Friday, October 16, 2009

Friday Fricassee

So let's talk about books (something new and different, yes?).

I've asked you what you write. I've asked you what you read. Now I'm asking you what makes a book really, truly ZING.

Forget your "favorite genre." Forget your "favorite author." Forget preconceptions and pet storylines. I'm talking...what is it that makes a reader forget to breathe?


I've just read HUNGER GAMES (a little late, I know). It's not a literary masterpiece. It's not a book I will reread yearly for the rest of my life.

But it's brilliant. It's nonstop tension. It's masterful.

It made me forget to breathe.

It also plunged me into a partial day of I-quit-this-WIP-will-never-work-and-I'm-not-cut-out-to-write-YA-fiction.

Don't worry. I got over it quickly.

But goodness me. A book written in first person present tense? Taking my BREATH away? I hate first person and I hate present tense, and this was a double whammy. Yet it's done so well, so seamlessly, that one forgets. I can't imagine reading the story any other way.

Yes. Brilliant.

And here I sit, stumbling over word choices for explaining WHY I've been so impacted by this novel. I literally stopped life to finish reading it on Wednesday. Not that it took long; for all its beauty and tension, it's an easy read. Fluid.

And ruthless. I simply had to know what happened next. Of course it's obvious the protagonist will live, since she's the one telling the story. But there's so much more at stake than that.

I am undone.

I'm also encouraged to have gotten over the punched-in-the-stomach feeling quickly. My entire afternoon today is dedicated to the shredding and refining of my dystopic someday-masterpiece.

Oh yes. Someday. A near future someday, too. Not an ages-from-now someday.

Your turn. Talk to me about that elusive -- or not-so-elusive -- ZING. What is it? Where have you found it?

How do you CREATE it?

I'm listening!


  1. For me, that zing usually comes in the beauty of the in many different ways all seamlessly woven together into an exquisite whole.

    A beautifully meaningful romance.

    Characters with beautiful souls, even though they might be tortured and very faulty.

    Beautiful prose.

    Beautifully-executed dialog.

    Beautiful world-building, even if the beauty is surrounded by visual ugliness.

    A beautiful ending that continues past the page in my imagination.

  2. Interestingly, I think the zing is often the plot dragging us forward. Beautiful writing helps of course, but for me that's something to wallow in, not ride on the back of, screaming with the thrill of the ride.

    So at the barest boniest level, a novel where I forget to breathe is one where I really must must know what happens. And that's about the plot. A plot where things just don't happen one after another but a plot that courses like blood through a vein. Inexorable. Pulsing. Alive.

    Good thing to think about, though. Thanks!

  3. I think Hunger Games (and Catching Fire, now you have to read Catching Fire!!) have that ZING because everything is so sparse. The writing is rather sparse, Katniss' life is rather sparse, even her out look for the future is plain and simple and bleak and sparse. The genius of that approach is it gives the reader license to fill in the details herself.

    One of the things I dislike about very literary works are the spoon fed details. Instead of telling us it was cold out and the trees were bare of leaves, some authors find the need to fill all that negative space with endless details about the leaves on the ground and the crisp chill in the air. Four pages later the reader is tired of hearing about the winter day.

    Suzanne Collins' genius is that she makes the reader work to imagine those minutae, only giving as many details as necessary to tell the story. By making the reader work she makes us complicit in Katniss' telling of the story, which draws us into her world seamlessly.

    I hope to be that brilliant one day.

  4. I haven't read The Hunger Games, but I've read books that ZING, that's for sure. Many of them are literary classics. They last for a reason - that reason being they delve on many different layers that deeply touch a wide variety of people no matter what time period it is. That's what zings.

    Thanks for some great thoughts, Authoress! Glad you found a great book to enjoy and that you didn't quit your own. :)

  5. That is exactly how I felt after reading THE HUNGER GAMES! I had a long discussion with myself about whether I could ever write something so un-put-downable (is that a word, a hyphenated phrase? Did I make it up entirely?) But most especially, I was shocked that I loved it in the first person, present tense.

    GRACELING by Kristin Cashore matches my love for THG.

    Good luck with your dystopian masterpiece! :)

  6. I put The Hunger Games on hold at the library, and now I'm even more impatient for it to come in!

    Zing for me happens with a powerful emotional experience combined with a strong identification with a character. If I have gotten to really love and care what happens to her, and then she's pulled through a lot of emotions that I'm following right along with her, that's the zing. Especially with a good, satisfying ending that pulls the whole story together.

    The Time Traveler's Wife did that for me. Take that one with a grain of salt, though. Brilliant as it is, it touched me personally in a weird way, because I was born the same week as Clare, and I read it in the same week that the climax of the book occurred, so reading it was surreal.

  7. I've felt that *zing* with a wide variety of books - from books that are mostly about the beauty of the language (The English Patient) to snarky YA (Cracked up to Be), narrative non-fiction (Columbine) and classics (The Great Gatsby).

    I think it has to do with getting lost in the story world. We've probably all read page turners that weren't zingy, that kept you turning pages because of fabulous plotting, but you hated yourself for it. I think the book has to have language that's *good enough* to not distract you from the fabulous plot, or a plot that's *good enough* to be the skeleton for beautiful language. If one of these is off the charts fabulous - you're in, and the other is good enough you're in. If one is great and the other *awful* - you keep reading, but are *eh* about the book when you're done.

    P+L+Z where P=less than suck and L=less than suck, but L or P = E (excellent)

  8. You've GOT to read the sequel, Catching Fire! Get it NOW!!! Put everything else on hold, K?

    I know what you mean. But I personally love first person present tense, but only when it's done exceptionally well. I LOVED these two books!! Cannot wait for the third...

  9. I second everything you said about The Hunger Games. I've also only just read it, put it off for months because the summary actually put me off, couldn't imagine myself enjoying a book about teenagers sent into an arena to kill each other. But with all the hype about it, I eventually had to read it, and WOW. The most incredible thing is that I didn't feel depressed at the end, and that takes huge talent to pull off.
    I think the zing of a book is in direct proportion to how deeply you manage to pull in your readers, it doesn't matter what the plot is, who your characters are, it's all in how lost your reader will get in the story and the feeling they're left with at the end

  10. For me,a book zings when the tension grips me so hard I can't stop reading. That tension is created by how the plot, characters, conflict and narrative structure interface and tie together. And then surprise me. They must surprise me. I cannot see it coming or the whole thing wilts.

  11. I totally agree with Dorothy. I read all four Twilight books in two weeks (yes, this was in addition to eating, sleeping, working and caring for my kids) and it was not because I thought they were fabulous. It was because of the tension. Once I started, I couldn't stop. It was like a sudden, uncontrollable addiction (which thankfully, went away without a 12-step program!)

  12. OMG, Hunger Games is the best book I've read in several years for all the reasons everyone's already mentioned. And what surprised me is the Catching Fire is just as good! If you go to the Borders website you can watch video clips of Suzanne's Collins' talking about the trilogy and hear what the kids have to say about it. It's very enlightening. Kids are remarkably sophisticated these days. They were totally into it and had lots of great questions for Suzanne, who leaks out a few tidbits about the 3rd book. Yay! I can't wait to read it!

  13. Books need tension to keep me occupied. It doesn't matter what genre, but I have to want to know what's going to happen.

    I'm still writing my first manuscript, but have learned that a good way to keep the reader on edge is to end chapters with a cliffhanger. The most effective way to do this to build up the tension and then end the chapter with a short sentence that just begs the reader to want more--and turn the page.

  14. Romantic, sexual tension is the tasty morsel I look for in stories that hold me. Who loves who? Does she love him? Will he reciprocate? And not just regular love, but evil love and lust that has me fearing for the heroine's heart and soul... and sometimes her life.

    I think that's what makes the Twilight series irresistible, in spite of the lukewarm writing. We will always be attracted to the tension love brings.

    - Julie

  15. Tension and humor!! I want quick snappy dialogue and people that talk and act like real life. I want romantic tension that plays out realistically and with problems and bloopers like real life ones do. No flowers and flowing dresses and men with lacy shirts! I want funny and constantly moving, and I won't be able to put it down.

    Outside of that, books like the Harry Potter series kept me reading till it was done. It never stops and every chapter leads to the next.

  16. Loved Hunger Games and I wasn't expecting much from the sequel, but it was just as good.

    To me, Zing is such a big combination of things. In the Hunger Games, while I totally agree with you on the first person present tense, she made it work. And it wasn't like the MC was in danger every second (though towards the end, she was). She kept us reading through her the beginning while she introduced us to her world and showed us why we should care about her characters. That's a skill.

    I sat out this month's SA (not my genre), but boy, this one is generous with his/her feedback. Very nice.

  17. You had it at fluid, I think. In terms of plot v. voice v. mood, etc. Books that ZING! for me have a unified being I can't separate into elements. Each aspect seems inevitable, the only way the story could be done.

    Has to be fresh, too. Something about it has to wake me up, make me feel heightened.

    And like really good visual art, it has to be...recognizable. Like Impressionist painting. After seeing a Monet, you realize the truth of his dashes of color combined by the eye into an object. Before, even if you knew it, you weren't consciously aware of it. Maybe that's what ZING!s--awareness.

  18. I'm going to agree with Francesca: For me, that zing factor happens when the plot is so compelling and expertly crafted that I HAVE to know what happens next.

    THE HUNGER GAMES is a fantastic example of this. It's an intriguing and gripping concept with a built-in beginning, middle, and end. Suzanne Collins's true genius is that even though we know the teenagers have to take each other out and get down to just one, we care about the characters so much - and the stakes are so high - that we have to find out exactly how it happens.

    I will admit, I wasn't sure what to think of CATCHING FIRE at first. At the story's turning point, I thought, "Really? That's it?" And yet it definitely took me by surprise. On the whole, though, I still liked it (aren't we always willing to give good storytellers the benefit of our doubts?).

    I've read that last paragraph about half a dozen times now, hoping that it doesn't give anything away. Anyway, happy reading!

  19. I live for stories that pull at my heart. If a book can bring me to tears (which any of my friends could tell you is bloody difficult) and still make me want to turn the page, I know I'm not reading it for the last time.

  20. I just finished Hunger Games as well, and I have to agree with everyone else. The book pulled me in from the very first page and I could. not. put. it. down.

    Zing comes from tension, from characters that feel like they're real, from a plot that keeps you wanting to know more. I've been reading a lot of YA lit lately and I'm stunned at how many YA novels I enjoy... but I think it's the pacing, how quickly the author reaches in and grabs you, which is what YA has to be, right? If you want a teen to read the book all the way through, the author needs to hook you (and keep you hooked and turning the pages) all the way to the end.

    I hope to be that great of a YA author one of these days, and until then, practice, practice, practice!

  21. For me, the ZING comes when I become totally wrapped up in the characters - when I worry about them and their choices, actions and consequences - when they keep me from going to sleep at a reasonable hour.

    I just picked up Hunger Games last week, but haven't started it yet. Can't wait now!

  22. As many other commenters have said, just wait till you read Catching Fire. I stayed up until 2:30am on a day when I had to get up for work at 7:30am and be very alert (yay demonstration classes) to read it.


    Because of Katniss. I, too, hate first person present tense (and yet I"m reading another one now), but the character of Katniss makes it all blur away.

    It's characters that do it for me. It's why I read the stories. It's why I like the Lord of the Rings movies better than the book (because there's more character development). It's why I don't like the Great Gatsby (because there isn't character development for the narrator or Gatsby--not even devolvement).

    So yeah, if I like, sympathize, or even just understand the motivations of a fully fleshed, 3D character, then that book is just gonna be on fire for me. I won't put it down until it's finished or someone tears it from my hands.

  23. I'm not sure what the Zing is, but I know it when I read it. And I hope I have it when I write. The best examples of what has Zing for me, though, are any books by Allison Brennan. Something about her romantic suspense sucks me in, keeps me reading into the wee hours, and makes me wait impatiently for her next novel.

  24. Your turn. Talk to me about that elusive -- or not-so-elusive -- ZING. What is it? Where have you found it?

    How do you CREATE it?

    As a writer (or aspirant), that's the question, isn't it? How to create it? I certainly don't know how. I'm trying, I'm learning a lot on your blog and on others. I know when I read it, but to try to replicate it is the big one.

    i know that when a novel has that zing, it's got some kind of combination of writing, plotting and theme, plus of course great characters. There are novels I've read that are plotted really well, but the writing is just adequate (or barely adequate) but the plot is so great I can't stop reading just to find out what happens next. Other novels aren't as plot oriented but have wonderful characters and themes, that draw me in while still others are just beautifully written and while the story is compelling, the prose is what keeps you reading.

    I read a lot of genres -- SF, mystery, crime, thrillers, fantasy, so I read for different reasons but I still hope to get it all - plot, theme, characters, and great writing. Few writers can pull it all off.

  25. Oh, and thanks for the plug for "The Hunger Game" -- I went to Amazon and read the first few pages and I'm hooked -- I must read it!

  26. Tension - as everyone has mentioned, is a huge factor to elicit the Zing! reaction in me.

    I've noticed though, that it can't just be tension for me, I get exhausted hanging on for the ride - no ,there's the comic moments that make me laugh in surprise or the moments that are sad AND comic that kind of grab a half sob/half laugh out of me. I need emotional entanglement in the characters and plot. I need to want to live the tension to find out how things work out.

    I've been insanely busy with the day job lately, so I have to admit I didn't get to pitch in with the Secret Agent contest this round. Hopefully I'll do better next contest. I'm not entering, but I think this is a great place for these kinds of topics and these contests. :)

  27. haha I wrote a post just like this (about a month ago) after I finished Catching Fire (the second HG book). I felt defeated and like I sucked at writing-- and had to pick myself up off the floor and ignite a fire inside myself again!!

  28. For me, zing can take a number of forms. The plot has to be there, but it just needs to be solid. Twilight comes to mind. I inhaled those books in about a week because I like the characters and I had to know what happened.

    Emotional tension combined with a lyrical but not overdone voice will get me every time. The Year of Magical Thinking is a good example.

    I also adore complex, emotionally fractured male characters in a love story. I could not put down The Time Traveler's Wife or Say When by Elizabeth Berg.

    Books that make me feel deeply also zing for me. Again, The Time Traveler's Wife. Also, The Villa Golitsyn by Piers Paul Read.

  29. I think it's what John Gardner called "the vivid and continuous dream". Good fiction makes a reader forget that they're reading words on a page.

  30. Oh, wow, Kathleen, how wonderfully put. That sounds exactly what I'm looking for in a book but not found. I've never come across a book I've totally loved but many I've liked. I'd like a story that was also a learning experience, one that inspired and opened up new vistas of thought and being. Isn't that what fiction is about moving the culture forward?

  31. I think that the genre and kind of novel determines what I look for. Forex, I just read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Spare prose. Bleak to fit the setting. But I read late into the night because it was almost impossible to put down. I am now reading Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem and it is a whole different kettle of fish -- different POV, tense, setting, genre, but it makes me laugh out loud and I love the main character's voice and circumstances.