Friday, May 3, 2013

Books I read in April

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters. I'm not sure where it's coming from, but I have the feeling that if I were better read, I wouldn't have liked this book so much. Maybe it's because, after reading Rahul Kanakia's review for Strange Horizons, I get the sense that Kanakia's unhappiness with the structure and atmosphere of the book stems more from how widely read he is in the pre-apocalyptic asteroid and/or police procedural genres. Luckily for me, I'm not well read. It's got a nice story, a nice setting, a nice tone, and enough lightness to avoid collapsing into something horribly depressing. The central character's relentless enthusiasm for his work helps the novel keep its shape, too.

The premise is this: in sixth months, an asteroid will hit Earth and likely end human life. Detective Hank Palace finds a hanger (a death by hanging, and a likely suicide) that doesn't sit right with him. For some reason, he thinks it's a murder. And off we go.

Part of what I liked about the book is how readable it is, while at the same time not throwing away its sentences. A few months ago, I read The Black Box, the Michael Connelly police prodecural mystery novel. That's a very readable novel because only every tenth sentence is important to read. Not so with The Last Policeman, which is super readable because its sentences are so well constructed. A sequel to this novel comes out in July. I'm looking forward to it.

About Writing by Samuel R. Delany. Wow. What a book. Samuel R. Delany is so obviously smart, and has so obvious a mastery of his subject, that useful information oozes out of this book. It would be hard to read it without getting some of that good ooze all over you. That sounds weird. Maybe I should move on from this analogy.

Writing advice is addictive. It's easy to get lost in the internet reading articles about "how to improve your writing" or "how to get an editor's attention." This bad advice is so addictive because: 1) it's related to writing, so you can convince yourself you're working on your writing without actually, you know, writing anything, and; 2) it's so easy to digest. Typical advice is stuff like this:
5 Techniques for Good Craftsmanship
  1. Proceed slowly and take care.
  2. To ensure that you proceed slowly, write by hand.
  3. Write slowly and by hand only about subjects that interest you.
  4. Develop craftsmanship through years of wide reading.
  5. Rewrite and edit until you achieve the most felicitous phrase/sentence/paragraph/page/story/chapter.
Sounds great, right? The only problem is it's vague, and writer-specific. Using the advice is hard, because there's so little actual advice there to take. It's just cliche and preference.

Here's a passage from About Writing:
Any two facts clustered around a single pronoun begin to generate a character in the reader's mind: "She was sixteen years old, and already five-foot eleven." Though only a ghost, she is already more or less vivid depending on the reader's experience. As soon as we get ready to add a third fact, however, we encounter the problem of psychological veracity. All subsequent information about our character (let's call her Sam) has to be more of less congruent with what already exists in the gap between these two facts.
This is so clear, and so useful. The point is so clearly made that it seems obvious once you've read it, but this is non-trivial information to an unpracticed writer like me. The theoretical jargon ("the problem of psychological veracity") is rooted to a specific writerly problem: that of making a character seem real with words. I can apply this knowledge: I have a character who is x and y; can she also be z? Only maybe.

Delany's practical advice is well grounded in theory, and he explains clearly what to do, if not always how to do it. That's another strength of Delany's book: he acknowledges that there's not always a "how to" in fiction. Some things the artist can only figure out for herself. Delany emphasizes again and again how difficult it is to succeed as a writer. The reminder is included, like most else in the book, because it's true and useful.

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