Over the course of my vacation I read two books, besides working on my own. I love to read the works of other authors, immersing myself in the way they handle plot twists and show the mood of a tale. Oddly enough, both tales are told from the first person point of view, something I usually don’t gravitate to.
First up, I read Tad Williams’s irreverent thriller, The Dirty Streets of Heaven, Book I of Bobby Dollar. That was fun, a real trip down the sometimes mean streets of the afterlife.
Tad Williams’s style of writing in the Bobby Dollar series is a non-traditional take on the traditional in-your-face, hard-boiled detective novel. Bobby is an angel, but even angels have their problems.
With the first sentence on page one, Williams establishes the mood of the piece and the society Bobby Dollar lives in, and he remains true to that concept throughout the entire tale.
“I was just stepping out of the elevator on the 43rd floor of the Five Page Mill building when the alarms began going off–those nightmarish, clear the building kind like the screams of tortured robots–and I realized I’d pretty much lost any chance at the subtle approach.”
Tad Williams’s work encompasses an incredibly wide range of styles, from fairy tales, to epic fantasy, to this hard-boiled detective story with his own paranormal twist. At no point in the manuscript does the author forget where he is, or whose point of view the tale is told from. He never loses control of the many threads interwoven into this plot. The atmosphere is dark and seedy, and the demons Bobby Dollar deals with are some of the nicest people he knows. Every sentence, every paragraph remains true to the mood established in that first sentence.
The second book I read this last week was a completely different kind of tale, but it too was told in the first person. Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
Neil Gaiman’s prose is astonishingly beautiful. It is told in the style of an old-fashioned fairy-tale, and the protagonist is never named. Ordinarily, the fact the protagonist is never named would have irritated the heck out of me, but the tale captivated me at the first line and held me enthralled to the final page. This is a stunning, harsh tale, frightening and yet comforting in a strange way.
“It was only a duck pond, out back of the farm. It wasn’t very big.
Lettie Hempsteck said it was an ocean, but I knew that was silly. She said they’d come here across the ocean from the old country.”
I didn’t buy this book for the blurb or the cover– the blurb is nonexistent, and the cover is merely okay–I bought it for the title, and for Neil Gaiman. I knew without a doubt his prose would more than make up for the cover and I was not wrong. The protagonist is a man of late middle age on his way to the funeral for a loved one. He stops at his childhood home, and also visits the neighbor. While there he is transported in his memories back to a terrible time in his life. There is magic, and there is mystery here, and he tells this tale from the point of view of a seven-year-old child viewing adult situations he has only a dim grasp of. The mood is dark, and yet magic.
Sometimes we are writing in a desert, a place where the words won’t come. We feel that our work is dry and uninspiring.
But I guarantee the most famous and well-loved authors have suffered the same dry-spells, suffered the same feelings of miserable failure we aspiring indies feel.
When I read their beautiful, harsh and diverse work I am inspired to believe I can do this crazy thing. I remind myself that, for me, it’s not about numbers and sales, because it can’t be. My sales are sort of dismal at best, as I don’t really push them through the traditional indie route of obsessively nagging people to death on Facebook and other social media. For me it has to be about improving the quality of my work and the telling of the tales I have locked in my brain, and getting them out there in book form to the best of my ability.
Reading and understanding how the great authors write is one of the keys to unlocking our own potential. We indies have to use every tool we have available in this rough business, and we have to know what we want to achieve. I want to achieve great sales, of course. But more than that I want to write compelling tales that move my readers. I may never achieve the first, but I think I can do the second.