The most important question for a storyteller is the one asked by anxious readers who are glued to the story…”And then what happened?” In any of its variant forms, this question means that so far the story is functioning as it should. The glue itself varies with the reader…I remember books praised by other kids, or my mother’s friends who was sure I’d like that one…some held no interest for me at all, some were mildly or moderately interesting but not compelling, and some I would neglect everything else to read.
The glue varies with reader age and reading experience, too. I remember being besotted with The Bobbsey Twins series at one point, saving up my allowance for a month or more to buy another one…and then one day realizing that they were so formulaic they bored me. Freddie and Flossie (the younger twins) were always getting in silly scrapes from which the older twins (Bert and Nan) had to rescue them; there was always a bully that Bert would have to confront to protect Nan or the younger twins (mostly Flossie, who was timid and silly), etc. I think that was four or five books in. That turned me off of most series, but not series horse books or dog books until much later.
Readers themselves exude some of the glue that binds them to certain books; I know I did. It was my existing interest in the outdoors, in horses, in dogs, in the very concept of “adventure” that provided–like the “loop” side of hook-and-loop (e.g. Velcro) closures, or one of the two components of a two part glues–a mind ready to be hooked by Misty of Chincoteague, King of the Wind, The Black Stallion, The Maltese Cat, Frog, Big Red, Lad of Sunnybank, Bob Son of Battle, and more, going from aviation stories to space stories, from spy stories to military stories. From The Saturday Evening Post, I discovered “occupation stories” for occupations I’d never heard of (engineer on a tramp steamer, captain of a tugboat, pilot of a mail plane, along with the more common police officer, soldier, etc.) As my interests expanded, so did the stories that I felt glued to. Other readers, with different interests, are hooked or glued by books that don’t interest me.
As both reader and writer, it’s important to know that the interests of the reader easily contribute more to the glue effect than their measured reading level. I knew a person who did not read much at all–was dyslexic–and read only about her main interest, horses. In that field she had read a complex and difficult book–written at a technical level–on the classical training of horses. I–who had no difficulty with reading–had found it a challenging book. Interest alone kept her at it but she had read and understood it. Other topics, less interesting, could not provide enough incentive for the struggle.
When I was doing tutoring, I told parents that it was important to hand their kids books about whatever interested that child…because reading would improve reading skills regardless of the topic, but reading boring books would teach only inattention. One ambitious mother had bought her child a lot of Newbury Award books…the ‘best’ books…but (like me with Charlotte’s Web) they didn’t interest the child. The cure? Books on swimming and swimming competition, which is what that child loved. A boy loved baseball stories; his mother wanted him to read “better” books. I recommended better books about baseball. First let a kid find out that reading can glue them, give them the pleasure of a story they want to experience, and they will find reading easier…and their skills will actually improve.
So why am I bringing this up now? As I’ve slowly recovered from being dumped on my head by a horse, I’ve had trouble writing stories because I kept losing track of “And then what?” No “what” showed up. The crucial “flow,” the sequences of event, consequence, response, consequence…didn’t connect. Very, very slowly, that came back, first in short stretches…A insults B, B gets mad….stop. Longer stretches of very simple and predictable cause-effect at a surface level…a chain of three, then four, then five. But nothing underneath that…no sense that A and B had interior reality, complexity, motivations that might produce an insult by accident, or an insult on purpose, or out of shared or unshared history. Nor did these early attempts interest me, other than I had enjoyed writing and wanted to enjoy it again. I kept trying, as I kept trying to relearn some physical skills (balance, for instance) because what else could I do? I will mention that early on trying to write gave me fierce headaches and the feeling that my brain was literally (not just figuratively) hot.
Then some characters began to come alive, step out of the wallpaper images of them, and move in story-space. Not for long, usually, but they were moving and more rounded than they had been. They “thickened” inside. The discarded paragraphs, pages, occasional ten or twelve page pieces, began to read more like real story-stuff. When I began NewBook, I hoped the entire process would come back, and much of it has. But not all of it. Aside from the very few books that died before their birth, I had never had a problem with “And then what?” I might not see far ahead in any detail, but as I wrote I could always see a little, growing around the story and widening out, full of color and complexity, enough ahead to ensure that tomorrow more of it would flow from brain to fingers.
NewBook, in contrast, has offered longer stretches of story that came out that way, but repeated full stoppages. Like a train coming to its terminus…engine shuts down, lights go off, everybody exits. I sit in the cooling locomotive, unable to imagine anything beyond, shivering eventually, partly from the cold fog now filling the station, and partly from fear that this is IT, the final and incomplete journey, and then there’s a bit of warmth around my feet and something goes clunk, clatter, hisssss, foomf! in my brain. And there we are, NewBook and I, already out of the station, picking up the pace again. Those blank periods have shortened. But they’re apparently going to happen from now on, so I’ve developed a patch, as it were, to avoid panic.
NewBook slid on by 120,000 words today. I can see far enough to know that this book will not end where I thought it would, and a recently added [redacted] means it’s behaving like a middle volume, not a completing third. I am not happy about that because I had other plans, but I’m very happy that this book has declared its intention and where it wants to end.
And then what? Revision, at least to the point of removing all the notes to myself ([needaname] [needacityname] [why does Ky do this?] [talkingtoomuch]) and bits left over from previous versions. Finding a title, as NewBook won’t do. Sending it to the primary alpha readers. Sending the revised product of that to my agent. Then we’ll see.
I wanted to finish NewBook before the election, afraid that it might be impossible afterward. But NewBook has grown strong enough that unless some idiot shoots me, I will get it done anyway. (Well, there’s always COVID, which has killed a lot of people, including some I knew, and I did have to go to the feed store today for hay and wormer for the horses, and to the city last week, but…so far so good. Yes, I mask up. Wash hands. Avoid crowds. Cuss a blue streak at our state and federal government idjits for being idjits, but it’s always possible when (as today at the feed store) no one else is wearing masks and I have to be within 6 feet to sign the credit card slip.)