This reader has a few pet peeves. Most of the time I just avoid them, but once in a while I put them on a leash and take them for a stroll, because I am also a writer, and knowing where the peeve has gone lets me avoid annoying my readers. Just be careful where you step…
Why are there no more small stories? I don’t mean short stories, although I have just finished reading an excellent collection of crime stories by Frederic Brown that were perfectly small, and wonderful to read. No, I mean stories that aren’t about saving the world (from the last humans, of course), or the universe (ditto those evul hoomans), or about the last two people on earth (who should totally not reproduce, because Malthus). I ran across an article that is geared more toward films and games, but it applies to writing, as well. Perfectly wonderful tales can be constructed over no more than “whodunnit” to hark back to my reading this week. Dave Freer’s Crawlspace, if you haven’t read it, is a lovely story of rats, aliens, and murder in the wake of war, set in the Rats, Bats, and Vats universe. Even had I not already been a fan of the setting, I would have enjoyed it, and wanted more (I do, I do!). So why are we obsessed with the epic, the grand scale, the supremely awesomely apocalyptic view of the world? Genevieve Valentine writes, “The truth is that some stories are folk tales, not sagas; a tighter focus doesn’t make them inherently less worthy, and their stakes are no less crucial to the story for being closer to home.”
Which brings me to the other thing that makes me back away slowly from a book, series, or author. Huge, epic, sagas. Yes, those neverending, bulky goatgaggers that RR Martin has become so well known for, or the series that Robert Jordan died on, with no sight in end. I love big books, and have been known to shop based on spine thickness if I needed something to occupy me. Dave Freer has a beautiful series in the Heirs of Alexandria books along with Flint and Lackey, some of which are very long books, but they don’t annoy me. Why? I think it’s because they have a plot, and don’t meander all over the place info-dumping (Honor Harrington, I’m looking at you) hundreds of unnecessary pages. I used to avidly read the HH series, but have pretty much given up on it. Also, the longer a series goes, even if they aren’t fat books, the more attenuated they become. We were talking about the Xanth series the other day, and it seems everyone agrees that up through about book 5-6, they are fun, light reads, well worth the time. Afterward, they become bloated pun-fests the author himself despised, but couldn’t afford to stop writing. Are his other works any good? I don’t know. I read one other of Pier’s Anthony’s works, and it disturbed me on a level that makes me unwilling to ever open another of his books and risk that emotional response again.
I particularly can’t stand a book with no ending. I have bitter memories of trusted authors who did this (Tom Clancy), although with him there had previously been signs that the decline was coming. I don’t want to have to wait another year or more for the other half of the book. Why aren’t there more stand-alone novels? I reviewed one a while back, David Welch’s Chaos Quarter, which had a satisfying ending, and was tickled pink by that. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a series. I adore the Vorkosigan books. I wait eagerly for Kate Paulk’s next con book. There’re characters I laugh and love, and live with, not my own, but creations of another author’s mind, and I would be poorer without them. But these writers finish the story, they don’t just leave the poor heroes hanging out off the edge of the cliff, looking up sadly and saying ‘little help here?” for years at a time.
As a writer, I can take away that I need to make my characters worthy of my reader’s attention. I can put them in relatable situations, and it doesn’t have to be saving the universe. I must cut my books back from unruly hedgerow to neatly trimmed if I expect my reader to make their way through the plot maze without encountering a man-eating plant or something even more menacing. And above all, I must end my story. Leaving an opening for a sequel is fine, but as Daniel Hoyt taught me, the characters need that cigarette moment, to relax, and enjoy the afterglow, and the reader along with them.