Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Jamie Ford's Novel Arrives Big Time

There's a million writing blogs out there. A person can read only so many, and, in truth, a sensible person would read very very few. But one I make a point of visiting is Jamie Ford's Bittersweet Blog. Not only is Jamie smart and funny, but he also features the best illustrations on any blog in the business. (His background in advertising shows to good advantage).

So, it's my pleasure to draw your attention to the fact that his long-awaited first novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, was published this week, and is doing terrific business. After a slew of glittering reviews over the last month, his latest post informs us that Hotel has been selected as various flavors of Book of the Month at Barnes and Noble, Costco, and Borders.

There it sits in the universally coveted position on the New Fiction table at our local Barnes and Noble (less the copy I just snagged).

On top of all this, Jamie is just starting his book tour--mostly in Montana (his home base) and the West Coast, but it will also take him to single appearances in Utah, Colorado, Texas, and Wisconsin. If you live within striking distance, you should probably drop through and have him sign a copy of his novel. This might be the last time you can meet him without having to pass through a phalanx of bodyguards hired to fend off squads of screaming groupies. But I'm not jealous. Nope. Not me.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Lucy McCarraher Returns to the Blogosphere

After a long (but apparently busy) bit of quiet time, Lucy McCarraher, author of MNW's Blood and Water, has started making noise again. She has begun a new blog at a new address (freshly updated under her name on the sidebar), has a new website, has published a new novel, Kindred Spirits, and has another, Mr. Mikey's Ladies, in the works.

Welcome back, Lucy!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Throughline, Part I

I'm not sure what's wrong with me these days.

Scratch that—I can come up with a long list of what's wrong with me. That's beside the point. What I really want to know is what the hell is wrong with my current work-in-progress. (And, yes, by inference, with me. Pointing that out was gratuitous.)

The problem is that I'm well into the novel now, and I still haven't discovered the throughline. Let me clarify (as much for myself as for you) exactly what I mean by that.

For me, 'story' is what your tale is about, the key to the conflict. 'Plot' is the details of how the story unfolds. And 'throughline' is the simplest continuous thread of the plot, the element that allows readers to remind themselves why we are going through all this song and dance. To take a classic example, in The Maltese Falcon, the story is about how a detective untangles and avenges his partner's murder. The plot is convoluted beyond easy synopsis. But the throughline is simple— What is the falcon, who has the falcon, why does everybody want the falcon...Where the hell is that damn bird?

Mysteries tend to have complex plots, but also tend to have simple throughlines, such as “Who killed Fred?” After having mulled this over for some time now, I'm willing to hazard a generalization: the more complex the plot and story, the simpler the throughline needs to be.

The throughline is a reminder to the reader about the nominal aim of the book, and it's probably just as vital a reminder to the writer. Without an apparent throughline, the book appears to be adrift. Certainly a writer can toss in scenes with no immediate apparent relevance, but the reader's mind is always looking one step ahead, trying to work out how the scene in the dog park in Omaha can possibly relate to the jewel thieves in Paris or the Jewish professor seeking tenure at the university in Istanbul. If the scene doesn't at some point relate back to the throughline, then no matter how well-crafted the scene, the reader is likely to resent its presence in the book.
I envision a throughline as being very much like a clothesline. If you have a strong, clearly articulated throughline, then you can drape all manner of material upon it, including material quite extraneous to the throughline.

The best example I can think of to demonstrate this point is the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. The throughline is: how will a principled lawyer defend an innocent man when a racist society opposes him? (Strong stuff. In its day, a brilliant throughline, though it's one that's been milked dry since).

But the novel really isn't about the throughline. The novel is a masterpiece because it's about so many things. It's a coming-of-age story, a portrait of a time and place, a discussion of class in America (and one that pointedly reaches beyond the issue of race alone), a meditation on what a parent owes family versus personal integrity...and more (including Boo Radley). All of this is draped on the throughline, but none of it is really necessary to the throughline. Kurt Vonnegut once described plot as a bribe paid to the reader to keep them reading. The throughline is a big down payment on that bribe.

A throughline need not be dazzling or original. But the more baroque and complex the story elements (i.e. the real reason you want to bother to write the story), the simpler and more arresting the throughline needs to be. For example, Ann Patchett's Bel Canto has a throughline of “how will opera diva and foreign dignitaries cope as hostages of revolutionaries?” but the novel itself is so rich in language, craft, and gloriously fluid POVs, that it's clear the throughline is just an excuse for perpetrating a beautiful novel.

(If 'throughline' sounds a lot like 'premise,' it's because they are very similar. But a premise is more of a point of departure or a convenient sales handle, while a throughline needs to available all through the story as a compass for the reader. Or so I claim, and because the jargon of writing has never had a proper glossary, I'm free to use these words however I like.)

There was a time—roughly from Fielding through the early 20th century—where the only excuse needed for a novel was the name of the protagonist: Here's a sequence of events happened to Fred, and the only unifying factor, the only thoughline, in many cases, was the presence of Fred. Nowadays, such an unremarkable thread is likely to be dismissed as either 'rudderless,' or, at best, 'episodic.' (I happen to enjoy episodic and picaresque novels and movies, but when you hear those words applied to your writing in our era, they are usually rendered as condemnation, not simple description.)

Now, I can come up with throughlines. It's just that most of them bore me. It's astonishing how many thrillers are still written where the throughline is that there's a plot afoot to--gasp!--kill the President. Yawn. Oh, no--there's a terrorist plot to blow up the Pentagon! Sigh. I'm not saying that a good writer can't take one of these endlessly redone premises and crank out a fine story. I'm just saying that I can't get interested enough to write one of those myself.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ralph Keyes (My favorite books on writing)

Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write and The Writer's Book of Hope. (Amazon US links under image. Amazon UK links under title in text.)

[Before we begin, a caveat: Although most writers rank these books very highly among books on writing, the tiny minority of writers who don't love them loathe them. See this Amazon UK review for an example.]

The title of Ralph Keyes’ The Courage to Write is a morph of Rollo May’s classic little study The Courage to Create. May was the first psychologist to understand that the process of creation is filled with anxiety, and that an almost supernatural alertness is part of the process of what he termed “encounter”—the encounter of the subjective with the objective, of self with other, of the idealized conception of the work and the ability of the artist to execute the work.

“Ah,” I hear you say, “but I’m never happier than when I’m writing.” If so, you’re probably in the state psychologists call “flow.” I posted a piece on anxiety and flow over at the MNW blog about a year ago; here, I’d like to stick to Keyes’ books.

It’s easy to scoff the idea of writing as a courageous undertaking. Oh, sure—writing subversive material under a totalitarian regime, maybe. Writers are in prisons all over the world. But writing a travel essay or a romance novel? What’s the worst that can happen? You could get rejected; or you might get accepted, and then people might laugh at you. How life-threatening is that compared to, say, fighting a fire?

The problem with this line of reasoning is that courage isn’t proportional to the threat to one’s life. Courage is proportional to fear, and fear isn’t governed by rational assessments of risk. One of the things feared most widely and deeply is public speaking—something far less physically risky than, say, driving a car.

Keyes attacks the issue head on: “Anxiety is not only an inevitable part of the writing process, but a necessary one. If you’re not scared, you’re not writing.”

At first that sounds as if he’s going too far, but he layers in quote after quote from writers who agree. The marvelous Margaret Atwood says, “You need a certain amount of nerve to be a writer, an almost physical nerve, the kind you need to walk a log across a river.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez notes that “All my life I’ve been frightened at the moment I sit down to write.” And the sarcastic, hilarious, Fran Lebowitz, who on the page displays as much chutzpah as anyone, says “It’s really scary just getting to the desk—we’re talking now five hours. My mouth gets dry, my heart beats fast. I react psychologically the way other people react when the plane loses an engine.”

Keyes doesn’t claim it’s all about fear and anxiety, but he claims those are an integral part of the process. “To love writing, fear writing, and pray for the courage to write is no contradiction…Kids on skateboards and writers at their desks know the same thing: fear fuels excitement. Writing is both frightening and exhilarating. It couldn’t be one without the other. The best writers use fear’s energy to billow the sails of their imaginations.”

Once he has established fear as a factor in the writing process, Keyes moves on to analyze the different classes of fear writers experience. The range from the obvious (fear of rejection, fear of ridicule, fear of self-revelation) to the more rarefied (fear of not living up to the original conception, fear of letting go and finalizing a work that has taken up so many hours of the writer’s life). And, unless I’m the only twisted neurotic in the crowd, Keyes is honest about that certain special moment:

To non-writers, receiving a first copy of your own book would seem to be a moment of unalloyed ecstasy. (My book! I did it! I’m a published writer! Me! I’ve reached the promised land!) In fact, examining the first copy of your book is a far more mixed experience. On the one hand, proof now rests in your hand that you indeed wrote a book. This exciting thought lasts for about six seconds. Then the mind turns elsewhere: Couldn’t the publisher have found a better typeface for the jacket? Next time, I’m going to hire a professional photographer to take a good author picture. I wonder what Mom’s gonna think when she reads the rape scene. I wonder how long it will be before my book shows up on remainder tables. I wonder if it’s going to get panned. I wonder if anybody will read it at all.

My excitement lasted more than six seconds, and I didn’t have any problems with the cover font—in fact, I thought the lettering of the title was rather brilliant; but I also admit that my mind soon moved on to the ‘but now what?’ worries about the baby’s future. And I definitely moved on to the second phase of the experience he describes:

Washington Irving once confided to a friend that he dreaded opening an advance copy of one of his books. Rather than spasms of joy, he felt tremblings of fear as he recalled the books weaknesses, the many places where he might have written better. This is a common reaction when examining a new book with one’s name on the spine. Anything that’s wrong with the book—by the author’s hand or the publisher’s—is now on public display. Any mistakes the writer’s eye catches are there forever…

After providing an excellent taxonomy of the way writers can tie themselves in knots, Keyes seems to feel we deserve some relief. So the later chapters are devoted to the ways writers cope with fears, from the self-defeating (hiding behind elegant obfuscation) to the neurotically useful (rituals) to the entirely rational (making use of critiques).

I think that at some point the author realized he’d opened Pandora’s box and let the demons free without looking into the bottom of the chest. That’s my explanation for his follow-on volume, The Writer’s Book of Hope.

The title of this second book makes it sound like a collection of inspirational stories about writers who overcame the odds to succeed. Sure, there’s plenty of that to be found here, but the strategy of Keyes book is far more cunning than a simple compilation of feel-good anecdotes. In many ways, The Writer’s Book of Hope is a sociology and psychology text slanted to the needs of writers. Considerable time is devoted to the writer’s internal problems, including procrastination and excuses, but things perk up greatly when Keyes anatomizes “Discouragers:” people in your life who for various reasons want to see you abandon your writing, or if you persist, wish to see you fail. (I’ve been relatively lucky in this regard. Or perhaps just oblivious.) Dissecting the motives of those who want you to give up is a sad but informative task.

The chapter on dealing with rejection is fine (though that’s an oft-trodden path) but it’s followed by my favorite chapters in the book, “The Publishing Tribe” and “Betting on Books.” Here Keyes takes on the role of an anthropologist describing the unusual customs and beliefs of people in the publishing industry, which in the US means a crowd of literate New Yorkers: by definition, a group of people who are thoroughly out of touch with the rest of the country, and surprisingly out of touch with writers:

To make the world of publishing come into clearest focus, recall your adolescence: the crowds, cliques, rivalries, jealousies, intrigue, gossip, slang, buzz words, fashions, fads, and who ate lunch where and with whom…The only basic difference between pub people and your high school classmates is that pub people have more money and bigger vocabularies. Like adolescents everywhere, they are far more concerned about the opinions of those they consider part of their crowd than those they don’t. I hate to be the one to break this to you, but pub people don’t necessarily consider writers to be in with this crowd.

The last third of the book is entitled “Beyond Frustration,” and it is here where Keyes describes the ways to keep hope alive. Such a section has the potential to turn sentimental and sappy, but the author remains pragmatic and practical, discussing where to find supportive people (“Encouragers”), what can be learned from the careers of other writers, and the best way to help yourself. He ends the book with these words: “Writing is both a cause of despair and an antidote to despair. Put another way, on days when we’re feeling hopeless, the best way to revive our sense of hope is to keep on writing.”

Both of these books are excellent (and worth the price for the quotes and citations alone). Nonetheless, I think of them as a unit, and if you’re interested in reading them, I recommend reading them in order. Fear first, baby.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Why We Write What We Write

Emma Darwin’s blog recently discussed issues relating to themes, subject matter, and originality. This left me thinking about one of the questions she implicitly posed: Why do we write about the things we write about?

Stephen King once answered an interviewer who posed that question by asking, “What makes you think I have any choice?”, and a fine answer it is; I don't think King, or for that matter, Kafka, probably had much chance of selecting different themes or topics.

There may be a few writers out there who consciously select their subject matter and themes based on commercial considerations. In general, this sounds to me like a recipe for trying to write a book even though it's uninteresting to you. Who would want to go through such drudgery, and what are the chances it would result in a book anyone would want to read? Lord knows there have been a million people writing Da Vinci Code clones over the past few years, and publishers willing to publish at least a few of those, but none of them have had much success, and I think that's because they were commerically calculated efforts. I found Dan Brown's novel literally unreadable, but I don't doubt that when he write it he was excited by the topics and themes, and that this excitement communicated itself to the book's many enthusiasts.

Alfred Hitchcock once observed that although the public thought he must be some kind of monster owing to his subject matter, he actually worked so well in the fields of suspense and terror because he was so frightened of so many things. In his best work, his neuroses and fears come through to the viewers, and his anxieties and preoccupations become our own.

My own novels are in different genres and vary widely in tone, from comic to earnest to downright dark. Most of them, of course, are still unpublished, and you might think this is evidence of my own thesis here: a writer should stick to their preoccupations and not jump around.

Yet when I peel back genre and style and take a look beneath the surface of my stories, I find the machinery below is familiar, even repetitive; my mind seems to be obsessed with certain kinds of conflicts, ambiguities, and personalities. Those dynamics are a mirror of my subconscious mind.

On the surface, it looks as though I have a choice in what I write about (the less charitable might say it looks as if I can't make up my mind), but I'm beginning to doubt how much freedom I have. Perhaps I can dress my preoccupations in different clothes, even play Henry Higgins and teach them different accents and styles; and, with a little bit of luck (no lyric reference intended) they might seem fresh and new. I'm beginning to worry they're all still Eliza Doolittle at heart.

Do the writers amongst you find that, at some deep level, you are writing the same story or tackling the same themes in different ways in each successive work? And are these phases, like Picasso's Blue Period, or are they permanent?

PS In the comment trail on her post, Emma says, "...having heard Ang Lee acknowledge that Sense & Sensibility, Brokeback Mountain and The Incredible Hulk all sprang from his obsession with repression, I do now feel a bit less nervous."

Friday, January 2, 2009

So Long, Donald Westlake (and Richard Stark, and Tucker Coe, and...)

The New York Times reports Donald E. Westlake died on New Year's Eve.

Westlake was best known for two major series, the Dortmunder books (which began with the well-known novel The Hot Rock), and the Parker novels written under the pen name Richard Stark. The Dortmunder and Parker series couldn't be more unalike: the Dortmunder books are comic caper novels with a light touch and hilarious characters, while the Parker stories feature some of the most stripped-down prose in the history of noir. (In fact, the first Parker novel, Point Blank--also known as The Hunter or Payback--is reviewed on Tim Stretton's Why Should I Read? list, and for good reason; there is plenty to learn from Westlake/Stark's craft in the Parker books. Critical regard for the Parker novels has been rising in recent years, and Westlake recently announced that the University of Chicago Press would be reissuing the entire Parker series in new editions; some with come with forewords, and John Banville has been tapped to write at least three of those.)

Two equally successful series in such different flavors is an unlikely achievement--though Lawrence Block has done it in his Matt Scudder (dead serious) and Bernie Rhodenbarr (dead silly) series. (Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Westlake and Block were good friends.)

Westlake also wrote a huge number of standlone novels, some of which are brilliant, and in 1997 he published what I think is his best novel, The Ax. In The Ax, his two writerly personas finally merge; the novel is at once a crime novel, but also a dark commentary on the individual in the modern capitalist system. It's a satire, but you aren't conscious of that as you read it. The book is by turns cold-blooded, sympathetic, and, yes, even funny in a utterly appalling fashion.

Although The Ax was praised by critics and enjoyed by most Westlake fans, drop through Amazon and check out the handful of one-star reviews: "...One of the most disturbing books I've ever read. What this society does not need is a primer on murder, how to do it, and how to rationalize it..." or "I love Westlake books. I collect Westlake books...But The Ax really disturbed me. The storyline is creepy. I felt uneasy reading it..." Disturbing? Creepy? Uneasy? You betcha, which shows exactly what a master of craft Westlake was.

On New Year's Ever, at 75, Westlake was still going strong, and I expected at least another dozen novels from him. I'm not only sad at the news of his death, but also, quite selfishly, feel a little cheated.

In a review many years ago, the Washington Post remarked "If there were a different set of values at work in our glum society, Westlake would have won National Book Awards and Pulitzers...there would be statues of him in every municipal park." Too late for the Nat Book Award or Pulitzers, but I'd be willing to chip in for the statues.

n.b. I'd be remiss to my own instincts if I didn't mention Westlake's novel The Hook, which I view as a sort of companion to The Ax. Although The Hook isn't the tour-de-force The Ax was, it shares the same darker-than-black, unsettling comedy; and, germane to the purported point of this blog, it's about a pair of novelists.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A Moral and Carbon-Footprint Sex Conversion Ratio

In a recent post, Charles Lambert takes note of the Pope's recent equation of gay sex (and non-procreational sex in general) with the ecological disasters of deforestation. Although this seems like an improbable comparison, I think Charles is right to pay attention--after all, it's an Il Popo that blows no one good.

But Charles bemoans the fact that "What he hasn't provided us with, alas, is a conversion table. For example, just how much damage does one act of consensual anal sex do in carbon footprint terms?" I've been preoocupied for the last few days, but I'm now able to step forward and answer this pressing question--though it requires a few assumptions.

Sex of any sort uses far fewer Calories than one might expect; 200 Calories per hour per person is near the upper limit. Note that this all depends upon how vigorous the activity is. There is no evidence that anal sex on average uses more or less energy than other types (though there's some pretty lazy oral sex out there.)

A Calorie of energy burned in the human body emits about 4.8 liters of carbon dioxide. A liter of carbon dioxide at standard temperature and pressure contains about 1.8 grams. Therefore, humans generate about 0.38 grams of carbon dioxide for every Calorie burned.

This suggests that an hour of reasonably athletic sex produces about (0.38 g/Calorie x 200 Calories =) 76 grams of carbon dioxide.

Is that a lot? Well, returning to the fate of the rainforest, over its lifetime a tree sequesters about 900.000 grams of carbon dioxide. So, at about 76 grams of carbon dioxide per sexual encounter, one tree equals about 11,850 sessions of strenuous sex. (Divide by two if you want to account for both parties.)

If you had an hour of athletic, non-procreative sex every other day (or two hours of lazy sex) for 60 years, you're causing cumulative ecological damage equal to cutting down slightly less than one tree over your entire lifetime. My guess is that most people manage only 10-25% of a tree before they retire from this world.

What Il Popo really ought to be worrying about is cow burps*. On average, every cow on the planet burps out about 280 liters of methane gas per day. Pound per pound, methane causes 25 times more global warming than carbon dioxide. Of course, carbon dioxide weighs 2.75 times as much as methane, so liter-per-liter methane causes only 9.09 times as much warming as carbon dioxide. Nonetheless, that means that over the average seven-year life of a cow, the cow's burps alone are the equivalent of chopping down about three trees (or somewhere above 32,500 fucks).

When you consider the fact that much of the current deforestation in the tropics occurs to create livestock pasture, it's pretty clear that we ought to be worrying more about steak and roast than about who's humping whom. Make Love, Not Hambugers.

*I'm not kidding. Livestock account for about 20% of emissions of greenhouse gases--more than all the transportation fuel burned in the world.

Since I've been a vegetarian since 1969, little of that is on my account. I have carbon credit to spare. I think I'll go get laid 32,500 times for every cow I didn't consume. See you in a bit.

Oh, before I go--Happy New Year!