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.
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.
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.
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.
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."