Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What Would You Save From a Burning Building? (Part 1)

I don't do well with hypothetical questions.

Force me to save my favorite anything from a burning building and I'll be reduced to a charred pile of indecisiveness.  I simply can't choose.  I love variety too much.

This might explain why I have a puzzle 'shrine' in my office.  Some days I feel like doing the Rubik's Cube, other times it might be the Rubik's Revenge, still others, the Mirror Cube.

So don't ask me which stories I would save from a burning building.  I won't post a static and boring list of my 'favorites' here.  Nope.  My tastes evolve like an ever-changing mosaic.

Therefore in this series of posts I will share a cross-section of stories and authors I adore, but no favorites.  I love my children equally, but in different ways.

Bag of Bones by Stephen King
There's nothing like the original master.  Besides Stephen King, I don't read much from the horror genre, but it's hard to cram his work into any one genre.  His uniquely insane voice opened my eyes to the power of great storytelling.  He has taken on Fantasy with The Dark Tower (series) and The Eyes of the DragonThe Tommyknockers showed us his take on Sci-Fi.  Of course, any aspiring writer will cite his Nonfiction On Writing as a masterpiece.

I always coveted his short stories.  Ever since reading Stephen King in high school, I have marveled at this literary master's range.  I absolutely adored the story "Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption".  But of his work, I think Bag of Bones, originally published in 1998 by Scribner, is what really reinvigorated me back to writing.

Bag of Bones is beefy compared to most novels I read.  It's over 700 pages long, still, it didn't feel overwhelming.  It is the story of a widowed writer with writer's block.  It wouldn't be King if there weren't elements of the supernatural.  It's a ghost story.  But that is not why I loved the book so much.

I wanted to spend time with the characters.  The story is emotionally charged and very moving.  Anyone interested in how the "Master of Horror" does "heartwarming" (or heartbreaking) literature should read Bag of Bones.

Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk
Survivor is a truly unique story.  It is my favorite by this author of Fight Club.  The narrator of the story is the last remaining survivor of a suicide cult.  He hijacks an airplane and recounts his life story to the black box recorder in the cockpit.

The novel begins at Chapter 47 and counts down toward the final Chapter 1.  How the story is told is not the only gimmick.  Palahniuk's humor and satire keep the reader engaged.  There are many twists and turns and surprises in the story.  It had been optioned in 1999 by a large movie studio, but the project was dropped after the September 11th attacks.

One side note, the title of the novel certainly should not be confused with the television series of the same name that premiered in the US in 2000.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Life of Pi was first published in 2001 by Knopof Canada.  There are many layers to this story.  It has it all...literally.  Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam.  Read this and you will not have to suspend disbelief because the narrative effortlessly blurs the line between fiction and memoir.

How can a story about a boy stuck on a lifeboat with deadly zoo animals be so believable?  Because it was masterfully written.

What are some noteworthy authors or stories you treasure?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

It's the Journey, Not the Destination

Ever take a road trip?  Was it memorable?  I bet I can guess why.  You anticipated your arrival.  You shared a camaraderie with your friends or family.  You felt like a pioneer.

Once you got there, you realized the Grand Canyon was just a giant hole in the ground.  But those hours crammed in the back of the station wagon with your siblings remain carved into your memory on a geological timescale.  It's because of the journey, not the destination.

Whenever someone asks me how fast I can solve the Rubik's Cube, I think of those road trips.  It was never meant to be a race.  A road trip is meant to meander.  Besides, I never set out to solve the cube in record times.  It was more important that I learned how to solve the cube, not simply memorize hundreds of algorithms and finger tricks.  (By the way, an algorithm in cube-speak is a predetermined pattern of turns that has a desired effect on a group of little cubies.)  No, my ultimate journey was to be able to solve the Rubik's Cube with my eyes closed.  Would I learn how the Rubik's Cube works at a deeper level?  Would I learn more about myself during this journey?

When I write, it's easy to think the goal is just completing the story.  That's not enough.  It's the journey, not the destination.  Sure, I want to create a finished story.  But, I want my readers to remember, and maybe even discuss, the importance of my story in their lives.  (That's my dream anyway.)

I recently read the novel, Some of Your Blood, by Theodore Sturgeon.  It is a deconstructed vampire story.  Okay, that isn't quite accurate enough.  Some of Your Blood is a deconstructed story.  It is non-traditional in every way.  Yet it is fascinating to read because it is more than the story itself, but how the story is told.  Once you finish it, you'll want to read it again.  Think: the movie The Sixth Sense (but this novel was published about forty years earlier).  Another thing about the story that will get you wanting to go back for more is the "unreliable narrator" aspects of the novel.  It reminded me of Kevin Spacey's character in the movie The Usual Suspects.

If you can create a journey for your readers, then you can tap into something deeper and your story will have a lasting effect on them.  It's not just the story, but it's how you tell it.