April 27, 2011

Fact Meets Fiction in The Report

I read THE REPORT by Jessica Francis Kane in two days, unusually quickly for me. I had some other things I was supposed to be doing during those two days, but once I began reading this book, I had to neglect everything else in order to get to the end of the story.

THE REPORT is a mystery, in a way. Early in the novel, a tragedy takes place. It's a real event that occurred during World War II: As residents in a London neighborhood entered a Tube station air raid shelter, a sudden crush of bodies led to 173 deaths. Kane learned of the incident when she came across the report by the magistrate who led the investigative inquiry. That report leaves many questions unresolved, and there's never been a complete explanation of what happened that evening, so Kane was inspired to write a work of fiction to offer some answers, as she discusses in this Beyond the Margins interview.

The resulting novel has two storylines. In one, Kane's cast of fictional characters, plus a fictionalized version of the real magistrate, get caught up in the tragedy and its immediate aftermath. In the other, several characters consider the event from a distance of thirty years. The two timelines are carefully woven together in a way that gradually exposes the secrets of the plot. Since I'm figuring out the revealing of secrets in my own novel, I appreciated reading an effective example of this.

If you like historical fiction, unusual narrative structure, and mostly just a strong, compelling story, pick up a copy of THE REPORT.

I'd like to hear about other novels that explore historical mysteries (I've read Josephine Tey's THE DAUGHTER OF TIME, a notable example), or historical fiction that focuses on a specific event (rather than simply taking place during a particular era). Any suggestions?

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Colson Whitehead pontificates on The Blessed Distraction of Technology: "I used to think that I was the only one hunched over a keyboard in soiled pajamas, rummaging through the catalogue of my failures and intermittently weeping. Now, I open Twitter and see that I am not alone." (Thanks, The Millions!)

→ A. Victoria Mixon and Roz Morris are Talking Revision: "A lot of writers don't realise how much a manuscript can change in the editing stages. How completely a first draft has to be pulled apart, twisted and tested. I think for most writers the intensive creative work happens after the first draft and when they're into revisions."

April 19, 2011

Happy Release Day to Hannah Moskowitz!

Congratulations to Hannah Moskowitz on the release of INVINCIBLE SUMMER! I read the book as an e-galley last month and wrote about how much I enjoyed this story of families and summers. It was exciting to see the book in physical form when my copy arrived in the mail.

Hannah has an entertaining blog, and as far as I can tell, she's a little bit superhuman.

April 14, 2011

Just 10 Minutes

Recently I mentioned how easily distracted I am. Also, I like ice cream. Was that a squirrel?

I frequently find it a struggle to start writing and stay writing. One very effective, very stupid technique I use to stay focused is a timer set for a small amount of time, like 10 or 15 minutes. While that timer is counting down, I'm not allowed to do anything except write. No switching to a window other than the document I'm typing in. No getting up from my desk. Just writing.

A timer isn't any kind of deterrent, and there's no good reason that a countdown should overpower my usual distractibility, but it works. Every time, my silly little brain falls for the trick of "Oh, come on, you can do it for just 10 minutes!" While the timer runs, I write and rarely try to do anything else, and if my attention does stray, I remember and switch back into writing. At the beep, I'm often on a roll and immediately reset the timer, or I'll take my brief earned break and then quickly return to writing. Getting started is always the hardest part.

Earlier this week, psychologist David Rasch spoke to my writing club about writer's block and procrastination. Everything he talked about was painfully familiar. He discussed a number of possible causes of and cures for avoiding writing, and it was a great presentation. His overall message was one I already know too well: One way or the other, you just have to make yourself write.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Beyond the Margins contributor Kathy Crowley interviews Steve Almond and Jane Roper on humor: "So it's not so much about the word or object itself, but how it’s used. A subtly incongruous word or detail, carefully placed, can make all the difference. The only exception is the word 'underpants,' which is funny no matter what."

April 12, 2011

Actual Poetry

It's National Poetry Month, so this is a good time for me to write about the poetry collection I read a couple of months ago. (See, I wasn't procrastinating. I had a thematic plan!)

I read ACTUAL AIR by David Berman because of a recommendation in the poetry episode of the Bookrageous podcast. Out of all the books discussed in that episode, this sounded like one most likely to suit my tastes.

Many of the poems in the collection are in fact just the sort I enjoy reading. I was surprised that about the same number didn't appeal to me much at all. I'm sure that all of the poems are as well-crafted as the ones I liked most, but I have fairly specific tastes when it comes to poetry.

In general, I prefer poems that present a scene or small story I can visualize and comprehend. I want to be able to have some confidence that I'm interpreting the poem in roughly the way the poet meant. I don't tend to like poetry that (as far as I can discern) is more about the sound of the words than the meaning, or that leaves me feeling I have little hope of imagining the same explanation as the poet.

"The Charm Of 5:30" is my favorite poem in ACTUAL AIR. It's a lovely example of a scene that evokes specific feelings and concrete (if sometimes odd) images of what's happening. The opening line, "It's too nice a day to read a novel set in England," is the type of funny but completely relatable thought that appears frequently in this collection.

The long poem "Self-Portrait at 28" (some minor errors in this transcription) has many wonderful bits, including another concept I can identify with:

You see there is a window by my desk
I stare out when I'm stuck,
though the outdoors has rarely inspired me to write
and I don't know why I keep staring at it.

By contrast, I'm baffled by a poem like "Cassette County". I do enjoy the rhythm and sense of some lines, but I don't know what to make of the whole.

The images and ideas in "World: Series" are much more accessible for me. "The Moon" is another one I appreciate, and like many of Berman's poems, it's quite funny. "Democratic Vistas" is about writing, and I'll close with an excerpt from that poem:

In support of the novel, I must say it was designed well. The scenes
were like rowhouses. They had common sidewalks, through which one
could hear the faint voices and footsteps of what was to come.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Livia Blackburne draws on her background in recruiting subjects for psychology studies in her series, An Experimental Psychologist's Take on Beta Reading.

→ Author Chris Bohjalian shares a true story of reviews, revenge, and inspiration. (Thanks, The Millions!)

April 8, 2011

Thinking (or Overthinking) About Short Stories

The other day, while experiencing a standard writerly episode of doubt and frustration, I thought that maybe what I ought to do is try to get a short story published. The first motivation behind this thought is that novels take a damn long time to write and then to publish, and I'm impatient and human and want some external validation sooner than that. This motivation becomes more or less urgent depending on my mood, but in general I can basically get over it.

The other reason I've considered publishing a short story is that I feel awkward (again, with fluctuating intensity) about dispensing advice for fiction writers when I can't yet point to any examples of my fiction out there in the world. Why should anyone pay attention to what I have to say about fiction if they can't evaluate my fiction for themselves?

This worry is one of the many situations where, once I examine it, I realize I'm holding myself to higher standards than I apply to other people. The fact is, I read lots of blogs by writers, and I follow these people because I like what they have to say about writing, but I mostly haven't read their fiction, whether it's available or not. So I should potentially just get over this reason, too.

I'm not really a short story writer, and I think more importantly, I'm not a short story reader. Sure, I've read many short stories in my life, very often in the context of a literature or writing class. I have four short fiction anthologies here on my shelf, all of which I used in classes. Short stories are a great form, and given infinite time, I'd read a lot more of them. But since I can't read everything, I usually choose to spend hundreds of pages with one story rather than glimpsing different lives for a dozen pages each.

I especially never read literary journals or any other sort of print or online publication that I would submit to if I was trying to publish a short story. I'm sure there's excellent work in these places, but again, it's a matter of my reading priorities and habits. I don't think it makes a lot of sense to ask a publication to consider my work if I have no history of reading and supporting them. Perhaps this is an unrealistic standard again, but at least in this case, I'd like to apply it to everyone, not just myself.

I find this a compelling enough reason to ignore my impulse to get some short fiction published. Conveniently, this means I don't have to further analyze whether it would be worth taking the time away from my novel in order to write and submit these theoretical short stories.

After figuring out all this, it occurred to me that if my biggest motivation is to offer a sample of my work to my blog readers, I could simply post a story on my own site. I do have a story I wrote two years ago for a class that's a decent example of my writing. It needs some amount of revision, and since I haven't even looked at it in two years, I don't know what that amount is, but I think I could polish it up without letting this project become too much of a distraction from the novel.

You may now commence anticipation of the release of a new short story by Lisa Eckstein, forthcoming this spring from lisaeckstein.com.

April 5, 2011

Revision and Distraction

It's been a month since I last posted about the revision I'm doing, and lately this blog has been a lot more reading than writing and revising. I assure you that I am still revising, though what with this and that and cons and taxes and visitors and sunshine and procrastination, I didn't make as much progress in March as I might have without distractions.

This month promises to have its own share of distractions. Let's be honest: so does every month. And let's be really honest: I do have an unfortunate tendency to allow distractions to keep me from writing for longer than they warrant. For example, say on Tuesday I legitimately need to take the day off from writing to do a Thing. I'll convince myself that on Monday I need to spend time preparing for the Thing, and anyway it's not that productive to get back into the story after the weekend just for one day, so I'd better take Monday off. And then on Wednesday I'll need time to catch up on other stuff and recover from the (not-at-all-arduous) Thing, so I don't get around to writing. And now the week is shot, so maybe I'll just finish reading that book and start fresh with writing on Monday.

This is, of course, an example of hyperbole and not in any way an accurate portrayal of my life. Not in any way.

And speaking of distraction, this isn't even what this post was supposed to be about. What I wanted to say is that the revision is coming along. To my great relief, I've discovered that I wasn't being delusional in thinking my rate of progress would pick up after the first chapter. I've now settled into a revision speed that I can live with, and I can count my daily progress in pages rather than paragraphs.

The storyline I'm working on is changing more significantly than the other two, which is one of several reasons that I wanted to do it first. This means I'm doing a lot of new writing of scenes that didn't exist before or are very different than in the last draft, but there are also big chunks that are staying relatively intact. So I really am revising, not writing the whole novel from scratch again. Phew!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Derek Sivers reproduces the charts from a Kurt Vonnegut lecture comparing fictional story arcs to real life: "People have been hearing fantastic stories since time began. The problem is, they think life is supposed to be like the stories." (Thanks, GalleyCat!)

→ MobyLives discusses a new paperback format being touted as the cutting edge of analog books. (Thanks, Conversational Reading!)

April 2, 2011

April Reading Plan

Oh boy, I completed all my March reads, so I have an entirely new list for April!

FEED by Mira Grant - I've encountered a few different people talking about this book, and it came up a couple of times at FOGcon. Not everything I've heard has been positive, but I was intrigued enough by the mixed reviews to pick up a copy. It's about a zombie attack and bloggers, so the title is a clever pun on both these topics (RSS feed, see?).

THE FATES WILL FIND THEIR WAY by Hannah Pittard - This novel is about a teen girl who disappears and the possible futures imagined for her by the classmates she leaves behind. I've come across several positive reviews, but the thing that convinced me to read it is an odd synchronicity: If you read my review (or any other) of Eleanor Brown's THE WEIRD SISTERS, you'll recall that it's written in the unusual first-person plural point of view. Well, so is THE FATES WILL FIND THEIR WAY, and they were both released at the beginning of this year. What are the odds?

THE INTUITIONIST by Colson Whitehead - I heard Whitehead interviewed about his more recent novel, SAG HARBOR, and thought it sounded pretty good. Before I got around to reading that book, I received a recommendation that made me more interested in this one. It involves (as I understand it) elevator inspectors in an alternate version of New York City, where there's a conflict between inspectors who use intuition and those who use more traditional methods.

GREEN MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - Since I finally finished RED MARS, it's on to the next installment of this trilogy about the colonization of Mars. We'll see how long it takes me to read this one.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Lit Drift, debut novelist Lavinia Ludlow writes candidly about the experience of working with an editor in The Five Stages of Editing.

April 1, 2011

March Reading Recap

I may not have accomplished many of the other things I planned to in March, but at least I finished all the books I listed at the beginning of the month. No fooling!

RED MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson - It took me three months to get through this book, reading on and off, bouncing from an ebook to a paperback and back again. It's a big, full novel, and I'm going to have to write more about it later, but the short version is that I was blown away by the fascinating story, even though at times I set it aside for a while. I thought I might want a break from life on Mars after this, but I think I'm going to have to start on the second volume of the trilogy right away.

INVINCIBLE SUMMER by Hannah Moskowitz - I blogged about this novel yesterday. Great YA about summertime, families, love, and lust.

THREE BAGS FULL by Leonie Swann - I thought this was going to be a hilarious story about a flock of sheep trying to solve the murder of their shepherd. It is that, but the book also gets much darker than I was expecting. When I described the book to someone, they asked if it was for kids, and the answer is a definitive "no". But if you're prepared for grownup topics and like trying to figure out a story before the characters do, this is a great and still mostly fun read.

THE LOVER'S DICTIONARY by David Levithan - A novel about a relationship presented as a series of dictionary entries. Each page of the book contains a word accompanied by a thought or scene that the narrator feels defines that word. The entries appear in alphabetical order, but this really is a novel, meant to be read from beginning to end. The story progresses non-linearly but deliberately, presenting the rise and fall of the romance between the unnamed characters. It's a powerful little book. This excerpt is a chunk from the middle of the book (the letter I), and this Twitter account offers more definitions in the style of the novel.

THE REPORT by Jessica Francis Kane - I blame this book for the fact that I didn't get anything done earlier this week. Once I'd started, I just had to find out where the story was heading. Kane takes a real-life mystery that was never entirely solved -- on an evening in 1943, how were 173 people crushed to death entering a London bomb shelter? -- and creates a story to explain the events of that night. The sad tale, with a complex cast of imagined characters, unfolds beautifully.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kathy Crowley, guest blogging at A Brain Scientist's Take on Writing, considers what happens to our work when we put it in The Drawer: "Maybe it's time to rehabilitate the drawer, start thinking of it as an active rather than passive part of the process. Not a sign of stalling out or hitting a dead end, but instead its own stage -- a stage that happens to look very different from the writing/editing/revising stages."