By Marcus Sakey
So it’s Wednesday morning on a bright, chilly day in Chicago. Beck’s Sea Change is on iTunes, and I’m alternately coughing—lousy time to get sick—and engaging in the loosest sort of brainstorming. That’s too vaunted a word, really. Daydreaming is more accurate. Toying with the raw elements of new stories.
This happens to me every time I head into the third act of a novel, as I am about to do with my as-yet-untitled fifth. My head begins to detach, to loose the lines that have kept me tied to a story for a year or more. It’s something I used to fight aggressively, believing that I wouldn’t be able to finish if I drifted too far. And that’s probably true, but over the last few books I’ve learned that my subconscious is apparently cognizant of the need to eat, and it doesn’t stray past the point of no return.
I do, however, begin to wonder what might be next. I drift and sort and look for things that turn me on.
And I’d like your help.
I am by nature a system breaker. I’m good at looking at things and figuring out how they work. It’s a skill I’ve tried to apply to writing. While I don’t believe in a Grand Unified Theory of Story, there is an algebra to storytelling. There are rules and logical forms that can inform your choices.
But, just like in physics, it’s often the most basic questions that are least susceptible to solution. And most basic of all to good storytelling is this: What makes you love a book?
This is where you guys come in.
Here’s what I’d like you to do. Think of one of your all-time favorite books. A novel so good that you had the conflicting desires to tear through it and yet also to savor it. A book that’s lingered in your memory, with characters you missed when it ended. Don’t tell me MOBY DICK—I’m not analyzing enduring scholarly worthy, and besides, I won’t believe you anyway. What I’m interested in is a book that grabbed you and wouldn’t let go.
Got one? Good. Now take a minute and think about why you love it.
Obviously, there are going to be some things that we can count on. You’ll have adored some or all of the characters. It will be a ripping good tale. There will be stakes and consequences and the possibility of disaster.
So let’s take those things for granted and go a little bit deeper. What makes this book special for you?
I’ll give you an example of what I’m looking for. A book I felt that way about was NEUROMANCER, by William Gibson.
Yes, it had all of the above. I loved the characters and the story burned along and it had significant stakes both personal and metaphysical.
But thinking about it right now, two distinguishing factors come to mind. The first is the world, which was thoroughly and convincingly imagined. Gibson created cyberpunk—coined the term, in fact—and his future was one that I felt I inhabited from the first words. I believed in it. I could see the connection between our world and his, a perception that was enhanced by the way the characters took it for granted, maneuvering through it with neon cool and switchblade sensibility.
The second factor is that though it was science fiction, and though it borrowed the trappings and texture of film noir, it was at heart an adventure story. I was the boy reading adventure tales under the blankets by flashlight, and a huge part of me still is. I will always love a good adventure—especially if it feels fresh, as Gibson’s did.
So that’s my request. Obviously there are no right and wrong answers, and you can go into as much or as little detail as you like. But seriously, if you have a couple of minutes, this would be incredibly helpful to me. And those of you who lurk but never post, this would be a great time to bust your cherry.
Thanks in advance!