Friday, July 30, 2010

A Charging Bull in the First Line is a Good Thing

"He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull."

Joseph Conrad - Lord Jim

Great metaphor in that first line. If you read the first line without the last few words, stopping at head forward, it loses a great deal of its impact. Throw in the charging bull and it makes me want to charge on into the book to find out more about this man. Secondarily, he except for the fact that I'm an inch or two OVER six feet, Conrad could have been describing me!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Kindling Greater Success

Amazon has released two new versions of the Kindle (here and here for more). The new Kindle is a bit lower in price, offers the ability to have 3G network capability or 3G and WiFi, and has a smaller form factor than the previous model with the same size screen. Amazon has also provided a battery that will run for up to a month when the wireless is turned off. This is a feature I really like. I've gotten at least 3 weeks of battery life out of mine, I bet I could get 4. One feature that I think is keen is the new book light. It's not a part of the Kindle, but a part of a cover or sleeve that protects the Kindle. Additionally, the light is powered by the Kindle's battery, not a second, separate one.

As I've said before, I think it's refreshing, but a tad dangerous for Amazon to try and manufacture, market and focus their Kindles on books and readers alone. Refreshing in that it's always good to be the best at one specific thing. If Amazon wants readers to have the best eReader experience and can create the Kindle to do that, great. But, and this is the danger, I think that eReading as a term is still being defined. Amazon is trying to define it as nothing more than the ability to download and read books on a Kindle. Apple and iPad are trying to define it as much more.

I loved this quote from Amazon however, "For the vast majority of books, adding video and animation is not going to be helpful. It is distracting rather than enhancing. You are not going to improve Hemingway by adding video snippets."

But, there is some hypocrisy later on when the WSJ article points out that "(s)till, Amazon has hedged its bets for its e-bookstore, making a series of apps that let users read their Amazon e-book purchases on other devices, such as the iPad, iPhone and BlackBerry."

All in all, I think this will be Amazon's final thrust in delivering a pure eReader. Despite the quote that says, "Mr. Bezos said he wasn't interested in making an Amazon tablet computer. "There are going to be 100 companies making LCD [screen] tablets," he said. "Why would we want to be 101?"" I believe the next product launch of a Kindle will have more bells and whistles. Not as much as iPad, but not so basic as Kindle is now.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

At the Risk of Alienating My One Reader

"Mother died today."

Albert Camus - The Stranger

As the title the risk of alienating my one reader, I still find this a first line that makes me want to read on.

Monday, July 26, 2010

No Follower of King

Read a wonderfully negative review of Rick Moody's The Four Fingers of Death in the WSJ today. As Anton Ego says in Ratatoille, bad reviews are fun to read and more fun to write. This one is definitely fun to read. Favorite lines from the review: "There's not one original thing in "The Four Fingers of Death,"" and "and other recycled diversions that, by this point, the beleaguered reader will be skimming past too rapidly to notice."

What caught my eye though was the contradiction between how the author describes Moody's prose what Stephen King says in his book, On Writing. King states, often, never use two words when one will do. He is a disciple of Strunk and White and quotes them throughout the second half of the book. Mr. Sack's says of Moody, "He never uses one word when five or six will do" then he offers some examples.

Tears to Mr. Moody are "non-cybernetic tear duct effluent"

A sunset is "aubergine tonalities of the post- technological evening"

A character's lies are stated as "English-language transmission was in the category of the patently untrue"

Now, I don't know if I agree with King. There are times when I feel the simple, one word, descriptor isn't quite as descriptive as needed. But good lord there has to be a middle ground. Moody seems to be mocking the reader or poking fun at himself with his prose. Although, it does kinda make me want to read his book just to see what other nuggets there are.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

They're Very Slowly Getting Away

One of my favorite Simpson's episodes includes a scene where Homer and Bart are fleeing the people of Springfield. The joke is that Homer has chosen a parade float to escape in. One of the mob shouts, "They're very slowly getting away!"

This came to mind when I saw this WSJ article titled: Amazon Says E-Book Sales Outpace Hardcovers. So we are in the midst of that moment when ebooks start to outsell traditional books. Now, this just Amazon, but a milestone it is nonetheless.

"Over the past month, the Seattle retailer sold 180 Kindle books for every 100 hardcover books it sold, it said."

Almost 2 to 1. BUT, according to some others, there's no need to worry:

"As for the effect on paperbacks, Madeline McIntosh, president, sales, operations and digital at Bertelsmann AG's Random House Inc., said: "Our conclusion is that there's no data to prove any connection—good or bad—between growth in e-books and the growth or decline, in trade paperback sales. ... If anything, we may be seeing a positive effect in which the steady pace of e-book sales helps to keep a book in front-of-mind for a growing number of consumers after hardcover momentum slows."

I would expect more milestones of this sort in the near future, and the slow get away will accelerate.

In the Simpsons, the chase scene was all a set up for Moe to say:

"They're going to the Old Mill."

Homer replies, "No we're not."

The punchline comes with Moe saying, "Well let's go to the Old Mill anyway and get some cider."

I wonder what the response will be from traditional publishing houses. Most likely more than going to the Old Mill to get cider.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Ten Years! Not that Impressive

Read a Slate article today titled What Took You So Long? The quiet hell of 10 years of novel writing which describes the authors ten year endeavor to publish her novel, Stiltsville.

Typically for a puff piece in Slate, it's a bit heavy on the emotion and filled with raging, tortured self-insight. I will say, based on the article, I think the author is probably a very good writer. That being said, reading her book, if it is written in the same voice, would be a Sisyphean task that would require me to re-read many sentences to understand it fully.

A couple of statements from the article stood out as I have been struggling with the same issues:

"Writing is hard—writers say this all the time, and I think probably only other writers believe it. But it's not nearly as hard, in my experience, as not writing."

I would have changed the final two words of this sentence from "not writing" to "editing." She's right, writing is hard. Editing and rewriting is even harder. Imagine second guessing your second guesses two or three times and you have some idea of what editing a novel is like.

"It didn't happen overnight, but the tide of my life shifted. I dropped a few obligations and started getting up early to write for an hour or two before leaving the house. Of course I was sidetracked again—moving, pregnancy—but not for long. After I wrote the last sentence, I printed the whole mess and got out my red pen, and the relief of having a complete draft was overwhelming."

It's always good to hear from other writers about how they juggle the demands of their daily lives with their writing. Having a 4 year old and a 5 month old, a spouse with a full time job, and one myself, I find it a struggle to find time to write myself.

Long story short, save the sob story Miss Daniel. Based on what I've read from others, ten years is nothing.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Book Review - Under the Andes

I finished reading Under the Andes by Rex Stout. I won’t say that reading it was a complete waste of time, but it came pretty close.

I remember as a child, 1st grader I believe, I wrote a story about a boy who gets lost in a cave. The typical 1st grader pabulum. The kiddo in the story keeps referring to time in strange ways, ie. “it was one noon.” For some reason I thought that “noon” and “o’clock” were interchangeable. The plot was simplistic and plodding. The cave went on and on and never seemed to end. Then, BOOM, the kid finds the way out and the story is over.

Most of the above paragraph about my own story, would fit Under the Andes perfectly.

The only redeeming qualities of the book are that I downloaded it for free onto my Kindle. Apparently even the author knows it’s no good. Secondly, it provides a fun glimpse into the types of stories that must have been the foundation for action heroes of 1930’s film serials. The whole time I read it I couldn’t not think about Indiana Jones and Doc Savage.

Sadly, after the hero’s eighteenth chase through a darkened cave by crazed Incans, even the image of Indiana Jones would be tarnished. Unless you have a lot of time to kill, and don’t mind getting nothing in return for your investment, avoid Under the Andes at all costs. Thank goodness the Nero Wolfe books on the Kindle are $2.99. Seems to suggest they’ll be more worthwhile reads.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

How Could This Not Make the List

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

George Orwell - 1984

This is a standard for great first lines, and the list wouldn't be complete without it. What I like about it? It's like an O Henry short story compressed into one line. That little twist at the end that almost gets by the reader.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Although I've Never Read It, the First Line Makes Me Want To

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.

Vladimir Nabokov - Lolita

Seriously, even if the ideas eventually presented make readers a bit squeamish, who doesn't want to know more about Lolita based on that first line? Fire of my loins? It has a certain baseness that is both intriguing and crass.

Monday, July 12, 2010

All Fleshed Out Etymologically Speaking

Got a call from one of the readers of this blog (one of the few) who thought they had found several problems and mistakes. In terms of spelling and grammar, they were spot on. I need to use the old Spell Check function a bit more religiously. In terms of the phrase fleshed out, they were WRONG!

Sadly, so was I. He thought that instead of using "fleshed out" to describe the process of working out kinks with iPhone applications, I should have used the phrase "flushed out." I threw him what I thought was a perfectly cromulent explanation of why I used "fleshed out." Despite being embiggened by my explanation, I was wrong. I thought it had to do with tanning hides, removing flesh to clean something up. According to several sources on the Internets, it has more to do with modeling.

From WSU:
To “flesh out” an idea is to give it substance, as a sculptor adds clay flesh to a skeletal armature. To “flush out” a criminal is to drive him or her out into the open. The latter term is derived from bird-hunting, in which one flushes out a covey of quail. If you are trying to develop something further, use “flesh”; but if you are trying to reveal something hitherto concealed, use “flush.”

If you think trusting WSU is too wazzu, then there is this from the Honest Hypocrite:
These two phrases, "flesh out" and "flush out", do not mean the same thing and are not interchangeable. You flesh out a plan. Building the plan is akin to putting flesh on a skeletal frame. Fleshing out is building up not searching out. Your hunting dog flushes out the pheasants from the tall grass so that you can get a good shot at them. You flush out things that are hidden. You could flesh out a plan to flush out the pheasants.

What is more surprising than the knowledge that I actually used a turn of phrase correctly is the realization that there are more people reading my blog than just my Mom!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Book Review - Longshot - Is Meekness Even Minorly Heroic?

I just finished reading Longshot by Dick Francis. I was particularly engaged by this book in that I thought I had read all of Dick Francis' books. Longshot was new to me. Or I read it so long ago I've completely forgotten it.

Two passages stuck out.

The first is at the very end of the book. The hero is a travel adventure writer and the killer is using the hero's manuals on shooting game and survival against him. By the end of the book, when the hero is about to reveal who the killer is, the killer commits suicide and tries to make it look like an accident.

"A copy of Return Safe from the Wilderness lay on a workbench, and I picked it up idly and looked through it. Traps. Bows and arrows. All the familiar ideas. I flipped the pages resignedly and they fell open as if from use at the diagram in the first-aid section showing the pressure points for stopping arterial bleeding. I stared blankly at the carefully drawn and accurate illustration of exactly where the main arteries could be found nearest the surface in the arms and wrists...and in the legs.
Dear God, I thought numbly. I taught him that too."

I thought this was excellent if only for the O-Henry-esque ending. Loved it. Saw it coming just a bit, but not so much that it wasn't fun to read.

The second passage occurs early in the book.

"The letter from Ronnie Curzon came on a particularly cold morning when there was ice like a half-descended curtain over the inside of my friend's aunt's attic window. The window, with its high view over the Thames at Chiswick, over the ebb-tide mud and the wind-sailing sea gulls, that window, my delight had done most, I reckoned, to release invention into words. I'd rigged a chair onto a platform so that I could sit there to write with a long view to the tree-chopped horizon over Kew Gardens. I'd never yet managed an even passable sentence when faced with a blank wall."

Finally, the title of this post alludes to an aspect of this book juxtaposed against my own endeavor. My editor revealed to me that he has never read a Dick Francis book. I was impressed when upon receipt of my manuscript he went out and borrowed one from the library, ostensibly to read. I say ostensibly because I found out later that he did not actually read it.

Throughout the manuscript he has written "your hero is too meek, not showing even minor heroic qualities" or words to that effect. In Longshot, as in most of Dick Francis' books, the hero is meek. Strikingly meek. These two things, reading Longshot, reviewing my edited manuscript, brought this into focus. Is it bad to have a meek hero? Can't he act as a foil, as so many of Francis' heroes do, to all of the characters that interact around and with him? A sponge? An everyman who plays off others and travels through his story reacting instead of acting?

At the very least I can be thankful that according to Matthew writing about Jesus in the Beatitudes, my hero is blessed and will inherit the earth.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

eReading Comprehension

My indispensible brother, David, sent me a study that he found online. The study focuses on reading comprehension and speed across different platforms; conventional book, PC, iPad and Kindle. The results were not surprising.

Of the 32 people studied, a majority of them felt more comfortable, read faster, and comprehending more when reading a conventional book. The iPad came in second, the Kindle a close third, and the PC dead last. I say this is not surprising as I would guess that a majority of the study participants grew up reading conventional books.

"This study is promising for the future of e-readers and tablet computers. We can expect higher-quality screens in the future, as indicated by the recent release of the iPhone 4 with a 326 dpi display. But even the current generation is almost as good as print in formal performance metrics — and actually scores slightly higher in user satisfaction."

A far more intriguing survey would be one that is performed in the exactly the same manner as this one in five years, then another five years, and so on. As people adopt eReaders at younger and younger ages, I feel confident in predicting that the results of the study would change over time. I think about my younger brother and about my two young sons. My dispensable brother John, is far more attuned to email than I as he was introduced to it at a younger age. My children will probably see conventional mail as nothing more than a relic used to send thank you letters to their grandparents. Then again, I better hurry out and buy my kids an iPad if I want to see this prediction come true. Right now, my oldest son's favorite book is a battered copy of Hop on Pop.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Book Review: Catch-22 - Who Knew a Word Like Infundibuliform Even Existed?

Finished Catch-22 last week. If you read this blog you knew I was reading it based on this post about déjà vu. Also if you read this blog you’ll know that my book reviews aren’t book reviews per se where I recommend reading or not reading the book, or discuss it’s strengths and weakness. I might do that, but in general, my aim is to pick out the words, phrases and passages that catch my eye and mark them down so I can better remember them. That being said; Catch-22 is a terrific book to read in terms of vocabulary. The below are just a small sampling:

Infundibuliform - shaped like a funnel

Denudate – to lay bare by erosion

Otiose- producing no useful result; futile

Argosies - a fleet of ships; a rich supply

Fustian - a strong cotton and linen fabric; a class of cotton fabrics usually having a pile face and twill weave; high-flown or affected writing or speech; broadly; anything high-flown or affected in style

Callipygous- having shapely buttocks

And, perhaps the most apropos word in Catch-22 as it so elegantly states the Yosarian’s nature in one word:

Captious- marked by an often ill-natured inclination to stress faults and raise objections ;calculated to confuse, entrap, or entangle in argument

As I said in my previous post, I remembered many of the lines and the same is true of the vocabulary words. I recall asking my grandfather about the word fustian. He didn’t know the definition. I believe he made me go look it up.

I also remember several passages, including this one about one of my favorite characters, Major Major Major Major:
“Major Major had been born too late and too mediocre. Some men are born mediocre, some men achieved mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.”

When describing Doc Daneeka, Heller writes:
“He was like a man who had grown frozen with horror once and had never come completely unthawed”

My question, shouldn’t it be “thawed?” I mean unthawed is frozen, right? You thaw a steak to make it not frozen?

Finally, a rather significant scene occurs when a naked Yossarian is sitting up in a tree watching Snowden’s funeral. Milo comes to hang out with him and the following passage appears:
“Milo was stung and made no effort to disguise his wounded feelings. It was a muggy, moonlit night filled with gnats, moths, and mosquitos. Milo lifted his arm suddenly and pointed toward the open-air theater, where the milky dust-filled beam bursting horizontally from the projector slashed a conelike swath in the blackness and draped in a fluorescent membrane of light the audience titled on the seats in hypnotic sages, their faces focused upward toward the aluminized move screen. Milio’s eyes were liquid with integrity, and his artless uncorrupted face was lustrous with a shining mixture of sweat and insect repellant.”

I liked it for those final two words. Writing “insect repellant” seems to thrown the whole passage off kilter. Makes the reader wonder why it was used at all.

“The floor swayed like the floating raft at the beach and the stitches on the inside of his thigh bit into his flesh like fine set of fish teeth as he limped across the aisle.”

Great simile that… fine set of fish teeth. Perfectly describes stitches.

The final passage was used when Yossarian had to deal with a new group of young roommates.
“He could not make the shut up; they were worse then women, they had not brains enough to be introverted and repressed.”

What I find the most interesting part about this book, and other Heller books is the way in which the ending is revealed at the beginning of the book. For the entire book the reader knows that Yossarian is struggling with Snowden’s death. The reader even knows how and when it happened. The final reveal is minor but significant in putting the entire puzzle together. It’s similar to most of Heller’s other books I feel, particularly “Something Happened.” But, it has helped me. I’ve been having trouble dealing with a similar aspect in my own manuscrip, On Edge. Perhaps I should take a cue from Heller. Instead of hiding it from the reader, just let them know a good part of it right up front, let a detail or two fall throughout the story, then reveal the entirety at the end.

Nevertheless, fun to read if you like long, run on sentences, confusing arguments, and words like callipygous.

Friday, July 2, 2010

International Mysteries

Interesting article today on internation mysteries, mysteries like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the like. Seems after Larsson's success, U.S. publishers are scouring the market looking for books that take place in cultures and societies outside of the U.S.

"Some have pegged Japan as the next crime-writing hotspot. Literary agent Amanda Urban of International Creative Management, who represents Cormac McCarthy and Toni Morrison, took on Japanese suspense and crime writer Shuichi Yoshida, a best-selling author in Japan, because she saw his novels as literary works with commercial potential."

This above quote and this one "Mystery novels translate well across cultures, because they usually prize plot over literary acrobatics," made me think about a book on mystery writing I read last year.

In it the author wrote that there is no reason to be bashful about being a mystery writer. Mystery writers should be seen as more deft and talented than "literary fiction" novelists if only because they have to weave a believable mystery into all of the same aspects of noveling that literary fiction novelist must follow.

Then there is this: "The global influence of American and British crime writing has also led to the widespread adoption of familiar tropes and plot conventions: the gloomy, loner detective, clipped dialogue, the standard plot structure that opens with a body and follows the investigation."

And we're back to thinking it's all trite boiler-plate and formula. Thank goodness this final line shows promise for the future of mystery novelling being taken seriously; "Much of the crime fiction being imported blurs the line between genre and literary fiction. In Europe, where crime novels take top literary prizes, suspense writing is regarded as a serious literary endeavor rather than a form of mass entertainment. In Japan, top mystery writers Shuichi Yoshida and Keigo Higashino have won multiple literary awards."

All in all, well worth the few minutes it took to read. (Unlike this blog post I fear)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Apropos App

How apprapos that just a day or two after hearing my indespensible brother discuss the fact that Kindle is developing apps for the iPad, I should be able to download a Kindle application for my Droid!

I will say, I dig it . . . alot. I love the fact that it's completely seamless. I can read my Kindle at home, then while waiting at the doctors office, whip out my Droid and BOOM! the same page I left off on with the Kindle is now right there on my Droid. Fabulous! I can't say enough good things.

Anyone reading this with a Kindle who also has a Droid phone, download that Kindle application immediately. It's well worth it.