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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

My View of the Quick and the Dumb

   I have been working on a project for several years now.  It started with a book I picked up: Charles King's The Black Sea: A History.  This was a fascinating little overview of that region's history since the early ages of man up until our modern age.  One of the more interesting nuggets I mined from this book was a discussion of the use of lazarettos in port cities.  I admit I'd never heard of them.  They were kind of bizarre.
   A lazaretto was a quarantine station in which newly arrived travelers (by sea) were placed, to wait out a specified time in order to prove they exhibited no symptoms of infectious diseases.  What caught my attention was the fact that if you were found to be sick, you were often refused entry into the city, and there were precious few ships that were willing to take you anywhere else in the Mediterranean.  Simply, you could be stuck in the lazaretto for the rest of your life.  It was a daunting prospect, to say the least.
   Intrigued, I began to think of what would happen if a space-faring society set up a lazaretto on a central planet and forced all travel between planets to pass through this system.  The real catch was that I imagined that if you were found to be sick, you were left in the lazaretto, with no chance of ever leaving.  It would be a dark world, indeed.
   So I set about writing this story.  I didn't just write a story, I wrote a novel.  Then I wrote a second one.  I'm writing the third one now.  I've pestered my family with it, as well as a few others.  Those who have read it have been more than kind with their praise.
   There are just a few problems with it.  The kind that get me in trouble with today's publishers.
   The novel is longer than your typical thriller.  Most books today run from 80,000 words to around 120,000 words.  That is something in the neighborhood of 250 to 400 pages for a paperback.  The common advice to writers now is trim, trim, trim.  The idea being that a book must read as fast as possible.  You skim from one page to the next, and you finish in time to buy the next, quick-paced volume in the series.  Don't waste time with any text that doesn't rush you to the end.  People just don't have the attention span for anything else.
   And speaking of people, let's move on to the next bit of advice that is handed down from on high: dumb it down.  Seriously, editors actually use that phrase.  They advise that we look at the lowest common mind set out there and write to their level.  No one wants to read anything that forces a man to use a sizable portion of his brain.  Smaller ideas and smaller words sell.  We're living in an age of idiots.  Pander to them.
   These guidelines can be defended, depending on the type of book written and the sales goals of the publisher.  I have decided, however, that for my story about the lazaretto, it just won't do.  What I really want is to believe that there are readers out there who still care about a good story, and don't just want a fast food novel to consume on their way to the next little snack.
   I am encouraged, from time to time, to see that there are exceptions to this dismal publishing outlook.  Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a wonderfully long and evenly paced adventure that is far longer than nearly every book available at the chain bookstores.  Dan Simmons has published several long books that don't fit next to the other genre novels on the shelf.  And of course, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books certainly would have to be trimmed down and sped up by today's standards.
   So I will not give in.  I understand not everyone has time to read lengthy novels, though they seem to have time to watch hours and hours of television series and sporting events.  I also realize not everyone has the education to handle every level of writing.  I have trouble reading Henry James.  I'm serious.  I don't seem to understand half of what that man is saying.  But I do think that most people could take the time to read something that is written on at least a high school level.  Remember, most newspapers are written on a sixth-grade level.  We get used to that.  We must work to keep our minds exercised with something heavier.
   If you've taken the time to read this post, you might just be the type of person who has the attention span and desire to read something more than the usual fare offered in the marketplace.  If so, you might want to check out my Lazaretto books.  The first one will soon be available.  I'll update everyone when it does.  Now, go on and read something that requires your full attention and the use of your wonderfully complex mind.  You'll be happy you did.

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