Guest Room Reads

I love having house guests. Love it so much, in fact, that I am always trying to tweak the guest facilities. The last addition was a pen and stationary pad for the bedside table. And I'm currently considering adding a power strip.

Then there's the stack of books that sits beside the bed in the guest room. If I have time, I try to tweak this collection for each new guest, to offer something that appeals to their interests. For some people this is easy; for others... not. But here is a list of the criteria I use to arrange my guest room reads.
  • No more than five books.
Five is really the maximum number that a person can mentally sift through all at once. Try for more, and people will ignore them, because nothing jumps out as the One, the One Book They Want to Read.
  • Make sure no two books are very similar.
You can include two mysteries, as long as they're from very different sub-genres. Or two histories as long as they're of very different eras. But in general, each book you offer should stand on its own, as a sterling example of the best you could find of its type.
  • Include 1 or 2 "Bathroom Reads."
These are books that you can pick up, read for a while, and then put down with no sense of disappointment. Anything episodic is good. Some of my favorites are Miss Manners books, or Calvin & Hobbes collections.
  • Include some fiction and some nonfiction.
Fiction is the bulk of my library, but I know I can turn to authors like Bill Bryson or Malcolm Gladwell for good, widely appealing nonfiction. And of course, I have a staggering glut of books like this for any writer friends who come calling.

Those are my basic rules for organizing my guest room shelf. It's a fun task I get to do right before company arrives; after the sheets have been washed and the floors have been scoured, I get to comb through my library and try to pick out just the right things for my friends. Which leads me to my last rule:
  • Don't push it.
Nobody wants to be quizzed about their reading habits. Just select the books, and then shut up about it. If the stack was disturbed at the end of the visit, you'll know you've done a good job.

Oh.... of course!

One of the smartest things I ever heard about writing is that the end of your story should be surprising and inevitable.

What's that? Surprising... and inevitable? Surely those are contradictory.

Well, sort of, yes. But you still have to do your best to hit them both. You're going for an "Oh... of course!" moment. The ending shocks the reader, but then very quickly they begin putting it together with little facts and suggestions you've seeded along the way. The nagging feelings they've had about the characters are suddenly justified. Scenes that previously didn't make a lot of sense now make plenty. Everything comes together.

It's a hard thing to accomplish, and something I greatly admire. So I made a quick scan of my bookshelves and here is a list of books that really hit that note for me. It's not long. If anyone else has some good ones, please post.

  • The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown
  • Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card
  • Life of Pi, Yann Martel
  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling
  • Lion in the Valley, Elizabeth Peters

I Do Like Their Cartoons, Though

Just finished reading an article in the New Yorker, whose contention is that "writing can't be taught." And I have to laugh. Because of all of the great myths about writing, there's none I know to be so profoundly false.

I don't really understand why people go around saying something so patently stupid, unless it's to create a belief in a literary elite to which only the elect can aspire. I mean, think about it. No one would say "painting can't be taught."

Sure, they might contend that you can't make a master painter out of some guy off the street. But they would understand that you can take that guy and put a color wheel in front of him. You can teach him how to gauge perspective, how to identify a good paintbrush, and what the human anatomy looks like from different angles.

And if that guy was in fact not some random joe off the street, but a guy who came to you and said, "I like to paint. Please teach me how to paint better," well, then, he'd have a real shot, wouldn't he? Similarly, the people who enroll in a creative writing program are the ones who can benefit most from learning writing techniques.

Because of course there are techniques. There are techniques for dreaming up ideas, and there are techniques for transmitting those ideas effectively to paper, and there are techniques for engaging the reader's emotions while you do it. And anyone who claims that such techniques don't exist, frankly, isn't a pro.

I can't claim that writing programs are perfect; they're not. If I look back on the really valuable things I've learned, I find that most of them came from my own self-directed study, or from conversation with my fellow writers, or from analysis of movies and books. I've got big problems with the way writing is taught in major institutions, to tell you the truth.

But I absolutely can't abide the idea that "writing can't be taught." It speaks to an elitism and a mysticism that has nothing to do with the craft as I know it. And when people perpetuate this myth, it's a way of saying to new people in the field, "Give up. Don't bother. You're not that guy."

The way I see it, you can be any guy you want to be. It takes effort and practice (you better believe it!) but you can do it. Even if you have to teach yourself.

Got Issues?

I think it was Grace Paley who said something like, "A story needs two stories. Not plot and subplot, but two stories that relate to each other."

When I'm planning something to write, I refer to these two stories as the Acute Issue and the Chronic Issue. Acute Issues are, well, acute: "Don't get eaten;" "Kill the monster;" "Stop the bomb before it hits zero." And Chronic Issues are more internal and long-lasting: "Stop feeling guilty;" "Find someone to love;" "Admit your mistakes."

I believe both issues are essential to a really good story. I think this is why everyone universally agrees that Terminator 2 is a better movie than its predecessor. Both had the same great Acute Issue: "Don't get blown to bits." But it's in the Chronic Issue where they really diverge.

Terminator has a love story as the Chronic Issue: it's fine and all, but we've seen it before. But T2 had a boy looking for a father figure he could trust. A great Chronic Issue, which was really well-developed in the script. And even though T2 is a thriller, even though its Acute Issue is what drew you into the theater, you just can't help but respond to the power of that Chronic Issue. And that makes T2 the winner hands down.

When you read thrillers that fail to include a good Chronic Issue, or literary novels that fail to include a good Acute Issue, you notice the lack. You may not know exactly what is missing, the way I wouldn't be able to tell you what's missing in mediocre music--but you know it's something.

I Know You!

I wanted to expand a bit on my "Character is about constancy" statement from a few weeks back--mainly because it flies in the face of all conventional storytelling wisdom. My writing group is always talking about character change: "What changes for this character?" "Yes, but how is he changed by these events?" "I'm not seeing any change in this story." Change is the main rubric by which we figure out whether what we've read is a story, or just a bit of a ramble.

So I don't mean, exactly, that characters should never change. I just mean that they should remain knowable.

Your love for a character, I think, is built on those moments when the character behaves predictably. Spock gets into a verbal tussle with Dr. McCoy and makes a scathingly arch comment. And you smile, and shake your head, and think to yourself, "Oh, that Spock."

If the new Star Trek movie hadn't contained any "Oh, that Spock" moments, it wouldn't have been about Spock. It would have been about some other dude who happened to have Spock's name and biographical data.

Because, here's the deal: You can't love somebody without knowing them. The things you know about them don't have to be good things, they just have to be individual and predictable. We love Dr. House when he's rude. We love Mr. Monk when he's painfully awkward. And we love Remington Steele when he's lazy. (ok, maybe you don't--but I do!)

It's true in life, too. Think back to your favorite story about a loved one. Do you like to tell it because it's really all that funny, or heartwarming, or clever? Or do you just like it because it illustrates, to a T, who that person is?

You can't love someone without knowing them: ok, no big surprise. But here's the kicker: the reverse is true too. In most cases, you can't really know somebody without loving them, at least a little bit. The two are a sweet little package deal.