Are you enjoying the journey?


Depending on what writing bible you follow, there are only 3 real plots in the universe – or 12, or 37, or ONE. It doesn’t matter what the number is,  so long as you realize that the basic idea is distilling EVERY book into its constituent parts


If you do that to a ridiculous degree, then you can reduce practically every book to the same set of criteria in the end.


And that’s WRONG.



If you pick a book you love, and you pick a book you loathe, and you put them both into a pot and boil their bones clean… don’t be surprised to find that you’ve got two remarkably similar sets of skeletons on your hands.


There’s a LiveJournal community which goes under the name of “bookfail”,  dedicated to readers talking about books they’d read which failed for them on some level. (A hot favorite for a while was “Twilight” – until the moderators asked if anybody was reading anything else at all. Some surprising books come popping up, books which I feel don’t deserve to be there at all – one person even disliked “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver, for reasons that doubtless seem valid when in the poster’s own context and inside their own head but which come out in public as rather strange.)


However, the community has shifted a little of late to cover what has been headlined as “overrated authors” and someone posted this bit distilling a certain author’s book into its constituent parts:

“A young, shy man/frustrated girl discovers a parallel fantasy world. This character goes into it to escape the problems of the real world, but finds the fantasy world has its own dangers–though relatively infrequently are those dangers really all that dangerous. It takes a little walking around, but eventually the shy man/frustrated girl figures out the internal logic of the fantasy world, returns to the real world, and then realizes that the fantasy world was better anyhow–typically because there was some other friend or love interest discovered there that the protagonist wants to return to.

There you go. This guy has written like 20 books and you have just read all of them.

You know, the Hero’s Journey was a lot more interesting of a formula before it was used as a basic escapist defense for people who are  lonely, no matter how quirky.”

The poster is talking about Neil Gaiman, and his criticism suggests he just doesn’t like the author or the genre. Now, this is what makes the world of publishing so utterly wonderful – it takes all kinds. Love an author or hate an author, but do it for the right reasons – not because the author in question doesn’t write the kind of book you like to read.


Neil Gaiman’s books may have a common theme running through them, but by God the man is a master wordsmith and the books are worth reading for the books themselves, for the language and the storytelling skills contained therein, and this is not to say that they will all be uniformly brilliant but they WILL be worth the journey — if you like that particular kind of cup of tea. If you do not, then none of them will appeal, and what are you doing reading Neil Gaiman anyway after deciding that the style or the theme or the story or the genre isn’t for you?


The author writes what the author writes. A reader’s own taste governs is the only thing that governs their reading habits. Readers – vote with your feet! Cross the aisle in the bookstore and look for something different if the book you picked up doesn’t appeal.


Opinions can vary widely and in no arena more so than in the clearly subjective circles of literature where one man’s meat often IS another man’s poison. It’s just as well that there are as many kinds of writers as there are readers, because all of these varied tastes need to be sated by material . So there’s room for all of us writers out there, seeing as we are not really read by the same audiences.


The key and only question in reading a work of fiction is, are you enjoying the journey?

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  1. 1. LJCohen

    Amen, sister. Humans were probably enjoying these archetype-stories by the fire long before there was a publishing industry. And what differentiated Og from Nog in how their stories were received was probably not the bones of the story, but in how each of the story tellers used specific details to delight his or her audience.

  2. 2. Elias McClellan

    Excellent topic and argument, Ms. Alexander. As you recite, it has all been done. Only contemporary tastes and individual contexts change. I’ve read works of the same subjects by vastly different authors, see ANY Richard Stark novel compared to “How to Rob An Armored Car.”

    Vastly different approaches but no less enjoyable. Meanwhile, I should love the so-called literary-films of a certain director (I’m not trying to be cute; I have been chided in the past for rudely naming folks who don’t frequent the site) who frequently deals in crime. Yet I can’t stand the films as I find most formulaic.

    Love books by a couple of SF/F authors termed formula writers, largely for their well developed caracters and/or beautiful language. Others, well, I’ve had teeth pulled before and I find that a reasonable anology.

    Some of the best selling hacks out there ‘craft’ stories that have all of the flavor of filtered water. Other, darlings of the moment, leave me scratching my head at their edgy weirdness or determination to shock and offend.

    Striking a balance is crucial. But here is a question for you/everyone else here. What book/s did you read, way back when, that set your wold on fire, (maybe started your journey down the scribbling road) and hasn’t held up so well in recent reading? Or even stinks on ice. Dying to read the answers to this one.

  3. 3. Wolf Lahti

    I’ve always dismissed as silly the notion that “there are only 9/10/15 basic plots” by saying, “No, there is only one: Some characters are introduced, conflict ensues, it is (or is not) resolved. The end.”

    (Sad to say, as an editor, I too often see books that lack even that much structure.)

    I freely admit that my weakness in reading is elegant use of language – not florid or call-attention-to-itself styles but rather a straightforward mastery of Creating the Illusion without getting in the way. What tale is being told is important, yes, but it is secondary, in my book, to *how* it is told.

  4. 4. Alma Alexander

    LJ Cohen: Actually, now there’s a part of me that would LOVE to hear Og from Nog’s take on some of the stories that are still doing the rounds today [grin]…

    Elias – how right you are. Balance is everything. As for your question – I don’t know about “stinks on ice” but I’ve had a decidedly different take on the Narnia books ever since I found out about the subtext. Sometimes I miss the pure innocence of my first reading of them, which I will NEVER have again.

    Wolf – HIGH FIVES! I”m a fan on the “how” as well. I’m currently reading “The City and the City”, by China Mieville, and I am constantly and continuously struck by his masterful use of language. Ever read him…?

  5. 5. Alma Alexander

    PS – apologies to everyone – I seem to be having some trouble with the formatting of this one – tried to fix the original horrifying version but I think there’s still bugs – I don’t know WHAT happened, sorry about that…

  6. 6. Elias McClellan

    Yeah, ditto on Narnia. Don’t even get me started on LOTR. I also had great, warm and fuzzy feelings for Heinlein but his work has not held up as well as my memories of it. Truthfully this could be the work or the reader.

    Currently I’m rereading the “Parable,” series with my wife and I still find a lot to appreciate in it.

  7. 7. Mary

    Books that prescribe n many plots — or n many character types — are the only how-to-write books that I’ve never found useful.

    Indeed, I’ve only heard from one writer who found either of useful, and that was the character types — she would compare her characters to them and see if she could recognize the type, and if so, knew they needed more development.

  8. 8. Clare K. R. Miller

    Elias: Oddly enough, I’m currently rereading a book that was my favorite through middle and high school. The prose has mostly held up well, as have the characters, but the plot… not as much. I’m actually quite glad that I was as young as I was when I first read it, because if I’d known more about the story of Jesus, I would have recognized it very quickly and then I would have known the plot, pretty much–in particular, I would have known the Jesus character was going to die and it wouldn’t have been as shocking. (Not Narnia–I still love those books. I don’t know if I should reveal the book I’m talking about, but it’s part of a popular fantasy series.)

    It did start my love for assassins/serial killers, though, which has not diminished.

  9. 9. Elias McClellan

    @8 Ms. Miller, now that’s just cruel. Won’t be able to sleep until I figure out which book/series you’re referring to. Actually, I’ll have to pester enough people (smarter than me) to figure out your challenge.

    As I stated initially, I’ve been taken to task for typing my mind about some of the monkeys out there. So I can dig your relunctance. Maybe just a hint? Be your best friend… :)

  10. 10. Peter Frauenglass

    Mary: I have to disagree, actually. I’ve never read that type of book myself (laying out the character types), but as I look back on my reading experience, that characters that stand out most strongly and interestingly are those that conform quite closely to certain archetypes. Personalities become archetypal because they’re interesting and memorable.

    Three dimensional characters are not the same thing as “unique” ones. I like to think of character types as lamps of focus, around which the world resolves itself into comprehensibility. You don’t want to be exactly on them, because in such intense light people loose their identity and depth. Those that stray too far away, on the other hand, tend to loose cohesion and focus. The story spends too much time trying to point out how all the separate specks of personality come together into an interesting and coherent person.

    I’ve probably strayed too far in the first direction, archtypical and predictable characters, in my current writing effort ( but it’s more of an attempt to keep me writing daily than it is to create something actually workable.

  11. 11. Clare K. R. Miller

    LOL @Elias! OK, I’ll tell you that the author is Terry Brooks. If you’ve read the Shannara series, I’m sure you’ll know which book I’m talking about.

  12. 12. Megs - Scattered Bits

    I hated the ending to Elfstones of Shannarra so badly (loved that girl!) I could never read the rest of his stuff. :(

    But I agree with this post.

    Form isn’t the key behind whether a book is good or not. It’s what the writer does with it (or doesn’t).

  13. 13. Elias McClellan

    @11, Thank you and I’m used to women laughing at me, I’m married ;)

    I do agree with 11 & 12. Bitter, bitter ashes. Same with the wrap up on Battlestar Galactica. I watched season one and I was waiting for the box set to watch all of the rest without interuption. Once I read about the ending, I was so glad I did not invest the time into the series. I would have been SOOOO p!ssed.

  14. 14. Katherine Mooore

    Elias: LOL on being married. I was pleased to find your posts as they are always humorous and timely.

  15. 15. Katherine Moore

    Goodbye everyone, I have enjoyed our discussions. I am moving to Ireland and getting married there to an Irishman. My lifetime dream!!!!!

    God bless us all!

Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.



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