September 23, 2011

Over and Out

My bags aren't packed, and I'm not ready to go, but tomorrow I leave for a week's vacation. When I return, I'll be moving on to revising the next storyline of my novel. We'll see if it really does go more quickly, as I predicted, or if you all get to laugh at me.

I gave more thought to my quandary about the next step and decided that I'll go directly from one storyline to the next, without even reading what I've just finished rewriting. If I look over my recent work, I'm going to want to make more changes, and then I'll never move on. I've already thought of a few things I need to add, but I'm sure to come up with more as I go through the other storylines, so I might as well save it all for later. I have detailed notes in SuperNotecard, and it will all be waiting for me when I'm ready to return to it.

As for you, my loyal readers, I'll return to you on October 3. Have a good week!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Tahereh Mafi says, Don't Be Afraid To Write A Bad Book: "the majority of us (read: the vast, vast majority of us) did not sell the very first thing our eager fingers ever created. many of us had to write not 1, but 2, 3, 15 manuscripts before figuring out what worked." (Thanks, Nathan Bransford!)

→ Michael Kardos muses in The Millions about Writing the Jersey Shore in the Age of Reality TV: "When we set a work of fiction in a real place, we do so hoping that those unfamiliar with the place will come to know it as we do, and that those who already know it will recognize in our depiction something familiar and true. But place's allegiance in fiction is ultimately to the story, not to its own exactitude."

September 22, 2011

36 Arguments for the Existence of God

I'm long overdue to write some book recommendations. For example, this one, which I made notes for weeks ago and then never got back to.

Last month I read 36 ARGUMENTS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. This novel is funny, inventive, thought-provoking, and educational. A cast of great and often larger-than-life characters learn, debate, and fall in love, and along the way the reader is introduced to philosophy, psychology, game theory, Hasidic Judaism, prime numbers, and assorted other topics.

Cass Seltzer is a professor who studies the psychology of religion, a field he's the world's expert in, "but only because nobody else wanted it." Cass publishes a book on the subject that unexpectedly becomes a bestseller and rockets him to fame. Time magazine calls him "the atheist with a soul." However,

He would never have dubbed himself an atheist in the first place, not because he believes -- he certainly doesn't -- but because he believes that belief is beside the point. It's the Appendix that's pushed him into the role of atheism's spokesperson, a literary afterthought that has remade his life.

The Appendix in question consists of 36 frequently used arguments for the existence of God and a rebuttal to each that points out the flaws in the reasoning. It's at the end of Cass's (nonfiction, yet fictional) book, and it also appears as a real 60-page appendix to Goldstein's novel. (The entire appendix is also available on the publisher's site for the novel.) Both the arguments for and against are an engrossing read.

The novel itself contains large chunks where the story stops for an educational break, delivered either through the narration or in the form of a monologue by one of the characters. These interludes of philosophy, mathematics, Jewish culture, and so on do relate to the story, and I found it all entertaining and enlightening, but this style won't appeal to everyone. It's not a dry academic text -- I often laughed out loud while reading -- but it is dense.

A range of perspectives on religion can be found among the characters in this novel, from Cass's detached fascination to the hardcore atheism of his friends to the complete and life-controlling faith of the Hasidic community that features in one of the story's main plots. I think this book would interest readers of any belief system who are curious about what leads people into different beliefs than their own.

At times, the characters and tone of 36 ARGUMENTS reminded me of another academia novel in which disciplines collide, THINKS... by David Lodge. I recommend them both.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund discusses A Problem With Writing Research: "One of my pet peeves as a reader is when it's clear that the writer is dumping into the story unnecessary things they discovered while researching."

→ Jenn Hubbard reminds us that any individual's tale is only One true story: "...we think of our own lives as normal, our own experiences as universal. (But of course, this may be a generalization also! Maybe others are more aware than I was of how specific our lives really are.)"

September 20, 2011

When Am I?

It's about a million degrees outside (in Fahrenheit, that's 93), and I'm grateful that last year I finally gave in and accepted that I live in a place where sometimes it's an excellent idea to have air conditioning. Here in northern California's Santa Clara Valley, we have nearly perfect weather, except when we don't.

The kind of heat wave we're having this week occurs more often in July than late September, but the weather has been unusual all year, here and everywhere else, so what are you gonna do? (Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.)

It's not as though I ever know what month it is anyway. I think it's likely that many people who grow up and leave behind the school calendar sometimes lose track of their place in the year. But this is especially a problem for me because I spend so much time inhabiting a fictional world. In there, I'm quite clear on the date. Out here, is it my birthday yet? And did you say 2011?

Inside my novel right now, it's chilly and the sky is gray and it's been raining. It's November, mainly because this novel started as a project for National Novel Writing Month, which occurs during that month. (I'd love to do a study to find out how many NaNoWriMo novels are set in November.)

Soon I'll move on to the next storyline, and I'll be in a different season and a different decade. And in the real world, I'll be wandering around confused, wearing shorts and wondering when it got so cold.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Dwight Garner writes in the New York Times about authors who release books only once a decade: "Distressingly, this kind of long gestation period is pretty typical for America's corps of young, elite celebrity novelists." (Thanks, Guardian Books Blog!)

September 16, 2011

Talking It Out

Yesterday I had a lovely lunch with a group of writing buddies. Naturally there was plenty of discussion about writing: where we're all at in our current projects, problems we're encountering, methods that work for us.

One of my friends is looking over a first draft and considering what needs changing in revision. Her big sticking point is that she can't figure out how to justify that the main character doesn't do the obvious smart thing near the beginning of the story to avoid the conflicts that drive the plot.

This is a common issue for writers. So many books would be over in twenty pages if only the protagonist acted less foolishly, behaved better, or decided that honesty is the best policy. Plots require conflict, and conflict often arises from people doing the wrong thing.

My friend laid out the basic story scenario for us and said how she was thinking of solving it. The rest of us offered a bunch of additional convincing factors that could result in the character's mistake. Maybe he's too stubborn to take advice or too proud to imagine his downfall or too loyal to consider a betrayal.

I'd like to think that our suggestions were useful and that the friend with the plot problem might expand on one of them to strengthen her novel. So many times in the past, I've explained a story problem to friends and been rewarded with perfect solutions. I have brilliant ideas all the time, of course, but other people are surprisingly clever, too.

It's easy to get so lost in your own story that you aren't sure how to find your way out. Talking it over with someone else lets you take advantage of a fresh perspective and spot the right path.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At the #Amwriting blog, Jennifer Spiller discusses how to Write What You Know and Slaughter the Cat: "My own view is we should write what we know and understand or can imagine vividly, emotionally. Then, if you want to write about a place or type of person outside your experience, you must RESEARCH. A lot."

→ Ian Dudley explains that Writing a novel is like writing a book (or a novella, only longer): "You have to use letters. Preferably strung together into words. Words of a language that, again preferably, you know. Or at least a language your readers will know."

September 14, 2011


I just finished writing an emotionally intense scene. Yes, another one. This one's a real doozy, probably the emotional climax of the whole novel. I'm exhausted. Most of the time I wouldn't classify writing as "hard work," even though it's difficult, but scenes like this take more exertion than physical labor.

For reasons that I can barely even justify to myself, I had to write this scene while sitting and lying on the floor rather than at my desk or in a soft chair. I guess the best explanation is that I needed some discomfort to get into the mindset required for the scene.

I think I'm content with how the scene turned out, but as usual, I'm sure to hate it tomorrow. And I won't know if it really works until the draft is done and I start getting feedback from other people. The version of this scene in the last draft received lukewarm reviews from my critique partners, but it's changed considerably, and I believe the new situation and execution is much more compelling.

Right now, I could really use a nap.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Ned Beauman looks at the TV Tropes website and discovers The Million Basic Plots: "It's best to spend just enough time on TV Tropes that you're anxious to do something original, but not so long that you're paralyzed."

September 12, 2011

You Can't Rush Brilliance

As I've vented about previously, sometimes I get frustrated that my novel isn't yet finished and out the metaphorical door. But just as often, I conceive of some new brilliant idea for the story that makes it so much better, I can't believe I might have considered the manuscript complete without it.

Over the weekend, at some random moment (was it in the shower? I get all my best ideas in the shower) I had a realization about a plot problem I hadn't even been thinking about. The solution is so obvious and fits so perfectly that I'm a bit embarrassed not to have thought of it before. Happily, it's even in one of the storylines I haven't started revising yet, so I haven't even created extra work for myself.

It's a little alarming to think that this idea might never have occurred to me, especially if I'd revised more quickly, and that my novel would have been worse off because of it. (Am I only grasping at any justification for my slowness? I'm pretty sure that I'm not.) And it's even more alarming to think that someday the book will be really finished and out in the world, and then I might still come up with ideas about how it could be better.

This is the kind of worry that keeps me awake at night. That and the constant flood of brilliant ideas.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Since many of my favorite books defy a genre classification, I enjoyed Alma Katsu's Beyond the Margins post on The Perils of Writing the Indefinable, Genre-Crossing Novel: "Publishers are often leery of these books because they can be hard to market. At the same time, these genre-defying books are often the ones that catch fire and become wildly popular because they are so different."

September 9, 2011

My Infinite To-Read List

At lunch today, a friend was telling me about a book she recently read. She thought some of the book's ideas and the structure might appeal to me, but since she had complaints about other aspects of the story, she was reluctant to endorse it with a real recommendation.

(We have a lot of conversations about books that go this way. It's great having such a long history of discussing our reading habits that we can accurately anticipate each other's tastes.)

(I'm especially lucky in that I have multiple people in my life with this level of book sharing intimacy.)

I listened to her review of the book, agreed that it did sound interesting, and said I'd like to read it at some point, but probably not before everything else I'd like to read at some point. My friend reaffirmed that she didn't rate the book highly enough to put it ahead of all those other books. She's well aquainted with my infinite to-read list.

I write down fewer and fewer of the books that catch my attention these days, which is a good thing, because I learn about books more and more quickly as I expand my consumption of book-related media. (I should post about some of my sources soon, shouldn't I?) My list continues to grow nonetheless.

Mostly what happens with my list is that I'm only reading (and therefore removing) the books that I added within the past few months. This is in part because I make an effort to buy and read some of the new releases I hear about. It's also because I can't find the other end of my to-read list -- it's infinitely far away.

Even the idea of looking through my list to prune and prioritize is daunting. I've been wondering if GoodReads is a useful tool for managing a to-read list, or if it's just a dangerous source of too many more recommendations. I'd appreciate hearing from any readers who can address this topic.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Buzz Poole muses on The Consequences of Writing Without Reading: "How can anyone claim to be interested in writing without being serious about reading?" (Thanks, The Millions!)

September 7, 2011

Ends and Odds

As I get toward the end of rewriting one of the storylines in my novel, I'm remembering various exciting and intimidating things about endings. I still have a lot of revision ahead of me, with two storylines left to go, but since the stories are interlaced throughout the manuscript, I'll soon be working on the book's final chapter. This is also the story that occurs last chronologically, so it's the last chance for the characters to find resolution before their lives go off into unchronicled territory.

Whenever I get close to the end of a manuscript, the note-taking becomes more frantic than ever. My chapter notes fill with reminders of all the loose ends that need to be tied up, and then each annotation tends to bounce around between the last two or three chapters several times before finding a final resting place within the text. At the end is also where I discover all the small details that I want to refer back to but somehow forgot to introduce earlier, so more notes get attached to chapters near the beginning.

This points out a quandary of reaching the end of a revision, particularly in this case: Do I now immediately go back to the beginning and make the numerous small additional changes that I've discovered this storyline needs? Or would it make more sense to move on and finish revising everything, with a final sweep at the end? I can see benefits and drawbacks to both options.

At least as I approach the ending this time, I'm not experiencing the common early-draft panic about whether I'll even be able to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. While there have been many changes to this storyline during this revision, the very end will stay about the same, and I think it now works much better than before. I might even keep the same final sentence that I had in the last draft. But I won't be sure until I get there.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Josh Rolnick traces his journey toward a career of writing and publishing short stories in My Life in Stories: "I am not, however, one of those writers who has always wanted to be a writer. My mom will tell you: I wanted to be an entomologist."

September 2, 2011

September Reading Plan

Next up on the to-read list:

JANE EYRE by Charlotte Brontë - I'm a quarter of the way through. I'm enjoying Jane as a narrator well enough, and it's interesting to read about what life was like in the mid-1800s, but I could use a little more plot. I have high hopes that the story will get more plotful soon.

BLUE MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - All sorts of intriguing developments happened toward the end of GREEN MARS, so I'm curious to see what's next.

THE SUBMISSION by Amy Waldman - This book has been receiving a lot of buzz due to its well-timed publication close to the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and unveiling of the Ground Zero memorial. Waldman's novel concerns a fictional contest to design the memorial for a 9/11-like event. In the book, the submission process is anonymous, and one of the finalists turns out to be an American-born Muslim, which leads to the expected sort of uproar. THE SUBMISSION has been reviewed well, so I'm expecting a story that's strong as well as timely.

THE TASTE OF SALT by Martha Southgate - I read an essay by Southgate in The Millions, and the title and cover of her just-published novel intrigued me. When I discovered that the story involves siblings, addiction, and oceanography, I had to buy it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Necee Regis at Beyond the Margins recounts the lessons of downtime in Everything I Learned About Writing I Learned On My Summer Vacation: "Sometimes you need to take a break from your manuscript. A sign this might be necessary is if you can recite vast tracks of your book from memory without pause and yet you have no idea what you're saying. Plus you think it’s the worst piece of drivel ever written. When that happens, try putting it in a drawer and letting it rest while you distract yourself with other projects. When the time is right you'll return to it, refreshed."

September 1, 2011

August Reading Recap

Checking against my August reading plan, it looks as though I didn't do much reading this month, only getting through one and a quarter books:

36 ARGUMENTS FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein - I really enjoyed this engaging story about belief and love and knowledge. I laughed out loud (and got strange looks from other people in the room) many times while reading it. The characters and premise are inventive, and the book is packed with information about topics that include religion, prime numbers, and game theory. Next week I'll post a more detailed discussion that might better explain how Goldstein combines these subjects.

JANE EYRE by Charlotte Brontë - I've read the first quarter. The story is taking longer to get going than I'd like, but I think I've just about reached the part where things begin to happen.

I didn't even start BLUE MARS.

However, I fudged a bit in creating this month's list, because as I mentioned in my June/July recap, I wasn't done with all the books from that list. Here's what else I finished:

GREEN MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - An excellent second book that builds well on the first book of the series without seeming like a repetition. The characters and situations all feel very real, whether the scale is a lovers' quarrel or a global crisis.

THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell - My family finished our group listen of the audio version. There was a lot to discuss about this book, so sharing it was a good experience, though the many alien words in the text made it sometimes a challenging listen. I liked THE SPARROW overall and was particularly impressed by the well-developed, unusual structure of the alien society. However, I thought the book should have been shorter and paced differently, with less time spent in the timeline that followed the aftermath and the main character's crisis of faith. In other words, I wanted this to be a different kind of book than the author wanted it to be, which is always a problematic type of criticism.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Geoff Dyer writes in the New York Times Book Review about What We Do to Books: "[T]he book should be in near-mint condition when I start reading it, but I am not obsessive about keeping it that way. On the contrary, I like the way it gradually and subtly shows signs of wear and tear, of having been lived in (by me), like a pair of favorite jeans." (Thanks, Office of Letters and Light!)