Tuesday, November 24, 2009

It makes phone calls, too.

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).

It's not all Kindle's fault, though. I just happened to possess a trio of excellent paper books (Motherless Brooklyn, Legends of the Fall and Beat the Reaper) and I wanted to get through them before buying anything new. Now I'm out of intriguing paper books. I'm going to Michigan for the Thanksgiving holiday, and I plan to bring the Kindle with me. The e-reader was made for times like this: I need a new book to read, but don't have time to get one before I leave, so I'll just take the entire bookstore with me and decide on the plane. Welcome to the future.

Speaking of eReaders, yesterday I finally tried something I've been thinking about for months. I read a book on my iPhone. I was violently opposed to the idea just on principle (what's next, brushing my teeth with an iPhone?). But since everyone else is doing it, it can't be that bad, right? Turns out it isn't. Actually, it's alarmingly good.

It's not as easy on the eyes as e-ink (say that ten times fast), but the crisp, auto-dimming screen that we've grown to love for everything else on earth is quite good for reading, too. I used the Kindle App, which is free and lets you sync your Amazon e-books to your iPhone. Now, I wouldn't use it as my primary e-reader, but if I was stuck in line and didn't have reading material with me, the iPhone would be more than adequate.

And I love the page-turning feature. You just click the side of screen, or even better, flick it with your thumb like you would a piece of paper. And there's no micro-delay between pages, which is one of the main complaints of e-readers; they "blink" for just a fraction of a second between pages, while redistributing the e-ink, or something.

Just like any e-reader, the iPhone feels weird at first, but after a few pages you're fully into the story, and you forget that you're reading on a 3-inch screen. Of course, you'll also forget you're reading altogether when your book rings.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Don't quote me on that.

Someday, I'd like to set the tone for a story by kicking it off with a quote from Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen.

Like this:

What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

--Neil Young, "Ohio"

Or this:

They declared me unfit to live
said into that great void my soul'd be hurled
They wanted to know why I did what I did
Well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world

--Bruce Springsteen, "Nebraska"

But how do you go about including someone else's song lyrics in your own work? What type of permissions do you need? I did a little research. Basically, you need to secure permission from the artist or copyright owner. And with today's convoluted song ownership structure (I just made that up; I have nothing to base it on other than the Michael Jackson/Beatles thing), it can be hard to track down the person who can actually say Yes. And you may have to pay a licensing fee, which, if the authors are named Lennon and McCartney and you're a first-time novelist, could be prohibitively high.

Now, if the quote falls under the legal doctrine "fair use" you can use it without permission. But --surprise -- it's a gray area. Generally, you can invoke "fair use" if the material is used for non-profit and/or educational purposes, if the amount quoted is small in relation to the entire copyrighted work --or if the quote is really old. So you can quote the Bible, but not The Boss. Finally, it's worth noting that "acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission."

I took that quote from the Copyright Office's website; I hope I can use it without their permission.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A week in the writing life of Brian

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've been writing a lot with my sweatshirt hood on. Not because it's cold but because it blocks out Jersey, who always sits just at the corner of my vision field, pretending not to stare at me. She's distracting, that cat. Chester's technique is more simple and earnest; he just comes up and nudges his nose into my thigh.

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

Where to begin...

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?