On Curling Up With a Good Book

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

One of my favorite comedies from the 1940s Is The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer. This little gem (with an Academy Award-winning screenplay by Sidney Sheldon) stars Cary Grant as the bachelor, Shirley Temple as the bobby-soxer, and Myrna Loy as a judge who happens to be Shirley’s big sister.

The plot is simple. Grant gives a speech at Shirley’s high school, and Shirley becomes infatuated with him. Grant has to fight her off even as her suspicious sister brings the arm of the law down upon him. I’ll bet you can guess who Grant ends up romancing. It’s all great fun, especially a scene where Grant takes on the persona of a teenager for a little bit of payback.

There’s one scene I’ve always found of quaint historical interest. Grant is alone in his apartment. It’s evening, he has on a comfortable robe. He mixes himself a highball and turns the radio to soft music. Then he happily settles into a chair and takes up… a book! He has looked forward to this all day—an uninterrupted hour or two of reading pleasure. Of course, that’s when Shirley interrupts things, having sneaked into his apartment to be near him!

There used to be a time when an evening’s entertainment was sitting in a chair with a drink or a cup of tea and reading a book. The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer came out in 1947, just before the explosion of television. How many people even think of a book as an option for prime time anymore?

These thoughts came to me recently when I was knocked flat by a 24-hour bug. It was a nasty sucker. I spent an entire day in bed doing absolutely nothing but moaning and drifting in and out of sleep. There was a junkyard tire fire in my stomach. My head felt like a mastiff’s chew toy.

The next day I was marginally better, but certainly not ready for Irish folk dancing. I managed to get a little writing done, but then just wanted to go back to bed. Only I didn’t want another day of pitiful do-nothingness. What about reading a book?

I’d recently purchased the massive biography of Cornell Woolrich, First You Dream, Then You Die. I considered it a sign of recuperation that I could lift it. And actually open it and begin to read. Ah! I’d forgotten what a pleasure it is to read a physical book in bed when it isn’t nighttime. (When I try this at night I can manage only three or four pages before the sandman does his thing.)

This time I was into a book for a couple of hours, occasionally closing my eyes and dozing, but waking to read again.

These days I (and, I suspect, most of you) have to snatch time to read a book. Too many other things demand our attention. Speed and the false god Multitask have killed contemplation. We have sacrificed the aesthetic on the altar of the frenetic.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate (and still with awe) the magnificence of the ebook. Having innumerable electronic volumes available on my phone (via Kindle app and Overdrive) means I can read anything I want at a moment’s notice. No more flipping through last May’s issue of Working Woman in the waiting room! No, let’s see how big a bite I can take out of Martin Chuzzlewit…just open the complete works of Dickens!

Yet I still like holding a physical book, and my recent indisposition reminded me how much I miss a good, long stretch of pure reading time. It’s my fault, of course. Almost always my first choice in the evening is something on the flat screen.

But do I really need an hour of what used to be called “news” but is now little more than an oral version of Friday Night SmackDown? How much of must is really there in “must-see TV” (not much!). How many hours of my life are unredeemed by tuning into the latest “can’t miss” series which, once I’ve taken in an episode or two, I wish I’d actually missed?

Okay, there’s football three or four nights a week, but that’s what the DVR and pause button are for (I can skip time outs, commercials, and halftimes—with apologies to Phil, Curt, Michael, Terry, Howie, Coach, Boomer, Jimmy, Tony, Spanky, Fozzie, Gonzo and whoever else expands time with erudite comments like, “The defense really needs to step up.”)

So, dear friends, why don’t I just get into the habit of reading a book after dinner?

If it was good enough for Cary Grant, it should be good enough for me!

When was the last time you curled up with a good (physical) book for at least an hour? How have your reading habits changed over the last couple of decades? Do you have a favorite “curl-up-with” book?

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BTW, if your preferred method of curling up these days is audio, and you’re a writer, you might be interested to know that I have another of my writing books available through Audible. Narrated, natch, by me. The Last Fifty Pages: The Art and Craft of Unforgettable Endings.

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All Stories Have Legs

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

During Abraham Lincoln’s law-practice days, he had occasion to share a stagecoach with his soon-to-be adversary, Stephen A. Douglas, and a man named Owen Lovejoy. They were on their way to the courthouse at Bloomington, Illinois.

Douglas, known as “The Little Giant,” was about five feet tall with a long body and short legs. Lovejoy, on the other hand, had a short body and long legs. Lincoln, of course, was 6’4”. It must have been crowded in that coach.

At one point, Douglas tossed some shade at Lovejoy, remarking on his “pot belly” and long legs. Lovejoy came back with a barb about Douglas’s vertically-challenged sticks.

Then Lovejoy looked at the future president and asked, “Abe, just how long do you think a man’s legs should be in proportion to his body?”

Lincoln replied, “I have not given the matter much consideration, but on first blush, I should judge they ought to be long enough to reach from his body to the ground.”

And how long should a story be? Long enough to reach the end, and no longer. (Please note, I have not run this theory by George R. R. Martin.)

Which is why I love the novella form. In a brisk 20k-50k, you can grab a reader and deliver a wallop. Did you know that The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain is only about 35k words? Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea has a similar count.

Stephen King has done some of his best work in novellas (e.g., The Body and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption)

The novella really matured during the golden age of the pulp magazines. In the classic years of the pulps, roughly 1920 – 1955, America was awash in inexpensive commercial fiction of all types. These were printed on cheap wood-pulp paper, bound between wonderfully lurid covers. You could buy one of these magazines for a dime or 15¢, and inside you’d have a plethora of short stories and novellas and perhaps even an entire novel (or an episode from a novel in serialization).

A productive pulpster who could deliver the goods could make a living, even at a penny a word.

The novella largely disappeared after the death of the pulps. It was a difficult sell for book publishers who had to price them to make a profit, while bookstore browsers thought they might not be getting enough story for the price.

That didn’t mean the occasional novella didn’t break out (***cough***The Bridges of Madison County***cough***). But by the 2000s there were few being published simply because production costs exceeded revenue.

Now, because of the digital universe, those costs have disappeared, which has brought a revival of novella-length fiction.

Like the one I’ve just published.

Here’s how Framed came about. A couple of years ago I was playing the first-line-game. That’s a creativity exercise where you just come up with great opening lines and see if any of them spark a story idea. I’ve got a whole file full of ’em, some of which have led to published work.

This particular morning I found myself writing It’s not every day you bleed to death.

I had no idea who my character was or how he or she got into the implied predicament.

So I started to play with it. How could this have happened? Was it a suicide or attempted murder? Did my character have a near-death experience? Could he be narrating from the beyond?

I kept asking myself what if questions and writing things down, and eventually came up with an explanation that I liked. And from there I proceeded to develop the story.

I set it aside for awhile as I worked on other projects, then late last year came back to it and finished it. And you know how I knew it was done?

Because its legs had reached the ground. The ending felt just right.

So now, in the spirit of the pulps, I am launching the ebook for just 99¢ on Kindle. I want you to have it. I believe there is a huge market for brisk, suspenseful fiction, just like there was in the 1930s and 40s.

Do you agree?

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