What Not to Do

(Caveat: It is not my habit or intention to belittle another author’s writing. That said, I don’t always like everything I read. Do you? The statements herein are my opinion only. Your mileage may vary.)

This is not a book review. I just want that clear right up front, because in this post I want to talk about a book I have been trying—and failing—to read: New York 2140, by Kim Stanley Robinson.

I initially borrowed the book from the library because I was ready for a new read, and this was recommended as one of thirteen best sci-fi books of 2017. The premise seemed sound. In the year 2140 (obviously), Manhattan is so flooded from sea-level rise that it has become the new Venice. Interesting, I thought. Ought to be good, plus bonus points for taking on climate change in a possible near future, set in a city familiar to many readers. Makes for a story relevant to our own times.

Right?

That’s why I tried to read it. I failed to finish because…well, there’s no polite way to say this. It bored me to tears.

And that is what I want to talk about. Some of the storyline’s failings I can point to and say “That. That right there is boring.” But the rest I’m not sure how to define, which I why I’m writing about it. Because as a writer, if I can’t describe why a book fails to capture my interest, then I won’t be able to avoid the same mistakes.

So here we go.

One clear pitfall of the book for me was that a main character (there are nine) is a hedge-fund sleaze who goes on and on and on and on about finance and housing bubbles and market indexes in excruciating detail. He’s not the only character to do so. I read the first segments of this, thinking it must have some connection to the plot (I think it does, eventually, though I’ll never know for sure). But after the first five, I began skimming without actually reading them.

Another was the unnamed character (“citizen”) whose chapters were absolute info dumps about New York history and culture. Not one of these chapters that I read added anything pertinent to the plot. Citizen even tells the reader that “if you don’t wanna know this, skip to the next chapter.” (Really? The author invites the reader to skip whole chapters of the book?) Again, read the first few, skipped the rest.

The characters themselves all fell flat. Not one of them felt fleshed-out or real to me. They all said different words, yet their “voices” sounded the same. They went places and did things and got together and faced problems, but none of it gave me a sense of urgency. None of it compelled me to keep reading. The writing, overall, used limiting words that drained conversations between the characters as well as descriptions of any power, something I’ve had to watch in my own work. Dialogue between characters felt stiff. There was more, but this will suffice to explain why, at about the 25% point, I decided to stop wasting my time.

More nebulous critiques centered around the pointless wanderings of the flat characters. Maybe it’s that their relationships, activities, comments and internal monologues all felt contrived. One scene in particular had a group of characters all meeting in one place and the author overexplained insignificant details like who sat where. Why is this important? Skip to that bit, please. There were good segments that gave me hope, but overall it felt like there was far too much extraneous content, as though the author could have cut at least 25% of the book and had a better, more focused and compelling story. Again, I’ll never know.

Correct me if I’m wrong—because KSR is a best-selling author with nineteen published books to his name, so clearly he knows something I don’t—but I’m pretty sure each of these faults I’ve named breaks rules that are pounded into our heads as new writers. Books on how to write publishable fiction tell us not to do these things. Fiction classes say the same thing. Writing conference breakout sessions repeat these lessons, so I’m left wondering if a) those books and classes and conference presenters are all wrong; or b) bestselling authors are held to a different standard than new writers.

Much as I wish it were so, the real answer probably isn’t that cut-and-dried. First of all, a) is both true and false because every fiction reader is different. Each one wants something different from a novel. As awful as I thought NY2140 was, there were plenty of reviews giving it four or five stars, raving about how all KSR’s novels had an underlying and not-so-subtle message. He definitely pushes a political agenda in this novel, one I probably agree with on many levels. I don’t mind a book with a message. But let it also have a story too, please. I’ve read other books like this in that they were all message and no story. All my works of fiction have messages too. I only hope they aren’t this dry and flavorless.

As to b, this is probably true. I remember a presenter telling me at a conference that writers have to prove they know the rules before they can break them. I’m tempted to think this is BS, until I read something like NY2140. It’s an example of the fact that publishers will be more likely to buy even marginal ideas from established writers who have already identified their market, while we newbies are still struggling to do that. Unfortunately, even if our stories is outstanding, we are all channeled through the narrow pipeline of available publishing houses whose primary goal is to make money. Don’t misunderstand me; there’s nothing wrong with making money. As a writer, I too want my works to turn a buck. But with so many of us, and so few publishing channels, it’s no wonder that more and more writers are turning to self-publishing options for their work.

I haven’t read anything else by KSR, and I probably won’t—partly because of my experience with this book, but also partly because one reviewer, who gave this book four out of five stars, commented that people who read his work usually don’t read it for the story, but for the “massive ideas he puts forth.” That reviewer is clearly part of KSR’s “established market.” She knows going in what she’s going to get and she goes back for more.

I know it looks like one, but this isn’t a book review. As always, don’t take my word for it. If you like the “story’s” premise, or have a soft spot for New York City or finance or utopian messages that out-shout the plot or the characters, by all means read this book. You may be one of those who find it inspiring. As far as I am concerned, it was a reminder to myself to mind my story/message balance, to fully flesh out my characters and their desires/conflicts, and to make every single word relevant to the work.

A God In Ruins

By Kate Atkinson
Back Bay Books, ISBN: 978-0316176507
Paperback, ©2016, 480 pages

Ex-bomber pilot Teddy, a.k.a. Edward Todd, has settled into an expected post-war role of husband and father, living out his days in small-town mediocrity with enigmatic wife Nancy, unlikeable daughter Viola, volatile grandson Sunny and pragmatic granddaughter Bertie. He is content to write for a local journal rather than seek his pre-war dream of becoming a world-renowned poet, or travel as he’d planned before enlisting with the RAF.

On the surface, Teddy is a quiet, unambitious man with strong pacifistic tendencies, and with good reason. Beneath the surface lays pent-up guilt for the hundreds—thousands—of innocents killed or maimed during his 72 bombing raids over Germany. Teddy lives by his own personal credo: Always be kind. Even when he suspects his wife is having an affair. Even when his daughter treats him like a burden and can’t wait to be rid of him. Even when those he holds dear take no interest in the one thing that ever really made him feel alive: the mechanics of bombers.

A God in Ruins is not a sequel to Life After Life, even though it explores another branch of the Todd family, most of whom we met in the first book. Teddy’s story is, rather, a companion piece and while it is not told in the same fashion as Ursula’s repeat visits to a life in this realm, chapters of Teddy’s life fall into the story in a jumbled way that at first was hard to read. However, the more I read, the faster Teddy’s hooks held my attention. Layer after layer is peeled away from Teddy’s façade to show the reader how his life came to this point. That alone would have intrigued me.

But Atkinson’s characters and their interrelationships run deep. Each and every one carries strata of cause to support the effects of their strengths as well as their flaws. Throughout the story, the author allows readers to see into the minds and thoughts of all the main characters—Teddy, certainly, but also Nancy, Viola, Sunny and Berti—so that by the end of the story we know why all of them did the things they did. Viola, in particular, presented a most unlikable character and, for me at least, never really redeemed herself. It was especially abhorrent to me the way she treated Teddy, who is the most sympathetic character of all. But when the story reveals the explosive crux behind this broken relationship, it changed everything for me. I still didn’t like Viola, but at least I understood a great deal more about her character.

But perhaps the most prevalent character in the entire story is the same as the one in LAL—World War II. Through the first part of the book, Nancy refers to “Teddy’s war” in vague comments, but Teddy’s actual experiences dribble down to the reader in small bites, enough that we know Teddy only ever really felt completely connected to his life while he was piloting a bomber. We see isolated memories of rough missions where Teddy and his crew barely made it back alive, and others where not all of them did. Teddy clearly harbored guilt over the bombing of innocents, though he carried out his duty on behalf of the Allied Forces, and is never able to understand the hostility that lingers in his countrymen and fellow soldiers long after Germany is in ruins and its despotic ruler in his grave. I related on a deep personal level with his inability to discern any reason to continue such hatred, and his horror over the enormous destruction wrought by the conflict.

While LAL carried a bigger punch with its continual restarts on Ursula’s attempt to get this life right, A God in Ruins packs just as powerful an impact on a quieter level. True to its main character, this book whispers its message, rather than swinging insight at the reader like a blunt object, as was more natural for Ursula. Atkinson’s revelations of the Todds proved for me to be a thoughtful look past the surface of what at first appeared to be the ideal family, and an advisory that no matter how hard we try, things don’t always work out the way we plan.

GodSeed

Last week I gave a presentation on the Pagan/Wiccan holiday of Imbolg to a small interfaith group whose members are mostly Christian and Jewish. It wasn’t the first time I’ve shared aspects of my faith with this loving group of people. My views are always accepted with open hearts and not a little curiosity. Though most of them have heard enough about my faith to have a surface understanding, there is one thing that is almost certain to stump members new to my presentations—my reference to God as The Divine.

I can’t count how many times people have stopped short at this honorific, though I never really understand why. Usually I am asked to describe what I mean by that term—which seems self-explanatory to me—so I tell the querent that the term “God” can mean very different things to a Christian and a Hindu and a Buddhist and a Pagan. It evokes wildly variant images and emotions and expectations. The term “The Divine” has more distance, less emotional coloration. For me, that better suits a creative energy that I feel certain is limitless, boundless, so far beyond our ken that we can’t even know what we don’t know about that Presence. It feels less limiting than the word “God” or “Goddess” or any other specific name we might pin on its Universal Lapel.

People usually nod, and smile at my explanation. It seems to satisfy them, but I don’t usually go into any greater detail because I don’t want to confuse the issue. And my complex feelings about divinity/The Great Mind/The All/The Universe/God/The Divine would prompt conversations longer than the twenty or so minutes I have to speak before this group.

I am a deeply spiritual person. If pressed, I will say I am Wiccan, but it’s not really that simple. I have yet to find the box that completely encompasses my beliefs while leaving room for them to evolve as I do. In my novel series, the Umani race calls The Divine Na’Staanni, which means “Honored All”. That concept is so close to how I see that Presence, I have taken to using the Umani’s name for It. As far as I’m concerned, Na’Staani is All, as Its (admittedly fictional—but then which human-labeled God isn’t?) name implies. It encompasses you, me, the neighbor next door and those noisy ones down the street. Nature and technology and knowledge and everything we make or build or grow or know is part and parcel with It. Na’Staani isn’t part of the Universe; the Universe is part of Na’Staani, as are we all. Therefore, we – you, me, the noisy neighbor—are all part of God. That means that there is a seed, a speck, a particle of the Divine in every one of us. In everything around us. Good, bad, and indifferent, there isn’t anything or anyone or anywhere that is apart from It. You are God. I am God. God is you and me and a whole lot more.

But it goes even beyond that. If we are all part of Na’Staani, and Na’Staani is Everything, then you and I and the noisy neighbor are all also Everything. The separations between us are illusions. We are all One.

Given this attitude, it’s perhaps no surprise that I am motivated to be kind—to people, to animals, to Nature—and to extend to others the same authentic curiosity about how they seek connection with The Divine as I want them to offer me. If that Presence is as vast and all-encompassing as I believe, there is no hope of full understanding as long as we remain separated from It in this existence; but—and here’s the important thing—as long as we strive toward that goal, even knowing we cannot reach it, growth and enlightenment can follow. For such a deep and personal journey, no one route could possibly serve all of us with equal effectiveness. The commitment to seek God, by whatever name we use or face we see, is made in one’s heart and soul. That is where the sacred path lies, in that internal, intensely intimate space. Only the individual seeker can recognize its signposts or say whether Christian traditions and teachings will resonate more than Jewish ones, Hindu pantheons more than Greek, Buddhist dharma more than Wiccan mysteries.

There is beauty in our differences which, brought together and explored as a greater whole, have the power to widen our perception if we can learn to listen and truly hear one another.

Up the Tension

I’ve read it over and over, heard it in workshops and plenary sessions. A good story isn’t about any one character or group of characters. Instead, it’s about those characters doing things. Striving, reaching, hurting or being hurt, trying and failing and trying again, coming, going, living, learning. It’s about the events that happen to the characters—the foundation, the buildup, the action, and the consequences—followed by the next event and so on. These threads weave together to create tension in the book which keeps the reader on the edge of her seat (hopefully) all the way to the dénouement. The trick, as I understand it, is to write every scene in such a way that it furthers or at least maintains this tension.

The challenge, for me anyway, is learning to write structural scenes—ones that don’t have high-energy but are necessary to set up later action scenes—in such a way that they too convey some element of dramatic tension. The Kill Zone, Terrible Minds, and other blogs talk about the necessity for this, while recognizing that the reader also needs periodic breaks to catch her breath.

Right now, I’m a little more than halfway through the first draft of my novel’s sequel, and struggling with a few structural scenes that set up the last quarter of this book and the entire premise of the third book in the trilogy. It’s crucial that they deliver the necessary information; telling/showing it in such a way as to make the reader care is what takes so much time. These scenes are always (for me) harder to write than the more action-packed ones, but some days the words just WILL NOT come. I write, erase, write, erase, and write until my wrists ache, then I put on my braces and write some more. Usually I’m shooting for a target word count but even if I make that number for the day, it won’t matter unless the words count. If I have to erase them the next day and start over, what have I gained?

I’m whining, but it’s okay. I think that’s part of a writer’s process. Have you seen the meme about the phases writers go through on any draft? In summary, they go something like this:

  1. This is the best thing I’ve ever written.
  2. This has a few problems.
  3. This is the worst thing I’ve ever written.
  4. I’ll never get published.
  5. This might be okay.
  6. This is the best thing I’ve ever written.

For a hilarious visual concept, see the interpretation by Captain Jack Sparrow.

At any rate, today was a Level 3 day. I’m sure tomorrow (or the day after) will spring back to Level 1 or forward to Level 6 but for a first draft, I suppose I’m right (write) on target.

See you next week.