Tag Archives: George Saunders

Voice #amwriting

If you write professionally, you develop habits, ways of expressing yourself that “sound” like you. Voice is how you bend the rules and is your fingerprint. For your voice to be compelling and not jarring, you must understand what rules you can break with impunity, and which ones must be obeyed. Knowledge is key—it enables you to craft your work so it says what you want, in the way you want it said.

Most editors will ignore liberties you take with dialogue but will point out habitual errors in the rest of the narrative.

If you work with an editor, you must be willing to explain why you are choosing to flout a particular rule. If you don’t understand the rule to begin with, you can’t defend your position with authority.

This is why I always suggest you buy a good style guide. I like the simplicity and thoroughness of Bryan A. Garner’s The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation.

If an editor asks you to change something you did deliberately, you are the author. Explain why you want that particular grammatical no-no to stand. If you have a concrete reason, your editor will most likely understand.

Repetition of a key word for emphasis is one example of breaking a rule with style.

This is why it’s important to educate yourself. If you know the rule you are breaking, you will be better able to explain why you are doing so, and your work will reflect that confidence.

However, if I am your editor, you must be prepared to break that rule consistently. Readers do notice inconsistencies.

No one is perfect, and even authors who also work as editors need and use editors. Certainly, I have benefited from the editors I have worked with. I began this journey knowing nothing about the mechanics of writing, other than that which I had retained from my school days. Writers who were further along in the craft gave me good advice, and I began growing as a writer.

To go back to what I said in the first paragraph, you must understand what rules you can break with impunity, and which of them must be obeyed. The average reader doesn’t take joy in reading James Joyce’s experimental prose. Alexander Chee can be difficult for an average reader to enjoy. This is because both Joyce and Chee take liberties with punctuation that makes reading their work a real challenge. Some readers are up to that, others not so much.

I will admit, I had to take a class to be able to understand James Joyce’s work, and I did have to resort to the audiobook for Alexander Chee’s work. It’s the hypercritical editor coming out in me, making it difficult for me to set that part of my awareness aside. It’s my job to notice those things.

I can hear you now: these are literary authors, and you are writing genre fantasy fiction or sci-fi. Shall I toss out another name or two?

Tad Williams mixes his styles. His Bobby Dollar series is Paranormal Film Noir: dark, choppy, and reminiscent of Sam Spade. In this series, he seems to be somewhat influenced by the style of crime authors, such as Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. It is a quick read and is commercial in that it is for casual readers.

Yet his fantasy work set in Osten Ard has lusher prose, multiple storylines, dark themes. It is written for serious fantasy readers. The story starts slow, but his powerful writing has generated millions of fans who are thrilled to know he has set more work in that world.

Beginning slow and working up to an epic ending is highly frowned upon in writing groups, but Tad broke that rule and believe me, it works.

George Saunders writes sci-fi and historical fantasy but is considered literary. He has a unique, literary voice because he takes liberties with the rules.  His work reads like a conversation with him, a little crisp and choppy, but intimate.

If you are writing a genre such as fantasy or sci-fi or mystery, I suggest you do not get experimental with your punctuation unless you don’t mind bad reviews. People who look for quick reads for the adventure and romance don’t want experimental. They want an escape; they want prose that doesn’t interfere with the narrative. Run on sentences, commas inserted every place you breathe, or no commas at all—these are flaws that ruin the experience for the casual reader.

Get a good style guide and stop guessing about where the commas go and how to use that ellipsis.  Don’t know if you should use a semicolon or not?

Get a style guide.

Your writing will go faster, and your beta readers will be able to give you better opinions on what reads well and what needs more work.

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Essays #amwriting

One area of writing that we’ve all heard of, but don’t often think about, are Essays. However, if we want to be published, writing and submitting essays is an opportunity the unknown author should exploit.

Essays are not just that bane of every school child’s existence—essays are where some of the best works of western literature can be found. Essays are short, magazine-length or blog post length articles. They are non-fiction and are frequently opinion pieces, but sometimes they are brief memoirs of a singular experience. Essays are pieces we have all read and which have moved us in some way, for good or ill.

 

In her introduction to The Best American Essays 1988, Annie Dillard claims that “The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it.”

The word essay also means to attempt—and why this meaning is important will emerge later.

But let’s look at essays, starting with Sir Francis Bacon, renaissance author, courtier, and the father of deductive reasoning. The life and works of this English essayist and statesman had a major impact in his day and still resonate in modern literature. Essayes: Religious Meditations. Places of Perswasion and Disswasion. Seene and Allowed (1597) was his first published book.

The 1999 edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations includes  91 quotations from the Essays. No author is quoted so many times unless their work has struck a chord with centuries of readers.

  • “Knowledge itself is power.”
  • “Riches are a good handmaid, but the worst mistress.”

Aldous Huxley‘s book Jesting Pilate, an Intellectual Holiday had as its epigraph, “What is Truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.” These lines were quoted from Bacon’s essay “Of Truth.”  Huxley himself was a brilliant essayist, and according to Wikipedia, he defined essays in this way: “essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference.” These three poles (or worlds in which the essay may exist) are:

  • The personal and the autobiographical: The essayists that feel most comfortable in this pole “write fragments of reflective autobiography and look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description.”
  • The objective, the factual, and the concrete-particular: The essayists that write from this pole “do not speak directly of themselves, but turn their attention outward to some literary or scientific or political theme. Their art consists of setting forth, passing judgement upon, and drawing general conclusions from the relevant data.”
  • The abstract-universal: In this pole “we find those essayists who do their work in the world of high abstractions,” who are never personal and who seldom mention the particular facts of experience. (end quote)

Essays offer an author the opportunity to use prose to expound ideas and values. Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) was the first author to describe his work as essays—by which he meant attempts. He used the term to characterize these short pieces as “attempts” to put his thoughts into writing. Montaigne’s essays grew out of his work that was then known as “commonplacing.” These were published books that were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Think of them as mini-encyclopedias.

Sir Francis Bacon and Aldous Huxley are two men whose works shaped modern literature, and they did it though essays.

I highly recommend reading essays to expand your imagination. Essays offer us ideas, philosophical, sociological, and ask us to examine our values.  This examination of the world through the eyes of essayists offers us many insights which will make their way into our own work in ways both seen and unseen, such as Huxley’s reference of Bacon’s work.

Some contemporary essayists I have read and who left an impression on me (some good, some bad) are:

John McPhee, The Search for Marvin Gardens published in the September 9, 1972 issue of The New Yorker

Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself (published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 1959)

David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster” (originally appeared in Gourmet, 2004)

George Saunders, “The Braindead MegaPhone” (Essays by George Saunders) (published by Riverhead, 2007)

Norman Mailer was not my cup of tea, but he might be yours. Great writing is not always comfortable, but it always challenges your view of the world. I didn’t like Mailer’s voice or style.

Essays most frequently appear in magazines, so that is where to look for awesome contemporary work by today’s best-known authors of mainstream fiction—and much of it is sitting around in waiting-rooms the world over. If you fly Alaska Airlines (as I usually always do) take a look at that magazine they provide you with. You will find essays by authors like Scott Driscoll.

Essays are also frequently referred to as “Creative Non-Fiction” which sounds like an oxymoron—after all, “creative truthing” is “lying.” Nowadays “creative truthing” is business as usual from Washington D.C., but politics aside, get creative with your ideas and philosophies—put them in an essay.

Several prestigious literary magazines are open for submissions, a mix of well-known and little-known or new magazines that welcome creative non-fiction: memoirs, personal essays, lyrical essays, and more. Go to the website, Authors Publish, and there you will find a list of publications seeking submission.

You can also find a long list of open calls at Submittable. I trust and use this app to find open calls and to track where my own submissions are in the process.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Essay,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Essay&oldid=815813680 (accessed December 18, 2017).

Wikipedia contributors, “Essays (Francis Bacon),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Essays_(Francis_Bacon)&oldid=811671029 (accessed December 18, 2017).

Essays–the vegan discusses Bacon and other meaty reads, ©2015, by Connie J. Jasperson  https://conniejjasperson.com/2015/08/10/essays-the-vegan…ther-meaty-reads/

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#My5: Genesis of the Tower of Bones series #amwriting

 

Today’s post is part of a project begun by author K.M. Alexander, called My5. It’s hard to narrow it down to only five, but here, in no particular order are five major influences that helped shape my career as a writer.

Number One: I’m a gamer. I’ve always been a reader, so when I discovered the Super Nintendo and Final Fantasy style RPGs, I found an activity that had the ability to suck me in and keep me as enthralled as my favorite books could. I’m just going to come out and say it—I play both PC and console-based RPG video games, sometimes to excess. Me and my old beater PlayStations 2 and 3 are best friends.

My epic fantasy series, Tower of Bones, got its start in life back in 2009 as the storyline for an old-school style RPG computer game that was intended to be built using RPG Maker XP, but for various reasons, it never got built. But, I had the story and the maps I had drawn, so three years later, I managed to pull a novel, Mountains of the Moon, out of my hat. This prequel to Tower of Bones was sprung from the original idea I’d had of what would make a great storyline for an epic RPG, if only I could entice Square-Enix to build it.

Number Two: I’m a huge Fritz Lieber fan. My first completed novel, written long ago in a galaxy far, far away, began with the idea of writing a book Fritz might write if he were still alive (and if he had consumed several hallucinogenic mushrooms). I had just finished re-reading my collection of Fritz Lieber tales, and had Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser on the brain. These two characters are scoundrels, living in a decadent world where a lack of scruples a requirement for survival.

What I actually produced had no resemblance to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and was nothing like anything Fritz would have written, but within the uneven plot and frequently overblown dialogue, it had the bones of a good story. Eventually, the shreds of that manuscript spawned the novel featuring one of my favorite characters, Huw the Bard, and I have good old Fritz to thank for him. That proto novel also spawned Billy Ninefingers, which has entered the editing process and will be published in August 2017. Huw makes an appearance toward the end of Billy’s tale.

Number Three: Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny was a watershed book for me as a reader. In what can only be described as a genius move, Zelazny introduces the concept of the Trickster as the hero-antihero. Originally conceived as a serial for F&SF in 1971, it was published in book form that same year by Walker and Company. Lester del Rey was unimpressed with this tale, but I read this book to shreds. What I loved about this book was the typical Zelazny mystique—many questions abound regarding Shadowjack, and answers come at a slow pace, just information enough to keep you interested, and be warned: not all your questions will be answered. Even the ending is a question.

Jack is an awesome character. He is good, and he is bad. He has deep compassion and can be moved to do great deeds that benefit all of humanity at the cost of his own life. Conversely, he can be the smallest, meanest man over a tiny little slight to his ego, capable of inflicting great cruelty. He abuses his powers, and also uses them for good.

In this book, Zelazny fully realized the concept of “shadow.” It is neither light nor dark, and it is not here or there. It is all of those and none of them. Thus the unanswered questions. What Zelazny did in this less well-known of his books is create a story in which the reader decides what is true.

Number Four: I gravitate to tales written with guts and substance. Give me the Flawed Hero over the Bland Prince any day. Tad Williams is an author who absolutely understands the craft of writing brilliant, deep prose and creates compelling characters who aren’t exactly squeaky clean. He knows what makes epic fantasy EPIC. There is just the slightest hint of the rebellious indie in his work, which makes his work a little wild.

I became a confirmed fan of epic fantasy in 1988 when I first entered this world of Osten Ard and the books of Tad Williams. The Dragon Bone Chair blew me away.  Each character was deserving of a novel, and the diverse races whose cultures were so clearly shown fascinated me. The arrogance some members of each race have with regard to their innate superiority struck me as illustrating a fundamental truth about the real world.

Number Five: George Saunders is famous for his short stories. He has the ability to get inside each of his characters’ heads, showing them sharply as unique individuals. They aren’t always nice, and certainly not always moral as I see morality, but Saunders portrays them with such vivid strokes that you feel as if you understand their reasoning.

For me, the most powerful short story I have ever read was in Saunders’ collection of short stories, The Tenth of December,  “Escape from Spiderhead.”  This sci-fi tale has an almost Vonnegut-like flavor. It is a stark journey into the depths to which we humans are capable of sinking in the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Where does punishment end and inhumanity begin? This story lays bare concepts regarding our view of crime and punishment that are difficult, but which are important to consider. The scenario is exaggerated, as it is set in a future world, but it exposes the callous view society has regarding criminals and what punishment they might deserve.


So those are #My5,  the “tip of the iceberg” of the authors and ideas that influenced the creation of the Tower of Bones series, and also Huw The Bard. This strange collection of books, and video games has profoundly influenced my concept of story and shaped what I write, at least in my fevered mind if not in the execution.

I’m not alone in detailing #My5! I have joined many other authors who have written their #My5. If you choose to participate, go to K. M. Alexander’s post and follow the instructions at the bottom of the page. You can find some awesome articles by following the links below. Each article is really intriguing – it never ceases to amaze me how diverse and unique we authors are, and yet how similar.

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#amwriting: breaking the rules with style

a writer's styleMuch of my blog time revolves around grammar and the mechanics of writing. As authors, it’s important to understand the rules of how the language in which we write works, no matter what that language is. Yet powerful writing often breaks those rules, and we are better for having read it.

So why am I always pressing you to buy and use the Chicago Manual of Style?

Authors must know the rules to break them with style.

Readers expect words to flow in a certain way. If you break a grammatical rule, know what you are breaking and  be consistent about it.

Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Alexander Chee, and George Saunders all have unique voices in their writing. Each of these writers has written highly acclaimed work. Their prose is magnificent. When you have fallen in love with one of these authors’ works, you will recognize their voice.

Ernest Hemingway used the word “and” in place of commas too freely.

Alexander Chee employs run-on sentences and dispenses with quotation marks.

James Joyce wrote hallucinogenic prose and at times dispensed with punctuation completely.

George Saunders writes as if he is speaking to you, and is, at times, choppy in his delivery.

But their voices work. They each break certain rules as set down by Strunk and White, but they produce brilliant prose that stands the test of time. Readers fall into the rhythm of their prose.

I will admit, I had to take a college class to be able to understand James Joyce’s work, and I did have to resort to the audio book for Alexander Chee’s work. It’s the hypercritical editor coming out in me, making it difficult for me to set that part of my awareness aside. It’s my job to notice those things.

I can hear you now: these are literary authors, and you are writing genre fantasy fiction or sci-fi. Shall I toss out a few more names?

Tad Williams mixes his styles. His Bobby Dollar series is Paranormal Film Noir: dark, choppy, and reminiscent of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories. In this series, he seems to be somewhat influenced by the style of crime authors, such as Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. It is a quick read and is commercial in that it is for casual readers.

Raymond Chandler was the creator of Philip Marlowe, the original hard-boiled, disillusioned, copper-turned-private-eye. His people take center stage, rather than the violence that characterizes so many detective novels of his era.

In his article, The Chandler Style, Martin Edwards writes:  Devising puzzles was always less important to him than style. He said, ‘I don’t really seem to take the mystery element in the detective story as seriously should,’ and joked about solving plot problems by having a man come to the door with a gun  Style mattered much more: ‘I had learn American just like a foreign language. To learn it I had to study and analyse it. As a result, when I use slang . . . I do it deliberately.’  And as he told one magazine editor whose proof-reader presumed to tidy up the Chandler grammar, ‘When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split.’

Chandler understood how grammar worked. He knew what he was doing and did it deliberately. He was able to convey (to those who didn’t appreciate his style) why he broke those rules and was secure enough in his choice to continue writing in his own voice.

But Chandler also had to deal with the sort of sniping we all must deal with in our writing groups. Wikipedia says: The high regard in which Chandler is generally held today is in contrast to the critical sniping that stung the author during his lifetime. In a March 1942 letter to Blanche Knopf, published in Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, he wrote, “The thing that rather gets me down is that when I write something that is tough and fast and full of mayhem and murder, I get panned for being tough and fast and full of mayhem and murder, and then when I try to tone down a bit and develop the mental and emotional side of a situation, I get panned for leaving out what I was panned for putting in the first time.”

Yet, although he writes Bobby Dollar in a Chandler-esque style,  Tad Williams’s Memory Sorrow and Thorn Trilogy is true epic fantasy, with lush, poetic prose, multiple story-lines, and dark themes. It is written for serious fantasy readers who want nothing less than the big novel. The story starts slow, but the powerful writing has generated millions of fans who are thrilled to know he has set more work in that world.

Beginning slow, going off on side quests, writing poetic prose, and gradually working up to an epic ending is highly frowned upon in today’s writing groups, but Tad broke that rule and believe me, it works.

Roger Zelazny wrote one of the most famous fantasy series of all time, the Chronicles of Amber, and was famous for his crisp, minimalistic dialogue, and he was also heavily influenced by the style of wisecracking hard-boiled crime authors like Chandler.

Most readers are not editors. They will either love or hate your work based on your voice, but they won’t know why. Voice is how you break the rules, but you must understand what you are doing, and do it deliberately. Craft your work so it says what you want, in the way you want it said.

GRRM Meme 3If your editor asks you to change something you did deliberately, you are the author. Explain why you want that particular grammatical no-no to stand, and your editor will most likely understand. If you know the rule you are breaking, you will be better able to explain why you are doing so.

However, if I am your editor, you must be prepared to break that rule consistently. Readers do notice inconsistencies.

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My #beachreads: Tenth of December & The Husband’s Secret

For my vacation reading this year I had a bit of a split personality book-wise. I had packed George Saunders’ book of short-stories, Tenth of December, and while we were in Cannon Beach, my oldest daughter, Leah, and I went to the local book stores. She found a book by an Australian writer, Liane Moriarty, called The Husband’s Secret.

She liked it so much I had to make a Kindle purchase.

The two books are radically different. Tenth of December is literary science fiction. The Husband’s Secret is contemporary fiction. Both books are about the human condition, and both books are character driven.

Although they are widely different, they are windows into the human soul, and both authors had me thinking about their work long after I finished them. These reviews are now up on Goodreads ,  so my work there is done.

the husbands secretFirst up is The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty. Released in 2013 by Berkley, and Penguin in the US, this book is currently a #1 bestseller at Amazon, and Moriarty is listed in the top 100 authors there.

First the Blurb:

At the heart of The Husband’s Secret is a letter that’s not meant to be read

My darling Cecilia, if you’re reading this, then I’ve died. . .

Imagine that your husband wrote you a letter, to be opened after his death. Imagine, too, that the letter contains his deepest, darkest secret—something with the potential to destroy not just the life you built together, but the lives of others as well. Imagine, then, that you stumble across that letter while your husband is still very much alive. . . .

Cecilia Fitzpatrick has achieved it all—she’s an incredibly successful businesswoman, a pillar of her small community, and a devoted wife and mother. Her life is as orderly and spotless as her home. But that letter is about to change everything, and not just for her: Rachel and Tess barely know Cecilia—or each other—but they too are about to feel the earth-shattering repercussions of her husband’s secret.

My review: This book is about loss and grief in Sydney, Australia–but it could easily have been set in Seattle or London and it would still feel true. These women are people you feel you know, and while they are not always likable, they are always true to who they are.

Several characters in the book have secrets they hold on to that they eventually reveal. The concepts of guilt and betrayal loom large in this tale, driving it to the shocking conclusion. Ethics and morality shift and bend under the stress, and three good women do things they consider heinous, and each finds herself justifying her actions.

The Berlin Wall is referred to throughout the novel as Cecelia’s daughter, Esther, works on her school project. And in fact, we learn that Cecilia met John-Paul on the day the Wall finally came down. The Wall is symbolic of many things in this tale, as Tess also has a connection to it.

Rachel is pinched and afraid to love anyone but her grandson. Her son is devastated by the loss of his sister and hurt by his mother’s distance. No matter how he tries, he can’t get close to her.

These are complicated women, faced with an unbearable situation. Their actions and the final resolution is completely true to their characters. This is a slow-moving tale action-wise, but it literally tears through the emotional gamut. I give The Husband’s Secret four and half stars.

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Tenth_of_DecemberNow we come to Tenth of December, by George Saunders, a book of short-stories, also first published as a book in 2013. I reviewed this book as an Audible book before, so you may have a feeling of déjà vu here!

First, the blurb:

In the taut opener, “Victory Lap,” a boy witnesses the attempted abduction of the girl next door and is faced with a harrowing choice: Does he ignore what he sees, or override years of smothering advice from his parents and act? In “Home,” a combat-damaged soldier moves back in with his mother and struggles to reconcile the world he left with the one to which he has returned. And in the title story, a stunning meditation on imagination, memory, and loss, a middle-aged cancer patient walks into the woods to commit suicide, only to encounter a troubled young boy who, over the course of a fateful morning, gives the dying man a final chance to recall who he really is. A hapless, deluded owner of an antiques store; two mothers struggling to do the right thing; a teenage girl whose idealism is challenged by a brutal brush with reality; a man tormented by a series of pharmaceutical experiments that force him to lust, to love, to kill—the unforgettable characters that populate the pages of Tenth of December are vividly and lovingly infused with Saunders’s signature blend of exuberant prose, deep humanity, and stylistic innovation.

Writing brilliantly and profoundly about class, sex, love, loss, work, despair, and war, Saunders cuts to the core of the contemporary experience. These stories take on the big questions and explore the fault lines of our own morality, delving into the questions of what makes us good and what makes us human.

Unsettling, insightful, and hilarious, the stories in Tenth of December—through their manic energy, their focus on what is redeemable in human beings, and their generosity of spirit—not only entertain and delight; they fulfill Chekhov’s dictum that art should “prepare us for tenderness.”

My Review:

Wow! For once, a book that has a blurb that really tells the truth. Saunders has the ability to get inside each of his characters’ heads, showing them sharply as unique individuals. They aren’t always nice, and certainly not always moral as I see morality, but Saunders portrays them with such vivid strokes that you feel as if you understand their reasoning.

For me, the most powerful tale in this collection of stunning tales was “Escape from Spiderhead.” This sci-fi tale has an almost Vonnegut-like flavor. It is a stark journey into the depths to which we humans are capable of sinking in the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Where does punishment end and inhumanity begin? This story lays bare concepts regarding our view of crime and punishment that are difficult, but which are important to consider. The scenario is exaggerated, as it is set in a future world, but it exposes the callous view society has in regard to criminals and what punishment they might deserve.

This was not my first trip through this book–the first time was as an Audible book, narrated by Saunders himself. He reads his work with passion and life–I loved hearing him read these tales. But reading them for myself was also a treat–I savored the written word the way he laid it down. I love authors who bend and twist words and phrases into works of art and that is what Saunders does.

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While I was on vacation, I enjoyed two wonderful books written by authors who couldn’t be more different in their approaches to writing. They both write in ways far different from my own approach. Both authors have given me ideas for my own work, in the way they approached certain technical aspects of the craft.

Yes, I was on vacation, but I can’t just leave writing behind–you know me better than that. In between grandkids and the family, I managed short bursts of work on two short-stories and continued revisions on the third book in the Tower of Bones series. Bless my hubby–he tolerates and encourages my obsession with this writing life.

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Essays–the vegan discusses Bacon and other meaty reads

consider the lobsterWe have talked a lot about fiction and writing novels as well as short stories. You might think that outside of journalism and blogging there isn’t much left for an author. But there is another area of writing that we’ve all heard of but don’t often think about. They are Essays.

Essays are not just that bane of every school child’s existence–essays are where some of the best works of western literature can be found.

We shall go to the fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, and ask the holy guru “what is an essay”: “Essays have been defined as “prose composition with a focused subject of discussion” or a “long, systematic discourse”.

Well–that was distinctly un-enlightening.

In her introduction to The Best American Essays 1988, Annie Dillard claims that “The essay can do everything a poem can do, and everything a short story can do—everything but fake it.”

The word essay also means to attempt–and why this meaning is important will emerge later.

But let’s take a look at essays, starting with Sir Francis Bacon, renaissance author, courtier, and father of deductive reasoning. The life and works of this English essayist and statesman had a major impact in his day and still resonate in modern literature. Essayes: Religious Meditations. Places of Perswasion and Disswasion. Seene and Allowed (1597) was his first published book.

The 1999 edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations includes  91 quotations from the Essays. No one gets that many quotes unless his work has struck a chord with centuries of readers.

  • “Knowledge itself is power.”
  • “Riches are a good handmaid, but the worst mistress”

MusicAtNightAldous Huxley‘s book Jesting Pilate, an Intellectual Holiday had as its epigraph, “What is Truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer” quoted from Bacon’s essay “Of Truth”.  Huxley himself was a brilliant essayist and, according to Wikipedia, he defined essays in this way: “essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference”. These three poles (or worlds in which the essay may exist) are:

  • The personal and the autobiographical: The essayists that feel most comfortable in this pole “write fragments of reflective autobiography and look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description”.
  • The objective, the factual, and the concrete-particular: The essayists that write from this pole “do not speak directly of themselves, but turn their attention outward to some literary or scientific or political theme. Their art consists on setting forth, passing judgement upon, and drawing general conclusions from the relevant data”.
  • The abstract-universal: In this pole “we find those essayists who do their work in the world of high abstractions”, who are never personal and who seldom mention the particular facts of experience. (end quote)

Essays offer an author the opportunity to use prose to expound ideas and values. Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) was the first author to describe his work as essays–by which he meant attempts. He used the term to characterize these short pieces as “attempts” to put his thoughts into writing. Montaigne’s essays grew out of his work that was then known as “commonplacing”:  published books that were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Think of them as mini-encyclopedias.

Sir Francis Bacon and Aldous Huxley are two men whose works shaped modern literature and they did it though essays.

I highly recommend reading essays as a way to expand your imagination. Essays offer us ideas, philosophical, sociological, and ask us to examine our values.  This examination of the world through the eyes of essayists offers us many insights which will make their way into our own work in ways both seen and unseen, such as Huxley’s reference of Bacon’s work.

Some contemporary essayists I have read and who left an impression on me (some good, some bad) are:

Original_New_Yorker_coverJohn McPhee, The Search for Marvin Gardens published in the September 9, 1972 issue of The New Yorker

Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself (published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 1959)

David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster” (originally appeared in Gourmet, 2004)

George Saunders, “The Braindead MegaPhone” (Essays by George Saunders) (published by Riverhead, 2007)

Norman Mailer was definitely not my cup of tea, but he might be yours. Great writing is not always comfortable, but it always challenges your view of the world. I still didn’t like it.

Essays most frequently appear in magazines, so that is where to look for awesome contemporary work by today’s best-known authors of mainstream fiction–and much of it is sitting around in waiting-rooms the world over. If you fly Alaska Airlines (as I usually always do) take a look at that magazine they provide you with. You will find essays by authors like Scott Driscoll.

Essays are also frequently referred to as “Creative Non-Fiction” which sounds like an oxymoron–after all, when we are growing up “creative truthing” was called “lying.”  Get creative with your ideas and philosophies–put them in an essay.

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Filed under Humor, Literature, Publishing, Uncategorized, writer, writing

Three audiobooks and why I liked them

First of all I love books. I’m the kid who was so desperate for books I would read the Encyclopædia Britannica  when the rainy Northwest summers got boring and I had read everything else. But now, beside writing, I freelance as a structural editor.

When I am editing for clients I don’t read, as it is hard to set aside my critical eye and just read for pleasure. I can’t go with out books, though, so when I am in editing mode, I rely on Audible Books to entertain me.

Three audio books that I heard over the last year really stand out. Two of them I would classify as literary fantasy and one is genre fantasy–but all are fantasy in the fullest sense.

Tenth of December, George Saunders1. Tenth of December, written by George Saunders and also read by George Saunders.

Saunders has the ability to get inside each of his characters’ heads, showing them sharply as unique individuals. They aren’t always nice, and certainly not always moral as I see morality, but Saunders portrays them with such vivid strokes that you feel as if you understand their reasoning.

For me, the most powerful tale in this collection of stunning tales was “Escape from Spiderhead.” This sci-fi tale has an almost Vonnegut-like flavor. It is a stark journey into the depths to which we humans are capable of sinking in the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Where does punishment end and inhumanity begin? This story lays bare concepts regarding our view of crime and punishment that are difficult, but which are important to consider. The scenario is exaggerated, as it is set in a future world, but it exposes the callous view society has in regard to criminals and what punishment they might deserve.
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George Saunders reads this book himself and he is an amazing narrator. This was an excellent, entertaining book to listen to, and I liked the audio book so much I bought the hard copy to take with me later this summer when I go on vacation.

Just so you know–I rarely buy hard copies of anything.

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Sin audiobook coverI also listened to Sin, British author Shaun Allan’s masterpiece of stream-of-consciousness and fantasy, narrated by R.D. Watson. Allan breaks every rule of writing, and his work is powerful.

Sin is a dark, urban fantasy, written with a large dose of sardonic humor. We hear the tale from the man who was given the name ‘Sin Mathews’ at birth, but who goes by the name of Sin only, as the last name doesn’t matter; only the name which is the sum of his parts matters. R.D. Watson’s reading of Allan’s shining, witty, prose is moving and brilliant in every aspect. He gets into Sin’s head, and you are completely spellbound.

The atmosphere throughout is surrealistic, but it is well-balanced. I adore Allan’s lyrical, intimate style of prose, as in this series of images describing Sin’s disorientation, “History doesn’t relate whether Jonah, Gepetto, and Pinocchio sat around a table eating pizza, sharing stories of prophecy and puppetry while in the belly of the whale, but I thought that I could relate to being swallowed whole.”

Throughout the novel, Sin’s ruminations are self-mocking, and world-weary, yet naive and innocent.  He bears the guilt of the world, and suffers the unbearable pain of being the cause of so many deaths, but still he finds ironic humor in every situation. His sister, Joy, is grounded and guides him to the truth, but is not allowed to tell him anything.

Nothing is what it seems in this tale, and right up to the end, you are not sure which reality is real.

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The Emperor's Soul - Brandon Sanderson. audibleThe Emperor’s Soul, by Brandon Sanderson and narrated by Angela Lin.

Shai is thief, but not just any kind of a thief. Shai has been trained to forge a replica of the original item to leave in its place. Her replicas are masterful. in many ways her replicas are better than the originals. The power of her work as she remakes her surroundings amazes Gatona, a man who holds her life in his hands, and every day he is more confused by her. This is not a love story–Gaotona struggles to understand why an artist of her caliber, who loves the craft as much as she does prostitutes her gift by making forgeries.
Two factions now control her fate. They have something she needs, and she has something they need, but for how long? The Emperor Ashravan’s condition has opened up new possibilities for some on the council, and they are ruthless. Shai is safe for the moment, but she knows her life hangs by a thread and only a miracle will save her.

In Shai, Sanderson has created a character who is compelling and completely believable. Shai is more than merely a forger, she is an artist.  She takes pride in her work, and rightfully so. The way she is portrayed is a departure for Sanderson, in that she is most definitely a woman, and she is the central figure. There is a strong sense of history to this tale, and the structure of their society is clearly drawn in only a few well-crafted words.

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Audio books are great in the car, I think we all know that–but for me they are a way to access wonderful books when I am in too critical a state of mind to read for enjoyment. For my downtime I love to sit on my back porch and just listen to someone reading me a story.

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Filed under Books, Fantasy, Literature, Publishing