A New Feature: Nicking from Novels

I am reading more. I haven’t quite made it to a book a week yet, but that owes as much to skimming several books at once as to a lack of time spent reading. Last week I posted about Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road. That post was more or less a book review. A short one, but a book review.

That’s not what I want to do on this blog. I love books. I sometimes like reading book reviews. My personal reading plan, though, revolves around mixing up books that I “should” have read—ones generally agreed to be good—with arbitrary grabs off the library shelves. Those won’t all be good, and I don’t want to fill up my blog with takedowns of authors who are probably perfectly nice people writing perfectly serviceable fiction that doesn’t please a snob like me. (I reserve the right to flex my scathing review chops if I come across something truly awful, though.)

Instead…instead I’m going to write about literary larceny. Grammarian grand theft. Reckless writerly ransacking. In short, I’m going to approach the books I read like Conan approaching a jungle temple. Even bad books do good things. The point of reading—as a writer—is to take those good things and make them your own when you need to.

Back when I was doing my degree in (music) composition, I had to listen to unfamiliar pieces of new music every week. Usually, I was listening along with the score. Given the average age of the composition faculty, it’s not surprising that we tracked this ongoing assignment with notecards. On the front of the card, we wrote the particulars of the recording and the score. On the back, we wrote notes about what we heard (and sometimes what we saw). In addition to building familiarity with a range of new music, the idea was that we could return to these pieces if there were techniques we wanted to use. I had a big stack of 3×5 cards by the end of my two years. They didn’t make the move from Minnesota, but it was a good project while it lasted.

The new feature here at Walking Ledges will be something similar: Nicking from Novels. For all the books I read, I hope to find a few things that the author does particularly well. I’ll describe those, providing some quotes when applicable. Over time, it will create a compendium of sorts for other people to use (while giving props to the original authors), and be more interesting than just hearing whether some guy in Texas liked a book or not.

Planning the new feature has already changed the way I’m reading. I spent years as an undergrad and grad student picking texts apart—sometimes for content, sometimes for delivery. It was analytical work. Reading novels for technique is not quite the same. It is, again, like the listening I did when I was a composer. The what and why become less important than the how. (This was also the thing that led me away from composition: I really cared about the why.) Sometimes the things I notice are little, like the one I mentioned last week about Chabon sketching his background characters with mini-anecdotes. Sometimes they are larger: how the author deals with magic, with the foundation of the world, with characters’ roots. I don’t expect that it will kill my enjoyment of what I read. I have a better perspective on the questions now than I did ten years ago, and can approach them a bit more like I approach eating things other people have cooked: what’s tasty? How can I use that stuff in my own recipes? Will it work without mushrooms?

Anyway! First proper post of the new feature will likely come tomorrow. The series should continue to run weekly on Fridays.


Books: Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road

How often do you get an adventure story from a Pulitzer Prize winner? Until Columbia starts handing out Pulitzers for adventure stories, I think Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road might be the only one. As an occasional snob with a soft spot for heroic adventure, I’ve had this book on my “should read” list for ages (it’s been out for seven years). In my previously mentioned effort to read more books, this was a natural candidate for kicking things off.

I feel like you can learn most of what you need to know about this book from the dedication and the afterword. The former is offered to Michael Moorcock, inventor of Elric of Melniboné and chronicler of weird multiple universe stories involving Order, Chaos, and Balance. And the Grail. And roses. Anyway. Michael Moorcock is thoroughly a creature of genre (though he bends that genre into bizarre shapes in his more ambitious work).

The afterword describes Chabon’s working title for the novel: “Jews with Swords.” It works. Obviously, Gentlemen of the Road proved equally apt and far more marketable, but “Jews with Swords” is as succinct a description of the book as one is likely to get. Technically, the Frankish Jew wields a lethally oversized lancet and the Abyssinian Jew wields a bearded axe, but the technicalities are distinct from and less important than the details.

Gentlemen was originally published as a serial, and moves with that genre’s odd balance of speed and caesura. We zip through scenes, jump ahead, and once in a while even go sideways. Chabon finds plenty to leave out. The writing is brisk, but with wonderful curlicues of language and description. Chabon has a fantastic knack for adding detail to trivial characters. There are seldom more than two or three such details, but they work wonderfully to sketch the important lines of the characters. Taken in the composite, the descriptions of these background characters deepen the world without distracting from the plot. (Craft of writing curiosity: Chabon works magic with one-sentence anecdotes. Describing something a character once did can be even more effective than a description of posture or personality.)

The best part is that it all works. Chabon’s juggling history, fatalism, and confidence games played with armies. It still coheres. It’s a good book without being a serious one. (I’m pretty sure Gene Wolfe has written more serious “genre” stories in his sleep.) There are fun words (gonfalon!) and clever turns of phrase. The heroes balance heroism and roguery in true pulp fashion. There is an ugly horse. And elephants. Religion wanders in and out of the story without ever becoming the point of the story. The Jews with swords do not actually solve many problems with them, relying instead on their wits, black humor, and resigned stoicism.

It’s a good book, one I’m glad I finally got around to reading.

Next time: an arbitrary library grab.

Reading for a Different Kind of Job

I finally have a library card again. Among the things I learned in this last move: I have too many books. Even just my fantasy fiction collection (diminished somewhat from the boxes I left at my parents’) fills up a whole wide shelving unit. I don’t regret having those books; the ones I’ve kept are the ones that have some combination of quality, re-readable-ness, and sentimental value. I just no longer feel the need to own the books I read.

And I need to be reading more. Graduate school turns reading into a job. There were semesters in which I was responsible for reading 500+ pages of scholarship every week. Reading stops being fun. I grew up reading for pleasure, and still do occasionally. As a writer, though, it has to be more often than occasionally, and it’s seldom just for pleasure. I’ve written about this before, but it’s something I’m reminding myself of now that my family is settling into the new house and we are shifting gears for the impending start of the school year. Reading good books makes me want to write ones like them. Reading bad books makes me want to get more good books out into the world. Win-win.

I’m pulling some inspiration on this from my former teammate Mike Dariano. Mike is one of those few people whom I feel closer to in the social media age than I did when we were actually going to the same school. This isn’t because we actually share stuff; it’s because we’ve ended up with strangely parallel lives. We’ve both put in time as adjuncts and years of being stay-at-home dads. We both write. We both try and use wiles to keep up with younger legs on the ultimate field. Mike, though, is scads more organized than I am, and works much more consciously toward improving himself and his work. He’s blogged about his projects in reading more, buying less, using Evernote, and half a dozen other things. (I’m particularly enjoying his recent stuff about incorporating Stoic principles into modern life.) Mike also has a new e-book out on building reading into your life.

Which brings me back to the library. I had a library card in Minneapolis. I got it the first week we were back in the Cities from Ohio, largely because I needed a card to use the internet at the library (a necessity until I could get internet at the apartment). When the kids were old enough, we used the library card all the time to check out children’s books. It was rare for me to check out anything for myself. Part of that was the grad school reading=work thing I mention above. Part of it was the fact that getting a toddler and an infant through the library did not leave much leeway for the lone grownup to explore the stacks. These days, my kids are old enough to look contentedly at the books they’ve picked out while dad finds a few to check out for himself. (My seven-year old is a voracious and frighteningly fast reader.)

On Thursday, the three of us went to the library here in Round Rock. The kids got five books each. I got two for myself. The first was Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road, which I’ve wanted to read for ages and have never gotten around to. The second is a book I randomly grabbed from the fantasy/sci-fi section. It has a gryphon on the cover and something to do with elemental magic. That’s as much as I can recall without having it in front of me. The grab-bag is sort of the point. Every trip to the library, my plan is to make one careful selection of something generally deemed worthwhile. There are swathes of the fantasy “canon” that I haven’t touched, and some literary fiction I want to get my hands on. The other selection will be something arbitrary. I expect there will be good books and bad book and many that fall into the range my mother calls “airplane books:” good enough to read when you’re stuck in a metal tube hurling through the sky. Mostly, I need to get more novel words (ha!) through my brain to keep my own figurative fields from going fallow.

My vague plan is that posts about these books will gradually replace my writings on #postac. I’ve said before that I’ never intended that Walking Ledges become a #postac blog. I still am one, but I’m not sure I will have new things to say about it every week. I’ll still keep my annotated postac page, and I’ll continue to write about my transition from teaching nominal adults to teaching people who aren’t yet old enough for a driver’s license. For now, you’ll have to excuse me. I’ve got some books to read.

Skinny Books and Fat Books

A while back, I mentioned that my family was in the process of house-shopping. We closed on a home at the end of June. Between cleaning up after the previous owners’ rat infestation and compensating for some–ahem–puzzling choices by the contractors who redid the interior, we’ve started to pack up our apartment. That means packing books.

We have…lots of books. Before we moved from Minneapolis to Austin, I went through and removed many academic books I didn’t care about from the household library. (I also finally recycled 8 years’ worth of seminar notes.) Even after that liberation from the Academy’s lingering tyranny, we still had seventeen or eighteen boxes of books to move—north of 250 kilograms. Over the last year, most of the family’s acquisitions have been kids books, so at least we haven’t added much to our tonnage.

Packing up books is like playing Tetris without the underlying grid, but at least working at a college bookstore got me plenty of practice. After buyback, part of my job was to list and pack up hundreds and hundreds of textbooks for shipping back to the wholesalers. (The store’s book room was upstairs, too, which made things extra fun even with a good handcart.) Textbooks don’t come in standard sizes. Their sizes certainly aren’t related to standard box sizes, either. Filling boxes to their limits (but not beyond) is tricky, especially since you have to pack the books straight so their bindings aren’t damaged.

Being in the humanities and fine arts, I have not accumulated many textbooks. Instead, my collection is heavy on monographs and anthologies. They’re bound just as idiosyncratically as the big hardcover textbooks. Thin or thick, wide or tall, they’ve all got to go somewhere. I’ve discovered that the little Dover editions of philosophy are great for filling gaps. I’ve also still got a few scores around—I have no intention of giving up the Beethoven string quartets I scribbled so much analysis into. The scores are large enough they usually have to go at the bottom of a box, messing up everything that goes on top of them.

I also have literature and fantasy novels. They tend to be slightly more uniform in size—and much, much lighter—but vary in thickness. Because they’re light, they’re usually easy to pack. (It’s also nice to stumble on a light box of books while moving.) The variation in thickness, though…it got me thinking about what I like to read and how that has changed over the years.

The skinniest books in my collection are early printings of Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion books. Many of those are themselves collections of short stories that appeared in pulp magazines. Most don’t even hit 200 pages. Steve Brust’s Taltos books are the next category up, getting to about 250 pages—still pretty thin in the paperback printings. At the other end of the spectrum (discounting omnibuses) are Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn books. These are epics. Though published in hardcover as a trilogy, the third book had to be split into two parts for paperback (and they’re still over 800 pages). Throw in the odd trade paperback and some hardcovers, and the fantasy collection is nearly as motley in size as the academic one.

It has been a long time since I found myself immersed in an epic. I’ve read most (but not all) of George Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. It didn’t exactly grow on me.  The best books I’ve read lately have been short: Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane is one of the most beautiful gems of a book I’ve ever read, and it’s 181 pages in hardcover, including the afterword. Most of the “epics” I have left on my bookshelf are ones that I read in high school or the early part of college.

I have come to prize economy and the power of not laying everything out for the reader. (Gene Wolfe is an absolute master of this.) It’s an aesthetic principle, I know, a choice rather than some law of the universe. It’s still important to me. I think that my preference owes something to the work I’ve done in poetry and composition since I was “in to” fantasy epics. Those prize density of meaning rather than scope of narrative. They are about the right notes and the right details rather than raw volume. Some of that has certainly carried over to my fiction tastes and “serious” writing—if not my blogging, where my verbal sprawl can run amok.

There’s also the question of finding time to read. Getting reading into my day is much like getting books into boxes: my time is irregularly chunked by varying demands. Family responsibilities are like those big scores and omnibuses. They devour large quantities of time and have to go in first. It’s hard to sneak epics in around the edges or in the gaps. The skinny books, the little gems…they fit in the cracks. Perhaps after the summer, when the school calendar is again regulating my days and my kids’ days, I’ll find my way back to epics. Or perhaps I’ll just squeeze in more skinny books.

Droughts and Drafts

Central Texas is dry. Right now, it’s spectacularly dry, in the grip of a years-long drought that has climatologists talking earnestly about a repeat of the Dust Bowl. We had a storm dump four inches of rain about a week ago; the ground soaked it all up. The reservoirs are 27 feet below full—instead of having nearly four years’ worth of water in them, they have about a year and a half. It won’t be long before the landscape reverts to its sere summer brown.

My own drought isn’t as severe or as far-reaching. I’ve been working and busy with chores and working on behind-the-scenes grownup stuff. I’ve managed to keep my blog updated. What I haven’t managed since April is much work on Ghosts of the Old City. My reservoirs are running low. When I go to work on it, I enjoy what I see. I can wring out a few paragraphs at a time. Then the well is dry and I have to wait until opportunity and desire again intersect.

Two things have been missing: reading and sleep. Sleep is probably the one with the most import, simply because it colors so much of my days and my mood. Lack of it makes it easier to sink into wasting my waking hours and suffering mood swings. It’s also contributed to the resurgence of my cold, which hasn’t helped.

I’m missing reading more, though. I’ve read plenty, but most of my reading these last few weeks has been internet stuff: newspaper articles, blog posts, usw. As metaphorical rain, they’re barely enough to keep the grass from dying. Replenishing the reservoirs takes sustained reading, away from a screen, away from habitual clicking over to a game or social media every few minutes. It takes the energy to focus on something once the kids are in bed.

Writers constantly tell their aspiring counterparts to read. There’s a practical level to that: the more you read, the more tricks you learn to spot and pull off yourself. The more you read, the better sense you develop for the subtleties of language. You find stuff to steal and build into your own style. Those are all good reasons. None of them are enough to make the absence of reading a drought.

It’s not the how that needs renewal. It’s the why. Lack of reading dries us out because reading makes us feel. It makes us think. When we read to replenish our stores as writers, we’re replenishing our love for words and stories. We’re remembering what it means to be transported, for doors to open and stars to align. That’s the stuff that feeds us at the root.

The skies are grey this morning. The clouds aren’t dark enough to hold much threat of rain. The trees don’t stir. The forecast for the long weekend is much more amenable to sunscreen and swimming pools than drought relief. Schools—both my kids’ and the one where I teach—are descending into the whirlwind of end-of-year events. There’s a birthday party to go to on Saturday. There will be laundry and dishes and another attempt to deal with some broken blinds.

But there will also be sleeping in and reading and breakfasts that don’t come as a prelude to prying my kids out of bed. By Monday, maybe I’ll be ready to grow my writing roots again and get back to my draft of Ghosts of the Old City.

Missing Characters

I am juggling a good number of projects right now. Writing cover letters, tweaking resumes, writing for games, thoroughly reworking some old stories to get them ebookified as quickly as possible. It’s all taken time away from my novel (working title “The Fairworth Chronicles”). When I woke up this morning, I missed it. I missed the characters. I keep wondering what they’re up to, what they will be up to when I can get their activities out of my head and onto the page.

Missing fictional people is odd. If they’re other writers’ characters, they’re seldom farther than your bookshelf (or e-reader, if you swing that way). I’ve missed others’ characters sometimes, especially the ones who have grown and changed. Brust’s Vlad Taltos is a fun one to miss, because he’s easy to revisit at various points over his development. The Vlad books are also short enough to plow through one in an afternoon. Zelazny’s Corwin is much the same. Others take more work to visit: Gaiman’s Shadow, Le Guin’s Ged, Chabon’s Kavalier, even Moorcock’s Hawkmoon. They don’t live quite as close to the surface of their stories. (There might be something about first person narration lurking in there, although Gene Wolfe’s Arthur Ormsby is not the easiest to visit in spite of the way he colors the narration of The Knight and The Wizard.) At any rate, even if they don’t live next door, other writer’s characters live on familiar roads, and getting to them is more a matter of time than of work.

Missing your own fictional people is harder. Even if they’ve thoroughly established residence in your head, as Maedoc and Zahra have in mine, getting to them takes work. Oh, sometimes it’s easy. It feels like your characters are sitting right next door, with a full pot of coffee and an extra cup. Usually, though, it’s a cross-country hike. Often it is painfully uphill. Sometimes there are giants at the top, playing you for a pin in a game of downhill boulder bowling.

Regardless, it is exciting to get there. You’re not quite sure what the characters are going to do, whether they’re going to cooperate, whether they’re going take your story and run with it so hard you’ll have to chase it. Or maybe your characters don’t want to run at all. They just want to sit there and leave you feeling very much like you do trying to get your three year-old to put on her shoes so you can go grocery shopping. When it’s been a slog to even get to them, this is inordinately frustrating.

The hard thing is also the cool thing: you don’t know until you get there. That’s what makes missing your own characters more exciting than anything else. There’s risk. We know, all of us, that adventures do not always end happily. We also know that unhappy endings might better resemble a hospital waiting room than a rubble-strewn battlefield. When you miss your own characters and go looking for them, it’s an adventure. That’s the important thing to remember, even if other clutter is blocking your front door. Go out through a window if you have to. The adventure is worth it.


A story is like the wind: it comes from a far off place, and you feel it.
—proverb of the Kalahari Bushmen (one I first heard from Terry Tempest Williams)

What makes a story? I spent a lot of time as an undergrad trying to answer that question. I read epic poems, novels, myths…I probably should have spent some quality time with Joseph Campbell, but he was so much in the air that I was satisfied with the commonplaces. I read Bakhtin. I tried hard to learn from the “mistakes” of others—mostly the authors we read (and sometimes picked to pieces) in my literature seminars. I worried about how to tell stories right, rather than how to tell stories well. I felt a constant tension between what I knew about reading critically and what I knew about writing.

That tension is especially obvious in my honors project, The Storyteller, for narrator and orchestra. Musically, the piece has all the flaws one could ask of a first orchestral work: it’s over-written, full of bits that muddy the overall sound and make it occasionally impossible to hear the narrator. After hearing the orchestra read-through, it was obvious that I needed to dramatically strip down the score to fit it more smoothly with the text. That text, though? It has some great moments. It also has moments that make me cringe—bits of faux-beatnik and occasional flings with exoticism. I started with the idea of re-parsing epic poems. Now, we’d call it a mashup, but this was the early Aughts and YouTube didn’t exist yet. (One of the earliest images, for example, was Beowulf’s Grendel emerging from the Trojan Horse.) The poem ended up being about storytelling itself, about the anxiety of influence and how hard it felt to tell stories that hadn’t already been told. In my notes and brainstorming, there’s a constant back and forth between the academicism of my references and my desire to write from the gut.

I’m dealing with some of the same questions here: how do I balance commentary and storytelling? I have to remind myself of John Cage’s words: “Do not try to create and analyze at the same time. They are different processes.” In terms of storytelling, writing a blog can be like “writing” a TV reality show. So many of the things that happen every day aren’t that interesting to me, never mind to you. Some interesting things that happen still don’t fit here. This has become particularly true as a few of my posts—notably Of Dreams…—have been distributed around the internet by others. That’s cool. On the other hand, it’s forced me to consider my audience in ways that I hadn’t when planning this blog. How do I keep the analysis out of the creation?

And what makes a story for me, now? I think that the Kalahari proverb is probably the best answer I know. To keep you coming back—and, more importantly, to keep me coming back—I need to write things that we feel. This story, the story of Walking Ledges, isn’t out of its prologue yet. There is so much more to do and to write and to figure out. It is the story of leaving academia, but also the story of a 33 year-old taking a chance on a 16 year-old’s dreams. It’s the story of me letting myself dive back into the world of stories, to think again about how we write and read, how we tell. “Tell” is so much more vital than “write” or “say.” It’s a declaration, but also something that’s not entirely under one’s own control. A tell at the poker table is the unintentional betrayal of a secret. Good stories are the same way. They hint at secrets, tell us more than their plots and words do. I hope that the tells here will be worthwhile for all of us.

I could have picked a few different lines from The Storyteller to close with, but this is one from the middle of the piece that I particularly like:

“Tell the wind. Tell games. Tell journeys. Tell motion and tell the future. Never tell emptiness.”

You can find my honors project in the Macalester College library in St. Paul, Minnesota (
I’ve added the complete poetic text to the new “Works” page.