The Terrible Task of Weeding Out Books

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

“Fill your house with stacks of books, in all the crannies and all the nooks.” — Dr. Seuss

And when the books come falling down, I hope they find you ere you drown.” — Dr. JSB

It had to happen sooner or later. And now it’s later. I can’t put it off any longer. It’s time to disgorge a significant number of the books that stuff all the spaces in every room in my house—except, of course, the bathrooms, wherein the reading material is imported singulatim.

Like you all, I’m a book lover. How can anyone not be and become a writer? I don’t think that’s possible. With books I purchase, my practice has always been to read them and keep them. I’ve always loved being surrounded by books. Right now in my office all four walls have shelves stuffed with reading matter—literary kudzu.

But I know that someday I will be moving from my abode. So as much as it hurts, I need to make a significant dent in my stacks. I’m trying to be systematic. 

First off, I know I’m keeping some series and not others. I’ll keep Connelly, Chandler, Parker, MacDonald, Spillane. But I’m finally ditching Ross Macdonald. I’ve read all his books because Anthony Boucher tagged him as the best of the PI writers. He has a great following among critics. But I never connected with him or his PI, Lew Archer. And I simply don’t have time to try again.

I have a shelf of hardcovers autographed by the authors. I’ll keep those. Ditto my collectibles. I have some oldies that are probably worth something. I’ll let my kids figure that out someday via ebay. 

Another stratagem: I’m reading first chapters at random. If it grabs me, I’ll keep that book (if I think I might read it again). If not, it goes in the giveaway box. Here are some books that have survived:

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
At All Costs by John Gilstrap
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
The Human Comedy by William Saroyan
Final Seconds by John Lutz and David August
Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
361 by Donald Westlake
White Oleander by Janet Fitch

Sometimes the writing might be fine, but something else will come up that causes me to pitch the book. An overabundance of F and S words, for example. Or something that doesn’t seem plausible. Ed McBain’s legal thriller Mary, Mary didn’t make the cut for just that reason. I was hooked by the first page. The narrator, lawyer Matthew Hope, is interviewing a potential client accused of murder. But then he states, [I]t was my policy never to defend anyone I thought was guilty.

Ack! No criminal defense lawyer ever says that, because he’d never have any clients. The defense lawyer’s job is to make sure the cops haven’t overstepped their constitutional bounds, and hold the prosecution to its burden of proof. So nix to this book and the others in the Matthew Hope series. 

What am I looking for in that first chapter? We talk about that a lot here at TKZ. I want a grabber hook or a grabber voice—having both is a bonus. An example of a grabber hook is the opening of Harlan Coben’s Promise Me:

The missing girl—there had been unceasing news reports, always flashing to that achingly ordinary school portrait of the vanished teen, you know the one, with the rainbow-swirl background, the girl’s hair too straight, her smile too self-conscious, then a quick cut to the worried parents on the front lawn, microphones surrounding them, Mom silently tearful, Dad reading a statement with quivering lip—that girl, that missing girl had just walked past Edna Skylar.

For grabber voice, here’s the opening of High Five by Janet Evanovich:

When I was a little girl I used to dress Barbie up without underpants. On the outside, she’d look like the perfect lady. Tasteful plastic heels, tailored suit. But underneath, she was naked. I’m a bail enforcement agent now—also known as a fugitive apprehension agent, also known as a bounty hunter. I bring ’em back dead or alive. At least I try. And being a bail enforcement agent is a little like being bare-bottom Barbie. It’s about having a secret. And it’s about wearing a lot of bravado on the outside when you’re really operating without underpants. 

Nonfiction is much harder for me to cull. I read nonfiction for specific information that interests me, and I make heavy use of the highlighter. When I’m finished I keep the book because I think maybe I’ll need that information again sometime. And hasn’t this happened to you: The moment I give a book away, or let someone borrow it, not a week goes by before I need something from that very book!

So I don’t know what to do about my NF. I know I’ll never give away my writing craft books. I have several shelves of these, and they are an archaeological record of my writing journey. I often refer to them for refreshers. 

I’m heavily stocked with biography, history, philosophy, theology, reference. Alas, I can’t see myself parting with many of these. I have a full set of the 1947 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (handed down from my grandfather, who sold them door-to-door during the Depression). I keep this because the articles in it are often so much better and more authoritative than what you find online these days. Also, in a special bookcase, is my Great Books of the Western World set, complete with the incredible achievement that is the Syntopicon. That’s obviously staying put. 

Which makes all this slow going! I have a feeling it’s going to take years to gain any significant space. I’m sure I’ll have to revisit my criteria down the line and get tougher on myself. 

“A room without books,” wrote Cicero, “is like a body without a soul.” I’m right with you there, Cic. But now what?

Do you have any advice for this melancholy bibliophile?

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What’s the Deal on Dreams in Fiction?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Check out this first page from a brave author:

The house alarm is screaming out, not the early-warning beep but the piercing you’re-totally-screwed-if-you-don’t-move-now squeal. I don’t know how long it’s been going off, but it’s too late for me now. The searing oven-blast heat within the four corners of my bedroom. The putrid black smoke that singes my nostril hairs and pollutes my lungs. The orange flames rippling across the ceiling above me, dancing around my bed, almost in rhythm, a taunting staccato, popping and crackling, like it’s not a fire but a collection of flames working together; collectively, they want me to know, as they bob up and down and spit and cackle, as they slowly advance, This time it’s too late, Emmy—

The window. Still a chance to jump off the bed to the left and run for the window …

The author is Mr. James Patterson (along with his co-writer David Ellis). The novel is Invisible. Mr. Patterson is “brave” for choosing this opening gambit, for later on in the scene we learn the above is only a dream!

And that simply isn’t done.

At least you would think so if you’ve spent any significant amount of time around writers talking writing. Surely at least once a week, in some critique group somewhere, someone is uttering, as if citing stone tablets, that you must never begin a novel with a dream. Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One (Writer’s Digest Books), is unequivocal:

Never, ever, ever begin a narrative with action and then reveal the character’s merely dreaming it all. Not unless you’d like your manuscript hurled across the room, accompanied by a series of curses. Followed by the insertion of a form rejection letter into your SASE and delivered by the minions of our illustrious postal service.

Les brings up a practical matter. If you’re submitting to an editor (remember the old days of the SASE?) and you pull the dream-opening thing, it’s almost certain he or she will consider your manuscript amateur hour.

But what do readers think?

The aforementioned Mr. Patterson, it may be safely said, is unequaled in his ability to gauge the pulse of the reading public. He has at least one other novel, Maximum Ride, that opens with a dream. (And last time I checked, Mr. Patterson’s manuscripts are not being returned.)

So what’s the actual deal on opening with a dream?

I don’t like it. There! That settles it.

Okay, just my opinion, folks. But it always feels like a cheat to me to get me caught up in the action, only to have the character wake up.

In all fairness, however, I’m hyper aware of craft. Most readers are not.

Maybe they don’t care in the slightest.

Let me make a subtle yet critical distinction here. One of the most famous openings in literature is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It begins:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.

Here we have the first-person narrator telling us about a dream. That’s not the same as the “dream fake-out”—beginning with intense action that turns out not to be real.

Practically speaking, then, if you’re a writer seeking a traditional book contract, I would counsel you not begin with a dream, for the reason Edgerton suggests. Most editors won’t go for it.

If you’re self-publishing, you have the choice.

I’d still advise against it.

Here is my further thought on dreams in fiction: Unless dreams are an integral part of the plot (e.g., a character has recurring, prophetic dreams), I would suggest limiting yourself to using a dream only once, if at all.

For what purpose? To show the emotional state of the character at some intense point in the book. Or to reveal backstory that is affecting the character’s psyche. I would also make sure the reader knows up front it’s a dream, as in the beginning of Chapter 15 of The City by Dean Koontz:

Eventually I returned to the sofa, too exhausted to stand an entire night watch. I dropped into a deep well of sleep and floated there until, after a while, the dream began in a pitch-black place with the sound of rushing water all around, as if I must be aboard a boat on a river in the rain …

Another option is to eschew a dream sequence altogether, and simply have the character describe the dream and how it is relevant. Thomas Harris does that in the aptly titled The Silence of the Lambs. Clarice Starling is a young FBI trainee tasked with extracting clues from the notorious killer and creative chef, Hannibal Lecter. Lecter trades her clues for intimate details about her life. At one point Clarice tells Lecter about the haunting memory of being at her uncle’s ranch, when she was ten, and hearing the screaming lambs being led to slaughter. And how she still dreams about it.

Lecter tells her that’s why she’s obsessed with catching Buffalo Bill. She thinks it will stop the lambs from screaming. It leads to the moving last line of the book:

But the face on the pillow, rosy in the firelight, is certainly that of Clarice Starling, and she sleeps deeply, sweetly, in the silence of the lambs.

To summarize my take:

  1. Don’t open with a dream fake-out.
  2. Use dreams sparingly (like, once) unless it’s an integral plot element.
  3. Let the reader know up front it’s a dream.
  4. Consider characters talking about a dream rather than giving it to us as a scene. Just make sure the dialogue has conflict or tension. (For example, the character doesn’t want to talk about the dream, but the other character drags it out of her, as in The Silence of the Lambs.)

Now it’s your turn, O Writer and (especially) O Reader. What do you think about dreams in fiction?

 

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