Jun 112013

Summer provides me with time to write. Once the semester ends, I go into overdrive working on personal projects. Of course, I’d like to be productive all year; however, I’m still learning how to reserve  enough time and energy for my own work while classes are in full swing. Frankly, I’m not sure that will ever happen. Regardless, summer’s here, and I have a nice list of projects lined up. Two of those projects included updating this blog and sprucing up the website.

That didn’t happen for a full month.

Sherman Alexei counsels writers: “Every word on your blog is a word not in your book.” For the most part, I’ve taken that sentiment to heart. But I enjoy the challenge of coming up with concise posts about the craft of writing fiction, compelling literature worth reading, or a combination of the two. While posting regularly remains a goal, I’ve come to understand why many successful writers are so stingy with their time.

This is a recent development for me. But, the more time I set aside to write, the more I become aware of how minutes and hours spin away. And I’ve become a selfish bastard when it comes to time. This summer, I secured a quiet room for writing. As the room has no internet access, the only other potential distraction is my cell phone. I go to the room, and I write or read. While I’m happy to report I’m getting a more done, my work tempo still could use some fine-tuning. (Making it sustainable would be nice too.) Still, the time flies.

Time – always seems to be the enemy.

An example: I begin writing with five hours on the clock then look up stunned to find only thirty minutes remains. Invariably, I feel as though I’ve just hit my stride. Likely, some of this learning how to write more efficiently, but maybe not; maybe, I’ll always be glaring at the clock. Regardless, this feeling of time slipping away reminds me of a cranky, old Harlan Ellison.

On Letters of Note, I was amused to read Harlan Ellison’s crotchety response to a member of his fan club. Ellison is a complete prick to this young fan and begins the letter by saying:

“All a writer has is time and a portion of talent. Answering queries from readers eats away at the former, thus disallowing full use of the latter.”

Ellison then moans about how he hates to be disturbed. Amusingly, he goes on to answer the fan’s question in detail. In my humble opinion, either you can’t be bothered to respond to your mail, or you feel some obligation to do so. But if the latter is true, then do it with class. –That said, Ellison’s words haunt me: time and a portion of talent

The talent I bring to the table is not something I can control, but I need every second I can find to hone what I have. The more I write the more respect I develop for those who have truly mastered the craft. It takes time, discipline, and persistence to improve one’s work. That’s it. Those of us not born with innate genius must fall back on hard work, tenacity, and a fair bit of luck. I’m OK with that.

But, returning to the topic of responding to fans, I found two other responses on that same website related to this topic that I found interesting. (Fair warning, there are loads of terrific letters there, and you can easily burn four of five hours browsing them when you should be writing.)

Apparently, Robert Heinlein had a multiple-choice form letter he used to respond to inquisitive fans. It’s worth a read as the the choices are hilarious.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s this in-depth response from cartoonist, John Kricfalusi, who not only wrote a long letter full of encouragement and advice but even sent back some reading material!

Anyway, I’m headed out to write. While I have more to say here and the exercise of posting is helpful in a number of ways – I’m not sure I posess the time to commit to it.

After all, I have fiction to write.

Feb 242013

A short piece on my alma mater’s blog where I argue that writers should trust themselves enough to create really messy drafts as they’re sure to find promising moments days later:

Here’s an excerpt:

The ability to allow sloppy prose to fill the page, ignore MS word’s blood-red squiggles and green-grammar nagging is certainly an act of faith. When I first tried this method, I had strong doubts that I’d understand my early drafts, much less find anything of value in them to make the effort worthwhile. This was not the case. Instead, I found myself able to decode haphazard gibberish days, weeks, even months later. Discovering meaning in messy drafts led me to create them with abandon. Now, I write them with a feeling that’s suspiciously close-kin to confidence; where I once feared drowning in a sea of noise, I now find, on the worst of days, the lack of comprehension only reaches my waist.

Against the repeated warnings of my attorney, I’m going to argue that fiction writers not only listen to but trust the voices in their heads. Of course, for some of us this may not be the best guidance – but let’s imagine Joe Stalin adjusting the garnish of a picture-perfect omelet in the foreground (ignore the charnel house just behind him) and talk some serious shop. After all, writers who aren’t ruthless in the pursuit of crafting better fiction cannot hope to produce work that’s even remotely interesting. And, frankly – if writing a story doesn’t strain your emotions, if it doesn’t make you feel somewhat vulnerable, you’re probably not doing it right.

You can read the entire post here.

Feb 242013

“Style is the substance of the subject called unceasingly to the surface.” ~ Victor Hugo

Before picking up The Road, I’d never read any of Cormac McCarthy’s work and had no idea of what to expect. A few chapters in, I paused to orient myself to the world he evokes: set in a post-apocalyptic future, a father and his young son travel through civilization’s ruins while remaining true to a moral code. This is good stuff, but it’s McCarthy’s writing style, the sparse, fragmented prose of this novel, which made me into an ardent fan. Of course, style doesn’t matter if the story fails. So first, I’m going to touch on a few narrative nuts and bolts to see why it succeeds, and then I’ll fling some superlatives around regarding style.

The story’s success is remarkable given the plot’s limitations: it’s the day-to-day survival of a father and son adrift in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Keeping to major roads, they travel south toward an unknown destination; and because roads act a lot like like rivers, they attract desperate groups of people, many of whom enslave and eat other people.

Okay, more happens than that, but my point is the daily task of surviving in a bleak environment could’ve been oppressively tedious. But McCarthy makes it work by paying careful attention to the rate of revelation: scraps of information about the apocalypse are bundled with the father’s back story and doled out regularly in between crises. This backstory delivery system saves the novel from becoming a repetitive slog as the plot’s structure depends on simplistic conflict resolution: the characters need food, the characters find food, and the characters avoid/run away from cannibals, rinse & repeat. (Did I mention that nearly everybody else on the road seems to be a cannibal!? Seriously. Like, lots of scary cannibals.)

This plot structure is, of course, germane to a survival narrative, but McCarthy deserves credit for sticking to realistic speculation regarding day-to-day issues and not allowing the story to become something more exotic or cliché: like, a detour where the duo overthrow a cannibal kingdom or found a colony intended to be humanity’s last, best hope. Instead, the author stays focused to a much more ambitious story about a man determined to raise his son to be a principled human being in a desperate wasteland. The stakes are high as two individuals struggle to maintain their moral and ethical cores in an environment where principles are regarded as either liabilities or quaint relics of the past. That these characters struggle to do the right thing in the face of a hopeless future makes individual choice a central theme.

That The Road foregrounds individuality marks it as a distinctly American novel. Additionally, there are number of moments that have a Western-genre feel to them. Does it get any more American than the Western? You could easily place these two characters in a day-to-day struggle to survive Montana Badlands of the 19th century, replete with bushwacking outlaws and painted-Indian war parties, and gotten a similar story. Don’t get me wrong, the tone of Western-genre fiction doesn’t detract from the work; it’s just another aspect of the novel’s style.

Ah yes, style: we’ve finally arrived at the subject  causing all the chatter. Cormac McCarthy makes some brilliant choices in regards to syntax. That is to say, I found them brilliant. There are plenty of grammarians who hate this novel because he breaks so many rules. Specifically interesting to me – McCarthy declines to adhere to an important grammatical marker: the sentence boundary. Instead, the author deploys both the logic and organization of cumulative sentences while refusing to play by the rules dictating where they pause or end. This unconventional approach is used to good effect when working to evoke a broken world. Here’s an example:

“The kitchen door stood open and he crossed the porch and stood in the doorway. Cheap plywood paneling curling with damp. Collapsing into the room. A red formica table” (119).

Okay, so McCarthy ignores commas and uses periods instead? Yep. But also notice there are plenty of transitional words missing as well. Thinking things through, it becomes obvious one could revise this example to become a single cumulative sentence which delivers the same information with an entirely different effect. Like so:

“The kitchen standing open, he crossed the porch and stood in the doorway, observing the cheap-plywood paneling that curled with damp and collapsed into the room, a room with a red-formica table.”

Of course, there’s a ton of different ways one could rewrite the sentence. You might need to read a longer section to get a real feeling for the style, but the example above makes my point. And while I find McCarthy’s style effective, I can see why choices like this might put someone off; because when periods are used in place of commas, sentences no longer reliably exist as propositions. Instead, the period becomes a moment of pause – a crack to step over – while the reader is left to determine where the next clause fits in.

The novel would be a failure If this approach didn’t work. But it does.

By breaking down the cumulative form into discrete units, the author achieves a similar effect of evoking a detailed image. However, the choice of abandoning conventional syntax has a significant, secondary effect because the combination of sparse language and busted-up syntax clearly enhances this description of a world that’s bleak and broken. – That he made this choice is a big part of what makes this novel great.

In fiction, the difference between a good use of style and great use of style is as follows: a good use of style makes for enjoyable reading and marks a writer’s work as being unique. A great use of style fulfills all aforementioned requirements but also reflects, informs, and enhances a central theme of the work.

It’s that simple. The choice to ‘break’ the prose when evoking a broken world is ambitious: successfully pulling it off is fucking genius. So after reading The Road, I developed high expectations for McCarthy’s work, and, so far, he’s yet to disappoint. That said, I get why many readers dislike this novel. Many who attack it have ample ammunition that’s well-reasoned. But the bottom line for me is the author took a gamble, and it paid off big time. This book has a lot of popular appeal, and it’s easy to see why. Despite radical linguistic choices, The Road manages to hold a reader’s attention with an adventure while putting some heavy topics in play. That is to say, McCarthy treads the fine line between writing gratuitous fiction and writing great fiction. That he pulls it off makes this novel worth a read.