Be Ready, Players, One And All, and A Contest I Actually Intend On Fulfilling

March 1, 2012 § 6 Comments

Remember that I still haven’t said my bit about the book I read last week? Well, you won’t need to do that anymore! And you’ll have to read this post (or scroll to the bottom) if you want to see the contest!

Week 8 (redux): Ready Player One by Eric Cline

This book takes place five seconds into the future, where society has been ravaged by continued economic depression, the disappearance of fossil fuels, and an online game/life simulator called OASIS that sucks in more people than the internet now. There’s a kid who wants to find a hidden Easter Egg in the game, blah blah blah, references to 80s pop culture, blah blah blah, you know how it ends.

Oh wait, you don’t? Is this, perhaps, literary fatigue setting in in me? Is it that, so soon into my project, that I’m getting tired of fiction as it is? Do I need something more, something exciting, something new, just to keep the lights on?

Let’s go back to square one: this book is, by no means, bad. It’s a fine, imaginative story that is tightly written and well-paced. Sure, there are things he does that I didn’t agree with (personally, I thought there were too many references to 70s/80s pop culture, to the point where some of them did nothing for the story except distract me from said story), but that’s all. I didn’t agree with them, but they weren’t objectively bad.

So I’m at a weird crossroads: was this, like Sisters Brothers, a good book with qualities that I failed to recognize? Ready Player One has won an award from the American Library Association, and Mark Frauenfelder called it the “best science fiction book I’ve read in a decade.” That’s certainly more than anyone’s given me for, or said about, anything I’ve written.

Fishing for compliments? Who, me?

And yet…there is a “yet”. Despite being well-written, I couldn’t get into the book. Despite having the most novel (zing) idea for a book I’ve seen in years, I didn’t feel the characters. Despite being about video games, geeks, and the internet, pretty much my three main food groups, I still didn’t care about the story.

Again, I’m struck. Was this my fault? Or was the story really not that great to begin with? I grappled with this for a while, but I didn’t realize what was bothering me about it. I didn’t until I read Under the Dome, by Stephen King, for this week’s, Week 9, challenge. I’ll talk more about it on Sunday, but when I was plugging away through that 1,000+ page behemoth of a novel, I suddenly realized what bothered me about both of the books:

I knew exactly what was going to happen from about the third chapter.

True, I didn’t know every detail. Plot developments and revelations did occur that I didn’t foresee, some characters died unexpectedly (it is Stephen King, after all), and there were things I couldn’t possibly have guessed. But that said, it wasn’t hard to get the big picture about what was going to happen. Every Chekhov’s gun in Ready Player One was lined up, inspected, and then fired, hitting exactly at who you would be expecting it to hit square in the chest. It was the same withUnder the Dome,made worse by the points where he opened sentences with gems like “That was the last time she saw her husband alive.”

"Hey, I think he's going to make it! Oh wait.."

With hindsight, I believe that was the problem. I was simply able, from having read and studied so much, to be able to guess pretty well what was going to happen. This isn’t some sort of savant’s skill or anything nearly that romantic. Everyone does it all the time with movies, and that’s beginning to bleed into novel-writing (or it has for some time, and I’m only noticing it now).

Having diagnosed the problem, however, I’m still no closer to a cure. Both of the books I read, this week’s and last, are good books. I would recommend them (with some reservations, but come on. I’m a writer and an academic. If I didn’t have an opinion on everything, I’d be doing my sheepskin a disservice) to others, but I can’t shake the fact that I’d have the same trouble reading them and books like them.

I think this is one reason why I liked Under Heaven as much as I did. Not only was the writing absolutely beautiful, Kay didn’t use the standard narrative approach. This kept me guessing and that enthralled me even more. I could sit and say, “I want to keep reading because I don’t know what’s happening next.” Kay steered clear of, what is not exactly accurate to call Cline’s approach but there is some truth to it, the Hollywood Formula. Read the link to really understand what it is, but I think it explains what I mean about knowing what’s going to happen.

Basically, it’s a formula for screenwriters that maximizes emotional impact (the troper calls it “torque”, and that’s very apt). This doesn’t mean formula as in “equation”. There’s no, “put in x ingredients, add y techniques, get z movie where z >= Oscar”, but it’s a simple way to think of it. Also, there are concrete steps, many of which you’d recognize.

I’m starting, through my time spent reading, writing, and learning about writing, to be able to see what techniques and formulas (not in the bad way) that writers use. Case in point: in Ready Player One, the protagonist spends a chapter or two talking about this internet-famous girl who he has a tremendous crush on and finds horribly attractive. He hopes one day to meet her, but bemoans his out-of-shape body, horrid looks, and general unimportance in OASIS, figuring he’ll never get the chance to talk to her, much less meet her.

You get no points for guessing if they get together by the end of the book.

You see these? None of them are yours. None.

Some of this is definitely venting. Make no mistake that people, I’m sure, are not at all bothered by the prevalence of a winning formula. Formulas tend to exist, after all, because they work. And I’m not bothered by the formula, per se, moreso that I’m bothered because some of the magic is gone.

It’s not a mystery how a writer structures a good book and puts it together. It’s not even that difficult to understand why it works, and all of a sudden I see the man in the back pulling strings and making the characters dance.

Here’s a better question: why am I annoyed at that truth? Maybe because it tells me writing is just like most other arts and sciences. There are good ways of doing things and bad ways of doing things, and you should do one and not the other. And that means that when I write, I need to be cognizant of those, or else I’ll be terrible and awful and no-one will read my work.

Or else I could learn from the formula and adapt it for my own purposes, I guess.

 

In other news, I’m having another contest! This time, it’s much simpler and easier. Instead of having to post a comment about my site (which you can always do at any time), I want you, in the comments, to pick a book for me to read for the next week. I’ve got one lined up, just in case it doesn’t work out or I’ve read the book already, but if you pick one, any book (sole restriction is length. Please keep it under 1,000 pages or face my ultimate wrath) and you’re the winner, I’ll read that for next week. I’ll then comment on it, as per your instructions. You want a review? Got it. You want my general feelings? They are yours for the taking. You want a slash-fic with the main characters and an anthropomorphic vacuum cleaner?

It shall be done.

I’ll pick one, assuming there are comments, for Sunday. Tension is simmering, I’m sure.

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