Thursday, October 29, 2009

The TW Thriller List: Just in Time for Those Spooky Nights!

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing

As promised, here's a list of thrillers recommended by Talking Writing fans and Open Salon commenters to my recent post "A Vaccine for Bad Writing." (It also ran on TW as "Get Your Dan Brown Vaccination: D1B1.")

As "Part One" of the vaccine, I quoted Maureen Dowd's hilarious review of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol. As "Part Two," I listed great thrillers as an antidote.

I haven't read all the titles and authors below, but I now have a new list for many a winter night to come. I've also added a few myself, especially in the "truth is wilder than fiction" category. Enjoy!

More Thrillers from Discerning Readers
  • Charles Palliser, The Quincunx
  • Philip K. Dick, The Minority Report
  • Iain Banks, The Business (also Whit)
  • Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49
  • Robert Ludlum—"anything by him" (including the Bourne series)
  • Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost
  • Tana French, In the Woods
  • Robert Stone, Dog Soldiers
  • John Le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
  • Richard Wright, Native Son
  • Robert Ward, Red Baker (comment: "nobody's heard of this book; but it's terrific")
  • Richard Price, Clockers
  • Ruth Rendell—"anything by her" (including The Bridesmaid)
  • Martin Cruz Smith, Gorky Park (also Rose)
  • Pat Conroy, Beach Music
  • Scott Turow—"anything by him" (including Ordinary Heroes and more votes for Presumed Innocent: "the best psychological page-turner I've ever read")
  • Kate Atkinson, Case Histories
  • Charles McCarry—"anything by him"
  • Ian Rankin—"anything by him"
  • Robert Littell, Legends
  • Mo Hayder—"anything by her"
  • Carl Hiassen, Native Tongue
  • Robert Daley, Prince of the City ("OK, it's nonfiction...but reads like a novel")
  • Michael Crichton, The Great Train Robbery ("lots of fun facts about Victorian London, and inspired [loosely] by real events")
  • Jonathan Harr, A Civil Action (nonfiction, but a rip-roaring tale)
  • Rebecca Smith and John R. Emshwiller, 24 Days (ditto, Enron)
  • Kurt Eichenwald, The Informant (ditto, a pathological liar)
  • J. Anthony Lukas, Common Ground (ditto, Boston—oh, Boston)

Special Anti-Vaccine Award
for "Worst Prose I've Ever Had The Misfortune To Wade Through championship": Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Here's my original list of antidotes with the Dan Brown posts:

Part Two of D1B1: The List that Protects Me
  • Scott Turow, Presumed Innocent
  • Dennis Lehane, Mystic River
  • Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  • Elizabeth George, What Came Before He Shot Her
  • Sara Paretsky, Killing Orders
  • Laurie King, A Darker Place
  • Eliot Pattison, The Skull Mantra
  • Graham Green, The Quiet American
  • Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander
  • Kerstin Ekman, Blackwater
Any other titles and authors you would like to add?

Friday, October 23, 2009

When Life Hands You Roses and Love

What does a writer do when the meaning of life changes and everything he's been writing for ten years goes against the grain of his new insights?

By David Biddle for Talking Writing

The fiction I’ve been writing over the past decade is about the day-to-day pathos of love between married people. During the past several years, close to 20 of my friends and family members have had to deal with infidelity and other versions of crumbling love. It’s very likely that for every marriage challenged by affairs and anomie, there are probably another 20-30 other couples out there either headed in the same direction or struggling with the humdrum day-to-day of children, jobs, mortgages, commuting, shopping, and periodic, hurried, and quite periodic sex.

Every bit of my prose is informed by the emotional lives around me. I am currently shopping seven different stories about infidelity and obsession to literary publications everywhere. The main theme of these stories is that love is tragic but somehow desire is still life affirming. This is a cynical view of married life in America, but to a certain extent it describes the reality.

Out there as well is a manuscript for a novel I wrote about suburban sexual intrigue that is both amoral and pathetic. My intent was for the reader to come away in pain, pondering why life’s beauty still made it possible to go on finding meaning in living. Yes, so far the book has been rejected by three agents and two small publishers. I’m proud of my work on it though. It’s kind of Henry Miller meets John Cheever in post-9/11 America (at least, that was my intention). I feel that it's honest and true and the writing reflects this.

Something’s happened in my own life though. My children have grown up. The youngest is 14. In the past year my wife and I have been able to spend a frighteningly huge amount of time alone together. The pressure of raising a family is off us. We each have gone through soul-searching transitions that were not easy. Our own partnership was challenged. We realize now that we have struggled together for at least the past decade. Maybe longer. But in the last six months we have grown closer and closer. In the past month we’ve become like two young lovers again. I’ll spare you the details. Let’s just say, I’ve learned there can be happy endings; or, rather, in our early 50s maybe we should say happy new trails can indeed lead off into the sunrise of mature and tested love.

But now I’ve got a real problem. I don’t see love so cynically anymore. I see hope and I see redemption for those of us heading into these last phases of our lives. I want to share this new revelation with all my friends and readers. Most surely this will pop up in future stories I write. But for now, the dilemma I face is whether I need to go back into the stories I have floating around out there, particularly my novel manuscript, and rewrite them to reflect my newfound zest for living and my hope for all married couples once giddy for each other everywhere.

It’s not clear what I should do. Tragic, cynical, amoral characters and stories have a lot of traction in this modern crazy sickened world. Shifting gears so abruptly back toward the notion that love conquers all (which I firmly believe is true) would certainly mean major re-writes, but it could also mean that my stories go out there designed to enhance life rather than depict it as tragic and inevitably painful. What do you think? Should a writer re-visit stories that have not been published if he or she has had a dramatically life altering experience that changes their world view?

Monday, October 19, 2009

This J-Student Ponders the Dollars and “Sense” of a New Career

Or How Not to Start at the Bottom When Your Birth Date Shows You’re Nearing “the Top”

Guest Post by Alex Speredelozzi for Talking Writing

Recently, I attended a career fair for journalists at Harvard University. Never mind that I didn’t know the fair was for young would-be interns, not middle-aged graduate students in journalism like myself looking to break into a second career. (How gullible am I to think that newspaper publishers would show up to offer jobs with checks?)

With newspapers bleeding black ink, one might think that few college students would show any interest in journalism. I recall that college for me was a time of idealism, but I thought today’s students were far more practical. Yet that didn’t seem to be the case at this Harvard career fair. There appeared to be no shortage of people interested in media careers. Which is a problem for us all—and especially for me.

My impression of student interest could have been skewed; the number of people might have looked larger because the room was small. I do know, however, that some students came not just from Harvard. One young woman told me she traveled all the way from Cornell University in New York with a group of like-minded students.

Granted, an internship at a newspaper is not only great experience for budding reporters but for those interested in law, government service, public relations, and a host of other professions. The investigative and writing skills are invaluable. But you have to admire the spunk of young people wanting to hurl themselves into an industry in financial disarray.

Maybe the reason for this enthusiasm was best expressed by a panel of veteran international journalists (all current Nieman Fellows) at the career fair. They agreed that there's no money in journalism. I wanted to know what motivates them each day.

“What do you get out of it?” I asked during the Q-and-A.

Their answer: the lifestyle, the excitement, the adrenalin rush. Gary Knight, photographer and editor with VII Photo Agency and Dispatches, couldn’t imagine another career. James Reynolds, China correspondent for the BBC, spoke fondly of flying into a country on an almost empty plane while people rushed to board planes leaving the country.

Hopewell Rugoho-Chin’ono of Zimbabwe, a documentary film director/news producer for Television International, smiled like a kid as he talked about using electronic image-transferring equipment that would have landed him in jail for five years if caught. Anita Snow, Havana bureau chief for the Associated Press, discussed the thrill (and difficulty) of opening a news bureau in Cuba.

These journalists relished the chance to meet and interview both influential people and everyday folks, and to report on crucial events that make history.

But what happens when you’re married with a family and the little eyes in your home look to you for bread and milk?

Even if you find a job as a journalist, it’s not clear how you secure fair pay. In the heyday of newspaper publishing, many owners raked it in but paid journalists only a weekly wage. Early on, reporters unionized to gain some leverage over employers, but unionization doesn’t build you a second home on a lake.

Except for a few stars, journalists get paid like other service employees that we value so much but pay so little: teachers, nurses, firefighters, librarians.

The panelists also agreed that to get and keep a job these days, journalists must know how to work with sound and pictures. Words alone won’t cut it. Though great writing and storytelling are the backbone of journalism, multimedia is the future. We’re a visual society, and we’ve been that way for decades. The technology that’s driving many of the changes in the journalism business is making multimedia the pencil-and-paper of the future.

Fine. I get it. But I have to say that just as the physical ability to put pen to paper never made anyone a writer, the fun of dropping and dragging on a screen won’t turn you into a multimedia expert. What makes a great story great, including one told via podcast, still relies on some old faithfuls: great characterization, great quotes, great story ideas, great reporting.

There’s also a more fundamental law to making it in journalism, at least financially, especially if you can’t afford to start at the bottom. Journalists must develop a niche unnoticed as yet by editors and valued by readers. They need to create a unique “product” and “brand” that can’t be easily replicated.

The buzz word is “specialization.” The journalism field has had specialists for years. But now it requires a higher level of intentionality. You need subject-matter expertise, and editors and readers need to associate your name automatically with that subject. The goal: Ensure that editors can’t hire anyone else to fill your shoes.

With an ample supply of journalists willing and able to cover a town meeting, a Bruce Springsteen concert, or the latest robbery, there’s no reason for publishers and editors to pay for content. Writing better than the next guy by itself doesn’t necessarily translate into higher pay. Sometimes “good-enough” is all that editors and publishers are willing to go for.

Unless, of course, they must come to you, and only you, to get the story.

My problem is that I don’t have a specialty. At heart, I’m a general-assignment reporter. My interests vary wide and far. I was attracted to writing and reporting because of the opportunity it offered to learn a little about a lot of things. So now, I must decide: Do I make a living in a different field and write on the side for pure enjoyment? Or do I develop a niche while also clearing a little space for those stories that widen my eyes? I’ll keep you posted.

You can see samples of my reporting at The Sun Chronicle.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: Why Do I Feel Ripped Off?

By Judith A. Ross for Talking Writing

First, a disclaimer: I am a reader of fiction, not a writer of it – and a relatively uncritical reader at that. I am much more focused on a how a story makes me feel than on its author’s technique.

Last summer, when a friend mentioned that she was reading David Wroblewski’s novel about dogs and a mother-son relationship, I took it out of the library. Like her, I love dogs and am the mother of sons.

Any book that holds my attention at the end of the workday is usually an instant winner. For that reason, I was enjoying Edgar’s story – learning the history and workings of his family’s dog-breeding business, and getting to know the characters – both human and canine.

The story, as promised on the book jacket, included the sudden and suspicious death of Edgar’s father. Things were bumping along; Edgar and his mother were working to pull things together, when I was brought up short by the appearance of the ghost of Edgar’s father.

Even I, not always the most discerning and attentive reader in my post-workday haze, immediately wondered – what is the author doing here? Does this even work?

The next day, I looked up the book on Wikipedia and learned that the story was based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. A quick review of the Sparknotes on Hamlet (which I haven’t read since college) brought me up to speed. As if remembering the plot of Hamlet wasn’t enough of a hint, my search also revealed the book’s ending.

It has been a couple of months since I finished Wroblewski’s novel and I’m still thinking about his approach – and the role the Internet played in my reading of it.

On one level, I am glad I got the back story before I finished the book – spoiler and all. But it did make me reluctant to keep reading. And it definitely influenced my perceptions.

I am also annoyed. The author had great characters, an interesting story – I wish he had chosen his own path rather than follow Shakespeare’s.

Can this approach to a novel work? Has it? What are some examples? And, what are the advantages and disadvantages of knowing an author’s intent before reading his or her book?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Get Your Dan Brown Vaccination: D1B1

By Martha Nichols for Talking Writing

I've taken a vow. In this, I am as self-abnegating as Dan Brown's crazily obsessed villains, flagellating myself (OK, I'll skip the castration) in the name of decent fiction.

Against the most horrendous odds, I have crafted a vaccination for Brownitis. D1B1 comes in two parts: (1) commune with Maureen Dowd's recent review of Brown; (2) list, read, and buy other well-written page-turning thrillers as an alternative—and tell your local bookseller why you are doing so. Let the healing begin.

Part One of D1B1: The Least Painful First Step

When Maureen Dowd is good, she's wickedly good. After reading her review of Brown's latest novel, The Lost Symbol, I didn't feel quite so depressed that I'll never be a novelist raking in over six figures. These lines alone are worth the price of the New York Times Book Review:
"The author has gotten rich and famous without attaining a speck of subtlety. A character never just stumbles into blackness. It must be inky blackness. A character never just listens in shock. He listens in utter shock.

And consider this fraught interior monologue by the head of the Capitol Police: 'Chief Anderson wondered when this night would end. A severed hand in my Rotunda? A death shrine in my basement? Bizarre engravings on a stone pyramid? Somehow, the Redskins game no longer felt significant.'”
Dowd makes fun of Brown's over-use of italics among many, many other writerly sins. So does Janet Maslin, in an earlier review in the Times. But unlike Dowd, Maslin lauds Brown for his ability to set an unlikely series of events into motion and to keep the pages turning. She ends her review by noting that the reader, almost any reader, likely will be picking up The Lost Symbol at his or her nearest bookstore.

Not this reader. I love plotted fiction, and I'm a big fan of candy-for-the-mind thriller junk, but The Da Vinci Code was more than junk. It made me doubt the sanity of the reading public, just as I doubted the U.S. electorate in November 2004.

Yes, I did read to the end of The Da Vinci Code, although there were many pages I skimmed or skipped because of the awful prose. When I got to the end, I felt gipped. Fortunately, I hadn't shelled out money for the book, but it's only redeeming value seemed to be the belly laugh I got at its amazingly shocking conclusion.

(Please. Did Brown never come across any feminist fantasy and revisionary historical novels of the 1970s? What about Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology? Guess I had the benefit of sitting in on all those alternative feminist spirituality groups in the 1980s.)

Here's what I have to ask: Does a page-turning plot really excuse excrebably bad ideas? (I'm getting into these italics.) Maslin and happy booksellers would no doubt say this kind of disposable fiction is pure escape, and that Brown is giving customers what they want.

But can't we, as writers, do better than this?

Yes. See Part Two below.

One of the things I love about Dowd's review is that she engages with Brown's ideas and sends them up as a load of hooey—particularly his smarmy rationalizations about the Masons. It's bad enough that the hero of Brown's novels, Robert Langdon, is a professor of "symbology" at Harvard; now we get a new love interest who specializes in "Noetic science," which Brown describes as a study of “the untapped potential of the human mind.” Dowd barely has to comment on that one.

And she's so good at deflating pumped-up melodrama:
"You can practically hear the eerie organ music playing whenever Mal’akh, the clichéd villain whose eyes shine 'with feral ferocity,' appears. He goes from sounding like a parody of a Bond bad guy ('You are a very small cog in a vast machine,' he tells Langdon) to a parody of Woody Allen ('The body craves what the body craves,' he thinks).

But Brown tops himself with these descriptions: 'Wearing only a silken loincloth wrapped around his buttocks and neutered sex organ, Mal’akh began his preparations,' and 'Hanging beneath the archway, his massive sex organ bore the tattooed symbols of his destiny. In another life, this heavy shaft of flesh had been his source of carnal pleasure. But no longer.'”
Oh, Maureen. Thank you for reminding us that sometimes the emperor really does need to wear some clothes.

Part Two of D1B1: The List that Protects Me

* Scott Turow, Presumed Innocent
* Dennis Lehane, Mystic River
* Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
* Elizabeth George, What Came Before He Shot Her
* Sara Paretsky, Killing Orders
* Laurie King, A Darker Place
* Eliot Pattison, The Skull Mantra
* Graham Green, The Quiet American
* Patrick O'Brian, Master and Commander
* Kerstin Ekman, Blackwater
* And so many more...!

Dear reader, if you feel at all tempted to buy The Lost Symbol, save yourself. Even Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park qualifies as an antidote. Add suggestions here for other well-written page-turners—for your own D1B1 vaccine—and to help me keep renewing mine. I'm always on the lookout for the most nourishing candy.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

You Lie! Are we getting ruder? I blame email

By Judith A. Ross for Talking Writing

Are we expressing our displeasure more openly these days? Certainly the Republicans are – though they are not the only ones. Personally, I think it all started with email.

The first email I ever received – sent via DOS – came from a perfectly lovely boss I had while I worked as a secretary at a local university. I was thrilled to have figured out how to send her a message while she was on the other side of the country. Imagine, I thought, she may get this note in just a few minutes!

She certainly did. And she wasted no time in responding: She wanted specific fonts for printing out her promotion packet. She didn’t care if the school didn’t have them. No excuses. Her message aggressively outlined in no uncertain terms that I was to do everything necessary to get them. With one email all her loveliness went right out the window.

We eventually sorted things out in person. And I know that it was her anxiety around the promotion that was talking and not her. But that scalding message splashed cold water all over my delight at using something new.

Recalling the many counterproductive emails I have both sent and received, I am reminded of a model that sat on my childhood desk. A caricature of a loud-mouthed person, the caption on its base said, “Engage brain before opening mouth.” Today that model would show a harried office worker hunched over a computer or Blackberry and say something like “Engage empathy before pressing send.”

The technology that makes such gaffes possible also makes it possible to retract them – but only if you are quick about it. For example, Google has added an “unsend” feature to Gmail. The new feature was announced last spring and according to the Web site, it “… can't pull back an email that's already gone; it just holds your message for five seconds so you have a chance to hit the panic button.”

Unfortunately, we often need more than five seconds to realize that we have launched an e-grenade.

And while we don’t always intend the hostile or angry tone our email conveys, other times we do. Why do we say things over email in ways that we wouldn’t in-person?

One reason is that email allows us to communicate our thoughts without interruption. The recipient cannot insert their reaction in real time. So even if you don’t intend to send an incendiary message, you are not afforded the social cues that might tell you to back off.

Pressing send is hard to resist when you can vent your fury using exactly the words you want. When faced with a live human being, most of us aren't that pithy. With email those smartly worded comments come all too easily.

Intentionally or not, many of us have been ruder on email than we ever would be in person. On the other hand, maybe it’s good practice for those face-to-face confrontations with people like Joe Wilson … Serena Williams…. Kanye West....

This post originally appeared on Open Salon.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Brainsick in Bloggerland: Certifiable or a Writer's Dream?

Guest Post by Paula L. Silici for Talking Writing

Is blogging making us mentally healthier—or the reverse?

Cyberspace is filled with well-written, thought-provoking blog sites. These bloggers clearly know what they’re doing. As a writer and editor, and especially as a fellow human being, I believe their posts enrich my world and make me proud of my profession.

Yet most of us have visited those “other” blog sites, too. You know the ones I mean: poorly written, poorly punctuated, rife with misspellings, and written by individuals who apparently find it liberating to post every banal detail of every waking moment. And here’s the kicker: most come with illustrative photos.

These “other” blog sites intrigue me. I wonder what motivates this second type of blogger to so publicly exhibit such intimacies. Even when the posts aren’t all that intimate, what would compel someone to while away several hours or more each day sitting at the computer emptying oneself out to an ambiguous audience who may or may not care? There must be a pay-off beyond monetary reward that I have yet to understand.

A sizeable amount of hubris is apparently a blogger necessity. I’m a wary blogger myself, barely touching a toe into the metaphorical whirlpool. I worry about the kind of false comfort this medium offers—especially to young people. Are we truly keeping in touch, or are we actually distancing ourselves farther from the human connections we seek?

I feel we're heading toward the latter, but I’d love to hear what others think. I’d especially like to hear from mental health professionals about the impact of blogging on their patients—positive, negative, or neutral.

Consider the following scenarios, one positive and one negative:

Scenario #1: A blogger I know casually and spoke to last weekend at a writers’ meeting raved about how wonderful blogging is. It thrilled her to know that others were reading her daily posts. It thrilled her even more that she was gaining a growing readership and that many had begun to regularly respond to her posts. Their comments gave her “a high like no other,” she claimed. She ended the conversation by stating that her blog validated her and confirmed her as a person of substance in a deeply profound way. People, she gushed, actually cared about what she had to say. She hoped to someday support her family by writing a successful blog.

All right. There’s something to be said for the dizzying gratification writers feel when a piece evokes an immediate response in others. Professional writers who have suffered the gut-blows of rejections by agents and publishers love the fact that they can now be in control of their work’s destiny. In spite of the current brutal publishing industry, audiences are able to instantly read and respond to an author’s work. This is a good thing, right? A healthy thing.

Then there’s the down side.

Scenario #2: I’ve talked to other bloggers who rarely, if ever, receive comments on their posts. Their reports, of course, aren’t so glowing. Full of hope, they began blogging out of a genuine desire to share with others who they are and what they think and feel. But when nobody responded, the rejection cut deep. One blogger I know, crushed by this experience, quit after only one week in the arena. He later told me he discussed this with his therapist.

There are other scenarios, too. Another blogger writes because, he says, it’s a cathartic, therapeutic experience. He doesn’t care if anyone comments. He simply loves the fact that he’s been provided a “really cool” platform to vent. (He blogs under a pseudonym.)

Oh, yes. And what about those bloggers who publish fictitious “true-life” experiences and post a bogus photo of themselves? Perhaps making up sensational stories that titillate readers is a means of transporting them beyond reality and into a fantasy world where anything and everything is possible. When readers respond to those posts favorably, it’s as if the blogger is given permission, indeed, encouragement, to continue the ruse. Healthy? Unhealthy? Hmmm.

The Internet allows us to visit blog sites anonymously. Hidden in the shadows of cyberspace, we can look through the windows of our monitors and act the voyeur. Blogs allow us into the sometimes outrageous, sometimes shocking, sometimes totally boring lives of others.

But when communicating online, we can no longer touch the person we’re communicating with. We can no longer look them in the eye or hear inflections in their tone of voice or witness the frown or smile on their faces. Yes, photos and videos can be posted; but still, we are once, twice, sometimes thrice removed.

Everyone wants to feel loved and accepted. We all want to feel that our opinions count. Blogging (and for that matter, FaceBook-type sites and Twittering) can provide a certain sense of belonging, a sense of community. Yet who are we kidding here? I know of people who begin first thing in the morning and spend countless hours blogging, reading, posting, and commenting. By doing so, they attempt to perpetuate those warm-fuzzy sensations of community and rightness and well-being. But an addiction is an addiction is an addiction. Any addiction that replaces reality with fantasy is bound to be unhealthy.

I shudder to imagine a lonely world where people no longer gather together in person to discuss issues important to them, or where heated conversations no longer end with a warm handshake or hug. Oh, wait! I-M the psychologist. We just may be there already.