Winter Book Reviews

Ok ok, so technically we still have four more weeks of winter, technically I’m early with a “Winter Book Recap.” But! Since I’m currently reading my own book, and March is right around the corner, I figure now is the appropriate time to take a look back at the books that helped me slog through winter.

1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Androids This may sound odd, but I read this book not based on its own merit, but because of the other works it’s influenced. Blade Runner is the obvious correlation here, but Janelle Monáe has said in interviews that it’s a big influence on her work, too. I was curious about a book that could inspire so many, across so many genres.

And you know what? This was a really, really good book. Simple and straightforward prose, but a complex idea: what does it mean to be human? This is where science fiction really shines: creating an other-worldly scenario to tackle all-too-human questions. I’m laughing right now reading the quote on that cover — “a kind of pulp-fiction Kafka” — because it’s totally true. This is pulp fiction in the best sense — a fun, action-packed read that still makes you think.

Did it have its issues? Sure. The pacing seemed a little off in parts, and the female characters aren’t the most well-developed. But all in all I’m definitely glad I read it, and definitely understand why it’s considered a classic in the genre.

2. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughterhouse Five

I have a confession to make: up until this book, I had never read any Kurt Vonnegut. I’m not entirely sure how that’s possible, considering that I practically lived in my college’s English department. And confession time isn’t over yet: I’ve been somewhat avoiding Vonnegut. He seemed like another White Dude Writer whom you’re Supposed to Read. But then Slaughterhouse-Five was on sale for less than a latte, so I scooped it up. And now I’m kicking myself for not reading Vonnegut sooner, because my first thought upon finishing this book was, “I wish I were back in college so I could discuss this with fellow English nerds.”

This book, man. It was so good. SO GOOD. I don’t know what I expected from Vonnegut, but it wasn’t this — simplistic prose, a sci-fi angle, a keen eye for just-right details. (How did I not know Vonnegut is considered a science fiction writer? WHERE HAVE I BEEN?). But most of all, I love that this book doesn’t leave any answers. It is both fatalistic and hopeful, dismally sad and darkly comedic. And Billy Pilgrim — was he really abducted by aliens? Did the skull fracture break his brain? Is he suffering from horrible PTSD and these are his coping mechanisms? The answer to all these questions is “yes” — they can all be true, all at the same time, just as they can all not be true. As a writer, I’m definitely going to need to re-read this book to study how Vonnegut does it.

3. The Explorer by James Smythe

The Explorer

Nope, sorry. This book was a “not for me.” I heard about it on Chuck Wendig’s blog, and it sounded right up my alley:

Cormac Easton is the first journalist to travel to space. The crew he’s with all die, and he’s left alone, slowly dying. Unless, of course, he can find out how to stop it…

Awesome! Sign me up! But somehow this book… bored me. I’m not even sure how that’s possible. But to me, it was slow and boring. I followed Nancy Pearl’s advice on this one and put it down after about 100 pages. It has a LOT of good reviews, though, so clearly others enjoyed it. Maybe you would, too? Let me know, I’d be curious to hear others’ thoughts.

4. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg

Writing

I already talked about my adoration for this book — but it does bear repeating. This is an AMAZING book for all you writers out there. The chapters are short, easily digested in any time increment you may have. Goldberg is at once encouraging in a maternal sort of way, and matter-of-fact in a no-bullshit way. It’s a mix that shouldn’t work, but totally does.

One part that struck me in particular — in the last chapter, she talks about how it feels to finish a book. The combined exhilaration and letdown. The joy and the loneliness. I had just finished my first draft, and the words struck home. This woman gets it, guys. Whatever “it” is. Seriously, if you write at all, check this book out.

5. The Cormorant by Chuck Wendig

Cormorant

This book! And it’s ah-maz-ing cover. I had been looking forward to this book ever since I finished book two of the Miriam Black series. This one involves a road trip down to the Florida Keys. Which, I have to say — Wendig does a great job describing. You can practically taste the Keys. Now I want to go and snorkel and drink rum and eat fresh fish caught by a cormorant.

Without getting spoilery, I’ll just say — there were a lot of returning characters that I didn’t expect to show up, and I was pleased they did. One qualm, however — there were times when Wendig referenced characters or events from the previous book, and I couldn’t for the life of me remember exactly who they were or what they had done. It didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the overall book in any way, but a little more “catching the reader up” would have been nice.

I was surprised at the gut reaction I had to reading the last page — it was a (surprisingly) emotional ending with a character you’ve really come to care for. Miriam shows a LOT of personal growth in this book — more so than we’ve previously seen. She confronts difficult relationships and doesn’t find easy answers. All in all, it felt like a good direction for the character to go in. Also, the set up for the next book? SUPER intriguing. I’m in.

6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Alexie

The members of my writing group were shocked — shocked! — when they learned I hadn’t read any Sherman Alexie. So seeing as he’s speaking at the upcoming AWP conference  (which I’m attending wheeee!), I figured now was a good time. The Absolutely True Diary is technically a young adults book, but I’m here to tell you that it is totally enjoyable as an adult. It’s a quick read, but it never feels like you’re being talked down to (as some poorly written YA books can do). The narrator, Junior, is a Native American kid who leaves his reservation to attend the adjacent “white” school. In many ways, this book seems to be a love song to the reservation that Junior knows he MUST leave for his own good — yet it still breaks his heart to do so.

It amused and saddened me to think that there are a lot of schools that ban this book. This is, on the whole, a pretty innocent book — it tackles some BIG complex issues, yes, but Junior is a good kid. He does well in school, he works hard, he loves his friends and family. He is actively trying to create a better life for himself. Those seem like good messages for young adults. But the fact that he *gasps* mentions masturbation makes the book unfit for young eyes. Come on, America. Let’s pull it together here, ok?

Winter always seems like such a cozy time for reading. What books did YOU pick up? Anything I should add to my own list?

On Editing

As mentioned earlier in the week, I’m starting the first-draft edit on Saturday. As also mentioned, I don’t really have any idea what I’m doing. Yes, I can edit for spelling, grammar, consistencies — but this thing needs serious revisions. Where to begin? How to tackle what at the moment seems to be a massive undertaken?

I was always the type of student to do all my homework, and apparently I haven’t lost that trait. For the past week I dug into blogs and books and turned to the experts: authors whose advice I’ve found helpful in the past. And soon enough, some themes began to emerge.

Start Reading

You need to re-read your book. It’s time. Sit down with it. Print it out and plop it in your lap. Or smear it onto your iPad or computer monitor. Whatever it takes: just re-read that sonofabitch. Do this quickly. — Chuck Wendig, “25 Steps to Edit the Unmerciful Suck Out of Your Story

Stephen King advises the same thing in On Writing — sit down and re-read the first draft, preferably in one sitting. The idea is that you’ll see the book as a whole, without time lapses, and you’ll be able to see what works — and what doesn’t.

Find Your Theme

I’ve read On Writing numerous times (I noticed the other day how incredibly broken my book’s spine is), and I’m always finding new bits to love in there. Like this:

When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest. Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony or musical language (they call it prose for a reason, y’know), but it seems to me that every book — at least one worth reading — is about something. Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide what something or somethings your is about. — Stephen King, On Writing

Yes. Definitely yes. That’s one thing I’m very aware of with my book — it needs a Unifying Factor. Or rather, the unifying factor lying beneath all the junk needs to be uncovered. (For more about uncovering theme and symbolism and all that big scary stuff, I’d also recommend Chuck Wendig’s blog post, “The Contextual Edit“.)

Cut Out the Crap

There’s one bit of On Writing that always stuck with me, from the very first time I read it:

In the spring of my senior year at Lisbon High …. I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this mot: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1 Draft – 10%. Good luck.” — Stephen King, On Writing

I love that — such a simple, easy formula. What I find most interesting is that King claims he follows it almost to the letter — for his second draft, he chops 10% of the word count from the first draft. No excuses, it just has to happen. I know my book needs some “de-puffying”, so 10% seems a good amount to aim for.

Margaret Atwood gives similar advice (PS, HOW EXCITED WAS I when I found Margaret Atwood had a blog post with editing advice??):

Readers are readers. They are good at reading. They are also post-film, and are used to swift cuts. They will fill in quite a lot. At any point, are you telling/filling in too much? The author needs to walk through the moves in his/her head — like practicing a dance or a military exercise — so that no actual tactical mistakes are made — the character doesn’t go out the door before he’s put his pants on, unless intended — but then the planning steps, the  connect-the-dots steps, are pruned out so that what the reader gets is a graceful, fluid execution. We hope. — Margaret Atwood, “Ten Editing Tips, for Your Fiction Mss.

Remove the “connect-the-dot” steps — this gives the reader credit. You’re trusting that the reader is intelligent, that you don’t need to fill in every tiny detail for her. It seems to me this would result in a sharper, leaner book (something I’m hoping to achieve).

Track It

I can’t believe I never thought of this one before:

It is exceedingly helpful to mark all the changes you make. I turn them on when editing but turn their visibility off at the same time — so, it’s tracking all the changes I make off-stage and behind the curtain. But I can view them at any time. — Chuck Wendig, “How Chuck Wendig Edits a Novel

Track Changes in Word. Duh. Totally doing this.

It’s a Process — And That’s Ok

The most daunting thing about editing is… well, there’s not just one daunting thing, is the problem. It’s all the things. Grammar and continuity errors and gaping plot holes and oh God I forgot about that character what do I do with him?? At this point in time, it seems like a massive undertaking.

Well. It is. But that shouldn’t phase you:

See revision as “envisioning again.” If there are areas in your work where there is a blur or vagueness, you can simply see the picture again and add the details that will bring your work closer to your mind’s picture. You can sit down and time yourself and add to the original work that second, third, or fourth time you wrote on something. — Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Wendig calls this the “Layer Cake” theory of editing. One of my writing-group buddies has a different analogy — varnishing a table. You can’t apply ten layers of varnish at once, the thing will turn out looking like a mess. You have to sand the table down, smooth it out, apply one layer. Then you repeat the process, one layer at a time, until you have the final result: a beautiful, smooth, gleaming table. Same thing with a novel and editing: you start one layer at a time — context, grammar, characters — until you have one damn fine table. Er, book.

I have to say, after this whole week of research and reading and expectation — I feel ready. I feel excitedI’m ready for Saturday to arrive, to sit down with my book — my book, which I wrote, which I finished — and start ripping it to shreds. Or, maybe politely pecking it to shreds. It’ll be a messy business — and that’s ok.