My goal this year was to expand my content variety to more than just books, the idea being to broaden my influences in order to widen my writing perspective. So far, I have added some graphic novels to my lineup, read several non-fiction books at my “regular” job, and made it through a couple of Netflix original series (as well as plowed through a huge backlog of their comedy specials - check out Sarah Silverman’s A Speck of Dust as one of the best examples). But I have not encountered a show worth pouring out a few words of my own until I viewed Charlie Brooker’s phenomenal, terrifying series Black Mirror.
(Readers will recognize this is technically the second in my Netflix series, the first having appeared almost two years ago - click here if you’d like to read my thoughts on their terrific animated program BoJack Horseman)
Black Mirror was a show conceived in the UK by the sardonic television critic almost a decade ago, but it didn’t really catch on across the pond until it was vacuumed up by Netflix, which commissioned another two series (the last of which came out last December). I have mostly known Brooker via a series he produced for the Beeb around the same time: How TV Ruined Your Life. A breakdown of the hidden manipulators behind most of what we watch on the small screen, it opened my eyes to the uses and misuses of propaganda and emotion in that medium, and has caused me to think about television in a different way ever since. This is why the salient dissection of our own current technological age strikes me as a continuation of what Brooker has been doing for his career: showing us the creepy possibilities of our world and where they might lead.
Approaching his latest effort provoked a challenge in me: how can one write about a show that is already so stunningly well-written and offers the best media critique of this nonsense I have ever seen? Since I can’t compete, I am merely going to speak about how this series works, at least from my own vantage point as a flogger of the written word. The show operates on roughly two different levels. There’s the basic plot of each, many of which take place in an indeterminate, bleak future in which eye implants have replaced the smartphone screen, or technology has mutated into an out-of-control form. I would argue that the first two series, originally done for Channel 4, remain the overall best and I want to take a quick look at a few of the episodes. The dystopian “Fifteen Million Merits” stuck with me for a long time. Ostensibly a tale of a bizarre, underground “power plant” that uses human stationary bicycle pedaling for some nefarious purpose, the episode devolves into a parable about our current obsession with celebrity and reality television, and points toward a future in which everyone is looking to cash in on the phenomenon. This episode cast a harsh light not only on possible future living arrangements (each person lived in a screen-embalmed cube, which is impossible to look away from without losing merits), but also upon our celebrity-obsessed current age and its sheer emptiness.
Probably more famously from the second series was “The Waldo Moment,” which Brooker himself has alluded to as eerily peering forth into our current worldwide political malaise. In this one, a conservative British MP stands against a cynical neophyte and a pretend, CGI rendered “puppet” that exists solely to point out the meaninglessness of the entire political exercise. The “real” politicians do their best to point out that adding more nihilism to the process won’t help anything, but in the end “Waldo” the profane creation ends up garnering a significant percentage of the vote without actually winning. The entire episode was at once a blistering commentary on the sorry state of political affairs pre-Brexit, but I also read it as a very broad commentary on the entire concept of critiquing the political moment anymore, especially in the age of TheDonald as our wonderful Commander-in-Chief.
I also want to give high marks to the “White Christmas” special, featuring a stellar and disturbing performance by Jon Hamm and possessing its own three dark, intertwined tales that lead to an incredible, emotional payoff.
The later, Netflix-commissioned series are almost as good, while in my opinion not quite reaching the heights of the initial episodes. But even among these twelve are many that I found to be quite phenomenal. “Playtest” from series three is a creepy dive into the world of brain-augmenting video games, and its multiple false endings really freaked me out. “Hated in the Nation,” the series three closer, was a dystopian tale about the use of drone bees that took over for the real creatures (killed off through climate change) to assassinate whoever the Internet hates the most each day, and also contained a few subtle call backs to earlier episodes. And I would say that “Crocodile,” covering the lengths someone goes to cover up a horrible crime as well as the technological misuses of memory, and “Black Museum” which contained multiple stories like the Christmas special, were two of my favorites.
In the best episodes, almost all of which are written by Brooker, these stories point out the misery and destruction lingering just underneath the “black mirror” of our screens. While each has its own internal plot and setting, the greatest part of this series is its ability to show us where technology is heading, and why we face such a dangerous course. I found this show to be a healthy corrective to the kind of jargon that emanates from Silicon Valley these days, especially in the age of companies such as Cambridge Analytica. I would highly recommend this show to anyone who enjoys science fiction and the way it can be used toward cultural and critical analysis.
(I should also mention that I did wrap-up another series before this one: LOVE, co-created by Judd Apatow, Paul Rust and Leslie Arfin that concluded its three-season run this year. That show hit too close to home for me to write about in-depth, but I may re-binge-watch it at some point and put something down.)
I still hope to write about some other Netflix original series (including Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things), but it may not be for a few months. This blog will primarily remain one about writing, books, the creative process, etc but I will continue broadening my influences and blogging about them. Until then, thanks for reading (and watching)!
Hello and welcome to this installment of the 2018 Reading List! Last time I took a quick dive into High Fidelity. Then I took on another author suggestion from a coworker who I would have otherwise (stupidly) kept regaling to a “read later” list: Joyce Carol Oates and her masterful 1996 novel We Were the Mulvaneys. I was struck by Oates’ abilities as an author to show the story on every page, and that she reminded me of another author I used to call my favorite - Stephen King. Although as we’ll see, I would argue that Oates does King one better in almost every fashion. Let’s take a look at two major lessons writers can draw from this book.
Use of language. This is possibly Oates’s finest skill, and she brings it to bear in various layers throughout the text. The story is about the dissolution of a family, and you can see these people come alive on the page as well as the farm that begins as their home and ends up in disrepair and sold. The descriptions of the farm life, the way the characters act as they speak to one another, and the use of simile and metaphor are all reminiscent of King, but much better done.
Use of character. This may actually be the stronger part of the novel, as Oates deftly shows us the breakdown of each individual character while also protracting the story out via their various perspectives. The book is ostensibly “written” by Judd, the youngest Mulvaney, but the perspectives shift subtly into scenes that he could not have seen, but possibly heard about from his older siblings. Each character’s view on the horrible events that tear their family apart apply a layer of depth to this story and a stunning emotional weight. If I had a caveat to any of this, I’d say I wish we got to spend more time with the eldest child, Mikey (“Mule”). There is an interesting vignette involving him early on, but later he goes off with the Marines and we don’t hear much from him until his father visits toward the end of the book.
My stupid nitpicking aside, it is easy to see why the book is considered one of the best this (very prodigious) author has produced. And speaking of her considerable body of work, I should point out that King himself praised Oates and her productivity a few years back. With (at least) 40 more books out there, I will definitely return to this author in the future.
Up next, I’m going to take on a recommendation given to me by my editor years ago, when I was beginning this series as experiments. This would be David Guterson’s 1994 novel Snow Falling on Cedars. And stay tuned for another update in the “how to write a book” series hopefully within the next month. Thanks for reading and writing!
Hello and welcome to this installment of the 2018 Reading List. Last time I pondered the various meanings of White Noise. After the intensity of that novel, I decided to pivot toward some “lighter” fair, picking up an author who I hadn’t read in ages - Nick Hornby and his 1995 debut novel High Fidelity.
I’ve wanted to read this one since I saw Stephen Frears’ film of the same name years ago. I must say the book is many times better, and I found myself questioning why the movie took the story to America, because the humor does not translate as well. The story is about Rob, a middling, 35-year old record store owner in the UK who ultimately comes to realize his fear of death makes him jump in and out of relationships over the whims of a song, or a person’s reaction, or just because of his “itchy feet.” As I am turning that age this year, the book made me feel glad that my life has settled down and I have moved beyond the things that hold Rob back in the story. I want to take a look at some of the lessons writers can gain from a book like this.
Use of humor. This is arguably the novel’s strongest suit, and once again I felt this aspect didn’t make it into the film version (which is funny in its own, depressing Americanized way). Hornby deftly wields the voice of Rob, and interjects tons of statement that indicate the author himself sees this character as the pathetic shell of a man he is. There is a ton of self-deprecating humor that deals with the various situations, and I thought Hornby was quite spot-on regarding the man-child aspects of our modern age.
Switching up the narrative. This is something the film also tried capturing (to better effect IMO), the long monologues in which Rob is speaking to the reader/audience and pleading his case. At some points he even addresses the reader during a conversation with another character. Done right, this can be a very interesting way to tell a story from various angles/perspectives.
Overall while I did enjoy the work, I don’t think I will be revisiting Hornby for a while. Reading the travails of a thirty-something Brit who hasn’t gotten any part of his life figured out may have resonated with me back in my twenties, but as a married (for almost eight years) man it struck me as a gigantic excuse for men to act their boorish selves way past that era of their lives and to expect women to pick up the pieces. In the age of #MeToo, this message doesn’t resonate as it once may have. But, if you’re looking for an easy read, Hornby does the job, and you’ll have a few good laughs along the way.
Up next, I’m diving back into the female author recommendations, this time one who is very established by this point but I have never read: Joyce Carol Oates and her masterful 1996 novel We Were the Mulvaneys. Stay tuned for more updates as the Reading List progresses through the year!
Hello and welcome to this installment of the 2018 Reading List. Last time we explored the world of Mrs. Dalloway, and now I am turning toward an author I have long known but never read: Don DeLillo and his masterpiece 1985 novel White Noise.
As with Virginia Woolf’s excellent prose, this too was one of the best books I have ever read. It feels like this novel has seeped into the national consciousness since its publication over thirty years ago, but reading it in the age of social media it still felt incredibly relevant. The advent of technology, eco-disasters, family disorder, academic redundancy; all of these themes have not eluded American life and in fact I have seen many of them get much worse in my lifetime. I won’t delve into the plot (such as it is) in the hopes that this will inspire others to read this book, and will dive straight into a few lessons writers can extricate from this work.
Use of thematic elements. This alone could be the source of an entire essay, and thankfully the edition I had of the book did include quite a few of them to help me gather my thoughts. While I would say the obvious themes of the book are in plain sight (the “airborne toxic event,” “Dylar”) the way DeLillo presents them in the prose is brilliant. What first starts as television ad jingles interspersed throughout the Gladney home slowly becomes part of the text itself, and seem to literally be running through the mind of the protagonist by the end (“Visa, MasterCard, American Express”). But this is just one theme - I would argue the largest is death and how much it looms over the American consciousness. The protagonist’s wife searches (and debases herself) for a pill that will cure death, and by the end Gladney himself is convinced of a much darker way to prolong his life. Writers can attend a master class in how to approach thematic elements in literally every page of this novel.
Using the novel to show society. This is arguably the novel’s largest success, as DeLillo uses his characters’ perspectives to show the consumerism obsessed populace of the early Eighties. The supermarket becomes a religious experience, academic life has become a series of intricately developed specialities (“Department of Hitler Studies”), and we are assailed all around by toxins and other elements that are slowly killing us. I had to set it aside and ponder the relations to our current malaise at many junctures. (This book is also the first since Catch-22 to make me laugh out loud multiple times.)
Use of voice. This struck me in the sense that Jack Gladney is essentially DeLillo’s voice, and yet it is not. Gladney views the world through academic suspicion, and yet is swayed by another academic (Murray) into committing a horrific act of violence he supposes will set him free. All throughout the book we encounter Gladney’s personal experiences of the world, viewed through a more jaded author’s handiwork, to amazing effect. Writers looking to hone their voice can find few better works of such phenomenal example.
Again, these are but three lessons for writers in this monumental book, and I would encourage anyone who has not picked this one up to do so if you can. It’s that incredible of a novel, and is so well-written that each passage has miles of depths to explore critically. And I would welcome any comments from those who have read it as well.
Up next, I needed a bit of a breather, as White Noise hit me hard on several levels. Therefore I’m veering back into (British) commercial fiction and returning to an author I have not read in years - Nick Hornby and his first novel High Fidelity. I also plan on reading more female authors later in the year, and am always open to more suggestions on that front. As always, thanks for reading and writing.
Hello and welcome to the second part of a new, ongoing series! It is my earnest attempt to document my own process of composing a new novel in the hopes that it may inspire others to do the same. While I think this series will be interesting to all readers, be aware that it is going to get pretty in depth in the writing process. (I also hope to gain further insight into my process and how I come up with this stuff.)
Part One (Ideas and Outline) is here if you missed it.
Drafting. So you’ve got a killer idea for a book and you want to start seeing it as you envision? This is the point when you put words down on paper (or on the screen) and consider if they connect. As I stated last time, the idea process can take years, but you’ll know when you have reached the point of wanting out outline it. Once you have the narrative set out, an idea of the characters, settings, and other details, you can make your first attempt at writing it.
A point here about shitty first drafts, which readers may remember comes from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. As I tried to surmise back then, Lamott is basically saying that everything we writers churn out in the beginning is going to be (more or less) crap. This is alright, since we are just finding out what we mean to say with each project. Whatever sits in front of you has many, many rewrites to go before it should be seen by another person. Your editor will guide you through the later steps of this process (more on that next time), but overall it will always be up to you to decide who gets the first read. It might be your agent, or a friend you trust, or somebody random you’ve queried on the Twitter machine. But you need to ensure the draft is in its finest form, and that you are ready to take critiques on it.
So how do you start? Again, for this series I’m mostly pulling from my current manuscript, of which I have finally been able to churn out close to 30,000 words. By the time I outlined Our Senior Year I had most of the story figured out. But it took a major read-through by my wife’s cousin to get me to see the story as it really flowed, and then how to make it better. My editor Libby shephereded me through the story process with Last Man on Campus, and I don’t want to shine a light on her until I can do it with an entire post. And the book I am slowly walking toward agent queries (Observe and Detach) is in the throes of another massive rewrite/re-envision, and will be the focus of the next post.
In the case of my current manuscript, which as yet has no title, the major ideas had been percolating in my brain for several years before I finally sat down to outline it this year. While this was not a conventional outline (in narrative terms anyway), it helped guide me toward telling the story as I saw it. I made some last-minute decisions (adding a third character as a sort of narrator within the tale) but made myself sit and crank out at least 2,000 words each session until the end of February. While I’m not comfortable yet revealing the two major characters I am somewhat ambivalent about this character, an underground journalist/historian. And it should be noted that this is not actually the “shitty first draft” of this book, as even I am too timid to put that on the internet (it has graced the eyeballs of a few friends the past few months). But without further ado, the first two(-ish) pages of the second draft:
Things have changed since two thousand aught one. The year them towers came down.
Some people say that’s when things went to shit in this country. I always used to tell them it was way before that. And President Trump? Saw that coming a mile away. This country has been ripe for demagoguery ever since the first Kennedy clone got blown away. You know the government cloned him, right?
That was Leonard. Lenny to his friends. One of the last interviews I was able to get, before the time of Samson. Before things really changed in this nation. But I’m already ahead of myself.
I was able to collect interviews from North American Sphere citizens right up until the point of (Lord) Samson’s full ascension to the Internet. After that he controlled pretty much all that went on there, darknet and light, so I was forced to move my research underground. Back to the paper movement, and all that. Yeah, it is a real thing. It had to become one.
I printed out a bunch of the interviews before sending them to the exclusive garbage can in the networked sky, and Leonard is one of the last. See, people still believed in weird ass shit before Samson. Before people couldn’t think for themselves enough to realize the con was on them, God wasn’t on their side and half the country got turned into a wasteland.
But again, ahead of myself. Leonard saw what some would say was the truth inside of the truth. And from my current position, I can fully say that the government successfully assassinated Kennedy the man, not the clone. In fact, clones did not exist up until the 1990’s, and would you believe the government tried outlawing the practice in these here (former) United States? I know, what a waste. Things look different the more you get past them.
But he wasn’t wrong to place the situation somewhere around when those towers fell. Conspiracy theorists were rife back then, hell you shoulda seen some of the theories. Didn’t help that their own government seemed to be blowing up buildings alongside those the terrorists hit. Controlled demolition, Leonard might have spat. And all that.
You see, for a long while the people of this country thought they controlled the government. Thought they had some say in the corporations running rampant over their lives, in who the people with the most money got to buy and sell for public office. A lot of this changed in the Trump era, of course. But he just took advantage of what really happened in the populace after the attack. The change in the society.
See, up until then we were ready to take down the government at every stage. People ran for the government pledging to get rid of the government. That’s how gung-ho people were about this shit, I can read interviews to prove it. But I won’t, cuz it’s a waste of everyone’s time. But after the attacks, suddenly they were ready to let the government do whatever it wanted in response. So the Patriot Act gets signed into law in less than a month. The NSA is allowed unlimited collection of our data. Multiple illegal wars spun out of control all across the Middle East. Calamitous events throughout the world, violent events, and while the scramble to do something about it is intense, there is next to no action on the real problem of climate change.
We were so eager to let the government spy on us and pretend to protect us that we didn’t see the forest before it burned down. Trump exploited it like any true huckster; Samson perfected the technique.
People were damn near ready to believe anything in the “post-truth” era. Not all of them, of course, but like the old adage says, “you can fool some of the people most of the time.”
It all really began with the weather patterns. Subtle at first, pretty bad by the quarter-century mark, untenable in the time of Samson. People were ready to believe in somebody who could make it all go away, tell them a story they wanted to hear. That was a big part of Samson’s success: the storytelling.
So Trump comes along, and bamboozles his way through an entire Presidential term. Yeah, I still can’t believe I have to write that. People remember him in the interviews. Mostly what a shit person he was. As if he wasn’t that way his whole life. They had a funny way of not remembering that, a lot of subjects.
So then we had the populism turn in the United States. Boy, were intellectuals like me happy when this happened. People, marching in the streets in support of science! Actual policy proposals getting through a newly turned Democratic Congress and enacted in the hopes of reigning emissions. Funny thing about those emissions, though. They really needed to stop happening right around the time Trump descended that escalator in 2015. He of course famously tweeted climate change was a “hoax” and therefore installed nothing but rapacious capitalists in places of high influence in his administration, ensuring that it would be too late forever by the time reasonable persons got in charge again.
This wasn’t understood by people until it was too late. It was somewhere in the second term of that once-ever Socialist President of the (former) United States.
I mean, we thought the near-destruction of New York City by hurricane Sandy would have done it. Or the utter devastation wrought by hurricane Harvey in Texas and Puerto Rico. But no, it had to be more than that. We had to lose Florida.
Oh it’s still there, of course. Most of it. But forget that lifetime altering goal of beachfront property. It seems what wasn’t understood was that with the changing patterns in the ocean, all it took was a massive storm to do what scientists predicted would take place over a century. So thousands of people had to die because of it.
There was a reaction to that, all right. The first million-plus protest against Washington DC about the inaction taken. Why couldn’t we just build a huge wall out there in the ocean or something? Ok, most people still didn’t really get what was happening. That unfortunately would not change much in the future.
Remember those documents that came out in the beginning of the century? The ones that proved Exxonmobil had been engaged in a pattern of cover-up and deceit regarding the true outcomes of their very own climate studies? All in the name of continuing massive profits?
The same thing kinda happened to the US government. Except it was kinda much more worse and horrible.
I won’t go on much more as each of you will have your own individual tale and will know how to tell it once you maneuver through these steps. But I definitely welcome any thoughts or criticisms, as that’s what this part is all about. What worked for you? What didn’t? Feel free to email or write something in the comments. And let me know how your own writing process is going. This gig is meant to be collaborative, and I need to be better about thinking that way.
In Part 3, I will be taking a deep dive into the editing process with my third novel, and hope to be able to explain coherently the importance of a good editor who is unafraid to tell you when your writing, for lack of a better term, sucks. I also hope to do a parallel series on what writers are for, and attempt some more personal essays as the year progresses. Thanks for reading (and writing)!
Hello and welcome to this installment of the 2018 Reading List. As a quick reminder, I’m catching up on some contemporary female authors, last time focusing on Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Now I am turning to an author I have wanted to read for some time: Virginia Woolf and what is generally considered her greatest work, Mrs. Dalloway.
This was without a doubt one of the best books I have ever read, and holds up quite comparably with other male authors of the era such as Faulkner and Joyce. In the introduction to the version I read, it was pointed out that this story is almost a counterpoint to Ulysses (takes place in one day, multiple characters, many interpretations), but I felt it was more readable. I’m not going to spend time on the story itself, in favor of the major lessons writers can draw from this work.
Use of perspective/character. This is Woolf’s overwhelming strength, and it shows on every page. The narrative sweeps among character points of view, then goes abroad over the city to find other characters who are doing other things at the same moment and gives their thoughts and hopes and concerns about life. Woolf does an amazing job showing how internal conflict can resonate within outer relationships. She also uses these techniques to show us the various complications of mental illness as it affects those who struggle with it.
Sentence construction. Almost as well known as the first lesson, this novel is also considered a masterwork in how to create powerful prose structure. Some sentences are actual paragraphs, using chained semicolons, parentheses and other flourishes to spin a narrative either from an omniscient perspective or from within the character’s mind. While this is not a technique that will work for every writer, it’s worth paying close attention to how the sentences wind together, as each one was obviously labored over for some time.
I would highly recommend this book for any writer looking for a phenomenal example of how to hone their craft. Whether you are pondering a use of a different perspective or how to show your character's’ internal thoughts, you can hardly find a better source of material. I would go so far as to say one can get a much deeper and rewarding experience from this novel than other stream-of-consciousness tales that were becoming popular in that era. I know I will continue reading more of Woolf’s fiction as well as her essays over the years.
Next up, I’m going to take on another author I have known of for years but never read: Don DeLillo and his first great masterpiece White Noise. I have another critical edition of this work so I hope to sample some of that material after I finish the text, and plan on getting a post about it done by the end of this month. And stay tuned for some more essays on the book process and writing itself. Thanks for reading!
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the 2018 Reading List. As a quick reminder, I’m catching up with some contemporary female-authored books, last time being Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Now I’m taking a dive into a dystopic future with a recommendation made by my editor: Emily St John Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven.
This was a very enjoyable read and the revelations kept me turning the page, even if they didn’t always add up in the way I was expecting. Mandel takes as her starting point a flu epidemic not unlike those the world has witnessed in the last decade. Something about using a way of killing off 99 percent of the population via the flu made this story feel eerily real to me. But while the post-pandemic storyline is where the action is, I find myself liking the pre-pandemic character development a bit more. For now I will dive into the two key lessons of this work:
Keep it simple - This is definitely a strong suit of Mandel, and each time I caught myself wanting a little more detail or information I had to realize what she was doing with the writing. It isn’t easy to describe such a breakdown of society, but Mandel’s beautifully simple language makes it a breeze to experience. The converse is Mandel (or her editors) didn’t seem to have a problem violating a cardinal writing verity, that of “show, not tell.” There are a few amazing passages that are marred with later, lesser repetitions of what occurred. But overall the sparse language keeps this tale moving at a brisk clip.
Thematic elements - This was the best part of the book for me: the tying together of various characters over the pre- and post-pandemic timelines, the re-working of a Sartre quote (“hell is other people”) in some revelatory ways, the introduction of a graphic novel series created by one of the characters that shows up throughout. All of it is done very well and helps give the story and characters a richer meaning.
Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a good dystopian tale about humanity picking up the pieces after most of us are wiped out. While many other authors have tried their hand at this type of tale (myself included) Mandel’s writing makes hers stand out, and the few problems I had with the text did not mar that experience much. I’m now interested in Mandel’s other work and hope to return to it in the future.
Coming up next, I’m taking on an author I’ve wanted to read since viewing The Hours (and became entranced with Philip Glass’s existential score, among many other highlights): Virginia Woolf and her 1925 novel that inspired Michael Cunningham: Mrs. Dalloway.
I also hope to get another “How to Write a Book” series update here after I wrap up my current drafting, and will continue on with some other writing series as the year progresses. Thanks, as always, for reading!
Hello readers and welcome to the second entry of the 2018 Reading List.
As a quick reminder, I am catching up on some contemporary female-authored books, the first being Margaret Atwood’s monumental The Handmaid’s Tale. Next is a recommendation from the co-worker who inspired me to head this direction in the first place: Donna Tartt’s phenomenal (and first!) 1992 novel The Secret History.
Though not much of this “mystery” novel is hidden, therein lies the deft ways in which Tartt spins this incredibly compelling narrative. I will refrain from giving even that bit away for those that have yet to dive into this one, and would recommend this to readers of all types of fiction. The history of the deeds of six college students in a leafy, quiet Vermont town is a powerful mediation on subjects we don’t consider often enough today: beauty, the will, how the ancients got on versus our stultifying age, etc. For now I will get into a few of the many lessons to be pulled from this prose.
Control. This word generally annoys me when I see it attached to a blurb on a book jacket. But in this case, I can’t think of a better word to describe Tartt’s level of hold on her craft. It’s not just in the settings, which are luminously detailed, or the character development, which is descendent and spellbinding, but overall in how compelled I felt to finish this stirring yarn. Tartt gives away the major event committed right there in the opening. It’s up to the reader to gauge the characters’ actions from this point onward, and that makes the story so flipping interesting. I could not put this one down until I got to the end, as disappointed as I was that some plot elements ultimately get dropped (Julian, their teacher, being the prime example).
Use of setting/characters. Despite her stunning control over the pacing, I feel I must mention something here that I also attempted (she obviously much better than me) in my second novel - using a campus setting for a shady storyline. It was very imaginary yet real the way she describes the idyllic (and dangerous for the protagonist during a freezing winter) town of Hampden and its school. On the other side, the characters are all quite unique and paranoid in their own ways, and I grew uncomfortable more than a few times recognizing similar weird behaviors in myself over the years.
While these are the two lessons I chose to highlight for this entry, there are without a doubt many more you can pull from this masterwork of a debut novel (and if I’m being nitpicky, a few places where an editor’s pen might have moved even more deftly). The story is forceful, pulling you through each scene by breaking down days into various segments of situations among the characters, and the writing is just excellent. I would recommend this to anyone looking for a great story.
Up next, I’m turning to a female author mentioned to me by my editor - Hilary St. John Mandel and her 2014 science fiction novel Station Eleven. Thanks as always for reading!
Hello readers and welcome to the first entry in the Reading List. (This is basically the same as Another Year of Fiction but I’m just not making it a “formal” experiment any longer.)
It was pointed out to me last year that the ratio of male to female authors was a bit out of whack, so I decided to correct that in 2018 with a bevy of women writers. The first selection was Margaret Atwood’s brilliant and prescient 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. I won’t delve into the plot much as the recent Hulu series seems to have renewed interest in this story and really, one cannot understand this book without reading it. The themes are so deep and universal (and scary) that each reader will draw his or her own parallels to our society as it’s gone in the decades since this book was published. I did draw some great lessons for writers, however, and will get to that now:
Use of an unreliable narrator - The entire book (with the exception of the “historical notes” section at the end) is from the point of view of Offred, the handmaid assigned to Commander Fred’s home. While she did have some experience with the dystopian overthrow of the US government, much of what she sees of the current regime is necessarily limited to her own perspective. Atwood masterfully spins multiple stories of past and present into a single narrative that shows how this society came to be and describes Offred’s previous life in stunning detail. While at times I would have liked a bit more information about the regime, there is plenty within this book to give the reader a compelling look at this futuristic world that could be around the corner.
Using the novel to speak about society - This is obviously the major strength of this work, and holds it up against other dystopian tales of the 20th century. Just off the top of my head, Atwood levels a blasting critique of: organized religion, totalitarian societies and how they can begin literally anywhere, feminism (the deeper levels of which I am not well versed enough to fully describe here), sterility due to biological factors, patriarchy, and many others. Atwood has described this novel as more in the vein of “speculative fiction” and it is quite apparent she was viewing the disturbing trend lines of the Eighties (the Reagan revolution, the abortion issue, the feminist backlash, televangelism) and how they could take our nation to such a place. Obviously in the age of *ugh* President Trump, all of these issues have taken on greater significance, inspiring the streaming series last year (which I hope to view soon).
Overall I would strongly recommend this novel to any writer who wants to see one of the best examples of an author taking a deep look into her society and seeing where it was headed. There are too many themes to fully explore here, and again I think this is a book that everyone needs to read and understand on their own terms. I know for sure as a man my empathy toward what women have to deal with has been deeply moved, and perhaps I am a bit more dug out of the ignorance of my earlier days.
Up next for the Reading List, a book recommended to me by a coworker: Donna Tartt’s landmark 1992 novel The Secret History. As always, thanks for reading.
Hello and welcome to the first part of a new, ongoing series! It is my earnest attempt to document my own process of composing a new novel in the hopes that it may inspire others to do the same. While I think this series will be interesting to all readers, be aware that it is going to get pretty in depth in the writing process. (I also hope to gain further insight into my process and how I come up with this stuff.)
The idea. First of all, you need to have the idea for the book. This can literally be anything. Look around your life. What do you see? Injustice? Hilarity? Torment? Wonder? Characters? Setting? These can all be a starting point. Obviously I can’t tell you how to come up with your own ideas, but I can offer a few guidelines that have worked for me.
The most important point: don’t stress about it, the ideas will come. I wish I could offer a simple timeline of when my ideas hit me, but the truth is I never knew when I would have enough to create a book. True, the first two novels (as I’ve stated elsewhere) I carried with me for years before I committed them to paper. And that’s not a bad way to start - if you have something you think should turn into a proper book, then you are ready for the next step. But for those of you who aren’t there yet, don’t fret; it will come.
The next point: what do you bring to the table? How do you see the world differently from others? What kind of “hot take” (to use an awful current expression in the journo world) do you have on an important issue that you could translate into a fictional universe?
I can only illustrate this with my own work, so here goes. My fourth novel is going to be a dystopian tale set around the year 2050, and features a major struggle concerning humanity and its existence in the age of climate disruption and geoengineering. Obviously I didn’t come up with all of that at the same time (but that would have been awesome). I was very much influenced in a few essays I read over the past four years - this one in The Point about genetic manipulation, this one in the NYRB about geoengineering, and this one (big time) in the LARB about the writer Amitav Ghosh and his request for stories about the largest issue of our time. But of course the list of influences is never ending - the 2013 Spike Jonze film Her radically altered my perspective of where Artificial Intelligence was heading, and the 2015 film Ex Machina made me terrified of a similar notion. Books such as Gibson’s Neuromancer showed me how to craft a compelling, futuristic narrative. That’s the great thing about prompts like these - each writer can take away their own message.
The major lesson to draw from all of this is to overload your circuits with what you follow the most, and eventually, if there is a story there, you’ll find it. I had to percolate this novel idea for years, in random locations, pondering over what it was going to be. Then I created a Google Doc where I kept all my notes and considerations, links to those pieces so I could re-read them, and even some beginning drafts. You can do the same in a simple notebook. The important part is getting it down.
The outline. Once you have the idea, and its solid, you can move on to the outline. Here is where my advice is going to be a little more tailored, and it may not fit your book at all.
Essentially an outline is the plot, characters, and themes all put together in some kind of coherent fashion that you understand enough to refer back to when you need it. Again, all I can do here is explain my own process in the hope that it is helpful. For Our Senior Year, I literally broke the entire story down into its seasonal parts, in different ways. I’m attaching a picture of my notebook from that time to give an idea -
Last Man on Campus was a pretty similar operation, in which I had the basic idea of the story broken down into the two semesters, and then had to work backward as I was writing to fill in some of the mythology of the society running the show (*spoiler*). Both of the outlines were basic - start with a major plot point, how it shows your characters, and their reactions. Et cetera.
I won’t even delve into the insane process I followed for my current manuscript (Observe and Detach) as the story has evolved quite a bit in two years and I’m not too keen on showing where some of it comes from just yet.
And unfortunately novel #4 is not following these outline steps at all, which I must stress is perfectly all right. In lieu of creating much of an outline as of yet, I sat down and cranked out what I think are going to be the major themes of the book -
After almost four years of thinking about this, I have just enough story and character to begin the first drafts, and to be honest I have no idea where they are going to take me. There will be a lot more grist on this topic (Drafts) in the next post, so all I will say here is to not worry about how dense (or not) your outline of the novel is - if it contains the major characters/plot/themes that you want to get on the page, you’re getting there. Thankfully the wonderful technology of the notebook allows for you to always add more stuff - mine is crammed with papers and clippings but I still go back to it when I’m preparing a book.
These are the techniques that have worked for me in getting a book through its initial stages. Short stories or essays (or really anything that’s not a novel) are different beasts, and if/when I ever get better at those forms I’ll try my hand at explaining how to come up with them.
Next up will be the initial (as Anne Lamott would say “shitty first”) draft. I hope to get a post about that process up by the end of this month, again following my own process and how I’ve done it in the past. I also plan on sending my current manuscript of Observe to my editor by then, and may write a little something about that as well.
Feel free to send any and all questions and comments my way, through email or in the comments. I want to hear about your own projects, if my advice is helpful, and how you come up with your own ideas and outlines I will also have an essay on the first book of the 2018 Reading List (The Handmaid’s Tale) up by the end of the month. Thanks for reading!
John Abraham is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.