June 11

Russian Literature [Books]

I’m not sure when my affinity for Russian literature initially took hold. The first Russian author I read was Nikolai Gogol. I picked up a short story collection of his, Diary of a Madman and Other Stories in a book store in the mall. It wasn’t an official volume, but rather a collection of his short stories put together by some publisher. And to be completely honest, I knew nothing about Gogol or his work at the time. I bought the book based solely on the title. Cover of The Nose by Babel.

Needless to say, I loved his stories. “The Nose” is one of my favorites, a surreal tale of a mid-level administrator’s nose detaching itself from his face and beginning a life of its own. The Nose then begins to rise in the civil service and eventually outranks its previous owner. On the surface the story is absurd and surreal, but beneath the surface it was a scathing commentary on social rank and bureaucracy.

Gogol’s great – albeit unfinished – novel, Dead Souls, is also wonderful. He had imagined it as a Russian retelling of Dante’s Divine Comedy, but instead focusing on satirizing Russia’s social system at the time, and again pointing out the ridiculous bureaucracy of the government. Sadly, Gogol was declining mentally at the time and in a manic fit he burned most of the manuscript in his fireplace. What we’re left with is the first third of the story, which will forever end mid-sentence.

I later discovered Leo Tolstoy and spent an entire summer reading War and Peace. An amazing volume, but a reader needs the stamina of an Olympic athlete to make it all the way through. Having a character sheet to keep track of everyone is also helpful.

Photo of DostoevskyBesides Gogol, I also developed an affinity for Fyodor Dostoevsky. In my humble opinion, Crime and Punishment is one of the greatest novels ever written. It’s one of those stories that I find myself returning to every few years for a re-read. The theme of dealing with the repercussions of our actions struck a chord with me. It felt like an accompaniment to my interest in Buddhist philosophy and the western definition of karma (we get what’s coming to us).

Of course, I can’t omit one of the greatest short story writers of any nationality – Anton Chekhov. The man was a master of short form writing and reading his work is like a master class in fiction. No, I don’t have a favorite short story of his. They are all incredible. If you want to learn how to tell an amazing story, read Chekhov.

Besides these heavy-hitters, I’ve also enjoyed The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. This novel was written during Stalin’s regime and, sadly, the author never saw it published. Nearly thirty years after his death, a censored version was published in 1967. In 1973, an uncensored version was published, but it wasn’t until 1989 that the canonical edition was published, based on all available manuscripts that still existed.

The story is, well, definitely different from most mainstream Russian literature of the time and is reminiscent of Gogol’s work. The story takes place in two settings – Moscow in the 1930s as Satan and several of his entourage arrive for a bit of fun, and Jerusalem during the trial of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a dark satire that weaves together a mix of commentary on society, religion, corruption, and government bureaucracy. Are you sensing a theme with these Russian writers?

Red Cavalry book coverOne final Russian author I want to mention is Isaac Babel. His short story collection, Red Calvary, is a brilliant collection of stories that all take place during the Polish-Soviet War (1919 – 1921) and are based on a diary Babel maintained while working as a journalist during the conflict. I’d almost liken these stories to creative non-fiction since many come from actual events and situations he witnessed. It’s a powerful read, much like All Quiet on the Western Front. Stark, brutal, but also well-written and thought-provoking.

I realize that Russian literature isn’t for everyone. It’s often bleak, dreary, and bitter. Their country has gone through a lot of changes over the past couple of centuries, both politically and socially, but those dark times have influenced and inspired a stable of amazing writers and a library of stories that could only be told by people who have lived through them.

If you haven’t yet, please check out some of these writers and their stories. Many of the older authors – Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky – can be found on Project Gutenberg since they are in public domain. Project Gutenberg logo

I think there’s a lot to be learned from reading stories from other cultures, especially ones we aren’t familiar with. Not only does it expose us to new ideas and storytelling styles, but it also gives us a glimpse into those cultures. Art can help us to understand each other, why we are the way we are, and maybe help us to be more empathetic to what others have gone through.

RB

June 9

Quote the Writer, Not the Character [Writing]

Okay, I know this will sound strange, but it annoys me when someone quotes a character from a work of fiction instead of the writer. I should let it go, I know, but I think it comes from my belief that writers are under appreciated in general. 

It happens often enough in fiction. I mean, I can understand it to a certain point. People are probably more familiar with the character than the faceless writer. For example, if someone quotes a line from a Sherlock Holmes story, it’s usually attributed to Holmes and not the author, Sir Author Conan Doyle. Elementary, my dear Watson. Sherlock Holmes and Watson illustration.

But I think it’s even more prevalent in television and film. How often do you hear someone quote a line from, say, Casablanca (“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid”) or The Terminator (“I’ll be back”) and attribute it to the character or the actor? Happens all the time.

Casablanca movie poster.

As a writer, I find it annoying. I mean, after I’ve spent time and effort to write a great story I would prefer to be the one credited with a memorable line. That came out of my head, from my imagination. I feel like it’s only fair.

And, full disclosure, I’m guilty of it, as well. I figured I should own up before someone goes back through my old posts and highlights every instance where I quoted a character. I’m sure there are more than a handful.

My partner has tried to help. After telling me to get over it – repeatedly – she’ll then suggest I try looking at it from another perspective. Writers want to be read, and as long as people are reading my stories, why should I care if they quote me or one of my characters? The character came from my head, as well, so if they get the credit, I sort of get it, too. 

She’s right, of course. You can quote me on that.

RB

 

June 8

Saying Goodbye to Dick Robinson [Books]

Just a quick post to say thank you and goodbye to one of the people who helped me develop a love of books and reading. Although you may not know who he is just from his name, Mr. Robinson had a huge impact on getting young people to read here in the U.S. Dick Robinson

For nearly five decades, Mr. Robinson was the CEO of Scholastic Books, Inc. If you aren’t familiar with Scholastic Books, they have been arranging and hosting book fairs in public schools since the 1970s.

Interesting note: The article at Publishers Weekly states that Scholastic starting hosting book fairs in schools in 1981. However, I remember attending the fairs when I was in elementary school in the 1970s. Weird…

To understand how big of an impact Scholastic has had on the book business, consider they are responsible for approximately 120,000 yearly book sale events. That is getting a lot of books into the hands of a lot of kids. And I think that’s amazing.

One of the cool things about Mr. Robinson is that he considered reading a civil right. He was adamantly anti-censorship and incredibly pro-literacy. He also acknowledged that Scholastic played a big part in broadening children’s understanding of the world around them. Scholastic books logo

He once said: “Research says that if children choose and own their books, they are much more likely to finish them.” I can attest to that. Over the years, they have received a great deal of my book money, and I’ve finished every single book I’ve purchased from them. I spent many wonderful hours roaming the shelves at the book fairs they held in the schools I attended, carefully choosing which ones I wanted to read, which adventures I wanted to go on.

Mr. Robinson’s passing is like losing a piece of my childhood. For what it’s worth, thank you, Mr. Robinson. Thank you for educating me, entertaining me, and for showing me the wonders that lie on a bookshelf.

RB

June 7

Writing About Reading is Complicated [Books]

I feel like it’s becoming more complicated to write about reading. It used to be that if I wanted to read a story, I’d pick up a paperback or hardback book and dig in. Afterwards, I could tell people I read an amazing book (or sometimes not so amazing). It was cut and dried.

Accusing Mr. Darcy Cover.Recently, I enjoyed my first audiobook. It was a wonderful story by Kelly Miller entitled, Accusing Mr. Darcy, and set in the world of Jane Austin. It was a great experience. I was already a fan of podcasts (even hosting one myself), but I’d never delved into the realm of having a book read to me. It felt like I was a kid again listening to an adult read me a bedtime story. No complaints here.

But when I sat down to write a review of the story I ran into an obstacle. That is, how do I explain how I experienced the story? I mean, it’s not like I read the book. I listened to it. But then, is it still considered a book if it’s audio? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say I listened to a story?

My head was spinning more than usual.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against audiobooks. In fact, I plan on recording my short story collections in order to give readers (listeners?) another option for enjoying my fiction. Plus, if it gets more people to buy more fiction, I’m going to support it. It’s important for authors to reach the broadest audience possible.

In my head, however, I’m still adapting to the medium. I’m old-school in that I like physical books. I like to hold them in my hand, feel the paper under my fingers, smell the ink, hear that spine crack when I first open it, and see them lined up on my shelves like badges of honor. Story collections.

With audiobooks, and ebooks, there’s no paper, no ink, no way to display them. Yes, I own a Kindle and I use it fairly often (generally for books that are unavailable in print or for public-domain titles I download from Project Gutenberg). It actually took me a while to take the ebook dive. It’s convenient, a bit lighter in weight than a physical book, and I can slip it into a pocket on my backpack with ease. But still…it’s not REAL.

I think the thing I have to get over is the fact that, with audiobooks, I can’t say I’ve read them. And it sounds weird to me to say, “I listened to a great book this weekend.”

Yeah, I know, I sound like one of those old men who complain about how much better things were when they were young. Look, I’m all for progress. Like I mention above, if another format gets people buying more fiction, then I’m going to support it. Audiobooks, ebooks, hell, maybe even animated books that have the characters pop up on the page and act out the story for you.

Just like language, the way stories are told is going to evolve over time. If storytelling can be experimental, then so can the way we enjoy them.

I’ll be listening to more audiobooks in the future and looking forward to the next great advance in storytelling.

RB

June 2

The Shape of Things [Creativity]

“I have always loved things, just things in the world. I love trying to find the shape of things.” Leonard Cohen.

I read this quote recently by the amazing poet Leonard Cohen. After I read it, it took a moment for it to sink in. Then it hit me: This is one of the keys to creativity – finding the shape of things. Leonard Cohen

The way I interpret the quote, Cohen isn’t speaking literally. It’s not about physical shape, it’s about finding the essence of things, the true nature.

For writers, this means finding the essence of a story and the characters. Why should this story be told? What does the protagonist want? Is there something the reader should get out of it?

Sometimes the questions can be easily answered. Other times, well, we have to dig deeper.

I find that it’s important to know what my characters want, what they need, what they long for. No matter how long or short the story, it all comes down to what the characters want. Do they want to find love? Revenge? Achieve a dream? Find a lost item they hold dear?

Want is what drives us as people, so the same goes for the people living in our heads and in our stories. I want to be able to pay my bills, so I go to work. I want to make my partner happy so I do things for her. I like to see people smile so I practice random acts of kindness.

But it goes much deeper than that. When you understand what a character wants, then you begin to understand their true essence, their shape. Is the character caught up in thoughts of revenge for some wrong? What is driving them to this? Why is it important to them? What do they hope to achieve by this act? Closure? Satisfaction?

It’s like peeling away layers of wrapping paper or uncovering nesting dolls. There’s more beneath the surface and we never quite know what we’ll find. You may think a character is a square, but as the story progresses you find out she’s a rectangle. Close to what you imagined, but not quite who you thought they were. Russian Nesting Dolls

The same applies to stories. Many stories are straightforward when we write them. Start at one point and end at another. We can see the path. Others, however, can take sudden, unexpected turns. We think we’re writing one type of story and later realize it’s something altogether different.

I think that’s a good thing. A good story should surprise the writer as much as the reader. Knowing the true shape of a story ahead of time takes the fun out of the creative process. I start a story – either writing or reading – with expectations in mind. It’s unavoidable. I’ve read the blurb on the back of the cover or I have some notes written down in a rough outline. Illustration of a face.

If things go the way I expect I end up disappointed. I mean, I want to discover something new, be caught off guard, be surprised. I want to be like an archeologist and slowly uncover something different buried in the sand. I can see some of it and speculate on what lies beneath, but I won’t know for sure until I dig it out.

Think about this when you start your next creative project. Peel away the layers and discover the true shape.

RB

May 27

Are We Our Characters? [Writing]

When it comes to acting, I’ve read and watched interviews with actors explaining how they inhabit the characters they play. In some cases, a few of them have had a hard time separating themselves from the characters, even going so far as to seek professional help in order to get back into their own psyche.

This got me thinking about writers and the characters we create in our fiction. It’s said that all writers put a little bit of themselves into their stories. I agree with that. I know that once I’ve finished a story I can look back over it and see little pieces of myself in there, like my experiences and my personality.

But with that, can writers experience the same situation as some of those actors, where we end up having trouble separating ourselves from the characters we create? Gears inside of a head

I don’t see it happening with short fiction, although I assume it’s possible. With short fiction, we aren’t interacting with the characters for a long stretch of time. It’s sort of like participating in a one-act play. I don’t think there’s enough time to really immerse oneself into the character for it to become a problem.

With longer fiction, however, I could see that happening. And not just novels, but also longer plays and movie scripts. In these cases, the writer is spending long periods of time with the characters, especially the protagonist. For long-form work, we have to get inside the character’s head, figure out what motivates them, what they want, their background, their personalities, their hopes and fears. In a way, it isn’t too far removed from acting.

What I’m curious about is if any authors have been so wrapped up in a story they were writing that they had a hard time separating themselves from the characters. Think about some of the more intense characters you’ve encountered in fiction, movies, plays. Consider Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, or Humbert Humbert in Lolita, or Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. All very intense, conniving personalities. How could an author not get tangled up in their creations?

For actors, in most cases, they are inhabiting a character that was created by someone else. They look at a script as a blueprint, and from there they piece it together. In the situations where the script was based on a novel, they may even read the book to get more depth. But for a writer, the characters begin and end in their heads. There isn’t any separation, no division between the two. blurred image of woman

Oddly, I don’t think I’ve ever read of an author having the same issues as an actor when it comes to keeping a distance between themselves and the characters. I wonder why that is? Perhaps writers have more control. I mean, we are the ones creating the characters out of thin air. It’s easy enough to kill them off if we want to, or put them through traumatic experiences to teach them a lesson. Hell, we can simply highlight their existence and hit the ‘delete’ key. A snap of the fingers and they never existed.

I’d be interested to see some research into this, especially if it explains how writers can seemingly get away with having characters live in their heads. And no, I don’t think it’s because we’re all a little crazy.

At least, I hope not.

RB

May 21

My new favorite word: Mythomania

While I was recently working my way through Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, I read a bit of conversation between two characters where one of them uses the word Mythomania. I had to read it a couple of times because I’d never see the word before. So I looked it up.

Turns out that Mythomania is a psychological term for pathological lying. I like that word. Sometimes I hear or read a word I’ve never before encountered and I become mesmerized by it. I know, weird, right? Woman's nose growing

I actually think I’d prefer to use mythomania, rather than pathological lying. It has an ancient feel to it, like something from ancient myth. Pathological feels more deadly, darker, more psychotic. Which, in a way, may be more appropriate depending on the person being labeled.

Mythomania sounds robust, all-encompassing, even a bit like it could be contagious. Wouldn’t that be something? Contagious lying. Might be something to explore in a piece of fiction. Would it be a disease? A viral infection? A devious spell?

Or perhaps it’s more akin to a fictional storyteller. Like, a character who cannot stop telling stories. A manic writer. Creating myths, fictions, imagination run wild. I could see that as a type of psychological disease. So many possibilities.

And maybe that’s another way to describe fiction writers in general. It could be argued that we have a pathological need to make things up, to let our imaginations run wild. In a very broad definition, wouldn’t that make us liars? And if we continue to make up stories, then doesn’t that make us pathological? Group of writers

I know, that’s a stretch, but it’s also an interesting idea. Perhaps I should start a support group for writers. Mythomaniacs Anonymous. Or Unanimous. It’s not something to be ashamed of. We’d support one another, give constructive critiques, and help promote each other’s work.

No, we’re won’t be a cadre of liars. We’re storytellers. Tale spinners. Mythomaniacs!

RB

May 14

Book Review – Norwegian Wood

This is the third book by Haruki Murakami that I’ve read, the first two being The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I thoroughly enjoyed those stories, a mix of reality and existential imagery, very similar to the magic-realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who is also one of my favorite authors).

Norwegian Wood was Murakami’s first novel, apparently semi-autobiographical. I went into it expecting a story like what I’d read in his other two novels, but instead was pulled into a sort of coming-of-age story about a young man who is caught between to loves.

As I made my way through the novel I kept expecting something to happen, something a little odd or a little wondrous. In the other two novels, strange things happened. A man was caught between worlds, there were mysterious characters, intrigue, adventure. I was impatiently waiting for these elements to appear. Norwegian Wood book cover

But they didn’t. The story sort of meandered mid-way through, the protagonist was confused and depressed, seeking answers. I could relate to that, remembering how it was when I was twenty years old and wondering if I’d ever really fall in love. The characters were all relatable, very distinct and three-dimensional. I understood their motivations, their wants, their confusion.

I feel the characters were what kept me interested in the story. I wanted to see how they changed and grew. Sometimes a certain piece of a story can be enough to make it worthwhile. In this case, characterization did the trick.

This wasn’t a great novel. At least, from my Western viewpoint. I know that Norwegian Wood was a bestseller in Japan when initially released back in the late 1980s. I guess it’s a cultural difference, something that younger Japanese readers can relate to and understand. I get that.

I’m not disappointed that I read this, but I was expecting more. If nothing else, it gave me a glimpse into Japanese relationships, the angst of being a young man seeking himself and trying to understand the women in his life. Those things are cross-cultural, in a way.

If you’re interested in an interesting coming-of-age story, then by all means pick up a copy. If you’re looking for a story with elements similar to Murakami’s other books, then I suggest you pass on it.

RB

May 5

Book Review – A Quiet Rebellion: Posterity

I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for a good fantasy book series. The problem is that too many of them follow overly-familiar tropes. There’s the orphan who finds out they are actually royalty and must retake the throne. Or there’s the ancient evil that is returning and a plucky group of misfits have to learn to work together to defeat it. I mean, I’ll still read those stories, but in limited quantities.

But every so often a writer comes along and tries something new, a little different from what I expect. That’s the case with M.H. Thaung’s Numoeath series. The first two books (which I’ve reviewed here and here) were well-written, well-plotted, and overall fun to read. The characters were believable. No one was perfect, they all had some baggage they were carrying, made bad decisions for the right reasons, and basically behaved like real people.

The second book, Restitution, ended in a way that made me wonder what Thaung was going to do in the third book. It was somewhat of a cliffhanger, but even more so, I was thrown by an unexpected twist with the fates of several characters. Honestly, I thought the second book was dovetailing into a nice, clean ending. I was pleasantly disappointed. In fact, the ending of the second book stuck with me for several days after I finished it. I like it when an author can keep me engaged even after the last page.

The third book, Posterity, picks up immediately after the second, and expands on some of the history of this land and this world. I was hoping for that. Thaung does a wonderful job of building the world in the first two novels, but she doesn’t delve into too much of the history, leaving that for the final book. Was I happy with the payoff? Absolutely. In fact, even though she answers many questions and expands on the world-building, there’s still so much more left for her (and hopefully, us) to explore. book cover

Luckily, Thaung has also written some additional pieces that take place in this world. It excites me to think about world-building from a writer’s perspective. It makes me wonder how much she planned ahead of time, like, was Thaung piecing it together as she wrote? Or did she focus on the geographical area where the main story takes place, and now she’s slowly exploring the rest of the world? Either way, I find it all easy to visualize, easy to immerse myself in. It’s a world that comfortable and familiar, but still different than ours.

As far as the overall story is concerned, I think it’s good. Very good. There’s a potential coming crisis, but throughout the story questions arose about the legitimacy of the crisis. As a reader, I wasn’t sure who to believe in the story. Everyone had their agendas, some good and some bad, but even then I could understand why the characters did what they did. Basically, I understood their motivations even if I didn’t agree with them. That’s good characterization.

If I had to point to something I felt didn’t work, or could have been better, was the initial ending (there’s a nice wrap-up after the main story finishes). Not that the ending was bad or needed to be different. I just felt like it was rushed, that the final couple of chapters could have been stretched out a little bit more, a little more tension, a little more risk, and maybe a little more loss.

But hey, this is a fantasy story, fiction, so it can be whatever the author thinks is appropriate. I was still happy with how things turned out. It was a worthwhile read, a great story to immerse myself in, and as mentioned above, I continued to think about it long after the last page. If nothing else, that’s the sign of a story well-told.

RB

April 21

Does Word Count Matter?

I’m always surprised when I hear writers discussing word counts. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional humble brag. I’m guilty of that, especially when I pound out 2,000 words in a couple of hours. It’s akin to running a marathon, and if runners can brag, then so can writers. Luckily, I’ve never pulled a hamstring working on my MacBook.

But what I’m bothered by is when writers put an emphasis on word count. For example, when they seem to focus on how many words are in a story rather than the content.

Jumble of words

It’s weird, particularly in fiction. I understand that word counts matter when it comes to categorizing a story. Flash fiction is generally under 1,000 words. Short stories cap out around 8,000 words. Novellas run anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000 words. Novels pick up after that.

Maybe it’s a badge of honor to some writers. Like a competition. “How many words did you write today?” “Oh, about 1,000.” “Only 1,000? Man, you’re a light-weight!”

I don’t think I’ve ever asked another writer how many words they wrote that day. Or on any day. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever asked a writer what their final draft totaled up to be. Why should the number of words matter?

The only thing that should matter to a writer is whether or not they told the best story they could, that they poured their heart and blood into it, and that they were honest (telling the story the way it should be told without forcing it into a specific direction).

I can understand paying attention to word count when writing. If a writer is working on a novel, then they want to shoot for 50,000 or more words. But, and I’ve mentioned this before on this blog and in my podcast, it still shouldn’t matter. A story is going to be as long or as short as it needs to be. If I start off thinking I’m going to write a short story and it ends up at 10,000 words, I’m not going to be disappointed as long as I stayed true to the story and didn’t fill it with a lot of stuffing just to make it longer.

Same thing goes the opposite direction. If I plan to write a novel, but the story ends up in the novella category, I’m not going to worry about it as long as I’ve told a good story.Stack of books.

The story itself should determine the length. If you can tell it in 2,000 words, wonderful. If it takes 20,000 words, go for it. We shouldn’t try to pad a story or slice and dice it just to force it into a category. Let the story decide.

When it comes down to it, the only time word count matters is when you’re ready to sell your story.

RB