Archive for category Reading
I have a few ideas for science fiction stories and novels but need some help. Although I read a lot of science fiction in the past, I haven’t read much in the last ten or twenty years. I read one book with a spider as god, and Mary Doria Russel’s series. When I first thought about about getting back into the genre, I bought an anthology of story winners. Most of the stories seemed to me to be of a quality and type that they could have been labeled literary rather than science fiction. This makes me believe the writing in this genre has improved.
The terminology itself has shifted, though, and I’m not clear if I’m using the correct letters, etc. I believe the SF books that would be of interest to me are soft SF, more in the psychological, sociological, or cultural vein than in swords and laser guns. I’m thinking my stuff would be more similar to The Left Hand of Darkness than I, Robot or Dune.
Recently I also picked up two other SF books. I enjoyed James Gunn’s Transcendental, but I’ve lost interest in Rapture of the Nerds, which had an interesting premise on the back cover but is a bit too all over the place for me to want to finish it. Frenetic is how I’d describe it.
Anyone out there have a list of not-to-be-missed novels written in the last decade or so? I’d appreciate any suggestions.
In September I was assigned three other members from the Women’s Fiction Writers Association to see if we would gel as an online critique group. We’ve had some bumps, and although all three of the other women are excellent critiquers, I’m not sure yet if I’ll continue, mostly due to the heavy reading load.
For our first go-round we tried ten pages a week. This went fast and was easily handled. We all have manuscripts that are in final draft stage, so we are understandably impatient at the snail’s pace of ten pages each a month. This month we’re doing 50 pages each for a total of 150 pages.
I also belong to a local critique group (WURDZ), which meets every other week. Last week I had between 40 and 50 pages to read for that. In the last ten days I read over 100critique pages. I also work part time and have other things to do, including my blog post. Needless to say, I did not get much new writing done. I am not sure I can keep up the pace of possibly 200-250 pages a month.
Both groups include writers of very different genres/styles. One of the women in WURDZ stated she wrote “commercial” fiction. Two others write fantasy/literary fantasy. The online group consists of a historical fiction writer, another more commercial writer of women’s/romance/mystery-thrillers, and the last writes women’s fiction which may be literary.
Today one of the online group members posted some openings to bestsellers, all but one of which were a decade or more old. I had read, or started to read, two of the aforementioned bestsellers, The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) and Good in Bed (Jennifer Weiner. Also included were Shutter Island (Dennis Lehane) and The Cold Dish (Craig Johnson). I found four books I really enjoyed, two of which were a few years older than the bestsellers. The other two were more current. My four books were A Patchwork Planet (Anne Tyler), Lambs of God (Marele Day), The Epicure’s Lament (Kate Christensen), and The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes). At least three of those authors are major award winners.
The woman who posted analyzed why she felt each of the openings worked. Her question come down to “what is going on and why?” Those would appear to be good questions. All four of my openings raised the same questions, but more obliquely. Although of mild interest, the questions weren’t what primarily drove me to continue reading. I believe what all four of mine have in common is voice.
This shouldn’t have been a surprise to me since I’ve written other posts about voice and how it is of utmost importance, but I found it edifying. I’m often trying to write—especially beginnings—to satisfy the perceived demands of agents as expressed by my writing partners, writing conferences, and workshops. Maybe, as a writer and reader these aren’t qualities I enjoy and want to primarily foster. Possibly I’ve set myself an impossible task as it is hard to get an agent to buy on the strength of voice when all they have is my query letter. Possibly they would say voice doesn’t sell. They very well may be correct. It is also highly possible that my voice isn’t good enough to sell a story on that alone.
What, then, are my choices? I could stop writing altogether, but I’m not ready to do that. I could reframe each story to the demands of the market, whatever those shifting demands are. After talking with an editor this summer, I tried to reshape a manuscript to what she was looking for. I soon lost interest. My best option would be to find an agent who specializes in voice and happens to find mine to her liking. This is possible but not necessarily likely to happen.
The last option I see is to switch genre. The first story idea I had as an adult was in the realm of science fiction. I read science fiction as a teenager. I’ll continue to desultorily market some of my other finished manuscripts, but I think it is time to switch. The question is, do I continue with my current critique groups, especially in light of the time they are taking?
Can you identify what makes a book opening most intriguing to you? Does that have much to do with if you read on or not? Does your writing match the sort of opening you prefer?
I had breakfast with one of my librarian friends this past Friday. I related my feelings of a recent book I read, one that IS, I believe, classified as women’s fiction: Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. I read this book because some of my younger writer friends were mentioning it on Facebook, and I thought someone had said that this author was really good. My feelings about the book were hard to sort out. I certainly didn’t love it and felt as if I should get out my editing pencil, but I didn’t find it so uncompelling I wanted to stop reading. I wanted to finish it, but I also didn’t pine to pick it up. What I finally settled on was that it reminded me of a made-for-TV movie. I guess I’d categorize this sort of TV show as usually not very deep, probably with a happy ending, if it isn’t a three-hanky movie. The characters, who may be loveable, aren’t very deep and often have dramatic problems. I’d expect the dialogue is supposed to be witty or funny but is only marginally so.
Mostly I enjoy watching deeply affecting foreign films. Why foreign? It seems that these movies are more often aligned with literature than all but the very best of independent American movies. Possibly this is due to reading subtitles, or the allure of a foreign language, or the more exotic setting, and not due to the depth of the material.
If I’m going to continue with the movie metaphor, I could throw in Roger Ebert’s idiot plot, and it seems to me that some element of such was evident in this book. The protagonist, Lou, seemed to be lacking basic information that any thinking adult would have. She is only 26 and apparently lives in a small English village. Possible what seems obvious in American culture isn’t obvious in English culture, but I found it hard to believe that an adult in the 2000s would not be aware of handicapped parking spaces, entrances, etc. Somewhat more believable might have been that she had never seen, or apparently heard of, any of the movies made about quadriplegics. She did know Christie Brown, and I’m assuming that is a cultural difference. I would suspect many Americans would not know who that was, although they would be likely to know the movie My Left Foot.
Whose Life it it Anyway? (1981) may have a similar overarching theme of who gets to decide when life is worth living and when you get to die. Since I read Me Before You in physical book form, I can’t go back and check, but I believe it references The Sea Inside, which for me was a lyrical, beautiful film that contained genuine emotion. A more recent French film, The Intouchables presents the other side of the picture, a quadriplegic man who wants to live.
From the ratings on Goodreads, and the stellar review in The New York Times, I know I’m in the minority when I say I didn’t much like JoJo Moyes book. To me it felt like a first draft with characters that weren’t developed beyond the mechanics of the story. I did not shed a single tear, nor did I have a single chuckle. While I was reading this, a young women I know was also reading it. She admitted she also wasn’t that touched by it. In the NYTimes review, Liesl Schellinger mentions this book was called a “real weepy” in the British press. I don’t often cry over books and have cried onl slightly more frequently at movies. I don’t like being manipulated, and for me, that’s the meaning of a tearjerker. The term weepy may mean the same as a “three hanky” movie. Possibly weepy/three hanky movies encompass both tearjerkers and movies that contain pathos.
When looking at the films mentioned above, I mostly remember being infuriated by Whose Life. I had a similar reaction to Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. I definitely would categorize this last as a tearjerker. I found The Sea Inside and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly both deeply affecting and intriguing.
A similar book to Me Before You is The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison. Although the protagonist in this book does not take care of a quadriplegic, but instead a teenager with muscular dystrophy, many of the issues and challenges in the two books, are similar.
I may explore similarities and differences between these two books and the movie The Intouchables in a future blog post.
Have you ever thought what kind of movie your book might be compared to?
Yesterday I was lucky enough to attend Central City Opera’s rendition of “The Marriage of Figaro.” As usual, their production was wonderful, the voices great, the energy level high. I knew I was going to like it as soon as I heard Michael Sumuel, bass-baritone, singing on the trailer, and he lived up to expectations. Another opera lover described his voice as sitting in a cup of Earl Grey tea!The other baritones in the opera were all enjoyable and Susanna, soprano Anna Christy, was also great. What I love about the Central City opera company is that they cannot only sing, but most are also credible actors, which makes the silly opera stories that much more enjoyable.
While listening to the singers, I started mussing about how story and music interact and how this relates to literature. Many operas have rather silly plots, with characters dressing up as someone else, or hiding in spots where no person could really hide. In the dramas, everyone seems to die. A lot of the plots are eerily the similar. Many of them are based on the same play(s)–The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville. A number of Shakespeare’s plays are represented. For instance, Verdi operas include Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff. Both Gounod’s Faust and Boito’s Mephistopheles are based on Goethe’s Faust.
Although not universally true, most composers did not write the librettos for their own work. Often the librettist was a well-known poet. I suspect that most people, like me, do not have the slightest idea who wrote the words for the operas they like. The score is what is usually well known and loved, although when examined, librettos often contain wonderfully evocative phrases.
My thought while listening yesterday afternoon was that the music of opera can often be like the prose in the most lyrical of literary fiction, often covering up the faults in the storyline. Or, like the best poetry, the music evokes a feeling and the listener is less concerned about the plot making sense.
It seems that most of the new bands/singers I’ve found and liked recently have one thing in common; I love the singer’s voice. It’s possible that I like the music surrounding their songs, too, but the primary reason I bought an “album”/sought them out” was because I was mesmerized by the voice. One of the most entrancing voices I ever heard belongs to a man I can’t locate again. I was in Santa Fe during some kind of festival. There were musical acts in the square across from the portico where the Native Americans lay out their wares. I was in the art museum’s gift shop about a half a block away when I heard a singer. His voice almost literary scratched at my brain. I had no choice but to put back the item I was looking at and walk, almost run, as if he were the Pied Piper, to see who it was that was singing.
This was two or three years ago, and voice is difficult to describe. I’d say his was a purr like the best of Elvis Presley or Jim Morrison. And who was singing? A short, maybe 5’2″, rotund, slick-backed hair, middle-aged or older Hispanic man. I would have bought a CD, but they were sold out. “I’ll remember the band’s name,” I thought, but of course, I didn’t. They had recently won a competition in New York City, but that is all I remember. What category of music did they play? Salsa? Tejano? Mariachi? I don’t remember that, either.
Mid afternoon on Friday I was driving to work. I tuned in public radio, because I was too lazy to look for another station. As I got close to my office, a song came on. I had a similar reaction as I had to the Santa Fe voice, although I wasn’t 100% clear if it was a male with a somewhat high voice or a woman with a deeper voice. All I knew was that I was in love again. The song was “I Don’t Want to Be Loved,” and my car stereo said it was by Me and Appollo. Okay, I could remember a name as simple as that, especially since Appollo was spelled wrong. When I got home, I put that into Google and found a band called You Me and Apollo. (Maybe the ticker had the band name right, and I thought the song was called I Don’t Want to Be Loved by You.) Although an acoustic session, it determined the singer was a male.
The band played a recent show in my town! A little more research turned up that this was a local band! And they would be playing at our free weekend of music, Bohemian Nights in August! I also found a Facebook page. I liked it and posted a comment, and they responded almost at once.
When I scroll through my limited online library, I do find examples of songs/artists whose music I like even if I don’t think voice is the primary attraction. Here Comes the Mummies, Fela Kuti, and others feature a lot of horns, which might substitute for voice, but others have different characteristics I respond to.
For me, voice is all important in fiction, too. Voice is most often the characteristic that makes me read a book beyond the first page. It’s an intangible quality that can’t easily be quantified and not every book with great and appealing voice exhibits the same characteristics. Of course, all books I read and like don’t have what I’d consider a great voice. The book I’m currently reading is science fiction. I’m not sure it has a voice I’d be able to identify, but it has an intriguing enough premise and odd enough alien characters I’ll probably read the whole book.
I’d attempted reading two other novels before I settled on this as my next read. Two of these I picked up as freebies at the recent Crested Butte conference. One is a fantasy set in early 1900s San Francisco and is another candidate in my search for women’s fiction. The idea of ghosts attaching themselves to people and the woman who was able to see them seemed intriguing, but I didn’t get far before I decided it wasn’t what I wanted to read at that moment. Maybe I’ll never go back to it. The synergy between character/voice/story wasn’t there for me. The book before that, Mark Helprin’s In Sunlight and in Shadow, very well might have extreme voice, but it’s another tome. Although I found the voice mesmerizing, I knew it was going to take awhile to read, and I wanted to get in at least one more quick book before tackling it. My thoughts after only reading about six pages is that the voice is magical, a bit old-fashioned as befits the time period of the novel, and full of astounding language.
The Given Day, which I wrote about in an earlier post, had a voice that at first interested me, but which I tired of toward the end. I’d Know You Anywhere had a mixed voice, part dull and boring, part exasperating, each attached to different characters. The other book I spoke of recently, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, had a smart-ass voice that made me not like the first person narrator but probably did keep me reading.
Can you identify books that you read mostly because you liked the voice? What sort of qualities would you say the voice had? And is that one of the reasons you like the artists and songs you do?
I’ve mentioned my quest to figure out what women’s fiction is, most recently in a blog on book covers. I picked up I’d Know You Anywhere at a recent bookswap, thinking it was women’s fiction. The title sounded like one my WF writing friends had mentioned. Also, the paperback cover features two pictures of the backs of women in what appear to be raincoats. Not the dead giveaway of flowers or children, but hinting it might be for and about women. The book did receive accolades from the likes of Stephen King, as well as decent reviews.
A month or so prior to reading the above, the Board of the Friends of the Colorado State Library sponsored a talk by Elizabeth L. Silver. She spoke about her 2013 novel, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton. At least two versions of the cover of this novel include a partial face of a woman. What I take to be the hardback edition features only text, with some of the words crossed out. This, too received good reviews, although I am not able to unearth a review on the NYTimes.
What do these novels have in common? Each has a female protagonist. Both have murderers on death row facing dwindling days to their execution. Laura Lippman’s story is told in alternating past and present chapters recounting the story of Eliza’s kidnapping, and what she’s doing now. A few other points of view are included. Occasional sections are about the mother of the young girl for whose murder Walter is to die. Sections of Noa P. include letters the mother of Noa’s victim wrote to her daughter.
How would I categorize these two novels? Are either women’s fiction? In a short article, Rebecca’s Rules: Defining Women’s Fiction (Booklist, March 15, 2013), Rebecca Vnuk suggests that women’s fiction deals with emotions and relationships of a female protagonist, and that “the main thrust of the story is that something happens in the life of that woman.” She then tries to set romance, women’s fiction, and literary fiction apart. One clue, Vnuk says between women’s fiction and literary is if you pay more attention to the beauty of the words than the story. She notes that the two can be confusing to distinguish and also says there is nothing wrong with filing a book under “general fiction.”
Although a large portion of IKYA is from the male antagonist’s point of view, the above definition allows both books to fall into the WF category. Somehow or other, I would never think to call Noa P. a work of women’s fiction. Probably IKYA was published as suspense or crime fiction, but to me, a non-expert on WF, it seemed very much like a novel that could be called women’s suspense fiction. What marked the difference between these two books and their classification?
Both deal with the aftermath of a murder on both the perpetrator, the families of the victim, others involved in the subsequent legal case, and the death penalty itself. Another clue Vnuk gives to distinguish between women’s fiction and literary or general fiction is if the main character can be substituted with a man. Probably this would not work, or would be a completely different story in the case of the Lippman book. In the case of Noa, it might be possible, although it would again make it a much more common story.
The main difference between the two books, and where I would classify them, is in the writing, but not necessarily because I spent more time “admiring the use of language” in Noa than enjoying the story. I didn’t much like the character of Noa. I didn’t like Eliza, either, but for different reasons. Noa was unpleasant but, as someone with at least psychopathic tendencies, interesting. Eliza was plain dull, a wife, a mother, with few interests or thoughts outside of that role. If Lippman’s purpose was to show how being the victim of a crime dulls the senses and impacts the personality, she may have done an excellent job, but it seems to me if that was the intent, there should have been some way to show us that that was what she was doing. Every once in awhile Eliza would know something or show interest in something that seemed to me, as a critical reader, more to advance the story of make a more interesting observation than as something this character would actually say or do or know.
The other characters in the Lippman book–with the exception of Walter whom I felt was well portrayed–were right out of central casting. So many books have a best friend/older sister who feels like every other best friend or sister in every other book in the world. In Eliza’s case, the older sister might be described as “lovingly bullying,” but possessing all the expected traits: the Golden Girl to Eliza’s housewife, the smart one to Eliza’s dropping out of her masters program, the single career woman to Eliza’s long marriage with the “perfect” children. Noa’s only friend, who died in childhood, did not seem like her traits had been purchased in the stock store of characters, although her early demise did not flesh her out.
Eliza’s parents were both oh-so-perfect psychiatrists; again, more a role than real characters. Noa’s mother is quite awful. Her father is a reformed convict and not much like fathers in other books. Both are believable, but not particularly likeable. Eliza’s husband is too good/smart/understanding to be true. I kept expecting him to fail her, to in some way make her perfect life a lie. That would have made the story more complex and interesting, but in the end, he’s left home so that the sister can finish out the novel with Eliza.
Noa P. was told in the first person while Eliza’s story was all third. Eliza’s thoughts and feelings were explained and then explained again, while Noa held back information and lied, making you have to work to figure out what was going on in the dialogue as well as the rest of the story. This telling of emotions very well might be what I most objected to in the Lippman book. This over-explaining with dialogue that seldom rang true was for me what made this a less interesting read. I wonder if this problem might have been fixed if Eliza had told her part of the story in the first person.
I have to continue my search for “real” women’s fiction. I hope that some of what, for me, are deficits in the style of writing do not define the “genre.”
Recently, I suggested The Given Day by Dennis Lehane to a writer friend. He blogged about one of the characters here. I recently finished the book myself, but part way through it, I started realizing I really didn’t think much of most of the characters. The one B.K. talks about, Luther, is probably my favorite imagined character. I also like Babe Ruth, who is used as a frame for the novel, but this device was not universally thought to have worked. (review by Jonathan Yardley.)
First, let me say I did like this book. The writing was always good, sometimes wonderful. The history is incredibly interesting, especially since I didn’t know much–or really any–of it. It demonstrated that problems in our current age have had counterparts in the past. There were terrorists before Oklahoma City. There was labor unrest that wasn’t related to mines. Neither AIDS nor Ebola were the first diseases to wield fear in the populace.
For the most, part the story is riveting. Even though Mr. Lehane, in a 2012 interview, stated he didn’t think the novel would ever be filmed, it would make an interesting mini-series. One top of all that, the WWI time period is one of the most fascinating to me. I didn’t recognize my problem with the book until I was close to done. It is just over 700 pages and took me quite some time to finish. I’m not sure where I started to realize I didn’t like most of the characters. Luther Lawrence was interesting, possibly due to this flaws. As referred to in the blog post mentioned above, I did care about him and wanted him to be okay. The sad thing is, I didn’t care about the main character, Danny Coughlin.
Now, I don’t think characters, even the main character, has to be likeable in order for me to read a book or to like a book, but in this case it wasn’t really a question of likeable; it was more a question of believable. He seemed to be one of those characters who is in almost all ways perfect. Handsome, smart, an honest policeman, good in bed, a ladies man who loves the one lass he eventually wins. He stands up to his father, tries to maintain contact with his brothers. He befriends Luther, who is a black man on the run and a one-time servant of the Coughlin family. Why, he even has the perfect name as his real name is Aiden. True, he has a few flaws. He is less than generous toward his one-time police partner who contracts the Spanish flu and ends up destitute. He also has a bad temper and bashes in a man’s face. Possibly that act was what made me start to question, then realize even in his anger he was just too close to perfect. One character of this sort would not normally be a problem for me, but most of the other policemen seemed to be from Central Casting, especially those in Danny’s immediate family.
What probably nudged me to the edge of shutting the book was the less-than-stellar portrayal of the women. Most of them are, again, just about perfect, or if not that, barely there. Danny’s mother is mostly off scene, in bed. There is an Italian who likes sex, doesn’t care about her baby, and can’t speak much English. She isn’t who she appears to be and none of her stories add up, yet she never becomes more than words on the page. One not fully developed caricature might not be noticeable, but most of the secondary characters seem to be cut from the same cloth. The love interest, for me, was the most egregious as not just Danny, but one of his brothers, and possibly all other men she encounters, love Nora. Why? I know almost nothing about her, how she thinks, why she does what she does. Most mysterious is why Danny’s father rescued her and brought her home naked? She then becomes the family maid who also works a second job but fascinates the brothers. I didn’t buy her for a second.
In many ways I hope Dennis Lehane’s prediction that this book will never be filmed doesn’t come true. The story is all there and with good actors playing the various parts, the characters might come alive and stop being cardboard cutouts of perfect people.
Below is a documentary about the period of history illustrated in the book. It contains many photos, but it is long.
At first glance this post about The Denver Museum of Nature and Science didn’t seem to have much to do with writing, reading, or friendship, but as I wrote it, I naturally found a way to tie in three of the topics of this blog.
In 2012, I attended the first Colorado State University Alumni Beer Tasting at which we not only sampled innovative small plates concocted with various beers, but also sipped selections from a number of breweries. The participants were treated to a talk on the history and science of brewing by Dr. Nicole Garneau, the chair and curator for human health in the DMNS Department of Health Science. She mentioned an experiment that was being conducted with volunteer visitors to the museum. As I am someone who loves many bitter foods but doesn’t like bitter beers (sours are another matter), I was greatly interested in this research into the genetics of “supertasters.” This was nicknamed the blue tongue project. Three thousand visitors participated in the study, and the results have been published in Frontiers of Integrative Neuroscience. Participating was fun, interesting, and exciting. What more do you need to be inspired? You could come with ideas for stories set in a lab, or with a character as a study participant.
Having my curiosity piqued energizes me and gives me the inspiration to work on my own writing even if it isn’t a science fiction tale of experiments gone wrong. Currently, the Genetics of Taste Lab is conducting a study on the ability to taste fatty acids. Pretty much all you have to do to take part is show up.
One of my favorite exhibits at the DMNS is hidden away on the third floor. I’m always afraid it is either gone, or I’m lost, when I walk through rooms of stuffed animals to find it. The delight Konovalenko: Gem Carvings of Russian Folk Life sets off in me is well worth the search.
The first time I encountered this room full of carvings and dioramas, I was one of the few visitors. Lately, it has become more crowded, limiting the time I can stand in front of each tableau and marvel at the use of the different stones and the expressions on the sculptures’ faces. I expect these miniature people to stand up and sing bawdy beer songs. It isn’t hard imagining them coming to life after-hours.
There is plenty of other inspiration to be found, especially in the rotating exhibits. Currently on display is MAYA: Hidden Worlds Revealed. This exhibit would be a must for anyone writing about that culture. The recently completed exhibit, Pompeii: The Exhibition, might have inspired those writing about that event, whether fiction or nonfiction. The overwhelming emotions the replicas of the dead brought up might provide inspiration for a natural disaster story or even pure horror. Remembering the exhibit made descriptions in Rising Fire by John Calderazzo come to life.
Many more opportunities exist at the museum, especially for members. The IMAX Theater is featuring three 3d films this summer. Topics include D-Day, lemurs, and pandas. The museum offers classes, bird walks, and programs for families, including sleepovers. During the summer, the museum is open some Friday nights during which you can enjoy their cash bar. Why not join and enjoy some new inspiration for your writing? You might even build on a friendship you already possess–or possibly make a new one!