Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Problem Isn’t Where the Problem Is

A friend, who is both a novelist and an editor, notes the points at which she puts down a manuscript—the times when she is not so drawn by the narrative that she needs to keep on reading. She thinks this is important information for the writer: here’s a soft spot, a point at which she was no longer compelled to keep reading.

On the face of it, this seems like a sound idea. After all, when someone’s attention wanders, doesn’t that suggest there’s a problem? And wouldn’t pinpointing that problem as to page be useful information?

My sig other Pamela scoffs at these notions. First, she observes, the point at which she puts down a book is a better gauge of her own tiredness or preoccupation than of anything to do with the book. Next, novels are awkward to read in manuscript: whether they are bound (and therefore unwieldy) or unbound (and therefore a pile of papers), it’s not the same experience as reading a nice, bound book. If you don’t believe it, try taking a manuscript into the bath with you. (I’d add that the spacing and font of a bound book drag the eye through the pages with greater ease as well; traditional manuscript format is laid out is for the convenience of people such as copyeditors who want to make notes all over the pages.)

Nonetheless, I pay attention when someone identifies the point where they stopped reading and went to make a sandwich. There’s information there—though whether it’s information about the reader or the book is uncertain.

In the world of movies, the pros have a rule of thumb: When the audience gets restless or bored, the problem you need to fix will be found about ten minutes earlier.

I suspect something like this is afoot in many novelistic problems as well. I can’t say that the problem lies X pages prior, but losing someone’s attention is a cumulative process, and when someone is no longer engaged, it probably isn’t because they hit an unengaging paragraph or page or even few pages. Readers aren’t TV viewers with remote control in hand, ready to flip the channel. It takes a while to lose their allegiance. Is there a lack of tension? Well, tension shouldn’t happen sentence by sentence. Setting the book down is a symptom, but the problem that needs to be fixed is most likely somewhere many pages before.

Playwright Paddy Chayefsky--he of Rubber Ducky fame--once said something to the effect that he’d never seen a problem in the third act that could be solved without fixing the first act.

No comments: