Lately I Read Faster Than I Review

Usually I read a book or two, then review a book or two. The pace is steady. I don’t normally read so much that I get behind on reviewing what I’ve read.

Now I’m behind.

Set some things aside to read The Croning (see last blog post) and decided it’s time to start catching up, so I reviewed that one as soon as I finished it.

I’m pretty close to the end of Immobility by Brian Evenson, so I’ll have to do that one too.

Then there are all these I read and haven’t reviewed yet:

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

In the Mean Time by Paul Tremblay

Liquor by Poppy Z. Brite

The Body Artist by Don Delillo

Pet Sematary by Stephen King

…LIES….Thunder….ashes… by Joseph S. Pulver Sr.…lies….thunder….ashes….

The Wet Nurse by Mike Dubisch

It’s worth saying that the lack of recent reviews is not at all due to lack of enthusiasm about what I’ve been reading. On the contrary. There’s some great stuff here, lots of 4 and 5 star reviews coming up. I have a lot I want to say about these!

Words In: 11/22/63 by Stephen King

I finished this book soon after it came out, and have been meaning to write an in-depth review ever since. Spending a lot of time into writing a Stephen King review seems unnecessary, for a couple of reasons.

First, he’s Stephen King, one of the most popular fiction writers of our time. Thousands of reviews of this book exist already. Every major critic has it covered. If you want to get a sense whether this is for you, if it’s one of King’s better books (it is), or if it’s one of his scary ones (it isn’t), there are lots of opinions out there.

The second reason, more important, is that most readers have already made up their minds about King. Many love him, and read everything he writes, so they don’t care what I have to say. Others say his fiction lacks complexity, it’s low-brow, non-literary. These wouldn’t give the latest from King a try no matter what the critics say, let alone me.

Rather than an actual review, though, I do have a few things I want to say about this book. It’s a great story, worth a read for those with even the slightest interest in King’s storytelling, or those interested in American history, particularly JFK’s era. That’s this story’s hook: a chance to go back and change the events of Kennedy’s assassination. The trick is, 11/22/63 turns out to be about memory, about second chances, and more than anything else, love.

The critics who say King’s fiction lacks complexity are right to a certain degree, but they’re also missing the point. The great thing he does is tell a story that feels genuine, like real experience. His characters are engaging, natural, easily likable. Most of his books, no matter where they’re set or what kind of characters inhabit them, feel like a similar experiences. This aspect is mentioned by pretty much everyone who reads King’s work, so if you’ve read him, you probably know what I mean. Stephen King books, pretty much all of them, feel like a place you want to go visit.

If you’ve read Stephen King and enjoy him at all, the only thing you need to know about 11/22/63 is that it stands among his best books, and certainly among the top few of the past twenty years.

If you don’t like King much, or have somehow not bothered to read anything of his before, this is the one book I’d suggest might be worth checking out. Real King haters probably won’t be won over, but there’s a remarkable sensitivity to his writing about a romantic relationship which might convince readers who were on the fence. Those who might have wanted to give King a try but never wanted to go for the straight horror stuff, this is your chance. 11/22/63 is alternate history, it’s fantasy in the style of Twilight Zone, and it feels authentic despite these aspects. A few harsh events occur, but they’re presented realistically, not horror-style.

I do wish he could be persuaded to let someone edit him more closely. While the sentence-level writing is just fine, at times the story bogs down and nothing seems to happen for dozens of pages. As with his last two major books, trimming a quarter of the length would have made for a better novel.

Much has been made of King striving for critical recognition, for acknowledgment of the stylistic improvement of his prose and the increasing sensitivity and naturalism of his writing. I’d say he should be commended for trying something much harder than the easy cash-in. Many (most?) authors would have taken the easy path. Instead King is taking chances and achieving things many considered beyond him. I’m impressed, and quite enjoyed this book.

Semi-Serious Comment on Punctuation

Kottke recently linked to a video of Kurt Vonnegut, the great writer-character, and he talked about the semicolon. I love this quote:

“Don’t use semicolons. They stand for absolutely nothing. They are transvestite hermaphrodites. They are just a way of showing off. To show that you have been to college.”

The semicolon has drifted out of contemporary usage, and I feel generally where a semicolon is used, a period or a comma might work better. I find the semicolon has an archaic feel, and those writers for whom the semicolon works well tend to be dead and buried, or else taking on an intentionally ornate, old-fashioned, or throwback style.

Elmore Leonard is handy with them, and uses them a lot, but the guy was writing and publishing novels before my parents were born.

Stephen King uses a ton of semicolons, but he also does a lot of nonstandard technical stuff. He’s a big-time Elmore Leonard worshipper.

I’ll give the writer the benefit of the doubt with semicolons if their voice is strong and their prose is unusual. I’m halfway through Laird Barron’s collection Occultation (fantastic work, review forthcoming) and he’s got a slew of ’em in there. His writing also includes all manner of unorthodox technical stuff, though — dialog set off not by opening and closing quotes but by an emdash at the beginning, or short paragraphs containing dialog by multiple, different speakers.

Generally I’d say the semicolon bothers me less when the writer shows a confident, slightly experimental, maybe even baroque approach to stringing words together. In the middle of plain vanilla prose, however, the semicolon stands out in just the way Vonnegut describes. Beginning writers, stick with the comma and the period. It’s easy enough to remember what those guys do, roughly corresponding to the yellow and the red traffic lights, respectively.

In and Out of Genre

Following on from minutes-ago post about going from Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

A reasonable first reaction would be to say that these two are about as far apart as two writers could be. The sun-bleached lines of McCarthy, which manage to be terse even when they are poetic, stand in dramatic contrast to the casual, slang-filled conversational style of King. One is less, one is more-more-more.

On the other hand, both are quirky with punctuation, and both frequently construct sentences to feel like internal stream-of-consciousness.

Beyond that, there’s another similarity I would like to discuss. Both have written genre fiction (McCarthy dabbling in SF or apocalyptic horror this once, King obviously working in horror most of the time) that appeals widely to readers outside those genres. This ability is rare enough — and make no mistake, most genre writers very much want their work to appeal to readers outside the genre ghetto — to bear consideration. Why is Stephen King’s work so popular among readers who never read horror except King’s work, and more often read mainstream books or thrillers? Why do critics treat The Road with the same respect they give All the Pretty Horses or Blood Meridian, rather than saying “I’ll pass on this one — he’s just writing end-of-the-world shit?”

Despite the stylistic gap between these two writers, I think the explanation for trans-genre appeal is the same in both cases, and also explains writers like Vonnegut, Palahniuk, Atwood, and even Tolkien reaching way beyond the usual genre boundaries (in some cases to the point they are no longer considered genre writers even when what they’re doing plainly uses all the tropes). That is, the placement of the characters’ emotional drama at the forefront of the story in such a way that we are tangled in their experience. We experience their fears and hopes, and directly project ourselves into their place.

This seems a simple matter — all writers know they’re supposed to engage the reader on an emotional level — yet very rarely does that engagement occur in such an intimate way as with these writers. It’s about putting the “people stuff” ahead of the “trans-warp tachyon drive” or “vampire/zombie plague” or “Venusian cloud colony” bullshit. Most genre writers think they’re doing this, but they’re not. That’s because most genre writers get their start out of a love for the tropes and McGuffins, and not out of pure storytelling. They may try to figure out how to write relationships and emotions, but it’s not what drives them.

I haven’t read enough about McCarthy to know if this is true, but from reading him I’d say he’s strongly influenced by Hemingway and Faulkner (which probably says a lot about why I’m so smitten with him, because those are two of my favorites). Obviously King has more roots within horror than without, but I think it’s telling that his favorite writer is Elmore Leonard, and not Lovecraft or Machen or Blackwood or Shirley Jackson. Leonard is another writer whose primary focus is individual fears and desires. It’s incidental that his characters are murderers and thieves, con artists and detectives.

Sometimes a genre writer wants to break out, give themselves a shot at appealing to a broader readership, outside their own genre. Sometimes they try a different style to which they’re not really suited , such as Greg Bear writing an awful supernatural thriller with minimal SF content, Dead Lines. I think a better idea would be to focus on writing stuff with a more human appeal.

Lots of people love Friday Night Lights who don’t care about high school football. Normally I don’t like Westerns, yet I loved Deadwood crazy-much, because the characters and conflicts were so compelling. To my mind, the foremost goal of any writer should be to make their work appeal to people who normally dislike the subject matter or genre.

When You Can’t Read, Listen

My reading time has been short lately so I’ve been limited to audiobook listening during my long-ish commute. I just finished Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher and I’m about to start The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about writers who create work that transcends genre, and these two writers are noteworthy in that regard. I’ll post something about that later today.

Tidbits better suited for Twitter

I don’t have any one subject I want to focus on here at the moment, but a few things are going on.

My wife is out of town this week, and I’m not with her. This situation is common for lots of married folk, but we almost never travel separately, so it feels weird, and I don’t like it!

Here in Portland we finally broke free of over a month of rotten, lousy un-summer-like weather and for a few weeks now it’s actually been sunny and warm. This would not normally be considered “news,” but this summer at least, the sun coming out has allowed some fun stuff like hiking and trail running and even just lying out in the back yard with a book.

This coming weekend I’ll be traveling to the “Writers Weekend” event in Moclips Washington, which I believe I mentioned here around the time I signed up. (Edit: original post on this event is here) I’ve been reading the stories of other participants and making notes, getting ready. It’s something I’m looking forward to, but this week has been such a strange one (see above story of wife-lessness) that it doesn’t seem quite real. Still, I’ll have more to say about that just before, or during, or after, or maybe some combination thereof.

My own writing has been going well, too. I’ve tried some new things recently, including another effort at a story that can only be called horror. The biggest thing here is that I find the one thing I miss now that I write SF almost exclusively is writing about this world. Not that I’m considering a big shift of emphasis, more like something I’ll dip into a few times per year as a change of pace. I can write all kinds of horror-like or at least horrific stuff within SF, so the only real reason to break off and write a “real world, present day” story is that it’s fun to write about a people and places, for a change, closer to the people and places I see day to day.

Other than that, I’ve pulled back two of my short stories that I had previously been sending around, having decided they weren’t quite up to the standard of my more recent stories. Very often I find that if I’m not careful, my stories default to a sort of introspective, low-energy grasping at poetics and philosophy, short on plot and conflict. I’ve been working to address that in my more recent stories, but sometimes I crack open one of these earlier ones and say “gosh, the first scene doesn’t accomplish anything, the story doesn’t really start until page two or three, and the ending just trails off.” So back to the drawing board with these two (one of them is almost completely reworked with a much more compelling and satisfying turn of events at the end, not a twist, but certainly a kick to the protagonist’s groin, figuratively).

At the moment my “now reading” and “now listening” are Forever War by Joe Haldeman and Dreamcatcher by Stephen King, respectively. I went through a month-long stretch of listening to book-related podcasts rather than actual audiobooks (really enjoyed Jonathan Strahan’s podcasts particularly) but I felt like listening to a good, old-fashioned “grabber” of a story.

Stephen King is great for listening while driving. His voice is so informal and conversational (talking about writer’s voice here, not the speaking voice of the guy reading the audiobook) that it’s like having friends in the car telling me the story.

Forever War is just fantastic as well, though it’s taking me longer than usual as my reading time has been short recently. Technically, I suppose, this is considered Military SF, but it just doesn’t have that feel. It’s much more restrained and literary in feel, like a quiet, regretful cousin of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Really a very fine book, and it makes me want to read more Haldeman though it doesn’t seem people really talk about any of his books other than this and Forever Peace. I’ll have to do some research on this guy. I do know he just won a Grand Master award at the last Nebulas, so he’s got that going for him, which is nice. Of course, Gene Wolfe doesn’t have a Grand Master award, so what the hell?

I’m also starting to re-read Again, Dangerous Visions in little bits. I had forgotten just how much I love Ellison’s introductions and little lead-in essays for each story. Is it just me, or are there more people in this book whose careers never really went anywhere, than there are established writers with significant careers?

It’s fun sometimes to just blog about a few random little tidbits. I suppose I could Twitter this stuff, but for some reason I’m still using Twitter more to quickly check up on a number of people I’m interested in, than for something to broadcast my own particular brand of whatever. In other words, consuming rather than producing, Twitter-wise. At least I’m blogging relatively consistently. Yeah, I know you’re thrilled! More soon.

Words In: Horns by Joe Hill

Just finishing up Horns by Joe Hill, in audiobook format. Hill’s first novel Heart Shaped Box was one of my favorite new discoveries of last year, a somewhat dark, edgy book of clever, compact nastiness. If you didn’t already know this, Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son, and decided to try writing under a pseudonym to see if he could have a career of his own without his dad’s influence. Eventually his cover was blown, but he continues to use the name. His real-life name is Joe Hillstrom King so the pen name is really just the first half of his full, proper name anyway. Hey, maybe I should try to get published as “Michael Jay?”

The earlier book followed a somewhat washed-up rock-and-roller whose life is turned upside down when he purchases an old man’s suit that turns out to be cursed. Hill’s follow-up, Horns, likewise observes the intrusion into a character’s life of a dark influence. In this case, a year after Ig Parrish’s girlfriend is raped and murdered (a crime for which he was the main suspect, though no case is ever brought against Ig or any other culprit) Ig Parrish finds himself with a pair of devil-like horns sprouting from his forehead. And not just horns, but a strange influence over everyone he comes across, a certain power over their will, and insight into things they’ve done before that they wouldn’t want anyone else to know.

His life has already been essentially ruined as the book begins, as his girlfriend is gone, and everyone who knows them, including Ig’s own family, thinks Ig killed her and got away with it. Having hit bottom, Ig follows the power and influence of the horns, and though they bring him a lot of trouble they also help him to discover some facts about troubling events in his life, including his girlfriend’s murder.

Hill’s short story collection Twentieth Century Ghosts, followed by the top-notch debut novel Heart Shaped Box and now his sophomore novel effort Horns, are enough to establish him as one of the strongest talents working in the field of suspense and horror fiction. His writing has a lot of similarities to his own father’s early work, in particular such high points as The Shining, Dead Zone, and Carrie.

Overall I’d judge Horns to be slightly below the standard of the first novel, though still worth reading and still indicative of the likelihood of strong future work coming from this writer.

How many balls should I keep in the air?

Those of you casually perusing this blog might say “This fella here looks like one of them wannabe writers, who talks a lot about how he wishes he could write some day, but doesn’t actually commit any words to paper.”

I’ve known people like that, more in love with the idea of writing than with the act itself, but I’m not one of them. I don’t write every single day, but I’m pretty productive. No, the reason I haven’t said much about my own fiction yet is a bit of self-consciousness about talking my own ideas and process. Having asked myself “What’s up with that, anyway?” I’ve come to the conclusion it’s mainly due to being unpublished at this point, so I feel more qualified spouting off about science fiction books and writers, since every reader feels qualified to be a critic. I figure, though, if I have enough nerve to send my work to professional editors to consider for their periodicals (a threshold I’ve crossed), I can certainly put myself far enough out on the limb to talk about some of my own creative philosophies and mechanisms.

Rather than starting with something I feel confident about, though, I’ll begin with a question to which I don’t really know the answer. One thing I feel unsure of, and I go back and forth on this question, is this: How many stories should I be working on at any given time?

Over the past dozen years I’ve recorded a lot of ambient electronic music. That’s not what this blog is about, but it’ll come up here sometimes because it’s an important part of my life. I mention it because in all those years, having released a handful of solo albums and another handful of collaborative ones, I’ve almost never tried to work on more than one thing at once. Finish the Griffin solo album, start the Viridian Sun duo album, start the second Griffin album, set it aside entirely and make the second Viridian Sun album, and so on. The process was to start a project and either finish it or set it aside completely before starting another. I never thought about this way of working, but it made sense to me and it seemed to work.

With my writing, I’ve always worked on more than one thing at once, sometimes juggling a really large number of projects and ideas. Last month I counted twelve short stories in progress and another thirty plotted, outlined or otherwise planned (but not yet started). When I have an idea for a story I slowly add little things to the mix during the planning stage, starting from a scribbled sentence or two that could barely be called an idea, into the seed of a story, fleshing it out into a full-fledged anecdote or scene, finally combining elements of plot and character, conflict and drama, until I have something ready to be written into a story. Often I stumble upon elements that fit well only very gradually, and I feel like my best stories have benefitted from being “in progress” for long enough for this to unfold.

Recently I felt overwhelmed by the many long-pending stories hanging over me, and resolved not to start anything new until I could shorten the queue down to just a few. Though I’m not yet entirely sure I need to change what I’m doing, I’m considering this an experiment.

MANY items working at once gives me the benefit of allowing each idea longer to mature, gather a sort of richness or complexity. The drawback is, certain stories get lost in a swirl of too much going on. When I have a dozen stories working, and I’m not able to write every single day, sometimes I’m away from a given story for long enough that it becomes too unfamiliar and I have to reacquaint myself with important details before I can begin working again.

FEWER items working would help me see clearly all the balls I’m trying to keep in the air, and ensure I can give time to each of them every week without spending too long away. The flipside to this, though, is that I can’t take much time away from an idea that seems like it would benefit from being shifted to the back burner for a few weeks, because I won’t have enough other stuff to work on instead.

I’ve been on roll lately, finalizing stories and sending them out, and January’s dozen or so pending stories may be reduced by half before the end of March. This is gratifying because the more stories I have completely finished and off my plate, the more I feel like a “real” science fiction writer and not just this confused guy who’s starting to dabble in a new genre. Also I feel the stories show rapid improvement, which makes me hopeful about getting something published soon, if not with one of the stories already finished and submitted, then with something I’ll finish soon.

In Stephen King’s wonderful book On Writing (and no matter what you think of King’s own work, this really is a useful book on writing that any fiction writer should own no matter what style they’re working in) he suggests an approach not too different from my own, involving sticking a first draft in a drawer for several weeks until it can be seen more objectively, and working on other things in the mean time.

If my focus were on novels this wouldn’t even be a question, as novelists usually just hammer away on their one novel at a time, or at most take a little break to work on a short story before getting back to it. Nobody’s juggling a dozen novels in various stages of completion. I’m curious how other writers focused on short fiction do this. I suppose I’ll just try narrowing it down a bit this spring, and see if that’s better or not. If it doesn’t feel right, I could always just start a few new stories… toss a few more balls up in the air and try to keep them up.