bookmark_borderFinding books to read

I have difficulty finding books to read using our library’s online system. If you know the author or the title it works great, but when you are searching for good novels across various genres written by authors that you have not previously read and only in ebook form and available right now, it’s not as helpful.

I have, in the past, looked up Pulitzer/Booker/Giller/Edgar/Hugo or other longlists in my browser before searching but that’s an extra step that I don’t always have the patience to follow.

My newest approach is to type “novel” in the search field and use the filters to include only ebooks available now. I can also make genre choices to narrow the options. Then I have to rely on the description plus any inclusions in the library’s lists of recommendations as well as random reader reviews to help me decide. The preview option seems to have disappeared which means I have to commit to taking the book out to see what I think.

This process worked the first time. I discovered “Girl at War” by Sara Novic, a story about a ten year old girl living in Zagreb in 1991. I knew nothing about that conflict from the inside but now I have a start. The prose was good and the characters interesting, though the secondary ones felt disposable and some of the plot didn’t feel inevitable. Still, a worthwhile read.

Second novel, “A Noise Downstairs” by Linwood Barclay, was a failure.

This is a thriller that opens with a prologue. I had some reservations with the prose.

“A busted taillight was the kind of thing that undoubtedly would annoy Kenneth. The car’s lack of back-end-symmetry, the automotive equivalent of an unbalanced equation, would definitely irk Kenneth, a math and physics professor.”

Is this an interesting character observation? Perhaps. But the wording irritated me. The repetition of “undoubtedly would annoy Kenneth” and “would definitely irk Kenneth” is a little cute for this reader, though, if it were left as a parallel sentence construction without the “a math and physics professor” tagged at the end it probably wouldn’t have bothered me.

But the subordinate clause at the end of the paragraph is what sticks out. Remove the analogy of the equation so it reads: “The car’s lack of back-end-symmetry would definitely irk Kenneth, a math and physics professor” and it flows better. Or, move the tag to the beginning of the sentence: “As a math and physic professor the car’s lack of back-end-symmetry—the equivalent of an unbalanced equation—would have irked Kenneth” is more subtle and gives more sentence variety. Or explain the connection: “The car’s lack of back-end-symmetry, the automotive equivalent of an unbalanced equation, would definitely irk Kenneth since he was a math and physics professor.” A little too plain and straightforward? ChatGPT says this version emphasizes his profession as the cause for the irk, whereas the original version emphasizes his identity as a professor.

Yes, his expertise is related to the explanation why a broken taillight should have bothered Kenneth (though Google does not give any references to unbalanced equations in physics; maybe the author confused physics with chemistry?) but tagging it as written seems forced, as if the author wanted us to see him check the box for “character vocation” or his justification for why a broken taillight is odd.

This information tag was a red flag, a warning that I shouldn’t expect the highest quality writing. Granted, it is difficult to slip in required context and information to the reader at the opening. The reader needs context but it needs to be worked in naturally and only as required.

I felt as if I were reading a cheap romance novel.

Later, we hear why the main character’s wife did not accompany him to a student theatre performance.

“Charlotte, a real estate agent, begged off. She had a house to show that evening. And frankly, waiting while a prospective buyer checked the number of bedrooms held the promise of more excitement than waiting for Godot.”

Nice joke, maybe intending to show off some humor. But again, this feels forced. If this were a humor story, this degree of forcing would be perfectly acceptable. But, this is supposed to be heading to some sort of thriller tale. To me, a thriller can push the boundaries of what is possible or plausible but only for the needs of the thriller elements of the plot, not to force in a joke.

Two red flags was enough for me. Back to the library it went.


bookmark_borderCheating Writer’s Block

Some claim writer’s block doesn’t exist. If you go all Zen it doesn’t exist but then neither does the writing.

I am a pantser so I have no outline or plot when I start. I also write mostly short forms and have way too many fragments that have solid potential in voice or character or situation but are stuck because I can’t see where they are going.

When I’m stuck, these are some of the things that I try to help me move forward.

  • interview main character(s) or put them on a therapist’s couch and let them ramble
  • write vignettes from POV of minor characters (or put them on the couch) that will not be used directly, scenes that can add depth but can also give another perspective and trigger an idea
  • write histories of the main characters or of settings or situations outside of the main draft to explore possibilities and/or add depth. These may not even fit the story or character but I’m trying to get close and to trigger ideas
  • detail the theme on a conscious level (as opposed to only sensing it) and try to use that to help me grope a direction
  • show the incomplete writing to my wife or a writing group and ask for help
  • brainstorming/mind mapping:  write down any words that come to mind and any words suggested by those new words around the theme or a character or a situation. A variation on this is to export to an .html file and get Edge to read aloud, then note words or phrases that seem to stick out and see if they trigger ideas.
  • similarly, make a list of ‘all’ possible plot directions and permeations with sticky notes or on a spreadsheet. Obviously you will never actually list all.
  • if it’s a long story try jumping forward and write something in the future. This may give you something to work toward.
  • similarly, if I have internal narrative or history or interactions or scenes that are bubbling to the surface, write any fragment that is connected to the story. I have one story where I’m still not sure of the structure or the order or if it’s finished but there are now twenty-two sections saved in two different orders (I use Scrivener so copying and having multiple versions is easy). When I wrote I was in that world and situation and kept writing anything that came to mind without worrying how it was going to fit together or if I was going to use it, it was just all connected.

Many of these ways have similarities to method acting in that they require exploration and fleshing out beyond what’s on the page. If you know the character deeply and truly enough you can improvise or know how they would respond in situations not in the script or novel.


There are other methods that don’t work for me:

  • “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand,” says Raymond Chandler, or use some other object or new character or event (or writing prompt) to shake things up.
  • write badly to keep writing and keep the story in motion, the idea being that the bad material can be removed in later drafts

These are widely offered on the internet, but the problem with them is that they could be part of any story, not necessarily the story that attracted me and I find doing these to be fruitless. I don’t mind trying to feel my way forward but I want to be working on the story that I felt was worthy of being finished, exploring potential ideas that are consistent with my existing characters, situation, voice, direction, and prose quality.


I believe that there are viable extensions to my dozen or more quality fragments. The character is so interesting or the setting so vivid or the situation brimming with emotional bristles that I can sense something is there, I just have to find it.

I just need one answer.

One perfect or nearly perfect one.

One that feels close enough that I can flesh it out so that it touches all the key facets of the characters, setting, and situation.


Lately I’ve been pressing on a fragment that I’m fond of but it refuses to tell me what is going to happen. I’ve tried my standard approaches and nothing has surfaced that feels right. I pedaled for some time trying to find more but I was drawing blank.

So instead of writing badly I tried to make a list of bad ideas. I tried to come up with ten bad ones: managed eight on first attempt, came up with three more later. But some of them weren’t awful. Trying to come up with bad ones faded the ‘box’ that I was in (as in ‘think outside the box’) and allowed me to find some that weren’t so awful, and, tangentially, some versions with even more potential. I tried writing one of the more unusual but possible ones but it spun a little to far off the rails.

Then, I went through and explained why each of those were too far off the mark. Too SF/fantasy for this story. Too extreme, turns the story into something much bigger than it feels like it should be. Too random, no reason for something like this to happen and I don’t see how it adds to the story. Doesn’t fit the characters as I see them.

The point of this list of bad ideas and evaluating why they are bad is two fold: to develop an idea of what doesn’t fit and why not which hopefully leads to a better definition of what I am looking for, and to open the box and see if one of these ideas or their variations are worth exploring.



bookmark_borderGoldberg Variations as NaNoWriMo

I am now trying to identify elements of fiction that equate to harmonic progression as well as possibly key and form (matching the series of canons). Number of bars is likely not a big concern as it comes out of the repeated harmonic progression, meaning, retaining the chord progression requires the number and sequence of bars because you cannot extend or shorten one or more chords without destroying the balance and flow, and Bach is all about balance.

(The Goldberg post was going on and on through numerous revisions and additions over many days so I opted to split it into two posts. I started thinking about this in early October and am keen on working my way to the point of being able to execute it for this year’s NaNoWriMo project.)

The harmonic progression is not unlike the 12 bar blues that is the basis of many jazz, blues, and early rock and roll songs. Or the 32 bar A-A-B-A form of I Got Rhythm by George Gershwin, which is the other classic jazz form and chord progression. Like these, the Goldberg progression is strong, complete, malleable, and capable of supporting many melodic inventions.

But it is also subtle. In most theme and variations forms the theme is the melody and I’m not sure the individual variations are capable of standing on their own or being listened to sporadically the way the Goldberg variations are. A bus stop or particular table in a coffee shop might offer the variety of stories but would not be as subtle.

And might time of day be similar to key? There are only twelve keys and if you progress in a sequence (semi-tone or fourth) through all the keys you end up back at the beginning, just as moving through twenty four hours will take you back to the same time of day. The ancients did believe that each key had its own personality but that was before the development of well tempered tuning.

Bach was a proponent of the well tempered tuning system, so I suspect the stasis of key is more a function of technical ease for the performer and ease of adjustment for a dozing patron, and maybe to eliminate any idea of hierarchy or relationship between the variations that might otherwise be implied or interpreted. I think Bach might have liked to use more than one key but unless he did exactly one, two, or three in each of twelve keys there is the risk of implying a relationship between the variations that I think he did not want. And since he had already done all twelve keys twice (the two books of The Well Tempered Clavier) there was no need to go there again.

So for fiction, finding the equivalent of the key is less important than making sure there are no implied hierarchies or relationships between the stories. And maybe use some staid element to help negate such.

So what are elements of fiction that I could reuse? Plot; no. Plot is like melody, too identifiable. Characters? No, because then the reader will look for connection and development. Setting? Maybe, though that’s more identifiable than harmonic progression, meaning obvious. Unless there is a means of disguising it the way Bach uses different meters and composition techniques and textures. Emotion? Again, too strong and too easily identified and connected. I could use the ‘theme’ of grief, for example, but it would be too easy to see how each story is related and collectively it might be perceived to be some wider statement about it. The same applies to a concept, say ‘inequality’.

But maybe that’s not bad. I’m no Bach; I’m no master at the peak of his creative abilities, and really, what I’m after is material. A couple NaNoWriMos ago I ended up with two short stories and a character which I may still develop into a novel, as well as the start of what turned out to be a 22,000 word novella.

So I could use location or a concept, but location would have to be flexible for multiple stories and styles, and something that promotes action, else I risk constantly having to struggle with dialogue heavy talking heads. A gym is too limited in its action, a playground too limited in its users. An event location like an arena which might have sports, concerts, ceremonies or trade shows would have the flexibility. A large city park with sports areas, kids play areas, picnic tables, hiking trails, ponds might have enough variety, but then most stories would have to be set outdoors. Of course, something larger like a city or even small town is almost limitless.

Concept is probably automatically more flexible than location, but it would need to be 1) a concept with sufficient facets to allow multiple approaches, and 2) a concept I’d be happy living with for 30 days straight.

Another step removed from emotion -> concept might be an object; say, a cup, so every story has in it somewhere a cup. But that might be too subtle and artificial. However, because it could be subtle, then perhaps I could *add* it as well; every story uses the concept, *plus* has a cup. The cup becomes the key, (G major/minor) and the concept substitutes for the harmonic progression.

And what about time of day? That’s fairly plastic as well; all sorts of things can happen at the same time of day, or, I could cycle through different hours of the day. Or I could keep the time of day and change time zones.

Cycling time of day is interesting in that Bach specifically did *not* change key, but, I have 24 hours to work with and he only had 12 keys, plus he’d done 12 keys before. 24 is close to 30, and I don’t have to write them sequentially, I could be flexible, label the general time of day and figure out the specifics later. Especially if they are to be presented in sequence. And I probably need more help than Bach anyway. Time of day might be the equivalent of the series of canons, the only thing that connects the series.

And time of day is flexible; I don’t have to decide what specific time of day for most, and I don’t have to label them even in my own mind until I’m well into it and decide that it’s going to work for me.

So, we have:

  • concept,
  • and / or location,
  • object,
  • possibly time of day

Now, I need come up with potential concept, location, and object.

bookmark_borderGoldberg Variations

Long ago I wrote a paper for a music grad class comparing the two Glenn Gould recordings of the Goldberg Variations, written by J. S BachNowadays I listen to the 1981 release once in a while through a sleep app on my phone.

But it wasn’t until last night that I noticed the similarities between the Variations and my fiction writing exercise where I wrote the same scene with the same characters, the same motivation, the same location, and the same sequence of events, changing POV, proximity, attitude of the narrator, voice, and writing style.


The Goldberg Variations is an aria with 30 variations. All have the same bass line, chord progression and number of bars (like a jazz chart), and 27 are, like the aria, in the key of G major and 3 in G minor.

An artificial structure that one of the greatest composers turned into a work of art.

Each third variation is a canon—a composition technique using imitation and counterpoint. In each canon the second voice imitates at an interval one step higher than the previous canon, beginning at the unison (zero) in variation 3 until the ninth in variation 27. Other variations are in the style of dance forms from the period or familiar musical forms such as toccata and fughetta and French Overture.

The work is a significant accomplishment by one of the greatest composers at the peak of his powers (Bach lived 1685-1750, the variations were published in 1741), and the fourth and last in a series of publications that included the Italian Concerto and the French Overture. A work that has been referred to as “most ambitious and most important solo keyboard work written before Beethoven“.

All within a structure as restricted and repetitive as the writing exercise I did.


I’m not trying to compare myself with Bach but rather to look at what he did within his restrictions and to be inspired to do more with my own. I don’t think it’s possible to turn my collection of exercises into something that has any artistic value (beyond the possibility that, were I a writing master, I could create such a range of presentations that would inspire beginners).

Bach is a master of creativity: only two of the variations are reputed to have musical connection beyond the repeated structure. The variations change melody, meter, style, tempo (though that is performer interpretation; in Bach’s day tempos were not specified), level of keyboard difficulty, and largely mood, though many are rather joyous in tone, perhaps with the goal of helping Count Kaiserling, Goldberg’s employer, relax and sleep.

Each variation is a story unto itself, which would be useful if you drifted off and woke up again. But in my exercise, the restriction of the primary characters with the same motivations and personalities and the same events eliminates substantially different stories.

So is my exercise more the equivalent of different performances of any one piece? Wanda Landowska versus Angela Hewitt? Gould versus Gould? Me versus anyone who can actually play the piano? I think there is more variation than that: it’s not just the interpretation and execution that I was changing, there is POV and voice and tense and style.

The Goldberg Variations is more like a collection of flash fiction pieces, each complete in and of themselves. But if one were to try to construct a fiction/writing equivalent, these flashes would have some structural element that ties them together, and maybe more than one. Location, perhaps, is similar to musical structure; they could all take place at the same bus stop. And perhaps the bus, or maybe the bus is like the mode; present most of the time but not all, like the Goldberg is in G, mostly major, but three in minor.

But I don’t think you can restrict it to multiple renderings of the same incident. That’s what I was writing, and that’s more like trying to create different arrangements of one song: as a bossa nova, a waltz, a rap tune, a fugue, an uptempo jazz chart, an unorthodox version in 5/4 or 7/8, and so on.

You could use the same major characters, but the situation would have to change, it would be a series of events over time like a couple having breakfast. The problem (or advantage) of this would be the tendency to want the flashes to work together for some greater meaning, perhaps a progression reflecting the evolution of the relationship.

But that is not what the Goldberg is. The sequence is pleasing and has a structure of its own (the series of ascending canons in every third variation) but the later canons do not develop the earlier canons. Each variation can stand alone, like Bach’s 20 children. So perhaps the bus stop, with the bus present often, but different characters, different times of day, different weather, different events, each flash complete by itself, so if you fall asleep and miss a few, you won’t be lost when you pick it up again.


Because my objective with the exercise was to force myself to find different voices and styles, it does seem to be more like multiple arrangements of the same composition, so maybe it’s not as similar to the Goldberg as I originally thought.

But maybe this can make for a good NaNoWriMo structure; to use the same location and a few other similar structural elements and write 30 short stories, one for each day of November.

bookmark_borderWriting Analysis: Cat Person

I’m not a woman and perhaps my perspective will miss the boat for many readers of this wildly popular story published in The New Yorker but my objective is to do writing analysis; there will be no “How To Reply When Asked About ‘Cat Person'” or “My True Life ‘Cat Person’ Experience”.First, a list of elements (not events but factors that reappear, in varied guises, throughout):

  1. Acting as trained/expected (previously a barista where flirting increased tips, and as a young, single person),
  2. and having dreams and needs (she has a fantasy version of Robert, jokingly tells her stepdad they will likely get married, is anxious when Robert doesn’t reply to her texts right away),
  3. but being uncertain as to whether Robert, in reality, is a satisfactory choice (she initiates some steps then recants in her own head, likes him when he’s comforting but finds him revolting at other times),
  4. results in couched speaking, inconsistent and shifting thoughts and feelings, attempts to communicate without words, and,
  5. combined with a fear of appearing capricious or spoiled,
  6. leads to resigned compliance.

Margot’s neediness expresses itself differently than Robert’s. Hers presents as earnestness and agreeability whereas his is expressed as awkward orders and demands — awkward enough that an older, more experienced, more confident version of Margot might find them laughable or disturbing, or, to be accurate; more laughable or more disturbing since Margot does succumb to a laughing fit and has thoughts that he might murder her. Margot’s youth is to his advantage.

Both characters have challenges with communication: hers due to age and inexperience and society-trained female behavior and worries, his due in part to being a loner-nerd who possibly often goes to movies and bars by himself. Both have some interest in the other but also uncertainty about the others’ interest in themselves. This is exacerbated by their early communication; weeks of texting witty comments and funny anecdotes without any real sharing or discussion so by the time they actually go on a date they know very little about each other, including their respective ages. That, for me, is a sub theme; communication in general, but especially between opposite sexes and when using electronic methods with modern attitudes toward communication.

The elements that lead to Margot’s situation, Margot’s hesitant, tentative way of suggesting or making choices, Robert’s unrefined declamatory style, the neediness on both their parts as well as the lack of knowing each other and the difficulties in communication permeate the entire story. Were this an essay for an English Lit course I would list them but instead I’ll just leave them highlighted in my analysis version of the story.


Structurally, I come up with these sections:

  1. opening
  2. Robert at her movie theater 2 times
  3. texting
  4. going to movie
  5. first bar
  6. second bar
  7. house, and sex
  8. post sex
  9. drive home and end of evening
  10. internal narrative and Tamara breaking them up
  11. see him in the bar, his texts

or, slightly compressed,

  1. opening, movie theater, texting, incipient crush – 1,061 words
  2. movie – 681
  3. first bar – 566
  4. second bar – 1,003
  5. house, sex – 1,881
  6. post sex – 668
  7. drive back, break up, bar, texts – 1,351

Word count-wise the house setting and sex take the largest portion and are 3,771 to 5,182 out of a total of 7,201 words, so about one quarter of the words and located in the third of four quarters, were this a football or basketball game. There are two bar scenes but I’m uncertain whether this intentionally mirrors the two times Robert comes into her work, or three bar moments in total mirroring the three times she sees Robert in movie theaters? There are almost as many sections after the sex as before but shorter, so a nice denouement, though my breakdown by section is by no means definitive.

4,773 words are the single evening, the date, so well more than half. 1,300 words before, up to and including the texting period, and 1,128 after so again a little more lead in and a slightly quicker end. If you’ve read the story you know how tersely it ends and that it ends the way the relationship began, with texting, though now the meanings are brutally clear and personal.

One of the recurring comments from one reader of my own writing is that he often wants more story and more depth. What is here that I might not have included are the bar scenes or at least the amount of time devoted to them, and maybe not as much time in the post-coital scene. Food for my future consideration.

For some reason, not so much during the first read but during subsequent readings, I found the back story and non-Robert elements obvious, separate. For me these include:

  • reference to past barista work
  • conversations with her stepdad
  • movie choice, not part of the story until after the movie is finished
  • seeing the grad student TA in the bar
  • losing her virginity (only reference to her mother)
  • having seen her high school boyfriend during break, who is gay

I’m unclear what the last three add. More food for consideration.

It’s only when, date over, back at school, the obsession and focus from the early stages of a relationship gone that her roommate and other students appear. Though the rest of her life starts to become part of the story we never do find out what she’s studying. Perhaps as a sophomore she’s undeclared, perhaps that’s part of her uncertainty at this point in her life, and it’s likely not important, though an inexperienced writer might think it needs to be included. And where exactly are those cats?

* * Some time after the original popularity of the story, the woman that Kristen Roupenian apparently based her story on has spoken out, writing how she discovered that she had become the basis for a character in a viral story and her later contact with the author. Makes for an interesting discussion about how artists draw from life.

bookmark_borderLies, and Fiction

Fiction is a lie, as Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury and Albert Camus have all stated. But a good storyteller can make an untruth believable within the world or reality they construct.

To become a good storyteller perhaps one needs to be a good liar. To become a good liar perhaps the starting point is to avoid clues that you are lying.

# # #

If you Google “Forensic Statement Analysis” you find lots of garbage; courses and workshops you can sign up for (after paying a reasonable fee) to learn how to detect liars. These may or may not have elements of legitimacy. To me, they seem as likely to improve your life as the books about body language; some potential value, but it’s not the equivalent of X-ray vision or mind reading some make it out to be. Crime fiction writers may find it more useful than the rest of us.

One source I found is a book with a preview available on Google books:

Forensic Interviewing

Some of the author’s comments apply to writing fiction.


Information gaps, in victim or suspect statements:

  • “ … 1) the action was interrupted and if the statement is credible, the interruption should be described or 2) the writer is intentionally omitting time and information from their statement, indicating deception.”

If you leave out information, your statement becomes suspect. The same applies to the story you are fabricating. Don’t leave gaps in the logic, or skip events, or miss chunks of time, unless you do so intentionally to raise suspicions in your reader.


And sensory gaps:

  • “False statements provided by an alleged victim may reveal a lack of sensory details because the person could not perceive any sensory data from a fictitious account.”


  • “A statement written by a deceptive suspect may disclose the same lack of sensory details, but for different reasons — either to avoid providing a truthful account that would implicate the writer or to refrain from supplying detailed false information that a competent investigator could refute.”

Summarized, a truthful statement is more likely to include a variety of sensory elements (not just sight) than an untruthful one, and a deception will give less detail and volume of description to avoid offering some that might be challenged and found to be false.

Our fiction often lacks sufficient sensory details for the same reason as the lie; we weren’t actually there. To help convince the reader that we are telling the truth we need to include lots of sensory description, like an experienced liar might.


Writers know passive voice should be used carefully, for reasons I won’t rehash here, but also:

  • “The passive voice becomes significant in investigative statements when it is used to evade an issue.”


  • “An important point to know regarding passive voice/language in a statement is it is used to hide the identity of the actor of the story is a fabrication, and the writer uses the passive voice in order to not identify or give a name to the imaginary person he is writing about.”

“Jeff left the safe unlocked” raises questions about Jeff. Change it to passive voice; “the safe was left unlocked” and we remove the doer of the action, and hide Jeff.

It’s more distasteful to falsify events, to state an outright lie like, “Jeff did not leave the safe unlocked” or “I saw Jeff lock the safe” than to use passive voice and say “the safe was not locked” and shrug our shoulders when asked if we know who left it vulnerable. Passive voice allows us to (attempt to) avoid lying by telling an incomplete truth. But like cookie crumbs in the corner of a five year old’s mouth, using passive voice may raise suspicions that we’re not telling the whole story.


For criminal investigators, elements such as information gaps, sensory gaps, and passive voice are potential clues that a story is false or incomplete. All of us, including our readers, are vaguely aware that this makes sense. If we want to extend our readers’ suspension of disbelief, it helps to avoid the mistakes of inexperienced deluders.

Write your fiction as if you are a virtuoso con artist. Avoid passive voice, watch out for information gaps, and give the reader enough sensory information to be believed.

bookmark_borderComposition; musical and fictional

I was a classical composition major in university who came from a self-taught jazz background. Sometimes I think about the differences between writing fiction and writing music.

Music has a life of its own. These days if you compose something you probably have a synthesizer and MIDI and you record what you’re working on into a computer. Then you can have it play a version of what you’ve written, let it live, let it breathe, and critique it. Need more? Section too short? Texture too thin? Harmonic structure not ideal? Are the sections balanced with each other?

Even back in the day when I was studying, before MIDI, we did similar things by score reading. We’d play at the piano, even those of us who didn’t play piano, and try to pick out the important elements from a symphonic work so that we could get the pitches into our heads, and then once in a while we’d go to composition class and show that we’d figured it out. When I composed I’d do the same thing; sit at a piano and look for the pitches even though I might be writing a line for oboe or violin or French horn.

Learning to score read gave us composers the ability to look at a score and to hear it in our heads. Sometimes we needed some help from a piano to get us started, sometimes not. One day in a music history class we were given two pages from the middle of a piece for piano for analysis. After a moment of looking at the music I recognized it as being from the Well Tempered Clavier by Bach, though I didn’t know which book. I could look at the music, hear it in my head, and matched it to a Gould recording that I’d listened to many times before.

Fiction is different. Reading is not as passive as hearing; to review writing we need to read, and the act of reading removes some detachment, making it more difficult to let it wash over us from a distance, allowing us less perspective. Words that I’ve written don’t breathe on their own the way music, once written, breathes and flows and exists, separate from the composer. Even reviewing an un-sounded, memorized composition in my head is easier, and more accurate, and more detached, than trying to think about some piece of fiction that I’ve written. Interesting.

On one hand I spent a lot of focused time during relatively formative years (ages 17-24) studying music, so my inner aural skills are high. On the other hand, I’ve spent far more years reading and writing, so you’d think that would compensate.

If it were poetry rather than fiction perhaps I’d be able encapsulate it, freeze it, memorize it, and look at it with more distance, but somehow writing a novel and reviewing it is not the same as writing a 20 minute suite for concert band (which is the largest ensemble I wrote for) and listening and reviewing it in my head, and writing short stories is not the same as writing a 5 minute single movement for woodwind quintet. I’m unable to get that same level of separation, that effect of sitting back, of letting it wash over me (even if the listening is entirely in my head from looking at a score) so that I can test it for completeness and for balance and for polish.

Distance can help. Putting writing aside and reviewing it much later after some of the struggle has been forgotten can help. Getting others to read and review can help as well. In theory I could record myself reading my own passages, and then listen to the recording and get distance that way, but I don’t really like listening to audio books. It would definitely be different if I were writing plays.

And I don’t enjoy re-re-re-reading things that I’ve written or that other people have written. Not nearly in the same way that I’ve listened over and over and over again to some pieces that I wrote or that Bach or Stravinsky or Bartok have written. That’s a fundamental difference between music and writing in terms of how it’s enjoyed. Perfection of polish seems much more important when you hope your listener will hear your music many times, as opposed to the reader of your blog post whom you hope will get through it just once.


bookmark_borderMy Recent Reads

So, with the help of my library’s on-line search and my cell phone’s list of downloads I think I’ve managed to collect a list of all the books I’ve read or listened to on the phone during the past fifteen months. In order of author:

1 The Big Sleep – Farewell, My Love… Chandler, Raymond
2 The Antagonist Coady, Lynn
3 Open City – A Novel Cole, Teju
4 The Privileges – A Novel Dee, Jonathan
5 The Maytrees – [a Novel] Dillard, Annie
6 Billy Bathgate – A Novel Doctorow, E. L.
7 Landing Donoghue, Emma
8 Room – A Novel Donoghue, Emma
9 Touchy Subjects – Stories Donoghue, Emma
10 Half-blood Blues Edugyan, Esi
11 A Visit from the Goon Squad Egan, Jennifer
12 Better Living through Plastic Explosives – Stories Gartner, Zsuzsi
13 P Is for Peril Grafton, Sue
14 R Is for Ricochet Grafton, Sue
15 S Is for Silence Grafton, Sue
16 Waiting Jin, Ha
17 The Poisonwood Bible – A Novel Kingsolver, Barbara
18 Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures – Stories Lam, Vincent
19 The Surrendered Lee, Chang-rae
20 Darkness, Take My Hand Lehane, Dennis
21 Darkly Dreaming Dexter – A Novel Lindsay, Jeffry P.
22 Dearly Devoted Dexter – A Novel Lindsay, Jeffry P.
23 Dexter in the Dark – A Novel Lindsay, Jeffry P.
24 Double Dexter – A Novel Lindsay, Jeffry P.
25 I Am Number Four – The Lost Files : … Lore, Pittacus
26 The Bishop’s Man – A Novel MacIntyre, Linden
27 The Bright Forever – A Novel Martin, Lee
28 1Q84 Murakami, Haruki
29 Divisadero Ondaatje, Michael
30 A Catskill Eagle – A Spenser Novel Parker, Robert B.
31 I Curse the River of Time Petterson, Per
32 The Echo Maker Powers, Richard
33 Nemesis Roth, Philip
34 Swamplandia! Russell, Karen
35 Wake Sawyer, Robert J.
36 The Lovely Bones Sebold, Alice
37 Shakespeare’s Kitchen – Stories Segal, Lore Groszmann
38 The Collected Stories Shields, Carol
39 The Stone Diaries Shields, Carol
40 Unless – A Novel Shields, Carol
41 Various Miracles Shields, Carol
42 Stargirl Spinelli, Jerry
43 Amy and Isabelle – A Novel Strout, Elizabeth
44 Olive Kitteridge Strout, Elizabeth
45 The Accidental Tourist Tyler, Anne

I’m a fan of the TV show Dexter, obviously. The novels and the show exist in two separate realities, so I read the novels to get more Dexter fix. Sue Grafton I’m not a huge fan of; I’ve read others in the series and I picked up a few to remind me of her writing style. And there are a few YA books in the collection when I looked into the genre a bit.

Many of these are novels (it says so right in the title!) and many simply plucked from lists; Pulitzer, Giller and Man Booker nominees. As mentioned in the previous post, I look for reliable suggestions for reading material.

Plus, I have a list of those that I didn’t finish:

1 The Plague of Doves Erdrich, Louise
2 The Secret Scripture Barry, Sebastian
3 The Writing Circle Demas, Corinne
4 Family Matters Mistry, Rohinton
5 The Confessions of Nat Turner Styron, William
6 Lit – A Memoir Karr, Mary
7 Mercy among the Children Richards, David Adams
8 Close Range – Wyoming Stories Proulx, Annie

Both lists are all ebooks or audiobooks, and doesn’t include books printed on paper (! the stuff referred to as “recycling material” on a podcast today), so on top of those there are a bunch of non-fiction books on writing as well as at least one novel I can think of: “The Hunger Games”, speed-read over a weekend, borrowed from high school student. Oh, plus a little ways into “The Pale King”, David Foster Wallace. Even in paper form that was more than I could work my way through, at least at the time. I plan to give it another shot at some later date.

Still, that’s a decent average speed, I think. The Dexter and Grafton and YA and other light ones I finish in a couple of days of reading, and most of the rest in two weeks or so.

The non-finishers are an interesting group; “Lit” was good reading, but I read it sporadically for the author’s style and ability to put words and sentences and paragraphs together, and less for the memoir story; I wasn’t concerned when it expired. “The Writing Circle” is so mediocre that I couldn’t bring myself to finish it.

The others seem to have in common a sweeping family/race tale covering a number of years, and they all lost my interest. But “The Poisonwood Bible” and “Half-blood Blues” and “The Stone Diaries” might also fall into those categories and I liked those quite a bit. Maybe there’s a dryness to the others that I couldn’t connect to, a dryness in the writing and/or in the characters. “Mercy among the Children” is the only one I really tried to finish, but the reverence the author had for his story and for his character became distasteful after a while; he seemed to think the main character was heroic, tragic, almost Jesus-like. I just found him pathetic and sad.

bookmark_borderWriting review: The Writing Circle

I’ve read a lot of novels in the past fifteen months, since discovering Aldiko and the resources of my local public library. Not that I didn’t read prior to this period, but with my smartphone and ebooks I’m now able to read not only in bed, but in the bus, in the bathroom, in dentist’s waiting room, pretty much any time I’m alone or want to be. I’d estimate I’ve read some fifty novels or so over this time; I am a speed reader, and the lighter the fare, the faster I’ll read. I can easily finish a novel in three days without forgoing many usual daily activities, though I’ll force myself to slow down for denser reading.

I’d read more, but it’s always a challenge for me to find things interesting to read. My partner will take a dozen books from the library, start them, then only finish a few. I’ve done that too, but it’s not my preferred approach. Once I start reading, I get committed to completing.

So, I look for referrals to lead me to good readings, and through one referral I ended up with a book called “The Writing Circle“, by Corinne Demas. This book is a mystery, at least to me; a mystery why someone wrote it, why some company published it, why it got on someone’s referral list. And it’s primarily because of those mysteries that I’m still trying to finish reading it.

It’s not a bad novel; it’s not poorly written or fraught with clichés or cardboard characters. At the moment I’m not finished, but it appears to be some form of “women’s” fiction; a lot of time is spent inside various character’s heads talking about their lives and how they feel about situations as they occur. I don’t say this disparagingly, only to point out what I suspect is the reason that the author wrote the novel in the first place.

There are a number of things that irk me as I read, the first of which that I noticed was the writing style. I labeled it “utilitarian”. The writing is free of obvious grammatical or spelling errors, but the sentences are plain and not pretty.

There was a circle of brown liquid in the bottom of Nancy’s mug now, but it was cold. She spun the mug around once, so the white stars blurred on the blue ceramic background, then she pushed the mug to the back of her desk. She had to get to work now. She turned to the articles in front of her. She began reading though the stack, marking useful paragraphs …

There are lots of paragraphs like this. It’s the writer’s chosen writing style.

Then, there are the moments when I feel seams, the joins between two revisions, the moments in the writing where the writer or editor thought; okay, need some description here, and so they tag on a sentence or phrase.

She set her mug on her desk and settled into her chair. She started flipping through the articles awaiting her from The Journal of the American Medical Association and The New England Journal of Medicine, the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, the British Medical Journal. She nudged them to the side and looked out her window — the goldenrod at the edge of the mowed field, the just oranging maples, the brown river, low after the summer.

The first section with the coffee mug shows elements of the same sewing-style of writing; adding details for the purpose of adding detail.

And there are some moments of some degree of insight. After sex with another woman, a character returns to the city to his girlfriend and she convinces him to stay the night with her. She falls asleep, but,

His arm, pinned under Kim’s body, ached, but he felt obligated to keep it there.

There are some boner moments too. Here a father is trying to instill confidence in his teen-aged son:

“Even a moron can know what they’re doing in hockey,” said Paul.

Jerry looked at Paul over the top of his reading glasses. “Maybe so, but let me tell you, not everyone can stay upright on those tricky skates.”

Say what? Tricky skates? That not everyone can stay up on? No only is that a  bizarre wording to use, but for the father of someone who plays hockey and who normally picks up his son after practices and presumably watches some hockey games and practices, to compliment him on his ability to stand up on skates is like complimenting a basketball player on being able to dribble. Now maybe the author is being subtle and suggesting that the father is inattentive in spite of the fact that he is attentive about picking up his son, but if that’s the case, we could use a little support for that image. I read this as another construction seam; the author wants the father to say something supportive, but comes up with a line that indicates a lack of understanding about hockey and skating.

With a little research I find a discussion forum and a thread with the author, with a question from a reader:

I was also slightly uncomfortable, at first, with some of the more intimate details. This might or might not be due to my age. I simply don’t know. But I have to admit that those details are believable; I just don’t like the images they evoke. For instance: on page 93 we get the image of “hair unwashed.” Why not just “hair unkempt?”

Maybe I should take this as an indication of the intended readers of this novel. If you’ve got readers who find these details believable but are uncomfortable with the term “hair unwashed”, then maybe the writing style is appropriate and the nonsense aspect of “tricky skates” irrelevant.

Overall I find the characters, detail, and writing too artificial, too clunky, not pleasantly constructed, and too full of obvious seams and add-ons to be able to connect with the stories.

I think I’ve just convinced myself to not finish reading.

bookmark_borderWriting review: The Hunger Games

My writing reviews have been focused on fiction, but in this case I want to look at “The Hunger Games (Book 1)“, not so much the novel as the movie version. I read the book recently and then saw the movie this past weekend. As always there are the issues of discomfort over what is left out of the novel when it is turned into a movie, but for me in this case I wasn’t too concerned; the novel was borrowed so I speed-read the novel in 36 hours total time, less actual reading time when you deduct 8 hours for sleeping and 9 hours for work and so on, so my memory for the details was not precise to begin with.

But what was interesting to me was how the movie writers dealt with the second half of the novel. The second part is the competition itself and much of the time Katniss is alone in the forest. Because the novel remains in limited third person POV that means all that time alone is written from inside Katniss’s head. Presenting this as a movie means that you either introduce a pet for her to talk to constantly or you do voice overs of her thinking or you have a pretty boring section of movie. What the writers did instead was to add a number of scenes outside of limited third person; scenes with Haymitch talking up sponsors, with District 11 rioting, with Gale watching, with the head of the games in discussion with President Snow. Some of these incidents are clearly implied in the novel but are never shown because of the restriction of staying with limited third person. I thought that the choice was a good one.

It’s similar to “Brokeback Mountain”. I saw the movie before reading the short story that it was based on and I knew that the script writers were aware that they needed to add material in order to build a full length movie from a short story. They chose to add background material; events and stories and family members that could take place outside of the mountain to draw the characters more fully.

In both cases it’s not a matter of scenes that were missing from the novels. It’s a matter of specific situations that require or could use more story and how and where does this material come from? Is the story better with those changes? Maybe, maybe not. But what is important is that the movies work as movies with the addition of those materials. And my point is that, as a writer, there are many options and choices to make and here are two examples of two different versions of the same story using different options.