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Thursday, April 01, 2010

Get Thee to the Swordfight

People are funny. And not always funny ha-ha. When Lost Mission hit the shelves last September, a few people told me it was well written as far as that went, but it started off too slowly. I was prepared for any criticism except for a slow start, since the story mentions two miracles in the first four pages alone. (A church bell seems to ring by itself, and a fresco is “not painted by human hands.”) I even tossed in a couple of boys who are nearly burned alive. These folks did admit it “got better” later on, but still, apparently the miracles and near death experience were barely enough to pique their interest.

Maybe I should have burned the boys.

Of course I know a novel has to hook the reader from the very first word these days. Even an Amish romance must be thrilling from the get-go, otherwise the jaded citizenry will wander off to channel surf their countless choices in realty television shows, or “meet” a dozen perverts a minute on Chat Roulette, or even worse, read somebody else’s book. But I did think I had done my duty, hook wise, with two miracles and a couple of burning boys in four pages flat, so color me confused.

In situations like this it’s good to consult the specialists. I decided to check out the first four pages of a few stories that have done pretty well, and what I found there was instructive: Aunt Polly fails to spank her nephew. Yawn. Tom Sawyer goes back on the shelf. A man—we don’t even know his name yet!—rents a house. So much for the first four pages of The Great Gatsby. On page one of another novel we learn the Hudson River valley is uncivilized, and we learn it some more on page two, and more on pages three, and four, and by then it is clear The Last of the Mohicans wouldn’t last long in the hands of today’s impatient reader. In fact, none of these so-called “classics” would pass muster nowadays, yet people in the olden times seemed to think they were okay. So between then and now, what changed?

We did, I’m afraid. Once upon a time a troubadour could count on Lords and Ladies to sit and listen in the castle without interrupting him to say, “Get thee to the swordfight already.” Once it was possible to write a novel about a great white whale in which the whale did not appear until around page three hundred. But nowadays, unless there’s pending death, dismemberment or damnation in the first sentence it’s close the book and pass another novel.

Blame it on
Robert Adler, that mad Austrian scientist who invented the television remote control. He hoped to liberate us from the senseless tyranny of having to move more than one finger to switch from NBC to CBS to ABC and back again (the only three options back in ‘56), but his impatience with the time consuming walk from couch to television set unwittingly created a slave race of channel surfing zombies.

Or maybe Adler’s Folly was just one more step in the long attention span decline that began with Gutenberg, (real name, “Goose-skin”) the inventor of movable type, a devilish creation which made it possible for the Average Joe’s reading choices to outnumber his brain cells. But really I suspect we’d have to go much further back to expose the roots of this problem, because even Gutenberg suffered from an early indication of the looming plague when he took a little longer than expected to come up with the printing press and got sued by an investor who was “
losing patience.”

It turns out slow beginnings aren’t even my only shortcoming as a novelist.

In Lost Mission, I also made the mistake of setting some scenes in the 1700’s and others in the here and now. I never dreamed this would cause so much trouble, yet some people have complained it's hard to follow the transitions between timeframes. In my defense, I did see this one coming. In the book are subtle hints, along the lines of “Pay attention, dear reader, because we’re about to leave the old timey days.” Lest you think I’m exaggerating, allow me to quote Lost Mission's first transition. Here’s the setup: at this point in the story we are crossing the Atlantic toward the New World on a Spanish galleon with an eighteenth century friar, and then . . .

“. . . this is just the first of many journeys we shall follow as our story leads us back and forth through space and time. Indeed, the events Fray Alejandro has set in motion have their culmination far into the future. Therefore, leaving the Franciscan and his solitary ship, we cross many miles to reach a village known as Rincon de Dolores, high among the Sierra Madres of Jalisco, Mexico. And we fly further still, centuries ahead of Alejandro, to find ourselves in these, our modern times.”

You see the problem. (I know you do, because you’re one of the few who haven’t gotten bored with this column already and gone off to Google something better.) If a reader can’t (won’t?) follow along with an in-your-face transition like that, it’s hard to hope she will remember basic plot points or character’s names from one chapter to another.

Should an author pander to such people?

Just imagine where that could lead. Think of eBooks with embedded comments to remind readers that John is “the narcissist you met in chapter three” and New York is “the city where this story is taking place.” Such things are certainly feasible in this electronic age, but are they wise? Don’t brains, like muscles, atrophy unless we use them? One does hope to let the reader’s memory and imagination do some of the work, otherwise what do we have? Television, I suppose.

In a culture with
150 channels in the basic cable package, and 116 second delivery times in fast food drive through lanes, and eight minute speed dating (not to mention three minute online speed dating), I suppose impatience with old fashioned storytelling had to reach this fevered pitch. And I suppose it was too much to hope my novels would escape unscathed. After all, some of the people who read them also enjoyed that mega bestseller which is not entitled Your Best Life Later. But it does leave me wondering how a novelist should respond.

Should authors embrace the current reality by getting a character killed, kidnapped, betrayed or broken hearted in the very first phrase (never mind the first sentence) of page one? Should we try for two miracles per page rather than two pages per miracle? Should we (as some are doing) crank out four or five novels a year for fear of being otherwise forgotten in the reader's rush to choke words down like French fries? This path has the advantage of keeping the author in print. Might it also make authors part of the problem, like drug pushers who claim they only give the people what they want?

Or should we hope there are enough sober readers left who still know the difference between reading a novel and channel surfing? Ah, the high road. Writing for that vanishing breed would be a risky choice for those of us who survive on advances and royalties, but while it might keep us up at night worrying about the bills, at least we could still look in the mirror in the morning.

There is always compromise, of course, a middle path between these two extremes, and that’s what most of us do, including me. But where does compromise lead us? Given the change in attitude from the days of Cooper, Twain and Fitzgerald, it seems the real choices are two: join our culture’s epidemic of impatience and make a living, or write for thoughtful folks and risk going out of print. Imagine you’re a novelist, struggling to survive on words. What would you do?


  1. We're throwbacks, Athol. I love the meandering prose, the attention to detail.

    And even though I don't like historicals, your transitions were cool because they didn't use sign posts and arrows to point to them. The subtle movements of the story proved challenging, clever, and smooth.

    Some approaches to writing are trendy and not memorable. Yeah, it's cool to get a first line, paragraph, or chapter that grabs, but different genres demand different approaches. There's room for all types--or there should be. JMO

  2. I don't know Athol. One of my favorite novelists, (and lots of other folks' too,) is Charles Martin. His books are slow to start. In fact, when I hear the word of mouth on his,readers are telling the person they're recommending him to, "Make yourself read at least to the halfway point. It's slow but it's worth it."

    He hit the NYT best-seller list with Where the River Ends. So, it's not impossible.

    You're a great writer. Nothing will ever appeal to everyone.

  3. Thank you, Athol, for your thoughtful post. I'm still waiting for my first publishing contract so a publishing history is still a dream right now. But at the end of my life, I'd prefer being the author of a handful of books that resonate with readers than the author of a ton of books that were read and quickly forgotten.

    Gina, I feel the same way about Charles Martin. Slow beginnings, but his stories are so worth the reading. Certainly wouldn't mind following in his footsteps!

  4. I tend to do the Amazon looky-loo or pick up a book in a bookstore and decide whether I'll buy it based on the first pages and the back cover, or someone's recommendation. I give a book 50 pgs if I own it or it's a library book. There's just so much excess here. All this description of a friar right on the first page...and why wouldn't we know the basics of what a friar looks like? Athol, I really wanted to like your looky-loo, but I couldn't make it all the way through the second page without scanning. I don't have a problem with a meandering story, as long as the prose makes it worthwhile or there's something else to pique my interest. Lots of well-wishes for your future writing career. You obviously have potential.

  5. A conundrum to be sure! We can't please all of the people all of the time, of course, but if writing is your bread and butter, you're going to have to please a lot of the people a lot of the time.

    I don't require an intravenous shot of adrenalin at the outset, but perhaps I'm more patient that most readers these days. Wish I had an answer for you, but I'm afraid I don't. Not even sure if there is one.

  6. Interesting. I think the question is how they're reading. Speed-readers can miss transitions more easily than real readers, and I'm convinced a lot of reviewers are speed-readers.

  7. Chryse, are you seriously suggesting if you've seen one eighteenth century Franciscan friar you've seen them all? Would that also be true of--for example--a ninteenth century parent, sibling, king or queen? I ask, because in the second paragraph of GREAT EXPECTATIONS we find Pip speculating about the physical appearance of his father, his mother, and his five brothers, and in A TALE OF TWO CITIES, we find physical descriptions of the kings and queens of England and France, again in the second paragraph. Since both novels have been fairly well received over the years, I felt pretty safe describing the protagonist in the second paragraph of LOST MISSION. If you're not even patient enough to allow an author one paragraph to describe his main character, you're going to miss out on a lot of excellent novels. So I'm very sorry (for your sake) if such "excess" bores you, but I do appreciate your providing such an excellent example of the point of the post.


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