The Point of No Return

You read, and sometimes enjoy, books.  That’s a given, here.  And so, here’s a question for you:

Have you ever been reading and enjoying a book at your own leisurely pace when you reached a point when the book started to demand your attention?  A point where putting the book down caused you anxiety?  A point where you needed to keep reading?

Not every book has one of these, to be sure, though I’d wager any given writer would pay his or her own weight in gold to bottle that something magical and soak their manuscripts in it.

Well, I reached that point in The Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson last week.  I was probably about a third of the way through the book when I realized I’d reached it.  I’ve now less than a quarter to go.  (I’m so far behind when other “Wheel of Time” fans have already read the book because I was on a major reading hiatus throughout most of Grad School.)

This isn’t a review, and I won’t say what happened, or what’s happening, or anything like that.  If you’ve read it, you recall about what was going on during this part of the book.  If you haven’t, you don’t want to start with Towers, you’ll want to start at the beginning, with The Eye of the World.  Or, if you’re someone who’s read part-way through “The Wheel of Time” series but gave up for some reason or another, then I offer this: pick the books up and start reading again.  Because if you keep going, through whatever it was that made you put the books down, and read through to these latest books, you’ll find it was worth it.  The Gathering Storm was good. Towers, I think, is better (or maybe seems better only because of the recency bias, but whatever, they’re both unquestionably very good).  And the end, the final for-really-true end is in sight.

When this magnum opus is finally complete sometime next year, it will be milestone not easily surpassed.  Flawed in ways that are at times vexing and frustrating, but nonetheless great, a magnificent accomplishment that will not easily be surpassed, even by writers aware of and careful to avoid the flaws. Because, how do you ever approach the “Prophesied/Destined Savior” trope again without feeling like a rehash of “Wheel of Time?” How do you do it authentically, and yet make it fresh? It’s a powerful deconstruction and reconstruction of one of the most prominent archetypes of fantasy fiction.  I mean, without outright subversion or negation of the archetype, it’s hard to approach it – that’s what I meant by “authentically”. 

Which is one of the challenges I face with my hibernating “Project SOA”, which in various drafts has made ample use of the “Chosen One” trope.  My main character has variously been destined to be King, and destined to save the world.  Admittedly, that was in the boring prior version of the story.  But even in my most recent revision ideas, my thought had been to work up to this “big reveal” at some later part of the story.  At this point, with “Wheel of Time” nearly complete, I’m no longer sure how you add something new to that framework.  In time, I may figure out some angle that makes my approach fresh and interesting.  But even if so… The Wheel of Time’s shadow will be long, and I don’t expect I’ll ever grow tall enough to step out of it.

Still, like other authors, I’ll yearn and strive to find a way to bring about this reaction, this feeling, in readers. 

In the meantime, I’m along for the ride, caught in the maelstrom and happily going down with the ship.

So, how about you?  Which books caught you up like this, and why?  Any books that were so good you stopped and wondered if you, as a writer, could ever match it?

16 thoughts on “The Point of No Return

  1. Oh it happens all the time. I find it happening more now than before, and I think it’s because I’m a more careful reader. I picked up a couple of books I read many years ago, and thought were ‘meh’ at the time, but upon a rereading I realized how much I missed! Actually, almost every book I read these days makes me wonder if I’ll ever write anything remotely close… and I will likely never, because that’s the writer’s voice, not mine. However, knowing this doesn’t stop me from being jealous 😉

    For most books I find there is a point of no return. It usually happens in the last third, and it means I can’t put the book down until I finish it. Recently, I’ve a couple books in which I was hooked in chapter 1… and I knew I was done for. (N. K. Jemisin’s)

    • N.K. Jemisin’s book is pretty high on my to-read list, though it’s not one of the ones on that list that’s currently yet in my possession. (I figure I have to start working through the back-log of books I own but haven’t read before I can add more books.) It’s true that once you reach the 1/3rd mark or so in many books you’ve put yourself in danger of being pulled under by a book’s riptide, in general. I don’t know that every book has that, though. Not even every good book. For instance… I enjoyed George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones alright… it was definitely well-written. But the characters and plot didn’t resonate with me (mostly because the characters were all scheming, conniving, and nasty to a greater or lesser degree, even the ostensible “good guys”… I just can’t connect with or relate to any of the characters very strongly, with the possible exception of the youngest Stark boy, and the fact that he can’t remember what he saw hurts my connection to him, too). I could (and did) easily put the book down for a long period of time to read something I wanted to read more (A Gathering Storm as it happens). And I’ve done the same with Book 2 (in favor of The Towers of Midnight this time). It just doesn’t compel me. Good books that I’ll eventually finish after I finish something I like more. I’d rather be in the “can’t put it down” category than in the “this is a good book, but there’s something I’d rather read more right now” category. Of course, which books fall into which categories are going to be entirely different from reader to reader.

  2. I’ve lately felt like I’m the only person in the world who didn’t like A Game of Thrones, so (on reading the comments) I’m immensely relieved to find there’s at least one other person in the world who can’t stand the characters. Thank you. I feel better.

    Moving on. Quite a lot of books grab me like that. The important part, for me, seems to be the characters. If I get really involved in the lives and minds of some truly interesting people, I’ll start feeling that need to know how everything turns out for them. I suppose that’s why I can’t finish the Game of Thrones books – I don’t care what happens to any of those characters, not even a little bit.

    • Hmm. I think you’re right about characters – I think they’re a very important factor in achieving this sort of attachment to a book. It’s interesting that we both had the same reaction to AGoT/ASoIaF and for the same reason: characters that we can’t connect with. But when we do have this sort of “can’t-put-it-down” reaction to a book, there’s almost always some character or many characters with whom we’ve become, in a way, “friends”, and we have to know what happens to them. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, because it definitely gave me something to think about if I want to try to replicate this.

  3. Pingback: T. S. Bazelli | Ink Stained » There can be only one

  4. Mmm… I know what you mean. It is one of my favorite things when that happens. I’m reading Dracula for the first time right now. Did not realize how amazing the original is. All the remakes and adaptations have done to original a grave injustice. I might actually try to finish it all tonight, it’s so good.

    • I’ve read that it’s a bit of an unconventional novel: that’s it’s not a straight-forward narrative and is written in something of a post-modern format (in a time, of course, long, long before post-modernism existed). Is that true?

  5. To be honest, I don’t get that feeling so much when I read…at least not as intensely as I’d like. (And if it doesn’t come within the first third of the story, preferably a bit sooner, then that’s just too late, imo. Though, I do my best to stick with books I pick up for as long as I can, regardless.)

    The best “OMG IF I PUT THIS DOWN I WILL DIE” book I’ve read in the last couple of years was actually not a fantasy novel but a spy thriller called A Spy By Nature, written by Charles Cumming. His dialogue was just so engaging, his characters so flawed and excruciatingly wonderful to watch get into and out of trouble… I honestly can’t recall ever feeling as gripped by a story as I did while reading Cumming’s first novel. (The fact that it was his debut novel just blew me away.)

    I believe he achieved this primarily through character, in this case, but there was also an engaging plot. His characters felt authentic to me, and the plot was plausible and kept me guessing. I think that’s why it worked out so well.

    “But even in my most recent revision ideas, my thought had been to work up to this ‘big reveal’ at some later part of the story. At this point, with ‘Wheel of Time’ nearly complete, I’m no longer sure how you add something new to that framework.”

    Approach it from a different angle! (The Chosen One seems to be the theme this week, heh.)

    I recently had the same thoughts (more so about themes than tropes, though there is a strong connection between the two) when I was watching a movie the other day; I realized that I was exploring some of the same themes and in similar ways. What I’m thinking about now, then, in my work before I go back and rewrite the weak spots is this: What am I saying in my story; has it been said before; and if so, how can I say it in a way that is fresh? (Which it may turn out that I’m actually saying something similar but different.) The same questions can be applied using “explore” rather than “say,” in regards to tropes.

    In any case, I’m finding that answering these questions is not as straightforward an endeavor as I hoped it would be (or maybe I just don’t want to face the answers)!

    • I am sort of drawing a difference between: “Man, this is really good and I enjoy reading this book” and, as you put it “OMG IF I PUT THIS DOWN I WILL DIE“. The former happens all the time for me, to varying degrees. (Most often with fantasy.) The latter is rarer. (For me, it’s never happened with a non-genre book, particularly F&SF.) When considering genre fiction, as I realize that this reaction is tied at least in part to the strength of the characters, it serves to highlight how important writing strong characters is.

      You’re right that there’s usually a way to look at trope or themes from a different angle. But I do wonder if it’s possible for a trope or theme to be so fully and thoroughly explored in fiction that there really is no way to provide a new angle that really provides any new value to readers… I hope that’s not the case, but I do fear it. (For example, see my reply to Bazelli’s post on the topic of the Chosen One.)

  6. I often read books in one sitting (as long as they’re not ridiculously long) because they are so good I cant put them down. Generally if a book doesn’t grab my attention like that I wont finish it. Luckily, there are a huge amount of incredible books out there!

    • Wow. Even at the height of my (reading) powers, I could never finish a book in one sitting. I mean, unless the book was really, really short or something. What size of book are we talking, here?

  7. I recently hit that point with Wise Man’s Fear about 1/3 of the way in and have not turned out the reading light before 2am most of the last week. I think that about sums it up, and explains those really long Sunday naps.

    The book that blew me away from had had me wondering how I could match it was The Way of Kings. That, and pretty much anything by Stephen King humbles me pretty well.

    • Hmm. I’ve got a signed copy of The Way of Kings waiting on me. As well as Name of the Wind… so… you’re saying these books are maybe going to hit pretty hard in the “no return” and “oh wow, I suck by comparison” departments? Hmm… maybe I’ll hold off on reading them, just for now.

  8. Pingback: Writing Progress: Week Ending June 11, 2011 « The Undiscovered Author

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