If You Can’t Beat ‘Em

It’s lucky that just the other day I told a coworker my idea, otherwise I wouldn’t have a witness. Here’s the idea: A website where various contributors give advice on how to get started reading the work of famous authors, giving recommendations of three or four books and the order in which to read them.

And it turns out, of course, that such a site–or rather, column on the book blog Book Riot–already exists. And will soon become a book called Start Here.

I learned long ago that any good idea will probably occur to more than one person. And if you have an idea for an article or book and someone else puts it into writing before you get a chance, you should just pat yourself on the back for having had a smart thought, be thankful you didn’t actually write the book or article only to be lapped, and move on to the next good idea.

In this case, however, there’s an opportunity to pitch in, in the form of a Book Riot contest, so watch this space for my Start Here article and use the comments to (a) guess who I’ll write about and/or (b) tell me who you would want to write about (and maybe you should write about them!).

Eight things that seem more important than working on novel No. 2

  1. Eating cake
  2. Watching Gordon Ramsey
  3. Deciding Slate’s tech writer is a tool of Microsoft
  4. Stressing about not working on novel No. 2
  5. Reading blog posts about writing
  6. Writing blog posts about writing
  7. Wondering what the deal is with Tumblr
  8. Thinking about ice cream

Well, when you put it that way …

A book review changed his life

A few years ago, when the Washington Post eviscerated Book World, its standalone Sunday books section, and merged it with the Outlook section, I felt (can you guess?) really upset. Book World was the only section I really loved. Even when I didn’t have time to read books, I could read the book reviews and still feel in touch with the book world.

Yeah, there’s plenty of book blogs and Amazon reviews and Goodreads updates and The Morning News’ annual Tournament of Books and other place to read about books. Even so, I miss Book World.

An essay last month* in, HA, the Post, reminded me of the power of the book review. Inmate Gregory White read a review of a book called “Black Jacks,” then he read the book, then he contacted the author, then he eventually became a merchant mariner, living a life on the seas, just as he’d always wanted to.

Since reading White’s essay, I’ve been thinking about whether I can point to a book that changed my life or made me pursue a dream. For me, that book was “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within,” which I read as a high school student, at the recommendation of a friend who’d read it in a college creative writing course. I already knew I wanted to be a writer, but Natalie Goldberg’s book came to me at a time when I didn’t have writing mentors or teachers to encourage and push me and make me shut up and go write.

How about you? What book helped you follow a dream? And how did you learn about it?

*Yeah, forgive me for blogging about a month-old article. I’m slowly emerging from hibernation, y’all …

Italians Without Wine and Olive Oil

Olive oil being pouredIf you write historical fiction, I highly recommend Ursula K. LeGuin’s essay at the end of “Lavinia” about the research she did writing the book, a retelling of the Aeneid, and the choices she made about how to portray life before the Roman Empire. Here’s an excerpt:

Like Vergil, I call the towns of the Bronze Age cities, and their people probably saw them as cities, but to us they might look like a walled or stockaded huddle of huts around a fort. Their people went out into the fields to herd sheep, goats, and cattle, and plant and tend barley and emmer wheat and vegetables, fruit and nut trees. They probably had no cotton or linen yet; the women carded, spun, and wove wool into the togas and pallas they wore (not all that different from a sari). It’s possible that they knew only wild vines and the inedible wild olive, and couldn’t afford to buy wine or olive oil from the Etruscans, who by then may have had them. But I couldn’t imagine Italians without wine and olive oil. If it’s any excuse, neither could Vergil.

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

What kind of book do I want to write?

I’ve been slowly, painfully, trying to work on novel No. 2, and the question that I’m struggling with, and will probably struggle with for a while, is “What kind of book do I want to write?”

I’ve been thinking about this book for a long time. I even wrote a number of chapters … about 15 years or so ago. I’ve scrapped those chapters, for now, because I think I’m writing a different book than I was then.

Here’s what I do know about this book I’m writing:

  1. The basic premise and conflict.
  2. The overarching theme.
  3. That the story is about a family.
  4. That there are three main characters.
  5. That for now, I’m going with third person, with point of view shifting chapter by chapter.
  6. The years it takes place. Probably 1968-1991.
  7. The setting.

Here are some things I’m working out:

  1. The structure. My experience with novel No. 1 tells me that it’s good to have a basic idea of structure at the start, to help me get things on paper, but to be flexible and let myself shake things up once I’ve written enough to see what structure would work best. For this book, I think I want the chapters to form a sort of collage. I’ve been thinking short chapters, with time shifts, probably moving chronologically forward, but maybe not. I toyed, briefly, with the idea of a novel in stories. But I don’t think that’s it. I’m not totally sure whether to shift point of view chapter by chapter or to give each character a discreet section. That’s OK. I’ll figure it all out.
  2. The level of realism. When I first worked on this idea, I was trying to weave religious myth into it. After a while, I worked those parts out. I think I made the right decision, but now I feel like I’m trying to write a Jhumpa Lahiri novel. Honestly, if I thought I could ever write as well as Jhumpa Lahiri, I would die happy. But I’m not sure her style of contemporary realism is what I’m aiming for.
  3. The plot. I never start out knowing the plot.

What kind of book do you want to write?

Thanks for Nothin’, Newsweek. And 5 Favorite Historical Fictions.

Newsweek recently featured Booker winner Hilary Mantel’s five favorite historical novels. Sadly–or happily, depending on how you look at it–I hadn’t heard of all but one of them. More books to add to the “maybe read” list!

But the magazine sort of pissed me off by saying that Mantel “elevates the field [of historical fiction] with her new book ‘Bring Up the Bodies.'”

OK, first it’s annoying to introduce a writer’s favorite books by implying she’s better than them. (Obviously, it’s Newsweek not Mantel I’m griping about.)

Second, Mantel lists “Things Fall Apart” as one of her picks. So obviously, the field needs no elevation.

Third, I can name offhand two Nobel laureates who’ve written historical fiction. So I’ll repeat: Obviously, the field needs no elevation.

Whatever. Here’s a list of some of the novels I love that happen to be historical:

  1. “Beloved” by Toni Morrison
  2. “The General in His Labyrinth” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  3. “Away” by Amy Bloom
  4. “The Known World” by Edward P. Jones
  5. “In the Skin of a Lion” by Michael Ondaatje

I’ve got to blog more. Or, Shut Up And Read.

I keep reading things about how we’re supposed to read the classics, or we’re supposed to appreciate genre fiction more. And then the New Yorker’s so-called sci-fi issue features a whole bunch of essays about the precise moment of childhood when the writer realized that there was a distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction, and started lying about what he or she liked to read.

Enough already, people. The existence of a genre-literary distinction is interesting, and debates about where that line lies are interesting, and questions of how and why we value certain kinds of literature are also interesting. Up. To. A. Point.

At the risk of seeming like I’m taking sides, I’m going to quote Shirley Hazzard’s response to Stephen King at the 2003 National Book Awards:

I don’t see this as ‘we should read this or we should read that.’ We have mysterious inclinations. We have our own intuitions, our individuality toward what we want to read, and we developed that from childhood. We don’t know why. Nobody can explain it to us.

Or to paraphrase God:

To you your books and to me mine.

I like Michael Ondaatje and Robin McKinley. I like E.M. Forster and Ursula LeGuin. I like Jhumpa Lahiri and Tamora Pierce.

You like what you like. It’s all good as long as people keep reading.

So, what are you waiting for? Go read, everyone!