February 28, 2011

Never Let Me Go

I read Kazuo Ishiguro's NEVER LET ME GO for the first time in 2007. It had been recommended by a friend or two, but I don't recall what was said that made me want to pick it up. Possibly just, "You must read this." I recently read it again.

The description on the back of the edition I have explains wonderfully little. That first time, I learned that the story is about three friends who attended an English boarding school together, and now one of them is reflecting on their time there. It didn't sound that interesting, to be honest, but I trusted the recommendations and nearly started reading without knowing anything more, which I think is the best way to approach this book. Unfortunately, as is my habit, I looked at the Library of Congress subject headings on the copyright page, which contains a big spoiler. If you haven't read the book, don't look there. (You're not looking, are you?)

Since I advocate reading this book without learning anything about it, I'm reluctant to post about it, but I do want to talk about how much I love the narrative voice. I'm going to focus on the beginning of the book, and I won't give away any of the big secrets, but if you'd prefer to remain entirely unspoiled, feel free to move on.

The book starts with the notation "England, late 1990s," a time already in the past when the book was published in 2005. The narrator opens by introducing herself:

My name is Kathy H. I'm thirty-one years old, and I've been a carer now for over eleven years.

By the end of the first paragraph, she has shared her pride in how well she does her job:

My donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive, and hardly any of them have been classified as "agitated," even before fourth donation.

Kathy goes on for a couple of pages about "carers" and "donors" without ever explaining what she's talking about. By the time she moves on to reminiscing about her idyllic childhood at a place called Hailsham, the reader has a suspicion that something is going on in Kathy's world that didn't exist in the 1990s England that we're aware of. We'd like to know what that's about, but Kathy is busy describing a taunting incident that occurred among her classmates when she was twelve. She's quite concerned with getting the details of the memory right and pinpointing what she remembers and what she isn't certain of.

The moment I adore appears ten pages into the book: "I don't know how it was where you were," Kathy writes. Now we start to understand why Kathy doesn't explain carers and donors: she's addressing an audience of her peers, who are already familiar with what she's talking about. From time to time, Kathy makes more such references to our supposed shared history. The effect continues to thrill me.

Kathy has set out to record an accurate account of her time at Hailsham. She's rarely concerned with the significance of caring and donation, because that's not the purpose of her memoirs, and it's not what the readers she imagines want to learn about. As the real readers of Ishiguro's novel, we're most interested in the aspects of Kathy's story that she's most offhand about. While she explores the complicated dynamics of her two closest friendships, we gradually assemble the clues that reveal how Kathy's world differs from our own.

If -- and only if! -- you've read the book, check out this discussion by Vito Excalibur. She must have been one of the people who originally recommended the book to me, and this insight has stayed with me.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Book Lady Rebecca Schinsky is reading WAR AND PEACE: "I'm hoping that by recording my reading of this most intimidating of classics (with the possible exception of Ulysses), I'll be able to demystify the process for others who, like me, have trembled at the thought of cracking its spine."

February 23, 2011

Meet The Weird Sisters

I guess I've been too busy reading books to find time to post about them. I have a few recommendations to catch up on this week.

I finished Eleanor Brown's THE WEIRD SISTERS a month ago, but procrastinating this long on writing about it means that I get to tell you about a bunch of cool things that have happened to Eleanor and to the book. THE WEIRD SISTERS made it onto the New York Times Best Sellers and several other lists, Eleanor was interviewed on NPR and elsewhere, and she's visiting several states to promote her book. I'm so pleased to be able to say that I knew her when, even if "when" is only since last year and "knew" is so far only online.

I'm even more pleased to be able to say good things about THE WEIRD SISTERS. It's a book about siblings and secrets -- two of my favorite subjects -- with an unusual narrative style, which is another element I like in a book. Since all these combine into a compelling and beautifully written story, THE WEIRD SISTERS gets a glowing recommendation from me.

The book is about three grown sisters who return home when their mother gets breast cancer, without revealing that they're each also fleeing from a different life problem. The family home is in a small college town where the father teaches Shakespeare and communicates as much as possible in lines from the Bard. Aside from sharing this upbringing and their Shakespearean names, the sisters don't have much in common and don't particularly like each other. Things regress from there.

While the character I liked best was the youngest sister (and I notice that Eleanor is herself the youngest of three sisters), as an older sister, I identified completely with the oldest of the three. Bossy control freak, unappreciated for her ability to keep everyone else's life in order? That would be me.

The story is told in a rarely used point of view, first-person plural. The three sisters narrate collectively as "we" and use names or the third-person "she" to talk about a single sister. It's a little strange to read at first, but it works. Here's a sample from the first chapter:

We see stories in magazines or newspapers sometimes, or read novels, about the deep and loving relationships between sisters. Sisters are supposed to be tight and connected, sharing family history and lore, laughing over misadventures. But we are not that way. We never have been, really, because even our partnering was more for spite than for love. Who are these sisters who act like this, who treat each other as their best friends? We have never met them. We know plenty of sisters who get along well, certainly, but wherefore the myth?

We don't think Cordy minds, really, because she tends to take things as they come. Rose minds, certainly, because she likes things to align with her mental image. And Bean? Well, it comes and goes with Bean, as does everything with her. To forge such an unnatural friendship would just require so much effort.

Cool, huh? If this glimpse of the narration and the characters appeals to you, read THE WEIRD SISTERS or, um, get thee to a nunnery!

February 18, 2011

Now We're Getting Somewhere

A few weeks ago, I reported that I'd started using SuperNoteCard to plan for revision. Now, maybe it's because of this fancy new software, or maybe I could have made just as much progress with one of my old methods, but whatever, because the important thing is that I am ready to really actually finally start revising next week!

For months, I've been pondering, reviewing feedback, compiling notes, thinking about characters, summarizing the plot, rearranging events, outlining, and ruminating. I've alternated between despairing of ever making the story fit together and marveling over my brilliance at assembling the pieces. Today some remaining chunks fell into place, and I think this is going to be a pretty good novel once I rewrite it.

So now I have to rewrite it. I don't have a good idea of how long this revision will take, except for being pretty sure that it will take longer than I want it to. But now I know what I'm aiming for, and I'm looking forward to getting started.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Ben Myers at the Guardian Books Blog writes about choosing character names: "Because characters don't arrive fully formed in your head, they develop over time and after much thought; therefore it stands to reason that the name they may start life with will more than likely change as their personality develops on the page."

→ At the Office of Letters and Light blog, Sarah Mackey confesses to weeping into popcorn and paperbacks, an experience I'm very familiar with.

February 15, 2011

Dialogue Talk

This post first appeared as the February "Write & Rewrite" column in WritersTalk, the newsletter of the South Bay Writers branch of the California Writers Club.


In my last column, I offered some ideas for effective dialogue tags and action beats: Use the plain, unobtrusive "said" instead of more distracting verbs and adverbs, and select actions that reveal what's happening in the scene emotionally and physically. Now we're ready to move on to what the characters actually say.

This dialogue has some issues:

Allegra crossed the nursing home lounge to the corner where Chester sat alone. "Hey there, Chester."

The old man's slack features snapped into a broad smile. "Oh, hello, Allegra. It is good to see you. I am so glad you visit every Monday after school for your community service project."

"Me too, Chester. So, like, how are you, like, feeling today?"

"Well, I am doing pretty, you know, well, considering. It is nice that the weather has, uh, that the sun came out today."

"I agree." Allegra sank into a chair beside Chester. "Hey, Chester, did you know that, you know, Monday is my favorite day of the week?"

"Oh, that can't be true, Allegra. You must have way more fun on the weekends, going out and partying and stuff."

"No, I do not, because I never get invited to any parties. Nobody at school ever invites me to do anything!"

"Oh, was there something you were hoping to be invited to, Allegra? Is that why you seem upset today?"

"Yeah, that is what I am upset about. Everyone my age is a jerk." Allegra shyly placed her hand on Chester's. "That is why I would rather spend time with you, Chester."

The main principle to keep in mind when writing dialogue is that good fictional conversation resembles real speech without perfectly imitating it. When real people talk, they pause, they use meaningless filler words such as "well" and "like," and they change direction mid-sentence. They do these things constantly, and as listeners, we tend not to notice, but if you read a transcript of a normal conversation, the irregularities jump out. Fictional characters (or real people appearing in memoir or other narrative nonfiction) get to speak more eloquently to avoid pages littered with distracting "um"s and "uh"s. Use disfluencies sparingly, at times when you want to emphasize a character's hesitation or discomfort.

A substantial portion of normal conversation is generic, insignificant, and boring. In the real world, Allegra and Chester might discuss the weather for five minutes, but no reader is going to complain the characters are unbelievable if this topic is omitted from the story. Compress the greetings, introductions, and small talk to "They exchanged pleasantries" or simply skip to the part that matters.

February 14, 2011

What We Write About When We Write About Love

My critique partners have problems with my relationships. If they object to my real-life involvements, they've kept quiet about it, but they're always vocal in questioning the relationships I write for my characters: "What does she see in him?" "Why would he stay with her?" "Were they ever really in love?"

In most of the stories I've written -- and really, most of the stories anyone has ever written -- people fall in or out of love. Based on the progress I've made as a writer in other areas, I'd expect that these days I'd be much better at writing about love than I used to be. The consistency of feedback from my critiquers suggests otherwise.

Why is it so hard to write convincingly about love? I've been pondering this issue for a while, and I've isolated a few of the difficulties:

Love is arbitrary. In real life, on those rare occasions when we're called upon to explain why we love the people we do, our responses are cliches that don't tell the full story: "We have chemistry." "We have a lot in common." "She makes me laugh." "I just feel comfortable with him." People fall in love as a result of an idiosyncratic, favorable set of circumstances. Even if we managed to reconstruct and describe how love occurred, it wouldn't be an explanation grounded in logic. The truest answer is, "We're in love because we're in love."

Now take this problematic situation and stick it into fiction, which is burdened with a need to be more believable than reality in order to convince the reader. If fictional love is as arbitrary as real love, readers and their pattern-seeking brains won't buy it. But if the characters' relationship develops based entirely on logic, that rings false to readers. Fictional love needs more rationale than real love but somehow also has to reflect the randomness of life. Good luck with that.

In my own writing, I've bounced back and forth between the extremes, and now I'm starting to settle into a more workable middle ground. I give characters a few tangible reasons for attraction of the type that they could report to friends, and then I focus on capturing the "because we're in love" emotion that's at the core of a relationship. Which brings me to...

True love is all show and no tell. In these relationship discussions with my critique group, my sheepish reply is always something like, "But in the narration, he keeps telling us how much he loves her!" I should really know this one by now: Don't tell the reader that the characters are in love -- show it! Duh.

I've been paying attention to how people behave in real-life relationships to identify those little moments, in public or private, that indicate when people are involved and even demonstrate how long they've been together or how it's going. Sticking a few of these moments into a story does far more to bring the relationship to life than the most passionate inner monologue expounding upon how much a character loves someone.

Relationships that end were once beginning. It's hard enough to convince my critique partners of the love between characters who are starting out together, but things really get tricky when I write about a relationship on the rocks. Inevitably, my readers look at the misery and antagonism of characters breaking up and say, "There's no way they were ever happy together. They should hurry up and end it."

This is a tough one. The point of a story about a soured relationship should be that it's a painful situation and that it's unclear what the best outcome is. None of that works if readers aren't sympathetic to how much the characters are struggling, so I need them to appreciate how good the relationship once was. Do I do this through flashbacks, memories, passionate inner monologues? None of these are great, all-purpose solutions.

If it's possible to begin the story just before the circumstance that tears the characters apart, the writer has the opportunity to show the relationship in a happy starting state. But relationships often break apart in a gradual way, unconnected to any single event. I'm still figuring out how to effectively write this kind of story.

What problems and solutions have you encountered when writing about love?

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Jennifer Schuessler at the New York Times Book Review explains the redesigned best-seller lists that track e-book sales. A accompanying graphic shows how print and e-book sales compare.

→ At Conversational Reading, the Spring Big Read will be LIFE, A USER'S MANUAL by Georges Perec. I read this fascinating book in college, and while I don't think I'll have time to reread it with the group, I'm looking forward to following the discussion.

February 9, 2011

Dreams in Fiction

I'm not a big fan of dreams appearing in fiction. When a character dreams in a story, the dream tends to be either highly coherent and relevant to the plot or highly symbolic but clearly interpretable. Either way, that's rarely what real dreams are like. These fictional dreams stretch credibility, and most of the time when I read one, I think the story could have gotten on just fine without it.

So imagine my surprise when I read through my manuscript and discovered just how many dreams I'd included. Now, I hasten to explain that the dreams don't exactly happen in the narration but rather are described in hindsight, and then only briefly. For example, "During the little sleep I got that night, I dreamed of children without faces." As if that makes it acceptable.

I know I wrote the dreams in with the thought that it helps to show what the characters are worried about, since all the dreams reflect subjects of concern. But it's not as though the reader might otherwise be unclear about whether the characters are preoccupied with these topics. And my own dreams are hardly ever about things I'm actually worried about, unless my subconscious thinks it's really important that I know what I'll do when I find a public radio personality naked in my bathroom.

When I realized I had all these dreams in my novel and that I should get rid of them, I started coming up with excuses for why and how I should keep them in. So I knew they had to go, according to the rule I've just decided to name:

Lisa's First Rule of Revision: If you're considering whether something should be cut, it should. If you're wavering between cutting it or justifying its presence by somehow making it more important, it should absolutely be cut.

So, sweet dreams to the dreams. Which means that the character who used to suffer from frequent nightmares is now spared. I hope he appreciates it, since in all other ways I've made his life worse since the first draft.

What do the rest of you think about dreams in fiction? Are there ever good reasons to use them? Have you seen it done well?

Good Stuff Out There:

→ The Book Roadie took a bookbinding class and posted photos of the books she bound.

February 8, 2011

What the Reader Knows

The structure of the novel I'm working on is a bit complicated. There are three storylines set in different decades. Each storyline progresses chronologically, but chapters from the three stories are interspersed so that the reader jumps back and forth in time. The storylines also have three different narrators who are from different generations of the same family. This means that the narrators appear as older or younger characters in the other storylines. As you might guess from this description of the structure, the novel focuses on information that the characters don't know or misunderstand about the other generations and ways in which perceptions of the past differ from what really occurred.

It's a lot to keep track of. A while back, I created a poster-sized document I call the Secrets Chart to help me visualize it all. As the writer, I have a good enough grasp of what's the truth and who knows what, but crafting this novel has involved making and remaking many decisions about how best to share the knowledge with the reader. Hint at a secret that's been kept from a narrator, and in the next chapter show the relevant event happening in his father's life? Or play out the incident first and later let the reader understand what the son is confused about? I can often make an argument for ordering the scenes in either direction, and it's rarely been obvious which will be most interesting for the reader.

The reader is the most important element, and I've discovered that sometimes I've lost sight of this. I'm very conscious of the secrets that the characters have from one another. But occasionally I forget that even if all the characters in a scene know the same information, something might remain secret if I haven't yet let the reader in on the details. There are lots of good reasons to conceal facts from the reader, of course, but too often I fall into the trap of doing this poorly. If the best part of a scene is the tension as the characters try to avoid bringing up the elephant in the room, the effect is lost if the reader hasn't seen the elephant.

This is one of those manuscript problems that's very hard for a writer to notice about their own work. After all, if I'd realized this is what I was doing, I wouldn't have done it. Fortunately, it's among the easier problems for even a casual critiquer to notice. I always ask my early readers to tell me about places that they were confused, and that clues me in to the spots where I've left out necessary information without meaning to.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ The Millions compares U.S. and U.K. covers of the same books.

→ A few of my loyal blog readers have asked how to use Google Reader to keep track of posts. Here's a clear, step-by-step introduction from the School Lunch Project and some more details from CNET.

February 2, 2011

February Reading Plan

Yesterday I recounted how I did with my January reads, and it should be no big surprise that three of my books are carryovers from last month:

RED MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - I'm halfway through and thinking about switching to reading a paper copy, or maybe attempting the advanced maneuver of going back and forth between digital and analog versions.

AURORARAMA by Jean-Christophe Valtat - Also about halfway through.

THE CITY, NOT LONG AFTER by Pat Murphy - Now that I have a copy, I'll be reading this in preparation for FOGcon, the speculative fiction convention coming up in March in San Francisco.

Following the logic that two of the above books are half-read, and ignoring the logic of how many books I actually got through last month, I'm adding two more books to the list:

INVINCIBLE SUMMER by Hannah Moskowitz - This book is coming out in April. That's in the future! But I downloaded an e-galley after Hannah tweeted that copies were available. I've been very excited to read this book since Hannah posted the first chapter on her excellent blog, and this is the first time I've had the opportunity to read a book before it's published.

THREE BAGS FULL by Leonie Swann - A mystery in which the investigators are a flock of sheep. A friend read it, said it's hilarious, and loaned it to me. I've just discovered that each page has a little drawing in the corner, forming a flipbook. I hope my friend doesn't mind when I return the book with one corner all thumb-worn.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ K.M. Weiland guest-blogs for A. Victoria Mixon and presents 5 Writing Rules You Should Break: "Learning when, why, and how to break the rules is just as important as learning to observe them."

→ A New York Public Library branch tried an experiment to prevent judging books by their covers. The post features MEANWHILE by Jason Shiga, which I blogged about recently. (Thanks, GalleyCat!)

February 1, 2011

January Reading Recap

At the beginning of January, I posted a list of the books I intended to read during the month. This was my first time trying this, and I'm pleased by how the experiment turned out.

I believe that I read more than I would have otherwise, motivated by knowing that at the end of the month I would have to report on my progress. I made an effort to read every day, and once I realized I was doing well on that score, this became another formal goal. I would even say I read too much this month, since there were numerous times when I ignored other things I'd planned to get done in favor of reading more. I figure this is a forgivable sin.

Last year I found myself reading multiple books on a more consistent basis than I'd ever done before. A big reason for this was that I started using ebooks, so I began a habit of reading a digital book on-the-go and a paper book at home. This month, I kept three books going at once.

I've decided I really like reading several books simultaneously. Partly it's the flexibility of choosing the most convenient format, or the book that most suits my mood. But another factor is that I enjoy taking my time with books. Whenever I'm so excited about a book that I tear through it in a few days, I'm sorry for squandering it so quickly. Switching between books means that I spend weeks with each one, with plenty of time between readings to ponder what's going to happen.

I announced four books that I'd read in January. I completed one of them, read another that wasn't listed, and read about half of two more. Since I was less concerned with finishing all the books than with improving my reading habits, I'm entirely satisfied with this system and intend to continue. My reading calendar is already filling up.

Here's how things went down in January:

RED MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - About halfway through. This is a long book. I'm really enjoying it, but I'm getting through it very slowly, especially since it's my current e-read, so I tend to consume it five minutes at a time. In some ways it's a good book for small increments because it's dense reading, and the story moves slowly enough that it's usually interruptable. But for those same reasons, I might prefer reading the book for longer stretches, which I sometimes have been doing. I think I'm going to buy the whole series in paperback. So far, highly recommended if you want to know what life on Mars would be like, and you want to know it in great detail.

AURORARAMA by Jean-Christophe Valtat - About halfway through this one, too. Like RED MARS, this is a dense read. Valtat has imagined the Arctic city of New Venice in impressive detail. The book is more full of rich description than I'm partial to, but it's well done if you like that sort of thing. The characters are entertaining, and I'm intrigued by the plot that's unfolding.

THE CITY, NOT LONG AFTER by Pat Murphy - Haven't started it yet. The first copy I ordered was lost in the mail, so by the time I got hold of a copy, I decided to save it for next month.

NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro - Finished. Still wonderful the second time around. Still highly recommended. I'm working on assembling some spoiler-free thoughts about the book that I'll post soon.

THE WEIRD SISTERS by Eleanor Brown - Finished. I did mention after this month's list that this book would be coming out, and it turned out that once I had a copy, I had no intention of waiting to read it. Fantastic story about three grown sisters who don't particularly like each other and all return home at the same time when their mother gets sick. I'll post some thoughts on this book soon, too.

Tomorrow, I'll announce my February reading plans. As you may guess, they bear a certain resemblance to the January plans.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ The Santa Clara City Library blog boldy states I Like My Titles Like I Like My Women: Awkward and Confusing. Don't you all agree that THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE is a much better title than simply DAMAGE? (Thanks, Louise!)