Old School

Flat section of trail on a rocky mountain

I recently read Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby, a collection of his musings about books. Fun read, although there’s not much overlap between our reading. Still, his observations were interesting, and he is hilarious in the British-self-deprecating way. I had read none of his stuff since going on a Nick Hornby jag over twenty years ago. I was inspired by his description of certain books and authors… he really likes Dickens (I decided in ninth grade, while reading Great Expectations, that I didn’t care for Dickens… especially after learning he was paid by the word and invented entire characters and subplots just to increase his word count). So much so I may consider picking up a Dickens (Bleak House?). Another author he praises repeatedly is Thomas Wolff. I’d heard the name but wasn’t familiar with his work.

Based on Hornby’s writing and some quick internet research, two of his books topped the list: Old School and This Boy’s Life. I picked up Old School, a story about a private school in the sixties and the unnamed narrator’s journey. Immediately the reader is immersed in a New England private school for boys, with Masters and ties and leafy campuses. As someone who didn’t attend that type of school, I immediately picture the campus and boys from Captain my Captain.

Old School uses three author’s visits as scaffolding. Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway are all scheduled to visit the unnamed elite boarding school where writing and writers are held in the highest regard. Hard to imagine, with the laser focus on STEM and hard studies now, a time when writing would have held such a prominent place in a school’s collective consciousness. Neither of the authors fare very well; Frost is a doddering old man with ponderous eyebrows, Rand is a nasty narcissist and Hemingway, a student favorite, receives backhanded and sideways praise.

Wolf does some interesting things. One, the narrator and the main character is unnamed. The narrator has secrets but reveals them indirectly, clever, but I asked if I had missed something earlier (I hadn’t). Another is his use of time. Most of the book takes in 1960-1961; the last section of the book fast-forwards ten years. He describe these years over a few pages to paint a picture of how life when for the narrator after school. The shift between real-time dialogue and descriptions to pages of exposition was notable, but worked just fine. Another case of rule-breaking. I’d like to go back and pay more attention to the transition and figure out what stylistically allowed Wolf to pull it off.

A delightful read, sandwiched in between Cloud Atlas and Hemingway short stories. Compared to its neighbors, it felt light, not to mention blissfully short at 195 pages. The emphasis on writers and notable authors from the middle of the 20th century made the read fun. Recommended, and look forward to reading more Wolf in the future.

A Collection of Misfits

Backyard River
A river runs through the backyard

I really enjoy reading short stories collections. They allow you to enter the author’s world and style, but with quicker, sometimes weirder, payoffs. Some of my favorites are multiple collections by David Mitchell, Neil Gaiman’s, Hemingway, Poe, and Nabokov.
The masters (Hemingway, Poe, Nabokov) collections are stories that appeared in magazines or other disparate sources, a fun and accessible way to read the works of the greats. I’ve never read a novel by Nabokov, but I have a sense of him and his writing from the short stories.
It’s the clever and inter-related short story collections that grab my attention. Mitchell is the best example; Ghostwritten, his first work, has common elements, like characters crossing from one story to another, or the actions and outcomes of one story directly influencing the other. Subtly, of course… the first time I read it, when it first came out in paperback, I missed most of the references. But it’s delightful to re-read, looking for the connections and the common threads. Cloud Atlas is similar, but the relationship between the stories is much more obvious and key to understanding the book, with its nesting-doll structure. As mentioned a few weeks ago, Neon Leviathan does something similar, stories set in the same post-apocalyptic world and character crossover.
These stories inspired me to consider a collection of mine. By accident, or lack of imagination, I had set a few stories in a similar world. None of them got any traction on their own, but together they may carry more weight. I enjoy having a common thread run through these stories.
In a perfect world, I’d get one or two of these stories published elsewhere, then release them as a self-published collection. I don’t have any illusions about finding a publisher for a set of short stories by an unknown author… it’s well known that short story collections don’t sell. I think it’d allow me to scratch an itch, work on something I thought was interesting (regardless of how viable it is, see early thoughts on how my tastes don’t align with what the industry likes) and learn self-publishing. Worry more about the writing than publishing.

George Saunders Story Club

Big Indian Park Snowy Stream
Big Indian Park Snowy Stream

I rotate through favorite authors. Readers of this website notice I mention often certain authors. Murakami and Mitchell in current reading, Stephen King for writing advice, and Hugh Howey and Neil Gaiman in both categories. Lately I’ve read a lot of George Saunders, especially his amazing book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. He created a follow-up Substack to continue teaching.

Saunders, both in the book and Story Time with George Saunders, takes a short piece of literature and breaks it down. Not in a what-is-the-deeper-meaning sense, but more concretely. Why did the author do this thing? What are the questions he’s asking? The book and the continuing course are for writers, but they really make better readers. I’m blissfully unaware of the subtle things an author will do, like re-use images, subtly create a mood or an impression. Or, at least I was. One of GS’s methods is to read each piece at least twice; the first time just pay attention to your reaction. When were you curious? Interested? Bored? Then re-read and notice why you had these reactions. I’m thoroughly enjoying this approach.

As I mentioned before, GS is a huge fan of the editing process. His instructions are specific; edit and notice the parts that don’t work, and keep re-working them. Maybe dozens of times. While editing, notice themes and deeper meaning of the piece. The themes or takeaways are up to the reader, of course, but having a sense of what you are trying to say gives the piece direction.

Another key are what GS describes as pulses.

“A pulse might be a scene, but, really, it’s a unit of meaning. What makes a story a story is the way one pulse leads to the next, which produces that lovely story-feeling.

Each segment of the story should lead to the next… something like the “And then.. or of course, this happened” approach.

The biggest lesson is his examination of how much consideration goes into the descriptions and setup of each scene. An excellent author doesn’t just describe a character as they see them in their mind. Each detail either reveals something about the character, foreshadows, or ties elements of the story together. For example,

“He rose and—with the purple of his breeches, with his crimson cap tilted to one side, with the decorations hammered into his chest—cut the hut in half, as a banner cuts the sky. He smelt of perfume and the overwhelmingly sweet coolness of soap. His long legs looked like a pair of girls clad in shiny shoulder-length jackboots.” -Babel, My First Goose.

Every time I read and work through the exercises in GS’s posts, I feel a little closer to where I want to be. It certainly has made me a better reader; now I ask, what is the question the story is asking? Why do I care? What is the intent of this scene? Is it needed? Is this detail needed? Does it push the story forward? Hopefully, my output will reflect these lessons.

The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life

Lion Tracker In the Wild

The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life sat in my Amazon wishlist queue (fodder for another post) for a few years. I had heard the author, Boyd Varty on a lesser known podcast, put it on the wishlist but never purchased. Like many items in my wishlist, I forgot why it appealed to me. More recently, Boyd was on the Tim Ferriss show and I bought the book.

The first remarkable thing about the book is the size. It’s small, maybe only 3/4 the size of a regular book (5X7”, compared to the standard hardcover at 6X9”). And short at only 130 pages with generous spacing. I read it over three days, but one can read it cover to cover in a good afternoon. Interspersed are hand-drawn renderings of jungle animals and tracks, along with hand-written captions. Lion Tracker feels like a labor of love, something put together out of desire and need rather than commercial success. Unlike many books from well-known authors who drag one idea or concept out for 300 pages when a 2000 word web post would suffice.

Varty uses a classic device for the book. He describes, in loving detail, aspects of a track with two expert trackers. As different things happen along the trail, Varty reflects on how those lessons translate to his life. As an author, I enjoyed his seamless transition between telling the exciting and engaging story of the track with his larger life lessons. The track and his emotional journey crescendoed at the same point. One of my other favorite books, Born to Run, follows a similar path (a running race with the Tarahumara of Mexico – McDougall uses it to tell the story of natural running, the shoe industry, etc.). But Varty never wanders too far from the tracking story and keeps the reader engaged.

The two expert trackers in the story, Renias and Alex, are larger than life. Much like how a fiction author needs to create a backstory and pick scenes and dialogue to create a character, Varty gives his these two men a similar treatment. Renias is the wise leader with generations of tracker blood and knowledge. We learn his backstory but see his qualities as he actively tracks. It creates a vivid image of the two men. Varty’s respect and admiration for the two and of their profession is clear.

The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life reminded me of another book, Death in the Tall Grass, also about tracking animals in the African jungle… yet wildly different. Death in the Tall Grass was about a big-game hunter as he tracks and kills different now-protected game, like lions and tigers and leopards. Tall Grass reflected a different age with different morals, and the authors are certainly very different. But they both lovingly and reverentially describe a world of the jungle and its inhabitants.

The Lion Tracker’s Guide to Life is a quick and engaging read. I thought about it long after I put it down. Varty tells a compact story with just enough background and exposition to hook the reader. I’d read only the active tracker story by itself. One of my favorite books of the last few years.

Like A Fine Leviathan

Mormon Trail, Phoenix

Noticing how stories work is like developing a nose for wine. When I first started drinking wine, I didn’t know how to describe the taste. Then, I learned about the finish (the last taste in your mouth), how to taste the sweetness, body, mouthfeel, smell. And recognized how my earlier meal or drink affected my taste and appreciation of the wine.

This allowed me to talk about wine to people in wine shops and sommeliers. When asked, I can tell them what we will eat with the wine, previous likes and dislikes, and characteristics that are show stoppers (dry wine with a less-than-smooth finish). I can describe what I prefer and why (Pinot grapes, smooth finish, not too sweet).

When I read the first few pages of Neon Leviathan, I couldn’t believe how different the writing seemed. Like wine, what I consumed previously mattered. As part of A Swim in the Pond in the Rain and accompanying online class, we read selections of the Russian masters and Hemingway. Prior, I read Murakami… literature. And, like having a drier wine after a sweeter one, Neon Leviathan seemed rough. For example, T.R. Napper commits a Scribophile sin of epic proportions; he tells instead of shows (gasp)

“Mister Nguyen… looking down at her with a studied grimness. Lynn stifled a sigh at the posturing.”

I can imagine the comments and redlines from my co-amateur editors for “studied grimness”. But… what is the objection? The mantra of show don’t tell is universally repeated, but I can picture Mister Nguyen and how he looked at Lynn (we learned earlier he was an older, fat, old-school crime boss). Can’t you see the how he looks at her? As I read, I constantly found lines and approaches that set off alarm bells… but they worked. In the correct context.

“Matter-of-factly, Eulalie said…”

Another example. This was from a tense exchange between a new employee and her boss. Another cardinal rule from the literature world is only to describe speaking with “said”, “asked” or “shouted”. But I can hear exactly how someone sounds in a matter-of-factly voice. Used sparingly, it enhances the visualization and reading experience.

You doesn’t need a deep knowledge of wine or understand its vocabulary to enjoy a nice Willamette Pinot Noir. But it helps when trying to find the right wine. Same with reading. I’ve struggled lately with finding the right writing style. If nothing else, I’m better at identifying what makes genre vs literature, or when the two overlap (Atwood, etc.). Which should help with submissions to publications.

*I enjoyed Neon Leviathan. Cool characters, good sense of the world, fun read.

Bold New Ideas

Orlando Soccer

What type writer am I? I can’t be a schlocky, low-quality pulpy guy or a literary writer, because of a lack of training, interests and personality. I have come back to the Hugh Howey space… interesting genre stories with subtle themes and messages. My head’s had gotten so twisted and turned, through experimentation with different writing and types of writing and endless advice that I lost sight of who I am.

The first two stories I wrote and published followed this idea. Unfair Advantage is a modern-realist story about fighting back and The Inspector’s Legacy is a post-apocalyptic story about making a tough choices. Hugh Howey’s writing, and his comments and thoughts on writing… he’s doing what I want to accomplish. His writing isn’t George Saunders or Margaret Atwood and his internal dialogue makes me wince. But he tells a compelling story with interesting characters. And he subtly infused the stories with themes and political opinions.

So where does this leave me? I’m having trouble finding a home for my completed stories (3 different pieces out to different publications). And I need to acknowledge where I am and what I can do, namely short genre stories. Which means I don’t have to adhere to all of literary writing’s rules… maybe an adverb or two isn’t the worst thing in the world. Make the stories and characters interesting, give them problems to overcome. And work on a set of stories in the same universe, much like David Mitchell. Have characters and world rules cross. Have a particular theme or idea for each story.

This path is warm and inviting. A collection of short stories. The stories will hang together… and each story can reveal a little more about the world, but still be a self-contained story.

And I’ll write it because I want to read it.

More Odds and Sods

Born To Tri

I completed the first draft of Unfair Advantage 2. I wanted then work on smaller contests, namely this Irish one. Sadly, all the stories fizzled. I’ve attempted multiple stories but nothing stuck. With the Irish flash fiction, I keep coming up with either vignettes or pieces that are literary for the (contest) theme of Time. They specifically reference how Time can fit in any genre. Genre, exactly the thing I’m looking for, and all I can do is generate these slices that seem like they came out of an MFA program. Which is a tremendous shame… I would really love to have a good idea and iterate on the 500 words. So much of my reluctance to edit is the size of what I work on… even 3k words seem like a tough edit. 500 words is perfect for cutting everything that doesn’t directly contribute to the story, working each to sound lyrical. I just need that spark!

And if I could find that story idea, I’ll incorporate the ideas on editing from George Saunders and the amazing A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. I’ll do a series of posts specifically on this book, but he counsel on editing is fantastic. Keep reading and working on your story over weeks and months. Remove anything that doesn’t move the story forward or display something important about the characters. It’s the repeated process of editing and considering, re-reading and changing that creates something worthwhile. And he doesn’t prescribe rules or a list of don’ts. This advice struck a chord; dozens of micro-edits over time allow a writer to create a voice. Compare this with other books on editing and their rigid rules. More on Saunders later.

This leaves me in a tough spot with the normal backlog of pieces to edit and nothing solid to work on for my daily 500 words. In theory, I’d love to have a set of drills or practice items to work on, then spend the rest of my morning writing time on editing and re-reading. I’ll keep looking.

Odds and Sods

Odds and Sods
Odds and Sods

No post last week while I was away with friends in West Palm Beach. I was curious how travel and a change in routine would effect my writing, mindset and creativity. I enjoyed the change and had a good time, but it wasn’t conducive to writing… sharing a hotel room, group schedules, etc. My current WIP (Unfair Advantage 2, more on this below) is set in Palm Beach and I hoped to catch some inspiration. But nothing really caught my eye… the only thing I noticed was how weird the denizens of one of the richest places in America are, with the conspicuous consumption and plastic surgery.

A few rejections from journals rolled in, including one for The Valley, my story about a prepper family living in post-apocalyptic Hudson Valley. I wrote it with New Maps in mind, but they had rejected it as too slow (ironic because I wrote it that way for them. Live and learn). I tried to incorporate the editor’s feedback about speeding the story, but struggled. There aren’t many options for an over 8k piece, which (as I know now) is a gray area and tough to publish. I’ll try a few more spots, then either make the revisions the editor asked for or publish it here instead.

I also got tough feedback on another post-apocalyptic story (Mags Hotel) about Mags who is taken to a hotel and tries to decide between a chance at her old life or a new one. I loved writing it and needed a few weeks to sit on the feedback. The story emerged from a writing prompt (your character wakes up in a strange place….). Unfortunately, this is a beginner’s trope (link to trope). Good to know! Now I need to jump straight into the action. The editor also said I was too simple/basic when providing information about the background and situation, and starting in res can help… although I can picture some of my readers getting confused without the exposition. But I asked for professional feedback and I will try to improve the piece.

My current WIP is Unfair Advantage 2. I finished the first pass, and it also clocks in with an unwieldy word count, north of 15k. I enjoyed returning to Eileen (link) and writing the piece. I can’t imagine trying to get it published anywhere other than here on chawner.net, though. The first edition struggled to find a home, and this second part assumes the reader is familiar with the first. But this obstacle, used correctly, should be an opportunity. If I publish it here, I will need to format and present UA 2 correctly. Maybe provide blurbs here and link to a properly formatted pdf which should be a great learning opportunity.

Woke Up This Morning : A Study in Creative Control

Sopranos House
Sopranos House

My wife and I watched the disappointing The Many Saints of Newark. After finishing the movie, HBO rolled directly into Season 1 of The Sopranos. We only intended to watch a few minutes but were hooked from the opening song. Like most good New Jerseyans, we had faithfully watched The Sopranos while it aired. I enjoyed it but hadn’t given it much thought since 2007. Watching it again, one or two episodes a night spread out over two months, was amazing. We had forgotten entire characters and plots; it was better than watching it for the first time (more evidence that I should re-read/ re-watch more).

For Christmas, my wife gifted me Woke Up This Morning. Two actors from The Sopranos, Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltsasnti) and Steve Schirripa (Bobby Baccalieri), highlight the best parts of their binge-watching podcast. Fun read and the perfect companion to re-watch the show. I heard the authors and their guests (mostly other characters from the show) speaking in their voice while reading. Not only was it an interesting read, but there were takeaways for the creative process.

The first lesson is the structure, rules and formula for seasons and episodes. I don’t know how standard this was in the industry, but David Chase (creator and show-runner) created the narrative arc for Tony Soprano and his crew each season. Individual writers wrote each episode. They followed a formula: three plots (A, B and C). A was the main plot and was broken down into 18 beats; B got fewer beats and C less. Chase’s team created magic within the narrow confines of that structure. An interesting way to engage with the characters and offer consistency and a shared vision.

Each script went through multiple reviews. The entire team of writers provided notes and discussed the script. The authors (especially Imperioili, who wrote a few scripts and was in the writer’s room for Season 5) and their writer-guests implied these rooms could be brutal. But this gets back to one of my themes, immediate feedback that may have elevated the writing in real time. Woke Up This Morning also references how long and hard the sprints were to make deadlines… another example of guardrails (set timelines), intensity, and focus.

The attention to detail was eye-opening. There had meetings regarding tone, costumes, sets… attended by the writers and directors and the people in charge of implementation (wardrobe people, etc.). They read the script and discuss the little details.

David Chase maintained a shocking level of control throughout the entire process. He not only created, well, everything and the arc to entire seasons, but he was in the writer’s room, oversaw staffing (especially for writers) and had final edit . From a distance, it’s a stunning combination of individual control and vision while working in the brilliance of so many other contributors. I can’t think of any other examples where someone can keep so much influence, yet benefit from other contributors.

The same themes appear; guardrails, structure, deadlines, feedback from peers, attention to detail and fanatical control.