Monday, October 24, 2011

Just Shelved

Drop CityDrop City by T.C. Boyle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes when you are trying to express the worldview and interior, like, tone of your characters, it becomes necessary to write in the passive voice, and then you are writing all of the descriptions of action in the passive voice, and you are relying on that technique pretty consistently. And could it be repetitive? Is asking a lot of questions in a row something a hippie might do? Does that seem like a realistic trope? Yeah, man, because they've got a shaggy dog style of talking and thinking and appending to their thoughts with more and more filler and more and more interjections.

It is possible you are annoying your readers with these stylistic tics, despite the fact that there are vivid characters, strong dialogue, and some appreciated ribald humor in your book.

Whatever, man. Let's get high.

(Drop City recommended for entertaining and briskly plotted look at a band of flower children trying to hack out their Utopian farm ideal in Alaska. Caveat: the annoying prose style cited above.)

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

On Deadlines and Resisting the Hot Dog

I recently challenged myself to write a page per day of my novel-in-progress. I finished most of the beginning almost a year ago before being distracted by other projects, other calamities, other beers, and other vacations. But no more! I am pleased to say that I have stayed true to my goal since I made it...a few days ago. (7 pages must be the gross product of a week; make-up pages can be turned in on Sundays by midnight). It's really amazing how well I work under a deadline or artificial mandate. That's why I've often preferred to write short pieces: I generally finish them in one sitting, and the sense of the finite time around the act of writing itself tends to make the stories sharper, leaner, and better. So far, I've been rather pleased with how I've kept to this fledgling goal. The only problem is when my one page go-get-'em attitude kicks into gear, it is almost invariably 1:30 in the morning. This work ethic was slightly more okay in college and grad school, when I had occasional mornings off from work, class, and teaching, or only had to fill a seat rather than engage. It doesn't work as well with a lifestyle that includes an every day job. It's not even that I'm not sitting in front of the computer before the 1:30 mark. Not at all.

Allow me to illustrate for you: let's say I am baseball player with a decent hit (no idea why I would choose a sports metaphor given my lack of knowledge about sports, but bear with me). I head to the field, or, erm, the batting cages to practice my swing. Except, I don't practice my swing at first. Even thought it's afternoon and there are other people around practicing their swings and catching and pitching and waving my way, I'm not ready yet. I think about getting a hot dog and then I DO get a hot dog. While there, I do a bit of a condiment taste test. Oh, yeah, sauerkraut is disgusting. Now I remember! How hilarious. I find someone to talk about condiments with. Actually, you know, the more I think about it (alone now with just my thoughts and the hot dog), there's something so relatable about a hot dog; something that taps into a shared experience of America, ya know? Hot dogs. They tie together the tipsy person on the street corner at 2 a.m., the weekend weenie roaster, and anyone with a functioning microwave. I even made a hot dog solar cooker when I was eight years old using tinfoil! At this thought, I tear up. And, suddenly, I am filled with the conviction that HOT DOGS are where the meaning really lies. Why have I wasted my time on something so comparably esoteric? My pastime is neither delicious nor sandwiched by an oblong bun. It's a fool's pastime. You know what? Maybe I should get into hot dogs. I've always liked them, after all. Almost as much as hitting.

(time, maybe, five minutes of time)

Anywhere, where was I? Oh, hot dogs? Yeah, I'm not going to finish this one. They are soooo unhealthy. I can't wait to hit a perfect ball. THAT'S what I really want to do. But first I need to have this conversation about why astroturf is weird. Yes, I know, I've said it before, but this is an essential conversation, and it clearly needs to be had. I have different points than yesterday. Like, maybe one slightly less rehashed point about the qualities of fluorescent greens as illuminated by floodlights. So, I chat about astroturf with whomever happens to be handy. Odd how that guy that sweeps the edges of the field always seems to be on the other side of the field whenever I'm in the mood to have this discussion.

(time passes)

Man, where has the time gone? I am EXHAUSTED! It must be all those fine motor skills I used wiping that ketchup off my shirt. Wait, was that five hours ago?! I guess that astroturf conversation was pretty gripping. Or maybe when I was wandering around trying to find the bathroom....? Regardless, I don't even know if I have the energy to hit today. I mean, I hit a few yesterday, right? Some people have never even been to a major league game before! Hitters like me are rare, after all. I can probably pat myself on the back just for, you know, dreaming of hitting a homer now and again. Or you know what? Even driving here. I mean, I put my bag in a car and I drove here. That's pretty good, right?

So, I start getting my gear together and start heading off the field. I notice that all my other teammates are gone; even the guy that sweeps the edges of the field is gone. Someone is turning off the floodlights, one by one, and darkness whooshes into each portion of the field where the lights have been shining. Finally, there's just one lone floodlight still going--perhaps they've left it on for me and are even now waiting for me to get the hell off the field.

Except I'm not. Suddenly, I'm ready. Drop my bag to the ground. Get my bat out, and magically, a ball pops my way from somewhere off in the darkness (don't think too much on the details) and I swing and swing, the cracks of wood meeting canvas echoing throughout the stadium. And one or two of those hits might even be good (I'm not totally sure, since they're flying off into unlit stadium stands, but whatevs). It feels good, though. It feels really good, like--

--and the last floodlight is switched off. Crap. And I had a really good metaphor for that feeling, too.

That, in short, is my writing work ethic if I were actually a baseball player. You might not want to pick me for your team, but I am still going to finish this novel. One page, one day at time.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Just Shelved

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great collection entirely comprised of up-and-coming (and firmly established) female writers of fantastical, fabulist, and, well...weird fiction. I loved the presentation and careful curation of this book--clearly exciting things are happening at Tin House. Some of the bigger names (Lydia Davis; Miranda July) were represented by fairly slight (dare I say lazy?) pieces, but there were plenty of other gems and new writers to discover. A few stories tended towards the fey or overly cute--always a risk of this genre--but there was enough unsettling, and indeed, unfeminine, weirdness to go around. I also think the tone of fantastic fiction lends itself well to describe coming-of-age journeys: a freakish time, indeed.

Particular favorites:

Aimee Bender's "Americca"
Judy Budnitz's "Abroad"
Julia Elliott's "The Wilds"
Samantha Hunt's "Beast"
Kelly Link's "Light"
Lydia Millet's "Snow White, Rose Red"
Alissa Nutting's "Hot, Fast, and Sad"
Stacey Richter's "The Doll Awakens"
Karen Russell's "The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach" (my favorite)
Gina Zucker's "Big People"