Friday, May 30, 2014

October Years -- In Spite of Suzie

Perhaps by this time of life, in my late October years, I should have learned everything I needed to know. Safe to say that hasn’t happened. Not even close. A while back I was reminded of that once more. 

Let me say up front that I was glad to have her input. After all, she knows what she’s talking about. She works for an agency---representing writers, selling their stories to publishers. She (I’ll call her Suzie) knows what her publishing clients want. And what they want---whether the story is a whodunit, a saving-the-world-from-Godzilla drama, or a steamy vampire romance---is fast-moving action, the kind that grabs the reader on page one and never lets up.

It’s pretty hard to argue with then, eh? And I didn’t---until Suzie, who was commenting on the first chapter of my Second Chances, explained that it was a painfully slow way to start the story. Should I have let that upset me, even a little bit? Probably not. Did it? Yeah, it did---at least a “little bit,” maybe more. 

Though my conversation with Suzie was over almost before it began, I came away asking myself where I’d gone wrong. I was doing my best to create the story I wanted to tell. Obviously in her eyes that was not enough. It would be later that day, when I paused to replay her blunt critique, that I finally had a clue as to why she and I were not seeing eye to eye about something that I take so personally.

You see, in Suzie’s literary universe the goal is non-stop action---the kind that hopefully pulls the reader from page to page. The characters in her kind of story are there to act and react in ways that keep the story moving according to the carefully-crafted plot. That is their purpose in the scheme of things---to provide the suspense, piece together the clues, stand up to the bad guys, and take chances---all the in the name of continuing action. At every turn the players are there to serve the story.

Small wonder that Suzie struggled with my unorthodox, not-so-action-filled tale. The characters in my books are October folks. Second Chances, which begins at a fiftieth high-school reunion, follows seeking seniors as they struggle to overcome the loneliness of life lived alone. 
As is true in all my books those people are the reason for the story. Their missteps and adventurers---in the form of conflicts, wrong turns, and disappointments---are not meant to pull the reader along. Rather those trials provide us, you and me, with the means to know them better. The purpose of the story is to meet those folks up close and personal---to understand their reasons for doing what they do, and perhaps learn the lessons their coping has taught them.
By the time I had worked my way through that line of reasoning I realized that I had answered my own question, and perhaps Suzie’s too. You see, if the characters in a story exist to keep the plot moving toward whatever course of action is intended, then my October efforts are bound to come up short. 
If, on the other hand, my story exists for the characters’ sake, to explore and illustrate how they deal with the trials and traumas of a particular time of life---what I call the October Years---then I’m satisfied that I’ve tried my best. These are by no means escapist stories, but instead hopefully realistic insights about real people living out their late-life trials and triumphs.
Back in May, 2013, in a post titled Why would he write that kind of stuff? I summed up my answer by admitting that I was “staking my claim in the tiniest slice of the market.” There I was, telling relational stories about October players living out what I called their “geriatric adolescence.” They often come to the game with two strikes against them, and a life-view that is scarcely imaginable to younger readers. All in all, that’s not exactly mainstream fiction.
As near as I can tell that assessment is still true. Yet the more I think about it the more I realize that there is something else at work here. Returning to Second Chances, Suzie was right---the story does start slowly, though I might debate her “painfully” description. It starts that way because instead of offering tantalizing hints of a crime, a conflict, or a romantic drama I am introducing people, the ones I’ll be following for the next six hundred pages and two books. So in those first pages I was in no hurry to move to where their adventures would take them---not until I (and the reader) knew something about them.
So here I am, an admitted “amateur,” telling “people” stories about old people. I suppose that means the “tiniest slice of the market” keeps getting smaller. In that case, I’m glad that I’m having so much fun doing what I do the way I do.

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