A blog about writing . . . and a lot of other things

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Suspending disbelief

One of the most important tricks of fiction is getting readers to suspend their disbelief.  Most of the time readers are happy to do this.  Delighted, even.  Let's be honest.  We're not swarming to the latest super hero movie or reading The Hunger Games because we're desperate for some gritty realism.  We don't expect it to be factual or even necessarily plausible.

When author Richard Ford was on The Colbert Report he argued that novels are better than lies because "novels can actually aspire to be the truth."  I think that because novels are freed from reality, they can reach for a truth that is higher than a simple recounting of facts.

However, this may simply be an attempt to justify spending a large percentage of my life reading books that are chock full of nothing useful.

Anyway, I do think it's funny how inconsistently we as readers and viewers are able to suspend our disbelief.  My last blog post (can you remember back that far?) was about distractions in literature and how these distractions often ruin the story for us.

Jacob and I were discussing it in reference to the NBC television show "Grimm."  I like this show because it is filmed in and around Portland.  I've even seen them shooting.  If you haven't watched it, you should, if only because I want TV stars to keep hanging around my neighborhood.

One of my favorite episodes this last season was "Leave it to Beavers."


Near the end of the episode, Nick "sends a message" by shipping the severed heads of a couple of reapers back to Germany from whence they came.

Jacob didn't like this.

"What?  You didn't think he should have chopped the heads off?" I asked.  Admittedly, this behavior was a little extreme for a police officer.

"Oh, no.  I loved that.  Great message.  I just didn't know how he got the address of where to send the heads."

So what is too much for Jacob?  He has no problem with there being fairy tale creatures like reapers and the big bad wolf or with Nick being the only guy who can see these fairy tale creatures because he's a Grimm.  He doesn't even mind Nick decapitating a reaper or mailing severed heads internationally and them arriving in pretty good condition.  What Jacob couldn't handle is that Nick somehow knew where to ship the heads.

I figure the guy's the cop.  Surely he can track down an address.

Personally, the thing that has tested my belief is the sheer quantity of people that Nick has shot in the line of duty.  We've had a lot of officer-involved shootings in Portland over the last few years.  We've even had a cop who was involved in more than one of those shootings.  Let me tell you, the residents of Portland do not take that sitting down.  There would be riots if Nick the cop were actually responsible for killing several citizens.

Again, I have no problem with Nick being a Grimm or women being part tarantula or Monroe being the big bad wolf who is a vegetarian and does Pilates.  But the residents of Portland allowing Nick to stay on the job when he shoots someone in episode after episode?  No way.

Which reminds me.  The second season of "Grimm" starts up in a couple of weeks.  You should check it out and keep the ratings up.  Maybe if the show keeps filming here, I'll manage to squeeze my way into a scene.  Keep your eyes peeled.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Novel distractions

I'm now officially back to work, so there'll be less time to put into my blog.  The timing was good.  I was running out of things to write about, anyway.

This morning between phone calls with clients and preparing amended tax returns, I was thinking about things that distract you when you are reading a novel.  They don't necessarily have anything to do with the novel, but they catch your attention and bother you, preventing you from suspending your disbelief.

For example, years ago I was reading a novel and the main character was a single mom.  Her son was eight years old.  They had moved to a new town and as she's being introduced around to the townspeople her son inevitably shows off his amazing intellect by reciting the alphabet.  Everyone is extremely impressed and goes on and on about how smart he is.

I'm not an expert on early childhood education, but I'm pretty sure there is nothing exceptional about an eight-year-old that knows the alphabet.  In fact, if that is all the eight-year-old knows it is time for some special reading instruction.  I couldn't care less how smart the kid in the story was or wasn't, but the fact that the author made such a show of stating that the boy was very smart, her evidence being that he knew something most kids learn in kindergarten, just drove me crazy.  In fact, it's been five or ten years since I read it, and not only is that the only thing I remember about the novel, but it still annoys me.

A major thing that can be distracting in novels now is the presence of modern technology or lack thereof.  This is a real challenge because technology changes so quickly whereas publishing takes an eternity and books can stay on the shelves for a while.

In the young adult realm, where I've positioned most of my novels, many authors highly value realism and think that the characters need to talk, dress, and act authentically like teenagers.  They will carefully research current slang and clothing so they get it exactly right.  The intrinsic problem with this is that it is going to change extremely quickly.

When I went away to college I spoke all sorts of local slang that I had picked up in high school.  I toned it down to fit in with my college crowd, and when I returned home and talked with an old school friend I could barely understand her.  It wasn't merely that my vocabulary had changed, but that hers had dramatically changed.  This all occurred over a span of less than a year.

Technology takes the rapid changes in teen culture and makes it even more obvious.  For example, who uses myspace?  (Yes, I know musicians still use it.  I'm talking about regular people.)  If a character hangs out on myspace because a book was written in 2007, it is completely out of date by 2009, about the time it might hit the shelves.  A teenager sees that the author thinks myspace is the place to be and tosses the book down in disgust.

It's tempting to set books back a few decades to when technology was more stable.  New innovations like microwaves, computers, and cordless phones didn't necessarily change the way people interacted on a daily basis.  With the Internet, cell phones, and now smart phones we have made a broad shift in our social interactions.

An example of this shift and a very good portrayal of it in entertainment was in the first episode of the first season of Sherlock, "A Study in Pink."  At one point, John Watson is riding in a car with a lovely woman.  The humor in this scene is that the beautiful women spends the entire scene texting.  John even tries to make a pass, but she ignores it, absorbed in her phone.

In fact, Sherlock does a great job incorporating modern technology into the storyline.  It's great fun now while it's still fresh, but I imagine five years down the road people will watch it and laugh the same way we do when Richard Gere in Pretty Woman pulls out a cell phone the size of a brick.

What do you think? Are there any things in novels that have distracted you from enjoying the story?  Do you think that authors should back-date their novels or make them strangely timeless to avoid technology shifts from distracting readers?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Living life online

Do you ever think about what a tremendous shift there has been in the way we live in the last hundred years?  In 1912 most houses did not have electricity or indoor plumbing.  Think of how much of a person's time must have been spent doing the basic things that are so much easier for us today.

What did they do with their spare time, though?  There was no television and very little radio.  When the power goes out now we all wander around bouncing off the walls, not sure what to do with ourselves.  We can't work, we can't play, we can't eat.  We barely function at all.

I'm interested in the new television series Revolution that is coming out in the fall.  It may be awful, but I like the idea of exploring a modern world without electricity.  We are so dependent on it that I wonder in the long term how we would function.

When I was a kid we had video games and lots and lots of television.  Once I was in high school email existed, but it was not commonly used.  No one had really heard of the Internet.  The shift to an online focus happened while I was in college.  The students would spend hours in the computer labs emailing and chatting with each other and looking up jokes on the World Wide Web.  By the time I graduated from college every company had a web address and regular people were starting to carry mobile phones.

Over the next decade the Internet became not just a place to shop or hunt for jokes, but a place to live.  Social networking grew, and it was ten years after I left college when I took the plunge and joined Facebook.  Now I have to check it regularly or I don't know what is going on in my friends' lives.  We've lost all other forms of contact, apparently.

Can you believe things have changed so much in so little time?  Now we're living a life represented by short blurbs and pictures. Our lives are framed by the reference point of online narcissism.  If there's not a picture on Facebook, did it happen?  Why waste time with something that won't look good online?

Facebook has been an eye-opener to the people around us.  Whether we like it or not, we've learned who fritters away hours every day playing games.  We've learned who is ALWAYS ON FACEBOOK.  (Do they work?  Do they go outside?  Do they use the restroom?)  We've learned who is highly political and what their views are.  We've learned who has absolutely no filters between themselves and the Internet.  One of my "friends" online shared their bowel movement experience recently.  Really?

There are some unwritten rules of etiquette for online life.  I don't know what they are, though.  As I said, they are unwritten, and I'm certainly not on the cutting edge of anything.  I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that bowel movements are probably not okay to share.  Another thing that shouldn't get posted online?  Your fight with your husband, child, parent, friend.  One of the darkest sides of the Internet is the way that it immortalizes our flashes of anger, our ill-thought prejudices, our foolish whims.  If you don't stop and think before posting, you inevitably post something you regret.  I know I have.

But does the image we put online represent who we are?  If we are careful what we post on Facebook, what we put on our blogs, what are we really putting out there?  It's a sanitized version of reality that has no authenticity.  If you know me only based on Facebook and my blog, you would think I write, cook, garden, and go for walks with my family.  These are all true, but I also grumble to my husband, veg on the couch, yell at my kids, surreptitiously scratch, and say things I regret.  I even pay bills and, believe it or not, sometimes go to work.

I think one of the dangers of our modern online existence is that it makes all of us mini-celebrities (at least in our minds).  We're fluffy characters on a sitcom, taking pictures of our shoes and posting cute things our kids say.  We try to have our lives look as cute as Pinterest, while the things that really matter fall by the wayside because they don't look good in a picture or sound good in a status update.

I think there's a happy medium between exposing too much online and portraying a perfect image that doesn't have anything to do with the absurdity of reality.  I hope I can find that place.  I hope I can step away from my laptop and live life authentically, without just using that time to come up with things to post on Facebook.

By the way, the inherent contradiction of saying that I should be spending more time offline through the format of my blog is not lost on me.