Hello readers and welcome to the second half of the 2018 Reading List. To wrap up the first half I took on another female author and read Wise Blood. For the latter half of the year I’m going to switch up the formula but still continue to get as many books read in this year as I can. To that end, I’m going to put some titles together and see how they combine to show deeper writing lessons. As I said last time, it felt right to read James Baldwin now, so I this month I took on his 1963 classic The Fire Next Time and his 1957 novel Giovanni’s Room. Both were stunning in their own ways, so I want to get to the major lessons writers can learn from this landmark American author.
Using the novel/essay to speak about society. This is the entire point of The Fire Next Time, and I must say even in 2018 I don’t think I have come across as searing a dissection of religion and the ways it is used to manipulate people. The poignancy here comes from Baldwin’s refusal to make this a color issue, as he denounces both whites’ use of Christianity to cover up their racist minds, and blacks’ relatively more recent use of Islam to further a similar goal. As he discusses at length, both religions were used to preach an idea of a separation of the races, which Baldwin denounces in very stark terms as the opposite of what is needed in this nation. As we can see even today, this vision proved incredibly prophetic. This lesson can also be found in Giovanni’s Room, especially involving the way homosexuality was viewed in the West around this time (the main character describes it as against the law, which in many states it was at the time).
Use of imagery. This was possibly the highlight of Giovanni’s Room, as Baldwin uses basic language to describe the world of Paris (made up of stones that reflect light during the summer and repel it during the winter) and the people he meets (Giovanni and his “boyish” legs, his “leonine” figure, Jacques in his presence appears “very frail and old”), painting a world of intrigue the main character David is attempting to navigate. Though the story reflects Baldwin’s own of escaping cloistered America, David soon learns to resent most of Europe and its inhabitants as a scandal grows from his time in Paris.
Using the novel to reflect your own life. This is a lesson I continue to learn in new and different ways, and without a doubt Giovanni’s Room is a huge example of this. It is well known this book is a parallel to Baldwin’s own time spent in Europe, but he digs even deeper to dissect his relationship with Giovanni, in whose room they both stay for a period, and his own internal shameful thoughts and what they are doing. This becomes even more enhanced when David’s fiancee Hella arrives and he attempts to lead a double life, which leads to Giovanni’s ruin and eventual killing of another character. The end chapters of the novel become incredibly moving and deep as David puzzles through what he should do and while the ending is quite tragic, it contains much to understand about life in the world at this time.
I would highly recommend this author to anyone who seeks a better understanding of race and gender relations during the Cold War, and there were few more powerful American voices on this than Baldwin’s. I definitely will return to this author to gain more insight into these topics.
Up next, as promised I’m shifting the Reading List into a different territory, but one I’ve become more interested in over the years: drama. To that end I will be reading a pair of the greatest stage plays even written, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, as well as possibly another “sort-of” drama if I have time. And stay tuned for an essay concerning what writers are for (especially now), as I have approached the ten-year mark of doing it in one form or another. Thanks as always for reading.
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 of Sherman Writing Services. 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 of Sherman Writing Services, 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 readers and welcome to the final installment of this portion of the 2018 Reading List. Last time I read a recommendation from my editor, David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. This time I took on another recommendation from a co-worker: Flannery O’Connor and her stunning 1952 debut novel Wise Blood.
This was without a doubt the weirdest and darkest novel I have read this year, but I would also say by far one of the best. The tale of Hazel Motes and his attempt at building a church of “Christ Without Christ” is a compelling look at religion and how it affects people. Finally escaping the clutches of a deeply religious family myself, I found the narrative to be a stinging critique of all types of belief, and a demented rumination on blindness, swaying people, the notion of “destiny” and many other things. I don’t want to give too much more of the plot away (such as it is) so let’s hit the two major lessons I feel writers can gain from this work.
Use of language. Upon beginning these reading experiments, I naively considered Faulkner the voice of the “Southern American” literary tradition. But O’Connor is far and away the master, deftly weaving in colloquialisms, the best portmanteaus this side of Cormac McCarthy (“listenhere,” “theter,” “thisyer”), weird situations (a man in a gorilla suit shaking hands with children in front of a movie theater) and tons of oblique references to religion and the way it undermines people. In the simple way the language flows, O’Connor makes you care very little that we don’t know the background of these characters or what their motivations even are. That’s how phenomenal the writing is throughout the entire novel, which seems to end on a fairly depressing note, but that may depend on your interpretation.
Using the novel to talk about religion. This is ostensibly the novel’s greatest strength, and yet even the main character struggles with the concept throughout the work. Hazel Motes is the son of a traveling preacher who then becomes a traveler in his own regard, preaching against religion. This gets him tangled up with a not-blind blind man who works crowds for money with a young woman, a false “preacher” who uses his own version of Motes to fleece crowds, and various other sordid characters. All the while he considers what he is doing and why, and when attempting to go to another city gets his car wrecked by a policeman. I wish I could say there was a unifying religious theme connecting all of this, but the writing was so understated and bizarre that I don’t feel comfortable stating anything specific.
I can’t say much else but to fully recommend this book to anyone who wants to read a writer who was clearly a master of her craft, and a true heir to the southern tradition. Faulkner was great and spoke for a certain class of people, but it’s O’Connor’s bleak view of humanity that really resonated with me. This is one novel that I will be pondering over for a long time.
Up next, I’m mixing up the way I’m doing the Reading List. First it feels appropriate to read some James Baldwin, an author I’m tragically embarrassed to say I’ve never read. First up will be his essay The Fire Next Time, then I will pivot to his second novel Giovanni’s Room. After that I’m going to be taking on a different type of literature, so stay tuned. And thanks for reading and writing.
Hello readers and welcome to another installment of the 2018 Reading List! Last time I took a first look at Joyce Carol Oates, this time I’m catching up with a recommendation my editor gave me around the time I started this as an experiment. That would be David Guterson’s stunning 1994 novel Snow Falling on Cedars. This tale of love, loss, and small-island prejudice was the first novel for Guterson and according to Wikipedia took him ten years to write. This shows immensely through the writing, and I want to take a close look at what I considered the two major lessons of this book.
Use of framing. Guterson uses the courtroom on the island where the story is set to launch into the personal narratives of all the characters. When the plot focuses on the murder trial of a Japanese-American man (accused of killing a white fisherman), it stays with the lawyers as they aggressively cross-examine witnesses, asking multiple versions of the same question. Guterson captures this very well and uses it to ensure we get a good understanding of the facts. But it’s when he uses the witnesses to delve back in time that the writing really shines, as we get to experience the story from their perspectives. This is a master class in framing one part of a story in order to tell another, deeper one.
Use of identity. In a novel that wades through many dark themes (racism, war, murder) it is the concept of “identity” that ties everything together. Two of the main characters fall in love but cannot be together due to the perceived difference in their ethnicities, and there is much discussion and consideration over identity. Years later, this causes an unfortunate ethical dilemma for one of them, and Guterson writes this so well I wasn’t sure up until the very end what the newspaperman would actually do. This notion is also apparent more broadly in how the islanders see the Japanese-American citizens among them, before and after they are detained in internment camps.
I felt this was an important book to read right now, in light of the obscene nationalism that has gripped our body politic. It is important to remember similar rhetoric to that which we are hearing today led in the past to mass incarceration of persons based upon their race. It was wrong then, and remains abhorrent today. Guterson does an amazing job showing how the torment of war and death divide a small community struggling to adjust with a world war, and how the most base prejudice could lead to an innocent man being put to death. I would definitely recommend this novel to anyone looking to understand either the past or present moments. It’s a masterpiece in terms of construction.
Up next, I’m going back again to the recommendations from my co-worker of modern literary women and hit an author I’ve been wanting to get to for years: Flannery O'Connor and her novel Wise Blood. I also hope to get some kind of post done on the editing process, and another more reflective one by end of summer on writing itself.
Thanks as always for reading and writing, and happy summer!
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)!
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.