Sunday, February 24, 2013

Book Review Sunday: The Dog Stars

I’ve been enthralled with end-of-the-world stories since I was a little girl. Perhaps it’s because I grew up during the Cold War in Los Alamos, New Mexico — home of the atomic bomb. I was pretty sure the end times were nigh, and I had my plans. I was going to take my Hello Kitty backpack, stuff it with a few PB&J sammiches, and hoof it to the nearest cliffside. Like the Pueblo Indians a thousand years earlier, I’d bravely scratch out a living in one of the many caves dotting the Rio Grande gorge. I’d hunt! I’d fish! I’d slay the inevitable enemy hordes with spears! It would be great. As I built my survival plan, I practically began to look forward to the apocalypse. (I didn’t factor in radiation poisoning: a girl can’t plan for everything.)

As an adult, I’ve contained my apocalyptic speculations to fiction; specifically, I love reading other people’s imagined end-times tales. In the last few months, I’ve read The Age of Miracles (the planet begins slowing mysteriously, bringing about 80-hour days and really bad sunburns), World War Z (zombie apocalypse, ‘nuff said) and Peter Heller’s literary apocalypse fantasy, The Dog Stars. This last one is the book I’m reviewing today.

The dog who inspired Jasper
At the beginning of our story, narrator Hig is a survivor of a global flu pandemic that has killed off 99% of humanity, including his wife. Those who are left are “mostly Not Nice,” as Hig observes, and that includes his comrade Bangley. The two men — each equipped in their own odd ways to survive — team up only because they know they have a better chance together than apart. They don’t really like each other much. Bangley is a classic survivalist: a former Navy SEAL; a ruthless, humorless gun nut; a macho individualist. Hig is a poet, a gardener, and prone to weeping. Hig is always a little unsure if Bangley’s about to shoot him, but Hig hunts and fishes, and he has a dog (Jasper), so Bangley puts up with him. “I flew. He killed. Jasper growled. We let each other be.” Jasper is no less a character than Bangley and Hig, and is Hig’s only true friend and companion.

Bangley and Hig have built a fortress to protect them against the Not Nice hordes (what is an apocalypse without hordes? No fun at all, I say), and a good deal of the initial plot tension revolves around the two men fighting off waves of bad guys, Mad-Max style. In fact, the book owes a big debt not only to Mad Max, but to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Stephen King’s The Stand. But it also stands alone: it’s more literary than King, less grim than McCarthy.

Between the fight scenes, which are pulse-pounding and page-turning, we have a little Walt Whitman. Hig periodically has to venture away from the compound (Bangley stays behind to defend it) to hunt and fish. While wandering in the Colorado mountains with Jasper, he observes the natural beauty of the forest: “Mostly I just want to go up there. It feels like church, hallow and cool. The dead forest swaying and whispering, the green forest full of sighs. The musk smell of deer beds. The creeks where I always pray to see a trout. One fingerling. One big old survivor, his green shadow idling against the green shadows of stones.” These passages are gorgeous, and provide a nice counterpoint to the gunplay.

My brother and I in the Colorado Rockies, long ago
This is a good point to make a note on literary style: not everyone is a fan of Heller’s lack of punctuation and sentence fragments. Example: “[Bangley] kind of hunched over himself maybe remembering. Suddenly remote like his spirit retreated to a safer distance. To watch. From a distance. Still rocking the chair that didn’t rock.” Some might say this is just another page Heller stole from McCarthy, and maybe it is, but it didn’t bother me. Hig explains that his brain was mildly damaged from the flu fever that nearly killed him. “It cooked my brains. Encephalitis or something else. Hot. Thoughts that once belonged, that felt at home with each other, were now discomfited, depressed…” So the fragmentary writing reflects Hig’s fragmented thoughts: that explanation worked for me. You get used to the writing style pretty quickly, and then it flows.

Hig’s other love, besides old Jasper, is his 1956 Cessna. Hig is a pilot, which is another thing that keeps him, Jasper, and Bangley alive. Hig periodically goes on recon missions, checking for intruders and hoping against hope for signs of Nice people. He also collects supplies from, say, abandoned semis full of soda. Flying in itself is a survival tactic for Hig: he’s always on the verge of despair, as one would be in such a situation, and the airplane gives him a feeling of control and freedom. Flight is what keeps him grounded. Ironic, eh?

The novel needed something more than Wild West meets Walt Whitman, and sure enough, Heller gives us a plot twist about halfway through, neatly avoiding the dread saggy middle. Hig has always had to restrict his flight distance for fear of running out of fuel, but after one sad turn of events, he (and the reader) need a change of pace. The fighting and hunting are wearing thin. With nothing left to lose, he leaves Bangley and relative safety, and flies into the unknown.

Love, post-apocalypse style
What happens next I’ll mostly leave for readers to discover, but one thing I will say is it includes a woman, and so (of course) a love story. This element of the book is interesting to me because writing romance is not Heller’s strong suit, and yet the romance absolutely propels the last half of the book forward. What that tells me, as a writer, is that romance is the single easiest way to get readers to turn pages. If even a thin romance, tossed in almost haphazardly near the end of a book, can move the plot forward, you know it’s a powerful tool.

The novel roughly follows the Hero’s Journey, which Heller almost certainly is familiar with, so that’s worth spending a moment on. The Ordinary World of the setup is anything but ordinary: humanity has just been decimated by a biological weapon. It goes to show that “ordinary” in this case only means “status quo.” Whether it’s Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, a hooker in a brothel in Pretty Woman, or a pilot in post-apocalyptic America in The Dog Stars, the Ordinary World is quotidian. Weird for the reader, perhaps, but daily life for the protagonist.

The Call to Adventure comes early on when we learn that Hig hears a static-broken voice on a radio signal while flying. We know there is someone out there beyond the feral human marauders, so we know Hig will eventually have to explore this. He refuses the call initially, of course, but eventually it’s what moves him out of his fortress.

The Mentor could be seen as either Bangley or another old man we meet along the way. Curiously, the second old man is so similar to Bangley that I wonder why Heller didn’t work to differentiate them more. It’s possible that he figured any character left alive after the flupocalypse was likely to fit the Survivalist archetype, and that may be a good enough reason.

The Supreme Ordeal is debatable, but I’d qualify Hig’s encounter with a few elderly serial killers as a pretty supreme ordeal. It happens at about the right time in the story. I knew Hig would have to return to Bangley, since the story demanded it, and I was not disappointed. Return with Elixir wraps up the book, with one more thrilling scene to keep those last few pages turning.
I loved this book, found it to be lyrical, exciting, and ultimately pretty uplifting. It’s very unusual to find a post-apocalypse book this hopeful, so I’d highly recommend it to my many friends who refuse to read the genre because it’s too dark. I did have a few nitpicks beyond the thin love story, some plot holes that an editor should have spotted, but they weren’t egregious enough to ruin my five-star review of the book. Check it out, and let me know what you think.

Meanwhile, here are some photos of my own of the Rockies, which is the setting of The Dog Stars and which was beautifully evoked in the novel.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

What Happens When You Get Stuck?

I have a confession to make.

I rarely, if ever, have writer's block. I know, right? You're sitting there asking yourself, "What kind of writer are you if you don't get a little blocked up from time to time." Well, let's just say I keep a steady flow going right through the old noggin on a regular basis.

Yep, you could call me regular!

So, back to that question -- How is it that I don't really struggle with any writer's block?

First, let me confess to something else. I do struggle with whether I like my stories or not. I mean, I get the story on the page, let it sit for a while, ruminate about the characters, their needs, their wants, wonder if I've figured out if the story is going in a good direction, but then I take a step back and realize I don't really care for any of what is going on on the page.

How do I change that?

I make sure that I'm always taking notice of what's going on around me, whether it's short articles I come across online, novels I've delved into, or heck, there's been a strange-but-true couple of stories on the nightly news that make me stop what I'm doing and jot them down in my idea book. However you choose to find inspiration for your writing, make sure it keeps that constant flow of information open and running through your mind.

I'd like to share my top five ways of making sure I'm not like E.L. Doctorow staring at a wall (although, Ragtime is now one of those classics everyone wants to read).


Since my chosen genre is historical, the first thing I do to get my juices flowing is by wondering what was really going on during certain historical periods. My ideas usually come from unwarranted and unneeded research. For instance, for S and Gs, I checked out a documentary on Ellis Island from the library. Sure, it was a little dated, with a much younger Mandy Patinkin narrating the film, but I found it to be incredibly fascinating. And before I knew it, the wheels in my head were turning. And guess what? The whole idea for a new novel metamorphosed out of those four hours I spent with Mr. Patinkin.

But this just doesn't pertain to historical circumstances. When I decided to write about forest fires in the 1940s, I really had to figure out how a forest fire is created, what causes it to burn in a certain direction, and why certain ones are deadlier than others. Did you know that a prairie fire burns a lot faster than a forest fire, and that it's deadlier if one gets stuck in a prairie fire? But through my research I learned an extremely fascinating way to save yourself in one. Who knew?


I'm a little obsessive about this one. When I get online to check email or do a little research, I almost always find myself scanning daily news articles. And I always make sure to bookmark the strange-but-true ones, because I'm never sure what I could use later on.

Here are just a few interesting headlines I've gathered over the past couple of years (I've stuck in one fake headline just to show you how crazy some stories are. Can you figure out the fake?):

  • "Doctor Turned Serial Killer in WWII Paris"
  • "Reformed Skinhead Endures Agony to Remove Tattoos"
  • "Fugates of Kentucky: Skin Bluer than Lake Louise"
  • " 'White' Slaves Used for 1860s Fundraiser Propaganda"
  • "Asian Gunslinger Finally Gets His Name in the History Books"
  • " 'Godmother of Cocaine' Gunned Down in Columbia"
See? You can never go wrong with a good news article!


Some of you might not agree with me on this one, but I love a good prologue. A good prologue knows how to encompass the flavor of the novel and gives a hint of what's to come. If you already know you're good at writing good openers, then this task should be a breeze.

Think of some sort of action you'd like to see happen at the opening of your novel. You don't necessarily have to have the main character in this scene, but it's always good to see a glimmer of who that person might be. For instance, if your MC is not there physically, then perhaps there's a photo in the room, or someone is pregnant with the MC, or a death has occurred and it has something to do with the MC, etc. Just try to place a little slice of how your main character will be involved with that first scene.

And make it gripping!


Have you ever come across a random collection of words and the first thing you think is, "Wow! That would make a great title!" I've had those moments. Actually, my research usually coincides with the title. Going back to Mandy Patinkin's tour of Ellis Island, out of that documentary, not only did I come up with a new story to write, but the title presented itself to me through vivid description of a certain place on Ellis Island. The first thing I did after the film had finished was to stop by Amazon and search the titles to see if anyone else had published a book under that name. Quite honestly, I was shocked nobody else had, because it makes for a great title. And, of course, I'm not about to give it away! You'll just have to wait until the book gets published! ☺


When I was writing my first novel, a movie reel kept playing through my mind with the main character. She was a runaway slave and I kept seeing the back of her, running through the woods, trying desperately to escape her pursuers. I didn't know why, but I really wanted to understand why she was fleeing and who was after her. Why did I care so much about this one girl? And that's how the cycle of the story started for me. I sat down with this character, fleshed her out, visualized where she was going and with whom, and tried very hard to come up with a good ending.

My first ending was a flop.

But I persevered and continued to look into the life of this one person. Eventually I found her, found where she was going, discovered what made her so complicated, and realized I actually liked her even though it took several drafts for me to see all the layers. But that's why starting your story by fleshing out a character can be so rewarding -- you figure out what makes them tick, plus they've been with you on this journey all along.

I hope that, in some small way at least, I was able to encourage you to move on from that place where you feel like you're only staring at a wall. It can be easy for some of us to get stuck, but if you learn little tricks that help you move on and write something that could potentially grow into a fantastic story, then you're time won't feel so wasted.

Are there any ideas you have for getting past writer's block? Or are you a little like me -- so many stories you don't know what to do with them?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Six Common Clichés in Fiction

One of the biggest problems I’ve had when plotting my novels is that I often resort to what I call “default mode,” which means I put on paper the first idea that comes to mind. I think all of us have done this at some point or another, but to me, this problem persisted until I became aware that I was doing it (which happened to be very recently). Thanks to one of my critique partners and best friends, I’ve come to the realization that this is one of my weaknesses and something I need to work hard to avoid.

Clichés in fiction—first cousins to contrivances—are mostly found in romantic comedies and soap operas, but you may find them in more serious pieces of fiction as well. Basically, they consist of either fake sources of conflict and drama, excessive coincidences, predictable reactions and/or stereotypical characters. I realize I may be ruling out a large percentage of fiction, but it is my believe that if we learn to identify these clichés, we’ll be better equipped to avoid them and write better fiction.

Here’s my list of most commonly used clichés and contrivances. (FYI: I’ve used most of them, but rest assured, they’ve been extirpated in the final versions of my novels.)

1. Airport Tension

Most romantic comedies use this device. It’s the climax of the movie and it creates a contrived source of drama and tension. One of the characters has either been offered a job elsewhere or has decided to start a new life away from the problematic love interest. After the lovers have parted ways in a (usually) ugly manner, the staying partner realizes the wrong of his/her ways and catches a cab, motorcycle or X transportation (under heavy big-city traffic) and manages to make it to the airport, harbor, train or bus station, to find the beloved partner before he/she makes an exit in an emotionally-charged, public declaration of love which ends in a kiss and applause from nearby observers. Sometimes there would be “the fake departure,” which makes it appear as though the protagonist has arrived too late, but not to worry, the coveted lover would turn out to have changed his/her mind or may have missed the flight. I’ve seen cases where the passionate protagonist even makes it inside the plane to rescue his/her loved one.

There are so many examples of this I would probably end up naming half of the comedies ever made, but I’ll give you a few: Life As We Know It, Secret Admirer, How to Lose A Guy in Ten Days and the list goes on and on and on and on…

The Progression of Airport Tension

Part 1: Oblivious Sad Protagonist on her way to a new life sans Love Interest (LI).
(Notice LI following in motorcycle.) 
Part 2: Sad Protagonists ponders on the meaning of it all. 
Part 3: Love Interest convinces Now-Happy Protagonist their love
is worth fighting for (despite traffic).

2. The Fake Betrayal

We also see this one used again and again. Protagonist or love interest has finally decided to declare his/her love to the other party, but somehow this person has gotten into a strange mishap/tangle with the antagonist in which it looks as though the couple was having sex, about to do it, or in a situation where the antagonist forcefully kisses the protagonist. The love interest, of course, does not confront the situation and sadly retreats to sulk on the betrayal (or will not listen to explanations). A recent example of this is The Ugly Truth where the competitor for the protagonist’s affection removes his shirt after spilling champagne on it and the love interest finds them in an awkward situation. The audience can spot these events a mile away, so if you can avoid them, please do.

3. The Clueless Father

This is a soap opera favorite. Taking advantage that the protagonist and her love interest have gotten into a fight/separation period, the evil antagonist gets the guy drunk, strips him naked and lies patiently beside him until he wakes up the next day. Then, she makes him believe they had sex (which he can’t remember but is not sure it’s a lie either) and a few weeks later, voila!, the antagonist announces that a child is in the oven (who has been fathered by the evil male antagonist). Usually the pregnancy news come at a moment where protagonist and love interest have mended their differences and are headed toward the altar.

Yeah, don’t use this one.

4. Excessive Coincidences

Another soap opera favorite. Either the protagonist and love interest continuously ran into each other in the strangest of circumstances, or even worse and most commonly used, they belong to the same family. She could be the orphan child of his father or mother, and he turns out to be the adopted party or some other kind of entanglement of that nature. The point is that during half of the telenovela, the characters must believe they are siblings or closely related. (But of course the audience knows this is not so because they couldn’t possibly tolerate the mere idea of incest.)

Enough said.

5. The Nicholas Sparkism

If you’re familiar with Sparks’ stories, you know that one of his characters is meant to die—with or without good reason. The first time, he surprised you. You didn’t see it coming and you may have actually cried, but by the third Sparks movie you watched, you were just trying to guess who was going to die on this one: the guy or the girl.

Sure, when a character dies, you may touch your audience emotionally and/or pull them closer to your story. But watch how and why you do this, because if the reader smells the manipulation, it may not work.

Or maybe it was Nicholas Sparks' idea!

6. Generic Descriptions

This cliché particularly refers to the written word. These are the expressions, descriptions, reactions and words we see interchangeably from one novel to the next. These, I admit, are the hardest clichés for me to overcome. But what exactly does she mean, you ask. Well, think about how you describe characters. Usually you start with their eyes. The eyes also become the first body part you use to describe a physical reaction to a situation: eyes can glimmer, shine, brighten, narrow, etc.

Next we have the jaw. Check out how many times in your novels the jaw tenses. Do you talk about its shape when you describe a male character? (especially one that your protagonist must find attractive?) How many times do your characters roll their eyes, shake their heads, nod, sigh, frown, stare, grin, tremble? Mine do it all the time!

The problem with the excessive use of these expressions is that they are the antithesis of “voice” and “style.” In other words, if all the writers use the same descriptions and reactions, how do we make our writing stand out? How do we differentiate each other’s style?

In conclusion, what most of the mentioned contrivances have in common is that they lead to misunderstandings, which is the heart of comedy (and can be hilarious when done right) but there is a fine line here. Too many misunderstandings (particularly when used in drama) can make audiences roll their eyes in annoyance, curse or slam the remote control across the room—none of them reactions you, as the author, would like to cause.

Can you think of books and films which have succeeded at getting past clichés and contrivances? Which ones have overused these devices?

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Memory and Fiction

You are a storyteller. A weaver of fictions, a fabulist, a fibber, a bard. If you’re human, with a still-beating heart and firing neurons, you can’t help but be these things. That’s because you are, above all else, a rememberer. Your whole conception of yourself, your identity, is largely seated in your memories. You have a life-narrative: your triumphs and failures, your losses and loves. Your life is a story you tell yourself.

And you’re really good at that. Life is pretty chaotic, and mostly random. But look what you do with that mess: you neaten it up, organize it, discard nuance, and make meaning. If you’ve ever doubted in your storytelling abilities, keep this in mind: you are already an expert, because you have memories.

So there’s that’s the upside: you can create really good fiction out of nothing. The downside is, you’ve already done this, and it’s called “your life.” Every memory you have is a synthetic reconstruction of events, and is only loosely related to reality.

Where were you when you first heard about the events of 9/11? Or JFK’s assassination? If you were around and old enough to understand what was happening, you probably have a vivid memory of these events. I remember when the Challenger shuttle exploded: I was in middle school. I remember my blonde-haired teacher wheeling the AV cart into the room to show us, I remember the gasps and horrified giggles (you know how tweens giggle nervously at disaster), I remember the teachers all crying. But the minute I googled the event to check the year, I realized there was a problem with my memory: It was January 1986. I was not in middle school, I was in high school. I was halfway through my freshman year.

It turns out that your memories of that day are probably similarly flawed. Immediately after the shuttle disaster happened, one professor who had his wits about him asked about a hundred students to describe where they were and what was happening at the time. Who were they with? How did they feel? What were their thoughts? The students wrote their answers down. A few years later, he asked them to recount what they remembered about that day. Most people were convinced their memories were accurate, because the profound emotional reaction led to a “flashbulb” moment where memories are clear and searing. But when they compared their memories of the day with their own written accounts of that day, they discovered something unsettling. “A quarter of the accounts were strikingly different, half were somewhat different, and less than a tenth had all the details correct. All were confident that their latter accounts were completely accurate.”  When presented with the discrepancy, one of the students refused to believe it: “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.”

You, as interpreted by you
Our memories are not accurate records of past events. They are impressions. They are stories. Like all stories, they get lathered up in symbolism, imbued with meaning. Characters in the story are enlarged or shrunk. The hero of the story — you — is likely to be made more heroic. Or, if you’re one of those, antiheroic. (Maybe you’re the Holden Caulfield or your own story.) The seemingly irrelevant bits are edited out … other bits are invented from scratch.

In fact, you are so good at storytelling that you’ve probably already reconstructed everything you just read. If you had to walk into another room and recount it to someone else, you’d only get it partly correct. And then you’d be left with a memory of what you said to the person, which would lay on top of the memory of actually reading the words — further distorting the truth. It’s somewhat disturbing to realize that every time you retell an anecdote, or revisit an event in your memory, you are getting further and further from the actuality of what happened. Really important memories — the kind you revisit, the kind that seem so key to who you are — are even more likely to be highly fictionalized.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t think truth is merely a construction, or that perception trumps reality. I think when we talk about an event — say, the Challenger explosion — there is a way it unfolded. A single reality. There are also all the stories that came out of that day: as many stories as there were humans to witness it, and even humans who didn’t witness it, but who constructed stories around the event later anyway. Some might say that each interpretation, each experience, each perception of that event is equally valid. The stories are all that exist. I do not hold this view, but I think that finding the real reality is effectively impossible. There is no way to access it: no human can ever find out every single aspect of an event, no perception is entirely objective. Some stories are closer to the reality than others, though, and the job of pursuits like journalism and science is to get as close as possible to that truth.

Back to you, the storyteller. What does this all mean for you? First, it means you should be much more skeptical of your memories, but much more faithful in your storytelling abilities. Consider dreams: your brain is essentially experiencing cognitive farts all night long (or at least during REM sleep), flashes and images and nothing that would be meaningful to anyone watching it unfold on a screen. But you, the dreamer, turn all that noise into a story. You are so good at storytelling that you can turn mind-chaos into an actual narrative! Sometimes this drama is so moving, or frightening, or funny, that you’ll remember it long after you wake up. 

That’s one powerful narrative machine you’ve got sitting on your shoulders. Take heart, and use it well.

Where were you when the Challenger exploded? On 9/11? How sure are you of those memories?