August 30, 2013

Inching Ever Closer

Great novel progress this month. Among the recent achievements:

→ Every morning, I continue to be quite enthusiastic about getting down to work. (Okay, nearly every morning.) It has really made this whole endless revision thing far less painful than it was becoming.

→ I've sprinkled in a bunch of new backstory that either makes all the character motivations much clearer or bogs the entire story down. Can't wait to find out which!

→ I spent a long time studying TV Tropes (warning: not safe for productivity) in an attempt to figure out whether a particular scene in my novel is inadvertently an uncomfortable cliche. Still not sure, and I went back and forth about a thousand times on whether to remove it. Keeping it in for now, with the recognition that whatever it is, it's no longer inadvertent.

→ Remember how at the Squaw Valley workshop I received a suggestion about adding a prologue to better set up my novel? I wrote one, and I think it's pretty cool, but it's possibly just as problematic an opening. I've sent it off to a few of my workshop buddies to get some reactions.

Again, so much obsessing over paragraph breaks.

That's all I have to report this time. I can almost see the end from here!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Jacket Justice, book cover designer Allison Strauss analyzes the covers of bestsellers and suggests improved designs.

August 26, 2013


Alissa Nutting's TAMPA gets to the point right away, and it's a disturbing point: The narrator, 26-year-old Celeste, is an eighth-grade English teacher who is sexually obsessed with 14-year-old boys. In fact, she becomes an eighth-grade teacher for that reason alone, and from the first day of school, all she thinks about is identifying a student who can fulfill her urges while not telling anyone. Celeste soon selects Jack as her target, and he proves himself a compliant participant in the extreme sex acts she craves.

This sounds horrific, and it's supposed to be. Nutting's book is an impressive, powerful, and fascinating work because the despicable character of Celeste is so skillfully rendered. The first-person narrative forces readers to experience Celeste's thoughts in all their specific and gruesome detail, and they only become more repulsive and shocking as the story unfolds.

The inevitable comparison is to LOLITA. It's been a while since I read Nabokov's novel, but my recollection is that Humbert Humbert is a pathetic character who I felt sorry for. The dirty trick of LOLITA is that I found myself sympathizing with, even rooting for, a character I considered morally objectionable. By contrast, Celeste never elicits any sympathy. From the first paragraph to the last, she is unrelentingly loathsome. She's a narcissist, she is intolerant of every flaw in the people around her, and she cares nothing for Jack's feelings except to the extent that they might pose a risk. The uncomfortable pleasure of TAMPA is being inside the mind of a character who keeps sinking to greater depths of awfulness.

For readers who can stomach the premise and the highly graphic descriptions of Celeste's actions and fantasies, I recommend TAMPA. Furthermore, all this depravity is packaged in a wonderful fuzzy hardcover. When I brought the book to the counter to buy it, the bookseller hadn't handled the copies yet, and she flinched as she touched it. I figured that was the desired effect. In a Daily Beast interview, though, Nutting said of the cover, "It's a security blanket. When the book gets too scary, you can close it and pet the cover until you're brave enough to open it and start reading again." Either way, the cover makes the book worth owning.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In the New York Times Magazine blog, B. C. Edwards advises, Don’t Write What You Know: "In fiction, the believable is infinitely more important than the actual. No matter how grounded and real something is, if it doesn't fit in the story, it can't live there."

August 15, 2013

Tenth of December

The stories in TENTH OF DECEMBER by George Saunders are wonderfully weird, compellingly readable, and darkly funny. Saunders creates idiosyncratic characters -- often people preoccupied with their rich fantasy lives -- and makes them relatable through a narrative style that's close and casual.

Every story has a strong voice (or several), and while there's a similarity to many of them, each is specific and carefully rendered. A representative excerpt: One of the main characters in "Puppy", a stressed mother trying to sell an unwanted dog, thinks to herself,

So what she'd love, for tonight? Was getting the pup sold, putting the kids to bed early, and then, Jimmy seeing her as all organized in terms of the pup, they could mess around and afterward lie there making plans, and he could do that laugh/snort thing in her hair again.

Why that laugh/snort meant so much to her she had no freaking idea. It was just one of the weird things about the Wonder That Was Her, ha ha ha.

There are some truly disturbing situations in most of these stories, and yet the voices, the details, and sometimes the banality assigned to the extreme scenarios makes this book a hilarious, rather than a horrific, read. If you've heard much about the collection already, you probably heard about "The Semplica Girl Diaries" (a somewhat shorter version of the story is available from The New Yorker). In that story, a father who wishes he had the resources to give his children a better life comes into some money. He uses his windfall to purchase a set of Semplica Girls, a high-status lawn ornament consisting of women from third-world countries who are strung up on a rack and hang there, alive, providing decoration. It's a barbaric and bizarre concept (Saunders has explained the idea came to him in a dream), but reading the story, I laughed often and felt the protagonist's joy when he presents this gift to his family.

As that premise suggests, Saunders's settings aren't always quite of our world. A couple of the stories feature personality-altering drugs with names like VerbaluceTM, and there are some other science fictional elements. But the plots generally revolve around normal human problems such as family conflict and the difficulty of fitting in. Financial status is a recurring theme, with several stories focusing on the gap between those who have money and those who don't. There are a lot of down-on-their-luck characters in this collection, typified by this passage from "My Chivalric Fiasco":

Based on my experience of life, which I have not exactly hit out of the park, I tend to agree with that thing about, If it's not broke, don't fix it. And would go even further, to: Even if it is broke, leave it alone, you'll probably make it worse.

A good ending is important in short fiction (well, in long fiction, too), and while some of these stories wrapped up perfectly, several of the endings left me unsatisfied. On the whole, though, I was impressed by every story in the collection, and I recommend this book.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Juliette Wade urges writers to ask the scariest question, Why should I care about this story?: "So what is it that makes a reader care? This is a tricky question, and not everyone will answer entirely the same way. However, the best place to look is at the protagonist and their goals, and what will happen if those goals are not met."

August 7, 2013

Reply Hazy Try Again

It's been mostly all novel, all the time around here, which is pretty great. The forecast for the rest of August is more of the same. I expect blogging will be on the light side for the next little while.

I know that my legions of loyal fans (which is to say, my parents) are clamoring for an answer to that fateful question, "When can we read your novel?" I know that my eternal response, "When it's done," is not a satisfying one. I know that this blog doesn't really need another post which revolves around my unwillingness to provide a more precise answer.

But here's what I'll say: Since getting back from the writing workshop, I have made progress like whoa. I am cranking through this revision pass. Notes on "todo" cards are turning into notes on "done" cards, or I'm realizing the ideas don't fit into the story after all. Pointless sentences are meeting their swift ends at the sharp point of my delete key. (Ditto awkward metaphors like that one.) This stack of manuscript pages is going down.

In other words, I'm busy with my other words. Outlook good.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At the Opinionator blog, Ben Yagoda tackles the question, Should We Write What We Know?: "In all cases, the idea is to investigate the subject till you can write about it with complete confidence and authority. Being a serial expert is actually one of the cool things about the very enterprise of writing: You learn 'em and leave 'em." (Thanks, Beyond the Margins!)

→ Rebecca Joines Schinsky at Book Riot makes The Case for Reading Bad Books: "Reading bad books and learning to identify what makes them bad has helped me identify what makes the good ones good."