Changing the Way We Write

I’m a dinosaur. I admit it freely. While I don’t predate the computer age, I do predate the personal computer age. Computer classes were just starting to be offered during my high school years and, like the CEO (I can’t remember his name right now) of Tandy said when IBM came out with their PC in 1980, I looked at them this way: They’ll never amount to anything.

Good thing I’m not in the prophecy business.

But, thanks to computers and the “gotta have it now” mentality they have helped inspire, I have witnessed a substantial change in how writers, especially unpublished writers like myself, have to ply their trade.

Of course, fads in writing come and go. I can remember when having at least one sex scene in your book or story (let’s just shorten that to the word story, shall we?) was obligatory: if it wasn’t there, you were lacking in something important. Didn’t matter if it moved the story forward or not, or even needed to be there. To be a modern author of commercial fiction, put the sex scene and stretch it out. Ditto with profanity. At least some of your characters should swear like sailors or worse, whether they needed to or not.

These were fads, though. I’m talking about things like description, flashback and back story. And I might be able to think of a few others along the way.

I go through spates of trying to read classics, the books a lot of us were forced to read in high school and  college, whether they were relevant to anything in real life or not. Books like Moby Dick, The Last of the Mohicans and others of their ilk. Now, I’m not going to make some blanket condemnation of these books, even if a lot of us have had to practically OD on some kind of stay-awake pills or multiple pots of coffee to get through the things. That’s beside  the point. What I’m trying to put across is what makes these books boring to modern readers: pages and pages of description and back story. Especially description.

I remember one particular endeavor in futility when I tried to read The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Now, I would have to say that the title is a fairly succinct description of said dwelling. But dear old Nathaniel would probably disagree, seeing as how he started the book with something like seven pages of describing everything from the color of dirt in the yard to how each wooden shingle lay on the roof (yes, I exaggerate for effect, but not by much). Needless to say, I didn’t get through the entire description. Good thing it was one of those Walmart two-for-a-buck editions with the price sticker printed on the cover. They put those out for a while back in the 90s (and may still today, for all I know).

Moving up to more modern times (and books I can actually get past the first five pages of), look at one of Stephen King‘s stories. One of the hallmarks of his writing is his characterization and that makes sense. He has stated that his stories tend to start with characters rather than situations, and by the time he starts writing the story itself, he knows a lot more about his characters than ever makes it into the book. And he gets a lot about the character in there. There are long blocks of back story to let us know why so and so does what he or she does. For some readers, these are boring. For me, by the time the story kicks in for good and serious, I’m invested in these characters and I want them to succeed. And, after all, isn’t that one of the reasons we read a story?

But now we’re in the age of the Internet and social networking and short attention spans. Readers want the story and they want it now, and please don’t bother them with things like description and back story. Or flashbacks. Oh, sure, some of those things should be in there, but as Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy state in their book Writing Fiction for Dummies (Wiley Publishing), if you put flashback in anywhere in the first five chapters of your book, make sure you’re willing to pay the editor ten bucks a word for it because it takes that long of the readers to care enough about the characters to be interested in flashback or back story. And, as for description, well, we are told to keep it sparse. Relate enough to give the reader a general idea and move on. Don’t stop the story.

This last has a reason, and maybe a good one at that. There are several points of view that a writer has available to choose from when writing a story, but the most popular these days (in order of how I’m seeing them) are first person and third  person (there are two more categories of third person writing: third person head-hopping and objective. I won’t go into details right now). Both of these views get inside a character’s head and subjective viewpoint, so I can understand not getting too detailed about description. After all, when you walk into a room you’ve never been in before, do you notice everything in the room? I doubt it. We notice the things that stand out to us. So, when we describe things in a story, we’re expected to pick out things that our character would notice, not give a detailed inventory of every object there. That’s how real people operate, so our characters should as well. Let the reader fill in the rest as they will.

To truly care about the character, we must be in his or her (or its, in the case of some sf and urban fantasy stories) POV. That means no more seven page descriptions of  a frickin’ house. Or long discourses on the character’s broken childhood. Drop some hints here and there and keep moving. It’s the 21st Century version of the old writer’s adage “show, don’t tell.”

I’ve heard story after story about the short attention spans we are getting as a result of the Internet. We are told that readers now scan the first few paragraphs of an online article at best and, if it looks too long, we don’t read the rest. I find myself doing the same thing. It’s a bit disconcerting.

There’s a lot to be said for keeping the story moving, and I have to admit that I seem to prefer to have my back story and flashbacks revealed to me in bits and pieces. For me, coming upon these little tidbits is like finding lost treasures: the character is revealed to me a little at a time, just like we get to know people in real life (which is another reason for doing it this way. We don’t get to know one another in huge chunks). On the other hand, I used to enjoy those long, leisurely jaunts through a character’s past. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but I admit I find that I have trouble tolerating long chunks of expository text. Give it to me in sound bites, please. Sad, I suppose, but true.

The Internet is changing how we all read, and it’s led to such things as Flash Fiction and its cousins. That’s okay, I suppose, but I hope we don’t lose sight of what came before. I really enjoyed those long, rainy afternoons with a thick book in hand, the sound of the rain on the roof a pleasant backdrop to my reading.

And on a personal note (hey, it’s my blog!), I find it passing strange that a sf writer like me is griping about what computers are doing to us. Seems counterintuitive to me. But that’s life.

Cheers,

Gil

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