Friday, September 28, 2007

Alive, Yes. Well? Not So Much

Thank God for Stephen King! If not for him, the market for short stories could very well perish. But because he's the big-shot, commercially successful writer that nearly everyone in America can identify by sight, he's able to get his comments in the New York Times. Now, I realize he's pitching the collection of short stories that he edited, but he's also advocating for those writers who are struggling to get noticed. This man deserves his plaudits and his millions, not because he writes great literature (he writes entertaining literature, I wouldn't call it great), but because he is a champion for all of us who hope to have an audience to develop.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Literary Discovery

I think I've become a literary snob. Perhaps I already knew this but chose to ignore it. What has struck me is how I now distinguish between "good" literature and "mediocre" literature (forget "poor" literature, which is a contradiction in terms).

For instance, during the past two days I've started and quickly stopped reading two different novels. Two nights ago it was John Irving's Until I Find You and yesterday afternoon, Marly Swick's Evening News. I usually love Irving's work. The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany are two of my favorite books (well, Garp and Owen are among my favorite characters). But within the first few pages of Until I Find You, I found myself in a maze of ill-constructed paragraphs; this is an 800+ page novel! Sorry John, I don't have time for that.

And Swick's work. Well, I can't say I enjoyed the creative writing-class style of introducing characters, but I could have gotten past that if the subject weren't so disturbing. I started reading it because my novel is about a family in a difficult situation; hers is about a family coping with the death of a small child. But in her novel, a young boy and his friend from next door are playing with the friend's dad's handgun, which mom keeps hidden in a Kleenex tissue box. A few predictable moments later, BANG! and the little baby sister is bleeding out into her inflatable swimming pool while mom's reading a book. I'm sorry, I don't have much patience for idiots in real life, I don't need to read about fictional morons. Here's a life story for you: Kids, don't play with guns! Parents, don't leave loaded guns where your kids can get to them, especially if they don't know what the hell they're doing!

Now I'm reading Whitney Otto's Now You See Her. Heading into the story is a nice little acknowledgement page. She thanks her family and friends and her editor and agent. All good and proper. But then within the first couple pages there's a subject/verb agreement problem (i.e., the subject is singular, but the verb used was plural). This is basic, grammar school English class red-pen stuff. Ok, if it only happens once, we can chalk it up to an amazingly odd snafu (though you don't usually find these things on page 3). But then, another couple pages later, there's something even more egregious. The protagonist lists things she has: Gainful employment; three good friends; two living parents... Four short paragraphs and a few lists later, the protagonist has telephoned her mother, "now a widow..."

When did that happen? In the past 100 words? Did mom dump dad in a bitter divorce a few years ago? Who knows, it hasn't been mentioned.

I think I'd thank this agent too, because she hooked you up with an editor who can't read. Since this book was published in 1994, I presume these flaws have already been pointed out and I'm simply slow on the draw. And considering I received this book for free through a book exchange, and its Barnes & Noble discount price of $5.98 is still attached to the front cover, I don't think too many people are overly concerned about who's going to fix it.

To be fair, since I didn't have any other books with me and I'd already read the One Story item I did have with me, I decided to read further in Otto's book. [Nota bene, One Story has a new address and it hasn't been corrected on their Web site -- so if your renewal was returned because the Post Office can't find them, don't fret, they've not gone out of business.]

And what I found is a story with promise. From what I can tell, it follows through on the fanciful "What if women over 40 actually do become invisible." I'll give the book a second chance. When there aren't glaring grammatical or continuity problems, it reads easy (well, actually, she seems to have a love affair with annoying fragments; not the literary types that are easily comprehensible), and if I hate it after tomorrow, there's always a Friday crossword puzzle to piss me off.

Oh yeah, I discovered another thing tonight on the train: I really love pizza. A man on the train was eating a slice and I couldn't help but wish I had one too. Again, this may be something I already knew. Sometimes life is cruel.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Nearing 'The End' Once Again

I'm on vacation and taking a break from my novel, which is only about 30 pages away from "re-completion." I anticipate adding some more description in one of the last chapters; I was never pleased with it. But I believe that I'll have it done by dinner time tomorrow -- if not sooner. I've already started letting those few "early readers" know that they will be receiving copies soon. It's not quite like how I felt when I first typed "The End" a couple years ago, but I believe this time the book will be better than it was then. The next entry will acknowledge another goal reached!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Death Comes to the Ideal Children's Author

Now this sounds like a perfect life story for a writer -- if any life can be called perfect. Madeleine L'Engle died recently. She's most famous for writing A Wrinkle in Time.

The comment includes a comment that she believed that life experiences are subservient to subconscious and perhaps larger spiritual influences. Though the reporter seemed surprised by that revelation, I know many writers -- myself included -- who would agree with her.

"Why does anybody tell a story?" she once asked, even though she knew the answer.

"It does indeed have something to do with faith," she said, "faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically."

I know that sounds all "New Agey" and trippy, dude, but I'd subscribe to what she said.

I wish I could have met her. I suspect she was a pleasant conversationalist, knowledgeable about many topics regardless of her formal training. She looks like she would have like to share time over a scotch and soda and tell a couple of off-color tales that seemed much racier in the telling than the words suggest.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Flying Cars, Teleportation, and eBooks

I'm a traditionalist, so the idea of reading a book on a small computer screen has no appeal to me. But that doesn't mean people won't test whether there's a market for an eBook reader. This New York Times story discusses the prospects of new products coming from Google and Amazon -- not actually saying much about the products themselves, but the prospects of them. For me, I love the light weight and flexibility of a regular book. I don't need to add any more weight or electricity into my life. But this article is worth at least taking a look at to keep up with where the technology is going -- whether it gets there or not.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Writing Life of the "Successful" Author

The Boston Globe recently ran a story about author Leah Hager Cohen. It has become rare to find an article about someone who's basically a mid-list writer. By her own admission, Cohen is not making a lot of money writing both novels and nonfiction. She may have to start teaching to make ends meet, she said. Frankly, that doesn't sound so bad to me, but I'm sure she'd prefer to be able to write on her usual schedule. The article also describes what to me sounds like a dream relationship with an agent: the agent pushed her but was honest, perhaps also blunt.

This article is also another example of why it's important for newspapers -- especially major ones like the Globe -- to continue to cover writers and books. While there are tons of Web sites and blogs out there that talk about writers no one in the "mainstream" world has ever heard of, when a New York Times, LA Times, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, or any of the other important U.S. newspapers include stories about authors other than Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, or any of the instantly recognizable, commercial writers, it helps all of us who aspire to get their works published and to believe there will be avenues of distribution for us too.

Keep writing, Ms. Cohen, and if you have to teach, then do it. Because that's one more way of developing writers and readers. Those kids will go off to college and talk about the quirky English teacher they had who had a few books published. The audience can keep growing one commuter at a time.