So here we are, the last day of November, the last day of my post-a-day experiment. I think it's gone pretty well overall. At least, there weren't more than a couple days when I had to reach to post something.
I think it's fitting for this last post that I talk about endings. I keep referring to this being one of my big hobbyhorses, expressing surprise that I haven't posted about it. I do remember writing a whole article about it for Sofawolf some years ago, so let's see what I can remember off the cuff.
Endings are often the weakest point in a book, and they are perhaps the second most critical part (the beginning is the most critical; if you don't pull the reader in, they never get to the ending). The ending of your book or story is the final impression the reader is left with, so it has to be good for them to remember it fondly. So many books and stories I read just stop when the plot ends, or when the author runs out of ideas, and though all the story elements may have been wrapped up, the reader is left with a distinctly incomplete feeling. Not good. Almost as bad are the endings where everything is wrapped up in a neat package. Unless it's a fairy tale, those endings leave the reader feeling that the story was unrealistic.
So what is a good ending? For me, it comes back to character (gee, there's a surprise, huh?). If your character has completed his or her arc, then there's a good chance your ending will be just fine. "Completing an arc," of course, means that the character has answered the question posed by your story. It may be an abstract question, or a mystery; it may be something internal (how can I reconcile my inner desires with my obligations?). At the end, the question should be answered, and the world and the character should be in equilibrium.
In my story "Spook," in Shadows In Snow, the story ends when the character has solved his problem--which is short of a resolution to the events of the plot. But at that point, the events of the plot no longer matter, because what was driving the story was the character.
To make your ending aesthetically beautiful as well as satisfying, you'll want to incorporate the imagery and themes common to your book. One of my favorite endings is from Richard Adams's lovely "Watership Down." It begins with the simple sentence: "The primroses were over." The image of a bloom of flowers dying heralds summer, a dry and difficult time, a time of maturing. The theme of seasons plays out through the book, as the rabbits go through summer (travel), fall (finding their new warren, where food is plentiful), and winter (war). And when finally the book ends and the story is over, it ends with the following sentence: "... where the primroses were just beginning to bloom."
Make your ending harken back to the beginning, to the way you hooked the reader into your story. Gently release him or her with the knowledge that the story is over, it's wrapped up. You may come back for more, but for now, things are quiet and settled. We'll let you know if anything else happens.
That way, you leave them with a happy (or at least satisfied) feeling. And they'll remember that the next time they go to pick up one of your stories, or one of your books. They may not know they remember it, but they will.
And with that, I will close out November. I'll be back in December, of course, but I won't have Internet access for a couple days, so this timing works out well. Hope you've enjoyed NaBloMo! Thanks for reading, and I'll see you next week. :)
Friday, November 30, 2007
So here we are, the last day of November, the last day of my post-a-day experiment. I think it's gone pretty well overall. At least, there weren't more than a couple days when I had to reach to post something.
Thursday, November 29, 2007
The Dive From Clausen's Pier, by Ann Packer
9/10, a rich, beautiful story about a woman figuring out her life
"Figuring out her life." That's a lousy way to summarize the trials and tribulations of Carrie Bell, the heroine of "The Dive From Clausen's Pier." We read the first chapter, a prologue of sorts, in our "Tension, Conflict, and the Unknown" seminar earlier this year, and when I asked our teacher for recommended books that handle tension well, this was one she recommended.
Packer certainly does know how to build tension. The first chapter nearly begins with Carrie saying "That year, the year everything changed..." but doesn't tell us why until later, dropping other clues throughout until by the time her fiance Mike takes his fateful dive off the pier, we know something bad will happen. Things haven't been good between her and Mike; like the lake, their love is at a low ebb. Carrie hasn't had the strength to break things off, but she knows she will have to before they go much further.
This is a persistent trait of hers, to put off decisions until forced by a crisis. In the wake of Mike's accident (a broken neck), she is trapped into the obligation she was planning to flee, now made more onerous by Mike's disability. The first part of the book moves slowly, detailing how that one accident and her reactions to it unravel other parts of her life: her relationship with Mike's parents, her friendship with her best friend Jamie, her friendships with the other members of their group.
It's the second part of the book, after Carrie makes an initial decision about what path to take, where things pick up. Even though she's made a decision, it isn't final, and the path not taken still plucks at her even as she finds happiness in the course she chose. Tension between the two escalates until the end of the book, when she reaches a final decision, and a final peace of sorts.
For people who love good characters, this book is a rich Godiva chocolate assortment of them. I said once that characters become real from what they do, and memorable from how they do it. Packer's characters are fully, achingly real, in such a normal setting that for them to be memorable would almost be a betrayal of the world. But they are all memorable in small ways, mannerisms like those we know in our own friends. I often felt frustrated with Carrie ignoring what seemed to me to be obvious choices, but had to realize that that is who she is; in her place, I would have acted differently (and it would not have been nearly as interesting a story).
The writing itself is marvelous, too. Carrie's hobby is clothing and sewing, and Packer makes us aware of what everyone is wearing, to the point that I started to look around in my own life and notice clothes. This loving detail extends to the characters themselves. One of the lasting effects of this book, and the reason for its high score, is because after reading it, I feel less able to ignore the stories in all the people I meet and pass every day.
That sounds either terribly pretentious ("I can now see the hidden depths in everyone") or ignorant ("I didn't realize other people had depth!"), but I can't think of a better way to say it. I think we all know that everyone we meet has a story just like we do, but most of the time we don't think about it. It takes too much time and effort to think about what the woman who rushes onto the train every morning to get a double seat went through as a child, or why the guy with the laptop open in the coffee shop is just staring blankly out the window. But a book like this, so rich in characters and their stories, makes you reach out from your own story and touch other people's, if only to wonder what they might be, if only for a moment.
And by the time Carrie has finished this chapter of her own story, you understand that although this is an ending, there will be more to come. She has reached as much of an equilibrium as any of us ever do. If it is not a completely satisfying ending, it is at least a very real one, and maybe the two are mutually exclusive, after all. If you love characters, if you love drama, if you love the small town and big city and all the people in them, you will love this book.
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
In the spirit of the Christmas season, you might want to take a jaunt over to Kiva, where you can loan money to people in underdeveloped countries who are trying to get a business started. They post their stories, and you can go pick and choose where to invest your money. It's not a gift; they are expected to pay you back (not with interest--that's the gift part, I guess). I know that one friend of mine has had some success there, and I just registered and made my first loan today. So a woman selling groceries in Tajekistan now has completed her fundraising, thanks to me. That kinda makes me feel good.
As a bonus, you can get very inspired (in many ways) by how creative people get with the means they find to survive and prosper, all over the world.
With your help.
(EDITED to add: if you register, and you feel like telling them that I referred you, use this e-mail address for me: email@example.com. It's one of Earthlink's 'register with this to keep spam out of your main account' things. And thanks! I don't think I get anything except a thank-you, but I'm all about the networking, you know.)
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
The workshop met last night and reviewed the last chapter of the first part of the novel. Reactions were generally very positive, with a lot of good points brought up that I will need to work on in editing. My big question for the group was: could the story stand on its own as the first novel in a series of three? The answer was a fairly emphatic "no." They did note that the character seems to have completed a story arc of her own, but the intrigue outside her is just heating up to the point that it would be unfair to drop the reader out of it. I can see the point, though I've known "first in a series" novels that did the same. Not as drastically, I suppose. So it looks like I'll keep up with Aya for a bit longer before considering her story complete.
I am taking a break, however, in order to try to write something for New Fables #2. And all of you should try too! Poems, essays, stories, anything that uses anthropomorphic animals to get its message across is welcome. Check out the mission statement and the first issue, if you can, and send something by December 15th to firstname.lastname@example.org, or to me directly at email@example.com.
Monday, November 26, 2007
Okay, that last post was sort of a cheat. This was something I thought about in reading Ann Packer's "The Dive From Clausen's Pier" (very good so far). I'm not sure how it will relate to writing, but I have confidence that somehow it will.
One of the characters in her book lives with very few possessions. The main character (at first) envies him his uncomplicated life. This is a pretty common emotion, commamdments notwithstanding (or maybe there is a commandment because it's a common emotion). We envy the person happy with their job and say, "I want to work there!" We envy people who are content in their situations because we imagine that the situation and not the person is responsible for that contentment. And we imagine that because we want to believe that our situation, and not ourselves, is to blame for any unhappiness we feel.
What we really envy, though, is the contentment other people feel, not the specific situation they're in. If the guy with no possessions was filthy and miserable, we'd say, "man, I'm glad I have my car and my library of books and my collection of Hummel figurines."
Packer actually uses this in the book. Further along, the heroine starts to examine her possessions more critically and then to criticize the person living without. "Would it be so much trouble for him to hang one painting, something he liked?" (paraphrased). So she took something common (envy) and probed it, exploring the real foundations of it, and turned it around. Without the heroine actually saying, "I realized that I envied his contentment and not his sparse life, so I decided to become content with my life," she eases us into that realization.
See, I knew I'd be able to bring that back around to writing somehow.
She also does a good job with suspense, often peppering the book with little teasers like, "it was only a week later that I saw his bedroom. [...] But first, we walked." She lets you know what's coming, just enough that you wonder, "how do they get to that point?" It keeps the book exciting. I am actually anxious to keep reading and find out what happens. But more about that in the review, when I finish.
Sunday, November 25, 2007
There are a couple movies hoping to ride the success of "Harry Potter," "Lord of the Rings," and "Chronicles of Narnia" coming out this fall: "The Seeker" (formerly "The Dark Is Rising: The Seeker") and "The Golden Compass." I read both those series and have seen neither movie, but they offer interesting contrasts in how to bring a fantasy book to the screen.
"The Dark Is Rising" is the name of the book and the series by Susan Cooper, one of my favorites of all time. Will Stanton, born as the last of a magical race known as the Old Ones, is fated to fulfill a quest that will help the Light defeat the Dark in the upcoming battle that will determine the course of the world. "The Golden Compass," by Philip Pullman, is a more recent book, the first (and best) in the "His Dark Materials" trilogy. In it, young Lyra Belacqua must travel to the far north to unravel the mystery of Dust, a magical substance much studied and coveted by the people in the college where she grew up--including her mother and father.
In both books, a young protagonist undertakes an adventure (Will is eleven, Lyra thirteen). Neither kid has a particular talent, although Lyra is able to read the alethiometer, a kind of fortune-telling machine that gives the first volume its (U.S. edition) title, and Will has the powers common to all the Old Ones. Their quests are more a product of their situation than of any particular skill. I think this is a big part of the appeal of the books, because it allows the reader to place himself or herself into the role of hero of the quest. If I'd been born into the Old Ones ... if I'd grown up around Jordan College in Oxford... (Harry Potter and the Narnia books also have this "everykid" protagonist.)
The trailers for "The Golden Compass" do center on Lyra, but they are much more about the world and the setting and the adventure. She is portrayed as arrayed against a fearsome set of obstacles, with fantastical creatures and machines and people. It looks great.
The trailers for "The Seeker" mainly focused on Will, and showed it as an adventure about what a special kid he was. There were fantastical elements, but the trailer made it clear that the movie was all about this sassy, American kid. It drew interest, but of the wrong sort, and eventually the studio removed the "Dark is Rising" appellation from the movie title. It was already released (did you know that?) and was gone from theaters in weeks.
I don't know if there's a lesson to be drawn from that or not. I just think that if you're going to adapt a book, you should make sure that the elements of that book that really appealed to its readership are preserved in the movie. Will is a great character, and he does go through some issues in "The Dark Is Rising" (growing up and being accepted in his family), but the adventure of the book and the setting are the main draw. The movie replaced the English setting with America and decided to give Will a strong, overpowering personality.
How about this as a trailer, focusing on the adventure and the quest:
MERRIMAN: Throughout history, the Light and the Dark have fought for men's souls.
CUT SCENES: Howling noises, flaring blue candles, the Walker's twisted face.
MERRIMAN: All of these battles are but prelude to the final conflict.
CUT SCENES: The Lady fighting back the Dark, light flaring, the Rider.
MERRIMAN: For the Light to prevail, we Old Ones must have the Six Signs. That is your task. As your birth completed the Circle of the Light, so you must complete the Circle of Signs.
First view of Will
MERRIMAN: Wood. Bronze. Iron. Water. Fire. Stone.
SCENES OF EACH SIGN AS HE NAMES THEM, SOME WITH WILL FINDING THEM.
MERRIMAN: They were fashioned for the Light throughout history, and we need them, Will. Some have been lost, some hidden. They must be found and reunited.
WILL: But I'm just a kid.
MERRIMAN: You are that, and more. You will have help, Will.
SCENES OF MERRIMAN, MISS GREYTHORNE, THE LADY, JOHN SMITH, FARMER DAWSON.
MERRIMAN: You will need them. For the Dark will try to stop you, however they can.
SCENES OF THE RIDER, WILL STRUGGLING WITH THE WALKER.
MERRIMAN: But in the end, you must prevail.
WILL LOOKING UNHAPPY.
MERRIMAN (smiling): Happy Birthday, Will.
Hey, that's just off the top of my head. I'm sure Hollywood could do better.
Saturday, November 24, 2007
From my Inspiration panel, from a friend's LJ where a lot of people seem to be asking about inspiration and motivation, from my writer's workshops and all, the most common question aspiring writers seem to ask is "How do you motivate yourself to write?" There are variations on this: "How do you find the time?" or "How do you find the energy?" or "I always have shopping/chores/friends/meals/classes/movies/ninjas taking up all my time, so I can't set aside time to write. What do you suggest?"
I know that everyone wants a magic bullet. They want me to say, "Oh, I learned this ancient Navajo trick of focusing my mind on writing that allows me to be amazingly productive. I learned it from Stephen King's book "On Writing." It's at the beginning of Chapter 3. Just recite those lines whenever you want to write and your mind will be clear and the words will come." Or something.
The answer is simple, but it's not easy. You have to get into the practice of writing. It's as simple as that. Develop it as a habit. Your body and mind form habits easily. The more you do something, the more you will expect to be doing it. But at the beginning, you have to force yourself in order to acquire the habit. So I'll tell you what every other writer will tell you: make time to write.
Okay, you're nodding, but you're not listening. Make Time To Write.
You know best how you can accomplish this. If writing is important to you, you will figure out how to squeeze time out of your day. Maybe you'll set aside an hour a day, or an hour and a half a day. Maybe you'd rather do a four hour block once a week. Maybe you can work it out twice a week. However you work it, make sure that you can observe that time, come what may. Because if you skip it just once, it'll become easier to skip it next time, and before you know it, you're saying, "what's the point, I'm not getting anything done," and you look up at the calendar and it's been six months since you wrote.
Once you get into the habit of writing, you can become more loose with your schedule--you can fit your writing into your day, rather than fitting your day around your writing. But to start with, to get writing ingrained into your routine, be rigid with it.
You will hear this same advice over and over and over again. The other part of it is: if writing is important to you, you will make time to do it. The converse, the part that people don't want to hear, is that if you aren't making time to do it, then it isn't important to you. "But," they say, "it is important, it's just that I have all this other stuff/I can't think of anything to write." Look, it's okay. You make your decisions based on what's important to you, not what should be or what you want to be. If writing is important to you, you'll do it. If it's making you terribly unhappy not to be writing, look at the things you can give up to make time for writing. Would giving any of them up make you more unhappy? Is there just one you could give up?
It sounds silly, and trite, but the line from one of my favorite movies is a great one here: "A writer writes."
Friday, November 23, 2007
The whole reason we read fiction is to find a connection to something else. It may be that we want to imagine a new world, that we want to live someone else's adventures, that we want to escape our life for a short time, that we want to find out how someone might handle a certain kind of conflict, but in order to do any of those things, the story has to connect to us in some way. The characters have to be human and going through things that we can at least imagine ourselves going through, or else the story doesn't grab us.
(Yes, there's a lot about world-building and description and realistic characters. Those are all for other postings. Bear with me, here.)
We were watching "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" with Mark's parents. It's a great Thanksgiving movie. It also engages us because anyone who's traveled has probably encountered one of the litany of problems that befall Neal Page (Steve Martin): late for his flight, flight delayed, trapped next to irritating passenger, flight re-routed, hotels booked solid, robbed, train broken down, annoying bus passengers, and so on. We know how he feels: he just wants to get home. What makes the story good is that although we can sympathize, Neal's plight is taken to the next level, exaggerated for dramatic effect. But the base connection is there.
What makes the story great is the underlying message of looking past someone's flaws to find the real person inside, which is a lesson Neal not only learns about Del (John Candy), but also about himself. He's not aware of his flaws in the beginning of the movie--he thinks he's a pretty good person. By the end, he's not only seen that Del is a good guy and a friend, he's also seen his own flaws, but understands that he's a good person underneath as well. There's connection there, too, but it's on a subtler level. We've all known someone who made a bad first impression, and maybe second and third. We've all done things from time to time that weren't in tune with our better nature. This movie tells us that that's okay, as long as we learn from it and gain a little patience and understanding.
This goes back to what I've said a couple times about writing from life. Take little snippets from your own life. Chances are, at least something about that experience is universal. Expand on it, exaggerate it, but don't lose that universality. That's where people will engage with your writing. That's where you'll make your connection.
Thursday, November 22, 2007
Okay, it's boring and predictable, but hey, the turkey's in the oven and some of you are probably already eating. So Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Here are some things I'm thankful for:
* I'm thankful that I live near so many educational institutions, so that whenever I decide I want to learn something new, it's as easy as getting online and registering for a class. I've taken most of my recent classes at Stanford (and I'm thankful for the high quality of the instructors and students there), but there's San Jose State, De Anza College, Berkeley, USF, Foothill College, and a bunch of others.
* I'm thankful for the writing workshops I've been participating in for the last year or two. The people are enthusiastic and helpful, and both the fiction workshop and the screenwriting workshop have not only helped my writing, they've deepened friendships and contributed directly to creative projects.
* I'm thankful for my good friends and colleagues at Sofawolf Press. We started it eight years ago with the dream of being a high-quality small press, and we have managed to meet that goal. At the recent convention, I overheard someone say, "everything these guys put out is great." That's why we started it, and it's taken years of hard work to get our reputation to that point. None of us could have done it alone. We all shared the dedication and drive to make it work.
* I'm thankful for my muse. Wherever she is, she's never far away. I've learned that she gets to rest every now and then, and she's learned that I can take whatever she can throw at me.
* I'm thankful for everyone reading this blog. Most of you are reading it because you know me (I'm not sure there's anyone reading who doesn't), because we took a class together or worked together or wrote together. We're each other's audience, each other's community, lightposts in the darkness showing us that other people are doing the same things we are.
* I'm thankful for my good friend Rikoshi, who fits into nearly all of the above categories. His influence on and assistance with my writing has been invaluable. Plus, he's just an awesome guy.
* I'm most thankful of all for my partner, Mark. He has exhibited vast quantities of patience with the flaky writer in me, when I just have to finish something before we go out; he has uncomplainingly read whatever I've written, and told me honestly when it needed improvement; he has been at my side as we learn writing and screenwriting, filming and editing; he has provided encouragement, support, ambition, and confidence when I needed it most. It is impossible to imagine where I would be now without his help, but I'm sure it would be a place with fewer friends, fewer stories, and markedly inferior food. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Amazon's new e-book reader, Kindle, is the talk of the blogosphere this week. The Oxford University Press blog dramatically states that the fate of Kindle will determine the fate of all e-books for ALL TIME (the comments in that post are worth reading, especially the ones bringing up the generation issue, which I think is a critical one--more below). Guy Kawasaki rhapsodizes about it, as you might expect from the eternal tech-optimist. On the other side, we have Bethanne Patrick at Publisher's Weekly, who comments on the OUP blog and rhapsodizes about paper books.
Speaking only from the position of someone who grew up reading books and now works and lives in the heart of Silicon Valley, I don't think this is "the last gasp" of e-books. I don't think it's the perfect solution. Even Guy Kawasaki admits that reading novels isn't the best use of the Kindle--he likes that it can pull down blogs, news, and other ephemera from the net. But more reading is probably done electronically than on paper, at least in the U.S., and so this is the way things are headed. If the Kindle fails, someone else will come up with a better solution, and eventually, there will be one that is sufficiently usable that making the switch from paper won't be an issue.
The most frequent comparison is to the iPod, but that's not really a valid comparison for a lot of reasons. Namely:
* Type of consumable: music vs. books. I might listen to three albums in a day. I might listen to fifty songs from fifty different albums, if I made a couple mix CDs. Rarely will I read more than one book in a day, and almost never more than two. The iPod allowed me to vary my music in three-to-five minute intervals. The Kindle will replace a single book. Why would I just not carry around the one book I'm reading? Even on vacation, I usually don't bring a stack of books, and it's an expensive toy to be just a "vacation reader."
* Backwards compatibility. I was able to load my entire CD collection onto my iPod. Can I get my whole library onto a Kindle? Even if it had the room to store several hundred books, there's no exchange program available to load electronic copies. I go back and re-read from time to time, and actually, I would love to be able to just call up passages from my favorite books. I may be unusual in that sense, but I think that people who love books and love to read rarely finish a book and leave it behind forever.
* Availability of material. Here, at least, Amazon has good inroads, and I could see them building up their title library to the point where most new stuff is available for the Kindle. The problem, again, is that there's no easy conversion process, so they have to do the conversion on their end before a title can be available.
One of my friends is thrilled, because he hates lugging books around and having them all over his apartment. I admit, I hate moving books, but I love having them. I think this is what bothered some audiophiles when they had to give up their LPs for CDs, and eventually for iPods: the thing itself is a link to your memory of reading it.
I can see why people loved albums: the smell of cardboard and vinyl, holding onto the sleeve as you listened to the record play, burning the cover image into your mind, reading the liner notes. But I own no albums with which I've spent as much time as the shortest book in my library (not true of the music, but we're distinguishing packaging from content here). CDs overtook LPs in a matter of years, accomplishing what eight-tracks and cassettes could not, because they were such a markedly superior format and took so little away from the essential experience. Can we say that about the Kindle?
I know certain books by the shape and color of their spine. I love the variations in cover art between different editions, some of the amazing paintings that were done to promote books. In creating our own books, we've tried to re-create that feel of a book you can really love (at the recent convention, I saw people carrying around some well-worn copies of our books, and it made me happy).
I think that I am on the cusp, though, of a generation that loves books. My parents brought me up to love books, and I still have a strong memory of just the spines of some of the books in their library, though I never read them. Recent surveys continue to show reading on the decline (one showed that 25% of adults in the U.S. did not read a single book in 2006). The "new reading" is quick hits: blogs, web pages, ten-minute digestible doses of words. Harry Potter is remarkable because it is the exception rather than the rule; it is remarkable not so much because it is popular with children, who after all are being forced to read books in school every day, but because it is also popular with adults, who cannot be forced to read anything besides the occasional 1040 form.
And so we come to the generational issue. The tech-savvy generation doesn't read; the generation that loves to read clings to paper-tech. How does the Kindle bridge the gap? It tries to make the e-reading experience as close as possible to the paper-reading experience. But without some of the conveniences the iPod offers, that's a losing strategy. If you make it similar, you remove people's incentive to switch. Yes, it allows you to look up things on the online dictionary while you're reading; yes, it has a built-in link to Wikipedia. These are steps forward. They don't make me want to stop reading paper, and they won't be enough to get a twenty-something to sit down with Tolstoy, or even Ishiguro. There are, I think, many more steps to go, some leap of insight that someone has yet to make.
[EDITED to add: when it comes to leaps of insight, you can always look over in Seth Godin's corner.]
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
As I mentioned, I was on a panel this weekend about Keeping Your Motivation and Inspiration. For writers, that is. A bunch of ideas came out of it, so I thought I'd list those and just let you guys chime in in the comments.
* If you're not writing because you feel like the writing is being forced, don't worry about it--force it out. The important thing is to get it down.
* Stuck on one project? Write something else, even if it's a silly little thing that you don't think will be worth your time.
* Break up your immense novel project into manageable chunks. Set small deadlines and meet them.
* Do research (warning: use sparingly; you can waste years doing research and not writing).
* Read something by a writer you admire. Picture what of their work you can copy.
* Read something by a writer you despise (or just go online and find some bad fiction). Picture how you would do the story better.
* Read something bad by a writer you admire. Picture how they would have done it better.
* Read something you wrote five years ago. Resist the urge to cringe. Think about how you would do it better now.
* Go to a panel on Keeping Your Inspiration and Motivation. Ha ha. No, seriously--go to a convention or workshop or other gathering. Meeting and talking to other writers is a great way to get motivated.
* Read blogs on writing. (I just tossed that last one in myself.)
Monday, November 19, 2007
The question came up over the weekend about writing short stories versus writing novels. Lots of beginning writers try to dive into a novel first time out, and get discouraged because of the scope of the project. For some of them, it might be easier to work on short stories. You get the positive reinforcement of finishing a project quickly, and restricting the scope of your writing makes it seem more manageable.
But the drawback of short stories is that they are short. If you are interested in long character arcs, societal change, or other big ideas, you may not be able to work in anything less than novel form (though to be honest, most writers end up doing both at one time or another--one of the English language's most famous novelists, Charles Dickens, is perhaps best known for his short story/novella, "A Christmas Carol"). In that case, you should be looking at breaking up your novel into manageable pieces. Write an outline. Write a chapter. Set milestones that are nearer than "finish the novel."
Another thing I think is more important with novels than with short stories is to write a first draft without letting your inner editor get in the way. Because you have so much more to write, it's important to get it all down. With a short story, the process of editing is smaller and more contained, and you can let your editor interfere a little as you're doing your writing. With your novel, you're going to throw out whole sections anyway. Don't bother correcting your grammar or word use when drafting. Don't let yourself get hung up on research. If you know there's a thing you want to include, but you don't know the name, just write [later] in your text. I use square brackets for in-manuscript notes because I never use them for punctuation in a manuscript. Then I can just go back and search on "[" and "]" and find all the notes I meant to fill in later. The important thing, again, is to get the draft down.
Then you can worry about getting motivated for the editing. :)
Sunday, November 18, 2007
One of the opportunities afforded by this convention is the chance to talk to people and hear their stories. This is why you need to carry around your little notebook: because if you're ever stuck for a character motivation or a character type, the best place to refer is real life. That doesn't mean you have to lift a story whole cloth exactly as it was told, but you can take elements of it. There are usually a couple key elements to a good story that make you think, "wow, someone really did that." Use that with your own characters. One of my problems is that I try to make my characters too realistic, when a few elements of outlandishness are usually helpful in making someone memorable. And outlandishness is usually a characteristic of a good story, one people will go out of their way to tell you.
Also, think about that when telling stories of your own. What makes the stories from your past interesting? Do you have any stories that were *almost* a disaster? How would things have gone if they had turned into disasters? What odd behavior did you see in the people around you--like that ticket agent who was clearly having a bad day when she harassed you about the minor issue with your itinerary, or the girl at the Starbucks who took three tries to get your order right, and told you that she just wasn't processing English correctly that day?
All of these elements are real. Write them down, remember them, refer to them, use them. I often take small occurrences that stuck in my mind from life and use them as textural details in my stories--and you can take the small occurrences that form the basis of other people's stories and use them as well. The more sources you can draw from, the more textured and real your stories will feel.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
I'm at a convention right now, in chilly Chicago. One of the best things about these conventions is how inspiring they are. I always come home bursting with ideas and plans. Of course, very few of those ever get done, but there are a couple stories ("Common and Precious" among them) that got kick-started by discussions at these conventions.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have conventions in the genre they choose to write in, though I think a "general fiction" convention would be a fun idea. But that's an aspect of community that I don't think I've really touched on before. We know how helpful a workshop can be to developing your technique and polishing your prose, but be sure to take time just to kick ideas around. Talk about that weird dream you had that had the germ of a good story idea in it, or the news story that you thought might have an interesting twist. I find that in my day job or in my writing, I work better when I have someone to bounce ideas off of. (Our screenwriting workshop actually has been doing very little actual workshopping recently, but even in our socializing, we throw around interesting ideas and I think at least one has sparked a screenplay.)
The convention, by the way, is going pretty well so far! My publisher inadvertantly left behind all the copies of my book to sell, but hey, I'm getting inspired, and that's worth the trip right there. :)
Friday, November 16, 2007
Forget your Strunk & White, forget your laptop and your online thesaurus, forget your outlines and coffee and sharpened pencils and Mozart. For my money, there is nothing that helps your writing more than a good night's sleep.
You have only to look at the rambling review I wrote yesterday after three hours of sleep on a red-eye flight to have a concrete example of this. There was no way I was going to be able to focus on writing anything more substantive than a journal entry at that point. Lack of sleep kills your ability to concentrate on what you're doing. (Flight to Chicago was great, by the way, and we had a fun time walking around the city yesterday. Lots of history, lots of architecture, lots of people-watching. I think there's a whole post in the use of history as a tool for writers; maybe later this month.)
The day after a red-eye is an extreme example. The same things happen, in smaller relief, when I just don't get enough sleep. I get more annoyed when I can't come up with the right word, which happens more often because I'm not rested. I get more restless, more prone to seeking out distractions (currently I am wondering why I installed NetCribbage on my computer--foul time-wasting fiend! at least I didn't register, so I'm only allowed to play for ten minutes at a time, which is a nice break and not a full-on diversion), and less able to hold the narrative in my head.
Most people know this, and yet if you asked people what they do to prepare to sit down and write, most of them wouldn't say, "Get a good night of sleep the night before." If you're tired, sure, you have to go ahead and write anyway, but if you, like me, have a few days a week where you specifically focus on writing, try to go to bed half an hour earlier the night before those days.
Trust me, I know how busy one can get and how unimportant half an hour of sleep seems when you have to worry about a million other different things. But also trust me: you'll feel the difference when you sit down to write.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Changing Pitches, by Steve Kluger
8.5/10, a fun drama or dramatic comedy about an old pitcher figuring out the secrets of love and the knuckleball
I was introduced to Steve Kluger via his brilliant "Last Days of Summer," the story of a boy and a baseball player developing a family bond, told through letters exchanged between them and their circle of friends. This epistolary style brings an immediacy and a candor to the work, making the reader feel like he's really seeing private communications between two people. It makes us trust the words more, because there is no evident narrator to hide behind. It's also a hellishly difficult style to pull off successfully. That alone is to his credit, let alone the beautiful story he penned.
The next book I read, "Almost Like Being In Love," got none of the publicity that followed "Last Days of Summer." Of course, it had nothing to do with baseball or nostalgia; it was a gay romance, pure and simple. Not that I'm crying bias or anything; the epistolary style didn't work as well here (some entries of Travis's "journal" feel like narrative that needed to be excused somehow), and there is, strangely, not as much at stake as there is in "Last Days of Summer." Still, "Almost Like Being In Love" overcomes these issues with the sharp wit and laugh-out-loud funny banter Kluger dreams up for his characters.
That same banter and wit are on display in "Changing Pitches," a book rescued from out-of-print limbo by the Authors Guild backinprint.com project. Deservedly so. To say it's not quite as good as "Almost Like Being In Love" is not a slight. "Changing Pitches" suffers from some of the same flaws, exacerbated by the cast of characters being mostly baseball players. Think "Bull Durham," if the whole team had their same personalities, but the education and quick wit of Crash Davis (Kevin Costner). Even when Kluger's characters are uneducated, they are very aware of their lack of education and use it ironically. This makes the book less realistic, but a heck of a fun read.
The basic plot of "Changing Pitches" follows Scotty MacKay, a 36-year-old pitcher whose fastball and All-Star days are fading memories. Reluctantly, he takes the advice of his catcher and lifelong friend Buddy and begins to learn new pitches: curve, slider, knuckleball. When Buddy is injured, Scotty has to continue to learn under his replacement, Jason Cornell, who is so perfect it makes Scotty's teeth grind. Of course, there's much more to it than that.
Scotty also has a live-in girlfriend, an actress named Joanie, who would seem to be perfect for him. Yet they're still not married. It becomes evident to Scotty over the course of the Washington Senators' season that he has to figure out his pitches, his teammate, and his girlfriend issues if he's going to do okay at this "getting old" thing.
Kluger does a terrific job of portraying the baseball world for those in the know. The Senators left Washington in the sixties to become the Minnesota Twins, but here they are playing in 1982 in a league that is otherwise the one we remember. Players who figure into the story for any longer than an anecdote are made up (and, in a clever moment, one of Kluger's made-up characters makes up a baseball player of his own in order to tell a story). However, Kluger clearly knows his baseball, and uses real player names whenever possible, even attributing them some of their known personality. The punchline of one joke isn't funny unless you realize that all the people Scotty is listing off are catchers--you could glean that from the previous text of the manuscript, but I certainly wouldn't have if I hadn't known a few key names.
Although I said it's not quite as good a book, I think "Changing Pitches" handles the idea of gay self-realization in a more mature, realistic way than "Almost Like Being In Love." In the latter, the characters are engaged in a farce of sorts and seem to know it, even commenting once or twice on the unlikelihood of their plot. "Changing Pitches" feels, at least as far as the story and main characters are concerned, real (well--Joanie is almost too good to be true).
Again, though, Kluger hasn't quite mastered the epistolary style in this one. Alongside notes from one person to another are Scotty's "journals" (a thinly disguised narrative), transcripts of on-the-mound conversations (fun, and an important part of the book, but you can't shake the question in your head: who's writing them?), and posted notes by the team on the bulletin board. The overall effect works really well (and who am I to complain about journals being thinly disguised narratives?); I only dock points because I have "Last Days of Summer" to compare it to.
I do think that if the reader doesn't have at least a passing interest in the game of baseball, the early part of the story may be a bit slow and boring. I found it fun, because I like reading the "what is their life really like" stories of ballplayers, and I like reading someone who's knowledgeable about a sport. But if your main character's big problem is learning to throw a new pitch he doesn't want to in order to avoid losing a job he feels he's already lost, there isn't a lot for a reader to latch onto. It isn't 'til a third or halfway through the book that Scotty really starts fighting for himself.
That said, that isn't a major flaw because the book is a quick read--I read most of it on a flight from San Jose to L.A. It moves fast, because it's largely dialogue, and the writing is bright, snappy, and immensely enjoyable. It's just a little more enjoyable if you happen to know something about baseball. Kluger has another book due in May of next year, and you'd better believe I'll be in line to read that one, too. Anything he writes is still better than a good chunk of everything else out there.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
It struck me recently that owning a home is kind of like writing a novel. You might ask someone to give your precious possession a look over, to make some minor improvements to the pacing (or, say, to run a gas line to the backyard). Well, when they give it back, they say, "hey, did you know that your plot has a major discontinuity in it?" (or, say, that your hot water heater is leaking). And of course, as anyone knows, even a minor fix to a novel (or a house) inevitably ends in more than one trip to the reference shelf (or Home Depot), taking two or three (or ten) times the time (and money) you'd originally thought it would.
Both are complicated structures with a lot of dependent parts. The good thing about the novel is that its parts don't degrade over time if you don't touch them. However, like a house, all the parts are subject to individual taste and perception; it is nearly impossible to view either of them objectively at anything other than the most fundamental level (it has four walls and a roof/the language is technically proficient).
I wasn't sure this post was going to have a point when it started. I just thought it was an amusing analogy. But I think it does have a point, and that is that whether it's your house or your novel, you have to ultimately trust your judgment. You can bring in people who are experts in the big things, the foundation it's all built on, but when it comes to whether it's finished, that should be your decision. You're the one who has to live with it. You could tinker with it endlessly--trust me, you will never run out of things to fix. But at some point you have to say, "Enough."
Learning how to do that is one of the most difficult parts of being a writer. I would say it's the most difficult part of being a homeowner, but I have a mortgage. And, now, a new hot water heater.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
We're leaving tomorrow night for our annual convention in Chicago, and not only will I be in the dealer's room signing books, I'll also be on a couple panels. Sunday at noon, I'll be participating in "Keeping Your Motivation And Inspiration" with several other writers, including GOH Will Sanborn and fellow Bay Area scribe Kevin Frane. At one, in the same room, I'll be joined by Kevin for a Sofawolf preview reading. He'll be reading from his excellent upcoming novel, "Thousand Leaves." I don't have an upcoming novel, so I'll be reading from Kyell Gold's new book, "Waterways."
I intend to keep blogging from Chicago, even if the entries are short. There'll be plenty to write about while we're there. Weather's supposed to be chilly but nice, and I'm looking forward to seeing my family and the usual cast of convention characters.
In other news, I started the process today to get a bunch more of Sofawolf's books up on Amazon, including New Fables and "Common and Precious." A lot of people had asked when C&P would be available there, and the answer now is "in a week or two." When the listing does come up, I will make another announcement here, and if you read and liked the book, please go to Amazon and leave a review. The more feedback, the better. Maybe once it's up, I'll get a short or two from that world up on Amazon shorts. I owe them a story--although Jeff has been talking about doing another New Tibet anthology, and of course I want to write the "Graveyard Shift" novel (a sort of prequel to "Common and Precious"). But those projects are a year or more out--and believe me, that's as frustrating for me as it is for you.
Monday, November 12, 2007
It's funny. As I get older, I have noticed that I'm more willing to take time to get places. I've started walking from our house to downtown Mountain View, and am more willing to take long weekend road trips rather than flying to nearby destinations like L.A. or Vegas (though I do like to fly--I like airports, don't mind the TSA, and love the enforced downtime of air travel, which allows me to catch up on reading and writing, unlike road travel, where I'm either driving or feeling I have to keep the driver engaged). I was thinking about that the other day, and I think it's linked to a conscious effort to slow down and look around. And that relates to writing in that it's important to see not only the places you choose to be, but the places you have to go through to get there. Interesting things happen at junctions and intersections where different areas meet: the train station on the way to the downtown, where commuters mingle with residents and shoppers/diners; the town that straddles the commercial highway CA 101 and the agricultural areas all around it; the exit from the busy I-5 artery to the sleepy farms outside it.
Perhaps it's just from writing Aya's Journal and trying to imagine a Bronze Age civilization that had to walk everywhere, or ride horses long distances. It's certainly interesting to stop and think about how unimaginable a 16-mile commute would have been just a hundred years ago, and what changed in our society as a result. It can also help you look forward to the future: look at all the spaces in between the interesting destinations, ready to be filled with people if only there were an easy way to get there. If we developed safe teleportation, do you think people would still live in cities, when you could wake up in a mountain home in Idaho, walk out your front door, and be at your job in Manhattan? We're already seeing how the Internet has changed and enabled communities by breaking down geological barriers. But you have to understand those barriers before you can really appreciate what it would mean to remove them.
Walking also gives me the chance to think about stories I'm working on (though I don't always). I have said for a while that the most important part of writing takes place when you're not at your computer, when the ideas and characters can run around loose in your head and spin the story. When you know the story, the words come much more easily. I've had some of my best story breakthroughs while just walking or sitting, thinking about the story or about something else altogether (I must credit my partner for another recent story breakthrough--he was reading a WIP and made a comment about what the story was about that crystallized the ending I'd been having trouble with).
Try it this week. Walk to the store, the restaurant, around the block. Take your time.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
Summerland, by Michael Chabon
8/10, a young adult fantasy with quirky twists and turns
"Summerland" is considerably lighter than some of Chabon's other work; specifically, "The Final Solution" (a murder mystery) and "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," an epic drama about the lives of two comic book creators. In "Summerland," young Ethan Feld must learn to be good at baseball with the help of his friend, Jennifer T. Rideout, so they can stop Coyote from unmaking the world.
Baseball, it turns out, is one of the mystical rituals that unites creatures of all the worlds. Ethan is not particularly good at it at the outset of the book; his teammates and opponents alike call him "Dog Boy," because his only strategy at the plate is to squeeze his eyes shut and hope for a walk. Jennifer T. (she insists on the initial) is good at it, and tries to help Ethan along. Things get strange when they're recruited by a scout, Ringfinger Brown, to be heroes and prevent the coming of "Ragged Rock," the end of the world.
The journey will take them to fabulous worlds, with fabulous creatures, and of course, both Ethan and Jennifer T. have family issues to work out. Chabon's vivid imagination is on brilliant display here, as he works a blending of Native American and current American mythos into the worlds of Summerland, Winterland, and the Middling. Part of the fun of the story comes from discovering the new creatures and lands with the children and their growing company, and from seeing what Coyote is up to in his machinations to destroy the universe.
The characters and dialogue are real enough to make you believe in the fantasy, just as they should be. Chabon has always had a gift for characters and description, which serves him as well in this fantasy as in his more "realistic" works. The book is thoroughly enjoyable on that score.
In fact, the quirks in the story come largely from Chabon injecting reality into the fantasy: several references to sexual traits and grittier details than you usually find in young adult fare (though perhaps not modern young adult fare). In this, he seems to be patterning his story after the old Native American mythos, in which there is sex, and plenty of it. But set against the idyllic summer backdrop of baseball and childhood, it seems a little disconcerting when it happens.
In addition, Chabon seems determined not to stick to the tropes of the YA novel. There are setups that are not resolved in the usual way, and the whole ending of the book seems a bit like a copout (almost a deus ex machina). But these, really, are not strong enough quibbles for me to warn people off of this book. It's a great read, thoroughly enjoyable all the way through, and if you come to the end without feeling a desire to sit back in a small town bleacher on a lazy summer day and watch a baseball game, you're a stronger person than I.
Saturday, November 10, 2007
A co-worker discovered my books today (I don't make a big secret of them) and was delighted to find them. She'd always wanted to be a writer, she said, and was excited to find one so near that she could talk to.
The thing is, you don't have to have books published to be a writer. These days, anyway, it's not hard to have a book published. Out in the writing blogosphere, one of the top five topics (after "how do I get published?" and "how do I get an agent?" and "how do I get published, again?") is "when do you call yourself a 'writer'?"
It's a question everyone has to answer for him or herself. What, in your mind, legitimizes your writing? If you're pretty confident about your writing, then you might call yourself a writer as soon as you finish your first draft of your first story. If you look up to other writers, you might think getting an agent is your milestone, selling a story, selling a novel, selling three novels. You might be the kind of person who writes in her spare time, has five novels sold, and still considers herself a teacher who writes in her spare time. In one of my screenwriting classes, we had to preface every comment with "Hi, I'm
The reason for that, the thing about all of this, is that if you feel like a writer, you are a writer. And the more you feel like a writer, the more confident you'll be in your writing. Most of us won't be making a living at our writing, so there'll always be another answer to "What do you do?" But don't shy away from it. Be proud. Be a writer.
Written by Tim Susman at 8:41 PM
Friday, November 09, 2007
You may have heard something about a writers' strike going on in Hollywood right now. I recommend the excellent Ken Levine (writer for Cheers and M*A*S*H, among others) as a source of updates. What I wanted to talk about (since my last post, at 11:50 last night, doesn't count as one posted today) was the difference between a novelist and a screenwriter.
I have made movies myself, and written novels (as I'm sure you're all tired of being reminded--hey, I don't have an agent yet, I need to shill for myself). When you're writing a novel, there's no question that you're the most important person in the process. If you're working with a small press, you may be virtually the only person in the process (my novel got feedback from four editors and trusted associates, but I did the final edits, the proofreading, and the layout for publication). It is a much more rewarding individual achievement.
A movie is such a large enterprise in most cases (indie one-man shows aside) that it requires a team of people with complementary skills. Writing is only one of those skills, and it would be a mistake to say that it is more or less critical than any of the others. You can have a terrific script, but if the acting is bad, or the DP can't compose a shot to save his life, or the director can't get the right performance out of her actors, or the sound is muffled or the lighting bad or the editing choppy ... you get the idea. What is important about a screenwriter that is unique to the team is that the writer's script determines the direction of the project.
The harsh truth is that while every word in a novel might be yours, you'll be lucky to get a screenplay to the screen at all, and if you do, you'll have actually written maybe half the words that are actually spoken. If you want to be a screenwriter, don't get too fixated on your character's bon mot in the kitchen scene. You've defined the starting point for the idea, the themes, and the characters. Yes, the producer, director, and everyone down to the key grip will be tweaking parts of your script. There's a temptation to believe that the writer is less important than those people just because his or her input has come earlier in the process.
Writers' strikes usually put an end to that kind of belief, at least temporarily. There seems now to be a grudging acknowledgment of the importance of writers in the process, despite the occasional sound-off like Michael Eisner. At the same time, it highlights the difference between screenwriting and novel-writing. Screenwriting is dependent on a lot of other people. You're part of a big company, even if the pay isn't regular, and you have someone looking out for your interests. As a novelist, you're pretty much on your own.
So which model of writing appeals to you more?
Thursday, November 08, 2007
* Here is a nice post about editing your own work. It's for marketing content, but works just as well for fiction. Basic rules: distance yourself from your work, whether with time or mindset or both; be nitpicky; read it out loud. All great advice.
* The things that exist out there...there is or was apparently a show on Bay Area public access in which two (ostensibly) naked women lie in bed and read four pages per episode of "Lord Foul's Bane" and then try to understand it.
In conjunction with the newcritics Comedy Week, I thought I would write about the funniest event I have personally witnessed.
While I naturally gravitate to the verbal side of humor, I have a soft side for slapstick, especially when witnessed live, especially when unintentional. One friend of mine, whom I'll call Christopher, was for some reason a magnet for events like this. Christopher is tall and thin, the kind of person they invented the word "gangly" for, and he has an innate (perhaps unconscious) sense of exaggeration in his movements that he plays up to comic effect often.
A group of us happened to be having brunch over at a friend's small apartment. Christopher and I were sitting in a cramped space between the breakfast table and the wall it was pressed up against, below a window with Venetian blinds, drawn against the morning sun. Christopher, on the inside, needed to get out for some reason, and as I had already scooched my chair as far into the table as I could without bisecting myself, he decided to step over me rather than make me get out. So he lifted his long legs and managed to clear my chair back, stepping over to the other side.
The problem was that in stepping over my chair, he'd managed to tangle his foot in the low-hanging pull cord of the Venetian blinds. As he tried to step all the way down to the floor, he lost his balance and tumbled over my chair, landing with an ungainly thump on the floor as his foot jerked the pull cord down, raising the blinds with an abrupt "whizzz!" that provided the accompaniment for his fall. The combination of the blinds jerking up and him toppling over was as well choreographed as any cartoon, and had everyone at the table doubled over in hysterics (even those of us who weren't already doubled over by the cramped seating). It remains the funniest thing I've ever witnessed in person. And I've seen Ryan Adams drunk in concert.
Wednesday, November 07, 2007
I've been working for a while on the poorly-titled "Aya's Journal," a pseudo-web-journal penned by a 23rd-century anthropologist embarking on the study of the first sapient aliens man has encountered. You may, if you're so inclined, read the first few entries, which I'd put online in the initial hope of building a readership so that the subsequent stories would have an audience. I stalled on the online part, but started giving the chapters to my writing group, who helped with enthusiastic feedback that motivated me to write more (thanks, guys!).
And now the first part of Aya's story is written, at least in first draft form. I think it stands reasonably well on its own (but we shall see in a few weeks what the group thinks of it). It ties up the character arc I started--one of them--but doesn't resolve all the plot threads, nor the overall question of the story. That's kind of a departure for me. I've written short stories, I've written novels, but I hadn't before written something that ends without wrapping up the plot. There are more threads to write, but this is a good stopping point, from a story point as well as a benchmark of 60,000 words, and it sets up this book as the first of a trilogy.
Robert Silverberg once said, while expressing disdain for the "fantasy trilogy," "Yes, I too have committed a trilogy." In his case, it was more like two sequential novels with a bunch of mostly unrelated short stories in between. But still, it's billed as the "Majipoor Trilogy," and he seemed resigned to that designation. Aya's Journal originally started as a two-book concept, where the first was going to be mostly setup for the second--hence the idea to put the first online. But the first got more complicated, and eventually burgeoned into two books all by itself.
One of the problems with that was that it became increasingly hard to keep track of what the overall theme of the book was. By the time I was halfway through this part, scrambling to get one "chapter" done every month, I was just pushing the story along without really thinking about theme. But it started to gel with this next to last part, and this last part (again, I hope) wraps things up nicely... while leaving me an opening to take Aya on a newish kind of story.
I imagine when I start the second book, I'll have to figure out how to recap the first without it being too obvious, but right now I'm just kind of sitting back and enjoying the fact that it came to a satisfying conclusion. And not thinking about editing. No sirree.
I am curious whether anyone else has done anything episodic like this, and how you managed to keep the theme and arcs straight across episodes if so...
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
November, many of you may be aware, is National Novel-Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. Every year, someone asks if I'm going to participate in it. I think it's a great idea, but I've never done it and likely never will.
One of the things stopping people from writing is a lack of urgency or pressure. Another is the daunting scope of the task once you actually sit down to try to write a novel. I mean, a whole novel. That ranges from 50,000 to upwards of 200,000 words--but let's stick with 50,000, the NaNoWriMo goal. The average sentence runs eight to ten words. So we're talking between five and six thousand sentences. Mike Davidson, the CEO of Newsvine, tried to address his e-mail overload by putting a five-sentence limit on his replies to e-mail. Let's take that as an average, for lack of any better number. So a novel is like answering a thousand e-mails. And you want to do this in a month, on top of answering the thousand e-mails you already have to answer?
Well, NaNoWriMo gives you a deadline (November 30), and breaks the daunting task down into manageable stages (2,000 words a day--that's not so bad, only 40 e-mails, right?). I know a number of people who've been successful at getting the novels done. There is a National Novel Editing Month as well (in March; National Novel Finishing Month is , which is less popular because editing, while just as critical as writing, is less well-defined. NaNoEdMo asks for fifty hours of editing in a month, which is a nice goal, but fifty hours of editing doesn't have the tangible word-count goal that fifty thousand words does. (And then there's National Novel Finishing Month, which doesn't appear to have any goal other than to keep people writing on the novels they started for NaNoWriMo.)
At any rate: NaNoWriMo is a success because it helps people acquire the structure they need in order to finish a novel. I'm all for it. But I've already written a novel, and in fact just finished another one (the topic of another post). And really, I have enough projects on my plate that I don't need to start another novel. Also, it seems like you could pick a better month, one that doesn't include Thanksgiving (when I'm sure very little writing gets done).
However, in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, I'm declaring November my National Blogging Month (NaBloMo?). I am going to attempt to post to this blog every day in November (okay, so I missed November 1, but I did post on October 31 and since I thought that post was on the first, I'm counting it. It's my NaBloMo, I'm making the rules.). It's going to be challenging, since I have not only Thanksgiving but our annual convention in Chicago to attend, but I'm going to give it a whirl. Your support is appreciated! And it's not too late to get in on the fun--join NaBloMo along with me! Let's flood the internet with our babble!
Monday, November 05, 2007
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
8.5/10, a vivid, engaging portrayal of the father-son bond in a post-apocalyptic world
We never find out exactly what happened to the world of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." It involved a lot of fire, destruction, and death, and was worldwide, so we assume it was some kind of war. But we don't spend a lot of time wondering about it, in contrast to many post-apocalyptic stories that dwell morbidly and obsessively on the way the world ends. To the nameless father in "The Road," what happened matters less than surviving what is left, and protecting his son from the million dangers in the new world. He doesn't even think much about the world as it used to be, except to ponder whether his son is better suited for this new world because he doesn't remember the old.
The world itself is painted in economical imagery, rarely spreading further than the immediate world around the man and boy. This gives a very close, intimate feel to the book, even though the pair trek over tens, if not hundreds, of miles over the course of the story. Most of the story is told from the man's point of view, as he struggles to bring his son to a safe place that he doesn't even believe exists. When they reach places that appear to be safe, he worries that they will inevitably attract "bad people," and they move on. It becomes clear over the course of the book that while he loves his son, he is also using his son as a crutch not to give up. He's unable to bring his son to any safe place because he doesn't believe that he himself can ever be safe--if he were, losing the drive to survive would allow the weight of what he's suffered to crush him. His son asks him at one point: "What's the bravest thing you ever did?" He replies, "Getting up this morning," and then instantly regrets saying it.
McCarthy's language is sparse, using punctuation reluctantly (no quotation marks, and only occasionally does he deign to use an apostrophe, filling his book with "dont" and "shouldnt" and "cant"). I spent more time than I probably should've getting used to the language and thinking about how he was writing and why he was writing that way. The lack of quotation marks especially seems to have an interesting effect on the text. I wonder if, by not setting apart what the people are saying, their words blend into the background and description and makes them stand out less from the story.
I liked the book, but I'm not sure what the message is. I think it was more about the father than the father-son bond. He loved his son, but almost more as if the son was a token that kept him alive and part of this world than as a person; when the son, growing up, wants to help, his father has to be sick or dying before he lets him do anything. The son is more trusting, not wanting to hurt people while the father lashes out at anyone he perceives as a threat. They are looking for the "good people," but the son worries that they are turning into bad people themselves--skulking, stealing, killing. There are undoubtedly worse people out there, but the father does some questionable things in the name of survival.
I have heard people praise this book rhapsodically; I have heard people curse it violently. I felt the need for neither. It was an enjoyable story, with enough meat in the story to provide fodder for discussion for a long time. McCarthy builds up a vivid world with very real characters and engages our emotions all the way through. His quirky use of language aside, this was a quick, good read, one I wouldn't hesitate to recommend. You know, to anyone interested in a shatteringly depressing post-apocalyptic nightmare.
Sunday, November 04, 2007
Our travels took us to Minneapolis to visit friends, coincidentally at around the time Kelly McCullough, of the excellent Wyrdsmiths blog, was doing a reading and signing at Dreamhaven Books and Comics. We made a trip down there and arrived just in time to hear Kelly read from his latest book (which is due out this summer), the third in the "Webmage" series.
We enjoyed the reading a lot. Kelly's writing is snappy and fun, with a good sense of humor, and his world is a complex and entertaining one--sort of like Tim Powers meets Douglas Adams, if you can imagine that. I picked up both his books and will be reviewing them in this space as soon as I work through some of the rest of my stack.
I wanted to talk more about the community of writers and how important it is. Several of the people at the reading were clearly friends of Kelly and familiar with his work, and though I didn't confirm this, I suspect many of them were other Wyrdsmiths writers. The same was true at my book signing, and I think from what I've been reading of signings that it's not uncommon across the board, unless your first initials happen to be "J.K." and your last name "Rowling." And I think that speaks to the importance of having other writers in your circle, not just so that they can critique your work, but so that you have someone to commiserate with and celebrate with, someone to go to your book signings and someone whose book signings you can attend. Writing is a solitary act by its nature, but appreciating writing can be very communal, and in fact, that's how many books gain popularity. The "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood" phenomenon took off because women in local book clubs were falling in love with the book and discussing it, not because it was promoted by the publisher--but that's another story.
The moral is, if you're a writer, go find other writers. This is one of those cases where I think online-only communities don't substitute for real life. Our New Fables workshop meets bi-weekly, and we only take new members who are local and enthusiastic enough to show up for most of the meetings. That community has been a big help. The best part of taking classes at Stanford was learning how workshops work so Kevin and I could put that workshop together, and meeting other people who shared an interest in writing to keep in touch with.
Who helps you write? How did you find your communities? Or do you not have one and need one?
Saturday, November 03, 2007
Music Through The Floor, by Eric Puchner
8/10, a character-driven collection of short stories
When I started taking classes at Stanford's Continuing Studies, I got to take classes from a number of current and former Stegner Fellows. The Stegner Fellowship is Stanford's version of an MFA in Creative Writing, a two-year fellowship during which you receive a stipend to work on your own work and workshop the work of your fellow fellows. Only five people each year receive a fellowship out of 5,000 or so applicants, so it's pretty prestigious.
Eric Puchner and his wife, Katharine Noel, both received Stegner Fellowships and have both published books. I reviewed Katharine's novel, Halfway House, and after attending a reading in which her husband participated, I picked up his book of stories as well.
I have noted in the past that I have a bias toward character-based work. This collection might have been made for someone with that bias. Puchner's characters are quirky, fascinating, funny, and real. The language is good, and the plots work, for the most part. A few of the stories I found to have odd endings, which is another pet peeve of mine that I keep thinking I've posted about here but it turns out I haven't. What I mean in this case is that the stories ended, but I wasn't quite sure what was resolved.
The best in the collection, for my money, is "Essay #3: Leda and the Swan," a plaintive attempt by a high school student to explain the strange (and yet completely normal) turn her life has taken in the past year. Puchner's talent really shines in this one, with clever turns of language to show someone trying hard to use words she hasn't quite mastered, a story that reveals itself through the narrator's words without her quite understanding it, and a complex cast of characters all revealed expertly through the main character's voice. All of the other stories have memorable characters, and most of them have a good, distinctive voice.
Puchner has a novel coming out in January, which is the text he read from. I'll certainly go out and pick that one up. If you like quirky characters and subtle humor, finding strangeness in everyday life, or if you just enjoy reading good writing, this is a collection for you.
Friday, November 02, 2007
Sarah Canary, by Karen Joy Fowler
8/10, wonderfully written frontier tale of a mysterious woman who is different things to different people
Karen Joy Fowler is gaining some fame this year thanks to the cinematization of "The Jane Austen Book Club," which I have not read. I did read "Sister Noon," and was impressed enough to pick up "Sarah Canary" when I found it in a used bookstore.
The book starts with the titular character (though she isn't called that yet) wandering into a Chinese laborer's camp in Washington at the end of the 19th century. She doesn't talk, only makes animal sounds and laughs, and doesn't seem to have the ability or interest to communicate. Chin, a young man in the camp, is given the responsibility of escorting the woman to safety.
Sarah Canary picks up her name in a lunatic asylum, where we meet more of a colorful cast of characters, including B.J., a young inmate whose tentative attempts to theorize penis envy to the scoffing doctor are very amusing. He, too, becomes fascinated with Sarah Canary and escapes in order to follow her and Chin.
Through frontier Washington, Sarah Canary wanders, collecting more fascinated people in her wake. To everyone, she is something different: to Chin, she is a spirit alternately meant to teach him or punish him; to B.J., she is just a woman with troubles like his own; to the freakshow owner, she is an attraction; to the feminist, she is a cause.
Fowler writes with a transparent love of her characters and the world they inhabit, and an eye for amusingly ridiculous situations. Although the story wanders between many of the different characters, it's a very satisfying read, and with a lovely use of language. The world of the frontier is an interesting one, in which the struggle between society's laws and individual expression is much more open than it is in our modern urban areas. Sarah Canary, wandering through this world as a mute embodiment of individuality who doesn't seem to reject society's laws so much as live completely apart from them, serves as a catalyst for people who are similarly trying to find that balance. I'm reminded of the old fairy tale in which some object was enchanted so that everyone who tried to steal it was stuck to it, and anyone who tried to help became stuck to them, resulting in a long chain of people being dragged around by this object's owner. So is Sarah Canary a magical object attracting a chain of people behind her, and their stories make this book a delightful, engaging read.