More and more, as a reader, I find myself searching for something new. This has less to do with branching out into genres I haven’t yet explored and more to do with wanting the old and familiar to suddenly feel fresh and inspired.
More zip? More zing? Is that what’s missing for me? I don’t know. What I do know is that my voracious appetite for reading is slowing down. I’m not alone. There are many out there like me, people who would rather read than sleep.
Are they changing, too?
Maybe the underlying cause is that I like a story with a no-holds-barred happy ending. In fact, I prefer it. I consciously seek that state of bliss in everything I do, every choice I make in life.
That hasn’t always worked out so well for me, I’d like to point out, because it involves taking a lot of risks. But falling far short of a happy ending has never stopped me from getting up and trying again, though it has delayed me, from time to time.
Lately, I’ve been hunting that happy ending through a reading stack that is populated with books from authors who are new to me, but who write with an old, familiar formula. (Thank you, reader reviews!)
Part of the hunt for this elusive, new version of the proverbial happy ending is motivated by my general nosiness: I’ve always been curious to learn what each new author develops as his or her version of the fabled “happy ending,” and then to compare and contrast it with my own ideas of what constitutes a good ending to a book.
Gone Girl is, to me, a fine illustration of an author choosing the right “happy ending” for the characters, even though that ending left many readers horrified. Or, at least, with their mouths agape.
I’ve thought a fair amount about Gillian Flynn’s novel since reading it, mostly in the context of “Could I ever write something so good and so awful at the same time?” No. Not me. But as a reader? Fantastic. More please.
It occurs to me as I go looking for my “something new” on the shores of the ever-increasing ocean of published novels, that maybe I should be examining how a story begins, and not how it ends.
I’m going to skip over the beginning beginning (i.e., from a powerful dream, or remarks overheard at a wedding, or upon the suggestion of a psychic, etc) and concentrate my study on the formal preparation an author does as he or she maps out the ingredients and flow of the story.
Here is a handy chart from thinklivebepositive.wordpress.com that gives a clear, six-point illustration of the old, familiar formula that I regularly use.
In my writing, the key word is “love” when I’m figuring out the starting point of a book or story. The main characters want to be in love, are in love, have fallen out of love, or are looking for lost love.
In my version of storytelling, there is never a question of whether or not the leading man and woman do – or will – love one another. It’s an absolute; a foregone conclusion. Love is theirs if they can but withstand all of the challenges and issues life predictably hurls, with splintering force, at the seam of their union.
In my stories, the main conflict is always about the process of joining those two lives, loves, together into that unbreakable union. How the two lovers make this happen, and what obstacles they must first overcome, changes from story to story. But no matter how the characters get there, the ending is always the same: happy.
To illustrate the main conflict in my story, I will add thriller-based action elements to my novels (spies, wars, theft, murder, politics), and emotion-based elements to my short stories (joy of birth, marriage, opportunity, moving day, etc; pain of separation, disease, loss, etc).
By the way, these are the only parts of the story that I research before sitting down to write. I like to meet with background sources in advance, to listen to them, learn from them, in a casual setting. I will spend days, sometime weeks, exploring books, places, and websites that they recommend I visit.
Once all of this new information has had time to settle, and root, I will find myself sitting at the keyboard, starting my new story halfway between the beginning and the end. Many authors I know are able to write a single book at a time, in chronological order, page by page. This amazing skill eludes me, so I am routinely writing several stories at the same time, and not one of them arrives on the page in chronological order.
I didn’t know I could write violence until I reached the climax of Ava’s story. I was unprepared for what appeared on the page. It is disconcerting, reading such scenes and knowing that I’m the one who wrote them. But the scenes appear on the page because they fit the story. They belong there, so I leave them.
I visualize this step as if the two main characters are slowly, slowly falling into each other’s arms. This is my favorite part of every story – mine and yours – even more so than the (preferably guaranteed) happy ending.
Why? It is the moment in which hope wins. It is the point at which of all the sacrifices, hardships, challenges, and tests suffered through by the hero and/or heroine are understood through the perspective of a single lens: love.
Is it too obvious to point out that this is the “happily ever after” part of the story? I tend to use the final pages of a novel to set up the next book, more so than to solidify the ending of the current book. The reason? Because…no reader wants a story that they really love to come to an end.
Even if the next book is never written, there is always a reader’s continuing hope that the characters are together, in love, enjoying themselves and stirring up some trouble, in the make-believe-yet-somehow-very-real world of Storyland.
As a reader, once I am deeply bonded with a character, I know that she will live on forever – and not just in the pages of a book, but in me.
I wonder if that means that in the (hopefully, very) far-distant future, my tombstone will read: Here, in this one body, lies Ashley Barron, Elizabeth Bennett, Jo March, Scout, Jane Eyre, Anne Shirley, Nancy Drew, Dorothy Gale, … Oh, the list goes on and on!
All this brings me back to the original point of this blog post. Lately, my go-to authors, the ones I’ve been reading for at least a decade, aren’t satisfying me. And their books have always satisfied me. Until now.
Have they changed as writers? As people? Maybe. Great success, like great loss, changes us in ways we can’t begin to imagine, or calculate, until we are the person standing in those shoes.
Does success impact how many plot or story line risks a writer is willing to take? Probably. And why not? Think about how much work, sacrifice, support, and flat-out luck it takes to reach the pinnacle of the literary world. Hmm. Maybe that’s why so many of the “greats” write riskier books under pseudonyms…
Is it the race to deliver a book? To always have a book in New Releases section, even if it isn’t the best work that the writer is capable of? My first novel hadn’t been out for a month before I started feeling the pressure to get that next novel out there. The story was outlined, the words were filling the pages, but they weren’t coming out in the wonderful way I knew they could. The more I pushed myself, the more push back I received – from myself.
I could have published a new novel a year ago, but I wouldn’t have been satisfied with it. A first novel gets a free pass in some areas, as just the birthing of it is a tremendous accomplishment. But a second novel? It needs to resonate with quality, and to show the evolution of the writer. Doesn’t it? Shouldn’t it?
Finally, I stepped back, relaxed, and took the pressure off of my invented timeline for literary success. I have since decided I will publish the best work I am capable of as a writer, or I will not publish at all.
Is it due to a change in the appetites of the general reading audience? I didn’t read Fifty Shades of Grey and I never will, but about a billion other readers did, and with great…gratification. When that novel was marketed as Romance, I figured I needed to change my genre or else face disappointing all those readers out there who were combing the Romance aisle, looking for novels written in the spirit of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Will the current reading climate even embrace love stories, like mine, that have no classic “bodice-ripping” scenes, much less contain anything approaching erotica? This is a question I contemplate fairly often. A part of me is concerned that, somehow, the definition of “true love” has become “great sex.”
They are not equals; true love – patience, kindness, tenderness, thoughtfulness, a giving and joyful spirit, and yes, intimacy – is the greater, by far. It always has been, it always will be.
With this in mind, I plan to hold my shelf space in the Romance aisle and hope that the pendulum swings this way again, and soon.
Or, is it that I, and not my favorite authors, and not my fellow readers, but I am the one who has changed? Oh, where is a Magic 8-Ball when I need it, helping to guide my way with simple advice, like, outlook good, or very likely, or try again later?
A member of my family is in the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and has worked in television and film, in both Los Angeles and New York. He’s also a real pain when it comes to simply appreciating a television show, or film, from a non-technical standpoint.
He has a tendency to talk out loud and critique the casting, the lighting, the script, the acting, the cinematography, and others things I can’t remember or just don’t care about. His career path, his experiences, have made it impossible for him to simply be in the moment, and to enjoy the entertainment for all that it is – and is not.
Am I turning into a literary version in him? Into a type of “I know what it’s like on the inside” critic? I certainly hope not. I want to be able to enjoy a story simply because it is enjoyable, and not because it meets certain Industry criterion, or espouses a popular – and usually fleeting – point of view.
If the plot of a book is flawed, well, so is life. I don’t want perfection from a novel. I want pleasure, resonance, and personal connection points.
More, I am a reader, first and always. If I truly believed that pursuing a career as an author would ruin my ability to appreciate books, then I would change careers. Simple as that. Fortunately, this literary quest for “new but old” happy endings is just a passing phase, or maybe an internal adjustment, of one variety or another.
Still, I do believe I’m experiencing some sort of a transition. And so, this search for “something new” continues. I’ll keep looking in books, all the while knowing that the answer is most likely inside me, waiting to be discovered, examined, and appreciated.
And then, naturally, turned into a brand new “happy ending” story – one told the old-fashioned way.