I’ve been reading a lot of contemporary non-supernatural romance, and I’m noticing that while there are always books that I close after two chapters because I can’t take any more, there are a lot more that I finish. Those finished books fall into two categories: the ones I liked but that I doubt I’ll ever read again and the Re-Readables.
I’m pretty sure that everybody’s criteria for re-readable is different, but I’ve been looking back over the things I’ve re-read lately, some of them over a dozen times, like the Murderbots, the Rivers of London, some of the Ivy Years, some Pratchetts, some Heyers, some Stouts, some Francis, some MacFarlane, and others, and I’ve narrowed it down to four things:
1. The characters, especially the protagonist. Series protagonists are especial catnip; at this point, if Murderbot’s in a book, I’m reading it. I’ll follow Peter Grant anywhere. If Susan Sto Helit show up, you have me. But in the stand alones, too, the protagonist is the one who’ll draw me back in. I love Mhairi McFarlane’s put-upon heroines who never give up, Pratchet’s confused but driven heroes who zigzag through his plots, meeting setbacks with exasperation and pushing on through. The same with Heyer’s heroines, caught in a time when women were pretty much goods to be traded, steadfastly remaining true to themselves while society hammers them in an attempt to make them an alien ideal, their strength and their determination bringing great men to their knees, the good ones with a ring in hand. It’s not what happens in the plot that makes these books so good, although it’s nice when that’s there, too, it’s these people dealing with what the plot throws at them, acting as only they would and can.
2. The community. Beyond the protagonist, I want to hang out with the group. If it’s Peter Grant, there better be Bev and Nightingale and Molly and Tyburn and Abigail, not to mention Seawohl and of course, Guleed (I really want to know more about Guleed and her master swordsman boy friend). If it’s a Rex Stout, I want Wolfe and Archie, but also Cramer and Stebbins, and there better be some Lily in there, too, plus Saul and the rest of the PIs (has anybody ever used minor supporting characters better?). If I’m reading Pratchett, I really need Vimes to show up somewhere, and Carrot and the Patrician make everything better. I want to be part of that world. One of the things I loved about a book I read last week, Boyfriend Material, was that both Luc and Oliver had such great friend groups. Luc’s were slightly strange middle class misfits, and Oliver’s were slightly strange upper class misfits, but their groups were sold and supportive, true communities, and it didn’t hurt that they were all funny as hell. I will spend time with those people again, because that book is definitely a Re-Readable. I like the analogy that a story is a party; you have to invite people in and entertain them, and that’s infinitely easier if the other people at the party are fascinating.
3. The setting. I never talk much about setting, but as I looked back at my re-reading, I realized that setting plays a big role. I love Ben Aaronovitch’s writing, but his October Man left me cold. The book was well-written, well-plotted, but it didn’t have Peter Grant. Well, that made sense, I attach to protagonists. But then I realized I wasn’t as happy with Foxglove Summer as I had been with the earlier books, and that book is all Peter Grant. Why not? I think it’s because it’s not set in London. I want Peter doing his obsessive architure lectures, commenting in passing on the history of a place he’s trying to connect to supernaturally. Having now read Foxglove Summer three times, I’ve become used to it and I like it better now than when I first read it, so that part of the countryside is now another Peter Grant setting. But it’s still not London. Rex Stout wrote a terrific mystery that sent Wolfe and Archie back to Wolfe’s county of birth, Montenegro, but I want Wolfe in New York, behind that big desk, sending Archie hither and yon for fresh meat of both the human and butcher shop kind. Dick Francis’s heroes have a wide variety of occupations and I’m fine with that, but there better be a horse in England in there somewhere and we better spend some time on a racetrack or that book is not re-readable. I think it’s because the setting in a really good book informs so much of the protagonist’s character, but I could be wrong about that. Maybe I just like the new stories to play out across a familiar backdrop.
4. The author’s voice and world view. This is definitely one of the reasons I re-read, but it can be trumped by a lack of any of the first three criteria. Obviously all these authors keep the same voice and worldview throughout their books. The point is that a book can have a solid protagonist, a well-constructed community, and a vibrant setting, but if this author’s voice is a drag or the ideals underneath story are distasteful to me, it doesn’t matter that the first three criteria are met, I won’t make it through the first chapter.
You’ll notice that “plot” isn’t up there. It’s not that I don’t think plotting is important, it’s that I’ll read a lousy plot to keep company with the story people I love, and that a great plot will not hold my attention if the characters are flat or off-putting. In the best of all possible worlds, you get a great plot, too, but since I’ve re-read a lot of books with endings I could see coming a mile away or with plots that follow a pattern so well worn there are ruts in it, just to spend time with those people again. It’s not what happens that matters, it’s how the people in the story get there.
All of which leads me to believe (about my own work, not about anybody else, this is not advice or a rule or anything that might apply to another writer, just me) that I have to quit fruiting around trying to make plots work and just make sure the people are moving on every page, arcing as much as possible, involved and interesting in every move they make, surrounded by a fascinating community against a vibrant setting backdrop. And then make the plot make sense in the rewrite. Argh.
Or as Bob would say, “Forget the money laundering, write the romance.”
So over to you all. What makes a book a Re-Readable for you?