The Girl on the Train; also, chapter titles

Everyone seems to love The Girl on the Train.  It was a number one best seller; it’s being made into a movie; it’s on Obama’s summer vacation reading list.  So fine.  I just read it on my summer vacation.

The first thing I noticed is that the author used the technique I have settled on for my new novel: the point-of-view character is identified at the beginning of each chapter (along with the date and time of day).  I have become a little dubious about this technique since my
writing group reviewed my latest chapters, and Jeff pointed out that I hadn’t correctly established my point-of-view character in one of them.  “But I don’t need to,” I said.  “The point-of-view character is identified in the chapter title.”

“Oh,” Jeff replied.  “I hadn’t noticed that.”

So maybe I need to remove the “Chapter” designation; maybe I need to make the name of the character bigger.  That’s what Paula Hawkins does.  It’s probably all that stands between me and a deal for a major motion picture.

Anyway, her novel is well written and cleverly constructed, but I ended up being pretty disappointed.  Here are the problems I had with it (moderate spoiler alert):

  • I figured out who the murderer was pretty early on.  I kept expecting there would be a further twist, but the twist never came.
  • The critical event in the plot is witnessed by one of the narrators, but she doesn’t remember what happened because she was having an alcoholic blackout.  Or perhaps it didn’t happen.  Or perhaps she remembered it incorrectly.  But finally she remembers it, and that solves the mystery.  Meh.
  • One of the other narrators solves the mystery because the murderer unaccountably holds onto a key piece of evidence against him.  Phooey.
  • The climax is straight out of a Lifetime movie.  Woman finally realizes that the man she loved is really a lying cheating murdering psychopath.  The man comes after her.  Can she summon up the moxie to defeat him?  Ugh.

But really, her chapter titles are pretty good.

Life is stupider than fiction: Trump edition

Here is me complaining about how stupid it was for Mitt Romney’s campaign manager to go public with their plan to “Etch-a-Sketch” his campaign after he won the nomination.

Those were such innocent times!

I find it difficult to imagine Trump as a literary character, because the humorous parts of his character (his absurd vanity, for example) are so hard to reconcile with the incredible damage he could if he somehow managed to get himself elected.  This is real life, unfortunately.

Fiction (the kind of fiction I write, anyway) needs to assume a level of competence in the protagonist — that’s where the tension comes from.  You want a real Russian spy, not the dim-witted dupe that Trump apparently is.  You want a real billionaire who is nefariously turning his attention to politics after mastering the business world, not an unsuccessful huckster.

Trump’s incompetence would be disqualifying in a novel; it should be disqualifying in real life as well.  Too bad reality doesn’t play by the same rules.

We’re hearing a lot of denouncements of Donald Trump lately

But why aren’t they denunciations?

Here’s the sort of thing I’ve noticed, from the Times:

Representative Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico, the chairman of the House Democratic campaign arm, said his party was aiming to ensure that Republicans would be tarnished by Mr. Trump, even if they distanced themselves from him.

“A denouncement of Trump at this point is too little, too late,” Mr. Luján warned.

In another article, I spotted a Times writer using denouncements outside a quotation, but later the word was switched to denunciations in the online version.

Here’s a HuffPo article with denouncement in the headline and denunciation in the subhead.  “Trump’s Denouncements of KKK Leader Don’t Matter Anymore”:

“Anyone with two brain cells to rub together can see the denunciations are not sincere,” said a Southern Poverty Law Center fellow.

Maybe there’s just been a lot of denouncing going on lately.  Or maybe the language is changing, and denounce/denunciation is going the way of repel/repulsion, and the noun/verb pair is becoming similar.  In the case of repel/repulse, Google Ngram Viewer shows us a big uptick in the use of the verb repulse over the past twenty years, although repel is still more frequent.  Denouncement is used about ten times less than denunciation, Google says.  But maybe this campaign will change all that.

The Bad Sex award

The Bad Sex award for 2015 was given out last December.  Guess I missed it.  Here’s an interesting article in The Guardian about it.  The British award is given out for badly written erotic passages in otherwise good novels.  The winner was the singer Morrissey for a ridiculous passage in his novel List of the Lost.  The article makes the point that fear of being nominated for the award may actually be having a beneficial effect on literature, at least in the UK:

Grandees of the English novel are now hardly ever shortlisted because even the likes of Ian McEwan and Howard Jacobson now eschew sexual description, quite possibly in part due to awareness that such scenes could be performed to a baying, champagne-guzzling audience at the In And Out club the following December; and newcomers emerge from their creative writing degrees equally convinced that they’re best avoided.

I find writing a sex scene to be difficult.  Here’s the problem: a sex scene in most novels tends to be important; something major is happening to central characters.  (If they’re not central, why are you showing them having sex?)  Important scenes require vivid writing; you can’t just say: “They went into the bedroom, took their clothes off, and made love.”  So you want to ramp up the prose.  But what can you say about sex that hasn’t already been said?  You start reaching for metaphors, and before you know it you’re heading towards a Bad Sex nomination.

The thing to do, I think, is to focus on the characters’ reactions to what is happening, their emotions, rather than physical description.  Because the characters are what matter, after all; not the sex.  So sex scenes become exercises in characterization, not description.

By the way, Lee Child wants no part of writing sex scenes in his Jack Reacher novels.  He usually summarizes them briefly after the fact.  It had been good, Reacher thought.  It had been very good.  This is actually a good approach for Child.  A very good approach.  I wish he’d use the same approach for exploding brains and the like.

Malcolm Gladwell and the mystery of free-throw shooting

Here’s an interesting podcast in which Malcolm Gladwell confronts one of the fundamental mysteries of Western civilization: Why don’t basketball players shoot free-throws underhanded?  The evidence is incontrovertible that this method produces better outcomes than the overhand method.  And yet almost no one uses it.

This is of particular interest to me because, growing up, shot free-throws underhanded — I guess because my father did.  And I was good!  In the 7th grade, I was elected captain of my gym team, basically because I could shoot free-throws better than anyone else.  But this came to an end when the gym teacher noticed what I was doing and ordered me to cut it out.  So I did.  I was also pretty good shooting overhand, but nowhere near as good as I was underhand; it’s just harder.

Gladwell tells the story in his typical entertaining fashion, focusing on Wilt Chamberlain’s legendary 100-point game, which would never have happened if he hadn’t been going through a phase where he was shooting free throws underhand.  But then later, he changed back to the overhand method he was so bad at, because it made him “feel like a sissy.”  Wilt Chamberlain felt like a sissy!  Gladwell also brings in other standard examples from sports of people who can’t do the right thing even though they know better, like coaches who insist on punting when all the data says they should go for it on fourth down.

But, as usual, Gladwell’s explanation for this is, well, not that interesting, at least to me.  He uses the same theory of “thresholds” that he has also advanced to explain riots and school shootings.  Some people are go-it-aloners who don’t need to feel like they’re part of a crowd; for free-throw shooting, this would be Rick Barry, who didn’t care that no one else shot underhanded.  He knew he was right, and so that’s what he did.  He had a low “threshold”.  Most people have much higher thresholds; they can’t bring themselves to shoot free throws underhand or go for it on fourth down unless everyone else is doing it.  If everyone is doing the wrong thing, they will do the wrong thing–this might be the lesson of the Milgram experiments and others that emphasize the importance of situation in predicting human behavior.

Gladwell may be right; I don’t know.  But I’d have liked him to dig a little deeper.  Why would someone like Wilt Chamberlain feel compelled to be a conformist when it came to free-throw shooting, despite being as out of the ordinary as one could imagine in so many other ways?  What causes someone to have a different threshold?  No explanation is given.

Free ebooks in return for reviews: Some results

It’s becoming harder to get customer reviews for books nowadays.  That’s probably related to the general downturn in the ebook market.  Here I mentioned a program, run by my epublisher, to give away ebooks in return for honest reviews.  Once you sign up, you start getting a weekly eZine containing a list of books you can download for free.  Download a book, read it, and leave a review.

This model seems to be OK with Amazon, which has cracked down on some aspects of the customer review racket.  It appears to be a requirement to state that you got the book for free in return for an honest review.

Anyway, the approach is working for my novel Where All the Ladders Start.  Most reviews are pretty terse, like this one:

I received this book for an honest review. I loved this book. The plot and characters were amazing.

Well, what more do you need to say?  But wait!  It turns out that Laura Furuta has more to say!  Namely:

When I first started reading this story I was not really sure what to expect. I read the description and was thinking it was just another mystery book. I was wrong! This is a story about a P. I. who works in an America that has been changed. Not only that, also there are forces at work that are determined to see he fails with his latest case. I really enjoyed the story from the first chapter to the very ending page. It has the right combination of mystery and plot to keep you guessing. The characters also really shine as well. The main characters are very well written and even some of the secondary ones you will remember and love. This is one book that I recommend if you love mysteries. It will keep you guessing. I received a copy of this book from eBook Discovery in exchange for an honest review.

Even better!  Now all I need is a few more sales . . .

Here’s the cover, in case you forgot what the thing looks like:

Ladders cover final jpeg

Writers in the movies: “Trumbo”

One more in an apparently very occasional series.

Trumbo, of course, is the movie about Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted screenwriter who wrote Roman HolidaySpartacus, and other major movies.  The film mostly focuses on his time on the blacklist, when he had to cobble together a living by writing scripts anonymously, with the screen credit going to fronts.

Bryan Cranston is fine as Trumbo, and I guess he deserved his Oscar nomination, but Trumbo struck me as being a very bland movie.  Trumbo is presented as a secular saint, with his opponents–Hedda Hopper, John Wayne–presented as purely evil.  The only flaw we see in Trumbo is when he gets cranky with his kids for not wanting to deliver some of his rewrites to a movie set–but he quickly repents and goes off to apologize to his daughter, who, like him, is devoted to the cause of justice for the downtrodden.  Couldn’t we at least have had a scene where he explains why he’s still a communist despite what was then known about Stalin?  Life and politics in the 1950s were more complex than this movie lets on.

If Trumbo soft-pedals its hero’s politics, it pretty much ignores his writing.  We see a scene from Roman Holiday and another from Spartacus, and we learn that Trumbo likes to write in the bathtub, but there’s virtually nothing about the craft itself.  Well, there is a scene where he and a blacklisted co-writer (played by Louis CK) discuss the plotting for a quickie called “The Alien and the Farmgirl”.  Why does the alien fall for the farmgirl?  Because he reminds him of his girl back home.  OK, then.

Too bad.  Trumbo seems like an interesting guy, and the blacklist is certainly an interesting subject.  They deserve a better movie.