Since I’ve been editing and reading more than writing at the moment, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes me stick with a book. More than that, actually, what makes me love a book. There are lots of things, of course, but I think part of it is writing that really makes you see.
When I was a kid I wasn’t tremendously fussy about what I read. In fact, I would read anything left in front of me for too long, including my grandad’s newspaper, my nan’s historical novels, cereal packets, instruction manuals… These days I’m a lot pickier, and I will dismiss a lot of books out of hand because they don’t grab me in the first few pages, or give me a clear idea of what my mind should be looking at. Does this make sense yet?
In Stephen King’s book On Writing (which is a great read even if you’re not interested in the writing process) he talks about how writing is the truest form of telepathy, and I think that’s what I’m trying to get at. Through words on a page the writer attempts to convey to you what is in his or her mind; when the writing is really good, you see it vividly, almost as if you were really there.
Not all fiction works this well. Sometimes you plod through a book and although you enjoy the story and like the characters well enough, you never really feel like you’ve been transported. You never experience that delightful sense of dislocation that comes when you’ve been so immersed in a story that coming back to reality is a serious jolt to your sense of self. I love that. I search for that when I’m looking for a book to read.
Terry Pratchett is a good example for me; the Discworld has always felt like home, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are practically family. I can see the Chalk and I know the streets of Ankh-Morpork. When I was reading Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House I felt disorientated right along with the characters, and in an even creepier example, the section where the House tricks them all into being relaxed and happy, I felt relaxed and happy. That is a strange and wondrous piece of magic right there.
Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (one of my all time favourites) was almost like a fever dream, full of vivid weirdness – I could see Merricat clearly in my mind’s eye, and will see her forever, I suspect. You know when the writing really sings – the world around you drops away and you’re with Merlin in the crystal cave, or trawling through the haunted halls of Faerie in search of the man with the thistledown hair…
George R.R Martin said that we write fantasy to see the colours again, to speak in the language of dreams, and I think that’s what I’m looking for when I’m reading (and when I’m writing too, of course). Writing is magic, like friendship and My Little Ponies.