September 25, 2013


It's been a hectic month for me and my novel. Over the course of the past couple weeks, I read my entire manuscript aloud to my incredible panel of in-house consultants. As you might deduce, this means that I successfully wrestled my novel into a state where it was fit to be read in its entirety, so yay for that. It was a near thing, with a schedule that involved revising the end on the same day that I read aloud the end. All that rush means the fact of completion hasn't quite sunk in yet. And I don't even want to toss around the word "finished," because, well, yes, my manuscript still needs more work.

The best thing about reading my entire manuscript aloud to my familial literary advisory board is that it gave me the chance to hear how the words sound and the story flows, to gauge an audience's reactions in real time, and to get detailed feedback from readers on a chapter-by-chapter basis.

The worst thing about it is of course all those same things, because I learned which parts I have problems with myself, and even more crucially, what elements didn't work for other people. This knowledge is incredibly valuable and also a bit discouraging. I wanted to think that after a few small tweaks, my manuscript would be ready to go out into the world, but now I realize that more substantial work is going to be required.

I haven't yet figured out how much further revision is in store. At the moment, I'm on the vacation that served as a powerful deadline for the work I've just completed. The time away is giving me a chance to step back from the story and contemplate how I'll approach the problems when I return. I'll be back next week with more thoughts, but for now, I'm enjoying some down time.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Eleanor Henderson writes in Poets & Writers about The Beauty of Backstory: "The world would be a bland place without backstory, and yet the story doesn't stop there. There are a thousand and one ways to use backstory in fiction--just as many ways as there are to manipulate time."

September 12, 2013

The Infinite Tides

The main character of THE INFINITE TIDES by Christian Kiefer is an astronaut and engineer who attains his life's goal when he boards the International Space Station, where he will install and test a component that he designed. But during Keith's months-long mission, a tragedy strikes his family back home. When he is finally able to return to Earth, he's confronted with an empty shell of his old life. Keith longs to be back in orbit, where he was fully occupied with his work and the happiest he'd ever been. Instead he's aimless for the first time, and what's left of his life keeps unraveling further.

As you might expect, this is a fairly depressing story overall, but it's full of moments that are amusing and even hilarious. Keith isn't great at interacting with people and would prefer to stay out of everyone else's way, but he meets several neighbors who drag him into their own complicated lives. The characters are all well developed and fascinating, especially Keith. I really felt for him as he struggles with grief and anger and a desire to lose himself again in his love of numbers, the only things that make sense.

This is a character-focused novel in which not a lot happens, but that's by design. Christian Kiefer was one of the staff members at the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, where I had the opportunity to meet him and hear him talk about his book. He described it this way (paraphrased from my notes): "It's about a man living in a cul de sac, and almost the whole book takes place in his empty house in an unfinished neighborhood, or in Starbucks. Previously he was orbiting Earth, going in circles. Every day is the same, like in the movie Groundhog Day. He doesn't know what to do with himself every day. But other things are poking in, more and more as the story goes along, and by the end he is longing for the days when he had nothing to do."

THE INFINITE TIDES shares several elements with SHINE SHINE SHINE by Lydia Netzer, which I raved about last year, though the two are very different in tone. I asked Kiefer if he'd read Netzer's novel, and he said the two of them had become friends and critique partners because of their books. I love the idea of two novelists I admire looking over each other's work. THE INFINITE TIDES is another strong recommendation, and Kiefer is another writer I can't wait to read more from.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Juliette Wade examines how to weigh the quality of feedback based on different reader reactions: "I don't know about everyone, but I am most likely to take advice when it comes from someone who obviously understands what I'm trying to do. A person who 'gets it' is the one who can sense the vision of what I'm trying to achieve -- and their vision matches pretty well with mine. In this case I'm going to be very careful before I reject anything they say, because they and I are working toward the same goal."

September 3, 2013

Starting Ray Bradbury

The next author from my START HERE project is Ray Bradbury. I followed the reading pathway created by Cassandra Neace, consisting of two new-to-me books and one reread:

THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES is made up of short stories (most originally published separately) connected by short vignettes. Together these form a novel-ish work with Mars as the main character and the evolving relationship of humans to the planet as the central story arc. I find the idea of colonizing Mars intriguing, and though Bradbury's take on it isn't a realistic one, I was fascinated by the issues and possibilities explored in this collection.

The Mars of THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES is already occupied before humans arrive. Circumstances allow the book to include several first contact stories that play out in very different ways, all engrossing. I enjoyed how often I had no idea what was going to happen next. While a few of the stories in the collection didn't appeal to me (these happen to mostly appear toward the end), the rest were gripping and often beautiful. I definitely recommend this book to any science fiction fan who hasn't read it.

THE ILLUSTRATED MAN is a strong collection of short fiction with various subjects and settings. There's a brief framing device involving a tattooed (illustrated) man, but it's far less interesting than the stories themselves. The collection includes some additional Martian Chronicles and other tales of space travel. Several stories are focused on families. Many are disturbing.

I liked almost all of the stories a great deal. Two stood out for me: "The Long Rain" is about a group of men lost on Venus, where it never stops raining. I could feel the visceral horror of the constant deluge. "Zero Hour" is an unsettling story about the way adults ignore children at play.

→ In FAHRENHEIT 451, society has transformed to a point where houses are fireproof and ideas are dangerous. The job of firemen is now to burn forbidden books. The story revolves around one fireman who starts having doubts about the nature of his work. When I read THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES and THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, I was interested to spot stories in both collections that involve the banning and burning of imaginative books, anticipating the later novel.

I originally read FAHRENHEIT 451 as a kid, and as far as I can remember, I liked it then. Reading the novel again, I was somewhat bored and didn't find it nearly as compelling as the short story collections. The characters aren't that fully developed, and the focus is more on the philosophical nature of the ideas than on the construction of a convincing situation. It wasn't until near the end that I started to feel at all invested in the outcome of the events.

In reflecting on my reaction to FAHRENHEIT 451, I realized that none of the Bradbury I read is especially strong in the character department. In all of these books, the scenarios and the plots are what stand out, as well as his wonderful way with language. This combination of strengths and weaknesses work better in the short stories, since I'm willing to tolerate a lack of characterization if I'm only spending a few pages with a character rather than an entire novel.

It is also worth noting that these three books are among Bradbury's earliest published work. He went on writing for another half century. Aside from some scattered stories, I think the only other Bradbury I've read is DANDELION WINE, a non-science fictional work based on Bradbury's childhood in small-town Illinois. I would like to read more.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Wallace Yovetich writes at Book Riot In Praise of Reading Slowly: "It means more to me than just the story between the covers because it holds the story of that entire year of my life. When I see it now on my shelf I am taken back in time -- I remember the relationship that started that fall as I started the book, that faltered as many times as I put the book down, and that was picking up speed again as I picked up speed in the reading."