Tag Archives: Catherine Bush

A culture of readers

[Cate Bush] was skeptical about the value of [the workshop] method, and said that teaching writing can’t really be done except by teaching reading. There’s a need to create a culture of readers.

Keith Oatley

omg, yes. IMO, the top three things you can do to “learn” to write:

1. Read a lot, and widely. Don’t just read what you know you like; take risks. It’s not a lifetime commitment; it’s a book (or a story). Read in your genre and outside of it. Read stuff you don’t like. Read stuff you don’t think you’ll like (but maybe you will). Read stuff you know nothing about before you start reading. Read stuff that’s “hard” and stuff that’s “easy,” etc. Read, read, read.

2. Edit other writers’ work. Join a writing group, volunteer as a reader for a journal. I know it takes time. But you know what? If you give up some of your time for other writers, it will come back to you. Learning to identify the flaws in other people’s writing makes it so much easier to see them in your own. So when you come back to your own work, instead of floundering around, knowing something isn’t right but unsure what exactly isn’t working, you can edit with purpose.

3. Write.

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Embrace My Inner Slowness

The process of writing, and rewriting, my third novel compelled me to acknowledge that I’m not and will never be a fast writer. I am not a procrastinator or precisely a perfectionist but it takes me years to synthesize character and story, to see the connections (psychological, metaphorical, moral) that I need to see, and to be able to articulate all these things clearly. I think through a story by trying different things out on the page, a kind of slow sculpting in prose. It’s taken me time to embrace my inner slowness.

Catherine Bush

2006 Books Read – #14

Claire’s Head by Catherine Bush

Claire's Head

I bought this because I really enjoyed Rules of Engagement.

Like RoE, Claire’s Head deals (in part) with the dynamic between sisters. I don’t have a sister, so reading about sister relationships is kind of like exploring a foreign country for me. Which is to say, strange, but at the same time, interesting.

The story is primarily an exploration of pain and how we live with it. Claire and her oldest sister Rachel suffer from migraines. Middle sister Allison does not. (Is it a cliche that the middle kid is the prosaic one? Is it meant to be?) The sisters lost their parents in a freak accident some years earlier, so there is also an element of grief involved.

Essentially the plot is as follows: Rachel disappears. Claire travels the world looking for her. Allison does not join her. Claire’s personal and work relationships suffer the more time she spends away. She also suffers from increasingly devastating migraines.

The descriptions of Claire’s pain can be hard to read and I was relieved to get through the book without triggering any psychosomatic headaches.

I didn’t find CH quite as compelling a story as RoE. The mystery is pretty straightforward. But of course, a twisty plot is not the point here, and as an exploration of what it’s like living with chronic pain, particularly pain in one’s head—which is different from other pain, because you can’t distance yourself from it—it’s superb.

Cheese Puffs, Part 5

(Parts One, Two, Three & Four)

Impressions of TOFGB:

The first sentence reads awkwardly. It tries to cram too much information in. The bit about being an account executive, etc. should have been a separate sentence. “The court date fell on the Friday of what had been a very bad week for me.” was enough information for the first sentence, though, even at that the construction seems off.

Paragraph 1 establishes that the protagonist has a regular guy, oops, chick job, that she hates because (a) she thinks selling airtime is bad and (b) because she sells airtime people treat her like crap. I’m really not sure why asking people if they’d like to advertise on TV would inspire such venom. Because we’re told that the job is bad, rather than shown why it’s bad, I can’t sympathize with the narrator. I have no context to do so.

With its references to pantyhose and a skirt, paragraph 2 lets us know that the narrator is a woman. (In the part I snipped out, there was also a reference to having cramps, which… yeah. Woman’s in a bad mood; she must have cramps. Sigh.) I guess the reference to putting runs in not one, but two pairs of pantyhose, and the spilling of coffee on the favorite (not just any) skirt, is supposed to endear the reader to the narrator by imbuing her with a lovable klutziness. Me: *groan* I suppose every woman has, at some point in her life, put a run in a pair of pantyhose, so the reader is supposed to identify with this detail, but honestly, without something more (how the run got there, for example), it’s just not all that interesting.

She drives a car she self-describes as “crappy” even though it’s her own damn fault that it’s crappy because she doesn’t maintain it. (She doesn’t seem surprised by the fact the car needs a jump, so this probably isn’t the first time it hasn’t started. It probably needs a new battery, which is not a major fix, nor a major expense.) Then she needed to get male assistance to start her car—implying stereotypical female helplessness with things mechanical. Yes, to jumpstart a car, you need a second car and a set of jumper cables. But why did it have to be a nephew who helped out? Why not a niece? Why not the landlady herself?

After all this, she tells us that she’s in a bad mood. Yes, we got that.

The Mother Teresa reference seems a tad cliched, too easy. Like something you’d put in the first draft as a placeholder. Or in a blog entry. In a novel, I want to read something more original.

Now that we’ve established that grrrl power doesn’t extend to car maintenance, we get into the lawyers are evil rant. Full disclosure, I read this right after I graduated from law school, but at the same time, all-lawyers-are-evil is trite, trite, trite. Please. Some lawyers are evil, some are Mother Teresas (heh), and the vast majority lie somewhere in between. Just like any. other. profession.

Then readers are told that the HG&E executives are “sleazeballs”. Why are they sleazeballs? (And no, just the fact that there was an accident doesn’t automatically make them sleazeballs.) We’re told that the defense lawyer is evil by extension, because if you’re representing “sleazeballs” then you must be one yourself. Never mind the fact that everyone is entitled to representation.

The protagonist nicknames the defense lawyer “Pencil Face”, because why should he get a real name? He’s a weasel. He’s cross-examining her, the evil, evil, man. Doing his job? Bah. Craziness. He should just agree with her, say “no further questions” and sit down. Right.

When that doesn’t happen, our narrator gets so mad at being cross-examined, at the defense lawyer having the temerity to try to discredit her, that she attempts to punch him.

Okay. So there’s a certain amount of humor in this scenario. Who hasn’t been in a situation where they wanted to punch someone, but didn’t? What would happen if you did? That’s the premise of this book. And it isn’t a bad one.

But here’s the thing: after she attempts to punch the defense lawyer, she hits her head, and ends up in a coma. When she wakes up, she decides to change her life, since it’s clearly out of control. Great. So what do you think would be first on this list? How about clearing up the assault charges she’s facing after attacking the defense lawyer? Well, that would be a fine idea–if there were any! She’s not charged with assaulting the defense lawyer, which I mean, come on! She tried to punch a lawyer in a courtroom in front of a judge! Honestly, I just couldn’t get past this. I know it’s supposed to be a light romantic comedy and all, but you don’t go around punching officers of the court and then just walk away tra-la-la. This needed a resolution. How about some community service?

Overall impression: I found the protagonist irritating and the plot development is unrealistic. It’s not just that it verges on the absurd. A comedy of the absurd can work. It’s the giant plotholes. It also relies too heavily on stereotypes and clichés as shortcuts. I’m as fond of a cliché as the next person, but in a novel I want to see fresh writing.

Thinking: the old “show” vs. “tell” axiom was really apparent here.

Which brings me back to where I started: fluffy books are about turning off your brain and being taken for a ride. As long as you don’t think about them too much, they’re fun. Sure, they fall apart the minute you start thinking, but the point is: most readers aren’t thinking. They’re in it for a good time.

The problem is that when you write, you read as a writer. Before I wrote in a serious way, I could (and did) read anything. And now, I simply can’t. The minute I get that “I. am. reading. a. book.” feeling, I’m done. On the other hand, I’ve quite enjoyed several movies/TV shows based on books that I just know that I could not get through (Sex and the City, for example). And I think partly it’s that the acting/directing adds nuances to the characters and plot, but also that because it’s a different medium, I’m able to sit back and be entertained in a way that I can’t with a book.

So two points to conclude. There’s nothing wrong with creating and consuming pure entertainment. Not everything has to have a deeper meaning or greater purpose. But the fact remains that not all books are of equal merit, and fluffy book writers, being writers, have to know that.

Cheese Puffs, Part 4

(Parts One, Two, & Three)

My impressions of these two excerpts…

TROE:

Lux was coming. It’s such a simple first sentence. And it uses “was.” Break every rule, and all that. But I think it’s quite powerful. So, why? Partly, the unusual name. Who would be named something like that? But I also think the flat declaration carries with it a sense of foreboding, i.e. Lux was coming (subtext: oh no). Because I think if it was an unadulterated good thing that Lux was coming the sentence would be constructed differently, maybe as an “I” statement, i.e. overtly stating the narrator’s feelings toward Lux.

I like the opening paragraph because it introduces us to this character, Lux, and then it sets her aside, and lets us consider who she is and why her presence is unsettling to the narrator on our own. The author respects us enough not to bash us over the head with who Lux is right away.

As mentioned above, I like the use of “Northern Line” because I think it adds just the right amount of authenticity. I also like the set up: the protagonist is on her way home to meet someone who is coming to visit, but right now she’s on a train, with time to kill. This gives us some time to get to know her before we launch into the story. The narrator’s reflection here feels real, because it’s exactly the sort of thing one does when biding one’s time on public transit.

I’ll interrupt myself here to say there’s nothing in this excerpt that indicates the narrator’s gender, though it’s given away in the cover blurb (of course). I think a good part of my positive first impression of this book is that I wasn’t confronted with some female stereotype in the first page.

Okay. So I think the strength of this opening is that it tells us a lot about the narrator without having her tell us about herself directly. We learn about her via her observations of others. She singles out three fellow passengers—presumably there are more—two men and a woman. Why these three? Each of them has something about them that makes them stand out of the crowd. Would wearing sunglasses make it easier to draw under fluorescent light? Why is the other man sweating? Is he hot or having a heart attack? Why is the woman wearing not an ordinary sari, but a golden one—which seems like something special, not an everyday thing. Do her grocery bags hold ingredients for an exotic meal?

But then— the narrator considers how these people would look “transformed by anger.” Now this is interesting, because it’s unexpected. Why is she contemplating anger? Is she angry about something? She first considers their faces, then focuses in on their hands. Why is she thinking about violence, about what others are capable of, about punching, about blood?

You get the impression that their answers would probably not be what you would expect. And that neither would the narrator’s. That she has done, or considered doing, something terrible. That the question really is: How does she explain her actions to herself?

I like this beginning a lot, because basically it poses a lot of questions and doesn’t give out any answers. I don’t want the ending to be telegraphed on page 1. I do not read the last page of books before I read the first. I want to be intrigued enough to keep reading, and I want to feel that the author trusts me enough to get information that isn’t spelled out and to have patience to wait for answers / resolution and to know that not all questions have answers.

Overall impression: I like the narrator. She has depth. I can relate to sitting on public transport, contemplating my fellow passengers. I can relate to that interlude of knowing you have this amount of time to yourself before whatever’s at the other end. I like her thoughtfulness, the questions she asks.

She is essentially the only character so far. Lux is a mystery and the other three people are just reflections. This is fine. In 200+ words, I don’t need the narrator to have interacted with six other people. Plot development is essentially non-existent. But again, I don’t mind an author taking some time to introduce the protagonist, because I think relating to the protagonist is key. If I like the protagonist, I will keep reading. (I am much less likely to continue if the plot is entertaining, but I don’t care what happens to the protagonist.)

Thinking: So maybe the character-driven vs. plot-driven distinctions are correct, then?

To be continued…

Cheese Puffs, Part 3

Part 1 & Part 2

The first thing (after the punching) that struck me was the huge difference in the quantity of proper nouns between these two pieces, even in just a couple paragraphs. (And I will say, this probably jumped out at me because it’s something I’m guilty of doing myself.)

TROE: Lux, London, Northern Line

TOFGB: Friday, Hastings Channel 8, Friday, Hyundai, 7-Eleven, Mother Teresa, Hastings Gas & Electric, Whittle Advertising, Mother Teresa, Pencil Face, HG&E

Obviously some proper nouns are necessary. If it’s something/someone that’s going to come up again, you need to be able to refer to it w/o launching into a sentence-long description every time. Others are necessary to establish certain facts (like where the story takes place). But others are just noise. It seems to me that if you’re using proper nouns as shorthand, then maybe an actual description would be a better choice. In some cases, a generic would do just as well and be less distracting. (It would definitely wear better over the long-term.)

TROE:

  • Lux. Raises questions. Who is Lux and why is her presence unsettling? Probably the most important of the three words.
  • London. Establishes setting. Even if you’ve never been there, the word “London” is very evocative. That one word contains a whole bundle of images/sounds/textures/etc.
  • Northern Line. Adds authenticity to setting. I’ve never been to London, so I couldn’t tell you if there actually is a Northern Line, but it sounds real, and that makes the author and, in turn her narrator, sound like she knows what she’s talking about.

TOFGB:

  • Friday. Establishes that it’s the end of a long, hard week.
  • Hastings Channel 8. Establishes that the narrator works for a TV station in “Hastings”. The problem I have with “Hastings” is that it’s meaningless. Unlike London, I don’t get an immediate picture when I hear the word, and, in fact, I assume that it’s fictional. Just “Channel 8” or the “local TV station” would have worked here.
  • Friday. —
  • Hyundai. Establishes that the narrator drives an economy car that she doesn’t maintain, but is the brand of the car important? My “crappy car” or my “crappy hatchback” would probably work just as well.
  • 7-Eleven. Establishes that the narrator purchases her morning coffee at a convenience store, despite the fact she doesn’t seem to enjoy it. Probably means she gets up too late to make her own coffee (or that she doesn’t know how). Probably also means that she’s too broke to purchase a better cup of coffee at a coffeeshop. All good. But again, brand-name isn’t really important. “Cheap convenience store coffee” would have worked as well.
  • Mother Teresa. Pop culture reference, used as shorthand to mean a good person.
  • Hastings Gas & Electric. Establishes the little guy / Big Guy dynamic. Meant to ally the reader with the narrator. A proper name makes it easier to refer to later on. But it also implies that the town has its own independent electric utility—which makes me wonder how big a “Big Guy” it can be.
  • Whittle Advertising. Establishes that narrator lost her advertising job (and now has a job she hates) because of someone else’s mistake. The name of the agency doesn’t really add anything (it is the name of the narrator’s former boss), but it makes it easier to refer to later.
  • Mother Teresa. —
  • Pencil Face. A nickname the narrator has given the defense lawyer. Meant to further ally the reader with the narrator. This can be effective in moderation.
  • HG&E. —

These two excerpts have approximately the same number of words, but the TROE excerpt consists of 16 sentences (longest sentence: 28 words), while the TOFGB excerpt consists of just 8 sentences (longest sentence: 51 words). I don’t know if that’s typical of the literary/mainstream divide–obviously I’d have to look at more examples to say for sure–but I thought it was striking.

To be continued…

Cheese Puffs, Part 2

Part 1 is here.

I had been opening The Rules of Engagement and reading random passages. Writing this post got me thinking about the concrete differences between litfic and fluff. I usually chalk it up to intangibles and had never really sat down and analyzed what it is that sets them apart. But as I sat there, I realized I had a self-described (by the author) chick lit book that I could look at. (I picked it up this summer because of a six-degrees thing w/ the author–she once paid my writing a compliment that I’ve never forgotten.)

So. This is the opening of The Rules of Engagement:

Lux was coming. Already she was somewhere in the wide expanse of London. My awareness of her presence unsettled me vaguely. Sometimes, before she flew into visit, I dreamed strange dreams. Like a breeze, she stirred up things.

Midafternoon, I rode the Northern Line home to meet her and stared at the people scrunched on the surrounding banks of seats. Across the aisle, a man in aviator shades sat sketching in a notebook–I wondered if wearing dark glasses in the underground made the world easier to draw. Another man, sweating profusely, clutched a tabloid paper without reading it. Beside him, a woman in a golden sari clamped two polythene bags of groceries between her feet. Out of curiosity, I tried to imagine how each would look transformed by anger. How would the soft, relaxed line of the first man’s lips contort, or the sad-eyed desolation of the second man’s face, or the woman’s dreamy distraction? I studied the first man’s hands, dark fingers grasping a pencil, the thick wales of ruddy skin over the other man’s knuckles. The woman’s fingers were laced and folded over the pleats of cloth in her lap. I wondered what violence each was capable of and what was the worst act of violence they had committed in their lives so far. Had any of them ever punched someone, or drawn blood? If so, how did they explain their actions to themselves?

Okay, so the interesting (fortuitous?) thing is that the story opens with Catherine Bush’s narrator contemplating whether any of her seatmates have ever punched someone.

Well. Lani Diane Rich’s Time Off For Good Behavior starts with her narrator actually punching someone. At least, she tries. (Could I have picked a better comparison if I had done it on purpose? Ha!) The swing-and-miss actually comes a few pages in, so I skip a bit after the opening paragraphs:

The court date fell on the Friday of what had been a very bad week for me as an account executive at Hastings Channel 8. Any week in which you take people’s money and give them airtime is a bad week, but that week had been unusually degrading, seeing as I’d dropped my card off at more than thirty businesses and had, in no particular order, been screamed at, spit on, and called a bloodsucking leech.

On that Friday morning, I put runs in two separate pairs of panty hose, was forced to wake up my landlady so she could get her nephew in 2B to give my crappy Hyundai a jump, and stained my favorite skirt with cheap, 7-Eleven coffee. By the time the bailiff escorted me to the witness stand, I was already in a bad mood and would have been snippy with Mother Teresa. As it was, the defense lawyer representing the sleazeballs at Hastings Gas & Electric, who were responsible for the explosion three years ago that destroyed Whittle Advertising and nearly killed me, was definitely not Mother Teresa.

I almost heard it, the pop and hiss as my fury erupted. I pulled my arm back and swung at Pencil Face [the defense lawyer]. He’d turned to glance at his sleazy HG&E guys, so he didn’t see me coming.

To be continued…