Category Archives: reading

Why Bad Books Matter (to Writers, anyway.)

. . . So, to tell you about bad books, I have to go back a little bit in history; I have to tell you a little about nursing school. Nursing school, you see, is as close to hell as you can get as a nominally free citizen– the hours are brutal, the respect is nil, the wages are zero, and you see many sights that Cannot Be Unseen. Really freaky stuff that messes with your head, too, dead people and surgical screw-ups and the vacant gazes of people who have decided they want to die and you’re just an inconvenient pause in their plans. Not to mention frequently running into patients who like to flick HIV-laden blood in your face and expose their shriveled manhoods to you and other indignities. It’s not fun.

I went through nursing school, the first semester, while heavily pregnant with my 4th child (not counting the stepson.) The second semester, I was a weepy postpartum mess trying to pump breastmilk in hostile conditions while maintaining a 4.0 GPA and raising a family. Yeah, not good. My baby turned sickly from being in daycare all day, which led to hospitalizations and drama, and I spent my second year in nursing school going to school all week and then working all weekend as a “nurse tech,” which is basically a technical term for “the bitch of every real nurse on the floor.” I also developed plantar fasciitis, which is about as much fun as having someone do a crucifixion on your feet every night before work.

During my preceptorship, I had to assist in delivering a dead baby girl. That messed me up, badly. I barely had the ability to finish my final project and walk the stage (although my grades were, annoyingly to everyone else, still at the top of the class, if not the actual top. I didn’t bother to check.) After I graduated, I was elated. I immediately got a job, a job with a staggering amount of personal responsibility that I had also heard had a high turnover rate (I should have been suspicious right then) but it was a real job! With a real wage! And, wonder of wonders, I didn’t have to go to school anymore! I could READ again!

So, being the more-than-slightly overly-ambitious woman that I have always been, I decided that what I needed to do was to read the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list.  I sunk a large amount of money into a stack of the books on the list (from Amazon, of course) and dove in. I started with “Henderson the Rain King”, which was a somewhat odd choice, but the cover looked really neat with the big lion on it and, hey, Saul Bellow. Real literature with a capital L, people.

And it was wonderful– Henderson the Rain King is a really great book, especially when you’re in your mid-30s and wondering if life has a point and, if so, WTF is it?

The job didn’t last long– my husband transferred to Florida and I gratefully handed in my resignation before management could find a way to pin me with some legal responsibility for the next screwup. And, given that all my stress was suddenly gone, the baby we’d been trying to conceive for the previous year decided that, yes, he’d immediately be conceived after all, so I never went back to work as a nurse.

But I kept trying to read, with the stated goal that I’d read all those darn books by the time I was 40. By the time I hit 39, with several major health problems along the road, my newest toddler with a rare disease, and yet another baby on the way, I decided that finishing wasn’t really the point. I wasn’t going to fail any huge existential crisis by not finishing by 40, after all.

And I’ve kept plugging along at it. At this point, today at the ripe age of 43, I have seven titles left out of 100– James Joyce’s “Finnegan’s Wake” and “Ulysses,” “The Big Money” by John Dos Passos, “The Ambassadors” by Henry James, “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller, “The Studs Lonigan Trilogy” by James T. Farrell, and the ominously 12-volume “A Dance to the Music of Time” by Anthony Powell.

I’m basically down to the books that I am having to force myself through by sheer will. I have developed a fondness for Henry James, so he gets a pass, and I haven’t delved deep enough into the Dance to the Music of Time to even really get a feel for whether or not it’s a monstrosity or a delight, but the others . . . ohhhh. I loathe them. I hate them with a rare passion which could fill volumes.

And, yet, these are books which have been acknowledged, by thousands of people, to be true classics of Western Literature. How dare I, a humble little fantasy author, dare to say that they’re bad books? How, if they are bad books, do they get so much acclaim?

And there’s the secret right there, my dear readers: tastes vary. Some of these books on this list were written a long time ago, for very different audiences. Some of them have completely lost their cultural context– quick, tell me the relevance of all the people John Dos Passos includes in his character sketches, given that they’re a bunch of union rabble-rousers and Communists from the 1919-1940 period! Tell me how much “Tobacco Road” has ever mattered, considering what a schlocky piece of prejudicial crap it is, other than to give Yankees another reason to look down on Southerners. And please, find me a reason to respect VS Naipaul besides the fact that he comes from an underrepresented culture so we’re forced to swallow his bilge wholesale.

Some of the books, most of the books, on this list are amazing books. They’ve changed my heart, touched my soul, given me hope and strength, and allowed me to better navigate the tides of my life. And some of them have been crap, and I’ve read them wondering why I force myself through this. I’m not getting a grade– no one is giving me some kind of medal for reading these books. I’m not getting extra credit. So why, besides some kind of completionist obsession, would I force myself through something like “Catch-22” when it’s like listening to a long boring joke told by some tottery old uncle with no sense of humor?

As far as I can figure out, fumbling through these books on my own, the bad books have something to teach me as well. They may teach me something about a part of our history that I’m not too familiar with– Under the Volcano, Zulieka Dobson, and Angle of Repose all fit in that category. They may teach me about how to write truly repellent characters– for this one, all you have to read, really, is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. They may teach me different writing techniques, they may teach me nothing that I can even discern at first, but just getting through them requires me, as a writer, to do the most difficult thing that any writer has to do:

I have to put myself into someone else’s head.

That’s never easy– so many of our characters are just us, different aspects of us, writ large and split into different people. My daughter, who is reading my novel “Dragon Venom” right now, sometimes comes up to me and points out a passage that sounds like some aspect of my personality, digs out a joke that sounds like something I would have made, or accuses me wholesale of excavating one aspect of my psyche and turning it into a character entire. Well, of course, I am the person I know best. Of course I mine myself for material. But I also have to examine other people, learn about them, predict what they would do, and make extrapolations from there. And that’s where these books that I loathe come in handy.

Because they are decidedly NOT me. I’d never have gotten myself into the mess that the protagonist let himself in for in The Magus. As much as I love DH Lawrence, I would have killed off every character in “The Rainbow” rather than have it end as it did. The House of Mirth made me hate weakness in myself as much as it made me hate the protagonist for her weak decadent fate. Some of the characters make so little sense to me (hello, JP Donleavy), that I can’t even begin to figure out what they’re thinking. And I don’t want to– they’re jerks.

But that’s been the only good part about all these bad books. Many people disagree that they’re bad in the first place– to say, publicly, that you hate James Joyce because he was playing the system doesn’t make you especially well-loved by people who admire him for masterfully playing the system. That’s an insolvable problem, there. I will always see him as a man obsessed by his own literary fame, and they will see him as a genius who struggled to make his vision clear to the world. We’ll just have to agree to disagree.

And I will, for these next two months, agree to force myself through it, no matter how bitter the taste. Maybe I will learn something. Maybe– the man had talent, that’s for sure, I just disagree about the uses he put it to. I’m halfway through “Catch 22” and “The Ambassadors”, just a long boring bath or two from finishing Studs Lonigan and The Big Money. The Dance to the Music of Time 12 book series? Seriously? I am having the hardest time with that one. So far, Book 1 has been a “British boys away at boarding school” thing and it’s giving me no particular thrills. I am hoping that it gets interesting quickly, because that’s the only stumbling block on my road to completion of this now-decades-long reading challenge that I saddled myself with.

I am hoping to learn something that I will need on this next novel-writing journey. Because my goal, dear readers, is not to just crank out another novel in a boring trilogy and pad out my word count. My goal, my eternal goal, is to get better with each book– I want you to care about my characters. I want you to cringe when they die, rejoice when they win, suffer with them when they’re in troubles and tribulations. I want them to be as real people as they can be, given that they’re characters in a book. I want the action to flow naturally and logically from the plot. I don’t want to shrink from making the big decisions– I want the bravery and the love to do the right thing, to write the book the right way, and to give you a book at the end of it which will make you happy to have read it.

And that is why bad books matter– they show you, better than anything else, what you don’t feel is true, what you don’t feel is right, and how not to do things.

Wish me luck in applying these lessons!

 

 

 

 


Dragon Venom On Sale Today!

DragonHeadd

Just for today, my ebook, Dragon Venom, is on sale for 99 cents on Kindle! Get your copy today, the price goes up to 2.99 tomorrow!


Progress and The Idiot

The thing about chronic illness is that it plays merry hell with your writing production.

I was reminded of this powerfully this month, not only because I have spent the past six weeks suffering through this stupid cancer treatment and a very bad arthritis flare simultaneously, but also because I finally finished reading Dostoyevsky’s novel “The Idiot.”

In my own life, my arthritis flares start with fatigue so all-encompassing that I could easily sleep 20 hours a day if I wasn’t forced out of bed to deal with reality. And when I am out dealing with life, I am functioning about as well as a zombie might. Once the fatigue passes, the pain begins, and typing is just one of the many things that becomes nearly impossible.

Dostoyevsky wrote “The Idiot” during a turbulent period in his life, and it’s possible to watch his own illness come and go in the quality of the plotting and writing. Some sections of the novel crackle with energy and the plot hums along without any hesitation. And then there are the sections where there’s hesitancy, redundancy, and a slight bewilderment in the plotting. Those periods are followed by chapters that suddenly introduce a narrator, who digresses about authorial intent and writing techniques. All in all, “The Idiot” is an at-times bizarre mess of a novel.

But it’s a grand mess, a touching long rumination about the nature of goodness, the difficulties of living in the real world with real sinful humanity all around you, and it also functions as a venue to explore the worries and fears of a man who was afflicted with epilepsy (as was the titular character.) It took me months to read through it, mostly because it required concentration and a lot of patience. The more confused chapters are difficult to get through, and whether or not Dostoyevsky purposefully wrote them that was as a reflection of his character’s mood or if it was an unconscious reflection of his own mental state, they’re very hard to get through. Once the characters leave Petersburg for Pavlovsk, the narrative meanders and doubles back according to whimsy.

I have started working again, although of course I am more than a month behind on my goals and stated ambitions. And I can only say that sometimes Reality steps in and makes its own goals the primary ones. Getting through each day, trying to get the very basic things of life done, it leaves no time for art or craft. If you can’t even remotely figure out how you’re going to cook dinner or make it to the dentist without falling apart, it’s a pretty good bet that you’re not going to be working at any sort of artistic high point.

So, I will continue to work. And I will update when I am done. It shouldn’t be too long, however. My birthday is soon and I want to be out with the old and in with the new, so to speak. Getting these old projects off my to-do list would clear the decks for more new things.


truly, madly, deeply

I will be honest with you– in the past, I have been guilty of writing things that weren’t truly reflective of who I really am. I’ve written things just to try to sell them, just to try to break into a particular market, and written things that don’t actually reflect my ideals, thoughts, hopes, and morals.

Which is why I don’t really like to dig back into my past and publish my old stories and poetry. There’s very little in there that I am actually proud of, very little that I would want my grandchildren to read, so to speak. I wrote things that I thought would please my “market” and they are embarrassing to me now. Why did I write that, I ask myself. Was it really that important to sell a short story?

Some writers will tell you that writing “to a market” is just what you do. It’s the accepted practice– if someone wants to publish an anthology about freaky hermaphrodite clowns, then you write a story about freaky hermaphrodite clowns, even if you heartily wish that clowns were all stripped of their red rubber noses and forced to work at the DMV.

In some cases, the ideas spawned by certain markets, like anthologies and magazines, may, possibly, once in a blue moon, actually rouse your best creative force and you can write a heartfelt tale that sears the page in its beauty and passion. But mostly you’re just hurriedly grinding something out in the very slim hope that the editor will like it. Even though the editor is mainly counting on their friends and acquaintances to fill the anthology and is only holding out one or two slots for unknown writers, of course. And then you’re stuck with a story about freaky hermaphrodite clowns, which you now have to try to foist off on another market. (Those other markets know that this will happen, and cringe for months reading freaky clown stories.)

Sometimes, though, you’re just writing in a certain genre and you absorb the mores and cultural assumptions that are common to that market. Cultural appropriation is terribly common in science fiction and fantasy (ask me sometime about alien worlds who all seem to have desert areas with heavily draped peoples who call the area Something-istan. I start to foam at the mouth, I have heard.) So is writing about gay characters even if you yourself are not gay. Being progressive sells, that’s the heart of the idea.

I wrote a story once about a young woman in 1600-1700s Indonesia who was banished from her village, became bonded to a cursed knife, and then had the problem of how to remove the knife. Long story short: she gets her hand cut off, but decides, with the help of her lesbian lover, that the cursed knife must be destroyed for the good of her people. Because of the religious powers that were in that particular region at that time, I ultimately had my character pray to the Islamic god for his help in destroying the knife.

Now, if I was writing the story today, I would have found a way to leave Islam out of it ENTIRELY. Not simply to avoid offending the people of that faith (although that would be part of it) but also because it was just a hasty addition at the end, written under time pressure, and it wasn’t a very satisfying ending to the tale. I would have preferred it if the woman could have found some other ghost of her own people to banish her vile uncle’s spirit.

I guess it was satisfying enough to sell it, anyway– it was published in 2002 in a cd-rom anthology called “Extremes 5: Fantasy and Horror from the ends of the earth.” For, hah, an equal share of the profit. Sadly, after the editor had taken out his expenses, there was no profit, so basically all I got for tacking on this hasty religiously ambivalent ending was a copy of the cd-rom and a cramped hand from signing the sleeve inserts. Oh, and I was out about ten bucks for postage.

I would have made it more clear, I think, that the main character was only “gay” in the sense that she was heartbroken and suicidal and that she was responding to the other woman’s kindness and love. Two broken people clinging to each other in a storm. If it had been a man, she would have probably run in fear after her lifetime of abuse by men. Situationally, the gay character made sense. I don’t regret putting it in, because it was true to the character and the story basically wouldn’t have worked without there being someone else there to help her. She would have just given up and died, otherwise. I wanted people to feel that sorrowful weight upon her, and then to see at the end that she was, in fact, still broken– the love had not fixed the wounds in her heart. It just enabled her to endure the pain.

So I have decided that this week, in celebration of the idea of doing things “right” and true and writing from your passion and not your fear, I am going to republish this story, A Dagger in the Rain, on Kindle. I will be doing some editing to it first, fixing that problematical ending with the unneeded influence of an outside god. As an outsider writing about a distant historical place, and about ghosts in that place, nothing is ever going to be perfect. Even Joseph Conrad had to read several books about the Indonesian peoples before he dared to write about them, because he knew he wouldn’t get everything right without years of experience that he didn’t have.

The first step is going to be to find the disc. I know I just moved it into my closet right before Christmas! Then a quick edit and rewrite, and I will make it available for a nominal price on Amazon’s kindle page. I’d start tonight but I can feel my Ambien kicking in and my typing is starting to fall apart.

I am excited, I think, to try to make a story closer to my true vision for it. There are not many stories that I would bother fixing in this way– mostly my ghost stories, for those have always been the ones closest to my heart. When you’ve lived in a haunted house, ghost stories are always interesting ones.

My novel, thankfully, is only “not me” in one respect: I wrote it with a male protagonist. In hindsight, I still feel that he’s the best character for the job. I definitely wouldn’t want to put a female through all the stuff those guys get up to in their desert journey. But the fact that I wrote this novel to fit in with MY vision of what a fantasy hero should act like and do and feel and dream . ..  that makes it so pleasing to me. I didn’t sell out for this novel. Raban and Valerius are just who they need to be, where they need to be, doing what they need to do. And it was a labor of love to get them there.

I’ll announce the release when it posts. 🙂


Last Post . . . no, I mean the novel

So, I had urgent business that I had to finish before I dusted off my novel and got it ready for publication.

I had to finish reading Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy “Parade’s End.”

You see, the fourth novel in the book, “Last Post,” is a hard slog at first. You’d think that, after having hacked your way through the thickets of confusing prose in the first three novels, the fourth would be a breeze, but you’d be wrong. Because suddenly Ford throws a curve-ball and abandons his protagonist, Christopher Tietjens, leaving him entirely out of the book until the last two pages. So we’re thrust into the point of view of a bunch of people who have mostly been in the background, and the epic study of one obstinate man becomes more of a gossipy pursuit of truth through the various bits of information these characters reveal.

It’s jarring. But, having resolved to finish the book, I kept at it until I found the groove. Which came, oddly enough, from the one completely incurious character in the novels.

The other characters are always wondering about something, obsessing about something, sifting through memories and possibilities until you’re quite certain that all of them are more than a little bit crazy. None of them are introspective; they’re constantly obsessed with the actions and possible actions of others. When we finally get dropped into the POV of Tietjens’s sister-in-law, it’s refreshing. She’s completely incurious, to the point where it’s ridiculous. After so many hundreds of pages devoted to worrying about people, here is a woman who just wants to bottle some cider. Properly, the French way.

Graham Greene famously hated “Last Post” and tried to strike it from the tetralogy completely. It’s easy to see why– it’s so different in tone and style from the first three novels that it seems like an ugly duckling. But by the end of the third book, the only real “change” that Tietjens is capable of making has been made. We know him, we know how sentimental and hard-headed and absurd he is. What we haven’t seen before is the resolution of the conflict between the women of the novels and the fallout from WWI. Those are both messy topics, and not in the least anything that Tietjens himself would want to even think much about. It’s a much prettier ending to end the series with the third book– it has a classic romantic ending– but it’s much more psychologically satisfying to see the whole darn mess for what it is.

And that’s what “Last Post” gives us: a real conclusion. And I couldn’t move on from Ford’s books, mentally, until I’d moved past them. After the horrible shadow of jealousy and despair was dismissed, well, we can all move on. Until then, the reader knows that there’s no actual happiness in that romantic ending, because the banshee of Sylvia’s desire is going to keep haunting Tietjens and all his affairs.

Now that I’m finished reading the series, however, my lovely excuse for not working is gone so I’d better get busy.

Reading novels like these, however, does set the bar that little bit higher. How can I be happy with my work if I don’t try for “art?” I can’t, of course. But it helps to remember that Ford wrote dozens of novels, of which only this series and “The Good Soldier” are actually given any renown. Not everything we write really hits the mark. And sometimes, like this novel, it may hit it for some people and decidedly NOT hit it for others.