Books To Avoid…And Why I Bailed On Them

Look, I try and keep it positive and optimistic around here. I do. Mostly, as anyone who stops by to visit any of the Grailrunner waystations on the internet or social media will tell you, I focus on things that inspire us. I especially (and incessantly) harp on inspirational engines within speculative fiction. It’s my jam.

But sometimes I need to vent. And I need to warn you away from some potentially very irritating literary experiences. Since this is all subjective, you probably love at least one of these books and think I’m a Neanderthal for feeling otherwise. That’s cool, man. That’s cool. But these suck. Really.

Let me tell you how the highlighted suck gallery went for me, in reverse order of my irritation level.

5. Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky.

I periodically dip into heavier literature (and outside of science fiction or fantasy, my usual haunts) to sharpen my writing, to expose myself to the towering figures of literature and scientifically dissect what makes those books tick. It’s a great exercise, as it has been with Moby Dick, with Hemingway (all of it, man…I’ve read all of it), Dickens and Faulkner. I picked Dostoevsky as an experiment because of how highly Harlan Ellison spoke of him. This one, I went with because it seemed to offer me some nuanced character studies, piledriving into a supposedly blowout climactic event (patricide by four brothers) that resulted from those character traits, and the fallout of that event. Now, it strikes me that this setup, should that be the case as I’ve outlined in the preceding description, then I could learn quite a bit about crafting plots driven by character flaws or quirks, and possibly about how to foreshadow and set ominous thundercloud mood to lead to the blowout.

That was the thought, at least. But what a cheese fart this one was! Sorry if you’re a professor who’s dedicated your life to it or whatever. But this book is super tedious, flat and uninspiring.

I admired the early chapters, with alternating introductions of the individuals and clear characterization. But it went on and on. It just went on and on and on, with nothing seeming to have any consequence. The big event wasn’t clearly foreshadowed (at least for me). There was no ominous mood as I’d expected. Not even the supposed angelic and innocent brother meant a thing in the world to me. I hated all of them. It was a chore to keep going, till I eventually wondered if they’d ever get around to knocking the old man off. So I bailed.

4. Lord Tyger by Philip Jose Farmer

If I told you there’s a book, written by the guy who dreamed up the masterwork Riverworld series, that conducts a thought experiment speculating what would actually happen should someone be raised by gorillas like Tarzan in the jungle….would you think that sounds awesome?

The idea is a British millionaire hires a couple of dwarves to raise a British aristocratic boy in the jungle like Tarzan, simulating some of the key events of Burroughs’ Tarzan books because of his love for them. And things go differently than he’d planned.

It struck me as a fascinating idea for a book, and I had some wild ideas of what might play out like the books and what would obviously go south. More curiosity than anything, I tried it. To be honest, I didn’t bail and actually finished the book. It was painful, but I made it through. What kept me going was the same curiosity of what would be done with the idea, and definitely NOT any skilled storytelling or characterization.

The lead character is overly obsessed with his penis, and it gets really monotonous and cartoon-like how many times we have to see that play out. I get it, monkeys touch themselves and maybe sleep around. I get it. But can’t we move on to something else?! It drives the plot sometimes. It’s entirely ridiculous sometimes. And it keeps coming up (no pun intended). Nobody is interesting, nothing makes sense, and I yawned through the climax. Avoid this one.

3. Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

Not sure why, but I have a deep fascination with the psychology that led up to World War One, that kept it escalating and stagnating, and that resulted from its fallout in the couple of decades afterwards. It’s incredibly rich, picking all that apart – at large scales, understanding trends and behaviors of large groups, and also at small scales reading the biographies and journals of key figures that fought in the war. Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann struck me as a great option because it’s so highly praised, and supposedly was going to offer me a hotbed of the different moods and psychologies of people of that time, but in the setting of a health salon high in the mountains.

Reading this book feels very much like talking to a sickly aunt who won’t stop going on about the parts of her that hurt. And her cough, do I think that’s serious. And her swollen toe, should she get that looked at. And she’s so tired…

The lead figure isn’t sickly, but visits his cousin who is recuperating at a sanitarium in the Alps. And he meets people and stays, and he has breakfast and he has lunch. And he has dinner. And he tells you in detail what he ate. And no one is interesting, at least in the first fourth of the book I managed to read. You can see how little patience I have for stories that lead nowhere, for characterizations without some sizzle, and for aimlessness. This book seemed to go absolutely nowhere, and at the very point I threw it physically to the floor was at least the fifth time he was explaining what they were serving for the next meal. Avoid this one.

2. Settling The World by M. John Harrison

Nobody loves Harrison’s Viriconium series like I do! His mother wouldn’t love it like I do. It’s genius. Read that one. Please, God, read that one instead of Settling The World. In Viriconium, you get a true masterwork of mood-setting, of fascinating ideas to inspire, of interesting people, of a world you’d care to visit, and of the most maddeningly genius wording and phrasing you’ll encounter. Anybody who writes should treat Viriconium like nitroglycerine. A true brilliant white-hot piece of literature.

Much of everything else he’s written comes off as comparatively weak and confusing to me. Light is an exception, but its sequels are muddled streams of consciousness. Settling The World is a set of speculative fiction short stories. I don’t even know how to summarize it, because I can’t tell at all what’s happening in some of these tales. It’s seriously bad. Pages in, I had to ask myself if there was anything at all that was clear to me. I read a summary of a story I’d finished on the internet to see what it was about. Isn’t that funny? There are people in this world that can read jumbles of words like some of the tales in this collection and tell you what happened, even though you read the same story and saw none of that. And I saw none of the brilliant word-slinging which draws me so much to Viriconium and Light. With those books, there are moments when I’ve had to set the book down and just marvel and ponder at what I’d just read…descriptions and phrasing that pop with a life of their own and send your mind reeling.

I honestly have enough grief in my life than to read stories that I have to research afterwards to understand what happened and come off as bland as these. I set it as number two because I know what Harrison can accomplish and he fell short here.

1. War In Heaven by Charles Williams

This one made the top of the list because it presented itself as a story about the Holy Grail. I’m literally ALWAYS in for a story about the grail. I mean, this is “grailrunner”. That’s kind of…for a reason, you know? Here, we have the description from Amazon:

“Williams gives a contemporary setting to the traditional story of the Search for the Holy Grail. Examining the distinction between magic and religion, War in Heaven is an eerily disturbing book, one that graphically portrays a metaphysical journey through the shadowy crevices of the human mind.”

Williams was one of the Inklings, that little Oxford literary club that gave us J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord Of The Rings) and C.S. Lewis (Chronicles Of Narnia). If this guy hung around with those two, who could produce towering mythic works such as those, then he would potentially speak and think along the same mythic lines. I’ve written here about the power of mythic storytelling. That can change your life! And here, I’m told he’s going to potentially apply such mythic storytelling techniques to the eternal grail myth, in a contemporary setting. What on earth is NOT to like about that?!

Unfortunately, this reads like a boring, slice-of-life trip to the general store to buy a pound of flour. Even a dead body found in the opening pages is portrayed with the weight and significance of a paperweight. I got possibly a fourth of the way in before bailing. Where was my updating of mythic figures like Arthur or Merlin? Where was my ominous doomsaying warning of consequences? Where was that curious, inspirational sense of questing and seeking perfection in body and spirit that I get from classic Eschenbach or De Troyes? Where was the mystery from those original grail tales, that leave you breathlessly marveling over what the bleeding lance means, and who the maidens are in the processional carrying the mystical platter?

Nope. Just nope. Maybe it got better. I’ll never know. Pass on this one.

*

And that’s the roundup for this little venting session. I hope it wasn’t overly negative. I finished Gene Wolfe’s Book Of The New Sun, all four parts, for those who’d asked what I thought. Definitely worth the experience, though not one of my favorites. There’s a distinct sense of importance as you read those books, like the early seasons of Game Of Thrones, wherein every word people speak seems to have weight and grant some vague insights. Events here make far more sense after the fact, in reflection, and often what you thought happened actually played out differently than you’d thought. Yeah, there’s a place to spend your money.

Anyway, let me know what you think. And if I poo-poo’ed on one of your faves, maybe drop me a note on what you liked about these books I consider stinkers. Maybe I could feel differently and try again if you make sense.

Take care, guys. Till next time.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.

Chance Favors The Prepared Mind: Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas?

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Louis Pasteur said that ‘Chance favors the prepared mind’; and that’s a fantastic quote. His point, I’m assuming, is that your mind is your instrument or your weapon, whichever metaphor does it for you. Whatever you’re up to in life, bathe yourself in stuff that will help you get better at it. Let cool, helpful things soak in. Then you’ll be luckier because you’ll notice opportunities you might not have otherwise.

So what does the hot warrior goddess picture I’ve attached here have to do with that? I’ll get to her in a little while. Go with me here.

Recently, I was thinking about where writers get their ideas. People ask that literally all the time. I bought a book years ago called, ‘It Came From Schenectady’ by a science fiction writer plagued by the question so often he started giving that answer when people asked him. Schenectady. That’s maybe a little funny. If you’ve read even a few articles on this blog, in fact, or the philosophy, it hopefully shines through that breaking ground in speculative fiction is kind of a big deal to me. I want to do whatever I can for myself and for other aspiring writers to BRING NEW THINGS INTO THE WORLD.

So I was turning that over in my head while coincidentally making my way through a book on the ancient city of Ugarit. This was a cosmopolitan city full of diverse folks and multiple languages, flourishing in 1500-1200 BC even though it was sandwiched between two superpowers of the day: Egypt and the Hittite Empire. My aim was to learn about the city and what life was like there; but the notion of finding story ideas was buzzing louder, so I was finding them on almost every page.

The theme in my head was very helpful to the writer in me; and it was this: just look for the strain on people. When there is some kind of tension set up, pulling on a person, there is a story to tell. I saw it in the tension between the two superpowers tugging on Ugarit. I saw it in the 1930’s race of archaeologists and linguists trying to be first to decipher the newly found script. I saw it in the very architecture of the city itself.

For example, the main city itself had two massive temples, one to Dagon (head honcho) and one to Baal (fertility guy, had sex with a cow while hiding from the god of death), with a library in between. The palace was on the other side of town and was bigger than the temples. There was a very rich guy named Rapanou whose house had thirty four rooms and his own library. I went dark for a few paragraphs as my mind wandered to the image of a teenage priest in training, leaned against one of the big temple statues and staring up at Rapanou’s house jealously, maybe wondering about one of the daughters who lived there. Maybe one of the statues would start speaking to him one full-moon night…

A few pages later, I came across this bit:

“Priests also had a military function, as is clear from references to them in administrative texts describing auxiliary military personnel; they are also listed in an army payroll text. Their role was that of support personnel, providing advice of a religious or oracular nature to military commanders. They were, in other words, an intelligence corps, purporting to provide divine counsel with respect to strategy and military operations.” -‘Ugarit And The Old Testament’ by Peter C. Craigie

That got me going on my little guy, because I saw him caught up in a rebellion against the Hittites, when all he wanted was to be left to his stone tablets and dreaming. I could see war-ragged army generals desperately shouting for divine insight into a hairy battle when the little priest was coming to doubt his own beliefs. Maybe because of something the statues had said. Maybe because of something Rapanou’s wild daughter had said.

You see how this just kind of gets going, right? Spitballing. Weaving together stuff from everywhere like a jazz riff on whatever I’m reading or whatever I’m doing. That’s how it works for me. The book had just described the little port towns on the sea as having no more than maybe a hundred people in them. I know what little rinky dink towns are like; and so, probably, do you. Then I read this:

“It’s possible that naval conscripts were drawn from the coastal towns where men would already have seagoing experience in merchant and fishing vessels”

I saw a new guy, then, who’ll probably meet up with the other guy. This dude loved his quiet little foggy port-village, though he maybe dreamed of adventures…then he got pulled into this same conflict the priest was in. Now I had a couple of folks stirring into the soup, and the possibility  of massive naval battles, which I love, and talking statues that had offered a mystery of some kind. I’m also reading Patricia McKillip’s “Riddle Master” trilogy, so probably the statues had offered a riddle.

But it was still kind of plain, needed to go crazy. Needed something with pep. Riddles have been done. So I totally lost whatever I was reading and just put it down to ponder…what is REALLY going on with this mysterious riddle?

Ahhh…I had watched a couple of Harry Potter movies over Christmas, so Voldemort’s horcrux dealie-o was in my head too. The riddle was not given to the priest to help him at all, it was given him to become alive…to be spread among the minds of men enough to form a vessel for something to enter into. Something, obviously, terrible.

The warrior goddess up there was to represent Anat, the terrible war goddess of the Ugaritic Mythology who used to storm the throne room of the all-father so angry he would hide from her, and who would tear off so many soldiers’ heads and gut them with such glee she should laugh as she waded through all the blood. You should read some of Baal’s cycle of stories where she appears. She’s fantastic. Maybe it’s her that started all this riddle business, just because she’d be fun to write.

Like a late Christmas present, I realized then that history handed me a nice finish for all this. Around 1200 BC, Ugarit got blasted from history by a mystery invasion of people from the sea. We know almost nothing about all that. Fantastic. It writes itself.

Look, I’m never going to write this story. If you’d like to, have at it. Be my guest. It’s fun to dip into it, though, and make my overall point for today.

If you’re stuck looking for ideas…or if you’re interested in where (at least some) writers get their ideas, remember I said this: look for the strain on people, the forces tugging a person in more than one direction. Bathe yourself in fiction or non-fiction, or travel, or talk to people, or whatever information you can get lost in, and dig up things that shine. Then string them together and turn up the gas.

What I’m hoping…what I aspire to do…is not to forget that last part. Be original. Turn it up to crazy and do something new.

Louis Pasteur changed everything about disease and healing when he did what he did. His quote is a sound one. Let’s live it.

 

Go Be Audacious. We Need You To Be.

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Many moons ago, when I had a vision of traipsing across Europe with only a baguette in my satchel and no idea what I was doing, I had the good fortune to be in Barcelona. Don’t think I’m entitled, my mom actually surrendered a chunk of inheritance money to give me the chance when she couldn’t afford to do that. That’s another tale; and yes – she’s awesome. My point here is how cool the Sagrada Familia was.

Of course, I’d never heard of the place or Antoni Gaudi, the mad architect who designed this melting crackpot of a building until then. It was a skeleton at the time; but the experience sugared my cookies that he was so unlike anyone else. Seriously, look it up. This guy had no boundaries. It struck me even then when my thoughts didn’t … ummm…run all that deep, that the way this guy went after stone was how I wanted to live my life. Whatever other people are successful with is just a floor, but let’s climb to the roof and see what’s there! That sort of thing. Didn’t work out that way, because life. Still, I was thinking today when I was complaining to my brother about how bad the TV show, The Walking Dead has gotten, that I’ve missed something along the way.

I really used to love The Walking Dead. Seriously, it was my jam. I’m sorry if you’re still into it and are insulted; but it’s growing disturbingly unwatchable for me. My overall feeling is they’re not pursuing the story’s possibilities like they should – that there is amazing potential in the world they’ve set up, but it’s not being turned up to the audacious, wild levels it’s begging for. For example, how can this tiny group of people still be drama-dragging (in their second state, by the way!) on back roads with nary a freaking Applebee’s, Best Buy, Home Depot, or Wal-Mart? I can’t throw a dead cat without hitting one of those. How amazing would it be to have a big post-apoc blowout with zombies and raiders in an abandoned amusement park! When you’re popping down the street tomorrow to go to work or shopping or whatever, look around whatever you pass and see if you don’t think it would be more interesting after the end of the world than featureless roads where you occasionally run into a single gas station and a couple of mean people with rifles. Untapped potential, man. Go bigger!

So I started doing flash fiction a while back, posted on Tumblr and Facebook, to drum up some interested parties willing to do reviews or who might enjoy my writing. In doing so, I’ve learned a lot about honing down my wordiness and trying to make words pop. Less fat, more meat. Sharp razor endings designed to make you think or dream your own story to what I’ve begun. That’s the idea; and it’s fun. It’s changing me; and it’s bleeding over into the novel I’m writing.

Now, I can hear all this in my head as I cling to the original inspiration for the book, because that’s what excited me to begin with. It’s hard to kill anybody off or fundamentally change them because I want to be safe and make you feel what I did when I first dreamed the idea or the people up. That’s all balls, of course. I know that; and I need to take my own medicine. The people who read those shorts on Tumblr or reddit or whatever aren’t always kind; but they have a point. Go bigger!

So I’ve scheduled a date with Armageddon. In a couple of weeks, I’m going deep with some actual, honest-to-God free time to sit down and write to push that book closer to the finish line. I have wild plans, that make so much sense given the characters and what they want. They’re finally – after all this time – speaking up for themselves; and I couldn’t be happier about that.

So why don’t you go do the same thing, over the holidays? Whatever you’re wordsmithing, ask yourself if you’re going big enough. Dream up different twists, and secret agendas your folks might have. People are layered, and don’t always do what you expect them to. Engineer that.

Here’s another architect to round home for us:

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood.” -Daniel Burnham

Using A Wordcloud To Examine How You Write

Here’s a wordcloud on the full text of a book I wrote. I’ll tell you what it tells me in a minute. For now, just scan over that blob yourself and see if anything stands out for you. wordcloud

Anyway, a wordcloud (incase you’ve not run into one of these yet) counts how often words repeat in something and builds a picture like this – bigger words here repeat more often. The whole picture gives you a comparison of word choices.  You set a cutoff frequency count, so it isn’t every word in the document. Make sense?

In my day job, one thing I do is study and optimize how people communicate with each other. This sort of blob here calls me out on a few things I do that maybe I should be careful about, and maybe I should keep doing. Either way, there are insights into the word choices and emphases I made in the book. That’s a big deal if you’re a writer, to help you get better. Know what I mean yet? Let’s dig in, I’ll get to the meat of it.

Staring at me like the eye of Sauron (nerd reference!) is the word, ‘like’. I also know from my day job that the majority of us think and learn visually and that we absorb information quicker and more effectively when we can relate to it naturally. Parents get that point well without being told – tell a kid not to cross the street and they’ll bound away as fast as they can. Tell them a scary story about a kid named, Lulu who used to live down the street and looked just like them but crossed without waiting on the ‘walk’ sign and can’t get up from her chair anymore…no more problems with crossing the street. Is that wrong? Maybe. Effective? Try it yourself. When I’m building a scene as a writer, I probably use too much simile and metaphor, too much comparison, to burn my pictures into your head. It’s why that word is showing up as the biggest repeater. If I’m going to stick by my philosophy of emphasizing comparisons, I need to balance the word choice on that, not overuse it, and be careful not to mix one metaphor in the same paragraph with another. Good advice, right?

I notice in yellow the words, ‘just’ and ‘eyes’. Since I’m emphasizing the visuals, I do tend to describe facial expressions quite a bit. I want it to feel like a movie as you’re reading it. We process and can relate to human faces probably more than any other image. It’s why the words, ‘looked’ and ‘face’ are showing up in red as well. Because these are among my heavy hitters, I need to be careful not to overuse them. Honestly, I was shocked to see, ‘just’ there. I need to go digging on that one to see if it’s okay what I’m doing. My point here in this post isn’t that everything showing up as a high frequency word is a bad thing, just that it’s something to be aware of. Tells you where to go looking to see if it’s all right. Get me?

The two main characters are named, Misling and Ring. They’re showing up as heavy repeats as well, which makes sense. I would have thought Misling would have outpaced Ring, so that was a surprise to me. The storyline of the book is heavily influenced by events from a previous generation, so that’s possibly why you see, ‘old’ and ‘man’. When I saw the word, ‘back’ here, it made me curious. Apparently, in my zeal to make you see what I was writing, I spent some effort in describing ‘glances back’ and whatnot. Better watch that.

So that’s all I was going to suggest to you for this post, if you’re a guy that slings words for fun or cash. I would honestly never go back and edit something I’ve written because of something like this. It’s more like a personal growth thing for me to have yet another perspective on how I’m constructing things…to be aware of what I do so I can control it better.

I put this wordcloud together in R with the ‘tm’ and ‘wordcloud’ packages; but I believe you can do things like it easily with sites like, ‘wordle’. I’ve not used them myself. Give it a shot and see what your own cloud tells you. May surprise you!