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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Best Book Titles?

I have been playing around with a newly "completed" manuscript, tinkering really. Actually, I'm not doing much of anything. An editor that I greatly respect has just finished combing it for...issues. She's been doing all the work. At the top of that manuscript is a title, and right below it, a second title, an alternate. The first is more poetic than the other, you might say, but the second is more succinct and clear.

"Which one do you like?" I asked. She chose the first over the second because the subtitle included words she believed were essential to the meaning of the manuscript. The second, she thought, included a word that was probably overused. Several others have read the manuscript and they made the same conclusion. So, was it a visceral response? Was it sheer math? (Too many other books with the same title or combination of words—think: The Girl With the...) Or was it something else, something that's hard to get one's head or heart around? Mysterious? Challenging? Compelling? What is it that makes a great title?



Great books are memorable in their entirety; they're great stories. But many times, books stand out simply because of the title. And there are the few that are great literature and possess wonderful, unforgettable names.

To Kill a Mockingbird

What a fantastic title! Now, put that up against another great piece of literature.

War and Peace

Frankly, too general. I can't imagine a publisher today agreeing with Tolstoy on that one.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance 

Marvelous!

A Confederacy of Dunes

Perfect. 

Everything I Never Told You

How could you not pick up Celeste Ng's book and not read at least the first page?

It reminds me of another intriguing one.

 
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

You also have the absurdly silly or provocative. The novelty acts.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

John Dies at the End

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs

Steal This Book 




And the titles lifted from other works of literature.

Of Mice and Men—Steinbeck snatched the phrase from the Robert Burns poem, "The Mouse."

As I Lay Dying—Faulkner took it from Homer's The Odyssey.

A Farewell to Arms—Hemingway lifted this title from a poem by the Elizabethan writer, George Peele.

The worst titles? Far too many to mention. But try these on for size.

I Heart You, You Haunt Me

Really?

How to Poo at Work

Yep, a real book. 

Your favorite titles? Or maybe the worst you've ever seen? Let's hear them.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

I Hate My Writing

I'm at a five-way intersection. It's midnight. My headlights are not working. There are no street lights. A few street signs point to destinations but the signs are old or have been mangled by minor accidents of the past, they are twisted and no longer point to their designated endpoint. I  know where I'm going, or should I say I know where I want to be, where I want to end up, but the road there is unclear. So, here I sit, inside my vehicle with no map, no wifi, no cell service, mildly paralyzed.


This is exactly how I feel about where I am with my writing. I have two unpublished manuscripts that have been read by several reviewers, being read by several more, edited several times, tweaked and re-tweaked, and are making the rounds of publishers who accept unsolicited works. I feel good about them. I have a third in its infancy. More like the embryo stage. It's memoir, unconventional, and at this point in the process is little more than journals full of notes and computer files of documents. So, the work awaits.

And in the meantime, I hate my writing.


I've recently conducted readings from my published books and I despise what I'm hearing. Those in attendance appear to be pleased enough, but I hate my words. I want to rework everything, change the sentences, rewrite the paragraphs, redo it all.

Why is this?

A few other writers say they have experienced some form of this self-hate, this self-loathing. Is it the final self-realization that you truly are a crappy writer? I've been told it's just a matter of growth. You have grown as a writer and your earlier books don't stand up to what you expect from yourself now. That sounds like a pretty good excuse, doesn't it? Oh, I'm just better now. That's why those books suck! This appears far too convenient of an explanation.

I sulk. I pout. I wallow in frustration. Do I keep writing? Do I keep querying with new work? Do I give it all up completely and toss those earlier books in the trash? My publishers liked them enough, right? Do they still like them? One publisher told me this aversion to your own words is not so unusual. Every writer, at some moment in time, rejects their own writing. Not uncommon for all kinds of artists, he said. His cure? Go read a successful book that is poorly written. There are plenty of them, he insisted.

Kurt Vonnegut was said to have graded his published works, giving Happy Birthday Wanda June and Slapstick Ds. The critics didn't like these much either. And Franz Kafka famously asked a good friend to destroy all of his works after his death. Of course, the friend did not. So, knowing even the greats hated their words is supposed to bring comfort?

Sometimes I feel like I'm practicing and not really writing. So I remain at that dark intersection. My car stalled; my headlights still not working. Not sure where to turn next or how long I'll sit here. Not sure where my writing story is going. I wait for a sign, a flicker of light, the dawn, something to show me and this old jalopy the way to go.

Maybe I should just take the bus. 


Thursday, September 21, 2017

What Makes Great Literature?

I have worked in broadcasting for 40 years in different cities, in varied genres, and I think I know what makes great radio. It's relevant, pertinent, compelling, authentic content. It can be delivered and presented in many ways, but the test is how it resonates with the listener—is it worthwhile and memorable. This I know. 

But what about literature? What makes great literature?


I remember a New York Times article that tried to answer that question. It listed several aspects that contribute to a great book: It's a good read; It's quotable; It's memorable; It touches people. Those seem rather pedestrian to me.

In a recent interview, literary rock star Karl Ove Knausgaard said good books had as the main attribute an element of "resistance." Bad books, he said, one could "glide through like a knife through butter." That cliche surely wouldn't show up in a "good" book. But, nonetheless. He suggested that literary rebellion is superior to familiarity. That may be part of it. But is it that simple?



How about these attributes: The high quality of language; The complexity of theme; The element of universality; It's re-readable. Pretty good. But the truth is, great literature is hard to define. 

If this is true, then how are the big literary awards chosen?  Why does a book get a Pulitzer, a Man Booker? How is a Nobel chosen? What are the criteria?

A blog post a few years ago by author and academic Anne Trubek was critical of the awards. She asked why are the elements of what makes a great piece of literature not clearly explained? Trubek recalled a conversation with a board member of the National Book Critics Circle about the organization's annual fiction award and why a certain work was not chosen. 

The reason? 

Characters. 

The characters, at least one, must be highly memorable. In this particular book, they were not. This may be the ultimate criterion. Fiction, memoir, creative nonfiction—it doesn't matter. Characters are key. Are they unforgettable? Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Dean Moriarty in On the Road. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Charlotte in Charlotte's Web. Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking.


It might be silly to think that one element of a book holds such weight. But when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, characters are the ultimate test of what makes great literature.


Monday, September 11, 2017

The Power of the First Sentence

I've been thinking a good deal about the first sentence. It's the one writers belabor. It's the starting block, the firing of the starter's gun, the beginning of everything. Sometimes it's perfect at first blush. Sometimes it's tweaked once, twice, a million times. It carries weight, but maybe more than it should. Still, it is the first ingredient of our story's recipe and it must be...just...right.  



Author Joyce Carol Oates thought a great deal about first sentences. "The first sentence can't be written until the final sentence is written," she said. That may or may not be true, but knowing where you're going after writing that first line is critical.

What are your favorite first sentences? Share in the comments below. 

Here are some of the famous ones...

"Call me Ishmael." — Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

"Maman (Mother) died today." —Albert Camus, The Stranger.

"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days without taking a fish." — Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea.

"Last night at 3:00am President Kennedy had been killed." — Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke.

"For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can." — Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book I

"The sun shone, having no alternative." — Samuel Beckett, Murphy.

"We were somewhere on the edge of the desert when the drugs started to take hold." — Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. 

It can also be for song lyrics.

"So, we already wrecked the rental car." — First line from The Decemberists, "Mistral." 

And the most famous...

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair." — Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities. 


"First sentences are doors to worlds." — Ursula K. Le Guin


My recently published memoir, October Song, starts like this: "It was late in the fading light of the first day of the long trip, somewhere on the Tri-State Expressway about forty miles southwest of Chicago."

I'm working on a manuscript about the nature of home. A few tweaks remain. But I think I'm staying with the first sentence. 

"My boyhood home was on a hill, a Cape Cod in Western Pennsylvania near a forest of wild cherry and locust trees." — David W. Berner, The Consequence of Stars

And what about you? Other writers? I asked. 

"Anastasis Manoulakis loved cats." — Phillip Duke, The Village. 

"Dawn crept in like a ninja in feety pajamas." — Dave Kurman, Pavlov's Dog

"Crap—she's up, the living room lights are on at 2:30 a.m." — Helen Donovan, You Never Know.

"For the record, I am completely against having ice picks shoved into my eyes in order to scramble my brain." — Sue Rovens, In a Corner Darkly: Volume 2

"You see her posters on telephone poles all over town." — Alvarado O'Brien, The Missing Girl.

"Dan smiles at my wife again." — Nigel Cooper, The Pursuit of Ordinary.

"I was getting used to being ignored." — Bruce Wilkerson, A Glance at My Other. 

"Lightning slashed across the storm-swept sky." — Ashley Ledigo, Emajen (Children's literature)

"I don't quite know how to put this." — Stuart Walton, Give Us This Day.

"My Australian girlfriend took a luscious lick of her ice-cream and said, 'Why is that man wearing gloves on the hottest day of the year?' — Peter Bartram, Murder in the Morning Edition.

"Tuck fought the growing urge to vomit." — Danielle E. Shipley, The Legend of Allyn-a-Dale.

"There's a graveyard visible from his window, and it grows a little bigger every day." — Steve Conoboy, A Graveyard Visible.

"On the second Monday of September, Judy Talton put on the new jeans she'd run through three washing cycles and the fatigue jacket she'd found at the Salvation Army resale shop, went to the Student Union and, for the first time, took a seat on the Freak side of the Tune Room." — Rita Dragonette, The Fourteenth of September.

"I'm not psychic." — Steve Bellinger, Edge of Perception.

"I refuse to let my story end with an arranged marriage." — Kim Schultz, Three Days in Damascus.

"He was running as fast as he could through the clearing towards the woods." — Greg Kopp, The Journey of Delphos: Kopp Chronicles. 

"I have come to learn that you mortals like to blame animals for your worst indiscretions as if human reason is the bridesmaid of infallibility." — David Wozniak, An Obliquity.

"Pulliam folded back the sheet and set his bare feet on the hardwood floor." — Floyd Sullivan, Called Out.

"Moods are the weather of the soul." — James Hartley, Cold Fire, Shakespeare's Moon Act II.

"The night sighed and Bethany felt the chilled touch of her dead mother's hands on her shoulders." — Dave Rank, A Godawful Thing.

"Pardesh, look: it's a Humphrey Bogart." — Bull Garlington, The African Queens.

"Mike and I were standing in front of the Music Box Theater on Southport Street in Chicago, looking at posters of the Dirty Dozen." — Roger Prosise, Housing Projects, Mansions, and Schools: An Educator's Odyssey. 

"My Da's uniform hangs in the closet, squeezed in between scratchy wool coats and my Ma's ratty fur,  but my Da went straight to the hospital after the Great War, and never came home." — Bibi Belford, Crossing the Line

Don't you love these? Do you have favorites not mentioned here? Bring them on. 





Friday, August 25, 2017

Writing as Watercolor

I know why I like Karl Ove Knausgaard.

It's not necessarily his incredible sensitivity to the world around him and his gift for finding the meaning in the mundane as evidenced in his Proust-like opus, My Struggle. It's not his celebrity, although fame comes to him reluctantly. It's not his disheveled yet so very cool writing studio, strewn with coffee mugs, ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts, the layers of books, a drum set, a guitar leaning on hard copies of his auto-fiction sensation. And it's not his hair, although he has great hair.

(Photo: WSJ. Link: WSJ Magazine)

I like Karl Ove Knausgaard because he is an artist of full heart, clear insight, and he may be the most like American writer Jack Kerouac in his approach to the craft that one has seen since Kerouac himself. Different, yes. But the same.

Knausgaard's writing—at least that found in My Struggle—has been largely linked to Marcel Proust and the masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past, a novel in seven volumes. Yes, a novel. Fiction. But so much has been said and written about its auto-fiction approach—autobiography told as fiction. The same approach employed by Knausgaard in My Struggle. This literary connection has merit. But in a recent NPR interview aired on the eve of the publication of Knausgaard's new work—Autumn and its subsequent three volumes entitled Winter, Spring, and Summer—the Norwegian writer likened his writing to that of a watercolorist, maybe in the spirit of Kerouac and less like Proust?


To understand this, you must understand how an artist works in watercolor. In an interview on the website The Artist's Road, painter Gerald Fitzer was asked why he creates in watercolors.

"...it is the immediacy of the medium and the way the pigment responds on your paper to your personal emotional response to your subject. It is as direct of a medium as can be, there can't be any hesitancy while you are painting. You have to decide where you will place each brushstroke of color and then let it do its magic."

Knausgaard's new volumes were not edited. In that same NPR broadcast, he insisted this was on purpose. He wrote his words and let them be, certain that he carefully chose the right words (his paint) at the very moment he was writing them and let them be exactly what they were intended to be at that very instant. Writing in watercolor, one might say; writing without revision. 

Kerouac did the same thing, albeit, with less discipline, some would argue. Nevertheless, his work was that of a watercolorist. Jazz-like and free form, but still watercolor in that it was created in one take, to use the vocabulary of a studio musician. There was a certain fearlessness in Kerouac's writing. Knausgaard certainly shows the same in My Struggle. Less so in Autumn. But fearlessness is not a requirement for working in watercolor; only precision. And the precision is apparent. Read the piece entitled "Twilight" in Autumn if you have any doubts.


To paint in watercolor and to offer a work worth admiring, one must be a master. The same with writing in watercolor. Mastery is essential. Creating anything in one take requires it. Otherwise, the writing—the painting, the music—is an artistic mess. But yet our natural storytelling instinct is to go forward with just "one take." Knausgaard writes with clarity and exactness without second regard. Therein lies his mastery but also his humanness. He understands that there is no other visual form like watercolor, singular in its beauty and alone in its execution. And no more honest way to tell a more human story, one that is less literary in the traditional sense yet literary nonetheless, devoid of traditional plot and literary tools and more like real life. Knausgaard is that kind of writer, saying what he wants to say, painting in words that he hopes to paint with both emotional spontaneity and accuracy in a single brushstroke.

How can anyone not find that marvelous?




Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Writing in the Dark

I've been thinking a good deal about writing in the dark. Not writing inside my writing shed with the lights off at 3 o'clock in the morning, but instead writing without knowing where I am going, where the story is leading, uncertain of what I am trying to say.


Writers talk about the mysteries of writing, especially fiction, a strange and powerful force that leads you to the story, that propels you to...something. Characters come alive on their own. They take on their own reality. And if it's memoir you are writing, it's that spooky moment when, as you write, the clarity comes out of the shadows. You finally know what you are trying to convey, a relative truth. Before then, you are in the dark and only when the ghostly essence appears does your writing start to come into its own light.

Norman Mailer used to call it "the spooky art." "You never know," he wrote, "where those words are coming from." Others call this spookiness or the mystery of writing—"pantsing." The urban dictionary defines pantsing as "yanking down someone's pants." But in the art of writing, "pantsing" is the act of flying by the seat. It's the opposite of plotting, planning, or outlining.


I have never plotted a story. Don't think I ever will. So, this makes me a "pantser." I write and let the story take me where it will. Inevitably this approach needs an enormous amount of reworking and rewriting for the story to make sense, to have a cohesive presence. But "writing in the dark" is the purest form of the art. This is true for fiction but it is most true—I believe—when writing memoir or personal essays. Joan Didion said, "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what is means. What I want and what I fear." Joan is a bit of a "pantser." She writes in the dark. And she may be the 20th century's greatest essayist.

I'm currently working on a project that I have no idea where it will take me. Yes, I have a rough focus and I'm taking daily notes and jotting down thoughts many times a day. But what it will become at the end is a mystery. What I will eventually write remains in the darkness. At some point, I will gather my notes, find what rises to the surface, and start writing...start pantsing...begin my work in the dark and hope for the light.










Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Five Books for Summer's Last Fling


August is here. For so many this triggers an awful feeling of woe. Summer is coming to an end and fall is lurking. Truth is, there's plenty of summer left. But August brings with it thoughts of another year of school, returning to classes, lost vacation time, and the dread of squandered seasonal opportunities. Still, there are days remaining, precious days...time for walks in the park, canoe trips, golf, a swim or two, a rod in the water, a road trip, and, yes, time to read. 

Here are the five books I'm concentrating on in the last days of summer. Old and new. 

Travels with Charley—John Steinbeck: This classic is worth rereading many times over. Certainly Steinbeck was a master writer but he was also a master observer. This cross-country journey in 1960 is teeming with spot-on insight and remains keenly relevant more than fifty years later. Be sure to reread the paragraphs on "Lonesome Harry" at the end of Part-Two. They are brilliant. 

The One Inside—Sam Shepard: The great artist's death is fresh. But I started reading his last manuscript several weeks before he left this world. Yes, like much of Shepard's work, the book is otherworldly, challenging, spiritual, odd with a Twin Peaks sensibility, and yet marvelously insightful of the human condition. If it starts to move out of your comfort zone, I urge you to stay with it. It's worth it. 

So Much Blue—Percival Everett: I'm not sure why Everett is not on the top of the bestseller list every single day. Well, I actually believe I know why, but that's for another blog post. This novel is absolutely perfect. I am not one who quickly puts books in the "perfect" category but his story of artistry, love, death, danger, and human longing is as good as any story you will ever read. 

The Zen Commandments—Dean Sluyter: I have always been interested in Zen philosophy but I've  struggled to immerse myself in the discipline. Much of what I read is either too simplified or far too complex. Believe me, I've tried. I've wondered many times if I am simply incapable of fully understanding, reaping the benefits. That was until I started reading this book. Sluyter quotes Bob Dylan, William Shakespeare, the great rock critic Lester Bangs, and Aristotle. How can a freshman student of Zen go wrong? 

Walking—Henry David Thoreau: This was originally an essay in the Atlantic Monthly, taken from a lecture Thoreau gave around 1850. It remains a classic for the environmental movement, linking man and nature as profound partners. But what I find most endearing about this short, tiny book is how it promotes the art of movement, how it urges man to get out and see what is around him, to saunter and wander. Not to hurry through life; not to rush from one event or the next. It encourages and champions what many of us would categorize as "wasting time." Take a walk, Thoreau says, because it will replenish you.

The days are ticking away. Go read.