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Some of my favorite novels are ones in which nothing much happens. That’s not to say that nothing at all happens, or that the stakes aren’t sometimes raised, but the story unfolds in a leisurely, unrushed sort of way, allowing me to feel like I’m really getting to know the characters and being allowed to inhabit their lives. In fact, I’m so fascinated by the characters and the setting, I feel wrapped up in a different world and don’t feel the slightest bit bored.

My favorite example of this kind of writing is (no surprise here) Anne of Green Gables and sequels, in which we basically get a window into the life of Anne Shirley and get to watch her grow up. She has victories and struggles, sadness and happiness, and a penchant for getting into scrapes, but there are no real antagonists or villains, no sweeping natural disasters, no explosions. There is the occasional gentle mystery, but that’s about it. I find reading these books to be profoundly restful.

Other examples include the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace and much of Jane Austen’s oeuvre, Little Women and even Jane Eyre. I wonder if Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day could also fall in this category; indeed, perhaps that is part of the reason why I love it so much. Dramatic events happen but there’s plenty of time for the build-up to them and ample space to discuss social events, meals, and daily life.

These books are in stark contrast to the plot-driven fast-paced novel that is currently in vogue (at least in my part of the literary world). Cut cut cut, the advice for writers says. Every scene has to move the plot forward. Commercial fiction needs an antagonist, or maybe even a series of antagonists that lead up to the final Big Boss. I can read a screenwriting manual like Save the Cat! and find it completely relevant to novel-writing because so many novels feel at least somewhat like long-form movies, except instead of fancy cinematography they have ripples of beautifully garlanded prose. Meanwhile, these slow-paced books I’m talking about? They’re made into mini-series and too many versions of artsy costume films.

I want more of these books I love. I want to read books that have a plot but aren’t raising the stakes every five minutes. I want to read books that don’t have predictable plot twists because there aren’t so many plot twists to fit in, and that don’t have cliffhangers at each chapter ending because they are relying on enchantment rather than adrenaline to keep you reading. I want to read books that, while they don’t go off on hundred-page-long tangents like Hermann Melville is famous for doing, meander a little bit on their way to the ending. I want comfort food books in which nothing too awful happens, or at least, not too terribly often. I want more Agatha Christie novels in which, inevitably, justice is served in the end, and even in the face of brutal murders, characters carry on having dinner parties and taking care of their mustaches. I want more screwball comedies like To Say Nothing of the Dog in which the main character can’t remember what he is to do, takes a lazy trip down the Thames, returns a cat, and has to engage in some complicated matchmaking. Sure, the stakes are that the entire fabric of time could unravel, but did anyone feel really worried that such a thing would actually happen? I know I didn’t.

I don’t know if this desire makes me old-fashioned or out of touch. I’d like to think that somewhere out there is a cohort of readers who want the same things I want, who sometimes like to take a break from the page-turners and convoluted plot machinations, or the implausible series of misunderstandings and caricatured character flaws that so often characterize a less plot-driven novel. I’d like to think that this is why novels like Pride and Prejudice are still so popular.

But don’t mind me. I’ll just be curling up by the fire with A Civil Campaign by Lois McMaster Bujold. Or maybe Among Others by Jo Walton, which is my new comfort book find of the year.

Have any comfort reading recommendations? Think I’m crazy to not always want the stakes raised? Please share.

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I’ll be at World Fantasy Convention in San Diego for the rest of the week, so if you’re also here, please feel free to find me and say hi! I’ll be participating in the Crossed Genres reading on Sunday at 10am (suite number not yet announced), so if you want to be able to say you witnessed my very first reading ever, you know where to be.
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On Tuesday night my husband and I went on a date night to see The Adjustment Bureau. During the car ride home, I proceeded to tear the movie apart: partly its plot (especially the end, ouch) and partly its portrayal of women. My direct quote: “Was this movie written by people who hate women?” Yeah, not pretty. (Also, just for the record, this movie is urban fantasy, not science fiction.)

Well, at least the poster is pretty.

While I could easily spend an entire blog post critiquing this movie (and wouldn’t my snark be amusing?), I’m going to restrain myself and instead point out something else. If I had watched this movie three years ago, I would have thought it was mildly entertaining and left it at that (except the end. I still would have thought the end was stupid.) I wouldn’t have noticed the negative depiction of women, and I definitely wouldn’t have noticed the issues I had with the plot.

Becoming a writer has changed me in many ways, not the least of which is the way that I engage with entertainment. I read differently, and I watch TV series and movies differently. If I still played video games, I’d probably experience them differently too. Even when I force my mind out of critique mode (which I can usually do if the errors in front of me aren’t super egregious), I notice aspects of the narrative that I never saw before. I think about conflict, I think about stakes, and I think about character motivations. And I notice when women are being portrayed as playing pieces instead of fully realized characters.

When I’m not enjoying a novel, instead of just putting it aside, I start to analyze why it isn’t working for me. Are there too many info dumps, or is the beginning too slow? Do I not understand or buy into the world building ? Does a character’s voice not ring true? Or is it merely a personal preference issue? (I tend to bounce off fairly dense prose with large amounts of description. Sometimes I can objectively see that this is good, but it doesn’t matter. I’m still bored out of my mind.)

When I am enjoying a novel, I try to pay attention to why I’m loving it so much. What combination of techniques is the author using to give me such a reader happy? How is that Guy Gavriel Kay switches POVs and tenses as much as he does without making me hate the book? How is it that Suzanne Collins keeps the pace so breathless in The Hunger Games?

I don’t usually mind this interference. It sounds awful, and if I had known about it ahead of time, it might have given me pause. But in reality, it’s kind of like a nerdy, intellectual game. It’s fun to be able to have solid reasons to put behind my opinions. It’s even entertaining to have debates on the relative merits and drawbacks of a certain work.

But perhaps most importantly, I haven’t merely learned how to read or view media differently. Becoming a writer has changed how I see and understand the world and its history, present, and future. It has changed how I see the people in that world. And I wouldn’t give that up for anything.

If you’re a writer, how has it changed how you read or experience the world? If you’re not a writer, have you encountered something else that has had a similar effect on you?

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I didn’t used to read much YA fiction (otherwise known as Young Adult, otherwise known as Teen). But once I decided that I wanted to write in the YA genre, I felt it behooved me to get to know the current marketplace a little better. So around two or two and a half years ago, I became an avid reader of YA. 

The funny thing is, I was thrilled to be reading it. I would gleefully hang out in the YA section of the bookstore and collect a stack of glossy, intriguing novels that I couldn’t wait to read. It hadn’t occurred to me to shop in the Teen section for years, except when I was checking to make sure Robin McKinley didn’t have a new book out. But now that I had a Serious Purpose, (reading YA was research after all, and research is work!) I quickly developed a YA habit.

I recently suggested to a friend of mine on Twitter that she blog about what it is she likes about speculative YA (because speculative is her thing). After reading her post, I began thinking about why I like YA, and I came to realize that really what I was thinking about was why I like YA as an adult. I’m not alone in this preference either; I keep reading how more and more adults are reading YA. Perhaps it began with Harry Potter (although technically some of Harry Potter is MG (middle grade) fiction, but I’m splitting hairs), and perhaps it continued with Twilight. But it hasn’t stopped there. (There are many articles about this subject. Here’s a sample.)

So here is my list of reasons I like to read YA (hooray, a list!):

1. Close POV: I love reading in close POV. I really enjoy first person, but I also like close 3rd. As a reader, I don’t tend to like head-hopping and massive numbers of POVs quite as well (although there are exceptions, if well done). Most YA these days is in close POV, and the majority in first person. (Granted, some of it is in first person present tense, of which I wasn’t such a fan, but I’ve gradually become more accustomed to it.)

2. Pacing: Generalization alert! While not always true (unfortunately), I’ve found that on the whole YA authors pay more attention to pacing issues in their novels. They’re exciting, they’re suspenseful, I want to find out what happens next, and the chapters end on a rise that makes it hard to put the book aside and go to sleep.

3. Plot Tropes: I enjoy many of the common plot tropes featured in YA. I’m also a fan of John Hughes, so there you go. I like reading about the social dynamics of high school because I still find them truly fascinating (it helps that I’ve spent a lot of time with teens in the past several years so high school doesn’t feel so far removed from my life). I am generally fond of dystopias, which are hot hot hot right now in YA. I also like love triangles, budding romance, forbidden love, and family conflict, other staples of the genre. And I haven’t yet gotten tired of coming-of-age stories.

4. Life as Discovery: I love seeing the world (whether our modern-day world, the future, or another world altogether) through the eyes of a teenager. I love watching as they experiment, question, and explore what it is to be alive. I love the ambiguities and moral dilemmas they face. I love how even the most cynical teenage character doesn’t know as much as she thinks she does. I love the potential, that this character is still at the outset of his life and so many things are possible for him. The teenage years (and early 20s) are a time of big change and discovery for most people, and I love to read about it and watch the characters unfold.

5. Kick-Ass Female Protagonists: More YA is directed towards females than males. I hear this fact bemoaned time and time again, because we want to be encouraging male teens to read too, etc. etc. And I don’t disagree. But I love the female protagonists of so many YA books. They aren’t kick ass in a way that seems really far removed from my life (see some adult urban fantasy); they’re kick ass while struggling and staying real. If they have a special talent, they usually don’t have complete mastery over it. They make bad decisions, they’re swayed by their feelings and prejudices, sometimes they’re even just plain petty. It’s such a relief to read about these flawed teenage heroines, who are brave and silly at the same time. Because I am brave and silly at the same time too.

I could probably think of several more reasons I enjoy YA, but now it’s your turn. What aspects of YA do you most enjoy?

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