Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Resolution.

Just came up with the Official 2012 New Year's Resolution. Other than using "just" less:

Read 100 pages a day, minimum, every day. It's my usual minimum, but I let myself off on days when I'm traveling, or when there's football. No more! I shall read at least 100 pages per day, every day, period, no excuses.


Monday, December 12, 2011

The Final Verdict.

On P.D. James' The Children of Men. Two hours from the end I wanted to turn off the audiobook. One hour out I was desperate to do so. Ten minutes from the end I would gladly have shut it off, but I didn't for one reason: I wanted the bad guys to show up and shoot the main characters dead in the clichéd hail of bullets they so richly deserved. I would have cheered.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Applying to College.

I won't be doing that again, I hope. But there's an article in the New York Times this morning about college application essays. Apparently applicants are still writing the kind of overblown, overlong, over-boring essays that I sent off to my select schools. According to the article, many schools have begun offering Twitter-style prompts that are to be answered in twenty-five words or less. One of them caught my eye:

"If you could do something with no risk of failure, what would you do?"

My thoughts immediately turned to my next book, which I am about to start outlining. I thought "I would write faster." But that is wrong. The real answer?

"I would no longer value that goal."

True, isn't it. In your heart of hearts, why write— why do anything— if you will automatically succeed? Why be Nero prancing on a stage in front of your terrified and cowed subjects? And it's not that publishing well is hard. It's that writing well is hard. This new book will be very very hard. Heck, just keeping it under 100,000 words is going to be hard. Making it good in my own eyes will probably be the toughest thing I've ever done as a writer, if I manage it.

I can't wait to start.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Well, That's Unfortunate.

When an author accidentally uses a line from a famous dirty joke in the middle of a rather thoughtful passage, one pauses. One snorts. One is thrown. The book? Children of Men again. The line? Something along the lines of "the sky was a deep azure blue." So don't use that. I should be on to Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien by the middle of my Saturday Morning Festival of Housecleaning.

Now, I cannot criticize P.D. James for not knowing one of the better dirty jokes. Or even any dirty jokes. This was an unfortunate coincidence. But it can be fun to catch a brilliant writer in a brain-fade of their own devising. I am reading the fabulous, wonderfully written, reading-slowly-because-it-is-so-good, go buy it immediately The World as I Found It by Bruce Duffy. A first novel that will blow your socks off for the voice alone, even if you don't find the subject matter immediately arresting. I shall be buying everything of his and studying his methods as best my tiny brain allows.

I have found the single flaw in this masterpiece, the dropped knot in this Persian carpet. Brace yourselves:

Increasingly now, the scientist had to taste, nay, to squeeze the bosomy grapes of mystery.

I shall assume this bit was written on a dark and stormy night.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Alpha and Omega.

The most important parts of your book are the beginning and the ending. And the middle, of course. The middle is important. But I'm here to talk about beginnings and endings, as I am reading a book that mangled the Alpha and have just finished reading a book that dropped the Omega in the outfield.

The book that could not begin is P.D. James' Children of Men. I'm reading it not only for pleasure (sort of), but also because my next novel deals with a very serious threat to all of humanity and I wanted to see how she handled it. For those of you not familiar with the story, it concerns the sudden end of human fertility. It is set in an age where the youngest "child" is twenty-five and there is no prospect of new pregnancy or childbirth anywhere on Earth. Quite a premise. Major story potential! And yet, on audiobook, the first two hours are backstory. Until our pensive main character is visited by a Mysterious Woman there is no active story. And now I am more than two hours into it and I am still waiting for something significant and active to happen. Heck, I'm halfway through!

Don't do that. Hook the reader, make things happen, and then tell us how we got here. I am going to have to see the movie that was made of this book, because I think Hollywood may have made the ultimate criticism and changed the main character. I would have.

The book that could not end was Haruki Murakami's 1Q84. I'm actually somewhat cranky about this one. I really enjoy giant books on audio. I like that a book spans many of my daily walks, much housecleaning, and a couple of long drives to town and back. But I detect a minor, distressing trend in these tomes. It started with Roberto Bolano's 2666 (maybe it's a numerical title problem), which was thirty-six hours long. Murakami's effort is forty-seven hours. With both books, the end came and the impression was "wait, what?"

What happened to all those other characters? What happened to that threatening situation? What's the explanation for what was going on? What about the little people who crawled out of the mouth of the dead, blind goat?!?!? What were they? I am not making this up.

1Q84 had a very interesting mystery in the works. I was engaged, if slightly put off by the oddness of some elements (goat) and the sex scenes (the criticism this book has received along those lines is richly, richly deserved. But when you are twenty hours into a book and not to the halfway point, you feel committed. Besides, I wanted to know what happened to one character who was particularly interesting.

*SPOILERS* But don't read it anyway. Even the writing is not an instructive thing of beauty.

Well, she packed her stuff and left about five or six hours before the end and was never heard from again. And the main characters? This should carry a black box warning for writers, because it is about the worst thing a writer can do:

The main characters retraced the steps that brought one of them into this mysterious, dangerous alternate reality, and walked up out of it and back into the real world! Worse, this happened hours after the one character pondered whether it would work. Then they just wandered off to live happily ever after.

After forty-seven hours! I wanted to rend limbs!

I spoke to my sister, who studied Japanese at Harvard with one of the book's translators and lived in Japan for several years. She even worked for a Japanese company mentioned in the book. Her verdict? "Oh, yeah, that's Murakami. He does that."


Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Don't Do This.

Let's say you are a probable future Nobel Laureate in Literature and you write an epic novel that runs nearly forty-seven hours on audiobook. Now let's imagine that five hours and twenty minutes into said epic you spend five minutes recapping the events that took place at the beginning of the book. Here is what your reader will shout:


I do, after all, have some functional memory left. Repetition drives me straight up the wall. And makes me worry enormously that there will be more and more repetition as this very, very long novel rolls along.

Wish me luck.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The First Law of Writing on the Internet.

I developed this Law today while reading a medical blog. It's one of those meta-blogs where many different writers (mostly doctors and nurses) can submit pieces. I read a piece by a doctor. Rather, I tried to read it. Starting with a diction error in the first sentence, the piece rapidly degenerated as the author tried to be "writerly." At least, that's what I think was going on. My other theory was prose illiteracy, but I can't imagine anyone could get through all the years of schooling it takes to become a doctor and never read a novel. Sparkly vampire novels don't count, of course.

There was only one comment on the piece, and here comes the First Law of Writing on the Internet with the commenter's first sentence:

"Beautiful writing!"


So there you are— the worse the writing, the greater the chance that someone on the Internet will love it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

East of Eden.

I learned something of magnificent value from this book. The heart of this book is a family drama, and it comes to focus on two brothers and their father. For many months and years of their lives, conflict is building. Anyone reading the book can tell you the central problem. It's a bit of unrevealed information, and I won't spoil it for you. The reader knows the whole time that someday, somehow, this information will be discovered. Along the way, the characters face other kinds of problems and conflict.

Here's what Steinbeck does that would not have occurred to me: The other problems are handled and do not turn into horrible disasters. Not every negative event is a giant drama. They are dealt with and settled, just the way they are in real life. This is a family, and families have problems. They do not shatter with every conflict. For the Trask family, life goes on. For the reader, we get a sense of their closeness, their reality, and what they are willing to do for one another.

Guess what happens when the final conflict arrives? We are staggered by the possibility that this family— which has been through so much and stayed together— might fall apart. Steinbeck, while keeping our interest with constant conflict, has also lulled us into believing that these folks can get through anything. Then suddenly that is in doubt. Do they manage, one more time? Not tellin'.


Monday, September 26, 2011

I Withdraw All Doubts.

East of Eden is really, really good. This is actually the second time I've had a stab at reading it. The previous attempt floundered in the early chapters as the slow start failed to gain speed. It does gain speed toward the middle. So there are two tips:

1. Audiobooks, which you listen to while your entertainment options are limited (driving, housework, gardening), can get you through books you might otherwise quit reading.

2. Don't attempt a slow start with your own book. And nor shall I, not being John Steinbeck.

My favorite feature thus far is a female character so chilling that King and Koontz can only dream of the like. Yoiks! Carry on, Mr. Steinbeck!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Dear John Steinbeck,

I realize it has been nearly sixty years since you published East of Eden. I also realize you are dead, so I don't expect many changes now, but you should realize that your masterful epic has a couple of flaws. Granted, they are flaws held in common with many of your contemporaries, but I think they are worth pointing out, if only to protect the young novelists.

1. Getting into the POV of a sociopath often doesn't work. Done too early, it never works. You let the tension out of the story. Sociopaths and psychopaths (why the APA has combined the two I shall never know) are inherently unpredictable. Yes, I would like to know their goals at some point, but I don't want to know from the first that they're making a lady suit or what-have-you. Hold the surprise as long as you can. Show us the whack-job from the POV of his/her future victims.

2. The narrative summary with which you present the entire history and geography of the Salinas Valley at the start of the book? Okay, this is to be expected in a novel that is soon to qualify for Medicare from a novelist who is soon to be as old as Bilbo except he's dead. It's old fashioned. I was gasping for a character by the time it ended. Whatever you do from that point, Don't Do It Again.

Got to Book Two or Part Two or whatever, and you did it again. Except it was even less than that. It was the writer commenting on the horribleness of the nineteenth century. Yes, the War of 1812 and everything. Seriously, kill me now. And this wasn't even good. Once you have jumped the shark with "women's thighs have lost their grasp" or somesuch, the one thing you want to do least in the world is to repeat that phrase a second time. Which you did, Mr. Steinbeck.

What followed in the next chapter? Another slab of narrative summary. I won't bother elaborating on the awfulness. The chapter after that one finally resumed with characters and story.

In short, All Story, All the Time. If you want to hold forth about the original British invasion, write an essay. Nobody wants to hear your POV in your novel. Even if you are John Steinbeck.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Book That Would Not Start.

No, not my latest infallibly brilliant idea for my next novel, which is now several pages of irreconcilable and incomprehensible notes. I mean the book I was listening to on audiobook for the last, well, long time. The good news is that the story did eventually begin. The bad news is that it started in the middle. First the author planted an unsubtle clue about one of the characters, and then, as night the day, that character was murdered. From there a long series of coincidences, convenient connections, and hidden information led to a sorta happy ending. Justice was served, the innocent escaped, the Right Things were done, etc.

As I have mentioned, I don't read many mysteries. Ignore the fact that my published book was a mystery. We've wept about that one previously. Here's the issue I had with this one: how does a writer get away with introducing an important character in the last ten percent of a book? Seriously, you'd better be pulling the curtain on the Wizard of Oz. Add in some trick names and I had quite a time sorting this story.

Plus, the one Big Question I had during the whole thing wasn't answered! There was a child involved, and some doubt was raised as to who her mother might be. If this question was answered, I missed it. Grrr... In all, it was a construction of coincidences and similarities of stories across time, and all very stylish, and the writing was truly beautiful in many ways, but...

Yeah, not my thing. Since the author is successful and the book highly acclaimed, I can tell you this was Kate Atkinson's Started Early, Took My Dog.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Problem Ideas.

Did you ever have an idea for a book that poses major problems? Of course you have. I have. The major problem with most of them is that they suck, and will never, ever turn into a good book. The solution to these ideas is simple: cast them aside. Then there are two more categories of problem idea, and I don't know if one of them can be fixed.

1. This is a a difficult idea to land. I'm working on a new book built around an old idea I've been trying to work out for years. I've written three bad books (at least) based on this idea, and I'm outlining it again. It's science fiction with actual science and that makes it hard to do. I don't even have characters yet. I have pages and pages of questions I have to answer before I can start outlining. I might get there.

2. Then there are the controversies. I've been reading Sophie's Choice, which is certainly controversial in about forty different ways on its own, but then I had an idea. I'm not even going to tell you what the idea is, because it scandalized me. Something to do with global politics, shall we say. I ended up staring into space for a while, wondering if it could turn into a book. Yes it could. Would I want my name on that book? Yeah, not so much.

Ideas, they are trouble!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Log Lines Are Hell.

Or, how describing your book usually ends up like a Warfail, but your book doesn't have to.

Here in America we've had several less-than-totally-successful military encounters since the end of WWII. Okay, many have started out looking pretty good in the "stop communism!", "stop drug trafficking!", "stop terrorism!" line. Unfortunately, they've ended up with rather different results and, often as not, the discovery that we were actually after something else instead. With a lot of death, destruction, and heartache along the way.

Fortunately, novels are not wars. But describing them in the dreaded log line can be informed by the manner in which we are sold each new, shiny war.

I've said several times that your log line (and consequently your novel) has got to have a concrete goal. You cannot build a novel around someone looking for personal fulfillment. That may be a knock-on effect, but the goal you mention needs to be more like going off to fight the Evil Empire or win an Olympic medal or whatever.

Likewise our latest-but-one military endeavor. George could not sell us on either "spreading freedom and democracy with tanks" or "finishing what my dad started." But he could sell us on finding Weapons of Mass Destruction. And to be honest, although I am not an apologist for GWB and his cronies, the British are the ones who first said they were there and if they were, I'm guessing they'll turn up in Syria if Assad leaves anybody alive to look for them. That said, WMDs were a concrete goal, along with putting Sadam and his cronies out of business. Let's admit that stopping a genocidal maniac was a worthy goal.

That said, no WMDs. So we've arrived at the end of the first hundred pages and the Olympics are over and we lost. So what is our story about now? What you can't do is then turn to "seeking personal fulfillment" or "spreading freedom and democracy." We need something else we can take a bite out of, and GWB couldn't come up with anything. In a novel, this is where you you stop reading. In Iraq, it would have been a good time to move on to the next war. Oh, wait, we did....

Concrete goals. Have them. Put them in your log line. If they change, they should change to bigger and harder ones. A hint: find the WMDs anyway.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Don't Be This Guy.

Laughing at this guy, however, is okay:

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Leave Me Behind. Save Yourselves.

I'm listening to a murder mystery on audiobook. I won't say which one until I decide if I like it. The writing is quite good, but I'm not really used to murder mysteries (overlooking the fact that I accidentally published one), and some of the conventions bump me a bit.

The trouble I had with the one today was the author trying to re-re-re-introduce a character who must have been leading this series over the course of several novels. Unfortunately, the author tried to gracefully review Events Thus Far. I heard about the main character's first wife (nice), second wife (not, and missing), acknowledged child, DNA-revealed child, unhappy childhood, previous career, military service, and near-death in a terrible train accident.

I have to confess, when the train accident was mentioned I burst out laughing. It was just too much. Because very little of this backstory meant anything to the immediate story in progress. If I like this book, I will seek out earlier books in the series and learn what I need to learn about this guy, and I will learn it in immediate scene. So there's a tip that applies to all writers, and doubly so to writers of series: backstory has to mean something to the present story. If it doesn't, leave it out.

And whatever you do, don't give the backstory to us in one big lump. It's a bit of a train wreck.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The *&#$^*@ Semicolon.

Most writers have dealt with the issue of the semicolon by ignoring it; they've replaced the semicolon with the period, the em-dash, and the comma. But the semicolon has a role to play. Here's an excellent and amusing resource for learning how to use this most benighted bit of punctuation:

Thursday, July 28, 2011

I'm Back.

From the mainland and the excellent Santa Barbara Writers Conference. They always say don't mention travel plans on the Internet or hordes will pillage your vacant home, but I'll say that I will be attending again next year. Such a brilliant conference. And I want to mention something about a good writers conference that you might not have heard before.

You get a big list of recommended books. Here's the stack I created of books I heard about during the week of the SBWC, minus a couple I'd already read before I took the picture. Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet is on the read piles already.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Something From the Lighter Side.

An amuse-bouche for you— The Thirty Harshest Author-on-Author Insults in History:

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Bermuda Triangle of Drama.

I've poisoned myself with too much drama. Too much reading. Too many books. It's a good thing I'm going to a writing conference soon and will be reading material that has not yet been anointed by the glow of publication. In short, I am not expected by anyone to like it without reservation.

The same cannot be said of published work. I read a lot, and all these books present stories I am asked to accept and value. And sometimes it just gets too hard. Because pure drama exists in a dangerously small area bounded on three sides by irreconcilable issues. Which are:

1. If the story presented is too serious or idiosyncratic, it loses believability and with it the reader's credulity and investment in the story. It tends to slide into either comedy, however dark, or melodrama, however florid.

2. If the story is kept contained in the interest of realism, it risks becoming dull or pointless. You don't want to offer a supposedly damaged family to a reader who has known worse at home. Or still has worse at home.

3. The attempted end-run around the above is the memoir. That is an unfair assessment to the best of them, but there is a generic category of memoir that uses "but it really happened" to cover the sins above.

So there we have our triangle, and within it is the mystery of good drama. It is a vanishingly small target to hit. There are styles and careers to be made by sailing right over the line in any direction, but landing a story inside the triangle is hugely difficult. I keep searching for the successes.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Unfinished.

I failed to finish reading another couple of books. Or rather, they failed to hold me until the end. Normally that means I could tell you about both of them, but one was a first novel and I'll let the new writer off the hook. Suffice it to say that it was speculative fiction that got quite a bit too speculative toward the end. Hint: don't throw in random supernatural elements late in the story. It makes the reader feel— rightly— that the ending is going to be arbitrary. I shall never know.

The other book was an odder one to not finish, because I've adored two previous books by this well-known and talented writer. In the end this very different book got shut off for the same reason. The book was Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. There's a lesson for any "Great American Novel" writer in this book: if you're writing an intimate family drama and nobody's charging after some major goal from early on, you have to set something in their path for later. Basically, if nobody's climbing Everest, they'd better be headed for an iceberg.

In the previous two novels I've read by Marilynne Robinson, Gilead and Home, there was an old man waiting to die. That fact added a tension and a deadline (pardon the pun) to the story. In fact, we never had to get all the way to the death. Death just loomed there in the future, inevitable, as it does for us all. It created a frame that made the story work. Housekeeping didn't work for me because eighty percent of the way through the book I realized I had no sense of where it might go. It was arbitrary.

A novel can begin with the author striking out in every direction, exploring every possible avenue in the story. But at a point that has to change, and the author has to start fighting their way out of the maze they have built. We stay with the story partly to see how the story can possibly emerge from that trick bag. If almost anything can happen, there can be no tension and no reason to continue. Even a small family drama needs a sense that an organic ending will emerge.

I just checked, by the way, and it turns out that Housekeeping is one of Robinson's early works. I probably should have guessed, and will be an eager buyer for her next book. She truly is a must-read writer.

In happier news, China Miéville's Embassytown was every bit as great or better than I thought when halfway through, and I was sorry to see it end, and Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife fills me with bitter jealousy and richly deserves the Orange Prize she just won. Which I admit even though she was born while I was in high school.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Your Goal.

When you write a book, your goal is to write a first sentence that will force a reader to read the first chapter, and then to write a first chapter that will force a reader to buy the book. If you are very good you will then deliver a book that will have the reader folding down page corners to mark particularly good sentences and passages and remember your name. And go back to the book store with their credit card, of course.

Want to see this in action? Go buy Catherine Ryan Hyde's Electric God immediately. It's that good.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

I Have Solved the Mystery!

I've mentioned on a couple of occasions that if you want to win a Nobel Prize in literature it is essential (1) that you not be a white male American, and (2) that you not use quotation marks. The first is due to a statement by one of the judges that Americans are too focused on themselves (they've obviously never read or met any writers at all). The second, I thought, was mere stylish pretention. Not so! I have figured out why writers do this, and for a good writer how it enhances their reputation.

Imagine reading a slooooooow book. Slow as in, you're on page 200 and nothing has happened. The writer is being very stylish, but there are no events that might be charitably called a plot. If the main character wants something, he or she is making no effort to achieve that goal. And you start to skim...

We all do it. Glancing at the description and reading the dialogue. This turns the novel into a screenplay and lets us skip ahead to the page where something actually happens. Because certainly some character will say "Oh, my God!" or equivalent and then we can drop back into the story and figure out what's going on now that something is.

Now think of reading a novel with no quotation marks and no offset dialogue. How do you skim? You can't. You have to actually read all the words. The author has told you that every word is important. And you have to read every word. Further, they are subtly telling you that they are important, because every word is processed through them. They are not in the business of simply reporting what characters say. The writer becomes the conduit through which everything flows. The story is not the point. The writer is the point.

In a slow-moving book this technique just enhances the annoyance because the reader is trapped. In a good book, well, good luck with the Nobel committee.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Book! Book! Book!

You know that rare feeling when you stumble across a new book by a favorite author and you didn't know it was due out yet? I had the pleasure this week and am happy to report that the book thus far is every bit as spectacular as I'd hoped. I bought this one on audiobook, and I have actually been getting more chores done just so I can listen to it on my iPod. Drumroll:

China Miéville's Embassytown is out! And it is excellent!

Miéville has worked the magic of writing about the future without having his work Balkanized into science fiction. He has managed to remain in the realm of literary fiction. I'd love to be able to tell you how to work this trick. Nearly every sentence in this book speaks to a rich unknown reality. He trusts the reader not to need an explanation of every unknown word that comes along. Add the great writing and strong characters and you have a book that I wish were 1,000 pages long.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Returning With Happy News!

No, I'm lying again. I return with a short, sharp, bummer:

What in the world are we doing writing?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I Am Ahead of the Curve.

For once, I have already purchased, attempted to read— and closed after one hundred or so pages— this year's Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad. I was impressed that any book set in the world of music could be so dull and filled with one-dimensional characters. Absolutely every non-fiction book I have read on the same or similar subject(s) was more interesting. I've seen vastly more interesting five-minute interviews with Jools Holland, in fact, and would cheerfully pay him my $25 to get the hours of my life back.

My sense of what is good, and righteous, and worthy remains constant, it seems.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

I Turned It Off.

I seem to have established a strange rule around the blog concerning books I don't like. If I muddle through with the whole read, I will criticize the book without mentioning the title or the author. However, if I don't make it all the way through I will tell all.

Well, folks, I turned off the audiobook of Karen Russell's Swamplandia five hours from the end. There were a number of faults in the writing. Too many adjectives, too many adverbs, and way too many similes. A premise that was promising (a young teenager facing a challenge on her own) that never was realized. Add in a historical lesson that is told, identically, twice (during the main character's story and that of her brother).

The thin ice for me as a reader started with a journey of discovery that never seemed to get anywhere. Call it a rescue mission gone wild. I can hear an editor saying "I love it, but it needs to be longer." It's longer all right, but that trip is a reader death march. Where it went on the rocks was when the young teen and her adult companion have to portage (carry) the skiff they've been traveling in for days. I presume they also have to take along their supplies and a box in which she has a pet baby alligator. Like I said, it's a long story.

Folks, do you know how much even a small boat weighs? Now imagine carrying it through a swamp. Not going well, is it? Now imagine the Absolute Last Thing you want to hear as a reader. Right— another historical lesson. I can't remember what the line was. Something like, "In her grandfather's time, the Agriculture Department—"


I could portage no farther.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


The book I'm currently reading (and not enjoying overmuch) is sold on the premise of a young teenager confronting a strange and challenging situation on her own. Well, in the grand tradition of the query letter, the marketing department of this publisher has created a tag line that doesn't quite describe the facts of the story. I'm at least two-thirds of the way through the book, and thus far the main character has only been alone for about ten minutes. The minute I suspected she was on her own the author created an adult character from out of nowhere and together our two characters face the challenging situation. How great is this? Yeah, it's not.

Alone is hard. Writing a character who is alone for an extended period and knows nobody else will be showing up any time soon is very difficult to pull off. I was thinking about this in terms of the book I'm reading when it occurred to me that it's something I did in my last novel. I'll make no claims to fabulous success, but for about 150 pages of a 400-page book, my young teenage main character is entirely alone, other than some brief encounters with characters who either don't respond to him or are not terribly sane. They certainly aren't helpful.

Being utterly alone is not a normal condition for most humans. Perhaps because I live alone with no pets or houseplants it feels more normal to me, but most of us are in a fairly constant state of conversation and interaction while we're awake. So how do we manage this in fiction if it's so rare in fact?

First, you might consider cheating. The book I'm reading used a flat-out marketing lie. This character is not alone. Lesser cheating can be seen in the movie Castaway, where Tom Hanks is issued a volleyball to meet his conversational needs.

Here's what I did: observe and describe from the beginning of the book. If all you do with your character from the start is have them in conversation or thinking, you'll never pull off having them alone for any length of time. What you need to do is give the reader a sense of your character's place in the physical world starting on page one. My character has some health problems. The book opens with him waking up in the hospital. His internal awareness is always present. In his time alone cannot sleep, cannot eat, and suffers various injuries. The land he's traveling through is dangerous. The temperature fluctuates, there are terrible odors and sights and numerous challenges to overcome. The experience is terrible. In short, he has a lot of nasty ground to cover and because of that I had a lot to write about.

That is the trick to writing about a character who is alone: make sure they have plenty to do. They have to face many challenges and make many decisions, and they can't all be in the character's head. The reader has to see it happening. The best test is the camera test. If it were happening on screen, would the audience understand what your character is doing? Even if they can't talk to someone else about it? If yes, you have succeeded.

Please, no volleyballs.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Dear Author,

As I read your much-lauded first novel, quirky as only a novel set in Florida is allowed to be, lauded as only a novel by a very young writer can be, I have a word of advice. I shall go ahead and hope that someone else will encourage you to drop your adverbs and adjectives. Low-hanging fruit, that. I know it would eliminate a quick 20% from your word count, but brace yourself, because I am after another 20%. Please, as you ready your sophomore effort, do a quick scan for the word "like." I know your eighth-grade English teacher told you ten years ago that similes can be very powerful and interesting. He or she was badly overstating the case. When there are five of them on every page, the reader slowly loses the will to live. Some things are just what they are; they do not need to be compared to anything else. Mosquitos do not need to rise from a swamp like a swarm of tiny vampires. That is poor.

FYI, you have also used up your lifetime supply of moths. I do not know why they appear in quite so many scenes or are worthy of such note and description. I commend mothballs to your attention.

Monday, April 4, 2011

New Scientist.

Is my my favorite magazine. I may be in the wrong line of work, to the extent that I can be said to be in any line of work at all. But worlds collided recently when a neuroscientist wondered what would happen if test subjects were shoved into functional MRI machines while reading fiction. What happens to the story-distracted brain? A couple of things. One you might expect: the brain of a reader becomes more active in areas that relate to the emotion of a piece of fiction. Reading something scary? Your brain is feeling fear. Reading romance? Your brain "looks" romantic. Reading something sexy? They ran those MRI studies earlier, actually...

No surprises until they looked at what the rest of your brain is doing while you're reading. Interestingly, bits of it are shutting down. Not encouraging until you hear which bits in particular. Turns out that the parts of your brain that spend many of your waking and sleeping hours worrying about your life are turned off by reading fiction. When you read fiction, "you" and your worries disappear. Valuable information in the days leading up to tax season in the US, I think.

So even if you're like me and fling yourself regularly upon the altar of "serious" fiction, feeling noble and worthy that you don't have to read for pleasure, thank you very much, it turns out you are still reading for lack of pain. So when life is stomping on your head, pick up a good book before reaching for a drink.

Better yet, reach for a good book and a drink.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Moving Through Time.

Apologies for the blogging break. It was not intentional. I biffed off to the mainland on only a few hours' notice to help my sister and her family. They had come down with stomach flu. I helped out for two days, spent day three on the couch with the aforementioned stomach flu, and then promptly caught my nephew's cold. You can't tell a toddler not to cough in your face. Another week of cleaning and cooking and whining (mine) followed. I returned on Wednesday hugely overdosed on Mucinex so I would not cough or sneeze on the plane and bathed in hand sanitizer. I had called the airline to ask if I could move my ticket to this coming Monday, when there would be no chance of passing it to my fellow travelers, and was told by the agent in a fascinating bit of time-travel that she had "looked several weeks out in both directions" and could not find a flight change that would not cost a thousand dollars. Okay, then.

Moving a story through time is something new writers often make more of production of than it deserves. No reader is going to fling your book aside should you start a chapter with "On Monday morning" or "The week before school started." Like the word "said" as a dialogue tag, these are fairly invisible and painless ways of getting from here to there, or from now to then.

Being clear is Priority #1 in all writing if you're not James Joyce or equivalent. Don't get too tricky when moving in time. Don't try to be subtle by mentioning your character's newly-long hair or changing all the classes he's taking or having it start snowing when we think she's sunbathing on a hot day in the back yard. Unless, of course, something has gone drastically wrong with climate change. Make the bones of time clear for your reader.

Once you're moving through time clearly, look at how to do it well. Some writers hang their shingle on knowing how to end a chapter on a cliffhanger, of not wrapping up a moment in time, which forces the reader to keep going to find the closure that never quite arrives in any chapter. See Dan Brown for this. Others are so dextrous and brilliant that they don't have to flow in order with the clock or the calendar (are you listening, American Airlines?). Read Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude to see this genius.

Possibly the best lesson in moving through time for any author comes from a genre of literary fiction popular among Serious Male Writers, which I call the Somewhat Interesting Woman's Life Story. These women are usually taken advantage of in their youth or even childhood by men, think they come to terms with it through various relationships which then explode, and only then finally deal with everything, either swearing off men or finally finding The One in middle age, too late for the happiness of which they had early dreamt, but nice enough and on their own terms.


Anyway, I was reading about the third of these novels this year and I was about to fling the thing at several points, but inevitably the author cut the scene, and that part of the tale, within a few pages and leapt into the next misadventure. So there is the final suggestion: jump ahead in time when you can. Especially when the story is shouting "Move along— nothing to see here!"

Saturday, March 12, 2011

What I Have Learned from the Red Cross.

I have been a Red Cross Disaster Services volunteer for two years, and I have now participated in two local disaster alerts. These were two tsunami incidents, neither of which resulted in a local disaster. The Red Cross was not called upon to open shelters, and I was simply in place in case of that eventuality. I spent some hours at evacuation centers, in the last event receiving fifty people at a nearby elementary school for an overnight stay.

From those experiences and from my training, I have learned:

1. Emergency responders have limited resources. We will do our best with what we have, but it's probably less than you imagine. No, we don't have a warehouse filled with supplies nearby that can be brought out in moments. Our local group has a trailer with cots and other supplies, but we know it won't be enough. And be aware that in all likelihood, every person you see from the Red Cross is a volunteer.

2. Pay attention to what you are told to bring to an evacuation center. We don't have bedding. We cannot hand out any cots or other supplies or start providing food until after the disaster. Anything you need to make yourself comfortable during an evacuation you need to bring. We will try to round up snacks. Imagine you are unexpectely forced to spend twelve hours or more in an empty elementary school. What would you want to have? If you can bring more supplies, food, or water and wish to share with others, please do.

3. Bring your medications. We had two people in the last incident without critical medications. They both left them at home. Had the tsunami been more serious, their medications would have been inaccessible and might have been destroyed. The Red Cross can and does help replace medications, but it takes time. In an urgent situation, someone without their medications may require airlift evacuation they would not have otherwise needed. On a related note, refill prescription medications early. Don't have a two-day supply. Have a two-week supply.

4. Drive carefully. Your fellow motorists will be stressed, on their phones, and fiddling with their radios. Some of them will be driving impaired, not knowing they were going to be on the road. Drive as though everyone around you is impaired. Drive as though you yourself are. If you do not absolutely need to drive or leave your home at all, don't.

5. Donate. Not just money and time to the Red Cross or other relief organizations if you can. If you are in a safe place but live near an evacuation area or shelter and want to help, we can put you to work or happily accept donations of food and water. Heck, just come along with any current information you may have. That's the #1 need for many folks in the early hours of a disaster, and we may not have access to the news sources you have. Again, only if you can come to us safely.

6. If an evacuation becomes an emergency, seriously consider how you will survive, with or without help. The better prepared you are, the less of a burden you will be on available resources. Whether you can shelter in place at home or come to the shelter with food, water, medication, and bedding, the more you can serve yourself the better off we will all be.

7. We cannot allow your pet inside the shelter and offer no resources for your pet. Bring what they will need in terms of food, water, and medication, stock up for them as part of your preparations, and decide how they will live outside the shelter.

8. As part of your planning, arrange with family and friends how you will contact them in an emergency. In this recent event, all phone companies were swamped. Apparently, text messages were the best way to get information through. Remind your loved ones to check every communication channel. That's hard to remember when they're worried. Decide which person is the most likely to be able to receive a message and pass along information in case you only get one chance to communicate. And know that communication may not be possible.

9. The Red Cross exists, among other reasons, to help victims of disasters survive until they can get on their feet. We provide basic needs and a place to muster your own resources. We are disaster relief only. We will do whatever we can to help you survive, and then we must move on. We cannot help you with your recovery efforts. We just don't have the resources and it isn't our calling. There is another disaster waiting that needs what little we can do.

10. Come take a class. You don't have to join Disaster Services, but come to the Red Cross and learn CPR and First Aid. It might be too late next month or next year. If you can become a volunteer, all I can say is that it is very rewarding to be able to help, even a bit, in the worst of times.


I got home yesterday morning after being up all night at the evacuation center. The Red Cross was never called on to open a formal shelter, as Kauai was lucky not to suffer major damage. Yesterday I was far more thrashed than I expected to be from one night without sleep. Doubtless the stress of the situation was part of it. The stress today is different, watching the tremendous damage suffered by the people of Japan. I'm cleaning my house, so I'm physically energetic, but I feel my mind is barely ticking over. Cleaning is about all I'm good for at the moment.

Friday, March 11, 2011


I may not have mentioned it, but I'm on Kauai. I am also a Red Cross Disaster Volunteer. A couple of weeks ago I wondered if I would be sent to New Zealand. Now it looks like I will probably man a shelter in Kilauea. If you can spare it, please some good wishes. And anything you can afford to the charity of your choice. If you can, consider becoming a Red Cross volunteer.

Mahalo and Aloha. I hope I'm back to incoherent rambling soon.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Write Like a Cop.

Who knew that one of the best writing schools you could find is the local police academy?

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Declaration of Independence.

Teaches a very important lesson about conflict. I don't mean of the international variety. I'm talking about one of the Declaration's most famous bits. Our Inalienable Rights: "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." Okay, okay, so those rights belonged only to white males, and mostly to white, property-owning males at that, but we're making progress. Let's assume most of us enjoy these rights today.

The first thing I want to point out is that these rights are stated in order of importance. Then I want to point out that one of the most worthwhile philosophical pursuits you can consider is whether one person's rights trump another's. On some levels it's simple: your right to life does trump my right to happiness if my happiness involves driving my car too fast on the public roads. When we get more subtle, or more remote, we get into trouble. For instance, I recently bought an air compressor for my convenience. Not sure that counts as the pursuit of happiness, but let's file it there. Stating that it liberates me from going to the gas station to check my tire pressures is overstating the case. But how can I spend $200 on a convenience when somewhere a child is sick or hungry? I've trumped somebody's right to life somewhere, haven't I?

I have problems with happiness, as you can see.

Look at stories in the same way. My personal idiocies don't make for much of a story, but what if you wrote a love story with one partner thinking the relationship is the center of their life and the other thinking it's a "pursuit of happiness?" Or a drama, with one character willing to do anything it takes to live and the other not willing to sacrifice their freedom for simple survival?

Know your characters' values. Know their priorities. Know their frame of reference. Something might be very, very important to one person that means nothing to someone else.

Yours in air compressor hell,


Sunday, March 6, 2011


Because I do not believe in anything so lavish as synchronicity, or won't until I've finished Brian Greene's latest book, I call this a coincidence and share this, also from the NYT:

My latest experience is more homeopathic than these writers'. Why do I keep mentioning things in which I do not believe? Homeopathy is woo, of course. It is interesting to realize how many writers have abandoned books. I suppose I have abandoned more than ten, since I'm not doing anything with my unpublished manuscripts. But in my head I've abandoned only two, one which I wrote with the wrong POV character, and one I've now abandoned twice. Make that three times. I was rewriting the same idea last week when I chucked it again.

I'll get there.

Long Weekend.

I've been off the blog for a bit as I've spent the last three days wondering if my appendix is planning to part with the rest of the team. My insurance is such that I will not be consulting any experts until I think it's closer to a sure thing. I haven't eaten much since Thursday, so I'm not going to produce anything coherent here, but I do have something to share.

I took a stab at a bit of writing last weekend. Got ten pages done over a few days, discovered it sucked, and stopped. Hemingway's built-in, shock-proof shit detector kicked in and saved me. Don't worry, I'll spare you reading any of it. What I do want you to read is at least the start of this New York Times opinion piece, because if there's a more dramatic start to a piece of writing out there, I haven't seen it:

Sunday, February 27, 2011

How You Read.

Had an unusual experience this week. I was out on my walk and listening to an audiobook. Ordinary morning routine. I've listened to at least a hundred books over the years since I got my first iPod. This past Wednesday it brought on a new experience. For some reason I imagined I was reading the book for a book club, and it completely changed the experience. I immediately stopped hearing every word and started thinking about what I'd say to my imaginary book club about the book. I missed a paragraph or so before I snapped out of it. My interest in my own ideas swamped my experience of the book, and someone was reading it to me. If I had been reading an actual book, I'd have had my head in the fridge before I woke up.

I have to imagine what this did to me and does to others when they read for a class. It would be bad enough if you were reading in anticipation of taking a test or writing an essay. What if the teacher or professor assigned a bit of reading and told the students what to look for or think about along the way? It's like a recipe for a wandering mind.

I was in a book club once, and enjoyed it greatly, perhaps because before we'd been at it six months we stopped reading books. It was difficult to get people to actually read the books. Wandering minds? Possibly. More likely kids and spouses and jobs. Instead we all subscribed to the wonderful Sun Magazine, which I recommend heartily to everyone. A brilliant blend of short fiction, interviews, poetry, essays, and photography, entirely supported by subscriptions and donations (no ads!), this was our answer. Most of us read the whole thing cover to cover, but everyone had time to read something. And most of it was so good (and short) we weren't distracted thinking about how clever we were going to be in the book club that week.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Nobody Went There.

Finished Wolf Hall, which turned out to be the first book in my experience to bear the title of its sequel. I think the marketing department had their paws all over this one. Not only do I suspect an enforced tense change took place, but some marketing person must have skimmed the manuscript, found the name of a place that was the home of some as yet minor characters, thought it sounded cool, and insisted it be used as the title. But nobody ever goes to Wolf Hall. Worse, because we know it is the home of a character who will become important, the effect makes the pace seem odd. The last hundred pages passed in a "why aren't we there yet?" confusion.

Or perhaps this was once a 400,000 word manuscript-zilla sailing under the title of Wolf Hall and it got cut in two. If so, we can expect another slab of Tudor England soon. I won't be picking it up. Historical fiction bears the risk that the reader might find out what happened to their main character.

I Googled poor Mr. Cromwell. Not that one. The other one.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Can Men Write Women?

Where would I be without a controversial topic? Of course men can write women. I just finished Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone, as dramatic a portrayal of a young woman's struggle within a nightmare reality of life in extreme poverty as has ever been written. And Woodrell doesn't pretend that all women are good, or right, or without flaw. Some of the women in this book are 100% evil.


There's a problem men have writing women. A trap, and Woodrell falls into it. He's not alone. Almost every writer, male and female, falls into it:

Q: Who is Driving the Story?
A: Not the Woman.

In Winter's Bone, Ree Dolly is looking for her father. That's the only big spoiler I'll give you. When she tries things on her own, they go wrong. When the events that move the story happen, someone else is driving. And I mean literally. Someone comes to her house (this happens more than once) and tells her what she needs to know or where she needs to go or actually drives her there.

I'll confess when the story started I was wondering how Ree Dolly would conduct this search. A young woman with no resources, in the middle of the winter, with no vehicle, in a remote area, searching for a man who does not want to be found. How would she go out into this world and make it happen? At first, all the help she got didn't bother me. But past the halfway point structure starts to nag. The main character has got to take charge. Unless, it seems all too often, the main character is a she rather than a he. When the main character is a woman, she gets help. She becomes passive. This is story death.

There are exceptions. Think of Ripley in Alien(s). Now there's a woman who knew how to take charge. What you probably don't know is that when the script was written and sold, Ripley was a man. What changed along the way? Someone realized that Ripley was literally the last man standing. When there is only one man standing, it's okay for that man to be a woman. If there is still a man standing, common structure and audience expectation are for the man to lead and the woman to be his help-meet. Don't shoot the messenger.

Here are the problems you have to solve as a writer:

1. How does a female main character run the show, especially in the second half of the book? She doesn't have to be right in every decision, that would be artificial and boring. But she has to figure out what's going on, develop a plan, and execute that plan. No, she does not have to do it alone. But she does have to do it.

2. Figure out if you are going to include love/sex/whatever in your story. If you can create a male character that can stay strong in a relationship with a woman, help her, disagree with her, and remain his own man, then you will really have something. Heck, even with the romantic element removed, how does a woman lead men and have it feel natural? Figure that one out.

A last note on Winter's Bone. I loved this book. I listened to it on audiobook, and the narrator was perfect for the very chilling words. This story, this dark heart of America, was as chilling as anything I've ever read. I wanted more. Because it was short. Five hours, and I expect closer to ten hours at a minimum. There's another half of this story to be told, maybe the half where Ree Dolly runs the show. I hope Woodrell writes it.

Monday, February 21, 2011

I Think I Cracked It...

I believe I've figured out what went on with Wolf Hall. Why it is so difficult to figure out if the main character is talking, or even standing in the room. I will lay money that the author wrote it in the first person and then either decided or (more likely) was made to change to third person. And I'd guess she didn't want to do it, but somebody wanted to be able to do some scenes without the main character. Thus the rather unusual result.

If I were the author, of course, I would cite Tocqueville's observation that individuality was a concept first observed in the New World and that in Europe nobody called much attention to themselves and their wants, but that might be stretching it...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Every Unhappy Family.

Is unhappy in its own way, we've been told. And every good book, I have learned, is also unique. It's rare to find a writer with a voice you recognize across all their work, but I've noticed lately that every good book has something happening beyond characters, plot, setting, all the basics, that make it stand out. This becomes more pronounced with award-winners or critically-recognized books.

I've mentioned in the past that if you want to win a major literary award, you should observe the mechanical technique of not using quotation marks. Well, I'm reading a recent Man Booker Prize winner that does two unique things. First, the author uses quotation marks, but not all the time. Sometimes we're just told what someone said. It's a bit distracting. The more distracting technique is that we aren't always told when we're in the POV of the main character or when he's speaking. Very annoying. It would be less so if we were in the main character's head at all times, but we're not. Sometimes it's the author's POV, and sometimes it's some other character. A strange thing I've never encountered before. You'll be halfway through a dialogue scene and all you've been given is untagged dialogue or "he said" and finally realize it's your main character. Grrrr...

I cannot commend this technique to your attention, but the book is coming along well enough. It's Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Can You Change Everything?

Niccolo Machiavelli had a problem. Actually, he had several. A former apparatchik with the Florentine Republic, he had been exiled from Florence by the returning De Medicis. He had to find a way to ingratiate himself with them if he ever wanted to get back to town. Toward that end, he came up with a short treatise on how to rule well. Not justly, not fairly, but well. He sent The Prince to Florence hoping for a warm invitation to return home. It was not forthcoming.

Machiavelli had another problem, and this was with the Catholic Church. Perhaps it was impolitic to point it out at a time when the Vatican ruled much of the west, but Catholics were a problem for anyone wanting to be a conquering despot. Catholics were too nice. Christians, he said, could not be made to fight fiercely (complaints from the Islamic lands aside). Christians were soft, forever looking to their eternal salvation and not enough in the here and now. Indeed, when Pope Julius II had to raise an army he hired Germans. Much fiercer, those Germans.

Machiavelli saw the Christians as a navel-gazing bunch of softies. You could not count on them in times of war. He recommended a leader pretend to be a Christian to placate his people, but don't fall for it. Be a believer in name only. Let the people be a bunch of lily-livered liberals. The Prince must be made of sterner stuff.

So how did we get upside-down, and is there something here for a writer to learn? Of course. Look at America today. Hold the words "political" and "religious" in your head, and the next word to pop up will probably be "conservative." If we've had one sincerely religious president since Truman, it was probably Bush, Jr.. He famously called Jacques Chirac before the start of the Iraq war, asking him to join in the great battle of Gog and Magog that would bring on the end times. Chirac declined, probably muttering the French equivalent of WTF? as he hung up the phone.

Machiavelli would not have recognized Christians marching off to war. During the Crusades, yes. Today, yes. During his time? No. In his time, the long-haired, unwashed young men were German Berserkers marching on Bologna under orders from the Pope, not anti-war protesters.

We're a less polarized society than the one Machiavelli knew, of course, although we're more so in the political arena. Much more so. But it's a warning against cliché when creating characters and situations. Write individuals, not types. Never assume. Do not write the groupthink religious right nor the groupthink secular liberal.

The estimable cartoonist Berkeley Breathed had an early cartoon that shows this idea at work: a trucker and a hippie are sitting at a lunch counter. The trucker is bemoaning the changes he sees in the country, how tough it is when a man can't put in a day's work for a day's pay, something like that. The hippie listens quietly until the last panel, when he shouts: "America! Love it or leave it, you commie pinko!"


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Writing the Smart People.

This is a curious question I've come across. How do you write a very smart character? Well, to a certain extent I worry about a writer who finds the smart people to be incomprehensible. But the truth is that most of the tricks employed are fairly ham-handed, like the character reading all the time, wearing glasses, going to lectures, or being employed at Fermilab. Don't use that last one, by the way; they're closing up shop.

These are all caricatures, not characterizations. They work well enough for cardboard background characters. The professor, the dorky date, whatever. But what about the real challenge: the smart major character? Nobody wants to spend three hundred pages with someone who mutters about Wittgenstein and wears a tweed coat. We can't all be Bertrand Russell. You see what I did there.

Here's my favorite trick, because not only is it a little-known trait of the very smart person, it also creates conflict when they try to deal with the rest of us:

Taking the Long View.

Basically, the smarter the person, the broader the time frame they consider when making decisions. We can see this in operation now, with the federal budget debate happening here in the US. Economist Paul Krugman used the phrase "Eat the Future" in the New York Times this weekend, referring to the GOP's efforts to slash budget items that won't cause pain today but will cause enormous pain tomorrow. As Krugman puts it: "Focus the cuts on programs whose benefits aren’t immediate; basically, eat America’s seed corn."

I won't call the GOP a bunch of morons. But House members are running for reelection at all times, and they want to lower the deficit without causing their current voters any pain. Who cares what collapses in thirty years? They meet conflict from folks who want to, for instance, cancel some of the pork forever flying at the Department of Defense (like Secretary of Defense Gates). No, those are jobs! Means test other entitlement programs? No, those are voters! Wait those thirty years; we'll be retired and our voters will be dead.

Here's who won't get elected to the US House of Representatives: Oren Lyons, the Chief of the Onondaga Nations. That gentleman, and his Council, are bound to The Great Binding Law of the Iroquois (from Wikipedia):

"In all of your deliberations in the Confederate Council, in your efforts at law making, in all your official acts, self interest shall be cast into oblivion. Cast not over your shoulder behind you the warnings of the nephews and nieces should they chide you for any error or wrong you may do, but return to the way of the Great Law which is just and right. Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation."

This is also known as seven generations sustainability, and says that any decision undertaken by the Council had to consider the ramifications for seven generations into the future. Obviously, this sort of thinking would get the poor US House member run out on his or her ear.

Imagine a character who looks ahead. Who considers consequences. Who saves against bad times. Who invests. Who plants trees. Who can see a path into the future for a company, a family, a relationship. Who can see trends in science, in art, in history. There is a genius.

Now imagine how well-understood that person will be. Imagine how well liked. Right, not at all. Write the smart character. Use the smart character. And remember in life that the old saying "a stitch in time saves nine" is true. Take the pain now. We can pass on far worse than a deficit if we're not careful. If we're not smart.

As they say in medicine, "All bleeding stops. One way or the other."

Monday, February 14, 2011

The Satanic Verses.

For those who do not remember, today is the twenty-second anniversary of the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie and his publishers for the publication of his novel, The Satanic Verses. A writer issued a death sentence for his work. The Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was murdered over this book. There were riots, and others connected with the book were assaulted. The fatwa called Muslims to murder Rushdie and others, or to report their whereabouts to those willing to murder them if they themselves were not.

A controversy— pathetically weak word— that began with a book titled for a divine revelation that turned out to be inspired by the devil himself. Why is there so little irony in religion?

If you have not read the book, at least read about it, and think about how much we all have to lose:

Monday, February 7, 2011

I Have Guest-Blogged.

Bask in the magnificence:

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Heh Heh Heh...

I was going to post a bunch of students' Pride and Prejudice questions gleaned from Yahoo! Answers, but I realized they might be recognized and somebody might get in trouble.

The winning question for the day, though, revisits an earlier "I didn't open the book" question and trumps it with "I didn't look at the book."

"Question about this book title Dante. Why can't Virgil approach the light of God?"

Epic. Don't worry— I didn't answer. I did give the book's proper title, though, to help with Googling.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


I've been fortunate enough to have read some great books lately. One I'm doling out to myself a little at a time is Richard Price's Lush Life. I came across a particularly good technique he uses that demonstrates one of a writer's most important goals:

If it does not absolutely need to be in the book, cut it out.

This is one of the ten commandments of screenwriting, of course, a discipline that finds Hemingway distressingly wordy. Novels are a bit off the pace, but getting leaner every day. Why? Because the reader today is also a viewer of movies and television. They're used to a faster pace, visual content, and shorter scenes.

Lush Life is a great example. Just the best voice in the world. Fantastic authenticity. And it flies. Here's the scene I'm thinking of: a detective is bringing a note from the mother of a murdered young man to the young man's father. He does not unfold the note to look at it. He gets to the father's hotel room and finds him gone. The next line tells us what the note says.

Bam. It might not seem like much, but Price has not told us that the detective opened the note and read it. A lazy writer would have. He closed the connection between two facts without two beats of unnecessary action, and the result is electric. He characterizes the detective, trusts the reader, and moves the story.

That's how good you've got to be.

Friday, January 28, 2011

More Homework I Could Do...

Other books and stories Our Future Generation are reading today, based on Yahoo Answers:

Sense and Sensibility
Ethan Frome
Dorian Gray
Dante's Inferno
Great Expectations
Wuthering Heights
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Cask of Amontillado
Canterbury Tales
De Profundis
The Prince
Scarlet Letter
Silas Marner

Yes, Silas Marner. My overall favorite question: "Who is Virgil and under what circumstances does Dante meet him?" Not opening the book FTW! There's a young person with a lot of cantos ahead of her.

For such defects we are lost, though spared the fire,
And suffering Hell in one affliction only:
That without hope we live on in desire.
-Dante, Inferno, C IV, 40-42

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Once More Unto the Breach...

Dear friends... I now understand Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The pre-Victorians, they walk among us, if only in high school, and they will not be thwarted.

First, let me plead from familiarity. My senior English paper in high school was a twenty-five pager on the role of women in Jane Austen, with a special emphasis on Pride and Prejudice. A tragedy, I'm sure, that it has been lost to the shifting sands of time. I was one of those girls who loved, loved, loved the book. I wanted to be a novelist, and I thought P&P was wonderful. Elizabeth stands her ground and wins her Fitzwilliam over those simpering, fawning, rich girls. Oh, hands clutched to bosom...

Before I go further, let me state the one thing I want from every English teacher in America. I want a sticker on the front of not only Jane Austen's books— right over the inevitable John Singer Sargent painting that's one hundred years too modern for the story it illustrates— I want this sticker on the front cover of every novel that is more than a century old:

Attention Students: If You Want to be a Novelist One Day, Ignore This Book.

Black letters on red should do. Capital letters at your own discretion.

Why do I not object to Shakespeare? One, because it is extraordinary language. Two, because I don't think there's any great risk of a teenager setting out to build a career writing like Shakespeare. Nobody imagines he is in the mainstream. Heck, for the most part nobody understands him. But Ms. Austen (and Mr. Dickens, Mr. Hardy, even Mr. Poe stylistically) are aboard a ship that has not only sailed but sunk, and nobody is telling their youngest admirers.

It took me years as a writer to undo the bad lessons from old writers. Beautiful description? No, meandering filler. Great dialogue? No, talking head scenes you can't kill with a pitchfork. Civilized pace? What, the rich folks are gone for the season? Let's pick this up next year. Get on with it!

Five or ten percent of your students genuinely love P&P. Here's what I know about them: they are the young women who come to class early, stay late, read everything you assign and read for pleasure besides. Good kids, hard working, going to college.

Here is why you mistakenly think most of your students love P&P: the entire text, every question you could ever ask about it, every synopsis, every essay you could ever dream of assigning, is on the internet. Same with Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies. Those are more popular because they're shorter and more contemporary and at least one of them has a pig's head on a stick. If Google can't do their homework, they can ask on Yahoo Answers.

I have loads of other issues with P&P. A great book for women's rights? In 1812, you bet, astonishingly so. But now? You are teaching young women who will have jobs or careers and have to struggle to make it in the world on equal terms with men. Is this the best book for fostering those goals? What does it say about girls who are sexually active before marriage? Poor little Lydia, doomed forever. And what about the boys in your class? What are they getting out of this tome? Maybe teach a little Walter Scott after P&P? Rob Roy for equal air time? With every book that passes in a senior high school English class, the odds grow that it will be the last book a young man will ever read. What about P&P will turn a young man into a lifelong reader? Bueller? Bueller?

If nothing else, warn your would-be writers. You know who they are. Here there be crinolined dragons. Oh, wait, P&P pre-dates crinoline...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Book Trailers.

Cheers, all, now that I know there's an all to cheer! Imagine my surprise that some folks are reading this to whom I am not related, and I seem to have irritated all of them by suggesting we look for fiction for our students that was written after the Battle of Waterloo.

I'm straying into a bad area again, aren't I? Let me move briskly on, and see if I can't offend somebody else. This comes from a bit of a set-to I had recently on Facebook (why do I go there?). This was with a friend and a friend-of-a-friend. The friend runs a writers conference and also makes book trailers. And I do not see the point to book trailers.

Book trailer believers! You know who you are, having finished a novel or just working on one, sending out query letters or waiting for your beta readers, and making video trailers for your book. Or hiring someone to do it for you. You spend a great deal of time (hopefully not a great deal of money) on this, and end up with a shiny, well-made three- or five- or ten-minute video about your book.

Here's my Big Question: How do you get that in front of readers?

I'm a big reader. I have stacks of books to be read on the coffee table in front of me, more upstairs, books I've read are starting to stack up even on the stairs and in the hallway. Not only have I never purchased a book based on seeing a book trailer, I've never had a book trailer come my way. They don't appear in my little corner of the internet.

That's the first question that neither of my Facebook interlocutors could answer: How do book trailers get seen by potential readers? Are you supposed to just stick them up on YouTube and post a link on Facebook and hope for the best?

Strike one.

When I was at UCLA, a lot of folks were making trailers for screenplays. This was in the wake of the massive wave of "make the movie yourself!" mostly-disaster, which produced a few good movies and far more bankruptcies and divorces. So people scaled back, made trailers for screenplays, and then discovered there was no way to get them seen. Not just seen by people who could get them made— seen by anybody. And that was for a writing product that promised an experience similar to the trailer: movies. Movie trailers are an existing technology. What does a book trailer promise? Sitting by yourself for four or five hours, reading. Very different.

Strike two.

My last concern is, to quote another old writer, love's labors lost. Truman Capote once said that finishing a novel is just like you took your child out in the yard and shot it. Which means when you're done, you're done. When you have polished that novel to a gloss, query it and move on. Read, start working on new ideas, start building your next book. Let the old story go, until such time as an agent or editor wants to work on it with you. Don't spend your precious time fiddling with FinalCut. Besides, what happens to your book trailer if your agent or editor wants you to write the vampire out of the picture?

Strike three.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Am I a Good Writer?

This is the most troubling question I see on the Books & Authors section of Yahoo Answers, right after "Where can I download this book for free?"


But there's something sad and dangerous about the people asking if they're good writers. Because these are mostly teenagers. They post a bit of their writing and beg other teenagers for opinions. I don't click through, don't read the writing, but last night a young writer posed a slightly different question, and I answered. She asked if she should be worried if she thought her writing wasn't very good. And I said she should be glad.

Writing is not an inborn trait, like eye color. It is a craft, and it has to be learned. Too many people, writers included, think it is a mechanical ability you pick up in elementary school, and from there some people will be good at it and some won't be. The same idea attaches to art and sports and math.

None of it is true. Yes, some people might be physically taller or more mature and some people will have a higher natural intelligence, but you can have all the natural gifts available and still not succeed where it might be expected. If you do nothing, if you do not try, and fail, and learn, and try again, you'll go nowhere.

I wrote a script about Michelangelo a few years ago. I think he is the greatest artist who ever lived. And I tell you this, nobody in history has spent more of their waking life studying anatomy and drawing than Michelangelo. Ever. From early childhood until his stroke three days before he died, he was working at the basics of his craft. The only other thing he did was write poetry, and he was darn good at that, too.

Nobody would expect an athlete to reach the Olympics without a lifetime of training and competing. Well, maybe those curling guys, but you get the point. Nobody is good at brain surgery in third grade. Nobody is a skilled attorney in junior high. Why do they worry about being a good writer or not in high school? Yes, some are better than others, but that says nothing about where those folks might end up on the writing spectrum. If anything, I worry that being told you're good at writing too young may make you fear failure too much to change and grow.

If you're fourteen or fifteen or nineteen or forty-three, don't worry if you're good. Worry if you're not getting better. Read. Write. Repeat.

Learning to write is learning a craft. What's up on the anvil is your own head. Swing hard.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Jane Austen Must Be Stopped.

Another post inspired by Yahoo Answers, where it has become painfully clear to me that Ms. Austen's estimable works are still being forced upon young people. The same thing happened to me.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the books at the time and likely would again. I enjoyed the 1940 MGM movie of Pride and Prejudice. Lawrence Olivier as Darcy? What could possibly be wrong with that?

Here's what's wrong. High school students forced to answer the following essay question: "Compare and contrast the relationships between Lizzie and Darcy and Jane and Bingley." In English class. Now, I'm sorry, but how is this getting anybody ready for anything? How is reading a novel that is nearly two hundred years old helping?

Teachers teach Jane Austen because she is easy to teach, familiar, and non-controversial. She makes Golding and Salinger look like wild-eyed radicals. But generation after generation of high schoolers are left with the impression that Austen's novels are what writing should be, and it's poisoning them. Long descriptions, endless parlor scenes, pace that drags across empty weeks and months. It's not beautiful language and astonishingly complex human relationships, as Shakespeare is. It's ploddingly dysfunctional and does not help young writers learn their craft or young anybody learn how to communicate.

Someone stick a fork in Ms. Austen. She's done.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Post to a Young Novelist.

I'm addicted to Yahoo Answers recently, mostly answering obscure medical questions and telling new writers not to pay to be published. Today a young writer asked for general advice, and this is what I said:

Read. Read extensively. Read great books, not just ones you know you're likely to enjoy. Don't be intimidated. Get in there and read the greats. Read the big award winners. Come up with your own opinions about who's good and who's not. Reading is the only way to develop the rarest tool in the writer's toolkit: voice.

Notebook. As in, carry one around with you all the time. Keep it next to your bed. Take it into the bathroom with you when you shower. You never know when ideas might occur to you. Just don't try to write and drive at the same time.

Ideas. Skim through your notebook once in a while and write down the big story ideas. Play around with combining them. Novels are big. Huge. They usually need a few ideas to support them. You'll be surprised what happens when you combine ideas that don't seem to fit together at first blush.

Theme. This is the hardest thing to understand in a novel, because it's what's going on in the writer's head. What point is he or she trying to make? Sometimes you don't know until the last page. This is what the writer feels is true about being human. Start pondering what you believe.

Outline. The one mechanical element you need. Because novels are big. Write down what you can. If you know what comes next your creativity can be free to work on dialogue and description, and you won't always be panicking about the next scene.

Structure. This is what holds up the story and gives it shape. In the western world, there are paradigms for structure. Christopher Vogler's _The Writer's Journey_ is an excellent resource for learning structure.

Good luck, and enjoy.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Even the Really Good...

...Sometimes make mistakes. Usually not great big giant hairy mistakes, but they're there. Here's a common one I just stumbled across:

The scene is tense. A father has come in to do a photo identification on a body. It might be his son. The police detective opens an envelope and lays two photos on the table in the interview room. *Tense pause here*

And then the other detective in the room looks at the pictures, and we hear what the dead man looks like, what the detective thinks about him and the father and the situation. It's great writing, and probably only goes on for a paragraph or two, but it doesn't belong there.

Give us the father's reaction. Is it his son or not? A bit of description would be fine, a pause for suspense would be appropriate, but this went on several beats too long. It's subtle, it's a pacing issue, but for a half a page the writer got a bit too caught up in his extremely good writing to get to the increasingly urgent point. It made the writing stand out at the expense of the story.

Was the body really the man's son? Not sayin'.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

How Good is This Book?

This book here:

This book is so good I am tempted to listen to the audiobook rather than watch the playoffs. The playoffs, I'm saying. That is how good this book is. And the audiobook gets extra credit because the narrator, Bobby Cannavale, has the absolute perfect voice for this book.

So kudos to Richard Price for writing an absolutely fantastic book and for having an amazing command of language. What voice. I am very happy to hear this is not your first book and there are several more out there waiting for me.

Back to the playoffs, I guess...

Monday, January 10, 2011

Inspiration and Espionage on the 769.

Did you ever dream of being able to look into other peoples' back yards at close range? Into their workplaces? Spy on them driving their cars, relaxing on beaches, walking down the street? Or how about just sitting comfortably and overhearing conversations and phone calls while enjoying a tasty beverage? Hour after hour of absorbing details of private lives. Writer heaven.