The pause that refreshes

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When I first started writing, back when I was a teenager, I kept a writer’s notebook. It was one of my most cherished possessions. Every morning, while I was sitting in home room at Model High School, I would scribble in it, describing the little realizations and epiphanies I had experienced about my writing process. It was a lovely way to get my brain unclogged before I did my actual fiction writing, later in the day. It felt so good, so cathartic, to look inside my own head and psychoanalyze my writing habits, to examine my hang-ups and see what was holding me back. I haven’t done that kind of thing in a long time, but I might start doing that here — sometimes.

Here’s something I’ve pondered lately as I’ve hammered away on my new novel: it’s critical for a story to have a middle. I’ve always felt this pressure (I’m not sure exactly where the pressure comes from) to make the story move as fast as possible. I have this miserable, oppressive, overwhelming fear that I’m going to bore the reader — and all the people I come in contact with in everyday life, for that matter — so I feel this intense need to rush through the story quickly, quickly, quickly. (Also: when I was younger, I remember reading the reviews on the back covers of my favorite novels. They were loaded with phrases like “fast paced” and “page turner” and “breakneck speed.”)

Yes, it’s a valid concern. The whole point of writing fiction is to entertain people. Thus, you should try not to put your reader to sleep. It’s perfectly logical.

But I’ve realized recently that, even though a speedy pace is important, pauses are also just as important. When you’re reading a story, you need little “slow” moments, especially in the middle, that allow you to process the information you’ve learned so far. Without these pauses, the ending seems to come too quickly. It’s abrupt and premature. You hit the end of the story feeling as if you’re just crashed into a brick wall at 60 miles per hour.

Here’s something else I was thinking about the other day: when you take a long road trip, you need to pull over at a rest stop every few hours to get out of the car, stretch your legs, empty your bladder, and eat overpriced crackers from a vending machine while grumpy families stand around you, arguing about maps. The same principle holds true in a story. Occasionally, the reader should just be allowed to stop and chill — but not for too long.

I’m almost finished with the first draft of my new book. It’s not incredibly long, but it’s longer than my last book, Under the Electric Sun. In chapters 3, 4, and 5 of the new one, the reader is simply allowed to hang out with the characters. I do introduce a few important items in these chapters, things that will pop up again near the end of the story … but, overall, there isn’t much “plot stuff” happening in this middle section. (I did stuff a lot of jokes and gags into these chapters to keep the reader awake, though.)

My author/blogger friend Victoria Grefer mentioned this idea the other day, although she was making a different point. She was saying you should never overdo it and let the story come to a standstill. She said something important should always be happening, even in those slow moments. And I agree with her.

I decided to write about it here because the topic was already rolling around in my head. If you’d like to read Ms. Grefer’s post, you can click here.

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As always, you can click here to download a copy of my book, Under the Electric Sun.

(I decided to discard all the illustrations and give the book a new cover. The image above is no longer in the book.)

The Secret City

Here’s a show I grew up with. I discovered it one summer while I was spending the week with my grandparents in Tampa, Florida. The little black and white TV in my bedroom only picked up one channel, the local PBS station. I saw a promo for The Secret City and asked my grandfather to wake me up the next morning at eight o’clock so I could watch it. Ever since then, Mark Kistler (the guy you see drawing) has been a huge inspiration to me. Hope you get a kick out of it.

Something else from the sketchbook

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I’ve had a wicked sinus headache all day, but I thought it was time to go ahead and write a new post. Lately I’ve been working diligently on my new novel and cleaning the house. I use the word “clean,” but I suppose the more accurate word would be “purge.” There’s something so glorious and satisfying and cathartic about walking through the house with a big plastic garbage bag, grabbing up handfuls of things I don’t want anymore and shoving them into the bag without mercy. It feels lovely to hurl one bag after another into the dumpster, freeing myself of all this stupid, needless clutter.

I’ve also been watching old commercials on YouTube the past few days, one of my favorite pastimes. The other day, I discovered some 1970s Burger King commercials that were designed for Saturday mornings, when kids were watching cartoons. They’re a lot of fun … in a grotesque, disturbing, psychedelic kind of way. I remember my cousin Troy telling me a long, long time ago that one of his friends had horrific nightmares about the Burger King mascot. Now I can see why.

The picture above is from my sketchbook. I drew it during Memorial Day weekend, in the middle of my epic Vsauce binge. This is supposed to be a picture of Michael Stevens. When I first drew it, I wasn’t happy with it. I thought it looked like the product of a genetic experiment involving James Lipton and Steve Jobs. (No disrespect to either one of them.) However, when I flipped through the sketchbook the other day and looked at the picture again, I decided I liked it after all. So here it is. Enjoy.

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You can click here to download a copy of my science fiction novel, Under the Electric Sun.

Thanks for the lousy Christmas present, Matt Smith

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If you’re not a fan of Doctor Who, this post probably won’t mean anything to you at all. I won’t hold it against you one bit if you don’t read it.

I just learned that Matt Smith will leave the show in this year’s Christmas episode. My heart sank as I read the news earlier today. I didn’t really like him when he started playing The Doctor in 2010. I thought he was a very talented actor, but I didn’t feel like I was watching Doctor Who. I felt like I had accidentally stumbled across a wacky sitcom designed to pay homage to Doctor Who. Somehow, the tone was just wrong. It was too silly, too slapstick. Even the Tardis interior looked like a fun house. Rory, Amy, and River Song were wonderful characters, but I didn’t feel like they belonged in the same universe as Rose Tyler, Mickey Smith, and Martha Jones. (This is just my opinion and it doesn’t really mean much. I know I’m just one of ten thousand people on the internet, rambling and over-analyzing this silly old TV show.)

But I finally accepted Matt Smith as The Doctor after watching The Snowmen this past Christmas. I loved the scene when Clara boldly followed him into the Tardis … and then he turned back very slowly and grinned at her as she looked around, speechless and awestruck. At that moment, something clicked. Matt Smith really did come across as an ancient, mysterious, brilliant, lonely Time Lord. I also loved Hide and Journey to the Centre of the Tardis. I could write 50,000 words about Hide, but I’ll be kind and spare you. (By the way, I’m not saying I hated all the previous episodes. The Doctor’s Wife, written by Neil Gaiman, was a classic. And the cinematography in that episode was some of the most dazzling stuff I’ve ever seen.)

As I was saying, Matt Smith is leaving and I’m disappointed. I ride this same, miserable roller coaster every time the character regenerates. It’s just part of being a Doctor Who fan, I guess. A new actor steps in … and it takes a year or two for me to get comfortable with him playing the role … and then I really begin to like him … and then he steps out … and the whole aggravating process begins all over again.

I still remember the first time I ever saw The Doctor regenerate. I was about ten years old, sitting on the carpet in front of the TV with my face too close to the screen, watching the show on Channel 8, the PBS station in Georgia. The episode was called The Caves of Androzani. At the end, Peter Davison collapsed onto the floor of the Tardis … and wild, psychedelic designs swarmed around his face. Then he transformed into Colin Baker — a posh, dignified man with curly hair. He abruptly sat up and started talking about change.

The next morning, in Sunday School, I asked my friend Joel if he had seen it. Joel nodded emphatically and said, “Yeah! He regenerated!” Joel was much more knowledgeable about Doctor Who than I was. He often explained these concepts to me, telling me all about Daleks and Cybermen and so forth.

Anyway, it’s about to happen again soon. The fiftieth anniversary episode will air on November 23 and then, unfortunately, Matt Smith will appear as The Doctor for the last time on Christmas.

What a lousy present.

 

Click here to download a copy of my novel, Under the Electric Sun.