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.