Monthly Archives: December 2012

Favorite Book of 2012: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon

I read a number of outstanding books in 2012. Among these were Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers, Defending Jacob by William Landay, and Canada by Richard Ford. However, my favorite book of 2012 was Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue.

This is a highly subjective judgment, but, for me, a great book not only must have great characters and tell a compelling story, but it must say something important about the human condition. Chabon’s book does all of these things and more. It holds a mirror up to the times in which we live. The 2012 national election was proof yet again that we live in a divided nation, with 51 percent of voters supporting President Obama and 49 percent voting for his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. Yet, political analysts noted a subtle, but permanent change in the electorate in 2012. No longer will elections be decided by older white males. The demographics of the country are changing. As I write this, Congressional leaders are deadlocked over a fix to the fiscal cliff, further evidence of what divides us.

Chabon acknowledges this diversity in Telegraph Avenue, but his message is one of hope. Telegraph Avenue is the fault line between a hardscrabble neighborhood of Oakland and the University of California at Berkeley campus. Chabon mines the rich diversity of this area as the setting serves to underscore the themes of racial, gender and political divisions, but he is not just interested in what divides us, but what brings us together.

The story centers on business partners Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, who operate a barely surviving used record store called Brokeland Records. The store is threatened when superstar athlete-turned-business-tycoon Gibson Goode,  proposes a mega entertainment complex for the neighborhood, including a used record store that will put Brokeland Records out of business.

One of the major aspects of this novel is music, specifically the soul music of the 1970s. At one point, Goode laments the changes he has witnessed in music. “The world of black music has undergone in many ways a kind of apocalypse, you follow me,” says Goode. “You look at the landscape of the black idiom in music now, it is post-apocalyptic. Jumbled-up mess of broken pieces. Shards and samples. Gangsters running in tribes. That is no disrespect to the music of the past two decades. Taken on its own terms I love it…But face it, I mean, a lot has been lost. Ellington, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, we got nobody of that caliber even hinted at in black music nowadays. I’m talking about genius, composers, know what I’m saying.”

Goode is talking about soul music, but he could just as easily be discussing politics, civility, or the state of our nation as a whole.

Later in the story, Nat Jaffe reflects on the unlikely business partnerships that he and his white wife, Aviva, have struck with Archy Stallings and his wife, Gwen Shanks. The breakup of their partnerships, he concluded, had more to do with class than race. “The differences in class and education among the four of them canceled out without regard for stereotype or cultural expectation: Aviva and Archy both had been raised by blue-collar aunts who worked hard to send them to lower-tier colleges. The white guy was the high school dropout , the black woman upper middle-class and expensively educated. It just turned out that a tower of elephants and turtles was no way to hold up the world.”

In the end Stallings has an epiphany of sorts and the reader is left with a feeling that things will be okay, that this volatile cast of characters will figure out a way to get along.

What was your favorite book of 2012?

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Books Read in 2012

Stephen King, in his classic craft of fiction memoir, On Writing, urges all writers to read widely. Writers must take the time to read across all genres to understand and grasp the basics of storytelling and character development. I set a goal to read 25 books a year. This year I read 26 books. I try to read a mix of popular fiction, classics, some nonfiction, and a few craft of fiction books. Sometimes I will choose to read a book to help me with what I am writing at the time. For instance, when I am having trouble exploring complex relationships in my story, I will turn to an author who is adept at doing that.

Here is my list of books read in 2012:

Broken Irish by Edward J. Delaney

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield

Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon

The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling by Donald Maass

Family Graces by Kathryn Magendie

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Canada by Richard Ford

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

The Bone Blade Girl by A.D. Bloom

Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers

The Last Will of Moira Leahy by Therese Walsh

Secret Graces by Kathryn Magendie

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

To the Lifeboats by Jamie Beckett

Defending Jacob, by William Landay

Writer’s Conference Guide: Getting the Most of Your Time and Money by Bob Mayer and Jennifer Talty

In my next post, I will write about my favorite book of 2012.

 

 

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An Ode to ‘A Christmas Story’

Every year at Christmas I find myself sneaking away from the festivities to catch a few minutes of A Christmas Story on the TBS 24-hour marathon. The story centers on young Ralph Parker’s quest for a Red Ryder BB gun for a Christmas present. The movie features elements of the three-act story. In act one, Ralph’s mother thwarts his plan. In act two, it’s his teacher who throws cold water on it and in act three, the big man himself, Santa, nixes Ralph’s wish for a BB gun. At each turn, Ralph is told, “You’ll shoot your eye out.”

What I love about this move is the authenticity of the story. Authenticity is something to which each writer should strive. The theme is universal—the desire to bring a little joy into the lives of children of a working class family. The “old man,” Ralph’s dad, is a working stiff who enters contest to win prizes and awards, which leads to a hysterical chain of events when he wins a lamp featuring the fish net stockings of a shapely female leg.

There is no cornball schmaltz in this film (okay maybe the ending is a little corny). The dialogue is dead-on realism, especially the scenes where Ralph interacts with his friends. These scenes are spiced with the kind of braggadocio and one-upmanship that all boys display with their peers.

The scenes where the family are at the dinner table or out shopping are similarly genuine. My favorite line is this thought from Ralph, spoken by Jean Shepherd, on whose work the script is based. “In the heat of battle, my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that to this day hangs in space over Lake Michigan.”

Several years ago, I took my son to visit “the house on Cleveland Street,” the home where many of the scenes were filmed. Located in Cleveland, Ohio, the house has been lovingly restored and serves as a museum and tribute to the movie. It was all there, the tree, the kitchen cabinet where Randy hid, even the infamous leg lamp.

Cleveland was reportedly chosen as the site for the movie based on the willingness of Higbee’s department store to allow the movie crew to film inside the department store during Christmas season.

The movie’s message is open to interpretation, but during my visit to the museum across the street from the house, I read an interview excerpt in which Shepherd said it was intended as a paean to dads everywhere who worked in menial jobs and strove to create a little magic in their children’s lives.

It remains one of my favorite holiday movies.

What is your favorite holiday movie?

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‘Did Not Finish’ Books: What Made You Put the Book Down?

Preparing to post my 2012 books read, I was struck by how long it’s been since I did not finish a book. Since I started reading a long time ago, there were only a handful of books I couldn’t get through. Out of deference to the authors, I will not mention them. I did some quick internet research on why readers don’t finish books. Here are some of the reasons:

  • Bad writing
  • Unrealistic characters
  • Uninspiring or boring characters
  • Faulty premise
  • Contrived plot
  • Confusing story

I found a “Did Not Finish Books” list on Goodreads and it included some famous best-sellers: Fifty Shades of Grey, Eat, Love, Pray, The Casual Vacancy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and The Shack. I don’t know the criteria for this list. It could have been books marked ‘To Read’ by Goodreads readers that the reader just hasn’t gotten around to reading.

At any rate, what turns me off are books in which the story isn’t clear or I simply don’t care enough about the characters to keep reading. In one instance, I got 70 pages into a book by a renowned author and I had no idea what the story was and where it was going. I gave up.

Some books are so well-regarded that I forced myself to finish them. One was Moby Dick. Though it was clear to me why it is a classic, I found Moby Dick a tough read. Herman Melville devoted whole chapters to discussions of such arcane topics as the different types of whales. I started reading it on my Kindle, but ended up taking out of the library an illustrated edition that really helped me to understand the things Melville was attempting to describe.

One book I almost didn’t finish was Anne Tyler’s classic, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Tyler is one of my favorite authors and this is one of her best books. When I first tried to read it, I wasn’t focused. I was going through some personal issues and I found the mother and the main character’s brother to be extremely unappealing characters (intentionally drawn that way by Tyler). I put it down, but six months later, I picked it up and read it through in just three days. I was blown away by the writing and I couldn’t believe I almost let this one pass me by.

I will give a book 75 to 100 pages  before I put it down. Some readers are less patient than that. The reasoning is there are too many good books waiting to be read for the reader to waste his time on one that is of no interest. What about you?

How long do you stay with an unappealing book before you put it down?

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Got Writer’s Block? Take the Creative Pause

When a group of writers gathers to share their experiences, the conversation inevitably turns to writer’s block. This was the case recently and I shared with a group of colleagues what I wrote in a guest post on Writer Unboxed. My contention is that most of what we call writer’s block stems from a gap–either in the story, the characters, a scene, or the overall work. You can read the post here.

If you buy the”gap” theory, this begs the larger question: once you know there’s a gap of some sort, what do you do about it? I experience writer’s block primarily at the scene or character levels. At the scene level, it happens when a scene just isn’t working. I can’t seem to create any tension or excitement. It’s a chore to write the scene. When this happens I usually slog through and finish the scene, even though I know I will probably cut it later. A bigger challenge is when I discover I don’t have enough scenes to get from one pivotal place in the story to another. This is the price of being a pantser rather than a plotter.

Writer’s block that stems from character issues is a daunting challenge. It’s a sinking feeling when the writer discovers his main character isn’t strong enough, or perhaps doesn’t deserve to be the main character. This requires an intense assessment of the character’s flaws. Does he have enough depth? Are the challenges you have placed before him important and serious?

When I think through either scene or character issues, what I like to do is get away from my writing space. Take a walk. Go for a run. Put on my ear buds and listen to music. Brainstorm solutions. It usually works and there is a body of research that indicates such “creative pauses” can unlock the brain’s creativity. There’s the work of Edward DeBono, described here. DeBono, a physicist and author, defined it as a deliberate, self-imposed pause to consider alternative solutions to a problem.

In an article in Fast Company, Martin Lindstrom’s take on the creative pause is that boredom might unlock creative solutions, but in today’s fast-paced world, there is little time for boredom. Cameron Moll suggested one might do some productive creative thinking in the shower. Read his post here.

For me, it’s a walk or a run or just some peaceful time away from the laptop. I let my mind ponder the problem and consider all possibilities. Try it sometime.

How do you unblock yourself? What are your strategies for overcoming writer’s block?

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Should You Get Inside Your Main Character’s Head?

My critique group constantly warns me about my habit of getting deep inside my main character’s head. And it’s not just my main character. I do it with all major point-of-view (POV) characters. It’s a popular technique in fiction writing, yet it’s fraught with potential problems when not done skillfully.

Why is this a potentially bad habit? Letting the reader in on the main character’s deepest thoughts violates a sacred rule in fiction: “show don’t tell.” The reader wants to find out what makes the main character tick on her own. The reader doesn’t want the author to tell her  the main character’s darkest secrets and greatest fears. Okay, I get all that, but I’ve been schooled through the years by exceptional writers who do just that. They delve into the main character’s psyche.

In a recent post on Writer Unboxed, noted editor Victoria Mixon wrote about the need to limit this type of exposition. In the comments section, I shared my dilemma with Victoria, adding that renowned authors like Michael Chabon get deep inside the main character’s head. Victoria responded with a long and insightful comment I want to share in part with readers of this blog.

“When we focus upon writing in scenes and save our exposition for certain, special lines, that throws the exposition into high relief, so it can serve its special function of a peek behind the curtains.

“However, when we ‘tell all,’ then we must have developed an enormously smooth and solid stylistic voice with which to carry the weight of all that exposition. Then the reader falls for the voice more than the story.

Those stylistic voices take years and years and years to develop properly, and they take line-editing by a professional editor like you simply would not believe… ”

“Head-hopping POV such as you described in Chabon’s novel is actually an intensely sophisticated technique. It’s so easy to lose reader investment in our protagonist(s) or, worse, confuse the reader about who the protagonist actually is when we keep switching perspective on them.

“It’s not that you can’t learn to do what Chabon does. Obviously he learned it.

“It’s that it takes a really long time and a ton of writerly dedication in order to learn the most sophisticated techniques of this craft. And it takes a knowledgeable mentor.”

I’m indebted to Victoria for her guidance on this question, but I’m still left with a dilemma. I love to read the deep third-person POV and I love to write in that style. I’ve tried consciously to limit the deep perspective by using it sparingly within the context of a scene or narrative or as a brief reaction to a line of dialogue.

The casual reader may say, ‘Who cares?’ but to me this is a crucial issue. I have to come to grips with it in my writing. I may go back, as Victoria suggests, and deconstruct scenes from my favorite writers to see how they did it–not so I can copy them, but so I can gain a greater understanding of the technique and how it’s best used.

 What about you: do you like to head-hop? Does it concern you? What do you do about it?

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Author Spotlight: Richard Russo

Mention author Richard Russo and what comes to mind is his 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Empire Falls, later adapted into an HBO movie. Empire Falls embodies the best traits of American fiction. It is the story of a divorced, middle-aged man and his quest for contentment in a rundown, blue-collar town in  Maine. In many ways it is the story of the impact of the decline of the manufacturing sector on the people who worked in the factories of the 20th Century.

The novel chronicles the slow decline of this New England mill town and the struggles of a rich and varied cast of characters, each one scheming in some way to reclaim a sense of personal glory and redemption.

One of Russo’s strengths as a writer is an eye for dark comedy. In an interview on the website www.failbetter.com Russo rejected the idea he is a comic writer. “I’m simply reporting on the world I observe, which is frequently hilarious. Here’s the thing. Most of what we witness in life is too complex to take in whole. Because of this we unconsciously edit what we see, select what to really record and what to ignore, which is why people who look at the same thing don’t necessarily see the same thing…Comic writers don’t so much invent funny things as strip away the distractions, the impediments to laughter.”

Speaking about Empire Falls, Russo observed, “I don’t think this book presented any ‘new’ challenges as a result of its scope. Think of it, rather, as a juggling act. The number of objects that have to be kept in the air at one time, along with the variety of their shapes and weights, is what determines the degree of difficulty.”

His newest work, Elsewhere,” is a memoir published in 2012. It focuses on his family’s struggles in caring for his mother over a long period of time.

Much of Russo’s work deals with the decline of small industrial towns and the sagging fortunes of the people left behind as they cope with the loss of dignity and purpose in life. The human suffering he writes about provides a wellspring for dark humor. In an interview on http://willowspring.ewu.edu , Russo said, “I think the best humor is related in some ways to suffering. Most of the time, if you think about them in adjacent rooms, the door adjoining suffering and humor is very often wide open, but as we get closer and closer to suffering, the doorway adjoining the rooms gets smaller and smaller and smaller, because you just can’t stand it otherwise. Or you just seem to be making bad jokes, or cruel jokes, at somebody’s expense. So it has something to do with distance, too.”

In the same interview, Russo was asked what kind of truth he is striving for in his fiction. “Well, when you reduce something it always comes out sounding…reduced. But I think it’s the truth of the human heart. It’s when Miles in Empire Falls after fighting with himself throughout his life, realizes that being a father, and a good father, to Tic, and being an adult in Empire Falls, is better than being a child, because his mother wanted him to have a different life, and he’s always in some way or other, because of her sacrifices, felt that he’s failed her and failed himself, and he’s tried to escape. That moment when he realizes, after almost losing Tic, that everything he wants is right there, that’s the truth of his heart…It’s the truth of his own experience in life.

“At the end of a book, I always want to meet  at a kind of crossroads where there’s an understanding,” he said.

Russo’s novels include Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, Straight Man, Bridge of Sighs, and That Old Cape Magic. He has also published short stories and is a screenwriter and teacher.

 

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