Thursday, January 13, 2011

Ramble: Fiction and Blogging and E-Books and Whining

"So what do you think?"
"Yeah, I know."
"Well, I mean, it's fine. It's perfectly correct and the grammar's fine and the paragraphs break where they should, and so on."
"Uh huh."
"It's just..."
"Well, I wouldn't say that."
"But it's true?"
"I'm withholding my answer."
"It's like I'm shoving words around with those things. Those things that they push those things around with in that sport. Stop looking at me like that. Curling! You know, curling, where they push boulders around on the ice very very slowly."
"Yeah. Got it."
"That's all you have to say?"
"How about a nice cup of tea?"

So, it usually takes some struggling to get me to write my self-assigned two hundred words of fiction a day, but I'm usually moderately satisfied with the result. Lately, however, it's been more of a struggle, and the product has been bad. Not even a good, entertaining kind of bad, but a dreary, plodding kind of bad that makes me imagine someone reading it and keeping their eyes down after they're done, pretending to still be reading while they desperately try to think of something pleasant to say about it. That's why you haven't seen a vignette here in, er, ten days.

So, OK, fine, how about doing some reading? That's been weird, too. I keep setting out to read a book, and looking up twenty minutes later to realize that I'm on the computer, in a blog or forum.

It's partly the books that I'm trying to read. For years, I've been selecting used paperbacks using what I call the first paragraph test, and for years it's worked.

What's the test? Well, a first paragraph has to have at least a little action. It shouldn't have any character description, a character's full name, or any setting detail, without a darn good excuse. Anything along the lines of "Jane Janet Jones, accomplished actress, pushed her rippling midnight-dark hair behind her delicate shell-like ears, a tiny line forming between her fine green eyes as she looked out at the November weather through the window of her small but luxuriously appointed third-floor Boston brownstone apartment ..." will send the book right back to the shelf. And after it avoids those pitfalls, it needs an "I know it when I see it" engaging surprise about it.

I just picked up my copy of Final Curtain, by Ngaio Marsh, expecting a good first paragraph, and I was rewarded:
"Considered severally," said Troy, coming angrily into the studio, "a carbuncle, a month's furlough and a husband returning from the antipodes don't seem like the ingredients for a hell-brew. Collectively, they amount to precisely that."
Now, that's a first paragraph. I'm even willing to forgive the full name ("Katti Bostock") in the following paragraph.

But Final Curtain was written in (let me check) 1947. It appears that in recent years, writers and/or publishers have learned about the first paragraph test. I'm a third of the way through a paperback mystery that sported a very promising first paragraph, but quickly shifted to Generic Witty Banter between Generic Feisty Heroine and Generic Protective But Slightly Controlling Hero. Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with Banter and Feisty and Protective; it's the "generic" part that I object to. At least I didn't buy the whole series. I've been known to do that, when entranced with a good first paragraph.

Um. What was my point? Yes! My point was why I'm not reading. It's partly books that cheated on the first paragraph test. And it's partly Internet addiction. So that's where the E-Books come in.

(A digression: How do you spell E-Books? Ebooks? eBooks? e-books?)

I find that if I have a book open in my Mac Kindle reader thingie, I occasionally look up to realize that I'm reading the thing. And if I have the same book in my phone, I can read it during those few-minute pauses out in the world when, lately, I too often find that I don't have an actual print book on me. So E-Books, while I vaguely disapprove of them, do get me reading.

And to circle around to my original point, it's possible that my inability to write is coming from my failure to do enough enjoyable reading. In an effort to fix this, I'm hunting down new books by writers whose writing I like--Martha Grimes, Calvin Trillin, and Margaret Visser, to start. I've already violated my anti-E-Book principles and downloaded The Black Cat by Martha Grimes, and I may move on to Margaret Visser's latest book, the one about "thank you" customs.

(Another digression: Do any of you read Martha Grimes? How do you feel about her recent tendency to fully verbalize the thoughts of cats and dogs? I love the rest of her stuff, and I've always loved the opinionated animals, but the verbalizing? Not working for me.)

So. Um. There we are. I continue to produce two hundred words on many days, but for now, they continue to be drearily, twitchily bad. So I'm reading about Richard Jury. Yay!

That is all.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.


  1. I've never read Martha Grimes. It seems to me we read completely different stuff. :)
    At the moment I'm reading Lee Child's Killing Floor and the first paragraph was great and the rest is living up to it.
    I have no idea how to spell e-books so I put it all in lower case.

  2. Your Jane Janet Jones sounds like a Mary Sue of the first order! Love it, and the more satirical the better...

  3. I love how you create literary conversations in order to jump-start your writing for the day.

    - Lauren

    Ladaisi Blog

  4. Ines! Yeah, we seem to. I can definitely recommend Martha Grimes, though the whole conversations-between-household-pets things needs to go. Killing Floor, huh? And, hey, it's available as an E-Book!

  5. Hey, Olenska! Hee. :) I was briefly tempted to write my whole 200 words of fiction in that style, but so far I'm refraining. :)

  6. Howdy, ladaisi! Thanks! I'm doing anything that will pry the words out (kicking and screaming).

  7. I started reading your blog this morning from latest post to this one, so obviously you got over your doldrums and are back on track. (Wow, was that a mix of metaphors?)
    I think it's e-books, have never read Martha Grimes but will now, and, as always, thoroughly enjoy your posts.

  8. Yo, Christine! Yep, things seem to have improved, at least to the extent that I'm hating my own writing less. :) And, thank you!

    I love Martha Grimes, though the talking animals are a dubious addition. Richard Jury, Melrose Plant, and the inevitable child character who worships the former and despises the latter, are always a lot of fun. And the Emma James series (Hotel Paradise is the beginning of it) is also wonderful.