What Makes a Good Book?

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A little book update: I’ve been writing this book for a over a year now (a whole year! my god that went fast!) (inconsistently at best, there were more than a few months when I didn’t touch it at all) and have only managed to eke out 65 pages, or 27k-ish words. Only. I know that’s an accomplishment not worth diminishing, but sometimes it feels like nothing instead of something. Why can’t it go faster? Why can’t I get it all out of my head and onto paper? I’m toying with the idea of joining a writing group this winter, for moral support alone. There are fits and starts to this whole process, and then periods of quiet so buzzingly loud it makes you crazy. The silence is the worst. I’ve been sleeping with my notebook and pen in bed next to me, just in case the all-too-frequent midnight burst of inspiration wakes me, and I can capture every word (even if they don’t make sense in the morning).

But I’ve been wondering: what makes a good book? Is it just relatable characters? A believable plot? Flowery prose? There is no universal equation, as everyone wants and expects something different out of the books they read, and it’s why some people love one author but hate another, despite that author’s mainstream popularity. What do you want out of a book? Do you want to recognize something inside of you within those pages? Do you want an escape? A nicely resolved, tied-up-with-a-bow ending? Or is it enough to read something and know someone wrote the very best book they could? Is that enough? Have I worn you out with questions?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Paintings

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Still Life with Flowers by Severin Roesen

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Equestrienne (L’Amazone) by Amedeo Modigliani

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Chrysanthemums by Pablo Picasso

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Young Woman Reclining in Spanish Costume by Edouard Manet

What do these four paintings have in common? They were all painted between 1850 and 1900, were all made by Europeans, and are all oil on canvas. But that’s not what they have in common for me. All of these paintings appear in one way or another in my book. I’ve been frustratingly mum with details, so let me give you this: 14 paintings are stolen from Sotheby’s Paris, and the search to recover them leads our heroine into some interesting situations. I told you I had a thing for art heists. That she works in a gallery, for the wife of an artist who has connections to the thief, means she gets caught up in the mystery (and a potential romance, of course) fairly quickly. The magic for me has been writing the story of how each painting came to Sotheby’s in the first place, who brought them, how they came to acquire them, what each painting looked like. Early versions of these were among the missing paintings, save for the Modigliani; the first time Mirette meets Sylvie she likens her to the woman in the painting: alabaster skin and dark hair, her high, haughty cheekbones, and shrewd stare.

E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Did I know this was going to be the major plot line of the novel when I started? Absolutely not. Am I beyond thrilled this was waiting for me around the bend? Absolutely, yes.

The Story Coaster

storycoaster_gsniderGrant Snider for the NY Times

I saw this illustration at the back of the Book Review in this weekend’s paper and actually laughed out loud. I think I lost it at the “plot hole” loop-de-loop. Or the unicorns kissing and all the discarded garments of clothing outside the “tunnel of badly-written love”! The critical reaction playground? Dead. I love Grant Snider. Let’s not forget his Literary Consolation Prizes.

I don’t want to jinx anything or risk stirring the demons of writer’s block, but writing has been going REALLY, REALLY WELL lately. I broke my 25k word count goal over the weekend, which, while exciting and deserving of all of the awkward dancing around the house I did, interspersed with high-fives from Jamal, it’s still only a quarter of what I think I’ll end up writing. But still, progress!

I’m On Fire

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that I keep a line of post-its on the bottom of my iMac with word count goals. It’s a good way to set tangible milestones when I sit down to write, especially when it doesn’t feel like I got anything done after a particular session. Writing is a lot of just sitting there, I’ve found, typing a few words every five minutes. Deleting them. Rephrasing them. Sneering at them. Starting over. But the post-its keep me on track, and thus far I’ve crossed off four: 15k, 18k, 20k, 22k. And then I set fire to 28k.

Literally.

I did not magically write six thousand words in a single session this past weekend, but I got to take down the 28k milestone post-it. Because while writing, I like to light a mini French baguette candle to ‘set the mood,’ and on Sunday I accidentally slid the candle too close to the bottom of my computer screen. You see where this is going.

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No one should ever leave me home alone. Jamal left that morning for Colombia for a business trip, and I’m pretty sure I’ve lost my privileges with matches from now on. The best part was I wasn’t even in the room when the fire started, so the likelihood that our entire house went up in flames was pretty high. Thankfully, the smell of fresh baguette quickly turned to burning paper and adhesive, and I came back to find a singe mark on my computer (which thankfully came off) and bits of hot pink post-it floating in the candle. And that: that sad, burnt milestone.

Adulthood!

Writing Down the Bones

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As I mentioned yesterday, I promised to share what I thought about “Writing Down the Bones,” the book on writing by Natalie Goldberg, a Zen Buddhist Jewish woman, published the year I was born. There are just so many thing right with that equation that I knew going into it it was going to be good. And it was. There are 67 chapters, each a page or two long, and each can be read individually when you need an extra dash of inspiration or encouragement, or all together. I tackled them all together, in order, over the course of a few days. (PS. Theresa, I’m totally sending you a new copy and keeping this version, since I dented the cover accidentally by carrying it around in my bag with me everywhere. Sorry!)

As with ‘Bird by Bird’, there were parts that were so relevant it felt like the author was writing specifically to me. That is one of the most magical feelings every possible, because it makes you realize you’re not alone; someone else felt the exact same way as you about something and was able to articulate it. Especially with something as big and scary as writing. Here are some passages from “Writing Down the Bones” that I found particularly poignant and mentally earmarked to come back to:

It is important to have a way worked out to begin your writing; otherwise, washing the dishes becomes the most important thing on earth — anything that will divert you from writing. p. 26

And because I needed further validation that Paris is the best place in the world for a Delicate Artistic Soul like me:

In Paris, I was astounded by how many cafés there were. It is considered impolite to hurry a customer. You can order one coffee at eight a.m. and still be sipping it with no pressure at three p.m. Hemingway in ‘A Moveable Feast’ (it’s a great book! read it!) tells of writing in cafés in Paris and how James Joyce might be a few tables away. When I arrived there last June, I understood why so many American writers became expatriates: there are probable five cafés to every block in Paris, and they are all beckoning you to write, and writing in them is very acceptable. p. 101

 

There is no perfection. If you want to write, you have to cut through and write. There is no perfect atmosphere, notebook, pen or desk, so train yourself to be flexible…If you want to write, finally, you’ll find a way no matter what. p. 110-111

And Goldberg is completely right. The other day at work, I was walking back to my office from a neighboring client’s building, and a line of dialogue popped into my, so perfect it had to have been placed there by some divine intervention. I repeated it out loud a couple of times while I rooted around in my bag for a scrap of paper and a pen, and I quickly scribbled it down so I wouldn’t forget it. I probably looked like a lunatic. All the days I spent hunched over my computer, willing the words to appear on the screen in front of me, and nothing. And then! Out of nowhere (and I’m giving credit to the book for this one, which kept insisting you are a writer even when you’re not actually, physically writing) words!

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If you follow me on Instagram, you know that this past weekend was an extremely productive one for me: I wrote over 3 thousand words in the matter of five or six hours. I had been hovering a few under the 18k mark for months (a shameful admittance: when I saved the document, I noticed the last save date was January 19, exactly four months ago from the day. Oops.) and after crossing that milestone, I just kept going. And going and going and going. Sure, I’m maybe less than a fifth of the way done the book overall (and I’m still struggling to figure out how everything fits together), but I was so happy after being able to cross off those post-its that hung from my computer monitor, I went around high-fiving everything in my house. Walls, Jamal, myself, Fitz, my computer, etc. I’m letting go of the fact that it took four months between spurts, and instead focusing on the next 20,000.

Thank you for lending this to me, T! I loved it. What are you guys reading these days?

On Giving

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Next Wednesday, author Anne Lamott is doing a reading at the Free Library here in the city, and I waited too long to get tickets so now it’s sold out. You might remember I read “Bird by Bird” a while ago when I first started the journey of writing a book. Aside from being the paper equivalent of a warm hug, it was chock full of wisdom and laughter from a veteran of the draining war writing can sometimes be. But one anecdote in particular really stood out to me, in a chapter near the end about writing in the spirit of giving, giving more than you thought possible. That you have to approach your writing selflessly but consistently, and give give give.

“An eight-year-old boy had a younger sister who was dying of leukemia, and he was told that without a blood transfusion she would die. His parents explained to him that his blood was probably compatible with hers, and if so, he could be the blood donor. They asked him if they could test his blood. He said sure. So they did and it was a good match. Then they asked if he would give his sister a pint of blood, that it could be her only chance of living. He said he would have to think about it overnight.

The next day he went to his parents and said he was willing to donate the blood. So they took him to the hospital where he was put on a gurney beside his six-year-old sister. Both of them were hooked up to IVs. A nurse withdrew a pint of blood from the boy, which was then put in the girl’s IV. The boy lay on his gurney in silence while the blood dripped into his sister; until the doctor came over to see how he was doing. Then the boy opened his eyes and asked, ‘How soon until I start to die?’”

I don’t think writing is perhaps as noble as saving a sibling’s life. Though I defy you to read that and not well up even slightly. If you haven’t read “Bird by Bird,” this should change your mind.

Bird by Bird

On Saturday, during my weekly Visit Barnes & Noble and Spend $50 excursion, I picked up “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott. It’s one of those books that’s kept in the “Writing” section, an entire collection of books up until this year I didn’t think I needed. And then I started writing a book and, well, sometimes it’s like being out to sea and realizing you don’t have legs. Or arms. “Bird by Bird” takes its name from an anecdote about her brother, writing a school report on birds. He was feeling overwhelmed at the task, coming up on the deadline, and their dad sat down with him and said, “Just take it bird by bird son.” This is obviously an applicable metaphor to the writing process as a whole: you can’t sit down and just write a novel. It comes in short bursts, in vignettes, in frustrating starts and stops, in independent lines of dialogue that float into your head while you’re falling asleep that you write down and try to find a context for later. Bird by mothereffing bird. Lamott writes short chapters with poignant bits of information masquerading as reflections on her own creative process. It’s sharp and hilarious. I actually caught myself laughing out loud at these passages: “Novels ought to have hope; at least, American novels ought to have hope. French novels don’t need to.” and “If your intuition says that your story sucks, make sure it really is your intuition and not your mother.”

She talks about the process as a whole, and here are times (like every other page) where I nod my head and say, “Oh my god, that’s so me.” That thing writers do when, after sitting down to write, their brains turn on them and start reading off a laundry list of things that have to be done right then instead of focusing on writing. In the past week alone, I’ve sat down to write and ended up brushing my teeth, vacuuming the floor (white floors + black dog = NEED TO VACUUM NOW), and, in one particularly neurotic streak, unpacked all of the Christmas decorations even though we don’t have a tree yet. Apparently this is common with writers. We’re insane and avoidant. And misunderstood geniuses, too, don’t forget.

I love this book. Love it. It’s short, but surprisingly dense. It’s one of those books that I just want to hug and squeeze and thank it for being there for me. The last book I read like that was “An Object of Beauty.” I recommend both. What are you reading right now?

The Importance of “Said”

Part of being A Very Serious Writer involves reading. A ton. Reading anything I can get my hands on, voraciously, distractedly, constantly. Writing can’t operate in a vacuum, and words are meant to be read. Consuming the written word makes you a better writer the way eating tons of fast food makes you fat: the language sticks to you and fills you up and gives your brain something to pull from. That’s deep, yo. ARE YOU LISTENING, NEW YORK TIMES?

I recently came across the repeated insistence of other writers to stop using said bookisms. You know, those words you substitute for “said” after a line of dialogue, and I’m going to pretend I knew that’s what they were called all along. They look like this: “Watch out!” Mary screamed. “I love you,” proclaimed Alex. “I’m waiting in the basement to watch you while you sleep,” giggled the man who lives in my basement and watches me while I sleep. Those. Anytime you use a word other than “said,” it momentarily jars the reader’s brain, pulling them ever-so-slightly out of the moment in the story. Stephen King brings it up in his book “On Writing,” that “said” is always the best choice because of its invisibility. If the dialogue is written well enough, you don’t need to tell the reader that a character yelled or was crying or avoiding something. You can add a qualifying descriptor after the word “said,” if you have to. “I love you,” Alex said quietly. “I love you,” Alex said sarcastically. Alex is kind of a dick, what can I say.

And that was your little writing lesson for today. Any examples from something you’re reading right now? I’m almost finished “Gone Girl” (I started it on Tuesday) and while I’m not reading it for its great literary value, it’s definitely engrossing.