Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Scariest Night of the Year - NaNoWriMo Eve

It's finally arrived, the moment so many have been waiting for2013's National Novel Writing Month begins at the stroke of midnight. Those of us participating have only a few hours more before the time for outlining and organizing comes to a close and a month's worth of writing can begin. Judging by the activity on Twitter alone, it's obvious that there's no shortage of excitement and anxiety amongst this year's participants, and the Fane is certainly not exempt!

It's been a busier week than I anticipated; despite my best efforts to prepare over the course of the entire month, I entered this week to discover a mountain of work yet to be done. I knew better than to think a dramatized memoir would be easy, but I hadn't realized that my source material would amount to over 200 pieces of writing, to say nothing of the journals reaching back nearly a decade. Attempting to collect them in chronological order seemed an impossible task, until I stumbled upon a solution while preparing for the WriMo elsewhere by updating Scrivener.



For those of you who've never heard of Scrivener, it's essential a writer's dream word processing program, capable of so much more than default software like Microsoft Word. More than a simple word processor, it's customizable in ways you may always have wanted, but would never have imagined. Scrivener includes outlining and storyboard functions that make compiling the many scenes and chapters of your novel unbelievably easy. Friend of the Fane Jamie Todd Rubin has covered the virtues of Scrivener far better than I could, in a convenient Tumblr list as well as numerous posts to his blog.

Photo from LiteratureandLatte.com
Its creators at Literature and Latte offer a special NaNoWriMo trial edition every year, to make the month's writing that much easier. There's still time to download, install, and become acquainted with this fabulous program. If you manage to reach the goal of 50,000 words by month's end, Literature and Latte will take 50% off the selling price, so that WriMo participants can continue working on their novels after the trial period's completed.


Photo from LiteratureandLatte.com


For the week's work, I was confronted with the problem of a jumbled list of notes listed out of sequence, and a desire to compile them into a single, printable document. I found Scrivener's option to click-and-drag "scenes" to be the perfect answer to the question of how I might best arrange my source material. It's a laborious task, owing to the amount of material being assembled, but I'm positive it would be ten times more difficult were I to do so using Word. 

Beyond this business of preparing the materials necessary for the month ahead, it's been a bit of a scramble to get my house in order. I'm a bit of a cliche when it comes to clutter, my desk littered with notes, books, coffee cups, etc., and I strongly believe a clear workspace makes for a smoother writing process. I also remember that, during my first attempt at NaNoWriMo, I found myself suddenly much more interested in cleaning than I was in writing, at least as a distraction. So, today I'll be facilitating the month's work by decluttering, vacuuming, washing every last dish, and organizing work materials like the many reference books I plan to keep on hand during my novel's writing. Then there's shopping for the month's provisions, bittersweet farewells to friends and loved ones, last minute touch-ups to my outline...So much to be done, and less than 12 hours to go! 

Monday, October 28, 2013

How Strong is Your Foundation? Resources for the NaNoWriMo Writer

Ernest Hemingway once quipped that "There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed". In many ways, this is (metaphorically) true. At the same time, he also once opined that "...writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done. It is a perpetual challenge and it is more difficult than anything else I have ever done--so I do it. And it makes me happy when I do it well." Perhaps paradoxically, this is also true; writing is at once as easy as setting down and putting words on paper, and a challenge of the highest order. Most importantly, where the latter quote is concerned, it is true that to write well is an indescribable joy. 

How does one learn to write well? There are countless methods and paths, suggested by educators, successful authors, and fellow writers alike. There are shelves of books, a branch of the self help genre, dedicated to teaching methods for developing and improving literary talents. There's no shortage of technical material, style guides from various schools of thought. As with most disciplines, a writer benefits from a sort of "muscle memory", an automatic or innate understanding of the mechanics and aesthetics of the craft. For my money, the following examples are the cream of the instructional crop, and the books I'll have on hand during this year's National Novel Writing Month.


Elements of Style


William Strunk, jr and E. B. White's classic collection of basic style guidelines is as brilliant as it is brief. At only 105 pages, it's easily the shortest piece of resource material in my collection, but page-for-page it is also the most thorough and informative work available. It's invaluable, and recommended that every writer, at some point, become familiar with its teachings.


Elements of Grammar


Another brief work, though slightly longer than Elements of Style, Margaret Shertzer's Elements of Grammar is similarly indispensable. In some ways more technical than Elements of Style, Shertzer's guide is nevertheless a marvelous resource, summarizing the basics of sentence structure and defining the building blocks of the English language in a way that better enables the writer to construct more solid works.


A Dictionary. ANY Dictionary.


This should go without saying, but the number of writers who eschew the use of a dictionary might surprise you. I've always found them useful, not only for referencing correct spelling and definitions, but for the simple fact that the dictionary is a collection of words, many of which I might not have otherwise encountered. My preferred editions tend to be older, but truthfully any dictionary will suffice. I use Webster's New World Dictionary--Compact Desk Edition (1963) and Webster's Little Gem Dictionary. (1925)


A Thesaurus. 


In Stephen King's masterful On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, the legendary writer warns that "One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones", later asserting that the basic rule of vocabulary is " use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful." It's this last bit (emphasis mine) that makes a thesaurus so handy. Perhaps the first word that comes to mind isn't colorful enough, or perhaps you've used the same word so many times that it's become redundant, and therefore less apt. As with dictionaries, any thesaurus will suffice. I prefer Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (1937), in the original arrangement, which was categorical as opposed to alphabetical. Another suitable collection of verbal alternatives is Funk & Wagnalls Standard Handbook of Synonyms Antonyms & Prepositions.


Additional Resources


There are a number of works that, while not essential, I've found prove informative, useful, and to a certain extent entertaining. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable is indispensable as an introduction to a host of idioms and phrases which we often hear but about which we rarely learn more. Similarly, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler compiles myriad phrases and notes on usage, oftentimes employing a dry wit that defies its place on the reference shelf. Other extraneous reference materials that I'll be perusing in preparation for NaNoWriMo include: The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage by Theodore M. Bernstein, and its humorous "sequel", Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer's Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Out-Moded Rules of English Usage; The American Language, by H.L. Mencken; The Dictionary of Cultural LIteracy; and The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions.


Books on the Craft of Writing


In addition to the reference materials above, I find it extremely helpful to have a number of works on the actual topic of writing, beyond the nuts and bolts of language. The aforementioned On Writing is both informative in terms of the more technical aspects of style and usage, and inspirational in that it details aspects of Mr. King's life as an author, and how his life led him to that point. Other works in this vein include Ray Bradbury's Zen and the Art of Writing; Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande; On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner; and a collection of topical tidbits from a variety of well-known authors, Advice to Writers: A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom from a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights

Truth be told, this is is by no means exhaustive. Depending on the genre in which one will be writing, there are countless other works that might prove useful as inspiration or reference. Whether it be an autobiography of an author successful in that particular milieu, or an encyclopedia germane to the subject, one does well to build a strong foundation for their work in progress. As my WriMo novel will fall under the auspices of literary fiction, I've been touching upon favorite works in that arena; since my novel will be semi-autobiographical, I've been reading works of a similar nature (such as Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn) as well as revisiting works that struck a chord with me in terms of identity, like Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse and Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

I don't intend to do much reading once National Novel Writing Month has begun—I prefer to keep my voice and story free of influence while writing—I will spend the remainder of the week reviewing these and other materials, so that when the time comes, my novel—written in earnest haste—will at least have been built upon as firm a foundation as I could afford it.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Final Countdown - One Week To WriMo



By this time, one week from today, I hope to find myself settling down to a celebratory lunch after a long and productive morning kicking off the 2013 National Novel Writing Month. I'm sure the day will start at the stroke of midnight, and seriously hope I don't spend those first few hours staring at a blank screen, struggling in vain to begin the month's effort. I'll have some shopping to do, after that lunch, to secure the last items on my list of necessary WriMo provisions. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

NaNoWriMo is one week away—before "Do or Die", it's "Prepare or Flounder", and I'm not entirely sure I'm ready to withstand the panicked anticipation the next seven days represent. 

Unlike last year, when I waited until the last possible moment to throw my literary hat in the ring, this year I've made a point of gearing up for this year's WriMo since early September. A few weeks ago I assembled a small tactical force comprised of my favorite reference books and sources of inspiration. I've mastered the art of manipulating my sleep cycle so I can navigate the month's events and appointments without suffering the loss of my writing schedule or routines. I've planned this year's novel as best I can, notified friends and family of my impending absence from their lives, and reached out to fellow participants in order to establish a small but reliable network of encouragement and support.


Despite this skillful exuberance—is there really only one week left before we begin??

Don't get me wrong, I feel to an equal degree the wish that today were Halloween, so that it would only be a matter of a dozen hours or so before I could throw myself into my work. I'm dangerously enthusiastic about this year's novel, and on more occasions than I can count have had to suppress the urge to go rogue and start writing ahead of time. There's still that lingering apprehension, as I've said before, and so much work yet to be done in preparation of the long month ahead.

I'm fascinated by the ways in which other writers work, and I'm always on the lookout for new methods, insights, and tips in general. In the spirit of reciprocity, beginning Monday the 28th I'll be touching upon categories of preparation in a series of NaNoPrep posts meant to elucidate my own methods: how I've prepared, and how I expect the writing process to unfold. Over the course of the week I'll also do my best to share similar posts by others, via Twitter and Facebook. With Writing Buddies, local Write-Ins, and The Night of Writing Dangerously, it's clear that we're all in this together—at least when it's not just you and your novel, staring each other down in the darkest hours of the night. 

For now, there's so very much left to do, and precious little time in which to do it. One week until the WriMo starts in earnest, but the NaNoPrep has already begun...


Thursday, October 24, 2013

An Interview with Falling Under Author Danielle Younge-Ullman

Your bio states that you spent 10 years performing in theatre before shifting your focus toward writing. How did that transition come about? Had you always had an interest in writing?

I was always a passionate and voracious reader and I think I’d always wanted to write, and specifically to write books. I just didn't believe I could do it—I didn't know if I could weave a coherent story, didn't think I had good enough ideas, didn't believe I’d have the self-discipline to get the thing done. In the meantime I fell in love with the theatre, and therefore buried even the knowledge of my desire to write. But all that time studying and working in the theatre was fabulous training for me as a writer. As an actor you work so hard to understand the vision of the playwright and the deepest motivations of every single breath of the character you’re playing, to get under and into their skin, and obviously these are also things you need to do as a writer. And I think being an actor gave me a good ear for dialogue and for how a story has to be shaped, how to create conflict. Ultimately, I wasn't happy as an actor; the business is crappy and even when I was working, I wasn't getting enough creative satisfaction from it. I wanted, needed, something that more directly expressed what I had to say. Around that time, someone who I’d let read some random stuff I’d written asked me if I’d ever thought of being a writer and all of a sudden I just knew that was what I was supposed to be doing…and that’s what put me on the path. 

Falling Under is a tremendously evocative novel to have read; could you describe for us the emotional experience of having written it?

With Falling Under, I decided to take the gloves off and go for it, and be very instinctual. I knew the general conflicts and issues I wanted to write about, but I didn't really know where it was going to go. I just gave myself permission to go as crazy and raw as I wanted to and see what happened. It was terrifying and exhilarating, fun and frustrating. The book goes to some very dark places and you’d think maybe this might have messed me up...given me some hard days…but those parts were the most fun because I was being the most true, the most creative, and the most courageous.

Your portrayal of the classic, tormented artist is very thorough, even without delving too deeply into the technical aspects of Mara's particular milieu. How much of your own experience as an artist in theatre informed the creation of this aspect of the story?

Bottom line, it’s the creative process. I mean, if you’re making music, creating a character for stage or film, writing a book, painting; whatever it is, the technical aspects and skills needed are different, but what happens inside—that massive, sometimes magical-feeling effort to pull out something you want to express and then put it into a form people can relate to—I think it’s very much the same thing. I will say that for me, the descriptions of Mara’s artistic process are actually closer to my experiences as a writer than as an actor. The difference there is that as an actor you’re interpreting someone else’s words and vision, not your own. 

It's said that all fiction is at least partially autobiographical; in terms of emotional and family history, how much of yourself might readers find in Mara?

As writers, we write what we’re passionate about and what we’re preoccupied with…so I think with any book, an immense amount of who the author is, on an essential level, goes into character and story. But it’s fiction. 

Mara’s life story is completely different from my own, but I do come from a divorced family, and have strong feelings about what happens to kids when families break up. There’s also a lot of research that shows kids of divorced families (all different types of divorces) deal with anxiety and depression and a host of other issues. This information helped when I created Mara, and obviously there’s commonality here and there with my own experience, emotionally speaking. She also has my sense of humor!

The name Mara means "bitter" according to some sources. Were you aware of this when choosing a name for your character?

Honestly, I just liked the name and I had the vague thought it had something to do with the sea! I wouldn't have purposely chosen a name that meant “bitter” because I don’t really see Mara as bitter. 

Your book was released first in print, back in 2008, and reached the Kindle in September of last year. What was that process like? Do you have plans to make the title available in any other digital formats?

It’s been really exciting and fun having Falling Under out as an ebook. With the economic crisis in 2008, it was a tough year to be launching a debut novel—especially a dark-ish book that is so hard to define and describe. Re-launching Falling Under in ebook format has given it a second life a chance to reach a new readership—the very passionate and growing ereading community. The response has been amazing, and I’m really grateful. There was quite a bit of work involved in getting the book formatted and orchestrating the design of the new cover, but I’m thrilled with the result. 

Falling Under is currently only available on Kindle through the Kindle Select program, but it was available through the other ebook stores (B&N, Kobo, Sony, Smashwords, Diesel, the iBookstore, etc) and will be again soon. 

Your website says that you're hard at work on your next project. Could you tell us a little bit about it, like whether it's a play or another novel? 

I’m working on a new book and I've got two others sitting on the shelf that I’d like to pick back up and revise. The one I’m working on is about a teenage girl who gets sent on a wilderness trip against her will. She’s a fairly sheltered, “normal” middle class girl and expecting a camp-like experience, but the trip turns out to be much more hard-core than she expected and she finds herself surrounded by a really rough group of people with serious emotional and psychological problems. The whole thing is so much worse and so much more intense than she expected, and the book is about how she gets through it. 

Wow. You just forced me to summarize it, which I haven’t done in awhile! This book may turn out to be best for the YA market, but I’m not positive about that. Even though it’s about a teen, I’m not trying to deliberately cater to a certain age of reader—I’m just writing the story the way I need to write it. 

How would you compare working on a second novel to the experience of drafting the first? Can fans expect news on your next book any time soon?

This will actually be the 5th novel I've written. There was one before Falling Under, which I thought was great when I wrote it, but now realize should remain in the drawer. And there have been two written since Falling Under, both of which have been put aside at the moment and are awaiting revisions. As to how it is working on successive novels…I wish I could say it gets easier, but it doesn’t. I think you get better at the brass tacks writing stuff, and you refine your voice and style, but it doesn't get any easier to do. I will say that with this book I have an outline and I know much more specifically where it’s going, so that helps. 

As to when fans might see a new novel…I hope to finish the one I’m working on this summer, but then it will need revisions. I will keep you posted!


I'd like to thank author and playwright Danielle Younge-Ullman for having taken the time to participate in this interview, which previously appeared elsewhere in November of 2012

Throwback Thursday - Falling Under

At first glance, Falling Under—the debut novel of Canadian stage actress and playwright Danielle Younge-Ullman—appears to be a rather simple tale, recounting the interpersonal struggles of a troubled young woman attempting to recover from a challenging past. However, just beneath the veneer of the title’s basic description lies a multifaceted story every bit as nuanced as human nature itself. 

At its core, the novel does hold firmly to the path laid out by its premise. As the story begins, Mara Foster is a child on Christmas morning. Far from joyous, the occasion leaves the five year old shrinking as her parents bicker heatedly over the affordability of her presents. It’s soon established that her life is fraught with the fiercely invective quarreling between her hapless, alcoholic father and unabashedly venomous mother. The toll such fighting, and her father’s eventual departure, take on the young girl is unavoidably heartbreaking. The innocent self-recriminations all too familiar under these circumstances assail the girl, setting the stage for both the troubled life of the protagonist, redolent with self-loathing and insecurity, and the novel through which that life is viewed. 

The majority of the book is told through minimalist first-person narrative, reminiscent in some ways of Palahniuk’s style. The author’s vocabulary is rich in emotional import, delivered in fragmented thoughts and conversational observations. The first chapter, however, like all other passages which chronicle Mara’s history, is told instead in the mode of second-person narrative. While the difference may seem unusual, the affect proves to be most profound. By so relating the events which shaped and conditioned Mara’s character as she exists in the novel’s present, the author crafts a bridge of empathy between Mara and the reader. Mara’s life, past and present, is rife with tragic circumstances and questionable choices; and yet, regardless of what one may think of these events, the empathy imbued by the second-person portions of the story enables judgment and understanding to remain separated. Readers may not agree with Mara’s decisions, but they’re much more likely to at least understand how such decisions were made.

Irrespective of these narrative shifts, the story as a whole does a fair job of speaking directly to the heart of the reader. Anyone who has known the anxieties of a burgeoning relationship, or suffered the agonies of love’s sudden absence, will easily find a piece of themselves in Mara’s story. Despite a level of social anxiety that borders on agoraphobia, Mara’s is not a world lacking in people. There are the tenuous relationships she maintains with her parents; her friendship with a rather boisterous and independent lesbian named Bernadette; sometimes-lover Erik, with whom she has a relationship few would characterize as anything but desperate; and Hugo, a new romantic prospect whose appearance in her life, and insistence to remain there, shakes her already fragile existence to its core. A host of former lovers flood her memory, particular that of Lucus, whose loss has come to define Mara in every way. 

Even elements of Mara’s character which are perhaps not familiar to the average reader somehow manage to cross the author’s bridge of understanding. Mara’s lifestyle is that of the artistic shut-in, producing relatively bland paintings for Sal, yet another former lover turned agent and patron. One need not know intimately the subject to experience vicariously what it is for Mara to practice her art. In fact, though the author spares readers any excessive reference to the more technical aspects of painting, her description of the emotional and existential abstractions of the artist’s life convey far more than she might have done by describing practical details.

This aspect of the story—that Mara is made so identifiable—grates at times, much as witnessing a struggling friend may similarly frustrate. For example, as the story progresses there are numerous instances in which Mara is confronted by individuals angered by apparent misunderstandings. With their faces red and voices raised, Mara is paralyzed, so akin to the trauma of her childhood are these experiences. Where a simple explanation or word in her own defense might thwart further discomfort, Mara instead remains frozen, silent, leaving the angry other to their assumptions. Like a moviegoer warning onscreen characters in futility, so too may readers find themselves urging Mara to rouse from her panic-stricken silence, her periods of depression-induced malaise. The overall affect is nothing short of striking. As they come across these and other such examples, many readers will find themselves quite drawn in by the undeniable human quality inherent to the story.

Falling Under is not a novel without faults, though they are indeed few, foremost of which is the disproportionate attention paid to Mara’s livelihood in comparison to those of others. Most characters, if not similarly employed in the arts, find their lives receive little more than lip service. The most glaring example is that of Erik, described very early on as a computer hacker, involved enough in such activities to warrant an apartment littered with technological paraphernalia. After a few references to this effect, no further mention is made of his illicit behavior. In light of the thorough exploration of his relationship with Mara, however, it is perhaps forgivable, as the depth of emotion involved is clearly more deserving of the reader’s attention. 

While the novel explores themes such as struggle and redemption, Falling Under is ultimately a story about consequences. Whether these are caused by elements beyond Mara’s control, such as the fallout of her parents’ failed relationship, or the results of her own poor choices, the message most prominently displayed is that life is a matter of managing and navigating the consequences that punctuate our lives. As the story draws to its close readers may well find themselves feeling as if they have experienced a number of the consequences with which Mara herself has had to contend. Whether this feeling derives from having lived through similar hardships and triumphs, or from the vicarious experience of having read Danielle Younge-Ullman’s brilliantly insightful work, this much is clear: anyone with a taste for edgy, heart-rending fiction will find more than simple entertainment here.

Click here to read the Post Script to this review

This review previously appeared elsewhere in November 2012

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Post Script - The Time Traveler's Wife

Though I've enjoyed expounding upon the virtues of the page-to-screen adaptation thus far, it had bothered me that I hadn't yet covered The Time Traveler's Wife. Of all the titles I've covered or intend to cover, this was possibly the most important. To be honest, I feel I failed somewhat, as I do feel the movie, despite its redeeming qualities, falls so short of the source material; though I did touch upon the title's diminished screen presence, I don't think I necessarily drove the point sufficiently home. 

The truth is, I could have written ten times as much about this story, and still only scratched the surface. It really is my favorite book, and that's no small feat. It's not often I'm capable of selecting one particular item as superior to others of its kind. And for years, decades even, my favorite book was Frank Herbert's Dune, another complex novel that, despite enjoyable cinematic and television manifestations, had failed to adequately transition to the screen. 

I don't think I'll ever exhaust my desire to discuss The Time Traveler's Wife and the myriad ways in which it touches me. I similarly disbelieve that I'll ever find myself tired of rewatching the movie, nor is it likely that I'll cease the nascent tradition of re-reading the novel every September, just as the weather cools and it begins to feel as if the season of change has finally returned. It was a joy to share my appreciation for the novel and its adaptation. It's just a shame I could only do so once.

My original review of The Time Traveler's Wife

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

WriMo In Progress - The Third Face of Janus

I'd be lying if I didn't admit to a palpable amount of trepidation over this year's National Novel Writing Month. There's always an element of apprehension, of course—churning out 50,000 words in a month's time is certainly daunting. The standard nervousness is exacerbated by my decision to base this year's novel, The Third Face of Janus, at least in part on my life. Names will be changed, personalities blended into new characters, but at its core will lie a significant amount of genuine Me. 

As with any instance of working with an idea I believe to be of sufficient quality, I'm tremendously excited, and more than a little confident, but there's a part of me that's decidedly reluctant to proceed as planned. While I'm no stranger to introspection, however difficult, to endure a sustained effort as such will no doubt take a toll. An upshot of using myself as the basis for the main character is that I'll be able to use my reactions to the writing process as fodder for more writing; whatever issues arise, the novel will essentially feed them into itself, and reaching—if not exceeding—the goal should be no problem whatsoever.

Over the years, I've bounded between extremes in terms of personality. I'm fairly consistent these days, having leveled off a few years ago, but I thought it might be interesting to explore the back story a bit, detailing the effort required to resolve the various selves I felt I exhibited. As I'm writing it as a dramatization, I can play fast and loose with the facts, exaggerate certain elements, and introduce entire fictions to elucidate the experience far more than a simple accounting of reality could do. I'm never short on hypotheticals and counterfactuals to consider; the perspectives afforded by writing this novel alone should be worth the trouble. We're all, ideally, perpetual works in progress, and its not a stretch to suggest the quest to resolve the many aspects of self is a continual one. The title of my novel refers to this stable middle-ground, between conflicting iterations of self, the place of balance between positive and negative extremes. In the end, success will mean finding, identifying as, and donning, the Third Face of Janus.

Much as I may harbor reservations about this project, I'm unbearably eager to begin. There's no rushing the clock, however, and so I'm resigned to obsessive amounts of NaNoPrep. Most of my preparation will be detailed in future posts, but having recently completed the synopsis and excerpt (or in this case, jacket blurb) portions on my NaNoWriMo Author Page, I thought I'd share them here.

Synopsis

Over the past few years, bi-polar freelance writer Jackson Dolakov has managed to pull himself out of the miserable drink-and-drug filled hole in which he spent most of his 20s. Living alone in a basement apartment on the city's west side, he does his best to continue rehabilitating himself and reintegrating into society. Shortly after he enters his 35th year, however, his therapist goes on leave without warning. Bereft of this point of reference, his fledgling attempt at normalcy begins to crumble, and his tenuous hold on rational thought slips inexorably toward the volatile, nightmare purview of his past. As he struggles to keep his world from falling apart, he sifts through a sea of recollection in hopes of finding the key to preventing a complete and total relapse. In the end, his success will depend on whether or not he can find common ground between the amiable gentleman everyone has come to know, and the misanthropic beast he fears he might yet become.

Dust Jacket Blurb

"The nights used to call out to me, fill me with a sense of potential and purpose and power. The car would top a hill's crest, bring the lights of the city into view, and I'd feel this energy surge into and through me, feed some part of my self long starved in the dismal hours of daylight. Or I'd look out the window at home and watch the houselights go out as the old brass art deco lamp on my desk warmed up and shined like day on my hulking grey tank of a typewriter. I'd pour a drink, light a smoke, and breathe fire onto the pages. 

"These days I'm not much for excitement, anticipation; so long as I know there's a few meals and a laugh to be had, I'm just fine facing another day at home. Good enough food, a laugh, or a drink maybe, with a few smokes alongside--old habits die hard. It doesn't take much. I prefer it that way. It wasn't always like this, but a man can only bear so much blood and shame and pain before he's whittled down to the tragic, crippled shape he's doomed to take before finally giving up the ghost. I might have barely entered my thirty-fifth year, but what they used to say still holds true: I'm an old soul, deep down. And I'm not getting any younger..."


Monday, October 21, 2013

The Growing Season - Summer in Review

Proper reflection can be an arduous process. To thoroughly expound upon events past is challenge enough, but to attempt the encapsulation of an entire season takes more than a few days' thinking. Though autumn is already a month underway, the leaves already changed and falling, it's only now that summer's expiration has finally sunk in. And while I did well to appreciate its passage at the time, it's only through the lens of hindsight that I'm capable of seeing what a spectacular summer it had been.


Sunrise over Lake Glacier, Mill Creek Park
Owing much to the annual school schedule, we are trained from an early age to view summer as a season apart, unique and detached from the rest of the year. It is a time for late nights and lazy mornings, frivolous hours of outdoor play in the extended light of day, vacations and day trips, carnivals and parades. It's a season of adventure and exploration, of excitement, of fun. What did my spectacular summer entail? At least at the onset--reading. Lots and lots of reading.

One of the benefits of cavorting with other writers is catching the fire of their inspiration at the hands of sources new to you. Passion is contagious, particularly when it comes to literary proclivities. A friend enthusiastically endorsed a host of artists and authors with whom I had yet to become acquainted, but none grabbed my attention so firmly as Henry Miller. The nature of his work—controversial, semi-autobiographical, rambling, graphic--intrigued me, and I acquired a copy of 1939's Tropic of Capricorn for my introduction. 

I was instantly seized by the novel's tone, gritty and dark and discontent in the way only a true romantic could portray. In many ways the novel is a period piece, describing a particular moment in history, and yet it also seems to have been ahead of its time; there's a quality to the prose which places Miller, in my mind, at the forefront literary movements that followed, particularly the Beat era. Literary fiction to the core, Capricorn has little in the way of plot to summarize; essentially, it's a window into a portion of Miller's life, however dramatized it may be. Though his work proved controversial enough to earn the ire of censors in its day, the novel's mature themes are almost charming in a way, or at the very least amusing; though the exposition of its protagonist's knowledge and experiences is of a uniquely high quality, its basic import is nothing particularly out of the ordinary in the modern era.

Reading Miller isn't easy, at least not at any appreciable pace. After borrowing Tropic of Cancer from the library, I found myself covering no more than a few pages at a time; sometimes a single sentence would be enough to floor me, bringing me to a state of cerebral paralysis, basking in its genius and wallowing in that novitiate writer's lament, "I'll never write anything half this well..." However, I will say I found I identified with Miller in a number of ways, which was at once welcome and disturbing. The man was many things, but as a role model I'm sure one could find a thousand better choices. Taken by his writing style and what he hoped to achieve with it, my own approach to writing has since shifted in a decidedly Milleresque direction, hopefully for the better.


Something about Miller's style, though I've yet to successfully pinpoint the exact aspect, called to mind Hemingway's writing. I'd only read one of Hemingway's books—The Sun Also Rises—as an adult, but the comparison was distinct. Having seen him portrayed cinematically in Hemingway & Gellhorn and, to a lesser extent Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, I had developed a curiosity about the man's life and work. I began with Papa: Hemingway in Key West, by James McLendon, an account of Hemingway's time in Florida compiled from interviews with, and as described by, those who knew him. I came to find that behind the myth and the offensively macho veneer lay a man wholly dedicated to his craft, fueled by an insatiable lust for life. I followed Papa: Hemingway in Key West with Papa: A Personal Memoir, written by his son, Gregory, and Ernest Hemingway: A Writer's Life, by Catherine Reef. I read Hemingway on Writing, The Selected Letters of Ernest Hemingway, The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition, The Nick Adams Stories, To Have and Have Not, Death in the Afternoon, and what became my favorite of the lot, A Moveable Feast.

Say what you will about Hemingway, he was no small figure in American literature. I had never had much of an appreciation for his workThe Old Man and the Sea, required reading in high school, left me baffled as to why anyone would bother with his oeuvre at all. Even after The Sun Also Rises, I remained confused, though for different reasons; the "iceberg theory"—Hemingway's assertion that a writer well-versed in his or her story could leave out the bulk of it, and allow the remaining "the tip of the iceberg" to intimate the rest—was surprisingly effective, but I couldn't fathom how it worked. I could appreciate the simplistic, direct tone, and his use of syndeton was masterful, but there are whole paragraphs comprised of sentences that seemingly have little to do with one another, yet still manage to propel the story in a capable and meaningful way. It all seems so random, and even now I fail at fully comprehending it. That something so simple could prove to me so confusing is a testament to the man's art, infuriating though it may be.

Just as one could never divorce Hemingway from his reputation as a drunk and belligerent misogynist, one is hard-pressed to discuss the man without coming across the topic of hunting or, much more likely, that of fishing. As stated above, passions are contagious. So it was that I went from the summer's first chapter, reading, to its second: learning how to fish. 


Lake Glacier, as viewed from Fellows Riverside Garden, Mill Creek Park
Teaching yourself something from scratch, without the aid of a guide or mentor, is definitely a difficult task. I didn't know the first thing about fishing, and had no idea where to even begin aside from a few "for beginners" books found at the library. I'd initially thought that procuring the necessary equipment would be difficult, though I'd always known my grandfather had an old fishing rod tucked away in the garage. it wasn't until my father caught wind of my sudden interest and located a completely stocked tackle box that the possibility of seeing things through became a reality. I began to seriously consider becoming an angler. 

One of the greatest perks of living in Youngstown, OH is our magnificent park. Mill Creek Park is a beautiful sprawl of forest paths, fields, and waterways. It's also a good place to catch your first fish.


Fishing pier, Lake Glacier, Mill Creek park
After a few weeks spent researching the ins and outs of fishing, practicing a few integral knots and learning about the assortment of accessories used to catch the various fish I might encounter, I took to the park with an inordinate amount of enthusiasm, spending hours at a time practicing my casting, trying different bait and rigs, and eventually catching more than a few bluegill, rock bass, and carp. There's something to be said for the benefits of fishing as a hobby, namely that it's surprisingly conducive to meditation; while fishing, one thinks of the setting, the water, the wind, the line, the bait...but little else. 


There was, of course, much more to the summer than reading and fishing. I attended a wedding reception, for example, that was easily one of the greatest celebrations in which I'd ever participated. I relished the time with the best of old friends, made quite a few new ones, and frighteningly enough, caught the garter with a disturbing degree of enthusiasm. 

I've also endeavored to improve my skills in the kitchen, mastering meringues and excelling at entrees; a particular point of pride is my ability to now bake a palatable cake from scratch. I've become more health-minded, experimenting with green smoothies and far less processed meals. So much of our lives revolves around food, and it was a delight to spend time focusing on it in ways that didn't leave me feeling guilt-ridden, making meals I could proudly share with others. 


Boat launch, Lake Newport, Mill Creek park
In light of all these activities, I reached summer's end feeling more capable in virtually every way. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times--but it was a tremendous season of growth, a season of Becoming. Allowing for a week or two to enjoy the milestone of another year's aging, it's honestly due to this estival progress that I'm back at it here at the Scholar's Fane. It's how I made the decision to take the inspiration gleaned from Miller's writing and apply it to this year's National Novel Writing Month and my novel The Third Face of Janus.



I continue to be overwhelmed by the experience of living, enjoying a lust for life of which Hemingway might have approved. It was the most memorable summer I've experienced in years, and though I was sad to see it finally end, I'm left feeling emboldened, confident, and ready for a spectacular end to the year. Autumn has always been my favorite season, a time for great change and introspection. Only a month in, and it's already proven to be every bit as hectic and fulfilling as the summer had been. As I turn my gaze from the past to the present and future, I can't help but smile. 2013 has turned out to be a far better year thus far than I'd anticipated. It's been a wild one, but for once I'm glad to have gone along for the ride. It's your turn, autumn; let's make this a memorable one.


Parapet Bridge, Lake Glacier, Mill Creek Park



Sunday, October 20, 2013

From Page to Screen - The Time Traveler's Wife

“Long ago, men went to sea, and women waited for them, standing on the edge of the water, scanning the horizon for the tiny ship. Now I wait for Henry. He vanishes unwillingly, without warning. I wait for him. Each moment that I wait feels like a year, an eternity. Each moment is as slow and transparent as glass. Through each moment I can see infinite moments lined up, waiting. Why has he gone where I cannot follow?”

“I hate to be where she is not, when she is not. And yet, I am always going...”


There's an inherently magical quality to debut novels, an urgency that permeates their earnest prose in ways not often felt in an author's later works. While the novels that follow may well prove superior in any number of ways, a writer's first work bears the full weight of their aspirations and as yet untapped potential. This isn't to say that every debut stands out as such—many a career has been born of an inauspicious beginning—but for some, so much of the burgeoning writer is poured into that initial foray into the literary world that it truly dazzles, unexpectedly, surprisingly, life-alteringly. Few have so forcefully seized the opportunity that the debut novel presents as Audrey Niffenegger did in 2003, with The Time Traveler's Wife.

Though the plot is driven by the life circumstances of "chrono-impaired" librarian Henry DeTamble, the novel's story largely follows the path of its titular character, Henry's eventual wife Clare. The novel begins with a brief introduction to the characters, as they describe in turn the experience of being subjected to Henry's traveling. We are shown how it is that Henry first meets Clare, and then how Clare first meets Henry—the former taking place in 1991, when Henry is 28 and Clare is 20; the latter taking place in 1977, when Henry is 36 and Clare is 6. 

In alternating perspectives presented in an almost epistolary tone, one character often taking up the story's telling where the other leaves off, the novel details young Clare's encounters with Henries of varying ages, sowing the seeds of the relationship to come. Once Clare meets the Henry who shares her present—albeit inconsistently—the reader follows as their relationship manifests fully and unfolds under duress of the unique challenges presented by Henry's temporal excursions. 

It's difficult to summarize The Time Traveler's Wife further, beyond the above description and all that it implies. So much of what makes the novel truly captivating is its depth, the richness of the lives depicted. Young Clare doesn't offer the temporally displaced Henry a donut—it's a bismarck, specifically. When the couple attends a Violent Femmes concert, they don't merely dance to "the music", we're treated to a sampling of the set list, with lyrical excerpts. Musical, artistic, and literary references abound, and all of these details add texture and nuance, shaping a multi-faceted world that is believable, plausible, real. Niffenegger's grasp of language is such that vocabularies grow as the characters' ages do, and in general creating tones that are at once truly human, and at times profoundly poetic. As Henry and Clare lament and celebrate and opine, each of these moods and moments is imbued with an import inescapable to the reader. Here, it seems as real people suffering, loving, struggling, striving, rejoicing, and with them so too does the reader.

As with any adaptation of a complex work, the cinematic iteration of the novel suffers somewhat from an excess of simplicity. The screenplay, penned by Ghost and My Life screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin, capably captures the essence of the basic plot, but much of the novel's depth falls sadly to the wayside. Henry's complicated relationship with his father is reduced to a single, intense scene; Clare's childhood, the experiences with Henry of which form the foundation of the relationship to come, is treated only marginally, used most often to punctuate the progression of events in the "present"; most of the novel's cultural references are abandoned, taking it from its particular setting in time and making for a more timeless piece, though somehow to its detriment; characters integral to the story—particularly that of Clare's friend Gomez—are minimalized, if not abandoned entirely.

Yet for all this, the film does still satisfy on many levels, for more than those already fond of its literary basis. The depiction of Henry's traveling is impressively handled, and the story's pacing is consistent while ensuring that no major points are overlooked, nor minor points belabored. The cast is generally quite endearing, despite stumbling over some of the less conversational lines. The "feel" of the film—its fantastical plot, cinematography, framing, and score—lends a dreamlike quality, calling to mind other works, such as What Dreams May Come and Bicentennial Man. This contrasts with the novel's frequently visceral tone, much of which would have been far too graphic for the targeted PG-13 rating. However, this "softer side" of the overall plot avoids the trap of becoming too saccharine for fans of the original work. All in all, for anyone keen on subtly scifi/fantasy films and romantic dramas, the movie is a fairly safe bet.


At its heart, in either iteration, The Time Traveler's Wife is an exploration of ever so much more than the love between a man and a woman. Questions of free will and fate plague the couple, and the reader or viewer as well. The origins of said love are ontologically paradoxical, as are a number of events that transpire as Henry and Clare's relationship progresses. As the philosophical quandaries mount, in addition to the more typical issues that challenge any relationship, the story becomes one that is at the same time utterly unique and all too familiar. It's this blending of strange and common grounds that so compels the reader to continue exploring through the heartwarming and heartbreaking episodes in Henry and Clare's lives. 

Ultimately, though star-crossed in their own way, the DeTambles' love for each other is deep, abiding, and most of all inspiring. To observe their struggles, their triumphs, their tragedies, is a journey all its own. Absent the benefit (and curse) of genuine time travel, one must settle for traveling back to the beginning of the story and embarking upon that journey anew—something many will find themselves compelled to do time and time again.




Thursday, October 17, 2013

Throwback Thursday - The Rapture of the Nerds

Absurdly surreal, and surreally absurd, The Rapture of the Nerds: A Tale of the Singularity, Posthumanity, and Awkward Social Situations is a challenging book to summarize. A collaborative effort between digital-era demigod Cory Doctorow and science fiction juggernaut Charles Stross, the novel is, at times, humorously poignant; at others, more humorously profane. It is a farcical caricature of an impossible future, populated by the warped result of modern humankind's metaphysical spaghettification after passing through the pinpoint opening of the Technological Singularity. Though clearly meant to be a comical look at technologically advanced humanity pushed to every extreme, it may also just as soon be prophetic. 

The concept of the Singularity is difficult to comprehend, not for its content but rather its import. It is by its very definition unknowable, or at least the moment at which the unknowable trumps all. There's simply no telling what life beyond the event horizon will entail, and it's into this gap that the acid trip nightmare of The Rapture of the Nerds is thrust. Resonating throughout the length of the novel is a palpable sense of “Why not?”, as the transhuman race—or rather what’s left of it, after billions have transcended into the networked nanocloud that has usurped much of the solar system—eke out varying forms of existences in what can only be described as a partially successful post-apocalyptic world. Holographic genies, inflatable buildings, biohackers, churches of sexual perversion, vending machine gender re-assignments—all this and more await the reader who braves this ridiculously ingenious romp through futurity.

In the aftermath of a friend’s party, protagonist Huw Jones awakens to a roaring hangover, in a bathtub that almost certainly wasn’t a bathtub when he passed out. A neo-Luddite of the highest order, Jones lives in a home without electricity at a time when others live in houses that rearrange themselves on a regular basis. Much of the night before is a blur, and aside from the unexpected bathroom Huw is surprised to find a fresh tattoo he doesn’t remember wanting, and before his first cup of coffee discovers that the woman he spent the evening flirting with is now a man. On the heels of this illustrious introduction Jones receives word, much to his excitement, that he’s finally been selected for jury duty—an opportunity to reject one of the many suggestions beamed down to Earth from the cloud, and a chance to speak his principled mind in general. It soon becomes apparent, however, that jury duty will be one of the last things Jones ever looks forward to.

The story picks up quickly from there, and the authors seem content to maintain a harried pace throughout the remainder of the novel. From the object of his jury’s attention to the mystery of the tattoo stems a mad dash in which Jones is torn between escaping various nefarious forces and running toward the completion of a mission for which he would never have signed up—had he been given any say in the matter, that is.  In the end, the relentlessly insane future of humanity may well depend on the actions of its least willing participant.

The Rapture of the Nerds is a perfect novel for its time, as humanity collectively nears the precipice from which we will inevitably leap into the unforeseeable future.  While the authors do, at times, explore the philosophical quandaries which surround the topics of transhumanism and the Singularity, the story focuses more on the titular “awkward social situations” to great amusement, and no small amount of perplexity. Peppered with pop-cultural references and cyberpunk jargon sure to please numerous subsets of the scifi community, and with prose crafted of jagged conceptual clusters which flow poetically, if jarringly, with all the graceful fluidity of an avalanche, the novel may not necessarily be the best choice for the uninitiated reader’s first foray into the genre. However, when all’s said and done, even those least familiar with science fiction—but possessed of a taste for the ridiculous and borderline-obscene—should find The Rapture of the Nerds to be a fulfilling and amusing excursion into one of literature’s most absurd futures yet.


This review originally appeared elsewhere in October of 2012

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Dewey's Read-a-Thon: Aftermath, Pt. 1

There's so much to be said for the experience of last weekend's Read-a-Thon. So much, in fact, that I doubt it can be contained in a single post. Considering that I have yet to finish the first book on my Read-a-Thon list (though I think I'm finally in the homestretch), most of what I'd like to cover will have to wait.

For now, I'd just like to touch upon an observation that struck me rather early in the course of that day: With so many new contacts in the blogging community comes a desire to follow the work and progress of said contacts. This led me to wonder, exactly how does one follow so many blogs all at once? It seemed impractical to bookmark and check each of them on a daily basis, and similarly inefficient to put my name on dozens of mailing lists. The answer came from one such contact, in the form of Bloglovin, a free site which functions as a tailored aggregator, compiling a custom feed of any and all blogs one chooses to follow.


Signing up was easy enough; I had the option of using my Facebook account, but opted to go the standard route of setting up a profile attached to my email address. From there, I was prompted to start with at least 5 blogs I'd like to follow. After selecting those 5, I was offered the opportunity to include the posts of Facebook friends. This seems like a nice feature, though unnecessary to the cause, so I declined. Lastly, I decided to add to the details of my Bloglovin profile, and "claiming" The Scholar's Fane as mine.

Over the next few days, I'll add the blogs of those with whom I became acquainted over the course of the Read-a-Thon, and with any luck some of them might do the same. I felt that my interactions over the course of the event introduced me to a larger world, initiating me into the general book-blogging community at large. I'm tremendously excited about nurturing this feeling, and as my blog grows, hopefully so too will my relationships with the many other fantastic bloggers out there.

So, in addition to the Fane's Facebook and Twitter pages, I give you a new means of keeping up to date on the latest news, reviews, and musings from the Fane: Click here to follow my blog with Bloglovin

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Dewey's Read-a-Thon: Fit the Second


We've reached the end of the first quarter of Read-a-Thon, and things seem to have settled quite a bit after an extremely boisterous first few hours. Already I've made new friends, viewed new blogs, entered a few of the challenges, and of course accomplished a small amount of reading in the few spare moments I've had left. Much as the name of the event implies a devotion to actual reading, it's apparent that there's so much more to Dewey's Read-a-Thon than that. It's about camaraderie, the celebrating of a shared passion, and the making of memories as the day unfolds in a way that one couldn't easily confuse with any old Saturday.

As I read through The Time Traveler's Wife, I'm struck by so many aspects that cause the book to stand out profoundly from the rest of those I've read. To be sure, I've read a fair number of truly excellent works, but there's something about this particular title that touches me deeply and personally. One is hard pressed to draw parallels between oneself and a character so fanciful as the temporally-impaired Henry DeTamble, yet the life he attempts to lead, and the struggles he and Clare endure, despite his unique handicap are at once unique to the deepest of loving relationships and common to all of humanity. This two-fold exploration is part of what makes the story so compelling, to say nothing of the many other noteworthy nuances that contribute to the fully-formed world in which these characters dwell. I look forward to sharing my thoughts on the novel in greater detail sometime soon, as well as expounding on its cinematic adaptation. For the time being, I'm happy to find it difficult to remain at the computer. There are few things as wonderful as being caught up in a favorite book, and I aim to enjoy that experience today as much as possible.

Dewey's Read-a-Thon: 4th Hour Mini-Challenge

The morning's gone by so quickly, and with all the hullabaloo I honestly haven't gotten nearly so much reading done as I should have done. I have a feeling things will pick up soon. However, before I can get on with the business at hand, there's a mini-challenge to consider! The folks over at Capricious Reader have come up with an extremely fun little mission: compose a work of poetry using book titles. I probably spent more time on this than necessary, but I'm pleased with the results:




The Art of Being
The Art of Loving
The Inner Reaches of Outer Space
The Enlightened Heart
The Enlightened Mind
Einstein's Dreams
A Wrinkle in Time

Time for another quick dose of social media antics, then back to The Time Traveler's Wife!

Dewey's Read-a-Thon: Fit the First


I'm up I'm UP!! Barely squeezed in a nap but all is well, breakfast is being ingested hastily and coffee has already begun kicking in. Thankfully, the fine folks at Dewey's have provided a launching pad of sorts for today's mix of frantic blogging and fervent reading. WIthout further ado:

1. What fine part of the world are you reading from today?
The heart of the Rust Belt, Youngstown, OH

2. Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?
Probably About a Mountain, as it's the only book with which I've zero familiarity.

3. Which snack are you most looking forward to?
Total candor herea tin of sardines to top off my protein and omega-3 levels.

4. Tell us a little about yourself!
This week is actually the 6th anniversary of my decision to dedicate my life to writing.

5. If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what's the one thing you'll do different today? If this is your first readathon, what are you most excited about?

Touching base with other writers is something I've explored before, but it bears repeating: there are few things so important to the craft as an ongoing and meaningful exchange with a variety of fellow aspirants. I've very much enjoyed perusing the blogs of others so far, have picked up more than a few pointers through observation alone, and I'm fairly certain that the frivolity of the event will prove contagious enough to make for a truly memorable day!

Breakfast officially over, first round of coffee's downcommencing book one, The Time Traveler's Wife!