[Reading Room] Subsoil by Nicholson Baker

This story was an absolute delight: an agricultural historian is putting off getting-down-to-work on his publication with one last research trip. Feeling restless with his usual accommodations, he tries a recommended ‘bed & breakfast’ for a change….and he gets it!

I like humor and I like twists (and I love The Twilight Zone), so I loved this story. It starts with a slow burn, but the details are so delightful that you can’t resist reading on to find out what this pompous little man and his odd new hosts get up to. I get the impression the author had some fun researching obscure agricultural equipment and skewering the academic propensity to obsess over minutiae, but he does both with a relatively light hand. It’s funny but not labored, and beneath it all the mystery ticks on.

The climax is surprising and then, once you’re in on the secret, the author lets you see the ending coming; lets you unwrap it along with him as it happens. Really, really satisfying. And a little bit evil. 🙂

[Reading Room] The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Heminway

Two confessions:

1, I’ve never read any Hemingway before.

2, I was kind of surprised to find this in collection of short stories. I had always assumed it was a novel.

Having found it however, and having been told by someone I respect that it was the worst thing he’d ever read, I HAD to give it a try.

My first impressions were that I was going to hate this. It was boring. Nothing happened. The dialogue was silted and the relationship between the old man and the boy was faintly disturbing (probably because of everything that’s been in the news recently). I didn’t care about either of them.

I Almost Gave Up

But then the old man got out on the sea and I thought, well, this is faintly interesting; I know nothing about fishing so I’ll just keep reading for a while and see what I learn.

And then, by the time the old man has chased the first school of fish (and failed) and then he sees a second school, I realized that I was rooting for him: I wanted him to succeed and I would have to keep reading to find out whether or not he did.

Reader-Hat, Writer Hat

And that, I realized, was because I had finally I started to learn some things about the old man himself. I learned them when Hemingway shared the old man’s thoughts and perceptions of himself.

From a reader’s perspective I had started to see this old man as wiry and humble and driven and, as such, intriguing.

From a writer’s perspective, I noticed that when the character had thoughts or analysed himself, or talked to himself, I learned as much from the subtext as I did from his thoughts. This is one of those “let the character say one thing and demonstrate another” lessons. It was enough to intrigue me.

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The Stakes

And then I saw what Hemingway had done with that ‘boring’ introduction: before the old man even sets out I know that the old man is hanging on to life by a thread, that he hasn’t caught a fish for 84 days, that anyone else would have give up by now, that he is determined to succeed (will he?) and that both he and the boy want to work together again. So I had a hint about his character and I understood what was at stake. B the time he starts to fish in earnest, because I’ve come to admire the old man, I care.

(But it strikes me that readers in the 1950s must have been more patient than we are today. Or maybe he was just writing for a more literary audience and you could still get away with this if you are writing for the same audience. But most of the writing advice I read stresses the importance of making  the reader care about the character straight away, like in the first paragraph. Article upon article says it’s ‘wrong’ to start with dialogue because “Who cares?”; that we mustn’t start with the weather or the landscape, because “who cares?” Maybe that’s one of those ‘writing rules’ that we can stop worrying about so much. It depends on what genre you’re writing in of course, but if it’s holding you up from writing the rest of your story, just remember the opening doesn’t have to be perfect…ever, apparently, as long as the rest of your story works.)

On, On Through The Night

So, just as the old man fishes through the night, I read on. And I started to really care. And, then I started to despair with him. And then came the ending, which wasn’t pat or tied up with a ribbon but still managed to satisfy. I have read so many modern stories that try to ape this ‘no neat endings’ thing, but instead leave the reader unsatisfied. “The Old Man And The Sea” does not peter out. It does not end neatly. It feels like real life and we don’t know what happens next, but it does have a satisfying ending.

And I can see why this story is a bit of a masterpiece.

What a pleasant surprise.

How Was Your Writing Year?

Worksheet Alert! I have a new, free worksheet for you! Take a few minutes to look back at what you’ve done this year. Spend a little time patting yourself on the back on this new worksheet for those of us who like lists but aren’t linear thinkers…[read more]

Worksheet Alert! I have a new, free worksheet for you!

We all love the New Year: the retrospectives, the ‘where are they now’s, the ghoul pools, the feeling of starting afresh and of possibilities.

Well, the end of the year is nigh and it’s time to take a look at your writing life. And I have a printable worksheet to help you do just that.


Introducing The StoryADay.org “My Writing Year” Quick Planner

It’s a one-page, 8.5″x11″ printable form without any straight lines — perfect for those of us who like lists but aren’t linear.

(If you’re not using a US printer and paper, you’ll need to check the ‘resize to fit page’ box in your printer options, but it should work out OK.)

Take a few minutes to look back at what you’ve done this year. Spend a little time patting yourself on the back as well as taking note of opportunities missed, or where you could do better next year. Capture where you were and how far you’ve come. Scribble down a few plans for next year.

Get your free copy now!


If you discover any surprising truths or want to share anything you put down, leave a comment here.

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[Reading Room] The Fog Horn by Ray Bradbury

I came a little late to the stories of Ray Bradbury and that’s probably a good thing. I was much too literal as a teenager and probably wouldn’t have known what to make of his fantastic, thought-provoking, stories with their lyrical language.

When I did discover his writing, of course, I had my mind blown in little controlled explosions by stories like “A Sound of Thunder”, “The Rocket Man” and “The Fog Horn”.

But I hadn’t read any of his stories for years. Now, getting ready to introduce them to my own children, I picked up a collection of his early stories and sat down to read.

The very first story in the collection was “The Fog Horn”, one of my very favorites.

As I started to read, I was a little worried that I had over-romanticized Bradbury’s stories in my memory. Here were two lighthouse-keepers oiling the lamp and chatting in a fairly mundane way about their job. Maybe I wasn’t going to be as transported, at this age, as I was a decade or more ago.

Then the older lighthouse keeper tells the younger a theory he has about how the fog horn was invented.

“One day many years ago a man walked along and stood in the sound of the ocean on a cold sunless shore and said, ‘We need a voice to call across the water, to warn ships. I’ll make a voice like all of time and all of the fog that ever was. I’ll make a voice that is like an empty bed beside you all night long, and like an empty house when you open the door, and like trees in autumn with no leaves. A sound like the birds flying south, crying, and a sound like November wind and the sea on the hard, cold shore. I’ll make a sound that’s so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls, and hearths will seem warmer, an being inside will seem better to all who hear it in the distant towns. I’ll made me a sound and an apparatus and they’ll call it a Fog Horn and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life.'”
The Fog Horn blew.

And that’s just for starters.

The ideas in Bradbury’s stories are wonderful and the worlds are fantastic or sometimes mundane and all of the experiences are deep and human, and the language..ah the language.

You might not love his stories the way I do, but I would recommend reading a few of them if only to see in practice this truth: you should not be afraid to write in your own voice.

Bradbury is often referred to as a science fiction writer because his most famous stories deal with rockets, and Mars and time-travel. Bradbury was writing during the ‘Golden Age’ of speculative fiction and that’s where his stories were being published – in Sci-fi magazines. But he doesn’t try to sound like his peers, nor does he limit himself to descriptions of the cold depths of space, spaceships or alien planets. He writes in an inimitable, poetic style about ideas that fascinate him in words that could only come together in that order, out of his Bradbury brain.

Go you, and do likewise.

[Reading Room] “Goodbye and Good Luck” by Grace Paley

I’ll tell you this up-front: I’m an optimist, a romantic. I like my heroes larger than life and my endings to, well, end. I get impatient with stories that are just like life: a little change here and there, but then they just stop and life goes on. I can appreciate stories like that. I can admire them. But I can never love them, or their protagonists.

The title of this Grace Paley story, “Goodbye and Good Luck” was an implicit promise from the author to the reader that this story would have a real change in it, that life wouldn’t just trickle on as before.

This was the first story I’m aware of having read that was written by Grace Paley, so I didn’t know if I could trust her to deliver on that promise, but she did.

Not only does the story have a beginning, a middle and a satisfying end, it has a real character as its protagonist — and I say that not in the literary sense, but in the way your grandmother would have said it: “Oh yeah, that Rosie. She’s a real character!”

Written in the first person though, the character doesn’t seem outsized. That, I thought, was an interesting lesson for writers. Just as your villain never sees himself not as the villain in someone else’s story but the hero of his own, truly remarkable characters don’t see themselves as remarkable. They are just as they are. Telling the story from their perspective is an interesting way of avoiding moralizing or lionizing or any other kind of -izing.

At the start of this story Rose begins to tell her niece Lillie, the story of her life. I was a little adrift at first, trying to figure out who was talking and where and when and why. I didn’t understand the rhythms of her speech or the minutiae of all the things she referred to. But as soon as I relaxed and let the story go, I realized it was useful. My unfamiliarity with the world of the story made it seem more realistically set in its own time and space. The author didn’t need to waste time explaining what “novelty wear” was. It was enough that the character, Rosie, knew. Perhaps even her niece didn’t know but Rose bulldozes on, telling her own story from the past, without stopping to check, and that told me plenty about Rose herself.

Rosie worked for a theater company in the grand era of Yiddish theater and is, herself, a grand storyteller. Soon you forget to wonder why Rose is telling this story to her niece. It pulls you along, capturing the rhythms and sounds, the mores and daily details of another time.

But of course there is a reason for the story. I sensed it coming and hoped I was right and then, there we were at the end of the story, like the end of a satisfying meal.

This story is a great example of how to use character and setting to tell a ‘simple’ story, in which there is little ‘on-screen action’, and how to include details without weighing the story down in acres of description and explanation.

Goodbye and Good Luck, indeed.

[Tuesday Reading Room] Gold Boy, Emerald Girl

I have a subscription to Storyville, on my iPhone, because I’m a sucker for new business models and digital publishing, and I’m enjoying being exposed to a wide array of stories (old and new) every week.

This week’s story, “Gold Boy, Emerald Girl” by Yiyun Li, slowly unfolds the story of a couple, past the first flush of youth, meeting and deciding whether or not to marry. The story is set in modern-day Beijing. The woman in the story has lived there all her life, hardly noticing that she is aging and becoming a spinster, while the bachelor son of her old college professor has been off living in America.

It is anything but a cliched romance, though I will say that it has a satisfying ending. The author is quite skilled at making the characters and their culture seem complete and real without losing their interesting edge.

I liked the indirect way we learn about the characters and their backstories, as in this remark about the professor,

“Professor Dai must miss her students these days,” Siuy said after she and Hanfeng had exchanged greetings, although she knew it was not the students that his mother missed but the white skulls of mammals and birds on her office shelves, the drawers filled with scalpels and clamps and tweezers that she had cleaned and maintained with care and the fact that she could mask her indifference to the human species with her devotion to animals.

All the revelations about the characters are measured and careful, just like the characters. The whole story is a skilled blend of what we are told and how it is told, leading us to accept the ending and even agree with the choices the characters make.

It’s worth remembering that how a story is told can contribute as much to the reader’s experience as the things we write.