Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Falling in love, one book at a time

by A.M. Khalifa, thriller writer, Google+

The Story Book, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Photo by Mary D. Keeler Bequest (Creative Commons)

Recently, Peg Brantley wrote a great piece on the various criteria that force her to abandon a book. For avid readers, book-dumping is sacrilegious. But as competition heats up in the book market, ditching a lousy one to make way for more inspired reading is something we’re all getting used to.

Peg’s post and the lively debate that ensued touched upon key things that every author should pay attention to, such as failure to capture a reader's interest immediately, unlikable characters, factual errors, and implausible plots.

Each one of us has a clear notion of what makes an unreadable book, and the infractions an author can commit to leave us no option but to eject them without a parachute. But what about the books we fall in love with? I don’t mean books we really like, but the sort of works that take over your life while you are reading them and then render you forever beholden to the author’s spell.

Love is the operative term here. When I am reading an amazing book, it feels like a passionate romance, rather than a one-night stand. And it has to be love at first sight—I've never fallen madly in love with a book that failed to excite me from the opening line. When I'm smitten in a relationship with a great book, I can’t wait to finish whatever it is I am doing to get back to it. It’s the first thing on my mind when I wake up, and the last thing I think of before going to bed. In some cases I may even dream about it.

The perfect book is like a highly addictive drug. You don't have to nudge yourself to read it. In my case, while I can't wait to find out what happens next, I start getting withdrawal symptoms when I know I've read more than what I have left. Like all powerful addictions, a great book leaves you longing for more. So you scour the universe for everything else this writer has penned, and every piece of news, gossip or social media murmurs about what they could possibly be working on next. You'll even snoop around for fan fiction if you are quite desperate. And of course you start evangelizing on behalf of the book and its writer, like it was your new religion.

Outstanding books rob you of your sense of time and reality, like a mystical or transcendental experience. They displace you from your physical reality and immerse you in the dimensions expertly crafted by the author. At the very least, you will connect with the characters and wish you were with them in the same room, or that you could speak to them, befriend them, even fall in love with them. And in some cases, your connection with a character is so profound, you almost start morphing into them. The Life of Pi by Yann Martel and IQ84 by Haruki Murakami are two such stories that had this effect on me.

Invariably, a truly sublime book is one that expands your horizons and introduces you to worlds, concepts and emotions you weren't familiar with before you picked it up, but with which you become obsessed. And I don’t necessarily mean that all great books have to be educational. But I think they have to show you things you wouldn't have otherwise been able to see on your own.

When you’ve finished reading a book that fundamentally absorbs you, your own life and reality will seem a little insipid by comparison. And you will feel nostalgic for the daily company of its leading characters. Like best friends or family members that have left you behind.

As a writer, I too aspire for my readers to fall in love instantaneously with my writing. To be addicted to, be transposed and surprised by my stories. I want to be able to write the sort of book that would keep a reader logged in my universe long after they've put it down. Maybe even one that could change a few lives in the process. It's a tall order, but it gives me something to strive for.

Fellow writers, is your writing informed and influenced by how your favorite books impacted you? And readers, what's your definition of a great book?

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A.M. Khalifa's critically acclaimed debut novel, Terminal Rage, was recently described by Publishers Weekly as "dizzying, intricate, and entertaining." 

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  1. Aymen, I'm so lucky I get to feel that way when I'm editing great novels - like your Terminal Rage! Which is a good thing, because my leisure reading time is so limited these days, as is my attention span, because too many practical tasks are demanding my attention. Hopefully this will change after my move across the country, when I get settled into my new place.

    I loved this paragraph of yours above:

    Invariably, a truly sublime book is one that expands your horizons and introduces you to worlds, concepts and emotions you weren't familiar with before you picked it up, but with which you become obsessed. And I don’t necessarily mean that all great books have to be educational. But I think they have to show you things you wouldn't have otherwise been able to see on your own.

    I'm so fortunate to have reached the stage in my editing career where I attract top-notch novelists with fabulous characters and stories, so I get to experience this from my editing! And I get to help make very good and excellent stories stellar. It's incredibly satisfying and rewarding.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Aymen! I jumped on your book when you first contacted me because the characters and subject fired my passion, and your talent as a writer and your own passion for your story were evident!

      I wouldn't say I get to decide if a book lives or not, though! LOL. But when one really grabs me to the point where I can't wait to get involved with those characters and that story, I love finding ways to make them stronger, more believable, and more compelling.

      And it's so satisfying!

  2. What a great post, Aymen! From a writer's standpoint, my writing is definitely influenced by how my favorite books impacted me. I've always been drawn to first person narrative tales because they put ME right in the middle of the action. (You know that this is evident by my writing style.) As a reader, my life has absolutely been touched on so many levels by certain books, stories, and poems. These are the ones that I can't help but re-devour when the mood strikes, despite a rather lengthy TBR list. Certain works grab hold of your heart, as well as your brain, and refuse to let you go.

  3. Thank you, Aymen, as an avid reader, you said exactly what I feel when I read book. In addition to the the two books you mentioned I have, I need to share with you "Roma" by Steven Saylor, "The Caligrapher's Daughter" by Eugenia Kim and finally "The Street of a Thousand Blossoms" by Gail Tsukiyama. The last two show a world we rarely know. From, Rome to Seoul to Tokyo, you can also add Carlos Ruiz Zafòn for Madrid. These books are part of my life like old friends. Thank you for giving a voice to the readers as well :-)

  4. Great blog A.M.!

    As an author, my writing is not influenced by what I read. I'd say it is more influenced by life than anything else. Because I love exploring people and how they love, what they love, and the challenges one faces when loving others -- and ultimately, themselves.

    As a reader, I've always been a devourer of romances. From as far back as I can remember, romances were just the loves of my life. To this day, I adore romance -- reading AND writing it.

    However, it's a rare book that can touch my heart or impact my world. When a book can make me tear up, I hold on to it. When it can make me laugh out loud, even better. When it can make me angry...you get the picture. But like I said, that's rare. One such book is a young adult book I still read once a year since I was in middle school -- The Wind Blows Backward; it, to this day, can make tear up while I read it, even though I know what's going to happen.

    It is the same with movies for me. It's a rare movie that can make me clap out loud in excitement at the ending (like V for Vendetta had me going YES!!!) but when a movie can get some sort of physical response from me, it's my favorite for life.

    So when I write, I want to evoke a physical and emotional response in the reader. Even if they HATE my character, that is better than indifference. And that is, to me, excellent writing.

    See you later ;)

  5. To be honest, I wouldn't need even one hand to count the "great" books I've read in my life. And those books were written by authors with very different voices than my own and read by me before I even understood what voice was.

    L.J. Sellers set an example for me that I've tried to incorporate into each of my books: put a spotlight on a social issue while providing some good entertainment. What that has tended to do is spark some conversation among book club members and other readers, and made me feel as if I had made a tiny bit of difference.

  6. Wow! Amazing post, Aymen! That's exactly how I feel when I read a good book.

  7. Hi Aymen! Another thought-provoking post :)

    Some of Dean Koontz's (Dark Rivers of the Heart, From the Corner of his Eye, Intensity) and Clive Barker's earlier works (Imagica, The Great & Secret Show), had such an effect on me. What was so special about these particular books? Dean Koontz had a way of exploring the darkest and brightest depths of human nature that always lifts me. Clive Barker had a way of opening my mind up to possibilities and concepts that are, literally, out of this world, and jaw-droppingly creative. There are many other authors who have written what I would class as great reads.

    Have they influenced me to write the same way? If they have, it's very much subliminal. I don't consciously write like them. What do I want my readers to get from my books? A few hours of good fun and escapism. The need to keep turning the pages to see what happens next. A feeling of the book being worth what they paid for it. At this point in time, I'm not aiming to deliver any particular strong messages with my writing. I just want to entertain :)

    1. Interesting and thought provoking as usual, Aymen!

      I share the intense reading pleasure that you, AD and others have noted though I think each reader's gratification is unique. I'm inclined to disagree with one statement:
      "When you’ve finished reading a book that fundamentally absorbs you, your own life and reality will seem a little insipid by comparison."
      Not so in my world and I think in many, if not most others.

      This relates somewhat to one notion of 'escapism'. I think that the emotional engagement and reflections on life afforded by a great story serve to reinforce and heighten/reflect the reader's personal reality (their own 'story' so to speak).

      One does not escape their own experience as much as see the same pain, joy, triumph and sorrow they experience writ large. The fictive experience is not an escape from the reader's emotions/reality but a reflection of the elements the reader shares with the characters within the story.

      Getting philosophical here, but I think it relates to the primacy of individual experience independent of any and all externally reference (emotions are intrinsically subjective).. The pain/joy/desires/loss and success that everyday folks experience are no less intense than those of the characters in our stories. I believe we all share an emotional equivalence independent of how dramatic our life experiences are.
      The fear that our protagonist may experience as she is in a life or death struggle with a depraved villain is something we as a reader can relate to (for example comparable to a severe illness or news of a loved one in critical condition). We all lead intense emotional lives and great story allows us to visit/engage with characters who likewise experience the same emotions in dramatic, intellectually stimulating and entertaining circumstance.

      My position is that story does not makes us escape (as in avoid/ignore) our own lives, but rather, magnifies and reflects the emotions and consciousness that we share with the characters within the fictive dream. That's my working theory...

      Like you, I love the special pleasure that great story delivers. Great post and interesting comments. I'm with AD on my writing goals.

    2. I'm with you!
      What a thrill and satisfaction I would feel if readers identified they mourned the end of one of my novels.
      As a reader I know that feeling and consider it, as you note, proof of a great book!


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