I finally got a chance to read "Julie & Julia" by Julie Powell on my recent transatlantic voyages. I was really looking forward to the book because the idea is so intriguing -- one year to cook everything in volume 1 of Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" -- and even more impressive when you see what nutty things Julia wants you to cook. Honestly, I could go my entire life without needing to know what aspic is or boiling horse hooves. So I settled into my narrow coach seat with minimal leg room and started reading, totally hoping for culinary adventures that rivaled my own but with more exotic ingredients.
And this, unfortunately, is where the book derails. Maybe my expectations were too high but I was expecting something fun, lively, this idea of self-discovery through bone marrow and butter, and instead ended up with a story that had glimpses of brilliance and humor and insight, but was mostly plodding in its construction and pacing. Instead of insight or thoughts about French cooking, Powell spins stories about her friends without really giving the reader a reason to care. Why do I care about these girlfriends who flit and flirt in and out of the narrative? They don't wash dishes or cook so why oh why are pages and pages of text devoted to them when they add nothing to any plot line or character development?
Powell is whiny and can be obnoxious, such as when she is describing 9/11 families; I get that she worked day in and day out with families of the victims and there's a point at which you become numb, but please. I'm a Democrat (no surprise to readers of this blog), but even I got tired of her incessant Republican-bashing; given that there didn't seem to be a nefarious Republican plot to ban French cooking, the constant trashing talking does nothing to advance the plot or characters. And that's really the problem with the book. There are a lot of ingredients, but nothing gels, no underlying theme that really holds it together.
For a story to be successful, there needs to be some kind of change -- a character starts at point A and ends up at point B. Julie Powell just circles her kitchen (which is disgusting, btw, but mildly funny and relatable in an awkward, uncomfortable way) and never quite convinces us (or me, more precisely) that she is learning anything from her experiment. The motivation for the project is also murky. I get that at the beginning, the author feels trapped by her life and she wants something to spice life up. So why Julia Child? And what does cooking her way through this book bring to her life other than piles of dirty dishes and a penchant for finding rare and expensive ingredients? The questions are never answered. Somehow, it becomes about blogging, about finding validation externally through "bleaders", and Julia Child becomes incidental to the book (And oh yeah, there are made-up bits about Julia Child either, but some of them were cringeworthy).
I was really disappointed in this book because it could have been so much more. It should have been a light and fun read and occasionally it was. I was looking forward to reading about someone who lives a life ordinarily like so many of us, yet rising above it by taking on this crazy project. In the end, it seemed like an excercise in navel gazing instead, definitely better suited for a blog than for a book. Amazon.com reviews seem to imply the movie is much better than the book; I haven't seen the movie, but I definitely don't recommend the book.
The infomercial on right now is for a software program called Dragon (getdragon.com -- purposely not linking). It's pretty funny, actually, as you have to actually speak your punctuation and "new line" or "new paragraph". I'm just trying to imagine that oh so famous Walt Whitman poem would work. To wit, as dictated into Dragon;
Oh captain exclamation point my Captain exclamation point our fearful trip is done semicolon next line The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won semicolon next line The port is near, the bells I hear comma the people all exulting comma next line While follow eyes the steady keel comma the vessel grim and daring colon next line But O heart exclamation point heart exclamation point heart exclamation point next line O the bleeding drops of red comma next line Where on the deck my Captain lies comma next line Fallen cold and dead period next line
I don't know how Dragon would handle all the spelling variations (O instead of Oh), but I would think that for writing purposes, rhythm and mood could be lost when you're inserting the punctuation while speaking. I guess if I used dictation software I'd have to speak first and then go back and figure out what the punctuation and line spacing would be. But I tend to 'think' through my fingers and a lot of time stories/prose takes form while I type; I think it would be a tough change to dictate versus actually typing. Dunno. Still, I'm kind of amused by the 'comma next line exclamation point' bit of Dragon. It definitely gives a new read to Whitman.
I read Stephen King's "Premium Harmony" at the New Yorker magazine here (free to read, so go ahead, click). I discovered the story at a time when I'm having a short story renaissance. I used to love short stories -- reading and writing them -- and then I got derailed by the idea of novels and longer stories and it's been years since I've written a short story of any merit. The Stephen King story, however, has merit.
For a short story, King has managed to infuse his characters with, well, a lot of character. The conversation -- rapid fire, not bogged down with unnecessary details or action 'moments' -- sketches out the characters well. There are snatches of humor here and there, moments of poignancy, and above all, illumination of character -- something incredibly hard to do in the space of a short story. The interesting thing here is that King doesn't bother making his characters likeable; in fact, he puts so much effort in making them unlikeable, and yet, still very realistic. King also managed to draw all the little threads, all the little details, together in the final graf, which was excellent. He followed the old adage to a t: if there is a gun over the fireplace in the first act, it should be fired by the third.
While I enjoyed the story, I did find it a bit... outlandish, out of the realm of reality at moments. But it wasn't so much that I was distracted and tempted to hit the back button (and all you internet fiction readers know about the back button!).
All in all, an enjoyable story, well written, a bit on the quirky side, but if you're looking for a quick read over lunch, I recommend Premium Harmony.
Happy first day of NaNoWriMo!. Good luck to all you aspiring novelists out there. I did this three years in a row, finishing the project my second and third times (eh, that's finishing the word count, not the actual novels -- which are big honking stinking piles of putrid trash on my hard drive, but hey, at least I tried!). If I didn't have so much going on in November this year, I'd give the 50k word marathon another shot, but alas, I don't think so. Maybe next year...
I'm reading an Agatha Christie novel, "Murder at the Vicarage." I used to love Dame Agatha and own quite a few of her books. Some were a little odd like "Destination Unknown" or "Evil Under the Sun", but others like "The Murder on the Orient Express" or the tour de force that is "The Murder of Roger Ackeroyd" still thrill. The one I'm reading is Miss Marple's first outing, and it's funny going back and reading a childhood favorite, as I'm seeing things I didn't necessarily notice before. I forgot how colloquial the language is, how interesting the turn of phrase is, and how subtle she is about dropping clues. Of course, the sketching of small town life -- country village -- is something she does really well and her characters, prominently Poirot and Miss Marple, are particularly well defined with their idiosyncrasies and mannerisms. I'm having a good time revisiting and am just a few chapters away from the end. Hoping to finish this evening. Despite all these years of reading Dame Agatha, I still don't know whodunit.
Writers may appreciate this blog: Mighty Red Pen; I learned the difference between comprise and compose here. And a blog dedicated to instances of apostrophe abuse here; this last one is a much needed public service.
I found this writing prompts website the other day and it actually helped me get out a 250+ word story that's growing quite large by the day. I just needed some help to get back into the groove. I wanted to take a writing class this fall, but I think my travel schedule is too hectic to contemplate the possibility in a cost-effective way. So I'll put that off until the spring and see how it goes with the writing prompt exercises.
The woeful misuse of the apostrophe drives me absolutely bonkers. It's nails on a chalkboard to me to see someone write you're when they really mean your or vice versa. Who's versus whose is another good one, but I cut people some slack on that one because it's way more confusing than the previous example. More recently, I don't like the practice of adding an apostrophe to make dates plural such 1960's; I always think that something ought to belong to 1960 when I see that. Also, abbreviations with random apostrophes -- such as SAT's instead of SATs. Since so many people do these things with apostrophes, I decided to do a bit of research and find out what the actual rules are.
Turns out, I'm mostly right. The apostrophe for dates and plural abbreviations can be accepted in some places by some people, but the more proper way is to omit the apostrophe in cases of plural abbreviations and dates unless there's the potential to cause some confusion such as multiple A's -- so it's A's, not As or if there is punctuation (ex: periods) within the abbreviation. A good write-up on the rules are here. Here's another post on the same subject. And there's apparently an Apostrophe Protection Society, complete with examples of apostrophe abuse.
Hat tip to Lori for pointing me to this latest case of plagiarism. The comments are hilarious. The author in question (Lanaia? Mary? Jane?), whose agent is casting spells and lawsuits left and right, has a Yahoogroup over here. Funny, funny.
I can't believe the weekend is 66 percent finished. I shouldn't be dismayed, because I got a lot done, including finishing that story I've been belly-aching about for MONTHS. I finished it this morning and parts of it fell immediately into place and other parts that have been bugging me were 'easily' rectified. It's as if I had to put it aside for a while, let it ferment, and then go off and do a whole lot of reading just to remind myself how it's done. In fact, I think the break was good for me because I'd fallen into a rut, was making the same stylistic choices and using some of the same phrasing over and over again. I'm not saying I didn't do that here, but I do think I approached it with a somewhat different mindset because I've been away so long.
I also think my summer of reading was a good way to ease back in. I was able to see what worked for writers and what doesn't work. Plus, I was exposed to different styles of writing, different genres, different cultures and different tonal qualities. All of that helps shape my approach. The lack of exposure and laziness got me into my old pattern and yes, it worked for a while, but it was kind of like writing the same story over and over again. The feel was always the same, the characterizations, the moods, etc. I'm not necessarily saying that's gone this time around, but I'm more aware and I think that's important. Hopefully I can keep this momentum going.
I finally tackled those pesky house chores that just never seem to go away. What's up with the sink NEVER being completely empty of dishes? What about the laundry that never seems to be done? It's like I empty the sink and do dishes and turn around and lo behold, gotta do it again. Oh well. If this is the worst problem I have to deal with, I'll take it!
That I figure out what ails my story and how to fix it when I'm in the least possible position to fix it? I've been contemplating my latest disaster and deciding with uncharacteristic zeal that I want to resurrect it and fix it, whatever the quality, so I can at least have a recent accomplishment of "I wrote something! Hooray!" So the first problem was the de-evolution of narrative and description and dialogue into paragraphs of serial events told to you, the hapless reader.
I realize now that the paragraphs are important because they are the guideposts to the story's action. It's not necessarily the content of the paragraphs that is the problem but more the way I've related the story. A few 'telling' moments here and there sprinkled through a story isn't the kiss of death. An entire third of the story is. Now that I realize the exact issue, I also have some idea of how to fix it. At some point (meaning the future, not tonight, because lately I seem to excel at procrastinating), I will turn my paragraphs into something that cannot be advertised as a cure for insomnia.
Hello, all, I'm back. I am finished the book and since I have no way of discussing it here without spoiling it, all I will say is that the 7 straight hours I spent reading the book were very enjoyable. Your mileage may vary.
I feel like I've missed a lot in the last few days. It was just Harry Potter that's been taking up my time, but I've been out and about. I'm supposed to be working on my story but somehow I don't seem that motivated to do something about my summary paragraphs and I feel very much like cheating and just saying "the end". But then I think, if JK Rowling did that, we readers would feel totally gypped. Not, btw, am I insinuating in any way that JK Rowling and I have anything in common except for maybe a love of coffee houses.
So how about you? Have you read the book? Was it worth the wait? The anticipation? And please, out of consideration, no spoilers.
It's not so much that I have writer's block -- I have lots of ideas and phrases running through my head at all times -- but that I despise editing with a passion. I mean, I really, really, really, really hate editing. There was a time when I didn't mind it, when I actually looked forward to the process, but now, it just grates on my nerves big time and the only way to avoid this necessary evil is to not write at all or do what I've been doing lately -- edit as I go along. Those of you who have been there done that know that the 'editing as you go along' process is not the wisest because it turns you, the writer, into an automatic self-critic and once you start second-guessing yourself, the story is not going to get off the ground.
I have a story that started off really well, even included some dialogue, but the last half of it is nothing but paragraphs of writing right to the anti-climatic end of the story; and yes, it reads as tediously as it sounds. The lazy in me is tempted to just leave it at that and slap a "the end" on it so I can move on to the next project which will be infinitely splashier and more exciting, but the critic in me is wagging her finger and saying, "Now, now, now, don't cut corners." What to do, what to do? In the end, quality's got to win over getting something done quickly, because if I'm not proud of it, then there's no point in sharing it with the world, right? So back I go to flesh out my lackluster endings and add in dialogue and detail and bring my sketchy paragraphs to life so my settings and characters 'pop'.
That doesn't change the fact I still hate editing.
I think the hardest part of stopping writing is starting up again. There is something to be said about writing something, ANYTHING, just to keep in the habit, and to an extent, I feel like this blog fulfills that quota. But nowadays, when it comes to being creative, I'm hopelessly lost and befuddled, as if I've never done this before. I'm also a lot more cautious, a lot more careful and discerning, which sounds like it could be a good thing, but it's not. The thing about writing is that you have to just go for it, with a playful abandon, with the knowledge that this thing you put down on paper, it might be any good, and that you're okay with that. That's the trick to being a writer. And it's a hard, hard one to learn.
I can't always claim originality on my links of the day, so today's tip of the hat goes to a friend who shall remain anonymous (unless ze outs hirself on this blog): The Crusie Mayer Writing Workshop 2007. I haven't had a chance to look at in-depth, but it's an online workshop, complete with a syllabus and articles on what worked for the writers in question. This week, they're discussing Point of View, which can be a pretty hairy topic. The topics on the syllabus look pretty neat and relevant. With the disclaimer that I haven't looked at it completely and thoroughly in place, the quick review suggests this site could be a good resource for those of us who need a kick in the pants to get going again.
The winners for the 10th SNW contest were announced earlier last week over here and I completely missed all of the excitement in the hijinks I call Real Life (tm). Trek people, you may see a familiar name or two on the list. I know there were at least a few people on there I was very happy for. Can we raise a virtual margarita for the winners? Hooray! I'm not in Trek fandom any more, but it's definitely nice to see this book come out, and not just a little sad to know it's the last one.
A friend recently asked why I don't write as much anymore and I was pretty stymied by the question because I do still like to write, I just... don't. Part of it is a discipline issue. I don't have the discipline to sit at the computer any more after being at work all day and typing and researching and writing. I used to think I'd never get sick of the computer or the Internet, but there you have it -- there are some nights when I come home and don't even turn on the computer (hence the lack of bloggity lately).
But I think a lot of my non-writing has to do with the lack of community. When I first got online, I found the Story Exchange (Hi Harry!) and there was a vibrant community and lots of talent and sparkling wit and just a lot of support there. It was a lot of fun to login into the site, read the new stories, discuss them, and talk about writing-related matters on the forum, as well as esoteric topics like spumante. Then there was ASC, Trek fandom's gathering place (or at least one of them), and there were tons of very cool people there, and again, vibrant community with lots of ideas flying back and forth. It's easy to write in an environment that's full of energy and ideas. And honestly, I wanted nothing more than to be a part of those communities and for membmership, I had to write.
These days, the writing forums I used to frequent are dead or close to dead. Many of the people I used to talk to have moved on to other things or have changed their pennames and left no forwarding addresses. My RL is also a lot busier and I don't have the time or patience to be online for hours anymore doing the work required to establish a presence and personality in an online forum or develop online relationships beyond the ones I already have and maintain. And so I don't write as much because the motivation I had -- to be part of a group -- has essentially evaporated and the intrinsic motivation has all but disappeared.
But I have been feeling the urge to write again more and more lately and there are a few non-fiction essay ideas ruminating in my head. One of these days, I'll just force myself to sit down and write them down. I've found that the hardest part is just getting started. Once I get past the first few paragraphs, it's a little like flying and the words and ideas take over and there's no feeling quite like it in the world. I'll keep you posted.