Books I’ve Been Reading

I mentioned last post that I am convalescing from a sudden, major operation.  So, what’s a writer to do when the anesthesia is not quite well enough dissipated to tackle the draft of that next novel?  Read, of course. As usual, I had a stack of books waiting to further educate me. 

I have the problem of many of us who pretend to be writers: it’s almost impossible to read a book without analyzing it, panning for the gold of a good idea, a well-turned plot twist, or the mechanics of a story. Sometimes this drains the read-on-the-porch-in-summer pleasure of a book, but that’s mostly compensated for by the good ideas from great writers. (A side benefit of knee-jerk analysis is it eliminates badly written books quickly.)

My to-read pile was split into literary fiction, non-fiction and mystery/thriller novels.  I’ll start with the literary fiction, which I often read because of my long-distance membership in a fine Gainesville, Florida book club.  Reviews are on Amazon and Goodreads.

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead (Olga Tocarczuk). Quite a story, which won the Nobel for literature. I ended up wondering why and how the Nobel committee came to select this book. My learning experience was the value of an unreliable narrator, in this case the loveable sociopath Janina Duszejko. With straightforward narration, the book would have been a screed against a variety of societal ills, including entitled men and small-minded local government. Fortunately, Janina was unreliable, which drew me along trying to imagine what was really going on. 

Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens) I think I see why it has remained a best-seller beyond all expectation: It hits so many of the reasons different readers pick up a book.  It’s a heartstring-tugging story of a girl/young woman rising above difficult circumstances. Not quite the intensity of Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, but engaging.  It’s promoted as a mystery, which captures another wide audience, even though its mystery structure is weak at best. And most convincingly, it’s a fine piece of description of a beautiful, mysterious place.

This Tender Land (William Kent Krueger) Marvelous writing, a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey in the somewhat smaller world of southern Minnesota. One thing I saw in this was the value of fine descriptive writing. Unlike Crawdads and almost anything by James Lee Burke, Krueger didn’t have a magical place that made breathtaking description easy … but he did it nonetheless, making the ordinary seem palpable and beautiful.

Late Migrations (Margaret Renkl): My undergrad writing teacher used Breakfast, a short story from John Steinbeck’s The Long Valley, to explain the notion of ‘show, don’t tell’. I go back to it often. Now I have a companion. Renkl’s book is a pastiche of short writings about family, nature, love, and loss. I haven’t read much of it yet, but when it arrived (we indulged in a hard copy, even though adding a book means getting rid of another in our apartment bookshelves), I flipped randomly to a piece called Howl. In a single page, Renkl shows pain, sorrow and love in jaw-dropping profundity, and she does it by describing the simple act of an old dog settling. Surely the finest piece of descriptive writing I’ve read in a decade. I’m looking forward to the rest of the book.

Next up: a pile o’ mysteries.

Pruning

Every story has a structure. Whether it’s the planned structure of an outliner or the ‘organic’ one of a pantser, it is always there. I am learning that respecting the unique structure of the story makes it believable. It helps it move along at the right pace. It makes twists and turns seem plausible even when surprising. Obvious, right?

Partly right, I think. To dig deeper, though, every structure brings with it both opportunities and risks. Fine books on writing often focus on the opportunities a given structure creates. Risks, not so much. As a writer myself and as a judge of writing, I’ve come to understand that a lot of almost-good writing is skillful at using the opportunities a chosen structure offers. Perhaps because risks are less discussed, these same writers often fall into structural traps. Umm. Let’s not generalize. I often fall into structural traps. 

My novels to date are thrillers which lean toward technical detail for their central threats. (The traditional thriller always has a central threat bigger than the protagonists—think presidential assassination, power grid interruption, nuclear event). Thus, exposition of the (to me) fascinating details is the big risk. In other words, TMI…or in my case, TMD (Too Much Detail) or TMC (Too Much Confusion). And there we have a shining example—three acronyms in one sentence, a good way to trip up the reader.

I’m realizing that part of the TMD/TMC problem for me and I think for others is that the more I know, the more I want to expostulate on it. I mean, I really like the stuff. This fourth thriller, Fatal Cure, is about manipulation of genes. I worked in the field. There are so many little-known interesting facts, it’s almost a crime to keep them from the reader, right? Did you know the yard-long chain of three billion molecules we call a gene is usually 90-plus percent inactive? No, well, I’ll explain. The exome (throw in a term there, confuse the reader, when I could have said ‘the part of the genome that does stuff’) is only about two percent of the total. Fascinating? Of course—to me.

So, I’m pruning. Cutting so the story’s later chapters can grow (oh, my precious cliché!). I’m cutting parts where I write everything out so that I understand it myself. Asking the question, “Does the reader need to know this? If so, does she need to know it right now?”

I hope pruning will make the story stronger. Just like it does the tree.