Am I Feeling Lucky?

Orlando Sky
Orlando Sky

I’m focused on three writing contests.

The first is from On the Premises. I’ve submitted twice to their contests and worked on two more (but didn’t submit). I like their prompts and support of the community. The editors have taste similar to mine… their advice is so start in medias res, constantly escalate action or tension, and add nothing extraneous. Tight, controlled, interesting. Music to my ears, and the opposite of what a typical literary magazine seeks. I also feel like I have unfinished business with their contests; Wasted Crisis wasn’t considered for a prize because I included my name on the manuscript, but the editor showed it would have been in the running. And I made the second round of consideration for 5:59 a story about a couple on a train.

The second contest story is from Ireland Writing Retreat. I found their site while looking for an editor. They are based in Donegal, Ireland where they host week-long workshops. I’d taken a stab at their earlier Time contest, but couldn’t get the story to work. This contest calls for a story about Hope… but it can only be 500 words and can only use the word “Hope” one time between the title and the main text. Interesting! Love the guardrails. I came up with a story featuring a runner trying to beat his rival… I took a chance with the writing style and tried to incorporate things I’ve learned from George Saunders and others. We’ll see.

Finally, the third contest is from a new group, to me at least: Hungry Shadows Press. They asked for a story in my wheelhouse… what happened the first five minutes after the end of the world? Not what caused the apocalypse, but what happens next. Great premise… so, no stories about people walking through ruins or rebuilding. It tempted me to write in the ATSW universe… but that required an explanation (a wave of people differs from the typical infection/flu/EMP/nuclear event scenario). So I created a new story… I started late and am worried it won’t have enough polish.

Hopefully, this respite from ATSW will leave me in a better spot. These contests are fun and I love the restrictions. If I learned anything from books and essays on creativity, it’s working within guardrails can bring out the best.

Open to the Universe

Donegal Boats
Donegal Boats

Book reviews were the original intent for this platform… as I started writing fiction, I pivoted to more articles about my journey and experiences. Like I mentioned before, I’ve ripped through a lot of books lately, so they are top of mind when I sit for my weekly “blog post writing.”

I prefer to read a fiction and non-fiction simultaneously to keep both fresh. My current non-fiction is Rick Rubin’s The Creative Act. I’m drawn to this topic as I suspect my creativity, from working a full-time corporate job and suburban-dad-life, is low.

I’ll do a full review after I finish; I’m only one-half complete. Nothing earth-shattering or revelatory yet, but great reminders about how to think about the creative process. One set of lessons mentions opening to the world… the artist is merely a vessel for the universe to create through (very Julia Cameron).

As I read Rubin’s book, I was struggling with a story idea for After the Second Wave (potential collection of short stories). Hugo, the main character, needs to leave his current location and end up somewhere else. I had the motivation and the backdrop but was stuck in exposition. I started and at least six versions of this story.

I was frustrated.

I took one day off from the grind and caught up on my George Saunder’s Story club… we’re discussing an old story of his “CommComm”. One of his statements about starting this story slapped me in the face:

“I like this feeling of starting a story en media res. It’s like overhearing a conversation from a nearby table in a restaurant. “He said that to me and I almost hit him.” Who doesn’t want to hear the rest of that? Just with that one under-indicating line, the story is already underway and… isn’t dull. It hasn’t made the fatal error of over explaining (an error I am going to try to avoid here as well).”

Wow. Duh. Stop explaining everything and just tell the damn story. Exactly what I needed. I’d written stories with in media res previously. Maybe this isn’t the aid Rubin or Cameron had in mind, but it delivered exactly what I needed.

Re-Thinking Re-Reads

January 2023 To-Read
January 2023 To-Read

My last few posts were book reviews. I’ve been on a good run with interesting books and magazines. My to-read pile whittled down to just one book… luckily, I remedied this with some focused time on Amazon and a re-kindled wish to re-read books.

It started with Anna Karenina; to get through a book of its size and assumed (it wasn’t hard to read) difficulty, I set a regular cadence. Fifty pages each weekend day and seventy-five for the week. I hadn’t read like this before and the “forced” longer sessions allowed me to inhabit the headspace of the book.

I’ll be strategic with the re-reads. Without the desire to see what happens next, or how the story will end, I can notice how the author is unfurling the story. All the little hints, clues, oddities of characters, etc. missed on my first read… I enjoy the plot and story elements most of all, so I read to see how ends. I have re-reads in mind; authors I’ve mentioned repeatedly. I need to study their work.

Another driver for re-reads is the Re-watchables podcast. From The Ringer, the hosts take a movie they consider re-watchable (you see in on cable while flipping the channels and have to watch a few minutes) and discuss. Super entertaining. The part I’ve appreciated most are two of the regular co-hosts, Sean Fennessey and Chris Ryan, discuss the writing and directing. They are movie wonks and point out elements I hadn’t noticed, like the scoring or pacing. The elements essential to creating a great movie.

My current to-read pile is new books from George Saunders and David Mitchell (Mitchell’s book is older but new to me) and three books I started, recognized as good books but wasn’t “the right time” and abandoned. I read at least a third of these books and hopefully can notice more on this time around.

Book Review: Sea of Tranquility

Sea of Tranquility Cover
Sea of Tranquility Cover

I got turned on to Emily St. Mandel by Tyler Cowen (he did a podcast with her). Her first big novel, Station Eleven, is a great read featuring a raging respiratory pandemic. Apple created a fantastic show on Station Eleven. The Glass Hotel followed Station Eleven (also great).

On the above podcast, Cowen asked Mandel if The Glass Hotel is a follow-up or sequel to Station Eleven. She said no. But Sea of Tranquility is definitely a follow-up to both of its predecessors. The protagonist from The Glass Hotel, Vincent, and the circumstances of her life and death are integral to the plot. And multiple references to pandemics… I couldn’t tell if they were specific to the event in Station Eleven or just a wink and nod.

The story is told by three distinct characters, in different times, ranging from Vancouver in 1912 to a space colony 500 years later. Mandel introduces what seems like a supernatural element (which surprised me, as her earlier novels were very realistic) each character experiences. What we learn minor spoiler alert is our future civilization deduced we are living in a simulation and the simulation (or, more precisely, the machine that runs the simulation) has glitches. But this understanding also enables time travel.

But this isn’t a sci-if story with pages of exposition or characters delivering deep lectures on how time travel works. We get a plausible explanation and react to it along with the characters. Sea of Tranquility is a novel about the characters and their searching, not the world of the simulation. It’s an incredibly interesting way to tell a larger story.

Mandel’ s writing style is deceptively light. Compared to many authors, the writing is easy to consume. She used brief chapters for this book but layers, subtext, and tie-backs make a fun read.

The brief chapters were a departure from her earlier style. This entire book felt different, much more personal. One of the main characters, Olive, is an author on a book tour in 2203 and reflects on hotel rooms, weird fans, publicists, longing for Olive’s husband and child… and the shadow of a pandemic hanging over the tour. I know little about Mandel, but this seemed like she took directly it from her life. It felt a little overplayed and took me out of the story; I kept asking if this was her or her character having these experiences?

I enjoyed Sea of Tranquility. It initially felt like a light read, but Mandel created a deeply layered story and world. I detected shades of David Mitchell; they both write modern stories that are part literature, part plot-driven story. The writers and stories I most admire and would love to emulate.

Book Review: The Edge of Collapse

Edge of Collapse Cover
Edge of Collapse Cover

Book Review: The Edge of Collapse

I wanted to read top books in the post-apocalyptic space, as determined by Amazon. A few of the books I had read, like all the Emily St. Mandel and Hugh Howey books. I especially wanted to read self-published authors. I picked two.

One came overnight… it was dreadful. I forced myself to read at least fifty pages, but the author fully described every new scene or character upon entry into the story. Each character was a stereotype and the plot was tough to swallow. Why is this book a best-seller?

Luckily, the second book, The Edge of Collapse by Kyla Stone, is much better. It’s a classic page-turner; I picked it up, intending to read a chapter or two, but hummed through sixty pages in the blink of an eye.

The book bounces between three characters in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We first meet Hannah, a woman imprisoned in the basement of a madman for over five years. An EMP wipes out everything electronic across the US and Hannah escapes. Her captor chases her through a forest.

It’s a page turner. Stone creates palpable worry and danger. And things just get worse and worse for our main characters. Unlike the first book I tried, we aren’t hit over the head with verbose descriptions and back-stories. We only discover key aspects of our characters well into the story and select items aren’t resolved. The characters are relatable, and we root for the heroes and despise the villain.

My criticism is related to the self-publishing part. I listened to sections (part of the same initiative to read more self-published books) of Write, Publish, Repeat and I can see elements of their advice at play. This is the first book in a series, a main tenant of their advice…. so, when the reader is done, they can immediately buy the next book in the series.

One of their points is how differently readers interact with self-published books. Readers are on the lookout for typos and mistakes. I mentally edited more than usual… which probably isn’t fair. The book I started immediately after, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, isn’t receiving the same level of scrutiny. I assumed there was less editing on The Edge while any book from McCarthy would have the top editors. Regardless, the characters are stereotypical (the ex-Military guy with a heart of gold and amazing skills, the psychopath with no redeemable qualities, etc.) and some of the internal dialogue could be reduced.

But I really enjoyed the book and will order the second in the series.

Book Review: The Overstory

Old Irish Abbey
Old Irish Abbey

Each year for the holidays, the founder of my company gifts a book. Last year the gift was The Overstory by Richard Powers. I’ve written about recommendations and our founder has an excellent track record. Previously, he gifted Sapiens and A River Runs Through It… great recommendations. The Overstory caused a stir a few years ago (LNK) but was new to me.

The Overstory started strongly. Powers divided the book into three main sections; the first, Roots, was riveting. Powers introduces an eclectic cast of characters with no obvious connection, other than trees. All the characters plant or interact with trees while living lives marked with tragedy. I loved this part of the book… just the right combination of asking questions (how do these people intersect, why are they so different, what is happening with the trees) and information about the history of trees, blights and man’s interaction with forests and the natural world.

The Understory, the next section, is where most of the characters come together and the “action” happens. The Understory moves well, although reading David Mitchell spoiled me for disconnected stories coming together… it seemed more like icebergs floating toward each other than intertwined lives. In this section, the biggest flaw with the work also appears; a heavy-handed treatment of the discussion on trees. I love trees and have learned how they interact, mainly from The Secret Life of Trees. I’m open to learning more. But Powers repeats and bludgeons the reader with the importance of forests and trees and the accompanying ecosystem… to where it becomes a negative, rather than a positive message. An interesting crossover to other books I’ve reviewed here is the eco-activism. The Monkey Wrench Gang is the canonical novel and shades of that activity appear in this second section.

This continues through the third and final section, where the intertwining lives and plots resolve. Not every ending is tidy or happy (in a good way) but many of the character resolve in a slow descent. So slow that less than a week from reading, I can’t recall how each character arc ended.

The Overstory is a good read. I love disconnected/related stories and trees. Powers wanted his intertwined characters to connect below the surface like magnificent old-growth forests. The Overstay starts out strong and balanced and doesn’t quite deliver on the promise.

Triathlons, Slow-Carb and Writing

Seefin -Rosskerrig Mountain
Seefin -Rosskerrig Mountain, Cork, Ireland.

I’m struck by how writing mimics other parts of life. I see corollary’s between diet, exercise and writing. Or any pursuit requiring direction and practice.

It’s hard to ignore “good advice” for diet and fitness while not locked into a rigorous approach. For example, if I’m not following a defined program (what I used to do when training for triathlons), it’s easy to be distracted by “good advice.” For the last few years, I’ve adhered to a program of Z2 / Z5 cardio augmented by 3 days of lifting. But, it’s not a strict adherence. When I see different advice, like do HIIT 2-3x per week and nothing else… it tempts me to dip my toes into competing methodologies. And success in fitness needs consistency. Jumping between approaches based on the latest fad or advice is the opposite of consistent.

Same with diet. I’ve followed three major approaches long enough to have success with each: Paleo (for triathletes), Slow-Carb and whole-food-plant-based. Each restricts a type of food (potatoes, bread, dairy, etc) and demands strict, consistent adherence to the rules. Following parts of two different approaches won’t work; can’t eat Keto for breakfast (high fat, no carb) and something Mediterranean or whole food plant-based for dinner (high veg, high carb, low fat) and expect results.

Writing has the same pitfalls. As an avid reader, I come across so many enjoyable styles and genres. Stories without dialogue, with only dialogue, with long ruminations or no outward emotion. Stories with magic, with adventure, with no real action or movement, with sub-plots and sub-texts or everything at the surface. Non-fiction essays, slow reveals, lush or plain language. Without a defined approach… a fully bought in, Slow-Carb diet with rules and boundaries and a clear sense of what to pay attention to and emulate and what to ignore, I fall prey to flitting from style to style, sometimes in the same story. Worse, doubting my instincts for how to write.

Success and expectations are the only way out. If any piece gained traction with an audience, I’d be confident about the style of writing. Or, just keep writing and let these influences nibble away and maybe a unique voice emerges.

A Month in the Country

View from Bear Mountain, NY
View from Bear Mountain, NY

My last book review was The Untouchable, a recommendation from David Coggins. I just finished another of his suggestions, A Month in the Country by J.L Carr. Another non plot-driven book. It’s a trend!

A Month in the Country is a meditation on recovery, life in a small English village in the aftermath of WWI, love and purpose. We learn early on Birkin, our WWI vet, received a commission to uncover and restore a painting in a church in Oxgodby, a small town somewhere in England. Here he uncovers a masterpiece hidden under lime wash and lives with the people of Oxgodby. It’s impossible not to envision and yearn for the rolling hills, wood-burning stoves, afternoon tea, and a pace of life that invites long conversations and slow afternoons.

Birkin suffers from PTSD. He suffers from a severe facial tick and stammer and appears alien to the people in town, because of his war experience and being a Londoner. But the townspeople ease him into their world, bit by bit as the summer passes and the painting on the wall uncovers. He’s invited, overtly and implicitly, to stay and become part of this small town.

Carr masterfully weaves his wonderful description of place into a few storylines and gently introduces questions. What is the painting on the church wall? Who was the master painter? What will his friend, Moon, uncover in his search for a long-lost grave? Will Birkin stay in the village? Will he act on his desires for Mrs. Keach?

One of life’s simple pleasures is a great, short book. The length invites a slower read… perfect for a book about the English countryside. I imagined reading A Month in the Country in front of a fireplace with a pot of tea. Recommended.

Reading Hygiene

Cork, Ireland
Cork, Ireland

In last week’s review of The Untouchable, I mentioned it took almost 90 pages to really get into the novel. This reminded me about reading hygiene and the right way to read.

As a commuter in New York City, I’m always amazed at people reading books on crowded, chin-to-shoulder subway cars or while walking on the street. Or readers that can pick up a book, read a page or two in between phone calls. If these were “easy” books, sure… the latest Grisham or a romance novel. But I always notice the books people read in public, and some of them are quite serious.

I need to follow rules to read successfully. The most important is give serious work the time and attention it deserves. For instance, I couldn’t have read Anna Karenina a page at a time, or for five minutes at night before falling asleep. I hadn’t previously read Tolstoy; the story was in an unfamiliar world and wasn’t plot-driven. I have to block off sections of at least thirty uninterrupted minutes to concentrate on this type of novel. My mind needs that time to get comfortable with the author’s style, to pick up on the more subtle action, and to appreciate how the author is telling the story. Later, once I’m in the book’s world, I can read in smaller chunks.

If the book is longer (like Anna), setting targets helps. I don’t want to feel like these books are a burden. To move through at a good pace, I’ll set page goals for a weekend. One hundred pages, on a non-busy weekend, is reasonable. And enforces the first rule of sitting for good chunks of time to immerse into the story.

Another rule is to read at least two books at once. And they should be different, preferably one fiction and one non-fiction. Right now I’m reading A Month in the Country (fiction) and Death in the High Grass (non-fiction). I can read Death in the High Grass (a book I read fifteen years ago) easily and while groggy… the short, punchy stories are interesting and the writing is clear.

When I read in snippets, I prefer journals. The two physical journals I subscribe to, Adventure Journal and New Maps, are perfect for interstitial reading.

Book Review: The Untouchable

Cover of The Untouchable
Cover of The Untouchable

A few weeks ago, I wrote about reading recommendations, including two from David Coggins. I hadn’t read the books he listed in his newsletter… on a whim, I bought two, “The Untouchable” by John Banville and “A Month in the Country” by J. L Carr. The Untouchables was fantastic. Banville (who I need to read more) creates a world filled with memorable characters in England before, during and after WW2. It doesn’t check my usual boxes, but the writing overcomes any limitations.

Victor Maskell tells the story of his life as a spy. Not a James Bond type, but as an academic adjacent to upper-crust English society. The story begins with Victor revealing he was outed as a Russian agent but still lives freely in London. A young reporter interviews him about his life for a book and the rest of the story is Victor retelling his past.

I admit, I almost dropped this book twice… after twenty pages, and again after ninety. I couldn’t find the plot or the hook. Those first pages were a mishmash of characters and grievances. The Untouchable violated one of my main tenets… it didn’t have a strong and discernible plot. Rather than putting it down, I committed to fifty pages one weekend. Then I recognized the brilliance of the novel.

Banville, through the device of an elderly man recounting his life as a spy, places the reader in a world swirling with characters. Unlikable people… I can’t think of one character I rooted for or admired. But they were interesting, scheming, opinionated and memorable. A plot evolved through these characters… just hidden a few levels beneath the surface.

Also, hiding below the old stories and characters, was Victor Maskell’s double nature. He’s English and works on the war effort and is a trusted consultant of the King, and a Russian asset. He’s married with children and gay, a member of English society yet an Irish Catholic, etc. This dual nature is present in other characters as well, and, by the end of the book, the title “The Untouchable” also has double meaning.

This is a slow burn of a read, plot-wise. But Banville’s writing is compelling and his characters memorable. Sometimes when I read a book, I can’t wait to finish. I didn’t want “The Untouchable” to end.