Fifty Shades of Distraction

Kate Flora here, just back from eight days in London and Amsterdam, and scrambling to catch up, get the laundry done, and sink back into a novel that needs major tweaking before it can go to the agent who has expressed interest. There’s nothing like pressure to keep me in the chair.

But on vacation, I took the time to do some reading that was not work-related, or so I thought. I started with Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife, because it had been suggested by Donald Maass in the all-day seminar on “Selling the breakout novel” that Lea Wait, Vicki Doudera and I recently attended. Maass wanted us to focus on how, despite being nothing but an internal narration in the mind of the man waiting on the station platform for the arrival of the wife he’s advertised for, it is, nonetheless, riveting. Riveting, indeed. It’s definitely one of those books that you keep reading to see what will happen. Yet it also ought to come with a small warning: this book is seriously laden with sex, as well as other undercurrents of violence and madness. So much sex, indeed, that I started skipping those long meditations on the sordid prior lives of the central characters to get on and see if they would work things out.

That put me in mind, of course, of the essay I always use to end each class I teach, a wonderful list of advice for writers from Elmore Leonard, from the New York Times WRITERS ON WRITING, called Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle. One of Leonard’s ten pieces of advice: Leave out the parts people skip. Of course, other readers may not skip all these parts. But I bring this up because, as I was reading Goolrick’s book, I kept finding myself drifting off to a book I am writing, and wondering: Could I use this idea? This slant on story-telling. Then I wanted to put his book down and go finish my own. There is plenty of sex in my own book, parts that I hope my readers won’t skip. But I was in a London hotel room; my computer, and my work-in-progress were at home on my desk.

I finished A Reliable Wife, and moved on to the “improving” book I’d brought along, improving, like the Donald Maass seminar, from a professional standpoint, James W. Hall’s new book about writing a bestseller, Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century’s Biggest Bestsellers. (You will think that I am trying to write a bestseller, but this is not the case. I was merely curious, after listening to Mr. Maass, about what Hall might have to say.) Hall’s twelve examples are: Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mocking Bird, Peyton Place, Jaws, Valley of the Dolls, The Exorcist, The Godfather, The Hunt for Red October, The Dead Zone, The Firm, The Bridges of Madison County, and The DaVinci Code.

Of course, it happened again. I would read his conclusions about what made these books bestsellers: fast pacing, emotionally charged, filled with familiar character types, written with little backstory or introspection, and I’d wander off into an analysis of what I want to write. Books with introspection, books with characters informed by their backstories. Then I’d put Hall’s book down and began to think about where I want to go in the new book. Then I’d pick it up again, and be reminded that I want to reread To Kill a Mocking Bird, and that I also wanted to read The Dead Zone. I gave up on Stephen King’s books at around his fifth, but I have deep admiration for the man, for his discipline and persistence. I agree with so much in his book about writing, and I’ve always felt a bond with another poor Maine kid who grew up with a passionate desire to write.

Somewhere in Amsterdam, my concentration shot by the terror of going out among the cyclists (they’re mad, insane, follow no rules, ignore one-way streets and all traffic signals, and can come at your from any direction), I put the book down and picked up the one I’d been saving for last, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Good Squad. There’s nothing that I love better than a book I can’t put down, so even though I used to hate metafiction, I was happy to stay with this book to see if I could follow the threads, and then to see where they would lead me in the end. I believe it was in the penultimate chapter, the one that isn’t writing so much as lists and drawings, that almost got taken away again. But this time, I stayed to finish, and just held onto the thought.

It was a thought about something I’ve known for a while, but sometimes tend to forget, such is my Luddite nature: That what makes writing special, never boring, endlessly fascinating and so worth doing, is what happens when you take chances on doing something scary and different. She got a Pulitzer prize. I got confirmation that the chances I want to take in my new book may well be the right chances to take.

There’s nothing like a little reading on vacation to send me back to my chair, energized, curious, bolder, inspired, and maybe, just maybe, a little bit competitive. I don’t know about that last. I just know that today was a great day in the writer’s chair, and I owe it all to a wee vacation, and a lot of input from other fine writers.

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12 Responses to Fifty Shades of Distraction

  1. Joyce Lovelace says:

    Oh thank goodness this article wasn’t about that new series of “literary” porn everyone is stumping to show how “cool” and “modern” they are.

    • MCWriTers says:

      Joyce, there does seem to be quite a lot of that going around. I read the first pages of 50 Shades of Gray, and it felt like a book set in the US by someone unfamiliar with the US. Never got to the sexy bits. But then again, I’m not “modern.”

  2. Sounds like a great “trip” Kate! The nice thing about travel is there’s time to read. I save books up for trips and I’m forever, like you, jotting down notes of ideas triggered by other people’s writing. And yes, you know it’s a really GREAT book when you are so absorbed that you just keep turning the pages.

    Having said that, I do find being a writer takes some of the fun out of reading. I can’t just disconnect my editorial brain and let the story flow through me, no, I have to carp at the writer for all the nits that I would have written differently. So annoying, and yet I cannot turn it off.

    That list of bestsellers is instructional. Pondering.

    — Hallie

    • MCWriTers says:

      I agree, Hallie. I absolutely don’t want to see the “bones.” I love books where the writer just has me, and I can’t put it down and go tinker with my own work, or make notes, or whatever. But that is part of being a writer, we can’t help thinking: Oh, I could use that. Or oh, no, don’t let me see so clearly where you’re going.


  3. Lea Wait says:

    Love your take on vacations! Books, books and more books … (and some to add to my literally never ending TBR pile.) By the way — I’m currently reading Kieran Shields’ (interviewed on the blog a few days ago) The Truth of All Things and loving it. But, anyway, Kate — sometime you must tell us what you did — other than read — on your vacation! Or was it the kind of vacation I took years ago with Bob where we longed for sun and peace and somehow found time and space to fly to Martinique for a long weekend. I remember the sun (so hot it gave me headaches) and reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved, whose words became so entangled wiht the place in my memories that I can hardly separate them.

    • MCWriTers says:

      It is interesting how sometimes you can remember where you were when you read a particular book. In my memory “book” I remember reading Goodbye, Columbus, on an airplane leaving Columbus, Georgia, after a visit to an army base. I was never so glad to leave a place behind.

      As for what else I did on my vacation? Took a boat up the Thames from London to Hampton Court (before I got to read much of Wolf Hall); had dinner at Parliament; went to see a very interesting play. Walked and walked and walked. Took a boat tour of Amsterdam canals. Went to the Van Gogh museum, the Jewish Museum, and several others. Drank martinis, walked, eyes averted, through the red light district. Did a lot of window shopping. Took the fast train from London to Amsterdam. A lot of great adventures.

  4. Nancy Martin says:

    Kate, I love your reading list! I also read HIT LIT, and I found it very interesting, particularly the part about introspection. Perhaps none of the examples he used featured terribly introspective characters (they way most of us define introspection, that is) but the reader always knows what those characters are thinking and feeling via the action and dialogue. I think he was saying that although we need to know the protagonist’s interior mind, we don’t need to slog through pages and pages of (usually badly written) interior monologue.

    But I find most introspection pretty boring (especially in mysteries. When the amateur sleuth sits down alone with a cup of tea, I start skipping pages) so maybe I’m just feeling frisky that somebody feels the same way? I *do* want to understand the nuances of a character’s emotional life, but I really don’t want to hear him/her harp on it or endlessly mull over a list of suspects. (The GODFATHER is a good example of how all the detail of a setting and a world help the reader know exactly the intense and pwoerful emotions the characters feel.)

    • MCWriTers says:

      I LOVE introspection….I just think it needs to be organic, and brief, and useful to establishing character without slowing down momentum.
      Interestingly, on the subject of those summings up of details, I just finished a Jeff Deaver where part of the style was to keep recapping the forensic details after every major episode of crisis followed by evidence collection. If it hadn’t been in the car, on a CD, I absolutely would have skipped those parts.

  5. John Clark says:

    After wrestling with the foolish angst of “Why am I reading, when I’m supposed to be writing,” I made peace with myself. They’re part of the same ripple in my pond. Without feeding my imagination with someone else’s creativity, I’m not giving mine a proper diet.

    • MCWriTers says:

      I’m with you, bro, though I still have to work at giving myself permission to read instead of working another hour or two.

      Feeding the imagination with someone else’s creativity is a great way to put it.

      I’ve had students who worried about “copying” someone’s style. And been asked the question: what if we inadvertently stole someone else’s language or idea. But if we take the idea…and make it our own…that’s what writers and storytellers have been doing forever. And if we work hard at our own writing, we should be developing strong enough voices of our own that we won’t copy someone else’s.

  6. Barb Ross says:

    A Visit from the Goon Squad is my daughter’s favorite book. I had read about it, particularly the “one of the chapters is in Powerpoint” and rolled my eyes, but I ended up loving the whole book. (I am a sucker for connected stories and non-linear story-telling anyway.) There’s a great interview with Egan that I managed to waste a bunch of time reading last week when I was supposed to be working on my book here.

    The Elmore Leonard article is great, but I do hate the way certain agents, editors, writing teachers, etc have taken, “easy on the adverbs and exclamation points” to mean NEVER use adverbs or exclamation points. Like all those sort of “rules” it diminishes writing. Sort of like the rule Never Write a Short Story in Powerpoint.

  7. MCWriTers says:

    Barb, I believe in moderation. I really can’t stand to read a book that laden with exclamation points; on the other hand, sometimes they’re called for. Ditto for adverbs. Leonard’s is the general rule. We break it by making informed decisions rather than relying on the exclamation point or the adverb to convey the emotion we, as writers, have failed to put in.

    Will go read the Egan interview…but first, my finish my homework.


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