Year of Short Fiction Part 8: Tenth of December

Today we dive into the short fiction of George Saunders.

Saunders made it in the literary world on short fiction alone. He might be the only person I know of to do this. His first novel came out earlier this year and that was twenty-one years after his first story collection (and novella). I can’t believe I’ve made it nine months through the Year of Short Fiction without getting to him. There’s so much to learn.

I once watched an interview with Saunders, and he said that some of his stories start out as 200+ page novels. Then he realizes how unnecessary most of that is. It sometimes takes years or even a decade, but eventually it gets distilled down to the important bits, only a few pages long. Most writers don’t trust their readers enough to do this. Most writers don’t want to do the work it takes to produce short fiction with this type of professional mindset.

I haven’t finished the whole collection Tenth of December yet, but I wanted to do a post on the title story. I don’t know how much longer this story started, but holy is it dense. I had to go back and read the first three paragraphs again after I finished the story for them to make sense.

We’re dropped into a character’s head with pretty much no context as to what’s going on. The descriptions are scatterbrained and keep referencing people and things that make sense to the character but not the reader. Some of the words and people are made up.

This is a character with a fully developed voice and backstory and eventually it starts to make sense, but this is exactly how you’d expect it to be inside someone’s head the first time. If it makes sense right off, you’re doing it wrong.

Anyway, it doesn’t take as much time to get your bearings as I made it sound, but everything mentioned does play a role. So we figure out that we’re in the head of a child who has gone out to play. He’s making up stories, but he’s pretending they’re real. So to the reader it’s a little disorienting as to what’s real and what’s made up.

We also realize the short, choppy, scattered sentences with bad grammar and made up slang makes sense for a child. The voice is whimsical in what details keep getting added on for effect:

They were Netherworlders. Or Nethers. They had a strange bond with him. Sometimes for whole days he would just nurse their wounds. Occasionally, for a joke, he would shoot one in the butt as it fled. Who henceforth would limp for the rest of its days. Which could be as long as an additional nine million years.

Then we change characters. The voice is unmistakably different. The sentences are more refined. It’s wiser, older, melancholy. But there’s something off. Then we realize he can’t get to certain words. Sometimes they come out as a similar sounding word that makes no sense in the context.

This man has something wrong with him. It’s obvious from the voice alone before we find out the truth. The story is so good and suspenseful and moving once it gets going that I don’t want to spoil any of that by revealing what’s wrong or what happens. I want to keep focusing on the voice, because I think that’s one of the best things we can learn from this story.

It was a miracle. That he’d got this far. Well, he’d always been strong. Once, he’d run a half-marathon with a broken foot. After his vasectomy he’d cleaned the garage, no problem.

He’d waited in the med-bed for Molly to go off to the pharmacy. That was the toughest part. Just calling out a normal goodbye.

His mind veered toward her now, and he jerked it back with a prayer: Let me pull this off. Lord, let me not fuck it up. Let me bring no dishonor. Leg me do it cling.

Let. Let me do it cling.



I think this type of really close third person is amazing in short fiction. It can get tiresome in a whole novel, but here it reveals so much in so little space. It’s entirely in the character’s voice.

The stream of consciousness takes us from what he’s doing to past times he’s done difficult things. This allows us to get a sense of the character in a natural way that would be hard to work in otherwise.

I’ve already exlained the word thing, but it’s pretty amazing the first time it appears and you have to work out what’s going on. “Leg me do it cling.” I read that, and was super confused. I had to read it again thinking I’d missed something. Then I continued as the character fights to find the right words. My confusion shifted to curiosity. What in the world was going on with him that he had trouble?

This is my takeaway. This collection of stories is a masterclass in how voice isn’t just another tool of characterization. It can be an integral part of the tension and action of the story if used properly.

I highly recommend checking out these stories and reading them with this in mind.


Examining Pro’s Prose Part 10

“Good prose should be transparent like a windowpane.” – George Orwell

If you’ve listened to fantasy writers talk about their craft much, you’ve probably encountered this idea that Brandon Sanderson heeds the Orwell advice with clean, minimal prose and Patrick Rothfuss uses beautiful, stylized prose to provide added layers of depth to his writing. I’ve probably heard this three or four times from various sources (writing excuses and otherwise). The idea is that neither is wrong; they are just different philosophies.

Today I want to dispel this idea by examining prose from Patrick Rothfuss’s first novel The Name of the Wind. Rothfuss can write in a stylized manner, and I think his novella The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a prime example of this. But that novella didn’t exist when the meme started.

I’ve discussed this several times in past installments, so I won’t dwell on it here. What the starting quote means is that you shouldn’t see the words. The words merely provide a framing you look through, and the images appear in your mind as you read.

We’ve been told that Sanderson uses a clear window and Rothfuss uses different colored glass to tint the experience. The clear glass means using words that paint the picture in the clearest way. Using colored glass means using unnecessary or less accurate words pictorially that add something else.

Here’s an example showing the difference. He watched he white snow float to the ground. Maybe that paints the picture accurately, but there are other things that could tint the image. The harsh white snow glared into his eyes as it fell to the ground. Words like “harsh” and “glare” and “fell” tint the sentence with emotional content that wasn’t there before, even though the picture is pretty much the same.

Anyway, let’s move on to the actual prose. I’m taking from the beginning of the book just so no one can claim “editorial fatigue” (meaning, maybe he got lazy with the prose in the middle where no one would much notice it anyway).

The innkeeper appeared with five bowls of stew and two warm, round loaves of bread. He pulled more beer for Jake, Shep, and Old Cob, moving with an air of bustling efficiency.

The story was set aside while the men tended to their dinners. Old Cob tucked away his bowl of stew with the predatory efficiency of a lifetime bachelor. The others were still blowing steam off their bowls when he finished the last of his loaf and returned to his story.

This is pretty much the first non-introductory, non-dialogue chunk of text in the novel. Let’s hunt for any description that might tint the glass a certain way. I see: warm, bustling, predatory. In context, the only one of these words that could maybe do double duty is “warm.” This is because the inn is portrayed as a warm, comforting place these people come to.

Honestly, this is a stretch in my opinion, because the loaves of bread were warm. It could be an unintended coincidence. The other two color words both modify efficiency (something I think Rothfuss would have changed if someone had pointed out the proximity of this word to itself). The two words are descriptions of individual people, so it would be bad if these tinted the overall picture of the scene. We certainly aren’t supposed to feel any sort of predatory sense at this stage (unless it is foreshadowing).

I have to conclude that Rothfuss, at least in this segment, also uses clean, transparent prose without the tinting many claim he does. This isn’t bad at all. I like this type of writing. I just wanted to point out that this idea is mostly a myth.

For comparison, let’s look at something from the beginning of The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson:

It’s really happening, he thought with mounting terror. This wasn’t a drill in the camp. This wasn’t training out in the fields, swinging sticks. This was real. Facing that fact—his heart pounding like a frightened animal in his chest, his legs unsteady—Cenn suddenly realized that he was a coward. He shouldn’t have left the herds!

At first glance, the sentence structures are much more complicated. This already adds a layer of opacity to the windowpane that the Rothfuss passage didn’t have. We get color words like: terror, pounding, frightened, animal, unsteady, coward, herds. These all tint the glass in the same direction. The fighting is terrifying and the people like a herd of animals.

I’ve actually read both of these books recently, and they both continue along these lines, making the convention wisdom pretty much reversed. I can explain it, though. The prologue to the Rothfuss is quite abstract and poetic and colorful. So I think this is a mistake of first impressions. Everyone remembers how the prologue goes, and then remembers the rest of the book being the same way. I think Sanderson has shifted his style significantly toward this more opaque and stylized writing and people only remember his early works.

The Stories of Cheever Part 1

I have a confession. I don’t get why Cheever’s short stories are so loved. If you look at my past blog posts, you’ll see that I could pontificate for hours on the greatness of stories by DFW or Barth or Borges or Barthelme or Calvino or … You might be thinking: well, those are post-modernists. You grab on to the structures, language, and self-reflexivity when you write about them. Most people read for character and story.

But I also get why Turgenev or James Baldwin or Michael Chabon or Hemingway or Joyce’s Dubliners are good. They show human struggle and focus on exposing deep truths. They are masterful at building intensity and pacing. They have consistent and unique voices throughout the stories. In other words, they’re about something, and the writing makes you see that.

Let’s talk about Cheever. Pretty much all writers put him in the top 10 greatest short story writers in English. I’ve seen several forums where “The Swimmer” is universally agreed to be the greatest short story of all time. This means I’m missing something. The fact that I don’t understand what makes him great means I can’t tell whether my own stories have this quality.

Unlike the stories mentioned above, Cheever stories read to me like they aren’t about anything, and then at the last moment you realize it might be about something, but that something is totally different. In other words, they are boring and the end doesn’t seem to cohere with the rest of the work. This series will be about some of Cheever’s most famous stories and my attempt to figure out why people care.

The first story is one that I almost get. It is the closest I’ve come to liking a Cheever story. I know there isn’t going to be a single silver bullet that explains the greatness. It will be a hundred little things that don’t seem like much on their own but when taken together add up to greatness.

We’ll start by examining “The Country Husband.” The beginning of this story is magnificent, which is why I say I kind of get this one. A man is on an airplane that makes a crash landing. This is the type of traumatizing event that can permanently change a life. This is probably the most significant thing to ever happen in this man’s life.

When he gets home, he tries to tell his family. One by one, they are all caught up in their own trivial activities, so they can’t hear him. We make fun of this as a purely 21st century phenomenon. You’ve seen the scene I’m referring to. A family sits down to dinner or someone is on a date, but everyone is so involved with their phones/tablets/devices/etc that no serious conversation could ever happen. No one even hears the other people when they speak.

This story proves that narrative wrong. Cheever perfectly captures this feeling in 1954. If the story ended there, I’d say this was a work of genius that has withstood the test of time. It is a brilliant criticism of suburban culture. Everyone is so wrapped up in their own egocentric trivialities (someone called me an idiot on the internet!) that they go unaware of actual traumatizing events even when being told to their face.

The story also contains striking poetic lines: “She paints with lightning strokes that panorama of drudgery in which her youth, her beauty, and her wit have been lost.” Or: “Then it is dark; it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains.” I’ve heard that people like Cheever’s stories because he drops these in unexpected places. But this can’t be a real reason he’s so admired, because almost all the rest of his sentences are so unremarkable.

Here’s where the story loses me. The main character becomes unrelatable. I don’t mean “unlikeable,” which I think is fine for a story. His actions make little sense. He says something extremely mean and out of character to someone. He essentially stalks the babysitter claiming to love her but briefly fantasizes about raping her.

I understand on an intellectual level that all the plot points, no matter how extreme and varied, tie together around the theme of breaking the myth of a perfect suburban neighborhood. But it seems to come at the cost of being believable, which I would have thought was the element that made a story like this great.

I can rationalize the behavior by saying the main character bottled this traumatic event up and these are the ways the pyschological trauma is manifesting itself. But that’s mostly a cheap way to fix something that really felt off to me.

Of course, the point was not to criticize, but to find out why it is great. In this case I’d say there is excellent metaphorical language, a strong and relatable cultural critique, and each element served the overarching theme.


Examining Pro’s Prose Part 4

Today we’re going to examine some prose from Nell Zink’s newest novel Mislaid. She came to prominence last year, when her debut novel, The Wallcreeper was championed by the New York Times as a notable book of the year. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

Unfortunately, this post is going to be quite harsh. I won’t focus on any single “writing rule,” but instead I’ll go through and point things out that catch my eye. I haven’t finished reading the book yet, but from a prose standpoint, it is pretty terrible. All the examples below occur within the span of a few pages. The examples are far from exhaustive. Almost every sentence breaks a rule.

First, the novel is a collection of sentences that tell you what happened. In my last post, we looked at the various levels of showing a scene, action, or character trait versus telling it. It is difficult to find even one scene in the first half of the book (what I’ve read so far) which shows you anything. Everything is told. Giving examples can’t give you a grasp on how large this problem is, but here’s an attempt.

“Soon the detective, a working-class townsman, sympathized with Peggy.”

First, we’re told he sympathized. Why not show it? Also, “a working-class townsman” adds nothing (and introduces point of view inconsistencies: how does the main character know this?). Extraneous bits like this abound in the novel and are weak attempts to “add detail,” but are without substance.

“Nor would they have found anything anyway. The runaway was keeping a very, very low profile.”

These sentence fragments occur on almost every page. A rule we haven’t talked about yet is: only ignore proper grammar and usage rules if you are going for a special effect. This should be done so sparingly that no one notices (three times over the course of a whole novel maybe?).

The effect is stilted, choppy prose. I can’t find it now, but there is a paragraph where there are more sentence fragments than complete sentences. Another rule is to minimize modifiers. If you have to modify a verb or noun, you probably haven’t put enough work into choosing the right words. Never use the modifier “very.” At least make it interesting if you’re going to break the rule. The use of “very, very” is inexcusable under all circumstances. Also, past progressive tense creeps in here.

I’ll do a whole paragraph now:

Lee looked up and down the street, watching for slight women with brown hair. He watched for women with blond children. He watched for anyone at all. It was a quiet afternoon, paced by the rhythm of traffic lights. He stood up and walked, thinking he might ask after her, if he happened to see her kind of store. He walked the length of town and as far as the railroad tracks. Ice cream, real estate, musical instruments. Porcelain figurines and teacups. He shook his head at his own dumbness, got back in the car, and sat.

He …

First off, avoid repetition. It is hard as heck when writing about one person to not start every sentence with “he,” but with work it can be done. Look at any of the greats we’ve already discussed. They will never have 8 out of 9 sentences start the same way. The sentence fragment thing appears again.

These sentences all tell you what he did but never do we get beyond a superficial level of showing. The longest sentence in the middle breaks the rule of being clear and direct (and is grammatically incorrect). I still don’t get the comma construction in the middle of it. It reads like an appositive, but can’t be, because then the if-clause makes no sense.

To prove it can be done, I’ll “fix” these problems without altering content or breaking with the intended effect of the style. I’ll even remove the “was.”

Lee looked up and down the street, watching for slight women with brown hair. He watched for women with blond children or anyone at all. The rhythm of the traffic lights paced the quiet afternoon. Lee walked the length of town and thought he might ask after her if he happened to see her kind of store. Along the vacant street, ice cream, real estate, musical instruments, and porcelain figurines caught his attention. Lee traveled as far as the railroad tracks before he shook his head at his own dumbness, got back in the car, and sat.

It’s better but not great. I would like for this to expand out into three paragraphs and really pull the reader in. The whole book suffers from this, because I always feel at arms length from the characters. This novel gets praised for making us think about complicated topics like race and sexuality. Since I never get inside the characters’ heads, all I end up thinking about is how unbelievable their actions are.

Another rule we haven’t discussed is point of view (POV). This is more important than most people want to believe. You either write something highly experimental or you stick to one clear POV. If you use third person limited and change POV, it must be clear. The fluid POV in this novel makes many sentences confusing and forces the writer to use even more extraneous phrases.

“Stillwater Lake retreated far from the bamboo grove. It stood in yellowish-gray mud streaked with reddish brown that looked to Lee like diarrhea.”

If it were clear that this is Lee’s POV, the phrase “to Lee” is unnecessary. It is almost always considered a bad writing practice to indicate a simile is a character’s opinion (unless in an open third person omniscient situation, which this isn’t). With clear POV and narrative voice, we understand all sentences to be the character’s opinion. It is redundant to specify. Also, that alliteration (looked to Lee like) is terrible and should be removed. It is interesting that removing “to Lee” fixes both problems at once.

The first sentence has an awkward choice of verb. It isn’t clear to me what exactly happened or what it means without more context (to be fair, more context comes a few paragraphs later). It is true that lakes can “retreat” if there is a drought or something. Is this what happened? Starting the next sentence with “it” is usually seen as a mistake, because the preceding sentence ends with a noun. This makes it unclear whether “it” refers to the subject of the preceding sentence or the ending noun.

Another rule we haven’t discussed is: all dialogue tags should be “said.” Using other words comes across as amateurish, because it is used by people who are not good at writing dialogue to make the dialogue sound more convincing. It is most commonly found in low quality pulp fiction from many decades ago. If you need to use another word, you haven’t voiced the dialogue properly. If you don’t need another word, don’t use one. I’m pretty sure this book must have been professionally edited, so I’m surprised to see the editor let these slide.

“I can spell ‘astronaut,'” Karen volunteered.
“That’s a third-grade word,” the clerk said. “You’re very smart for such a tiny little thing. You sure you don’t want to have her be white?”
“We’re black and proud,” Meg said.
“I’m blond,” Karen objected.
“There’s no blond race,” the clerk corrected her.

As you can see, “the clerk corrected her,” is redundant. Editors often write “RUE” for this type of thing: Resist the Urge to Explain. You don’t have to explain the clerk corrected Karen when we understand from the dialogue this is what she was doing. It isn’t even clear to me that “objected” is the right alternate to “said” in the above. “Said” works much better in that passage. On the next page we get, “Karen repeated solemnly.” Not only do we get an alternate dialogue tag, but it gets modified with an adverb.

I could do this all day, and I truly feel bad about it. I didn’t come to this post with the intention of bashing Zink’s prose. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral is sitting on my desk right now, because I intended to use him. I started Zink’s book and decided the opportunity was too good to pass up. We keep looking at excellent stylists. It is important to see something in comparison.

I know there will be a lot of excuses that sound good. She’s intentionally subverting the oppressive writing rules that stifle creativity to show they aren’t necessary to create a good novel. Or, she used a voice conducive to the satire and wit of the content of her material … or whatever. Let’s face it. She probably thought a lot about the plot, characters, themes, symbols, and so on and never put much thought in to how the prose came across.

This is fine. Some people write excellent prose with no content. We shouldn’t strive for either extreme. I’ll agree that rules are meant to be broken and that focusing too much on them will create mechanical, uninteresting prose. But they exist for a reason and those reasons became apparent when I had trouble reading this novel. Breaking the rules has to be a deliberate choice, and I’m not going to be convinced Zink did this deliberately until I’ve seen that she can follow the rules.


Examining Pro’s Prose Part 2

Today I’ll pick a passage from Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs to talk about. I really wanted to do something from McEwan, because he is considered the quintessential example of clean, clear writing for our time. I’ve read many of his books (including the more famous ones), but I only own two of the lesser known ones, which is why I’ve chosen this book. Let’s get to our rule.

Rule 2: Simple past tense is better than past progressive (or even past perfect).

This builds upon Rule 1 (Avoid repetition). Recall that past progressive tense takes the form “was [verb]ing.” If you overuse this tense, you will naturally repeat the word “was” in ever sentence. This gets monotonous and tedious to read. But there is another, possibly more important reason to minimize past progressive. It isn’t quite passive voice, but it makes all actions passive.

Mary was throwing the ball. And? It feels like there must be something else happening at the same time that is more important. Mary threw the ball. That shows the action and brings it into focus. This rule might be the loosest of all that we examine, because there are so many instances where avoiding a certain tense makes the prose awkward.

You must do what is necessary, but my suggestion is to edit every “was” out of the prose first and only put it back in if absolutely necessary. If you keep making excuses because you are too lazy to figure out how to edit it out, you can trick yourself into thinking the tense was necessary when it actually wasn’t. Don’t be lazy.

Now on to the passage:

I was the one who was startled. She was watching me, slightly amused, as I began to apologize for the interruption.

She said, ‘…’ She did not have the strength to move against my disbelief. The afternoon was at an end.

I was trying again to apologize for my rudeness, and she spoke over me. Her tone was light enough, but it could well have been that she was offended.

(I edited out the one sentence that is spoken with “…” because speech follows a different set of rules than prose.)

Notice that about half of the uses of “was” come from the past progressive tense and the other half are simple past tense where “was” is the verb. This makes it a bit trickier to analyze. Also note how grating the repetition of that word becomes by the end. In 6 sentences, the word “was” appears 7 times. The rule exists for exactly this reason.

I’ll first point out that both places where he uses past progressive seem necessary, because it is chained to another action happening simultaneously. But honestly, it is hard to imagine why converting it to simple past tense doesn’t just make it better: She watched me, slightly amused, as I began to apologize for the interruption. Or: I tried again to apologize for my rudeness, and she spoke over me.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, the past progressive is truly important to emphasize the simultaneity. Then why keep “was” as the main verb in the simple past tense sentences? The middle part makes sense in terms of Golden Rule 1. He uses longer, complex sentences on either side, so he wants two simple declarative statements in the middle for contrast in flow.

For example, something like “Because the afternoon neared its end, she did not have the strength to move against my disbelief” flows too much like the other sentences for contrast and alters the meaning slightly. On the other hand, that one change breaks up the “was” enough that maybe all the other ones can stay.

Another simple fix is to change the last part: but it could well have been that I had offended her. The only downside I see to this is so subtle that it doesn’t outweigh the overwhelming repetition in my mind. One could argue that this last use of “was” keeps the style consistent because of the previous ones. If this is the case, change the earlier ones as well!

I hate to say this, but I think this is a passage that slipped through. When you write a book, there is too much to edit for editors and writers to catch everything. Even the best of the best have places that can be tweaked. My guess is that Black Dogs is around 75,000 words. There are probably 50 or so of these rules. You do the math.

In any case, I’ll write my change here in full, so you can decide for yourself. Maybe you like the original better.


I was the one who was startled. She watched me, slightly amused, as I began to apologize for the interruption.

She said, ‘…’ Because the afternoon neared its end, she did not have the strength to move against my disbelief.

I tried again to apologize for my rudeness, and she spoke over me. Her tone was light enough, but it could well have been that I had offended her.


Thoughts on William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition

If you couldn’t tell, I’ve been trying hard to get a post out every Wednesday. I also haven’t done any book reviews in a long, long time. This is because I’ve been trying to keep everything organized on goodreads, so when I finish a book I write a quick review and give it a rating there.

This week I drew a blank for a post. I recently finished William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, so it seemed fitting to say a few words about it here. To set the stage, here’s a quick plot synopsis. A girl named Cayce has the skill to identify logos that will succeed in advertising.

You should think of this as a speculative fiction thing and not an intuition she has developed through years of practice. For instance, her parents discovered it when she was a child and had a violent nauseous reaction to some particularly bad logos. Now she consults with firms as a freelancer. She has the ability to “recognize patterns” in culture.

Anyway, a mysterious collection of short video clips keeps getting found on the internet and a cult following happens. No one knows where they came from, how people are finding them, or who is making them. A key point is that they are universally appealing and moving works of art.

These video clips lead us to one of the major themes of the book. If we abstract the video clips, this gives us the major thematic questions: In a digital age, bombarded by information, how can we know who is creating what we see/read? Is it part of a larger set of data and being selectively skewed to bias us? How do we know where to go to get “real” information?

Cayce is approached by an ad agency to investigate who is producing the video footage. This adds to those earlier questions, because where some people see untarnished art, other people see an opportunity to skew and manipulate using it. If that ad agency succeeds, can we ever tell? I think this is an important and difficult question for our time (and note that he published the book in 2003 before internet tailored advertising was “a thing”).

Overall, I found the premise of Cayce’s skill and the spot on cultural commentary to be the high point of the book. It kept me interested and brought to the forefront of my thoughts important questions. Let’s move on to the points I didn’t like as much.

At first, I found the style of the book to be clever, fast-paced, and ultra-modern. Gibson uses the present tense, and he “evolves” the language to drop the subject of the sentence when understood. This fun style didn’t stay fun for long. It turned choppy and grating. I assume the intent was to create a sense of fast-paced, forward motion, but in the long run it did the opposite.

Somewhere along the way, the plot turned to a huge Pynchonesque ultra-conspiracy as Cayce uncovered more and more information. I’ll admit that it plays in with the theme that we never know who is controlling our media, but overall it wasn’t convincing.

It works in Pynchon, because his style is so complex and intense that it plays into the mindset of uncovering the conspiracy. As I pointed out already, Gibson’s style is the opposite. It is simplistic to the point of creating sentence fragments.

By the end of the book, I had to will myself to read it. The style plus the conspiracy plot points made it a slog. Overall, I enjoyed it and gave it a 4/5 on goodreads. It is inventive and original and raises lots of important questions. But I have to recommend it with reservation (I’ll probably do a top 5 books I read this year with my real recommendations).