Avoiding Reader Burnout by Texting the Gods

(c) Copyright 2017, Random House Books for Young Readers

I’ve been repeatedly having the same vaguely disturbing conversation in person and via email with a number of individuals recently about books and reading. The topic is variously referred to as “reading fatigue,” “book burnout,” and “reading slump,” among other terms. The complaint centers upon the perceived feeling that new books being published are “all” following the same pattern. Elements of that pattern would include 1) “the placement of the word ‘girl’ in the title; 2) the unreliable first-person narrator; and 3) a missing child/husband/sister who seems to suddenly reappear with an inability to explain their absence.

It is true that publishing industry generally is reactive and not proactive. We all remember The Da Vinci Code. That book became a sub-genre unto itself. It seemed for a while as if every other newly published book concerned a hunt for an ancient relic that, depending on what it was and who was hunting it, would destroy, save, or enslave the world. Going back a bit further, Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and John Grisham’s The Firm revived the popularity of the courtroom thriller, though it’s not as if that sub-genre ever really went away, once Erle Stanley Gardner had taken that beachhead in the 1930s with his Perry Mason novels.

There is some method to publishing’s madness, based on the proposition that if the public likes a certain type of book then it will want more of the same. I don’t recall a research  ever calling me and asking, “If you went to the library tomorrow, what type of book would you look for?” My answer would be “bound,” but that’s beside the point.

What does this mean for budding authors? My best advice is to not follow trends. If someone writes a book about an alcoholic housewife on a train who suspects that she has witnessed a murder being committed, and it becomes a bestseller, write your book about something else. Flip the script. Write about a recovering alcoholic who is as reliable as a Fossil Haywood and who, while doing some backyard gardening,  believes that she sees someone being murdered on the LIRR. I’m only kind of kidding. Do something different, because by the time you write your book and find an agent the publishers will probably be looking for something else. As for readers: if you’re tired of new books, look for an author who is new to you, or go back to the past and seek out something in your favorite genre among the mountains of books that have been published in the past sixty years or so. You can also seek out a couple of go-to authors. When I do my own reading, and nothing seems to please me, I pick up one of Timothy Hallinan’s fine novels, or an Elmore Leonard book, or start working my way through James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux canon, among others, to shake me out of my doldrums. Reading is good for you. You don’t want to stop.

Whatever you do, whether you are writing or reading or both, please don’t develop the impression that there are too many books. One of the blessings in my life is my association with bookreporter.com. I started reviewing books for Carol Fitzgerald’s website twenty years ago, and one of the many happy results of that relationship is that I receive new books of all sorts on an almost daily basis. Some of them are outside of my interest or demographic or whatever you wish to call it, as was one which I recently received entitled Greek Gods #squadgoals by Courtney Carbone, a children’s book editor and author. I thumbed through it and was totally lost — I don’t get the whole ‘#’ thing, or tweeting, Instagram, Pinterest, and the rest,  and probably never will — but the premise of the book was interesting, if incomprehensible to me in execution. It tells the stories of Greek Mythology from the point of view of the participants while assuming that they had smartphones and could text one another. I passed the book onto Samantha,  our (almost) eleven granddaughter. Samantha lives in the same city as we do, and as a result — another blessing — we get to see her frequently. I left Greek Gods at her place at the kitchen table. She came over for a visit, picked it up, and was entranced. She put her phone down, ignored the computer, turned off the flat screen, and started reading it from beginning to end, laughing all the way and sharing passages with us. Samantha is no stranger to books. She is working her way through that wonderful Warriors series by Erin Hunter and the likes of R. L. Stine, Chris Grabenstein’s Mr. Lemoncello books, and a host of others. This doesn’t happen by accident. Her father —my son — is a reader himself, and makes sure that she gets to the library and a local children’s bookstore pretty much on demand. I was happiest, however, about Samantha devoting full focus to Greek Gods. Whether she will at some point down the road pour over Edith Hamilton’s classic work on the subject, in the same manner in which those wonderful Classics Illustrated comics led me to H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and yes, Fyodor Dostoyevsky,  remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that from Samantha’s perception there won’t be too many books, or not enough interesting ones. There simply won’t be enough time to read them all.

Back to you. What book or series would you want to read right now, time and availability permitting? For me, it would be Richard Prather’s Shell Scott series, in the original paperback editions. You?

 

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Getting Your Rocket Fizz Going

rocket fizz

Photo (c) Columbusunderground.com

There is a nationwide chain of stores named “Rocket Fizz.” We have had one in the Columbus area for a little over a year. It’s not on the Weight Watchers approved list, for sure, which means that it is a fun place.  I have watched people walking by the place who seem to hit an invisible shield when they see the front window, which promises a party inside. They come in, too. The store layout gives you an excellent idea of what Rocket Fizz is all about from that first glimpse inside. The front has candy that I haven’t seen in a half-century or so, items like Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy, Sugar Babies, Teaberry Gum, and Bit O’ Honey. The periphery displays all freaking sorts of bottled soda (Judge Wapner has his own root beer. Who knew?),  taffy (about fifty or so different flavors), posters, tintypes, toys (I almost — almost — laid down thirty bucks for a set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles beanie babies), and novelty pranks that will remind you of what you do in your office when no one is around (you’ll know it when you see it).  There are tables piled with merchandise but none higher than five feet or so, the result being that even someone of my very normal height can see the entire expanse of the establishment from the front door. The back of the store displays all sorts of imported items like Japanese Oreos (those folks know how to do Oreos) and English toffees and chocolates of all types and configurations.Wonders beckon.

I take my granddaughter, the eight-year old antichrist, to Rocket Fizz on occasion. While she is respectfully prowling the place, looking for new opportunities for me to spoil her, I like to stand in the corner of the store furthest from the entrance and watch people as they come in. The face of each and every person lights up as they break the plain of the front door. This is true even of grumpy old me, and it’s true every time I visit there.  It’s pure entertainment. A youngster sees unfamiliar types of candy that looks like fun; those of us whose boots first hit the ground in the middle of the last century remember going to the drugstore and paying a quarter for a box of Fizzies (yes, they have those too, and no, they aren’t a quarter anymore). You hear lots of “Oh wow!’s and oohing and ahhing from people of all ages as they walk through. I have never seen anyone step inside of Rocket Fizz and turn around and walk out. No. They walk in, going deeper and deeper. They spend time and yes, they spend money.

Someone did a lot of work figuring out what would work for Rocket Fizz, and it shows. There are fifty odd Rocket Fizz stores scattered across the country and that number will double in a year or so.. I don’t know if the people who came up with the concept of Rocket Fizz sample their own wares or not, but they want their customers to be happy and have fun and hopefully spend money. And we, as authors, can learn from that. I sometimes forget who I am writing for and have to remind myself that if I am writing for me then a diary would serve the same purpose. If I am writing for someone else — or a whole bunch of someone else’s, hopefully — I need to make my book attractive to my audience, not just to me. “I couldn’t get him to stop screaming” is a stack of twelve ounce cans of cola by the front door; “He kept screaming. He didn’t stop, even when I caved his head in” is a twelve ounce glass bottle of Mighty Mouse Blue Cream Soda, made with real cane sugar. It attracts attention, and makes the reader wonder who, why, and next. As far as that next thing goes…you don’t want displays of generic animal crackers. You want gold foil chocolate coins or candy flavored cigarettes (OH, THE HUMANITY!) or Star Wars JellyBellys. This is where you start introducing characters, which you can base upon everyone from the uncle no one ever wanted to sit by to the really, really strange woman who works in the produce department of your local supermarket who won’t meet your eye and just points to what you want. As for your ending…you want exotic. Endings are dessert, at the back of the store. A creme sandwich cookie is okay, but what does a small box of double-fudge covered Oreos with Asian lettering all over it say to you? It says that it’s something familiar, but different. It’s at the back of the store, and is more interesting than anything that came before it. That’s what you want to shoot for. Even if, like me, you miss more often than not. You can’t hit something if you don’t fire.

Have you read anything recently that puts you in the mind of Rocket Fizz, as described? I have a couple of examples, one being THE HOT COUNTRIES by Timothy Hallinan, the latest and best in his Bangkok-based Poke Rafferty series. The other is THE GOLEM OF PARIS by Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman, the genre-bending sequel to last year’s THE GOLEM OF HOLLYWOOD. It has it all, from exotic locales to explosions, romance, history and religion. And if you haven’t read anything recently that fits the bill…do you have a Rocket Fizz in your city? Have you been there? What did you buy?

 

 

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