This Week in Reading 10/31

Busy week this week. I put together the Words Apart Issue 5 Reading and Launch Party, which will be up on Youtube and Vimeo by the end of next month. If you haven’t read the issue yet, I’m very proud of it, and you should go over now and check it out. I also finished reading The Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes.

The Old Gringo is a fictionalization of what happened to the great American writer Ambrose Bierce after he disappeared into Mexico during the Mexican revolution. Fuentes does so much so well. It’s a heady novel, but Fuentes keeps it fun and entertaining through his grotesque descriptions, at one point describing a character with a constant half erection and testicles like “hairy avocados.” I couldn’t read that and not laugh at the absurdity of it. He also mixes in movie tropes from Westerns, and that’s a lot of fun, even if you’ve seen the tropes before.

It’s a strange structure for a novel. Fuentes doesn’t follow a linear narrative, but rather overlaps images. They start out as being mentioned once, but then the images come back again and again, being stacked on top of other images that force the reader to reconsider what they mean. He does the same with his characters. They start as tropes, but as they repeat throughout the story and are put into different contexts, we’re allowed to see that they are so much more than the simple tropes they start as.

I really liked this book, and would recommend it to anyone interested in writing. The way it plays with times and expands tropes into undiscovered territory is an incredible thing to see. I have heard that Fuentes, like his subject Ambrose Bierce, is a writer’s writer, so keep that in mind with my advice.

Next week, I’ll be reading Who Killed Palomino Molero by Mario Vargas Llosa, and I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro. I will definitely finish the former, and possibly the latter. I’m also still chipping away at Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay and The Space Traveler by Benjamin Grossberg. I did 100 more pages in Bad Feminist this week, so I’m hopeful to finish it this week, but I likely won’t finish three books next week on top of classes.

And I almost forgot, Happy Halloween! I’ve got three articles up at Action Figure Fury celebrating the holiday. If you’ve got some free time, check them out!

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This Week in Reading 10/24

This week I finished reading G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen. Overall, I liked the book. I admire the way she’s introducing mythological creatures from Middle Eastern traditions into a Western fantasy genre. She also does a great job of treating the creatures as characters rather than animals.

The strongest move she makes is bringing computers into the fantasy world. The scene where Alif fixes the Effrit’s (a shadow creature) computer is hilarious and makes me a feel a greater connection to the seen and unseen worlds she’s creating.

Alif is full of allusions and tropes, but she turns them from cliches to humor by acknowledging them and making light of how overused some of them are.

I will say that the writing was, at times, sloppy. She’d have too many words at the end of the sentence of unnecessarily bulky phrasings near the beginning. As the book went on, it got better.

For the most part though, it was very good. It captured my imagination with the beautiful descriptions of the Unseen world and the Empty Quarter. She is a tremendous talent.

Next week, I’ll be talking about Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes and possibly Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay and The Space Traveler by Benjamin Grossberg. (I’m going to finish those two eventually, though I’m moving at a glacial pace).

This Week in Reading 10/17

This week I read Sweet Diamond Dust by Rosario Ferré. Ferré is amazing, writing her work in Spanish and then translating it into English herself. While I haven’t read her in Spanish (not speaking or reading Spanish fluently is a roadblock there) her English prose are beautiful.

“Sweet Diamond Dust” is the story of the La Valle family fighting over the family inheritance. In each chapter, we get a different member of the household telling their side of the story to Don Hermenegildo, a writer friend of the deceased father’s. Each voice is distinct, and each telling makes the reader reframe the way they’ve been thinking about everything. The mystery of figuring out who actually deserves the land and the intentional melodrama throughout make for a fun read.

That being said, the other three stories (although given the length, they may be better called novellas) in the collection fall flat. They get too bogged down in their political messages. The problem isn’t that the writer has a political agenda, but rather the agenda is transparent to the reader. Stories are inherently too complex to espouse a single political idea. In the effort to communicate a message clearly, the characters become wooden, the plot becomes predictable, and the story becomes unreadable. That’s not to say that writers shouldn’t have views or try to express them. The essay, a form dedicated to propagating ideas and engaging in discourse, is a much better place for it.

I will admit that there are some great counterexamples. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain are two of my favorite books, and coincidently books that address political issues the writer passionately cares about without simplifying the story to make their message come across.

Next week, I’m going to aim to finish Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. I’m also still working on The Space Traveler by Ben Grossberg and Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay.

In other news, my magazine, Words Apart came out on Wednesday. If you’ve got some free time, check it out!

My Writing Process Blog Tour

I was nominated to write this by my friend Kayleigh, whose work you can check out at her writing Kayleighsstuff.blogspot.com and read about her dining experiences at Gourmanding.blogspot.com. We go to Emerson College together and she introduced me to her writing group, Griffins. She is generally awesome.

1. What Are You Working On?

Deadlines are my best friend. I am constantly trying to put myself under the gun as I work. In her memoir Bossypants, Saturday Night Live writer Tina Fey said something along the lines of “The show didn’t go on because it was ready. It went on because it was Saturday night.” (I don’t have a copy of the book, so the words might be off but the meaning is there). I write a weekly column, “A Call to Action (Figures),” at Action Figure Fury every Wednesday, so I work on that every week. Sundays I handwrite a draft, Monday I type it and take the photographs, and Tuesday I upload it to the site and check it again before sending it off to my editor.

I also just started a little feature on here called “This Week in Writing.” I handwrite that on Thursdays, and type it up and post it on Fridays. I promise these things to my readers and that forces me to work as hard as I can to get it done. I take pride in doing what I say I’ll do, so it’s doubly important to me to finish what I say I will and get it posted, whether it’s great or not.

For fiction, I don’t write nearly as much as I should. I am in a writing group (the aforementioned Griffins), which is at times very hard to keep up with because (for the semester at the very least, when Kayleigh should come back from her hiatus because we miss her) I need to turn in a story every three weeks. On top of that, I have two workshop stories and a revision due this semester. That means I’ll probably write six or seven stories this semester, but if I really set myself to it I could be writing so much more. The problem with living by deadlines the way I do is that I rarely work when something isn’t due.

2. How Does Your Work Differ from Others of Its Genre?

Depends on what you’re asking about, because the answer will vary pretty widely.

For my column, I haven’t read anything quite like it. There are a lot of columns out there, and most of them are excellent. There are also a lot of action figure based writers and publications, and a lot of them write great opinion articles. What sets me apart is I’m doing a weekly column about action figures. I’m combining two common things into something I haven’t found anything quite like.

“This Week in Reading” is just whimsical opinions about books I read. It’s pretty informal and I wouldn’t describe it as particularly unique.

My fiction is very hard to nail down. I write a pretty wide range—horror, historical, literary—but so do most writers these days. I’m glad to say a lot of writers are trying to write more female and minority characters into their fiction, so that’s not something that makes my work unique. It makes me a part of a wider movement. I guess what it comes down to is that my work is filtered through my worldview. This will sound like a cheap plug, (which is something that permeates all of my work), but you’d get a better understanding of what that’s like if you were to read my writing rather than have me explain it.

This isn’t really the work itself, but I submit aggressively. I’ve been reject at least a hundred times in the last two years and that doesn’t bother me. I’m a business, a brand, and I pitch a lot of ideas. I’ve also worked as an editor and reader and I know that a lot of things are just wrong for the specific magazines, and that helps me separate my emotions from the business of it.

3. Why Do You Write What You Do?

That’s, by far, the hardest question on here. I’m going to plead the fifth. I don’t know why I write what I write, and I think anyone who understands themselves that completely is going to be out of a job. Writing is a self-reflexive act, so if you know yourself that well, it seems like you’ve reached the point where you wouldn’t need it anymore.

4. How Does Your Writing Process Work?

There are a lot of best practices for writing. Writing at the same time everyday is supposed to make the ideas come faster. Writing in the same place will signal to your brain that it is time to write, and help you get into a flow state much quicker. Unfortunately, I don’t do either of those things. In a fantasy life, where I don’t need to work to buy myself groceries and pay my rent, I would write at the same time and in the same place everyday. I am going to talk about my process as honestly as possible in this post, so the first thing I need to tell you about my process is that it’s a piss-poor process. I don’t know what I’m doing, and the mild success that I have has been pure luck.

I write, or at least aim to write, six days a week. While I’m in the school year, I’m normally more successful than I’d like to be. (I’m a perfect thirteen for thirteen in October). The way I keep myself motivated is by putting an X on the calendar everyday I write. (I got this from a friend, who got it from Jerry Seinfeld, I believe). I try not to judge myself by the quality of my output. There will be good days and there will be bad days. There’s nothing anyone can do about that. As long as I am writing, I give myself credit for doing what I can.

Another thing that helps me is having different notebooks for different genres. I do my work-writing (I do some writing for a mediation company called Active Neutrals) in a fancy leather notebook with gilded pages. It makes me feel sophisticated and helps me to write in a non-conversational tone. I use 70 page spiral notebooks for my fiction. They lower my expectations for myself, and free me to be more creative.

I also write exclusively with blue 1.0mm Papermate pens. They’re my favorite color, and I believe having that kind of routine helps me enter into flow better.

5. Now to Tag Other Writers (Who Will Be Posting on Their Blogs 10/20)

I was supposed to nominate three people, but failed pretty miserably to find people. To make up for my mistakes, please visit my friend Marie Sweetman’s Blog three times. (And Kayleigh’s, up top, too!)

Marie goes to Emerson with me as well. She’s an editorial assistant at Ploughshares Literary Journal. She and her feral cat live together in Boston. Her website is http://mariesweetman.com.

This Week In Reading 10/10

As a writer, I read a lot. On average, a little more than a book week. 76 last year, and 46 so far this year. Come at me, bro. I tend to read a couple of books at once, so I won’t necessarily have finished a book every week. Bot for the weeks I do, I plan to update this on Fridays with a bit of informal chat. (I’ve done reviews. I hated writing reviews. This won’t be reviews). This week I finished Cairo by G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Parker and Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: Stories by Kevin Wilson. (They Wilsons are not related, in case anyone was wondering).

Cairo was good for a first graphic novel. It’s got a lot of the elements that make G. Willow’s later comic work so good. It’s funny, and it’s got the kind of narrative arc that drives a person to read the whole thing in one sitting. (I did). My feeling is that in a month I’ll remember that one of the characters was a Jinn and they went on a magic carpet ride and it was weird for everyone. If you really want to see G. Willow Wilson at her best, pick up her first couple of issues (or the trade paperback) of Ms. Marvel. It’s the best things in comics right now.

I highly recommend Tunneling to the Center of Earth. It’s also a debut work, but it doesn’t read like a first book. It’s a story collection. I’ve never read one that’s been of a consistent quality, but even the bad stories work pretty well. He deals with loneliness in an authentic and compassionate way that reminded me a lot of George Saunders. It’s also got a few good laughs.

The publisher’s interview with him in the back is awful. They added it in to show some of his personality or something, but the questions are terrible. The first one is too many words to ask, “What characters do you see yourself in?” Spoiler: His answer is all of them, because putting themselves into characters is what authors do.

Next week, I’m reading Sweet Diamond Dust by Rosario Ferré. I may also finish Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, Space Traveler by Ben Grossberg, and/or Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson. (I may try and interview her sometime soon, so I’m going through all of her work).

New Website

Hi.

I’ve finally decided to take the plunge and make my own website. As you can see, it’s pretty simple, but I don’t need anything over the top. There’s a list of all of my literary publications along with links to my work at Action Figure Fury. I’ll be updating this whenever I get another publication (which will be at least once a week thanks to my column). I may also write a little bit about my reading from the perspective of a reader rather than a reviewer.

If you’re interested in commissioning some writing or editing, head over to the freelance work section where you can find some samples of my work along with a contact form.

Take a look around. Enjoy! I hope to see you back on here sometime soon.