Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Trying to Fix Vanilla

Sharon Wildwind

[On technically correct, but boring writing.] You’re like, “There’s nothing wrong with this. I’ve got nothing to tell you to do to fix it. It’s just...there.”
~Lee Boudreaux, editorial director of Ecco, February 2009

That is one of the scariest things I ever read. Trying to fix there is like trying to fix vanilla.

I love vanilla, but it’s never going to win awards except possibly from the Amalgamated Vanilla Growers, should such an organization exist.

And yes, I’ve tried a variety of vanillas, including a gourmet whole bean. I finally settled on a 100% organic, fair-trade brand that’s not only tasty but has a social conscious. Bottom line? Even being a complex mixture up of over 250 organic components, vanilla is still vanilla.

I spent time this past weekend reading a vanilla book. The words were ho-hum. The punctuation was unobtrusive, which is how punctuation should be. Every character hit the light in each scene. Hitting the light is a theater term meaning to end up on the exact spot on the stage where the lighting technician plans to shine a spotlight. The book had what could have been an interesting setting and a couple of cute characters.

I made it to page 75 on which the protagonist declared —for reasons that remained murky — that it was up to her to solve the murder. I gave up and read the last chapter so I’d know who did it. The murderer turned out to be a character who hadn’t been introduced by page 75.

So okay, maybe this didn’t fit the exact vanilla definition because there were a couple of things that I could suggest the author fix. Like give your character some decent motivation for gosh sakes and introduce us to the murderer before page 75.

I think — I hope — that after seriously writing for ten years, I can recognize vanilla, but I’m still not sure that I recognize it the first time around. My first clue is usually what I call the “too-complex-to-live fishing expedition.” It usually starts with a question; finding the answer to the question requires more and more elaborate details until I have to ask myself if this is all worth it.

Marsha meets Todd in a bar on Saturday afternoon. Why? What compels her — absolutely compels her — to meet him there? Because she’s the only person who knows that they were both in Chicago a year ago. Todd has told everyone, including the police, that he’s never been to Chicago.

What was Marsha doing in Chicago? Helping her aunt give tours about the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. By the time I’ve spend a couple of hours thinking about the aunt and researching the fire, including learning that Chicago’s Fire Department Training Academy now stands on the site where the fire started, I realize that
a) None of has any emotion attached to it;
b) nothing about it has enough juice in it to send Marsha to that bar and;
c) who cares if Todd was in Chicago last summer?

One vanilla cone coming up.

I have a theory that vanilla comes out of not paying attention. It’s getting by with what we hope that we can get by with without the reader noticing. They’ll notice. Take my word for it.

The solution to vanilla comes out of the Anne Morrow Lindbergh quote at the end of the blog. It’s always been one of my favorites.

I have to start being inwardly attentive to Marsha and Todd. Forget the fire, forget Chicago, forget the bar. What might have happened that was so compelling that it happening in Chicago was only incidental?

What if Todd was underaged a year ago? He just turned 18 this week. What if he seduced Marsha’s aunt and got her pregnant? Charming young guy, middle-aged woman living a dull life conducting tours? It could happen. What if in the throes of post-partum depression Marsha’s aunt tried to commit suicide? What if she succeeded and Marsha is determined that Todd will somehow provide for his child? That sounds a whole lot better than vanilla to me. I think we’re on to something here.
Quote for the week:

Quiet time alone, contemplation, prayer, music, a centering line of thought or reading, of study or work. It can be physical or intellectual or artistic, any creative life proceeding from oneself. It need not be an enormous project or a great work. But it should be something of one’s own. Arranging a bowl of flowers in the morning can give a sense of quiet in a crowded day... What matters is that one be for a time inwardly attentive.
~Anne Morrow Lindbergh, author


Sheila Connolly said...

Yet isn't vanilla the nation's favorite ice cream flavor?

If you read a lot, as I do, you see a lot of the same books, with minor variations. There are some bad books in print, but not a too many. There are a lot of ho-hum, been there-seen that books that feed readers' appetite for a pleasant way to pass the time. There are a few outstanding, truly original books that make you want to shout out to everyone, "read this!" And there are a few that strive for that last category but go too far in trying to be unique and interesting and just end up weird.

The only wisdom I've taken away from all this reading is that life is too short to read books that don't interest you. There are plenty more to choose from.

Anonymous said...

Amen, Sheila.

Course there are some times I want to veg out, so I do what I call popcorn reading. Popcorn is a vegetable, right?

But likely a couple of weeks later I won't remember what I read.

Julia Buckley said...

I love vanilla, myself--but mostly in the realm of ice cream. :)

Great quote by Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

lil Gluckstern said...

I've been thinking a lot about what makes a great book for me, one that moves me to contact the author, and I've decided it's character, and plot, and sense of place. I don't mind vanilla, and it serves its purpose-where would we be without vanilla-and it is great for a fun read. But I do like some internal struggle, some twists in plot, and also a believable ending. I guess moving game pieces on a board just doesn't do it for me. I like your post, and Sheila Connolly's post.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Lil. My husband refers to the moving pieces around as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.