Wednesday, May 31, 2006

"Dating" Writing & Love/Hate the Internet

"Dating" Writing

I haven't written about writing for a while. You probably wonder if I'm really an SAHW or a SAHBum. Sometimes I feel like the latter, but writing is rarely far from my mind, even if I'm not doing a lot of work on the novel. I've been learning a lot about technique and the publishing business and storytelling and other writing stuff this year. Lately, I've been itching to get back to working on the novel and I know what the next one in that "world" will be about. You can't keep a writer from writing forever. No matter what happens, we always get back to it.

A couple of days ago Robyn Harper posted on Romancing the Blog about dating your story. By "dating" she meant using specific news events that would cause the reader to know exactly when the story happened. Current consensus seems to believe that you should try to write a contemporary novel so that it's within the parameters of the current time, but not so specific that it must be 2006. I started to write a comment, but realized I had more to say than a sentence or two.

I think you have to consider the impact of news events on your story. In many stories, they have no impact because it's not what the story is about. You don't even have to mention them. If I write a mystery about San Francisco in 2006, I don't have to mention any of the catastrophes that occurred in other places around the world unless something about that catastrophe specifically impacts the story. But if I write a mystery set in San Francisco, post-April 16, 1906, then I must mention the earthquake because the earthquake had an impact on everyone in the region. And it would have messed up clues, taken people's attention away from whatever they may have witnessed about the murder, etc. That would be especially true if the murder took place prior to the earthquake.

Another side of this issue is how the culture "dates" a story. I'd write a story that took place in different parts of my lifetime very differently. If I wrote about the 60s and 70s there would be no cell phones, no personal computers, no world wide web. But if I wrote a story that takes place today and ignored those things, it wouldn't feel right to the reader. So, in that way, all stories have things in them that set the timeline. If you try to leave out all of that stuff and write a story that is contemporary, yet not specific to a particular contemporary time, you end up with an empty stage. Your reader doesn't get grounded in the world you're writing about and can feel lost. Plus, setting makes a difference in the story. How characters relate to the world around them is important, but how can you show that if you don't show the specific world they live in, including both the historical setting and the cultural setting?

On the other hand, I think it's possible to get too specific in writing contemporary settings. Marketing people want to "brand" everything. They want to define us by the brand of clothing we buy, the brand of car we drive, and so on. So there's a temptation to use branding as a shortcut to defining our characters and the world around them. The problem is that when you assume that saying your character drives a BMW rather than a Ford means something to the reader, you're making another assumption--that your reader has the same perception about BMWs vs. Fords that you make. And that everyone who drives one or the other is the same kind of person. Obviously, that's not true.

I wonder if Mark Twain, Jane Austen, or Agatha Christie's books would have stood the test of time if they were so nebulous. Could Twain's biting wit even work if he hadn't addressed the specific life he saw around him? When you read his work, you're drawn into his time. Ditto for the other people I mentioned. Christie gets slammed for her British upper crust racist attitudes. But that was who she was and the world of the 1930s she lived in and wrote about. If she had been born into contemporary society, her attitudes and the attitudes of her stories most likely would have been more in line with ours.

I think chasing the "dateless contemporary" is a futile exercise. Maybe you won't be writing about specific current events, but you will be writing about things that ground the reader in the current time period. That specificity is what I think creates a timeless story. The argument is that people won't buy a book that was written a couple of years ago because it's "dated" makes no sense to me. People still read stories written in past times, stories that don't pretend to be any other time. I think that they don't sell because the story isn't a timeless one, a universal story that has appeal beyond the time it was written for. But if writers admit that, then they can't blame the fickle reading public for not wanting "dated" stories and make themselves nuts trying to write a story that's not "dated", hoping that simple answer means it has a chance of selling beyond the immediate release period. They'd have to admit that maybe the problem is with the story itself. They didn't write a timeless story. Very few people can write timeless stories that sell for years and years, or become classics that still sell decades or centuries after they were written. We can only write the best story we can and the rest is really out of our hands. Personally, I take my advice from the example of Twain and co.--write as honestly as possible about the world as you see it, whether it's contemporary or fantasy or horror or whatever. And let time decide the rest.

Internet Provider Rant

I'm in a love/hate relationship with the Internet. Actually, more with the local internet provider services. Our options are old-fashioned, slooooow, dialup or the local cable company. We're too far from the central service thingie to have DSL. The phone company has been promising to upgrade for the past several years. No go, not yet, at least. So, we have the local cable provider. That was great when we first got it. But lately, I've had entire days when I couldn't get online. That makes job hunting very difficult because you can't check job boards, send resumes, etc. without a solid connection. I can imagine trying to fill out some of the forms on some of the company web sites on dialup. Most of them would time out before you got the form finished. So, we're slogging along and hopefully, the job hunt will be faster this time. We do have some unemployment money coming. Only 4 months, though. I don't know why only 4 instead of the usual 6, unless it's just what we didn't use from the last time Paul's contract ended. And, of course, it means less time for me to keep up the blog. (Sigh) I hope whatever readers I have won't give up on me because I'm not able to post as often as I used to.