December 22, 2010

How to Write a Novel About Novels

I've recently read two novels that on the surface have related premises. In HOW I BECAME A FAMOUS NOVELIST by Steve Hely, Pete sets out to write a best-selling novel by analyzing the New York Times Best Seller list and incorporating every element that seems to contribute to popularity. Improbably but hilariously, his scheme works, and THE TORNADO ASHES CLUB achieves success, though the consequences aren't quite what Pete had hoped for.

HOW TO BUY A LOVE OF READING by Tanya Egan Gibson also involves crafting a book to the tastes of an audience -- not the entire reading public, but a single teen girl. Carley's richy-rich parents believe there's something wrong with her because she's neither skinny nor Ivy League material. They decide that somehow the key to turning her life around is to make her into an enthusiastic reader by commissioning a novel written to her specifications (and in a single month -- November, as it happens).

Neither of these books were what I expected from the premise, and both were far better. When I first heard Hely discuss HOW I BECAME A FAMOUS NOVELIST on NPR, I laughed at the concept, but it also sounded a little too easy, a bit too one-joke to be worth actually reading. My humble apologies to Hely, and my sincere gratitude to the friend who pressed the book into my hands. (And also sorry to everyone within earshot who had to listen to me giggle my way through the book.)

The story of Pete's rise to fame is not, as I perhaps imagined, based on deciding that THE DA VINCI CODE sucks and quickly knocking out a better version. Pete finds that compared to thinking up an idea, "Writing a novel -- actually picking the words and filling in paragraphs -- is a tremendous pain in the ass." And he also discovers that to write a plot-focused page-turner requires even more effort, more than he wants to expend. Instead of worrying about intricate plotting, Pete writes a literary-type blockbuster full of engineered emotional moments, pointlessly flowery language, and a plot that makes no real sense. I appreciated that Hely went in this direction, because as much as I might enjoy mocking THE DA VINCI CODE, I am well aware that Dan Brown's books are popular not because they are so carefully written, but because they have plots stronger than I could ever hope to write.

But don't worry, this book still lets you enjoy mocking Dan Brown and everyone else who writes novels that sell better than yours. Pete's literary world is full of fictional but easily recognizable stand-ins like Tim Drew, whose works include THE DARWIN ENIGMA and THE BALTHAZAR TABLET. And Josh Holt Cready, "the precocious author of MANASSAS, a novel about a precocious author named Josh Holt Cready who retraces the steps of his ancestor who fought for the Union and died at Cold Harbor," if Schadenfoer is more your thing.

Throughout the book, we are treated to excerpts from Pete's novel and those of his competitors. These are spot-on parodies of their genres, and the humor isn't that the writing is bad (it's not) but that each excerpt is so exactly what that particular style is like. Kudos to Steve Hely for this difficult accomplishment, which must have taken a lot more work than Pete was willing to put in. If you have a familiarity with the kinds of books that sell these days and some skepticism over what makes the lists, read HOW I BECAME A FAMOUS NOVELIST and scare those around you with your outbursts of laughter.

HOW TO BUY A LOVE OF READING also spends some time on literary parody, with a bunch of discussion of meta-fiction and other amusing mentions such as "the just-released ANNIE GONE, a retelling of ANTIGONE through the eyes of a twelve-year-old trailer park denizen." But the book isn't really about the novel commission, even though that's what the title and description suggest. It's a story about a boy and a girl (with a secondary story about another boy and another girl), and it's about characters wrestling with issues that can't be fixed by literature. It's about the question of how many times people will forgive being hurt by the people they love.

Carley doesn't need a love of reading or anything that her parents can buy for her. She needs their attention, and if they'd only listen, they might find out she's a smart, caring person who isn't much interested in books because she has more pressing concerns. She'd really like to get some help for her best friend, because he has a serious substance abuse problem and equally inattentive parents.

I learned about this book when Tanya Egan Gibson came to my writing club to speak about world-building. I bought the book and read it because I liked her presentation, but I had no idea that I was going to find a story so much more complex and significant than the description reveals. I especially didn't suspect this novel to be practically what I would request if I were commissioning a novel. Sensitive but damaged male protagonist? Check. Kid characters? Check. Multiple perspectives, humor, texts within the text, narrative gimmicks, non-linearity... Some of these are even elements I didn't realize I'd include on my manifesto for a perfect novel. I'm not saying this is a perfect novel, but it does remarkably well at being exactly the sort of book I love to read. Since that mirrors the purported subject of the novel, I suspect Gibson of some sort of literary voodoo. If this is also the kind of book that enchants you, read HOW TO BUY A LOVE OF READING and fall in love.

December 15, 2010

What I've Been Doing Instead of Blogging

I haven't posted here in a couple of weeks. This is what I've been doing with myself in the meantime:

→ Staying off the internet for much of the day. I decided to disable my computer's wireless connection before bed each night and not turn it on until finishing the day's writing work. To my surprise, most days I haven't been particularly eager to get back online, and after writing, I move on to reading, housework, etc without stopping to look at Twitter, Facebook, and Google Reader. As a result, I've been more productive than usual in the non-internet world. As another result, I've only had time for "essential" online interactions, and I've regretted missing out on my normal levels of consumption and engagement. Such are the problems of our modern world (or not).

→ Engaging repeatedly in pointless turmoil that goes like this: I think of a brilliant blog post I'll write later that day and compose a few sentences in my head. I run out of time in the day for writing a blog post, due to accomplishing so many other productive tasks (or not). I tell myself I'll write the post the next day. The next day, I have lost all enthusiasm for the topic but have another brilliant idea. The cycle repeats. I do not write any blog post at all. I feel guilty about neglecting my blog and letting down my devoted readers. I berate myself for the narcissism of imagining that my readers, however devoted, are actually sitting around thinking about how I have let them down. I feel guilty about my narcissism. I feel narcissistic for posting about my guilt. I marvel at the fact that I do not yet have any posts tagged "guilt".

→ Thinking about patterns, habits, and cycles, both in my own life and in the lives of my characters. Despite my real or imagined narcissism, I far prefer to analyze these as they apply to my characters.

→ Making excellent progress on getting the story of my novel right by writing a synopsis. I'm sure this advice appears many places, but I know that in REVISION & SELF-EDITING by James Scott Bell, he recommends drafting a synopsis (or several) as a way to assess a story before revising. I've been writing what I expect will be about a 15-page document that lays out the plot of my novel -- not the plot as it exists, but as it should be. This has been a slow, extremely useful process that is forcing me to come up with answers to all the questions like "How did that result in him believing that?" and "Why wouldn't she have told him that years ago?" Once I'm done with the synopsis, the idea is that I'll know what I need to change in the next draft, and I'll have some confidence that those things won't need to be changed again. I keep feeling like it sure would have saved a lot of time if I had simply created this synopsis before ever writing the book in the first place, but I know I wouldn't have come up with most of this stuff without writing it a couple of times. It would be awfully nice to develop the skill of doing it in the other order, though.

→ Smiling at my reorganized book collection every time I walk down the hall.

→ Rewarding myself for getting rid of 150 books by -- yes, you guessed it! -- buying more books.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Paul Collins at Slate studies a Victorian writing guide and observes what the first how-to book for fiction can still tell us: "[Sherwin] Cody tells would-be Victorian writers to show and don't tell ('To say your heroine was proud and defiant is not half so effective as saying she tossed her head and stamped her foot'), to kill their darlings ('sacrifice absolutely everything of that sort'), and write what they know." (Thanks, Dick!)

→ Parker Peevyhouse at The Spectacle puzzles over When Writers Don’t Read: "Reading a chapter of someone else's book is like taking a shot of espresso -- it keeps me going. It puts me in the right frame of mind, like the author is sitting there with me waiting for me to jump in with my own story."

December 1, 2010

Sorting Out My Book Collection

Unsurprisingly, I own a lot of books. My collection isn't enormous, but it's large enough to present a storage problem. A growing storage problem, since a healthy book collection never stops growing.

At some point in the past, I had an appropriate number of shelves for the number of books, and the books were arranged on the shelves in a reasonable fashion. That point was perhaps four or five years ago. All books acquired since then ended up stacked in empty spaces at the ends of shelves, or on the floor, or on other nearby surfaces. I'd been meaning to do something about this problem for, well, four or five years.

This November, I didn't manage to write a novel, but NaNoWriMo did give me the motivation to finally reorganize my books. The First Annual Great NaNoWriMo Book Drive presented an opportunity to donate books I no longer wanted to Better World Books in support of reading and writing education. A chance to do good AND let someone else deal with my unwanted books? Count me in! (The book drive continues until December 15, so if you're also looking for a responsible way to get rid of books, I can help connect you with a bookdriver in your area.)

My local bookdriver-in-chief, The Book Roadie (aka Ealasaid Haas) recently posted a three-part series about organizing her library. My collection is smaller, so I didn't have to think as much about classification, but I roughly followed Ealasaid's technique for sorting and reshelving.