Saturday, April 14, 2012

Bathroom Monologue: Indicators I Got Old This Year

-Put several items back in the grocery store in order to afford lettuce

-Began making my bed rather than just wrapping the sheets around myself when I got tired

-Marathon editing sessions began to hurt my eyes and vision;
concerned party said, “It looks like your mascara is running”

-Finally began giving up on bad books
rather than seeing every one through to the end

-Finally began giving away or selling
lots of books and other media I’m not using anymore

-Learned how to cook waffles for myself

-Spent a full weekend filing

-Calculated my LDL for the first time

Friday, April 13, 2012

True Stories of John: Friday the 13th

You don’t know me if you don’t know that I love Friday the 13th. It is one of the few series in human history that is great without being good. It's marred by an undue reputation, for it's not a conservative vengeance trip. At its face-burning, bed-impaling best, it is the id eating itself, reveling in the things it punishes, and it stars the hardest working man in show business. I never imagined a hockey mask could so define Horror, and yet it has, doing for my generation what horns and a pitchfork did for the Medieval world.

So when Michael Bay said his Platinum Dunes would remake Friday the 13th, I was excited. He couldn’t screw it up worse; it was already bombastic, prurient and downright dumb in every way his stuff was, only lacking the budget. He could just paste together the fun parts from a few of the movies and have a winner. Give me the hockey mask, machete and teens who should know better, and you’ll get this liberal pacifist’s money every time.

They set to release it on Friday the 13th, 2009.  I looked forward to it throughout January, with such intensity that even friends who hated Horror were excited for me. Yet it was a rough period in my household, and the closer we got to that Friday, the less I thought I could justify the price of a ticket. As the sky grew orange and the shades of the trees around my house swelled, I resigned my dream. I’d just stay home and polish some short stories.

I was opening Microsoft Word when the power went out. My desk faced the windows; down the street and around the lake, every house had gone dark. My battery back-up beeped in protest as I stared outside. Dusk rushed in, turning the surrounding forest into a silhouette.

I saved everything on the computer, shut down and gathered candles. This was obnoxious, but hardly fate. I could sketch plots in my notebook and maybe finish reading the Poe’s Children anthology before bed. I was carrying the books down the stairs in search of a flashlight when I witnessed perhaps the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

Light flickered through my front windows. I peered through the curtains and found headlights. Actually, I found a figure in those headlights. It was a large, stocky man in washed out coveralls, carrying an axe over his head. He was in the street, and I swear he was looking right at me.

It took me a few moments to realize it was a neighbor home from construction work. Ironically, I only realized this when he unpacked the chainsaw from his pickup truck.

But that was enough for me. I told God and Michael Bay that they had won, I told my family goodbye, and got in the damned car. I’d go to the stupid movie instead of sitting in the dark all night. I was laughing to myself when the radio buzzed on. The Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” was playing.

I drove very fast.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Bathroom Monologue: No Thanks

“He could have thanked me.”

“He could have thrown his catheter at you.”

“I was holding the door for him!”

“To the stairs!”

“I was being polite!”

“He was in a wheelchair!”

“Well I couldn’t push the button for the elevator. You’d already done it.”

“That’s so far from the point that it hurts a little.”

“Was I supposed to hold his catheter?”

“No, you were supposed to leave him alone.”

“We’re just supposed to ignore the handicapped now? Way to be progressive.”

“Why don’t you go hold the door to the stairs for a while?”

“Are we leaving?”

“You are.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What Makes You Put Books Down?

Yesterday I discussed my resolution to stop reading bad books midway if they don't improve, breaking my lifelong habit of finishing everything. It was wasting my time, keeping me from works I enjoyed, and maybe even making me some enemies. This leaves me with two questions for you, exalted audience:

1. Do you abandon books?

2. If so, how do you decide what to ditch?

Do you look for particular qualities in your Science Non-Fiction, your Horror, your Paranormal Gothic Romances or whatnot? I've noticed the most people ditching books for having too many typos early on. Sloppy writing, sluggish pacing, and generally being boring are other common complaints, but I don’t know if these are reliable, and they worry me for my genre.

Yesterday I mentioned how I find the first hundred pages of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones to be the dullest in the series. Excluding the prologue, they are a static period that introduces character upon character, where the biggest actions are riding and eating, and where most everyone stands around being discontented in some way until I just wanted to punch them. The book only hits its stride a few hundred pages later, where it becomes one of the best works of contemporary Fantasy I've yet read.

If I ditched all books because the openings were unappealing, I’d have missed out on some great late nights under the lamp. Right now I'm tearing through N.K. Jemisin's Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and I can't properly express how much better the second hundred pages are than the first. Once the double-soul stuff comes up? Yeine becomes much more interesting, as do the gods around her.

This concern for A Game of Thrones and Hundred Thousand Kingdoms extends to all Speculative Fiction. I really couldn't have figured that either book would improve as drastically as it did from what was laid out early on; their early periods are handled like typical setup periods. In all the contemporary SpecFic I’ve read since graduating college, fewer than ten novels hit the ground running. You know the typical start, don't you? Tell me if this sounds familiar:

The prologue doesn’t plug into the first chapter. World-building is overwhelmingly described more than it is depicted, you're told about characters rather than watching them behave, and there are inevitable hefty tumors of dialogue between people we don’t care about yet. We're supposed to care when authors set up conflicts, but because we're not really into the narrative yet, it feels more like consuming a documentary than an action flick. Exposition rules this zone, and unless that exposition is cleverly written or about something highly unusual for the genre (think Terry Pratchett, or Weiss & Hickman), it’s a chore to read.

You all know this stuff. This is the rite of passage into The Good Parts. Secondary World fiction particularly need you to set up the stage; once it’s set, the characters will (God willing) do cool stuff. And usually they do! While only ten books may have hit the ground running, many more turned out well.

Until I had this resolution, I unthinkingly put up with weak openings while simultaneously nodding at an industry that ranted about pacing and exposition. It’s either hypocrisy or paradox. I’m not sure which.

But this leaves me with the big question: what do you look for in your openings? Are you good at spying out which books will pan out well? What are your reliable indicators?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Broke My New Years Resolution

In November and December of last year several of my peers and professional authors beat me up over my reading habits. I finished everything I read, no matter how much I hated it. And for years I wrote reviews of all but five of the books I’d finished.

This was, they explained, “life-shorteningly dumb.”

The negative reviews potentially made those authors my enemies before I’d ever met them, and I’d wasted my time by completing books I didn’t enjoy. Sometimes I’d tried to study how novels were failing to better my understanding, but no matter the approach, I never actually got much out of analyzing a book that stunk. And because often I hesitated to read at all when the present book was bad, I slowed down my overall consumption.

Thus all I got was a lugubrious experience with the option of additional negative experiences some day should an author find the review and take it personally. There are nightmare stories of major authors whose careers were hampered not by authors, but the author’s vengeful agent or publisher. It’s something to think about the next time you bag on Dan Brown.

My 2011 resolution worked great: to write a damned novel. I’d gone too many years without a new one. If you’ve been following The Bathroom Monologues for long, you know I conquered that bastard. I’m drawing up skeletons for additional ones now.

So my 2012 resolution was to put some books down. If it didn’t show promise, insight or improve toward the end of the first hundred pages? Then give it back to the library, or lend it to a friend who might like it better, or just shelve it.

Also less of that secondary policy of mine: shelving a book over and over again, to give it another chance in six months, or when I was in the mood for Gothic Horror, or whatever caprice would inevitably strike.

With over a hundred unread books in my closet, shelves and hard drive, keeping old ones was bloating the list. Also, historically? Most of the books that didn’t appeal on the first go usually didn’t fare better on the third or fifth. I had to get the guts to fire some novels from my employment.

It’s April, and I’m uneasy about the policy. Outliers still haunt me. It wasn’t until my fifth reading that the brilliance of Animal Farm struck me. I stand by my belief than the first hundred pages of A Game of Thrones are the dullest in the whole series; what great characterization I’d have missed if I gave up on it there.

It’s April, and I’ve finished eleven books. I’ve discarded six others midway through and feel no guilt, because regret has been paved over by the good works that have taken up more of my free time. It’s better that I got to P.G. Wodehouse’s Mr. MullinerSpeaking and Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers sooner, or so I insist to myself when the outliers start a-haunting.

I’ve reneged on the resolution three times so far. One is obvious: for National Novel Reading Month, the activity devoted to catching up on classics, I slogged through all of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which led both to much personal groaning and much public scorn for my lack of taste. True to form, I reviewed it. I’m not afraid of Austen’s publishers, and probably not afraid enough of the damage this could do to my reputation. 

The best news is that in this period I’ve felt roughly equally bad reviewing what I disliked and ditching books that failed to impress. Why is this good news? Because if I can even convince myself of the parity, then I can make an easier dash for the exit on the next clunker.

Doubts and outliers still haunt me, though, and I’ll have some questions about your reading and unreading habits tomorrow.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Bathroom Monologue: A reader writes in that hippos aren’t herbivores and eat people

Hippopatmus Amphibius photo from BS Thurner Hof,

“Hippopotami are mostly herbivores. They have been caught eating carrion and have killed enough people that they’ve at least swallowed a few on happenstance. But their intestines aren’t set up for breaking down meat: eating it makes them barf and go nuts. Like, worse-than-mating-season nuts.

“If you fed a hippo nothing but meat it would die from malnutrition, and in the mean time, go drunk-driver-except-the-driver-is-the-car levels of nuts. Please, take this as a writing prompt.

“Now, none of this is to say that hippos won’t absolutely ruin you. They’re territorial, cranky when horny, swim faster than you, run faster than you, have wonky vision issues, and are enormous. Carnivores have the reputation for murder, but a hippo will kill the heck out of you. Herbivores can still be dicks.”

Sunday, April 8, 2012

John Wiswell Died on Easter

Easter is by far my least favorite holiday. Not for a gripe against Jesus, or about Christianity and Paganism, or that weak-willed whining of adults who as kids had the labor of twice a year dressing for church. It was on this holiday in 1981 that Dr. John Wiswell died, and that sort of a thing sticks with a John Wiswell.

I grew up hearing he was my guardian angel. I also grew up hearing he was an atheist. He was a sickly man who couldn’t get out of bed on his own, and he almost left my grandmother for another woman. They couldn’t have kids and adopted them to build a loving family, and he kept a harmful emotional distance from them. For most of my childhood he was a photo on my father’s desk that Dad wouldn’t talk about. My paternal grandfather managed to exist as a highly contradictory set of myths, myths that were retold and reappropriated every April.

All myths tied to the central Easter story. I spent most Easters at my grandmother’s; I’m told my birth saved her life, coming so shortly after the loss of her husband. That’s one of many things I heard from her, or my father on the drive to Maryland, or my mother on the drive back. That Easter story had a damnable habit of changing.

There’s a 1981 Easter dinner, my Mom and Dad sitting at John Wiswell’s dining table, John telling his son he wasn’t good enough for his wife. In some versions he was joking; years later, after my mother divorced him, more versions pitted John as serious. I remember one Easter Story where he was so excited over the prospect of a grandson, arguing over the best place for him to be born, though I also recall one about him spending that morning in the basement workshop, alone, refusing to tell anyone what he was doing. The most common is the 1981 Easter dinner where a family member came out as gay, and John was so visibly shaken that he went upstairs to lie down. In every version of the Easter story he went upstairs to lie down, and he never returned.

It was a heart attack that left my grandmother a widow for my entire lifetime. She’s looking at her 95th birthday this summer. That’s one of the ways I mark my life: I’m the length of time that the sweet old lady has been without John Wiswell.

None of the John Wiswell Easters are necessarily true, but they combine to a very good primer on how people’s agendas define history. Even when I was too na├»ve to really doubt each contradictory tale, I understood they came because my father was particularly morose that weekend, or my grandmother felt particularly nostalgic, or from whatever was behind my aunt’s cloudy eyes. I appreciated and internalized all the myths.

Perhaps I internalized them too well. In recent years I’ve tended to fall very ill around Easter, and this mortality leads to inevitable morbidity. On a recent Easter, after having dinner with a wonderful lesbian couple, I actually had to excuse myself and go lie down. Staring at the plaster ceiling, uncertain if I could sit up, it was hard not to dwell on the myths of John Wiswell.

So around Easter I tend to fall ill, and I tend to grow grim. It’s not a gripe against Jesus, or my health, or even against any John Wiswell in particular. It is a long habit, no better than Samuel Clemens thinking he’d go out on the comet he rode in on. Actually, it’s worse – at least his was zany.

But contrary to a lot of secular thought, we don’t get to pick our myths. If this day means anything to you, then I wish your order of myths treats you well.
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