What I’m Reading: The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, tells the story of Bod Owens, a boy who is raised in a graveyard.  His entire family is killed when he’s a toddler and he himself escapes only by lucky accident.  When he wanders into the local cemetery later that night, the resident ghosts take pity on the child and grant him the “freedom of the cemetery.”  The Owenses, a kindly ghost couple from the 18th century, become his new parents, and a mysterious spectral being named Silas his guardian.

You might think a book about such a situation would be morbid but in it doesn’t feel that way at all, largely because Gaiman writes his characters with a lot of warmth and generosity.  The ghosts are regular, pleasant people, for the most part, and treat Bod with more kindness than he ever finds in the world of the living.  For his part, Bod helps the ghosts as well, giving the Owenses the chance to be parents that they never had in real life, finding a proper headstone for a witch burned at the stake in the 1600s, and providing a playmate to children who died young.

The main point of fascination in the book is just how the afterlife works, and Gaiman does not disappoint in either quotidian life or mythology.  We meet an endless succession of graveyard denizens from different eras going about their business, each with his own archaic vocabulary and worldview, who together make up an insular but complete mini-town of the dead.  Then there are ghouls who enter the cemetery through a particular unkempt grave, an ancient demon far beneath the hill who has guarded an ancient king’s treasure for 10,000 years, and all sorts of other mystical creatures and spirits operating in the next plane.

Eventually, Bod grows up and must venture out into the world of the living, where he discovers the man who killed his family is still on the hunt for him.  I leave the why, and what Bod does about it, for the reader to find out, but I will mention that the things he learned to do from the dead in the cemetery–fading from the view of the living, entering dreams, and other exotic powers–give him a fighting chance against the sort of ruthless foe who has no qualms about killing a small child.

I would recommend this book to anybody with a taste for fantasy.  The writing is beautiful without being ornate, the subject matter fascinating, the tone dignified.  It is YA and thus aimed at teen-agers, but I see no reason an adult of any age wouldn’t enjoy it.  For that matter, I think the material is safe enough for more mature younger readers as well, say an eight-year old who has made it through The Hobbit.  Rather than being scary, the book really demystifies life after death, and may even be a comfort to an older child with a lot of questions about death and what comes after.  I previously knew Gaiman only from his Sandman comics, and am happy to see his talent translate so readily to prose as well.

The Importance of Not Flinching

Now we come to what I think is the most important rule of all for a writer: Don’t flinch.

Everything you see and experience can be used in your writing, but you must have your eyes open to see it.  Be aware of your surroundings.  Listen to what others say, and how they say it.  Don’t talk much yourself, but draw others out on what they think and believe.  Be open to new experiences, different ways of doing things.  Travel.  Become friends with different types of people.  Even if it’s hard, even if you’re shy, do it for your writing.  Don’t flinch.

Sometimes you’ll see something happening that’s wrong.  If you can alter it, by all means intervene.  But maybe you can’t really do anything about it, or your interference would only make things worse.  If you’re a writer, your job isn’t over in that case.  Keep looking.  You can use it later.  When others learn of it, they may have the means to act.  Whatever you do, don’t flinch.

When you start writing, and you’re putting your thoughts and ideas on paper, you may come to a part that’s emotionally difficult.  Maybe your characters will say ugly things, or uncomfortable events may transpire.  Let them.  This is the part that others need to read.  They need to know others have thought those thoughts, or felt those feelings, or had those things happen to them.  The ugliness and discomfort need to be out in the open.  If it’s ugly and needs to be killed, how can you do that if you can’t even see it?  But sometimes, something you thought was ugly turns out to be beautiful once you really look at it.  You have to see it to know.  Don’t flinch.

Perhaps you’re writing escapist fiction.  Shouldn’t you leave the ugly and uncomfortable out?  After all, people sometimes just want to read something for fun without all that real world stuff in there.  You’ll have to use your judgment, but I would point out that some of the world’s great escapist literature had a lot of uncomfortable truth.  Think of Huckleberry Finn, on one level a boys’ adventure story, on another a penetrating look at attitutes towards race.  And even in escapist fiction, characters still have to follow their own nature.  Plots still have to unwind plausibly.  Sometimes that means they don’t quite go where you want them to.  Don’t flinch.

Maybe you’re writing a book for children.  Of course there is material that’s inappropriate for kids.  That’s why fairy tales disguise uncomfortable truths in magic.  Once you break it down, is there any story, anywhere, harder and more clear-eyed than Hansel and Gretel?  Perhaps Lolita, but not much else.  And it’s a fairy tale!  Even when writing for children, don’t flinch.

Once kids are older, they can handle a lot, probably more than you think.  I well remember the smart kids in the seventh grade passing around Flowers in the Attic.  That book was truly lurid, with themes of bondage and incest, but we ate it up.  Probably not the healthiest thing for us to read, but we weren’t corrupted.  If anything, it provided us a few pieces in putting together the puzzle that was sex.  It doesn’t matter that it was trashy, we knew that, and knew it wasn’t something emulate.  We were wide-eyed, and willing to consume anything that might help us understand.  Better were the YA novels of, say, Judy Blume.  Heavy, sexual subject matter, but treated with sensitivity.  That’s how you should do it.  But whatever you do, don’t leave it out.  Don’t flinch.

In the post on writing breakout novels, I think I mentioned how that book describes debut novels, and novels by authors who haven’t broken out, as feeling small.  I believe one key to overcoming the smallness is being willing to turn the light of fiction on those dark corners that many are afraid to peer into.  Even if monsters lurk there, even if ghosts pop out, whatever you do, don’t flinch.

What I’m Reading: Hell Phone

I typically read a few YA or middle grade novels a year, usually when my wife, a YA librarian, finds a book she thinks I’ll find funny.  But since my WiP is a scary middle grade novel, I recently asked her to bring some YA horror home.  One of the first ones she picked out is Hell Phone, by William Sleator.  I think she got it because for me, all cell phones are hell phones.  OK, maybe I’m something of a Luddite.  But on to the book.

In Hell Phone, Nick is a hard-working teen from a family without much money.  He wants a cell phone so he can call his girlfriend, and when he sees an ad for cheap cell phones at a skeevy convenience store, he goes in and walks out with the cheapest one they have.  Now the problems start.

Whenever Nick turns the phone on, he gets mysterious calls from individuals who sound malicious or victimized.  Then too, there’s the phone’s game section, with selections he’s never heard of before: Torture Master and Don’t Look Back.  Soon, he’s following the instructions of one of the callers, Fleck, who claims to be trapped in hell, but thinks he can get out if Nick will gather some electronic items and connect them to the phone.  The phone seems to weaken Nick’s willpower, and his changed personality causes a rift between he and his girlfriend and mother.

When Fleck threatens his girlfriend (and reveals details about her no stranger would know), Nick steals the necessary items to keep her from coming to harm.  After he puts them together, a beaten and bloodied man appears in front of his mom’s trailer.  As you might guess, releasing Fleck from hell was not a good idea.  Fleck involves Nick in a conspiracy to gain a large inheritance, and is not above murder to get his way….

The book is definitely a page-turner, and I notice Sleator manages to include conflict on every page–as we’ve seen in previous entries on this blog, that is a requirement for breakout novels.  And there are some really cool scenes, especially later on, when we get a glimpse of hell itself.  Ultimately, I found the story disappointing, though.  The biggest flaw is the characters.  Even Nick is not especially well-rounded, and none of the characters besides him are anything other than one-dimensional types.  The setting too is under-developed.  It sort of feels like a small-town, but we don’t learn anything about it other than the most generic indications of “trailer park”, “high school”, “avenue”, and “apartment complex.”

Also, the central device of the novel is a problem.  We never find out exactly why the cell phone works!  There’s some handwaving about Fleck being a computer expert and his connection to its previous owner (who does show up), and certainly it’s creepy not knowing much about the phone, but in this case I think we need to know more.  If it were some sort of ancient artifact from Hell, a reader could accept that we don’t know how it operates.  But a cell phone is modern, coldly scientific.  So what makes it effective in the mystical realm of Hell?  Is it cursed?  Was there a ritual performed to make it work?  We don’t really know.

In the end, I might recommend this to a teenager with a particular interest in horror and who has already read everything by Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, R.L. Stine, etc., or somebody who, like me, really hates cell phones.  But a general reader can skip it with no qualms.

How to write about object location

One mistake I often used to make was over-precision in writing about the physical location of objects in a scene.

Robert put his keys on the end of the countertop.  He dropped his pen.  It fell to the floor and rolled three feet from his shoe.

The living room contained a love seat, two chairs, a shelf with books, and a side table with a lamp.  The two chairs were placed to either side of the side table.  The door was at the far end of the room and opened outward.

The first time a reader comes across something like this he may read it carefully in the expectation that for some reason it will prove important in a page or two.  When it doesn’t he will skip any similar over-description the next time it occurs.

Far better to use vague terms for location and put in only a few important details.  Precise physical relationships are unnecessary.  The reader’s imagination will fill in the rest.

The punch landed right in Edward’s gut.  The gun flew out of his hand and landed on the ground, just out of reach.

Jane’s bedroom was almost completely pink: curtains, carpet, even furniture.  Stuffed animals covered every surface.  On the pink bedspread was a single book: How to Commit a Murder.

For some reason the telephone tends to attract too much attention from writers.  Everybody knows how a telephone works, there’s no need to attach elaborate description.

Don’t do this:  The phone rang.  John crossed the room and picked it up on the third ring.  “Hello,” he said, cradling the receiver between his head and shoulder.

Better:  The phone rang.  “Hello?” John said.

How does writing a novel improve your writing?

Well, obviously, if you commit to write a novel, you write nearly every day for weeks or months on end.  That much practice can’t hurt!  As Malcolm Gladwell writes in Outliers, it takes 10,000-hours of practice to gain mastery of a skill.*   Writing a novel certainly burns through those hours.

It also keeps your creative pot in a constant ferment.  The creative side of your mind is always working to come up with solutions to problems in your novel: ways to deepen characters, close plot holes, intensify action.  And when you need to apply creativity to other endeavors, especially other writing projects, you’re already spewing ideas.  I think this may be what rock musicians refer to as “road chops,” the idea that the best time to record an album is when you come back from a tour.

Finally, I think writing a novel forces you to write scenes and situations you wouldn’t normally.  When you write a short story, the scope is so limited you can really choose the scenes you feel most interested in or comfortable writing.  But in a novel, you’re always coming to places where you have to write beyond your comfort zone, simply because the plot is so involved and the characters so numerous.  That, even more than the first two points, is what really stretches your writing skills.

* This may not be a rule Gladwell actually came up with him himself; apologies to whomever he cribbed it from if that’s the case.

What I’m Reading: Writing the Breakout Novel

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass may be just what I needed at this point in my writing development.  Strunk and White’s book was immensely useful long ago, but I’m long past the basic grammar and style advice they provide.  Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird were both good books, but were more morale-building than craft-oriented.  Walter Dean Myers’s writing book had a lot of good information, but I think his description of his writing methods are too particular to his own preferred way of working to be generally applicable.

Maass, who runs a pretty successful agency in New York (I think it’s successful–I’ve certainly heard of many of the authors he represents), presents his views of the difference between novels that never make it out of manuscript, or are published but don’t sell well, and the novel that earns its author higher sales, critical accolades, and a career boost.  In his opinion it’s not a matter of some authors getting a bigger advertising push from the publisher, or adhering to a certain formula, or even sheer luck.  Maass believes the difference between a run-of-the-mill novel and a “breakout novel” is largely a matter of scale.

He makes a fairly convincing presentation, and while I don’t want to give it all away, there are a couple of his points I’d like to mention.  One is about character–the characters in a breakout novel are self-aware, and larger-than-life.  They are self-aware in that they review their own moods, motivations, etc., in their mind, wondering if they’re making the right choices.  In other words, they’re complicated.  Nevertheless, they are also larger-than-life in that they do things a regular person wouldn’t.  They say things out loud most real people would keep inside, they make tough moral choices most wouldn’t have the guts to, they plunge headlong into danger.  Strangely, it’s these qualities that make readers identify with them, for they crystallize attributes we all have, if not to the same degree.

He also talks about stakes, and how breakout novels have high stakes.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that the world is always about to be destroyed–it means that whatever has personal value to the characters is threatened.  For instance, if a character might lose his job–so what?   People lose their jobs all the time.  But a character who might lose the business empire he’s built up from nothing–those are high stakes.

Maass describes unpublished manuscripts and early-career novels as “feeling small.”  Parts of his book tells an author how to complicate things with sub-plots, deepen setting, heighten conflict, etc.  But I think his larger message is not just that things should be complicated not for their own sake, but because it better illuminates the themes of the book.

I’m not sure Writing the Breakout Novel would be as useful to a first-time novelist, although it certainly couldn’t hurt!  But any writer who has one or more novel manuscripts under the belt already would find this book to be thought-provoking, even eye-opening.  I’m definitely going to recommend this at the next meeting of my writers’ group.

Work in Progress update

Last night at my writers’ group I read chapter four of my WiP, which I have given the working title of “Piece.”  I was worried the writing wasn’t as smooth as what I normally read, and maybe it wasn’t.  Nevertheless, it got quite a reaction.  The chapter ends a cliff-hanger and members were asking if I’d brought Chapter Five with me.  A good sign, I think!

Oddly, the writing is coming easily in my WiP though I still don’t have certain basic parameters down, like who exactly should narrate certain chapters.  Still, it’s coming together, and my writing group is a big encouragement.

What I’m Reading: Conan

The current Conan the Barbarian comic series, put out by Dark Horse, is truly excellent.  Bryan Wood, who was known to me previously for his thoroughly researched Northlanders series about Vikings, is the writer.  For art, Dark Horse has put together a rotation of top-flight artists, most notably Becky Cloonan.

The series follows Conan early in his life, perhaps at twenty or so, during his time on board the ship of Belit, the pirate queen.  Although they meet as enemies, Conan so impresses her with his battle prowess that she invites him to join her crew.  He accepts and is soon sharing her bed as well.  Conan is presented here as already battle-hardened, but otherwise still somewhat naive in the ways of the world.  A scene in one issue shows him desparing in prison, believing himself betrayed by Belit after a raid gone awry, howling and near-suicidial over his broken heart.  Certainly an older Conan would not let himself be so affected by a love affair!

The depictions of the sea and the medieval coastal towns and cities are rendered as impressively as anything I’ve ever seen in comics.  The choice to show Conan as youthfully lean feels bold for a character typically presented as heavily-muscled.  And Belit, with her pale skin (often spattered in crimson blood) and lithe body, is up there with Vampirella and Catwoman as top sexy comic bad girls.

Actually, the series has so enthused me for Conan I’ve gone back and gotten out my old paperbacks reprinting the original Robert E. Howard stories.  I read Tower of the Elephant just for fun, and found it as entertaining as I did as a teen-ager.  Yes, the prose is purple, and you don’t read these for their nuanced characters.  But they certainly keep the pages turning.  I had forgotten the ending of TotE, and found it more Lovecraftian than is usual for Conan.  The Elephant was not a foe he could simply dispatch with his sword!

But as fun as the original stories are, I believe the current series actually surpasses them. Bryan Wood’s is the first Conan I’ve ever encountered that rises above his pulp origins and becomes a truly sympathetic character.