Thursday, July 29, 2010

After Further Review

I started writing book reviews for New Mystery Reader in 2005, and will forever be grateful to Stephanie Padilla for the opportunity and encouragement she provided. At least half of the authors I read now became known to me through books I was asked to review, including many of my favorites. (John Connolly, Timothy Hallinan, and Declan Hughes jump to mind; there are several others.)

I've been on hiatus for a few months, and I think it's going to continue. The fact is, a lot of books that get published have many of the same strengths and weaknesses, and it got harder all the time to say the same things in different, and (hopefully) entertaining ways. I also found I was more quickly losing interest in books I didn't care for, which made going through to the end more of a chore than it should be.

Those things pushed me to take a break; what's keeping me from going back are the writers. I've been lucky enough to become friendly with fairly broad range of writers, from reading each others' blogs and trading comments on web sites such as Crimespace. Some I became friendly with after I reviewed their books and followed up with an interview. This was all well and good and fun, until a thought came to me one day:

What do I do when I get one of their books for review and I don't think much of it?

It's bound to happen. No offense to any of my writer friends, but I've read books by Elmore Leonard and said, "meh." The easy answer is, you tell the truth in an honest and straightforward manner, and they'll understand. They're writers. They know how it works. I've read uncomplimentary comments about my writing and not felt differently about the commenter. It's not a criticism of them as a person, it's the writing we have a difference about.

Still, I'm not going to do it, for the best reason I can think of: I don't want to.

It's not like I'm Jonathan Yardley or Michiko Kakutani. I'm not making a living at it, and people aren't subscribing to feeds with breathless anticipation of my next literary pronouncement. I owe readers an honest evaluation, and I'd be reluctant to give it to them if it meant I had to disparage a friend's work. So I won't. I'll read for the entertainment, and to learn a little, and I'll do my monthly "Good Reads" posts with single paragraph comments of books I liked. If I don't like a book, no one needs to know I read it.

The less seriously I take this whole writing business, the more I like it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ain't Technology Wonderful?

There's a new scam operating online that can actually be fun. "I Write Like" asks you to paste a sample of your writing into a text box, where its magical algorithm will "analyze" what you pasted and tell you who you write like. They'll even send you an electronic "certificate" you can post to your blog, bragging about which writer you most resemble. (This leads me to believe everyone who submits a sample is far more likely to resemble a literary great than some schmuck who sold fifteen copies of a coming-of-age soft porn book twenty years ago.)

I thought it would be fun to paste in the first couple of pages on my current project and see who I wrote like. This scene between two men in a strip club plotting the death of their wives was proclaimed to read like Mark Twain. This surprised me a little, as I've read all of Twain's books, and many of the shorter pieces, and I don't remember him using "fuck" at all, though I worked it in there six times.

Maybe this algorithm is more subtle and profound than I expected, or am myself. Next I pasted the last few paragraphs from Raymond Chandler's "The Simple Art of Murder," including the famous, "down these mean streets" section. I wanted to see if the computer thought it resembled Chandler.

Nope. Mario Puzo.

I liked The Godfather, and wholeheartedly agree with the description given to it by a critic whose name escapes me. ("The best bad book ever written.") I just don't see a lot of resemblance between Puzo's writing and Chandler's, aside from dealing with crime and using English.

I decided to go best two of three, and pasted in an excerpt from a data feed the system I work on gets nightly. It's nothing more than names, addresses, dates, and some column separators, and looks something like this:

TWX_2899|Simpson||Bart|111 15th Street, SW|Arlington, VA||20319||||(703) 555-9978|CONT|TWX_CONTRACTORS|N|06/22/2010|06/23/2010|e7213fbf43edbe4e8da2e6afe3f49a65

The computer was reminded of the work of David Foster Wallace. I would have said HAL9000, but maybe that's why I'm not more successful.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Back in the Saddle Again

I started the final draft of the work-in-progress Sunday night. I probably mind these polishing drafts less than anything else about writing; I have a routine that works for me, and I just plod through the entire book. Each day I read a chapter or two, edit on the screen what I read the previous day, and line edit a hard copy while I read it aloud. (The three steps are performed in reverse order from what is described here; it seemed to read easier this way.)

How do I feel about coming back to a writing routine after two months off? Meh. I don't mind the work, but I don't like the time it sucks out of my evenings. The plan is to finish this off by Labor Day, then decide if I want to start another project to fill the winter months. (I have a few story ideas I like percolating, so there shouldn't b a delay there, should I feel like continuing.)

The book itself is okay. I'm pretty happy with the quality of the writing and not changing a lot, mostly tightening and re-ordering words and sentences. I hope this doesn't come across like I'm an arrogant prick, but I really don't think it's the quality of my writing that has held me back. (I freely admit to being an arrogant prick; I just don't want to sound lime one.) The fault is not with the publishing industry, it's mine alone. The issue isn't so much with the quality of the writing, but with the something else of the writing. Story selection, maybe. Possibly my voice. As I've noted before, I try to write books I'd like to read; maybe my tastes aren't popular enough. Whatever. Let's finish this puppy up and get on with trying to sell it.

It would be remiss of me not to take a moment to thank those who have been encouraging, sympathetic, and generally made me feel as though they had my back. Of course, My Beloved Spouse heads the list, but Declan Burke and Charlie Stella have stood out with their support and patience with my whining. Thanks to them, and to all of you who have posted comments here, or sent emails. You are much appreciated.