Best Books of 2018

I know this title is a bit misleading, but this is the same as I’ve done for the past ten years. These are my favorite books I read in 2018. Most of them were not published in 2018.

Best Literary Fiction:

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

The novel opens with Less as a failed novelist, whose lover of nine years has just invited him to his wedding to a different man. The way Less tries to avoid the wedding is to accept invitations to speak around the world at events no prominent novelist would be caught dead at.

The problems of Less have to do with heartbreak and aging and figuring out what makes a life worth living and being remembered and finding love. These are timeless issues found in great art throughout history.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

The Name of the Rose isn’t a historical work or pure fiction or a mystery novel or postmodernist metafiction or theology. It draws on a bunch of sources and amalgamates them to a strange hybrid a reader from any of these backgrounds could appreciate on a different level.

Runner up:

The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman

This was quite good. It’s nothing new or groundbreaking, but it’s a theme well worth revisiting. A life is more than the sum of its parts.

We all feel guiltier than we are. We all think we play a bigger role in other lives than we do. We can never know another self fully. Some things will forever be a mystery, and that’s okay. Secrets almost always cause more problems than you think they will. People are cruel. People are unbelievably kind.

The most interesting aspect was how the novel kept circling back to a few key events from different points of view to reveal more and more.

Best Mystery:

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

Mystic River has incredible depth to it. The atmosphere of the neighborhood plays a big role. Each of the characters have a history with the others. In the first few pages, we get a horrific scene that carries on thirty years later to create guilt and pain between two of the main characters.

The characters are all deeply flawed, and one of the best parts of the novel is to see how small mistakes can escalate quickly into terrible, life-changing moments through perfectly understandable overreactions.

Best Book on Writing:

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

I’ve always thought of books like The Story Grid to be the gold standard on macroscopic elements of story. I’ve reconsidered my opinion.

This is the book all people should use in constructing an organic and compelling story. This teaches the essential elements without using a strict formula like other methods that follow the hero’s journey a bit closer.

Truby’s method is the way to go for original construction of a story with a character-centric focus.

Best Sci-Fi:

Remembrance of Earth’s Past (full trilogy) by Liu Cixin

The trilogy is truly an “ideas” book. It’s kind of fascinating how strong the ideas alone were to keep me wanting to read. The plot definitely waned at points and character motivations were weak, but I didn’t really care.

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin is unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s pretty difficult to explain why, because I don’t want to spoil anything. Part of the fun of this trilogy is that there are M. Night Shyamalan type twists (things that make you rethink everything that happened before and make it all make sense).

When these types of plot twists happen once at the end of a book or movie, it feels like a cheap gimmick and can be off-putting. When they happened dozens of times across this book trilogy, they left me in awe of the structure of the narrative.

You’ll think you’ve finally got a grasp on things near the end of Book 2, and then you learn that you had no idea what was really going on. Like I said, there are dozens of these, and each time you think it can’t happen again, it somehow does.

I can’t recommend this trilogy enough if you’re into hard sci-fi.

Best Fantasy:

Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

This is a tough one. There were times I couldn’t put it down; there were times I couldn’t pick it up.

Overall, Erikson is one of the best writers I’ve ever read. This universe is richly detailed, the characters well-drawn, and so much about it is completely original (none of the standard copying Tolkien but then change a few things to pretend like you didn’t).

The best novels take effort to read, but this has so many characters, many of whom don’t intersect the first book in the series.

But I’ve put it on this list for a reason. I think it’s worth the effort now that I’ve spent several months away from it. I will definitely be reading the third book in the series next year.

Runner up:

The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher

I read at least three in this series this year. They somehow keep getting better. The formula has become a bit predictable: take traditional story monster like zombies or vampires or necromancers or whatever.

Each novel has a different one. Place this in modern-day Chicago. Hilarious chaos ensues.

What makes them so compelling is the premise of a modern-day wizard detective with all the hard-boiled tropes. Magical occurrences cause deaths in the real world. Most people don’t believe the magical part. The tension and fascinating worldbuilding Butcher creates to keep this alive is great.

They are also genuinely funny with recurring gags. They are light, fast reads. This makes you want to keep going from one to the next.

Certainly, the first few weren’t great, but all of the ones I read this year deserve a mention on this list.

 

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Year of Required Reading, Part 0

As I said in a previous post, I’m going to make 2019 the “Year of Required Reading.” I want to take books that I was required to read in school and read them again to get a fresh perspective and to evaluate whether I think they are good choices.

I’m posting my list this early so people have time to give some input before I begin. I have some rules for how I’m choosing books. I don’t want to pick something I’ve read in the past ten years.

I’ve gone back to The Great Gatsby, Ethan Frome, A Separate Peace, and many others since school. These won’t make the list.

I also want to put a few “new” books on the list. Many schools have tried to encourage reading with modern YA books. These didn’t exist as required reading back when I was a kid. I’m also curious how these are.

My list so far.

Re-read:

The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck. I decided fear shouldn’t be the reason I avoid a book. And let me tell you, I don’t have good memories of trudging through this as a kid. But I’m optimistic that I’ll appreciate it this time.

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee. It’s a little embarrassing that I’ve never gone back to this. I’m expecting good things.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Notre-Dame de Paris) – Victor Hugo. Yes, I actually read the full, unabridged version of this book in high school for summer reading. I remember being completely blown away by it. I’d never read anything with such narrative depth and tragedy. It changed how I thought about books. And yet, I never re-read it for some reason.

Newfangled stuff:

Speak – Laurie Halse Anderson. I can’t actually tell if this is “high school” level or lower, but I found this to be the most common contemporary book on the lists I looked up.

Looking for Alaska – John Green. I’m not sure there’s a more famous YA author out there right now. Let’s judge this! (Sorry, I promise to keep an open mind.)

Monster – Walter Dean Myers. This one is on here for me. It sounds seriously dark. It’s one of the only contemporary books on these lists that I found appealing based on the premise.

And that’s it so far. I only plan on probably one more in each category.

My knowledge of Shakespeare is quite weak. I’m tempted to add one of his plays. Let me know what you think. There’s still plenty of time to change any of these and add stuff.

Previous years:

Year of Giant Novels (2016)

Year of Short Fiction (2017)

Year of Mystery Novels (2018)

Social Media’s Negative Effect on Prose Style

I’ve noticed this strange trend in the prose style of novels, and I’ve wondered why it’s happening. I finally realized that the prevalence of social media is almost certainly the culprit.

I won’t try to write a whole thesis on the history of this type of thing, but I think it’s pretty commonly accepted that social trends can be a big influence on prose style.

Dickens was wordy because of how serialization worked. The modernists produced intentionally difficult and confusing writing to show how difficult and confusing the world was after the world wars.

And so on.

Here’s the old rule that’s been changing:

Show emotions using subtext.

Stating emotions outright is considered a bit of a faux pas for a reason. It’s a special case of the “show, don’t tell” rule.

When I first started working on my fiction, this came up everywhere. There’s a time and place where it’s acceptable to write: “Joe was mad.” But mostly, this is the result of lazy or untrained writing.

One can show so much more nuance with subtext. Why is he mad? How mad is he? How is it affecting his actions and choices?

Not to mention, showing the emotion makes Joe more human and three-dimensional, because there will be complexity and confusion about the answers to all the questions. It can also turn a passive statement of fact into action.

Joe threw the book across the room at Susie’s head.

The reader can interpret their own emotions into this. Most of the time when I see this rule violated, it’s because the writer doesn’t trust the reader. It shows up in addition to the action:

Susie plopped down next to Robert and placed her hand on his leg. She wanted to upset Joe by flirting with someone else. She locked eyes with Joe and gave him a seductive smile. Joe threw the book across the room at Susie’s head, because he was mad.

Yeah. All that telling can be read into the scene given the context of the rest of the novel or story. Here’s what it sounds like removed:

Susie plopped down next to Robert and placed her hand on his leg. She locked eyes with Joe and gave him a seductive smile. Joe threw the book across the room at Susie’s head.

In real life, I’d try to flesh it out a bit more, but you see the point. Now, I obviously can’t prove that social media has caused this shift, but it makes perfect sense. As a culture, we’re inundated with people’s status updates.

Most of the stories we read are people blatantly telling us their emotions with no subtext. I did a search for the word “mad” on Twitter. Here’s the most recent one:

This is pretty typical. Social media posts tend to be a raw, unfiltered dump of how someone feels. Most social media posts are accompanied by a picture or video. This does the hard work of apt description for the writer.

I don’t want to come off as saying this is “bad.” Social media posts are a completely different medium and serve a different purpose than long-form writing. It’s okay to have different conventions.

What I am saying is that these conventions have started to bleed into longer writing merely because it is what we’re used to now. Very few people read blogs or books or magazines or newspapers these days.

Almost all reading is now done from social media posts.

I have no statistics to back up such a claim, but leisure reading is at an all-time low and the average American spends over 2 hours a day on social media. So I’d say it’s likely true.

I know what you’re thinking: 99% of everything is crap. I shouldn’t jump to conclusions about trends in case I’m reading a string of crap that no one thinks of as good. Well, the inspiration for this post came from reviewer trends.

Many prominent reviewers in the genres I follow have written that certain books have “good writing” when these blatant “mistakes” are all over the book. It got me wondering why reviewers have been desensitized to the emotion dump and have even come to think of it as good writing.

Unfortunately, I blame social media.

Year of Mysteries, Part 9: The Name of the Rose

I’m honestly a bit shocked at how resistant I’ve been to this book the whole year. I knew it would be “hard,” so I kept putting it off. But I love Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow and a bunch of hard books.

This book has a reputation it doesn’t deserve. I didn’t think it was hard at all in the same way those other ones are. It’s actually written in a very similar way to the way I write. There are so many interesting layers to this book that it will be hard to discuss the “mystery novel” aspect, because that was only one piece (and kind of the least interesting).

Early on, we get one of my favorite characters. He can’t speak any known language, but he’s lived in so many places that he’s developed his own. It takes from all the common languages and merges into a strange thing anyone can understand.

Eco doesn’t do this in the abstract, either. The speech is written out fully. This character is a synechdoche for the book itself. The Name of the Rose isn’t a historical work or pure fiction or a mystery novel or postmodernist metafiction or theology. It draws on a bunch of sources and amalgamates them to a strange hybrid a reader from any of these backgrounds could appreciate on a different level.

Eco doesn’t hide the pieces. They are all in plain sight through the characters. We have Jorge de Burgos representing Jorge Luis Borges. We get William of Baskerville representing Sherlock Holmes. And the title itself is obviously a reference to Romeo and Juliet.

…Or is it? Eco actually tells us the true inspiration is a Latin verse by a Benedictine monk named Bernard of Cluny. Since Eco was a semiotician, I have to believe he also had Wittgenstein in the back of his head, too.

What is the mystery?

The narrator travels to a monastery, and upon arrival there is a mysterious death of one of the monks. He appears to have thrown himself from the window of a library. Over the next few days, many more deaths occur.

This occupies the main narrative momentum, but I basically want to not discuss this further. Anyone who reads this book for the mystery is in for a shock. Let’s get back to the references.

Everyone sees some of the obvious Borges references here from his famous stories. But if you’ve read Labyrinths, you might start to think every single story in the collection gets referenced.

Much of the early part of The Name of the Rose has to do with navigating a complicated labyrinth (Labyrinths, The Garden of Forking Paths) to get to the library (The Library of Babel). They must crack a code (Death and the Compass, The God’s Script). They speak theology to each other (The Theologeans, The Three Versions of Judas). Issues of authorship with the narrator (Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote). Strange language spoken by the characters (Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius).

I think I’ve made my point. It’s not just “The Library of Babel,” like many people believe. It’s almost a transformation of the themes of the full collection of stories into a novel.

Another fascinating, easy to overlook aspect of the book is the chapter summary at the start of each chapter. At first, I thought they were mere summaries. But they got long and weird and pretty humorous as they went on.

Most people probably skip them thinking they offer nothing but a summary. Here’s one:

In which, though the chapter is short, old Alinardo says very interesting things about the labyrinth and about the way to enter it.

It doesn’t say much, but it teaches you something important: these summaries will provide commentary in addition to the summary. Here’s another:

In which the labyrinth is finally broached, and the intruders have strange visions and, as happens in labyrinths, lose their way.

If these were just summaries it shouldn’t provide commentary on the length of the chapter or how “interesting” a certain conversation is or remark “as happens in labyrinths.” I grew to love these summaries as much as the chapters themselves.

I’m not sure what else to say. I’m excited to re-read this. I think it will be as exciting as the first time through as I catch more and more references and understand the themes better.

I must caution that this is absolutely not for everyone, but if you find any of this post interesting, I can’t recommend this book enough. It is brilliant and well-deserved of the praise it has received over the years.

Found Clunkers, Part 1

white ceramic teacup with saucer near two books above gray floral textile
Photo by Thought Catalog on Pexels.com

I often find some really bad sentences in books I read. I wanted to start a series in which we look at why they are bad and how to fix them.

Unfortunately, I’m a bit stuck on how to proceed. I really want this blog to lift up excellent books and art. I don’t want to tear down people who are probably still learning and getting better. In a year, they might be embarrassed by these sentences themselves and wish their name wasn’t attached to it in some blog post.

I’m sure you can find horrible sentences in each of my books as well.

Hence the issue: use a single sentence without attribution for educational purposes (technically a copyright violation) or attach the name and book to it.

For now, I’m erring on the side of writer anonymity. Here’s the sentence:

That sweet, crooning voice, singing a song I’d been in the room for when he wrote.

We have here a classic example of why I say new writers shouldn’t write in first person. I’m sure this gem popped out in the middle of a writing session, when the author was fully into the “character’s voice.” As it came out, she probably thought: yeah, that’s exactly how he would talk.

It’s important to remember that the way people talk does not make good prose. First, full sentences should be used. The above is a sentence fragment. I wish I could show you more context, but the sentences around this are also fragments.

I’m all for using a sentence fragment judiciously for voice, but I’d never do it more than once per chapter. Too many sentence fragments creates jarring, obnoxious prose. It leads to more confusion than it’s worth.

I once heard it described this way: strong prose leads to a strong voice; weak prose leads to a weak voice. In other words, “breaking the rules,” like forming a sentence fragment, is a weak and cheap way to form narrative voice.

Word order pops out next. There’s something funny about: “I’d been in the room for when he wrote.” Unless I grew up with a strange dialect, I’m pretty sure most native English speakers will hear “when he wrote” and feel it is missing a direct object.

So, it should probably read “when he wrote it.” The sentence also has an implied pause after “for.” Again, I’m not of the old school of thought where you can’t end a sentence with a preposition. But in this case, it creates confusion to have “for when” juxtaposed like that.

All I’m trying to say is that the word order is sloppy, and it could be cleaned up easily by writing something like: “I’d been in the room when he wrote it.”

Of course, this brings us back to the first point. The author put herself into a bind when using a sentence fragment, because she didn’t clearly identify the correct subject of the sentence.

She started with “That sweet, crooning voice,” implying this as the subject, but the second clause wants to use “I” as the subject.

I know people don’t believe me when I say to use third-person and full sentences. I guarantee this mess of a sentence happened because using first person caused her to confuse the narrative voice with the thoughts of the main character (leading to a bunch of sentence fragments).

I’ll reiterate this from previous posts. The prose you use when you write in first person is not some stream-of-consciousness coming from the main character (unless you’ve chosen this on purpose for a piece of experimental writing). In modern commercial writing, thoughts of the main character are usually offset and italicized to be clear about the distinction.

This is what makes first person so difficult.

Anyway, I’ll end my rant about point of view. You can obviously do it if the writing calls for it. You must be extra vigilant, or else sentences like this will pop out and sound good in your head.

Here’s my rewrite. I think the key is to realize there are two separate ideas that should be separated: hearing the voice, and recalling the writing.

His sweet, crooning voice lilted through the speakers. I’d been in the room when he wrote the song that changed his life.

I changed “I’d been” to “I was,” because simple past tense causes no confusion and cleans things up even more.

As always, context will matter. Maybe this doesn’t flow with the sentences around it, and some other alterations will be necessary.

Are the Self-Publishing Gurus Out of Touch?

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Let me start by saying that I appreciate all the free content people in the self-publishing world put out. It’s quite generous and high quality. There must be ten or more hours of podcasts each week that come to my phone, not to mention blog posts and youtube and e-mails. That’s just me, meaning it’s only a small fraction of what’s actually produced.

If you wanted to be a student of this stuff, you’d have more class time than a full-time college student with no breaks for summer or winter. And there’s so much to learn that it could probably fill an entire major for a college student.

So, thank you to all those content providers.

That being said, I have two theories I’d like to present.

I’m going to call these people “gurus.” You either know who they are or don’t, but I don’t want to name names (google “podcasts for writers” or something if you really don’t know).

Every person I have in mind left their job at some point to be a full-time self-published writer. I think each of them makes at least six figures. This happened years ago for each of them.

Also, each of them has a “thing” they attribute it to: cover design that perfectly fits the genre, great copywriting on the product description, Amazon keywords and categories, Amazon marketing, Facebook marketing, writing to market, price surging, box sets, e-mail auto-responders, mailing list magnets, promotion services, etc.

Note, I’m not saying they push a well-rounded approach to improving each of the above; I’m saying their entire shtick is that once you get that one thing right, you will take off and have huge success.

This seems weird and crazy, so why would they, at least nominally, believe this? The cynical theory would be that they wanted to corner a niche in the market, so they figured this one thing out and pushed it hard as the expert.

I don’t believe this. I think there’s a much more obvious explanation. Like almost all successful authors, they started to gain traction, little by little. They were experimenting with all the above techniques to see if anything could get them a little edge.

As Gladwell explains in The Tipping Point, they just hit a critical mass of followers and readers at some point. This caused them to shoot from obscurity into prominence.

Human brains being what they are, these writers then attributed their success to the most recent major change they made rather than a natural progression to a tipping point. This is how we get people who are convinced you only need to get that one thing right to get success.

And this is fine as long as you don’t take that claim seriously when listening to them. The advice they give on that one thing is going to be pretty solid and useful. It will help keep you crawling upward toward your own tipping point.

I do think some people get frustrated when they work really hard at that one thing, and they only see marginal gains despite doing everything right.

Here’s my second theory based on the first theory. The gurus out there with the biggest platform have been wildly successful for years, and this actually makes them a bit out of touch with how things really are.

My theory is that they could launch a book to number one in their category by doing none of the advice they give: no ads, no pre-release, no notification of the mailing list, a sloppy and vague product description, a less-than-stellar cover, etc.

They have so many followers that news would spread of their release, and it would make thousands of dollars in the first month and be an Amazon bestseller.

If I’m correct about this, that means they actually have no idea if the advice they’re giving is correct. Don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not saying their advice is incorrect (quite the opposite)—but it’s just a fact of their prominence that they can’t know how much of an effect their advice has anymore.

I’m not sure if there’s much of a point to this post. I guess it’s that you shouldn’t put too much stock in any one thing you hear about self-publishing. Success is going to be a slow growth attributed to hundreds of things.

Writing a better product description might get you five more sales. Improving the cover: five more. An experiment with AMS ads: five more. Suddenly, these have added up to enough that you snatch a true fan that leaves a glowing review.

This review converts to twenty more sales, and the new fan starts you one person further along on the next book.

So it’s all interconnected and not traceable to any one thing. After a bunch of books of doing this, you find yourself starting with a hundred fans buying it on launch day getting you to bestseller status and days of free advertising in your genre. These “organic” sales translate to new fans, etc.

That’s the tipping point. It can look like a sudden spike in success, but it’s not the most recent marketing trick you tried. It’s dozens of things synergizing to create the effect.

So, most of all, take everything the gurus say with a grain of salt and don’t be afraid to experiment with your own ideas. What worked for these gurus several years ago may not be working in today’s market or your genre. Or they might. You’ll have to be the judge of that.

Year of Mysteries, Part 8: The Last Place

Woops. I just realized the title of this series changed from “Year of Mystery Novels” to “Year of Mysteries” at Part 5. Sorry. I try to keep this consistent for searching purposes.

The main point of this series was to examine the mystery novel genre. There are people that read a few a week. There’s something about the genre that keeps people coming back.

I feel like my book choices to this point have basically avoided the “typical mystery.” Pretty much every book in this series is considered a “classic” or has been award winning. In other words, there’s nothing typical about them. Hundreds of new mystery novels come out every month, satisfying readers of the genre without the fancy prose of award-winners.

I went to my local used book store and went to the mystery section. I wanted to pick something at random to get a better feel for what a generic, contemporary mystery novel felt like.

This was a bit hard. The first few I picked up were classified as “suspense thrillers.” I wasn’t opposed to this, but I also couldn’t tell if there was an actual mystery from the back cover. I finally grabbed The Last Place by Laura Lippman.

It was by a bestselling and award-winning author, but this particular novel hadn’t won awards. This made it the perfect candidate.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be the seventh book in the Tess Monaghan series, even though nowhere on or in the book told me this.

I read it anyway.

The novel definitely references some stuff from previous books, but it is perfectly readable as a standalone. I assume this is one of those slow character growth things that happens over multiple books.

Tess is the main character, and she is a private investigator. She has anger management issues and basically messes up a child molester. So she gets assigned a community service project by the courts and has to investigate a police department. She checks up on five unrelated murders to make sure they followed procedure, etc.

As it goes on, she finds out that all five have major issues and are unresolved and are possibly related.

The first thing I noticed was the solid prose style. I often read literary stuff, which tends to be fancy. I also read fantasy, which tends to be wordy. This book had that pristine, clean style that I tend to call “bestseller” style.

I can’t go into all the details here, but it just means few adverbs, active voice, just enough description, pared down sentences, etc. It really makes the book come alive fast in your mind without any excess thinking or confusing sentences.

This brings up the next point. This was a page-turner through and through. I also can’t remember the last time I read something like that. I’d say it’s almost too polished. If you’ve studied plotting and structure, you can see how each scene is crafted to raise the stakes and complicate the plot just enough to push you along.

One thing I think this book did better than any of the other mysteries was to provide a lot of red herrings. At one point, the investigators discuss the possibility that the male killer could actually be a female. They go into depth on how this could be pulled off, despite being married, by referencing Boys Don’t Cry.

I found myself thinking: what? No way! Wait, but maybe. 

It was never meant to be taken all that seriously, but little things like this added up to keeping me unsettled. Whenever I thought maybe I was getting a handle on things, something would come up to remind me that I just didn’t have enough information yet.

I was thinking about characterization, since I recently wrote a post on it. One character has a quirky “thing” they do. This is often one of those cheap techniques that give readers a false sense of depth.

He’s really into movie quotes and says them all the time. Each time it happens, you think, oh yeah, that’s the guy that does the quote thing. This made the character more into a caricature than a fully fleshed out character.

Overall, this was a fast and enjoyable read. I definitely understand why people tear through these at the rate of a couple a week.

If you’re following along, I really only have one book left on my list: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. I’ve been avoiding it, because I’ve heard it has a beastly beginning that’s almost impossible to suffer through. We’ll see…