Friday, July 27, 2018

The Man Behind the Curtain

Overheard at a recent convention: “I don’t read the way I used to before I was a writer.” Is this something you can relate to? What does it mean for you? Pros and cons?

This is definitely something I can relate to. And no, I don’t read the same. 

I’ve been writing one thing or another for most of my adult life. First screenplays, then some non-fiction, then stories and novels. And for all these types of writing working “behind the scenes,” so to speak, has skewed the way I watch a movie or read.

It’s kind of like seeing the little man behind the big curtain in The Wizard of Oz. On a different level, it’s like the old saw about sausage making, they may taste good but do you really want to see how they’re made? Or seeing how a magician does a trick—it just sort of loses its magic. Things lose their majesty when you see the little man behind the curtain or know how a story is put together.

So, when I’m watching a movie or reading a book I’m often thinking about all those things that go into the making of it, structure, dialogue, foreshadowing, character arc, etc. Of course, some stories do things differently, like Pulp Fiction, where things are out of sequence, but if you put it together in sequence even that pretty much follows the infamous Three Act Structure.

My mom read a lot and we would discuss books often. A lot of times she would enjoy something and I wouldn’t, because I was seeing the skeleton beneath the surface with all its flaws. She would say she just read for pleasure. Well, I read for pleasure and escape too…but while I’m doing that I often can’t help but notice the structural elements beneath the “skin”.

For example, while I think The Da Vinci code is a fun book and a fun ride, I think it’s very poorly written. And that affected how I liked it overall and whether I chose to read anymore of Dan Brown’s works. But for my mom it was just a fun ride.

Making it even harder is when I personally know the author/writer of something. Then I see them behind the characters and sometimes that makes it hard to separate the two. I know when I write there’s a little of me in some characters and some of me in all characters and everything (pretty much) is based on my life experience or at least filtered through it. So when I know the writer I see them in what they’re writing and that, too, can make it difficult to suspend disbelief, but I’m getting better at it. I’m pretty guarded, but people who know me well say they see a lot of me in the things I write, and how could it be otherwise? Though they haven’t said if it affects how they view the finished product.

So, if something really sweeps me up, whether a book or a movie, and I don’t see the nuts and bolts holding it together, then it’s magic. Raymond Chandler does that. When I read him I get totally lost in the story, the characters and his remarkable description that takes me back to another time and place. And I forget that I’m reading a book because I’m there, with those people, in those locations. Another book that totally swept me up was The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati, which I’ve probably mentioned before. The story of a young soldier waiting for something momentous to happen—waiting and waiting and waiting, like so many of us do. Also, Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn. I’m there. At the Huntington Beach pier, feeling the sting of the saltwater, hearing the rev of motorcycles and I don’t see the girders holding up the story. The same goes for The Count of Monte Cristo, my favorite revenge story and I love revenge stories—who doesn’t want to see justice done? And my favorite book of all, The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. When I read that I’m transported to that post World War I era. I’m absorbed—so absorbed I’m not thinking about all the ingredients that go into the pie. And there’re many other books that will carry me away like that. But unfortunately there’s also many books whose skeletons show through the story and when I’m paying attention to that I know I’m not really enjoying them.

I’m always hoping a book will carry me away so I forget my surroundings, forget my little troubles and get wrapped up in the story and characters. That’s what I’m hoping for when I crack the cover. And when it happens it’s sublime. What about you?


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JP Bloch said...

I generally avoid reading newer fiction, as I live in fear that I'll get influenced by it. My fun reading is show biz bios/autobios. I write in the first person, so in a way reading about people who actually lived (and who may be telling their own story)keeps me in the right frame of mind.

Susan C Shea said...

You bring up another good point in regard to the original question. As crime fiction authors, we know a lot of our cohort and, yes, I do sometimes hear the author's rather than the character's voice, or conflate what I know about the author with what I'm learning about the protagonist. We all know that's silly - how many of us find dead people, get caught up in car chases, and have to break patients/victims out of captivity? So, that's another potential disruption to having the straightforward good read your mom loves.

Cathy Ace said...

Excellent read - hearing YOUR voice here is great too :-)

Jacqueline Seewald said...


You do bring up a lot of interesting points to which I can relate. I've always loved to read and still do. My reading and writing are done at different times and don't interfere with each other. But when I'm writing, I read in different genres to avoid being influenced by other people's work.

Paul D. Marks said...

Jon, it is hard, sometimes, to not be influenced by something. I think we have to watch out for that.

Paul D. Marks said...

Susan, I’m not sure how many of us find dead people or get into car chases, but I think we still “infiltrate” our characters. So, it can be hard to separate the writer from the character sometimes And when it all comes together and we’re not looking at those things it’s sublime.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Cathy. On both counts.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Jacqueline. That sounds like a good solution, reading in other genres so as not to be influenced by other people’s work. But wouldn’t it be nice just to back to being a consumer of writing and not worrying about all that stuff :-) ?

Susan Oleksiw said...

I found myself nodding all the way through this essay. I also find it hard to like a book that's poorly or sloppily written, and generally avoid the author's other books. If the story is strong enough, the characters interesting enough, I can ignore the scaffolding and read with pleasure. But again, I don't like reading books by writers I know fairly well because I have a hard time separating the writer from the character. Great post.

Paul D. Marks said...

Hi Susan, Thanks for your comment. Sounds like we're on the same to speak. (Bad pun, I know :-) )