Archive for January, 2009

This Market and That Market and all of my Money

January 30, 2009

I know I am not alone.

At some point I think everyone who has ever thought of being a writer, who has wondered if maybe they could get something published somewhere, anywhere, has went out and bought at least one of these books. These books promising to give you every place imagineable to submit your work and to provide easy to follow instructions for submitting your children to these unseen judges in the most beauty pageant spotless and combed fashion to encourage being Chosen.

At some point I think we all allow ourselves a moment to dream.

And then we plop down twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five dollars for The Writer’s Market or The Poet’s Market or one of the numerous siblings and printed shirt tail relation that offer page after page of addresses, contact information and preferences. It’s a weird personals section in reverse where the confident simply post an ad saying, “Please Me” and we jump to our feet to submit our pained, inadaquate selves for their judging.

I have a couple of these books on my own shelf. I have went through them all, trying to comb out the ones that look most promising. I have used different colored post-its, paperclips, hi-liters, and corner folding. I have typed countless web addresses, some still working some never having worked, and these books still sit on my shelf. And every year I consider getting the newest edition, as if I would ever be able to pick up on the updates.

Now I use and look for projects/requests that fit me or which I think I can make myself fit. Things with deadlines and clear requirements. Things that are set up closer to how personal ads should be set up or at least closer to how they should feel. Sending these emails feels productive.

But those books on my shelf, with all of their creases and paper clips and many colored hi-lites, are still there and they still represent the first time I really looked at the idea of not just writing but of being a writer…and dreamed.

John Updike – dead at 76

January 28, 2009

For a blog devoted to writing and literature and everything in between, it would be impossible to not mention the passing of John Updike. Unfortunately, it would also be imposssible for me to talk about John Updike with any idea if any of it was making any sort of sense.  Updike has always been someone I have thought of reading. He has existed at the periphery of my bookstore browsing, a writer I knew was a living icon but no idea why.

Going through the various articles that have been written about him I am wishing that I had read him before now.  Repeatedly it has been mentioned that critics were somewhat divided on Updike.  To some he was a lion and to some he was, well, maybe a bobcat.

But in the end I don’t think the critical divide really matters. What I think really matters is that people read him. People enjoyed reading him. And people will likely continue to read him.  It’s being read that keeps an author truly alive and it is likely an inevitable fate for every writer to slowly slip from public view and to be read by fewer and fewer people. Hopefully Updike is kept alive for a very long time. And I plan on picking up a couple of his Rabbit books soon.

The LA Times had my favorite write up. You can read it here.

Neil Gaiman wins a Newbery

January 26, 2009

I’m not a big fan of Neil Gaiman. I grew up reading Asimov and Bradbury and an associated grab bag of scifi/fantasy authors that were leftovers from my dad’s book collection. Old paperbacks with yellow spines and yellower pages.  Stuff that was treated like pulp even if it wasn’t legitimately pulp quality. So it’s not like I hate the genre as a whole. I’m just not a fan of Gaiman, having been utterly incapable of immersing myself in his work.

But I did notice that he won a Newbery Award for Children’s Literature and I just thought I would give him a quick congratulations. I also thought this would be a good moment to talk about versatility being a writer’s greatest gift to himself. Gaiman has spread his wings a bit and had a hand in several different forms of story telling and media. From novels to, I believe, graphic novels, to television and film-he’s worked with all of them in varying degrees and manners. And now he’s dipping into children’s literature, for which I say good for him.

But this is something I am not sure I notice much with writers who don’t work within a “genre.” Stephen King, Ann Rice, John Grisham, etc. have all dallied in a few different things with varying degrees of “hands on-edness* and it seems as if it is something that “serious” writers don’t enjoy the luxury of. Movies are made of their books but I don’t remember seeing their names attached to the projects other than having created the source material.

while genre writers seem to get shorted a bit on the respect side of things, I think that finding yourself within a genre also seems to open up unique career opportunities. this isn’t really something that I had anywhere to go with, and there are certainly exceptions to the rule, but I thought it was interesting to note.

A lot of red ink

January 23, 2009

I am finally bringing myself to sit down and begin the task of editing/re-writing a novel I finished a few months back. In the spirit of using the blog as confessional, this is a project that I took far too long on completing the first draft of. Most of the idea was pretty much in my head from the start, I did the normal pre-writing stuff that usually doesn’t help much in the end (and it didn’t this time, either, other than helping me keep the characters straight) and then I began to trudge through the process of writing.

Which is odd because writing it, when I actually sat down and worked on it, wasn’t that much work. The words came fairly easily and, when I would make myself sit down and do it, I could get through good chunks of it at the time. It was just forcing myself to sit down and work on it that was the problem. And after the initial thrust took so long to repeat, I was just sort of burned out on it and didn’t want to look at it for awhile.

So I didn’t. Until a couple of days ago. Then I hefted the thing out of my messenger bag (I want to call it an attache and give it some degree of respectability but I also can’t help but think of it as a big leather man purse) and have started going through it with the trusty red pen and an open notebook that I’ve used from teh start to keep my notes in. Two things became immediately clear.

One, I see why I wrote it so quickly. It needs a lot of work on the re-write. The ideas are solid but the language and construction need some definite overhauls. I have already came across whole paragraphs where I like what I want to say but disagree entirely with how I’m trying to say it.

Second, it has amazed me how far I have come as a writer since I had written the opening pages of this thing so long ago. Even if I would have sensed there was something wrong upon a re-reading then, I don’t believe I would have had the requisite skills to zero in and fix it. Or at least attempt to fix it. Now I can feel myself viewing it from a different level of experience and ability. And I also see why it takes me longer to write something now as I actually notice how much more effort and time I take in constructing something.

While it feels somewhat encouraging to be able to take a clear notice of this evolution in my writing, the red blanketing my manuscript is also a sobering reminder of how much work still lies ahead of me. But I feel like I know where I am going now. I have a map for these territories. Here there are no longer monsters.

Larry McMurtry:The Book Is Dead

January 22, 2009

Over at the Houston Chronicle they had this short interview with Larry McMurtry that focuses on books and culture. His 29th novel is to hit bookshelves later this year and he’s beginning work on the second book of his biography (the first, Books, was published in 2007 and the third, Hollywood, has yet to be written). He also owns a used and rare bookstore in his home town of Archer City called Booked-Up.

Within the interview McMurtry uses his upcoming speaking engagement at Rice to touch upon the fact that he sees few young people come into his store. Nearly everyone is “over 40” and this has caused him to worry that the our “Book Culture” is in its final stages. Despite an early love with stories, he mentions how kids hit an entertainment blitzkrieg when they get around eleven or twelve years of age. A world of MP3 players, video players, movies, cell phones, the internet, satallite radio, and television come together as a horde of mice attacking the child’s time and attention with each taking away its fair morsel.

Which might be true.

But I also think that it might be overstating it a bit. I don’t see a lot of young people at the used bookstores I frequent, either. But I don’t think this is because there is a severe lack of young people reading, only that there is a severe lack of young people willing to go to a store that isn’t in a shopping mall.

For when I go into Borders, I see plenty of young people. Being a bit of a crotchety old man, I’m often annoyed by the sheer volume of young people taking up space in the book aisles. Though, to be fair, I’m fairly annoyed by anyone in the book aisles taking up space. But the point is that they are there. Granted, there is a larger number of them filtering over to the graphic novel and manga sections, both of which were recently expanded at my local Borders, but I think we are past the point of denigrating the graphic novel as a lesser form of reading.

Also, I think the written word may have a larger place within our society now than nearly ever before. While this may no longer be a golden age of letters, the young are not bashful about picking up their keyboard and putting their thoughts to the page. With the imprint that blogging, instant messaging, chat rooms and message boards leave on the virtual and real worlds, I would wager that there is a greater segment of our society today putting the written word to daily use than ever before.

Whether there is quality riding along with this quantity is debateable but I think that is more of a question of the technology and the forum having existed outside of the social norm until very recently. Instead of embracing these forms of communication and expression, bringing them into the mainstream and incorporating their strengths into legitimizing their forms, we have allowed them to remain on the outside where their influence is still felt but not controlled in any real way. Bloggers are still looked upon with suspicion while the other forms are looked upon as amateurish time wasters.

But kids are reading these things and kids are writing these things. These are places that are engaging, demanding and are beginning to carry formidable weight. So while the internet might take customers away from the bookstore, it isn’t taking people away from the written word. Despite the thunderhead of etnertainment distractions that descend upon the young, they still find time to write and read something they are interested in and which they find accessible.

What I think this really shows is that the literary world needs to change with the world around it. I’ve talked about a couple of e-books in past blogs and the majority of us know of Project Gutenberg but it needs to go further. Literature needs to be created solely for the internet browsing crowd, incorporating HTML, flash, etc. to create the dynamic reading experience that people have come to expect.

This isn’t to say that the conventional printed word is dead or that it doesn’t have a place in society. I can’t realistically see any point within my life time where I will quit wandering into a conventional bookstore and buying a conventional book. This only to say that the world of literature has a new frontier into which to expand. Having these alternate forms emerge is an opportunity to expand the influence of the written word and to stave off the demise McMurtry prophesies.

The Mayor’s Tongue – Review

January 21, 2009

Just finished reading The Mayor’s Tongue a couple of days ago, the debut novel of Nathaniel Rich.  It has two story lines which take turns in spinning their yarns and which mesh seamlessly together. One story line follows youthful Eugene Brentani, who sets off for Italy in search of the daughter of his employer and the woman he may or may not be in love with. The second story follows the elderly Mr. Schmitz who, recently widowed, also travels to Italy in search of his lost friend, Rutherford.

The way the seperate story lines interweave and interact is seamless, a stunning achievement for a debut novel. Rich also gives us characters who we can feel genuinely for. We want our protagonists to succeed and we want the antagonists vanquished.

Unfortunately, this becomes the novel’s achille’s heel.  As each disparate story line builds itself towards its climax and as the storylines begin their eventual convergence, the novel begins to become predictable. Various plot turns can be guessed at fairly easily by an attentive reader and many of the surprises become less surprising but more expected.

Which in itself isn’t a bad thing. A novel does not have to maintain an air of mystery and intrigue throughout and, often, it’s the smaller twists and turns that lift a story beyond itself to become something more. For the most part, however, the small routes and nuances that make a common story unique are absent or delivered without the requisite skill to gain the most punch from them. And the larger twist Rich attempts to deploy at the end only left this reader vaguely disappointed with the outcome of the work and wishing for something more.

This isn’t to say the novel is bad. It is a good read and what it attempts to pull off is commendable.  While it would have taken from a bit from the complexity of this novel, I have to wonder if maybe there wouldn’t have been greater potential in each story line being pulled apart and given more extensive work of their own.  For just as the ending is unsatisfying, I was also left thinking there was far more relevant material about the main characters than was given, and I wouldn’t have minded reading it.

There is a future for Mr. Rich in the fiction game and, judging from the Q&A on his website, he is going to pursue it with another work. But if you wade into The Mayor’s Tongue, do it understanding that the last twenty or so pages may leave you a little disappointed.

The Mayor’s Tongue at Amazon.Com

LA Time Book Review for The Mayor’s Tongue

Radar Review for The Mayor’s Tongue

One paragraph? Three years in prison.

January 20, 2009

This story about the Australian writer Harry Nicolaides is frightening to anyone who picks up the pen and tries to put something to paper. Life is an influence on you and you can’t help but have life slip into your pages. You also can’t help but have opinion slip in, regardless of whether or not the opinion is even your own. In the course of writing you are bound to create many characters who say and do things which you may personally find reprehensible or wrong and would never dream of doing yourself. That’s just a fact with writing. In a weird way you do not always have control over what your characters say and do and other times they simply must say or do it for the integrity of the work.

I believe every writer does this with the belief that the work will stand on its own, for good or ill, and that the world will either accept it or ignore it. Of course, we know this isn’t always the truth.  In America, we have a long history of banning or attempting to ban a litany of books for a variety of reasons. What these reasons usually boil down to is that we simply disagree with the book and we know what’s best. So it’s better that no one else is exposed to this wrong thinking.

Rarely do we see something go to the extent of what someone like Salman Rushdie has endured. For over two decades he has endured a fatwa calling for his death because of “The Satanic Verses.”  Rushdie says to he lives openly now and doesn’t express much concern for the two decade old  decree by Ayatollah Khomeini but it’s also noted that the decree has never been lifted.

Now we see another author being imprisoned for a single paragraph in a book that sold 7 copies because it was pulled from shelves. In Thailand there is a law against bad mouting the royalty. It’s an old law  that everyone from the actual King to the Prime Minister says needs to be revised or outright eliminated because of its misuse (and outright ridiculousness). But nothing has happened.

Instead, they put someone else in jail for breaking this law. In one paragraph. In an entire book. That sold seven copies. I have to wonder what the punishment would have been if there had been two paragraphs that were disrespectful towards the royalty.

A Foundation for the Movies

January 19, 2009

Lifted this from The Arts Blog at the New York Times: the rights to the old Foundation series by Isaac Asimov has been sold to Columbia Pictures and they are looking to make it a Roland Emmerich vehicle.

The good news is that Asimov gets another shot at the big screen. While I didn’t hate I Robot, it certainly didn’t do the book or the author justice.  If you have read the book, while watching the movie you get the impression that it was titled “I Robot” purely for the name recognition and not for any real ties to the source material. Usually I don’t have much of a problem with movies deviating from source material, they should deviate from it and play towards the strengths of their particular form and be their own interpretation rather than a straight adaptation from word to image.

My problem is when it is either done very poorly (such as Demi Moore’s attrocious “Scarlett Letter” film from the late 90s) or when it deviates from source material to the extent to have no real connection to the source material. But the latter I can more than bend with if the end product is good enough (such as Kubrick’s “The Shining” which is utterly brilliant).

So maybe Asimov will be given justice with the Foundation series being brought to the big screen. It would be nice seeing a good movie based on the books I read as a teenager and which I got passed to me from my dad who read them when he was younger.

But I have serious doubts if Roland Emmerich is going to be the one given the reins to it. I give him all the credit in the world for Stargate. I still enjoy that movie and the television shows it spawned. I’m a bit of a scifi geek and can’t really help myself.

But following that up with the lackluster fare such as Independence Day, Godzilla, The Patriot and The Day After Tomorrow doesn’t give me much hope that Foundation won’t be brought down to something with a lot of explosions and slow motion. Our best hope is that Emmerich has to pass on this for some reason and someone a bit more skilled is given the material to run with.

The Empty White

January 16, 2009

Been trying to write more lately and I find myself staring at the page more than actually getting anything done.  Even if it’s something I’ve already started and I’m trying to continue, the space after the last word on the page just seems to grow and grow until it envelops everything.

Eventually I give up and play spider or chess. I get addicted to beating either chance or the computer at its most rudimentary settings. Yesterday I was up til four in the morning playing chess with a partially done short story open in the background. I would move a knight or lose a pawn and eye the white void beyond the chess board.

it’s a weird feeling to have ideas to have a good sense of where that idea is or should go and even how to get there but still find myself wholly unable to make the journey.

Albany Weed: William Kennedy

January 15, 2009

My knowledge of William Kennedy is admittedly limited. Like many authors that I have come to read much of, I found him through another writer, Hunter S. Thompson. From what I recollect from my far more extensive Thompson readings, they were friends and Kennedy is mentioned at the back of many of Hunter Thompson’s works in the “Honor Roll;” people who had passed the judgement of Hunter Thompson, who had been deemed if not good, then at least respected.

Which was enough to get me to pick up “Ironweed,” Kennedy’s most honored and highly regarded work about the return of Francis Phelan to his home in Albany, 13 years after a tragic accident took the life of his child. Came across this blog at Littoral that talks about the work (and Kennedy’s appearance at a seminar) far more thoroughly and eloquently than I.

Kennedy’s writing in “Ironweed” was free and his gift for dialogue was undeniable. From “Legs,” the second book of Kennedy’s as I progressed through his Albany Cycle in reverse:

“Heh,” said Morrie. “What’d he say?”
“Ah, a few things.”
“Nothing good, bet your ass on that, the son-of-a-bitch.”
“It wasn’t exactly flattering, but he was interested.”
“Who’s that?” Billy asked, looking up from the newspaper.
“My old man,” Morrie said.
“He’s a son-of-a-bitch?”
“In spades.”
“What’d he do?”
“Nothing. He’s just a son-of-a-bitch. Always has been.”

the language is a bit coarse at times, reflecting the characters who peopled his novels: every day folks largely from rough backgrounds and relatively small towns. While Albany isn’t exactly the backwords of Missouri, it is also isn’t the streets or New York.  Reading Kennedy is a picture of similar towns across America. You can put faces and voices to the characters and draw them into your own world.

As I said, my actual knowledge of Kennedy is scant but of the four novels I’ve read (“Ironweed,” “Billy Phelen’s Greatest Game,” “Legs,” and “Very Old Bones”),  but my respect for his abilities are great. He’s also written numerous works of criticism, two plays, two childrens books and three other novels. He’s a writer of tremendous talent and I encourage everyone to give him a shot. Some other links that might be helpful:

Wired for Books Audio Interview of William Kennedy

Wikipedia Entry

NY State Writers Institute Biography of William Kennedy