Something Bigger

My reading encompasses genres besides mystery, especially literary fiction, historical fiction, and nonfiction. Nonfiction educates me, and I’m delighted when the author presents information in a way that makes me want to know more. The same is true of well-researched historical fiction, with the bonus of plot and characters to keep me engaged. After pushing through several highly acclaimed recent literary novels, I had to ask myself why I found them such a struggle to read compared to the classics in the genre or to my other reading. My conclusion: self-absorbed protagonists with no goals beyond their egocentric concerns. In these books, I’ve admired but not enjoyed masterful portraits of unpleasant people and vivid descriptions so alive and detailed I was immersed in the locations with all my senses without ever wanting to be there. Appreciation for writing skill isn’t the same experience as getting wrapped up in a story. When I force my way through one of these frustrating novels, I feel the way I did as a kid eating lima beans. Mom cooked them and they’re supposed to be good for me, but do I have to finish?

The mystery genre appeals to me because the protagonists are involved in something bigger than themselves. The lead characters in mysteries have their personal problems, their relationship challenges, and sometimes their demons, but the pursuit of their goals demands caring and courage, often in spite of those private difficulties.  As a writer, I hope to give my readers the experience of empathy as well as an intriguing setting and the mental exercise of solving the puzzle. After all, that’s what draws me to the series I follow.

Books… And More Books… And Still More Books…

by Janis Patterson

Books are most definitely a leitmotif in my life. I have always loved to read. Even in my toddler days I would on an almost daily basis pull every book I could reach off the shelves and sit happily among them, turning the magical pages. Mother said I never got one upside down and nor ever tore a page, which I find remarkable as it took me much longer to master the skill of walking.

My parents discovered that I was reading when I was three, when I sat them down and read a short story from the newly-arrived Saturday Evening Post (the original version, remember that?). No one ever knew how or when I learned to read.  I had free rein in the family library, reading Boswell, all of Ellery Queen and most of Pearl Buck before starting school, but it was Shakespeare which fascinated me the most. The language! The imagery! The flow of those incredible words that drew you into a different time and place, a world of magic…

I had so looked forward to school, where I hoped to talk books and characters and reading, hopes that were dashed the first day. Not only did my classmates not even know the alphabet, the teacher took my copy of Shakespeare away, telling me I was naughty for stealing it. I had to prove to the principal that it was my book – it had my name in the front, too – by reading aloud and explaining a full page of the play I was currently reading. It was Troilus and Cressida, and it was such an infuriating and humiliating experience (resulting in an irrational dislike of that play which lasts to this day) that I loathed school from then on. Even before starting school I was not too fond of libraries, either, after a supercilious librarian insisted I could not look through the adult section, but would have to stay in the young children’s department where there were only pamphlet-thin and distressingly simplistic (if not downright idiotic) stories that had no real action or character development and a stunted vocabulary that should have shamed a retarded parrot.

I know now I was blessed to grow up in a house with books and respect for books. It took me a long time to realize that not everyone grew up immersed not only in books but love and respect towards books. Then it was just the way things were. I did not realize, however that some blessings can be an overabundance. After my mother passed away, I was clearing out her house preparatory to our doing some remodeling and long-deferred maintenance before moving in. There were books everywhere. Not only did the house have a dedicated library, there were bookshelves in every room. I called The Husband in tears when, after thinking the books were all taken care of, I discovered six big boxes of books under the guest room bed!

I quit counting my parents’ books at 12,000, but there were more. Trust me, there were more. Lots more.

Nor was that our only problem. Mother passed away just 3 weeks after our wedding, and The Husband and I were still trying to blend our possessions. In his house he had most of a bedroom devoted to bookshelves. In my 1,000 sq ft condo I had 19 floor-to-ceiling bookcases, most of them double-stacked.

We gave away LOTS of books. The Husband had a big pickup, and we took the bed brimming full twice to a charity shop. We gave books away to friends by the boxload. We even recycled some which were in too poor a condition to be read. Now, admittedly, most of these were paperbacks, but a paperback still qualifies as a book. We packed away about 10-12 banker’s boxes of books for storage in the garage for which there was no room in the house. Don’t know why, but for whatever reasons we simply could not get rid of them at the moment. A lot of them are wonderful fiction that is currently unavailable. Some I’m hoping to scan some of them. Someday. Of course we kept our lovely collection of reference works on the various subjects in which we’re interested, and the choice assortment of autographed and first editions that were my grandfather’s and then my parents’.

While remodeling we converted one of the bedrooms into another library, one with shelves on all four walls as well as over the windows and doors. The parlor, very Victorian in tone, has a tasty selection of glass-fronted antique bookcases, making it a sort-of third library. Not that any of this did any good. It’s a little known fact that, like brown cardboard boxes with mysterious contents, books tend to breed. We have stringently limited our trips to our local bookstores to one every couple of months, but still books appear, rising in drifts in the corners and lurking in clumps under the furniture. I do try, though, and do probably 99% of my reading of what I call ‘disposable fiction’ (the kind you read once and then get rid of) on my phone. If we had hard copies of every one of those books the house would be so full that we would have to live in a tent in the back yard. We are, however, talking about possibly creating a fourth library in what used to be the garage. We need it.

On Facebook there is a recurrent meme that says “It’s not hoarding if it’s books.” Yes it is. It most definitely is. But it’s wonderful, too.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect and Writing

You may have heard of this phenomenon, but if you haven’t, here’s the short version: studies by Dunning and Kruger found that competence and confidence don’t always go together. Being a professor, I’ll give an academic example. Students who have the least knowledge of a subject often think they did best on the exam. They lack the foundation from which to question themselves and are amazed when they get Fs. Students who understand more of the material tend to be critical of their performance, in part because they assume others worked as hard as they did. Also, they know enough to know they aren’t perfect. Their sighs of relief when they get As and Bs are sincere. They had doubts. Confidence goes back up when students have real mastery, but not as high as the confidence of the truly ignorant.

What does this have to do with writing? I don’t know about you, but I had no idea how bad the first novel I wrote was at the time I finished it. The theme and the setting still speak to me, and the characters have potential. The writing, however, makes me cringe. I know enough to recognize its faults now and am glad I didn’t inflict it on anyone. Salvaging it would be more work than it’s worth.

Having reached competence but not genius, I’m now in the dip in the confidence curve. I’m stunned that my critique partners haven’t suggested major changes in my work in progress. They noticed places where I could improve it, of course, but I expected they would find problems in the plot, and they didn’t. They said the mystery works. Maybe it flowed well because it started with material I cut from an early draft of the book before it, Ghost Sickness, and because it deals with themes I care about: ethics, spirituality, health and illness, and the exploitation of desperate people.

Nonetheless, before sending it to the next set of readers, I’m going through it to see where it could tighten up further now that I’ve been away from it for a couple of months, drafting the book that follows. So far, I’ve kept myself from acting on the urges of the little demon in my head that’s telling me I should rearrange huge chunks and cut others. I can think of important scenes I almost cut from two other books, scenes which turned out to resonate deeply with readers, so I’m not giving in to the demon, but I wonder if I’ll be relieved or alarmed if the next set of critiques don’t tell me to tear it apart and start over.

Over the Easter weekend, I did my first ever book signing event. After ten years onstage acting and then twenty-odd years as a college professor, I didn’t have jitters about either the reading or the question-and-answer session. It was informal and enjoyable. I sold a few books and got feedback that I should narrate my own audio books, so I trust that my perception of success is not a Dunning-Kruger effect. I plan to try reading the WIP aloud after I complete the current round of revisions and see if it feels alive and ready for an audience. I’ve never done that as part of my self-editing process, but it may be exactly what I need. The actor in me may notice pacing and energy in ways the silent reader doesn’t. If I hear it and cringe as if it were that old first manuscript, I’ll know I have more work to do. If it plays, then it’s ready for the next beta readers, and I’m ready for whatever they tell me. The challenging thing about the Dunning-Kruger effect is that when it applies to us, we can’t tell. One of many reasons I can’t live without my betas.

Fiction Keeps Me Sane

A day without fiction is like a day without food, sleep or exercise. At times, I may be so busy I can only write for twenty minutes or can only devote fifteen minutes to reading a novel, but I don’t go without. This is requires no self-discipline. It’s like the desire to run that grabs me on a beautiful day or the need to get up from my desk for a yoga break.

My fiction time comes after I empty myself of the day with journaling and meditation. It takes a lot to shut down my community and planetary concerns and my ever-growing to-do list for work and then keep them shut down for the night. These thoughts aren’t unhealthy, but once I’ve talked with others and taken what action I can for the day, I need to shift gears to save my sanity. At a set time in the evening, I turn off everything but my laptop and in perfect silence, I write. Ah. The best time of the day.

There’s only eustress, not distress, in the effort of writing, even when I’m analyzing a stuck plot or revising the antagonist’s motivation again and again until it makes sense. At present I’m working on a “cut revision,” focused solely on eliminating excess verbiage. (And slaughtering darlings as I go.) It makes me happy. So does the first draft; so do the later revisions. Writing is totally absorbing in all its stages. This is what Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi calls flow. Activities that bring about flow create more happiness than those that are easier. Reading is more demanding than watching TV and is thus more likely to produce flow

I have to write at night, and then I have to read before I go to sleep. The harder the day, the more I appreciate my escape into a well-told story. While I’m in engaged-citizen mode or professor mode, I’m trying to make the world a better place, but in its own way fiction does that, too.

My fellow writers, I thank you. You’re doing your part to keep me sane.

Does anyone else depend on fiction this way? Or have I actually gone crazy?