What makes a plot “arthritic”?

In my post on Ann Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread I quoted the Washington Post’s assessment (at the beginning of a rave review) that its plot was “arthritic”  I don’t know what that means.  Presumably the reviewer is talking about the events of the novel, which are standard-issue Ann Tyler: ordinary people working their way through ordinary problems.  But isn’t that what most literary fiction is about?  Alice McDermott’s Somewhere and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteredge, for example, are no different, except in their locations.  (I talk about them briefly here and here.)

Maybe the reviewer doesn’t like how Tyler lays out the structure of the events?  But that can’t be it.  The structure is perfectly comprehensible, but she fractures the time sequence and the points of view in interesting and modern ways.  The novel begins by hopping forward through time a bit, and it ends unexpectedtly with two deep flashbacks, one with about the grandparents, who are dead long before the main action begins, and the other about how the parents fell in love, decades before the action begins.  And it ends with a brief scene that gives us the first point of view section of a main character (perhaps the main character).  Again, this is similar to what McDermott and Strout do in their novels, which hop around endlessly in their time sequences.

Ultimately, I think the reviewer just felt the need to make a glancing reference to Tyler’s age.  She’s been writing fine novels for 50 years, and she knows what she’s doing.

I wish I could do it.


My Kindle Paperwhite and me

I finally splurged and bought a Kindle Paperwhite–and immediately thereafter Amazon went ahead and announced a new improved model at the same price.  Oh, well.

My lovely wife got an early-model Kindle a few years ago, and neither of us used it much–the interface was clunky, and the resolution wasn’t very good.  I then used the Kindle app on my iPad 2, which was much better, but the iPad’s weight and form factor weren’t ideal for casual reading.  The Paperwhite is much better.

Thoughts on the Paperwhite so far:

  • The weight and form factor are fine.  You can hold the thing in one hand while holding your beer in your other hand.
  • It’s easier to use in sunlight than the iPad.
  • The resolution in my model is good enough for me, although I’m always happier to get better resolution. The ability to change font size and screen brightness is a big plus (as it is on the iPad app).
  • The built-in dictionary and Wikipedia are probably the biggest advantages for me over reading printed books.  I’m currently reading a novel set in the ninth century called Pope Joan, and the author doesn’t spare the medieval vocabulary.  (She does a good job with the olde-time dialog, although her characters aren’t particularly interesting so far)  At my age I should know what a posset is, but OK, I don’t.  It’s so easy to highlight the word and have the Kindle tell me what it means.
  • I sure wish it had color, if just for the book covers.
  • A battery charge lasts, like, forever.

And, of course, there’s the content. I was listening to Being Mortala wonderful book about old age and dying. The author mentioned Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which I haven’t read in decades.  So I went to the Kindle store and found it for $1.99–in a book with everything else Tolstoy ever wrote.  So now I have War and Peace and Anna Karenina on my Kindle, just in case.  If I get tired of Tolstoy, I can always dip into the complete stories of H. P. Lovecraft, which I also picked up for $1.99.  (I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Tolstoy is a better writer.)  Or the complete stories of Chekhov.  Or an old P. G. Wodehouse novel.  Or the Federalist Papers, which I never got around to reading when I was in school.

So far I haven’t spent more than $1.99 on anything I’ve bought for the Paperwhite, and I probably have enough on it to last me the rest of the year.  The older content has its share of typos and faulty layout, but the price is right.

Have I mentioned lately that my novels are all available for the Kindle Paperwhite at astonishingly low prices?  No typos, no faulty layout.

How did I become so darn creative?

The blog The Passive Voice points me to some guy I’ve never heard of who offers six ways to boost your creativity:

  1. Wake up early
  2. Exercise frequently
  3. Stick to a strict schedule
  4. Keep your day job
  5. Learn to work anywhere, anytime
  6. Realize that “creative blocks” are just procrastination

Well, you know, I do all that stuff, and everything the guy says makes perfect sense.  Like his comment on #3:

It’s a common misconception that in order to be creative, one must live life on a whim with no structure and no sense of need to do anything, but the habits of highly successful and creative people suggest otherwise. In fact, most creative minds schedule their days rigorously. Psychologist William James described the impact of a schedule on creativity, saying that only by having a schedule can we “free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action.”

So read the post and do everything this guy says.

Writing olde-time dialog

My brother passed along this article from the New York Times about writing dialog in a historical novel. The writer puts her finger on the central issue:

The problem for a writer who has seized upon a story set in the past is how to create a narrative voice that conjures the atmosphere of its historical times, without alienating contemporary readers. It’s a complicated sort of ventriloquism.

In other words, you want to be true to your characters and your time, but you also need to be comprehensible.  She goes on:

The best writers — from Charles Frazier in “Cold Mountain” to Junot Diaz in “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” — deploy foreign or arcane words sparingly, to give a realistic flavor of an era or a culture, but they also channel the atmosphere of time and place through the rhythms of speech.

Anyway, I’m facing a version of this problem in my sequel to The Portal.  We’re in an alternative universe where people speak Latin.  Some of the characters know English, but it’s not necessarily our English.  And some dialog takes place in Latin but is translated into English.  So how does one handle all this?

I’m pretty much doing what the author suggests.  I sprinkle in enough Latin words and phrases so that the reader doesn’t lose sight of the exotic locale.  A school is referred to as a schola, for example; a village is a castellum.  And I use a slightly formal, slightly non-standard rhythm to the English dialog, avoiding all modernisms.  I think this will probably work.  We’ll see.


Jon Vickers

The great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers died today.  My most memorable evening in the theater was seeing him, Renata Scotto, and Cornell MacNeil at the Met in the Zeffirelli production of Otello.  (Seems to me that Otello is that rarest of creatures that is actually better than its Shakespearean source.)

Here is Vickers in the final scene of Verdi’s opera.  Art just doesn’t get any better than this.

Second draft: Did I write THAT?

The one downside of working on a second draft is that you’re sort of obliged to read your first draft.  My first draft is always better in recollection than on the page.  Now that I know where I’m going, I see that I’ve gotten pretty much everything wrong on the page.  I’m now about 7000 words into my rewrite, and probably 5000 of those words are new.  That’s pretty depressing.

On the other hand, those new words are great!

At least, they will be until I have to re-read them.