February 28, 2014

Gravity's Rainbow

I'm not sure how to talk about GRAVITY'S RAINBOW, the massive novel by Thomas Pynchon. I could try explaining what the story's about, but the text itself doesn't seem overly concerned with that issue. I'd like to describe the style, but I'd need to know more about literary criticism to do that accurately. I ought to say if I liked the book, but I'm not really sure. I read the whole thing, all 760 large pages of dense paragraphs, and I'm rather proud of that accomplishment. I'm not sorry I read this book, but I can't decide whether or not I'd recommend it to anyone else.

I was aware going in that this would be a difficult book, and it was true right from the start that reading required extra concentration, but early on, I was pleased by how much I was enjoying it. The lengthy descriptions and rambling sentences made for exactly the sort of writing I usually avoid, and yet the quirky characters, intriguing ideas, and dark humor were powerful enough to draw me in. Finding a wiki devoted to indexing and annotating the novel also helped me keep track of what was going on.

I knew nothing at all about the story when I began reading, and it was a nice surprise to find myself in London near the end of World War II, because that setting interests me. As the large cast of characters was introduced, it looked as though the plot would revolve around military scientists searching for patterns in the falling bombs, some taking a statistical approach, and others trying to use ESP. That seemed like a great premise, but after a couple hundred pages, the focus shifted to one character's convoluted quest around Europe in the immediate aftermath of the war. I was sorry to leave behind many of the characters I liked in the first section, and I might have preferred the plot that I thought I was in for. Still, there was plenty of good stuff in the story that the book turned out to be telling, but there were also many huge digressions away from this apparent plot, and I got tired of that after a while.

This book isn't as much about conveying a plot as it is about evoking the mood of a particular time and place, which is one of the things that makes it hard to describe. The frequent digressions are one distinctive aspect of the book's style. Some of these provide historical details or go into character backstory, and I often found those worthwhile, but not always. Other tangents are more random, taking hold of some thought and riffing on it at great length, and I could have done without most of those. The narrative is odd and unexpected in many ways that I guess qualify as experimental or postmodern. I was mostly okay with that, but it makes for slow reading. The book also contains quite a bit of disturbing material of various kinds, so it's not for the squeamish or prudish.

My overall review is that I felt fairly positively about GRAVITY'S RAINBOW for approximately the first half, and after that, I was mostly ready to be done. I've long been curious to know what Pynchon is like. My curiosity has now been satisfied, and that's enough Pynchon for me.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At The Millions, Edan Lepucki interviews her copyeditor, Susan Bradanini Betz, on the details of her job and process: "Creating style sheets is the secret to catching small errors. I am obsessed with my style sheets. I keep a word list, a character list, a list of places (fictional and real), a chronology, a general style sheet, a list of hyphenated modifiers, and any other list that helps me keep track of everything."

February 26, 2014

The Martian

As soon as I heard about Andy Weir's THE MARTIAN sometime last fall, I started looking forward to the novel's release earlier this month. The premise is that during a NASA expedition to Mars, an astronaut is accidentally left behind and has to figure out how to survive alone. I'm slightly obsessed with Mars, and I love survival stories, so I couldn't wait. I was further excited to learn that Weir would be doing an event at a bookstore near me. It was great fun to hear him talk about the process of writing and researching the book, and once I had it in my hands, I spent the next few days devouring it. This is a thrilling, clever, terrifying, and fun adventure story, and I definitely recommend it.

As the book opens, disaster has already occurred: Mark Watney has just found himself alone on Mars after his crew was forced to abandon their mission early and leave the planet. The other astronauts had every reason to believe he was dead, and Mark is left without any method of communication, so he can't tell them or NASA that he's actually still alive. He's safe for the moment, with basic needs provided for, but his supplies and equipment were only designed for a monthlong mission. Mark explains all this in a series of log entries that he's recording for posterity, fully aware that he's unlikely to survive.

Mark turns out to be perhaps the best possible person to be stranded on Mars. He's optimistic, resourceful, and equipped with several skills that prove useful. Most of all, he's completely unwilling to give up, and so every time a new seemingly impossible obstacle arises, he keeps working until he comes up with a solution to get past it. He even manages to keep making jokes the whole time.

The most impressive thing about this book is that Weir had to come up with a long series of ways for Mark's situation to get worse that could still be recovered from with the materials available. The story is mostly details about problems and solutions, and that involves the presentation of a fair amount of science. For me, it was a bonus to get into the nitty-gritty of stuff like how a space suit functions, and I think even readers who find that idea less appealing will appreciate the clear explanations. Despite the time Mark spends calculating his oxygen and calorie needs, the story moves along at a fast pace.

The book does have some flaws. By Weir's own admission, the story isn't concerned with character development, and Mark's breezy narration doesn't always ring true considering how dire his situation is. However, since Mark is a character we have to spend a long time alone with, it's fair to prioritize making that a pleasant experience over striving for utter believability. What bothered me more is that I spotted some inconsistencies about the facts of the story. For example, different mentions of the length of the Mars voyage seemed to contradict each other. In a book that was otherwise concerned with scientific precision, it was frustrating to see these errors.

Ultimately, though, this is a book to be read for the page-turning quality of a harrowing survival tale, and in that department, it excels.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Laura Harrington from Beyond the Margins points out common dialogue mistakes and how to avoid them: "Married couples do not need to tell each other how old they are, how many children they have, or how long they've been married. When/if they do, the reader experiences this as false. People who know each other have a wonderful shorthand to their dialogue; they assume a great deal. This is very interesting for the reader because we get to try to read between the lines."

February 21, 2014

A Year of Start Here

Thirteen months ago, I first posted about START HERE, the reading guide edited by Jeff O'Neal and Rebecca Joines Schinsky of Book Riot. The book contains essays on 25 major authors with recommendations on where to start reading their work. I decided I would use these suggestions to structure part of my 2013 reading, and I began working my way through the alphabetical list of authors.

Now that I've finally tackled Dickens, I thought it was time to take a look back at how this reading project played out for me during the past year-and-a-bit. Under the guidance of START HERE, I read the work of 7 authors. Of those, Alexie, Calvino, Dick, and the long-dreaded Dickens were brand new to me, and they were all authors I'd always meant to read, so this was a great motivation. Atwood is a long-time favorite, and I'd read some Bradbury before, and for each of those the suggestions involved one reread along with new discoveries. I'd read Austen previously as well, but only the year before.

At the start of this project, I probably expected to get to more of the 25 authors, though I certainly didn't think I could do all of them in a year. However, I didn't anticipate that I'd end up reading more than one book for nearly everyone I tried. In total, I read 16 books for this project, and it made up more than a third of my reading for last year.

Thanks to START HERE, I read some books I really liked that I might not have known about or ever gotten around to. I also read some books I didn't much care for. I'm not sorry about reading any of it. This project was a great experience, and even doing just 7 authors involved a lot of variety.

At this point, I'm putting a stop to my START HERE project, but I'll definitely keep referring to the book for advice. Of the remaining 18 authors, over half are writers I've never tried, often because I wasn't sure where to begin, and the rest are mostly authors I'd like to read more of. Whenever I'm ready to get started or continue on with these writers, I know where to look.

And wait, there's more! Just recently, the fine folks at Book Riot released a second volume of START HERE, with reading pathways for 25 more authors. This new collection features another fabulous and varied set of writers, and I'll be eagerly referencing it as well.

Incidentally, in my original post about my project, I said that I was also planning to spend the year making some alphabetical progress through all the unread books on my shelves. It turns out that aside from a few START HERE recommendations that I already owned, I read almost nothing that was on my bookshelves at the beginning of last year. So I guess that's something to look forward to accomplishing in 2014?

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Sarah McCarry has launched a series focused on writers who identify as living/struggling with depression and mental illness. In these interviews, writers speak frankly about their experiences and coping mechanisms. "There's the myth, right, of the Tortured Artist, and then there's the reality, which is most often exhausting and difficult and not at all glamorous." (Thanks, Nathan Bransford!)

February 19, 2014

What Planning A Novel Looks Like

While I write exclusively on a computer and no longer have much desire to participate in workshop exercises where I'm expected to scribble down a scene on paper, I like to do my early planning in physical format. Putting my messy handwriting all over little pieces of paper that I can move around is useful and satisfying for me in a way that my computer screen can't duplicate, even though I've been very happy with the virtual index cards of SuperNotecard. I don't understand why real cards are more helpful during the early stages of a draft, but I'm sure there's some study out there that explains the phenomenon.

For the novel currently known as INCONCLUSIVE, I've been busily rearranging sticky notes in an attempt to discover how the plot might work. (I opted for Post-Its rather than index cards this time because I wanted to be able to keep them in place on some portable flat surfaces.) I'm now to the point where I feel reasonably confident that this is actually a viable story, but there are still enormous gaps in the idea department. I'm going to need to make a lot more decisions and do a lot of research before I can start writing, but I knew that already.

Here's a photo to give you an idea of the current state of the project:

February 14, 2014

Starting Charles Dickens

One reason I embarked on my START HERE project was that I knew it would force me to read Charles Dickens. I spent much of my life avoiding the traditional literary classics unless they were required reading, and for whatever reason, I developed a particular aversion to Dickens, who happened to never be assigned to me in school. As a result, I'd never read anything by Dickens (except possibly A CHRISTMAS CAROL, which I've certainly watched many adaptations of), and I never had any real desire to. But since I have at least one friend who adores the work of Dickens, and since the author is considered significant, it did seem like I should really find out what the fuss is about. Therefore, I resolved to keep Starting Here at least until I reached the Ds.

The Dickens pathway laid out by Amanda Nelson is designed to give a fresh introduction to those who already read (or avoided reading) the major works at school, so it turned out not to be the best course for me. I started with the first suggested book, OLIVER TWIST, and while I liked the beginning more than I expected, by the end, I was bored and annoyed with the story. The pathway continues with DAVID COPPERFIELD and BLEAK HOUSE, but once I looked at their lengths, I thought I'd better take a different approach. GREAT EXPECTATIONS is one of Dickens' most widely read books, and it's also considered among his best work, so I read that next, and it made for a much more rewarding Dickens experience.

→ For OLIVER TWIST, I listened to the audiobook narrated by Peter Batchelor, which is available on Audible at a surprisingly low price. Batchelor is a great narrator, with an impressive range of character voices, and he reads at a somewhat faster pace than other recordings, which I appreciated. I'm not ordinarily an audiobook listener, but I was working on a knitting project with a holiday deadline and thought that having Dickens read to me while I knitted would be a good way to address my reluctance to try this author.

At the beginning, I was pleased to find the story more entertaining than I was expecting, and much funnier. As the story went on, though, both my interest and my amusement diminished. I was curious what was going to happen to Oliver, but a great many of the scenes bored me. Some of them dragged, some were entirely irrelevant to the plot, and almost none involved Oliver taking any action, which makes him a dull protagonist. Dickens is quite enamored by his detailed portrayals of various rough characters, but I didn't get the same delight from this that perhaps readers of his time would have.

As to the story, it's about an orphan who goes from place to place being mostly ill-treated and occasionally well taken care of. Eventually there's some mystery about the past that I was eager to have explained, but overall, I thought this book was merely okay.

→ My first impression of GREAT EXPECTATIONS was that it was another story about an orphan being mostly mistreated, but at least it was about a far more interesting orphan than Oliver Twist. Pip not only makes some decisions and takes some actions of his own accord, even as a child, but he narrates his own story. The first-person, retrospective point of view is used to good effect, with the narrator conveying his childish misunderstandings of the world but at the same time commenting from his adult perspective.

As the story progressed, I found myself genuinely enjoying it, not merely judging it more tolerable than OLIVER TWIST. The major characters are compelling people with some depth, and the shallower caricature characters are interestingly portrayed without driving the joke into the ground. The plot unfolds at a pretty good pace, and it becomes quite a page-turner, with all sorts of twists I didn't anticipate.

While Dickens is often revered, other times it's pointed out that he was paid by the word and that this is evident in his work. OLIVER TWIST frustrated me with its many long digressions that served no purpose, but in GREAT EXPECTATIONS, I was impressed to find that almost every element that seemed potentially extraneous was eventually revealed to be a crucial part of the plot. Ultimately, that's the aspect of this novel that won me over. I wasn't converted to an overall Dickens fan, but I highly recommend GREAT EXPECTATIONS to anyone else wondering why his work has endured.

I'm glad to end my Dickens reading on a positive note. If anyone can convince me that another of his books has the same entertainment value as GREAT EXPECTATIONS (relative to word count, please!), I'll consider it for the future.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ S. Hope Mills writes at the Ploughshares blog about the importance of deadlines: "It's not like I was sitting around waiting for the muses to come. I was writing and thinking and revising and wrestling and revising again. I was staring at the computer screen for hours at a time trying to figure out if that sentence was really saying what I intended for it to say. Too soon, the due date would arrive and I'd be scrambling. But then 'magically,' usually within the last hour before I submitted a post, the idea would come together."

February 7, 2014

The Surnaming of Characters

Earlier this week, I offered some advice about choosing character names and avoiding common naming pitfalls. While most of the suggestions in those posts apply to all parts of a name, I wrote them with first names in mind. Today I promised to talk about specific issues related to last names.

So here's where I admit that I have no real advice on this topic. I hate coming up with last names, and I find that in most cases, characters don't need them, so I only give surnames when it's absolutely necessary.

For the first novel I ever wrote, which I spent several years on, I had a database of character information that included -- I kid you not -- where the protagonist's friends' parents went to college, even though that never came up in the story in any way. I never gave the main character a last name.

My recently completed novel is about a family. I did choose a last name for them right from the start, and fortunately, that took care of a whole bunch of characters at once. There's one other family in the novel with a last name, and a doctor appears briefly and is referred to only by title and last name. That's the extent of the surnames. One character who marries into the family doesn't take her husband's name, and that's a fact I know in my head, but I never worked out what her last name is.

I don't have a good reason for my aversion to last names. They might be slightly harder to choose than first names due to carrying more cultural information, but they also have somewhat less "must feel right for the character" pressure, so it probably comes out about even. Certainly it's fine, and even advisable, that the majority of my characters don't have last names, but I shouldn't be so intimidated.

This is what I do know about last names:

Research is a good idea. Last names, even more than first names, are tied to ethnicity and potentially a great many other familial background factors. I've picked surnames imagining that they signified one culture, then later learned that I got it completely wrong because I didn't bother looking anything up.

I also had a weird (though kind of cool) thing happen once when I essentially made up a last name by putting together some syllables that sounded plausible. This was for one of my early NaNoWriMo novels, and at the time, I had the whole thing posted on my web site. A stranger emailed me, excited because he searched for his extremely rare last name and found my site, and he wanted to know if there was any family connection (it wasn't apparent to him that the name was in a story). While he was tickled by my explanation that I had fabricated the name, I did think that in the future it would be worthwhile to search and verify that any name I use isn't practically unique.

I don't have a single go-to internet source for last names. My method tends to be that I think up or find a name somewhere and then do a search to learn more about it. But like I said, it's not something I've dealt with very often.

I'd be thrilled to know your resources or strategies for identifying and researching names. One reader has already pointed me to a great character name generator that asks you to input ethnicity and birth decade before spitting out a random first and last name matching the criteria (plus a detailed personality profile).

Last names can overload the reader. If some readers have a tendency to not fully absorb first names, you can bet that even more of them are skipping past last names. I get irritated by books that keep giving me new characters with both first and last names, because I know I'm going to have enough trouble remembering one name per person, let alone two.

In most stories, most characters don't need last names. I gather it's more of a convention to introduce every character by full name in some genres, such as mysteries and thrillers, and maybe if I read more in those genres, I'd be more tolerant of the phenomenon. But I'm perfectly happy not learning a character's last name unless it's going to be necessary, for the purposes of logistics or realism, to have the narration or a character use it. The reason I was able to write multiple drafts of my first novel and never know the main character's last name is that throughout all his many plotless adventures, it just never became story-relevant.

That said, if you are going to use a major character's last name, it's good to introduce it sometime early in the story even if it's not important until later. I recently read a book and was totally jarred when halfway through, the protagonist's last name appeared, and I realized I hadn't seen it before then.

I already know that my new novel is going to require quite a few last names, so please, share any advice you have. And I still haven't made a lot of progress on even the first names, so wish me luck!

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Tor.com, a group of science fiction authors discuss food in SF: "Food is an excellent way to do very elegant worldbuilding, the kind that can make a fictional world seem real, like it extends way past the edges of the frame."

February 5, 2014

Character Naming Pitfalls

On Monday, I talked about the difficulty of choosing character names. As if it weren't tricky enough to find a name for each character that feels right and fits with their personal background, you also have to watch out for situations that could make the otherwise perfect name problematic.

I've run into all manner of poor name choices in both my own early drafts and in other people's published books. Here are some ideas on how not to go wrong when picking names:

Avoid names that could be confused with each other. This is the big one. It's crucial to examine all your name selections as a group so that you don't give awesome names to your three most important characters without noticing, for example, that they all start with S.

It's a peeve of mine when multiple major characters have names beginning with the same initial, and I've spoken to a lot of other readers who feel the same way. I've even spoken to people who explained that while reading, they never fully process the character names and just take in the first letter and a general sense of the length. Sure, you might feel that readers ought to pay closer attention, especially to those great names you've chosen, but this is the reality of how some people read, and it's better to recognize that and plan your naming scheme accordingly.

In real life, I've hosted gatherings where half the attendees had names starting with L, but in fiction, I like to keep the initials more evenly distributed so that newcomers to my novel won't be as perplexed as newcomers to my house. Of course in a novel with dozens of characters, there are some repeats, but with the major characters -- or any characters who frequently appear in scenes together, or might otherwise be confused -- I avoid duplication. (As a bonus, when everyone has a different initial, I can refer to them by single letters in my notes.)

Avoiding name conflicts is a little more complicated than just the first letter, though that's the most obvious. I was preparing for one of my NaNoWriMo novels when I realized I had characters named Larry, Gary, and Terry. In most cases, you probably want to steer away from rhyming names (unless you're writing a picture book). Other similarities are harder to detect. You wouldn't necessarily guess that the names Walt and Hank could be easily mixed up, but I've rarely heard a conversation about the TV show Breaking Bad that didn't include someone accidentally calling one of these characters by the wrong name, and that must be due to a resemblance in the shapes of the sounds.

My strategy for spotting potential sources of name confusion is to keep a document that lists all the character names for a story. Whenever I add a new name, I go through the list, both looking at the letters and saying the names aloud, and if anything strikes me as too close, I choose a different name and try again.

Avoid names that could be confusing, period. Sometimes a name is fine on its own and fine in relation to all the other names, but something about its context in the story makes it problematic. Early in my novel, I have a character thinking about the long-distance girlfriend he recently broke up with, and the trips he would make to see her. For a while, the name of the ex was Charlotte, and then one day I reread "the last time I visited Charlotte", and I realized it wasn't clear if that was the woman or the city. (And then I started singing a line from the musical Avenue Q, "Her name is Alberta, she lives in Vancouver.") The character got a new name that didn't sound like a destination.

Only name characters who must be referred to by name. Stories can have a lot of people in them, and you don't want your reader to store any more names than are absolutely necessary. If a character's role is minor enough, they may not need a name. That character from the last paragraph finds a new love, and her parents come to the wedding, and then there are multiple visits. Her mom has a name, and her dad doesn't. I never even gave the poor guy a name inside my head, and I feel a little guilty about it, but he doesn't have a speaking part, and there's never a need to call him anything outside of "her dad", so I don't bother making readers learn his name.

Names can be hard to remember, in fiction as well as in real life, so make things as simple as possible for your readers. In the final installment of this series, I'll talk about issues specific to last names.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Scott Westerfeld explains at the NaNoWriMo blog how rewriting is like growing up: "Sadly, when looking at old pictures, you can't go back and give yourself advice, or change those unfortunate clothing choices. But with first drafts you can. In that moment before revising begins, you're no longer embedded in the hurly burly of what-happens-next and what's-this-character's-motivation. You have perspective."

February 3, 2014

The Naming of Characters

I still haven't named any of the characters in the new novel I've been planning. I had thought that even making notes would be too cumbersome while the characters remained nameless, but it turns out that I'm having no trouble referring to them by their roles, or by letters that signify the roles. I could probably leave the characters unnamed throughout the entire planning and research phase, and only choose names as a final act of procrastination before I embark upon drafting, but I think it might be time to start making some concrete decisions about this story. Naming the characters is a good place to begin.

The naming of characters is a difficult matter. The name of a major character might appear hundreds of times throughout a story, so there's pressure to choose wisely, but it's not clear what that means. In theory, it's an arbitrary decision, unrelated to the many elements that create a stronger plot or a more compelling conflict. In practice, names carry a huge amount of baggage, some that will be familiar to the writer as part of a larger culture, and some that individual readers will bring to a story and that the writer has no chance of anticipating or controlling.

You can see why I've been reluctant to approach the naming problem. Occasionally a character has appeared in my head with a name already attached, but more often, and in the case of this new novel, I've thought up fairly detailed stories for these people without imagining what any of them are called. That means I'll probably end up scanning the lists at 20,000 Names in search of possibilities. Like most name sites, that one includes name meanings, but I almost never pay attention to those. I don't pick character names for symbolic purposes, so the meaning only concerns me if I think it would have mattered to the character's parents.

When I choose names, what I'm focusing on are these considerations:

The inscrutable quality of rightness. I recommend finding a name that feels good to you as the writer, and I have no advice about how to do that. I may reject a dozen names because they don't fit before deciding that one is perfect, and it's a completely idiosyncratic decision that I couldn't hope to explain. In the best case scenario, that perfect name I've chosen will also resonate with the reader as embodying every facet of the character. In the worst case, it will be the name of the reader's most despised ex, but there's nothing you can do about that.

Suitability to the character's background. Consider when and where your character was born, their ethnicity, and any other familial factors that contribute to naming patterns. Do your research on this. When selecting names for the three different time periods in THE EXTENT OF THE DAMAGE, I spent hours with NameVoyager charting popularity over time so that the names would be appropriate for each era.

Neither too common nor too unusual. It's strange if everyone in a story has a top-ten name, or if they all have extremely unfamiliar ones, so unless you're going for a specific effect, aim somewhere in the middle. Usually my major characters have medium-popularity names, perhaps with one that's odder or more prevalent, and then I give the smaller characters a whole range, so that the balance is a set of names that feels neither too generic nor too ridiculous.

Not the name of anyone I know. This is trickier than you'd think. First of all, I'm acquainted with a great many people who monopolize a great many names, so I actually have to narrow it down to only excluding the names of my closer friends and family. Then it turns out that I have a weird tendency to give names to characters without even noticing that they match the names of my nearest and dearest. This led to some awkward conversations about my earliest manuscripts, which were only ever seen by those same nearest and dearest, and I now take extra care to avoid unintended overlaps. Finally, I do have a natural bias toward names that are familiar to me, so I often draw from the name pool of people I once knew but haven't talked to in decades. I don't have any motive in giving a character the name of an acquaintance from high school, it's merely that the name was more likely to appeal to me than one I'd never encountered. All of this is to say, if you ever think I've named a character after you, please be assured that I haven't.

Those are my basic criteria for selecting character names. Later in the week, I'll be back with thoughts on avoiding naming pitfalls and the special pain of picking last names.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Vulture, Kathryn Schulz identifies The 5 Best Punctuation Marks in Literature: "Once in a while, though, a bit of punctuation pops its head up over the prose, and over the prosaic, and becomes a part of a tiny but interesting canon: famous punctuation marks in literature." (Thanks, The Millions!)