Review of Greetings from Below Published

The Spring issue of Prairie Schooner has been released, which means my review of David Philip Mullins’ Greetings from Below is out too!

I love this cover.

This marks my third review in Prairie Schooner, and my tenth overall. Reviews of Lydia Peelle‘s Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing and Nadifa Mohamed‘s Black Mamba Boy previously ran in PS.

Excellent books all.

 

Review News

Some news to share regarding criticism. My review of Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever will be appearing on The Millions early next month! It was just accepted this week.

And my review of Lydia Peelle’s Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing is slated to appear in the Summer 2010 issue of Prairie Schooner. This had been previously accepted, but I learned that it’s scheduled for publication today.

It’s been surprisingly fun to work on literary criticism again after grad school–albeit in a way that isn’t so strictly scholarly. It’s a bit nerve-wracking to critique a young writer’s work in public way also, but I’m not too afraid of doing so, it turns out. When I started thinking about reviewing books, I promised myself that I’d only review books that I really liked. For one, I wouldn’t have to trash another writer. Second, it seemed boring to put that much effort into something that I couldn’t connect with. And finally, it didn’t make sense to help promote work that I didn’t care for when that effort could be applied to promoting work I actually want others to read. Seems like sound logic to me.

Month of Sept 14-Oct 11, 2009

“When you read proof, take out the adjectives and adverbs wherever you can. You use so many of them that the reader finds it hard to concentrate and he gets tired. You can understand what I mean when I say ‘The man sat on the grass.’ You understand because the sentence is clear and there is nothing to distract your attention. Conversely, the brain has trouble understanding me if I say ‘A tall, narrow-chested man of medium height with a red beard sat on green grass trampled by passers-by, sat mutely, looking about timidly and fearfully.’ This doesn’t get its meaning through to the brain immediately, which is what good writing must do, and fast.”

-Anton Chekhov in a letter to Maxim Gorky

Novel Work
I’m usually a bit leery of prescriptive revision techniques, maybe because they seem like a hard way of doing something I might not want to do in the first place. However, there’s one such strategy I’ve really come to rely on in revision. I’m unable to track down whose idea this is, but the basic idea is to cut 10% of the length from what you think is the final draft. This is generally a pretty hard thing to do but it puts a lot of pressure on each and every word and description to pull its own weight. Typically it starts off cutting unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, as Chekhov advises above, although there usually aren’t enough of these to meet quota, so it becomes clearer that a certain paragraph is kind of superfluous, or that the third flashback is a bit indulgent. The rule seems a bit too arbitrary on its face, but it’s never really done me wrong. It requires a lot of hard work and difficult decisions, of course, but that’s the point. You can’t be soft anymore: you have to kill your darlings. And assuming the core of the story remains, it almost always will be better as at eighteen pages than it was at twenty.

For most of the past four months I’ve been at work revising the first part of my novel. This includes many different styles of revision, from writing freely within the document on the computer to expand scenes and explore point-of-view in new ways, to writing new scenes with brand new characters in order to find ways to recast the emotional feel of characterization and scene, to using crude statistical measure to rethink structure, to letting the ink flow freely on a hard copy edition. At one point Part I had grown to 160 pages. This was much too long, but I wanted to lay all my cards on the table, so to speak. Coming into last week I’d pared it down to a much more manageable 112 pages, which is where the 10% rule came into play. You’ll have to excuse me, because I only made it down to 104 pages, four short of my goal. But it still feels pretty good, I must say. There’s more to do, but I don’t want to get carried away at this point.

I’ve been plugging away at Part II as well, mostly revising the first forty pages or so to present in workshop for the class I’m taking right now. I really like how this part is coming together. I’ve been working here with a much looser outline and feel like it’s a better strategy for me. Instead of plotting out each move, I set a goal to meet in each chapter (something like getting a character to a certain place physically and emotionally) with a group of benchmarks to achieve throughout. (This is how I outline short stories as well, by the way.) This way I can follow the characters more, let them move more freely, without too much of a constrictive superstructure. All’s well that ends well, but the overly specific outline used in Part I will probably have to be scrapped for the most part. It will be useful for setting goals and benchmarks, as most of my ideas are in there, even though it seems stupid to stick so closely to something when the story wants to go elsewhere. Yes? Hopefully this will save a lot of time in revision if I’m not fighting things in the drafting stage.

Dispatch from The Open City
“It worried Esther, the way Michael was terrified of cars. She’d seen him walking many times (anyone who drove in midtown with any frequency would have seen him, a constant pedestrian of city streets) and she had an idea of the misery he struggled with. Esther had secretly watched him jump back from the street for no apparent reason, startled by the rumble of a passing truck or the screech of bald tires on an oil slick road. Or how he was sometimes compelled to walk in the grass strips that fronted small businesses when he sensed the dark energy of an impending collision, dreading that moment of terror when an oncoming motorist jerks their wheel suddenly away, remembering almost too late that they’re not the only one on the road. Michael only rode with Esther when absolutely necessary, angled tensely in the passenger seat. It wasn’t healthy, this behavior, but Esther didn’t know what she could do to help.”

Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Near Misses
Opium for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life”; Cream City Review for “The Man Who Never Was”; South Dakota Review for “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter”; and Copper Nickel for “From Indiana.” And as previously noted in this blog, my review of Lydia Peelle’s short fiction collection Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing was accepted for publication by Prairie Schooner!

Just Finished
Exiles by Ron Hansen. I wasn’t into this so much at first but the final eighty pages or so were really quite good. Hansen spent an awful lot of time on the history lessons of the novel, something that pushed me out of the story. Much of the Kulturkampf stuff was pretty interesting, however. Once we actually got into the action of the sinking of the steamship Deutschland and the tragic series of events that led to the early demise of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins the book became intensely engaging. It surprised me how much I felt for Hopkins and his plight as a Jesuit priest, being transferred around and misunderstood.

Now Reading
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon. Just started this one yesterday and read nearly a hundred pages, which is pretty good for me, a slow, slow tortoise reader. Aside from some questionable exclamation point usages, this one really has me on the hook.

Up Next
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.

Link of the Week
Duotrope’s Digest. An unsurpassable database of literary journals, magazines, webzines, and other publications looking for submissions. This is a must for any writer looking for new markets, and was how I found homes for my work in Flatmancrooked and Johnny America. The random market feature is kind of fun too.

Featured Market
Prairie Schooner. Since we’re going with Duotrope up top, lets go with an old standard here. And since I’m now a Senior Fiction Reader at PS, go ahead and send us your very best work soon. Our reading period is currently open.

My First Published Review

Prairie Schooner has accepted my review of Lydia Peelle’s new collection of short fiction, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, for publication in an upcoming issue!

This is my first book review. It was an awkward process on some levels, even though I’ve produced plenty of critical essays, conference papers, and book reports on the way to an MA. Coming up with analysis wasn’t really difficult–or more difficult than it was before–but assuming that withdrawn, critical mantle was challenging. Apparently I’d forgotten what it meant to write like an academic. It was kind of fun, actually, once I got back in the swing of it. And it’s refreshing to know that blogging hasn’t ruined my aptitude for formal composition after all.

Week of August 9-15, 2009

Novel Work
For the past few weeks I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the shape of the first part of my novel, The Open City. It’s kind of amazing how productive this has been in revision, but worrying more about aesthetics, even how a table of contents would look, has helped quite a bit. I’ve gone to shorter chapters, cutting things up so that they might read faster. That has worked, but more than anything this has helped with plot. In the process of going to a more frequently divided narrative it somehow freed me to see what scenes belonged here in Part I, what scenes should be saved for later, and what parts should be cut outright. About thirty pages were cut in this way, which has transformed Part I into something much tighter and entertaining than before. What I did was make a few charts that illustrate different elements of how I was using the actual “on the page” space of the novel, allowing me to do a crude statistical analysis—things such as the length of each chapter, how many pages were devoted to each main character, how much space I was using for flashback, etc. Knowing these things then allowed me to see where I was over-compensating for a character, or where I was deficient, or where I was using up valuable space to introduce characters who really wouldn’t drive the narrative forward until later in the book. With this kind of knowledge, the necessary cuts were much easier to identify and execute. There’s really no end to how far an author could apply objective statistical analysis to their writing, but I wouldn’t really want to be the first to apply Sabermetrics to literature. Perhaps I’ve said too much already… Has anyone heard of other ways to use objective measures to analyze their writing? I’d be interested in reading about such things. Benjamin Percy’s article in the last Poets & Writers on “The Geometry of Dialogue” was along these lines, but not quite the same thing, as it was more of a way of thinking about writing than actually analyzing what was on the page.

Dispatch from The Open City
“As she raced the freeway loop towards downtown, Esther tried to push these negative thoughts out of her mind because, on a personal level, she hadn’t truly wanted to be out in the middle-of-nowhere investigating swine malfeasance in the first place. The mere act of returning to the city was energizing her. The rattling freeway speed, the natural selection of inner city traffic, the barking vibrations of city noise—these always agitated a lustful, urban dynamism inside of Esther that she was eager to indulge. So, nearing her exit, nervous energy swelled within her chest at the thought of being with Michael, her fiancé. She would soon be back in the city indulging in the quasi-glamorous social life of a successful young professional in her mid-twenties and couldn’t be happier about it. It was Friday and she planned to take the weekend off for a change.”

Just Finished
Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peelle. I don’t think my previous reservations about the collection (that it is a little too consistent in pacing and tone) were really alleviated in the final few stories, but I still think that this is a damn fine book. A few of the later stories are really quite dynamic and seem to play a little more fast and loose with structure than the earlier stories do. The title story and “Shadow on a Weary Land” are especially good. Overall, the collection has what I would call an ethos that really holds the stories together. It’s not so much an overriding theme, but a way of living that the stories all seem to endorse. To quote from “Shadow,” this is the truest example what I’m talking about: “I remind myself that, though I’ve almost paid off the mortgage, this house doesn’t really belong to me. I am no more than a squatter, only passing through.” There is a great sadness in these stories, not only over man’s insignificance or cruelty, but perhaps at the point where these two facets converge with the characters’ hard earned sense of self-awareness. The stories work best when this awareness is come to gradually and, more often than not, painfully.

Now Reading
The Twenty-Seventh City by Jonathan Franzen. This is Franzen’s first novel, published in the late-80s. As with his immaculate novel The Corrections, he has such a great touch with the domestic scene and, in a slightly frightening way, in describing how older men go about seducing teenage girls. I’m enjoying it so far, about a quarter of the way in. Franzen has a strong sense of contemporary culture and society, but it does seem to date his work quite a bit. This phenomena seems to be the longest-lasting legacy of the eighties, however, so maybe it isn’t all the author’s fault in this case.

Up Next
White Noise by Don DeLillo. For real this time.

Week of August 2-8, 2009

Novel Work
Doing the final work on the rewrite of Part I. It’s taken since March to get to this point, but I feel much more comfortable with what I’m doing now. Having gone from 100-pages of a third-person POV focusing on one character to 115-pages of a first-person narrator (who is a minor character) writing through the POV of three other characters, it feels like a pretty big accomplishment just to make it back to this point. Still not quite where I need to be, probably, but I’m getting there. Expanding the POV and playing with the notion of a first-person narrator acting as an omniscient third-person narrator has been very freeing in terms of character development. It came about from two main catalysts, the first being my agent’s suggestion that I had been writing the novel as if it were a really long short story—meaning, among other things, that I was locked too strictly into the limited POV of one character, ignoring potential angles other characters could add to the story. Second, was the need to kind of energize the voice, giving the voice of the story an angle within itself by allowing the narrator to have a stake in things, biases, etc. Basically, taking advantage of the big canvas I’m working with. The work seems to be much better and more interesting too. I’m looking forward to starting on Part II soon!

Dispatch from The Open City
“The animal pushed its pink nose out the sleeve to sniff the air, its rat nose twitching as Michael watched with disgust from a few feet away. Michael rubbed the knot on the back of his head, he ran his fingers through his hair, then reached back, realizing that books too can be weapons, tapping the bindings of the volumes near him until he found a thick one.”

Short Story Work
Put the finishing touches on a draft of “Never, Ever Bring This Up Again” and submitted it to the Esquire Fiction Contest just before their deadline. They mandated the title, by the way. I kind of like how it ended up, but it was a little frustrating to have to send off this version. With the generous help of one of my readers (Travis) it became apparent that the story should be set in the main character’s office building rather than his apartment. I’ll have to do a rewrite before the year is over.

Dispatch from “Never, Ever Bring This Up Again”
“The girl didn’t run when she saw Andy walking towards her, but held to the door handle dumbly, kind of pinching her legs together, bending at the waist. She wore old tennis shoes, the laces gray and dingy, and had a skinned knee, a bloody spot turned black on her dark legs. Up close, Andy assured me later, there was a dovish quality to her eyes. The girl had orange irises that flashed desperation.”

Kind Rejection Notes and Near Misses
Indiana Review for “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter.” McSweeney’s and One Story had previously sent very nice personal emails rejecting “The Current State of the Universe.” These near misses can often be misleading, but hopefully a big publication is on its way soon.

Just Finished
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, translated by Natasha Wimmer. After reading this novel, it makes me think that maybe 2666 was mostly finished after all. Bolano definitely has a propensity for ending narrative threads in an abrupt and ragged manner. Probably another “ambitious but failed novel,” but Bolano is just so pleasurable to read I didn’t really care. Great book!

Now Reading
Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peelle. About half-way through and really enjoying it, despite some reservations. In her Times review, Maria Russo notes that the collection is “remarkably consistent in pacing and tone,” which seems to be its biggest failing, in my eyes. Each story is great, but they all seem to hit the same notes and almost all are written from a first-person POV. Peelle is obviously adept at finding and inhabiting a character’s voice, which is a highly enjoyable aspect of her work, it’s just that when each story reads and feels the same, they kind of lose their power, I think. I’m hoping the second half of the collection offers a little more variety.

Up Next
White Noise by Don DeLillo

Also, please check out my story “The Uninvited Guests”  on the website of Johnny America if you haven’t yet.