Saturday, August 27, 2011

At a Slower Pace

My brain tells me that 87 degrees is not that hot. It's less hot than my body temperature and tolerable. Just try telling my body that. My body feels warm and uncomfortable and I'm considering another long cold shower. Anything to feel cooler, even for a few moments. Perception and reality don't always agree.

I recently read a book where the story took place at an almost glacial pace. At first, it was irritating and I just wanted the author to get on with the story; that was what I wanted when I sat down, a story that moved. As I got further into the book, I realized there was a point to the slow pace. The author was in effect demonstrating the time dilation effect (time carried by a iced snail) and how it appeared to the characters. To have moved at a different pace would have ruined the effect and the story. Some things you cannot race through, and that story was one of them.

At the end of the journey, I was satisfied with what I had read and the pacing, tone, and characters fit together perfectly.

Since I am curious by nature, and by temperament, I decided to check out the reviews on various bookstore sites. What initially irked me -- the pacing -- was something that irked many of the readers sounding off. They complained about how slow the book was and felt it was a strike against the book. The readers had missed the point of the pacing. The book was supposed to be slow so the reader could experience the endless hours with the character, and all the readers wanted to do was race through the book and get it done.

The perception was at odds with the reality of the situation. They perceived the book as slow when the story was told at the same speed the main characters experienced it, and was effect. Most of the readers didn't agree. I felt the same way about Heinlein and Austen when I first essayed their pages. I didn't see the point. Time and experience have given me a much different perspective and reality of both.

There are times when a really good book can't be appreciated because the reader isn't sufficiently educated about the style or at a point in his life when subtleties are lost. Subtlety is not a big favorite in a population where news is delivered in sound bites and movies are all about action, action, action, fitting the story in the brief (all too brief) pauses. Everything must move at the speed of sound, but the speed of light would be better. It seems that so few people understand or appreciate a more sedate pace.

Fast food restaurants, speedy oil changes, rushing to work -- fast, fast, fast. All we do is run. How many times do these high powered people mosey down the trail, meander along a lane overarched with trees budding, in full flower, or blazing with autumn colors, or simply stop and savor each and every bite of a meal -- even if it isn't a decadent chocolate cake so rich each mouthful is a sensual explosion of flavor? Gone are Sunday evenings in the park listening to the local band or taking a leisurely stroll in the garden or down the street in twilight or gathering dark. Gone are the subtleties of life, and those subtleties have been gone long enough that few people reember what it was like to stop and enjoy the moment.

Literature has followed and much of what is written today (thrillers, adventures, crime novels, etc.) are being driven by television and movies, by the blockbuster summer movies full of special effects and explosions and chases and by the holiday movies that contain their share of the same summer blockbusters trimmed with baubles and lights and people racing around trying to find the perfect toy for a child who has a house full of toys and games strewn everywhere. Short attention spans is what are being bred by this fast-paced world and they are so short people have lost the ability to appreciate a story that unfolds rather than races to a breathless conclusion. These are the people raised on time lapse photography that showed the birth and death of a flower or insect or storm in the space between commercials.

Many good books and authors are being remaindered and criticized for a slow pace when the pace is part of the style and tone of the novel. Maybe the readers just haven't reached the point where they can appreciate what these skillful writers have achieved, novels that will endure and continue to find fans who have not forgotten what it means to enjoy a book instead of race through it. They haven't reached the point I have so that Heinlein and Austen and even the often lethargic flow of Faulkner provide meaning as well as entertainment.

I can only hope that somewhere along this race track of life people get a flat or spin out and off the track with a broken axle so that they are forced to slow down and stroll back to the pits and just enjoy the sights, sounds, smells, and taste of life.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Stop, Take a Breath, and Sit Down

There are times I look for something, tearing the house apart, certain I remember where I last saw and put something, and just cannot find it. Then, suddenly, it's right in front of me. It happens with writing that way, too. At least, it happens with me.

I have been struggling with finishing the latest book and just could not get back into the scenes or the characters' minds. Try how I might, nothing worked. I struggled, fussed, fumed, and generally forced words onto the page in a semblance of what should be there and it all felt flat. It read even flatter. Nothing was working, so I took yet another break.

The last time I visited this particular book was three years ago when I decided to veer off in another direction and write the novel I published earlier this year. Three years is a long time to put something off. The characters were still on the page. I knew where the story was going. Nothing sounded right. I could not connect to the excitement, the enthusiasm, or the language needed to get the story written. It was like looking for something and tearing up the house when all I had to do was stop and wait and it would magically appear. That's what happened in the wee hours of last night.

While asleep and dreaming peacefully (or not so peacefully where my dreams are concerned), I heard Delilah's voice. She had begun to tell her story and kept on talking while I slept. Slowly, her voice pierced the dream to the point I knew who she was and that I had to wake up and take dictation while she was ready to speak, so I woke up, opened the computer, and started checking email, and running the usual cycle of websites as she continued to talk.

At some point, through the haze of half-dreams, I opened up Word and began typing, and there it was, that connection I had tried so hard to find, right before my eyes and tripping off my fingers onto the keyboard. There was some hesitation. I felt like a doe walking into a familiar clearing and scenting danger in the air. The danger was intangible and the thought of losing the connection was palpable. I kept typing and ignored the danger, found my calm place in the writing zone, and the connection held.

One of the most important things I've learned about hiking is about getting lost. Instead of running around frantic to find the path, the smartest thing to do is sit down and take a breath. That's what I did with the novel. Bashing at it with words got me one flat chapter. Taking a step back and taking a breath got me half a chapter and back into that much desired connection with my characters.

I don't recommend waiting until the muse hits or inspiration strikes, but writing. I continued writing other things, blog posts like this one, for instance. It's more important to be open to the characters, leave a wide open connection, than it is to bash at the problem as the characters move farther and farther away.

My problem has been due to a disconnect with the story line and the characters and, in writing a period piece like this Victorian gothic novel, the right connection is all important. I have vowed not to go haring off after another book that needs to be written now while the iron is hot. I have had story ideas that gestated for years before they came into being on the page, and this one has been put on the back burner twice to bring books to publication. It's Delilah's turn to shine.

This time I'm following a slightly different direction, but it's not far off what I thought was true and will result in a satisfying conclusion and the book that I've been trying to write for some time, ever since an article on Jack the Ripper and a conversation about Victorian morality made the connections in my brain that began this journey. I should have learned the lesson a long time ago: finish what you start. I'll finish it, somewhat later than originally planned, but this time I won't lose the connection. Excuse me, but I have work to do.


Monday, August 22, 2011

What's in it for the Boys?

Amanda Hocking wrote about an article she read on the NY Times Sunday Book Review about boys and their reading habits that I found interesting. Basically, what the article said is that the numbers of boys who read is because current YA books "...lack the tough, edgy story lines that allow boys a private place to reflect on the inner fears of failure and humiliation they try so hard to brush over. Editors who ask writers of books for boys to include girl characters — for commercial reasons — further blunt the edges."

While the article did mention some specific books targeting boys, I think the problem is simpler and more basic. Boys do read, but the boys who read books early in life are usually the boys whose time is not consumed by sports or a lot of outside activities. With all the schoolwork and extra curricular activities and sports, who has time to read for pleasure? There are only so many hours in a day.

I do agree, however, that the reading landscape is much different now than it was in the 1950s and 1960s, and even into the 1970s, and has become more constricted because of the fear of upsetting parents and creating yet another war over what books should and should not be allowed. The classics are safe and time-tested and edgier current novels less so. Boys began reading children's books about explorers and then moved on to adult males like Heinlein, Hemingway, and Steinbeck. Nowadays, boys move from children's books, if they read at all, and are flummoxed at the length and breadth of adult and YA literature due to the predominantly female protagonists -- or maybe not. Could it be that boys and men are lying about what the read for fear of being thought gay?

I know many men and young men who read a lot. None of them are or have been overly involved in sports (that time thing again, only 24 hours in a day). They do enjoy gaming, which tends to be a more active pursuit than sitting quietly in a chair and reading, but they do not care much for the novelization of their favorite games, most of which read like gaming manuals. In cases like that, it's better to play than read. The men I know read across a wide swath of literature, from nonfiction to science fiction, fantasy (mostly vampire and werewolf fiction), and a few into the verges of romance and mainstream fiction. They like Grisham and Palahniuk as much as Rowling and Meyer. My brother, who has always been a voracious reader, sticks pretty close to science fiction and fantasy (IT professional) and enjoys Anne McCaffrey and Piers Anthony. For him, it's the writing and characters and not whether they are male or female.

For what it's worth, the literary landscape, in my estimation, has become as narrow as the minds of principals and schoolboard members. Women writers used to write male protagonists as believably as their female counterparts and there was no gender bias either way. While there are still some good writers able to cross gender lines with their protagonists, and quite a few emerging that write gender neutral and gay stories for readers of all ages, the choices are limited unless you know where to look, and care about looking at all.

When all is said and done, the real numbers about whether or not boys and men are reading and what they are reading are skewed. Not everyone likes to talk about what they're reading or that, like my nephews, they are reading Stephanie Meyers and Charlaine Harris and Kim Harrison, among other paranormal writers, where the protagonists are female and the emphasis is on romance and sex. I suspect it has always been that way. Then again, my nephews were never big on sports and neither was my brother. An active life in sports takes up time with preparing and training for the game, playing the game, and dissecting and talking about the game after it's over, none of which leaves much time for reading.

It all comes down to time and whether or not there is enough time for reading. I'd like to see a study with that as the focus instead of whether or not the fiction is available for boys to read and not feel as though they are being stereotyped.