Hello readers and welcome to this update in Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). After working my way through Tim O’Brien’s masterly In the Lake of the Woods, I decided my “summer read” would be Stephen King’s gigantic 2009 novel Under the Dome. Those who have followed my work know this man has registered as my favorite author for a good chunk of my life. While I’m not sure that’s the case any longer, this book is one of his best and taught me a ton about writing. First let’s get to the major lessons:
Number of characters. You can get away with a massive novel filled with upwards of 50 characters. If you’re Stephen King. It’s not quite that severe, but it’s well worth time as a reader to see how he does this right, giving a handful of characters very memorable details and thoughts. “Big Jim” Rennie, the ostensible villain of the piece, will go down in history for me next to big King baddies of the past like Randall Flagg. It’s not quite as effective with the protagonists, but I was still rooting for them ‘til the end. Even characters who die early on are worth considering in light of later events. This book is full of examples of how to drop details into descriptions for your reader to keep them hooked on the story.
Use of omnipresent narrator in a few key spots. King to my knowledge hasn’t employed this technique in quite some time, if ever, and it really works in this book. During crucial events under the Dome, he takes a panoramic view of the entire city of Chester’s Mill and gives us a quick update on a bunch of the characters all at once before swooping back into their own lives for individual chapters. This gives a sense of connection, but it's best if used sparingly. An interesting technique to try out for yourself.
Using a novel to talk about society - and the darkness underneath. King has obviously employed this technique for decades, using his eery eye for New England culture to show the blackened underbelly of the world around us. This story, which takes place in roughly our time, is one in which the human drama takes center stage despite the bizarre instances all around them. Most of the older and wizened residents who may have a chance at calming things after the Dome falls are unfortunately killed right off the bat, leaving the manipulators and strugglers to figure out how to raise the structure. There are other, deeper elements too, including the rise of rural drug epidemics, and religion, which I’ve always felt King handles with a scary deft of ease. I won’t go much further for those who haven’t read this one.
You can come back to the same themes over and over. If you are Stephen King. I hate to keep using rules that apply only to this one guy, but his career would seem to bear me out. Under the Dome is a monstrosity of previous themes in his works: people placed in a very unordinary situation, the evil residing in the human heart, a town coming apart under stress, narration from almost every character’s viewpoint (even a dog a few times). And yet, this book read as fresh to me as anything he’s ever written, and I would go as far as to say its length places it alongside other epics such as The Stand and IT. I kept reading and thinking I knew where he was going, but I never did. That is the power of storytelling.
The importance of research. In an author’s note King mentions he’s had the germ of this idea in his noggin since the 70’s, but never had the time to appropriately research the technical aspects of it (pondering such lovely questions as: what would happen if a town was covered by an invisible alien structure and a massive explosion took place?). While many of us will never have the luxury of such time to work on a gigantic project like this, we should still plan our lives like we’re expecting it.
I wanted to get back to King as I hadn’t read anything he has produced in the last decade, while seeing his books continue to fly off the shelves ever since he claimed he was “retiring” all those years ago. But to go wider, I want to briefly discuss this author’s place of influence in my life.
I’ve tried using these experiments to veer both into literary history and popular fiction. The popular fiction I’ve come across has been mostly dreck, but I have always regarded Stephen King as firmly outside the banner of “popular” anything. To me, he’s an acquired taste, and I had nearly forgotten his penchant for over-the-top violence as I read this story, which was supposedly about an alien structure covering a small town but felt much closer. He has taught me so much as a writer, and a few of his books (Needful Things, Misery) will always be regarded as favorites. Hell, I basically wrote my second novel (Last Man on Campus) as a love-letter to the guy’s achievements, trying to appropriate his creepy stylings for my supernatural thriller.
And yet, over the past few years I’ve read some of the greatest books of my life, and have come to see the value of expanding our literary minds as far as possible. While I’m not sure I can definitively say I have an “all-time favorite” author I can finally admit that Stephen King does not reside in that place. Well, at least not alone. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop reading him, or trying to learn from him (I haven’t mentioned On Writing yet, but I’m assuming anyone reading this is probably aware of it). And I would recommend the same to anyone out there interested in this author and his tremendous body of work.
Up next, I’m going to revisit a classic I haven’t read since my schooldays: Jack London’s Call of the Wild. The edition I have also contains a few of his short stories, so I will be back here with a post about that as I segue into other collections (and attempt writing a dozen short stories of my own) in this second year of fiction. I hope to be back to reading novels and finishing another major rewrite of my own by the Fall/Winter.
As always, thanks for reading. (And thanks for your patience while I took a little break from the bloggy.) See you next time!
Hello readers and welcome to installment number five of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). After taking on All Quiet on the Western Front I decided to pivot to a Minnesota author who is rapidly becoming a favorite of mine: Tim O’Brien. In this case I chose his landmark 1994 novel In the Lake of the Woods.
While I’m not sure it’s quite as brilliant as The Things They Carried, this book is without a doubt an incredible piece of fiction masquerading as fact. The story, about a Minnesota politician residing in a remote cabin with his wife after being soundly defeated in a primary, is deceptively simple, but O’Brien weaves his narrator through the pieces of the puzzle, offering explanations as to what may have happened. The chief characters are John Wade and his wife Kathy, but we meet a dozen others through the course of their lives, and also as pieces of “evidence” the narrator has assembled for our viewing. The story is intricately told and kept me riveted until the end. But more on all these themes in the lessons I took away from this monumental work:
If you can’t tell from my effusive praise, I very much enjoyed reading this novel, and would highly recommend it. There is a reason O’Brien is consistently cited as one of the best wranglers of the written word over the past few decades, and has miles to teach within his books. I hope to be able to visit all of his works over the coming years.
Up next, I’m going to take a bit of a break before I dive into what will be my summer read: Stephen King’s gigantic 2009 novel Under the Dome. I hope to also hit a short story collection or two, and get some of my own written. Have a safe and fun season everyone, and thanks for reading!
Hello readers, and welcome to the fourth installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). After previously suffering through John Grisham’s The Firm, I moved backward in time to what is generally considered the greatest book about war ever put to paper: Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front.
First, I would absolutely agree with the critical consensus. I’ve finally gotten to a fair amount of phenomenal war novels in the last few years (Catch-22, Slaughterhouse V, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Johnny Got His Gun) and this was the best one I’ve read. I believe I understand the reason as one of the major lessons to draw from this impactful work. And so:
I’ll conclude this with a hearty recommendation for anyone who enjoys great literature to pick this one up. It’s important to recall this war happened only a century ago, and to ponder its lessons for today.
Coming up next in AYOF: I will be taking on (Minnesota author) Tim O’Brien’s landmark 1994 novel In the Lake of the Woods. Thanks for reading!
Hello readers, and welcome to the third installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). So far I’ve read a deeply disturbing murder mystery and what has been considered the first feminist novel. Next, I decided to take a veering course into commercial fiction with John Grisham’s 1991 novel The Firm.
This novel and its author are quite well-known in the literary world, and if I’m being honest I’m not quite sure why. This was quite possibly the worst book I have ever read. Despite this, it sold millions of copies and produced an epic movie that went on to cement Grisham’s status in the pop culture realm. I won’t spend much time on the plot, which for me was the only thing that kept me going, except to say it’s a legal thriller involving a young attorney who joins a Memphis tax firm which he ends up realizing (through the FBI) is a front for organized crime. Yet I still found a few (counter-intuitive) lessons to draw from this book:
I unfortunately must conclude that due to these glaring issues I will not be picking up this author anytime soon, if ever. I would recommend this book only if you are looking for a quick read to breeze through over the summer, but even in that category there are doubtless better books. I hate to wrap up this review in such a negative light, but it bears mentioning that even reading books like this can clue an author into what is popular in today’s market. Grisham manages to crank out a book every year, and while working at a bookstore has taught me the ethereal nature of big-name mystery authors, there is no doubt he has found success despite his shortcomings.
Up next, I’m taking a major step back into the past and revisiting one of my favorite genres, the war novel: in this case, Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front. I also hope to get a few more essays for the blog completed by the halfway point of the year. Stay tuned to this space for more updates on Another Year of Fiction!
Hello out there and welcome to the second installment in Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). After starting off with the morbid murder tale The Killer Inside Me, I decided to take stock of our current society (and my wife’s years-long wishes) and pivot toward what is generally considered the first feminist novel: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Even as this legendary novel reached its 200th birthday a few years prior it had long taken its place in the Western canon, both due to Austen’s radical vision of her society and in her varied use of language and dialogue. For those who don’t know the story I won’t give too much of it away, but suffice to say that the two words in the title convey a host of meanings upon main characters Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. I want to chiefly dive into the two major lessons I appreciated through reading this beloved masterwork.
Upon reading this novel I completely understand why it’s considered one of the greatest in the English language. But more pointedly, given the current bizarre misogynistic waves churning our glorious American society I thought it was a very important book to read at this time. Recall that Austen was taking an unparalleled look at her own society, its mores and values, and providing a sharp rebuke through her extraordinary female characters. Yet she never shies away from showing their faults and foibles with ironic delicacy. That being said, it’s important to note that the world needs strong females now more than ever, especially those who challenge the dominant order of things and weird, anti-intellectual trends such as the “men’s rights” movement. This novel felt like a major corrective against our current slump toward a dark age in America, and helped remind me about how people once comported themselves (though one hesitates to wear too rosy a color glasses peering into the 19th century). I would highly recommend this to those who, like me for years, thought they were “above” reading such a work as this.
Moving forward, I have decided to travel ahead several centuries and back into commercial fiction, delving into my first Grisham novel, his hugely successful The Firm. Stay tuned for the next update in Another Year of Fiction. And thanks for reading!
Hello and welcome as we take a journey into Another Year of Fiction. I decided to kick off this year’s experiment with a novel that was recommended to me by several people last year: Jim Thompson’s incredible 1952 crime novel The Killer Inside Me. Having received accolades from such luminaries as Stanley Kubrick and Stephen King, Thompson’s most famous book is a terrifying dive into the psyche of a normalized serial killer. The notion that depravity lies just below the surface of a small-town demeanor is one crucial theme of this novel, but there are some very important writing lessons to take away from it as well.
This was in my estimation a phenomenal book, and one of the creepiest I’ve read in some time. While I would recommend it, I’d direct that more toward people inclined to read crime/mystery or horror novels. But if you can stomach the dark vision of humanity and what lurks underneath, it would be hard to do better than this novel.
Next up: I decided a good antidote to the bizarre, misogynistic churn of our culture would be that most classic of feminist novels, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. (But mostly it’s because my wife has been asking me to read this one for years.)
Stay tuned for the next essay in Another Year of Fiction. And thanks for reading.
Hello once again readers and welcome as I wrap up the final title from My Year of Living (Actually Reading) Fiction. As with Reading Like a Writer, I wanted to bookend last year’s list with another tome on writing. I decided on Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which had been recommended to me by a few people. The book itself was decent, but had some glaring issues I couldn’t overlook. Lamott is much less funny on the page than she seems to think she is, and I found myself stunned that her editor didn’t try to correct this irregularity. Despite this there were a few portions that did make me laugh, and there are many excellent ideas through the entire book. I want to turn to some of the main lessons I took away from this work:
While there are many excellent pieces of advice throughout this work, I am not going to give it my full recommendation to other writers out there. Lamott really could have used a stronger editor as the book weaves in and out of her rambling considerations of her own talent, her internal feelings, and how nerve-wracking the writer’s life can become. While I don’t doubt many of us have experienced these things, it’s equally if not important to find ways to break through the self-doubt. All of this being said, there is a reason why this book has been a massive bestseller for years and is routinely included among lists of “books on writing.” There is absolutely a lot to gain from reading it, so I certainly would say take a look if you enjoy her previous writing (and I must confess this is the first book of hers I’ve ever read).
This wraps up my first year experiment in reading nothing but fiction (and two books on process). Up next, I begin my foray into Another Year of Fiction. I have decided my first book will be Jim Thompson’s 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me. Stay tuned for an essay on that book in the coming weeks, and as always thanks for reading!
Hello out there readers, and thanks for sticking with me as I wrap-up the final few books of My Year of Living (Actually Reading) Fiction. The last fiction work on my list was the epic cyberpunk novel Neuromancer by William Gibson. While I gained some major writing lessons from this epic volume, I wanted to first state emphatically that this was the best Science Fiction book I have ever read. Gibson’s monumental work was a phenomenal mix of futuristic vision and cyber-dread. The fact that he could so clearly see where we were headed as a species, even with the technology available in the mid-Eighties, is astronomical and a great example of how to use the genre to speak about the world. To that end, let’s delve into two important writing lessons I gained from this book.
You will probably notice that I haven’t given much away in terms of the plot of this novel. That’s because I hope those of you out there interested in the genre will give this one a read. It’s that essential of a book, and even if you’re not into Sci Fi I would highly recommend this book as it has much to teach about the nature of writing, not only about the future but of who or what might exist in that future.
And with that, there’s just one more book to go from my previous list: Bird by Bird, Anne Lamont’s well-regarded work on writing fiction. I hope to post an essay on it by the end of this month, and then it’s onto Another Year of Fiction (AYOF?!). Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!
Hello out there, readers. Happy 2017, and welcome to our Brave New World!
As you are aware, most of my writing for this blog last year concerned a year-long experiment I conducted reading only fictional works, then crafting essays about the writing lessons that I drew from each book. While I learned a ton from this experiment, I also learned about my own ability to set expectations as a reader and a writer. I want to delve quickly into the positive and negative aspects of this experiment, and then outline my plans for Another Year of Fiction (AYOF?!).
In terms of writing lessons, without a doubt I encountered more of those last year than any other of my career. Hemingway taught me how to keep things simple; Oscar Wilde showed me how to use a novel to speak truth about your society; and Vonnegut basically schooled me in almost every way possible for a master author. Even the books I wasn’t sure I would enjoy taught me a lot about keeping reader interest. I also read a phenomenal book about the practice and nature of reading, which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in writing.
The biggest lesson learned for me in 2016 was: read fiction. There is simply no better path to understanding the work of others and how it might contribute to your own. The writer Austin Kleon has described the importance of how to “steal like an artist,” and the only way to accomplish this is to read all kinds of stuff, then artfully repurpose what you like about them for your own work. As a voracious consumer of all things nonfiction for years leading up to this experiment, I can make this conclusion with full confidence. Despite my wife’s protestations, I will get back to reading nonfiction at some point in my life (I’m going to need it for novel #4, for one reason). But that is not going to be 2017, as I plan on extending this experiment for at least one more year.
Which leads me to what I didn’t get quite right about this experiment. I’d have to say the biggest takeaway was: don’t over-promise and then under-deliver. I posted two lists of books to read during the year, but did not make it through the second half by the end of the year. Chiefly this was due to the nature of the final book I read and my underestimating of the slog it took me to finish it. But this also gave me a good idea of how long it really will take me to accomplish a task like this, and of how much I can read in a given year. Obviously people have been able to cram in many more works in a given year, and I can always do better. But for now, I’m not going to put out an “official” list of my upcoming fiction titles. Rather, I’m going to take it one book at a time and see how many I can complete in a year. Last year I was able to get through eleven books. Let’s see how many I can get through this year. And for those of you who have given me recommendations: they are still on my list, I just can’t promise I will get to all of them in 2017. Given how much I have learned already, I have a feeling I may be doing a variation of this exercise for the conceivable future...
To that end, I plan blasting through both Neuromancer and Bird by Bird and writing essays on each (hopefully) within a month. Gibson’s epic cyberpunk novel is already blowing me away in countless ways, and I can’t wait to see how Anne Lamont’s recommendations stack up next to Francine Prose. After that, I’ll announce the first “official” title for AYOF 2017!
Thanks to all of you who read and commented on my essays last year. I hope my advice has been helpful for those of you who want to give this writing thing a go in your own lives. Let’s enjoy another year of fiction together.
It is time once again for what will be the final update in my Year of Living (Actually Reading) Fiction. Those of you keeping score at home will recall I initially promised to read another two books this year. While I will be getting to those next year, I’ll also have more on the major lessons learned from this experiment in a post re-launching this experiment in January.
After taking on Faulkner’s legendary Sound and the Fury I took a decidedly different pivot in my next selection: Exodus by Leon Uris. Published in 1958, it is an epic novel about the creation of the state of Israel after World War II. Uris traveled thousands of miles throughout the Middle East interviewing people and researching places for the book, and this imbues it with a historical sense that engaged me through nearly 600 pages. There are many characters and the book spans half a century, but I will admit the writing is actually quite dry and does just enough to keep the narrative flowing. Here are two lessons I drew as a writer from this monumental work:
While I’m glad Uris was able to keep my interest in the tale, I would be hard-pressed to recommend this book to a contemporary audience. As I’ve already stated, the writing just isn’t that great, and Uris presents the story of the Jewish people in an extremely one-sided way. As just one glaring example, the Arab people making up the states surrounding Palestine are almost uniformly presented in a harsh light, being described as backward and even “dirty” people who only reached salvation through the Jewish farming methods being used in the deserts. While things like this absolutely did happen, anyone who studies history as I have ought to know that things are never as simple as people would like them to be. Especially given the context of recent events transpiring between the US and Israel, it is important to note that this is just one (fictional) version of events, and while the historical narrative is quite engaging, anyone who wishes to truly understand the history of this part of the world would do better starting with some non-fiction sources.
So that’s it for my first experimental year of fiction! I’ll be back next year with a post running down everything I have gained from this experience. But for now I’ll say this year was incredibly revelatory for me. I gained some new favorite books and learned a ton from the masters of the written word that have gone before me. I hope I was able to distill some of this into useable knowledge for other writers out there. I would also highly recommend this type of experiment for anyone who wishes to hone their craft.
Thanks to everyone who read my posts in this experiment throughout the year, and I’ll see you on the other side of 2017.
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.