Saturday, December 29, 2012

What I'm Reading: Writing the Breakout Novel

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass may be just what I needed at this point in my writing development.  Strunk and White's book was immensely useful long ago, but I'm long past the basic grammar and style advice they provide.  Stephen King's On Writing and Anne Lamont's Bird by Bird were both good books, but were more morale-building than craft-oriented.  Walter Dean Myers's writing book had a lot of good information, but I think his description of his writing methods are too particular to his own preferred way of working to be generally applicable.

Maass, who runs a pretty successful agency in New York (I think it's successful--I've certainly heard of many of the authors he represents), presents his views of the difference between novels that never make it out of manuscript, or are published but don't sell well, and the novel that earns its author higher sales, critical accolades, and a career boost.  In his opinion it's not a matter of some authors getting a bigger advertising push from the publisher, or adhering to a certain formula, or even sheer luck.  Maass believes the difference between a run-of-the-mill novel and a "breakout novel" is largely a matter of scale.

He makes a fairly convincing presentation, and while I don't want to give it all away, there are a couple of his points I'd like to mention.  One is about character--the characters in a breakout novel are self-aware, and larger-than-life.  They are self-aware in that they review their own moods, motivations, etc., in their mind, wondering if they're making the right choices.  In other words, they're complicated.  Nevertheless, they are also larger-than-life in that they do things a regular person wouldn't.  They say things out loud most real people would keep inside, they make tough moral choices most wouldn't have the guts to, they plunge headlong into danger.  Strangely, it's these qualities that make readers identify with them, for they crystallize attributes we all have, if not to the same degree.

He also talks about stakes, and how breakout novels have high stakes.  That doesn't necessarily mean that the world is always about to be destroyed--it means that whatever has personal value to the characters is threatened.  For instance, if a character might lose his job--so what?   People lose their jobs all the time.  But a character who might lose the business empire he's built up from nothing--those are high stakes.

Maass describes unpublished manuscripts and early-career novels as "feeling small."  Parts of his book tells an author how to complicate things with sub-plots, deepen setting, heighten conflict, etc.  But I think his larger message is not just that things should be complicated not for their own sake, but because it better illuminates the themes of the book.

I'm not sure Writing the Breakout Novel would be as useful to a first-time novelist, although it certainly couldn't hurt!  But any writer who has one or more novel manuscripts under the belt already would find this book to be thought-provoking, even eye-opening.  I'm definitely going to recommend this at the next meeting of my writers' group.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

New Book Out: Nana...and Other Grandmothers

The Writers of Chantilly have their (nearly) annual collection out: Nana...and Other Grandmothers.  The various writers in the WoC have contributed stories based on the theme of Grandmothers.  One of those writers is me!

My contribution is titled "The Price of Gas."  Here's the tag line:

When Grandma Schmeckpepper drives her eight-cylinder 1970s gas guzzler, the decades fall away.  It takes a grandson’s request to make her consider the possibility of aging a little more gracefully.  
If you are a parent or grandparent of mine, don't bother ordering, you will be getting one of these in the mail sooner or later.  Maybe for Mother's Day?  Others may go to this Link and order the book for the low, low price of $10.95!

As further incentive, here's the first paragraph of "The Price of Gas":
It was a dew-glistening spring morning, gentle and balmy, the kind of morning made for leaving your jacket in the closet. A tan young woman jogged down the sidewalk in quiet contemplation. A man in a business suit stood reading his quarter-folded newspaper at the bus stop. An elderly man sat on his front porch observing the scene. And Mrs. Schmeckpepper took the corner at sixty miles an hour, stepped on the accelerator, and punched her 1977 Buick Skylark down the block with a rumble that shook the pavement.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Work in Progress update

Last night at my writers' group I read chapter four of my WiP, which I have given the working title of "Piece."  I was worried the writing wasn't as smooth as what I normally read, and maybe it wasn't.  Nevertheless, it got quite a reaction.  The chapter ends a cliff-hanger and members were asking if I'd brought Chapter Five with me.  A good sign, I think!

Oddly, the writing is coming easily in my WiP though I still don't have certain basic parameters down, like who exactly should narrate certain chapters.  Still, it's coming together, and my writing group is a big encouragement.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What I'm Reading: Conan

The current Conan the Barbarian comic series, put out by Dark Horse, is truly excellent.  Bryan Wood, who was known to me previously for his thoroughly researched Northlanders series about Vikings, is the writer.  For art, Dark Horse has put together a rotation of top-flight artists, most notably Becky Cloonan.

The series follows Conan early in his life, perhaps at twenty or so, during his time on board the ship of Belit, the pirate queen.  Although they meet as enemies, Conan so impresses her with his battle prowess that she invites him to join her crew.  He accepts and is soon sharing her bed as well.  Conan is presented here as already battle-hardened, but otherwise still somewhat naive in the ways of the world.  A scene in one issue shows him desparing in prison, believing himself betrayed by Belit after a raid gone awry, howling and near-suicidial over his broken heart.  Certainly an older Conan would not let himself be so affected by a love affair!

The depictions of the sea and the medieval coastal towns and cities are rendered as impressively as anything I've ever seen in comics.  The choice to show Conan as youthfully lean feels bold for a character typically presented as heavily-muscled.  And Belit, with her pale skin (often spattered in crimson blood) and lithe body, is up there with Vampirella and Catwoman as top sexy comic bad girls.

Actually, the series has so enthused me for Conan I've gone back and gotten out my old paperbacks reprinting the original Robert E. Howard stories.  I read Tower of the Elephant just for fun, and found it as entertaining as I did as a teen-ager.  Yes, the prose is purple, and you don't read these for their nuanced characters.  But they certainly keep the pages turning.  I had forgotten the ending of TotE, and found it more Lovecraftian than is usual for Conan.  The Elephant was not a foe he could simply dispatch with his sword!

But as fun as the original stories are, I believe the current series actually surpasses them. Bryan Wood's is the first Conan I've ever encountered that rises above his pulp origins and becomes a truly sympathetic character.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Best composers and musicians

I haven't done too many lists on my blog yet.  I love lists!  Let's try one: who are the best composers or musicians, irrespective of genre or style?

My definition of best here is highly idiosyncratic--partially who most influenced the music we hear today, partially my semi-objective consideration of who made the highest quality music, with a dollop of personal taste and bias thrown in.  Feel free to disagree in the comments!

1) Beethoven--Kicked off the Romantic Era of classical music, a huge influence on everything that followed, the composer of the most powerful music ever written.  The Seventh and the Violin Concerto are my favorites.

2) Miles Davis--A pioneer in several jazz revolutions--bop, post bop, modal, and fusion.  The last two he almost single-handedly created.  Perhaps as importantly, a scout of jazz talent who presonally discovered or gave a chance to dozens of young artists, including John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, etc.  Plus, his own recordings are among the best and most listenable of jazz albums.  Everybody knows Kind of Blue, and rightfully so, but I think I prefer Miles Smiles.

3) Robert Johnson--The most influential bluesman of the 1930s, when the form first reached a mass audience.  The electric Chicago blues of the 1950s and much of rock history wouldn't have been possible without him.  Only a couple dozen singles exist, collected on the Complete RecordingsCrossroad Blues is perhaps the most famous and best-covered song, but I find Hellhound on My Trail almost unbearably intense.  Drunken-Hearted Man, Last Fair Deal Gone Down, and Me and the Devil Blues also have huge emotional impact.

4) Hank Williams--I'm not as familiar with him as some of the others on the list, but what I've heard fully justifies his reputation as the first great star of country music.  My Son Calls Another Man Daddy and the gospel song I Saw the Light are the highlights, in my mind.

5) Duke Ellington--Not sure he was actually all that influential, as his music was too complete on its own for others to add much to.  Still, I think his stuff was the highlight of the 20th century with Take the A Train the best single song of the century.  Anything of his is worth listening to, and the Ken Burns Jazz compilation does a credible job of covering his career.  Ellington at Newport is undeniably classic, Blues in Orbit is the best of his late 50s revival work, and I find his late suites to be quite underrated, with the Latin America Suite the best of a top-notch bunch.

Maybe on another day I'll do 6-10.  Mozart, certainly.  Ella Fitzgerald, likely.  The Supremes?  James Brown?  Dvorak?  Howlin' Wolf?  Rachmaninoff?  Louis Armstrong?  Horace Silver?

Saturday, December 1, 2012

What I'm Reading: The Child Who Never Grew

Pearl Buck's The Child Who Never Grew is about her daughter, Carol, who suffered from mental retardation--developmental disability, I suppose we'd say today-- and Buck's search for an institution to house her once she reached the age of nine.  It is also concerned with her inability at first to reconcile herself to her daughter's condition, and her gradual realization that her daughter's handicap is balanced by gifts of empathy and simply joy.

I was anticipating the slim book to be a memoir, with lots of episodes from their lives and a narrative arc.  But it turned out to be more of an extended essay, and includes digressions about what parents in similar situations should look for in their own searches for institutions.  Some of the advice is timeless, but much of it feels out-of-date, relevant at the time of the book's publication in 1950 but no longer.  Still, her descriptions of certain contemporary (to her, I mean) state-run institutes for the mentally retarded are chilling: places where toilet facilities are unavailable and floors are simply hosed down a couple times a day; hundreds of children sitting endlessly on benches in dark rooms, waiting for something that never comes.  I believe decades of reform have closed such large, indifferent institutions in the United States--right?

I should point out that Buck did not actually wish to place Carol outside her home, but after a harrowing incident in revolutionary 1940s China (where Buck lived most of her early life) in which her life was endangered, she realizes her daughter will almost certainly outlive her, and it would be better to find a home for her where she can be settled, than have her taken as a ward of the state after Buck's death and put God knows where.  So Buck moved to the U.S. and started a search for a sunny, warm place where Carol could be happy.  And the good news is, she did find such a place: the Vineland Training School in New Jersey.  (Which still exists today, according to Wikipedia, and seems to be a fairly prestigious research institute for research on the developmentally disabled.)

In the afterward, written by Pearl Buck's daughter and Carol's sister, Janice Walsh, we learn that Carol did outlive her mother, and seemed to be happy to the end of her days.  Not long before Pearl Buck's death in 1973, scientists discovered the cause of her disability--phenylketonuria (PKU), caused by an inability to process certain proteins.  The disease is treatable today by following a certain strict diet in infancy and early childhood.  It is impossible not to feel anguish for the misery caused from the lack of that knowledge in the lives of Pearl Buck and her family.  Yet, perversely, her daughter's condition may have been a blessing for society at large: the book suggests a great part of Buck's impetus for her remarkable literary output was the need to pay for her daughter's care.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

What I'm Reading: Dial H for Hero

Dial H for Hero is a comic series written by China Mieville, whose day job is writing, I think, steam-punk novels.  I've never read one, but maybe I should, judging from the quality of his comic writing.

The comic is a revival of a DC series from the 60s that has quite a cult following, about a teen-aged boy named Robby Reed who finds a telephone that gives him superpowers.  All he has to do is dial H-E-R-O and he finds himself transformed--the catch being, it's only for a short while, and he has no idea what set of powers he'll gain until he has them.  Often, the powers are spectacularly wrong for the situation he's facing, and the fun is in seeing how Robby figures out who he can apply them to overcoming that issue's villain or complication.

Mr. Mieville moves the action to the current day, and sets it in a run-down Midwestern industrial town, where Nelson Jent, a slovenly out-of-work loser, discovers a pay phone when on the run from some mobsters his buddy owes money to.  He tries calling for help, only to discover he's turned into Chimney Boy, the first of many improbable, comical heroes he'll become in the following issues. 

Along the way, he meets Manteau, an elderly lady who has a dial of her own, and who has secretly fought her own war against crime in the town for many years while researching the nature of the dial.  One senses she's inspired by the youthful reinvigoration of her various heroic incarnations as much as by a desire to help the downtrodden.

The latest issue finds Nelson stuck at home after the dial turns him into Chief Mighty Arrow, an embarrassingly un-PC hero who's mission is fighting heap big crime.  Manteau shares with him some of her more mortifying transformations over the years--Doctor Cloaca, Captain Priapus, etc.  In the end, Chief Mighty Arrow's flying horse thwarts a band of kidnappers in a disgusting, but horsily-appropriate way.  Let's just say you know what birds do if you leave your convertible under a tree, so imagine the damage a flying horse could cause.

The series is intelligently written and funny, in an absurdist sort of way.  It requires no prior knowledge of the earlier series or other DC comics.  For someone with at least a general appreciation of superhero comics an an off-beat sense of humor, Dial H for Hero makes for some quite enjoyable reading.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What I'm Reading: Becoming Billie Holiday

I bought this book intending to also get a CD of Billie Holiday's music to go with it.  That was four years ago, and not until recently did I acquire the CD!  So, it's been on my reading pile awhile.

Before I started reading it, I had the impression this was a graphic novel telling Billie Holiday's biography.  In fact, it's an illustrated book of poems.  It is a biography of Billie Holiday, but the choice of poetry to tell the story means it doesn't have the fact density of a regular biography.  Nevertheless, I think poetry is an especially appropriate story-telling method for the subject matter in this case.  The poems have an earthy, bluesy feel to them that really evoke the atmosphere of 1930s Harlem.  The occasional pictures, while beautifully done, don't add much to the story in my opinion.

The CD I purchased is Billie Holiday Sings Standards and it gets a ten out of ten, four stars, two thumbs up.  Billie's singing is...heartfelt.  I know I'm hardly the first to notice this!  It really feels like she's inhabiting the songs.  The other artists with a similar quality that spring to mind are Hank Williams, or Robert Johnson.  Probably not a coincidence they all lived hard lives during the Depression.  My favorite on the CD is Gee Baby Ain't I Good to You but any of the songs are excellent, and many feature well-known jazz musicians of the era (Oscar Peterson, Ben Webster, etc.).  It is definitely my intention to seek out more Billie Holiday--perhaps Lady Sings the Blues.

Hey, you got two reviews for the price of one!  I'd recommend Becoming Billie Holiday to someone who had a special interest in her life but was already familiar with the general details, or perhaps someone who was learning about the Harlem Renaissance.  The CD I'd recommend to anyone who would appreciate a jazz vocalist, or love songs with a sad tinge.  As far as jazz vocal CDs go, it's up there with Ella and Louis or Sarah Vaughan's self-titled debut album.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What I'm Reading: Looking for Alaska

Looking for Alaska (2005) is the first book by John Green, who's become a leading YA author over the past several years.  It follows high school junior Miles during his year at a boarding school in a small town in Alabama.  He didn't mind leaving his old public school in Florida, where he didn't fit in and had hardly any friends.  Almost right away at his new school, he falls in with a group of prank-playing, smoking, drinking (yet studious!) companions: his trailer trash-raised but brilliant roommate, the Colonel; Japanese-born, rap-loving Takumi; and of course, gorgeous, troubled, prank master-minding Alaska.

The plot of this book is tough to describe, not because it's complicated, but because almost anything I say about it will give away the book's crucial twist.  Suffice it to say, Alaska has a dark history she doesn't share with her friends, and a drunken night mixes with that history like gasoline with oxygen.  Add in the match of a prank gone awry, and there is a plot explosion.  More than that I will not say.

The book really resonated with me.  Not too surprising, it resonates with most who read it.*  I felt like I had a special connection, however, because it reminded me a lot of my own prank-playing, drunken (yet studious!) college days in a small town in the south, where like Miles and his friends, we had to make our own entertainment.  Certain details about the local flora, the nearby interstate (I-65, with which I'm quite familiar), the unbelievably humid weather in late summer, even the futility of the sports teams at a small school, all took me back to my time at Sewanee.

I can heartily recommend this book for almost anybody, as well as another of John Green's books, An Abundance of Catherines.  My wife is also quite fond of his latest, The Fault in Our Stars, although I haven't read that one yet.

* An indicator of just how much this book seems to register with people: One of Miles's quirks is that he memorizes the final words of famous people.  In the copy of this book I checked out from the library, several people have written their own favorite last words on the final page!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

WiP reception

So last Monday I read the first chapter of my current WiP to my writers group, the Writers of Chantilly.  Very promising!  Everybody seemed to enjoy the first chapter, and one person wrote that they "loved" one of the characters I introduced.  And that was one of the written comments, which I put more credence in--verbal comments often tend to be more positive but generic "good job"-type remarks.

Next Monday will be Chapter Two.  Hopefully I'll get as good a reception--or, almost as good, a worse reception but with concrete advice for improving.

Background research required?

So I've been having a fairly unproductive past week or ten days in writing my current WiP.  Partially due to a great number of financial and automotive problems that have required my attention, but mostly, I think, because I really wasn't sure where the story was going.

Oh, I have an ending in mind, although fairly vague.  And the 10,000 words I've written so far are a good start.  But I wasn't quite sure how I was going to reach the end from where I am now.

The root problem, I think, was that I didn't quite have a handle on all the characters' motivations.  So today I sat down and worked out what each character is up to.  Just three or four lines (one or two for minor characters).  I also wrote up a page with details on the setting that I didn't have straight in my mind.

I believe this will break the logjam.  Already I know what I need to write tomorrow night.  And even beyond that, I have a much better conception of where the story is going.

As a story with a lot of fantasy elements, I assemed my WiP wouldn't need research because it's all in my imagination.  Wrong!  It does need research--only the source is my own mind.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What I'm Reading: Marvel Comics The Untold Story

Sean Howe has written this extensively researched history of Marvel Comics, from its origins around 1940 as a quick cash-in on a fad by publisher Martin Goodman to the present day.  He conducted more than a hundred interviews for the book and read seemingly every fanzine and industry press article on the company ever written.

Now I've read Stan Lee's autobiography and other histories of the industry so I was familiar with the general outline, and I've encountered a few of the stories the book contains, but the pages really overflow with material that's new even to me.  Despite that, the book is neatly organized and flows well.  Still, I have to imagine, a general reader with an interest but little familiarity with the subject would find the constant succession of artists, editors, and titles to be somewhat overwhelming.

What strikes me most in the book is how haphazard the evolution of Marvel Comics has been.  It seems my previous view of Stan Lee smoking a pipe and deciding after reflection to establish a new character, Iron Man or Dr. Doom perhaps, to be erroneous.  Nearly every creative decision was made amidst deadline pressures, personality conflicts, bizarre business edicts from the company's ownership, or general desperation.

A good example is the character of She-Hulk, who was created in the late 1970s when Stan Lee heard a rumor that the writers of the Hulk television program, produced by Universal, were to introduce a female version of the character.  In order to secure the trademark, Stan wrote a script practically overnight and hurried artists in producing the first issue so it could be rushed into print.  The ad hoc and somewhat arbitrary nature of She-Hulk's real-world origin seems typical of Marvel company strategy.

Personally, I really enjoyed this book but I don't think I would recommend it to anybody without a special interest in Marvel.  For something of greater interest to an average reader I think The Ten-Cent Plague, by David Hajdu, is probably a better choice.  It covers the comic industry in the late 1940s and early 1950s when a panic about teen-age delinquency led to the imposition of the Comics Code (similar to Hollywood's Hays Code) in 1954 and the subsequent decimation of comics publishers who had relied on now-forbidden crime and horror stories.  Hajdu's book puts the comics story in context with explanations of how it fits into the politics and social mores of the time, which also give his book a wider appeal.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hurricane Brings Rain, Extreme Laziness

With some out-of-town guests last weekend, the hurricane the last couple days, and Halloween coming up, I have gotten nothing done on my WiP for several days.  Those scary movies won't watch themselves!

I have been doing a lot of reading, so I'll have another post on What I'm Reading up in the near future.  Should be more productive in November--National Novel Writing Month!  I'm going to make an attempt to write or revise every day of the month.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What I'm Reading: Just Write Here's How

Children's author Walter Dean Myers has had over 100 books published.  He grew up in Harlem and his writing tends to take an inner city perspective, although he's also written fantasy, non-fiction, and other types of books.  This book is basically a description of his methods--how we writes and why.

This writing book is more practical than a lot I've come across--it's low on morale boosting, rather getting into Myers's daily schedule and his process from beginning to end of book.  And Myers does have a process.  He has a particular outlining method, a certain way to build characters and settings, a highly specific plotting technique, and so on.

I'm more of a seat-of-the-pants writer myself.  Myers knows writers like me, and has an opinion on them: "They take a lot longer to write their books than I do."  I found it notable that he says his characters never surprise him.  To me, one of the pleasures of writing is that sometimes my characters do things I don't expect.  A more rigorous method seems to take that away.

And yet, I'm glad I read this.  In fact, I may very well end up using some of his methods.   I have an idea for a somewhat more complicated novel than I've written so far, and after my current WiP, I will likely take it up ("Perhaps sometime in mid-2013," I think to myself with wild optimism.).  This more complicated book will benefit from having a structure I've worked out ahead of time, I think.

And who knows, maybe like Mr. Myers, I'll find that the more I plan my book, the easier it will be to sell.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

What I'm Reading: Rare Beasts

Rare Beasts, a children's book by Charles Ogden, concerns Edgar and Ellen, twins who live more or less by themselves in a big house out on the edge of town.  The twins have rather nasty dispositions and the only thing they enjoy more than bedeviling each other is playing cruel pranks on the other children and residents in the town.

In this particular book, they steal all the town's pets and decorate them with paint, glitter, sticks, etc. to look like undiscovered rare animals that they hope to sell for great profit to collectors.  However, none of their potential marks, er, customers work out, and in the end their plan is disclosed publicly and the twins get their comeuppance.

I liked the amusingly cynical narration and humorous little details that are really for parents and may go over a lot of reader's heads (I'm assuming most readers of this are probably 8-10).  For instance, the absence of the twins' parents is explained by an off-handed remark that "they had long since departed on an extended 'around the world' holiday.  At least that's what it said in the note they left behind."  It reminds me of Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events books, which I suppose was probably an inspiration.

My son hasn't read it yet so I can't get his opinion, but I think he'll probably like it.  It's got a kind of morbid but immature humor he'll enjoy and is scary, but not too much.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Importance of the Next Project

Sometimes I hear about writers who've been working on the same novel for years.  To me, that seems counterproductive.  No doubt you should polish your book to as high a sheen as you can, but after you've done that, tinkering with it for years only means you're not getting started on your next book.

I'm on my third.  The first was terrible, the second I'm shopping around, the third is my WiP and going really well.  I've learned much from the first two, but I've already explored those waters.  Why would I want to anchor myself there?  I want to sail on and explore new seas.

I don't think endless rewrites actually make the book better.  A thorough sanding smooths the grain, but after that you're cutting into the wood.  If you're worried about getting it published, just send it out, even if it's not perfect.  No actually published novel is perfect either, and not every novel is meant to make it to print.

And doesn't sticking to one project for so long kill your imagination?  As a writer, a novelist, I feel you should have the feeling of ideas bubbling over.  You should have so many you can't get to them all.  Periods between novels are for short stories or essays or poetry or what have you.  If you never let your novel achieve it's natural end, you never get to that in-between point.  Your imagination languishes.  Let it go, and move on.  To a writer in it for the long-term, perhaps the most important concept is that of The Next Project.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Query letter

So I did some editing on the hook for my query letter.  The old one wasn't inaccurate, exactly, but I think in tone it conveyed Dani as being something of a Bad Girl, and the plot as being a little grimmer than what it really is. Here's what I have now [edited on 11 October--NPB; and yet again on 13 October--NPB]:

Fifteen year-old Dani is positive she’s in for the most boring summer ever when she goes with her dad to the tiny Arkansas town he grew up in.  To her surprise, she soon meets three locals: two boys and a large black bear, who seems to share a mysterious connection with her via a bear claw her late grandfather left her.

As for the boys, she leans towards Eli, passionate and charming, at seventeen already a semi-professional musician and an expert on local Indian lore.  Before long she’s strumming and smoking pot with his bluegrass band and joining his buddies on beer-drenched canoeing trips.  By the time she notices his quick temper and penchant for settling disputes with his fists, she’s already fallen for him.

The other boy, straight-arrow preacher’s son Austin, is worried about her, as are her Dad and her eccentric Aunt Eunice.  Even their help may not be enough to protect Dani when Eli reveals to her a hidden Indian burial site and his plans to perform a ritual there to keep his sick father alive.  He needs Dani because he believes her bear claw allows her to harness the site’s spiritual energy.  Unfortunately, the ritual also requires a human sacrifice.

Dani must decide whether to turn against Eli, even if it means putting her own life in danger.  Worse yet, while dealing with him, the hours are counting down to her slot at the big bluegrass festival she’s been rehearsing for all summer.  But neither Dani nor Eli realizes the true purpose of the bear claw, or what its use might bring. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Favorite author at different ages

I was thinking about different favorite authors I've had in my life, and how that has changed over time.  The first author I remember as a favorite was Robert O'Brien, author of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.  Not that I knew his name, I just knew I liked his book!  That would have been around the second grade, I think.

At some point I started paying attention to authors names.  I remember knowing Judy Blume, and that a book by her would be written in a certain style.  She may be the first author I was really aware of.

When I was a little older, science fiction authors largely took over my favorites list: Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, and most of all, Frank Herbert's Dune series.  That would have been in middle school and into high school  When I was in my mid-teens and started paying attention to style as much as plot, Kurt Vonnegut came on my radar, as well as Roger Zelazny with his Amber series.  These were fantasy/SF authors whose writing equaled anything I was reading in English class.  (I should go back and see if Zelazny holds up as well as I remember.  Dune, which I revisited last summer, does not!)

In school, most authors didn't impress me too much.  Holden Caulfeld annoyed me, the Scarlet Letter was unreadable, Dickens was too melodramatic.  However, there were a few I enjoyed.  I went through a Hemingway phase (as do all teen boys of a certain literay bent, I think).  In drama class in my junior year, we performed Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Austen has remained a favorite ever since.  Odd for a male SF fan perhaps, but her writing is so clear, each phrase so well-chosen, I can't help but admire her.

Best of all, my eleventh grade English teacher assigned us The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers.  This book knocked me over with its emotionality.  I read it at least three times in high school, and picked it up again a couple years ago to find it still had the same effect.  Her later books were more polished but its the raw emotional impact of that first book that still hits me.

In college, I was a German major.  Kafka was my favorite overall, but a book called Der Fremde Freund by Christoph Hein was the one particular work I liked best.  It's about a female doctor in East Germany in the 1970s who, after a troubled childhood and a bad marriage, has become clinical and detached from her own life.  She meets a passionate man who rekindles her zest for life, but he's killed in an accident and afterwards she discovered he'd been married.

Nowadays?  As I've gotten older, I've become less emotionally attached to books.  It seems like I've encountered every type of story, but I still enjoy books written in a beautiful, clear style.  Jane Austen, Vladimir Nabokov, Boswell's Life of Johnson.  Among YA authors, John Green's An Abundance of Catherines was really good.  He's also written something called Looking for Alaska that was well-reviewed, so I should seek that out.

How have your favorite authors changed over time?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

What I'm Reading: Steven King's On Writing

This should maybe be titled What I've Read, since I finished it a couple days ago: Steven King's On Writing.  It came to me highly recommended by more than one person, and I found it well-written and entertaining.  Part auto-biography and part how-to guide, and all readable.  Alas, like pretty much every writing book I've ever read (Strunk & White being the one exception) there wasn't a whole lot of advice I found useful.

Read a lot.  Write a lot.  Know your grammar.  Have a place set aside.  All good recommendations, all familiar to any writer whose read more than one of these books.

There were two things in the book I did find helpful, one a piece of advice, one a bit from his biography.  The advice bit was that you should write your rough draft all the way through before going back to edit.  He's not the first person I've heard this from, but I've decided to follow this with my current WiP.  It's always tempting to go back and edit before you're really done with the first draft, but it's probably faster his way.  Might help make some of the middle part of the book (always my least favorite part) less of a slog if I'm not writing and editing at the same time.

The biography bit was finding out the he'd written three books before his first, Carrie, was published.  Stephen King himself, the man with seeming 1000 books on the shelves, didn't get a bite from a publisher until book #4!  And once he was well-known, he was able to go back and sell two of the earlier ones, which actually weren't that bad.  It's just that selling anything as a first-time author is tough to do.

Gives me hope--just keep on writing, and if the current book I'm shopping around doesn't attract an agent, it may still end up published later on.  Perhaps as part of a package deal?  Actually, if it keeps me writing and upbeat, I suppose On Writing did exactly what is was supposed to.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Famous writers from different states

So I was trying to think of the most famous writers I could from each state.  A few were obvious (Cather, Faulkner, Toole).  Still, I didn't come up with too many--it turns out I'm not actually sure where most writers are from.  I put the name in italics if I've never read a book by the author.

California--John Steinbeck?  Jack London?  Charles Bukowski?  Raymond Chandler?

Colorado--Hunter S. Thompson?

Georgia--Carson McCullers

Illinois--Ernest Hemingway

Indiana--Kurt Vonnegut

Louisiana--John Kennedy Toole

Maine--Stephen King

Massachusetts--Melville?  Nathaniel Hawthorne? (no, I never made it through The Scarlet Letter), Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, oh, I've got a recent one--Robert Parker (the Spenser mysteries)

Mississippi--William Faulkner, Eudora Welty (I think)

Missouri--Mark Twain

Nebraska--Willa Cather

New Jersey--Junot Diaz (Oscar Wao was set there, I assume he's from there)

New York--Walt Whitman (Ok, he's more of a poet, but he's who I came up with), Langston Hughes? Ralph Ellison? (obviously they lived in Harlem, but were they from there?), Stan Lee (!), about a million others who lived in NY but weren't from there

North Carolina--David Sedaris

Ohio--Harriet Beacher Stowe (I think), P.J. O'Rourke, Harvey Pekar

Oklahoma--S. E. Hinton (Lee told me this one, and how great is it that OK's most famous author is YA?)

Pennsylvania--John Updike (aren't his books set in suburban Philadelphia?)

Virginia--Edgar Allan Poe (I know Baltimore claims him but I think he was from Richmond originally)

Washington State--Frank Herbert

Leave any others you know in the comments and I'll add them to the list.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Importance of Writing Groups

I've been a member of the Writers of Chantilly for about 18 months, and it's made a tremendous difference to my writing.  Before I joined, I thought the most important thing about being in a writers' group was the group's critique of the story.  But now that I've been a member, I've come to realize the critiques aren't the most important thing, or even second.  No, the critique is third on the list.

Second on the list is the moral support.  Now, I've been writing since I was a little kid.  Short stories, poems, screenplays, essays for school or even for myself.  I guess I'm pretty well internally motivated.  Even if I wasn't in a group, I'd still be writing.  But I'm not sure I would have finished my most recent novel, or maybe it would have taken me much longer.  The twice-monthly meetings of my writers' group energize me, supercharge me, make me eager to come back and write for the rest of the week.

But even that is subsidiary to what I've discovered is the primary advantage: being in a group makes me try harder.  Where formerly I might have glossed over an awkward passage or half-assed a difficult scene, or skipped it entirely, I know now I'm going to end up reading that in front of other people, so I really have to polish my work.  Make sure everything is exactly how it should be.  Even if it's good, it gets an extra re-reading, and if it's bad, I keep going at it until I know it's something worth reading to the other members.

That's why for writers, I've come to believe being in a writers group is essential.  It's something I would recommend to any writer.  I'm not sure there's really another way, at least for me, and I suspect for others, to get out the best writing we're capable of. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Musical inspiration

I find a lot of inspiration for my writing in song lyrics.  I don't listen while I'm writing--music is way too much of a distraction!  But lyrical fragments will get in my head and stay there for years, and eventually have an impact on what I write.

For The Ballad of Dani and Eli this verse, from Cracker's I See the Light, was often floating around in my head:

Do you sometimes lust
after the grace that others have inside
they simple peace they make of life
they love they show on summer's nights
Well I want it too

(By the way, this is what the words sound like to me.  If this is wrong and you actually know the correct lyrics, don't bother letting me know because I prefer this!)

Not that Cracker's song directly influenced the plot or anything, but hearing those words sort of puts me in the right mood for writing.  The character of Eli in the book especially was informed by the spirit of the lyrics.  The way the singer wants the uncomplicated, loving way other people have, but isn't quite sure how to acquire it for himself is very much reflected in Eli.  And you know he probably never will find that "simple peace"--it's not something you can lust after, the very act of lusting after it precludes its achievement.

What songs or lyrics have inspired your writing or other artistic endeavors?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ballad hook

Today I started sending out my manuscript for The Ballad of Dani and Eli to agents.  If I hear any updates on that front, I'll post it here.  For those who are interested, here's the hook from my query letter:

Fifteen-year old Dani likes the blues, bad boys, and trouble, and has no problems attracting any of them.  When she moves with her dad for the summer from Minneapolis to the rural Ozark town he was raised in, she’s soon in deeper than ever.  She experiments with smoking pot, puzzles over the Indian bear claw necklace her grandfather left her, and falls for seventeen-year old guitar-picker Eli.

Eli recruits Dani into his bluegrass band and charms her with his knowledge of local Indian lore.  Dani finds him mystical and alluring, all the more so when she discovers his penchant for sudden violence.  Others are worried about Dani and watching out for her well-being: her dad; her eccentric Aunt Eunice who raises her own food and keeps dead rattlesnakes in the freezer; and the hot but straight-arrow preacher’s son, Austin.

But even their help may not be enough to protect Dani when Eli reveals to her a hidden Indian burial site and his plans to perform a ritual there to keep his sick father alive.  He needs Dani because he believes her bear claw allows her to harness the site’s spiritual energy.  Unfortunately, the ritual also requires a human sacrifice and Dani must decide whether to risk her safety by turning against Eli—or if she even wants to.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What I'm Reading: Escape From Camp 14

Escape From Camp 14 is the name of the current book I'm reading.  It's about Shin Dong-Hyuk, a man who was born and lived his entire life in one of North Korea's six political prison camps until he escaped at age 23.  To get an idea how remarkable this is, keep in mind that out of some 200,000 prisoners in these camps, only 35 have ever escaped and made it to South Korea or the West.  Of these 35, Shin is the only one to ever escape from his particular camp, Camp 14.
Of course, North Korea is arguably the worst country in the world, even for those of its people who live regular lives.  As you might imagine, life for Shin was beyond horrific.  Basically, for the first 23 years of his life, he never had a time when he didn't feel hungry.  He never had a friend.  He saw his mother and brother executed before his eyes, and many other executions besides.  He never saw an act of mercy, and literally did not know the meaning of love.  In school he learned only the bare basics of literacy and numeracy before being sent to a lifetime of hard labor.  When he was an adult in the camp, he happened to meet a recently arrived prisoner who told him he was from the capital, Pyongyang.  Shin asked him what Pyongyang was, having never heard of it.
Several things struck me as notable or ran through my head as I read the book.  One, being born in the camp may actually have given Shin an advantage in escaping over those who arrived there from outside.  As he knew no other life, enduring the hardships required to break out were no special difficulty, nor did he feel any guilt or regret about anything left behind.
Another thing I noticed was that the camp seemed to present a perversion of Christian values.  No doubt the camp's values also conflict with Korea's traditional Buddhist values as well, but there seemed to be some particular parallels to Christianity.  Perhaps this was intentional?  One, the camp drilled into the head of its prisoners a sick version of the 10 Commandments (i.e. Commandment One: Do Not Try to Escape.).  Two, there was a universal value impressed upon the prisoners, snitching, rather like Christianity holds love to be its universal value.  Three, where the greatest of Christian virtues is hope, the camp attempted to remove all hope from its prisoners.  Indeed, it was only when the fellow prisoner I mentioned before told Shin of the outside world that hope was kindled in him for the first time.
The final notable thing is that in the months leading up to his escape and the years after, Shin has gradually acquired something of a normal emotional life.  Some concepts still confuse him, like the idea of forgiveness.  And he still finds it hard to trust people, always wondering when he first meets someone what that person is trying to get from him.  But he has a girlfriend and knows love.  He's come to appreciate honesty, and kindness towards others, and affection.
Shin reminds me of the boy in the book A Boy Called It, a true story of the worst child abuse case ever discovered in California.  Despite an unimaginably cruel upbringing, the boy in that book grew up to live a normal life with a family and children of his own.  This is inspiring, in a way, in that the better aspects of human nature cannot be killed under even the worst circumstances.

Monday, September 17, 2012

What's this all about?

The essential purpose of this blog will be to operate as the online base for information about my manuscript (and hopefully someday, book) The Ballad of Dani and Eli.  Information about the book that may interest agents, readers, friends, and relatives will be found here.

But it will also be a place where I can put down my thoughts, such as they are, on writing, reading, the creative process, and related topics.

I don't have any particular models in mind, but I will say there are a couple author blogs I particularly admire.  Though I've never read any of her Regency romances (or anybody else's, for that matter), but I find Joanna Bourne's blog to be a great source of information on writing.  Kameron Hurley's blog has also been a source of inspiration for me in my writing, especially a post she once wrote on keeping your writing weird.

My hope is some of the things I write here will be one-tenth as good as what Joanna and Kameron post on a regular basis!