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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

buyer's remorse

No writing on this rainy day. My mind was on...other things.

This evening, after the dishes, and while Kimmie and Robin were out at dinner with Ev, I poured myself a scotch and sat down for my second reading session of Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain, his science-fiction opus about global warming. I've tunneled to page 52. My thoughts?

I remember now my beef with Red Mars: Robinson amasses detail that has no story purpose. Indeed, where is the story, 52 pages in?

Admittedly, the opening sentence of chapter 1 was unprepossessing:

Weekdays always begin the same.

But when I read the rest of paragraph 1 (having skipped over the 1-page italicized prologue) in the bookstore, I felt pretty good. Here it is:

The alarm goes off and you are startled out of dreams that you immediately forget. Predawn light in a dim room. Stagger into a hot shower and try to wake up all the way. Feel the scalding hot water on the back of your neck, ah, the best part of the day, already passing with the inexorable clock. Fragment of a dream, you were deep in some problem set now escaping you, just as you tried to escape it in the dream. Duck down the halls of memory--gone. Dreams don't want to be remembered.

Prosaic, yes, but I had a sense of the start to someone's day, the feeling of a fairly honest look at the internal world of a character (turns out to be Anna Quibler, NSF administrator). The rest of the chapter narrates Anna Quibler's morning routine in Washington DC as she goes to work at the National Science Foundation. Street names, subway stops, her daily experience of Starbucks. She gets to the office building where she works, learns that a storefront in its atrium is being let out to the embassy of a new island nation of Tibetan Buddhists, and hands a grant-application file related to genetic research to a colleague. There goes 10 pages.

When I described chapter 1 to Kimmie, I tried to express my dissatisfaction.

"It's just this woman going to work. There's no goal for her--no problem she's trying to solve. She should be mentally occupied with an upcoming meeting or something--worried about how to respond to a criticism from her boss. When she looks out at the streets of Washington, it should be threaded through a story problem in motion. It shouldn't just be a description of a typical day in the life."

Chapter 2, part of which I read tonight, takes us to another character going to work in California, and finding that his boss has sent out a troublesome press release, then switches to Anna Quibler's husband in DC as he goes through his day, being Mr. Mom to two young sons. The action with the infant boys is well observed, but has no story value. Get on with it! I thought as I read. Give me a plot-point here! But no, no plot-point in sight.

In short: I'm already running out of steam. I've extended this book 52 pages of credit, and as I flip ahead, it looks like another 10 pages of infant antics until the scene changes back to Anna Quibler. Will I be able to pick it up again? I don't know. But I know I shouldn't have to be struggling with the decision. I shouldn't be influenced by the fact that I've plunked down $11.99 for the book and want to get value out of it.

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  • I've not read the author, but you've raised an interesting point. When I encounter a mass of mundane detail in a novel that has nothing to do with the story (or seems to), I've asked myself the same question: when is it story and when is it crabgrass? And how come there's so much crabgrass? How did the crabgrass get past the editor? Anyway, y'know what I mean. This question comes up every time I try to write a new scene or start a chapter or begin a short story. My way of resolving it is to ask myself: What's the (plot)point and where have you buried it?

    By Blogger Debra Young, at October 20, 2005 10:42 AM  

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