Friday, July 22, 2011

Blame it on the Puppy & the Importance of Rewards

Our family added a new member at the beginning of the month, which means my writing schedule has gone to heck. Puppy gets up at 6 am, so my 4 am writing times have gone by the wayside for a bit. Puppy also needs constant vigilance because we are in housebreaking mode (Something for which Puppy seems to have no use. He's just not getting it. He will. He is not the first puppy I've had, and they've all learned to ask to go out). But it's all just as well because it gave me plenty of time to read A Dance with Dragons and Turn of Mind and not feel guilty that I wasn't working on my own novel.

Alice LaPlante's novel, Turn of Mind, came out and has been doing very well. Alice was one of my mentors during grad school and is the professor who had me send the first draft of my novel to her agent when it was completed, which I wrote about in this blog entry. It's next on my reading list, but I've heard Alice read from it a couple of times and know that it is excellent. Maureen Corrigan reviewed the book on Fresh Air and made what I think is an incredibly salient point about Alice's combining a story about a woman with Alzheimer's with a murder mystery: If this were a straight work of literary fiction, that grim storyline might be too hard to stick with; but, that's where the suspense formula rescues this tale from despair. Just as we're losing Dr. White, we readers are rewarded with the cold comfort of the truth about the murder.

I think it's a point writers of contemporary fiction too often forget. We need to give readers a satisfying and rewarding ending to our stories. This doesn't mean that our stories have to have a happy ending, but that our endings need to be deep and rich with meaning.

It's something some writer friends and I were talking about over coffee at the beginning of the summer. We got on the subject of naming books we'd read recently that were satisfying reads and realized pretty quickly that, though there were many wonderful books out there, very few contemporary ones left us with a sense of satisfaction when we were done. It reminded me of my frustration with Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. Franzen spends hundreds of pages building up to a family reunion - the last Christmas the family will spend together because the father is becoming increasing incapacitated by dementia and the siblings are grown and scattered. When we finally get to the moment when all family members are in the same house, the anticipated explosion never comes. Instead, Chip, the youngest sibling, arrives just as his older brother is departing for the airport. True to life? Sure it is. But it was ultimately unsatisfying and left me feeling cheated and unrewarded for sticking with these thoroughly annoying and deeply flawed people. Where was the larger meaning? Where was the sense of closure?

Again, I'm not talking about happy endings. What Corrigan illuminates in her review of Alice's book is that there is no happy ending possible for Alice's protagonist, but the resolution of the mystery for the reader allows for a sense of completeness and closure. There can be unhappy, unresolved conclusions for characters. That's the way life is. We don't always get resolution for our complicated story lines. But for the reader, there has to be something more. In too many contemporary novels, there just isn't.

I was reminded of the need for rewards while reading the fifth book in George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series, A Dance with Dragons. Martin's book are HUGE. Dragons is just under 1,000 pages, and the previous four books total somewhere around 3,000 pages combined. He gives readers a cast of thousands and more story lines than any one human being should be capable of keeping track of. But Martin is a genius puzzle master and adept at rewarding the diligent reader. The final resolution of this series is years away. It is likely the seventh book will not be released until after 2020 if Martin continues to write at the same pace he has up until now (and no one wants to see him compromise quality in favor of them coming out any sooner), so he has to give readers incremental rewards for continuing to read the series. Spectacular cliffhangers at the end of each book are just part of it. There are characters who disappear and reappear in surprising places, but who's reappearance is entirely reasonable if you are paying attention. He gives clues. And the reward for paying attention is the pleasure you get when you find out you've been right all along or the surprise when something unexpected happens.

I've also been thinking about rewards a lot because of Puppy. Puppy is amazingly food oriented, which makes him incredibly easy to train. He learned to sit on command in less than a day. Dog, who will be three in August (they're both Airedales), has only recently come to understand the value of food. As a puppy, she couldn't have cared less, which made it frustrating and one of the reasons she continues to be a crazy woman when people come to the house and why she needs to be walked on a pronged collar (which I detest, but it keeps her from knocking me over in her desire to greet another dog or person). Because of Dog's behavior, I enrolled both Puppy and Dog in training classes (Dog's breeder recommended the trainer having taken Dog's mother to the classes, so I knew the trainer understood Airedales). This past week we practiced walking on a leash outside the classroom space. Dog's been doing great in the classroom, but, as soon as we were outside, her usual behavior returned. Trees! Dumpsters! Other dogs! There was simply TOO MUCH STUFF for her to pay attention to the clicker or the treats. The trainer suggested, since she wasn't interested in the treats as a reward (and, I mean, I had SALMON, not salmon-flavored treats, honest to goodness dried salmon, in the treat bag), I should use the other things she was interested in as the reward. Walk a few steps and, if she was staying with me, let her go sniff, then call her back and walk a few more steps, then reward her with a good sniff. It worked like a charm.

Which made me think even more about rewards and how, as writers, we need to give rewards to our readers. The reward doesn't have to be the happily ever after of Jane Austen's novels. But it doesn't have to be the happily ever never of Jonathan Franzen either.

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