What to Read in 2016?

It’s that time again – a new year and a new list of books to read. But first, a look back at 2015:

I created a list of 27 books to read in 2015 (read that list here), and I’m proud to say that I read 24 of them (and I’m halfway through the 25th). Four of those titles include Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle – finally! That series was well worth my investment of time.

I also started reading the Harry Potter series to my elder son last summer. I only planned to read The Philosopher’s Stone, unsure of what Peter would think of the British versions of the books (which I prefer over the American versions). The problem is that he’d never read anything without illustrations, and the British books don’t even have the little sketches at the beginning of every chapter, like the American ones. To my surprise, Peter fell in love with the series after he got over his initial indignation that he had to create all the pictures in his head. In fact, we just finished The Order of the Phoenix. (Also, for Christmas, my cousin bought Peter a copy of the gorgeous, fully illustrated Sorcerer’s Stone. “Now I know what Peeves looks like!” he told me while flipping through it.)

I made few detours from my anticipated list of books in 2015, but when I did, I was glad to do so. When someone hands me a book and says, “You have to read this,” or when my job requires me to pick a book for summer reading, or when my child gets enthusiastic about a new series, I’m happy to deviate. Still, I bought several new books during the year, understanding that I likely wouldn’t read them until 2016 – but they’ll show up on this year’s list.

One new venture I’m undertaking this spring is a book club for 4th through 6th graders at my school. We’re going to read The Lightning Thief, the first book of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, and if it’s popular enough to continue, we’ll tackle The Sea of Monsters. Either way, I’ll likely go ahead and read the rest of the books on my own. I’ve also bought a beautiful, illustrated companion book called Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods.

Borrowed Books 2016

Pile of Borrowed Books

Aside from re-reading these series and adding the few new books I’d bought earlier in the year, I was beginning to wonder what else I would read in 2016. I was considering putting a plea on Facebook until one afternoon a few weeks ago when I visited a different cousin. It turns out that his wife, a high school media specialist, is on a committee that’s reading all kinds of new young adult fiction. She has piles of books all over their condo that she’s received for being on this committee. And before I left, she hand-picked a number of books that she thought I would enjoy borrowing. She also gave me a recommendation for a book that she couldn’t relinquish (signed by the author) and which I received from Amazon this week.

Christmas Books 2015

Christmas Books!

In addition, Christmas is always a magical time for books at my house – I give, receive, and then buy them afterward. This year, I gave the first Sword of Summer book (Rick Riordan’s latest series on Norse gods) to my husband, and he gave me the second book of the Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) Cormoran Strike series. (Not pictured: the third book of that series, which I just ordered, and The 5th Wave, which I bought after taking the photo.) Lastly, two people gave me blank books this year – I love blank books! It’s taking me longer to fill them these days, but I will fill them.

Without further ado, following are the novels (plus one fun non-fiction title) that I read in 2015 (in chronological order):

  • The House of Hades (The Heroes of Olympus Book Four) by Rick Riordan
  • The Blood of Olympus (The Heroes of Olympus Book Five) by Rick Riordan
  • Paper Towns by John Green
  • Eragon (Inheritance Cycle Book I) by Christopher Paolini
  • Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
  • Eldest (Inheritance Cycle Book II) by Christopher Paolini
  • Brisingr (Inheritance Cycle Book III) by Christopher Paolini
  • Inheritance (Inheritance Cycle Book IV) by Christopher Paolini
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry
  • Still Alice by Lisa Genova
  • Talk to the Hand by Lynne Truss
  • Divergent by Veronica Roth
  • Insurgent by Veronica Roth
  • Allegiant by Veronica Roth
  • Four: A Divergent Collection by Veronica Roth
  • Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry
  • Messenger by Lois Lowry
  • Son by Lois Lowry
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
  • Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon
  • Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  • Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
  • All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • Lisey’s Story by Stephen King
  • Let It Snow by Maureen Johnson, John Green, and Lauren Myracle
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

And now for the 2016 list – coincidentally, 27 books again (including the two that I’m currently reading):

  • Feed by M.T. Anderson
  • Red Rising by Pierce Brown
  • And Another Thing… Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Part Six of Three by Eoin Colfer
  • Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen
  • Raven Queen by Pauline Francis
  • The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
  • The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
  • Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
  • Girls Like Us by Gail Giles
  • NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
  • I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
  • All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
  • The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book I) by Rick Riordan
  • The Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book II) by Rick Riordan
  • The Titan’s Curse (Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book III) by Rick Riordan
  • The Battle of the Labyrinth (Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book IV) by Rick Riordan
  • The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book V) by Rick Riordan
  • Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods by Rick Riordan
  • Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard (The Sword of Summer Book One) by Rick Riordan
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
  • Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
  • Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone
  • The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Martian by Andy Weir
  • The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
  • Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Summer 2015 Reading

Magical books

Magical books (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My last blog was all about the writing I’ve done this summer (and since then, I’ve achieved my Camp NaNoWriMo goal – yay!), but as any worthwhile author will tell you, you can’t write if you’re not reading. So I’ve been doing what a good writer should do, naturally.

The reading list that I set for myself this year is an ambitious one. (Read it here.) On it are 27 books, including several series. Christopher Paolini’s The Inheritance Cycle has been on my to-read list for three years now, and I finally finished it. But those books are dense and ate up a lot of my reading time. As I approached the halfway point through the year, I wondered how I was doing.

I’m happy to report that as of mid-July, I’ve finished 13 of the 27 books. Maybe Inheritance didn’t set me back too far, after all. Of course, I read a lot during our two-week vacation. I worried I was being overly ambitious when I packed the entire Divergent series, as well as a book that a friend lent to me a few months ago. But I read the whole borrowed book on the plane trip from east coast to west coast (Talk to the Hand by Lynne Truss – I highly recommend it, particularly if you’re a fan of British humor), and I plowed through all but a couple hundred pages of the Divergent series over the two weeks.

Ahead of me, I still have at least one doozy (Diana Gabaldon’s Written in My Heart’s Own Blood – all of the books in her Outlander series are formidable), plus Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series. I know I re-read it last year, but I want it to be fresh when the final movie comes out this fall. Also, I’ll start reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to my seven-year-old in the next week. I’m excited that he’s finally old enough to comprehend the story – we may have another Potter geek in the making.

Other than my non-fiction books (which I rarely list here, unless it’s what I consider entertaining non-fiction, such as Talk to the Hand), I’ve stuck to my book list pretty well. Early on, I decided to read Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone because I’d seen the movie and was interested in seeing what kind of extra character developments happened in the book. I’m glad I did. Woodrell’s use of language is unique, and as a writer, it’s always helpful to mix it up with a different style from time to time.

The only other detour I’ve made was Lisa Genova’s Still Alice (also a book-turned-movie). This was a book I had to read. I’m going back to teach full-time in the fall, and the faculty at my school has a summer reading list. Still Alice was the only novel on our list of choices. I’ve jotted down the titles of several non-fiction books that interest me, but I wanted a good story – and I got it. But frequent criers, keep your tissues handy.

I’m sticking to my list and loving it. I hope to finish Lois Lowry’s The Giver series by the time the kids go back to school (I’m halfway through the second book, Gathering Blue), and then I’ll keep plowing ahead.

And never fear – if I actually make it through this whole list, I already have several new books waiting. (She rubs her hands together and cackles with glee.)

What’s in a Title?

http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/88295374

Recently, when speaking with a group of kids about being an author, one of the questions was how to come up with the perfect title. Good lord, I wish I’d been able to give an adequate answer. Instead, I pointed out titles of books I knew they’d read, like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. It started the conversation, at least, but it didn’t give them a fool-proof formula. Such a thing doesn’t exist.

I used to keep a list of what I considered brilliant titles. The problem, of course, is that they have nothing to do with anything I’ve ever written. And even tougher than coming up with book titles was deciding what to call all those pesky chapters lurking between the covers. (It never occurred to me until recently that I could just use “Chapter One” or simply “1.”)

It’s not just the little people like me who deal with this. I’m re-reading Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle, and while the book titles are decent, the chapter titles are inconsistent and often the pits. Yes, this is opinion speaking, but whenever I read some of them, I think, This guy was trying way too hard. Other times it seems like he just gave up. The first couple times I read these books, I didn’t give the chapter titles much thought, but this time around, I’m in a pickier mood. (Recently, I heard of a scholar who criticized the Bible for using subtitles for the various sections. It gives away what’s about to happen, she says. While I discounted her argument at the start, it’s niggled me enough to make me write this post.)

Unless you’re writing cookbooks or some other form of non-fiction, in which you need chapter titles and subtitles for quick reference’s sake, why bother with fiction? At first I thought it might just be a young adult thing, but then I remembered an adult series, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, which uses chapter titles throughout. While these are great books, the chapter titles leave a lot to be desired. Sometimes they’re melodramatic (“I Shall Go Down to the Sea”), and sometimes they kind of act as mini spoilers (“In Which Jamie Smells a Rat”). Other chapter titles read like throw-away lines that simply reminded the author what she was writing about in this particular chunk.

What I find most helpful are chapter titles that place the reader. For instance, in Rick Riordan’s The Heroes of Olympus series (great books, by the way), the chapter titles are simply characters’ names. Although narrated completely in third person, this tells the reader whose perspective is represented in each chapter. (The only problem I see with this is when you accidentally open to the last chapter and see that it’s narrated by a character that the author wants you to believe is dead. Whoops.)

Both Stephenie Meyer and Veronica Roth used this character-name approach in books later in their series (Twilight and Divergent, respectively). This is especially helpful, considering these books are both narrated first person. Paolini tries it once in Eldest. It’s the first time he switches to a perspective other than Eragon’s. Instead, it’s his cousin Roran, and the oh-so-imaginative title of Roran’s first chapter? Right, it’s “Roran.” Which I would be fine with if other chapters weren’t titled “Requiem” or “The Beginning of Wisdom.” Like I said, sometimes he tried too hard, and others, he didn’t try hard enough.

I know, for someone who admittedly can’t write a good title unless she just lucks into it, why am I complaining? I guess I’m really not. I’m just wondering aloud (or in print). Chapter titles are convenient if you have a table of contents. And there are some brilliant ones out there. “The Boy Who Lived” comes to mind. (Please tell me you understand that reference – but just in case you don’t, it’s from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. What a great chapter title to pull you right into an amazing series.) So I guess they can’t all be bad. I’d just like some consistency, please.

Until reading Outlander and re-reading Eragon, I never gave chapter titles much thought. Some books have them, and others don’t. But now that I’ve started thinking about them so much, I know I’m going to scrutinize everything I read. Do I make predictions when there are titles, or do I forget the titles as soon as I finish reading them? Out of curiosity, I’ve picked a few books, different genres, different time periods, a diverse range of authors, and here’s what I’ve found:

Books with Chapter Titles:

Books with Only Numbered Chapters:

Books with Part Titles but No Chapter Titles:

There are other books that defy these kinds of categorizations, such as John Green’s Looking for Alaska and Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. To see their unique chapter distinctions, I guess you’ll just have to check them out.

After looking back at all these books, some of which I’ve enjoyed multiple times, I realize that the chapter titles (or not) aren’t what I usually take away. Only when they get in the way are they problematic, such as with Outlander and Eragon. Yet with The Heroes of Olympus and Harry Potter, they actually helped orient me in the fictional worlds I was visiting – and sometimes even encouraged me to keep turning the pages. (She’s finally going to tell us about horcruxes! Oh wait, she isn’t. Darn, I guess I’ll just have to read another chapter…)

There isn’t a right or wrong way – or even one type of book that must follow one particular format. If I could, this is what I’d tell that middle school girl who asked me about titles: write what feels natural. If coming up with a creative name for each chapter feels contrived, don’t do it. But if titles are your thing, give them a try. At the end of the day, writing your story is the most important thing; fiction titles really should be secondary.

It seems that authors pick what they deem right for whichever books they’re writing at the time. After going over all the different types of chapter designations on my shelves, it’s obvious that I can’t just throw out one or another; there are some pretty awesome books that I don’t want to miss out on just because their chapter titles might put an idea in my head about some possible outcome.

Besides, you never know when an author is trying to trick you. Sometimes they can be pretty sneaky.

Happy 2015 Book List!

Score! Christmas Books

Score! Christmas Books

The past two years, I’ve created lists of books that I hoped to read in the upcoming year, and here I am, doing it again. 2014’s list was much more ambitious than 2013’s (23 books versus 14), and I am proud to say that I finished 17 of them. And I even got way sidetracked for a while. (Some of the books that sidetracked me I won’t ever read again, but at least they gave me blog fodder.)

I enjoy making this list just after Christmas because this is the time of year when people get generous and give me books, gift cards to bookstores, or both. This year being no exception, I am prepared to meet 2015 with lots of new fiction.

New Books!

New Books!

First of all, I am going to vow right now that 2015 will be the year that I finish Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle. It’s been on my list two years now, and I just can’t leave those books hanging any longer. The first three are slow-paced, but my husband assures me that the last one really picks up, so I’m just going to knuckle down and read them.

A wonderful thing that’s happened in the past few months is that my first grader has gotten into chapter books. It wasn’t until he was almost six that we realized that he has several learning disabilities, and he’s a poor audio learner, so reading books without pictures went right over his head. But since we’ve been helping him with his working memory and dyslexia, I’ve noticed a huge improvement in his reading ability and comprehension. This summer, I plan to start reading Harry Potter to Peter, and I hope he gets as much joy out of that series as I do.

If you’re interested in reading my previous years’ fiction lists, here are 2013 and 2014, and here are the books that I actually finished in 2014:

The Rim of the Prairie by Bess Streeter Aldrich

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

The Scorch Trials by James Dashner

The Death Cure by James Dashner

The Kill Order by James Dashner

An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Looking for Alaska by John Green

11/22/63 by Stephen King

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

The Host by Stephenie Meyer

The Lost Hero (Heroes of Olympus, Book 1) by Rick Riordan

The Son of Neptune (Heroes of Olympus, Book 2) by Rick Riordan

The Mark of Athena (Heroes of Olympus, Book Three)
by Rick Riordan

Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

The Casual Vacancy by J.K Rowling

Mark My Words: Mark Twain on Writing by Mark Twain

And here are the books I plan to read this year:

And Another Thing… Douglas Adams`s Hitchhiker`s Guide to the Galaxy Part Six of Three by Eoin Colfer

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling)

Let It Snow: Three Holiday Romances by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle

Paper Towns by John Green

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan

Lisey’s Story by Stephen King

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Gathering Blue by Lois Lowry

Messenger by Lois Lowry

Son by Lois Lowry

Eragon (Inheritance, Book 1)by Christopher Paolini

Eldest (Inheritance Cycle, Book 2) by Christoopher Paolini

Brisingr (Inheritance Cycle, Book 3) by Christopher Paolini

Inheritance (Inheritance Cycle, Book 4) by Christoopher Paolini

The House of Hades (Heroes of Olympus, Book 4) by Rick Riordan

The Blood of Olympus (Heroes of Olympus, Book 5) by Rick Riordan

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Allegiant by Veronica Roth

Four: A Divergent Collection by Veronica Roth

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I know it’s a long list, but I have lots of hope to finish a good number of these. Some are brand new, some beloved repeats. And I hope to be interrupted by books as yet undiscovered. (I’m always up for suggestions!)

Happy reading in 2015!

Why Do Authors Write Such Depressing Books for Adolescents?

It’s Thanksgiving, and I am actually ahead on my blog for the week – and that’s something to be very thankful for.

Thanks to Scarlett Van Dijk for hosting my post on her blog this week. I had a lot of fun writing it. It’s my answer (or at least a part of the answer) to the question of why authors seem to write so much depressing material for adolescents. Check it out here, and then spend some more time with Scarlett’s blog; I think you’ll enjoy it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sarah

 

When Books Disappoint

English: Open book icon

English: Open book icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was so proud of myself earlier this year: I’d created my 2014 book list, and I stuck to it. I read nine of the 23 books on that list in the first quarter of the year. That’s pretty good, right? I could even afford to get a little sidetracked. Which I did as soon as my birthday hit in April. Yes, I kept plugging away at my book list, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to treat myself to some new fiction.

I love books, but I also love my goals – to a fault. I’ll drive myself (and my family) crazy with them. At war with myself over the new books that I want to read and the books that I already own that I should read, usually the new fiction wins. I mean, it has the whole excitement factor with it. And in April, I discovered two new-to-me authors, both young adult. I can blame a movie trailer for one, and the other came recommended by several people. If you read this post in April, you may even know which books I’m talking about.

Being the dutiful goal-reacher that I am, I continued reading whatever it was I was in the middle of at the time, and I let my husband go ahead and read the new books. We were particularly excited about the newly-purchased series, whose first book-to-movie adaptation was due to be released in theatres over the summer.

As soon as Thomas finished the first book and moved on to the second, I had to know: “Was it as good as we thought?”

Poor dude. He didn’t want to burst my bubble. His answer was, “Well, it’s not The Hunger Games or Divergent.”

But of course, what is? I set my standards pretty high, but at the end of the day, I don’t want to read books that are just like the ones that I already like. I want variety, originality. But I also want excellence.

So I eventually got around to the series and plunged right in. It wasn’t a challenging read, but that’s okay. It was more action-oriented, which I already expected, after seeing the movie trailer. It also raised a lot of questions, which I love. But…

I was getting toward the end of the book, pretty much after the big plot reveal. Of course, the plot was still moving forward because there are sequels, but things were winding down. Then something gruesome happened, something that was written purely for its shock value. This one scene was written 1) to freak out the characters and 2) to appeal to the adolescent male readership. Marketing is important; I get it. There was still hope for the overall story. On to Book 2.

The weirdness continued. Gruesome and sometimes unexplainable (or explained on a very rickety foundation) things happened. The characters were baffled, so we were in the same boat. The story ended. The loose ends that got tied up didn’t make much sense. But there was still hope for Book 3.

Can you guess what happened? I was very dissatisfied with the ending of Book 3. And since it’s adolescent lit, I’ll put it in adolescent terms: it sucked.

Now, Sarah, you may be thinking, aren’t you being a little hypocritical? Aren’t you okay with not-happy endings?

Oh, there’s a big difference. If the not-happy ending is justified, if it’s realistic, if it fits with the character of the story, I’ll buy it. I may be very broken up about it, but I’ll bow to the author’s decision. But you know what? I still had an inkling of hope. Because there was a fourth book. Although it’s a prequel and wouldn’t change the crappy ending, I was hoping for some kind of explanation or justification. And the prequel gave an answer – sort of. It was still a very unbelievable premise for why things happened the way they did throughout the series, but I guess for 13-year-old boys, they’d buy it. I mean, people die and get shot up, so it’s all cool, right? I mean, as long as the hero gets the girl (doesn’t matter which girl), we can all go home happy.

I grasped for anything that could save these books in my very discriminating eyes, but a scene in that final book kind of killed the whole series for me. I won’t spoil what actually happened, but I’ll give you a for-instance:

Say we have a novel with zombies. They’re so in right now, so why not? So let’s have our protagonists being chased down a residential street by zombies. The only way they will survive is if they can get inside one of these deserted houses and lock the door. So what do they do? They outrun the zombies and make it into a house, and the zombies are so far behind that they feel pretty good about their hiding place.

Except.

Except the last idiot in through the door neglects to lock it. Not only that – she doesn’t even shut it! So when the zombies catch up, brainless as they are, they’re eventually going to try the wide-open door, right? But that’s okay because it makes for great tension, and when the girl realizes her idiotic mistake and has to kill a zombie in the process of slamming and locking the door, it will bring up all kinds of questions about life and death that she can now explore, and – BOOM! – we have an opportunity for character development.

Wait – you’re not cool with that? It ticks you off that she left the door open because no person in the world would possibly do that? Well, in this book that I read, although there aren’t zombies, something very similar happened, and it ticked me off that an editor would ever let something that flagrantly unrealistic pass. It was a device, and neither a subtle nor a good one, at that.

But, Sarah, these are kids’ books. Don’t be so hard on the author.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Yes, kids’ books are written differently because the audience is different, but a terrible device is a terrible device, no matter the target age. And since the advent of Harry Potter, it’s not only become acceptable but expected that parents will read this fiction, too. Not because they’re screening it for their kids (although they do that, too) but for their own enjoyment. And it’s not just the parents. People of all ages, with and without kids, read YA lit now. And they’ve come to expect excellence, just like I do, because audiences of all ages deserve as much, right? So what if 13-year-old boys don’t appreciate all the nuances yet? Give them excellence, and they’ll appreciate it, even if they can’t articulate why. It’s like a taste test. You may not realize how awful that cardboard-tasting cake is until you taste the real thing, but once you’ve had that taste, don’t ever try to pass cardboard for the good stuff again.

I’m glad that people write lit that will excite young boys. What a difficult demographic to please! But after finishing that last book and reading some of the reviews, I saw that I wasn’t the only reader who was underwhelmed. Several expressed the hopes that a fifth book might be published, in order to right all the wrongs of the previous four. Others were outright disgusted in what they’d originally thought was the greatest series they’d ever read. And what’s sad is that it could have been a “greatest series.” I know the author has the talent. There would have been lots of changes, sure, lots of work, but he could have pulled it off.

Oh well, you win some, you lose some, right? It’s not like this is the first time I’ve ever been disappointed. And as my mom tells me whenever I come across something I don’t like, I can at least take notes and know what not to do, myself. So it wasn’t an entirely wasted experience. The author made me care for most of the characters, and the story had some cool elements. It just… wasn’t executed all that well. And I suppose that’s the most annoying part. When something has potential, when it’s grasping but doesn’t quite reach, I’m so much more disappointed than I would be if I had no hope for the book to begin with.

It kind of gives me hope that if those novels can be so successful, maybe someone will look at mine.

Or maybe the author just had a favorite uncle in the publishing industry. Gosh, I’m cynical tonight.

On the bright side, the other novelist I discovered at the time was John Green. And boy, does he ever deliver. So my birthday books weren’t a total bust, after all.

Does the Genre Really Matter?

All seven books in the Harry Potter series in ...

All seven books in the Harry Potter series. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wanted: Good fiction.

To be more specific, fiction that draws me in right from the start. Fiction in which the characters are believable, in which I can hear the dialogue in my mind. Fiction that makes me think, raises tough questions, makes me cry, makes me emote. Fiction that makes me want to talk to someone else about it. Fiction that saddens me when it’s over.

I like to think that if I were a literary agent, that’s what I would list under my “interests.” Because, try as I might, I can’t pin down a favorite style or genre. Now, there are certain things that I definitely don’t like. Mediocre writing, inconsistency, lack of craft. Like I said, I want the characters to be believable. If the debutante protagonist has never scrambled an egg in her life, I won’t believe it when she whips a six-course meal out of thin air. (Unless she’s magic, of course – and if she is, I better have a hint of it first.) I don’t want adverbs trying to tell me how desperately someone says something. Show me the desperation with a sweaty brow and shaking hands. I don’t want plots that are so insubstantial they can be knocked over by a sneeze.  I don’t want endings that are unrealistically happy or tragedies that are unnecessary, the only point being to make the reader cry.

I really just want a good story, one in which I can forget that I’m reading at all.

This is why labels kind of bother me. Romances, for instance. Label it like that, and I don’t want to read it. Why? Because all the romance novels I saw growing up had half-naked men massaging busty women’s shoulders on their front covers, and I really don’t want to read a novel that’s connected by one sex scene after another. So I was shocked to discover a truly excellent book that is sold in the romance section. Although the story revolves around a love story (or stories, really), it’s so much more than that. I’m speaking of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.

Or take the case of my friend who told me that he could not stand to read fantasy. Wouldn’t give Harry Potter the time of day because of how it’s categorized. I’ve known other people who won’t read these wonderful books, not because of the fantasy and magic, but because they’re so-called “kids’ stuff.” Well, if kids’ stuff comes with a side of good beating the crap out of evil, I’m on board with it.

How about Stephen King? He’s known as the king of horror, yet while he started that way, his more recent books (and my favorites) are much more sci-fi, fantasy, and I-don’t-know-what. They’re just good stories. Not to mention that the guy knows how to write and how to instruct writers how to write. Chances are, if you call him a hack, you haven’t read much beyond Cujo or Pet Sematary.

When I looked for beta readers for my novel RIP, I decided to go the vague route. People asked, “What’s it about?” or “What genre is it?” I told them that it was young adult, and fortunately, my beta readers were kind enough to read because they know me. One actually told me he wouldn’t have usually read that kind of book, but he was glad that he did. Good thing I kept my mouth shut, right?

But, as I posted a couple weeks ago, I was able to workshop a portion of my novel with an agent, and in my introduction, I told her it was young adult. It was almost as if, by giving that tiny bit of a description, it put blinders on her. My book was much too long. She was unwilling to consider almost anything about the content until I addressed the length. Young adult novels generally have a word count, and mine exceeded it by double. (Nevermind that books like Twilight are half again as long as mine.) Now, she is right: there are many thousands of words that I can cut, but shouldn’t she be trying to sell a story, not a word count? (That’s an issue for another blog.)

This whole issue has gotten me thinking: does labeling novels with a genre help or hinder? If I had just told the agent: here’s the beginning of my novel, would she have judged me for not nailing down a genre?

I don’t go through bookstores and read book jackets or first pages until I find something I think I want, but many other people find their books by following this practice. (Or if not in a bookstore, online.) What about someone who only picks books from the Christian lit shelves? This person might never consider reading Veronica Roth’s Divergent series because it’s sold as young adult and dystopian – would completely miss the way that Roth’s Christianity colors her novels.

While talking books with a friend recently, we got onto young adult lit, specifically John Green‘s books (which are awesome, by the way – do yourself a favor, and read them). My friend said, in a semi-surprised tone, that he’d gone on a young adult lit binge lately. And he’s in his forties with no kids. I find this wonderful – that a book written “for” an audience in their teens can speak to such a wider audience.

Of course, I totally get that if there were no classifications, I could very well mistakenly shop my novel with agents who are only interested in political thrillers or erotica. And marketing is another issue. No matter what, there are people who will refuse to read anything except X, even though they would really enjoy Y, if only they would give it a chance.

But it seems, in the effort to makes genres more attractive to more people, sub-genres have to be added. You ought to check out this list from Writer’s Digest. And it’s not even complete! I just heard of a new genre called New Adult. Each genre and sub-genre has its own little specifications, and if you hope to publish, you have to try to fit the mold. Well, what if I don’t want to? What if I just want to write or read a good book? What if I want to mull it over afterward and then say, “I think I just read a really good Western. Who knew? I never thought I would enjoy a book like that.”

All I’m asking for is a little bit more of an open mind. From agents, publishers, and readers, alike. Hey, I’ll try to have one, too.

I suppose this is why I’m not a big publishing executive. The bottom line is important, I know. Believe me, I want to make a living in this business, too. But at the end of the day, piles of money aren’t going to captivate me. But a great story will every time.