Book Review – Writing Down The Bones

Why I read this book: It’s extremely well-regarded as a book for aspiring authors.

Did I enjoy it: Sort of.  It was a little too out-of-body/zen for me.

What I will learn from it:  She has a gift with words, making every expression playful and fun.  The basics covered the same sorts of things covered in so many books on writing.  One exercise she lists that I thought was particularly helpful was targeted at helping you avoid stale verbs.  She suggests thinking of a profession and listing every possible verb you can think of associated with that profession.  Then list an equal number of nouns on the opposite side of the page.  Then look at them together and see if you can match them up.

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer WithinWriting Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones” is a zen approach to writing. To Natalie, the act of writing is a spiritual activity. The book gives several tiny clips of advice covering subjects such as perseverance, inspiration, and good writing habits.
Reading this book is like reading poetry, which makes sense since the author is primarily a poet. She brings us lines like “That banana I ate in the cold kitchen Tuesday morning stopped the world.” These little clips kept each section fun and fresh. You never really knew what she might say next.
That said, this book didn’t really strike any chords with me. As much as I enjoyed the little vignettes she would set up for us, I found the book a little too Zen. While I do not believe that writing can be reduced down to cold logic and formula, there’s only so much that I can be the giraffe or sautee the blinds.
Ultimately, “Writing Down the Bones” is a well-written book that I think will be a great way to reach many writers that view themselves first as artists (but probably need to accent the second syllable of Ar-Teest to properly capture the mood). Some people may find it unfolded their hearts, or caressed their studio. For me, it swallowed the floor.

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Collaborative Storytelling

Has anybody tried collaborative story-telling?  I’ve heard about writing groups where people take turns writing chapters of a story, and was intrigued.

I have a problem.  I need to get over my incompletion hangup.  My first thought to do this would be to create a pressure to write by having somebody else depend on me.  This lead me to collaborative writing.  The more I thought about it, the more it appeals to me.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I play role-playing games, which essentially amounts to table-to collaborative storytelling.  People gather and talk, roll some dice to create random chance, but ultimately are gathered to tell a story.  I’ve frequently served in the role of Game Master, which means the core story, the villains, and all of the side characters are driven by me.  I’ve done this role for 20 years.  This gives me experience in I guess what I’d describe as the speed-chess of storytelling.

I think that makes me adept at quickly spinning out a yarn, and then being creative to try and tie it all together later if I put something out that didn’t quite fit.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the mistakes and “oops moments” often lead me to some of the most interesting and original content.

Taking ongoing stories where different authors try to take it different directions may be exactly what I need to get the pen going again.  (It also may be YET ANOTHER distraction that keeps me from actually finishing a single work, but hey, what can I say?).

I’ve found two.

http://www.storymash.com

http://www.storytimed.com

I’ve got one story started on storymash, and continued a few on both sites.

http://storymash.com/u/LordBrand/holuwutu/

Let me know what you think.

Also, do you know any other ways to get into collaborative writing?  Anybody have experience with it?  Thoughts?

Book Review – Invader

Why I read this book:  I was seeking out well-regarded science fiction and found this book (along with many others in the series at the used book store.  Unfortunately, we were missing the first book, but I hoped it wouldn’t matter short of having a few holes in the story.

Did I Enjoy this book:  Eh.  I gave it my first 2, and I couldn’t finish it so I have to say “No,” but the reality is that the book was “interesting” just not engaging.

What I learned from this book:  Two things:  First, alien culture is a fascinating topic that apparently can be explored in hundreds of pages without losing many readers (just not this one).  Second, sequels need to do a fair measure of building character investment so that you don’t lose reader interest if a reader starts in the middle.  I want to be clear that this need is for far more than just the plot.  There are enough references to the prior book that I wasn’t lost here any more than any other book where we have a rich history of events that characters reference.  My major concern is that the author seems to take it at a given that I’m willing to wade through hundreds of pages of nostalgia-like revisits of characters I have no relationship with.  I need things to be happening to keep me engaged.

Invader (Foreigner, #2)Invader by C.J. Cherryh

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The book cover says it’s the stunning sequel to Foreigner. I would unfortunately put forth that there is nothing stunning about this book. I review this book and rate it so that any who read my reviews can continue to share in my insights, but the reality is that I was unable to even finish it. I stopped about halfway through, and this book marks the first where I have done this. It also rates my first 2 star.

On the one hand, this book had a lot of interesting things going on. We have a character, Bren Cameron, who wakes up from surgery to an urgent need to return back to his post in a country populated entirely by the alien Atevi. He represents humanity’s sole interface with this race of aliens who not only have a different language, but an entirely different way of thinking. Couple this backdrop with two major catalysts: First, while he was gone from the events of the prior book, his human government dispatched and installed a replacement… An inept replacement that now refuses to leave. Second, a human ship with unknown motives has appeared in orbit of this planet of aliens for the first time since humanity appeared on the planet. The situation is ripe for intensity.

And fails to deliver.

After nearly 300 pages, I can summarize the events of the book in probably 6 sentences or less… And with good descriptive language, I probably won’t have left out that much. Absolutely nothing seems to happen. Intensity seems to be limited to the first 20 pages of the book, and then a single scene afterward as we watch the character meet with first one political connection to another as he tries to reestablish his waned authority and calm the Atevi people from the threat they potentially face. The reader faces endless pages that promote glassy eyed re-reads while trying to make sure you didn’t miss something of interest in your desperate attempt to get to something, anything exciting.

Where this book does deliver is in the characterization of our hero, Bren. The Atevi have a fairly uniform (although complex) behavior that vary by only the most subtle differences that wouldn’t be distinctive to any but a die-hard lover of the series; the other humans are flat stereotypes begging for depth that might be realized in another 300 pages. Bren however, is the sole interesting character (which is good, because we spend an awful lot of time alone with his thoughts) that is trying to juggle his human heritage with the Atevi culture he finds himself immersed in. The author cleverly adapts even the mental expressions to be reflected in a way the Atevi think, leveraging their idioms and mental paradigms so that the reader can feel what it is to be alien… but only just so.

I did not read the first story in this series, and perhaps that is my undoing here. Like Dwight Swain’s Scene-Sequel structure, perhaps this book is simply the sequel rest period to a prior books overly intense action. Regardless, it didn’t have enough to keep me going, despite the subtle political relationships promising intrigue. If you watching a human psyche unfold and redefine itself, this book may hold something for you, but don’t hold out for something to happen… At least not in the first 300 pages.

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Welcome Home

I’m woefully delayed on this post, but I figure better late than never. Made it back to the United States a few days ago, and Wow. What a trip. If you read my post earlier on how the voyage over went, I can tell you that this one went a lot smoother. No terrible illnesses. No deadly silent drivers taking me through some of the seediest places in India on my way to who-knows-where. Just a straight-up trip back. Watched some movies (Star Wars, Deadpool, Kung Fu Panda 3), avoided eating, and then got the great joy of hugging my wife and kids in the airport.

Some closing thoughts:

1) We truly take for granted the luxuries we have in the United States, and we’ve somehow lost some qualities of compassion along the way. Example: I went out to eat with some of the co-workers… I had way too much food. It was delicious, but I was stuffed. I planned to pitch it. One of my co-workers grabbed it and had it boxed. He said he’d give it to somebody, and I thought he meant take it back to the office. Instead, he handed it to an elderly lady (either homeless or at least jobless) on the steps outside the restaurant. It really makes me think back to the “What We Throw Away” post I put up on the Perfect-The-Days blog. Over here, we’d pitch it to the trash. This is just one example, but there were so many more. Children digging through the endless piles of garbage along the streets. Even the idea of government assistance for those who cannot provide for themselves. The man who drove me around had a monthly salary of less than what it cost me to stay in my hotel for two days… And he was the primary income for his family. And yet, when I tried to tip him, he was embarrassed and a few days in started turning it down (truly insisting, even saying “Please, no more tip.”). I continued to offer each day, and he eventually accepted… But the difference is staggering.

So many luxuries that we don’t think about… I won’t say if it’s right or wrong, but I do think it’s important for us to think about them.

2) I did in fact find something to eat. I’ll have a whole post up later about food. But I surprisingly didn’t lose the kind of weight I thought I would. I guess enough rice and chicken to keep me “healthy.” More than just the food, the attitude towards eating. In the US, eating is often a chore we fit around other things. The idea of drive-thru’s came about because we are always hurrying from one place to the next, and it was convenient to grab and go. In Hyderabad, there were only two places with Drive-thru’s at all, and both were American restaurants.

The difference comes from how they perceive a meal. Some is immediately noticeable in the way the dinner menu works: You have soups. You have starters (which seemed pretty granted that you’d be getting). You have a main course. And you often don’t order each until you’ve finished the prior. This is because conversation is the most important part of every meal. You eat as a way to connect with your colleagues. Even breakfasts and lunches were communal gatherings where a dozen people from the office (and often mixings of different group members) gather and go off for a while together to eat.

Another difference here would be the hours people eat. In the US, breakfast is typically around 7-8, lunch somewhere inside 11-1, and dinner (supper) is almost always over by 7 except in weird “working late” situations. In India, the breakfast might start around 9/9:30, lunch didn’t usually start until 1, and supper isn’t until 8 or 9. Restaurants won’t even open until 7 in most cases. Bizarre!

3) Traffic. I mentioned this when I first arrived, but I wanted to add to it. A friend of mine in India told me that there’s one big difference between US drivers and Indian drivers. In the US, we drive watching to make sure we don’t hit anybody else. In India, you drive watching to make sure nothing else hits you. The difference sounds funny, but is a huge distinction. For example, in three weeks, I didn’t see a single accident. In the US, I often see 3-5 accidents a week, and I drive a lot less here than we did there. This is because in India, people are constantly aware of things going on around them. You never know, somebody could come burrowing up from the Earth, and as a driver, you want to watch for it (and check to see if this new tunnel gets you around the giant congestion just ahead). In the US, you can put the car on autopilot… Check your phone. Read your email. Text you girlfriend… Get into a wreck.

Additionally, the roads in India did not have the same kind of planning around them. Religious structures are protected, so roads often zigzag around structures declared to be a temple (for any number of the many faiths present in India). Drainage is a huge problem. Lakes formed on common roads because the water had nowhere to go. This certainly made drives interesting.

4) I had never truly felt homesick until this trip. I’m a home-body by nature. I don’t like going out. If you read my first India post, I’ve never had much interest in seeing the world. My home is my castle, etc, etc. I write this just to say that I’m almost always ready to go home as soon as I get out. But even with this being the truth, I had no idea what homesickness truly felt like. Everything I had felt before was just an annoyance. After around the two week mark, I learned this truth. True homesickness is when you can’t stand everything around you… from the smell of the laundry, to the view out your window, to the taste of the air. I was fed up with the politeness and courtesy. All of the meals had begun to taste exactly the same (which is really just not true!). I didn’t want to leave my hotel, and I hated staying in it. It was really bad.

Overall it was a great trip. Eye-opening and an exceptional opportunity that I wouldn’t trade.

And yes… It was hot.

Destiny

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Destiny

“Come on come on come on! Get your stuff!”
Matt tapped his foot and glanced again at his watch. Every hour wasted was another hour he’d have to rent the damned moving truck. It was cheaper than the hotels, but that didn’t make it cheap.
Avery, his oldest stepped up, one hand on her hip and the other clutching her travel bag. “I’m tired of moving,” she whined. “Can’t we just stay in one place for a while? I’d like to you know, make friends.”
Matt dismissed her complaints with a wave of his hand and stepped forward to grab the edge of her bag and pull her towards the truck.
“You’ll understand when you’re older.” She dutifully climbed up the side and pulled open the door. A stack of fliers and brochures of locations all over the country littered the front seat. A giant “X” written in black Sharpie marked over half. His daughter pushed them to the floor. Once she was settled, he handed her a map with the paperclip on the top holding yet another flier to it.
“Destiny Falls, North Dakota. Fame and fortune await.”
This time would be the one.

Almost Regret

My mother hasn’t met either of her grandchildren. She also hasn’t met my wife, or seen the house we built after getting married. She didn’t come to my graduation from college, and didn’t call me to congratulate me on my rapid climb through corporate America. She hasn’t done any of these things because she died at age 42 while I was a junior in college.

Losing my mom so young definitely changed the way I think about life, and it certainly made a big impact on me… A very special bond existed between my mother and I. We were kindred spirits in many ways… from the books we read to the way we dealt with conflict. Her death probably damaged my psyche in a way that led me to some pretty self-destructive decisions in college (that I ultimately recovered from)… More on that later.

It could have been so much worse.

A bit of backstory.  I grew up fairly poor. My dad fell apart from over-work and eventually harder and harder drugs, which meant that life got stretched pretty thin. My mom did the best she could with the money he chose to give us. She was a stay-at-home mom, and I’m grateful for that, but there were plenty of weeks when my sister and I were walking a couple miles down the road to the grocery store because cans of tunafish and macaroni were a better purchase than gas.

That said, right around middle school, I stopped being able to get all the things my friends could. I couldn’t go on field trips that carried a parent out-of-pocket expense. I couldn’t get the cassettes (woah, dated) or later CD’s that they did. I didn’t have cool toys or the latest games on the Super Nintendo. It left me a little bitter.

College was a breakout for me. My mother was fairly disappointed because she had wanted me to live at home and commute the way my sister did… But that wasn’t going to be my life. I wanted to get away and learn who I was… not continue in the crap I had been going through. Scholarships and student loans let me escape poverty and pretend I was just another student. I lived on campus and it was great. The beginning of each school year flushed me with a bunch of money for books and living expenses that I would inevitably blow within the first month of the semester starting. The only hiccup was a process that happened every year called “Verification.”

Normally, this wasn’t a big deal. We (my sister and I) were somehow ALWAYS “randomly” selected to submit additional documentation to verify our income was in fact as low as we reported. No biggie. Mom didn’t work, so not a whole lot of paperwork to turn in.

For some reason, my junior year, it didn’t go smooth. I had to go meet with the some people in the financial aid department to discuss my situation. I waited in a really long line the weekend before classes started and finally got to talk to my representative, some gray-haired old man that wasn’t really interested in going off-script for anything. I arrive, and he tells me:

“I’m sorry, but we just don’t understand how a family of 5 could survive on this little income.”

I try to explain my situation to him. He’s not hearing it. I’m more flabbergasted because the federal government has already agreed to give me the money. The documents I sent to them were enough. This was just some secondary thing my university was doing.

Unfortunately, despite my best efforts to explain, he waves me off and tells me he doesn’t have time to go into it with me. Then he offers me the golden ticket: The university will grant me what they call an “Emergency Loan” that will cover tuition and get me through the first month while I sort out my issues. It’s a no interest loan due exactly one month after issue… If not paid in full at that time, the interest defaults up to some astronomical number (25% or something like that) compounded as often as they legally can.

Shouldn’t be an issue, gray-hair tells me… Once my student loan money clears up, that pays off the loan and we don’t skip a beat. They can even pump it up a bit to cover books.

This sounds like exactly the thing I need.

My golden ticket has a catch though. It needs a co-signer.

At this point, my world screeches to a halt. I did what any self-respecting college student does in situations like these… I called family for help.

And was denied. By my grandmother. By my aunt. By my uncles.

By my mother.

Ouch. I can look back now and realize that my mom co-signing probably wouldn’t have been enough to approve the loan and it’s possible she tried to tell me that, but all I heard at the time was “I’m not going to help you.” We argued a bit about it, and she basically said that if I had to drop out, I could move back home. I was fairly irritated since it felt like this was some nefarious plan she had concocted the day I had left home. The last words spoken on the call were mine:

“Fine, that’s okay. I’m used to not getting any help from you on anything.”

She hung up on me.

The school thing sorted itself out. I worked for the department of housing, and had made a really good impact there. They were able to expedite several things for me (perhaps more than even I knew). Maybe I’ll throw some memories on that later. Regardless, my schooling was paid for and I launched in with no issues, except one. The landmine that had been dropped between me and my mom.

Months went by, I refused to call her and she refused to call me. I didn’t go home on weekends. I had effectively cut myself off from my family, with my sister being my only real connection. My sister called me multiple times and told me that Mom constantly cried over the fact that I avoided her. My sister pleaded that I just call mom and talk to her. I wouldn’t do it.

“She hung up on me. If she wants to talk, she can call me back.”

Pride. Stubborn, terrible pride. The tragedy was, I missed talking to her too, but I wasn’t going to be the one to yield.

Until one day I finally decided to swallow that terrible pride and call. We didn’t really touch on the whole emergency loan thing, but we caught up on everything else. I talked about how school was going. She did the same (she was in classes to try and build a career for herself). We talked about my little brothers, TV shows we both watched, books we had recently read. That call ended with “I love you.”

She died a week after that call. Sudden heart-attack.

I remember my aunt picking me up at college to drive me to the hospital, ominous and speechless in the car. She hadn’t told me that my mother had died, just that she fallen and gone to the hospital. I think I worked it out on the way there, my sister’s pale face and lack of words on the drive may have been the clue. Regardless, she was gone… So young, and so many conversations between us that would never be had.

I am sad she didn’t get to meet my family or see the man I’ve grown to be. I regret the anger I held for her for months before her death. But I would have regretted them a lot more if I hadn’t swallowed pride and picked up the phone to talk. I’ve learned in the long run, fault doesn’t really matter. It could be her fault, my fault, nobody’s fault… But holding onto that just leaves regrets. And just may cost you a chance to connect with somebody important to you. How much is that worth? Should we cut off noses to spite our faces? I’m glad I didn’t, because it’s a very thin line (but an extremely painful one!) between a life-time of regret, and a life-time of almost regret.

Book Review – Elements of Style

Why I read this book:  Because it’s Elements of Style.  This book is considered a “must-have” in every writer’s library.

Did I enjoy it:  Not really.  I’m glad I read it, and think it’s a very important book for authors to read… But I had to work to turn each page.

What I will learn from this book: Tough to say.  I’ve read enough books on writing that I’ve gotten all the information contained within secondhand.  I’m familiar with all the concepts it painstakingly lays out.  So what does this one teach me directly?  No much.

CAVEAT:  I sound really negative on this book, but I’m sure you’ll notice I still gave it 4 stars below… That’s because I really think every author should read it.  If you intend to only own one book on writing, or read one book on writing…. I really believe this is an excellent book to select.  Just be prepared for a siege!

The Elements of StyleThe Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is with some trepidation that I write this summary of the often quoted and much-lauded Elements of Style by Strunk, and later updated by his student White. This book has been hailed as the only book on writing you’ll ever need to read (by Stephen King), and is probably the most referenced book on writing I’ve ever seen (and I’ve read 20-30 books on writing). It is considered the penultimate go-to resource that belongs in every aspiring author’s collection. It’s even available for free online now.

Is it worth the hype?

It is, and it isn’t. On the one hand, there is a promise by all those quoting its venerable pages and all those singing its praises… A promise that is delivered. Just about any piece of advice you find in a modern (or old) book on writing is going to be found in this book. The pieces of advice provided anywhere in an almost off-hand way (show not tell, avoid adverbs in favor of stronger verbs, subject verb agreement, etc) are written in this text as Gospel. And with good reason. These are the staples of being a writer, and ignoring any principle in this book should be done so with careful thought and great hesitation. Know the rule before you break it, and make sure you are breaking it with purpose.

Other than that, the book falls short. It reads like a college textbook, which is fair since that’s what it was originally written as. It is very easy to want to skip sections to try and find something interesting to read, but turning pages in this book would be a terrible mistake. The authors practice what they preached… They have omitted needless words. Every piece of text is “meat” that you really shouldn’t miss. And yet, it’s so easy to miss it because of how congested the book can sometimes feel in its incredibly short pages. Most of the advice is timeless, but there is some that is clearly dated. An entire section focuses specifically on vocabulary and expressions, cases where the author was resisting words shifting in meaning or usage; fighting a private war against the fluidity of language, and that war has shown change to be the victor in several areas.

Don’t misunderstand me. As challenging as this can be to read, it is an imperative that every author know the principles contained therein. I am a huge advocate of “On Writing” by Stephen King and have often hailed it as the “must-own” book on writing… I agree with King at this point. The only book you really need to read is Elements of Style. Everything else is a re-hash of the content. This book does belong in every author’s collection, and should be revisited at least once a year by anybody serious about the craft. Just don’t expect to get through it as easily as the page count suggests.

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