“What’s Your Book About?”

I hate that question. (I hate a lot of questions, grump that I am.) There’s no easy way to answer it, really — not just me, for Merry-Go-Round, but a lot of other writers, for their books. After you’ve spent months or years ensuring that it would be about something, when somebody asks the question as an icebreaker at a cocktail party it’s hard to say much more than, “Uhhhhhh…”

(Oh, I generally manage to improvise something. A good shortcut is to say something like, “You know [insert book or movie title here]? Well, my book is like that, except [insert exception(s) here].” At the very least, this simplifies the task of changing the subject — because now you’ll be talking about somebody else’s book or movie instead of your own.

But now along comes Wordle. And I think it provides an easy way to answer the question: paste the entire contents of your book into the Wordle form, and hit the Go button. Instant summary. And it’ll keep the questioner busy for hours.

I don’t have the entire Merry-Go-Round manuscript handy. But I do have an early draft of Chapters 8 through 19 here. If you’d read that excerpt when it was current, the following would have made sense (click for larger image; note that the Wordle settings I chose here specified that it would display no more than 1000 words — the default is much smaller, 150 or so):

Wordle version of MGR Chaps. 8-19

Voilá — instant synopsis! (Now if I could only convince an agent to accept this sort of thing instead of a real synopsis…)

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Merry-Go-Round: Prologue

It seems to be the thing to do, these days, to actually just go ahead and post an excerpt of one’s current work-in-progress (“progress” in either the actual writing or in the getting-it-to-market senses).

So then. Here goes…


Maroon-proof. Mikey would wonder about that for a long time. It barely sounded like English.

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Per the Speak Coffee to Me blog (great name, that), this Family Guy moment:


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Why Writers Read Michael Chabon

For the stories, of course, and for the characters — sympathetic and otherwise.

But we also read him for passages like the following; it’s from The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which I’m currently reading. And note that I’m practically choosing at random: perfect little bundles of words like this are on every page. The character who’s being described here has just awakened after being knocked out.

An invisible gas clouds his thoughts, exhaust from a bus left parked with its engine running in the middle of his brain.


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More Bibliophiliac Detritus

Bookshelf, back room, south wall

In a post a few days ago, I talked about BookRabbit.com — a (fairly new) site which lets readers share the titles of books they own, in hopes of discovering other books they might be interested in. The clever mechanism which BookRabbit have come up with for communicating this information is bookshelf photographs: take a photo of a bookshelf, and go through every (or at least many) of the books displayed thereon, “tagging” them by title, edition, and so on.

I found this impossible to resist.

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When Language, Pop Culture, and Politics Collide

'1776' film posterYou know what driver’s-ed classes don’t teach you? They don’t teach you how complicated it is to make your way through a busy intersection of more than two streets, especially when there are no traffic signals.

I thought about this failure today, in connection with the 1972 film of the musical 1776.

Until last night, I’d never seen the movie and never (truth be told) had wanted to. No objection to musicals per se, you understand. But I’ve always had a hard time with light and frothy musical treatments of truly momentous historical subjects.

(Yet I very much like Cabaret, and agree with Pauline Kael’s assessment at the time it was released: “A great movie musical, satirical and diamond-hard.” Satire with an edge: good. But perkiness? Eh, well…)

But last night my resolve was weak. The Missus and I were both wiped out by planning, preparing, and executing a July-4th cookout for […counting…] ten people. While she escaped to her office, collapsing into a fog of online gaming, I just sat, stretched out, on the sofa, TV remote close to hand. And clicked. And clicked. And clicked…

For some reason probably having to do with the previous day’s power failure, when I first turned it on the channel was set at 2: the Home Shopping Network. (click) PBS had David McCullough on Charlie Rose, talking about John Adams. (click) Wonder what’s on Turner Classic Movies…? Hmm. William Daniels in colonial garb. Singing. Singing? Did William Daniels sing? What was this, anyhow?

By the time I realized what it must be, I’d been sucked in.

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We Interrupt This Routine…

Pitch black - scary, isn't it?

Since I started working on Merry-Go-Round last August, I’ve been sticking more or less to the same morning routine: shut off alarm (which goes off between 4 and 5am); stagger into the bathroom — the path illuminated, faintly, by a night light; slip back into the bedroom (carefully, mustn’t awaken The slumbering Missus); grope around on my nightstand for glasses and hearing aid and the stretchy thingum I use to keep my hair out of my eyes; stoop down to pick up the lap desk and current reading material and (usually) Merry-Go-Round excerpt I’m working on at the time; tiptoe out of the bedroom; proceed to kitchen to heat up hot water for tea; etc.

This morning, things didn’t quite work out that way. This morning, just as I returned from the bathroom to the nightstand, the power went off. I couldn’t see a thing. Total blackness. Burgeoning panic.

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On the Devil’s Side

It’s a cliché that villains are often more interesting — especially more interesting to write about — than heroes. The archetypes, I guess, are Faust’s Mephistopheles and old Screwtape.

(The latter must have been an especially delicious but guilty pleasure for C.S. Lewis to write about; I don’t really take it as gospel, as Wikipedia says, that “Lewis claimed that the book was distasteful to write.” Screwtape is the older, more experienced, wiser demon, offering advice to nephew Wormwood. The uncle has a wonderful voice. Or maybe — since The Screwtape Letters supposedly represent a Christian tract on temptation — maybe the wonderful, alluringly entertaining voice is exactly the point.)

From the ever-reliable whiskey river comes this, a quotation from Stephen Dunn:

Always a little more fun on the Devil’s side. I’ve been his advocate, have opposed what I most believed, testing if what I believed was true. It sometimes almost was; that’s the best I can say. But you can bedevil yourself if you keep playing that game. You don’t want to stand in a torturer’s shoes for long. Still, when it comes to seeking a truth, a certain cruelty can go a long way – right through the heart of a thing to some other side. Doesn’t every far-reaching truth cause a lesser truth to die? Most of us are content to stop at the heart. When I’ve been good’s advocate, playing the less clever role, I’ve gone as far as good can go. Maybe some orthodoxy or some abomination lost ground for a while. Maybe not. The one time I had the Devil down, thinking he’d give, he whispered, “Remember, the punishment for being good is a life of goodness.” I laughed, and he was gone.

“The punishment for being good is a life of goodness”: ha! That pretty much sums up a villain’s motives, eh?

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Reassurance. Maybe.

Regarding the entry I just posted, and the references therein to neurotic uncertainty over whether a book is DONE, this quote from William Strunk, Jr. (the original author of the classic Elements of Style):

It is worse to be irresolute than to be wrong.

Boy, do I hope so. :)

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Fighting the Shadows

'boxer 4,' by mirko delcaldo of sxc.hu, c2008Funny thing about writing a book — at least if you’re neurotic enough (and I am that neurotic): you never really know if it’s DONE. The best you can hope for is that it’s done enough.

Last week, right around now, I was exulting about having completed the “final” draft of Merry-Go-Round. I certainly didn’t have quotation marks around that word.

What a difference a week makes…

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