Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Truth about Writers

The Truth about Writers

Snips from this excellent article:

We don't spend much time writing. There. It's out. Writers, by and large, do not do a great deal of writing. We may devote a large number of hours per day to writing, yes, but very little of that time is spent typing the words of a poem, essay or story into a computer or scribbling them onto a piece of paper.
To allow our loved ones to know that we are working when we are supposed to be engaged in the responsibilities of ordinary life would mark us as the narcissists and social misfits we are.

Indeed, even writers who don't write fiction are engaged in the larger fiction of imitating normal humans whose professional activities are organized into discrete blocks of time.

The article is really very funny and worth a read, especially if you write or love someone who does.

--a professional minivan driver

(cartoon credit here)

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Long ago, I had an idea for a funny mystery, sort of Susan Isaacs-like but with a younger, married protagonist. Before I had anything like a plot, I had a title. That idea never went anywhere, and the title became the name of my other blog.

Later on, I had an idea for an entire series of mysteries with a young, married mom protagonist. Each of these stories would share the title of a hymn. The Common Hymns Mysteries! Sure, not everyone goes to my church. But many hymns are classics with titles that are familiar well outside of the Sunday Morning organist-accompanied cultures in which they are frequently sung. And it's nice to have a marketable hook like that. Excuse, me, do you work here? I'm looking for a new mystery by that author whose books are always called after nursery rhymes/numbers/birds/flowers/cocktails/HYMNS. Right?

So I wrote the book, and I think it's pretty decent.

But it turned out to be about computer gamers. This didn't trouble me as I wrote it. See, I figured each mystery in the series would share little more than protagonist, setting, and voice. Sure, a few good friends would repeat as appropriate, but one novel might be about a scavenger hunt, the next a group vacation, yet another a dance competition, and so forth. Flipping quickly through a hymnal gave me dozens of excellent ideas for sequels.

But the gaming thing really took over this novel.

So much so that it doesn't really fit with the hymn theme anymore. I love love love my title but it just doesn't really fit with the very modern, youthful, gamer-geek-culture novel I wrote.

So now I'm in search of a new series hook and naming convention, preferably one that suggests an infinite supply of titles and mysteries. All the error messages I get from Microsoft? Things I scream at my flickering monitor in frustration?

(I do still plan to write those hymn novels one day. I just don't know if this book is the right way to start the series.)

Suggestions welcome!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

I really wanted to hate this book. First of all, I wasn't interested in reading a thinly veiled fictionalized version of a famous person's life, especially not a currently living famous person. Second, I was not interested in a sympathetic portrayal of George W. or Laura Bush. And, third, the book was written by Curtis Sittenfeld.

I really love Sittenfeld's writing. But.

In high school, I was enchanted by the idea of boarding schools. She applied for scholarships and went to one. All my life, I've wanted to be a writer. She started selling her stories when I was still thinking vaguely about what I'd want to write someday. I love NPR. She writes for This American Life. I wasn't a feminist until I read her essay "Your Life as a Girl" in college and realized that she even writes my own life experiences better than I do. We're about the same age, but she's done everything both first and better than me. She's like a slightly younger, much smarter, hipper, and more talented big sister. Feh.

So I didn't want to like American Wife. And of course it was fabulous. Sigh.

I even identified with the main character. For heaven's sake, she was modeled on Laura Bush! Blast and tarnation.

One of my book clubs discussed this book tonight and we all liked it. My complaint: Part 4 was less powerful than the rest of the novel. I think this was partially because it was written in the present tense and partially because it was based on current events that we all know much more about and the politics got a little ahead of the story. I didn't feel the intense emotional connection with Alice Blackwell's character that I felt in the earlier sections. In fact, I found myself picturing Laura Bush's face as the narrator talked about dealing with fame. These criticisms do not outweigh the wonderfulness of the rest of the book.

It's a good book. Read it and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

This month, for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club, I'm writing about Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

My first thought was: I have no idea what to say about this book. And then hundreds of words suddenly poured forth from my fingers.

I'll start with this. I didn't want this book to end when it did. I was "in" the book for days after I finished reading it, even after I'd gone on to other books. This is, to me, the mark of a really good book. Ishiguro, the English author of Remains of the Day, created a world that felt terribly real to me, enough so that I felt betrayed when the book ended.

It ended rather abruptly.

And that left me frustrated. Ishiguro is good. He was so close so close so close to a great book with this one.

I don't know how much to say about the plot, as it's intentionally left mysterious throughout the novel. The main characters are leading an unconventional life, and only gradually do they realize it themselves. At no time is there an obvious ah-hah moment for the characters or the readers, just gradual confirmation of various assumptions. That part is very very well done.

  1. Fascinating conceit.
  2. Beautiful description.
  3. Realistic: perfect pitch relating awkward situations between people, subtle interactions that I’ve experienced but never even tried to describe to myself, let alone write down.

Questions (spoilers herein!)
  1. Why didn’t they ever consider just leaving? Any of them?
  2. What were they really donating, specifically? Was there a set order? Did they take multiple organs at once? Why just 4 times? Why not eyes? Why did they keep dying after 2 or 3 times? What’s up with the “messy” surgeries?
  3. And these are just donations for the common good, not, as I at first assumed, clones of individual wealthy people as personal body farms? Who were the initial cell donors, then? And the incubating mothers?
  4. Is it the same elsewhere as in England?
  5. How was it ensured that they could not have children?
  6. How did they keep from mixing more with the culture at large as adults?

  1. Stilted dialogue, especially in the early years at Hailsham, that took me out of the story. Way too many uses of names. “Kathy, blah blah blah.” “I don’t know, Tommy.” “But Kathy,” etc.
  2. Sex. Kathy’s attitude about it didn’t seem particularly normal to me, and I really expected that to play a larger role in the story. Maybe some people are like that, maybe some women. But in my experience it’s a far from universal experience for women of sex, though that’s how Ruth presents their shared experience to Kathy in a significant scene.
  3. SPOILER The never questioning, never disobeying, never doing anything risky, never pushing limits too far, never getting truly involved in the world, all that really bugged me. What were the rumors about Hailsham escapees and Tommy’s temper meant to suggest? All that seemed like foreshadowing something big. I expected him to walk away or commit suicide, just so that he’d know for sure.

And, also, what they said.

Initial reaction: pissed and cheated. Could have been so good, missed.

Weeks later: There's still far more I wanted to know. Perhaps I should seek out interviews with the author, his working notes, something like that. The world was a little . . . incompletely drawn in places. But one of my biggest frustrations - the way the characters simply accepted what happened to them and were observers rather than initiators of significant action - really was the point and was, therefore, while frustrating, perfectly rendered.

I think everyone should read this book, if only so that I can talk to all of you about it.

Check out the other reviews this month over at Barrie Summy's!