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.