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

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?

1 comment:

  1. Be concrete! Strangely timeless is strangely boring. While I think there can be too much in the way of scenery slowing down a scene (Thank you Robert Jordan for making that painfully obvious), I want there to be object elements in a story that make sense to the characters, and that means a world that they are interacting with. Sometimes it's even fun running into something "new" in an old story and having to Google it! So will there be a comment on the 7 and 1/2 blades in the head of a modern razor? If your character would think about it, then of course. The "stuff" in a novel will be relevant today, awkward in 5 years, and funny for 10-20 years after that. If a work keeps being read or viewed for this long or more, congratulations! Now your "stuff" can move on to being "nostalgic", "quaint", "historic", and if you're really cracker jack, they call you "period."