Sunday, September 20, 2009

Rhythm and Rules by Sandra Ruttan

If it's true that a person is the sum of their experiences, it would be hard to describe Sandra Ruttan. She had her first newspaper column at the age of 13, and enjoyed making up stories about her classmates in her elementary school years. During her teen years she worked part-time jobs during the school year, and worked full-time in the summers, doing everything from working cash at Stedmans to being a dishwasher and take-out cashier at Dixie Lee. She worked at Gravenhurst Bakery, and she worked with mentally and physically handicapped adults.

After high school she spent a year living overseas, witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, and covered most of Western Europe. After returning home she studied journalism before moving to Vancouver Island, working as a receptionist. She eventually ended up in Calgary, trained for a career in education, married, moved with her husband's transfers, worked in special education, worked with kids with behavioral issues, traveled to Asia and Africa, got a publishing deal, split up from her husband of eight years, met someone else, became a step-mother, continued writing and publishing books and currently works in a school in Baltimore while researching a new book set in Maryland.

Her fourth book, LULLABY FOR THE NAMELESS, will be in stores in December and has been described as "a police procedural of the first order".


Rhythm and Rules
by Sandra Ruttan

Hey, get rhythm when you get the blues
Hey, get rhythm when you get the blues
Yes a jumpy rhythm makes you feel so fine
It'll shake all the trouble from your worried mind
Get rhythm when you get the blues…

It’s probably safe to say we’ve all been there. A cloud of black fog rolls off your brain but it’s still dark out. You lie in bed for a moment, wondering what time it is, before you sneak a glance at the clock. 5:05 am. No wonder your body is giving you a metaphysical kick in the backside to get up. No wonder your bladder is in complete agreement.

It isn’t until you’re half way to the bathroom that you realize that it’s Saturday. The day you can sleep in. The day you can make up for all the late nights and early mornings throughout the week. The day you’re supposed to be able to relax.

You head back to bed to see if you can’t eek out another hour or two, which is when the cat finds something on the floor that’s suddenly fascinating. All those people who lobby against carpet and for hardwood for health reasons failed to mention the noise factor.

That’s what I was thinking about last Saturday morning as I listened to our one-year-old cat, Mo, knock something around on the floor. The seven-year-old cat, Cookie, was sitting on the bookshelf headboard right above me, growling.

The dog was completely oblivious, stretched out on his back with his head on my leg and his hind paws pushing into Brian. Oblivious until a door across the hallway opened. One of the kids was up. Suddenly, Indy was on his feet, jumping to the floor, racing down the hallway to see who it was.

There was no way I was going to get back to sleep.

I think part of the reason music is such a popular form of expression is because people get into rhythms. We can call them routines, structures, or whatever; we become accustomed to doing certain things at certain times and our bodies tend to protest if we try to push them too far off schedule. Think of how many things we tend to do instinctively – like turning off the stove or turning the coffee pot on - without consciously thinking of them, just because it’s become part of our habit. Our rhythm.

Perhaps I’m more sensitive to the importance of scheduling than most. Five days a week I work in a school in Baltimore. I have spent years working with kids who have learning challenges, and kids who have behavioral issues, and one thing that’s been very important to most of the kids I’ve worked with is a sense of routine. Minimal disruptions can throw them off balance for the rest of the day, and have a profound impact on their mood, ability to focus and behavior. These kids rely on the rhythm of their day to help them stay on track.

I can’t blame Mo for thinking that 5 am is an acceptable time to play. Five days a week I’m up at 5 am, and last I checked he didn’t know how to read a calendar. I can’t blame the kids for getting up early either. After all, five days a week they have to be ready to be out the door at 6:15.

Last night’s episode of The Sopranos sprung to mind: Christopher’s going to help his girlfriend become a producer but the band’s material fails to impress the seasoned music industry expert, Hesh, who points out the songs are all chorus with no verses. The singer starts whining about how songs have followed that same old boring structure for decades.

No record deal for them.

As I was thinking about all of this, my mind kept going back to books. I think it’s the importance of rhythm that can make us frustrated when authors don’t play fair. It would be like listening to the original Johnny Cash song and instead of hitting the chorus the second time a flute cuts in, followed by a guitar solo that seems better suited to a Jimi Hendrix cut than the music of Mr. Cash, and after that someone starts screaming out the lyrics in an undecipherable voice that belongs on stage at a mosh pit.

Following enough conventions to engage readers and not writing a book that’s completely predictable are the goal posts. I’ve been reading a lot lately, and reading books not of my own choosing. Yes, already we’re weeding through books for the Spinetingler Awards next year, and so many books seem to be flipping the bird to readers by breaking the rules and rubbing the reader’s nose in their unwillingness to play fair, while most of the remaining authors seem to have worked from a checklist, so much so that I can predict what will happen page to page, never mind the outcome of the story.

The challenge for us authors is to find original, fresh ways to tell our stories, without disrupting the rhythm for the readers. It’s a delicate balancing act, but part of entertaining readers is satisfying them. I know I can’t please everyone with everything I write, but part of being an author is communicating with readers, and that won’t happen if I show the reader I don’t respect their intelligence, or their expectations.


caryn said...

Hi Sandra,
I was surprised to see this is your fourth book coming out! I missed Suspious Circumstances somehow!
We too have the 5AM weekend problem as the cats and dogs do not seem to realize it is Saturday!
But really, even if they didn't get us up, we'd be up before too long because, as you said, we live by our routines and we get up early, feed the cats, walk the dogs, eat breakfast, feed the dogs etc etc. I could almost do the first your of every day in my sleep-but then I'd miss seeing the sunrise and hearing the bird calls change over from the owls to the early moring songbirds.
Caryn in St.Louis

Vicki Lane said...

Nice post, Sandra! I love the analogy of rhythm and melody in re writing!

And what a balancing act it is -- trying to meet expectations and keep that steady beat going and still provide something new and fresh by way of melody. And it gets harder, for me, anyway, with each book.

L.J. Sellers said...

It was great getting to know a little about Sandra. We've followed similar paths, and I get up early on weekends even without kids or pets. My body has a rhythm too. I love police procedurals, and I just moved Sandra to the top of my must-read list.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Caryn, Suspicious Circumstances was from a very small press, so it's not always the easiest to get, but it is out there. Your cats are adorable! I wish ours got along. We adopted them from the humane society, but the older cat (Cookie) doesn't like any other animals. Mo gets along better with the dog!

Vicki, I find it gets harder with each book as well. Maybe if we have that in common it means we're both doing something right!

LJ, does this mean you've wandered the world as well, and had multiple careers? One thing I can certainly say is that life has taken me places I never dreamed of as a child - and some I did dream of as a child too.

Brenda Kay Ledford said...

It was great getting to know about Sandra and her fourth book coming out. My dog has an internal clock and seems to know when it's time to go to bed and get up. When the mail runs, he always barks and lets us know. Animals can be really smart. Hope you have a great week.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Brenda, I think sometimes we can set our clocks by our dogs!

Have a great week, and thanks for the opportunity to visit, Kaye.

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Thanks very much, Sandra and I hope you'll come back!!
Hugs, sweetie!