Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Tone Deaf

Musique by Gustav Klimt @ Art.com

The other day Ryan and I were talking about the books and scripts we've read lately. I had just come off a two-month reading dry spell during which I'd start a new book and then put it down at page 20, not caring what happened in the end.

Up till I had a child, my rule was never to leave a book unfinished. But I'm 35 now and in my family that makes me just shy of middle aged. My great grandma lived till she was 76 and my great grandpa and Grandma Mary stuck around till they were 88 ... mas o menos (neither were forthcoming about their real ages). So compared to what I want to accomplish in this lifetime and my probable life expectancy, I don't have a lot of time to waste.

Anyway, Ryan argued that the reason why so many movies fall short and why so many books go unfinished is that their authors are tone deaf when it comes to story. Even though many writers come up with great ideas and snazzy hooks, and possess enviable literary wit, they can't move a story from point A to Z.

So when I think about the books that I'd given up on, I realized indeed they were tone deaf in story. In other words, nothing was happening except the protagonist complaining about his or her life. Or worse, I was reading an author who clearly loved hearing him or herself talk. Nothing was at stake and no one or nothing was in jeopardy and those my friends are the building blocks of a good story.

Now this isn't a literary fiction versus popular fiction rant. Nor does it have anything to do with my constant irritation with books titled, "The Candyman's Daughter" or "The Stinky Cheesemaker's Wife." I don't think that you don't have to be "genre-fied" to spin a rip-roaring yarn. For example, even some books that cultural connoisseurs have deemed literary fiction, tell stories. Check it out:

In Cold Mountain, a soldier is making his way back home and to the woman he loves. Inman is in constant peril and much is at stake.

In Water for Elephants, a young veterinary student joins the circus and falls in love with a married woman. On each page, Jacob's life and that of an elephant are on the line.

In The Great Gatsby - it's read in high school so it's a certifiable classic literary novel - a man tries to woo the golden girl who's married to a lout. Jay Gatsby risks his heart for idealistic love.

So recently I came across a book that lacked a story and I froze with terror that the dry spell had started again.

(By the way, I won't name names because that's cheesy and I don't need attention so badly that I'll risk your hate mail.)

Going back to the book ... The character was cute but if you read chick lit, you've read her a thousand times over and better. The writing was fast-paced and in a few places quirky enough for me to crack a grin. And guess where it takes place? If you thought New York, you win!

I gave it up at page 7 even though:
  • A major publishing house bought and published it.
  • An editor, marketing/PR person, copyeditor, sales squad, cover artist and a cast befitting a Cecil B. DeMille epic worked on it.
  • You'll find it on the tables at major book stores.
  • Many prominent women in media called it the best thing since their vibrator.
Okay, I made up the part about vibrators but you get the idea.

This book, out of thousands, was plucked for publication even though IT HAS NO STORY.

Seriously dude, that's the problem. Too many people are story tone deaf and yet have the wherewithal - time and a laptop and in some cases, friends in high places - to write a manuscript that gets published. Trust me, I know. Having judged plenty of contests and having read some awesome work by the members of my former critique group, there are stories out there that can't find a place at your local bookstore. They're held off because (a) they're not "high concept" enough (an over-rated ideal, let me tell you) or (b) publishers can't take chances on stuff that's not regency romances or vampires. (Dude, I do don't get the vampire thing.)

But could someone become pitch perfect when it comes to story? Do you have to be "special," or can you cultivate it?

Hmm. That's a toughie. I guess it's up to the individual - not that I'm claiming to have been born with great literary prowess .... just ask the people who proclaimed their hatred of my books on Amazon.com. But when it comes to story, I'm always learning by reading books and watching movies. I read plenty and preferably, beyond the confines of my genre.

When I'm lucky to find that special book or movie that make me forget that I'm a writer, I reread/rewatch it to spot how the author structured the story. I even take notes and ask myself the following:
  1. What does she reveal about the characters? But most importantly, how and when does she reveal what they're trying to keep secret?
  2. How does she work characters against each other and create conflict that make me hold the book tighter, or lean forward towards the screen?
  3. Where are the pulse points of the story? (One could call them plot points, turning points ... whatever floats your boat.
I'm not saying anything new about story telling, by the way. I think every writer knows these questions instinctively and through writing and rewriting and more writing and rewriting, you understand what you've been doing since you were playing make-believe as a kid.

So with that all said - oh, I feel like I could walk on air! - I've got some storytelling to do.


Anonymous said...

Too often I am hobbled halfway into a bestseller because of the same thing. I wonder, "How can books that no one cares to finish sell so well?" Then I realize that a book that sells well may never be read well, and that one doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the other!

Mary Castillo said...

I felt the same way about The DaVinci Code. It was almost comic to see that the hero just goes from one location to another. Finally I flipped to the end to see if my hunch about Jesus and Mary Magdalene was right ... I knew it even back in catechism that they hooked up!

Some books are sold by hype but like you said, it takes more than that to read them.

Mrs. V said...


I absolutely love your comments about the end. I have been emphasizing in my class the concept that is popular of "Read like writers and write like readers." I like the questions that you answer ask yourself when you read or watch a story that really grabs your attention.

Is your mariachi book on its way to publication yet? I can't wait to read it!

Michelle said...

Hi, Mary. How can you tell if a book doesn't have a good story by page 7? Fair enough if you don't like the author's writing style, and I'm with you about giving up on books you're not enjoying. My arbitrary cut-off, though, is page 100. If an author hasn't sparked something by that point, I'm out of there because life is indeed too short!

Mary Castillo said...

Thank you Mrs. V for fostering a new generation of writers. I think many well-meaning English teachers kill the writer's spirit, or maybe ding it a little. But it sounds like your students are darn lucky to have you!

HI Michelle: I know a story isn't happening at page 7 because (a) the protagonist is jawing on about her backstory, which is a good indicator that the book will be "chatty" and meandering; and (b) nothing has happened to make me wonder who this person is and what she or he will do next.

To be fair, reading tastes for readers and editors is completely subjective. My editors loved my books and from many conversations I've gathered that they don't fight for a book that doesn't get their mojo going. Same thing for us readers.

Like I said, I'm very picky and when I'm hooked into a book, I'm with it to the end. If not, it goes back to the library or my giveaway pile.

But I will never ever, ever, ever bad mouth a book or its author. If they ask for a blurb, I'll say something nice about the author if I'm not wild about the book. It's good for business and good for everyone's karma.


Margo Candela said...

You're going to have to tell me the title of the book. I'll force it out of you next time we see each other.

I also haven't been able to finish a book for your very well thought out reasons and that I need to ask my doc for some meds so I can just chill the frick out and enjoy reading again.

Michelle said...

Your attitude is admirable. I'd much rather hear people talk about things they love than to trash other people. :)

Erica Orloff said...

Oh . . . this was such an awesome post. I feel like the last year or so, what I have been concentrating on, writing-wise, has been that story--what it demands, how to make it tighter, leaner, sharper.


Mary Castillo said...

Margo: Only with you will I indulge my inner bee-yotch.

Hi Michelle: Thanks, although I gotta tell you, there are times when I've nearly bit off my tongue to keep from spewing my venom!

ERICA!!! What's up, lady? I can't wait to read your new book, which means I'll be bugging you with a Q&A soon!


Erica Orloff said...

Cool . . . I am trying to pull together a little blog tour.

Hope Little Dude is awesome.