Monday, January 30, 2012

Writing for speed, for fast reading

Time. We all feel pressed for it. We want more, we have little, we try to save it, kill it, find it, or abuse it. So when we read, how does the time we have affect it?

I don't write to be read quickly. I never have. I can, I just don't enjoy it as much as letting the words flow unimpeded. I don't really like to read quickly, myself. I do it, but mostly it is for taking in data. A news article, a methodology, a new technology. But reading for pleasure? I like to enjoy it. Read a really long book if it's good, or take my time getting through it if it's short.

I write as I like to read, so that it takes some brain power to take it all in. I want to feel my mind gently massaged by the author, then have the rug pulled out from beneath me from time to time. It's not just about tension building, it's also about utilizing my mind while I'm reading. It is for me, anyway.

But I've noticed recently that author's are (and to be fair, they are being bullied into) writing so that people can read as fast as possible. Let's face it, people are lazy anymore. They want movies, not books. So the writing today has to be written more and more in a manner that is, as I've recently heard it stated, "crisp, clean and clear". That sounds great, right? But you have to ask yourself a question.

Why? Why does it have to be so clear? Sounds like a stupid question, doesn't it. But it's not, really. It's because to read fast you have to have text like that, don't you?

When I was a kid in eighth grade in Catholic school, I was taught the Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics method in my Washington State History class. Back then people like JFK and learned it and his Vice Pres. LBJ, and other big time government and business people. I got up to 10,000 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This was up from 250 words a minute at 60-70% comprehension. I was shocked when I heard that, I thought I read faster and understood and retained more. They told us that 350wpm was about average. I was below average. When it came to reading something that was deep, or say a text book, you still had to slow down, possibly even back to 3-500 words per minute.

After I started to use the method, reading was like watching a movie. But after a while, I quit doing it. I quit doing it because while reading a good book, I wanted to spend time with it. I wanted it to take a week to read it, or more. I wanted to luxuriate in it. Some books were so good, I wanted to spend a month reading them, or a year. I actually limited myself to reading a certain number of pages per day so the book would last longer; so that I could have time from day to day to ruminate, to wallow in it.

But we don't have that kind of time anymore. We need everything quickly, we want everything right now, or before. And I think that is sad. I've read some books that were so deep and interesting, I couldn't get through a page very fast at all. I would even have to re-read parts several times. Something that method taught me that was important; that if you don't understand what you are reading, re-read it until you do.

But I found it was mind-stimulating, it tickled my brain, it was fun. I loved it.

Clive back when Pinhead wasn't so well known
And so my desire has always been to write in such a way as to enjoy the ride and not just the destination. As example the difference between Steven King and Clive Barker. King tells a good story but his prose isn't so much fun to read and sometimes it's kind of annoying and long in the tooth. He's not even a bit long in the tooth either, he's simply, long. With Clive, I almost don't care where he takes me, I just enjoy his words and how he puts them together. He is after all, an artist.

There are other author's like James Branch Cabell, with his novel "Jurgen", where it literally made me giggle in places with what he did to my mind (yes and that says a lot, I, me, giggled, that is pretty unheard of). I would have to stop at times and take a breath. Now that, is a book! I should say that others I know have read that book and didn't get a thing out of it.

But that doesn't explain the small cult following that Cabell has.

I had a friend recently read a book I'm writing. She returned it saying, "Too many words!" It was not quite the review that I was looking for. But after a day or so, it started to make sense to me on several levels. I started reading it from the beginning with as clear a mind as I could muster, having written it in the first place.

I found that I had simply made it too hard, and she is very bright, intelligent. If it was hard for her, it was hard. I had made the text, but more so, I had made the overall story, too inaccessible. There was no lead up to the hard stuff. No slide to open with, just a hill. More a wall perhaps. There is writing to slow things down, and there is throwing up a wall.  I didn't want a wall, I wanted a hill, but not right at the beginning. After for any reader, you have to sell their continuing on. So at the beginning, I wanted a slide. The art of this is in skiing smoothly along that fine line between the two.

Think of it as being on an exercise machine with variable speeds. You don't want to start with the hardest settings, you want to start easy, then have a variable hard and easy program to make it the most effective. But you also don't want it hard or easy all the way. Giving yourself rest periods is the most effective and you will get in shape the fastest and in the most healthy way possible.

So I took the book and reviewed it. I figured it out in the end that if I reversed the timeline, to make the beginning easier, more accessible, I would draw the reader in, get them invested. Then, I would offer them the harder stuff, the deeper stuff. By then, they would be invested enough that they would not find it easy to put down. Then, they would want to finish it. I would have opened enough doors that they would want to learn enough to close them all in hopefully, an ending that would be cathartic and rewarding.

In doing that one thing, reversing the timeline (as I saw it), it changed the book completely. Of course, then I had to massage the prose into an appropriate form to make it flow. I had to write new material to link it all together and in that process I got a new book out of it that I found pretty amazing.

But that  also put me at 678 pages and that brought up another issue. Length. eBooks on Amazon, Createspace and elsewhere, have limitations on the size. And now again, we're into that speed issue. What are readers looking for in their Kindles, their eReaders? They want easily accessible writings they can read on the bus, pick up at a moment's notice and start off where they left off.

That means, you can't really be reading a very deep piece of work. And so we need to write more shallow content. Don't we?

Is that what we really want? Or, need? Need in the way of our minds really need? Or simply need in the way of our time constraints?

My Gramma with George Liberace at the Tacoma Elks Lodge
When I was young, my grandmother, a guiding light in my life, told me that when you read books, you should pick a book that will teach you something, change you in some way. Challenge you. She said that every other book you read, should be above your level, difficult to read; you shouldn't even understand some of it. Then you can read a book for fun for your next book.

But now  a days, we have gotten into simply reading for fun. We have become a world, or at least a nation, of fun seekers. Life is about fun, we think. That is the most important thing in the world (to us).

On a side note, I was asked the other day by a new writer how I would write a novel. I said there are three ways to do it. Write an outline, then keep filling it in until it is a novel. Clive Barker once told me that was how he was writing his books. Another is to write multiple essays and link them together in some way. Chelsea Handler has written her New York Times Best Sellers that way. The other is simply to write, then fix it as you rewrite it, reorganize it. This latter is how I write short stories. The essays are how I write longer pieces or for instance, the novel I'm working on. But in the end, you have to choose your own method, one of those or another; whatever works for you, though.

So, I'm left in a conundrum. They say, write how you write, that is how the great writers have done it. But some of them have the Van Gogh syndrome and have become famous after death. Am I into posterity, or making a living? Bettering the quality of my somewhat difficult life now, or to be venerated after I pass on? I assume it is a fine line between those two things.

My decision? Simply to continue doing what I've been doing. I write something for myself, then for the masses. Perhaps who knows, maybe one day I will find a way, become a good enough writer, for it all to come together.

Now, all that being said, either way of reading is just fine. Whatever makes you happy. I merely wanted to point out that I think we've lost taking our time in reading, enjoying the prose as well as the story. Enjoying not just the ride as well as the destination but the quality of the vehicle we're riding in.
Graphic for my first published short story
But there is one thing that bothers me. The first short story I ever got published I wrote for myself. My friends were complaining about my stories being too confusing. So I promised to write easier to read stories, after, I wrote just one more where I could let it all hang out. I wrote above the standard 9-12th grade level, as newspapers and magazines, at least, were written back then in 1991. I wrote it to purge myself, knowing I would then have to start writing only in a much more simple way. Then, I sent it out to magazines and it became my first published fiction story.

So what do you learn from that? Don't listen to your friends?

It wasn't very supportive of the theory that I needed to write more simply, more directly. Still, it is all kind of up in the air until you find your voice; perhaps more so, until you find your audience; and I am still at that junction. I've tried short stories, but you can't really make a living at just writing those. I've been writing screenplays and that is coming along well, but really it has little to do with prose. So, perhaps the novel is where I should have been all this time. I guess I will just keep doing what I am doing, and one day, it will all fall together.

Time will tell, after all.


  1. I for one, prefer a long story...much needs to happen in it of course....but....long please....and if kindles don't approve....paper does....

  2. Sweet! Thanks so much for the note. :)