Wednesday, September 28, 2011

You've Got 10 Minutes ... Impress Me!

Never judge a book by its cover … but can I judge a novel by the first 30 pages?

Lately, I’ve been doing just that. I love my iPad and its digital library. Hear about a novel? Just search, find, and download a sample.

However, I’m old enough to remember the days of searching books stores, used and new, trying to track down something highly recommended. There was a time (mainly during my late teens and early 20s) when I spent much of my weekend browsing and perusing and simply enjoying the feel and touch of the books. This is way back in the day when the only “search” available was to ask the bookstore help, who may or may not have a clue to what you’re talking about. Eventually, I’d come home with a bag full of paperbacks feeling somewhat superior to … well, everyone else.

And now, what took hours simply takes minutes. I love the convenience. I love the accessibility. And I love the downloadable sample … being able to get a feel for a book before opening my wallet is great.

Yet, at the same time, sampling means I’m no longer invested in a novel. The time it took decades ago to find a specific novel created a social contract, in a way. “I’ve tracked the damn thing down; I’m reading it from cover to cover goddammit.”

That’s no longer the case. If I don’t like the tone or writing or character voice or whatever in the first 30 pages, then poof! it’s deleted. Gone. Not a thought about it again. In many ways, that’s sad. I can’t help but think I’m missing out on something – yet at the same time, there are so many great novels out there, why waste my time on one that doesn’t grab me at the beginning?

This instant (well, almost instant) need-for-gratification affects my writing immensely. I fret over the beginning of my novels so much. I’m terrified that the first few pages will simply bore my read just enough so that the rest of my energy and ideas and creative endeavor are tossed away. I know how I’d feel if I saw that happening…but even this connected sympathy can’t stop me from doing the same.

Maybe that might make me a better writer?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Misdiagnosis

A few friends (here and there) have commented to me about my “writer’s block”, offering a few helpful suggestions. I appreciate the advice, except that it doesn’t apply to me.

I know writer’s block. I’ve seen writer’s block. This funk I’m in is not writer’s block.

In my experience, writer’s block is the emotional hell of wanting to write, but being unable to form the words or find that creative thread. The image that links to this is the cliché of sitting in front of the laptop, blank screen oscillating, and not having a single word pop to the forefront. Sort of like insomnia of the creative mode. Having struggled with writing fiction for (gulp!) 30 years now, I understand my moods and difficulties completely. What I am facing now is not at all like that.

I have good ideas. I have momentum. I’ve always had direction and plot and characters. Sitting down and hacking out 3,000-5,000 words is easy for me. I’m a fast typist and it’s simply of matter of translating the  images in my head onto the paper. I know that the moment I place myself in front of my laptop, the words will easily pour out.

So, if I don’t have writer’s block, then why haven’t I written anything in weeks?

I know what I want to write … but I simply don’t want to write. I have no desire to continue onward with my current novel. Not out of boredom – I still believe in this idea and the project as a whole. My snag is a lack of energy and determination to forge ahead. Maybe it’s the mid-project blues?

However, like I said, I know myself as a writer. This happens a lot to me. It will pass. I will (soon) sit down and continue onward, due to pure stubbornness.

Until that moment arrives, this blog will basically be me bitching about how I’m not writing. Maybe the boredom of writing on this theme (and you reading it!) will get me moving?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

One Moment Please

It’s been 6 weeks since I wrote a word for E2.

[Update and clarification: Okay, of this 6 weeks, I was traveling for more than half. So I guess that's a good excuse for part of this span.]

Seems like forever … and I have to wonder why I can’t seem to sit myself down and get anything done. A lot of excuses pop up, though lack of time is not one of them. The new semester has started at the university, so that has me a little preoccupied. However, I had a good 2 weeks before that to write, and I didn’t. It’s not a lack of ideas. Oh, I got me some plenty of them ideas. It’s not boredom, per se. I want to see the end of this novel. I want to mold it into something worthwhile.

Yet, I just can’t seem to get my fingers to do any work on it. (Yes, I do see the irony that I happen to write plenty enough for this blog!)

I think, overall, it’s certain doubts that cause this pause. I’m uncertain that the finished novel will do justice to the original concept. It’s the long slog ahead of me that, honestly, at times is not pleasant at all. It’s the uncertainty of “What now?” when I actually do finish. Nothing new here. I’ve seen it all before.

I believe it’s simply a matter of time. I’m working at being patient. Eventually, I will find that spark to sit down and let the words flow. I know what to write. I know where to begin (and where to end). All I gotta do is start with the first letter.

Soon.

Monday, September 19, 2011

What I've Finished Reading: The Virgin Suicides

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides is a novel that hides nothing.

It announces right up front what’s going to happen and then dares the reader to continue. And the pure brilliance of this novel is that I want to go on. Because while I know the whats and sometimes even the hows of the future actions, it’s the why which keeps me hooked. Well, that and Eugenides amazing lyrical voice.

There are passages hidden within the continual narrative that simply sing.

It’s like … like what? Oh, like the small crowds in 1864 who gathered for a hillside picnic as a civil war battle formed in the field below. They came to watch “the spectacle” only to find horror. Yet, in that horror unfolding before their eyes, someone sees a minor detail – something so brief and insignificant but at the same time inspirational in all the death and destruction and hopelessness.

The Virgin Suicides gives that moment of beauty. Within the isolation of its main characters. And the vagueness of the private lives of others. And finally in the  senseless unexplained deaths. The novel shies away from none of this, knowing that in the sadness of all these details is, somehow, a celebration of life.

As a reader, I’m powerless to alter a single event. And in many ways, I separate myself from it all – it’s simply a novel. It’s not real. These are not people. Yet … yet … I suppose the fact that in the end I do care is a testament to the power of the writing. Eugenides makes me care.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Voices in My Head

While writing opinions of the books I’ve read this summer, I realize that maintaining a high level of quality from page one to page last is a monumental task. As a reader goes through a book, it becomes a singular activity on a linear time line taking maybe a week or so. Therefore, it’s easy to forget that the writing of the novel may have taken years and is much more dynamic, with jumps and pauses and switches and melt downs. The effort to stay focused and continually improve a work of fiction is an emotional marathon. The whispering voices inside every writer’s head are a constant source of despair.

There is always the mean spirited voice that says: “It’s not good. And it will never be good enough.” That insinuation is so difficult to ignore.

Then there’s: “You’ve spent how long on this? And you’re not done yet?” that brings out a sense of eternal doom, forever cursed to push a rock up a hill only to see it roll back down.

One of my perennial internal critics is the whisper that says: “Why bother? No one is ever going to read it? What difference does it make if you finish or not?” Yeah, that’s both hard to take and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And then, even after putting in months and months of work, there is the insidious “It’s good enough. Stop being a perfectionist.”

That last voice embodies the real evil of writing – it’s such a solitary endeavor that  even when the emotions are drained and objectivity has set in, there’s always a fuzzy, undetermined point of when is “done” actually “done”?

Ah… Any writer can fill you in: It’s never done. Never. Sure, eventually every writer has to let go, but given another opportunity, there’s always another sentence to improve, another character detail to expand, another plot scene to develop. Never. Ever. Done.

Oh my gawd, that’s depressing.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

What I've Finished Reading: The Sparrow

There are many things to like about Mary Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow. It’s realistic look at space exploration. It’s filled with clever ideas behind alien life and civilization. And the way it builds suspense throughout the first half of the novel is really really good.

I suppose the key word in those first thoughts of mine is “first half.” That’s because I found that the deeper I got into the novel, the more I felt the plot and characters were losing their edge. As I talked about previously (here), sometimes a single scene in a novel can lower the overall appreciation of the entire work. Once again, that is the case here.

Oh, it’s a good novel. Well written, well thought out. And it has some great moments. But a few missteps here and there unfortunately change a great novel into something that is merely good. However, nowadays, good is something well worthy of my time.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

What I (Couldn't) Finish Reading: Wind Up Bird Chronicle & The Curfew

Sometimes I run across a book where I want to continue, but the narrative voice is so damn irritating that I can’t.

Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami begins with the main character who is so passive and pliable that it’s hard to care what he does. Moping around his house? Check. Seemingly giving up on life? Check. Accepting demands from others because who really cares? Check.

By the time the plot tries to pick up the pace and get interesting, it’s too late. I don’t care what he does, mainly because I’m not sure he’s going to do anything. At least not until it’s too late or too weird or too many pages have passed by.

I don’t need every page to be action packed, but at least give the characters a little momentum. That would be nice.

The Curfew by Jesse Ball is a different sort of problem. The premise starts off in complete mystery as the society introduced is similar but so different. I wanted to read on. I wanted to learn more. However, the narrative voice (there it is again!) was so stilted and clipped and confusing that I couldn’t get past the first 20 or so pages.

It could be that style is just not for me. I’ll accept the blame here – this book has received quite a few good reviews. But in my defense, I don’t mind a good confusing strange universe (see here), yet at the same time I need the narrative to at least help me along, just a little bit. The beginning of this book simply irritated more than enticed.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Lots of Reading – No Writing

After spending the month of August traveling (London and Buenos Aires) and then battling the flu for the week I returned home, I haven’t spent any time writing at all. Not a single word on paper (or the electronic equivalent).

Oh, I’ve done a ton of reading. No doubt about that, as the last few posts here have evidenced. But as for producing the written form in a form of fiction? Nope. I can’t really count my dream, even though it helped solidify much of what I have to say for E2. It’s still all trapped in my head.

I want to write. I think about it every day. Yet, the physical act of sitting down and judging my output … well, I don’t seem to have the energy. Fear of failure? Maybe? Most probably, though, it’s simply fatigue.

I spent a few hours almost every day from April through June writing, editing, plotting, doubting, etc on my stories. Overall, it takes an emotional toll. Right now, in my way, I’m recharging before I jump back into the fray.

Until then, I’ll continue to read. It’s a balm for me. It’s a learning experience. It’s relaxing. And in many ways, it gives me hope. Hope for a better life for me. And hope that one day I’ll be able to finish something worth publishing.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

What I've Finished Reading: The Snowman

Here’s a question: Can a single scene in a novel ruin the whole experience?

To qualify, I don’t mean a bad ending. I think we’d all agree that a stupid conclusion can spoil anything that has come before. What I’m asking here is whether a scene in the beginning or middle, if poorly done or out of character, can taint the rest of the novel … even if the novel is overall good?

Yeah, I think it can.

And thus this brings me to The Snowman by Jo Nesbo (sorry, the author’s name has some special Scandinavian letters that I can’t duplicate here).

The Snowman is a reasonably good thriller set in Oslo. I think there’s a current trend for a lot of mystery/horror translations from this area, and while Nesbo’s novel is good, it’s certainly not of the quality of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But still, it’s a well crafted plot and interesting characters.

However, there is one scene about midway through which made me roll my eyes and groan. Briefly, a possible victim of the serial killer is running away, axe in hand, in the woods surrounding her house and in this tense moment of the possibility of escape, she … wait for it … gets her ankle caught in some sort of wire loop – an animal trap that her own husband had installed and that she knew about. Ah, but worst, she can’t seem to free herself.

Oh please! Any attempt at making the killer look sinister and devious and unstoppable throughout the whole first half of the novel is ruined by this stupid twist. Now it just seems like his victims are idiots. I lost my sympathy for her plight. I lost my awe of the genius evil killer. And I certainly lost my respect for the author’s plot.

I did keep reading though. The novel is written well enough to hold my interest, even after this big letdown. But my heart really wasn’t into it anymore. I kept fearing another one of these convenient stupid accidents.

That’s a shame. I really wanted to like this book. In the end, however, that one bad scene made a handful of other questionable scenes seem that much more unbelievable.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

What I've Finished Reading: Light

The sci-fi novel Light  by M. John Harrison drops the reader into the confusion from the very beginning. At first, it’s a bit of a struggle to know what the hell is going on … and it certainly complicates the attempt when one of the main characters is a brilliant physicist and a psychotic paranoid killer.  No spoiler here; this all comes out in the first few pages.

However, when you keep at it, go with the flow, the novel slowly comes together. It begins to make sense. And when it does, the beauty of Harrison’s universe becomes apparent in its weird multi-dimensional glory.

It’s not the easiest novel to understand, but I found that challenge as part of the enjoyable experience. That’s what I expect from good hard sci-fi. It’s not all easily explained. It’s not a world that we can be completely comfortable with. Yet in the end, it’s a good novel, good plot, and at times some amazingly written passages.

What I've Finished Reading: The Sisters Brothers

A summary of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt in one word? Brilliant.

It’s not often a novel hits the balance between such a unique voice and an amazing story. This western isn’t really anything new … if you’ve any experience with traditional western movies/books, then the characters and plot will not strike you as original. However, the way the story is told with such humor and honesty and gritty violence is fabulous.

Halfway through, what dawned on me as I read was that the two main characters are despicable, immoral killers and yet I liked them so much. They were funny and endearing … and then would suddenly explode in abject violence. The mixture is near impossible to pull off well, but deWitt does it with style and skill.

This is one of the few books I’ve read this summer that I didn’t want to put down. The chapters are short and stark. The plot is straightforward and brutal. Yet, all together it forms such a wondrous world that I was sad to see end.

I really enjoyed this novel, both as a reader and an author. I simply wish I could write so well.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What I (Couldn't) Finish Reading: Glass Palace

I made it halfway through the novel Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh before finally closing it for good. Why?

Because everything and nothing happened.

Glass Palace falls into the category of the “Suffering Colonial Epic” for me … one of those books which tries to encompass life under English rule in some far eastern country. You get the typical poverty, the brutality and disdain from the English, the extravagance and pointlessness of emperoric rule, the sweeping generational movement of time, etc.

I find it all so predictable and in this specific case, not that interesting. I think Glass Palace wants to be a love story, but its scope tends to skip over those details that make love interesting: the depth of the interaction between the characters. Basically, in late 1800s Burma, a 10-year-old boy sees a 10-year-old girl and finds her “the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.” They are then separated for 20 years, more or less, in which their lives jump and bounce around with no real development. Of course, he becomes a financial mastermind (with little believability except that it just sort of happens) and tracks her down. She barely remembers him, but in one brief conversation decides: Sure. Why not? Let’s get married.

That’s where I stopped.

The whole thrust of this type of story is supposed to be one of discovery and emotional investment. Instead, I get a Bollywood plot and a rambling story which heads in a predictable direction. I knew, without continuing, that I’d be faced with their hardships and children and overcoming whatever obstacles to soldier onward. There'd continue to be no details, no impact, no explanation of why things happen except in the mode of it's meant to be that way. Whatever.

I have no tolerance for that type of story, written in such broad strokes. For me, Glass Palace lacks the volume of detail and real-life emotion to make me care.

Monday, September 5, 2011

What I've Finished Reading: Song of Fire and Ice

This series by George RR Martin is better known under the title of the first novel (part 1) Game of Thrones. I had heard some good things about this medieval adventure series (with just a tad of magic and dragons thrown in), so I decided to read the first novel and see what I thought.

Six weeks later, I plowed through one part after the next: Game of Thrones, Feast of Crows, Clash of Kings, Storm of Swords, and Dance of Dragons.

For its genre, these books are exceptional. If you like power struggles, intrigue, deception, a cast of hundreds, wars, murder, and real insight into unique characters, then this series is one you have to read. I found it fascinating. Thye are detailed and developed with such care and forethought. Martin truly rivals some of the classic novels that have created their own world and dragged the reader into the midst of it all.

Of course, many comparisons have been made (by others) to Tolkien. Yes, obviously so. But I also see echoes of other great series, like Dune by Herbert or even the Harry Potter series by Rowling. It takes a real lover of writing to spend the time and energy to build an entire civilization, complete with geography, politics, family rivalry, history, and war. From the moment you begin the first novel, you are transported into a world both familiar and unique.

Truly, even beyond the mere escapism that this genre provides, Martin entertains and amazes with his writing skill. It naturally flows and grabs your interest from paragraph after paragraph.

And I’m still not finished. As if hundreds of major and minor characters aren’t enough, there are at least 2 more books to complete the saga. I can’t wait to see where this all ends up.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Stumbling and Bumbling

After 3 weeks of traveling, I return home to be hit by the flu. Days of fever and coughing and aches and throbbing and lack of sleep – probably no more than an hour at a time to be followed by 30 minutes of coughing and hopelessness. The jumpstart I was hoping for to continue onward with E2 dissipated into delirious haze.

And I dreamt.

In those short bouts of sleep, my unconsciousness ran rampart. I had dreams of castles in clouds of silver. I dreamt of murder and suspects. Long involved chases and gardens filled with flowers. I saw old friends and we laughed and talked.

And one early morning I awoke with another chapter of E2 written.

I do not mean I dreamt that I wrote a chapter, as if I was viewing it from afar. No. I actually wrote a specific chapter of my novel in the dream. I saw the words as clearly as I would see them on the laptop screen I’m staring at in front of me right now. The entire 5,000+ words of the chapter, all in my head, mapped out in detailed, repeated over and over in an endless cycle: edited, refined, encapsulated an amazing breakthrough for which I had been waiting.

All bow before the creativity of a cooked brain.