Saturday, February 4, 2012
Reading and Re-Reading: An Enquiry
Scott D. Parker
As he is wont to do frequently during my reading life, Neil Gaiman has performed a magic trick. He has conjured, in my mind a question: do we, as adults, re-read books?
Recently, he posted the text of a speech he once gave at an event called Mythcon. (Don't you just love how we can put the word "con" at the end of just about anything and it rings with a certain truthfulness?) His speech was some of his thoughts on C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and J. R. R. Tolkien and how he loves authors who have a certain number of initials in their published names rather than actual names. No, not really, but it struck me as funny just now.
In his speech, he talked about how he discovered those three authors in his childhood. He commented on reading and re-reading certain books--all seven Narnia books, the first two volumes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy--and how, when he came to write his own material, the language of these authors were already ingrained into his subconscious.
This got me to thinking about re-reading in general. In my own boyhood, I re-read a few things, but only major things are sticking to my adult memory. I re-read the Star Wars novelization, the Star Trek log books by Alan Dean Foster, and numerous adventures of the Three Investigators, a group I favored over the more popular Hardy Boys. Even though the animated film of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was released during my childhood, I never got around to reading the entire seven-book series until midway through this past decade. More than likely, I missed something I would have probably found useful had I been twelve when I read them versus mid thirties.
Why do we re-read books? One obvious answer is that we like the characters. I'm an only child and I lived a lot of time in my own head. I was the Fourth Investigator. I wrote myself into the Star Wars saga (Han Solo's nephew, I think it was). We may like the created universe and prefer to spend lazy weekend days there rather than the mundaneness of real life.
Now that I'm a "grown up"--and I use the term very lightly, usually referring to the number of years living as opposed to mindset--I don't re-read much, if at all. I've had the mindset to consider life too short to re-read anything, even things that I love. With so many good books out there, why bother spending any amount of extra time in one book when there are millions more to discover. It's almost as if reading is a race and, knowing I'll never get to all the books I want to read before I pass on, I've contented myself to skimming through my reading life like a thrown stone on a glassy lake. Sure I might touch the surface a few times, rippling here and there, but, ultimately, I'm going to stop moving and sink.
Honestly, the more I think about returning to shared universes, the more I realize that we moderns, if we don't re-read books, instead return to movies and TV shows. I'm starting to think that DVD ownerships and the ability to watch any TV series or movie over and over again is the modern equivalent to re-reading a book. I own a few specials DVDs--The Dark Knight, all seasons, to date, of Castle, Brisco County, Jr., The X-Files--that I'll return to, periodically, to watch. I get to watch the screen and enter again that warm embrace of nostalgia and familiarity bestowed by the stories, characters, and created universes.
There is, of course, a certain wistfulness about childhood re-reading when looked back at it from the point of view of an adult. Lazy days, which, at the time, probably seemed boring--remember how long a Saturday afternoon could be when you had nothing to do? Now, contrast that to a typical Saturday nowadays.--could be spent reading and re-reading any book you wanted to, immersed in the joy of a favorite, dog-eared book. Perhaps, what I'm feeling is that lost sense of wonder that can best be experienced as a child and during first discovery.
When was the last time a book truly opened your mind? Or made you have a physical, visceral reaction? I'll admit that when I read a book nowadays, I read with two minds. One mind merely wants to be entertained while the other is keeping a mental list of Things You Can Learn as a writer. While the former always manages to subvert the latter, the presence of the latter means I'm not truly consumed by the book. As a kid, I didn't care what writing tips I could learn from an author. I just wanted to be entertained.
When was the last time a book truly opened *my* mind? Well, being all analytical and compartmentalized in my thinking, I sub-divide my answer into two components. There are the mind-expanding books and there are the books from which I've had a physical reaction to, one in which I've simultaneously enjoyed the story but also took note of things as a writer. In the latter category, I present the following: Mystic River, The Dawn Patrol, The Shadow of the Wind, and Naked Heat. (Yes, that last is based on the Castle TV show and is the reigning book in the I've Re-Read It list. Why did I re-read it? To learn how "Richard Castle" structured his story.)
The former category consists of only two books: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville and Hyperion by Dan Simmons. That they are SF/F books lends some credence to my own personal belief that the genres of science fiction and fantasy are the best mediums to open one's mind. And here's where my skipping-stone analogy/too many books to bother re-reading mentality ruin me. Both of these books are part of a larger series. As wowed as I was by them, I felt compelled to stop living in their respective universes and charge forward. In some ways, I cheated myself, an idea I've only recently considered and lamented.
So, I pose the questions to you. Do you re-read books? If so, do you only re-read books you first read as a child, or do you re-read books you discovered as an adult? If you've returned to a book first read during childhood, did it stand up or did your adult sense ruin, in a way, the memory of the book? When was the last time a book truly opened your mind? What was it, and why?
Friday, February 3, 2012
Did You Know...
By Russel D McLean (who is a little grumpy today)
I have a plea for writers. Especially writers of procedural based crime and those action thrillers that feature military personel.
The plea is simple:
Keep. Your. Research. Away. From. My. Narrative.
Although Elmore Leonard will claim that his ten rules of writing were written on the fly for a writing con appearance, there is one that speaks to me.
Leave out the parts the readers tend to skip.
I read a book recently that’s been getting a lot of plaudits about its pacing and its character and its “state of the nation” challenging assumptions. And all I could do through the whole book (all 500 plus pages) was yell, “Get the bloody hell on with it!” Because there was some genuinely good writing in there and yet the author had to explain police procedure in brain crushing detail. To the point where I felt I could fill out an evidence form without thinking twice.
Which is all well and good and some readers believe it adds realism (and weight for their money, as the higher word count means a heavier and bigger book) but it doesn’t. Because people don’t go through their life examining everything in such detail. And when we tell each other stories we don’t do it either (unless we’re bores).
There’s a lot you can skip. If you’re filling out an evidence form, please only go into any detail if you’re making a blunder or seeing something important. If you’re using a gun, then tell me how it feels to fire the bastard, not the make, history and serial number of the gun.
Leave out the parts that people skip.
Because I skipped a hell of a lot during that book. And it made no difference to the emotional outcome. In fact, it might have made care more if my eyes hadn’t start crossing at the next tedious walk through of how-to-examine-a-crime-scene101.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t research. You should have enough technical detail in there to keep the scenes feeling real and weighted. But too much detail is as much a crime as too little. And in an age where we’re no longer being paid by the word (for novels, at least) there is no excuse for this, other than to show off to the reader how “real” you are by shoving in all of that research.
Of course, what do I know? An editor I once worked with berated me because “people want to know all the technical details” of how an investigation worked. Which intrigued me because it’s the last thing I want to know. Okay, I want to believe in how the characters go from a to b to c, but its less important to me than experiencing the character’s emotions and empathising with the sensation of what they’re going through.
Give me the story.
Tell me about the people.
And let the procedure take care of itself.
Wednesday, February 1, 2012
The Wire? Breaking Bad? FOOOOOD FIIIIIGHT.
I hate the idea of Idi Amin living in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end. I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. 'I want to believe there's a heaven. But I can't not believe there's a hell.'
Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Franzen Gets It Wrong
By Steve Weddle
Speaking at the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, [Jonathan] Franzen argued that e-books, such as Amazon’s Kindle, can never have the magic of the printed page. -- from the UK Telegraph
Best-selling author Jonathan Franzen has been rather silly in his attack on ebooks. Let's take a look at his argument, with his points from the Telegraph article.
“The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it's pretty good technology.”
You ever try to read a page you’ve spilled water on? I have. Doesn’t usually work.
As with most of his complaints, Mr. Franzen seems confused about how ebooks work. Yes, it’s called an “e-book,” and I think I understand part of where Mr. Franzen’s confusion comes from. He seems to be under the impression the book itself will “short out,” much as his cassette player would if doused with a can of New Coke.
If I spilled water on my Kindle and it stopped working, I could still read my book. I could read the file on my computer. On my phone. On my wife’s Kindle. When my new Kindle arrives in a day, I could pick up where I left off. The bookmarks and notes, like the ebook itself, exist on my local device, sure. But they also exist on Amazon’s servers and on any other device I’ve loaded them onto.
Mr. Franzen says that he loves the “American paperback edition of FREEDOM.” Leave that out in the rain and you can’t read the book. Leave your Kindle or Nook out in the rain and you still can. The book isn’t ruined at all.
Sure, a Kindle is expensive – the same as about two hardbacks of Franzen’s FREEDOM. Don’t leave it out in the rain.
“I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change.”
I, too, am a “serious reader.” I have a very serious chair in the library of my home. I sit in the chair, listening to Dvorak and drinking my dark coffee from my serious Keurig brewer. And I have checked the files loaded on my Kindle. I have looked at the PDF of this Telegraph article every five minutes for the past two hours.
So far, the file has not changed. If the files on Mr. Franzen’s ereader have been changing themselves, I would suggest he return the reader to Amazon. They have fantastic customer service. In fact, they’re quite serious about it.
“Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.”
Yes, books can change, I suppose. But this is not simply a paper vs. screen issue. In 2010, for example, 80,000 copies of a book called FREEDOM by a Mr. J. Franzen were pulped because of numerous errors. Sometimes, these things happen. Sometimes printing the book on paper might cause problems.
The publishers have made the rare decision to pulp the remaining books at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds. A spokesman for Fourth Estate, the HarperCollins imprint that publishes Franzen in Britain, said: 'The error was minor - the odd word, spelling, punctuation, that sort of thing. 'Jonathan has spent 10 years writing this book, so obviously he wants every word to be as it was when he left his computer. But he understands that it's just one of those things.' -- from UK Mail
Consider the logistics of pulping 80,000 books. Consider the tens of thousands of pounds in cost. Then consider updating the file on your Kindle or Nook with the corrected file.
“The Great Gatsby was last updated in 1924. You don’t need it to be refreshed, do you?”
No. I do not. I wonder what copy of THE GREAT GATSBY Mr. Franzen has downloaded and read. Perhaps he stumbled into one of those mash-ups. I can understand there'd be a problem if someone had accidentally purchased one of those Jane Austen fighting the werewolf books. GATSBY AND GHOULS, perhaps.
As I mentioned earlier, you can easily return the ebook to Amazon. In fact, as soon as you purchase an ebook on your device, a message that allows you to either immediately read the book or immediately cancel the book appears.
Perhaps it is unfair to ask Mr. Franzen to be an expert on technology. As the article in the Telegraph notes, Franzen “famously cuts off all connection to the internet when he is writing.”
I admit that I have read as much of Mr. Franzen’s writing as he has of mine, which is none at all. Therefore, I can’t with confidence judge whether his self-exile has improved his prose. I am aware that he has sold millions of books, much as Nicholas Sparks and James Patterson have done. So he must be doing something that is working for him.
I am also aware that Mr. Franzen’s own books are available as ebooks, which seems an odd choice for someone who so dislikes them. Perhaps the opportunity for selling millions of books has some advantages.
Perhaps most telling in the Telegraph article is the closing section:
Critics have pointed to the absence of religion in Franzen’s novels and he explained: “I don’t believe in a God who’s sitting in some undisclosed location at a switchboard receiving and answering prayers.
Interesting that Mr. Franzen thinks that God communicates via a switchboard. Also interesting that Mr. Franzen’s comments were reported by a newspaper called the Telegraph.
Switchboards. Telegraphs. Rocket books. What’s more important to most readers is the story, not the delivery mechanism. A $10 pdf of Franzen’s writing is just as much his story as is that same pdf in a bound volume, stitched and trimmed and shipped for $30.
Whether people are reading their literature on Kindles or Nooks or paper or phones or rolled-up scrolls penned by priests, a “literature-crazed” person would do well to remember that the play’s the thing, not the stage.
Monday, January 30, 2012
Dads Aren't Second Class Parents and Boys Aren't Second Class Readers
The part of the article that pissed me off was a small part of an otherwise bland article but it *was* a part that sent off alarm bells.
I mentioned the article on Twitter on Saturday morning and much to my amazement I wasn't the only one who noticed the article.
So first let's get to the article.
The article appeared in Parenting Magazine. CNN ran it on their site. The comments section blew up. And Jezebel picked up on the story.
The article was called "The New Playdate Playbook" by Senior Editor Deborah Skolnik. Here is the offending passage:
The Sitch: You've accepted a sleepover invite for your daughter, not realizing that only her pal's divorced dad will be home. You're not OK with it. What to do?
The Solution: "Call and say 'I'm sorry, and this is about me and not you, but I just don't feel comfortable with a man supervising an overnighter,' " says Paone. Offer to host the girls at your place instead, if you can, or ask to turn the sleepover into a "late-over," where your daughter stays only till bedtime. In the future, always ask who'll be on duty before you say yes to a sleepover.
Oh, where to start.
First of all why would you accept a playdate and not know the familial situation (never ever “sitch”). Second why is the father in the example stigmatized with “divorced dad?" Why isn't he a single dad? You've essentially agreed to a sleep over having only dealt with the dad beforehand or you've dealt with his girlfriend or wife or significant other and are now changing the rules of the game. Or, worse yet, you've accepted an invite from his ex-wife and are caught off guard about something you should have known about.
Third of all What the Fuck?!
Really Deborah and fictitious mom. Really. Dad's aren't to be trusted with little girls is what your saying. How about saying this instead. Get the fuck over it. Men are parents too and increasingly they are the caregivers I might add.
Look, I've been a single Dad and was one for years. I sat on the floor with my daughter watching Saturday morning cartoons teaching myself how to braid and do other hair styles. I've played Barbie and I've played war.
Because when it comes to the line of demarcation between traditional fathers and the kind I'm trying to be, it always comes down to the hair. We've all seen little girls out with Dad, and their hair just looks crazy, almost as if they just rolled out of bed. There are pieces sticking out everywhere, there aren't any barrettes, and, if there are, they're just kind of stuck on there. And, as a community, we say, "Yep, she's out with Dad," as if that's an excuse for the little girl to look like some kind of nut.
If I had a dollar for every time I would take the kids out to the store when they were little and a woman said to me “Oh, is it Daddy's day out” in a cloying and condescending tone of voice I would be a rich man.
Here's the thing, I've also been the one to comfort and teach. I've been the one who dealt with middle of the night sickness. I've taught how to read and laughed over the simple joy of Sponge Bob in the morning.
Women don't have a monopoly on the parenting game any longer, and they shouldn't. Dad's are in the game too. Things need to change.
The advice to the mother should have been. "What the hell is wrong with you accepting an invite to a house you don't know anything about and you should have your damn head examined for your sexist attitudes." Plus, I can braid like a motherfucker too.
In addition to the many things I would call myself I am a parent and I take that responsibility very seriously. One of the things that I've noticed as a parent is that boys are being left behind and left out.
Earlier this week I watched a TED talk given by Charr Chellman called “Gaming to Re-Engage Boys in Learning”. It's a short talk that highlights some of the many issues but doesn't get in to the meat of solutions. First you've got to know the problem before you can start to solve it.
In her talk Chellman points out some of the systemic and institutionalized rules and policies that are effectively eradicating behaviors in boys that would largely be considered “normal” and creating an environment where they are being left behind.
One of the things that I want to focus on right now is this quote from the talk:
“Another way that zero tolerance lives itself out is in the writing of boys. In a lot of classrooms today you're not allowed to write about anything that's violent. You're not allowed to write about anything that has to do with video games -- these topics are banned. Boy comes home from school, and he says, "I hate writing." "Why do you hate writing, son? What's wrong with writing?" "Now I have to write what she tells me to write." "Okay, what is she telling you to write?" "Poems. I have to write poems. And little moments in my life. I don't want to write that stuff." "All right. Well, what do you want to write? What do you want to write about?" "I want to write about video games. I want to write about leveling-up. I want to write about this really interesting world. I want to write about a tornado that comes into our house and blows all the windows out and ruins all the furniture and kills everybody." "All right. Okay." You tell a teacher that, and they'll ask you, in all seriousness, "Should we send this child to the psychologist?" And the answer is no, he's just a boy. He's just a little boy. It's not okay to write these kinds of things in classrooms today.”
I have two children that are elementary school age. One of the biggest things that I have noticed over the years is that there aren't any male teachers or administrators. The only males in the building are the janitor and the gym teacher. What kind of message are we sending to our boys with this very obvious signal? Many of our educational problems with boys would likely be solved with this one very simple addition. We need more male teachers for our young children in general but our young boys specifically.
But the bias of the article from Parenting Magazine carries over and there is a tendency to view male caregivers as inferior at best or pedophiles at worst.
A great companion to this is Philip Zimbardo's talk, “The Demise of Guys?” wherein he tells us that:
Boys' brains are being digitally rewired in a totally new way for change, novelty, excitement and constant arousal. That means they're totally out of sync in traditional classes, which are analog, static, interactively passive. They're also totally out of sync in romantic relationships, which build gradually and subtly.
There is a widespread problem hiding in plain site.
So my son spent a couple of hours this weekend at the dining room table hard at work. His finished product was some illustrations and a story synopsis that he plans on fleshing out in to a bigger story.
It's awesome and it's pure “boy”.
“Another immortal planet will collide with earth. But...We need the undead to stop it. If we fail a fatal war will end all forms of life. Two brothers and their 16 friends are up against 68 million werewolves, corpses and vampires. The skeleton key necklace could end their world not ours. What will be needed is a sacrifice. A risky sacrifice that will end their world...or ours.“
If we look at what boys want to write then we get a glimpse into the kinds of books that they want to read. Because boys aren't reading and most YA sales are girls and adults. Folks, if you want boys to buy books then write books they want to read.
My son, in all of his 10 year old wisdom, is more than happy to tell people what he wants to read. He wants lots of fights. Lots of monsters. And it should be “action-y”. Boys don't want romance, or a moral, or a lot of exposition or narrative. They want more action.
I remember one time asking Duane Swierczynski if he had ever considered writing YA. One because our kids are near the same age and two because his writing style for adults would be perfect for boys.
Look, I could go on and on but there's no action in that. The bottom line is that everything is connected. What happens here affects what happens there and nothing takes place in a vacuum. As crime fiction fans we know this. That's why we like reading about how a killer is made, or the after effects of a crime, or any number of things. Sloganeering is popular these days. Reducing something to a simplistic shadow of it's reality and complexity and nuance are shunned.
If we continue to dismiss the legitimate roles of men in our society, we're conditioning the men of tomorrow to expect to be excluded and discriminated against, to be overlooked in classrooms and in family matters. How can we complain about boys being hyper and addicted to video games when we exclude them, by failing to engage their interests, provide suitable role models and lowering their expectations for legitimacy and acceptance within society?
As my wife would put it, "I'm tired of people lowering their standards for boys because of their gender, and I'm tired of a society that claims Dads have equal rights to Moms, yet overwhelming denies Dads joint custody, or an equal share... a society that assumes every man is evil and forgets the Casey Anthonys and Susan Smiths.
"In the United States, women commit only two crimes as frequently as men. The first is shoplifting. The second is the murder of their own children."
We need to work harder, all of us.
Currently reading: From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet by Patrick Michael Finn; El Gavilan by Craig McDonald; Brit Grit Too
Sunday, January 29, 2012
Finishing what you start
Almost everyone I know loves to begin a new project. Whether it is a novel, a short story, knitting a scarf or building some cool new thing for the house – beginnings are exciting. Everything is bright and new and shiny. Kind of like a new toy on Christmas Day. There are endless possibilities as you imagine the fun you will have.
Beginnings are awesome.
Too bad beginnings can’t last forever. But they don’t and the bright and new and shiny wears off and you are left with something that no longer feels like fun. Instead, it feels like work.
Whether you are a third of the way through knitting a sweater, rebuilding a car engine or writing your manuscript—getting past the point where the activity feels like work can be tough. This is probably why so many people talk about wanting to write a book or knit a blanket, but never have a finished product to show anyone. They get distracted by an exciting new idea or a nifty knitting pattern and suddenly they have ditched the old one so they can have the “new toy” feeling again.
When new writers ask me what I think is the most important step they can take to becoming a published author my answer is always the same. Finish a book. It doesn’t matter if you realize halfway through that your midget werewolf, time travel, erotic mystery is not what the market is looking for. I don’t care if you say that you’ve realized your story has a huge hole in it. I don’t care about any of the reasons you have for not finishing the book. You need to keep going and finish the damn book!
Why finish something that won’t have a chance in hell of selling? Because finishing a project teaches you something very important. It teaches you that you actually can finish..
Why is that important? I mean, if the book will never sell, who cares. It doesn’t matter that you’ve finished the book. Right?
I know lots of aspiring authors who have been typing furiously for years and have never gotten to THE END. And while they keep blaming the story or the lack of time to write or the worry that the market isn’t going to want to buy what they are writing – they are just making excuses. With every new beginning comes the bright and shiny new toy moment. But for those that have never finished what they have begun that bright and shiny moment is laced with fear and uncertainty.
Uncertainty because you have never finished a project.
Fear that you never will.
Trust me when I say the first book I wrote will NEVER see the light of day. It sucked. Oh – there were good moments in it. It would be hard to write that many words without a few gems in the bunch. But I hadn’t a clue how to really construct a story. I didn’t have a feel for pacing or for keeping a scene focused. Face it—I didn’t have a flippin’ clue. The only thing I did right was I finished the sucker. All 134,000 words of it. (Yeah – now you can see why that book had problems…right?)
But that book taught me something very important. It taught me that I could sit down every day and fill the pages with words. Even though the story was less than perfect, it had a beginning, middle and most important it had an end. I learned that I could finish a book. Which meant when I started the next project, I KNEW that project would have an end, too.
I currently have two books on the shelves of your local bookstore with eight more under contract—only 3 of which are written. If I hadn’t proven over and over again to myself that I could reach the end of those as yet unwritten books I would be cowering under my bed. Instead, I sit at the computer every day and know that I will reach THE END of all of those books not just because I have to, but because I have proven to myself that I can.
We all like to talk about voice and sentence structure, pacing and characters, but so often we forget the most important milestone of a writer’s life is finishing that first book and banishing the fear. And when you are fearless, anything is possible.