Monday, March 13, 2017
Colum McCann has put together a collection of essays advising would-be writers. In an age where anyone can publish, this book addresses the serious writer and not those who engage in the profession as an endeavor to earn a fast buck. This book is about the craft of writing and the process of creation. It’s not about getting rich quickly.
Sure, we’d all love a best seller. However, financially motivated art often lacks the substance needed to draw an audience. This book is about the process which may or may not result in financial gain. If you have the disease of writing it is in your blood and you will seek to cultivate it more or less like an addiction, rather than an occupation. There is no way not to write if it’s within you. The worst part is that simply scratching down words isn’t enough: those of us with the writing bug must also continually seek improvement. That’s where this book comes into play.
A good part of writing is finding the connection with readers, and that only happens when we’re engaged and willing to be exposed in order to establish this relationship. McCann addresses this in his essay “The First Line.” He advises that each story should open with a natural flow, without forcing too much information upon the reader too quickly. Think of it like a first date: the goal is to incite interest but not to overwhelm or frighten the reader. This is the art of pacing or as McCann says, “achieving a balance.”
The book addresses the rules of writing by stating that “there are no rules,” but when the author states that you can dispose of grammar only when you know these rules he is really saying that you must understand this agreement of structure between the writer and reader before making the decision of when to ignore it. It’s like knowing when to use slang and when to avoid it. Once you know the purpose of these rules you can make a more informed decision about how well your piece fits into - or needs to be free from them.
This book was outstanding and one of the best I've read concerning the art of writing. It encourages creative types to get out of their internal vortex and to see their work from the reader's perspective, which is essential for gaining an appreciative audience. It also covers topics such as writer's block (which he refers to as "The terror of the white page"), why we tell stories, and handling critics. The essays are short and filled with bits of wisdom and insight that can assist writers at all stages of a career.
If you loved Stephen King's "On Writing" then this book is definitely for you. If you’re very new to writing and looking for practical advice on how to get your published, then the book isn’t for you. However, if you know that writing is your calling and there’s no way to avoid it - this is highly recommended reading.
Letters to a Young Writer is releasing on April 4, 2017.
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
If I were to compare the craft of writing to the field of architecture, I’d say that Mark Haddon is like the Frank Lloyd Wright of the literary world. His writing is modern and graceful with some experimental elements, but it’s always structurally sound and high quality. Haddon is most well known for his 2003 book The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time, but he’s been publishing his work for over two decades and has a number of titles for both adults and children. His latest book is a collection of short stories called The Pier Falls and Other Stories.
The issue with many short story collections is the lack of relationship the stories have to one another. Sometimes I feel like a shopper at a bargain bin when I read these types of books, wondering if the contents of the bin even came from the same source. However, this collection holds together through several underlying themes, as well as the consistency of the writing. Haddon takes the reader to an equilibrium on the edge between mythology and modernity, showing the transcendence of the human experience through his characters. There’s a rational-spiritual dichotomy peeking through the prose at numerous points, but the text always feels real.
Because these are short stories, a number of different themes are explored in different settings. For example, in the title piece The Pier Falls the author explores tragedy by showing us both the horrible and the absurd manifested side by side as a pier collapses into the ocean. Individuals grasp for life or succumb to death as a Strauss recording continues to play over loudspeakers during the event, reminding victims that life will waltz on with or without them.
In the story The Island, we’re given a re-telling of Ariadne’s final days on the island of Dias. Unlike Homer’s Odyssey, this version is in first person and we get to hear Ariadne process the events leading up to her death as she struggles for survival.
The theme of Loneliness also comes up in several of the pieces, with each story examining a different facet of it. We see the complexity of human relationships as circumstances and situations molds these bonds. A particular experience may have a lasting impact which can bring people together or tear them apart from one another or themselves.
In The Woodpecker and The Wolf a woman goes to space to escape relationships, but then becomes pregnant. The space mission encounters troubles and the woman watches the other astronauts perish, including the baby’s father. The struggle for survival and the new life for which she now feels responsible causes her to reassess her relationships and what she valued in them.
Diazepam makes an appearance in several of the pieces, acknowledging our modern tendency to self-medicate. This theme of self-medicating is explored more fully in the story titled Bunny, in which a morbidly obese man feels that his hunger and disappointment are more painful than the consequences of his overeating, and so he eats. Lots.
Haddon is a modern writer that I strongly recommend to many would-be writers. His style is modern, functional, and graceful without being ostentatious. His work definitely falls under the label of "literary" and shows remarkable facility to move back and forth between verb tenses keeps the reader centered on the story without feeling the jerk between past and present. His characters are complex but not over-explained or overtly obvious. The plots are cultivated in such a manner as to appear natural and yet perfectly manicured at the same time. Writing should always reflect life, but literary writing uses language and plot structure to explore it more fully. Haddon accomplishes that in these stories.
Several of the pieces in The Pier Falls have been previously published in literary journals, so if you’re reluctant to plunge into the whole book you can find a few of these stories online. Whether you read a sample of these stories online or purchase the entire book is up to you. Regardless, I encourage individuals looking for some great modern fiction to read them. The writing feels effortless, as good writing should, but afterwards it also causes me to marvel at how well it’s put together. It’s the sort of book that easily gets me on the train without me first asking where it will go or when it will arrive. I know that I’ll enjoy the ride, and the scenery will be worth my time.
Monday, October 17, 2016
Genevieve Cogman is the author of The Invisible Library fantasy book series for young adults. A few months ago I received an advance review copy of the first book from the publisher and I enjoyed the story very much. The second book in this series have now been released and I’m looking forward to reading it. What I enjoyed most about the first book was the concept of a hidden library hat contains versions of books from alternate universes. The thought that there could be hundreds or thousands of versions of our favorite stories is appealing to a reader such as myself. Aside from the incredible library, what caught my attention in her writing were the strong characters and action sequences - something we don’t typically associate with a book about books. This is truly an adventure novel that keeps moving. I had an opportunity to interview Genevieve and here are her responses to some of my questions.
Q: You’ve written some strong female characters in this book. Can you describe what inspired each of these (Irene, Coppelia, and Bradamant) characters?
A: I’m not sure any of them have a single point of inspiration. Irene is the standard protagonist who just wants to get on with the job, and finds herself with too many things to juggle at once. She’s also a thorough bookworm and daydreamer (which is why she picked the name “Irene”, after all) and a competent operative, a little bit Modesty Blaise though also a lot of Moneypenny.
Coppelia’s the mentor who knows more than she’s prepared to admit, a Librarian with a lot of history (such as why she’s got a mechanical arm) and her own personal tastes in literature. (For the record, she likes science fiction, particularly books about artificial intelligence.)
And Bradamant’s the rival who has a past history with the protagonist, and whose methods and morality are different enough that they come into conflict about how to achieve their goals, though they end up working together. She’s a person whose first argument is always “the ends justify the means”, and who sees herself as a misunderstood hard worker who makes the hard choices which nobody else will commit to.
I think that ultimately any of them could have been male or female. First and foremost, they’re people.
Q: What sort of research did you do in preparation for (or during) the writing of these books?
A: I did quite a lot of investigation on the internet into things like the geography of London, famous missing or never-written books, the British Museum and the British Library, and how to spell Liechtenstein. I also read and reread my collected Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to try and get the vocal patterns and habits correct. And for the action scenes, I watched quite a lot of Hong Kong action movies (a long-term addiction of mine).
Q: What scenes were the easiest to write (and why)? Were any scenes difficult?
A: I think the hardest scene to write may have been the one where Irene is explaining about the Library to Vale, because I was trying to convey quite a lot of information, but I didn’t want the scene to get boring or slow down too much. I’m not sure that I can say any scene or scenes was the “easiest”. They all took work.
Q: What authors do you enjoy reading (and what do you like about their work)?
A: I don’t want to give you a list of several dozen authors (which would barely be scratching the surface), so I’ll try to think of a few favourites. Lois McMaster Bujold, Kage Baker, Naomi Novik, Terry Pratchett, Ben Aaronovitch, Paul Cornell, Tamora Pierce, Diane Duane, Steven Brust, Charles Stross, Barbara Hambly, Pat Mills, GK Chesterton, JRR Tolkien, Mary Renault, John Dickson Carr, JK Rowling, John M Ford, Barry Hughart... I find a wide spectrum of things in their writing, including interesting characters, well-handled narrative, good description, brilliant dialogue, imaginative concepts, and stories which sweep you along once you get into them and make it hard to stop reading. I want to read different things at different times. Sometimes I really want a book that makes me think (like John M Ford or Mary Renault), and sometimes I just want something which I can settle into and enjoy.
Q: If you’ve ever read a book more than once, please give the name of the book and explain why you chose to re-read it.
A: If I’ve read a book once and enjoyed it, then I’m almost certainly going to read it again at some point. (There’s a reason why my flat is overfull of books...) I’m afraid the answer to this question is “far too many to count”, and “because I enjoyed reading it the first time”. I’m a very fast reader.
Q: What are the top 3 items on your bucket list?
A: At the moment:
See a live performance of the musical Elisabeth.
See a production by the Takarazuka Revue while in Japan (this includes going to Japan!)
Visit Hong Kong.
Q: Tell me about your favorite things: favorite travel location, favorite food, favorite drink, favorite activity, favorite museum, favorite library(ies), favorite book, favorite movie, and favorite band or song.
A: Bearing in mind that all these are my current favourites, and may change in the future if I come across something new which I like better:
Favorite travel location - Venice
Favorite food – Chicken liver risotto (my father’s recipe)
Favorite drink - Coffee
Favorite activity - Reading
Favorite museum – I used to love going to the Geological Museum in London, though I haven’t been there for ages.
Favorite library(ies) – No particular favourite, they’re all valued.
Favorite book – Journey to the West, by Wu Cheng’en
Favorite movie – Brotherhood of the Wolf
Favorite band or song – Pardonne-moi, by Mylene Farmer
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m currently working on book 4 of the Invisible Library series. No rest for the wicked...
Find out more about Genevieve Cogman:
Author on Goodreads
Enter The Invisible Library sweepstakes
The Invisible Library on Amazon
The Masked City on Amazon