2009 has been more than just the year of Tiger. It's also been the year of the e-reader. E-reader sales have tripled this year amid a torrent of new devices. And the device to kill all other devices, the Apple tablet computer, isn't even out yet. So it's an opportune time to mention that e-readers are back in my good graces. A month ago, I was lukewarm on the gadgets. But I have since re-kindled my enthusiasm for the Kindle.
I've been traveling a lot recently, and the Kindle has been the perfect companion. Before a recent trip to Miami, I didn't frantically scan my shelves for a book to take along. I didn't have to worry that I'd take the wrong book and then have to lug around a useless paper brick the rest of the trip. And I didn't have to make the agonizing decision I often face on long trips: one book, or two? I mean, what if I only bring one book and I finish it somewhere over Dallas and I'm forced to watch Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince? Or that eerie American Airlines pseudo-TV channel that's always featuring something with Charlie Sheen?
But not with the Kindle. While sitting on the tarmac, I bought and downloaded two books, a magazine and a newspaper. On the way to Miami I read half of the novel Gilead. But on the way home I was tired and hungover, so I had to switch to The Lost Symbol (another great thing about the Kindle is you can get the new "hardcovers" for 10 bucks). And when even Dan Brown was more than my taxed brain could handle, I switched to the magazine -- all without ever reaching for the overhead bin.
The Kindle is also improving my vocabulary. I love the built in dictionary. It was especially helpful while reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Although many of those unknown words turned out to be Spanish slang.
There are still a few e-reader quirks I haven't gotten used to, and I don't know if I ever will. Since the font size is variable, there are no page numbers, just "locations" and a "percentage-complete meter." I still find myself doing conversions in my head (if the book is about 400 printed pages and I have 10% left on the e-version, that's 40 pages, and so on). As I've gotten used to it, however, the page thing has faded to a minor nuisance, just a small con against a long list of pros.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Sunday, December 20, 2009
As the year draws to a close, I've been finding less and less time to work on my novel. First came Thanksgiving. And now there's Christmas shopping, holiday parties, end-of-the year deadlines, performance reviews, cookies, eggnog... writing killers, all of them!
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
When it comes to authors, our perceptions are even more skewed . We hear about the Stephen Kings and Stephanie Myers of the world making tens of millions of dollars on their books, and we assume that all authors are rich. In reality, most published authors -- if writing is their day job --are dirt poor. But what if you reach the top, the holy grail, the New York Times bestseller list? Surely it's time to roll out the private jet, right? Not exactly. In this fantastically revealing post, Lynn Viehl breaks down the financial reality of her NYT bestseller, Twilight Fall. She even shares her actual royalty statement. After expenses and commissions, she made about 25K profit on her book. She's a NYT bestselling author, and if this book were her only source of income, she'd be floating just above the poverty level.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
I took a business writing class at work -- a nice melding of my personal and professional interests, I might say. One of the topics we covered was cutting out "deadwood," or unnecessary words. In case you haven't noticed, this is a gargantuan problem in corporate email. I could write a thesis about this, but time is short, so let me just mention my two biggest pet-peeve email phrases:
Feel free (or do not hesitate) to contact me with any questions or concerns.
Never once in the history of correspondence has this phrase compelled anyone to do anything they weren't going to do anyway. And if you're going to mention both questions and concerns, why stop there? What about suggestions? Or issues? I have issues!
This is a friendly reminder.
As opposed to an unfriendly reminder? You're telling me again to do something because I didn't do it the first time you asked me. Seems pretty unfriendly to me.
LB Readers, what email phrases annoy you?
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
I’m stuck. Progress on my book has been slowing for months, and now it’s stalled completely. All four wheels spinning fruitlessly, engine sputtering, mud up to the floorboards -- stuck. I could blame it on the holidays, my ever-encroaching day job, or Tiger Woods, but the real problem is I still don’t know which direction to take my rewriting. Every time I think I’ve made a decision, I write a scene, scrap it, and change my mind.
The way I see it, I have two options. Option One involves keeping the plot similar to how it is now and making some significant character changes. A healthy amount of work, but not as bad as Option Two, which requires me to get rid of one character and bring another character back to life. If I go this route, I have to throw out about 50 pages and write a hundred. Which at my current rate of prolificacy would take me a year. Painful -- yes-- but it’s not uncommon for writers to have to throw out hundreds, even thousands, of pages to make a piece come together. It’s one of the reasons writers are generally miserable people.
I think Option Two may allow for a greater character change (a stronger narrative arc, to be fancy) and a more powerful ending. But I’m not sure. I’m worried that I’ll put all that time into a new direction and my book won’t end up any a better. I know I need to pick a road and just move forward -- and not look back. There’s a fine line between finessing and obsessing, and at some point, I just need to do the best I can, finish that first novel and send it out -- or throw it in the proverbial desk drawer -- and move on.
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
As the eReader war heats up, I've been reflecting on my own eBook experience. Since I reviewed the Kindle here in June, I haven't used the device nearly as much as I hoped I would. For the most part, the e-reader has been gathering dust on my nightstand (I have to keep reminding myself not to set my glass of water on it).
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
They declared me unfit to live
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
I didn't write much this week, about an hour each morning. I spent the weekend at my parents' house and it's impossible to write there. I'm not sure why. I could have stolen away an hour or two, locked myself in a room. Maybe it's the sense that there's someone just outside the door, even if there isn't. A muscle memory from growing up, when one of my brothers could burst in at any moment. Even though we are now (nearly) old enough to be past that point, old memories die hard.
I've been tormented by a book called The Anatomy of Story, by John Truby. It's primarily about screenwriting, but it translates perfectly to novels. It's made me re-think everything about my book, and has left me marginally paralyzed. Truby argues that every good story goes through a series of basic steps, and if your story doesn't have these steps, it will fail. I'd like to dismiss this as a bunch of overthinking gobbledygook, but I can't. Because he's right.
I read two novellas by Jim Harrison -- Legends of the Fall and Revenge. Both of these 100-page stories were made into decent movies. Now blast those images of Brad Pitt and Kevin Costner out of your head: these stories are like Hemingway concentrate. So stripped down and far-reaching is Harrison's prose, the novellas read almost like synopses, but beautiful synopses. Writers are supposed to show and not tell but Harrison tells, with very little in dialogue or scene. It works because everything fits together in a way that propels the reader forward. And it works because nothing is extraneous; every line is a poem.
Stephen King published a story in this week's New Yorker. I read the story and it was okay. It's biggest attribute was that it wasn't too long like everything else in the magazine. Sometimes I wish I could be stranded on a deserted island with nothing but a subscription to The New Yorker. Only then could I ply the depths of all the articles, stories and poems before the next week's edition came out. I thought it was strange that Stephen King would publish there considering his aversion to literary snobbery but I Googled the situation and realized he's published a bunch of stories in The New Yorker, including some of the ones in his recent collection, Just After Sunset. If you pick up that collection, read the story about the guy who gets trapped in a porta-potty. Who hasn't thought of that happening? And why didn't I think to write a story about it? It's also worth noting that The New Yorker only publishes stories by authors who have a book coming out that month, and SK's 1,000-word tome Under the Dome comes out today.
And finally, I was stuck while trying to write yesterday and I picked up You Shall Know Our Velocity! and turned the page to the exact passage --finally -- I'd been looking for for the past two years, idly now and then, whenever I came across the book on the shelf. The part I was thinking of only turned out to be a paragraph instead of a dozen pages as I'd pictured it in my head; so largely does an image loom when we long to return to it. I don't know why this particular page resonated with me so much that I'd remember to look for it years later. It's hard to know why certain sentences, after all the words we've read, stick with us, sometimes forever. I think it's because we've experienced an event or a feeling just the way the author describes it. It might be a small moment (the scene I mention is just a guy hopping from rock to rock for no reason at all), but you've been there, somewhere, as a kid perhaps, and when a stranger explains something you experienced, or at least the way you'd like to remember it, it feels like magic.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
It’s happened to us all. You settle into bed, crack the spine on a new book, flip to the beginning and -- what’s this? -- the author wants you to read a few pages before the story even starts. Enter the prologue. A prologue is designed to give the reader information that is, at least least in the author’s opinion, essential for understanding the main story. It could be a scene that illustrates a powerful backstory, but happens long before the rest of the book starts; or a part of the story told in a different point of view from the rest of the book. Or, the prologue can just be a teaser to hook the reader with the promise of more exciting things to come.
So, is the prologue another tool in the writer’s chest that, if used properly, can add new dimension to your novel? Or is it just another item on the Long List of Things Writers Should Avoid at All Costs Even Though a Lot of Popular Writers Do It And No One Seems to Mind?
The experts, of course, are mixed. According to this Writer’s Digest article, agents hate prologues because they see it as a lazy way to insert backstory; a more skilled writer would find a way to weave it into the rest of the narrative. But if that’s the case, why do so many wildly successful books have prologues? Peruse the NYT bestseller list and I’d bet you’d find that over half the novels have prologues.
There are times when prologues work well. Say you have a story about a rogue virus that takes over the world. Before you get to your protagonist’s little story, you want to show firsthand what it’s like for someone to get the virus and suffer horribly. And since the entire story is told in the hero’s point of view (and he doesn’t get the virus), you tell it in first person, in a prologue.
As a reader, I’m not a fan of prologues. It’s a big commitment to start a book, and it takes some time to get into the story. A prologue essentially forces you to start the book twice, and often it feels like just one more barrier to getting lost in a story. But as I’m re-writing my own manuscript, lately I’ve found myself leaning toward including a prologue. I have a backstory scene that makes for a dramatic start to my novel, but it happens out of sequence with the rest of the narrative, and it wouldn’t be as powerful if I weaved it in through flashback. But I need to be honest with myself. Am I putting the scene into prologue because it’s the only way it makes sense, or am I doing it because my real first chapter isn’t exciting enough?
The problem is, these days, not even established writers can get away with Dickensian introductions and long chunks of backstory. Today’s readers want to get in media res right away, or they’re gonna drop you as fast as they can type in their Facebook password. Agents know this, so they look for a first chapter (or prologue) that snares you like a treble hook. As a consequence, the first chapter – or more likely the first page or the first sentence – is all the agent’s going to read before making his decision. So I need to make it count. Which brings me back to my dilemma: do I include a prologue that starts with a bang, but risks turning off the agent and readers for the sole reason it exists, or do I start slower but weave everything into the main story?
How about you, LB readers? Think about the books you’ve enjoyed... prologue or no prologue?
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
You can generate an endless array of random clouds, but I like this one because it shows all of the main character's problems hovering above him like a literal rain cloud.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
I wasn't sure what to blog about this morning -- until my beloved Wall St. Journal came to the rescue. There it was, right on the front page: an article about the Plain English Campaign, a 30-year-old group whose goal is to stem "the ever-growing tide of confusing and pompous language" that "takes away our democratic rights."
Sign me up. SIGN ME UP. I still remember the patronizing sting I felt in college while watching an infomercial featuring a "live" audience. Halfway through the product demonstration, a message flashed across the bottom of the screen: "observers have been remunerated." Now that's just pretentious and uncalled for. Were the producers hoping that anyone watching an infomercial at 2:00 a.m. wouldn't know that they meant "we paid a fake audience to act impressed"?
According to the WSJ article, the Plain English Campaign's latest foe is the financial industry, where, founder Chrissie Maher argues, there can be real consequences from the use of bloated and ambiguous language -- such as "families losing their homes because of jargon-filled credit agreements."
Learn more at the Campaign's website, and be sure to check out the Golden Bull awards and the hilarious before and after examples, such as:
Your enquiry about the use of the entrance area at the library for the purpose of displaying posters and leaflets about Welfare and Supplementary Benefit rights, gives rise to the question of the provenance and authoritativeness of the material to be displayed. Posters and leaflets issued by the Central Office of Information, the Department of Health and Social Security and other authoritative bodies are usually displayed in libraries, but items of a disputatious or polemic kind, whilst not necessarily excluded, are considered individually.
Speaking of offending people... while some gobbledygook is clearly deliberate and malevolent obfuscation (sorry), more often, people write this way to make sure their message won't offend anyone. One of my favorite examples is posted on every SF Muni bus (the pantheon of non-offensiveness). A metal sign, tacked behind each driver, reads:
"Information gladly given but safety requires avoiding unnecessary conversation."
What? Come on, it's a tough world out there. We can handle "Don't chat with the driver."
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
I just got the editor’s comments back. Most of her suggestions are about my characters -- how I can make them stronger and more layered by adding more flaws, deeper motivations, etc. She said that writers tend to protect their protagonist because they want people to like him/her. But in reality, if you add more flaws, people identify with the character even more. Take the book I’m reading now, The Gargoyle: the protagonist has a laundry list of serious flaws, but you root for him just the same. And sometimes we want to read about a flawed character because it makes us feel better about ourselves. We can say, at least I’m not THAT guy.
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
The only thing harder than writing dialogue is writing funny dialogue. I was perusing some exercises from Write Great Fiction - Dialogue, and I came across a short exercise that The Leaf Blower readers could participate in:
- a mom from the suburbs
- a prostitute
- a businesswoman
- an undercover cop
- a grandmother
- a drag queen
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
But there's this wonderful thing called muscle memory. It's what enables bobybuilders to quickly gain back gobs of muscle after taking time off. So, now that the crazy-wonderful wedding period is over, it's time to get back to business. Dust off those dumbbells for some cerbellum curls. Funnel some protein powder into my frontal lobe. With a little hard work, I'll have that washboard gray matter back in no time.
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
I'm on my honeymoon this week, so I'm not going to write much. I just wanted to thank my amazing new bride, Amy, for putting up with me and lending her unwavering support throughout this whole writing project. She gave me the courage to quit my job and complete a novel, and she encouraged me along the way by pretending everything I wrote was on par with Faulkner.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Legend has it, Ernest Hemingway, on a bar bet, said he could write a complete story in less then ten words. He only needed six:
"For sale: baby shoes, never worn."
Hemingway, as usual, was ahead of his time. Maybe it's a product of our Twitter-sized attention spans, but fiction categories keep shrinking. There are novellas, short stories, short-short stories, flash fiction, sudden fiction, microfiction, nanofiction, drabbles (100 words) dribbles (50 words) and now... there's hint fiction. Hint fiction is a story of 25 words or less that suggests a larger, more complex story.
Robert Swartwood is accepting submissions for his Hint Fiction Anthology, scheduled for publication next year. Check out the guidelines... and submit your best. Or, if you don't want to submit officially, feel free to post your hint fiction stories here in the comments.
I submitted my two entries. Who cares if it's only 25 words; if one of my stories gets accepted, I'm gonna walk around telling everyone I'm published.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Six months ago, at the San Francisco Writers Conference, I pitched my book to an editor from a major publishing house. She liked the idea, and asked me to send the first five chapters. I did, and two months later she asked me to send the whole thing. I was elated... and stressed: I had a ton of polishing to do before I felt comfortable sending the entire manuscript. So I locked myself in my office for three weeks, finished the manuscript, and sent it to her.
Then I waited.
And waited some more.
It's not uncommon for an agent or editor to take over six months to respond, but it was still maddening. Should I send a follow up email? What if she didn't even get my email? What if she couldn't open the file? Shouldn't she at least confirm? What if I look like a stalker and she rejects it just to get me off her back? After consulting some other writers for advice, I settled on sending the editor a follow-up email once a month. It's so different than my biotech job, where if I don't get a response in four hours, I assume the person is in the hospital.
Finally, last week, over three months later, I got a response: rejected. But it was what the industry calls an "encouraging rejection." Really, any type of response other than a form rejection letter falls into this category. It varies from a phone call or personal meeting (most encouraging) to a handwritten note scribbled across the bottom of a form letter (least encouraging).
My rejection letter was fairly encouraging because:
1) Based on her comments, the editor seems to have actually read the entire manuscript. Now, she's a professional, so she's not going to read the whole thing just to be nice; she'd stop as soon as she had a reason to.
2) She had some positive feedback
3) Her negative feedback was constructive and probably warranted
4) She didn't say my writing sucked; she just had some (totally fixable) issues with the plot
So, while a part of me was of course disappointed that she didn't call and immediately offer me a million bucks for my manuscript, I came away encouraged. Many a NYT bestseller has received dozens of similar rejections before being picked up.
Now. What's next? I'm sticking with my original plan of seeking an agent. But first, I'm going to hire a freelance editor to help with the manuscript. Which is a whole other blog topic...
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
In my writing workshop, the group leader passed around bags with scraps of paper. On each scrap was written a place, person or verb. We randomly picked two places, two people, and one verb. Then each of us had to write a brief story using those elements. I ended up with:
• Place 1: diner
• Place 2: desert
• Person 1: anarchist
• Person 2: lover/spouse
• Verb: flee
“Everything comes from the sea, and everything must return to the sea.”
Claire followed him. What else could she do?
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
I'm a loyal consumer of Apple products. In the past five years alone, I've owned six iPods, three Macs, one iPhone and 27 pair of ear buds (the things just multiply -- they're like Gremlins). But something happened recently that caused me to question my loyalty.
My exuberant dog, Chester, knocked over a glass of water with his tail and spilled about two ounces of water onto my one-year-old MacBook. The laptop was closed, and it was barely a splash, so I wasn't overly concerned. But after waiting a while to make sure the laptop was dry, I hit the power button, and nothing happened.
I took the MacBook into the Apple Store, where the guy at the Genius Bar told me I'd have to send my laptop off for a "Tier 4 repair." Sounded ominous, but I wasn't too worried. Then he told me the repair would cost $755, plus tax. Still, I remained calm. After all, I'd purchased the AppleCare Protection Plan.
Then he told me that water damage is not covered.
I wasn't sure what to do about the repair, but I knew I had to get the data off my hard drive. I'm a writer, and I stupidly hadn't backed up the last few versions of my novel. So I went home to lick my wounds and figure out how to salvage my data. I started taking apart my MacMini Desktop so I could plug my hard drive into it and rescue my manuscript. Kudos to the Apple engineers, because they somehow managed to pack the entire Apollo 13 Lunar Module into that little white box. It took me 30 minutes just to get the cover off. The instructional video I found online involved a razor blade and a putty knife. A putty knife.
I called the Genius Bar guy, and he said, no problem, the Tier 4 repair people could transfer the data off my old hard drive -- for an additional $150 fee. Now I was looking at $905, plus tax.
While I was pondering this, the Genius Bar guy was nice enough to point out that a new MacBook is about a grand, and they'd transfer my data to the new computer -- for free. What's more, my AppleCare Protection Plan would transfer to the new laptop. This was very reassuring, considering how helpful the plan had been with my last computer.
Now maybe it's just me, but I can't help but think that this whole pricing policy is designed to push me into a new laptop. But what it's more likely to do is push me into a PC. It's hard for me to stomach paying nearly $1000 to get my old MacBook back, when I could get a brand new Dell for $500. In the past, I paid the premium because Apple products work well and look cool, and because I figured Apple would take care of me. Now, I just feel disappointed.
Before I make any rash decisions about the equipment I'll be using for the remainder of my long and illustrious writing career, I wanted to ask if you could: cover my repair costs under the AppleCare plan; or, give me a discount on a new MacBook.
I'll be posting this letter (and your response) on my blog: http://theleafblower.blogspot.com/
I contacted Apple today to get the mailing address. I ended up explaining my situation, and they agreed to cover the cost of the repair – including the hard drive transfer. Nice job, Apple, you’re back in my good graces!
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Very difficult indeed. I tried the exercise with one sentence, then gave up and looked for an easier sentence. Next thing I knew, an hour had passed and I was still reading and re-reading my favorite long sentences from my favorite authors. So forget the exercise. I'm just going to share with you a couple of my favorite long sentences. This one, from All the Pretty Horses, just might be my favorite sentence of all time:
"They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing."
And here is my favorite "love scene" sentence, from For Whom the Bell Tolls:
"Then there was the smell of heather crushed and the roughness of the bent stalks under her head and the sun bright on her closed eyes and all his life he would remember the curve of her throat with her head pushed back into the heather roots and her lips that moved smally and by themselves and the fluttering of the lashes on the eyes tight closed against the sun and against everything, and for her everything was red, orange, gold-red from the sun on the closed eyes, and it all was that color, all of it, the filling, the possessing, the having, all of that color, all in a blindness of that color.
Here is the guy's perspective of that same scene:
"For him it was a dark passage which led to nowhere, then to nowhere, then again to nowhere, once again to nowhere, always and forever to nowhere, heavy on the elbows in the earth to nowhere, dark, never any end to nowhere, hung on all time always to unknowing nowhere, this time and again for always to nowhere, now not to be borne once again always and to nowhere, now beyond all bearing up, up, up and into nowhere, suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all nowhere gone and time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them."
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
If I'm disciplined, I can always eek out a few pages, no matter how insane my schedule gets. But I'm not missing time to write so much as time to not write. I miss the idle time, where I didn't do much of anything. Not because I'm lazy; idle time is where the ideas incubate. It's where poetry lives, in the moments you're not grasping at it. Because when you're too busy "doing," your soul, as Brenda Ueland put it, "gets frightfully sterile and dry" and "you have not time for your own ideas to come in and develop and gently shine."
I don't know what to do about this problem, other than win the lottery. And now I worry I'm falling into the cycle of thinking that has erased so many would-be writers: I'll wait until work calms down. I'll wait until after the wedding. I'll wait until the kids are grown.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
I just finished reading I Am Legend, the novella on which the Will Smith movie is loosely based. It's a brilliant (and influential) short story, especially considering it was written 55 years ago -- before the surfeit of vampire-ness in books and movies.
Here are just a few noteworthy movies I can think of that were based on short stories or novellas: The Shawshank Redemption (Stephen King), Stand by Me (Stephen King), Brokeback Mountain (Annie Proulx), A River Runs Through It (Norman Maclean), Apocalypse Now (Joseph Conrad).
Occasionally, a full-length novel spawns a movie that is as good or better than the book. One such movie is The Silence of the Lambs. Can you think of any others?
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
In his book How to Write a Damn Good Novel (which, frankly, is just damn okay), James Frey argues that writers' workshops have their purpose, but only the kind he calls "destructive." In these groups, members ruthlessly criticize your work, and you come away with a bruised ego -- but also with a thicker skin and a list of specific things to fix in your piece. The worst kind of writers' groups, Frey says, are the "puff" ones, where everyone sits around and talks about your wonderful description of the sunset on page four, because they're afraid to tell you that your story is atrocious.
I've participated in several workshops over the past year, and I have found them helpful to a degree. If nothing else, they force you to write. If you have pages due, you're going to finish something. And since people will be reading and commenting in public, you'll be motivated to try and make the pages decent. As for criticism, I think it should fall somewhere between puff and destructive, depending on what point you are at in your writing career. In the beginning, it's nerve racking enough just to have someone read and respond to your work; no brand-new writer is ready for brutal criticism. But as you gain some confidence in your writing, then by all means bring out the red pen; otherwise, it's a waste of time.
Most importantly, writers' workshops give you a sense of community. For those of us who have busy day jobs, these groups carve out a space to hang out with other people who write. And, occasionally, someone who I think is talented calls me talented. And that's enough to keep me going.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
I think Chester injured his back leg a few weeks ago. The tireless brute must have strained something while careening down a steep hill after his beloved ball. It’s hard to know when he’s in pain because he never makes a sound, but he seems to be putting less weight on that leg. And he’s so ball crazy, he wouldn’t stop chasing the thing if he had a jagged bone protruding from his thigh. So I’ve had to force him to take it easy. And this means no ball-throwing.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Right now I'm reading The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. After Erica referenced the novel on my blog, I realized I had it on my shelf; it was one of many books I scored for a dollar at the Friends of the SFPL Annual Big Book Sale. I've gone through a string of mediocre novels lately -- I didn't even finish the last three I started -- so Pearl's ingenious novel is all the more refreshing. I have nothing against mainstream fiction (after all, that's what I'm writing), but if you want to know the difference between a "literary" mystery and a "genre" mystery, read The Dante Club, and then pick up something by James Patterson.
Sure, Pearl skated summa cum through Harvard and Yale, and he won a prestigious prize for his thesis on Dante, but that doesn't automatically mean he can write fiction. And boy can he write fiction. The Dante Club is one of those auspicious debuts that simultaneously reignite my passion for writing -- and make me want to give it up for good.
So, that's what I'm reading.
What are YOU reading? And would you recommend it?
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
I am not worthy.
Some authors, when they talk about their writing process, they make it seem almost doable. Not easy -- don't get me wrong -- but at least something you could emulate with enough practice. I felt like this when I read Stephen King's On Writing, and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird.
Then there are writers like John Irving, the ones whose thought process is more like something Yoda would conjure; an otherworldly power you can't touch. Longtime Leaf Blower reader Daniel Mason sent me this video from the New York Times, about Irving's unusual process for writing novels. Irving says that knows he has a novel when the last sentence comes to him. Not the first sentence, mind you -- the LAST sentence. Once he writes down the last sentence, he says, he never changes it. Not a comma, not a period. Then he works backward from there. It's been that way for all twelve of his sprawling novels.
Watching the video, I thought, wait a minute, maybe his last sentences are written in such a vague, non-committal way that they could easily be written around, massaged, manipulated. So I pulled out a few of his books and turned to the last page. The final sentence of The World According to Garp is "But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases." Okay, fair enough. I can see how that sentence could come to you first, and inspire a book. It could be a first sentence, really. But then I looked at A Prayer for Owen Meany. The last sentence is "O God -- please give him back! I shall keep asking You." What? THAT's what came to him first? THAT's what inspired him to develop one of the most distinctive and memorable characters in modern literature?
When I started writing Double-blind, I didn't have the slightest idea how it would end. But I have a secret. I've been practicing this skill. In fact, before I started this blog post, I knew what the last sentence would be. It just came to me out of the sky, like lightening in a summer storm. And by the time the sound caught up to the flash, I'd already conceived a whole blog post to preface that last, brilliant sentence: and now we come to the end of my blog post -- see you next week.
Tuesday, June 9, 2009
I've had my Amazon Kindle for a week now, and I've been testing it on all kinds of media -- books, novellas, word docs, magazines, newspapers -- even a clinical research protocol (not recommended).
The Kindle's crisp screen and electronic ink technology live up to the hype. It's just like reading a printed page, although the background is more light gray than white. I still can't get over the fact that you can read the Kindle in bright sunlight. Also like print, the pages can't be read in dim light. This is so contrary to every other electronic device I've used my entire life, it takes some major mental adjustment. Another aspect that takes some getting used to is there are no page numbers on the screen. This is because you can adjust the text size, so it throws off the page count. Instead, it tells you your "location" in the document and the percentage you've read.
Once I adjusted my old way of thinking, and got into a book and started turning (clicking) pages, the device melted away and I was totally into the story -- almost more into the story, because I wasn't flipping forward to see how many pages were left in the chapter, or turning to the back cover to re-read the plot teaser. I got into a rhythm, and after a while I think I was actually reading faster than normal.
My favorite thing about the Kindle is its simplicity and utilitarianism. It doesn't have a color display or flashing graphics or a fancy interface; its main reason for existence is to allow you unbridled access to words. Many reviewers complain that the device lacks a touch screen. I actually see this as a positive. To me, a touch screen on an e-book reader would be smudgy and distracting. The 5-way joystick navigator and page-turn buttons work just fine -- and they don't get in the way of the text. I also love that the wireless is included. This was what put me over the hump to purchase the Kindle in the first place. I was about to order it when I balked and thought, wait, will I have to sign up for yet another monthly service plan? I was ecstatic to find out that the wireless was built in, with no service fees. When you factor that in, the Kindle is cheap compared to many other wireless devices.
Of course, this wireless access makes it almost too easy to buy books. Now, I'm sure I'll be less likely to drunk download an e-book at midnight (like I would an iTunes song), but it's a little scary to have the ability to deliver any NYT bestseller into my hand in 30 seconds flat -- for a mere $9.99.
One of the new features of the Kindle 2.0 is the text-to-speech function, where the device will read to you. This is an utterly useless feature. While the computer is surprisingly adept at recognizing words, it's not going to sound like an audio book because it doesn't know where to place the emphases, inflection and pauses. So it sounds like what it is -- a robot reading words. The only time I could see turning on this feature is if I find myself without the use of my eyes.
The other quibble I have is the slight delay between changing screens. When you push the page-forward button, the screen washes black for a millisecond before displaying the next page. Overall, it's probably less than the delay you cause by turning a physical page, but it still has occasionally caused me to hit the button twice.
I read a lot of other people's work for my writing groups, and the Kindle worked great for this. It saved me from having to print out dozens of Word Doc pages, and I can still highlight passages and comment on the document as I'm reading it.
As for newspapers, I downloaded an issue of The Wall Street Journal to see how the Kindle handled it. It's pretty cool, and would be great if you were on a plane, or eating breakfast at my tiny kitchen table, but it doesn't beat sitting on the couch with that crinkled paper spread over your lap. When I read a newspaper, I like to scan the pages quickly, take in the pictures and graphs; I probably only read a few articles in their entirely but I want to look at the whole paper. The Kindle is just a different experience. There are no pictures or ads. And the articles are categorized in a straightforward, easy-to-navigate menu, complete with word counts of each article. So, if your primary goal of reading a newspaper is to absorb as much information in as short a time as possible, then the Kindle might be your answer. For me, I'll stick to good ol' newsprint -- at least until the bigger, next generation Kindle DX comes out.
A few notes about the hardware. The Kindle looks fantastic and feels great in your hands. The buttons and keyboard are slick and functional. The battery life is amazing -- up to two weeks between charges if you turn off the wireless.
Overall, while the Kindle is not perfect, once you get used to it, it's a remarkable device and a viable alternative to printed books.
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
If the implosion of General Motors is any indication, Americans have fallen out of love with the automobile. But cars still, to some extent, define who we are. A quick count of Priuses on the road in San Francisco will tell you people haven't stopped using cars to make a statement. So I wonder, what's the ideal car for a writer?
According to an excellent 2007 Rolling Stone interview which I can't seem to find online, Cormac McCarthy "lives so far off the beaten path, he drives a flatbed truck."
Now a flatbed truck and a Rolls Royce minibar are a little extreme, but what is the ideal car for a writer? Is it the weathered Saab, signifying you're part of the literary elite:
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
I've agonized about it for years. I've considered my options, weighed the pros and cons. Tried to ignore the issue, hoped it would go away. But I finally had to face my demons head-on. I decided to buy an e-book reader -- an Amazon Kindle.
For as long as I can remember, I've been enamored with new books: the sleekness of the dust jacket; the wisp of turning pages; the intoxicating scent of the binding glue. There's nothing like cracking the spine of a new tome and flipping through it, getting a peak of what's to come. And, as a new writer, I dream of the day when I can hold my own published book -- a paper book -- in my hands. I still want to see it on my bookshelf, on display at a bookstore, or hidden in the corner of the local library.
Now I'm fairly certain the print book will not die in my lifetime. But it will go the way of the compact disc. At some point in the not-too-distant future, the majority of books sold will be in electronic format. Ignoring that fact is like the music execs ignoring electronic music files. According to this article from the Wall Street Journal, e-books will change not only the way books are read, but the way they are written.
If I hope to take advantage of this new medium, I need to understand it; I need to experience it first hand. Plus, the Kindle is pretty damn cool. The most important feature of the Kindle (and the Sony Reader) is that it uses electronic-ink technology so the screen looks like a printed page. It's not backlit like a cellphone or computer screen, so it's easy on the eyes and can be read in bright sunlight just like a paper book. See a word you don't know? Just click on it and it gives you the definition. Want to know more about a topic in the book? Kindle will look it up on Wikipedia.
I think the uptake of e-books will actually help new writers. E-books are cheap, and they will only get cheaper. It's also easy to give them away for free. With a lower (or nonexistent) price point, a reader is more likely to take a chance on a new author, and this exposure will sell books -- including print books.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
I finished my book! I sent it off to the editor who was interested. It felt so good to hit SEND! The next step is to start researching agents who also might be interested in DOUBLE-BLIND. I'm sure I'll keep tinkering with the manuscript in the future, but for now I’m happy to spend some time away from it.
And now, what you've all been waiting for... the results from last week’s contest. I decided to give away six books, since I own a copy. The winners are:
Emilie: That is scary—especially forgetting who the babysitter was. But Daniel was a smart kid; I’m sure he would’ve found a way to contact you.
Recess: Human trafficking is scary indeed, but it was the flattery that clenched it for you.
Moeller: Hilarious! And true for you—until recently. You earned your book.
Amy: That is funny because I know it’s a genuine concern for you. So far, Chester and Jersey have avoided suffocation.
E: I agree about being eaten alive by insects. When I was growing up, one of my biggest fears was that I’d be buried neck-deep in an ant hole, with my mouth propped open and honey spread on tongue. I was a strange kid.
Kim: Terrifying. You wake up and see a dim figure at the foot of your bed, just casually sitting there. You’re not sure if he’s real. Then he moves.
(Anonymous: I agree that “true” stories are always the scariest. Amityville Horror is still one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read. I had to disqualify you because you didn’t leave your name. Also, I think you might be my mom, which disqualifies you from the contest anyway)
Winners, please email me your address and I’ll send you your copy of Afraid.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
The eBook is a horror novella called SERIAL, a tale of hitchhiking gone terribly wrong. Like a deeply twisted version of an “After School Special,” it is the single most persuasive public service announcement on the hazards of free car rides. The eBook also contains a Q&A with Kilborn and Crouch, author bibliographies, and excerpts from their most recent and forthcoming works.
Here's the link to SERIAL; the eBook is located under "Book Extras" in the bottom right-hand corner. You can download it either as a PDF file or ePub version (the Sony eBook Reader format).
But wait, constant reader (as Stephen King would say), there's more: I'm also offering you the chance to win your very own copy of Kilborn's book, AFRAID. The publisher has given me 5 copies to give away.
Here's the contest: I want to hear about what makes you afraid. You can write one word (e.g. "clowns"), or one hundred words; it's up to you. I'll pick the top five scariest entries and send each winner a copy of AFRAID (US and Canada residents only). I've read the book... if you get a copy, be sure to keep your lights on!
I'll be accepting entries (posted in the comments section) until Sunday, May 17th. Enjoy the free eBook and the contest!