Thursday, December 30, 2004

There’s Still Time… Plus – A Review of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles

Take a look at your resolutions from last year. How’d you do? I think I did okay. I exercised more and lost a total of 12 pounds. (Of course, I’ve gained two of ‘em back since Thanksgiving.) I didn’t read as many books as I did in 2003 (which was 100). This year I only read 35. But I read hundreds of short stories and studied several of them.

I did get published – just not in the way I’d expected. I had several articles printed in the Bowie Blade (our local newspaper), which was nice. I was accepted to Clarion and loved it. I learned a mind-boggling amount of stuff in those six weeks and met some of the greatest people in the world. Since Clarion, I’ve made several self-discoveries about my writing. I think I’m really close to breaking from Damon Knight’s Stage 3 to Stage 4. (See Knight’s book Creating Short Fiction. It was one of my Christmas presents. Thanks Jan and Pete!) I’m really excited about 2005.

Resolutions? Don’t really have any. (Except finding a job!) I just plan to keep reading, writing and studying. I really believe that most of my writing problems can be solved by delving deeper into the characters and letting them tell their own stories, free from my interference and manipulation.

Chronicles, Vol. I – Bob Dylan

I don’t think anybody expected writing this strong from Dylan. I certainly didn’t. Non-cryptic, sensory-filled, and fascinating, Chronicles takes the reader through three stages in Dylan’s life: his arrival in New York, life in Woodstock in the early 70’s, and the circumstances surrounding the Oh Mercy recording sessions when Dylan was at one of the lowest points of his career.

For the first time, we get a pretty clear idea of what it’s like to be Bob Dylan. You can understand why he did some of the things he did, who and what influenced him, his dreams, fears and passions. Reading Chronicles is probably as close as we’re going to get to sitting down with Dylan and having him open up. But open up he does and what he tells us is amazing. The man knows a lot about music, people, philosophy, ideas and concepts, but he didn’t always. Watching him learn these things is almost too good to be true.

Either Dylan kept very detailed journals during the last 40 years or he’s got a fantastic memory. (Or he’s just making everything up, which I doubt.) In just a few sentences, Bob had me believing I was stepping inside a New York coffee house in 1961, listening to folk singers like Dave Van Ronk and Joan Baez.

Writers would do well to read Chronicles. Dylan’s musical journey is one that no doubt has parallels with hundreds of writers, artists, sculptors, dancers – anyone in the arts. Writer’s block? He’s had it. Depression? Yep. Feeling as if everyone is more talented than he is? Uh-huh. Whatever the problem, he’s had it, he’s been there. This is an outstanding book. Don’t miss it.

Now Playing = When I Stop Dreaming: The Best of the Louvin Brothers

Monday, December 20, 2004

Jonathan Strange and Mr James

Maybe it’s because it’s the holiday season and my schedule is all out-of-whack. Maybe it’s because we’re trying to get the house ready for company and we're running in a hundred different directions. Or maybe it’s just the snow outside…

Whatever the reason, I’ve stopped reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, somewhere around page 80 or so (about one-tenth of the book). Maybe I’ll pick it up again at some point. Susanna Clarke did hold my interest for about the first fifty pages. Some really interesting things happened early on, but then Clarke decided to run down too many rabbit trails that just didn’t deliver. She spends too much time on lengthy discourses that obviously:

1 - do nothing to advance the story
2 – do nothing to reveal anything about the characters

Someone might object, “Well, that’s how novels were written back then.”

I don’t think so, because the story I decided to read instead of Jonathan Strange was “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, which is absolutely captivating. (To put it in perspective, the beginning of Strange takes place in the early 19th century; “The Turn of the Screw” was published near the end of the same century.) Although the James story is long (novella length – about 110 pages in my edition), all of the author’s words either directly advance the plot, illuminate the characters and/or the setting. And while economy of writing may not have been the rage in the 1890’s, “The Turn of the Screw” delivers such a wonderfully creepy story with stunning, unforgettable characters that nothing else matters. The characters in “The Turn of the Screw” are fascinating and the situations James places them in are hard to turn away from. The characters in Jonathan Strange have the potential to be fascinating, but it seems that you have to wade through hundreds of pages of not-so-fascinating episodes (and footnotes) to find this out.

Maybe it’s not fair to judge a novel after only 80 pages. Well, I didn’t say I’d never pick it up again. I’m just not reading it now.

I really think 90% of any story is character. I’ve spent a lot of time lately working on the characters in my new story. I’ve written journal entries from their POVs, I’ve written what a typical day at work is like for them, and I’ve written their bios. All of it is telling me where the characters should go and what they should do. (Actually THEY are telling me.) Invaluable. Hopefully I’ll have this particular story finished before Christmas.

Hey Al, Boris, John S. – thanks for the cards!

Now Playing = Forever Changes - Love

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

So (That's for you, John!), I've finally got this book in my hands - at least for the next three weeks, courtesy of the Odenton Library. I'd never heard of it until Kelly Link recommended it to me at Clarion. When I get home in mid-July, I find that it hasn't been published yet. No problem; I grab a few of the other titles on her "you-should-read" list and get started. And I wait for Susanna Clarke's book to come out.

Now I'd seen Clarke's name somewhere, but I couldn't remember where. Turns out she'd sold stories to a couple of Patrick Nielsen Hayden's Starlight anthologies, but I hadn't read those particular stories.

The book comes out and it's sold out everywhere. I look on Amazon and the thing's like #7 on their bestseller list. Plus it's twenty-eight bucks! (Okay, Amazon's cheaper, but by itself the book won't qualify for free shipping and this thing's bound to be a brick at 800 pages.) I think, "If it's that hot, Costco will have it." They don't.

I go to my local library and know good and well they won't have it. They'll have 25 copies of the latest James Patterson novel, but maybe two copies of Jonathan Strange. My expectations are fulfilled; the ONE copy they have is checked out.

By this time, I'm reading rave reviews in newspapers, magazines, just about everywhere. Neil Gaiman says "Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years." Several reviews state that the book is "Harry Potter for Adults." (Untrue. Harry Potter is Harry Potter for adults.)

But then I start talking with people who've read it, or as much of it as they could stand. "It's boring," "It's too long," "It doesn't go anywhere," are some of the comments I hear and for the most part, the comments come from people I respect. Then at World Fantasy, Betty Ballentine (of Ballentine Books) sits on a panel and says the book is absolutely unreadable. Hmmmm.... If there was ever a "find out for yourself" moment, this was it.

By the time I get back from World Fantasy, Costco has the book for about $17, I believe. But I decide to pass on it.

And then the brand new Odenton Library opens... (And of course, I'm there on opening day. Can you imagine being the first person in a brand new library? Well, that's another post for another time...)

The book isn't on the new arrivals shelf, the "You've Gotta Read It!" table, or anywhere else. So I go schlepping around the science fiction section and there it is. On the bottom shelf, just minding it's own business, exchanging pleasantries with Arthur C. Clarke's Rendevous with Rama. I look furtively in both directions, nab the book, and make a clean getaway.

Then the moment of truth. I start reading...

The book takes place in 1806 England. A member of the York society of magicians laments the fact that no one is practicing magic in England. But one of the members had heard of a Mr (It's a British book, so you don't DARE place a period after Mr, so we were severely warned by a panelist at World Fantasy.) Norrell, a practicing magician who just might possess the ability to restore magic to England.

Okay, so I just started last night and I'm only 30 pages into it. But here's what I think so far:

I expected the language to be more Dickens-like, more 19th-century. But it reads easily enough, almost like any modern British novel, with a few antiquated words and phrases thrown in.

The storyline/plot is very linear. A few clues of things to come have been placed in plain sight. Norrell is by far the most interesting character (There's a hint that one of the minor characters may become very important later, but it's too soon to tell.) , but not so interesting that I have to stop watching Pardon the Interruption to find out what he's going to do next. I'm interested, but not ravenously interested.

Actually, I'm a little surprised at how fast things are happening. Clarke could really have drawn this opening out much, much more. (I wonder how many pages her original draft was?) For a period novel, it moves pretty quickly.

I've heard that the glut of footnotes in the book are distracting for some readers. Not for me. I skip 'em. I figure if it's not important enough to be in the body of the text, why should I read it?

So will I keep reading? Yes. Will I finish it before I have to turn it in to the library? Are you kidding? Not a chance. It's on my Amazon wishlist, so maybe I'll get it for Christmas. If not, well, I'm sure I won't have to wait too long for Jonathan Strange & Mr. (American version) Norrell, starring George Clooney and Ben Afleck. Geez, what's the world coming to?

Now Playing = The Legendary Small Groups - Benny Goodman

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Rejection and Acceptance

The bad news is I didn’t place in the contest I entered, but the good news is I’m sending the story to the next place on my list of markets. (Keep that sucker going until it lands somewhere or dies.) Congrats to my Clarion buddy Dr. Phil (not THAT Dr. Phil) who received a Laudable Mention from the contest.

Speaking of congrats, two of my other Clarion buddies have big news:

Marjorie’s first book, Tiger’s Eye will be released in March. For more info, check out her website:

Peter has launched a new e-zine called Shadows of Saturn that looks great. Send him your dark speculative stories. I plan to.

On the acceptance side, I’ve been asked to lead a writing workshop next month in DC. I’m very excited about that and can’t wait to get started.

Now to do some more Christmas shopping…

Now Playing = Imaginary Day – Pat Metheny

Monday, December 13, 2004

Birds, Monsters, Texans, and Other Strange Creatures

Every writer reading this (both of you) should log off, drop everything and buy a copy of Anne Lamont's "Bird by Bird," a great book that offers some of the best writing advice I've ever read. It really puts writing (especially the quest for publication) in perspective.

Don't ask me why, but for some reason I felt compelled to read Heaney's translation of Beowulf and Stephen Mitchell's new translation of Gilgamesh, both great works that I will definitely read again. Gilgamesh was a little harder to get into, but after finishing it, it's the book I want to revisit first. It seems to have more beneath the surface (not that Beowulf doesn't) that intrigues me. But now I'm jumping ahead just a few years with Neil Gaiman's "Coraline," a really creepy children's book.

My Texas-football-fans-meet-weird-guy-in-the-median story is going slowly, but the pieces are locking in nicely. Stories have to come in their own time and I know that in the past I've been rushing them. In the last few days I've found a patience and calm that allows me to take my time, step back and look at not just writing, but everything. Things are happening and I'm learning about writing and living. I know, it sounds like I've been meditating on a mountain in Tibet, but I'm very pleased with how things are unfolding.

A new, serious temptation has appeared: The opening of the new (two-story) Odenton library mere miles from my house. (What kind of life do you have when you get this excited about a library opening?)

Mood = Good, in spite of the pathetic play of the Dallas Cowboys yesterday.
Now Playing = Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player - Elton John (courtesy of the Odenton Library)
Weight = 170!