Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Inspector Montalbano between Scylla and Charybdis

Andrea Camilleri's A Voice in the Night is, by my count, the twentieth Inspector Montalbano mystery. Because the translation is copyrighted 2016, I believe it is the most recent. I have not read every one of the first nineteen in the series, and a reader who starts with this one may wonder about the relationship between Montalbano and Livia, his main squeeze, who appears in this book only on the telephone, and his relations with other reappearing characters.

Montalbano in this book is 58-years-old. He's an experienced Sicilian homicide detective who has to—you will excuse the reference—thread his way between the Scylla of the local mafia and the Charybdis of a corrupt political system. Montalbano may be able to solve the crime, but there's no guarantee that justice will be done.

This tension, between a (relatively) honest police detective and forces well beyond any individual's control is one of the things that makes the Montalbano mysteries interesting. They are also interesting puzzles, and Camilleri does not, for the most part, cheat the reader. (He will, as we're coming down to the denouement, not reveal exactly what Montalbano has planned, only that he has plans.) And the books are, for me at least, convincing pictures of what a certain slice of contemporary Sicilian life is like.

Montalbano has to solve two crimes in A Voice in the Night: A routine supermarket burglary turns unroutine when the store manager is found hanging in his office—and forensic evidence suggests he was murdered. Almost simultaneously a lovely young woman is found brutally slaughtered in the apartment of one Giovanni Stranglo. Stranglo has a solid alibi, but, as it happens, his father is the president of the province. Traveling with Montalbano as he works with his staff to solve the two cases (we never leave the inspector's point of view; my preference in a mystery), we watch him uncover clues and red herrings and—surprise!—solve the crimes.

The book is not perfect. In an attempt, I suspect, to suggest the Sicilian dialect, the translator has one of the thankfully minor characters talk like this: "My virry best wishes wit' all my 'eart for a rilly, rilly long life an' alla 'appiness an' 'ealthiness inna world, Chief!" I find a little of this goes a long, long way. Also Camilleri wrote the book when Silvio Berlusconi was Italy's prime minister, so there are a few topical references that are outdated.

Nevertheless, for readers who have been following Inspector Montalbano's career, A Voice in the Night is a creditable entry in the series. And for mystery lovers who do not know the detective, it's time to make his acquaintance.

Monday, December 19, 2016

How to write and publish a mystery

I will be presenting a program on How to Write and Publish a Mystery at the Silas Bronson Library in Waterbury, CT, on Saturday, January 21, at 2:00. Hope to see friends and new faces there.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

What do we really know about our parents?

I requested a review copy of Alexandra Burt's novel The Good Daughter because the premise is interesting: What do we really know about our parents? "Dahlia Waller remembers an early childhood filled with stuffy cars, seedy motels, and traveling the country under assumed names before mysteriously settling in Aurora, TX. But as an adult, having distanced herself from her mother, she has so many questions." The novel slowly, slowly, slowly answers those many questions.

When the book opens, Dahlia is in her early 30s having returned to Aurora after fifteen years away. She and Memphis, her mother, had settled in Aurora when Dahlia was about twelve after a childhood on the road, home schooled, and regularly taking off in the middle of night for another town, another state. Her mother would not enroll her in public school because officials wanted "paperwork" and Memphis had no paperwork, wanted to answer no questions.

In chapter one, Dahlia goes jogging in the woods near their rented house and comes across a beaten and partially buried young woman and is apparently attacked herself. The young woman is in a coma for most of the book, and whenever the action flags, we're reminded that she's in the hospital waiting to awaken and reveal who she is and what happened to her.

Dahlia narrates her own story throughout the book, but Quinn's story is told in the third person. While Burt is coy about revealing Quinn's relationship to Dahlia, most readers will have twigged to it long before they're told. We read about Quinn's sexual initiation in a loving, blissful scene in the woods with a Hispanic boy who eventually becomes Aurora's sheriff. The boy leaves 17-year-old Quinn in post-coital languor, and three violent, filthy, brutal hunters find her, beat, and gang rape her. One consequence is that Quinn becomes infertile.

Nevertheless, Quinn marries, Nolan, the dissolute son of a decayed Texas family who wants nothing more than a son and heir. They live together for ten years in the family farmhouse a ways outside of Aurora and Quinn apparently never tells her husband she cannot conceive. One evening in the middle of a hurricane, a feeble-minded and pregnant young girl, Tain Fish, shows up at the farm. Quinn takes the girl in, and buries the stillborn fetus not far from the farmhouse in which she and Nolan live.

Now living on this isolated farm: Quinn, ten-year married who cannot have a baby; Nolan, soured on his marriage but wants nothing but a baby; and Tain, a simple, compliant young girl who has demonstrated her fertility. What do you think happens?

I do not what to give away much more of the story. Perhaps other readers will be enchanted by the improbabilities, coincidences, and cliches that fill The Good Daughter. For example, if the mother had a loving sexual experience with the sheriff as a boy, wouldn't you expect the daughter to have a loving sexual relationship with the sheriff's son, now a cop? I would and she did.

I had no problem with the switch in point of view from Dahlia's first person to Quinn's third person. I did have a problem late in the book when Quinn is abruptly telling her own story. I do not understand the function of Aella, a conjure woman who lives alone in the woods, tells fortunes, and concocts herbal potions and creams. I found her unnecessary to the story and a distraction. I also had a problem with the last fifty or sixty pages of a very long—368 pages—book by which time I had figured out Quinn's story but which she tells Dahlia in dribs and drabs and teases the reader. On page 282: "She has been holding on to it [the story] for many years, and now it is her obligation to release it from her memory." But she doesn't for another fifty pages or so.

I'm afraid that after the first couple chapters, I found neither the characters nor the situation plausible. I did read The Good Daughter to the bittersweet end, but I also found it easy to put down. But that just may be me; other readers may find Dahlia, Memphis, Tain and the rest of the cast both believable and engaging.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

It's like reading a novel in short takes

I looked up Paula Whyman's collection of linked short stories, You May See a Stranger, because she was featured in a Poets & Writers magazine article, "5 Over 50." These short sketches introduce five authors older than fifty who published their first book in the past year. The implied message: You're not too old to be published. That's good news for some of us.

While the book was published in 2016, it appears the individual stories were written and published over a period of time. Eight of the ten were originally published in eight different literary magazines, but there is no indication of when. Some of us would like to know, although it would not change the pleasure that You May See a Stranger offers.

And the book does offer a variety of pleasures. All of the stories have the same protagonist, Miranda Weber, and they cover incidents in Miranda's life from adolescence to middle age. Miranda tells her own story in eight of the ten stories (the other two are told in the third person), and she is funny, sometimes self-destructive, and human, all too human.

Another pleasure is Whyman's use of language and ability to convey information. Here is the third paragraph of the title story:

"Pogo has wads of cash in his pockets. I have a small square of paper in my purse. It's proof of something that I don't quite believe. When the doctor said it, I thought of an incubator and chicks, my body as a holding area, warm, but like everything else, temporary. Pogo will eventually show everyone the case. I don't plan to show anyone the paper. This is Pogo's big night, no mine. One big night at a time seems like a good philosophy."

What do you think the paper shows? And who do you think is the father? And how do you think Miranda will deal with Pogo's big night?

Many of the pleasures are in Whyman's observations: "Entering the restaurant was like entering a Middle Eastern version of Brigadoon. We sat on cushions on the floor among tasseled pillows that were embedded with rows of thumbnail-size mirrors. You didn't recline on them so much as gaze at your broken self."

And while it's tempting to pull one plum paragraph after another out of this collection, I'll stop with one more. Miranda has just admitted a fence salesman into the house so he can write up an estimate. (This story takes place during the time when a sniper was killing random pedestrians in Washington, D.C., so there's an undercurrent of anxiety running through it.) Miranda excuses a pile of blankets in the living room as, "Kids, making forts!" Then she asks herself, "Why say anything? I always feel that I owe an explanation. Why? Once I begin to explain, the other party decides that in fact I do need to explain—and by "other party" I mean "husband"—and that my explanation is insufficient. And then we argue. This happens all the time. That's just what marriage is, at least what it is now, after ten years, a constant stream of insufficient explaining. . ."

The book rewards the reader for the language, for the detail, for the characterizations and for the way the stories resonate with one another. Each story can stand alone, but reading the sequence through is like reading a novel in short bursts—although few novels are as rewarding as You May See a Stranger.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Why Michael Connelly is so great (again)

Harry Bosch is back and he's still detecting in The Wrong Side of Goodbye.

Bosch, as mystery lovers know, is the Los Angeles-based police detective created by Michael Connelly. I've written about Connelly in the past and what I admire about his novels, so in this review I may repeat myself. Very well. I repeat myself.

First, Connelly is able to stay within the point of view of Bosch throughout the book. We readers see and hear what Harry sees and hears. We don't jump into the heads, or points of view, of other characters, most notably the villain's.

Connelly convinces me that the places he describes are as he describes them. The streets are real, the neighborhoods look as he says, the public buildings are just as he writes.

In the course of an investigation, Bosch by necessity meets and works with a couple dozen other characters. Connelly is able somehow (magically?) to make each of those characters individual. I am tempted to re-read the book with a highlighter to try to spot the sentences, the dialogue, the actions that bring all those characters alive on the page.

Finally, the mechanics of the investigation seem to me to be exactly right. Some leads work, some are dead ends or brick walls. Bosch is able to bring memory and experience to what he learns and thereby to put new information into a context. For example, as a Vietnam vet himself, Bosch is able to understand what civilian clothes in a dead Vietnam vet's effects implies.

This last point is important to me because I believe that a Connelly novel actually teaches me something about the world and the way real people live in it. This is what a police detective is able to do, is not able to do, and is able to do but, if he does it, will have consequences.

I haven't said anything about The Wrong Side of Goodbye, so here it is: Bosch, having been removed from the LAPD for cause (and the action in an earlier novel), is working as an unpaid investigator for a small, independent police department that has been hit with budget cutbacks and has a pile of cold cases that need work. Bosch is glad to have a badge and something to do and is working on serial rape case.

But the book's inciting incident is a $10,000 invitation to visit a reclusive, elderly billionaire who wants Bosch to discover whether he has an heir. The money is to induce Bosch to visit the estate and hear the man's story. Bosch takes the challenge.

So, The Wrong Side of Goodbye tells two stories simultaneously, the rape investigation and the hunt for a possible heir. I suspect a less skillful writer, in an effort to be clever, would at the book's end reveal how the one investigation connects with the other. Connelly doesn't do that. The only connection between the stories is Bosch, so the reader gets two intriguing stories for the price of one in another exceptionally satisfying mystery.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

What's grit and how can you get some?

"Psychologists have spent decades searching for the secret of success," says a blurb on the front cover of my copy of Grit, "but Duckworth is the one who found it."

Angela Duckworth, PhD., is a 2015 MacArthur Fellow and a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, her first book, is a deservedly best seller. I suspect it has done well because the text includes Duckworth's research, her interviews with interesting and gritty people, with personal stories from her life. And it's easy to read.

Basically,  to be successful you need a combination of passion and perseverance—that is, grit. You can be talented. You can be intelligent. You can be charming, well-educated, and ambitious. But without grit, your ability to push on, your success will be limited.

Why? Because, based on Duckworth's research, talented and intelligent people without grit tend to give up when things get tough. They drop out of West Point. They quit practicing. They lose interest. They get bored. They decide they can't do it so they quit. In contrast, mature paragons of grit have four psychological assets:

1. They have interest. "Every gritty person I've studied can point to aspects of their work they enjoy less than others, and most have to put up with at least one or two chores they don't enjoy at all. Nevertheless they are captivated by the endeavor as a whole."

2. They practice. They work, and work, and work on their weaknesses to become better, more skillful, more proficient.

3. They have purpose. They are convinced that their work matters. They believe that their work is "personally interesting and, at the same time, integrally connected to the well-being of others."

4. They have hope. "Hope," she writes, "is a rising-to-the-occasion kind of perseverance."

Once she explains what grit is and why it matters, Duckworth writes about ways readers can improve their own Grit score on a brief quiz she includes and ways parents and teachers can grow grittiness in offspring and students. And while I believe almost anyone—even the gritty—can read the book with profit (one reason it's a best seller), I was particularly interested in her John Irving (The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, etc.) example.

Irving earned C— in high school English. He needed to stay in high school an extra year to have enough credits to graduate. His SAT verbal score was 475 out of 800. His teachers thought he was both "lazy" and "stupid." Because reading and writing did not come easily, "I learned that I just had to pay twice as much attention," he wrote. "I came to appreciate that in doing something over and over again, something that was never natural became almost second nature. You learn that you have the capacity for that, and that it doesn't come overnight."

Irving said, "One reason I have confidence in writing the kind of novels I write is that I have confidence in my stamina to go over something again and again no matter how difficult it it. Rewriting is what I do best as a writer. I spend more time revising a novel or a screenplay than I take to write the first draft."

In commenting on his inability to read and write as fluently as others, Irving believes, "It's become an advantage. In writing a novel, it doesn't hurt anybody to have to go slowly. It doesn't hurt anyone as a writer to have to go over something again and again." Words to live by.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Strong opinions from an American original

Edward Abbey published nine novels and a dozen books of nonfiction during his life, 1927-1989. He was born in western Pennsylvania, moved west when he was 17 and fell in love with the desert country. He was an MP in the US Army stationed in Italy, went to college in New Mexico and Edinburgh, and lived the rest of his life in Arizona and Utah. He worked as a seasonal ranger at Arches National Monument in the late 1950s and the journals he kept of that time became Desert Solitaire. Perhaps his best-known novel is The Monkey Wrench Gang.

A friend of Abbey's, David Peterson, collected and edited Abbey's correspondence and published Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast. It's a book that should appeal to anyone interested in Abbey and anyone interested in writing.

Abbey had strong opinions and was willing to share them. From the first letter in the book, writing to his family in November 1949: "The radio is on and I'm hearing a song called 'Mule Train' for about the seventh time this evening. Quite a fad, this pseudo-Western culture. First 'Riders in the Sky' and now this . . ."

I found his opinions about other writers interesting. He did not care for John Updike ("his books are essentially trivial"), J.D. Salinger ("that juvenile neurotic!"), Saul Bellow ("promoting an occult theosophical doctrine known as Steinerism"). For a sense of authors he did like (or respected), he listed books by B. Traven, Thomas Mann, Knute Hamsun, Haldor Laxness, Sartre, Kazantzakis, Mariano Azuela among the greatest modern novels. Indeed, I intend to use his lists of 27 great modern novels, 80 contemporary favorites, and 20-plus greatest books of all time (so far) for my own reading suggestions.

"What is the true subject, or point, or premise, of literary art?" Abby asked in a letter to Annie Dillard. "The novel is the book of life, said Lawrence, and I agree. The novelist must be granted his premises, said Henry James, and I agree with that too. And this above all, says Thoreau, over and over again, give me the truth, the truth however cruel rather than comforting fabrication." Postcards from Ed is studded with thought-provoking passages like this, a letter I would guess of a couple thousand words. (I can imagine what Abbey would think of Twitter.)

He was a working writer, and I was stopped by this letter to his editor about his penultimate novel: "I've read The Fool's Progress, all 901 pages, straight through from beginning to end, and this is what I think. Almost every page requires some re-writing. There are entire scenes and passages in the book that should be re-written word for word or discarded. The early love scenes between Lightcap and Honeydew Mellon are embarrassingly bad—sappy, foolish, silly . . .  There is . . . too much hasty careless self-indulgent writing throughout the book . . . " Ouch.

But the letter makes me want to read The Fool's Progress. Was Abbey (and his editor) able to clean it up? Or was he misguided, and did the changes make it worse? Without a comparison between the manuscript and the printed book, we'll never know.

I do know however that Abbey was, as they say, an American original, and Postcards from Ed has given me a wealth of ideas and leads to follow.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

But What if Chuck Klosterman Is On To Something?

Chuck Klosterman had an interesting idea for a book: What of the things we believe are true today turn out to be wrong? His example is Aristotle's theory of gravity: A rock falls to the earth because it wants to return home. People—or at least those people who cared about
This is not a misprint; this is the cover.
such things and were familiar with Aristotle, an itsy bitsy fraction of humanity—accepted that theory for almost two thousand years. If such a crackbrained (to us) idea can last that long, what current accepted truths will seem equally foolish in a hundred, five hundred, a thousand years? It was a good enough book idea that he sold an editor on it and Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, has now published his book: But What If We're Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past.

Klosterman is a writer, not an academic. After college, he was a reporter on the Akron (Ohio) Beacon-Journal, worked for five years on Spin magazine, and for three years wrote "The Ethicist" column for the New York Times Magazine. He's published two novels and six books of non-fiction. He bases his new book on his research and interviews with authorities like Brian Greene, a theoretical physicist at Columbia University, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, movie director Richard Linklater, Zed Adams, an assistant professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research, and more. 

And because he is someone who has to earn a living as a writer, the book is lively and engaging. Even when he writes himself into a corner. In his chapter meditating on the future of television he asks, "Am I arguing that future generations will watch Roseanne and recognize its genius? Am I arguing that they should watch it, for reasons our current generation can't fully appreciate? Am I arguing that future generations might watch it and (almost coincidentally) have a better understanding of our contemporary reality, even if they don't realize it?" [Italics in the original.]

His answer to these questions: "I don't know."

He continues: "I really don't. It's possible this debate doesn't even belong in this book, or that it should be its own book. It's a phenomenon with no willful intent and no discernible result. I'm not satisfied with what my conclusion says about the nature of realism. But I know this matters. I know there is something critical here we're underestimating, and it has to do with television's ability to make the present tense exist forever, in a way no other medium ever has. . . ." [Italics in the original.]

Klosterman grants that we cannot know the future if only because we cannot know of a reality-changing discovery before it's discovered and therefore we cannot know its effects. He laces his text with examples of forecasts that either misjudged the timing (the 1948 prediction that it would take science 200 years to solve the problems of landing and returning from the moon) or missed a key development entirely (no one in 1980 imagined that the cost of a sixty-minute phone call from Michigan to Texas would ever cost less than mailing a physical letter the same distance). Given the unknown unknowns, Klosterman does not make his own predictions other than to forecast that the future reality will be different from today's.

What he does do is write about books, popular music (i.e., "rock'"), the multiverse (i.e., an infinite number of universes exist), Phantom Time (i.e., all information we have about the distant past is unreal), television, sports (i.e., the NFL has passed its peak), politics, and more. I found it a fascinating trip, much of which I disagreed with or regarded as pointless. Yes, it is possible to speculate about other universes, but why bother? We can by definition know nothing about them. The speculation tells us more about the mental state of the speculator than about another universe. And personally I don't find that aimless inquiry interesting.

At the same time, I thought But What If We're Wrong on the whole stimulating. Klosterman reminds us that everything we know is provisional. Virtually any certainty we hold today may be overturned tomorrow. The pencil I knock from my desk may not, next time, fall to the floor but float. Unlikely, and I plan to live as if gravity remains in force, as if I will die, as if a body in motion tends to remain in motion, as if the sun will come out tomorrow, you can bet your bottom dollar. And yet, and yet. What if I'm wrong?

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Why is someone killing British officers' wives?

The Last Kashmiri Rose by Barbara Cleverly is her first mystery, and as such is a very creditable effort. It is set in India in 1922 and the protagonist is WWI veteran Joe
Sandilands, a Scotland Yard detective on temporary duty in Calcutta. The young wife of a British officer stationed at Panikhat, a military post fifty miles from Calcutta, has apparently committed suicide. The Governor of Bengal's niece, whose husband is also stationed at Panikhat, who was friends with the dead woman, and who has no confidence in the investigative abilities of the local British cop, prevails upon her uncle to assign Joe to look into the death.

Joe, with the invaluable help of an Indian police sergeant, establishes almost immediately that the wife's death was not a suicide. (But you knew that before I told you, right?) Not only was it not a suicide, but over the last ten years five other station officer's wives have died, all in the month of March—there was a time out during WWI—all in a way that was ruled as an accident at the time, each in a way that the victim most dreaded. I.e., the woman who had a phobia about water drowned; the woman who was terrified by snakes was bitten by a cobra.

So we have a diabolical serial killer on the loose. Who is it? And why these particular women?

We follow Joe as he uncovers clue after clue. Because he is bangers-and-mash British, he learns about India and its customs together with the reader. He is even able to have a brief sexual liaison with the governor's lovely niece. And, of course, he solves the mystery.

If this sounds like the sort of thing that appeals to you—an exotic setting, a complex puzzle, an interesting detective—stop reading right now and go look up the book. Because from now on, I'm giving you my uncertainties about it.

Because Cleverly set the book in 1922 and, according to the jacket copy, spent her working life in  Cambridge and Suffolk, she is writing from the outside. That is, the book is based on extensive and, I'm convinced, careful research. But it does not have, cannot have, the easy air of authority that an author writing about her own time and inside her own experience can bring to the text. My complaint is not that the author does not know India (what do I know about India? not much), but that there is a thinness to the book because it is based on research.

Also, I personally have trouble accepting serial killers who are clever enough to get away with one murder after another until finally the right detective comes along to put all the pieces together. Cleverly tries to give her killer a background that will explain (justify?) the person's actions, but I am afraid that at the end, I was unsatisfied.

Finally, she took an interesting risk to write entirely from a man's point of view and while I had no trouble with Joe while I was reading The Last Kashmiri Rose, when I thought about the book later, I was not satisfied. I was not convinced that Joe would have had the kind of sexual relationship with the niece that Cleverly depicts. This may be an entirely personal idiosyncrasy and failing, so feel free to discount it.

Still, as I said in my first sentence, this is a very creditable debut mystery, and I expect that with time, Cleverly's stories became richer and more engaging.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Why stimulate the reader's emotions?

The headline question is one that, as a novelist, has caused me some trouble. After all, isn't one of the reasons to read novels to be entertained (i.e., be positively stimulated), to feel safe grief when a character dies (i.e., it's only a story), to enjoy satisfaction when the protagonist triumphs? These emotions may not have the same quality as those we feel when a parent/friend/child dies or when we ourselves triumph, but they're convenient an cheap. They may not be as intense as the real thing, but they're better than nothing.

The question has caused me trouble because I am not convinced that my own fiction engenders emotion in readers—which I regard as a failure—while consoling myself that whether I intend to provoke emotion or not, a story automatically does so. The issue is not whether a novel stimulates emotions, but whether it stimulates strong emotions or weak and whether the emotions are what the author intended.

These thoughts were stimulated by an essay in The New York Times Book Review by Tim Parks, one of my favorite authors. Parks notes that today a book stimulates extreme emotions as a promotional tool. "Anything that disturbs us, arouses us, unsettles us, is unconditionally positive." The point of course is to sell books.

One effect of the current situation, Parks argues—from an admittedly limited perspective—is that contemporary creative writing courses "are obsessed with technique—how to arrive at that powerful detail, how to give it prominence, how to grab the reader, not why we want to grab the reader or to what end. Traditional literature courses used to reflect on the way detail was used inside a novel's overall vision. The present zeitgeist invites us only to contemplate how the trigger can be pulled, not where the bullet is going, because the purpose of creative writing courses—especially when the fees are high—is to teach the would-be writer how to produce a publishable narrative, not a 'good,' let alone 'responsible' narrative."

One might argue that this cry from the heart is Parks' rational for not writing more popular novels (as if best-sellerdom where the measure of quality). It certainly is a condemnation of much of commercial publishing: If you don't grab the reader—agent, editor, editorial committee—in the first two pages, if you don't put her on the edge of her seat, if you don't set her pulse racing, why publish the thing at all?

Perhaps because, as Parks suggests, the novel invites the reader to a higher level of intellectual engagement with complex issues. Or because it retreats "from spicy detail to offer a balanced view of life overall." Or because its characters manage "to handle potentially dangerous conflicts without arriving at a destructive showdown."

"Intellectual engagement"? "Balanced view"? No "destructive showdown" with a comely young woman threatened by ugly death? It sounds boring. And Lord (and publishing) knows, boring doesn't sell books.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

How to fail as a writer

This post is not original. Indeed, not even the headline is my own. But when you come across words that express an idea/thought/concept so well, why tinker with perfection?
The thought for and the basis of this post is from freelance writer, Dawn Field, a former research scientist whose book Biocode was published by Oxford University Press. Her post on BookBaby has twenty-three suggestions for all aspiring writers who want to sabotage their writing career. I am not going to quote them all—go to her post—but I do want to highlight several I've come across in writing classes and writing groups. For example:
1. Don't worry too much about your opening line. Readers will soon be past it and into the good stuff.
4. Go with your first complete draft as your final draft. Your gut instincts were correct the first time around; you'll just dilute them when you edit.
5. Only write when the urge hits you. If you need discipline to write, it's not really writing.
18. If an editor critiques your writing, stick to your guns that it's his fault he didn't understand "what you really meant." 
 I think the only idea I would add to this list is something like the following:
24. Your writing is you and you are your writing; if someone criticizes your writing she is criticizing you as a person. You are right to be hurt.
But Field's list is something I am going to keep for future writing groups. Check it out her twenty-three rules for failure.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Finding a hit and run on the Inside Passage

Carl Brookins' new mystery/thriller opens tranquilly enough. Michael Tanner, a successful Seattle public relations executive, his wife, and a friend are sailing the Inside Passage, the waters separating Washington State from Canada. Fog rolls in and rather than turn their chartered sloop back, Michael continues sailing. A break in the fog abruptly reveals an 80-foot, multi-deck yacht riding motionless in the water. Michael's wife gives a tentative hail, but the yacht responds only by starting its heavy diesel engines and disappearing into the fog.

Only to reappear four pages later to ram the sloop, sinking it, killing Michael's wife and friend, and almost killing him. Why? Who would do such a thing?

Unfortunately for Michael, the Canadian Coast Guard does not believe his story—and there's not much they could do about it even if they did. Michael cannot describe the yacht in any detail; he saw only three letters of the name—GOL—on the stern as it vanished into the fog. The rest of the book is the story of Michael's recovery from the incident, his growth as a person, and—spoiler alert—his final confrontation with the killer yacht.

The book is interesting because Michael is not a detective and not, when the book opens, even much of a sailor. He's a workaholic pr man with partners running a Seattle agency. Not only is he on his own in attempting to identify the yacht, but, given the small world of fishermen and boatmen who live on the islands and along the coast of the Inland Passage, he's known as the guy who lost his sloop, killing his wife and friend. If the bad guys who ran him down think he's too nosy or getting too close to identifying their boat, they will have no compunctions about killing him.

Brookins, an "avid recreational sailor" writes vividly about sailing and the natural world. Here's Michael attempting to make a safe harbor in a storm:

"The compass needle swung wildly as the cruiser smashed through another big wave and the propeller raced as the wave dropped below the stern.The boat headed down into another trough and the sea rose, curling over to meet him. Tanner's knuckles turned white as he gripped the wheel tighter and he realized he was staring up into a huge wind-ravaged wave. The launch shuddered under Tanner's feet when the big wave slammed into the bow. Water sluiced down the forelock and rose against the windscreen. The light in the cabin turned sickly green. He glanced sternward to see the deck awash with foaming seawater."

While the book held my interest as Michael overcame one challenge after another, I do have reservations. Brookins shifts point of view, often, in my opinion, unnecessarily and in a few places with no transition to warn the reader we're now in another character's head. A passage like this halfway through the book drives me wild:

"[Tanner] had only vague memories of the three figures he'd glimpsed on the bridge that awful day. He couldn't identify any of them. Although he didn't know it, Tanner owed his life to that inability. The crew member who had fired the shotgun into the cabin of the Queen Anne [Tanner's sloop] was the same man who jostled Tanner in the small Tacoma bar. The man swore later to his captain that there'd been no glimmer of recognition from Tanner during their brief encounter. The other crew member who'd watched them agreed." These sentences are the author stepping into the story to explain a point to the reader; if something needs to be explained, the original passage needs to be rewritten.

And because we do have access in a few places to the thoughts and motivations of the bad guys, it makes the reason for their original act—running down the Queen Anne—a frustrating and open mystery. All we need know is that they were doing something they shouldn't; as I read the book it seems the original criminal act was unprovoked.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed The Inside Passage enough that I am sending it along to a sailing friend with a note that he should steer clear of mysterious giant yachts that suddenly loom out of the fog.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

What you'll find in "The Boy in the Suitcase"

On the first page of The Boy in the Suitcase a Danish mystery/thriller by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnette Friis, an unidentified female character manhandles a heavy suitcase into a
secluded spot in an underground parking garage. When she opens the case she founds a boy, "naked, fair-haired, rather thin, about three years old." The boy is alive but does not speak a language the woman recognizes. The rest of the book is the story of the Danish woman, Nina Borg, who finds the boy; the boy's Lithuanian mother, Sigita; the rich man who wants the boy; and the really bad man who put the boy into the suitcase.

We know fairly early in the book who the bad guy is. We don't (I didn't) really understand the dimensions of the plot until the end of the book. For most of the pages we follow Nina as she attempts to discover the boy's identity; Sigita as she attempts to learn what happened to her son; and the bad guy who leaves bodies and mayhem in his wake.

According to the book jacket, The Boy in the Suitcase won "Denmark's prestigious Best Thriller Award." As I suggested above, the book does start with a bang. There's then what amounts to a flashback to take the reader up to the point where Nina manhandles the suitcase and finds the boy. Who is he? What is he doing in the suitcase? And where is the friend who asked Nina to pick up the case in her place? Anyone who's read more than one mystery knows the friend is now dead. 

Aside from jumping from one point of view to another in virtually every chapter, which can become distracting, my major complaint about the book is the character of the main character: Why doesn't Nina go to the police? She's a law-abiding Danish citizen, so she has no fear of winding up in the clink herself. Once she's discovered the body of her friend, she knows she's dealing with dangerous people. I wanted to shout at her more than once: GO TO THE POLICE! NOW!

Nevertheless, if the reader finds Nina engaging and sympathetic—and to be fair, she has her own baggage and is in an extraordinary situation—she will, I suspect, enjoy The Boy in the Suitcase if only to see how the bad guy gets his comeuppance. Which is why I read mysteries in the first place.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

There are fascinating doings in Sisterland

I picked up Sisterland, Curtis Sittenfeld's fourth (2013) novel because I like what she's written in The New York Times Book Review where she's a regular contributor, and because I thoroughly enjoyed her recent story in The New Yorker, "Gender Studies."

I liked Sisterland so much and feel Sittenfeld's writing has so much to teach me that I've now read the book twice. The next time, I'll go through it with a highlighter, marking the sentences and paragraphs that speak to me especially. So what do I like about it?

The story is told in the first person, Daisy, "Kate," twin sister of Violet. We never leave Kate's perspective, never have to hop into another character's head to understand what's going on. This is not as easy to do as Sittenfeld makes it appear.

Most of the action takes place in St. Louis, a setting that feels both appropriate for the story and fresh. Indeed, this particular story almost has to be set in St. Louis.

The characters feel authentic and fully realized. Even the twins' ability to "sense" future events and predict their occurrence seems plausible. Sittenfeld does not insist on their paranormal talent, so the skeptical reader (me) is able to attribute a scientific(?) account for the events the twins predict. I.e., Sittenfeld has it both ways.

Although Kate is a mid-30s, middle-class, white, mother of two young children, a full-time homemaker, the wife of a Washington University college professor, and utterly average from the outside, Sittenfeld gives us enough of her history, which helps us intuit some of her current thoughts and actions, enough to make her relationships and actions interesting and credible. While the novel's structure is not straighforwardly chronological, neither is it confusing.

Finally, the writing is extraordinary without calling attention to itself. Here is Kate on the second page of Chapter 1. She's just had lunch with her twin sister Violet, "Vi," who has told her not to leave a big tip because she didn't like the food. Kate says:

—"You of all people should realize that's not the waitress's fault." For years, all through our twenties, Vi had worked at restaurants. But she was still regarding me skeptically as I set down my credit card, and I added, "It's rude not to tip extra when you bring little kids." We were at a conversational crossroads. Either we could stand. I could gather the mess of belongings that accompanied me wherever I went—once I had been so organized that I kept my spice rack alphabetized, and now I left had an bibs and sippy cups in my wake, baggies of Cheerios, my own wallet and sunglasses—and the four of us could head out to the parking lot and then go on to drop Vi at her house, all amicably. Or I could express a sentiment that wasn't Vi, in  her way, asking me to share?

Consider all the information packed into that paragraph: particulars about Kate, her current situation, her age, her relationship with her twin, her attitude toward tipping, and more. For example, "baggies of Lucky Charms" would have said something different about her from "baggies of Cheerios."

Here, a few pages later, is Kate seeing Vi on a television screen in a local news program during which Vi forecasts a major earthquake is soon to convulse St. Louis:
—Seeing her, I flinched. The big, loose purple tunic she wore had seemed unnoteworthy at the Hacienda [the restaurant where they'd had lunch] but now appeared garish, and even if she hadn't been in the same clothes, I'd have guessed she hadn't slept the night before: There were shadows under her eyes, her face was puffy, and she didn't have on makeup. I had never been on television myself, but I knew you at least needed foundation.

One final extended quote because Sittenfeld writes so well about children, who in Sisterland play small but significant roles. Amelia is the three-year-old daughter of Hank, a neighbor; Rosie is Kate's two-year-old.

—Outside, Amelia and Rosie skipped in front of us, and Hank was beside me as I pushed Owen in the stroller. Amelia slapped her palm against a lamppost, and when Rosie mimicked the gesture exactly, I thought, as I often did, that Amelia and Hank were like mentors to Rosie and me: Amelia was always beckoning Rosie toward the next developmental stage, while Hank was the person who'd most influenced me as a parent. It was from Hank that I'd learned to give Rosie her own spoon when I'd fed her jar food, so that she wasn't constantly grabbing the one I was using. Hank had told me to put Triple Paste on her when her diaper rash got bad ("Way more than you think you need, like you're spreading cream cheese on a bagel," he's said), and to buy a Britax car seat after she outgrew her infant seat, and to go to the Buder library for the best story hour . . .

Because I admire Sisterland so much, I'm reluctant to try Sittenfeld's three earlier novels: American Wife, Prep, or The Man of My Dreams. I'm afraid they'll disappoint as works of a novelist still maturing. Rather, I'm looking forward to the next fiction she publishes. I selfishly hope it will not be a long wait.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Why Tana French transceneds genre

At the end of my review of Tana French's Into the Woods I said I would be looking into her second mystery, The Likeness. I have. It may be even better—richer, deeper, more complex—than Into the Woods, but in my view they are both so superior to the ordinary mystery it is pointless to compare them with each other.

Start with the narrator. Into the Woods is narrated by a Dublin murder detective Robert Ryan. His partner, to whom he becomes extremely close, is Cassie Maddox. Cassie narrates The Likeness and Rob, who has left the Murder squad, never appears in the new mystery except in Cassie's memories.

The book begins with Cassie and an older detective, Frank Mackay, creating a persona, Alexandra (Lexie) Madison so that she can go undercover to infiltrate drug ring in University College, Dublin. In the course of that investigation, Cassie is stabbed, is pulled in out of the cold, and is promoted to Murder when she recovers. Now four years after Lexie has ceased to exist, young woman's freshly-dead body has been found—Alexandra "Lexie" Madison.

She'd been stabbed and bled to death in an abandoned cottage. Rain has washed away footprints, and there are no obvious clues to her murder—or why she was killed . . . or who she really is. She's been living with four Trinity graduate students in a grand house one of the students inherited from an uncle. Interestingly—and if the reader can accept this, nothing else in the book requires one to suspend belief—Cassie bears a remarkable likeness the dead girl. Frank persuades Cassie and Sam, the other detective on the case and Cassie's significant other, to assume Lexie's persona and continue living with the four Trinity students.

The detectives tell the students—Daniel, Abbie, Rafe, and Justin—that Lexie was badly hurt, is in a coma, and that gives Frank and Cassie time to prepare for the new undercover assignment. When Cassie/Lexie is delivered to the house, the students are delighted to see their housemate (and one-fifth owner of the house) home safe and sound.

Daniel, Abbie, Rafe, and Justin are students, not murderers. Although Frank and Sam do their best to shake their alibi for the night of the girl's death, they are unshakable. The police turn over every rock in the neighborhood looking for someone with some reason to stab "Lexie." No one. Meanwhile, Cassie/Lexie wears her wire, keeps her gun handy, and keeps her eyes and ears open.

Although I had a pretty good idea of who stabbed Lexie (if there are a limited number of possibilities, and if the author is playing fair and not introducing the murderer in the penultimate chapter that's not difficult), I had no idea why. Moreover, I didn't care. Tana French's characters are so fully realized that the mystery is almost secondary. Who are these people? Are Cassie's perceptions accurate or is she kidding herself? Is she in fact a reliable narrator? Exactly how much danger, physical and emotional, is she in? Will she be able to walk away unscathed? I'm not going to tell you.

I am going to tell you that The Likeness is almost 500 pages of 11-point type, so this is not a book to take lightly. I will also tell you that Tana French is the real deal, one of those writers who transcends genre. Which means that even if you don't care for mysteries but want a superior story with exceptional writing, look her up.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

What Mailer thinks of "the spooky art"

Toward the end of his life—he died in 2007 at age 85—Norman Mailer assembled a miscellany, The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing, that Random House published in 2003. He calls writing, and more specifically novel writing, a spooky art because there are unproductive hours "that feel like nothing so much as the act of trying to start an old car when the motor has gone dead on you.... But there are also odd, offbeat, happy days when something does happen as you write and your characters take surprising turns, sometimes revealing themselves to you on the page in a manner other than you expected them to be." Spooky.

The book, a collection of edited interviews, essays, reviews, comments Mailer gave, wrote, or made over fifty years. The book is organized by his thoughts on the lit biz, craft, psychology, philosophy, genere, and other writers: Tolstoy, Twain, Hemmingway, Miller, Lawrence, and some final thoughts on American Letters.

While I question much of what Mailer says and did not read every word in the book, I did find plenty to think about in the words I did read. Here's Mailer in a 1995 interview: "Writers aren't taken seriously anymore, and a large part of the blame must go to the writers of my generation, most certainly including myself. We haven't written the books that should have been written. We've spent too much time exploring ourselves. We haven't done the imaginative work that could have helped define America, and as a result, our average citizen does not grow in self-understanding." Without getting into the argument whether the writers of Mailer's generation spent too much time exploring themselves, I'm not convinced (although Mailer is) that the novelist's job is to define America, nor do I believe that the average citizen would have read the books had they been written.

Mailer has an exalted view of the novelist's task: "Ideally, you are there to bring wealth to others. Wealth of observation, of perception, the riches of a philosophical attitude that is to a degree new, insights into psychology the reader hasn't had before—all these are on the selfless side of writing." At the same time, there's the writer's ego, vanity, and the desire to advance oneself as a writer. If the tension between the writer's selfless and selfish sides grows too great, it can bollix up the writing.

I found Mailers observations about other writers interesting. He feels Saul Bellow's one major weakness is that "he creates individuals and not relations between them, at least not yet.... I would guess he is more likely to write classics than major novels, which is a way of saying that he will give intense pleasure to particular readers over the years but is not too likely to seize the temper of our time and turn it." (From a 2002 class.)

I have a sense that Norman Mailer was both incredibly lucky and terribly unlucky. As he acknowledges, lucky in that The Naked and the Dead happened to appear just at the right moment in American history and became an enormous best seller. I don't believe that it holds up well, not the way Red Badge of Courage or A Farewell to Arms or The Things They Carried have held up. Unlucky in that because his first novel hit the jackpot, the public (read the lit biz) and Mailer himself expected great things. Even better, richer, deeper—yet equally popular—novels. Instead, he wrote Barbary, The Deer Park, Advertisements for Myself, and more.

Because his non-fiction—Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and especially The Executioner's Song—do hold up, I wonder if Mailer simply misjudged his talent. Was he a middling novelist but one of the best creative non-fiction authors we've seen? On the other hand, without the fiction, would he have been able to create the non-fiction he produced?

In any case, I recommend any serious writer who wants another perspective on the spooky art of writing to look up The Spooky Art.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Why "In the Woods" is a superior mystery

In the Woods is Tana French's first novel. It is extraordinary; one 2014 source listed it as one of the 50 best debut novels since 1950. A friend tells me that her second book, The Likeness, is even better.

It is a mystery, narrated entirely by Rob Ryan, a Dublin detective. Rob has a history: When
he was 12-year-old and known as Adam Ryan, he and two friends went to play in the woods beside their suburban development. Hours later, he was found unhurt but standing in a pair of blood-soaked sneakers, so deeply traumatized he could not recall what happened. He never does and the bodies of his playmates are never found.

Now, twenty years later, he and his partner Cassie Maddox become the lead detectives in the murder of 12-year-old Katy Devlin, battered to death in the same woods. By regulations—and common sense—Rob should recuse himself from leading the investigation, but he doesn't. Which adds a layer of tension and complexity to the mystery.

The book was published in 2007, and I have not looked any any reviews, but I can imagine two complaints: French spends too much time on description, and Rob Ryan is not a sympathetic character. As a writer myself, I wish I could create a paragraph of description as vivid and engaging as this:

"Cassie seeps as lightly and easily as a kitten; after a few seconds I hear her breathing slow and deepen, the tiny catch at the top of each breath that told me she had drifted off. I am the opposite: once I'm asleep it takes an extra-loud alarm clock or a kick in the shins to wake me, but it can be hours of tossing and fidgeting before I get there. But somehow I always found it easier to sleep at Cassie's, in spit of the lumpy, two-short sofa and the grouchy creaks and ticks of an old house settling for the night. even now, when I'm having trouble falling asleep, I try to imagine myself back on the sofa: the soft, worn flannel of the duvet cover against my cheek, a spicy tang of hot whiskey still warming the air, the tiny rustles of Cassie dreaming across the room."

Rob, on the other hand, is more problematic. French, a woman, is writing from a man's point of view, but I had no questions about that. Nor could I fault the police work which, from the little I know watching BBC crime shows, reads perfectly accurate. Rob, perhaps because of his traumatic background, drinks too much, smokes too much, and clearly makes a couple of bad decisions. Still, the killing, apparently motiveless, is complex and ultimately the solution is both plausible and satisfying.

If you haven't read Tana French, and if you are interested in writing that lifts a mystery story out of the genre ghetto, look up In the Woods. I will be checking out The Likeness.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

What's it like to be a writer, mother, reluctant rock star?

High Tide in Tucson is a collection of essays Barbara Kingsolver published before she published The Poisonwood Bible (1998) but after she had published three novels, a collection of short stories, a book of poetry, and a non-fiction account of women in the
Arizona mine strike of 1983. She was successful enough that (a) her publisher would even publish a book of her essays; (b) her publisher would commission spot art for each essay and use a second color on every page; and (c) send her off on a four-week book tour, "a different city each day" when she was promoting one of her novels.

It's an eclectic collection, travel pieces, observations about contemporary culture and parenting, and the writing life. We learn something about her background, her daughter, her divorce, her new husband. Not much because these are essays, not memoir. They are all wonderfully well-written, possibly better than the originals because she revised them extensively for this book.

While I read the essays in order, the way Kingsolver hoped, I responded most strongly to the ones about writing. For example: "Write a nonfiction book, and be prepared for the legion or readers who are going to doubt your facts. But write a novel, and get ready for the world to assume every word is true."

That's not always the case. I just looked at an Amazon one-star review of The Poisonwood Bible in which the reader complains that real rebels are bloodthirsty terrorists, migrations of army ants are not as portrayed, no missionary like the one in the novel every made it to the Congo. People, this is a novel. It's a lie. Kingsolver says, "Now I spend hours each day, year after year, a wicked smirk on my face, making up whopping, four-hundred-page lies." And getting paid for it.

She can be laugh-out-loud funny. She writes about her experience playing keyboard for the Rock Bottom Remainders, a pickup rock band that included Stephen King, Ridley Pearson, Dave Barry, Kathi Goldmark, Tad Bartimus, Amy Tan, Al Kooper, and Roy Blount. They all(?) had some musical background (Kingsolver started college on a music scholarship), but they did not pretend to be professional musicians. They toured to raise money for literacy. In Boston before their first concert, King had a breakthrough: and she told him "I thought he was sounding much better. His face lit up like a carnival ride, and he said, 'You know what I discovered? When I'm not sure what chord to play, I don't touch the guitar, I just do this—air strumming!'"

She has a delightful essay,"Careful What You Let in the Door," about reader mail, the good, the bad, and the ugly (and an essay written when reader mail was marks on paper). Example: "Dear Ms. Kingsolver, Enclosed is something I've written. I'd appreciate it if you could get Harper & Row to publish it. I suggest it be marketed as an Inspirational Essay." At the other extreme: "Dear Barbara, I just finished reading The Bean Trees for the fourth time since I bought it through a book club. Please, please, please write more books!"

What takes this essay to another level, however, is the letter questioning violence in books, movies, TV and (presumably) video games, violence as entertainment. It was followed by a letter from a nun who thanked Kingsolver for a novel "which says something hopeful abo9ut death and the life that can come from death." What is the artist's obligation in writing about hate, cruelty, bloodshed? Kingsolver writes, "I don't know whether my convictions about art—and particularly art that contains violence—will ever be allowed to settle into a comfortable position. They have been revising themselves for a long, long time . . . ."

High Tide in Tucson is entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking. What more can you ask?

Monday, May 23, 2016

How many ways can you describe rain?

Carellin Brooks's One hundred days of rain is a difficult book to review. On the one hand, the story, set in Vancouver, is pretty simple: The unnamed protagonist is breaking up with
her wife and is attempting to build a new life. She has an ex-husband, the father of her five-year-old child. A hundred short chapters in the present tense. No quotation marks (which I know drives certain readers nuts). It rains a lot and Brooks describes the rain in at least fifty different ways. Can I make it sound less appealing?

A Rhodes Scholar, Brooks is a poet who has published two books of poetry and edited two anthologies. This is her first novel. Anyone interested in writing, anyone looking for an original work of literary art, anyone willing to be caught up in Brooks's extraordinary prose for the imagination and possibilities in the language should read One hundred days of rain.

But rather than assert, let me sample the prose virtually at random to give you a taste:

"Rain pummels tiny fists on the window. Tinkles and dances, a small drumming like fingers on a tabletop. Rain gusts and smatters against the glass, pushed by wind. She imagines herself reaching through the phone cord, along the wires, to change that voice to something gasping and frightened. A desire so vivid she feels her hands clutching, the strain of the tendons."

A description of Saturday morning routine with her son: "She bakes. Cornbread, banana bread, puffed yellow German pancake. Something hot to table. Inside they sit ignoring the streaming gloomy world. Lifting cakes still warm to their mouths, buttering the crumbly slices with voluptuous concentration. Their world shrunk to yellow box, small and warm and most importantly dry."

That quotation, by the way, is half of a chapter.

One more—although it is tempting to go on quoting for pages: "Easter. A time of renewal or so it's said, bruited about even, the possibility of growth. So many chances for anniversaries and fresh starts and her is another. She arises from her dented bed filled with resolution. She will sort that errant paper, the piles of it she's been augmenting all year. She will put her taxes into order this time, really. Everything due at the library will be returned, all the languishing dry cleaning rescued, perhaps she will even begin cleaning for their move. The sills and lintels can't accumulate much dust in a month, can they? It isn't too early to wipe down her fridge now, surely?"

Note the metaphors, similes: "tiny fists," "like fingers on a tabletop." Yet so much is pure precise description: "streaming gloomy world," "dented bed," "the languishing dry cleaning." The sentences—the sentence fragments even—are vivid with detail, with sensation. Adding "really" to the sentence about taxes adds a paragraph about unkept promises in a word.

A back-cover blurb says it better than I: "Carellin Brooks offers a loud and persistent rejoinder to the idea of 'the pathetic fallacy': the internal and external do coalesce, and they do so at the apex of the most precise and revealing sentences I have read in years."

There. Have I made One hundred days of rain more appealing?

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

How to write a novel the George way

When Elizabeth George published Write Away: One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life in 2004 she was a New York Times best-selling author of a thirteen mysteries. So the book is more than twelve years old, but the information and advice is as timely today as it was the day it came out of George's computer.

She points out that this is "one novelist's approach," and other novelists with other approaches are equally successful. She is relatively undogmatic; the only rule in writing a
novel is that there are no rules. At the same time, a novel tends to have a character—or characters—in a setting in a conflict. No character(s), no story. No setting and the characters float in an abstract void. No conflict and there is no plot. I believe the best novels have fully realized characters in recognizable settings with significant and engaging conflicts.

A conflict, by the way, is not an argument or a fight. Conflict arises when a character wants something and cannot easily obtain it because of another character, because of circumstances (social, economic, environmental), or because of an internal flaw. Readers continue to read when they want to see how, and whether, characters will obtain their desires—or not. Will Ahab find and kill Moby Dick? Will Edmond Dantès obtain his revenge? Will Elizabeth Bennet marry Mr. Darcy? Will Robinson Crusoe survive shipwreck?

Because, as George titles her first chapter, "Story is Character," and because it is not easy to create vivid, interesting, engaging characters (as I can testify from personal experience), she spends many pages to describe her process. Before she even begins to draft her novel, she writes a detailed character analysis for every significant character in a book. Her Character Prompt Sheet includes a physical description but "best friend...enemies...core need...pathological maneuver...gestures when talking what others notice first about him/her...what character does alone...." And to show the practice that she preaches, George includes the raw material—seven printed pages, around 4,000 words—she wrote about a character "long before she put in an appearance on the pages of my rough draft."

She researches locations as carefully as a movie director, taking pictures and making notes in a tape recorder, so that when it is time to write about, say, a lonely stone barn on the moors, she knows exactly what it looks like, where there are doors and windows, how the light hits the walls.

She also thinks through her entire book in terms of scenes, again much like a movie scriptwriter who has to decide where does the scene take place, who is in it, who says what, how does the dialogue and action advance the story? The novelist, of course, has the advantage of being able to enter the heads of characters in a way that is either clunky or boring in a movie. And on the subject of point-of-view, George has several interesting things to say. For example:

"You have to have a point of view in the novel, and wise is the writer who makes her decision about point of view early in the process. This one element of the craft is crucial because it's part of how a writer dramatizes events. It also is critical to how the story is structured. . .and often it's part of the entire artistic idea behind the novel."

The book is filled with examples from George's novels and other works, so it is both practical and theoretical. She includes two lists that I have copied and will refer to in the future, "Where People Work" (more than 100 entries including sporting goods store, mobile library, clockmaker, martial arts supplies, limousine driver) and 78 THADs.

A THAD is a Talking Head Avoidance Device, "an activity going on in a scene that would otherwise consist of dialogue. It serves several purposes: It eliminates the possibility that a scene will become nothing more than two or three talking heads; chosen wisely, it reveals character; it may in and of itself contain important information; it can be used as a metaphor." Examples? Eating a meal. Cooking a meal. Working on a car. Grocery shopping. Training a dog. Building a structure. Posing for portrait. Killing ants...and 70 more.

I believe anyone who wants to write fiction or improve her craft can read Write Away with profit—I have. I believe anyone who is curious about one novelist thinks about and creates her books will enjoy Write Away. And anyone who enjoys Elizabeth George's mysteries may like this look behind the curtain to see how she does it.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Journaling? A good idea. This book? Not so good

I asked to review Therapy Through Journaling: Be Your Own Savior by Christopher Kalford because I have kept a journal for many years and I was curious. How is keeping a journal therapy? Could I keep my journal more effectively? Are there aspects of journal-keeping that I've overlooked?

The book's cover states "Escape from traditional therapy...organize your thoughts...analyze your past...live in the present...change your future." With such inducements, who could resist? I couldn't. But I think you should.

The book is unpaged, but I counted 68 pages containing double-spaced type. I doubt there are much more than 10,000 words, in short, about the length of two long magazine articles. You can read it in less than an hour. Length, of course, does not correspond to quality (think of the Lord's Prayer or the Gettysburg Address), but I'm afraid this booklet has neither length nor quality.

There is nothing wrong with Kalford's advice: "...writing journals allows you to gain an outside perspective on your own thoughts..." Maybe better to say "gain another perspective," but let it go. "The physical act of writing your thoughts down can sometimes be enough to help you determine that certain thoughts are being exaggerated or manipulated by factors they shouldn't be, which will allow you in turn to eliminate some stressors..." "Keeping a journal allows you to look back on your life not only for analyzation and reflection, but for an ever growing source of happiness you can constantly draw from."

The trouble I have with Kalford's advice is that he gives no sources to support any of his recommendations, nor does the book contain any indication of his background or qualifications to give advice at all. Does he keep a journal? He doesn't say. Has he benefited from writing a journal? He doesn't say. Does he have any professional qualifications to discuss the therapeutic benefits of keeping a journal? He doesn't say.

In addition, the booklet is more exhortation than instruction. "Do it" rather than "Here's how to do it—and why." And when he has an opportunity to flesh out his message, he turns away: "The benefits of having so much of your life at your fingertips are too numerous to name..." Maybe there are too numerous to name in their entirety, but how about some examples?

Indeed, on page after page the book cries out for examples, anecdotes, quotations to support and illustrate the advice and the claims. For example, I like the idea of starting a conversation with God by writing "what you would want to say to god if he were in front of you." But why not give the reader a couple or three examples of such a journal entry with, ideally, the writer's thoughts and conclusions about the experience?

Bottom line: Keep a journal. But if you don't know how to do so or what the benefits can be, find another book than this.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Travel back to 1964's Freedom Summer

Freshwater Road, a ten-year-old novel which has just been re-released, reads as if author Denise Nicholas is writing from the inside; that is, based on lived experience rather than research. The protagonist, Celeste Tyree, is a black, 19-year-old University of Michigan
sophomore who volunteers to go to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 to teach in a Freedom School and to register black voters.

Celeste has grown up in Detroit, is virtually middle-class in her values and economic situation. Her father, with whom she's been living earned  enough running number to have bought a bar, support his mother, send Celeste to college, drive a Cadillac, and live in an integrated middle-class neighborhood. Because the book is set in 1964, Detroit is still a thriving metropolis and Mississippi is the Deep South that says "Never!" to the end of Jim Crow.

The One Man, One Vote headquarters in Jackson assigns Celeste to help register voters in a small, poor Pineyville, a town in which a lynching had taken place five years earlier. Pineyville is the kind of town in which Negroes get off the sidewalk when they meet a white, never look a white person in the eye, and can be arrested for coming into City Hall through the front door (there's a back door for blacks). This was the summer Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and James Chaney were murdered—news that spreads among the Civil Rights workers—so Celeste lives in a miasma of fear. As soon as she arrives in Jackson and asks when she'll be sent to her assignment, a worker at the building tells her, "As soon as you're ready. Stay low to the floor at night. That apartment's been shot into."

One the book's pleasures (and there are many) is Nicholas's ability to compare and contrast the differences between classes, races, and ages. Celeste observes that Pineyville "wasn't some anonymous village in Africa or South America where people washed their clothes in a stream, emptied their bowels just yards away, and drank the water from the same stream just a few yards in the other direction. It was too close. She remembered Wilamena [her mother] years ago fussing against the way Negro people were portrayed in films. She refused to go see them, said she would not support some 'catfish row' rendition of Negro life."

Celeste cannot be sure that the handful of students she teaches in the Freedom School are absorbing the lessons. Nor are local blacks flocking to her evening voter registration classes in the local Negro church to learn how to register to vote—one requirement, apparently, being able to recite on demand any section of the Mississippi constitution from memory. That's if you weren't asked, "How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?" And among the many reasons not to register: Your white boss will fire you when he finds out.

White people barely exist in the book (there is, however, a stereotypically bigoted sheriff and a couple of thuggish state police). "Celeste marveled again at how the white people stayed so white even in the magnified sun of southern Mississippi. It was as if they weren't really there, or really live someplace else out of the sunshine, some place cool." The summer was unremittingly hot.

The book also conveys the complexity of the black experience. Celeste's mother has re-married to a man who can pass as white and moved from Detroit to New Mexico. One divorced (or abandoned) Negro mother in Pineyville is the mistress of a white storekeeper. A Negro neighbor abuses his wife and children and wants nothing to do with civil rights. The elderly woman with whom Celeste lives on Freshwater Road during the summer is quietly competent—and, to my mind remarkably brave. The black minister who had experienced (relative) freedom in Chicago as a college student has returned to Mississippi to lead his flock. Here's our first meeting with him:

"He has the sated tone of a well-cared for man. Sweat creeks trickled from his cropped sideburns, beaded his forehead. He took a handkerchief from the jacket hanging on the back of his chair and mopped his face. Every man who sat at Momma Bessie's table in Detroit [Celeste's paternal grandmother] got that look and sound. She took good care of them. Negro men triumphed in the kitchens of older Negro women, if nowhere else."

Celeste survives the summer, but she has been changed by the experience. And readers who allow themselves to enter fully into the world of Freshwater Road will, I believe, be also changed and realize that much of what was true in 1964 is still true and that a book that was first published in 2005 deserves new readers.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Why not write in your native language?

Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for her best-selling short story collection The Interpreter of Maladies (1999). She followed up with two novels, The Namesake (2003) and The Lowland (2013) and another short story collection Unaccustomed Earth (2008). She has now published a memoir, In Other Words.

Although Lahiri's parents immigrated from Bengal and spoke Bengali at home, they arrived in the US when Jhumpa was young enough that English is her native language and she wrote her stories and novels in exquisite English. In what sounds like her twenties, however, she fell in love with Italian. "When you're in love, you want to live forever. You want the emotion, the excitement you feel to last. Reading in Italian arouses a similar feeling in me. I don't want to die, because my death would mean the end of my discovery of the language. Because every day there will be a new word to learn. Thus true love can represent eternity." And after spending 20 years struggling to learn Italian, she moved her husband and children to Rome so that she could learn enough to write in Italian. She wrote In Other Words in Italian; it was translated into English by Ann Goldstein. The Italian and the English are on facing pages.

I am fascinated by Lahiri's story because (a) I too am in love with Italian and have been studying it for almost 20 years; (b) I am also in love with Japanese and am currently translating—with the considerable help of a native speaker—a book of contemporary Japanese short stories into English. So I spend a lot of time thinking about English, Japanese, and Italian.

I began studying Japanese because it seemed to me we think in a language and our language forces us in many ways to have a certain view of reality. For example, there are no words "brother" or "sister" in Japanese; there are only the words "older brother," "younger brother," "older sister," "younger sister." To speak of your sibling you have to define your relationship. Similarly in Italian, there is only one word for "grandson," "granddaughter," "grandchild," "neice," "and "nephew" (nipote). You need more words to covey the relationship and gender of your relative. Lahiri quotes a friend, Dominico Starone, who wrote, "A new language is almost a new life, grammar and syntax recast you, you slip into another logic and another sensibility."

Tim Parks in his review of In Other Words in The New York Review of Books writes, "I can think of no other book set in Italy that has less of the color and drama of Italy in it. Not a single figure emerges. Not a dialogue of any note. Not a single situation characteristic of Italy. Even the language is there only as a challenge."

Moreover, the translation does Lahiri few favors. "When translated," Parks writes about Lahiri's Italian, "this strangeness [in syntax and word choice] disappears, since such structures and word choices are standard in English. Instead, where Lahiri has deployed Italian idioms and rhetorical strategies, Goldstein follows her usual habit of bringing them more or less word for word into English, so that the strangeness of the English text is that of so many translations where what was ordinary in the original becomes quaint and off-key in translation."

Nevertheless (or because of the translation), In Other Words sounds like a book I should study.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

What's Wrong/What's Right with "Ender's Game"?

How plausible does a novel have to be? Obviously not very or Candide, A Hundred Years of Solitude, or The Time Traveler's Wife could not be read. So maybe the question should be: At what point does the reader throw the book across the room?

I have just read Orson Scott Card's 1977 science fiction novel Ender's Game. I suspect virtually everyone else in the world has read it, but let me tell you what's wrong with the
story. Ender Wiggen, a pre-adolescent boy in a future setting, is being trained by a Colonel Graff to lead Earth's starfighters in a war against the "buggers." This implacable enemy wants to eradicate humanity and take our planet for itself. Earthlings have barely won two bugger battles and has a 70-year respite to breed and train a leader who is intelligent enough, analytic enough, charismatic enough to command Earth's forces. That's Ender.

Most of the novel describes Ender's training in Battle School. One of the novel's conceits is that Ender must be kept ignorant of the training's real goals. He must be tested, and tested, and tested until he is as strong as the steel in a samurai sword. Indeed, toward the end of the book one of Ender's fellow trainees threatens to kill Ender. And this is not a game. Card presents the situation as a genuine possibility. Cooler heads argue with Colonel Graff that he is going too far. He argues that if Ender thinks someone is going to step in to save him at the last moment, all his training will be wasted. Ender must believe he must kill or be killed.

What happens if Ender is killed? Humanity's only hope dies with him. There is no other leader. It's Ender or none. What demented military officer would risk all of humanity on the possibility that a school bully will kill the one individual that could make a difference? (Throw book across the room.)

If that's what's wrong with Ender's Game, what's right with it? It remains popular. It's still in print almost 30 years after publication. Hollywood made a movie of it in 2013.

My theory: It appeals to 13-year-old boys (and adults with the emotional maturity of a 13-year-old). The adults and older boys around him don't understood the hero. They don't realize that he is special. And not just special, the savior of humanity. The ordinary readers of Ender's Game don't care about the holes in the story (if they even notice them); they ignore questions about the Second Warsaw Pact(!); they accept the casual violations of known physical laws. Ender is the hero of this fairy tale. He does disable his tormentor at the end of the book—in fact, unknowingly kills him—and he saves humanity by—again unknowingly—virtually exterminating the race of alien buggers.

I wish I had the talent (skill? luck?) to write something as popular.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Why you need more than this to be unemployed

Although the subtitle to David Thomas Roberts' Unemployable! is "How to be Successfully Unemployed Your Entire Life," it is less a how-to guide than a sermon. Roberts is preaching to the dissatisfied and the hopeful. "Now is the greatest time in history to start a business,"
he proclaims. And his implied message continues, if you are unhappy in your job you can do what I've done and end up in the top 1/10th of 1 percent of incomes in America. Ah, if it were only so.

I am writing as a SCORE counselor (a free national business counseling resource Roberts does not mention), and as such meet with aspiring entrepreneurs regularly to help them realize their ambitions. Many of them would agree with Roberts: "Success for me is the freedom to do the things I love without others controlling my time, income or schedule, and without worrying about money." Who wouldn't? Unfortunately, this book is more inspirational than useful, superficial rather than instructive.

Not that there is anything wrong with Roberts' advice. His chapter "Are You Financially Illiterate?" is astute and worth embracing. "Most Americans," he claims, "live above their means, financing their lifestyle with debt. The vast majority don't have an income problem; they have spending problem." He is sensitive to this issue because "I've gone broke—twice." When revenue dropped in his first enterprise, an air freight business, the firm could not survive. He immediately started another company and I would like to know more about both the failure and the process behind the second startup.

The chapter "Do I really Need a Business Plan?" is also right on. Roberts' first sentence: "The simple answer is 'yes.'"  SCORE counselors spend an inordinate amount of time guiding our clients through the creation of a business plan. I can only concur with the "Lessons Learned" (a feature at the end of each chapter): "A business plan helps you organize your thoughts and plans for your business. Every business should have a business play. Your business plan will likely morph over time with changing business conditions, unforeseen events and new opportunities. A formal business plan with pro forma financials is always necessary if you are borrowing money or taking investment from others into your business equity . . ."

One last example, from Roberts' rules of business: ". . . the very nanosecond you realize you have made a bad hire, end it. Nothing is more disruptive and destructive to a company than a bad hire, with the possible exception of the divorce of the owners." No question.

So the advice is solid. My criticism is that there's not enough meat on these bones. At the end of a course I teach on how to start a business, I provide students with a long list of additional sources. In addition to the "Lessons Learned," Roberts does provide a useful glossary—"accounts payable aging," "accounts receivable financing," "amortization," etc.—but no citations for further information. I am always looking for works I can suggest to prospective entrepreneurs; read Unemployable! for encouragement, embrace the nuggets of good advice, but you're going to need more than this to be successfully unemployed.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Charles Bowden's extraordinary Blue Desert

Anyone interested in writing (or reading) creative non-fiction will be interested in Charles Bowden's Blue Desert.

Anyone interested in more than a tourist brochure of the Southwest will be interested in Charles Bowden's Blue Desert.

The book is not new. It was first published by The University of Arizona Press in 1986 but the essays are timeless. It is a collection of ten essays about bats, antelope, tortoises, fish
(specifically the Yaqui topminnow), Latinos, the opening of the Glen Canyon Dam (and the concomitant death of Glen Canyon), striking copper miners, Native Americans under pressure from a Tucson developer to lease their land, and a walk from the Mexican border through the desert to Interstate 8, the route immigrants take "for a job I would not take if offered."

Putting an essay's subject into a phrase necessarily distorts it unrecognizably. I read Bowden for the information and for his perceptions. Here is his observation of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife tracking several pronghorn antelope—for the best of reasons, to safeguard the beasts: "A kind of collision between cultures has taken place. Huge machines that fly at eighty miles per hour and drink more than seventy gallons an hour have snared an organism that has raced at fifty miles per hour for millions of years."

He writes in the first person and the present tense and is not shy about putting himself into the story. In his piece about the desert tortoise (the desert tortoise! who knew there was such a creature?), he covers a desert tortoise conference that takes place in a casino: "The women working the place are a problem also, bursting out of their britches, bending down to pour coffee and slapping my face with deep cleavage. I can think of few things more pleasurable than to sleep on the desert, watch the rabbits bounce around and then at dawn walk into a casino where time has stopped and everything always promises to be juicy."

A thread running through the book is Man's—and primarily the white man's—impact on the land, wiping out entire species either because they are a threat to commerce (like wolves) or through development. Bowden observes, "In the West, nothing done by Americans is for keeps, everything—farms, cities, towns, mines, everything—constitutes a brief raid on the dry land and then becomes tumbleweed, ghost towns, lost mines, real estate empires that go up in flim-flam, and the like."

We rip open the earth to extract the copper ore, denude the mountains of trees to fire the smelter, dump the poisonous tailings wherever, and, when the ore is gone, move on. In his piece about a copper strike in Ajo, he writes, "The copper industry is dying. The union is dying. The whole way of life based on ripping up the earth for good wages and then going home to a company house after picking up a six-pack at company store is all dying." Make no mistake; there's money to be made despoiling the earth.

The last piece in the book, "Blue," an account of Bowden's walk with a friend across the desert migrant trail, is a tour de force. "These are the rules," he writes. "Get caught and you go back to Mexico. Make it across and you get a job in the fields or backrooms. Don't make it and you die." He and Bill are pushing forty, in good physical condition (Bowden has trained for the walk as if for a marathon), carry packs with food and water. They start at the El Suguaro truck stop where they have to leave abruptly because the Mexican proprietor is about to shake them down. They walk at night, stumble, grow thirsty, are sliced by thorns on small shrubs and large trees. And yet, and yet:

"Everywhere the earth is beauty. the mountains lift sharply off the valley floor, rockpiles almost naked of plants. Beauty. The moon flashes off the stone walls. Beauty. The creosote, the much derided greasewood, stands spaced like a formal garden. Beauty. Stars crowd the sky and I can hear them buzzing with the fires of their explosive gases. I tear the wrapper from a Granola bar and crunch the grains between my teeth. I top the plastic jug up to my lips and swallow. I look on the moon. Beauty."

I am astonished that Bowden is able to record his perceptions so vividly, grateful to the friend who recommended the book to me.