TASTE: it’s what’s for dinner

I’m sort of rethinking my last entry. WHY am I inclined to like a different set of book openings? Sure, I’m not looking at them with an eye towards selling them to a particular editor or two with whom I work well, or in a market that I know is clobbered with X but clamoring for Y. But there’s more to it that I can get specific about.

When I read, I’m not only up for a tour of a witty author’s mind via the fun characters who stand out to me and a fun setting that makes things better, but I’m ready for a bit of escape. I want to go into the author’s world and have fun. I’m not really into angst and _verklempt_ and *boohoo*. Back when I was a teenager, I enjoyed the big ol’ catharsis bit, so I sometimes sought out the tear-jerkers or read the most gothic of the books in the stack. But no more! Now that I’m antique and fragile, I’ve had enough of what life can dish out! I don’t want to read a bunch of sad stuff happening to characters, even if it illuminates the heck out of the eternal human condition. I want a few smiles, a few laughs, some wit.

This is not to say I want a sappy, corny “Lifetime for Women Comedy” thing or a story with a forced happy ending. I can handle a bit of “smallest violin in the world, playing just for you.” But I really need a larger story that has redemption, light-heartedness, and all that good stuff. I just can’t handle the ones where everybody dies and it’s all so awful. (I do re-read “Hamlet” and the Scottish play now and then, but that’s different, as there’s a lot in each of those plays for the groundlings. Okay, mostly in “Hamlet,” but the witches make up for a lot in the Scottish play. Didst thou think I meant country matters?!) I resolutely skip Bethie’s illness in _Little Women_, and forget me even picking up a copy of _Charlotte’s Web_. I turn to _Peter Pan_ and _Alice in Wonderland_, not to mention _Winnie the Pooh_ and the funny Donald E. Westlake books.

That’s one reason I just didn’t go for the first winner of that contest I talked about on the agent’s page. It was set in a funeral home and was from the POV of a director there, and was all about a family picking out the flowers and so forth for what was apparently one of their kids. Aaaughh! Okay, sometimes the setting COULD be made funny. When I was in high school, we read _The Loved One_ by Evelyn Waugh and watched the movie, and it has its high points. However, that was droll humor and the film was not Heavy. And I was a lot younger. However, it’s just not my thing nowadays, and so I immediately turned away. After all, have I not had to see my daddy, mother-in-law, father-in-law, grandparents, grandmother-in-law, best friend’s daddy, uncles, and many other people across the Veil? Why in the #&%$&@ would I want to read about someone else’s pain (and have it resonate with our own)? Nope, I don’t want to, even if it did get funny later. I don’t watch those TV series that are based on this, either. Have at it, those of you who are Goths or masochists or whatever. It’s not for me.

The THIRD winner listed on that contest page ALSO opens with a funeral. *Bam!* The woman is detached about it and it doesn’t even start out with the actual service or preparations, but with the lady THINKING about how she is heading off to another one, just as she does every weekend. How’s that for a fun weekend? Forget it, baby! No way. Not for big mama. Bring on “Fatshionista,” “What Not to Wear*,” or “The Bad Girls Club” (that one, for those who haven’t seen it, is a reality show like that MTV thing where they put young single women in a house and have them catfight. It is a hoot! You can’t take it seriously!) I must clear my palate now after even seeing these two depressing openings.

* (“What Not to Wear” is funny, although what I would do is go to Goodwill, get a wad of clothes, and then fly up there and let ’em trash THAT stuff instead of my REAL wardrobe. Let ME go home and still have my comfy old “Happy Bunny” T-shirt and “Holy” stretch jeans for hitting Central Market and the bookstore, but they get the fun of mocking and trashing all that groovy 70’s polyester that I picked out on the sale rack at St. Vincent de Paul. But oh yes that’s right, I would never go on the show because they *live* to cut off people’s hair. Personally, I usually think the person’s hair looked better before the guy got his mitts on it, but I’m a hair freak, and they always go for the Big Change, which is understandable in context of their Makeover Day. But still, bleh.)

Don’t kill off the animals in any book you expect me to read, either. I was perma-traumatized by “Bambi,” and we do not mention “Old Yeller” in my hearing, either.

Another of the entries–actually, the second one they talk about–is written in such a remote, detached, distanced style that it just didn’t do it for me. In fact, I have had many a lively discussion (euphemism for “edgy exchange of snotty remarks and pissy comebacks”) on various mailing lists about the “distancing” that happens when a writer uses a lot of was-were constructions. Yet here they are, awarding an attagirl/attaboy to a piece that is written rather retro-formally, distanced-ly, and even a bit stiltedly, if you are gonna prod me to pick out a few adverbs. (“Adverbs on sale, $4 while they last!”) “He did not remember her as beautiful and did not find her particularly so that evening./Every man at the party would have said the same, would have sworn that their wives and mistresses and secretaries were far lovelier. . . .” Gah, I’m miles away. Edward Everett Horton is reading this as The Narrator as the camera pans across a huge ballroom (in my mind’s eye), and I don’t feel any personal involvement on the part of the viewpoint character. It’s kind of an old-fashionedly charming way to open a book, but I can’t get into it. In fact, I remember back when I was in college and used to write this way and considered it quite Hemingwayesque . . . but people told me it wouldn’t appeal to the market, and it didn’t. At least MINE didn’t. Your mileage may differ.

**[EDIT: I totally fainted when I read that figured out what this opening is like. I was thinking of Jane Austen, but I knew that was wrong because Austen draws me in. dawtheminstrel realized that the first sentence/scene is reminiscent of the opening of GWTW! (“Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful” followed by the explanation that she still has all the boys wrapped around her Southern fan.) But GWTW goes much closer-in with characters, I think. Thanks for telling us where we’d seen that kind of opening before!]**

Okay, what if it had opened with: “‘Hey, man, look at that broad. What is it about her, huh?’/Joe knew the one Ray meant. That woman in the center of the crowd, the one everybody seemed to be trying to touch. She was no beauty, wasn’t rich, wasn’t famous, but hell, he could hardly resist rushing over to grope her himself.” Or something like that? Well, I think I would have read on. That is a trope that’s not particularly original (“Madame Bovary, c’est moi”–she was the one who loved to be the center of attention and could attract it despite not being the prettiest one in the crowd), but which can be interesting brought into our world and among a group of memorable and quirky characters. We would be invested in Joe trying to figure out what it was about Mary (or whoever), and we’d expect Ray to rush headlong over there and try to get her attention, to no avail, and then Joe will figure he’ll play hard-to-get instead, and . . . well, there’s a story in that. Isn’t there?

So what have we learned about my reading tendencies? Make me happy–don’t make your book about something sad or depressing–draw me in with something amusing or ironically funny or catchy, and make it personal. Make it so that I find Joe interesting enough (if not particularly likable) to see what he’s gonna do or what’s gonna happen. Make the situation appealing (no starting out with crashes and shootings.)

That’s ME, though. I don’t know about the general public. The awards all seem to go to really sad stories, never to funny stuff. But then what do we always list on a list of most-loved films? “Some Like It Hot,” “Blues Brothers,” “Airplane!” On lists of “the best films,” granted, you get the Godfather stuff and “Terms of Endearment,” but are those the ones people list when the meme asks, “Which movie could you watch over and over again?” Nope, that’s always “A Christmas Story” or “Real Genius.” Or it’s something enigmatic like “Five Easy Pieces” or “Pulp Fiction.” (I admit that some films with bittersweet endings, such as “Roman Holiday,” and others with a large segment of unhappiness followed by redemption, such as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” are on my list, but they do NOT start out in a funeral parlor or on a battlefield soaked with blood or as somebody’s drowning!)

STOP * HALT * WAIT A MINUTE. I ain’t telling them what to like, and I ain’t sayin’ they can’t pick anything they choose. For all I know, these people have completed books that will go on to make best-seller lists. But I won’t be reading them myself, as I need a different sort of reading experience.

If you look at any list of books that have won awards, the ones that are funny usually aren’t on there. For some reason, sad books and Heavy Stuff generally make these lists quite easily. I don’t know why this should be. Funny is subjective, but still, why should funny stuff be thought of as “too fluffy” or “easier to write” and thus unworthy? Let’s see these judges sit down and write something that even 25% of their readers agree is funny. T’ain’t easy, McGee. Dave Barry works hard at this. He has a natural talent, but don’t tell me he doesn’t sweat through a few drafts to get those pieces that wacky.

The last three entries they picked were things that I might read more of . . . I think it’s surprising that they chose the one with the kid voice from the Depression or whatever that turns out to be, as it’s a digressive voice, and I always get slapped down for that. The one with the family after the plane crash or whatever that is kind of interested me, but I thought it was a tad outlandish. The last one was pretty interesting science fiction, and I might actually read through another page or two before making a decision on it. The secret of those last three is . . . they weren’t depressing! They were immediate in terms of having a character I could “hear” and identify with.

Two of the overlooked, non-chosen entries were openings that I found interesting because the situations/events are very close to the stuff in the openings of two of MY books. (One has a teen runaway on a bus thinking about her abusive stepfather and how she’s hungry, and the other has a girl trying to do a spell and failing, a girl who’s flunking out of spellcasting school.) As I expected, these two entries were not selected. I didn’t think they would be. I couldn’t sell MY versions of those stories, either. But I do think that those stories would appeal to genre readers (YA and fantasy, respectively), and those characters were not seen from a distance but close up. There’s something to be said for many of the submissions that weren’t chosen. Again, I hope those people don’t get discouraged.

Why, you might ask, do I read mysteries when I’ve just said I can’t read sad stuff, yet every mystery starts out with a murder? (It DOES seem contradictory in a sense.) The appeal of cozy/traditional mysteries for me is threefold. First, justice is served; it’s a morality play in which we bring the bad guys to answer for what they’ve done and pay their debt to society, even if we can’t undo their naughtiness. Second, the POV is usually the sleuth’s, close-in, and there’s a lot of room to see the character’s inner life and day-to-day life during the sleuthing, and that’s fun for me. Finally, a lot of them are just plain funny or wacky, and those are a real escape from heavy ol’ reality. Nobody’s ever in heavy mourning for the murder victims, who are usually portrayed as being nasty people with many potential enemies, and that might help to skew the reading experience, as well. No wonder I decided to try to write a few of ’em.

So anyway. What do YOU like to read? Do you gravitate towards the depressing stuff? (Dark fantasy isn’t necessarily depressing, if there’s redemption, IMHO. There wasn’t an example of that here for me to think about, though. I do avoid scary/creepy horror, because I like to be able to sleep at night.) Or are you more like me and seek out an escape that promises to be at least occasionally light-hearted and funny?

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Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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