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.