Monthly Archives: August 2010

June & July 2010 Recommended Reading List

Yes, I know it’s late August, but I’ve either had other writing projects I’ve been focused on or had other topics I wanted to get to first.  In September, I expect to begin posting this list on a monthly basis and also be more punctual.  That’s the plan, at least.

There are a few books I enjoyed but won’t be listing because they’re within my taboo topics of politics and religion.  Onward, then, to the good stuff.

Burke, James LeeHeaven’s Prisoners, Henry Holt, 1988. I’ve considered Burke a national treasure ever since reading him first a few years ago.  He’s one of my favorite writers so I’ve gone back and started reading his Dave Robicheaux series from the beginning. 

Heaven’s Prisoners, the second in the series, doesn’t disappoint.  What I wouldn’t give to be able to write like this master.  I don’t think there’s a better writer at capturing setting with expertly crafted descriptions involving all the senses.  Everything else works too. 

Another wonderful James Lee Burke novel.  I loved it.

Buzbee, LewisSteinbeck’s Ghost, Feiwel and Friends, 2008. I read Young Adult books because it’s one of the categories I write in and also because I enjoy them. When both Kris Rusch and Shelly McArthur (prominent writer and mystery bookseller, respectively) recommended this novel, that was good enough for me.

However, I intended to go back and re-read some Steinbeck (and fill in a few gaps) first.  Months went by.  While this may make me sound like a Philistine, if I have a choice between a current book and a classic, the current book almost always wins.

Finally, I said to heck with the prerequisites and dove right in. Buzbee has written a fun book about libraries and reading and friendship and all that good stuff.  You don’t need to be a teenager or have an extensive Steinbeck background to enjoy this book.

Card, Orson ScottShadow of the Giant, Tor Science Fiction, 2005. A fitting finale to the Shadow series, which followed and paralleled the bestselling Ender series.  I will say, however, that I wish I didn’t know Card’s politics because I hear him arguing a point at times instead of his character.  Perhaps that’s my failing, but it’s one more reason you won’t be reading my views on controversial topics.

Fink, MarkThe Summer I Got a Life, WestSide Books, 2009. This is a fun (and funny) YA novel.  Fifteen-year-old Andy Crenshaw’s summer vacation to Hawaii turns into a trip to… Wisconsin.  Making matters worse, eccentric Uncle Jim and Aunt Karen have lost their TV and Internet service (because their pig ate the cable). 

I won’t divulge any more of this tale other than to say it can be both hilarious and moving. Highly recommended.

Larsson, StiegThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Vintage Crime, 2009. I’ll admit that this book took off a bit slowly for me.  (VERY MINOR SPOILER ALERT upcoming.) There are two storylines and the one far less compelling opens the book and  closes it. It’s an odd structure, but I really liked this book anyway once I got into it.  The Lisbeth character is compelling and memorable.  I’m looking forward to reading the final two volumes of this series and am saddened that Larsson’s premature death means there’ll be no more.

Rhodes, Stephen, “At the Top of his Game,” Wall Street Noir, edited by Peter Spiegelman, Akashic Books, 2007.  I’ve only read a couple stories so far in this anthology but this lead story impressed the heck out of me.  It begins, On the day they conspire to put a bullet in my head, I experience an epiphany.  The story then takes you into the cut-throat world of Wall Street and never lets go.

Rusch, Kristine Kathyrn, “Recovering Apollo 8,” Recovering Apollo 8 and Other Stories, 2010.  I only got halfway through this short story collection by the end of July so the recommendation for the entire book will have to wait till next month but I’m singling out a couple stories now.

The first of them is the collection’s title story, winner of the Asimov’s Reader’s Choice Award.  It’s based on a world in which Apollo 8 reemerged from behind the moon just a little off course and never achieved orbit.  It’s everything I love in a Science Fiction story. 

Rusch, Kristine Kathyrn, “Substitutions,” Recovering Apollo 8 and Other Stories, 2010.  I loved, loved, loved this story.  The mood, the characters, the plot.  Everything. 

Sawyer, Robert J.Calculating God, Tor, 2000.  Okay, I did say at the top that I wouldn’t review books about politics or religion.  So what am I doing recommending a book that looks extensively at the existence or non-existence of God? 

This book doesn’t take sides.  Instead, it spends considerable time having an alien paleontologist named Hollus argue the topic with its human counterpart.  The alien is the one who believes there’s irrefutable proof that God exists.

In many ways, this book reminds me of Richard North Patterson’s novel Exile which similarly slows down the plot to discuss a Big Topic (in the case of Exile, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict).  Both novels discuss ideas at the expense of action and get away with it, in part because of the importance of the ideas but also because of the author’s skill.

White Noise for Writers (and Readers)

Certain types of noise distract me to the point where writing and most forms of reading become impossible for me.  Conversations, TV shows, music with spoken words.  All are killers for my concentration.

Or I should say have been killers for my concentration.

Ever since getting an iPod a few years ago and filling it with a couple choice items, I’ve been able to blissfully read novels and short stories in the fitness center while the stereo (or TV) blares away.  Similarly, I can pull out my laptop and write in places where the music or nearby conversations would also prove distracting.

Ultra-expensive, noise-cancelling headphones?  Nope. 

First, you need to buy or download a CD with white noise to help cancel out the noise around you.  I’ve bought two. 

I use the first, a “new age” CD of loud ocean waves crashing about, for reading.  The artist is officially listed as The Pacific Ocean and the title that shows up on my iPod is, I kid you not, Lame New Age Track Title Redacted.  I get a kick out of that.

The second CD, which I use for writing, is called High Focus from a company called Brain Sync.  Actually, as I check the link now, it looks like either their server is having problems or they’ve gone belly up.  Probably the latter.

According to them, High Focus uses selected frequencies to help the brain concentrate.  That may be gobbledygook (I suspect it is), but I’ve used it so often with such success that just starting it up acts as a triggering mechanism that gets my brain pointed toward writing. 

Do you need two CDs?  These two?  I don’t think so.  Just get something with reasonably loud white noise. 

Then get a pair of headphones that completely enclose the ears.  They don’t have to be noise-cancelling.  In fact, I turned the noise-cancelling switch off on my first pair because it messed with the white noise in distracting ways.

If you’re concerned about the volume of the white noise being too much for your ears, add a pair of earplugs too.  I use them if I have them and if not, I don’t worry about it.

For me, this simple combination is a godsend.  I can write and read in far more places than before.  I’m a whole lot happier and more productive.

Check the Freaking Map

I’m working on a project I feel very good about.  I’m hitting a few potholes, but for the most part things are moving along nicely.

Unlike its predecessor.

That project took about five times as long as it should have and much of the time felt like I was slamming my head against the wall.  Every time I fixed one thing, the ripple effect made it so something downstream didn’t make sense.  And when I fixed that downstream problem, something else broke.

As my frustration mounted, I came to dread working on the project.  Which, of course, extended even further how long it took.  Which fed my sense of self-loathing (a sense that rarely goes hungry for long).  That made me dread the work even more.

You get the picture.  Vicious cycle.

Sometimes writing feels like play.  You’re creating and it’s all flowing and life is good.  Those are the best of times.  Other times it’s work.  Those can be the worst of times. 

This felt like the worst of times.

I felt a great sense of relief when I emailed the pages to my First Reader.  I was done with it.  I’d been really looking forward to starting the next project, the one I’m working on now.  I’d also been really looking forward to working on anything but the old one.

Turns out my subconscious was trying to tell me something.  And unfortunately, as my sweet wife has mentioned a time or two, I’m not the world’s greatest listener. 

My First Reader, a very successful novelist, responded with words of praise in some areas and pointed out some fundamental problems.  Serious fundamental problems.  As I read her words of wisdom, I felt like slapping myself upside the head.  What a moron!  How could I have missed this?  How could I have missed that?  (She also made some great suggestions I couldn’t beat myself up over.  But that’s beside the current point.)

In short, my subconscious had been screaming that I’d been going the wrong way, but I’d tried to bludgeon my way through anyway.

Now I’m not going to tell you to write only when it feels like play.  That way lies disaster.  Those who write only “when the muse strikes” aren’t writers; they’re pretenders.

I recall the late great John D. MacDonald saying that those who write only when they feel like it — only when the muse strikes, only when it’s easy — are not only failed writers but failed human beings.

You need to persevere and write even when you’re tired, you’re cranky, your back hurts, or (you get the picture).  Do whatever it takes to get the pages written. It shouldn’t always feel like a chore, but it won’t always be easy.  That said, you also need to persevere the right way

You need to make sure you’re going in the right direction.  If your subconscious is screaming bloody murder for you to stop, ask why.  If it’s just being lazy, hit it over the head with a two-by-four and shove it back into its hole. 

But if your project feels righteously messed up, step back.  Pull out the map.  Your subconscious just may be telling you that you took a wrong turn or three or five.  Ask yourself if you’re going in the right direction.  In the big picture, do things make sense?  If there’s a nagging doubt about something, write it down, then come back to it later and brainstorm the answer.

Sometimes the best way to do this is to set aside the project you’re having trouble with and work on something else until you can get perspective.  Return to your problem child with a fresh eye.  I absolutely, positively should have done this but was unwilling to because I’d already put so much time (and frustration) into it. Like a bad investor throwing good money after bad, I was willing to throw good hours and days after bad.  I wanted to be done with it.  In short, I was just too stubborn.  (My sweet wife might have mentioned this characteristic, too, a few times.)

Don’t ignore the alarm bells.  Make sure you’re on course. 

Look at it this way.  I can get from Boston to my home by heading north.  I can also get there, theoretically at least, by heading south, first through New York, then down through Mexico, Latin America, South America, and Antarctica.  Then back north through Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and on to the North Pole.  Then back south again through Canada on down to my Massachusetts home.

On my slam-the-head-against-the-wall project, I took the Antarctica and North Pole routes.  Next time I make a few wrong turns, I think I’ll step back, look at the map, and try to take a slightly more direct route.