December 18, 2009

Rate of Revelation

This morning, I drove an hour and a half each way for a dentist’s appointment.

I used to hate driving long distances ~ I was bored out of my head and/or feeling trapped inside my skull with someone I didn’t like very much, aka myself. Now I enjoy it. Having three-year-old twins doesn’t leave me as much alone time, and so a drive is so peaceful. Plus I get time to step back and think about writing in a more global long-term way.

Stephen King has a great story about this (“The Road Virus Heads North,” from Everything’s Eventual), which ends with a weird dude from a bad painting attacking this guy as he returns home. Wonderfully layered, very creepy and suspenseful. But it starts with an author looking forward to thinking about his novel during the trip. Then evil author-creation kills author, hehe.

Sometimes on these trips I have epiphanies. (I just love epiphanies, don’t you? I wish I could have one every day. Feels like I’m making mental progress.) No epiphanies today, however. Mostly I just thought about the pacing in children’s books ~ I was thinking specifically about The Graveyard Book, which I’m reading ~ and the pacing in literary short stories. Or, as Jim Shepard talks about, the rate of revelation.

The underlying assumption of this, something children’s books take as axiomatic, is that things have to be interesting. So, what’s interesting? For children’s books, it’s often mortal danger, and new creatures popping up. Developments in plot. But also developments in the child and his or her approach to the world.

For literary fiction, what’s the equivalent? Well, I’m still working this out. Weird is sometimes good, but not so weird that a reader can’t relate. The specific detail is good, and the cliché or generalization is bad. More interiority is good, but not bland not-moving-ahead interiority. Even though we’re inside, we need to have a sense the story’s moving forward. The inner life can’t be irrelevant to the action. By rate of revelation, Jim means that the reader is learning new stuff, relevant stuff.

I guess that’s the crux of it. What’s relevant? Can the reader see what the writer is trying to do? Is it obvious enough but not too obvious. This is definitely where revision comes in: every aspect of the story has to work toward the effect. No extraneous stuff, down to each period and comma.

Loosely put, how do you make a literary short story read like a children’s book? Alice Munro can do it. George Saunders can do it. Tobias Wolff can do it. Hmmmmm.

Note to self: do more research on rate of revelation.

What I’m Reading Today: More Graveyard Book.

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