Saturday, November 23, 2013

Thank God Almighty, I'm Done at Last

Tonight I finished the first draft of my latest novel.  It came in just short of 45,000 words (and after edits will probably land at closer to 46,000), which I think is about right for an upper-middle grade novel.  In a macro sense, I think finishing it now really shows how much better I'm getting as a writer.

First novel: Took 24 months, had some good scenes but frankly, was terrible overall.

Second novel: Took 18 months, both I and my writing group, the Writers of Chantilly, judged it to be pretty good, I think, but no interest from agents.

Third novel (this one): 14 months, at least for the first draft.  It may take another 4-6 weeks for revisions, but honestly, I don't think it needs that much more work.  For one thing, I've already read the first two-thirds or so to the group, and I always do my best to get each chapter in good shape before I read it to them.  So, I need to give the final one-third a hard revision, make a few adjustments to the early chapters to account for unforeseen developments later in the book, and give it all a final go-over with 400-grit sandpaper.  Final time elapsed will probably be 16 months.

So, I'm getting faster, more confident, and hopefully better.  I have a good feeling about this book's prospects for interest from agents, publishers, etc.  I think the hook for this one is clear, the characters well-drawn, the pace is quick.  I just hope the professional publishing world agrees!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

What I'm Reading: Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls

Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls is the latest collection of essays and short stories by humorist David Sedaris.  If you're not familiar with him, he grew up in an eccentric but close family with five kids, a chain-smoking mom with a wry sense of humor, and a no-nonsense but over-matched father.  Many of his stories revolve around childhood incidents--I generally find these the funniest of the bunch.  Others deal with his career as a pretentious but not-especially-talented artist when he was in his twenties, when he worked a series of minimum-wage jobs to pay the bills and lived in Raleigh's rougher neighborhoods.  Still others mine the humor in his current situation as a middle-aged gay American living in London and Paris.

I was once friends with a guy who was always encountering ridiculous situations and acted like a magnet on strange people.  Every time I saw him something odd would happen: a pair of very nice but persistent Buddhist monks trying to convince us to give up meat, or a search for a bathroom in a hospital leading us unexpectedly to an operating room where an operation was underway (shouldn't there be a sign on the door or something?), or a high school runaway teaching us relaxation techniques.  Hanging out with him had the same general tone as reading David Sedaris.

A couple stories in this book are especially funny.  There's one about a trip to Australia where an overly friendly waiter lets him hold a kookaburra (a type of bird), and another about a night spent with the drunks in the bar car on a train trip from Chicago to New York.  My favorite, though, was the story of the day a kid named Tommy in the neighborhood called his mother a curse word, and his dad dragged Tommy home to put the fear of God in him, only it turned out to be another kid in the neighborhood with the same name.  Sometimes the premises alone are funny, but generally the humor is in his observations of absurdist details--the way his dad removes his pants for comfort as soon as he comes home from work and does not put them on again in the evening for any reason, or the restaurant patron carrying around a doll as if it were a real baby.  Another frequent source of humor is in the overreactions of the people around him to everyday annoyances.

The book was enjoyable, but I think his earlier books were sharper--especially Me Talk Pretty One Day.  I don't know if he's actually getting less funny--maybe he used all his best material in the earlier volumes?-- or if it's just because his style is no longer a novelty to me.  In his past couple books, I've also noticed politics creeping in.  In the chapters where this occurs, Sedaris betrays no great understanding of the political scene, and they very much have the feel of an old man grouching about the world going to hell in a handbasket.  The man's entitled to his opinions, of course, but that doesn't mean they make his books better.

If you're a David Sedaris fan, you probably already have this--his following is devoted and fairly large, I believe.  If not, this isn't a bad one to start with, but it would probably be worth seeking out Me Talk Pretty One Day or Holidays on Ice, which I think are his best.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Nick's annual reading goals

Over the years I've established a set of goals, or at least traditions, for my reading.  I try to read a selection from each of the following categories every year:

1) Bible.  During Lent, I try to read daily from the Bible or a book on a religious topic.  Each year I try to read a Bible book I haven't read before, although as I get older there are far fewer that I haven't read and that strike me as something I'd like to read.  (The Psalms or Proverbs, for instance, may be great individually but would be a little tedious to read straight through; Leviticus and Deuteronomy are basically unreadable for a casual reader.)  I also revisit a few particular favorites every so often--the Acts of the Apostles, the Gospel of John, and Ruth are at the top of my list.

2) Baseball.  Sometime during baseball season, I try to read a book on baseball.  Most years, I get to it during or April or May when my interest in the subject is at its height (and the Nationals are still in contention).  This year, for whatever reason, I didn't get to it until the World Series was almost over.  I'm no Yankees fan, but I think the best baseball book I've ever read was a couple years ago when I hit Jonathan Eig's Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig.  Great book on a man with an almost wholly admirable life, cut tragically short, but with that beautiful "Luckiest Man" speech at Yankee Stadium the summer before he died, when he showed he had no bitterness in his heart for anything that had happened to him.

3) History.  Every year I try to read a popular history book.  For some reason, I like to read these in late summer while I'm at the beach.  This year's book was fun, if not fully satisfying.  The best history books I've read, at least in the past five or six years, are Gotham: A History of New York City, a monumental undertaking but endlessly fascinating, and Last Call: A History of Prohibition.  

4) YA.  My wife says I should read more YA, since I'm trying to write in the genre.  She's not wrong!  Still, since I write almost every evening, and read a wide variety of books, I really only have time to get to four or five YA books in any given year.  The best YA book I read in the past year was John Green's Looking for Alaska.  I'm not going to praise it anymore here.  In fact, I'm angry at John Green for writing so well and making me realize I'll never live up to the standard he sets for the genre.  If you must read a YA novel but don't know what to get, pick one by John Green, doesn't even matter which one.  They're funny and heartbreaking and stay with you long after you've finished.

5) Literature.  With a capital L.  At least once a year I try to read a book that an English major would love.  Sometimes I really enjoy them, other times it's more of a trophy to put on the shelf.  Earlier this year I finished Boswell's Life of Johnson.  It's the second time in my life I've read it and it's well worth revisiting.  The one I'm working on now is Moby Dick.  I like it so far, but, umm, I'm taking a little break from it.  I'm about halfway through.  I'll pick it up again in a couple weeks and finish it.

What about my readers?  Do you just read whatever catches your attention, or do you have goals in mind and try to stick to them?  Or do you have an actual plan?  I think the most ambitious reading goal I've ever heard was one that of the husband of one of the librarians at my wife's library, who was trying to read a biography of every American president, in order.  He was up to Thomas Jefferson at the time, a couple years ago.  I wonder if he ever finished, or where he is now?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

What I'm Reading: The Wrong Stuff

Bill Lee was a left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos in the 1970s and early 1980s.  He was well-known for his outspoken views, free-spirited approach to life, and (controversially at the time) unabashed drug use. Oh, and he was a pretty good pitcher as well.

The Wrong Stuff is an autobiography he wrote with ghostwriter Dick Lally.  I'm not sure how much of this Bill wrote himself, but he seems pretty intellectual for a ballplayer, and his voice comes through very strongly, so I assume he contributed a lot more than in most of these celebrity ghostwritten books.  The book was published in 1985, and I wonder whether it made a splash when it was printed.  Bill certainly doesn't hold back in expressing his opinion or in naming names, so I have to think it must have raised quite a few eyebrows.

It's also hilarious, full of anecdotes about baseball life and especially the nightlife after the game is over.  He has a skewed view of the universe that imparts a stand-up comic's wit to his observations, sort of a baseball version of George Carlin.  Despite the fact that he holds a lot of new-agey beliefs--karma, and Eastern medical practices, and that sort of thing--he nevertheless comes off as saner and more down-to-Earth than most of his teammates and managers, competing hard when the game is on but not worrying too much afterwards if was a win or a loss, nor obsessed with the money, fame, or groupies that so preoccupy those around him.

I checked Amazon and this book recently became available again after years of being out of print (I found my copy on a giveaway table at work).  I would definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in baseball, especially the Red Sox or baseball in the 70s.  But I think it would entertain a far broader readership than that, as Bill also peppers his book with his unique views of inter-gender relations, politics, the merits of various US cities, and anything else his curious mind happens to land on.