Pitching Vs Writing

nycI think I’m recovered from my New York Pitch Conference, a week in the city trying to learn how to pitch a novel manuscript. I came back with a mission: to re-write my manuscript, incorporating all that I’d learned. Trouble was, I couldn’t face it, couldn’t even open the file. Maybe the manuscript was really no good. Was I capable of turning it inside out? Wouldn’t that ruin it? Did I have the creative spark to completely reconceptualize my hard-earned and carefully assembled story?  Maybe I should forget the whole thing. And worse than that.

irish-pubBut after a week my emotions settled down and I went through my notes from the conference.  Some of the notes were impressions I had jotted after evening events in various “happy hour” settings, shouting over the din at people only two feet away. Every bar in the city was thronged with pre-holiday celebrators and in one Irish pub we were told we had to leave in thirty minutes because the whole bar was reserved for “a function.” The workshop instructor, who apparently knew his way around, marched us all like ducklings to another place on 38th street, smaller, louder, with no place to hang your coat.

It was bar-talk, or bar-shout, unproductive, the instructor telling anecdotes about stupid students he’s had and crazy pitches he’s heard. I had hoped for something else, I don’t know what, but it was useless so I withdrew to a table where another cluster of classmates jabbered on, coats in lap.

king-tutOne was a woman from Ontario with a degree in film studies who had given a great pitch on the first day about King Tut’s girlfriend (historically accurate, apparently).  She was small and cute, with a face that reminded me of a young Nicole Kidman.  She was drinking Prosecco like a fish and she commented on how imaginative my beachball alien was. She said, “I wrote a really imaginative story too, not long ago. It’s about this guy who has a huge asshole, and gradually the asshole acquires a personality and becomes a character, and it talks and everything. So the guy develops a relationship with it and of course he ends up having sex with it.”

I almost snorted beer through my nose, but she nonchalantly sipped her bubbly and glanced around the room distractedly.

“Anatomically difficult to imagine” I remarked.

“It was kind of a surrealist piece,” she said in all seriousness.

My 3P-close narrator in FID mode echoed inside my skull, “What the hell?”

spaghetti-westernAt a loss how to proceed in that conversation, I switched my attention to a tall, thin Mexican-American guy with a grey ponytail. He had pitched a western theme set in the civil war era, that nobody could understand. He said he was giving that up and now wanted to retell the story of the birth of Jesus as a spaghetti western in the style of Tarantino.

“I’m obsessed with Tarantino,” he confided.

We brainstormed, and I knew this was why I love hanging out with writers.

I left after an hour and met my wife for dinner. We went to a “moderate” Italian place I had read about. We were told we could only have the table for 60 minutes but we went for it and each noshed a small bowl of rigatoni and squash, with a dinner salad. A hundred and fifteen dollars! With no alcohol. New York prices! I admit the food was exquisite in every respect but still. An experience worth having once, we told each other.

chatbotThat night, I scrapped my beachball alien and wrote a new pitch involving chatbots circulating on the internet. Of course they go rogue. The instructor liked it. “Do that one,” he said. “Humor doesn’t sell.”

So I had heard.

I pitched rogue chatbots to three successive editors over the next two days. On the last day, results were tallied. The instructor told me I had received a request for a “full” from a New York publisher. That’s a score. Wa-hoo!

warrior-with-antlersKing Tut’s Girlfriend received two requests. Other stories, incomprehensibly to me, also got multiple requests from the editors. These invariably involved stock superheroes and what seemed to me cliché sword and sandals adventures but what do I know? One sword-wielding hero had deer antlers growing out of his skull, so I guess that was something. Nothing for “High Plains Jesus.”

I was elated. A request for a full manuscript is essentially a promise to read it. It’s a guaranteed detour around the slush pile. On the down side, I had to write the manuscript I had pitched. I’d said it was “completed” but everyone appreciates that is a relative term in the writing business. I do have a manuscript that involves rogue chatbots but I’ll have to swap the old main character with what was a secondary, move the substory up to first position, and drop much of the thematic material and dialog.

“It’s hard to imagine the life of a chatbot on the internet,” both the editor and the instructor had advised me. “What does a chase scene look like? No abstraction. People need to see things, especially when technical material is involved.”

Right. No abstraction. A chatbot on the internet. “No problem. I can do that,” I’d said. “Two months max.”

How the game is played, I learned, is that I do NOT send the rewrite to the editor who requested it. Instead I query some very carefully selected agents with the opening message that a New York publisher is already interested in this manuscript and is the agent interested in getting on board or what? What I have is leverage, not a sale.

Okay, I can do that. No problem.

So I’ve dropped everything else for the rewrite. I’ve got six thousand words done. I’m going to need a lot of new material. It’s easier than writing from scratch because I’ve already got characters, locations, and some scenes, but it’s not much, not enough. Two months. No problem.

Show Business for Writers

20161211_173843I spent a week in New York City attending a conference on how to pitch a novel to an agent or editor. Selling fiction is the least appealing part of the writing adventure. I write because I enjoy the thrill of creative work and artistic expression, and because I imagine I can delight others with a tale. Selling a manuscript is not on the list of attractions, but it’s necessary if one hopes to find an audience. It was time, past time, to try and find a serious publisher for my work. Thus the how-to conference.

The pre-conference “homework” was explicit about describing the novel being pitched and it wasn’t easy.  What exactly is my main character’s secondary conflict? How should I describe my antagonist’s endgame? It was a difficult exercise in seeing the manuscript from the other side of the table. I did the homework, prepared my pitch and went to the Big Apple to test it. The result was a revelatory roller-coaster.

20161208_090845The meetings were held in a nondescript office building in Manhattan. Two floors were dedicated to performing arts and were thronged with people auditioning for parts or using the many practice rooms. Up front, near the elevators, a bulletin board on an easel listed the auditions for that morning. The labyrinthine hallways were lined with wooden benches, folding chairs, park benches, and plastic patio chairs pressed against thickly-painted wooden wainscoting. All that seating was filled with people, mostly young, studying scripts and scores, reading, and talking nervously.

20161210_audition-2croppedAs I navigated the corridors, a changing spectrum of music and voices came from behind closed doors – people practicing scales, singing show tunes or operatic arias. Pianos plinked and choirs harmonized. Waves of cacophony drew me deeper.

I found myself blocked by young women in leotards lying on their backs, stretching their legs in the air. I knew it was not the correct zone. Writers don’t wear ballet slippers. An older woman with short gray hair, holding a clipboard, popped out of a doorway and barked, “Zellner?”  Somebody, presumably Zellner, got up from a bench and went in.

20161210_101548I found my way to a corridor lined with what looked like writers. Most were hunched over laptops balanced on their knees. I sat and verified it was the place. Before long the door to the practice/audition room opened and three dozen writers went inside. The room was large, cold, and bare, covered with well-scuffed pale hardwood, walled on one end with floor-to-ceiling mirror, and on two sides with wood-framed windows with dirty glass overlooking 8th Avenue and 37th Streets. A black upright piano guarded the other wall. We sat in folding chairs facing a folding table.

The conference conveners called out names and assigned us to groups presumably based on our homework submissions, and we dispersed to other, similar rooms for our first meeting. In my meeting the leader introduced herself then we went “around the room” with people giving names and  describing their project. That’s what we call a novel-in-progress, a “project,” because no novel is ever “completed.” You just revise it over and over until you give up in exhaustion and that counts as “done.” For the time being.

I was in the “literary fiction” group. People in my group, I learned, were MFAs, college writing instructors, and screenwriters. Their projects focused on family infighting, questions of ethnic identity, kinship relations, and family secrets uncovered. My heart sank. These projects sounded deadly. When it was my turn, I was abashed.

“Well, my story does feature a space-alien, so I guess that makes it sci-fi.”

The room went silent, as if I had just laid a turd on the floor. The instructor stared at me.

“You have an alien?”


“Oh, dear. Are you supposed to be in this group?”

“This is where I was assigned.”

“No, no no. Let me check.”

aliensThe instructor leapt to her feet and bolted from the room. She returned in a minute told me I was supposed to be in Studio “P” for genre.  Okay. So I gathered my things. As I left, one of the students said,

“I liked that alien. The one who looks like a green beach ball?  That sounds really interesting.” She had read it on the online site where we posted the homework.

I smiled and rushed over to Studio P, thinking, I can’t believe I’ve just been kicked out of literary fiction! What does that mean?

I found the new group in progress, grabbed and unfolded a chair at the end of the semicircle, and the leader suddenly finished his introductory spiel and turned to me and said, “Okay, let’s start on this end. Let’s hear your pitch.”

I don’t have my computer started, don’t even have my notebook out of my brief case. Everyone stares at me.  I start talking.  I do know my material, but I have nothing to read from. I’m winging it.

At the end of my pitch, the leader looks at me and says,

“Humor doesn’t sell. You got anything else?”

He was only half-kidding. He was a wiseguy, though well-meaning, I eventually learned. Flustered, I babbled for a moment, then let it go. Next victim.

Other pitches didn’t go as well as mine.  One, the leader interrupted mid-sentence.

“Did you say a school for wizards?”


“Get out.”  He pointed to the door.

The student flushed with color but hung his head and didn’t leave.

“And if anybody has vampires or zombies, go with him now,” the instructor added.

“Steam punk?” one student asked.


Brutal is hardly the word for it. The writers in the room were paralyzed so the instructor let up on his tough-guy persona and started to explain why the pitches so far were no good and what it would take for a successful pitch. Nobody actually had to leave.

The interviews then continued with everybody having an equal chance to be abused and ravaged by the workshop leader. He knew the NY publishing market and purported to know what sells and what doesn’t and the exact reasons why each pitch stank.  It was educational.

20161208_111925_001As I staggered out of the audition room for the lunch break, the hallways were still lined with hopefuls waiting to be called, the air still filled with do-me-so-do’s. I had to weave around clusters of tiny girls in pink tights and white tutus herded by anxious mothers. I saw at the front there was an audition for a production of “Annie.”

Thank God I’m not in show business, I thought. Then: Wait! I am in show business! What I’m doing here has nothing to do with writing and everything to do with performance. Oh, God.

20161208_065521 To be continued…

Searching for Chris Hayes

chris-hayesI like Chris Hayes.  I like his news/talk show on MSNBC, “All In.”  I’ve  enjoyed him since he started out in a 5 am TV time slot. He’s the smartest pundit on TV.

Lately though, I’ve been unable to watch his show. Like all the other political talk programs, it has devolved to reading New York Times and Washington Post headlines at you so there’s hardly any reason to watch, despite the ubiquitous “Breaking News” banner (Chris Hayes has a new tie!). Used to be, you could count on enlightening analysis from Chris. No more.

I want Chris (and the others there at Progressive News) to succeed, but from what I’ve read, viewing numbers at MSNBC have gone off a cliff since the election, and it’s easy to see why. Many progressives and liberals have retreated from the vapid, repetitive chatter involving little more than baseless speculation.

Chris and his colleagues, and his guests and producers, have not adapted to the new political world. They’re doing the same snarky reporting as before the apocalypse. Why, look at this glaring inconsistency! Good Lord, here’s a conflict of interest! Those are not the stories, Chris.

The pundit class is practicing denial by clinging to status quo reporting. Chris, et al. cannot or will not accept that the world has changed for them, as it has for all Americans. Politics in America has become entirely theater, a language that speaks to an under-educated, emotionally-driven voting class that feels ignored or disrespected by liberal politics. They don’t watch MSNBC, so they don’t feel the sting of smug criticism that amounts to little more than self-indulgence.

Pretending there are policies and matters of fact and then speculating on what they might imply for the future is idle. There are no policies. There are no facts [= propositions with consensus truth-value in a community].  Everything is opportunism, self-aggrandizement, spin, greed, and identity politics. None of that has anything to do with critical thinking.

So I thought I’d send a message to Chris Hayes, or at least his people. I wanted to say, “Hey Chris, snap out of it!  You’re losing your audience. The world has changed.” Chris seems to think he’s still in a Kabuki performance where all the moves are known. He doesn’t realize he’s now in an impromptu theater where each move depends only on instinct and feedback.

But his bubble is impenetrable. After considerable probing, I found that it is not actually possible to communicate with Chris Hayes, at least not for me, a member of the great unwashed.  I can “join,” “like,” “follow,” “subscribe,”  “retweet,” and “reshare,” but I cannot actually communicate.

Hey Chris! Pick up! I know you’re there.

There are practical issues with two-way communication in what is essentially a one-way medium. Except for voting day, political information flows downhill. Maybe that’s why so many pundits and politicians were caught flatfooted. And that’s why shows like Chris Hayes’s may be surprised when the bottom falls out of the viewership.

What would I want to see Chris and his people doing instead? All over the world, principles of liberal democracy are bending to a resurgence of ethnic and nationalistic tribalism. It’s identity politics in full flourish. What is the present and future of governance, especially in America, in that climate? We need to look at questions at the intersection of  sociology, political science, communications, and performance art. What should government look like?

What holds no interest are the speculations of the pundit class on what appointment X or pronouncement Y might or might not mean in the future. Such predictions have zero credibility and are based on no data. And for god’s sake, quit talking about stereotypical categories: “the blacks, the whites, the women, the Hispanics, the gays.”

I’d like you to question the validity of nationalism, the meaning of ethnic, regional, economic, and vocational identity. I’d like you to revisit fundamental principles: What is government by the people?  Is it working or not? How do you persuade without reason and evidence? Actors do it. Novelists do it. Maybe the era of persuasion is over.

Does capitalism inevitably lead to oligarchy? What’s wrong with a Chinese- or Russian-style, authoritarian quasi-democracy? Is America really “exceptional” or just hubristic?  What kind of politics balances the impulses of greed and communal interest? Who do we have in the pipeline who can speak to the future? Is Bernie all we’ve got?

I realize you can’t go all egghead on a basic cable news show. And you’re a so-called reporter, not an educator. But how about some thoughtful analysis instead of pretending that all we’ve seen is a personnel change?

Personally, as an over-educated, relatively affluent progressive, I’m worried, not about a replay of the Third Reich, but about a replay of the Cultural Revolution.

Wake up over there.


Haunted House!

haunting-of-hill-houseThis short haunted house tale is celebrated as a classic of the genre, a top-seller since its publication in 1959, although I don’t normally read haunted house stories so I can’t judge that.  Nevertheless, it accomplishes the goal of presenting a haunted house by ticking all the right boxes, and with the added virtue that the “ghosts” themselves never appear onstage. In keeping with modern realism, ambiguity is built into the narrative, so you’re never sure whether the characters are haunted by real, “out-there” ghosts of the dead, or by their own, in-the-head fears, anxieties, and neuroses.  They don’t know, and either do we, the readers. Either way, the fear is palpable to the characters.

A professor of parapsychology, or some such, finds two young female volunteers to accompany him for a week of observation and study at the remote country mansion. A young man, member of the family that owns the house, also joins them. It’s a large, old, wooden Victorian mansion with many rooms, hallways, and attics, in which several people have died, including a suicide by hanging and the death of a pair of twin girls, if I recall the setup. It hardly matters, except to note that the venue has all the credentials to qualify as a haunted house.

Jackson clearly had studied the history of the Gothic genre because she rings all the bells.  The genre developed in the 1700’s with novels like “Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded. In a Series of Familiar Letters from a Beautiful Young Damsel, to her Parents,”  (How’s that for a title!), by Samuel Richardson, published in 1740 and a bestseller of its day. In The Haunting of Hill House, the professor repeatedly is found reading a copy of Pamela, and although he doesn’t say anything about it, and the story in Hill House has little to do with that of Pamela, the reference is clearly a wink from Jackson to the reader.

Likewise, Hill House has many of the standard Gothic elements found in The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, published in 1764, a romance set in an old castle. These elements include long, dark, hallways, dimly lit rooms without windows, doors and windows locked, or unlocked, open or closed, subterranean vaults and passageways, and so on.  Jackson has successfully combined these early classic Gothic elements with the psychological elements of later horror stories such as those by Bram Stoker, Mary Shelly, and Edgar Allen Poe.

Gothic fiction nearly always contains antiquated spaces, such as ruins, graveyards or haunted mansions; spaces inhabited by ghosts, specters, or monsters (mental or supernatural); buried secrets from the past, characters torn between old belief systems, usually religious, and skeptical newer ideologies, usually science; all with a generous dose of immediate and symbolic terror or horror.

In Haunting of Hill House, Eleanor, the main character, is pathologically neurotic, wracked with guilt over her mother’s death, has a complete lack of self-confidence, difficulty connecting with other people and extremely high gullibility. Contrast her with Professor Montague, man of science, and skeptic looking to document the occurrence of hauntings. He turns out to be a pretty bad scientist, but his wife, who appears late in the game, tries to back him up. That’s the main contrast: curious skepticism versus terrified vulnerability. And in keeping with modernism, the ghosts seem to be in the subconscious rather than in “the other world.”

The foursome hangs out in the old mansion for a week and various “manifestations” do occur – door slamming, wall banging, moaning and laughter in the halls, supernaturally cold spots, and so on.  Or wait, maybe those were only imagined.  One or two characters will be scared to within an inch of their lives but the other characters report they didn’t see or hear anything. So was it real or not?  That is the ambiguity we are left with. It’s an update on the traditional ghost story. These ghosts are like childhood monsters under the bed.

Though the story is well-constructed, I was at no time horrified, not even a little spooked. I found the goings-on ludicrous and found myself annoyed that the characters acted so stupidly even with a card-carrying scientist in their midst. The characters and the events of the story were not realistic enough to be believable, nor well-drawn enough to be symbolic, nor even silly enough to be funny. The whole thing just struck me as ridiculous. But again, I’m not a fan of the genre, which apparently appeals to a different reader than me.

Jackson’s writing had its moments of brilliance, especially in some pithy passages of narrative description, but overall, I was frustrated by her dependence on narrative exposition rather than dramatization. I think that’s why the book is so short. The author just declares things, like “the house was scary.”  As a reader, I’m thinking, “Well, maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. What do you mean by scary? Show me!”

Jackson shows us some doors that won’t stay closed, but how scary is that? I have one of those in my house. She relies instead on authorial authoritativeness, just declaring scariness, rather than using dramatic demonstration to invoke the necessary fearful emotions, beliefs and anxieties in the reader. The authoritative narrator is an old technique, used in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it doesn’t cut it in 20th century fiction, in my opinion. She probably used that mode of narration to be consistent with the classics.

This would be a good novel in a course on “The Gothic Novel,” but aside from its theme and genre, I wouldn’t recommend it as a “good read,” except maybe to children and young readers who are yet unstable in their beliefs about what is real and what isn’t. For most modern grown-ups, I can’t imagine that it would be scary, although I confess, I do have friends who have had nightmares after reading it. That is inexplicable to me.

Jackson, Shirley (1959). The Haunting of Hill House. New York: Penguin. (182 pp).

Car Talk

05-xbI traded in my 12-year-old Scion xB for a new car. That boxy look was all the rage back when Hummers and Elements, and other functional-looking cargo vehicles were in vogue. The Scion was a fun car to drive despite its meager 100 horsepower, got good mileage around town (30+), had great visibility for the driver, with a nice high vantage point, and it really did pack a lot of cargo space into a small volume. And it was cheap – cheap to buy ($14K in decade-old dollars) and cheap to run (regular gas, Toyota engine that lasted forever with almost no maintenance).  It was so cheap that I could afford to put 18” alloy wheels with low-profile tires on it, and it looked very fine, indeed, a strutter.

But it had downsides. One was virtually no suspension. At less than 2000 pounds, everything about the vehicle was lightweight, including the suspension, so it wasn’t long before each wrinkle in the road was apparent to the driver. The low-profile tires didn’t help that problem. I replaced the rear shocks but that brought only moderate relief. Noise was also in-your-face. It was a thin-walled, “tinny” car, designed for utility, not comfort.  Another issue was safety. Back in the ‘00s, cars didn’t surround you with airbags like they do today and the Scion had only one driver, one passenger airbag. Being the very lightweight car that it was, I never did feel it would withstand any sort of a crash. Fortunately, I never tested that, but I do know that safety has come a long way in cars since then.

desert_packrat01The decision to sell came after rats got into it and ate the carpets and the wiring. Disgusting.  These are small pack-rats that live in the desert, not big, black river rats that the word “rat” probably conjures to mind for most people. Pack-rats are actually kind of cute, but they’re still rats and not welcome.

I’d had to park the Scion out in the driveway for a few weeks and the little critters found it quickly when I was out of town. They crawl up from underneath and they bring their “treasures” into the engine compartment, treasures like cactus buds and bottle caps. They can eat and nest in cactus buds.  Lord only knows what they do with bottle caps. They also eat the vinyl coating on the engine wiring, and nibble away at the floor mats, which I guess are cotton/poly. That’s good nesting material, apparently. And of course they stink. It was a disaster.

rat-nest-enginejpgI cleaned out the nest and all the treasures distributed under the seats and throughout the cabin, no easy task. I never saw the little homeowners themselves, thank goodness. They’re nocturnal, I believe.  I got the wiring repaired. The shop said rat damage was very common and that I had gotten off lightly.  Fortunately I’d caught them before they’d done serious harm and engine still worked fine.

The carpeting was too expensive to fix so I left it gnawed around the edges, maybe a prestigious “experienced” look?  But I couldn’t get rid of the lingering smell, despite detailing, deodorants, and air fresheners. I reduced it to a manageable level, but the smell of rats is still the smell of rats and I just couldn’t enjoy the car any more. I sprinkled the floors with perfumed oils and took it to a new car lot.

The xB had a Blue Book of $7K, and the dealer offered $5K, which was okay. I knew he had to make money, and the Scion brand is defunct now, and I did not want the hassle of giving test drives to waves of teenagers in a private sale. It would be a great first car for a kid. The dealer sold it within two days, I learned.



So what did I buy?  A Chevy Sonic, a small hatchback with a snappy look and 45 cubes of space with the rear seats down.  Good mileage and exceptionally good safety ratings, it would be a great city car. I looked at electrics and hybrids but decided they don’t make much sense in the southwest. Distances are large between any two points so you have to consider driving range seriously. Just going to a movie and back is a 25-mile trip for me, and I live “in-town.” I wouldn’t get very far on electric power. Also, all our electricity out here comes from burning coal, so the environmental argument is not compelling. Add to that the large price premium on electrics and hybrids, the unknown cost of replacing the lithium batteries, the less-than-generous tax subsidies these days, and the numbers don’t add up. A small, economical gasoline engine makes most sense.

I bought the Sonic for $18K well-equipped with a “sport” package, alloy wheels, good sound system and lots of whizz-bang electronics. It’s a manual 5-speed because I enjoy feeling the engine as I drive.  It was hard to find. Online, I located only two vehicles in the whole state with manual transmission and the trim level I wanted. Apparently, nobody drives a stick anymore. I learned that some dealers keep just one on the lot so they can advertise the lowest possible price for that model, but they don’t expect to sell it.  Actually, my dealer first said he didn’t have one, but I had studied his inventory online and I knew he did so after some walking up and down the aisles in the acres of new vehicles in the back, we found it. I did drive an automatic but one spin around the block on the 5-speed and I was sold. I drove it home that afternoon.

After a few weeks driving, I’ve learned a lot about how new cars are being optimized for fuel economy. At my first gas fill-up I recorded 24 mpg, only 1 mpg below the sticker rating for city driving, not bad. After my second fill-up, I calculated 35 mpg, in the same town, over the same routes, nothing different. Why the huge jump in fuel economy?  It was because I had learned how to drive the thing.

At first I had pushed each gear way up past 3500 rpm, the way the Scion had liked it. That was a high-revving car.  But the sonic was not built that way. I was wasting fuel.  By watching the calculation of instantaneous mpg in each gear, I could see that this car wanted to run at 2000, and in order to do that, I had to up-shift rather quickly. First gear was a very short run, hardly more than enough to overcome the inertia of rest, and second quickly got me to city speed then I needed to coast. I needed to spend hardly any time at all in the lower gears. My goal was to get to fifth as quickly as possible.

mpg-readoutThat’s the idea, anyway. In practice, it’s not a reasonable way to drive. In fifth gear I might be hitting 44 mpg according to the read-out, but I have no reserve acceleration. In city driving, you need to be ready to make moves. You can’t coast through town. So I run it in fourth, or even third because I see a hill up ahead or a city bus I’ll have to go around, and my mpg is sub-optimal because I’m driving in too low a gear.

The automatics use a computer-controlled transmission which is always in the right gear to optimize mpg, and that means it also shifts up to fifth as quickly as possible. The problem is, when you press the accelerator, it has to either down-shift quickly or else lug fifth.  My dissatisfaction driving the automatic was that it was sluggish. The automatic and its computer usually chose to lug the gear it was in unless you really stepped on it, then it would down-shift. The result was a sluggish, unresponsive ride. I had noticed the same in all the cars I drove, including the Honda Fit and the Mazda 3. It’s an acceptable performance, but there’s no joy in it.

Granted, a cheap mass-market city car is not supposed to be a sport vehicle, despite the name of the trim package, but why would I buy a car that was no fun to drive?  That’s why I went to the manual transmission. But it turns out I’m not as smart as the computer that controls the automatic transmissions and so my mpg was below average. Except unlike that smarty-pants computer, I can learn, which I did.

So now I drive by running each gear quickly to near its inertial max, judged by engine noise and rpms, and keep moving up to the highest gear that lets me coast, but with a reserve acceleration. The secret is to always be anticipating what you’re going to need. I’ve started paying a lot more attention to geography, for example. If I see a high ridge ahead, I can gear down for the climb but when I reach the top, I put it immediately into fourth or even fifth, so I can coast down the other side. Likewise, I watch the traffic ahead, anticipating whether I can continue to roll forward in a relatively passive high gear, or whether I’m going to need a little oomph.  By anticipating my acceleration needs, I can spend most of my trip essentially coasting passively.  The Sonic is very well-balanced and coasts nicely. That’s how I added 11 mpg to my fuel economy, just by being conscious of my gears.

Am I as smart as a car computer? I ‘ve learned to optimize each gear like the computer would, but in addition, I can look ahead and evaluate what’s coming and prepare for it, something no computer can do at present. So my mpg results are actually better than the car’s sticker rating. Take that, automation!

I don’t drive fast or aggressively. I don’t race off the line at a green light or weave through traffic. I don’t even speed (much). A calmer style of driving definitely pays for itself. I do recall with nostalgia the days of youth when cars had big engines and you really did have to work that gearbox to make them go, and the engine feedback was rewarding.  I don’t know why manufacturers don’t include sonic feedback to the cabin on low-end cars like the Sonic. It wouldn’t cost much and I could imagine I was driving a Ferrari. Maybe that’s the reason.

future-car-1It won’t be long, possibly in my lifetime, before the whole idea of an individually piloted motor vehicle will seem absurd. The idea that millions of hairless monkeys are each qualified to safely guide several tons of glass and steel at high speed, separated from each other only by paint on the roadways, is ridiculous. Future generations will look back on this era and say, “Really?”  But for now, the age of cars and petroleum is just beginning to come to a close and while it persists, this monkey wants to enjoy piloting his death-trap along the road.

From Genre to Literary Reading

x-ray-readingThis is a great book to help someone who wants to upgrade their reading fare from genre to literary fiction. It teaches you how to pay attention to meta-textual details such as themes, symbols, voice, diction, and story structure. Attention to such details will surely enhance anyone’s reading enjoyment.

Separate chapters point out such subtleties in novels as varied as The Great Gatsby, Lolita, Madam Bovary, King Lear, Moby Dick, and many others, a total of more than 25 works in fact, as some chapters shoehorn two titles into consideration. In each case the author quotes passages from the work then comments on features an “x-ray” reader might notice.

At the end of each short chapter are a set of writing lessons – summary conclusions you should draw for x-ray reading, and sometimes writing prompts: exercises that will help you see how to use the lessons learned to improve your own writing. These are all helpful.

On the downside, the author’s “analyses” often amount to little more than extremely obvious generalizations and sometimes not even that: he simply paraphrases what the quoted passage just said.

For example, in discussing The Great Gatsby, Clark points out that sometimes objects have deeper meanings. Who knew? The ferryboat across Long Island sound might connote Charon and his ferry across the River Styx, for example. Of Shakespeare’s line, “The Queen, my lord, is dead,” he notes that it could have been, “The Queen is dead, my lord,” or “My lord, the Queen is dead.”  Well, yes.  Lolita, he says, “…feels more like it was written by a child who grew up with eight crayons and had just been given a box of sixty-four.”

I found Clark’s lessons and homilies not-very-informative, but a naïve reader or a beginning writer might find them helpful. Comparing Nabokov’s writing to a child with a plethora of colors is not a bad way to describe that author’s spectacular diction, just in case, for some improbable reason, you didn’t notice it on your own. And for the books I haven’t read, Clark’s excerpts were useful in conveying the tone and style of the work. So overall, I enjoyed this book and finished it in just a few hours of light reading. I’m skeptical however that I have acquired any new skill called “x-ray reading” that will improve my writing.

Clark, Roy Peter (2016). The Art of X-ray Reading: How the secrets of 25 great works of literature will improve your writing.  New York: Little, Brown. 326 pp.

Elements of Fiction: A Quadrangle

quadranngle-yardI just finished re-reading Art &Lies by Jeanette Winterson and was again elevated by her lyrical language, though unlike my first awe-struck read, about four years ago, this time I noted more over-writing and self-indulgent wordplay – not that I could ever do any better with the language than she.

I realized this time however that the book is only marginally a “novel.” It has a very loose story, actually four of them, as the main characters move through time, interacting only tangentially and unknowingly. There is an overall theme, stated by the title, but no real throughline, no real plot. It’s a set of prose poems, or a set of literary essays on sexuality, gender relations, art, religion, and society. Still, I thought it was a successful book, whatever it’s called.

So what are the essential elements of a successful book-length work of fiction?  I came up with a quadrangle of essential elements and sketched them in my notebook as a square, but a four-point list conveys the same:

  1. Plot. Good fiction has a clear story structure with beginning, middle and end.
  2. Character. Good fiction has unique, interesting, relatable characters.
  3. Language. The best stories use language interestingly or at best, thrillingly.
  4. Theme. A memorable story has a point, a moral, a self-transcendent theme.

Among these, plot is easily sacrificed, maybe not entirely, but in large part, as it was in Winterson’s Art & Lies. Often, in literary fiction, the plot is very sketchy, almost pure contrivance, just enough to make the story stand upright. Other examples include The Sun Also Rises and The Sheltering Sky.

Conversely, very strong and obvious story structure, a plot dwarfing the other three elements, is easy to come by, the definition of bad genre fiction. There is a range of quality of course, as with everything. A book like Dracula is plot-driven yet still, there are interesting characters.

Character is difficult to dispense with, though bad genre fiction manages to minimize character for the sake of plot.  Many extremely popular thrillers take this tack and millions of readers don’t seem to mind if the characters are hollow puppets, merely cartoon cutouts. Indeed, many of the most popular movie characters these days are literally cartoons and somehow they command large audiences.

At the other extreme, a very “character-driven” story is one in which the main character’s development or “arc” as we like to say,  is the dominating feature, even at the expense of plot. The character is so compelling that we don’t really care much how the nominal story line goes. Much so-called literary fiction is defined in that way. Examples that come to mind are Rabbit Run, Under the Volcano, Mrs. Dalloway, The Road, Dubliners, Reservation Blues, Remains of the Day.   Most of those stories have a nominal plot but the focus is on how the characters live, suffer, and triumph. We don’t really care much about who captures the brass ring.

fiction-quadThe most successful fictional stories combine strong characters with strong plot. The classic example is Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. In such cases, plot is character, as they say. The events of the story are driven by the character’s intentionality, and in turn, the character’s reactions are provoked by story events in equal measure. Other examples include The Third Man, Olive Kitteridge, Winter’s Bone, Sanctuary.

The third corner of the square is language. When language is dominant at the expense of the other three elements, the story is written with such lyrical, unique, uplifting or engaging language and imagery that we barely take notice of the plot and we connect to the characters only enough to keep the language flowing. Art & Lies is one of these. Lolita is another (although some people find that thematic material compelling – I didn’t). Other examples of language and image -driven fiction include As I Lay Dying, The Sellout, The Lover, Skinny Legs and All, Coming Through Slaughter, Gould’s Book of Fish, Hard-Boiled Wonderland.

Language-only-driven fiction is the most difficult to justify, in my view. Why not just read poetry if elevated diction is what you’re interested in?  The very best novel will have good writing, of course, but it is possible to overinflate the language corner of the quadrangle while diminishing the other three angles.

Theme is routinely dispensed with in genre writing, or else the thematic elements are extremely broad and obvious, fairy tales with “a moral” rather than with an implicit proposition that makes a comment on the nature of human life. The best novels make strong, though usually implicit, thematic statements. Examples include Beloved, Barbarians, Ceremony, Woman in the Dunes, Geek Love, Slaughterhouse Five.

Sometimes the theme is heavy-handed but still largely effective, such as in Orlando, Disgrace, Wittgenstein’s Mistress, Animal Farm, No Exit. Sometimes it is exceptionally subtle, such as in One Hundred Brothers, Let the Great World Spin, The Third Policeman, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Housekeeping. Unfortunately, thematic material is the most difficult for most readers to discern and assess and that keeps them away from most literary fiction, which tends to be thematically laden.

If a story does not have much of a theme, or if the theme is slap-in-the-face obvious, usually it’s genre writing.  Genre novels are all about plot, and any thematic message usually takes simple-minded form, such as “good triumphs over evil.” Novels that have no theme at all end up seeming pointless, as genre writing often does. A recent popular example would be The Martian.

I don’t know if I’ve ever read a novel that rang all four bells loudly. I don’t know why that is. Maybe it’s impossible to write. The very best ones, and the kind I would like to write, hit three out of four, but even two out of four can be successful, and rarely, just one out of four. Art & Lies is successful thought it has almost nothing going for it except language. Lolita has brilliant language and a very weak story line. The thematic line is so heavy-handed, it’s best to ignore.

However, I think some combinations work better than others.  Strong plot and character (no language and theme) works. Plot and theme only (weak character and language) is less satisfying. Examples include Middlesex, Blindness, The Collector.

I used to start with plot when I began a new project. I am still plot-biased, but now I focus much more strongly on character, and lately, also on theme. I’ve given up on ever being able to write lyrically. I think I was poisoned by a lifetime of writing academic nonfiction and even after many courses and books in how to write poetry, I don’t believe I’ll ever have the patience to write poetically, even though I admire it when I read.

We can do what we can do and no more.

Strictly For Lovers of the Naive and Sentimental

a-delicate-truthI was a fan of le Carré for decades. I read every one of his novels, from “Call for the Dead” to “A Small Town in Germany” and on forward.  He was my favorite author and I’d often buy the full-price hardback when a new novel came out, rather than wait for the paperback.

Then about ten years ago I started reading literary fiction: Woolf, Faulkner, Coetzee, Ondaatje, Rushdie, Murakama, Flanagan, and more.  It was a new world. But I eventually became uneasy with the growing postmodern bent, “novels” with story but no plot, language but no characters, themes but no action and without discernible link back to Aristotle’s Poetics. Can’t anybody just tell a straightforward story anymore, I wondered?

In frustration, I picked up Le Carré’s latest, “A Delicate Truth.”  There was an author who knew how to tell a story with panache, I thought. I recalled fondly my enjoyment of such masterpieces as “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” “Tinker Tailor…,” and favorites such as “A Perfect Spy” and “The Night Manager.”

I was appalled at how bad it was.  Granted, “A Delicate Truth” was vintage le Carré in style. The snappy Etonian English dialogs were there, the effusive insincere bonhomie the English are so good at, the moral ambiguities, the charming linguistic British-isms. But the writing was so clunky, I wondered how I could have ever enjoyed this author’s work.  Characters were poorly motivated and behaved in not-believable ways for inexplicable reasons. Editing was heavy-handed, with arbitrary  time cuts, flashbacks and reminiscences designed for no reason other than to create artificial suspense by crudely withholding information from the reader – a substitute for genuine literary tension.

Thematically, the novel was same-old, same-old, which you must allow in a le Carré novel. Big, bureaucratic government: bad, individual idealist: good.  Resolution: moral ambiguity. Formulaic, yes, but I was ready to allow that in a genre novel.

A black ops anti-terror operation goes south (as they always do in such novels), with collateral damage of two innocent civilians, followed by a coverup (though the operation was covert, so coverup was built into it). The archetypal young, smart, idealistic whistleblower sniffs, then untangles the sorry tale, ascertains where the blame lies, and threatens to “go public” with the whole story, for reasons that are never made clear. Shadowy high government officials issue veiled threats against him and he gets beat up, but in the end… well in the end, nothing happens, which is okay as long as the journey has been a good ride.

However, it was impossible to get worked up about what was at stake. When military drones these days routinely wipe out households, wedding processions and whole road convoys, dozens if not hundreds of civilians are killed, and millions of innocents are displaced, it’s difficult to feel the villainy in this novel’s plot. If the book had come out in the 1980’s maybe it would seem different. Today, you’d have to be extremely naïve to think that covert anti-terror ops are not routine and that they don’t involve collateral damage.

So what is the point of this novel? It has no thought-provoking themes, characters are without believable motivation, the plot is predictable, the language mundane, editing heavy-handed, with low dramatic tension and a weak ending.  I think the only reasonable conclusion is that I have been ruined by reading literary fiction and I will never be able to go back to genre, not even to a sentimental favorite like Le Carre. Reader beware.

Le Carré, John (2014). A Delicate Truth. New York: Penguin books. 310 pp.

Grinding Out Words

grinder-2I am grinding out sentences on my ninth novel as if it were school homework. I’ve been working on Chapter Six since the middle of September, six weeks, and I estimate I have another two weeks to go on it. My previous novels were drafted at warp speed, often a thousand words a day, for weeks on end. Those days are gone.

I dread “going to work” in the morning, just as I did when I was a mid-level manager in a large corporation. I drink the coffee, grit my teeth, lower my head, and do the job, one molecule at a time. Any distraction is welcome. Why has the joy gone out of this project?

One excuse is interruption to the flow. I’ve been virtually commuting between Tucson and Los Angeles all summer to deal with family matters. I can’t write “on the road.” Some people can – ten minutes here, fifteen minutes there.  Not me. I carry my laptop but I don’t open it. I can hardly think at all during these dizzying and stressful trips.  And during the inter-trip calm, like this one, I struggle to rediscover the groove, if there ever was one.

Another reason for the feeling of slog might be the nature of this project, which is my first novel set in a historical period, around 1900 in America.  That means plenty of interruptions for research as I go repeatedly into “dirigible mode,” a research diversion where one thing leads to another and you come out in an unexpected place.  It was named by a friend: “You go online to look up a simple reference and two hours later you’re an expert on dirigibles.” I enjoy dirigible mode but it doesn’t add sentences to the novel. It’s unproductive.

And the truth is, another factor may be mild depression.  I have not been able to get an agent interested in either of my previous two novels.  Whine, whine.  I understand the probabilities. By chance, you have to hit the right person at the moment when he or she happens to be buying what you’re selling, and is in a receptive mood.  After the obvious parameters have been applied, making that match is a a numbers game. My query letters are good, my projects are complete, my writing is competent, my concepts are original, my pitches are focused.

But apparently, what I have to offer is not obviously marketable right now and there’s not much I can do about that. That’s the depressing part.  Every rejection is a poison dart, of course, but worse is the absence of rejection, silence. There’s nothing more defeating than giving your best shot and being ignored.  Alas, it is a common complaint of the unpublished writer, and one simply soldiers on, but that doesn’t make it fun.  On the plus side, I did recently  win a national story contest, had a nonfiction paper accepted for a conference, and I did manage to sell another story to an online magazine. One takes small victories where they lie.

Excuses aside, what is the real problem with the current novel? This is not a case of writer’s block, a disease I have never suffered. I bubble with ideas. I have a structurally sound, multiple-page outline of the whole project with crunch-points and turning tables well annotated. I also have thirteen thousand words I am happy with.  So the fact of the matter is, I am getting it done and the output is good. The trouble is, I am not having fun. Maybe that’s okay. As writer Dorothy Parker famously said, “I hate writing. I love having written.”

I think the basic problem is that I am moving into new territory which requires me to change my expectations and attitudes and that is not easy and not fun. For anyone, ever. I am stretching and it hurts. This is my first entirely character-driven project. The other novels have featured strong characters and voices, but they were fundamentally driven by the plot line. This one isn’t. It’s supposed to be an examination of the human condition through the medium of the characters, no more, no less.

It took me several years to kick the habit of writing plots that were little more than pure kinetic action with characters surfing atop  the waves. Those were fun but I wanted to more, so I migrated deeper into character motivation and emotion and cut way back on the gunfights and car chases. The results were good, though tended toward didactic talking heads, which was less than good but still not bad.

In this project, I have  turned my back on physical bias and thrown all pretense of “message” over the side. This is all about my people, the characters. It took me over half a million words to get that other stuff out of my system. With this project, I’m trying to go straight, clean and sober.

And maybe that’s why I’m not having as much fun. I’m suffering withdrawal.

pipe-organIt’s really difficult to design each scene’s purpose and subtle movements without the cheap thrill of a wide-screen, technicolor, kinetic vision of what’s supposed to be.  I’m working an old-time pipe organ in a cavernous church, pulling and pushing stops, adjusting registers, listening to the sound, but confined to the console in front of me.  Everything must be manufactured anew as I call for each new pitch and timbre.  And I’m molting as I do it.

I think I’ll have to throw in the odd action scene at some point. Not a big cartoony one. There certainly will be no drugs, guns, or counterfeit money, alas. But I could have a car crash or a heart attack. Some sex at least.  As for the theme, I hope that seeps from the pores. I do have a logline. I always write that as part of the outline. Whether or not it will show through is something to be determined after the final curtain.

So I will continue the slog, trying to finish Chapter Six before my next trip on Tuesday. All I’m trying to accomplish is to get MC hooked up with his romantic interest. It’s not that big a deal. But there are so many constraints on how he can do it. He’s embedded in a context, in a life, in a community. It can’t be just a pickup at a bar. It has to be organic. I know what I need to do, but not exactly how to accomplish it.

naked-bird-2I am sorely tempted to take a break from this project and start another I have in mind involving a televangelist committing financial fraud. But that would be falling off the wagon, wouldn’t it? I will try to stay the course until all my feathers have fallen out.


Being Your Resume

orphan-masters-son-with-pulitzer-burstThe Orphan Master’s Son is a grim book with a high gross-out factor, so if you don’t tolerate torture and gore well, it wouldn’t be for you. But if you enjoy the creativity of trying to depict sheer horror, it’s great.

The story is set in North Korea and describes, with considerable exaggeration, the lives of deprived citizens, brainwashed and near-starvation, and also life among the secret police in their dungeons, and also life at the top of the political elite with their wealth and privilege.

Though well-researched, the novel is fiction, a work of literary art, a fable, a self-expression, a satire, a morality tale, a fairy story.  It is not a travelogue and not a political essay.  It seems necessary to say that, since nearly all reviews treat it as a travel essay and judge it by its degree of adherence to realism.

Questioning the nature of realism is the point of the novel. What is real and what is social fiction?  State-created fiction especially affects the lives of its citizens even in America, with its “American Dream.” Any child can grow up to be president, right? If you work hard and honestly, you will enjoy success.  All men are created equal, democracy allows people to express their political will, the free-market insures fair play, religion has no role in government, nobody is above the law, the guiding principle of America is freedom, America only goes to war as a last resort and in self-defense, the news and entertainment media are independent and free…

Why would mythmaking be any different in North Korea, where you have the additional advantage of loudspeakers in every public place and every apartment constantly spewing  government propaganda, where all information media are state-controlled, where borders are closed and the economy is centrally managed? North Korea is the perfect setting to ask the question, of any culture, what is real and what is mass delusion? And the corollary: without that delusion, who would I be?

The first third of the book is narrated in third-person-close, close to the main character Jun Do, an orphan (he discovers later) helping his “father” run an orphanage in a small, desperate village. Eventually, to save face in an embarrassing international incident, he is acclaimed a hero and sent to English school and summoned to Pyongyang for glorification. He knows he’s no hero, but wait, maybe he is. If everyone says you’re a hero, why would you not be?

The “legend” defines the person. That fact is made in a grotesquely and darkly comic way in this novel, but isn’t it also the truth around the world? If you’re a rich CEO and everyone defers to you, you are smart, virtuous, exceptional, and chosen. The proof is that you’re a rich CEO. Myth is reality. Johnson uses the crude instrument of North Korean propaganda to make that point with a broad brush.

The second two-thirds of the tale is told by three narrators taking turns, which conveys the confusing fragmentation of multiple social roles, and of North Korean society. The main, third-person narrator is now close to Commander Ga, right hand man to the Dear Leader, but in a series of flashbacks we understand he is an imposter. Actually he is Jun Do, who was sent to a death camp, where he stole the identity of the real Commander Ga and escaped. But even though he looks nothing like Commander Ga, his story is that he is Commander Ga, and who is to say otherwise? The story is the man.

A second narrator, first-person, is an interrogator and torturer with the secret police. He seems to have the real Commander Ga in captivity.  The story is the man, but they don’t have the prisoner’s story and that’s the trouble. What use is a person without his story?  They need to torture the story out of him.

The third narrator is the state propaganda voice on the loudspeakers, which operates like a Greek chorus in the ancient plays, commenting on the story-in-progress, elucidating its meanings and values. The loudspeakers’ story creates distance on the ongoing story of the “fake” Commander Ga and his actress wife as they plot their defection. It is a creepy and weirdly disorienting voice that reminds me of the mood in Don DeLillo’s White Noise.

Unfortunately, the story devolves into a confusing sentimentality that belies the tensions so carefully established. Only Kim Jong Il and the voice of the loudspeakers stay in character. All the others rip off their masks and say to the reader, “Ha-ha, fooled you!”

So the novel does not remain true to itself as satire, or as a political indictment, or as a traditional morality tale, and despite some superficially dramatic scenes, the ending falls flat. But taken as a whole, the journey is an extremely well-crafted, artistic exploration of multiple questions about life as an individual in a state-controlled society (as we all are). Well-worthy of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize.

Johnson, Adam (2012). The Orphan Master’s Son. New York: Random House 443 pp.