Friday, May 28, 2010

Most Recent First Line

"The bell rang and I went to the front and opened the door and there she was. I said good morning."

Rex Stout - Over My Dead Body

Talk about a first line that highlights the importance of a first line. This one did nothing to inspire me to read on. Although the writing, straigtforward, direct, no-nonsense, is perfectly in line with the style of Stout's writing, it lacks all of the flambouyance he can find in the language, all of the humor, and all sort of pizzazz. A few posts ago I wrote about how the negative can be used to highlight descriptions. This first line is an apt representation of poor first line emphasizing the importance of all first lines.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Setting Theme and Mood with the First Line

“I haven’t laid eyes on the island in several years. The last time was from a friends boat that ventured into the outer harbor, and I could see it off in the deistance, past the inner ring, shrouded in summer haze, a careless smudge of paint against the sky.”

Dennis Lahane - Shatter Island

I know it's more than one sentence, but without the second the first loses some of it's impact. It's not a strong opening, but it sets the mood perfectly and succintly. This story was so much about mood that after finishing the book, I went back and read it and saw that it was far more prothetic than I first thought, particulalry when he characterizes the island as a "careless smudge of paint."

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Book Review - Shatter Island

A few months ago I saw the trailer (or is it preview) for Shatter Island with Leanardo Dicaprio. I remember leaning over to my wife and whispering that I thought it looked great. She, who hates horrors, whisper back an extremely unconvincing and sarcastic, “Yeah.” Little did she know, I wasn’t being sarcastic. I knew at that moment I would not get to go see it. When you have a wife who hates horrors, and a three year old and a three month old i some movies must be passed over. Shatter Island was one such movie.

I few weeks ago I read a snippet in our local writing group’s newsletter about what a wonderful book Shatter Island was. How many stories take the reader up several flights of stairs, all the time the allowing the tension to mount. This author said that reading Shatter Island was like climbing stairs that were rickety, falling apart and constantly twisting and turning. This inspired me to read it. She was right. It was not only full of twists but also filled with some sparkling writing.

First, I thought it interesting, and I didn’t realize that this occurred till well after I finished the book, but the prologue is first person, the rest of the story third. I thought this was interesting since it gave the reader a peek into the main character, Teddy’s, psyche, then allowed you to watch his actions with that foundation. A couple of compelling and well written passages from that prologue:

“She said once that time is nothing to me but a series of bookmarks that I use to jump back and forth through the text of my life, returning again and again to the events that mark me, in the eyes of my more astute colleagues as bearing all characteristics of the classic melancholic.”

When I read that line I thought it was decent. It wasn’t until I read this next line several sentences later that I felt that the author had hit on something.

“I misplace things far too often these days, my glasses more than anything. My car keys. I enter stores and forget what I’ve come for, leave the theater with no recollection of what I’ve just seen. If time for me really is a series of bookmarks, then I feel as if someone has shaken the book and those yellowed slips of paper, torn matchbook covers and flatted coffee stirrers have fallen to the floor, and the dog-eared flaps have been pressed smooth."

Those passages seem to be setting the reader up for a chaotic and crazy rest of the story.

This next passage figured heavily throughout the book, and by the end of the story the mystery behind the man’s hands makes sense. I tagged it as soon as I read it not realizing that it would come up again. Bully for me for catching the foreshadowing. In actuality I just loved the metaphor.

“He was a bit stockier and a bit shorter than Teddy, maybe five ten or so, and he had a head of tight, curly black hair and olive skin and slim, delicate hands that seemed incongruous with the rest of him, as if he’d barrowed them until his real one came back from the shop.”

These next few metaphors too were quite well laid out, it again hits on the theme that things aren’t what they seem.

“Crawley’s smile returned, but it was a more vicious version, and it reminded Teddy of the film that formed over soup.”

“He leaned on the rail and looked at a sky the color of baby blue eyes.”

“Teddy turned from the books, watched Neahring glance at his glass, a silkworm of a smile twitching his soft mouth."

Despite the fact that I find groin to be an incredibly unfortunate sounding word, ranks right up there with “meal” on the grating on my nerves index, I thought that Lehane’s ability to inspire sexuality in this scene with this passage was quite well done.

“Oh, I do.” She sat up on the bed and tucked her legs underneath her, and Teddy felt her movements in his stomach and groin.”

I’ve written a few scenes that are supposed to inspire the same feelings in my characters and in my readers; an awkwardness around sexuality. When I read the above passage I thought that Lehane had accomplished what I tried to do to a far greater degree.

And, as Shatter Island is a horror, I thought the best passage in terms of setting the dark theme was the following:

“Her lips were slick with blood and spittle as she shrieked at him, shrieked like she’d seen all the century’s dead climb through her window and walk toward her bunk.”

The snippet I read in the newsletter was right, reading Shatter Island is like walking up a creaky, old, twisting staircase, and the ending is well worth the climb. Secondly, I no longer feel like I need to see the movie. Lehane does such a good job of creating mood, describing setting, and making his story and characters believable, that I feel as though I’ve already seen the movie.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Felton v. Pooh

Many articles and views about the upcoming revolution in reading and publishing has been written, some of it in this blog. But there has been less written about the coming change in format and style of writing due to this revolution. I wrote a post or two on it and I’ve found a couple of articles written, but for the most part people focus more on the delivery system than on the changes that will occur to the content.

My belief is that changes to the format will be relatively slow to ramp up, but once they begin I think they will be fast and fierce. I think you’ll quickly see a line, a pseudo DMZ spring up that delineates between the conservative writers who believe in the old line form of fiction, and those who believe in pushing the envelope in terms of formatting and style. Those that will be writing in chat lingo, with quick sentences, flash fiction novels.

I recently used an ipad for reading and I was astounded by the fact that Apple didn’t take the opportunity of its introduction to push that proverbial envelope a bit more. Instead of having a dynamic, sparkling display of what the medium could do, they chose to publish a staid, boring, Winnie the Pooh story. Sure it showed what the ipad could do in terms of illustration and display, particularly when compared against the black and white Kindle, but I felt they missed a chance to inspire and promote their capabilities within a new format. If anything, the Kindle is doing a better job of fostering the format change than the ipad. Where the ipad mimicked pages, the Kindle follows locations. Perhaps the ipad was trying to let users wade into the deep end of the pool by starting at the shallows.

I ran across something that although not the deep end, is certainly closer than the Winnie the Pooh. The Felton Report is far closer to what I believe should have been published then stodgy old Winnie the Pooh. Although not fiction, and not yet exactly what I would hope to show via the new media, I think Felton is on the verge of hitting on something spectacular. I would expect to see more design ideas integrated into fiction to make it more marketable to the next generation of readers, those that are far more comfortable with online media reading via screen rather than page.

The post I wrote on my ipad Test Drive hit on this disappointment I felt when trying out a reading on the ipad. Why make it look like a book? Why make it look like a page turning? It would be like building an airplane then making the flight feel like a train. Worse, making the flight feel like a wagon ride. Although not the perfect example of a new form, the Felton Report is a damn site closer to promoting the coming revolution in style and form than Winnie the Pooh.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Characterizing Through the Use of the Negative

“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”
George Eliot - Middlemarch

I've always been impressed by authors who are able to describe characters, settings, what have you through the use of negatives. Although this first line isn't a perfect example of the form, I think it does seem to suggest it. I just read this the other day and loved it. "He was about my age and size, with a good pair of light-colored eyes, and a gray suit of a distinctive weave hung on him in a way that made it obvious that fit had not been managed by waving a piece of chalk at a stock job." It would have been so much easier to just say "a suit that didn't fit well," but the colloquialism, the explanation of the suit by pointing out the flaws obliquely, makes the lines so much more fun to read.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Great Article about Barnes and Noble’s Future

Spectacularly in-depth article today on the future of Barnes and Noble bookstores and other brick and mortar books stores in the WSJ this morning (Link). The article spoke in some detail about the ways in which book stores will have to change their offering or perhaps go the way of music stores after the introduction of iTunes and MP3's.

A couple of interesting points caught my eye. First, the article includes a bar chart showing the decrease through the years in % change in book sales and the increase in digital books. The article states that digital book sales will increase to be 25% of all book sales by 2012 (while they are less than 5% now). Pretty dramatic change.

Another point? The change in the inventory at the book store. We've all seen the greeting cards, book ends, writing and stationary gear that are stocked in out of the way places at the book stores. Expect this to grow as digital book sales grow. Will we see book shelves, comfy chairs, recliners or reading lamps stocked next to the books? An IKEA cum Border's might be in our futures.

Unlike record stores the article's author believes that in all likelihood book stores will continue to serve a function in the world of literature and reading but as a gathering point for author readings, news about new books. It seems to me we can expect the cafés that are small parts of these large book stores to become larger and larger. I would also imagine that wireless access to the stores online selection of books will be made more easily accessible, and perhaps discounts that are associated to books bought while in the store. A blending of forum, café, and bookstore to an even greater degree.

It's an interesting time to live through and it will be fun to see the changes that are going to take place. But, as a guy who stopped at over two dozen different Barnes and Noble and Border's book stores on my trip from Washington to Texas (AND finished Gone with the Wind without ever having bought the book along the way) I expect to be both pleasantly surprised, and a tad disappointed by the evolution.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Not a Huge Fan . . . But the First Line is a Doozy

“We were an hour outside of Barstow when the mescaline kicked in.”
Hunter S. Thompson - Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mentioning an Ax in the First Line

Mentioning an ax in the first line is always a good way to pique the readers interest.

"Where’s Papa going with that ax?"
E.B. White - Charlotte's Web

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Most Recent First Line

"War is over. Or it will be by sundown tonight, when Alexander takes to wife the Afghan princess Roxane."
Steven Pressfield - The Afghan Campaign

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Book Review: The Afghan Campaign

A couple of weeks ago my old friend from the Ranger Batt recommended I read The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield. This was startling to me if only because when I knew Wheeler he was not the type to recommend reading, much less a book. If he did read it was only field manuals or the Ranger Handbook. This new book he recommended sounded like a thick non-fiction account of war like Not A Good Day to Die or We Were Soldiers Once and Young. Something meaty and deep, political and controversial. I'm somewhat happy to note that Wheeler has not changed much.

As soon as I started the book I remembered an incident that occurred in the middle of the night while pulling guard in a patrol base in the middle of Fort Lewis. A book landed in my hands, a fictional account of the Battle of Thermopylae from the point of view of a Greek soldier. I don't remember if I finished the book or not, but I remember I didn't like it for the same reason I don't like Michener books; I never know what I should believe and what I shouldn't.

The Afghan Campaign is a fictional account of Alexander the Greats campaign in Afghanistan. To say the least the book is stark and startling in its account of both the war and the people fighting it. Several themes jump out from the pages, among them the fact that soldiers should not think, only act. Several times throughout the book, the hero Matthias is caught by his leaders as he ponders the war and his actions. They remonstrate him by glowering and saying "you're thinking again." Another obvious theme, the brutality of the Afghanis and their morals. I believe that more Afghan children die at the hands of their fathers, and siblings at their hands of their brothers or sisters, than do die because of Matthias.

The first instance that the reader is shown of this difference in moral compass occurs when Matthias' leader Flag is about to cut off the hand of a young boy because the father wont confess to having stolen Mattias' wallet. The entire family, save one small girl, is ready to sacrifice the boy's hand for the sake of keeping the wallet. Infact, throughout the book several children or siblings break the harsh moral code, and usually end up beaten or dead because of it. Pressfield says: "They are loyal and gay and kind and so corrupt that you cannot even get angry at them. To them a bribe is simply good manners, and paying someone off no more tha friendship and cosideration." At one point Mattias, having seen all of these horrors from the Afghans says, "One may be terrified of them or appalled by them, but it is impossible not to respect them." I found that line to be a stretch. The final theme is that of service and duty to ones unit. I was not at all surprised to find that not only was Pressfield a former Marine, but a Marine with combat duty in Iraq aided him in his writing of the novel.

I found Pressfield to be an incredibly vivid writer. Several lines caught my attention;

Describing Mattias walking through a market in the Middle East: "A man hung his purse next to his testicles and, after shaking hands with a stranger, checked to make sure both sacks were still where he had left them. "

Describing an attack on an Afghan village: "Our men vault this in scores, like water over the lip of a dam."

Describing journalists: "Still they are here with us, these ink-mice, eating the same dust and shaking the same serpents out of their boots."

He has a fine line about the difference between a horse and a mule: "A horse is loyal; if oyu fall and break a leg, a good mount will stick with you. A mule will give you that look that says, “Sorry, mate” – and make away at the hot trot."

He has a fabulous turn of phrase for dying that I had never heard before: "They’ll strip our corpses and jig over our bones – ours and however many other hundreds of our compatriots will have gone briskets-down before the column gets over these mountains."

When Matthias is excited to show off his new child he says: "Flag and stepahanos visit to inspect this newest campaigner. he salutes their entrance with a stupendous defecation. My friends acclaim its volume and manly stink. I could not be prouder if the child had produced a second Illead."

And finally, when Matthias is reunited with his horse that he loved, "Emotion overwhelms me. I: stroke my darlin's muzzle. I understand, even as my heat overflows with it, that my elation at her recovers is a surrogate for other losses, far keener and not yet made good. Beloved comrades for whom my heart cannot yet mourn; missing brothers for whom even now I seek. They all become one for me in the form of this dear animal, whom I believed I would never see again and who now, one horse out of five thouseand, has miraculously been delivered into my arms."

Throughout the book the reader expects trouble for Matthias, both in fighting and for his new wife and child. Sadly, the climax does not dissapoint. It comes swiftly and tragically and leaves the reader both vindicated in their distrust of the author has built around the Afghans and heart broken for Matthias.

Pressfield wrote two passages regarding the war that I felt might have resonated with Wheeler who is there fighting for us.

"A unit can work no more than two days in any direction; men and horses simply can’t carry enough water to get out and back. Native guides are useless. They all work for the enemy. An afghan who aids the invader returns to his village to find his wife and children butchered, or waiting themselves to buthcher him. The foe bested in a fight makes he getaway with ease while you in the chase must negotiate a tables of defiles and dry courses, knowing always that the enemy is a master of the feigned flight and the double-back ambush." When I read this I thought of Wheeler and how frustrated he must get.

And this one, more political than most, also more demoralizing, provided during a speech Pressfield has Alexander give: "This is not conventional warfare. It is unconventional. And we must fight it in an unconventional way. Here the foe will not meet us in pitched battle, as other armies we have duled in the past, save under considtions of his own choosing. His word to us is worthless. He routinely violates truces; betrays the peace. When we defeat him, he will no accept our dominion. He comes back again and again. He hates us with a passion whose depth is exceeded only by his patience and his capaticy for suffereing. His boys and old men, even his women, fight us as combatants. They do not do this openly, however, but instead present themselves as innocents, even as victims, seeking out aid. When we show comopassion, they strike with stealth. You have all see what they do to us when they take us alive.”

Thinking back, it may have been Wheeler who pressed that book into my hands all those years ago. I wish now I'd given it more of a chance. Based on The Afghan Campaign I would have liked it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


My newest novel, the one that I am currently working on, features a main character who among other things, has a hang up about modeling. He works as a model builder and is somewhat obsessed with building models.

The Wall Street Journal featured an article today (link to article) about Goodyear and their model room. Apparently the Goodyear headquarters building has an 8400 square foot room that was built to hold scale modes of all of their factories. These models were built before the company had access to computer renderings and other drafting devices that we have today. It allowed the senior executives the ability to see what their new factories would look like, and to show off to corporate guests.

Now, Goodyear is building a new headquarters building and they aren't planning on keeping the models. They don't even budget anymore for their upkeep. The article interviews the model maker and he has the chance to tour his models one last time before who knows what happens.

BUT, the reason this caught my eye is that it offered me yet another insight into my novel. I have been chewing on the denouement of Off the Edge, trying to figure out how it should end, this article helped inspire the end. You never know where or when inspiration will strike, but it's a good bet that the more your mind stirs about it, the sooner it will come.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Another DeVries First Line

“Man is vile, I know, but people are wonderful.”
Peter DeVries - Let Me Count the Ways

Friday, May 7, 2010

Minimalist? I Think Not!

There is an article in the WSJ today (Article Link) about a mystery writer named Lee Childs. Apparently his main character, Jack Reacher has no possessions and leads a very minimalist life. So Spartan in fact that the article states that if he loses a button on his shirt, he throws the shirt away as he doesn't want to be burdened down by a sewing kit (Apparently I'm Spartan as well as I don't own a sewing kit). Monk is OCD about dir and cleanliness, Jack Reacher is a minimalist.

Nevertheless, the article goes on to tell how the author is able to write such a complex character. He lives a Spartan, austere lifestyle himself in the Flatiron neighborhood in New York City. A small, two room apartment. The article goes into great detail about his digs, white walls with only one painting that provides any color, large bookshelves that are cabinets so as not to ruin the aesthic of the white walls, only two, plain, leather black couches, a single ashtray is the only thing on the counters. Had I only read that first paragraph the article would have impressed me by the lengths to which the author went to surround himself in nothing and immerse himself in a lifestyle so plain and simple.

The article, as it is in the Real Estate section mentions the price of the apartment. Wow! 1.5 million for two bedrooms. Seems like a lot, but, well, this is New York. Maybe that's the going rate. Then the article cites the amount that Child's spent on interior design with an architecture firm; 800,000. Sure seems like a lot for white walls and black couches. At this point I was beginning to believe that Childs might be a bit of a phony.

It gets worse. The article continues to discuss his austere conditions by comparing them to his second apartment that he keeps in the same building that he uses for writing. A writers retreat if you will. It is far more typical. Books, a desk, shelving, the works. Mr. Childs writes so single mindedly that he must have everything around him and ready for his inspiration. So, now, I'm thinking Childs is a bit of a poser. He has this austere apartment, sure, but downstairs he becomes Mr. Normal.

It gets worse. The final segment of the article discusses how Mrs. Childs deals with the Spartan existence. For a moment I found myself incredibly sympathetic towards Mrs. Childs. How must she deal with her husbands demands for simplicity? How has this wrecked or harmonized with her own ideas about interior design? I need not have worried. It would seem Mrs. Childs is able to express and live in households she has decorated to her own tastes, in a French Country motif, in there home in England in the South of France.

This is where I gave up on Mr. Childs. If he wants and austere lifestyle he should come on down to my house. My one house. The one were my wife doesn't allow me to keep too many books in the house. Where we throw out our clutter when it gets to be too much. Where we can't afford a writer's retreat just down the way or two other houses in two other countries. I should have stopped after the first few paragraphs. I would have been far more impressed with Childs' austerity.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Book Review: Agents Editors and You

This should be a quick review. As part of my New Year's Resolution I am reading books on the writing craft. Agents, Editors and You, The Insiders Guide to Getting Your Book Published was not quite as informative as most other books on publishing, but did keep my interest if only for those one or two new nuggets of information, and the constantly switching voice.

The book is a compilation of articles compiled by the Writer's Market into a book. Every single one of the chapters had been previously published in magazines. So like a vacuum cleaner bag, this book just brought all the debris together into one place. All told I didn't learn too much I didn't know, except in one area. Editing.

This book went into detail about the number of people who get to read, comment and edit a manuscript prior to publication. I'm no longer curious as to why it takes close to two years to get a book published. Agents, Editors and You certainly laid it out for the reader about the number of times an editor is going to look over and suggest changes. It also provided feedback on how to deal with different types of editors.

Another interesting aspect of the book was that it broke up the articles into non-fiction and fiction publishing, and further broke down those categories by genre. This meant that I had a couple of good articles that pertained to writing mysteries.

All in all though, waste of my time. I think I need to amend my resolution to state that I must read craft books that are timely if they discuss publishing. This book was written in 2002 and brought up e-reading in a completely different vein, as if it might die out and just blow away. But, as a primer for traditional publishing, it gave me one or two interesting answers, but for the most part just reinforced what I already knew and suspected. I would have been better off with either of the two other craft books on my list, Stephen King's On Writing, or Guerrilla Marketing for the Writer.

The best part about this book was that it was written in such a way that I could tear through it and get to the next book on my list, a novel suggested by an old friend Wheeler. His recommendation came from "the ghan" and he said this guy "had it right." Looking forward to it is an understatement.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Online Critique Group

A few weeks ago I joined an online writing group (The Mystery Writer's Critique Group). This is perhaps the most stringent online writing group I have ever come across. Usually online writing groups are quite loosely organized and lack a purpose or direction. This group is different. There are only about twenty members, small for a nationwide group, and they demand that prior to uploading a chapter for critique by the other members, you must first critique three chapters yourself. Two days ago I finished critiquing my third chapter for other members.

The first story I read was a romance. It was about an older woman who is gradually rediscovering the ability to love following the death of her husband. The chapter I read focused primarily on her experiences at a bridge tournament. If nothing else this exercise in critiquing the story revealed to me that describing bridge hands in too much detail will bore a reader. This was not a lesson I needed to learn. I believe I knew that innately. Sadly, the other two chapters were far less memorable. But, they did provide me the opportunity to upload my own work, so I soldiered through them perfunctorily.

With a great degree of trepidation I uploaded chapter 1 of my second novel, tentatively titled, On the Edge. I was surprised by the speed with which my opening chapter was critiqued. In less than two hours I had three critiques of the chapter uploaded to my folder. It was like sharks swirling around chum they came and critiqued so fast. This fact alone worried me that perhaps my new editors would be as quick to read my chapter as I had been to read theirs. I needn’t have worried.

It’s always unnerving to have other people read your work then comment on it. After the immediate defensiveness wore off, I realized that the edits the members of the group provided were far more substantial, and far more thoughtful than anything I’d ever gotten from the Sugar Land Writers group. They were also much more complete than the edits I had provided, a reminder to do a better job in my future critiques. My new editors provided several quite specific edits regarding pacing and theme that I think I will be able to incorporate in the chapter. Additionally, and I found this surprising, all of them left notes at the end of the story with some compliments. I will remember this technique in future critiques. Soften the blow and helps the author understand the critiques objectives. All in all the experience left me more excited about the prospects of continuing with this group as well as a bit humbled.

I’ve always been a fan of critique groups and have generally elevated in person groups above online ones based on my past experiences with the two. I have to admit that the ranking has now flip flopped, and that should have a positive impact on my future writing.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Unhappy Families

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Leo Tolstoy - Anna Karenina

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Chewing on Things

I'm continually amazed by how problems get resolved the longer I just keep them in the back of my mind. It's as if my sub-conscious (or is it unconscious) mind is chewing on the problems for me and then, when that part of my mind has come to a conclusion it releases all of its good ideas in one huge tidal wave of ideas. Like the final few scenes of the movie, 2001 A Space Odyssey when Dave Bowman is racing through the cosmos, all of the color and shapes are bombarding him while he sits immobile in the shuttle, just taking it all in, astounded.

I've been trying to figure out several themes and aspects of my next novel, Off the Edge, that could make it more believable, deeper, something closer to what Donald Maass described in Writing the Breakout Novel. All of a sudden, this morning in the shower, that flood of ideas hit, one after the other, each one leading to the next, each a bit more concise and detailed than the last. First thing I did was run to my notebook and jot it all down.

When I was younger I read most of Stephen King's books. I was always intrigued by his stories and wondered at that time what his dreams must be like. I was sure that the only way he could come up with such interesting ideas was through his interesting dreams and nightmares. I know now that the concepts of his books were quite rudimentary (a poltergeist, vampires, haunted house), and that the process of writing generally leads to deeper, more well fleshed out works.

More than anything else I'm glad I started toting a notebook around with me everywhere I go. It has been invaluable for capturing these bursts of inspiration that my sub-conscious mind spit out every now and then.