Tuesday, April 22, 2014

What I'm Reading: Becoming Mr. October

So here's my baseball book for this year: Becoming Mr. October, by Reggie Jackson.  I saw it on the New Arrivals stand at the library and picked it right up.  Reggie gives us a few chapters on growing up in a small town in Pennsylvania, his college career at Arizona State, and his early professional career with Oakland, but the bulk of the book covers the 1977 and 1978 seasons with the Yankees, when they won the World Series two years in a row.

It actually works pretty well paired with Bill Lee's autobiography, which I read last year.  Bill Lee was a pitcher with the Red Sox in 1978, that near-mythical season when the Sox and Yankees ended up tied for first place in the American League East on the last day of the regular season and had to play a tie-breaker.  Not surprisingly, Bill Lee makes a few appearances in this book as well, although we're reading now from the other point of view.

One thing that struck me about both books is how badly the pitchers were handled.  Bill mentioned Red Sox manager Don Zimmer refusing to adhere to a regular rotation, instead "saving" certain pitchers for key games, only to find they don't produce because they've had too much or too little rest.  Similarly, Billy Martin on the Yankees would decide he didn't like a certain player's attitude and bench him (often without explaining why), and then pitch another guy on only three days rest.  Or, he might yank a pitcher in trouble in the fourth inning instead of letting him work out of the jam, and send in a closer for the final five innings of the game (or more, in case of extra innings).  Favored pitchers he would leave in for all nine innings, fine for one outing but hell on a pitcher over multiple starts.  After half a season of this, most of his pitching staff suffered permanently sore arms or worse.  Reggie mentions several great pitchers who never pitched the same after working on one of Martin's teams.

I have to wonder--was this typical?  I mean, the Yankees and Red Sox were two of the best teams in baseball, and that's how they were treating their pitchers.  I have to imagine lesser teams were even worse off.  Or were the Yankees and Red Sox special cases, who managed to win despite the way their pitchers were treated?  No way a manager could get away with that today.

Then too, Billy Martin comes off terribly in Reggie's book in general.  I'm not sure I've ever read a positive account of Billy--even writers trying to be nice use euphemisms like "scrappy" or "feisty."  Reggie describes him as downright mean, a drunkard who harbors secret grudges that he satisfies by trying to humiliate his players on the national stage.  Apparently he had a special dislike for Reggie from the very first day that Reggie showed up at spring training in 1977.  Of course Reggie, an outspoken black man who had to fight for every bit of respect he ever got, simply wouldn't put up with Billy and at times openly defied him.

Of course, Reggie was famous for speaking his mind, even boasting about his talents and accomplishments.  It wasn't idle though--he was truly the best power hitter in the game!  Four home runs in four consecutive at-bats in the 1977 World Series, and that's just for starters.  I didn't realize that Yankees catcher Thurman Munson originally referred to Reggie as "Mr. October" sarcastically, but Reggie quickly picked up the phrase and wore it proudly.

He admits in the book that in retrospect, he wouldn't have said everything he did.  He says he was naive about the media when he got to New York, as in Oakland there'd typically been only three sportswriters in the locker room after games and they'd had a strong respect for players who wanted to keep things off the record.  In contrast, the Yankees locker room had dozens of sportswriters after a game, each looking for the best quote they could get and not above quoting overheard remarks, private conversations, or even subtly twisting their quotes to make them juicier.  Reggie says now if he'd known how many hurt feelings there would be, he would have kept his mouth shut a lot more often.  Quite an admission for a player who many thought at the time went out of his way to create controversy.

All in all, I would think this book would be of interest to any baseball fan.  It's an entertaining story by one of the more colorful characters to ever play the game, playing on one of the best Yankees teams of all time.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What I'm Reading: Roundup

Back again with another round-up of some of the graphic novels and things I've read lately!

Prophet: Brothers:  A few months ago I had a mini-review of the first volume of this series, and here we are with the second.  Still following John Prophet in the far distant future and across the galaxy as he continues a sort of vaguely defined mission that I believe will ultimately involve him waking up the long-dormant human empire.  By this time, he's assembled a team of non-anthropomorphic alien friends to help him.

The plot is fairly obscure and the characters are thin, but that's hardly the point here.  The point is seriously weird space opera, and Prophet delivers.  I think what I like most about this is the sheer scale: we meet civilizations that rise and fall, wholly contained in the massive corpse of an eons-dead war giant; or sentient tree aliens that have lived for thousands of years.  It really gives the feel of a galaxy so huge and strange it couldn't possibly be fully explored or understood in a single human lifetime.

In the first book, and even more so here, I also notice a definite slant in future technology towards the biological.  For instance, when the characters leave the ship, they pass through a living membrane that covers their bodies and acts as a spacesuit.  Or, at one point when John is nearly starved to death, his tree creature friend grows a fruit out of his own body and feeds it to John to keep him alive.  This biological vibe gives many scenes sexual or excremental overtones.  I think those overtones also contribute to the feeling of immense scale.  It makes the characters seem like tiny parasites feeding on and living in creatures vastly greater than they, and operating according to motives as incomprehensible to them as our lives are to an amoeba.

The Incal: I was very interested to read this, a famous underground science-fiction comic from the 1980s written by surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and drawn by legendary French comic artist Moebius.  This work has been cited as an influence on countless movies and comics since it came out, to the point that Jodorowsky and Moebius (unsuccessfully) sued the producers of the movie The Fifth Element for ripping their ideas off.

Alas, I wasn't as impressed by this as I'd hoped.  It follows John DiFool and his pet Deepo, a seagull made of concrete, on a quasi-mystical adventure to save humanity from a series of escalating threats in the distant future.  Strange to say it, but I think the main problem I have with it is that it's too coherent and straight-forward.  I mean, the trappings are all science-fiction surrealism, but there's none of that dream-like logic that normally infuses this sort of thing.

I also felt that it never quite committed to what it wanted to be.  There were hints it wanted to be a science fiction political intrigue (and Jodorowsky's quest to film the book Dune is well-known), but the scenes of political maneuvering in a multi-species, multi-planet parliament never amounted to more than "people in politics are on different sides."  There simply wasn't enough detail or background provided for us to know why one faction was important or what positions they held.

Similarly, there's a fair amount of nudity, sex, and violence, but it's all fairly tame, more than is strictly necessary to the plot but not enough to be truly lurid.  There's a lot of religious imagery and plotting, but as with the politics, not enough detail for us to really care.  I feel the story would have been better served if Jodorowsky had not tried to stuff everything into it.  If he'd picked a direction (say, straightforward space opera, or futuristic politics, or Heavy Metal-style erotic SF fantasy, or whatever) and stayed with it, it would have turned out better.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Importance of Writing Groups Redux

I've written in the past about the importance for a writer of being in a writers group.  In those posts, I mentioned four reasons to join a writers group:

1) Reading out loud in front of a group makes you try harder when you're polishing your work.

2) The support of other writers boosts you and supercharges your desire to write.

3) The critique provided by the other writers is an important tool in improving your work.

4) A regular meeting helps you get back on track when you've lost your way.

I'd like to mention a fifth that's occurred to me lately.  At the last few meetings, some of the other writers have read some really great pieces.  A couple writers in particular read chapters from their books that impressed me--and maybe made me a little envious.  Hey, I can write as well as that!

So why haven't I?

Obviously, I've really got to up my game if I'm going to keep up with these guys.  And so we come to the fifth reason: competition.  When other writers are hot, when they bring in something that makes you say "Damn!"  When they're providing the group with a master class in how it's done, you know it's time to get to work on your own story or manuscript.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

What I'm Reading: How to Write a Damn Good Novel

Like most of these how-to books, James N. Frey's How to Write a Damn Good Novel has some good advice and some truly god-awful advice.  The thing is, I bet a lot of writers who read this book say the same thing, only we're talking about different parts of the book.  Writing, and especially writing at novel-length, is all so individualized that what's fertilizer for one writer may be manure to another.

The advice Frey gives that I'll take away and put to use immediately is his idea to give the overall thrust of the book, as well as each main character, a premise describing their plot or character development arc.  For instance, the premise for Michael in the Godfather is that family loyalty leads to a life of crime, or for Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, forced self-examination leads to generosity.

I'm sure I've heard advice along these lines given before, probably in the form of "give each character a motivation," but that never seemed to work for me.  People's motivations change moment to moment based on the situation.  But phrased as Frey put it makes the idea a little more abstract, and its utility was immediately apparent to me: you can instantly tell whether a scene you're writing is relevant or not.  Does the scene advance the overall premise of the book, or of the character(s) in the scene?  If not, then it doesn't need to be in there.  I do this already, of course, but the premise concept provides a way to screen each scene more quickly.

The worst advice I found was Frey's admonition to put together something called a "step-sheet" before you ever start writing.  As he describes it, this is basically a detailed outline showing the dramatic rise and fall in tension throughout the book, and apparently it should take about a month to finish.  For some writers that might be great, but I'm never going to do it.  In my mind, anything more than a one or two page sketch at the beginning is a straitjacket.  Start off with great characters and let them figure out how to navigate the plot.

Another thing Frey mentioned that I doubt I'll ever do, although it sounds intriguing, is to interview your characters before starting the book.  This actually sounds like it might be a good way to establish their voice.  Of course, my preferred way to establish a character's voice is to write the book and let it come out naturally.  But who knows?  Maybe if I'm having trouble with a character some time I'll give it a try and see if it helps.

One thing I appreciated about Damn Good is that it's more on the practical end than the cheerleading end of writing how-to books.  Even if you don't agree with a suggestion, at least he makes one on nearly every page and you can take it or leave it.  I've had it with the cheerleaders.  I've written enough and gotten good enough I don't need the encouragement, and I'd rather read something with a high density of advice.  For those who are looking for encouragement, turn to Bird by Bird, which is clearly the best in that category.

So as a writer, should you read this?  Of course.  If you want to write a novel, you should probably read a dozen of these.  Half of what's in any of them you'll already know, and another third will be absolutely wrong for you, but that remaining fifteen percent is what you're after.  I found my fifteen percent in this book and my guess is you will too.