Tag Archives: Neil Gaiman

That Part of the Book

I reached an important and stomach-churning milestone over the weekend, what Neil Gaiman’s agent affectionately refers to as “that part of the book.” Since August 4th I have written 50k words–a little over halfway by my estimates, although, if you take the word of the lovely folks at NaNoWriMo, enough to qualify as an entire book!

Even if all you NaNoWriMo participants haven’t reached this milestone yet, you probably know what I mean about stomach-churning. Every couple thousand words feels like I’m hitting “that part of the book.” Usually it’s after a big event, a major revelation, or anything else I’ve been building up to for a long time. I put a lot of effort into making these tentpoles just right, hit all the major points, end the chapter with a killer line, and. . . .

Fall flat on my face.

Truth is, after all the energy I put into these exciting parts, parts that come after, where characters react, can feel sort of anticlimactic. They tend to sit around thinking, feeling, and well. . . reacting. Pretty boring. If I don’t handle it right, it will be boring, and that means bye-bye readers.

Even more frightening, it’s these passages of reaction that put your skills as a writer and your understanding of the interior world of your character to the test. How characters react to big, life-changing events reveals them at their most vulnerable, before they’ve focused themselves and moved on to the next round of action. What they think and feel now supports what they do later. And if you, the writer, get this wrong, events further on down the line are going to feel flat.

I think that’s why a little over halfway through the book can be so crippling. Everything’s been set up. By now, we’re very aware of what the story problem is, and we should be actively involved in trying to fix it. Not all the pieces may be in place yet, but characters should be gathering strength, preparing themselves for the final push, the final crises, the final desperate acts. Things said and done now justify all those coming things, and messing up now puts them in jeopardy. Those moments are why you’re writing the book, after all. They are the great character-defining events that demonstrate change, the soul of any story. Storytelling is just a form of artistic chemistry, after all, and any deficiency on either side of the equation can result in disaster.

That’s a lot of pressure. And for me, that results in a lot of blockages.

Thankfully, we get do-overs. An infinite amount, or however many we need to get it right.

Go back and click on the link at the beginning of this post to read Neil Gaiman’s wonderful pep talk from a previous year of NaNo. I read it whenever I feel like giving up. Every writer feels like giving up, at one point or another. It happens to me every other chapter. The only solution is, as Neil says, to keep on keeping on. Put one word in front of another. It’s the only way to get it done.

Good luck all you NaNoWriMo participants and writers everywhere! Get something done.

(This song is good for whatever your challenge is, be it finishing a novel or finding your place in the universe.)

5 Comments

Filed under writing

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.

8 Comments

Filed under books

The Novelist’s Wife Speaks Out

To wrap up my series on writers and their secret worlds, I’d like to share with you the thoughts of Amanda Palmer, a musician who happens to be married to a writer whose secret world is as big as they come: Neil Gaiman.

I’ve always had a deep and abiding respect for Neil Gaiman. His work brings to mind Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory: seven-eighths of the meaning is hidden beneath the surface. Reading him is like dipping your toe into what you think is a puddle but turns out to be an entire freaking ocean. That is the most important quality a writer can have, in my opinion. The power of subtext, the ability to say things by not saying them.

Amanda Palmer isn’t like that. As an artist she admits she’s often very literal, not well-versed in metaphor, The Queen of Feelings. The experiences of her life go into a blender on low speed and come out only slightly pureed. She’s not afraid to repurpose her life for the sake of her art.

When Neil Gaiman was writing his latest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, he read it aloud to his wife each night before bed. To her it was terrifying and beautiful but ultimately, just a story. When the galleys came in, and she could read it for herself, she started to see the meaning behind the words, but it wasn’t until her husband patiently explained the significance of the story that it finally hit her. This was a glimpse into the secret world of the man she loved.

I just started The Ocean at the End of the Lane last night, so I only know what the few glowing reviews I’ve read reveal, but I do know this: it’s personal. Amanda traces it back to a moment the two of them shared–or more accurately, failed to share. Neil wanted to tell her something, something personal, but she had a new song budding in her head so she asked him to wait until she could get it out on piano. Later on, when she was ready, the moment had passed. The window into her husband’s secret world had shut with them trapped on opposite sides.

Neil writes on the dedication page:

For Amanda, who wanted to know.

And Amanda writes, in the blog post:

one thing i have learned, being an artist married to another artist:
you cannot separate the self from the relationship and you cannot separate the relationship from the work.
call it poison, or call it the muse.

I’m very conscious of what I choose to share about my marriage here on my blog, but in my writing, my fiction? Anything’s game. I’ve been writing about crap that’s happened to me even before I knew it was happening.

Marriage? It’s traumatic. It knocks you upside the head, knocks you flat, even when you think you’re ready for it. It’s two completely separate lives trying to merge. Things are going to break. People don’t tell you about that. Going into it, you think you’re immune to those kinds of problems.

So I know my marriage is going to come through in my writing, because everything does. I can’t help it. I write about relationships, and marriage is the ultimate relationship. When I write about someone’s feelings getting hurt, I will pull from my memory of stored emotions. Ditto falling in love, feeling misunderstood, feeling drawn to someone you shouldn’t like, resenting someone you should. And if these feelings are produced by my marriage, so be it. I’m thankful that I’m able to feel and express the wide range of human emotion, able to make sense of it, able to relate to others and make connections.

But I’m not going to write about it on my blog. Not in any deep and meaningful way, not without permission from my husband. He’s not an artist. He’s not interested in baring his soul before the world. I’m not going to betray his wishes for something as silly as a blog. Even Amanda Palmer, The Queen of Feelings, has come to the same conclusion:

…but our *actual* relationship…the feelings and fevers and discussions and layers of attachment and complication underneath…that’s….for us. our close friends follow the intimacies of this strange journey we’re on with each other. but it’s not for the blog, it’s not really for the public.

Go read her post, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane (A Book & Marriage Review).” Very rarely do I come across something that resonates with me so deeply. (And she’s not even a Neil Gaiman fan. How incomprehensible.)

10 Comments

Filed under books, writing

What I Write: Facing the Evil

Dr. Lecter and his patient Will Graham from NBC’s Hannibal

Okay, so I’ve talked a little about why I write. Now…just what the heck do I write?

A handy list of my novels, in various states of completion:

  • at age 12, a blatant Legend of Zelda ripoff
  • at age 14, a less-blatant Star Wars ripoff
  • not long later, a historical fiction about slaves and kings in Fifth-century Wales
  • half novel/half graphic novel about identical triplets and a comic book that takes over the world
  • a hotel that eats people
  • and my current WIP, officially entitled Walls but affectionately known as Julian

That last one…that one’s tough. My novel/graphic novel is very cool, plotty while managing to be intensely character-driven, and if I could just get an artist to turn my script into drawn panels, could actually be something. It’s funny, fast-paced, relatable and accessible. My current WIP…

…is about a guy on Death Row. And the daughter who discovers him, weeks before his execution date. It’s hard to even admit that on a public forum. (And I want to get this thing published?)

When people at work ask what I’m writing (because I try to have pride about being a writer, plus everyone wants to know what I do with my days off, as if it’s any of their business), I simply tell them “young adult fiction.” That’s the category everything falls into, more or less. And it shuts them up enough, even though you’d think, working with kids, writing for kids would be respected. I guess people think Twilight. That’s fine and all, just not my thing.

My thing is apparently dark and evil and unmentionable. A teenager rapes and murders a nine-year-old girl. Sixteen years later, another teenager tries to come to grips with that. What it means about her, what it means about love, what it means about right and wrong. Judgments, personas, and how the past interacts with our lives. Plus graffiti and rock and roll, making your mark on history, your legacy, how you want to be remembered after you’re gone and just how out of our control that is.

Yeah. Try mentioning that in a preschool setting!

My favorite stories have always been about the big things, the dark things, the things that are difficult to explain. Anyone ever read Robert Cormier? For a long time I was obsessed with Neil Gaiman, whose characters always seemed to be in a moral quandary. Lately I’ve been reading Gillian Flynn’s deeply-flawed, unlikable, conflicted characters (she’s like an addiction to something sugary and full of toxins). Recently finished watching Hannibal, ITV’s brilliant Broadchurch, and just started on Breaking Bad. People who do bad things, or try to do good and fail miserably.

Why? Why to we do these things? Why do we hurt the people we love? We commit some terrible acts as a human race, and half the time I understand it while the other half I just sit there, baffled.

Even children. Even little babies, sitting there smacking each other on the head and laughing.

So…what is the most evil thing you can think of, and how can we deconstruct it? Let’s dwell on that for several years of our lives.

I guess it boils down to this, my own personal understanding: everyone is judged. We try not to do it, but a big part of our how our brain works is that it takes unfamiliar experiences and relates them to past experiences. Instant judgement. It’s wrong, it’s necessary for survival, and it results in bullying, social and racial stereotypes, acts of terrorism, and false convictions.

This is Joel Stein, from the latest Time Magazine about getting picked for jury duty:

Judge Richman then asked us each if we were able to avoid making assumptions about the defendant, who was also in the room, based on the enormous tattoo covering his face. I told him I certainly could. But by the 20th time he asked a potential juror, I started to wonder, if, compared with the non-faced tattooed, the face tattooed are more likely to make poor decisions. After all, these are people who walked into a tattoo parlor and said, “I think this design will go well with my face.”

I want to be judged for who I really am, what I do and how I treat others. Everyone does. It just doesn’t happen that way.

So I’m writing a novel about a very bad man because I want to face the evil–inside of him, inside of me. It’s not so different from why my main character decides to visit her dad in prison, how she’s able to go out alone at night and paint her pieces: evil may not shatter when it’s exposed to the light, but it does make it easier to see, and hopefully easier to transform into some better.

Pulitzer Prize-Winning author Robert Olen Butler in his wonderful book, From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, gets to the bottom of it:

For those two hours a day when you write, you cannot flinch. You have to go down into that deepest, darkest, most roiling, white-hot space. . . whatever scared the hell out of you down there–and there’s plenty–you have to go down in there; down into the deepest part of it, and you can’t flinch, can’t walk away. That’s the only way to create a work of art–even though you have plenty of defense mechanisms to keep you out of there, and those defense mechanisms are going to work against you mightily.

Understanding these things is understanding ourselves. Just like that baby who sits there hitting another baby and thinks it’s the funniest thing in the world, all of us have the capacity to hurt others. We all do it. Some of us enjoy it, most of us bury it in guilt and various defense mechanisms. I want to face the evil, give it a name, and hopefully come out a better person.

4 Comments

Filed under fiction, writing

Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

(with possible mild spoilers)

OMG THIS BOOK

I read this while vacationing on Tybee Island, Georgia, which is a little unfair to my husband. While he slogged through the latest Dan Brown and muttered, “I know where this is going. . . ,” I kept shouting “OMG THIS BOOK IS RIDICULOUS,” scaring the children and seagulls.

(I think that’s why Gone Girl has become as big as it has. Everyone who reads it goes OMG THIS BOOK and runs to share with the nearest human. My copy already has a waiting list. Hurry up, mother-in-law!)

Okay, now some serious reviewage:

When I was younger, I read thrillers all the time. Law and Order and Dateline NBC were my favorite shows, and I inhaled every Joan Lowery Nixon and Caroline B. Cooney I could find. The covers promised instant drama. A girl is kidnapped! Stalkers! Crazed killers! Murder murder murder! (I kind of wish there were more people writing books like this for young readers. Having written one unintentional thriller that almost made me break pencils in my brother’s eye, I know that person is probably not me.)

Around high school though, my interests moved onto things like dystopia, magical realism, and serious literary allusions (SANDMAN SANDMAN AMERICAN GODS SANDMAN). I looked for books that took me to fantastic and terrifying places. Well, I still do, but now I realize that the most terrifying place is within the human mind itself.

Gone Girl begins with a husband waxing poetic on the unknowable qualities of his wife’s head, down to the very coils of her brain. On their fifth anniversary the wife goes missing, instantly casting suspicion on the husband, because, as several characters point out, the husband is always a suspect. The first half of the book shows him digging himself further and further into the hole of suspicion, making us wonder just what the heck is wrong with him and genuinely want to beat him over the head with the stick of common sense. Alternating chapters of the wife’s diary help paint a more complete picture of this troubled marriage.

I must say, the first half of the book is difficult to get through. I gave up for several weeks before coming back, out of lack of anything else to read. (I will admit this happens surprisingly often for a girl which giant stacks of unread books.) There was so much family backstory to get through, and while it does seem necessary to fully realizing the story and was told in a lively voice, it was still backstory. Chunks of it. That was hard to get through and hard to keep straight most of the time. I kept having to flip back to catch details I didn’t properly absorb. Also, the diary portions made me groan every time they popped up. A saccharinely-sweet voice of an obnoxious, self-absorbed New York rich girl whining about how she should be more appreciative of her “perfect husband” didn’t make me sympathize with her–it just make her look like a blubbering brat with a victim complex. I was super thrilled when I no longer had to deal with them. (Yes I realize their design BUT I DIDN’T AT THE TIME OKAY.)

BUT, because my friend grabbed me and said OMG THIS BOOK, I soldiered on. And I’m so glad I did. Because once I started to pick up on what was going on, I ran around the house shouting “Sheer genius! Why didn’t I think of that!”

See, right before this I read The Sociopath Next Door, which, despite a lot of marketing hype, really helped me understand the segment of the population that don’t care how others feel and who only want to win. It’s a most foreign concept to me, being a highly sensitive and empathetic person, but also an important one. One of the characters in my WIP may or may not be a sociopath, and it helps to explain how some people in this world can be so mean and eat humans for breakfast. (Really been getting into the TV show Hannibal–check it out! Super empath vs. super psychopath is always good for a laugh.) Anyway, maybe because I’d just read the book, I was able to see the big picture and analyze it from a more “psychological” point of view.

Gone Girl a perfect profile of a sociopath. These people become what you want them to be, only so they can tear out your heart and prove how magnificent and godlike they are. And what Flynn does, extending this idea to freaking MARRIAGE ITSELF, is somewhat terrifying. Completely normal people employ these same dirty tactics. We all want to win, we all want our spouse and everyone else to think we’re awesome. A big part of life is this struggle of power with others, wanting people to like us, constantly presenting versions of ourselves that will attract the most admirers. Because, if you peel back all the layers, what you will find inside each and every one of our heads would scare the living daylights out of those we love. Look at young children: they think the world was invented with them in mind. It’s very, very difficult to grow out of that mindset. Some people never do, sociopathic or not.

That’s the neat thing about Flynn’s writing: her characters are awful people. And yet, we love them anyway. Or if not love, at least we want them to succeed. That makes them pretty fantastic psychological manipulators if you ask me. (I should probably read Lolita next, though I first need to work up the courage.)

In the end, Gone Girl is THEORETICALLY more awesome than how it turned out. I loved it and appreciated what Flynn was able to accomplish, but I can’t help but wonder if what she came up with didn’t exactly fit the vision in her head. I remember Neil Gaiman saying this about one of his books (I think it was The Graveyard Book), that it was the first time what came out on paper perfectly reflected what was in his head. He waited 20 years before writing it, knowing it would take certain skill to pull off correctly. I wonder if perhaps Gone Girl could have used a little more creative gestation (or just better editing; the slogging first half has probably prevented many people from getting to the good parts.)

Verdict: SUPER AWESOME but somewhat disjointed. I felt Sharp Objects was a stronger offering. We’ll see about Dark Places. I’m only halfway through.

5 Comments

Filed under books