“There was a little boy, who wouldn’t go to sleep.” Thus began my older son’s favorite book in the entire world. It’s called Night Cars and I read that book so often that until very recently I could recite it all from memory. Not so much now. It’s been too long. But I probably could get to it prompted here and there.
He was a year and a half when that became his favorite book, and I read it almost every day for a year. It was the story of a little boy and his dad (the mom was never mentioned, but given it was all set at night, it’s possible the mom was asleep like a sensible woman) who lived in a downtown apartment. The little boy didn’t want to go to sleep, because it was a snowy night and there were all sorts of interesting things outside the window: people! Dogs! Police cars! Fire engines!
My son was not overfond of sleeping. Like most smart kids, he was afraid he’d miss something vital. So he didn’t nap, and getting him to sleep at night was a problem. Mostly, he fell asleep by collapsing wherever he happened to be (I once cooked dinner entirely by stepping over him, as he slept in front of the stove.) He’d go from running around to curled up on the floor, and then you had to decide: did you pick him up oh so carefully and take him to bed, risking his waking up, or did you leave him there. The difference, usually, was whether it was daytime or nighttime.
And nighttime sleeping depended greatly on what was exciting, going on outside our window, which was in the heart of Colorado Springs, and looked across the street at shops. There were people there all night, and yes, fire engines and police cars and dogs.
In the morning, in the book, dad takes his son across the street, gets a doughnut for the son and a coffee for himself. This was often our morning routine with the addition of my getting a bagel. (Depending on money. I mean, most of the time we had breakfast at home, but there were days we had money, and why not.)
You can see why son loved this book, right? He was young enough, I’m not a100% he didn’t think it was about him. Maybe. He’d probably have asked why it was dad and not mommy, who was the usual designee for staying up late, since dad worked outside the house.
His brother, born while we lived downtown, grew up till he was 8 in a tiny mountain town. His favorite book was William Allingham The Fairies, to the point that it was on my mind when I came up with my first published trilogy. You see, I was in a situation where I couldn’t reach for references, and I remembered that poem. So, not only did the fairies intrude on poor Shakespeare, but the title of the book, now called Ill Met By Moonlight was Down the Rushy Glen. The publisher changed it. The other two titles are still Allingham lines.
Note we still had Night Cars, but Marshall showed no interest whatsoever in it. Was it because we didn’t live downtown? I don’t know. Could be because he likes more structured poetry. (He does, btw.)
Admittedly when you’re very young you like reading about what you know and sounds like your life, because, well… where is your imagination going to come from? You can’t really go anywhere in your mind. You have no idea how other people live.
In fact older son’s first story (soon to be out, revised, in his collection. I need to UPLOAD that!) was a heartbreaking story about adopting a child. Only he had no idea how one adopted a child, so it was like the humane society (where we’d adopted a cat.) He was eight. What did he know? (When I explained the story changed. So… it’s actually more poignant.)
For those of us who live mostly in books, a lot of what we know about the world is from books. It expands our thinking, our realm of possibilities. Little by little we know more of the world. Most of us learn early on that sometimes writers are full of sh*t. Sometimes through lack of research, mind, but sometimes because a lot of time has passed and life/place is different. I can’t imagine my parents letting me and my friends go on the unaccompanied camping trips of Enid Blyton’s protags, for instance, but never mind. More importantly — I think — through reading we learn how other people think, how other people are in the world. It’s an opportunity to slip into that space behind the eyes. NOt naked, of course. Your own space-behind-the-eyes goes with you and colors everything. But it’ the closest you’ll get to really GETTING someone else, short of an afterlife of some sort.
Which is why most of us do it. Maybe. Well, I do it because I’m ADD and without audio books I’d never take walks or clean the house. Not enough interest in those.
What this is all about…
My most recent publisher had a bad habit of calling me when I sent a proposal in and going “But what is the book ABOUT?”
I don’t know. Maybe other writers write like that. I can usually tell you the percipitating incident for the book erupting in my head. It’s usually something like “I was reading a book with cloning, and it was legal, so entire people were created for body parts, and I was thinking “Dear Lord, no. Given the ability to develop the process further, you just do body parts, or whole bodies without brains. Raising a human for this is too difficult and expensi– Wait, what if it’s illegal and you have to hide it by pretendin–” By the time I left that diner, the back, blank pages of the book contained the first few chapters of the novel.
What does it mean? Oh, you could say it means that making things illegal makes them worse. BUT that’s not how the book turned out, and it means a lot of things, none of which have anything to do with the precipitating incident. And that’s one of the clearer ones. A lot of my books start because, you see, there’s this voice in my head and it’s not mine, and it’s telling a story. Or I wake up with a sentence running through my mind.
My vampire book (BTW, right now in a story bundle) you could say is about compounding with evil. You give in to evil, and you give in to evil, and you give in to evil, and what does that make you. It is echoed throughout the series till the last book, and I swear if the bundle does well the second book (the difficult one) will be out in two or three months. I have maybe a week of work in it.
But when the book came to me, I had no idea what it meant (BTW I can see now why it attacked when it did, because it was just before I came out politically. You figure it. Use paper and pen if you need to.) I just know I had to park really far away for art class, and then came back, in the August heat, and sat in the car, and my last situational thought as I turned on the car was “Damn, I’m hot.” And then there was an entire trilogy in my head. By the time I got home and went to my desk, the first few chapters poured out of me and I typed a few other scenes to Kate Paulk on AIM. It was like, it was all there, and I could zoom in on certain scenes.
What did it mean? I didn’t know. I just knew it was there.
Again, what is this about?
Well, this week for various reasons, but mostly because I’m fighting an attempt by the stupid virus to come back (It is a stupid virus. You shed IQ points as you sit there, and all you want to do is sleep) I didn’t do all my posts as I’m trying to on the Sunday night. So, I was going through potential blasts from the past on… Wednesday? night. And I came across a bunch of them about Human Wave and how someone (obviously eventually on the other side) wrote posts on it, talking about how we shouldn’t read just for fun, and how we need to write the other and… all the arguments which have become so familiar. “You must write the other.” (Except of course, you can’t write the other, because it’s appropriation.)
This morning, I woke up and I’m reading a mega-bestseller unfamiliar to me. This is because I can finally read something that IS NOT a regency romance (more on that later) and more specifically Austen fanfic. Which must mean despite the annoying virus, I’m getting better in the essentials.
Anyway, because this guy is famous and a mega bestseller, he has a prologue on the book explaining how he came to write it. And I read it in disbelief. He was tried of characters with problems, so his character is perfectly sane, has no problems at all, doesn’t need/want anything. Yeah, bub. The character himself says that in the first chapter…
Which proves the character is not particularly introspective, and frankly neither is the writer. Because the character is angry. It radiates off him. And the reason he’s angry is the reason the writer was angry when he wrote it. The fact they’re both oblivious to this is actually fascinating.
Anyway, there’s the point — look, I’m uncaffeinated — there are two sides to writing — and to reading — one is the “you do this because you do it. The call of the weird comes up, and bam, you write it.” The other is “You must write this or that to illuminate the blah blah blah.”
I suspect there are two types of writer. Perhaps there are two types of reader too. I have no problem reading the second type of writer in non fiction, but in fiction there are books I start and go “This is dead” or worse “why are you lecturing me.” Most of the time, though, I just go “boring” and move on.
Mostly, there are things that appeal to me, and things that don’t. And things that appeal to me at different times — of life, of circumstance, sometimes different times of day — I get stuck in reading ruts. Normally I live somewhere with sf/f some adventure, some thrillers. If I’m stressed and real life is way too complex I mainline cozies. A little above that in spoons and it’s historical mysteries. A little below and it’s regency romance or austen fanfic. Note I’m not saying these are below in skill. Some are. But some aren’t. I’m saying they’re below in the emotional investment they require of me, because if I’m reading Pride and Prejudice Fanfic, I know how it’s going to end and 9 times out of ten what the details will be. I don’t have to try to figure if a character is good or bad. I read the name, and I know.
It’s easy to figure out with kids (because their life experience and triggers for things are so short/few) why a book appeals and one doesn’t. Well, unless you know, it’s my younger kid. It might have been the poetry and the big words, for all I know. He used to memorize poetry. Get drunk on it. Yes, he wants to be an engineer. Life is like that.
So when someone says they designed their book to appeal to x or educate x on y or whatever, there are two choices: Either they’re lying, or they think they really did this.
But whether the book actually does what it was intended to do? That’s chance. And the call of the weird. And how “alive” it is. And when it hits. And how it speaks to the reader.
Sure you can “design” books and take a prescriptive approach and say people SHOULD read your book because it’s good for them.
But fiction doesn’t work like that. Fiction takes you somewhere. And it’s all a matter of if the reader and writer want to be there.
So… write it. Put down your clipboard and just write it. With luck, a lot of people want to follow you there. And if not, write another one.
Me? Well, there is this guy and he has a dragon egg in a colony planet. And there’s this woman who was just arrested in NYC under Mayor Giuliani’s attempt to cut down on the selling of fake amulets by the curse men. And…. well, you see? I have to go write.