Summerland (part the 2nd), Michael Chabon

Although I rarely do this, it’s been such a busy week, what with the holiday and getting ready to go visit my family on the east coast, I decided to take myself to the local coffee joint to write this review. It would take me away from the piles of laundry that need to be washed, sorted, and packed, the dishes that are piling up on every available surface, and the vacuuming that will only seem interesting as a procrastinatory technique. I figured it would also keep me from running errands (right now, my list says I should be at the grocery store, the bank, and the dry cleaners, preferably simultaneously), another activity that becomes suspiciously exciting when faced with real work.

It seemed like a pretty solid plan. It’s worked well for me in the past. In fact, I wrote almost all of my NaNo novel here last year (and the year before that). Because, honestly, if you go to all the trouble of packing up the computer, power cord, and a reusable cup, there’s no way you’ll be distracted (right?!). For one thing, at my neighborhood Starbucks (a little chain you may have heard of…don’t judge – it’s within walking distance and has free wi-fi), the competition for tables is so fierce that even pausing to stare into space and structure a sentence for more than ten seconds will earn you death stares from people who didn’t make it in time to get a table before the squatters (ie people like me) arrived. I know because I’ve perfected my own version of the stare – it’s the “if you’ve got a table, you better be writing a work of pure genius” look of someone who overslept.

There’s not a lot of genius going on here today. The guy to my left is checking the stock market (I think) – he’s at least talking about stocks loudly on his phone while staring at a bunch of number charts on his computer. The woman on my right is a new mom. She looks tired. She’s booking flights to China while the baby sleeps. (Did I mention the tables are uncomfortably close together here?)

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not judging (that would be the seat-less furies by the door). Genius is as far a reach for me today as the idea of getting my to-do list done by the time I board a plane tomorrow morning. It’s perhaps a slightly less far reach for me than it is for the man sitting at a table across from me who has fallen sleep with his computer open. (He probably should have ordered a coffee.) And maybe it’s closer than it would be for the couple making out over their computer by the window (although, on second thought, maybe not).

What I’m trying to say is, I’m not on my game. And I’m sorry. Because the truth is, I liked the second half of Summerland even better than the first half. Chabon is just…he’s brilliant. In such an understated way too. It’s not that he underwrites, although my instinct is to say that he does; it’s more that he makes every sentence count. I never get the feeling of wasted space from his stories. It’s like each sentence is a brush stroke and it’s only when I step back and stop reading that I can truly appreciate what he’s created.

I’m trying to space his books out too, because even though I have his most well-received book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, on my shelf and would love to dive in, his writing is too rich to rush. Even Summerland, ostensibly a children’s book, was a banquet – I had to pace myself. Every time I picked up the book, I felt like I was stepping back into a childhood I didn’t quite have, but also, didn’t quite not have…because the adventure and tragedy and friendship Chabon writes of are at times fantastical and familiar.

My own history is a myth I’ve created from memories I believe are real and lies I told to protect myself, and I couldn’t tell you the truth of it all even if I wanted to. That’s the way of childhood, and that’s what he captures in this book – the maze of deep shadows and dead ends and thorny walls that must be scaled. It’s a world we’re mostly happy to have survived (relatively) unscathed, but occasionally, a book like this comes along and convinces us it’s safe to dip our toes back into the murky waters…and mostly, it is.

Learn more about Michael Chabon here.

No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days, Chris Baty

Okay, folks, we’re taking a little detour here, and I’m going to ask you to go with it because let’s be honest – Part 2 of Summerland is not exactly the newest installment of Downton Abbey, and if we can all be forced to wait a year for six episodes of genius BBC television, you can hang on until Thursday to hear how I feet about the end of the book. (I mean, have you seen that show?! It begins with the sinking of the Titanic and things only got worse from there! Epic! Hilarious! Well-mannered! British TV has gotten so good that I’m thinking of making a couple of the shows honorary books. Because I totally have the power to do that…)

Anyway, this is less a review of Baty’s book, which (spoiler alert) is awesome, and more a plug for National Novel Writing Month (November), Camp NaNoWriMo (June and August), and, obviously, getting more novels written so I have more books to read and review.

Because I started this blog in December, you have yet to live through NaNoWriMo with me, nor I with you. This coming fall will be my sixth year (although only four challenges were completed), and I’m interested to see what it does to me to try to A) write my 50,000 words, B) read and review twice a week here and C) finish the book contracted and due in December. I’m thinking I might end up in the fetal position, with lots of broken computer parts strewn around me. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Don’t you want to be a part of that journey?!

Yes, you do! And hopefully, so does my friend Nick, who recently wrote to me asking for some advice on how to proceed with his first novel. I know a lot of you are writers, and I wanted to share the conversation he and I had, and hopefully hear from some of you about your own techniques, road blocks, and victories. For the record, I’ve been writing a long time, and my advice comes from years of talking with people much wiser and more experienced than myself, but my very favorite piece (point 4, below) comes from Chris Baty himself (so go ahead and buy his book already!)

* * *

I had the urge to write a novel recently.  I totally busted out a page and a half in a google doc, then hit the point of asking myself, “Wait, who are these characters, what’s their back story, and how do I arrange the overarching plotline?”  It was a critical moment; I was debating blowing up a whorehouse in a dystopian future.

Then I just stopped writing.  And instead started building a web app to let me organize my thoughts and write the novel in manageable chunks, but I’m still not sure how exactly writers manage it.  Anyway, if you have free time on your hands, mind giving your opinion on how you organize your thoughts?  

My first piece of advice? ALWAYS blow up the whorehouse. Seriously. When writing a first draft, always take the most interesting path available to you.

Second piece of advice? Set yourself a goal. The reason I love National Novel Writing Month is that I HAVE to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Some of them might suck, but not all of them will (I know this for a fact because I’m revising right now, and not all the words are being deleted!). NaNoWriMo actually has a summer program running too; you should definitely check it out because it’s a great way to force past your inner editor (who is the devil and will definitely keep you from ever, ever writing a book). I’m actually considering doing this in Aug as well.

Third piece of advice? Murder your inner editor in his sleep. He’s a rat bastard and he will not help you at this stage (this stage being the one where you have one and a half pages written). You can resurrect him when you have your first complete rough draft done. Until then, he’s dead to you.

Fourth piece of advice (and the best I ever got)? Write the book that YOU would want to read. The first many years I did NaNoWriMo were brutal because I was trying to write what I thought I should be good at. This year, I said screw it and wrote a wacky fantasy with lots of antagonistic romances, and lo and behold, it was actually fun! Shakespeare, it’s not. But it makes me laugh and I want to keep working on it, and what better book is there then the one you love enough not to abandon?!

Okay, that’s all my advice. Now, on to organization. This varies hugely from writer to writer. Some people are great about planning, but I’m more of a by the seat of my pants type. I like to just write and write and write with basically no plan at all and see what happens. Later, I go back and sort things out.

That’s certainly not the only way to go about it, and it sounds like you’re working on a way to get things organized, but keep in mind that you might just be procrastinating from fear that the novel you want to write isn’t possible. That fear cripples many writers to the point that they plan and tweak and organize for years without ever writing a single word. You have to choose for yourself what’s worse – making mistakes, or failing to start.

* * *

Now, I know not all of my readers are also writers, but many of you are. And I suspect that even more of you would like to be (in much the same way I would like to be a marathon runner…which is to say, it feels impossible, but I’m told it’s not). Well, I’m going to start training for half marathon when I get back from vacation in a few weeks, and I expect those of you who have a story you’re burning to tell to at least consider joining me in August or November for a 50,000 word challenge. Chris Baty created this program to make writing a novel more accessible for every one of us, no matter age or ability. He’s written a great book to get new (and not so new) writers started, so if you need a little nudge, this is it.

And just remember, as you’re sitting at the bottom of whatever mountain you wish you were good enough to climb, that we are made free not so life can be easier, but so that we have the opportunity to become the people we’ve always wanted to be, despite the fear that our efforts will be found lacking…

More information about Chris Baty can be found here.