Writing

Sometimes I Just Can’t

Last Friday I picked up a book from the library that I put on hold five months ago. I was surprised to find it in my stack. (I may or may not have done a small fist pump of victory as I was leaving the library. I’m not a sporting person, so fist pumps go for things like scoring books and the first day of summer that my favorite Mediterranean restaurant has gazpacho on the menu.) In November and December of last year, everyone seemed to be raving about this impressive debut novel. It was all over favorite and best-of lists.

When I got home I didn’t start the novel right away because I wanted to read Carrie Brownstein’s memoir first, but on Sunday night I tucked myself in and opened it to the first page. Not going to lie, I wasn’t crazy about the first-person narrator’s voice, mainly because it didn’t sound like a voice. It sounded like someone writing a voice. And then, on page five (page five!), I got to this:

“The man wheezing behind the counter masticated me with his eyes.”

No, I thought. I can’t. I can’t spend another 347 pages with this person. But I tried. I made it all the way to page 12, and then I closed the book and set it aside.

To masticate is to chew food. So the man chewed the narrator (a female, if that helps for context) with his eyes. And so, “He chewed me up with his eyes.” As metaphors go, it’s a bit of a stretch but not too bad. It’s the word masticate that stops me. It sounds like writing, not like telling. There’s something visceral about the word chew; masticate sounds…medical, like palpate instead of touch. And maybe it’s the former writing teacher in me, but all I can picture is the author going through the manuscript with a thesaurus and making the prose sound writerly. You know, like people who say utilize instead of use because they think it makes them sound more intelligent or important. (It doesn’t. Stop doing that.) I wondered, is it the first-person thing that bothers me? That it just doesn’t sound like a female from the Midwest in her early 20s on her way to a big city would say that someone masticated her with his eyes? Not that I want a generic sound for that, but maybe I just don’t know enough about this narrator yet to know why she’d use the word masticate instead of chew? But do I want to find out?

And then I wondered, is this style what people who typically read for plot think of as literary? And when does writing become over-writing? Do we all have our limits? A lot of people would accuse Donna Tartt of overwriting—I’m not one of them. To me her first-person narratives sound like they come from actual people (that she has made up), not direct from her own brain. So is over-writing when it sounds like what we’re really hearing is the author pretending to be a character? I don’t know. But I know this: the words matter. At least they do for me.

I cannot question why so many people loved this book because I didn’t read it. I won’t be giving it some crappy review on Goodreads (“I gave it one star but really it barely deserves HALF A STAR!!!!!!”) like people who take it rather personally when a book is just not right for them, as opposed to being a bad book. “Is there a difference?” you might wonder. I think so. I don’t know if this is a bad book or a good book. I just know that I would not be able to turn off the editor in my head, and I’d probably have a severe headache from constantly rolling my eyes. Maybe I’m just a bitch, maybe I’m just picky (or maybe both). I guess certain voices, like certain people, just rub me the wrong way. And so the book goes back to the library, and I have quietly removed it from my TBR shelf.

How about you? I know a lot of people set aside books because they’re too boring, slow, or violent, but have you ever set aside a book because the words just didn’t ring true for you? I’m curious to know if I’m the only one!

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Book Turn-Offs

I liked today’s Top Ten topic at The Broke and the Bookish, so I thought I’d give it a go. Thing is, I realized, that I could go in so many directions with this list. I decided to focus on things that turn me off while I am actually reading a book even to the point where I abandon it entirely. And no, I no longer have any guilt about abandoning books with these problems.

1. Bad grammar or style. I’m always amazed at people who tell me that if the story is good, they aren’t bothered by grammatical mistakes or poor writing style. What I think they really mean is that they wouldn’t know a grammar mistake or poor style if it hit them upside the head. Otherwise, how could they go on reading? Bad grammar and poor style are the reasons I didn’t finish book one of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series. I’m still puzzled as to how something can be considered essential reading when it’s so poorly written.

2. Bad metaphors/similes. Not long ago, I was reading a novel that a member of my book club had selected as our book that month, and I came across this: “She plucked the phone from the wall like an apple from a tree.” Let’s break it down, shall we? First, “pluck” is a verb that would really never make sense in association with answering a phone, even a phone mounted on a wall. Second, “pluck” is a verb that doesn’t even make sense in regards to taking an apple from a tree…I suppose one could claim poetic license. Whenever I’ve picked an apple from a tree, it hasn’t come away from its branch quite so easily. Third…what? That metaphor lends nothing to character, or story, or meaning. It’s just a writer trying to find a “writerly” way to say, “She answered the phone.” I closed the book and never looked back. (Okay, the book had other problems besides the apple phone.)

3. Actions or emotions that don’t seem true to a character. I find it jarring when I am halfway through a book and a character says or does something that doesn’t ring true. When this happens, generally the author is doing one of two things: 1. Making the character do or say something out of character because she’s putting plot ahead of character and needs to get from A to B without changing too much of what’s come before; 2. Having the character do or feel something the author himself would feel in that situation. Recently I was reading a book where the protagonist was a teenage boy whose mother had just died. Out of nowhere, the boy had thoughts about his dead mother that simply did not seem like the thoughts of a teenage boy; they seemed like the thoughts of a much older person with more perspective on life, on parenthood, and on loss of a loved one. It was the only stumble in an otherwise very good book, but it pulled me out of a poignant moment.

4. Wacky verbs. Okay, I suppose we already covered this one with “plucked,” but wacky verbs can truly ruin a scene. Recently in a book I was reading, the author used the verb trot several times early on in the novel to describe characters walking from one place to another. In these scenes, the author was setting up one of the main tensions of the book–the fact that a convicted killer is coming to live with a simple farm family while she awaits her execution–and the author had the daughters “trotting” to and fro. Picture a person trotting. Looks a bit silly, no? It lessened the tension somewhat, and not in a good way.

5 Precocious or eccentric children. When I encounter precocious children who are wiser than their years and sound like adults, I mainly think that the author doesn’t know how to write about children or from a child’s point of view. Much easier to turn child characters into tiny adults, I suppose, than to rethink the book or character, especially if the author is already too invested or far along in the writing.

6. Overwriting. Too many metaphors, too much description–the hallmarks of overwriting. I do not need to know every item in a character’s kitchen cabinet. That is not verisimilitude; it’s detail for detail’s sake. The fact a character has Heinz 57 sauce instead of A-1 doesn’t really tell me anything about the character I need to know (unless, of course, the bottle will be/has been used as a murder weapon at some point in the story). Details that don’t drive the story forward get in the way. Overwriting also almost always leads to bad metaphors, or to bad writing in general. Consider the following:

“The letter to Daniel Robbin came like an instinct, flying from her hand and sweeping across the satin-white paper like a flurry of snow, hesitating only slightly when she wrote the date…” (from The Crying Tree, by Naseem Rakha)

Letter flying from hand: bad. Satin-white paper: unnecessary description. Sweeping like a flurry of snow? Isn’t snow white? White words on white paper? Awesome! Also, the gerund phrase “hesitating only slightly…” actually modifies “letter.” A letter cannot hesitate. A writer hesitates. Where is the actor? Buried beneath the snow, perhaps?

7. Jazz hands. Some of you may think that over-writing is the same thing as jazz hands, but it is a distinct thing. Jazz hands is when a good writer wants to show how clever he or she really is. Jazz hands is the reason I’ve never read past page five of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Jazz hands is why I didn’t much like Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man or Ian McEwan’s Solar.

8. Too much quirk. If I think a book might be overly quirky or twee, I stay far, far away. See #6, Precocious or eccentric children. Also see talking animals or animals in general; eccentric aunts, uncles, or grandparents; or magical book stores. Actually, this is a tough one because some terrific books have some of the things I just listed–I just try to go with my gut.

9. The Noble Savage. This doesn’t bother me in books written before, say, 1930. I mean, it does bother me, but in a different way than when I see it in recent novels set in current time. In a modern context, this is a trope that needs to die. I’m looking at you, Little Bee.

10. Too many adverbs. I’ll admit, this is one of those things I never noticed until I saw a writer mention it on one of those lists of mistakes for writers to avoid. Now I can’t un-see the adverbs. I might not quit reading a book altogether because of this one, but every unnecessary adverb is a tiny knife to my heart. (How’s that for some bad writing?)

What are your turn-offs? Um, about books. Book turn-offs only, please.

What I’ve Been Reading

Time to take a breath! For the last month I’ve been thinking of all the reviews I want to write, because I’ve been reading some terrific books. Tomorrow! is always the day I’m finally going to write a post on this or that book. Today I realized I am so hopelessly behind that it’s never going to happen. Pretty much every book I’ve read this last month or so deserves its own post, but I suppose something is better than nothing, so here goes:

A Fine Balance CoverA Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry. This is such a sad and wonderful book. Mistry is a wonderful storyteller. A Fine Balance follows the lives of four characters: Dina Dalal, Ishvar Darji, Omprakash (Om) Darji, and Maneck Kohlah. The main part of the story takes place in Mumbai, India during The Emergency, a period from June 1975 to March 1977 when Indian Prime Minister Indira Ghandi suspended civil liberties and elections and established rule by decree.

Ishvar and Om are untouchables who travel from their village to Mumbai to find tailoring work. After struggling to find a job, they are hired by Dina, a widow with poor vision who has taken in piecework in order to remain independent. Dina, who is from a wealthy family, has also sublet her bedroom to a college student, Maneck, who is the only son of a former classmate. Maneck’s father is a merchant in the mountains of northern India. Their backgrounds could not be more diverse, but after much struggle and misunderstanding, they become a sort of family.

The Emergency and its direct effects on each of the characters frames much of what happens in the story, but the book never falls into the realm of political discussion. It also does not use The Emergency as a device for telling the story; instead, it’s an organic part of the plot. Even though Mistry is most certainly helping readers to understand the struggles that Indians of all backgrounds faced from post-independence in 1947 through The Emergency and to show India’s struggles as a country (religious intolerance, caste systems, poverty, and so forth), the characters’ personal stories remain the author’s primary concern. I bring this up because the style is so very different than what happens in a book like Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man, where the author has very deliberately taken something real in the form of Judaism and Kabbalah and used them as devices to tell a story in a very particular way. I essentially read these back-to-back, so it really got me thinking about what I enjoy in storytelling, and I realized that ultimately I prefer not to have the author on the page with me. When I read The Autograph Man, I was constantly aware that I was reading a very deliberately constructed narrative, which actually distanced me from the main character, Alex, and made me twice removed from the characters in Alex’s life. I think a constructed narrative can work in the first person, because the construction can belong to/be organic to the character, but in the third person, it can be difficult to tell whose story I’m reading: the author’s or the character’s.

All that is just to say, Mistry never gets in between the reader and the story, which might be easy for an author to do, especially when his audience might be one that is not familiar with Indian politics and history. He could have–how shall I say this?–pulled a Tolstoy and given the reader a lot of information about the history of what actually happened, but instead, he just lets the characters lead their lives, and that is more powerful than anything. So if you haven’t read this book, you really, really should.

Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity Third Edition/Expanded CoverZen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury. Obviously, this is a book about writing. Confession: I’ve never read a thing by Ray Bradbury, not even Fahrenheit 451, which is really the only book of his I knew at the outset. I didn’t realize he’d written Something Wicked This Way Comes, not to mention countless other novels, stories, and plays. So why pick it up? Well, it’s a book I see recommended over and over again for fiction writers. While I can’t say I learned anything hugely profound, what I liked about this book was Bradbury’s complete joy and excitement about writing. Most books about writing focus on the suffering, the difficulty of getting something on the page. Bradbury doesn’t deny the difficulty–or rather, I should say, he’s not unrealistic. Sometimes–much of the time–your writing will be bad. But only by working and writing badly will you ever write well. This isn’t so different from advice by Stephen King or Anne Lamott, but it’s certainly delivered more effusively. It reminded me of a quote from an interview with George Saunders that I read recently: “Fun is an aspect of fiction that often gets undersold…Fun is hard to talk about. It doesn’t ‘teach’ well. … All those literary things we learn about? Theme and character and all that? My experience is you can’t get there without fun.”

This book is quick to read and definitely worth picking up if you’re interested in any kind of  writing, I think. But even if you’re “just” a reader, Bradbury talks about reading–and watching television and movies–and holding on to what you love.

Divergent (Divergent Trilogy #1) CoverDivergent, by Veronica Roth. I might be the last person in the book blogging world to have read this book, but I’m glad I did. If you haven’t read it yet and you enjoyed The Hunger Games trilogy, definitely pick this one up. I admit I didn’t like it quite as much as The Hunger Games–the love story is more central here, and Beatrice/Tris, the heroine, not quite as strong as Katniss–but it still has an interesting premise. Society has been divided into five factions: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. At the age of 16, children are tested to determine their aptitude for their particular group, and they can choose to join any faction–but choosing a new faction results in leaving behind one’s family forever. Candidates go through initiation, and those who are unsuccessful (or somehow otherwise break the rules of their faction) become one of the Factionless, who live outside the bounds of the city (dystopian, future Chicago) and do menial jobs to support themselves. Some people have no test results–they are Divergent, and they are also considered dangerous.

Unbeknownst to Beatrice/Tris, some of the factions are preparing a war to wipe out the other factions. This book ends with Tris’s discovery and the initial battle. It was a gripping, quick read, and I look forward to reading the next in the series, Insurgent.

American Salvage CoverAmerican Salvage, by Bonnie Jo Campbell. The short story collection American Salvage was a National Book Award finalist in 2009, and it’s so apparent why–these stories are terrific. Campbell is a natural storyteller in the vein of Flannery O’Connor. Given her material, I could see that some people might also want to compare her to Raymond Carver–certainly no insult.

These stories are about hard-working, small town people in upper Michigan. Most of them are poor, several are plagued by meth addictions that affect so many people in small towns. A family returns to their summer home to find it has been invaded by meth addicts. An overseer at a former construction yard realizes he is unable to arrest the natural course of things in life and marriage. A young girl who hasn’t spoken in over a year finds a way to let her shotgun speak for her. A man pines for an old girlfriend he saved from an abusive father, only to find that she considers him just another in a long line of abusers. A woman with a higher degree in agriculture tries to make a go of it as a farmer’s wife.

Campbell shares a sensibility with another one of my favorite authors, Kent Haruf. Her characters’ stories are tough, but they are also beautiful. Campbell allows her characters their dignity even in the worst circumstances, and her writing is seamless.

This collection got me thinking about how many people there are out there who don’t enjoy reading short stories. This is a collection I’d want to get in their hands to make them see what stories can be at their best. O’Connor and Munro and Carver are wonderful, but their reputations precede them and put a sort of pressure on the reader to enjoy them in a certain way. In reading this collection, readers place themselves in the hands of an able storyteller who also has the luck of being someone who has not yet become a name, someone to be imitated (although she most surely will be, because how could any writer help but want to write so well as Campbell does?). Highly recommended. I cannot wait to read her latest work, the novel Once Upon a River.

Paris Review: Alice Munro

May is Short Story Month, and Alice Munro, along with being one of my favorite writers, is an undisputed master of the short story form. If you have not read any of her work, I suggest you get your hands on one of her collections, pronto. My personal favorite is Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.

Interviewer: Were you a big reader growing up? What work if any had an influence?

Munro: Reading was my life really until I was thirty. I was living in books. The writers of the American South were the first writers who really moved me because they showed me that you could write about small towns, rural people, and that kind of life I knew very well. But the thing about the Southern writers that interested me, without my really being aware of it, was that all the Southern writers whom I really loved were women. I didn’t really like Faulkner that much. I loved Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers. There was a feeling that women could write about the freakish, the marginal.

Interviewer: Which you’ve always done as well.

Munro: Yes, I came to feel that was our territory, whereas the mainstream big novel about real life was men’s territory. I don’t know how I got that feeling of being on the margins; it wasn’t that I was pushed there. Maybe it was because I grew up on a margin. I knew there was something about the great writers I felt shut out from, but I didn’t know quite what it was. I was terrible disturbed when I first read D.H. Lawrence. I was often disturbed by writers’ views of female sexuality.

Interviewer: Can you put your finger on what it was that disturbed you?

Munro: It was: how can I be a writer when I’m the object of other writers?

*photo from abebooks.com; interview from The Paris Review Interviews, vol.II

Paris Review: Chinua Achebe

Interviewer: When you write, what audience do you have in mind? Is it Nigerian? Is it Igbo? Is it American?

Achebe: All of those. I have tried to describe my position in terms of circles, standing there in the middle. These circles contain audiences that get to hear my story. The closest circle is the one closest to my home in Igboland, because the material I am using is their material. But unless I’m writing in the Igbo language, I use a language developed elsewhere, which is English. That affects the way I write. It even effects to some extent the stories that I write. So there is, if you like, a kind of paradox there already. But then, if you can, visualize a large number of ever-widening circles, including all, like Yeats’s widening gyre. As more and more people are incorporated in this network, they will get different levels of meaning out of the story, depending on what they already know, or what they suspect. These circles go on indefinitely to include, ultimately, the whole world. I have become more aware of this as my books become more widely known. At this particular time, mostly the news I hear is of translations of my books, especially Things Fall Apart…in Indonesia, in Thailand, Korea, Japan, China, and so on. Fortunately you don’t think of all those people when you are writing. At least, I don’t. When I’m writing, I really want to satisfy myself. I’ve got a story that I am working on and struggling with, and I want to tell it the most effective way I can. That’s really what I struggle with. And the thought of who may be reading it may be there somewhere in the back of my mind–I’ll never say it’s not there because I don’t know–but it’s not really what I’m thinking about. After all, some people will say, Why does he put in all these Nigerian-English words? Some critics say that in frustration. And I feel like saying to them, Go to hell! That’s the way the story was given to me. And if you don’t want to make this amount of effort, the kind of effort that my people have always made to understand Europe and the rest of the world, if you won’t make this little leap, then leave it alone!

*from The Paris Review Interviews, vol. III

Paris Review Interviews: Raymond Carver

I finally received my Paris Review Interviews box set, and I thought it would be fun to share some excerpts with you every Saturday. This week, since I said in my Booking Through Thursday post this week that I think people should read Raymond Carver, I thought I would start there:

Interviewer: Are your characters trying to do what matters?

Carver: I think they are trying. But trying and succeeding are two different matters. In some lives, people always succeed; and I think it’s grand when that happens. In other lives, people don’t succeed at what they try to do, at the things they most want to do, the large and small things that support the life. These lives are, of course, valid to write about, the lives of the people who don’t succeed. Mot of my own experience, direct or indirect, has to do with the latter situation. I think most of my characters would like their actions to count for something. But at the same time they’ve reached the point–as so many people do–that they know it isn’t so. It doesn’t add up any longer. The things you once thought were important or even worth dying for aren’t worth a nickel now. It’s their lives they’ve become uncomfortable with, lives they see breaking down. They’d like to set things right, but they can’t. And usually they do know it, I think, and after that they just do the best they can. (1983)

NaNoWriMo: Soundtrack

nano_09_red_participant_120x90One of my favorite series on the music and book blog Largehearted Boy is Book Notes, where authors create music playlists that somehow relate to their books. I find a lot of inspiration from music, especially when I am thinking about specific characters. I’ve been pursuing the story in one form or another that’s becoming my NaNoWriMo draft for about four or five years. Over the last few weeks the story has changed drastically, taking twists and turns I had never imagined when writing earlier incarnations.

I actually created a playlist for my original idea about a year and a half ago, when I finally decided that my story would be set in a very specific place and time: Odessa, Texas, in 1981. It just so happens that I lived in Odessa in 1981 (you might know Odessa from the movie or book Friday Night Lights, about the Permian Panthers high school football team), and like one of my main characters I was starting the seventh grade, but that’s mostly where the autobiographical material ends, with one exception: the music. I pulled together this soundtrack from what I remember as being popular around that time (1981 or earlier), what I heard on the radio (it was still AM then, with everything all mixed together), what I heard on the jukebox in the cafeteria at school, and what I heard in the cars of my friends’ older siblings as they drove us to football games.

My book is about two sisters, Melissa and Laurie Jenkins, who are both in junior high in 1981, when Melissa is abducted. Although she is returned unharmed, this event, followed by the brutal murder of a priest from a nearby town, sends a wave of change through the family, and will determine events that follow in their lives. That’s where it stands right now, anyway, and I am trying not to question it too much. It’s all a bit delicate, but I hope to have some excerpts to share by the weekend.

I was lucky I didn’t have to spend much time on this, because I am sure I could have avoided writing for many hours if I hadn’t already pulled most of this together. I have tweaked it a bit for certain characters, just by adding a few songs. Unfortunately, this isn’t the full list, either, but I think it’s a good representation. So, without further ado, my soundtrack for What Hope Looks Like to Other People:

AC/DC, “Back in Black.” Back in Black was released in the summer of 1980, and that fall the Permian Panthers won the Texas State Championship. This song became a sort of anthem for the team through the early 80s (I can’t say about later), and it would play over and over on the jukebox during lunch. The biggest thing for Laurie, who is in the ninth grade, is the fact that she will be going to Permian the following year. When the story begins, high school is like an end to her–the big finish, if you will. College is something vague and hazy, but to go to Permian–for those kids, it was like touching history. That’s how it is for Laurie.

Juice Newton, “Angel of the Morning.” This song works for the story on several levels. For Laurie, it’s a simple romantic song. For Melissa, it means being somebody special to someone, even if not in a romantic sense. For Pauline (their cousin, who has a somewhat major part to play), it represents a sort of desperate hope.

Bruce Springsteen, “Hungry Heart.” This is Melissa’s song for her father, who left three years before and lives in Houston, working for an oil company. She and Laurie visit him during the course of the story. He lives alone in a small apartment, so would not seem to fit the picture of philandering guy in the song, but he’s also a lonely romantic.

Cheap Trick, “Surrender.” This teen anthem works here mainly because Laurie wants so badly to surrender, while Melissa simply cannot. As she enters junior high, she watches her world and her friends change, and she has no idea where her place might be.

Rush, “Limelight.” This is one of those songs you might roll your eyes at now, but the album was released in March of 1981, and it was everywhere. The most popular song was “Tom Sawyer,” but I chose this one because I think again it speaks loudly to the struggles that not only the Jenkins sisters face growing up, but their family members and perhaps even the whole town. Midland/Odessa was experiencing a boom then, and they seemed primed to be the Dallas/Ft. Worth of West Texas, until the bottom fell out. The main question is, how does one go on?

ABBA, “Thank You for the Music.” I have a scene I am not sure will make it into the final draft, but I hope it does: Melissa and her best friend Darlene, in the fifth and sixth grade, would go to Darlene’s house after school every day and listen to The Album, making up performances for each other. When they enter junior high, their friendship shifts, and this is the song, which is a sort of farewell, that makes Melissa the most nostalgic for those days and their friendship.

Foreigner, “Blue Morning, Blue Day.” This song is for Melissa and Laurie’s cousin Pauline. Her character is not as well-drawn as the sisters at this point, but I know she is in her mid-20s, is divorced and has a child who has died.

Eddie Rabbit, “I Love a Rainy Night.” I sort of chose this song for the overall irony of the lyrics (“Showers wash all my cares away/I wake up to a sunny day”), but also for Laurie, who loves this song and who very much sees the world this way.

Roseanne Cash, “Seven Year Ache.” This is another song for Pauline, who meets and starts dating Eddie, a person who will have significant impact on their lives. This one also works on an ironic level…but I can’t say too much about it!

The Go Go’s, “Our Lips Are Sealed.” This is another song for Laurie, but I also chose it because it was one of the first sort of new wave song to hit the radio that year, and it signals a shift from the 70s into the 80s.

Genesis, “No Reply at All.” This song, off Abacab, drives a lot of the book. Basically, it’s a song about the inability to connect with someone, about feeling as though one is not seen or heard. It’s Melissa’s song, and she’s at the center of the story, even if the whole story is not hers. I think, in the end, she will control everything in the narrative.