Are Readers Being OD’d On Angst?

Have you ever read a book that felt like one long spiel of navel-gazing with a bit of plot thrown in?

I have. And I find it irritating. I’d like to read a story.

Readers are human; we all have feelings. We like it when our story characters seem human, too — even display some faults. When characters show their feelings and inner conflicts we can identify with them and sympathize with their trials. We cheer when they find their answer. In my opinion that’s what a story is all about.

Writers need to give their readers credit: we do “get” how the protagonist feels and we understand that attractions, fears and insecurities are going to be ongoing. But light touches now and then are reminder enough. The writer doesn’t have to tell us again and again and again how insecure, worried or resistant to some change the character feels.

Navel-Gazing: Contrived Conflict

Stories do need conflict, but is really effective in the long run to generate “internal conflict” by rehashing the character’s fears, self-doubt, and suspicions every few pages? Wouldn’t the novel be better if those efforts rather went into plot? Into writing in some actual conflict with life circumstances?

I read one novel where the main characters had joined a wagon train headed for a new life in California. They were going through unfamiliar territory, supposedly anticipating the new life they’d be living. But instead of the trials of their journey, scenic description, or speculation on their future home, the writer served readers a steady diet of the female MC examining her feelings for, and trying to generate resistance to, the male MC. And vise versa.

They spend so much time scolding themselves about their feelings, by Chapter 4 you’re thinking, “Get a life, people! There’s a whole world happening around you.”

I rarely read romance books or chick lit and this is mainly why. But I find this style of writing common in other genres nowadays, too, especially cosy mysteries. In one novel the protagonist finds a dead teen in someone’s empty house and, according to the writer, her thoughts are:
Why on earth did I have to find this body?
What will people think of me when they know I’ve found this body?
What will my family think of me when they hear I’ve found this body?
What will people think of my family when they learn I’ve found this body?

That a person died is pretty low in her thinking. Her fears prove overwhelming, so she jumps in her car and leaves the poor guy lying there. As the story unfolds all her angst gets played out with the mystery as a background. In all fairness, the writer did a good job of spinning out the plot, but the protagonist comes across as so self-centered.

Put More STORY in the Story

I know we live in a world that’s focused on navel-gazing. We’re encouraged to analyze our feelings and reactions. This is naturally going to spill over into the books we read. However, if writers were to delete the monotonous rehashes, I’m afraid some books might lose a third of their word counts — unless they filled the pages with actual happenings. And that takes work.

Maybe my problem is that I’ve been reading the old masters. There’s a lot more going on in Pride and Prejudice than how Liz feels about her feelings toward Darcy and how Darcy feels about his feelings for Liz. Jane Austin’s characters had lives to live, places to go and things to do. Her stories were woven around action as well as romance.

Without a lot of navel-gazing Charles Dickens’ characters managed to rouse people’s sympathies to the point of effecting positive changes in society’s attitudes.

For mystery writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, “Who did it?” was the focus of their stories. Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey rarely wrestled with self-doubt or anguished over what others thought of them. Yet they were very human — and often very humorous as a bonus.

The popularity of these writers has endured; you can still find their works in any library and most bookstores. That tells us something.

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What DO Feminists Hate?

Monday Morning Musing

I was going about my morning as usual when I happened to check my SPAM queue and saw a title that caught my eye:

“If Feminists Hate This, It Must Be Good”

I didn’t open the e-mail, but I must admit the title IS thought-provoking. My mind immediately brought up various responses:
If feminists hate war, then war must be good?
If feminists hate child-abuse, then child abuse must be good?
If feminists hate drug-trafficking, and the sex slavery that often goes with it, then drug use must be good?
If feminists hate SPAM, then…

Ah, but… So much meaning hinges on the word THIS. Since I never read the message — which is undoubtedly an ad of some kind — I have no idea what “this” refers to. I just jumped on the title and thought, “Wait a minute. This is a false assumption!”

Rather than getting the complete picture, aren’t we sometimes inclined, as listeners or readers, to catch a few significant words and build our rebuttal on that?
“You said this, and it isn’t true.”
“She wrote thus and thus, and it makes no sense.”
“He carelessly asked for a dozen when he should have asked for precisely twelve!”

Looking back I blush to think of times where I’ve pounced on some short phrase and shook it like a rat, not listening for — or deliberately ignoring — the real meaning behind the statement. Yes, “Guilty as charged.” The speaker may have had a valid point but I’ve allowed one sentence to negate it.

Conversely, haven’t we all seen a child pick the part they wanted to hear and go from there?
Mother: “I don’t think you really should go along with them, but if you feel you have to do that I won’t order you stay home.”
Child to friends: “Mom says I can go.”

Another phrase comes to my mind. Over the years people have seized on this statement and taken it literally without ever exploring the context for the complete meaning.
Jesus said, “Judge not that ye be not judged.” (Matt 7:1)

These words from the Bible are frequently quoted, in fact they’ve become a motto for our times. They’re used to excuse a LOT of bad behaviour, to prove innocence of a sort. Usually comparatively speaking, like:

“Sure, I’m smoking pot, but who are you to judge me? You have a social drink now and then. Remember, the Bible says, ‘Judge not that ye be not judged’.”

Years ago I worked for a boss who smoked. Her sister nagged her about the danger of getting lung cancer. Then studies revealed that women who dyed their hair had a higher incidence of cancer. (It was slight, if I recall correctly.)

Well, the sister dyed her hair, so my boss justified her smoking with this ‘you’re just as wrong as I am’ approach: “My sister criticizes me for smoking, but she’s dyeing her hair. So who is she to judge?” Her argument didn’t affect her chance of getting lung cancer in the least, but it got her off the hook with her nagging sister.

In John 7:24 Jesus says, “Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgement.” Sadly, this sentence has never gotten equal billing with the “Judge not” line of thought.

In Matt 5:48 He tells his disciples, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”

Now wait a minute! What’s this about PERFECT? Who can ever be perfect?

The only way to find out what Jesus meant by this statement is to read the book of Matthew.

Just like the only way I’ll ever find out what “feminists hate” and why it’s so good is to read the e-mail. But I’ve deleted it. I really don’t want to know; the answer is not important to my life.

The Tasks At Hand

I hope you’re all having a happy day of rest and reflection.

My New Year started with a phone call early this morning. I stayed up to welcome the New Year in — and read an interesting book. (Book review to come.) Then I crawled into bed and was dozing off when the phone rang at 1:10 am. My cousin in Alberta, forgetting the one-hour time difference, was calling to wish us a happy new year.

I listened to her message, then went back to bed, but was restless with my left leg paining quite much. So, up to take more Tylenol, and finally to sleep again.

This morning I arose from my bed and could walk. Joy, joy! What a blessing to be able to get up and walk around without that hobble!

In retrospect I don’t think my problem was gout, seeing there was no heat, redness, or swelling in the knee joint. Rather, I must have over-stretched something in my back when I made my bed and slipped a disk out of place. This morning the nerve down the back of my leg is still sore from being pinched, but the disk must have slid back in where it should be and the nerve isn’t being pinched anymore.

End of painful hobble. I am so delighted!

Now I can get back to my New Year’s resolution to sort out my house. I’ll start out easy by going through the top drawer on my side of our dresser. Over the years this has become my catch-all for everything that has no other place and serves no useful purpose. Skin cream samples and half-tubes, old bookmarks, a scattering of hairpins I never use, old eyeglasses I intend to donate to charity. (Wait a minute! The lenses in my old glasses are all scratched up and the frames obsolete. What charity will want them?)

I’ll try walking a mile in my daughter’s shoes. I’ll go through this drawer, asking, “Which things will she throw out when I’m gone? Which will she think are worth keeping?”

Do you have a “catch all clutter” drawer like that? What rationale do you use for sorting through stuff you’re keeping “just in case I need it someday”?

It’s time to get on with my day, so I’ll close with a New Year’s blessing to all fellow writers: 🙂
May words flow from your veins
in an unblockable stream;

may your mouse never freeze
in the middle of its tale;

may your power never blink
before you’ve hit “Save”;

and may your anti-virus preserve you
from all invasive microbes.

Germ.jpg

Beware the SOLID BLOCK

IN PRAISE OF PARAGRAPHS

Pet Peeve #3

Have you ever gone clicking through the blogosphere —
perhaps checking out the Community Pool or First Friday —
or in some other way you’ve discovered some new blogger —
and suddenly you’re facing a solid block of type?
Maybe fifteen, twenty, or more
lines of SOLID words, like a brick wall
from one side of your screen to the other?

The writer may have presented an excellent case or clear explanation.
However, whatever their topic, whatever their opinion,
it’s written as one extremely long paragraph
and the prospect of reading it is daunting,
off-putting,
mind-befuddling
eye-blearing.

Like a different take on how to eat an elephant:
open your mouth and stuff the whole thing in,
then chewchewchewchewchew.
I don’t. I click out.
My policy is: if the writer doesn’t know what a paragraph is,
I’m not going to slog through what they have to say,
be it ever so brilliant.

Awhile ago I agreed to read another writer’s book and do a review.
Two days ago I opened this book on my Kindle. And faced
a solid screen of type.
No headings, no side bars, no quotes,
just one solid block of type.
The next page was two paragraphs. And thus it has continued
for as far as I’ve read. No more than two paragraphs per page.

My brain rebelled. I’ll work my way through it, but…
If this manuscript landed in a traditional editor’s slush pile,
the first reader would slide it from the envelope,
take one look,
and toss it on the RETURN TO SENDER pile.

White space is wonderful stuff!
Or so modern editors tell us
and I’m totally sold on the concept.
Five or six lines is long enough for a paragraph, in my opinion,
if a writer actually wants their work to be read.

Beware the SOLID BLOCK, my friend.

*Pet peeves #1 is when the internet isn’t working.
As it wasn’t when I first tried to post this.
Pet Peeve #2 is when I come back to my computer
and the cat is curled up in my office chair.

NaNoWriMo Behind Us; Christmas Ahead

Hello Everyone,

I’m almost done my time-consuming writing projects, namely my NaNoWriMo novel followed by my Christmas greetings to special friends and family. I’ve only a few letters to write, then work at formatting Silver Morning Song as a print book. I have a lot of older friends that never read e-books and there are lots of folks in general who prefer a print copy, so I’ll work through CreateSpace and do a print-in-demand edition.

So I’m ready to start blogging again and share something of my experience writing my novel in November. Usually I don’t sit down to write anything until I have the article, story, or book outlined and scenes gone over in my mind. With this project I had only a vague idea of the story I wanted to tell and a few particular scenes in mind. So my experience turned out much like this quote:

Driving--Writing quote

I’m so thankful for the way different scenes came to mind as I worked at the story, events that would fit into a summer “working holiday” for Joy, almost twelve, and her 15 year-old brother Gerry. I still have lots of smooth out and some more to write after Christmas, but I know where I’m going now.

I get the feeling that the greatest benefit of joining NaNoWriMo and committing yourself to write this novel is that by the end of the month you’ve learned to know and care enough about these people to keep on and finish their story!

My two siblings spend the summer with their widowed Aunt Patty, age 33, and her two small children. They’ve been sent to help her as she starts a market garden near a small Ontario town; they also help fix up her house which is old and sadly in need of repair. So they get to meet new — and some quite odd — people and do the things kids did before the electronic age. I’ve even included a writer of Wild West novels for teens. 🙂

There’s a family in this town — every town had at least one when I was young — where money is scarce and troubles abound. This particular dad, scarred by the battlefield conflict in WWII, drinks too much and domestic violence impacts the children’s lives. The oldest boy becomes a bully and gives newcomer Gerry — “that rich city kid” — a hard time. Joy becomes friends with Darlene, a girl from this family, and gets an idea of what life on the wrong side of the tracks feels like.

I barely knew my characters when I started, but now I’m enthused about them. I didn’t give them any major conflicts while I was writing because the conflicts only presented themselves to me as I got towards the end of the summer. I had no outline to start, but soon needed to make a two-month calendar to keep track of the day-to-day happenings.

 

Teddy Bear quote 3

I committed myself to updating my story EVERY single DAY. I’d drag my feet sometimes until late in the evening, unwilling to start. But then I’d tell myself, “You must — even if you only add another paragraph.” Which led to writing another scene, maybe a thousand words. So I’ve learned more about the value of commitment.

But I never left sloppy copy behind. I will need to delete some lines where I changed my mind and restated some thought or dialogue, but I corrected all typos and fixed my story as I went. I could have gotten done a lot sooner if I’d left all the changes, but I’d never have courage to face the task of editing now. To each his own. For me the important thing is to have a story when you’re done —not a 50,000-word mess to clean up.

I haven’t been very energetic this year, since my chemo-therapy treatments I’ve been tired a lot. However, I had a checkup at the Cancer Clinic Nov 23rd and the oncologist was very pleased with the effectiveness of the treatment. She tells me all is well with my blood counts. I told her I’m SO forgetful and she says that’s normal, things should improve, so here’s hoping.

I had a bad few days in November because of gout in my right foot. I guess it’s handy that I was planning on sitting anyway. 🙂 I was home-bound almost a week not able to put on shoes — which is nothing to really complain about. Since then arthritis has moved into my left knee.

But now November has sped by and we’re facing the Christmas season with all its glitter and glow, carols and gatherings. Texas has gotten the snow while we have a balmy 5 C! If this keeps up there’ll be no white Christmas for us. Nevertheless I wish every one of you, wherever you live, all the joys of the season.

Snow, Woe and Micro-Tales

We’ve had a fair bit of snow this past week; our world is quite dazzling white now. And it has been COLD! Yesterday our grandson, now working for his dad doing snow removal, came with a loader and cleaned out our driveway. Hard to realize he’s big enough, and mature enough, to operate such big machinery. How the years do fly!

I’ve been besieged by a new ailment this week. Old Arthritis in disguise. Monday morning my right foot — particularly my big toe — started to hurt. The pain has gotten worse, the swelling increased. Looks and feels like a genuine “club foot” now as I limp around the house. Not very nice.

Heading into Week Two of NaNoWriMo today and I’m well on the way as scenes keep coming to me for my story. Since I’ll be doing a lot of sitting this week anyway, maybe I can aim to have my 50k words written by Sunday night. 🙂 Then comes the edit — though I am editing a bit as I go along. Even if it reduces my overall word count, I will take out unwanted words and fix typos. Don’t like leaving a mess to clean up later.

Speaking of writing, I just got an e-mail telling me that one of my newest 100-word stories was published on The Drabble this morning. You might call this crime fiction — or you might not. You can read it here: “I Confess”