Monthly Archives: May 2011

Friday Links

I was going to call this post “Art Linkletter” or something else equally clever (get it? Linkletter? Shakespeare used puns too, you know). But I think that gets sort of confusing, especially for new readers. So I’ll just stick with “Friday Links” for a while.

A lot of good stuff this week. First up is an article on Emily Dickinson’s mysterious “Master” letters. It seems the poet wrote three letters (never sent) to someone she only calls “Master.” Maybe this was someone she knew; maybe it was God. Nobody knows. I think the article’s author gets pretty carried away with his analysis, but if you just read it for the facts, it’s very intriguing.

Next we have a gallery of actual rejected book covers. I think these are cool because they do look like covers you’d see in a book store, but you can usually identify some aspect that makes you think, “Nope, that’s not going to work.” Also a useful reminder that writers aren’t the only ones in the industry dealing with rejection.

Now we come to something that isn’t new, but I only discovered it this week, so it’s new to me. There’s a literary journal called “The Paris Review” that’s done a series of interviews, over the past sixty years, with some of the biggest names in the literary world: Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, Harold Bloom. I want to particularly recommend this one with John Steinbeck, which is actually more a collection of his thoughts than a proper interview. Lots of really wonderful material for aspiring authors. And I loved this quote about his own fame: “Little presses write to me for manuscripts and when I write back that I haven’t any, they write to ask if they can print the letter saying I haven’t any.”

Also, this just made me laugh.

Finally, this has absolutely nothing to do with books or writing, but I’d be sad if I didn’t link to it, so here you go. Marcel the Shell. Nope, I have no idea either.

Have a good weekend, everybody!

Norman Mailer Was a Scumbag

Norman Mailer was one of the most critically-acclaimed authors of the twentieth century. He won two Pulitzer Prizes. He was (I am told) innovative in the way he blended fiction and nonfiction. He was, like Ron Burgundy, Kind of a Big Deal.

Until fairly recently, that was all I knew about him. He was a Big Name in the literary world, so I’d made a mental note to read at least one of his books and see what the fuss was about.

Here’s something else I learned about Norman Mailer:

In 1960, he stabbed his second wife – Adele Morales – with a pen knife, just missing her heart. After that, he stabbed her in the back. As she lay bleeding, a friend tried to help her. Mailer said, “Get away from her. Let the bitch die.”

Yeah.

I am told he was drunk at the time. I am told he was later diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. However, he apparently never showed any remorse (and was generally a jerk the rest of his life), so I am not inclined to feel much warmth toward him on either account.

My first reaction to all this was “F*** you, then, see if I ever read any of your books.”

Except – does that even make sense?

The man’s been dead for four years, after all. It’s not like he’s going to see any benefit from book sales. Adele Morales is still alive, but I don’t know her, and I don’t suppose it would affect her life in any way if I read one of her late ex-husband’s books. It doesn’t seem like it would hurt anybody.

And yet – it feels like a betrayal, doesn’t it? A sort of tacit approval? To read a book by somebody like that, when so many other, perfectly decent authors go unread? Like you’re saying “Here you go, you fail as a human being, gold star.”

The odd thing is, I think I’d be much less conflicted about reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf. After all, Mein Kampf is long, badly written, and boring. Nobody’s reading it for any other reason than to try and understand the mind of a mass murderer, to play some small part in fighting atrocities like that. Aside from a few neo-Nazi idiots, nobody’s putting Hitler on a pedestal.

But Mailer was a good writer, by all accounts. He is on a pedestal. There’s a good chance that if I read his most famous work, The Naked and the Dead (what a title), that I would learn from it and be enriched by it, and even have praise for its literary merits.

That just feels wrong. And not wrong in some abstract sense, but wrong in that deep-down, sticky, I shouldn’t be doing this kind of way.

He wasn’t especially high on my list anyway. There are lots of great authors I still haven’t read yet; I’ll get to them first. Maybe someday I’ll decide about Mailer. Maybe it’ll just never come up. But I’m really not sure what to think.

What’s your take on it? Should I boycott? Am I over-analyzing? Tell me in the comments.

Why People Don’t Like Your Book

So here is a thing that happens: you write a book. You give copies to your friends, your family, their friends, and their family, and basically you spread that sucker like chlamydia to everyone within a moving fifty-meter radius of your person.

If you’re lucky, some of them will read it. If you’re very lucky, some of those will give you honest feedback. And guess what? A lot of people aren’t going to like it.

There are basically two reasons this can happen.

First: your book sucks. This is a sad an unfortunate condition that afflicts roughly 99% of all books that are written every year. Fortunately, the cure – revision – is well-publicized, and if you actually bother to apply it, you’ve already separated yourself from a good chunk of the competition.

However! It is also possible that your book does not suck, that it is in fact pretty good. Why, then, do the people not love it? Are you not merciful?!

Here’s a handy thought experiment that will help explain.

Think of your favorite book. (For me, The Lord of the Rings.) Now think of all the people you’ve ever tried to convince to read that book. What are the reactions?

Well, most of them say they’re too busy, or they’re not interested in that type of book, or they say they will and it turns out they are lying liars who lie. And the ones who do read it, they find all these silly things wrong with it. Like, it’s hard to keep track of the names (but, but that’s because his worldbuilding is so rich!) or the beginning is too slow (but the suspense is growing!) or they just couldn’t get into it (why, because it was too awesome for you?).

Any of this sound familiar?

The sad truth is that awesomeness alone is not enough. There is no awesomeness threshold, no badass event horizon, that if you can just cross it will guarantee that everyone loves your book. Books are subjective. That’s just how it is. And guess what? Those people who were all meh about your Special Book? They have Special Books too, and they think they’re the most amazing life-changing wonderful things in the world, and if you read them, you’d be all: meh.

The exception, of course, is Ender’s Game. I have honestly never met a human being who read that book and did not like it.

Friggin’ Orson Scott Card.

Writing Is Like Karate

Besides blogging, noveling, and dayjobbing, I also take martial arts classes: karate and jiu-jitsu. I’ve been going to the dojo for three and a half years now, and in certain ways, karate’s not that different from writing.

(By the way: writers think everything is like writing. Doesn’t matter what it is. You could force a writer to grind turnips into turnip paste, and by the third day he’d be all “Well the turnips are sort of like adverbs, and by destroying them you produce stronger sentences, as represented by the turnip paste…” See? See? I made up that example to be ridiculous, and I’m already starting to agree with it. It’s a sickness.)

Writing. Karate. Yes.

For me, one of the key concepts in karate – and most any martial art, I suppose – is purposeful action. Everything you do in karate has a purpose, and is entirely focused on that purpose. If you punch, you don’t just sort of put your fist out there and hope for the best. You have a target, and you put all your energy – your whole body – into striking that target with maximum power. If you block, you don’t just sort of wave your arm optimistically, you block forcefully and stop the attack.

There are no half-kicks, no sort-of chops. You have a goal, and you pursue it with deadly focus. By putting all your energy into key strikes, you don’t waste it on needless motion.

Purposeful action.

This concept is so important in writing. Every scene, every sentence, every single word must have a purpose, and it must be striking toward that purpose with maximum power. If not, you delete it. Never waste your reader’s time. Don’t just put words down aimlessly – or rather, it’s fine if you do, but fix it in the revision. Tighten. Focus.

Does that mean you can’t have flowery language? That you can’t have jokes, or long rambling sentences, or colorful metaphors, or whatever fun thing you might want to put in? No. You can have those things, you can use those tools, if you use them economically. Take risks, if you need to; this isn’t about coloring inside the lines. It’s about making every word matter.

Sans segue: I just finished Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Both fun to read, intriguing, shorter than I expected. Also, they had pictures! I really miss pictures in a book, you know? We should bring that back. I’ll call up Cormac McCarthy.

Currently I’m on Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the original Tarzan book that started it all. Fascinating novel, in so many ways. Postmortem coming soon, after the, you know, mortem.

Second pass revision on The Counterfeit Emperor: 81%.

Critiquery

I’d like to start this week by giving a big Thank You (a “shout-out”? “mad props”? “wicked ups”?) to Chuck Wendig, who just last week personally critiqued the first 5,000 words – about twenty pages – of my novel. He gave a lot of helpful constructive criticism and was very encouraging in general, and made me think that getting the thing published might not be utterly impossible. So, pretty excited.

Chuck is a seasoned veteran of the Writing Down Words For Money industry, and I was able to snag his critique due to my insider connections paying out cold, hard cash. Not to him, though. See, Chuck was kind enough to donate his time in a charity auction to benefit the survivors of the earthquake in Japan. I won two other critiques in the same way, one for 50,000 words and another for 100,000 words, and I’m waiting on both with a combination of Christmas-Eve excitement and stark terror.

Critiques are a funny thing. On the one hand, you need (crave, lust after) honest feedback: someone who will read your writing and tell you what they actually think, and not just say it’s “good.” (Protip: to make a novelist want to kill himself, read his 115,000-word manuscript and tell him it’s “good.”) But on the other hand, the tiniest bit of negative feedback makes you feel like this:


(Heh. Yeah, that really is me. Think I can use it as my book jacket photo?)

Anyway: critical feedback. Yeah. They say you need thick skin to survive as an author, but I don’t think that’s quite right. I think it’s more a willingness to get stabbed over and over through really thin skin, and act like you like it.

Second pass revision status for The Counterfeit Emperor: 80%. SO CLOSE

Hitting the Links

Some really good stuff in this week’s link roundup (including two – two – comics), so let’s get right into it.

First off, this comic is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in a while. If you’re an artist – any kind of artist – you really should read it. (When the page loads, click the image to expand.)

Continuing with our Artist Inspiration Theme, have a look at this quote from Ira Glass. He explains that, if you’re going through years and years of disappointment with your work, that’s perfectly normal. The ones who succeed are the ones who keep going anyway. That should be you. (But the actual quote explains it all better, so give it a click.)

Jumping from beauty and inspiration to pure, shameless, self-whoring promotion, we have the New York Times giving a long list of great authors who have done exactly that. You have to click the picture of Hemingway to see his ad, because it’s just…words can’t describe how ridiculous it is. (Nevertheless, the moral is clear: if you have art and you want an audience, get out there and peddle.)

Next up, if you’ve followed the Neil Gaiman controversy (and by “controversy” I mean “some dude being a dick to Neil Gaiman”) you’ll enjoy this comic. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can read Gaiman’s explanation. Or just read the comic without background, it’s still pretty entertaining.

We also have the lovely Intern with her take on what it’s like to receive a critique of your own work. As someone who just recently got a critique himself (more on that soon), I can vouch for the veracity of this. Minus the baking cookies part, because I am way too lazy for that.

And finally (spoiler alert) we have a long list of last sentences from novels. As the author of the article notes, last sentences are harder to understand than first sentences, without context; but I still thought they were fun to read.

And now we’re approaching the last sentence of this post. (See that? That’s called a segue. Write that down.) Have a good weekend, everybody.

I Am, Of Course, Quite Mad

Writers – you may have heard – are crazy. They are crazy because it is a part of their genius.

Oh, man. I almost kept a straight face there.

Okay, writers may be crazy in part because of the acid monsters and space pirates and steampunk empires that rattle around perpetually in their brains, but mostly they’re crazy because they’re human, and crazy is sort of what humans do.

If you’ve ever felt like you have a screw or six loose, take a peek inside my brain:

1. I get nervous about getting nervous about things. That is, some event is coming up that – in itself – doesn’t bother me in the slightest; but I know the event will make me nervous, and I get worried about that. Thing is? I’m not wrong.

2. I have to expend more mental energy to distinguish east from west than to recite the first twenty digits of pi. I am not joking about this.

3. If I find a spider in my house, I capture it alive and release it outside. In general, I do not do this with any other kind of bug.

4. Every time someone says anything even remotely unflattering about Shakespeare (for example, “Shakespeare is not godlike but merely angelic”) I imagine Harold Bloom twitching somewhere in the world.

5. After shampooing and rinsing my hair in the shower, I have – on multiple occasions – forgotten whether I shampooed my hair and had to do it again. You may be wondering, then, why I say “again” if I can’t remember in the first place. People: I’m assuming.

6. I have – on multiple occasions – revised an instant message for clarity before hitting Send.

7. Probably the majority of my philosophical knowledge – including absolutely everything I know about John Stuart Mill and Wittgenstein – comes exclusively from research I did after being curious about the names in the Monty Python Philosophers’ Drinking Song. Again: I am not joking about this.

Anybody think they can top any of that? Leave it in the comments!