Reaching My Goal — 101 Fiction Novels

Dec 6, 2018 by

Heather Sellers’ 2007 writers’ guide Chapter After Chapter prods anyone interested in becoming a better writer to read 101 Fiction Novels. In December 2016, I set out to do just that, having suffered an injury that was keeping me from working like most, one that continues to plague me even today.

Heather Sellers’ Chapter After Chapter.

Other complications and illnesses have been added since, making working and concentrating even harder, but thankfully, I’ve been able to keep reading, and on Nov. 29th, I put down Javier Marías’ The Infatuations, book number 101, satisfied and fulfilled in a way I could not have imagined two years before.

You see, while I have been physically disabled the past two and a half years, I have been able to mentally travel around the world and through time through the power of fiction.

I’ve made a study of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, the three geniuses edited and managed by Maxwell Perkins. Through them I’ve been bullfighting in Spain in the 1930s, been all over Italy and Europe during World War I, and Paris afterward.

Then through various authors I’ve been in Paris as the Germans invaded it during World War II, and in many ways I felt what it must have been like, to have gone from such heydays after World War I with the Lost Generation to the starkness of the Nazi invasions, their lists, the killings.

But I’ve also been to Australia for a road race around the continent in the 1950s with Peter Carey in his book A Long Way From Home, and returned to experience the power of Big Little Lies with Liane Moriarty; experienced The Plague in Africa via Albert Camus, a non-existent war in Africa during Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, and been to South America for a hostage situation via Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. (I’ll read  anything now written by Ann Patchett–Commonwealth was so good, too.)

I have been to Tennessee and South Carolina to figure out the mystery of the woman who stole river children in the 1900s for adoption in Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours. (Lisa is under the impression US senators ride around in limousines all the time. Reporters should know better.)

My thinking about trees was forever changed by Richard Powers’ The Overstory, one of the most incredible books I’ve ever read. To think about living in the canopy of a redwood in Oregon for nine months, 100 feet off the ground. Something I’d never thought of, but might consider, given the chance and with better health. A wonderful, wonderful book that haunts me now whenever I see someone cutting down a tree because I know how long it takes for a tree to grow, the history behind it and how we snuff out a tree with a chainsaw and don’t give it a moment of thought.

Gosh, I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve been to England. Ian McEwan’s Atonement. What a great story about the power of love. Don’t forget to also read his On Chesil Beach. If you want to read some of the first murder mystery genre setting books, don’t forget John Fowles’ The Collector, who kidnaps a woman he fancies and drags her off to live in his flat north of London. The Lodger is another prolific book that brilliantly explores the murders surrounding the mystery of Jack the Ripper. Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje was also one of my favorites from my journey.

Then there are the books about the States. The Summer that Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel remains a favorite, a story about a boy who shows up in an Ohio town the summer of 1984 claiming to be answering an ad in the local paper calling on the Devil to present himself. Steven King’s The Outsider was something new for me. It wasn’t scary, but definitely a different read. Tommy Oranges’ There There shed new light on the Native American culture I did not know about. A.J. Finn and The Woman in the Window, Ottessa Moshfegh and Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation, as well as Lauren Weissberger’s When Life Gives You Lululemons all gave me new perspectives about the modern woman.

Celeste Ng took me back to Ohio in Little Fires Everywhere, a very good book, and Rachel Kushner seemed to have much the same thematic in The FlamethrowersFac Ut Ardeat (made to burn); perhaps that theme was also being explored in The Summer that Melted Everything as well. Even Stephen King’s The Outsider.

Thomas Wolfe intrigued me for days with his You Can’t Go Home Again. The language and writing is beautiful.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell. Funny, at times. But with an important message nonetheless.

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was strange to me at first, but I came to enjoy the writing once I got my bearings. The initial passages about the blind assassin himself, and the girl, were just strange, and I’ve found I’m not much for reading sci fi or dystopian nonsense.

I also flat out skip sections in books about explicit gay sex. Chloe Benjamin, Adam Haslett, take note. Your books were good, but I skipped large portions of The Immortalists and Imagine Me Gone and don’t think I missed anything, which means, those sections could have been left out (note to authors, agents and publishers). Those sections didn’t add anything. And in the case of Andrew Sean Greer’s book Less, once I learned that’s what it was, I’d actually ordered it from Amazon, I cancelled the order. I have no desire to read anything like that. Period.

I’ve read my share of spy novels: Daniel Silva’s The Other Woman, T. Jefferson Parker’s Swift Vengeance, Karin Slaughter’s Pieces of Her, and the over-hyped ridiculous Bill Clinton/James Patterson The President is Missing.

In Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone I spent time in Washington state and Oregon, and then the wilds of Alaska. This was not a great book by any means, but people recommended I read Hannah’s The Nightingale and I honestly believe it is the best book I’ve ever read. Goodreads has it rated at a 4.65 or something close and that seems to be the highest rating I could find. I highly recommend this book above all the rest. It is the one I described above as helping me understand what it must have been like when the Nazi’s invaded France in World War II. Maybe you should read some of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and their antics in Paris beforehand to learn about how gay and charming the city was 10 years before, that way you may get the full impact.

WHAT’S NEXT?

I’m going to start revising my second novel once again, with new knowledge.

And I’m going to keep writing.

It’s my 53rd birthday today and I’m getting a copy of War and Peace. I’m planning to also read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov as a study in the next few weeks. I also need to finish Anna Karenina. The movie version is good, but not good enough.

I also have asked my girls for a series of books that PBS and my local book store, Interabang Books put together this summer–100 supposed best loved novels–that I intend to read. Some of them I don’t think belong on the list and won’t read, but a good many I will. Some I already have and just have never read.

The goal in all of this is to make me a better writer, but what it’s also doing is making me a better person. Opening my mind and horizons. Making me think and relaxing my soul. My body is not in a condition to do what it once was able. I’ve been doing all I can the past two and a half years to get help from doctors to get it fixed. In the meantime, I’ve been getting my heart, mind, soul and writing ready for when I am free to walk normally in the world again.

Two years later, that’s the greatest gift I can give myself.

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The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

Aug 15, 2018 by

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

I recently read The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante and enjoyed the power of this book. I don’t think I’ve read a book yet on my way to 101 works of fiction that is packed with as many powerful lines in so short a work as this one, and there are some great, powerful words in this book. I’ve included a list of the passages I underlined while reading the book for you to soak in.

The Days of Abandonment is an excellent read with incredibly rich language.

I wanted to write stories about women with resources, women of invincible words, not a manual for the abandoned wife with her lost love at the tope of her thoughts. … I didn’t like the impenetrable page, like a lowered blind.  I liked light, air between the slats, I wanted to write stories full of breezes, if filtered rays where dust motes danced. And then I loved the writers who made you look through every line, to gaze downward and feel the vertigo of the depths, the blackness of inferno.  pg 21

The contradictions in the life of a couple are many–I admitted–and I was working on ours in hopes of untangling and resolving them.  pg 31

In this long hours I was the sentinel of grief, keeping watch along with a crowd of dead words. pg 32

…taught as wire digging into the flesh pg 35

Women without love lose the light in their eyes, women without love die while they are still alive. pg 44

Sometimes she gave me the feeling that she didn’t like me, as if she recognized in me something of herself that she hated, a secret evil of her own. pg 52

…You don’t speak to a father who sneaks into the house and leaves no trace of himself, not a hello, not a goodbye, not even a how are you. pg 58

Meanwhile I grabbed Mario, who was turning around with frightened eyes, his nose bleeding, and he looked at me full of terror and astonishment at once. Hold the commas, hold the periods. pg 70

A woman can easily kill on the street, in the middle of a crowd, she can do it more easily than a man. pg 72

A long passage of life together, and you think he’s the only man you can be happy with, you credit him with countless critical virtues, and instead he’s just a reed that emits sounds of falsehood, you don’t know who he really is, he doesn’t know himself. pg 74

We don’t know anything about people, even those with whom we share everything. pg 78

No, I thought, squeezing a rag and struggling to get up: starting at a certain point, the future is only a need to live in the past. pg 92

There was no distance between me and them, wheres the rule say that to tell a story you need first all of a measuring stick, a calendar, you have to calculate how much time has passed, how much space has been interposed between you and the facts, the emotions to be narrated. pg 98

Tricks of words, a swindle, maybe the promised land has no more words to embellish the facts. pg 98

The most innocuous people are capable of doing terrible things. pg 114

We fabricate objects in a semblance of our bodies, one side joined to the other. Or we design them thinking they’re joined as we are joined to the desired body. Creatures born from a banal fantasy. pg 131

Success depends on the capacity to manipulate the obvious with calculated precision. pg 131

What a mistake, above all, it had been to believe that I couldn’t live without him, when for a long time I had not been at all certain that I was alive with him. pg 140

How heavy a body that has been traversed by death is, life is light, there’s no need to let anyone make it heavy for us. pg 146

Not even the TV in one corner, transmitting the latest harsh news on the deeds of men…. pg 157

Translation

This book was written in Italian and translated into English. What I’ve already learned is that there is more packed into the Italian version that does not come across in the English translation. That’s hard to believe given the list of quotes from the book already included above. Elena Ferrante has a command with words and it is beautiful to read.

This is a passionate story. A husband leaves his wife and she is left to pick up the shattered pieces of her life. The book is worth a read. A couple readings, actually. The writing is among the best ever. Truly.

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Writer’s Doubt 

Aug 9, 2018 by

Writer’s Doubt

There are days when my writer’s doubt makes me want to load up my typewriters, cameras, laptops, iPads, clothes, tent, sleeping bag, the axe, the dog, my notebooks, and typing paper and head far into the woods of Upper Michigan, far from the silence of waiting for the next ding from Mac Mail that might be another rejection from an agent, or might finally, just possibly be an email from an agent wanting more of what I’ve queried.

The seal of The Grammatic Artist.

To date, I’ve sent out 77 query letters. I’ve received 31 rejections and have two agents who have asked for more. One asked for three chapters more on May 3rd and I’ve heard nothing more. Another asked for a full on July 2. It’s now August 9, 2018.

In an effort to keep myself from going stir crazy, I have been revising Book 3, which will be Book 2 to query. Since most agents supposedly vacation in August, I’m spending the month revising, and I’m spending the month doing what I can to work toward my goal set by Heather Sellers in Chapter After Chapter–to read 101 fictional works with the understanding that I will be a much better writer for having done so. As of today, I am on book 74, 1/3 of the way through Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.

Query Letters and The Synopsis

What I’m also learning on this quest is that there is no right answer, no one way for doing any of this.

What one agent will tell you about how to write a query letter will not match what the next one tells you.

The same goes for the dreaded synopsis.

I was taught to do it one way. In this month’s Writer’s Digest magazine is an excerpt from Ammi-Joan Paquette, who says the synopsis should be one page for every 10,000 words, meaning a good solid synopsis should be five to eight pages in length.

Only problem with that is when you get down to querying and agents ask for a synopsis, they ask for a short one of 1-3 pages, generally.

It’s all a moving target, and for someone trying to break in, it’s mind boggling.

Rejections

Then there is what to make of rejection letters. Most of them include a sentence that says, “we get so many queries, we don’t have time to provide a personal response why we are passing on your book.” So that’s of no real help.

And then when someone does take the time, it doesn’t jive with what the others have said, so there’s no consensus.

The one consensus is, “I’m not the right fit, but keep trying.”

Triple Digits

I keep getting told not to worry about any of this until I hit triple digits in rejections. That leaves 67 more intolerable more dings and quite possibly more ambiguous reasons for why my book got a pass. And of course there are going to be those agencies that simply don’t respond at all. No dings, I should probably call them.

What an unnerving and humbling and disturbing and troubling process.

It’s time to go get back into Ng’s book, to try to trick my mind and ears to stop listening for the ding, like a teen waiting for a girl to call him.

I’m going to get published. I’m going to find an agent. Where are you? Why is it taking so long?

My Query

THE VOODOO HILL EXPLORER CLUB is a rich blend of STAND BY ME, the Netflix series STRANGER THINGS, and ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. The commercial fiction work would be found in the adult section of a book store and is 89,000 words.

In 1977, four teen boys on an Air Force base in Upper Michigan, led by KIRK CARSON, build a tree house near the secret hideaway of a Russian spy.

Kirk is fighting his own Cold War among friends, a bully, and himself.

To tell the story, he tries to type “I’m trying to change my life,” but instead his typewriter clacks out, “I’m trying to change my lie.” He wishes he could use white out on the whole year.

How Kirk handles the ultimate test of a December blizzard and the Russian spy who has been trying to scare them all out of the woods means life or death for his friends.

THE VOODOO HILL EXPLORER CLUB is a nostalgic reminder of an America where kids played outside until their mothers signaled a summer’s day’s end by turning on the porch light.

I have written in journalism and public relations, and for governors and school superintendents for more than 30 years. Since 2014, I’ve been part of Southern Methodist University’s Writer’s Path program.

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The Human Stain by Philip Roth

Aug 9, 2018 by

The Human Stain by Philip Roth

I finished The Human Stain by Philip Roth this past weekend and at times felt like reading the places where he crammed four pages of internal monologue into 20 it should have been called The Human “Strain.” I read this book on my Kindle and listened to other parts on Audible to help speed things along. I don’t normally do that but there was so much gray on the pages my brain needed a break.

The Human Stain

The Human Stain

The Human Strain

All that said, I did like the story, and more importantly, I learned some important things about writing from reading The Human Stain. That simply must be emphasized here. There were times Saturday when I wanted to drive to Interabang Books in Dallas and buy a hard copy of the book to have to underline in it, so I can go back to passages in time and read them again and pull from them, possibly. But then I got to sections, like when Delphine Roux has her thoughts … and thoughts … and thoughts … and thoughts … and thoughts … right before the climax of the book and I damn near put it down for good.

This is what one is taught not to do is writing schools. And yet the book was the winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award. So like in all things, there are rules, but then they are meant for everyone else.

There was a lot of head hopping in this book, things that Nathan Zuckerman could not have known to write it. When he’s supposing in his head about a character, like the example above of Delphine Roux, an antagonist of protagonist Coleman Silk throughout the work, suddenly in the next sentence, we’re in Delphine’s head and we know all about her life in France before coming to America. We know about men she was with. We know about her mom and her mom’s French history. We even get to hear her mom talk. We know about a trip she took to New York. We know how she sent an anonymous letter. We know how she contrived a b.s. story to tie in to the death of Coleman Silk. None of which Zuckerman could have known–yet he presents it in the story as fact. The same for Les Farley. The same for Faunia Farley. The same for Coleman Silk. The same for the guys who take Les Farley to the Chinese restaurant and out to the portable Vietnam Wall.

Yes, this is fiction, but I had a hard time with that, when it’s been drilled into my head, “No head hopping.”

Half-Mast v. Half-Staff

Another point, Roth shows he has vast knowledge of the classics, foreign languages, literature, the psyche of the human condition, etc, (and that’s a big etc.) but he makes the simplest of mistakes which makes me question all the rest of it. The mistake? He says, repeatedly, that the US flags have been lowered to “Half Mast.” Only problem is that masts are on boats, and most flags in the US, particularly the ones on land, fly on staffs, so the proper use of the term is to say, “Flags are flown at half-staff.” So I wonder if his editors, being so overwhelmed with all the other profundity, simply didn’t bother to check. “He must be right!” Or had their minds been so numbed with the 4 pages into 20 monologues they were simply to fried to check out something so simple.

Raising the Stakes – Negation of the Negation

But I came away with a better sense of the proverbial “raising the stakes.” The Robert McKee point of the “Negation of the Negation.”

Coleman Silk has a secret and that secret ultimately isn’t his undoing, but drives the story to the dark corners it sheds light upon. And that’s the beauty of what Philip Roth does with The Human Stain. Race, political correctness, morality, family relationships, secrets, all those themes are woven together and pushed as far as they can be taken. And that is what works in this book. That is what makes it a good read, and a beneficial read as I continue to work toward my goal of reading 101 literary works to help improve my own writing.

Conclusion

Read The Human StainIt won the PEN/Faulkner Award. After seeing Faulkner’s name, yeah, I can see why. (If I could think like that and the synapses and dendrites of my neural pathways were not searing from having spent forty-eight hours of heat-seared Texas summer time sunlight and unseasonably cool evenings surveying the pages of Philip Roth’s book searching for the meaning in his words and trying to find personal meaning and satisfaction in each single solitary one of them for my own beneficial use, I’d write a long and in-depth sentence explaining how that makes every bit of perfect sense to me and how when each new day begins for the rest of my life I will be a changed man because of reading such expansive thoughts that he included on his pages, well, you get the idea….)

 

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The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

May 12, 2018 by

The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, the Hemingway Library Edition is a collection of 26 short stories written by the late master, which also includes a foreword by sons Patrick Hemingway and Introduction by Seán Hemingway. Just as important is section entitled “The Art of the Short Story” by Hemingway himself.

The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway contains 26 short stories by Hemingway plus an essay by him on the art of the short story.

This book is critical for anyone working to hone their skills in the art, and writing short stories is truly an art, and something of a skill that all writers should seek to develop, (I will not use the word perfect).

Hemingway said that writing short stories was something that if you can do, you do it. “You don’t have to explain it. If you can not do it, no explaining will ever help.”

He goes on to say that “If you leave out important things or events that you know about, the story is strengthened. If you leave or skip something because you do not know it, the story will be worthless.”

In his own words, Hemingway said, “The test of any story is how very good the stuff is that you, not your editors, omit.”

This book is a must read for anyone wanting to write a better short story. The bonus in this book is that the Hemingway Library has added the rough drafts of each story and also marked where Hem crossed out language he didn’t use. This is quite beneficial as one studies each story to get a better understanding of his thinking.

There are so many good stories in this book, the ones he is famous for, and of course, the ones that aren’t as well-known, but they are all here for one who is truly the student of Hemingway. “Up in Michigan,” “Fifty Grand,” “The Killers,” “A Canary for One,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” just to name a few.

This book is a treasure in my collection. I will pull from it many times in the future. There is much to learn from in these pages.

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Hemingway in Love—His Own Story

May 3, 2018 by

Hemingway in Love—His Own Story

Hemingway in Love—His Own Story is a memoir written by A.E. Hotchner, a friend of the late Ernest Hemingway. Hotchner used letters and tape recordings of Hem to write the book, often using straight transcripts of Papa to fill the pages direct about topics, particularly of his marriage to his first wife Hadley, and second wife Pauline.

Hemingway In Love

Hemingway In Love–His Own Story by A.E. Hotchner is a memoir about Ernest Hemingway and a very poignant book. A must read for any student of Papa.

The book gets into Hem’s paranoia about the FBI tapping his phones and what led to him receiving shock treatments, descriptions of how painful they were, not to mention how unsuccessful they were in treating his ailment—and then at the end reveal that Freedom of Information Act disclosures who how J. Edgar Hoover really was surveilling Hemingway after all.

But if one has any romantic feelings about how mystical and wonderful Hemingway’s life might have been, this book will remove some of that.

The parts about his being torn between his love for Hadley and Pauline are simply tragic.

After he lost both women, as predicted by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who told him to dump Pauline before he lost Hadley, his wife, Hemingway is truly torn with regret for the rest of his life. And it shows in this book. In fact, from Hotchner’s account, Hemingway spent the rest of his life looking to fill the hole in his soul left by the absence of Hadley.

This is a touching and rich book that is a must read for anyone who finds themselves studying Hemingway. He remarks and fills in the blanks about what he was thinking when he wrote several of his short stories and The Sun Also Risesand For Whom The Bell Tolls.

There are special ways that Hemingway talked in his day to day expressions we don’t hear anymore that come to life in this book. Ones I underlined and found colorful and clear.

“No matter what they tell you about reliving the past, it’s not a bridge, and you can’t go over it.”

“Poverty’s a disease that’s cured by the medicine of money.”

“They have remained in the museum of my mind.”

Like I said, this is a must-read book for anyone studying the nature and psychology of one of the most famous writers of the last 100 years. Reading his work is one thing. Hearing him talk about it is quite another. I’ll read this book a couple more times to see what I missed the first time. You should, too.

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