When I go to the library I check out five or six books at a time. I hope that one or two will be worth reading. I know in advance the rest won't grab my interest. I like fiction and non fiction, I'm a reader as omnivorous as The Monster That Devoured Cleveland, except that I'm the Monster That Devoured The Cleveland Library.
I tend to avoid any fiction that features government security acronyms.
CIA, FBI, NSA, etc etc. Those are red flags for potboilers. Those are the books about plots to assassinate the President, the Vice President, blow up the White House or nuke Los Angeles. I'm categorically against nuking anything, even Los Angeles.
In spite of this common sense injunction I picked up a novel that screamed
"rogue operative", a Bourne Conspiracy-style suspense story. I read 140 pages of the stuff before I came to a screeching halt and asked myself the simple question: Is this story worth reading? Was it worth writing? It was probably worth writing because it was making its author a bit of money but I would have been embarrassed to put my name on it, much less a full page picture of myself on the back jacket cover, all dressed up in a suit and tie and looking like a Yale Law School graduate.
The nerve of the guy!
In my mind, this question is at the heart of every writing project: is this story worth telling? If it's not, then don't tell it.
What makes a story worth telling? I look for three elements in narrative. I look for entertainment, information and inspiration. If it isn't entertaining the story will belly flop like a fat clown jumping into a sandbox. The question, then, is what makes a story a page-turner? We have to insert the standard elements of story , i.e. a hero or heroine. We need a villain to obstruct the hero and raise the emotional temperature of a story. And we need a stake. What's at stake? What does the hero want? To save the world? To win someone's love? To prevent the conquest of his country? The annals of story telling are saturated with causes and quests and their corollary threats and jeopardies. A good writer doesn't wait long before getting his hero into trouble. Stories are about trouble, about overcoming long odds, about persisting beyond the normal limits of endurance.
When I say that a story should inform, I don't refer to article-style content about a peculiar subject. The informing is done by establishing a unique world-view. A writer informs the reader by building a consistent milieu. In science fiction or fantasy this Informing goes on all the time. In conventional narrative the information flows from the slice-of-life view that the writer invents. Odd subcultures offer fertile ground for story telling. The writer can be a subculture of one; he/she can be eccentric to the point of madness. THAT information must flow through the story: the protagonist is nuts. Inform the reader of this fact. Achieve the alchemy of suspense by having the hero put his oddness to use in cracking the case, or neutralizing the enemy.
Inspiration is the most difficult thing to achieve in story telling. If I finish reading a story and I'm inspired to write, I consider that a successful story. "Inspire" is defined by one dictionary as "To fill with enlivening or exalting emotion." That works well enough for me. The original Greek word means "to fill with spirit," or even "To Breathe."
It's hard to bring these three crucial elements together to make a compelling story. A writer might get two out of three. The story may be entertaining and informative but lack inspiration. My standards are high, I admit. I want it all. I want to feel lifted by a story. I've loved reading since I was seven years old. I'll love reading for the rest of my life. All I need are writers to provide me with material that gives me pleasure. I want to feel intellectual, emotional, psychological and spiritual joy in my contact with the written word.
Nothing less will do.