November 26, 2012

Ali Smith's Like

The novel LIKE by Ali Smith starts out as the story of a single mother barely holding together a life for herself and her seven-year-old daughter in a caravan (trailer) park in Scotland. It ends up somewhere rather different.

I loved the first half of this book. The mother and daughter are both fascinating characters, and their interactions are full of great details. I especially enjoyed the scenes in the daughter's point of view, which wonderfully capture what a child does and doesn't notice in the world around her.

The first half drops many intriguing hints about the mother's past, and as the story goes on, the reader starts to figure some things out and grow even more intrigued about the things that haven't yet been explained. The second half provides some insight into the mother's life before the daughter, but it left so much of the mystery unaddressed that I was unsatisfied and also puzzled, wondering if I missed something.

Overall, I did like LIKE. But I was disappointed by the way the story set up big secrets, seemed poised to provide illumination, and then failed to deliver. This is definitely a case where there's a disconnect between what the writer wanted a book to do and what I wanted from it as a reader. Still, the novel is beautifully written, and Smith is highly skilled at creating characters, so I'm looking forward to reading more of her work.

Thanks to Sally for recommending, lending, and then discussing this book. It's a good one to discuss after reading, and our conversation did help to satisfy some of what I was missing at the end of the story.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Geraldine Brooks confesses her book-organizing system in People Of The Bookshelf: "It's impossible for me to place one book alongside another without thinking about the authors, and how they would feel about their spine-side companion. I arrange my shelves as I would seat guests at a dinner party." (Thanks, The Millions!)

November 16, 2012

Why I Love My Critique Group

My critique group is awesome. The three of us have been together for a decade (!), supporting each other through myriad changes in our writing and personal lives. Over the years, the focus and format of our group has evolved. We now meet once a month by video chat, mostly to talk about what we've been writing and reading. Our critique function is only activated occasionally, when someone needs it.

The group gave me incredibly useful feedback on the second draft of THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, working through the manuscript a few chapters at a time over the course of several months (we were meeting weekly then). When I someday reach the end of this draft (I will get there, I will!), the big test will be how the two other group members react to it.

I can guarantee they'll have plenty of conflicting opinions. We met this week to discuss my revised first chapter because I wanted to get their feedback before I submit it to Lit Camp. We spent a good portion of the meeting laughing over how often the two of them had opposite reactions to the contents of the chapter.

Getting their differing perspectives was hugely valuable. Readers aren't all the same, and it helps to get as many opinions as possible. With only two people in the group besides myself, I'm working with a very small sample size, so it's just as well that they don't always agree. (Incidentally, I have more critique partners outside this group who will also review the full draft when it's completed.) The debate during the meeting allowed me to get a better idea of why they felt as they did and figure out how best to respond with changes.

I can't overstate the importance of having other people read your work before you send it out. It's impossible to judge your own writing as if you don't already know what you meant to say and what all the backstory is that explains why the characters are doing what they do.

For example, I worked for ages on my opening paragraphs until every word was perfect. The reaction from my critique group (in this case, the two of them were in agreement) demonstrated that I'd still written a very confusing collection of sentences that left the reader unclear about what was going on. Furthermore, our discussion of the opening made me realize that for some reason I'd fixated on conveying something that doesn't even really matter. I can adjust the opening to omit this, and it will be much clearer and more effective. Despite all my attention to these paragraphs, I couldn't get to that realization without the help of people outside my own brain.

It's not an easy thing to hear criticism of your writing, and I'm a little overwhelmed thinking about the work that still remains on this chapter (not to mention the whole novel, eventually). But I'm glad I have a critique group I can rely on to react to my work honestly.

For more of my thoughts about requesting and responding to critique, check out this article I wrote a couple of years ago.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ On the Amwriting blog, Jason Black explains how readers are like Sherlock Holmes: "They miss nothing. Every detail matters. If you're a criminal, the very notion of trying to sneak something past Mr. Holmes should make you nervous. If you're a writer building the very world into which your Holmesian reader will stroll, you should also be nervous."

November 9, 2012

Human Foibles

1. The best cure for an intense aversion to the idea of ever writing anything again? Start writing.

2. Warning: This treatment may not be effective on a Friday afternoon.

3. I finished the overhaul of my first chapter that I was so absorbed with last week. I've sent it off to my critique group, and we'll see if they agree that it's looking good.

4. Returning to my revision where I left off wasn't as easy to get sucked into. But this week was kind of distracting.

5. If I were doing NaNoWriMo, I'd probably be really behind. Except that if I were doing NaNo, that in itself would keep me from falling behind.

6. It's Friday afternoon.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund endured a really terrible movie to bring us Better Writing Through Birdemic: "Somewhere into the opening credits, which drag on and on and on and on, it hit me: people can learn some writing lessons from watching this movie mocked by the RiffTrax crew (or by watching old episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000). The things they make fun of are the things writers shouldn't do."

November 6, 2012

Cloud Atlas, the Book and the Movie

The most striking thing about David Mitchell's CLOUD ATLAS is that it doesn't behave the way a story is supposed to. Normally when you read a novel, within a few pages you start to get a sense of what the story is. You understand why you're following the main character, and you can probably guess at the general sort of arc the story will take. If this information isn't apparent within a few pages, you'll certainly have a handle on it within a few chapters.

CLOUD ATLAS isn't like that. I was a quarter through the book and still unclear who these characters were and why I was reading about them. But this experience wasn't frustrating, because the problem wasn't a fault with the writing but rather a deliberately mysterious structure that Mitchell was building and playing with. I found this book fascinating, fun, and only rarely boring (the first 25 pages in particular are a bit of a difficult slog but well worth pushing through).

If you're willing to dive into CLOUD ATLAS based on that description alone, and you've managed to avoid learning anything else about the book, I suggest that you stop reading this review now and give the book a try. I enjoyed my relatively uncontaminated reading experience.

On the other hand, if you're not likely to pick up the book without some idea of what you're getting into, read on for an explanation that will still leave you with plenty of surprises.