Tag Archives: fiction

Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

ocean_at_the_end_of_the_lane_us_cover

I need to get this one out before it starts to fade. Normally I wait until my first impression is gone before talking about a book. But this time, the first impression is the true impression.

This book is childhood. We all had one. And at some point, it had to die. All that’s left are memories, which are completely separate from the real thing. Adults’ memories of childhood are like a child’s imaginings of adulthood: idealized and distorted, as if viewed from the bottom of a pond as deep as the ocean.

Or, as Gaiman puts it, “Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.”

Our unnamed narrator starts off the story as a middle-aged man attending a funeral in his hometown. It’s been some years, and he goes back to visit the places of his childhood with a deep sense of loss, eventually making it to the farmhouse at the end of the lane. A girl used to live there, when he was seven. He can’t remember her exactly, other than she went somewhere far away–Australia, was it?–and she never came back. He sits on a bench beside the pond she told him was an ocean. Silly things, children say. A pond can’t be an ocean. Oceans are bigger than seas, which are much bigger than ponds.

Then, as he looks into the still water of the pond, he starts to remember. Things that no adult can remember looking back on their own childhood, because he remembers not only what happened but also understands it through the lens of age and experience. What happened back then, what he’d forgotten up until this moment, seems very significant

So begins the story, which I will tell you nothing about. It needs to be experienced for yourself, and it will mean something different to you than it did to me. All I can tell you is that it’s beautiful, and terrible, and frightening and real. It will make your hair stand on end, it will make you nod your head in agreement. This is, using the narrator’s terminology, “true art.” It feel like it has been a part of the world forever, and we’ve only just recently unearthed it.

One sample, not even related to the plot, of how true this is. A lot of people have latched onto a quote of Lettie Hempstock about there being no adults anywhere, which is just fabulous, but this quote was the first of a great many to bring me to tears. The narrator had previously explained that his father doesn’t like toasters so he makes all the their toast on the broiler, where it inevitably burns:

At home my father ate all the most burnt pieces of toast. “Yum!” he’d say, and “Charcoal! Good for you!” and “Burnt toast! My favorite!” and he’d eat it all up. When I was much older he confessed to me that he had not ever liked burnt toast, had only eaten it to prevent it from going to waste, and, for a fraction of a moment, my entire childhood felt like a lie: it was as if one of the pillars of belief that my world had been built upon had crumbled into dry sand.

So read this. Please, if you read anything this year. One reviewer said this book is for anyone who’s ever been a child. And I will agree. Gaiman describes his magic in a way you could almost believe it, and certainly leaves you wishing such things existed, somewhere in the world outside of our memories.

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Trust Your Readers, They Know What’s Up

“Reading Corner” by Greg Williams. This is where I grew up.

Recently I started reading a book (which I will not name, however I can tell you it’s a debut YA published this year). It had a very intriguing premise and wonderful opening but somehow felt. . . wrong. Tension was high, pacing snappy, it was peopled with interesting and sympathetic characters, but my reading experience felt distant, separate. I was more aware of the physical act of reading the book than I was of the story. It made me feel self-conscious, like I was reading my own work. Was I being too critical? Was I actively on the lookout for poor writing, and therefore vindicated when I found it?

So I put the book away and started another, from an author whose debut came out in the late 80s. Same ingredients: interesting premise, wonderful opening, great pace and characters. Except this time, I was immediately immersed in the story and lost several pleasant hours before I even stopped to take a breath.

What happened? Why was this book different from the first? I tried to chalk it up to personal preference, perhaps even my state of mind at the time, but the more I thought about it, the more concrete my thoughts became. It wasn’t until writing yesterday’s post that I realized exactly what the problem was.

The first author hadn’t trusted me enough to figure things out for myself.

Reading is an experience. What the reader experiences is completely separate from what the writer experiences–and not just because the writer has a backstage pass. Readers bring a lot of baggage into a story: preconceived notions, different upbringing, prejudices and preferences. For example: they can be told over and over that a beautiful woman has blond hair, but if they personally find blond hair displeasing, they’re going to cast her as a brunette. That’s part of the magic of reading. We’re not restricted to the vision of anyone, not even the writer.

However. That magic can be impeded. And when it is, it’s usually the writer’s fault.

It can be very tempting to spell everything out for a reader. After all, they don’t know, do they? They only have what you tell them, and hey–you’re the artist here, not them. How can you trust them to get it right? So you hold their hand, explaining everything they need to know to fully experience your world, your ideas, your. . . unmitigated genius.

Because of this tendency, a common piece of advice given to inexperienced writers is this: “Show, don’t tell.” Let the reader figure things out from well-placed evidence and concrete details instead of blatant explanations.

This is great advice. It allows readers to be more engaged in the magic of the story and avoids insulting their intelligence. Ultimately, I think that’s why I couldn’t get into that first author’s book. He didn’t trust me, didn’t leave me any room to figure things out for myself. He connected all the dots, covered every point, even told me how to feel about what was happening to his characters.

I don’t like that. I don’t like that at all. And neither does anyone else.

Reading something like this pushes readers out of the story, effectively telling them, “You don’t know any better.” Most of the time it’s not overt; most readers won’t be able to pinpoint what’s wrong with the story. But the cumulative effect is strong enough to alienate them, and, worst-case scenario, kick them out of your story.

How do you know what to show and what to tell? Another piece of advice, closely related to the first, is: “Do not confuse what the writer needs to know with what the reader needs to know. They are not the same thing.” And this is where things start to get complicated. Because, as an inexperienced writer (heck, any writer), it’s hard to know the difference.

Next time, I’ll share some thoughts about what happens when writers take “Show, don’t tell” too far, swinging toward the opposite end of the spectrum and not telling readers anything. It’s an easy trap to fall into, and one I’m just now starting to climb out of.

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Short Fiction: More Wine, Polyphemus?

(Note: I wrote this in an attempt to convince potential employers I am capable of adapting within the Fantasy genre. They requested Alice in Wonderland. I couldn’t stomach the thought of that, so this is what they got. Although they assured me they liked it, someone else got the job. So it goes.)

So the Greek Hero and the Cyclops enter a bar, except the bar is really a cave, and when the Cyclops is done with his wine, he is going to eat the Hero. The Hero holds up the wineskin.

“More wine, Polyphemus?”

The Cyclops holds out his ivory bowl. “Yes, please do.”

The Hero tops him off, and the sheep in the back of the cave bleat. Perhaps they, being sheep, understand what men do not.

The Cyclops downs it in one go, wiping the dark droplets that cling to his beard. “Hmm, good wine. Very good wine. I have never tasted such wine.”

The Hero holds his bowl, the wine untouched. “And you are not likely to ever again. This is special wine, of my own private vintage.” It sloshes as he chuckles. “You are not likely to have such wine ever again.”

“We have good wine,” the Cyclops tells the Hero, accepting another pour, eying the dark font as it travels from skin to bowl. “The cyclops, that is. Our grapes hang heavy from the vine even though we pay no heed to your silly-assed gods. Think we give sacrifice to Zeus? Think you wrong! Zeus is a fool to expect homage from us.” His words drown for a moment in the sweet, undiluted wine. “Hmm. But this is a bit of ambrosia and nectar.”

In the back of the cave, the Hero’s men watch. Crouched behind the beast’s flocks and pens and jars of curdled milk, they wait, clutching their well-crafted weapons.

The Hero sets aside his bowl and stretches, rubbing the tight muscles of his thigh. “What a shame it is, to drink with such a capable companion and then. . . . Ah, but never mind that, my friend. We shall not think of it. More wine?” Continue reading

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