October 29, 2013

Short Story Collections

During the earlier part of this year, I had a new habit of reading short stories most mornings while I ate breakfast. In April I posted about my favorites among the stories I'd read to that point. I was planning to make this a recurring quarterly feature.

As often happens with habits, this one fell by the wayside not long after when I decided that the morning short story reading didn't fit well into my schedule. I have been continuing to read a decent amount of short fiction this year, though, mostly in the form of recently published story collections.

→ The stories in Jessica Francis Kane's collection, THIS CLOSE, are about contemporary people in unexceptional settings, and they are fascinating. I aspire to write stories like this. Many of them have a quality I find most impressive and elusive: no huge event takes place, and yet the interactions of the characters as they deal with small issues make for a gripping read.

The first two stories in the collection, "Lucky Boy" and "American Lawn", especially demonstrate this feat. Both are about characters who find themselves trapped in awkward relationships with people who aren't quite friends. Their uncertainty over how to act is easily identifiable as a general human condition, but the stories are specific and carefully drawn.

Later stories are just as good but have at their core something bigger, such as death or a failing marriage. Of these, "Next In Line" stuck with me most. It's beautiful, but it's a heartbreaker.

I recommend this collection to anyone looking for literary short fiction that succeeds in telling a good story. I previously read Kane's debut novel, THE REPORT, and raved about it.

HALF AS HAPPY by Gregory Spatz is another collection focusing on familiar emotions and relationships between people. The stories tend toward the introspective, with many examples of characters mulling over their lives and past events and where they went wrong. This is the kind of story that tends to be depressing, but there were also great moments of humor throughout.

As with any collection, I liked some stories better than others. My favorites were the first and last in the book. "Any Landlord's Dream" is about a marriage faltering after a loss. In "String", a single bad decision impacts a set of strangers, altering the course of their lives. It happens that both these stories make good use of multiple points of view, which is probably one reason they appeal to me.

This was an interesting collection for me to read as a writer, because while the subject matter is the same sort of individual turmoil that I choose for my own stories, Spatz has a very different writing style than mine, featuring long, dense paragraphs crammed with details. This summer, Spatz was the workshop leader when my story was workshopped at Squaw Valley, and it was quite an honor to get feedback from this accomplished writer. Now in studying his stories, I'm learning even more.

I've already posted recommendations of two other new collection this year:

TENTH OF DECEMBER is the much-hyped collection by George Saunders, and it deserves the attention. The worlds in Saunders's strange and darkly funny stories are very different from those in the two collections above, which are grounded in familiar reality. This will be a selling point for some readers and a turn-off for others -- the flavor of weirdness appealed to me immensely. Read my full review.

→ I can't be fully unbiased about THE AVERSIVE CLAUSE by B.C. Edwards because the author is an old friend, but I hope you will trust me when I say this collection is fabulous, and even when I suggest that fans of Saunders might want to check out Edwards. Some of the stories in THE AVERSIVE CLAUSE are about apocalypse, others are about scenarios as mundane as a family reunion, but all are fascinating. Read my full review.

As a final recommendation, I'd like to suggest that those interested in writing short stories check out this great podcast conversation between four short story writers talking about the craft, presented by Litquake's Lit Cast.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Brad Leithauser examines the pet words of famous writers: "I sometimes wonder what could be responsibly deduced about a poet whose work you'd never actually read--if you were supplied only with a bare-bones concordance providing tables of vocabulary frequency. A fair amount, probably."

October 24, 2013

It's The Little Things

Earlier this month I wrote about the three levels of problems that I'm addressing in my manuscript right now. I was most scared by the hard problems, such as ongoing character conflicts that my audience found unconvincing. These large-scale issues don't have a single source or a clear solution, and I was worried about how long they would take to fix.

I've been working on these problems for the past few weeks, and while it would still be lovely if I didn't have any huge issues to deal with, I've been pleased to find how well big problems can be addressed with little changes. When it's not really clear why a character keeps feeling or acting a particular, plot-important way, I don't have to rip apart and restructure the entire plot. Instead, I'm finding that small tweaks to the thoughts and behavior in each relevant scene goes a long way toward altering the overall perception of what's going on with that character. I'm accomplishing what I need to by adding and editing sentences or paragraphs, not by throwing out pages at a time. Sometimes even changing a word or two is all it takes to appropriately alter the tone.

I have a recurring problem with portraying characters in love, which I wrote about some years back (still a useful post, if I do say so myself). Once again I was faced with readers who pointed out, "He keeps telling us they're in love, but nothing is showing us they are, because we only see them fighting." A story is made out of conflict, so it's easy to gloss over the happy parts, and I do that too much, particularly when it comes to characters starting a relationship. I was concerned about needing to find room and reasons for long, lovey-dovey scenes. But when I got into analyzing the problem, I determined that half a page of the characters joking around happily was sufficient to change the balance of the chapter and make them not seem to merely fight all the time.

One part of the plot relies on the reader understanding that while a father and son don't get along, they had a good relationship when the son was growing up. While I was reading my manuscript aloud to my familial literary advisory board, I learned that my audience wasn't picking up on the backstory of the happy childhood. That wasn't surprising, because I noticed that I'd neglected to establish it much at all. I wasn't sure where and how I was going to show the situation of the past without adding a bunch of flashbacks to a novel that's already too long. But it turns out that a few sentences here and there mentioning happier times can plant the idea in the reader's mind so the scenario will be interpreted correctly.

Or at least that's what I hope. I won't be certain any of these fixes are working until I've run the new draft by some other readers. What I learned from the first set was that in some areas I was being far too subtle, while other ideas were beaten into the reader's head with way too much repetition, so I may not be the best judge of how the message is getting across. For now, though, I'm operating on the belief that these relatively small fixes are making a big difference. It's certainly making this round of revisions less scary.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Michael David Lukas writes at the Opinionator about When the News and the Novel Collide: "Fiction is supposed to reflect reality, in some way or another. But reality is constantly changing. It can take years to write a novel and in those years, history marches on. Wars break out and governments are toppled, perceptions shift and new gadgets are invented."

October 11, 2013

A Writer's Search History

For ages, I've been meaning to share a selection of the odd web searches I've conducted during the creation of this novel. This short list only scratches the surface (and it leaves out the huge number of less weird research queries). Maybe later on I'll go back further into my Google search history and bring you some more examples.

→ "concussion allowed to sleep" - Turns out it's not really true that you have to stay awake if you have a concussion, though it might be a good idea for someone to prod you periodically.

→ "what does vodka smell like" - It seemed particularly silly to search the internet for an answer when I could have done firsthand research by walking downstairs and opening the liquor cabinet. I was lazy. And as with a great many of my research queries, after I spent a while looking for information, I ended up changing the scene so it was no longer needed.

→ "woman crying" - I looked for a video of someone crying (of course there are thousands of these) so that I could play it on my computer, leave the room, close the door, and perform a test of how well it could be heard from the next room.

→ "bulldozer video" followed by "bulldozer rev engine" followed by "verbs for engine sounds" - I was trying to describe the sound accurately. I ended up with "a bulldozer roared to life", which is completely unoriginal, but I'm terrible at this sort of thing.

→ "stacking blocks one year old" - Yes, kids can at that age. This is only one of hundreds of searches related to child development, parenting, and childbirth. It was still a lot easier than firsthand research.

→ "history of car air conditioning" - It grew in popularity during the 1960s - and "air conditioning movie theaters history" - That's been common for longer.

→ "motel curtains" - As I typed this query into the search box, it struck me as combining the bizarre with the uninteresting. I scanned the image search results for a moment and then decided that I wasn't going to use the concept in the story anyway.

→ "red sox schedule 1995" - Here's a case where I might be going overboard on attention to detail, though at least this was very quick to look into, unlike some other questions I obsess over. In a scene set during Labor Day weekend of 1995, I mention that a character might have attended a Red Sox game if he'd stayed in Boston rather than going to San Jose to get the action of the novel going. If the Sox weren't actually home that weekend, would anyone have noticed or cared? Well, it's okay, because they were.

→ "when to make thanksgiving pie" - The day before is fine. I could have asked my in-house consultant, but again, I'm lazy.

→ "how much do employees make in ipos" - Enough.

(Note: It seems like this post should be tagged "querying", but that means something else.)

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Kathy Crowley at Beyond the Margins offers a 12-step program for finding structure in a messy draft: "You recognize that something is missing. Just to be old-fashioned, let's call it structure. Bones. Whatever. Yes, you've written something moving and lovely and it's a work you care about. But still. When you look at it, you are reminded of a jellyfish."

October 4, 2013

Defining the Problems

Last week I reported on my big step of finishing a draft, reading it aloud to my trusted loved ones, and trying not to fall into a pit of despair at the realization that I still have more work ahead. I had a wonderful vacation to visit my far-away family members and not think too much about my novel. I returned home not exactly eager for more revision, but at least ready to face the next step.

Reading my novel to a (very patient) audience turned up three levels of problems that I need to address:

The easy problems are the sentence-level issues that I noted myself as I read aloud. Whenever I stumbled over a phrase (and I did this a lot), I underlined the tricky area, and it will be simple and satisfying to fix all these rough patches. Reading my work aloud led me to notice words that were repeated in close proximity or awkward combinations of sounds. Occasionally in a long dialogue I'd become confused about who was speaking, and of course anything that's confusing even to the author is a huge red flag. Spotting these easy problems didn't really involve the audience, though I think having listeners caused me to read more slowly and thoughtfully than when I read aloud to myself, which I do often and highly recommend to all writers.

Learning about the medium problems was what I most wanted to accomplish by reading to my familial literary advisory board. At the end of each chapter, I'd ask them for reactions, and sometimes there were specific parts that they were confused about or found implausible. These are issues that I couldn't spot on my own, because I have the scenes and justifications inside my head and already know what I mean by everything. I find this type of feedback the most rewarding part of receiving critique, because when a complaint has a clear, distinct source, it's never too much work to fix it, and afterwards I know I've made a worthwhile improvement. Also in the medium category are the scenes that felt too long once I read them aloud, a problem generally noted both by me and by my listeners.

The hard problems are the ones I hoped I wouldn't encounter, and the ones leaving me discouraged. I'm grateful to have such a perceptive audience at my disposal, and I wouldn't have read my manuscript to them if I didn't want to know what they thought, but some of what they thought is that there are still large-scale issues in my story, and I agree. These are problems like a failure to convincingly explain and portray the anger one character feels toward another throughout the novel. A criticism of that type can't be fixed by making changes to only a scene or two, and I'm often not even sure how to fix it. The hard problems are hard because addressing them requires significant work, and at the same time, they are the most important issues to deal with, because they have the greatest impact on the novel.

So, right now, I'm sorting out the logistics of dealing with these three levels of issues, and I'm starting to make progress on fixes. The hard problems are still scary, but I'm figuring out a way to deal with them while staying out of that pit of despair.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund speaks out In Praise of Slow Writing: "With time on my side, what may have been a surface scene just to move things along becomes something much deeper; when I take things slow, everything connects in ways that matter much more than if I were going for speed."