Saturday, July 27, 2013

Words and Music, Part 2.

About time to get back to this, don'tcha think, o two or three followers of this mighty blog? By the way, and in keeping with the idea that great writing must be heard in the head to be appreciated, I've stumbled upon a book I can only read at about thirty pages per hour. Because it is mostly dialogue, and quite adversing dialogue at that. William Gaddis' JR is worth the time spent on the stage of the brain. On the other hand, I just got through an audiobook that was so bad that it dragged and was loathsome even played at double time. Not something I wanted in my head, but I futilely hoped the main character would be horribly killed to death before the end. No such luck.

So where am I going with this idea of listening to writing? Straight to Ireland. I mentioned James Joyce's Ulysses in our first installment of this idyll, because I experienced something reading that book for the first time that I had never experienced before. I loved it, was struck by the language, but could not tell you why. I loved it even when I did not understand it. There is poetry in that book, but it took me some time to realize that there is music there.

Ireland is a place of poetry and music. They ain't had it easy and everybody knows it. Yeats, Irish himself, said, "Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart," and yet in Ireland it hasn't. It hasn't crushed them, or their poetry, or their prose, or their music. And I claim that you can hear music in their language, spoken or written.

I think if you put an Irish writer in a functional MRI there's a pretty fair chance that a chunk of their language center will be on the right side of the brain. This is true of the Japanese, possessors of their own beautiful language and spectacular poetic and prose traditions, home to the oldest novel in human history. They keep their vowels on the right side of the brain. I think the Irish, like the Japanese, keep part of their language where the rest of us try to hold on to music.

That is a huge part of great writing. The writers aren't merely writing language. They are also writing music, and we are dazzled by the tune.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Is Self-Publishing the New Query Letter?

I belong to a Facebook community that is mostly populated by self-published writers. The major problem they have with their books seems to be how to find readers. No surprise there; that's every writer's problem. Yesterday, though, something occurred to me. Most of these writers accept the challenge they have taken on, and fight the good fight. Some of them are surprised at just how hard it is. A very few are angry about it. They've heard the success stories. Failure doesn't make the blogs and writing magazines, after all.

It's the anger that has my attention, because it reminds me of other writers who, as their query letters to agents fail steadily to attract attention, also become angry. And then you see the Facebook posts:  "Nobody reads query letters!", "Agents just delete queries!", and "It's a scam!"

I am endlessly intrigued by assumption.

In any event, all this got me thinking that, just as query letters used to be the canary in the coal mine for a writer's hopes and dreams, now the entire book is being hazarded. Hazarded and, in most cases, killed. To be perfectly honest, most of these books were not going to find a golden future no matter what, but some were. In my opinion (hey, it's my blog; what were you expecting?), a good book has a much better chance of finding a golden future via query letter than by being set loose in the wild-wild-west of self-publishing.

Give your book a chance.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Words and Music, Part 1.

I’ve been pondering writing, as I am wont to do. More so because the Santa Barbara Writers Conference just happened a month ago. Going to the conference is like receiving a writing and reading booster shot. The writing booster might be expected, but reading?

The truth is that I read better after the conference. I read more carefully. I read more slowly, which is inconvenient, but it is what it is. After the conference my giant boxes of books from the fabulous Chaucer’s Bookstore arrive, but I don’t go right for the newest books. I tend to pull from the bottom of the stacks the toughest books. The ones I put off reading before the conference. The ones with the fierce reputations, the ones with the tiny type, and the poetry.

When I started my goal of reading one hundred pages a day I looked at the few books of poetry languishing on my to-read stack, looked at all the white space on most pages, and thought they would be a breeze. Not so. Poetry turned out to be the slowest read in the stack. I didn’t know it at the time, but realizing that fact would feed into some ponderings I had about writing. I haven’t got it all worked out, but I have three related ideas, and here’s part one.

Why does it take so darn long to read good writing?

This goes against what many agents and editors and even writing teachers might advise. Many of them want writing to flow swiftly off the page, the language plain and easy to digest. Practically invisible. “Kill Your Darlings!” writers are told. At times it sounds like “kill anything good!” At times I think writers follow that advice too well.

Plain writing makes easy reading. Clean simple writing lets me get through my daily reading in two hours. Less if I don’t care what’s going on in the book. But a good story, utilitarian, straightforward writing? No darlings? Two hours.

So why does great writing take twice that long? Why am I inching through W.S. Merwin’s Migration? Why did James Joyce’s Ulysses take weeks (the first time)?

I realized I wasn’t just reading them. I was hearing them.

Saint Ambrose was an odd duck. He had a habit so unusual that Saint Augustine remarked on it:  he read silently. For most of history, all reading was aloud. Nobody knows if Ambrose’s lips moved when he read, but he wasn’t reading aloud. Here’s my question:  was he still hearing the language? Did he have an internal narration running?

When I read great writing, I need to hear the language. That is what’s taking so long. If the language is great, I am hearing it aloud in my head. If the writing is ordinary, the meaning is going in directly, at whatever speed I can maintain. I’m not hearing it. I’m just reading it.

I don’t know if this is something that came from listening to many, many audiobooks. It might be. I can switch up “narrators” in my head if I wish. But only the great writing gets this treatment.

So there’s the problem:  the better the writing, the slower the read, because I’m hearing it, not just reading it. I’m not certain what a functional MRI would find, but I bet my auditory center is up and going when I settle in with Merwin or Joyce. And maybe my music center?

That leads to Part 2 & 3 of my little contemplation. Joyce, the Irish, and music.