of what made me enjoy those stories, great characters.
Amazon and Audible have tried to be as fair as possible about book selections. They offer both previews and returns. They know you will encounter books you can’t stand but how about the ones that are almost good enough? You almost care about the character, you almost want to see what happens in the next chapter. How far do you go before you say enough is enough, I want my money back? Hint, when you find yourself rooting for the villain, it’s time to find another book.
You’re already sixty pages into the book and you don’t quite hate the main character. The villain is only marginally worse than any of our politicians. Actually, by comparison, this isn’t a bad book, it’s just not going to meet my threshold of entertainment per time consumed.
Being an engineer, I tend to think that everybody has an innate understanding and interest in technology. When I started writing, I concentrated on the technology because that was the interesting part to me. Don’t look so smug over there, your stories about romance, gardening and even about yourself, suffer from exactly the same problem. The characters are boring.
It’s taken me a long time to realize that technology only provides the background. It’s still the human equation that make the stories interesting. If I were to write a story describing how Tom created an antigravity field by modulating a plasma field at 90.23 gigahertz, unless you’re an engineer you probably won’t read very far into that. I know my wife would drop it about the third paragraph.
If, on the other hand, Tom just lost his Christmas bonus at the track because the horses weren’t nearly as into statistics as he was. He’s working late to avoid admitting this to his fiance. Still not believing his loss, he accidentally turns on a high frequency generator and everything hits the ceiling. He’s alone, the discovery is only marginally related to his work assignment. Does Tom give the invention to his company in hopes of another bonus or does he quit to develop it himself? If I can work in a Chinese agent willing to pay well for the discovery or kill Tom’s girlfriend, the book becomes even more interesting.
StarTrek was full of amazing technology, communicators, wireless earpieces, automatic doors, phasers, medical scanners (not quite here yet) but if I asked you what stands out in your mind, your answer would undoubtedly be the great characters. The technology was only a framework.
There’s a clue there, a really big clue for all of us aspiring writers. You can have wonderful descriptions in beautiful locations. Your settings of magic/technology can far exceed our wildest dreams. The whole universe can be at risk but unless your characters are interesting, your adoring fans are unlikely to be anything but your immediate family. Your characters are the story, everything else is only a prop for them to tell their story.
Please, we want you to succeed. There’s a lot of us searching desperately for a good book.
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