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Archive for September, 2016

The art of cohesion

Currently, I’m in the middle of writing the tenth book in the Elsie Jones Adventures (The first of which will release in the spring of next year), and I’ve been thinking more and more about process.  The closer I get to the fifteenth book (The concluding book of the series) , the more difficult it is to write the books because there is so much more that goes into them.

The first three were pure adventures.  They each had a beginning middle and end, and for the fifteen book arc, I could act like a writer from the TV series Lost and make up anything I wanted to.  Books four, five, and six got to explore the over all story arc while still being complete adventures, but I still didn’t have to bring things together.  Then in books seven, eight, and nine, realizations began to take place and the over all story arc became clear.  Now writing book ten I’m having trouble with a clear vision to the end.

My writers group, The Live Poets Society, contains a mixture of writing concepts.  There are those that write only what’s on their mind at the time and then go back later and bring it all together, there are those that write from start to finish with an arc in mind, and then there’s me, who comes up with a complete outline before writing a single word in the story.

I know the main contention to writing an outline first.  People tell me all the time.

“I don’t want to be contained.  If I get into some good writing I don’t want to have to keep it to the outline.”

Believe me I felt the same way before I had a writing contract.

Writing an outline first is like doing your due diligence in a research project. The outline is the creative outlet.  when you’re writing an outline, you get to come up with the plot line.  You are not bound by having to deal with language or grammar, you are not bound by having to keep your own thoughts out of the text.  You can do whatever you want to, then when you’re done, you have a complete story arc, not just a beginning, and end and some random scenes you really want to write.

When I first started writing Elsie Jones I wrote from the cuff.  I had a vague idea of what I wanted and I wrote what came to me, flowing through my fingers onto the screen.  Now I have the outline to make sure that things don’t get too screwy.

Do I always stick to the outline with zeal?  No.  Things always come up when you’re writing, but outlining is a great way to brainstorm and keep your thoughts linear.  When you have a complicated subplot that ranges over fifteen books, but each book has to be a contained adventure all it’s own you get a bit bogged down in the minutia.  The only way out of it is to outline.

Give it a shot.  Do some outlining of your own.  See how it strikes you.  I guarantee your stories will be better and more cohesive.


The Rise of Literary Reading

I’ve recently read a couple of articles which have struck cords with me.  The first was from the Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/09/07/the-long-steady-decline-of-literary-reading/) and the second was from a website called read it forward (https://www.readitforward.com/essay/article/list-books-saved-life/).  The Washington post article was basically talking about how people don’t read literature anymore and the second article was how literature saved the authors life.

We’ve become such an interesting society that everything has to be an all or nothing.  You have to either read literature or not.  You have to like a political candidate or you have to hate them.

This is a topic which could go on for a long time, but I’m going to narrow the focus to follow along the lines of literature.

In my opinion, society needs literature, and I don’t say that because I’m a writer and I think that it’s survival is necessary to my survival as a writer, or because of some nostalgic feeling I have.  Society needs literature because literature makes you think, and that is something that is seriously lacking in our culture at the moment.

We take things as people give them to us.  You read an article from the Washington Post and all of the sudden you’re worried about books being in decline; and yes, at a quick glance it does seem disturbing that there are virtually no literary authors on the top money lists.  HOWEVER, you must understand that the money lists which are written out by Forbes are entirely skewed.

The idea of a money-list is ridiculous, and also the idea of a books purchased list is equally absurd.  The reason is availability and accessibility.  You can say that literary reading is in decline since the 1800’s because no body reads those types of books anymore.  That’s wrong for two reasons.  1.  Dickens in his time was considered popular fiction…NOT literature, and 2.  How many times do you walk into an airport and find Proust on the shelf?

Literary reading is on the rise, not the decline.  Just look at Jonathan Franzen, who is holistically a literary author.  When he wrote “The Corrections” and famously snubbed Oprah Winfrey, he was one of the top grossing authors of the year.  The only reason he was however was because Oprah mentioned him and people ran out in droves to read it, that and the millions he won from literary awards.

The problem isn’t literature and its rise or fall, but in how the media perceives it.  If the Washington Post came out with an article saying how more people than ever were reading literature and three titles were amongst the top (for my own edification I’ll say these three “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen, “A Hologram for the King” by Dave Eggers, and “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell {runner up to “Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach}) then those three titles would be best sellers.

Once that happened then more people would be writing articles like Jonathan Russell Clark wrote about how literature and reading saved his life.  People would think more.  People would analyze situations better.  People wouldn’t be so trusting of one source, but they would look for the counter argument.

You heard it here first.  Literature is on the rise.  There is a reason Barnes and Noble is still around, years after E-readers saturated the market.  I challenge you to read a literature title.  One that makes you think.  One that makes you analyze it’s meaning.  One that makes you question your own reality.


A New Spring

“I don’t need to tell you that writers sometimes get ideas which practical-minded individuals regard as chimerical” – Henry Miller

 

I just finished reading “The Grapes of Wrath” for the first time (I know, I know, I’m way to old and love Steinbeck way too much not to have read this earlier, but bear with me), and while I was reading it people kept saying “Oh man, Steinbeck is SOOOOOO depressing!”  Every-time this happened I would give a demure smile and a slight nod, because I half believed them.  I love Steinbeck because of his readability, his tone, and his brief and wonderful, bright bursts of beautiful, insightful writing, but people don’t get this from him because of his content.

As my eyes scanned over the last few words of “The Grapes of Wrath” and I shut the book, my mind began to scan for potential meaning behind the final few pages.  Were they depressing?  Yes.  Was the book dark and dreary?  Probably.  But there is an image which sticks in my mind, even now, hours after finishing it.  It’s such a small thing that most people who read the book probably will focus on the death and uncertainty which is prevalent…and they wouldn’t be wrong.  The Joads go through so much throughout this book, that I actually felt like each chapter was going to end in another heartbreak, another setback.  Then there was that image right there at the end, which changed the tone of the entire book.

Ruthie found a flower.

That was it.  Ruthie found a flower.

What stuck with me was the symbolism of it.  Steinbeck writes this book alternating chapters between the story of the Joads and a social commentary, and the downer of this book comes to an end with that flower.  The last couple of the lines of the last bit of the commentary are as follows:  “And the women sighed with relief, for they knew it was all right-the break had not come;and the break would never come as long as fear could turn to wrath.

Tiny points of grass came through the earth, and in a few days the hills were pale green with the beginning year.”

Spring is a time of re-birth.  The breaking of spirit would not come, because through the depths of despair comes the realization that you’re alive.  Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you realize what you have in front of you.  The harder the winter, the darker and colder it gets, the brighter the spring.  The ground needs the snow and the cold to be able to have a re-birth, to bring about spring and spring is hope.

Sometimes horrible things happen to you.  Sometimes life is depressing.  Sometimes life is almost too much to overcome.  But as long as there is determination, as long as there is hope; one day while you’re walking on the broken pieces of what you thought your life should be, you’ll find a flower, and a new spring will bloom.


Top Ten Autumn Books

I read these stupid posts, from these blog sites who want to be real news, and every time I think to myself, “I can compile a list so much better than that!”  Half of the books seem to be listed because they’re popular, not because of the subject matter, and it seems as though the author of the article hasn’t even read them.  And the other half seem to come out of left field.

So here is my foray into the world.  It could be horrible, it could be insightful, I just hope it inspires people to read some books that they might not have read before.

I’m choosing my top ten books to get in the spirit of Fall, mostly because it’s my favorite time of year, but also because of the broad range of books that will fit.  This is the time of changing seasons, of baseball, of melancholy, of the beginning of school.  This is the time where you take that last trip to that browning mid-west field, that last trip to the tire swing at the lake, before it gets just too cold.  This is the time of year for nostalgia.  These ten books will have some or all of these qualities.

10.  “West of Here” by Jonathan Evison

This is a beautifully written novel portraying a life of the town Port Bonita.  There is some jumping around between time frames, but you get the feeling of a wonderful Autumnal read.  Broad sweeping landscapes including everything from watermills and flumes, starting from people trying to live a life in the old west, to the modern time and how people just want to disappear.  The novel drips with nostalgia, and is a perfect read for early September, to get you in the mood to sit next to the fire and dream of the soft, colorful, chilly fall.

9.  “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry

I don’t think this list could be complete without this epic western.  Every time I drive through the country of California and see the broad waves of grain and browning fields, this novel always comes to mind.  It’s about a cattle drive to the north, which starts in the late summer and goes through fall and into winter.  There is death and despair, there are shootouts and classic western dialog, but this novel won a Pulitzer for a reason; it is a perfect slice of life of Americana, and it will bring you into Autumn.

8. “The Book of Lost Things” by John Connelly

I personally have to have a book on this list which has a bit of magical realism and a bit of fairy tale.  This is a slightly tragic tale of a young boy who takes solace in his books, so much so that he is brought into them; into a sort of fairy tale land and has adventures.  My first instinct in creating this list was to include “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, but I thought I could find a book that had that autumnal feel without going down an overused road, and “The Book of Lost Things” is it.

7.  “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt

This is the only non-fiction book on here, and where there could be some which are better, I cant think of a better setting to move into October and the fall, than Savannah.  There is old magic in Savannah and that is part of this books charm.  There is even a scene where the narrator heads into a cemetery and interviews (or tries to at least) a “witch woman”.  Filled with intrigue and dripping with atmosphere, you cant go wrong with this one.

6.  “Needful Things” by Stephen King

Yep, there is a bit of horror on this list, though this one I wouldn’t really consider all that scary.  This is the “last Castle Rock story”, where the devil comes to Castle Rock and opens up a curio shop.  This story is another that you can really curl up by a fire and get into fall.  It’s a small town feel, with incredible description and unforgettable characters, then you have the magic of a curio store called, yep you guessed it, “Needful Things”, and if there was ever a secondhand store that didn’t have a nostalgic feel, I don’t know what does.

5.  “Water for Elephants” By Sara Gruen

Train jumping, The Dust Bowl, a traveling circus and a tragic love story.  This isn’t much more you need for a good Autumn book.  The atmosphere is all consuming and the characters are full and lush and the story is beautiful.  You can actually (figuratively) see the changing of the leaves while reading this one.

4.  “Bethany’s Sin”  By Robert McCammon

This one piggy backs the King book.  It is the last horror story on the list.  This is the story of  small town.  It’s beautiful, socked in by trees, the neighbors are nice and come to your doorstep with pies.  This is the quintessential small town nostalgia, perfect for fall.  On top of that it has all the hidden secrets and horrors that a small town needs to have to be a good autumn book.  It all starts with the sounds of horses hooves pounding through the town at night…

3.  “Old School” by Tobias Wolff

The easiest comparison to this novella would be to “The Dead Poets Society”.  This book takes place in a preparatory academy, and really, what is a list about autumnal books without having a book about going to school?  This is a beautiful and literary book and will only take you an afternoon to read it, but just wonderful.

2.  “For the Love of the Game” by Michael Shaara

So if an Autumn list isn’t complete without a book about school, then it really isn’t complete without a book about baseball.  This is a wonderful novella told through the course of one game.  It tells of a lifetime of ups and downs.  A life time of love and loss.  A lifetime of baseball, and where we head into October and the playoffs, I cant think of a better book to read.

1. “The Cider House Rules” by John Irving

This had to be my number one book for a seasonal book.  Even though the book takes place over a much longer time period than one season, there is such feeling and melancholy layered in this book.  Apples are finally ripe in the fall and this book centers around an orphanage and a cider house.  You can see the colors while you’re reading through the book and on top of that Irving has such a deft pen, that you get to know these characters like no other.  This book is the ultimate and will get you in the spirit of fall.