Do We REALLY Need This?

I am not a Luddite.  While slow to buy into new technologies, I selectively embrace them, much like the popular girl in school who will take the arm of the quarterback, but not the tight end. I was not the first on my block to have a Kindle or an iPod, but I was also spared the embarrassment and the expense of Betamax and a Quad system.  There is a new device, however, upon which Sweet Joseph is going to have to take an immediate and irrevocable pass. This would be something called a “wearable book.”
When I first saw the headline for this I thought that perhaps it was a sort of hands-free device that would enable one to read while stirring a casserole or hefting weights from Point A to B without having to turn a page. Yes, I know, those are called “audiobooks,” but I thought that perhaps this was something different, a device that somehow sensed when your eyes had reached the end of a page and turned or scrolled it for you. No; the wearable book, which results in something called “sensory fiction,” is a vest-like contraption coupled with a specially designed reading device which is designed to physically communicate the emotions of the characters in a novel to the reader as the book is read. My understanding of how this works is that if, say, Jack Reacher is trying to defuse a bomb as its digital clock clicks toward zero, the reader will experience a tingling in the appropriate place which will approximate the feeling Reacher gets as eternity nears.

I’m not making this up. It’s been developed at MIT and if you would like to read all about it in the UK Telegraph you can check out the article here. The folks who worked on this seem to be very sincere; the first story treated to this new technology is “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” by James Tiptree, Jr., a classic science-fiction short story which even people who think that they hate the genre might well enjoy. If they met their threshold definition of success for this device, well, I’m happy for them. My problem with this device — and correct me if I’m wrong — is that it is our job as authors to make the readers hearts and minds go pitter-patter without the aid of an artificial device. Stephen King needed nothing more than the page and the printed word to make my hairs stand on end, repeatedly, in THE SHINING. More recently — much more recently — I have been reading a book due to be published next week titled THE GIRL WITH A CLOCK FOR A HEART by Peter Swanson that has had my brain engaged since the first paragraph. I have been screaming — inwardly and occasionally out loud — since the first page, and not just because I identify with the poor fool who against all logic becomes involved with his college sweetheart, who is not a good person, no not at all. Swanson did that, not a vest.

Please check out the link above, and tell me: are you intrigued? Or isn’t all fiction sensory already, if it’s done right? Isn’t that why we read?
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Dazzle and dead bodies:What goes into a great opening?

I am about to give you the single best piece of writing advice I’ve ever heard:
Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end, then stop.
It comes from the King of Hearts in “Alice in Wonderland.” But it is one of my favorite writing mantras. And I really believe that within the quote’s Zen simplicity are three huge lessons about how to write a good book:
  1. Pick the exact right moment in time to start telling your story. Too soon and you end up with pages of throat-clearing. Too late and you might miss the story’s moment of catalytic power. You have to time your entry into your story just right or, like those astronauts in Apollo 13, you’ll skip off the atmosphere and bounce into nothingness.
  2.  Persevere through the second act. Making it through what I call “the muddy middle” is the hardest part of writing a solid book. You have to use all the tricks of the trade to keep the story moving forward and maintain suspense. 
  3. Earn your climax (ahem) and know when it’s time to leave. Deliver a resolution that is logical, fair and emotionally satisfying. But resist the temptation to tie everything up too neatly.  

But let’s go back to beginnings. What makes a great opening for a book?
It’s pretty subjective, and there’s lots of good advice out there. Click here to go to our archives and read Elaine Viet’s take on it. We writers all have our favorite opening lines, which all seem to circle back to “Call me Ishmael.” (Click here to read famous authors talking about their favorite opening lines.)
I especially like Stephen King’s favorite: 
“This is what happened.”
It is from Douglas Fairbairn’s out of print novel, Shoot. King likes it because, “It is as flat and clean as an affidavit. It establishes just what kind of speaker we’re dealing with: someone willing to say, I will tell you the truth. I’ll tell you the facts. I’ll cut through the bullshit and show you exactly what happened. It suggests that there’s an important story here, too, in a way that says to the reader: and you want to know.”
King says he struggles with all his opening lines, sometimes for years. I guess that should make us mere mortals feel better as we stare at that blank screen and sweat blood trying to get the right mix of words to snag the reader’s attention. Back to Stephen King:

“[A good opening] is not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer’s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both. I think that’s why my books tend to begin as first sentences — I’ll write that opening sentence first, and when I get it right I’ll start to think I really have something.”

King is talking about opening lines in context of his new book, Doctor Sleep. (Click here for the whole article). Doctor Sleep is the sequel to The Shining, picking up with now adult Danny. Here is the opening King came up with:

“On the second day of December, in a year when a Georgia peanut farmer was doing business in the White House, one of Colorado’s great resort hotels burned to the ground.”


As King himself says, it’s pretty workmanlike, neither grand nor elegant. But look what it does: It immediately sets the reader in time and place and creates a bridge between the past book and the new one. I think this is a great lesson for all us writers — you don’t always need dazzling wordplay or a dead body in your opening. Sometimes you just need a solidly build doorway the reader can step through.
I mean, don’t you get a little tired sometimes reading the tortured openings some writers give us? Crime novelists might be the worst offenders because we are led to believe that we have to shock and awe in the opening graph or the story is DOA. As a reader, I hunger for books lately that open in a lower gear. As a writer, I am trying hard to follow the lead of King (and the King of Hearts) and just begin at the beginning.
I am not happy with the opening chapter of my WIP. I think I am trying too hard. So recently, I went to my bookshelf and pulled out few of my favorite books to see how others handled things. Here are four opening lines that I found:
“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”

“Who’s there?” 
“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” 

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
The four books? Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White; Hamlet by Shakespeare; Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides; and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.  
Great openings, all for different reasons. White gives us suspense worthy of Dean Kootz in a children’s book! Shakespeare gives us foreboding and the existential call to self identify. Eugenides sums up his gender theme but makes us wonder: Haven’t we all been born twice? And Plath leads us right to her heroine’s “electric nerves” and lost soul.
Can I offer one last favorite of mine? It’s on almost everyone’s list of great openings but so what?
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
But I love the next few lines even more:
“My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

Yes, it is about Humbert’s obsession with his nymphet . But it is also about Nabokov’s obsession with words. Lo. Lee. Ta…a narcotic chant and a prose poem. I’ll never forget the first moment I read that paragraph. I was sixteen, standing in the public library during a sweltering Detroit summer. I’m sure I didn’t really understand the story. What I understood was the magic of those words. True confessions: A couple years ago, I actually tried to riff on Nabokov’s Lo-Lee-Ta in a mystery I was writing. The character was describing Florida (Flor-ee-dah!) and well…you can imagine how bad it was. Thank God my editor told me to rewrite it.
Okay, one last Nabokov sample and then I’ll shut up. It is the SECOND paragraph in Lolita:

“She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.” 

The first paragraph of Lolita made me want to be a writer. That second paragraph, when I read it today, makes me want to be a better writer. 
(((INTERMISSION!)))
We’re back. I can’t resist this coda. Because as I was getting ready to hit the button to post this, I found out that the 2013 winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest have been announced. This contest, begun in 1982 by the English Department at San Jose State University, honors opening sentences in novels. It is named for Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, who in 1830, wrote these now famous lines:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.” 

Yes, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest recognizes the worst possible opening lines for novels in all genres. (Here’s the link if you want to read them all, God help you.). For all us crime dogs out there, I’ll give you the winner in crime fiction:

“It was such a beautiful night; the bright moonlight illuminated the sky, the thick clouds floated leisurely by just above the silhouette of tall, majestic trees, and I was viewing it all from the front row seat of the bullet hole in my car trunk.”

Here’s the winner in my favorite category, Vile Puns:

“What the Highway Department’s chief IT guy for the new computerized roadway hated most was listening to the ‘smart’ components complain about being mixed with asphalt instead of silicon and made into speed bumps instead of graceful vases, like the one today from chip J176: “I coulda had glass; I coulda been a container; I coulda been some bottle, instead of a bump, which is what I am.” 

And here is this year’s grand prize winner:

She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination.

I think I actually saw that last one on Amazon the other day. If you hurry, you can get it for 99 cents.
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Parched For Readers

A few years ago I met a gentleman in New Orleans who had never heard of Stephen King. He was thirty-three years old at the time, a musician for whom a classical education even at the elementary level had never been a priority but who nevertheless was still knowledgeable of pop culture. Still, he was unfamiliar with King and Carrie, The Stand, The Shining, and the other King books which had been adapted for film. He didn’t have a book in his house; neither, as it happened, did his mother, or the five of his eight siblings whose homes I visited.
Stephen King, I think I can safely say, is a household name, so people such as my acquaintance who have never heard of him are probably the exception rather than the rule. That no-book thing, however…that bothers me. I know people who watch Castle, which begins its sixth season next month, who haven’t read a mystery novel in decades, if ever. Dexter? Longmire? I still find people who have no idea that these popular dramas are based on novels. Justified slyly winked at Raylan Givens’ literary origins a couple of years ago but I doubt it increased sales of Raylan, which was published on season premiere night.
James Bell’s question from last week regarding the future of publishing was an interesting one which evoked a number of interesting responses. Almost all of them, however, implicitly made an assumption that I don’t think we can make anymore, in this era of entertainment everywhere: we’re each and all of us assuming that there will still be readers. Do you walk into homes without books in evidence? When you’re out somewhere and see people reading, how many do you not see reading? How many times in the past month have you been talking to someone about the last book you’ve read and heard them say, “Gee, I haven’t read a book in years. I just don’t have the time”?
I’m not attempting to be an alarmist here, or a Chicken Little. What I think I’m seeing, however, is a situation where the problem isn’t that we’re drowning in books; it’s that we’re parched for readers, and we’re fighting a battle of attrition. There are plenty of books out there worth reading. For every book I read there is at least one, often more, that I don’t get to and that winds up on my “someday” list. That’s not the problem, as I see it. The difficulty is that for everyone one of me, and you, there are, it seems, five or six who just don’t care. They’d rather watch reality television or something like that.

Am I wrong here? Or am I pointing out the 800 pound gorilla in the room that we’re all trying to studiously ignore?
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