Hello readers and welcome to 2019. All right, we’re a month in but who’s counting? Just the calendars?
Long-time readers will recall that I’ve been doing some sort of fiction reading and posting since 2016, and last year I decided to just make this a regular series. And again, I’m back with a post looking over the year and what these authors taught me. Just a few quick hits: both Margaret Atwood and Emily St. John Mandel taught me how to write an incredible, dystopian tale; Donna Tartt showed me how to maintain such control over one’s writing that you can give away the ending; Virginia Woolf showed me (and many male authors of her own time) how to spin a dramatic life out of a single day; DeLillo quite simply blew me away with his immense talent; Joyce Carol Oates illustrated family life in ways I never thought possible; Flannery O’Connor deftly proved how to weave religious themes into secular morality tales; James Baldwin showed how to speak boldly and causticly about our racist American society; and Chekhov gave me a master class in short story writing at the end of the year (I also shoved in two more story collections into the first month of this year).
I also delved into a brilliant Netflix series, took a detour into drama and finally made it to a graphic novel (albeit also not until this year). And I was again able to blast through a fair amount of phenomenal nonfiction at my day job, which this year included Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants, Naomi Klein’s climate polemic This Changes Everything, the late Anthony Bourdain's second collection The Nasty Bits, Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power, Daniel Kahneman's masterful Thinking Fast and Slow, and Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget. All told, while I didn’t quite manage to get everything shoved into 2018 I read around 25 books, which if you’re keeping score at home is about twice the amount I have been able to get to in years past.
Looking back, I’d have to say while I met the overall goal of reading more fiction, I still have a ways to go including non-white and female authors. While I made some strides in that direction this year, it is something I am going to continue to work on and include in my reading lists (and as always, I’m open to any recommendations). As I stated last year, the Reading List is going to be an ongoing, never-ending series for the rest of my career, so I am not concerned with promising a certain amount of titles per year anymore.
This brings me to my second overall lesson, which is how to switch up this series. For three years now, with each work I have attempted to draw out at least two major lessons for writers. Some authors had many more than this, some barely made it at all. After all this time I have decided I have illustrated this enough, and now hope to do a more “review” style post on each work, describing what I liked and didn’t like, what worked for the story, and whether or not I would recommend this to other writers.
Regarding some of my other goals from last year: I was able to begin a series called “How to Write a Book” - if you missed any of it the first time around part one (Ideas & Outline) is here, part two (Drafting) is here, and both of parts three (Editing) can be found here and here. The “Writing” series continues to be a no-show, mostly because I have been working on a blog post titled “What are writers for” for a few months and it’s still not done. But I hope to get that series at least begun in 2019. I also hope to keep broadening my horizons in terms of inspiration, and to that end I hope to cover more Netflix shows, and of course the other genre/types such as drama, poetry, and graphic novels. And now that I’m down to a single magazine subscription (Poets & Writers, which I would highly recommend) I would like to read even more nonfiction at work throughout the year.
Overall I would say this was my most successful year of reading, both in terms of books read and in how much I learned. And even though I don’t work with her any more, I’d like to again extend a thank you to the coworker who encouraged me to include more contemporary women authors on my list. I hope to continue that trend with other non-gender-binary and non-white authors. As always, thanks for joining me on this journey. I hope you gained some writing insight through these posts, and I really hope I was able to encourage everyone to read more in what sure looks like America’s dark age. And as I posted last time, the first novel for the revamped Reading List will be Ann Patchett's 2011 novel State of Wonder. Thanks for reading!
Hello readers and thank you for sticking with me as I jam the last bit of the 2018 Reading List into January before taking it in a little different direction. Last time I got through the Salinger collection Nine Stories, and while I am still planning on re-posting a short story to the blog I am wrapping up the collections in favor of novels for the next few months. But before I get into the 2019 Reading List I wanted to get to a type of work I had on deck for last year: the graphic novel.
Being a comic book fan for most of my life I have been familiar with the superhero genre in this area for years, but have yet to read much of the more “serious” fare that has gained national attention for decades. While I’ve caught up with a few over the past years (Maus and the first part of Persepolis for two examples) I have yet to actually write about one. So I chose an author and a work with which I thought I’d have some affinity: Craig Thompson and his 2003 mastework, Blankets. I want to try and do the usual thing here with respect to the lessons writers can get out of a work like this, but also want to say a little about the emotions evoked out of the story.
The use of illustration. This is one of those lessons that, especially in this medium, probably gets a response of, “well duh.” And while that’s kind of the entire point of the medium, Thompson is a genius of the form. There are full page spreads devoted to various images such as angels, regular humans, humans in trees, and multitudes of Biblical images flowed on pages seamlessly into the “actual” story. In between these are the regular frames, filled with gorgeously rendered dialogue and exquisite character interactions.
Use your pain. This ties in with the overall message of the book, which struck home with me in a few ways. Apparently Thompson wrote it as a way of telling his parents he was leaving his faith, which I have also had to do in various ways over my life; the way he tells the story resonated with me in ways few other pieces of art have. It didn’t hurt that he also grew up in a cold farmhouse, and with pressures coming from his family church and the places he would hang out, and youth group trips (similar to themes to those of my first novel, *cough* shameless plug *cough* Our Senior Year). This story is one of the best examples of using details of your life to make excellent work.
This piece worked for me on several levels, I guess mostly because of the personal turmoil I have gone through in the last year, but really in my whole life. I too have struggled with leaving the Christian faith and understanding myself to be atheistic, and both Thompson’s art and the way he described his journey made me consider my own in different ways. While there were some bits I wish he would have explored more (what happened to Raina?!) overall this was one of the best graphic novels I have ever read.
Well, that officially wraps up the 2018 Reading List! This series will continue in the new year, going back to novels written by females beginning with Ann Patchett's 2011 novel State of Wonder. I am also hoping to do a post on lessons learned this time around, similar to what I did at the beginning of the 2018 list, and pointing the way forward for this series. I am going to keep the type of works included as broad as possible, while changing up how I approach the posts at this juncture in my career. But more on all of that later. For now, I’d like to say thanks for coming along with me on this journey. When I started this as a series of experiments in 2016 I never could have imagined how important it would become to my career, and my life.
Thanks for reading, writing, and thinking about all of it. Here’s to a happy and healthy (and maybe better?) 2019.
Hello readers and thank you for hanging in with me as I front-load the remainder of the 2018 Reading List into January. Now that this series is continuous I hope to initiate further changes this year. But more on that later. First we need to take a look at another short story writer, who while maybe not as good as Chekhov definitely holds his own in a certain time and place: Richard Ford and his 1987 debut collection, Rock Springs. This book was initially recommended to me by my editor Libby and centers around small towns in Montana and the fascinating people that populate them. While I had some issues with decisions he made (more on that later), I want to take a look at what Ford gets right in these realist stories.
Use of character. Each of these tales contains at least a few memorable characters, people whom it is quite clear are based off those Ford must have encountered in his life, and situations that seem almost too ridiculous (and sublime) to have been totally made up from whole cloth. I would have to say the story “Winterkill” may be the best example of this, with a main character in a wheelchair snagging a dead deer in a river. This can work the other way too, though, with each story seeming to also contain different versions of the same character (which could also be considered a general running theme, along with…)
Use of place. This Ford uses to his advantage perhaps even better, evoking a parched, dry and dirty landscape in which his seedy characters go about their business conducting affairs in motels, going into the wilderness, or generally living miserable lives in which there are glints of happiness. The final story (“Communist”) is a great example of how to build up to a scene of nature and wildlife and then let it play out around the characters.
Overall I would have to say the main story “Rock Springs” was my overall favorite, a stunning almost thirty pages that shows this guy as a true master of the form. Unfortunately I found some (“Children”) to be downright creepy and one (“Empire”) that could have easily been cut in half, and for some reason contains an additional paragraph after what I thought should have been a masterful closing line. My bellyaching aside, there is more good to be found here than bad and a lot of instructions for those who want to follow in the Raymond Carver tradition of short story.
Up next, I’m still going to take on Salinger’s Nine Stories and then I may take a brief pivot into the one genre/type I didn’t make it to in 2018: the graphic novel. I also have some more ideas (inspired by my wife) for the 2019 Reading List that I hope to be able to share in an upcoming piece looking back on last year and my goals. And for those who do enjoy my fiction writing, I got one back from my “other” editor Anne that I will be posting here again (last time it was called “Flossing” now it’s just “Floss”) to try and deconstruct the process. Happy New Year and let’s have a slightly better 2019!
Hello readers and thank you for bearing with me as we march through this last part of the 2018 Reading List! After getting through a few pairs of books I made my annual “pivot” to short stories, taking on a writer highly admired by Francine Prose, whose book Reading Like a Writer I read two years back. She turned me onto the work of this 19th century Russian but I had no idea of Anton Chekhov’s true legacy until I read his stories. They are are that good. Normally I head into the major lessons to be learned from such a phenomenal writer (and I will) but the best lesson for me was: read Chekhov. You will be hard pressed to find a better short story author at any caliber, at any time period. So now let’s take a quick look at two major factors of why that is:
Use of setting. This is not arguably Chekhov’s strongest suite, but the playwright in him shines through in the introduction of many of these stories (I had Norton Critical Edition collecting his best known). Nature is described quite beautifully and flowing, but is only allowed a few sentences at the beginning of sections. This was all Chekhov considered was necessary in telling a story about human drama. The characters are also set in the stage in this literary way, placed either in favor or against each other, just as the master wants them.
Use of character. This is what critics have spent their entire lives trying to figure out, and I’m hardly going to say it’s the use of one specific description or story that really shows it. It’s in all of them; that’s how amazing every story he wrote was. But for just a few examples - in “Misery” the poor carriage driver is reduced to explaining his daughter’s death to his horse because no one else cares; in “The Teacher of Literature” a man starts out in what he think is a great life only to end up miserable; and in “The Lady with the Dog” two people wind up in love at the worst possible time. These are but three examples of the incomparable control Chekhov exercised over these character’s lives in order to present life just as it is, not as we would like it.
I also tremendously enjoyed “The Bishop,” “The Betrothed,” “Anna on the Neck,” “Sleepy,” the list goes on. I am at a loss to go any further than my first piece of advice regarding this author: read him. He wrote several hundred stories in his lifetime, so it’s possible you may encounter an entirely different collection than I did, and have your own experience. I also must add that in Reading Like a Writer, Prose recommends checking out Chekhov’s letters. In the edition I had there were quite a few excerpts he wrote to his contemporaries about writing that I found enormously interesting and helpful. Which goes back to my major point - if you are studying someone to see how they did what they did, take it all in, not just the stories but the process and how they accomplished it, and their own thoughts about it (if they offered them). Not all authors were good enough to leave such a trove when they passed. I also was lucky enough to read a few literary essays contained in this edition, which helped my understanding of the author and his stories.
So what’s left to close out the year? Readers who have been with me for a while probably recognize that I usually get in a few more novels after “short story” time. Well I have realized that short stories are not something I am going to have the convenience of shoving into a certain part of the year, so they are now going to be worked on all year round. This means more short story collections added to the yearly Reading List, so send me your recommendations. This year, I hope to get through another few collections and get an essay done about them by the end of the year - Rock Springs by Richard Ford (recommended by my editor, Libby) and Nine Stories by JD Salinger. I have also sent a short story to my “other” editor and hope to get a post about that process up here in the coming weeks.
To all my readers: thanks for sticking around while I spent close to two months poring over this legendary author. I still plan on mixing up the Reading List as I did somewhat this year, including adding more stage plays and graphic novels. And as always, thanks for reading and writing!
Hello and welcome to the third part of an ongoing series. It is my earnest attempt to document the process of composing a 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 into the writing process. (I also hope to gain further insight into how I come up with this stuff.)
(For those who want a refresher part one - Idea and Outline is here, and part two - Drafting is here. And “segment one” of this Editing series can be found here.)
Editing. I am going to continue shifting gears away from my newer projects in favor of my current manuscript, Observe & Detach. In the previous segment I queried one of my editors, Libby Copa. For this bit I wanted to get the opinions of my “other” editor, Anne Nerrison. Anne originally worked with me on the second novel I published through North Star Press, Last Man on Campus. While most of the initial heavy lifting on that manuscript was done by Libby, Anne was instrumental in making sure it was a great book. She has now started her own editing venture, Inkstand Editorial, and has worked on a short story of mine. I asked her a similar set of questions as I did Libby.
First was about the editing process itself, and how she sees it: “In all cases, I see my job as helping make the book the best it can be (and by extension in some cases, help the author become a better writer). Certainly this sometimes means fixing errors in grammar and punctuation, but sometimes it's querying word choice, working to develop plot points, or questioning character development and/or motives. The latter cases I don't see as errors, but rather stylistic choices by the author or elements that could be developed further or in a different way, or viewed in another light.”
I also wanted to ask her about the “trust” issue like I did with Libby, because I have had to trust Anne’s judgement over the years. With two brilliant editors to work with, sometimes it becomes a matter of learning how to trust each voice. I want to highlight this portion of her answer:
“Trust can also lead to good discussions about manuscripts and suggested changes. I want writers to know that I'm editing with the book's (and by extension, their) best interests in mind. My goal is always to help authors, and I want to know what's helpful and what's not. If I'm not helping an author, then I need to look again at what I'm doing and figure out how to be a more effective editor. And my changes are not always correct; I'm not infallible, and my mentor taught me that if there's one good way to write something, there's a thousand.”
In other words, if I may be so bold to interpret this, we authors don’t always have to follow the course our editors set down for us, and in fact this is a crucial part of our own work. While most of the time the editor will conceive of a better or more efficient way of how to set down a particular passage, it’s up to the writer to actually do it.
This was a struggle I had with Libby for quite a while. I almost thought I had some kind of a rule for it: 80/20, in that eighty percent of what the editor said should be changed was worthwhile, and twenty percent (or less) should be your own discretion. Here is how Anne sees her role now that she has her own editing business:
“As a freelancer working largely with indie authors, I leave all changes up to the writer. I have no control over the final, printed copy, so I have no say in how much of my advice an author takes. Of course I hope they'll take my changes and comments into consideration, but the writer knows their own work better than I do, and I know there will always be a few changes I suggest that the writer feels don't fit the story as they see it.“
Working with Anne on that short story, we used track changes (generally thought of as a Word application but can be used in free programs like Libre Office) and she highlighted portions of the text she thought were confusing, or needed cleaning up. But she made sure to note that I didn’t have to take a single one of her corrections, even though most were quite warranted.
I also want to include some of Libby’s thoughts on this topic, because I didn’t get to them last time. Here is how she considers her role:
“I try and review the story that the writer is trying to tell (not the story I want them to tell) and provide feedback that aligns with that. All decisions are made by the artist, this is their story-- I can only hope they are being thoughtful when they reject suggestions, that they consider why I took time to point something out, and that they can justify to themselves and future readers why they do not make the change.”
I think that is a great summation of the relationship, and why it’s so crucial to find an editor who can give you the space as an artist to tell your story. Even better if you can find two such people who are so great at their jobs!
To that end, since last time I showed off a little of my manuscript and how the introduction has changed, I wanted to post some more of the first chapter for those who have interest. I’ve been talking/writing about this book for three years, and Libby has been hard at work over that time showing me how to make it better. While I still plan on sending her another draft by the end of this year, the text is much stronger with her suggestions.
So without further ado, here is another portion of the first chapter of Observe & Detach:
The day had not started promising. VP and head accountant Phil, thick mustache waving as he berated, enlightened me on the finer points of precision within our accounting database software. By “started” I mean eleven thirty, because Phil never got to the office earlier than that. As head of operations, he was a cranky bastard.
“Hello there, Mr. Walter. You got a minute?”
“Sure, Phil. What's up?”
“I was running your key inventory numbers this morning,” he said, slapping down several printed-out pieces of paper. This was a favorite tactic: producing evidence to the accused so they'd fess up. I once saw him do this to my co-worker Kari over a messed up store order that was probably Mona's fault. “You're off on your lock box inventory count.” Phil's mustache twitched in revulsion at me.
“Oh really? Sorry about that.”
“Yeah, you were off by five whole units. It's not a big deal since you're still new to some of this. But we gotta make sure those numbers add up. Signal Corp, for all their bullshit, makes up a huge portion of our revenue. You outrank Mona over there in the store big time when it comes to money flowing in here from agent purchases of these damn things. We have to make sure our numbers are correct.”
“I know,” I said, averting my gaze. “I'll keep a closer eye on them.”
“Make sure you do. I don't want to have to fix it every month. Just count 'em right the first time. And be accounting for those defective boxes you're sending back. Those were also wrong.”
“I'll do that,” I said.
“Thanks, Mr. Walter.” He grabbed the spreadsheets.
“The other thing I wanted to bring up was attitude,” Jack continued. The light from his office window bounced from his gray head, which stretched to black toward the bottom by his earlobes. “I haven't noticed this myself, but others tell me you may not be coming up to the front counter with the greatest...gusto. I'm not saying you have to be like Kari. She can become too much in a hurry. Just be glad to see the agents walk in here. You know, like family. Make sure to smile, make sure they are satisfied with their encounter. We are here to serve them, you know?”
I wasn't feeling restrained after what happened the rest of the day, so I made a mistake.
“Well, perhaps if you would come out of hiding from your office once in a while instead of hearing the gossip from Mona, you'd know what I actually do around here.”
He gave me his best vacant stare, then closed his mouth. “Excuse me?”
“I-uh, look, that came out wrong, but...”
“I don't go into my- I, uh, I don't do that. You know it. I'll ask you not to speak to me in such a manner, Walter.”
“I'm sorry, Jack.”
“It's all right. You haven't been here long enough to know how this place works. Mona and I go back a long way. You also don't know the full story on Betty. You don't know enough about anyone at this point, except to show respect.”
“I'm sorry,” I said again. I felt my face flush.
“You're damn right. Now, that being said, it's important for us that you want to be here, Walt. That you are happy being here. That's important.”
“Well, I do want to be here.” It was better than a series of restaurant gigs over the past half-year.
The discussion devolved into a twenty minute soliloquy on his cabin in Grand Marais, then into the proper way to clean a duck carcass. I stared out the window into the parking lot and watched our CEO Alan Dunbar leave, an hour and a half before we closed. His dark green hybrid SUV was parked as usual in the nonexistent spot under the oak tree.
Hello and welcome to the third part of an ongoing series. It is my earnest attempt to document the process of composing a 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 into the writing process. (I also hope to gain further insight into how I come up with this stuff.)
(For those who want a refresher part one - Idea and Outline is here, and part two - Drafting is here.)
Editing. I’m going to shift gears away from my fourth novel in order to attempt to demonstrate the editing process with my third, Observe & Detach. This was the second book I was lucky enough to work on with Libby Copa, and she has done a ton of work making Observe a much better book. This process is much more intricate and difficult than drafting, which can remain fun for a while if you aren’t showing your stuff to anyone. Editing means not only showing it off, but getting a wordful of critique back. This was an issue early on with Libby, as my brain back then couldn’t see the benefit to some of her changes when I got back her edit for Last Man on Campus, my second book that was eventually published by North Star Press. I had to break through that barrier and learn to trust her. I asked Libby about this trust issue as piece of the process, and this is part of what she had to say: “If you don't trust your editor, the relationship is never going to work, and all feedback will sting. The editor must also trust that the writer is listening. That the writer is seeking their opinion, even if they do not always take it. An editors name is at stake if a writer thanks them in their book and has not done the work, it can reflect badly on the editor. The editor must trust that the writer has put in the time.”
I also asked her in general about the editing process, as I became mystified by it the longer I wrestled with (and changed) this current manuscript. She said: “My job is to push the writer to see their manuscript in new ways. To help them see where holes in the story might trip the reader or force the reader to put the story down.”
This was basically her advice for me every step of the way as she has now looked at this entire book of mine twice. Yet I failed to heed her advice, thinking the story had to be a certain way, or had to contain only certain viewpoints. I can’t really talk about the process of this book without revealing its content, or where it came from, so a little on that first. This book is a fictionalized account of my time at another capitalist establishment based upon land transactions, which is a pretentious way of saying real estate office. I wanted the story to capture the mundaneness, the drudgery, of that world, and spent page upon page in my early drafts doing exactly that. Even up until the last draft I still was committed to doing it that way, until Libby finally got through to me. In what has become a marathon of email exchanges over the last year, she has helped guide me through the process of understanding “holes in the story that might trip the reader,” starting with the big one at the beginning. To that end, since this series is all about #ShowYourWork, I would like to place in order the previous and most recent drafts of the beginning of my third novel, Observe & Detach:
This morning I entered a new white collar universe. That's right, I have located an office job I may be able to stand. Two years, countless dead ends, and yet I found the promised land. The land of dreams and affordable health insurance.
Those people who read my drivel know I've been searching for work in the Twin Cities for some time. Started in the restaurant industry, thought I was going to be the next Bourdain. Turns out I couldn't hack that lifestyle, so retail might be for me. The bright lights and garrish red penetrated my brain, and I fucking hated wearing khaki. The friend of a family member who used to work at this office called me up, announcing an administrative position. Entry level. Twelve bucks an hour, which is four more than the red demon was willing to pony up for my hard earned toilet paper stocking skills.
Today was spent getting to know the place and my co-workers. The Ramses County Board of Real Estate Agents (RCBREA) counts over eight thousand agents as members. They come from all over Minnesota to join, but most of the transactions occur right in Minneapolis. The board itself is located in Edina, that rich, pampered ass suburb where the olds hate sidewalks and the young. “RCBREA” is the acronym, and everyone around here says it just like that: “wreck-bra.” I've already heard one joke about torn undergarments, and I'm sure there are more. I don't get a fancy real estate license. That takes years of studying to pass a state exam, and you have to keep renewing every two years. I don't even get to set up homes or anything cool. My job is to sit at the front department and assist the agents with their adventures of moving houses and finding clients.
( This is my re-write after Libby worked on my manuscript this year: )
I sat down with Jack to discuss my first year. He shut the door to his office when it was apparent Mona, head bent, eyes peering over half-bifocals, was eavesdropping under the guise of stocking plastic riders. He asked what I thought of the place so far. I lied.
“Everyone seems to know their tasks. I like it pretty well.”
“I'm glad you do.” His eyes beamed at me, refrigerator door jawline jutting downward. “We like having you, even if there are a few issues to discuss.”
“Well, yes. A few things to go over, in light of Allison leaving our department and you taking over her duties. This isn't a review, or anything. Our CEO, you know Alan, he thought I should mention a few things. First, the phone. I know we're getting a lot of dues calls these days, but it's a main task of ours to answer the phone.”
I suddenly remembered I had integrity. “Well, then might I mention something? It helps to answer the phone if one is present at their desk.”
“You mean Betty.”
“That would be my example, yes.” I had yet to see her arrive to work not hungover.
He sighed, leaning back in his rickety chair. “Look, Walt. I'm going to tell you something I've had to tell others here before. I want you to remember it. Working in this office, it's like being in a family. You know how in your family there's that one...uncle who's a little off? You may not like talking to him at family events all that much, but you have to regardless? That's how I want you to think of RCBREA. Do you understand?”
First of all, there is quite a difference between openings. One is just a bunch of descriptions of stuff, the other is an actual scene, comprised of what I was going to have happen later in the book. All throughout writing this, Libby was pushing me to compact the boring parts, those that introduced more characters that weren’t going to stick around, and anything that took away from the main story.
This was another point Libby was always trying to get me to see in a new light. While I thought the goings-on at the office would more than suffice for a pretty lackluster rest of the main character’s existence, she pushed me to see how I could change the story to his benefit, almost as if I was making up for my past mistakes. What began as a stenograph of my monotonous time there became what I hope to be a more thrilling insider tale, showing how actual journalism could bring down an institution and strike a blow for the workers all at the same time.
This is becoming a bit too much for one post on the subject, so I will be back with the rest of this segment on editing, hopefully within a week. I will also be sharing my “other” editor’s thoughts on the subject, as she has also worked on stuff of mine over the years. Thanks for reading, and writers out there please feel free to share your own thoughts on all of this in the comments or on the social mediaz.
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 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!
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cat. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.