February 27, 2013

Would I Like My Own Novel?

I'm reading a novel that I'm not enjoying as much as I'd hoped, and one of my complaints falls into the category of "wanting to read a different story than the author chose to write." I consider this a less valid or useful type of criticism than commenting on, for example, problems with pacing or believability, but it's a common reason that readers fail to connect with a book.

In this case, the story starts with a big disaster, and my complaint is that so far I haven't learned much about how the general public experienced the disaster or how the city is coping with the event. The reason I don't know these things is that the story is about one specific person and the unusual things that happen to him as a result of the disaster. It's not a flaw that the other stuff is backgrounded, because that's not the point of the story, but unfortunately, I'm feeling like I'd rather be reading about the other stuff than about what the author chose to focus on.

Even more unfortunately, as I was thinking about this problem I'm having with the book I'm reading, I realized that what I have described is exactly the problem a reader could have with the book I'm writing. How does the description of my novel start? "When an earthquake devastates the Bay Area." How much does my novel focus on the disaster scenario of the earthquake? Not a whole lot. The protagonist of that other book at least faces obstacles that originate in the disaster, whereas my characters mainly ignore the earthquake and whine about their family dysfunction.

Would I find my own novel supremely irritating? This isn't the first time I've been gripped by this fear. These are some reactions I've had lately to novels I encountered descriptions of and decided not to read: "Oh, it's about someone going home to see their parents, so of course they have to uncover some deep dark secret." "Ugh, it's misery heaped on misery. That sounds way too depressing." If you're not sure why I'm feeling like a big hypocrite, take another look at the description of my novel.

One thing that frequently annoys me in stories is when a problem could be easily solved if people would simply communicate. I'm one of those people likely to yell at the TV, "Just tell them what's going on!" And yet I've written a novel with a plot that revolves around people keeping secrets from each other, lying, misunderstanding, and repeatedly failing to divulge the crucial piece of information that would make everything okay. I'm in the middle of a bit right now that's all about Character A believing that Character B agreed to something that B didn't understand he was agreeing to. Just communicate better!

I would like to think that in all cases I've sidestepped these peeves and written something that transcends the potential flaws. I would like to think that as a reader, I would enjoy my own novel. But sometimes I'm afraid that I'm writing a story I couldn't stand to read.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ On the Office of Letters and Light blog, Susan Bell sings the praises of the revision stage: "Editing is not the clean-up, it's the meal. Look forward to it, because when you edit, the discovery of problems is cause for celebration (where else in life is that so?). Rejoice each time you find a sentence or character or chapter that doesn't work, because if you don't find a flaw, you can't fix it."

February 19, 2013

Any Day Now

ANY DAY NOW is a novel by Terry Bisson, who will be one of the honored guests at next month's FOGcon.

At its core, this is a coming-of-age story about living in a particular time and a particular subculture. Clay grows up in 1950s Kentucky and develops an interest in the beat poets. After a short attempt at college, he moves to New York City, where he briefly encounters Allen Ginsberg and Andy Warhol. He does a bit of demonstrating against the Vietnam War, but it's Clay's friends who are more immersed in the various youth movements of the 1960s. Eventually Clay winds up living in a hippie commune in the southwest. The political events and cultural changes of this tumultuous period of U.S. history unfold in the background of the story, occasionally coming to the front as they impact Clay's life and friendships.

The writing style in this novel appealed to me. It's straightforward, with simple sentences and lots of dialogue. Some might imagine this indicates a lack of sophistication, but they would be mistaken. Bisson has masterfully crafted every paragraph.

There's another major thing to mention about ANY DAY NOW, but I've been avoiding it so far because I think it's better to encounter it unexpectedly. If what I've said already is enough to interest you in this novel, then stop reading this review and go pick up the book. If you're not convinced yet and are willing to forgo the surprise, then keep going.

Everything I've described so far is accurate, and for about the first third of the book, it really is just a story of a young man's life. The occasional references to current events are exactly what you'd expect from anything set during this time, especially once Clay and his friends start becoming politically active. The big spoiler is that the current events in the story start to become disconnected from history as we know it. This may have started with more subtlety than I had the knowledge to notice, but it soon becomes clear to any reader that Clay's world is taking a different historical path than our own. It's fascinating to see what happens as a result of the changes. It's also fascinating that even as this novel evolves into a different genre than it started as, it remains primarily a personal story about the life of one young man.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Chuck Wendig covers 25 Things You Should Know About Narrative Point-Of-View: "How intimate is the reader with the story, the setting, the characters? Once we begin to explode out the multiple modes of POV (objective, subjective, omniscient, etc.) it relates to how intimate the reader gets to be -- is she kept close but privy to the confidence of only one character? Is the reader allowed to be all up in the satiny guts of every character in the room?" (Thanks, Book Riot!)

February 13, 2013

Where I'm At

I heard back from Lit Camp, the juried writing conference I applied to in December. I wasn't accepted, but I did get a place on the wait list. That means if some accepted writers have to turn down their spots, I may get to attend after all. I'll know within a few weeks. It also means that my writing isn't so shabby. Making the wait list is a nice bit of recognition, even if it's not the great news I was hoping for.

I can still look forward to attending FOGcon, which is less than a month away. This year I'm going to be moderating two panels, something I've never done before. One panel is about dystopias, and the other will be a discussion of the book SLOW RIVER by Nicola Griffith. I'm reading it now, and so far it's an exciting story about a woman who is forced to go into hiding and change her identity. It's also about wastewater treatment facilities, which I think is pretty cool.

Revision has been coming along nicely since the start of the year. I'm sure I've said this too many times, but the end is in sight. At this point I've shattered my narrator's life, and now I get to shake up all the pieces and see how they come back together. Fun times.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Benjamin Nugent ponders the Upside of Distraction: "I tried to make writing my only god, and it sickened my work, for a while. The condition endemic to my generation, attention deficit disorder, gave way to its insidious Victorian foil: monomania." (Thanks, The Millions!)

February 11, 2013

World War Z

I like zombie stories, but I like them in a specific way. I'm not into monsters in general, and I don't especially care about action sequences in which humans fight the zombie horde. My interest in zombies is all about my fascination with and terror of epidemic diseases.

From my perspective, a good zombie story focuses on the science of how the zombie disease spreads and the sociology of how humanity responds. Mira Grant's NEWSFLESH trilogy pays a lot of attention to these topics, and that's why I was absorbed by the story despite my complaints about the writing. ZONE ONE by Colson Whitehead doesn't have much science in it, but it's heavy on the societal response, so I found it a satisfying read.

As soon as I started reading WORLD WAR Z by Max Brooks, I could tell it was going to be exactly what I wanted from a zombie story. I suppose there were plenty of tense action scenes in which people fled from zombies or armies faced down the approaching horde. But this book is almost all epidemiology and sociology. It starts with a physician's account of a local Patient Zero and continues with stories of how different governments around the world react to the growing threat.

The novel, which is subtitled "An Oral History of the Zombie War," is presented as an organized collection of transcribed oral accounts chronicling the epidemic and war. Because of this format, the story doesn't have any main or frequently recurring characters, other than the almost invisible reporter who conducts the interviews. Writing a novel in which each character only appears for five or so pages is a major dramatic challenge, but Brooks pulls it off well. Every speaker has a strong, specific voice that's perfect for their background, and each detailed experience comes at the right time to answer the reader's questions about what happens next.

Brooks clearly did substantial research for this book and spent a lot of time imagining how events might play out. The story is packed with both explicit and subtle examples of what the zombie war does to society. The political ramifications are huge, leading to changes in the world's map and balance of power. Most of these repercussions never would have occurred to me, but it all feels utterly believable.

WORLD WAR Z is a gripping read and a well-considered, plausible look at how a disease spreads and the effect it has on the world. I highly recommend it.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ My blog buddy Christopher Gronlund, a regular commenter here, has launched a new podcast with fellow writer Shawn Kupfer. The first episode of Men in Gorilla Suits is great and is all about growing up geeky. (Future episodes may have a writing focus.)

February 6, 2013

Getting Short

Inspired partly by Books on the Nightstand's Year of the Short Story, I've been reading more short fiction lately. (As it happens, this month's read-along story is "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried" by Amy Hempel, which I've loved since high school and would recommend to everyone.)

Reading short stories from various authors and genres is an interesting and useful experience, but I just can't get into short stories the way I do novels. Maybe that's an obvious statement, because there simply isn't as much there to get into. But what I mean is that usually I don't find the short story length satisfying. Either the few pages of the story leave me wishing I could read a longer work focusing on those characters, or there's not enough there to make me care very much.

I know I have read short stories that are rich and well-crafted enough to feel like the perfect length -- "In the Cemetery...", for example, and probably many of the other frequently anthologized stories I read in classes. But it's a rare thing. I remember that after first encountering the Hempel story in the anthology we were using for an English class, I got the collection it appears in, and every other story by the same author left me disappointed.

So I feel as though I'm somewhat lacking an appreciation of short stories as a literary form, which is one reason I've been reading them. And I'm definitely lacking the ability to write short myself. Lately I can't even think up a story idea that would be interesting and short, let alone execute it well.

When I was a teenager, I wrote short stories all the time, though in retrospect many of them were more like opening scenes of novels. I don't know if any of the stories were any good, but at least they must have been based on ideas. I guess now my brain is just too busy generating novel-related ideas to think about unconnected characters in unrelated situations.

Last time I posted about short stories was two years ago. In that post, I resolved to revise and share my most recent short story, from two years before that. I never did get around to that project. I still haven't even looked at the story (which continues to be my most recent). Maybe I'll get to this eventually, but I'm not promising anything this time.

I do promise to let you know about any especially good short fiction I read as the year goes on. And I'd love to get your short story recommendations.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Alan Levinovitz looks at the challenges of making books into movies: "And so, if we accept that books aren't formally superior to movies and adaptations aren't necessarily ruinous, a new question arises: what is it about the process of adapting a book that so often leads to disappointment?"