The slow-food approach to fiction

Rachel Aaron made an excellent post about Story Velcro – the art of “unputdownable” writing through careful and tight layering of hooks.

Let me just say – very few writers write as well about writing (…say that after the third martini) as Rachel Aaron. She has keen observation and scientific rigour and she applies it to the business of writing ruthlessly. There is a lot to learn from her blog! So I’m sure that she is absolutely 100% right about how to make your writing “unputdownable”.

Here’s my sticking point: I’m not sure I like “unputdownable” books.

That sounds ridiculous, and of course it is: I, like everyone else, want a book with heaps of layered interests, with a fascinating world and intriguing characters having enthralling relationships as they pursue outrageous goals. I want there to be heaps in the story to chew on, and for it to be an endless buffet of delights.

But (to continue my food metaphor!) I need time to digest. I need to pause, and reflect, and make connections and considerations and extrapolations in my head. I need to do this to be satisfied with a book. I do not stay up all night reading. I generally don’t even read for hours at a stretch at any time. If I can do that, if the book just slips that easily into my mind, I generally find at the end that it slips right out again. It’s like chocolate; sure, you keep reaching back to the block for one more square, it’s easy and compelling to eat, but once you’ve eaten the whole thing in one sitting, you don’t really feel great about it.

With a truly magnificent book – the sort of book I am going to tell everyone to read – I can find myself stretching out the reading. Using parts of my “reading time” to just hug the book to me and think about it. I ration it out to myself like… well, like the finest and richest chocolate. It’s not about finding out what happens next as quickly as possibly; the experience of reading the book, of unwrapping each new tidbit of delight, is part of the magnificence.

So possibly what I’m ruminating about here is not “story velcro”, but an over-focus on pace. And I think my ongoing food metaphor is going to serve me well here: if you’re writing fast food then maybe pace is king, and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. I duck in for a quick McBurger sometimes myself.

But I don’t tell my friends about it (unless it’s really bad). I do tell them about that long, luxurious, eight-course degustation with matching wines and attentive but never harrying service.

Something to think about.

Beer and books – a condensed summary of my life

  1. Did the Minotaur run last night, which I try to do every couple of months so I can paw over their “new releases” shelves and find shiny things to add to my GoodReads to-read queue (which often leads to me pestering my libraries to buy them, but I figure that's good for everyone, right?). There were a few interesting candidates last night, but I think the stand out winner is this guy Jay Kristoff, who it turns out is pretty much hilarious and moreover whose book Stormdancer looks so splendid I was excited about reading it even before the author described it like this.
  2. While in Minotaur, I got to overhear a phone call that started with, “Hi, your darlek has finally arrived,” and that just makes me happy.
  3. Over the weekend, while spending some wonderfully indulgent and entertaining time with '[personalcalico and her splendid hubby, we discovered that Holgate have made a new beer called the Gruit Expectations. It is a beer without hops.

    I'll say that again: It's a beer without hops.

    I appreciate that I'm maybe the only beer lover in the world who hears that and has a cloud-parting-choirs-of-angels moment, but seriously, for someone who has a hair trigger on her over-hopped sadface, this was a very exciting thing. And the beer itself is delish, all light and spicy and dangerously 6%. I love it in a way that's profoundly unnatural for me and anything paler than an amber; it's on tap at Deja Vu in the Melbourne CBD and I've already tried to go there to have some twice since the weekend, and the place isn't even open on Mondays.

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Number one: the larch

I've been reading fantasy fiction since I read Victor Kelleher and The Hobbit when I was about 10. I read everything else as well (no, literally, everything – my project for grade 7 was to read every book on the grade-7-only shelves) but I knew I liked that zany stuff. I fell irrevocably into all-fantasy-all-the-time when I discovered the genre as a thing at age 12, courtesy of David Eddings and a helpful librarian. (I remember standing there, staring at the cover of Pawn of Prophecy, with my mind exploding to the tune of “there's a whole body of books like this?” Of course, shortly thereafter the other shoe dropped when I reached the end of Eddings' currently-written works, and discovered that reading fantasy means waiting for the next book.)

But I grew up a sneeze away from the Tropic of Capricorn, basically subtropical, certainly cyclone territory. We had wet seasons when I was a kid, long sticky summers when it would start raining every day punctually between two and four in the afternoon, so three afternoons out of five I would walk home from school in the warm pelting rain with my shoes slung around my neck by their knotted laces. And then I got home, I would dry off and curl up on the couch with a humidity-edged book wherein folks wearing woollen cloaks trudged through frosty forests of oak trees.

This never seemed at all dislocating to me. I can only assume that, in my head, the books were books and the climatic conditions were like dragons – things that happened in the books. It wasn't until I moved south, to a town that actually had visible seasons beyond the wet and dry, that I realised I had no flipping idea what an oak tree looked like, despite practically every book I read using the species name as a shorthand for “and now you know exactly what this forest they're riding through looks like”.

Poinciana? Sure! (I fell out of enough of them as a child, I should be able to spot 'em… also frangipani and their unhelpful hollow branches.) I can recognise a jacaranda even when it isn't in full flower. When someone talks about a fig tree, I expect a banyan.

I started writing Boralos because I came back to my childhood home for Christmas, and watched the fruitbats swarming out of the mangroves at dusk, and thought, “…why am I constantly trying to write European fantasy when this is what flows in my veins?”

Which is absolutely not to say I grew up with hippos up the creek and people having pet pygmy crocodiles. We don't indulge in fantasy to stick with everything that we know, after all. ;)

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The Magicians – for those who were interested…

C&Ped from my GoodReads…

The MagiciansThe Magicians by Lev Grossman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This could get long, so to sum up: this is a highly competent, intelligent, enjoyable read. That really irritated me in a few ways. It was interesting, but for me, too facile and shallow in its exploration of the fantasy tropes it was engaging with.

In more detail – with a few very mild spoilers )

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