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.