It was one of those that made me hang in there, until the end, with very few intermissions.
And now I want to understand why.
I bought it as an e-book January 6, 2012. I was led to it by Francine Prose – she had an excerpt from it in Reading Like a Writer, and I was drawn into the story already after a few sentences. It was thriller-like in suspense and tension, but at its heart it is a love story. It begins with Daniel and Hampton wandering around in the woods, in search of a missing girl.
Daniel and Hampton were paired by chance and against their wishes. They were not friends – Hampton did not particularly like Daniel, and Daniel had every reason to avoid being alone with Hampton.
Then, in one sentence
But Daniel’s girlfriend or partner or whatever he was supposed to call her, Kate, Kate went home to relieve the baby-sitter who was minding her daughter, and Hampton’s wife, there was no ambiguity here, his wife, Iris, with whom Daniel was fiercely in love, had gone home to look after their son.
we learn the theme of the story. It then continues, with its real beginning, now written in the present tense, as
Two years after he was kicked down the stairs of his apartment building in New York City, which shattered his wrist, chipped his front tooth, and, as he himself put it, broke his heart, Daniel Emerson is back in his hometown, driving Ruby, his girlfriend’s four-year-old daughter, to her day care center, called My Little Wooden Shoe.
Perhaps it was this directness, where persons are talked about without being introduced, combined with the rhythm, where long sentences, with interestingly many commas, sometimes also with elements of repetition, a repetition that gave me, the reader, an additional, almost listening-to-music-like experience, that I liked most.
I did not have to spend time, as I do in many novels, by taking breaks where I stop the reading, for the sole purpose of trying to remember who is married to whom, and was it really important for me to remember where the old charming Aunt lived, and what was that name again, of the detective?
Then there is a new paragraph. We are still in the present tense, and following this first, short sentence, a sentence which really makes me stop and hold my breath for a moment, we learn more about Daniel’s relation to Kate’s daughter Ruby, and starting with worldly but still wonderful events he shares with Ruby, this second sentence, which is even longer than the previous, also long sentence, ends with a reflection on life itself, and its very meaning and purpose.
It’s fine with Daniel. He welcomes the chance to do fatherly things with the little girl, and those ten morning minutes with dear little four-year-old Ruby, with her deep soulful eyes, and the wondrous things she sees with them, and her deep soulful voice, and the precious though not entirely memorable things she says with it
and after a while, we approach the end with
it simply reminds you that even if God is dead, or never existed in the first place, there is, nevertheless, something tender at the center of creation, some meaning, some purpose and poetry.
It is not my purpose, with this post, to give away spoilers. But I wanted to take the chance to recommend the book – A ship made of paper by Scott Spencer – and at the same time submit a contribution to the weekly writing challenge – stylish imitation, a challenge I found very interesting, and perhaps, by some purpose or design, I was supposed to find it since by an act which to me seemed quite random, the nice folks at WordPress linked to my blog from the page where the contest was presented.
The feeling that something was intended for you I share also with Daniel, who contemplates like
Maybe he has drifted into the periphery of her life because somehow in the grand design of things – and this private, pulverizing love he feels makes him believe in grand designs – he is the man who must awaken her to her own beauty. Is there some casual, defused way he can say to her: Do you have any idea how lovely you are?
Then there’s Kate. And we learn that she, through dialogue, can express her suspicions regarding Daniel’s feelings for Iris in a rather subtle, but very calculating, way. Like if you dear reader, or one of my loved ones, would say
“Tell me something about your novel, I have seen you sitting there, in your office, in the evenings, typing away on your computer keyboard.”
and I would say that
“Well I do my regular work, but no, I have not started any novel-writing, but I have thought about it, perhaps later, when I am retired.”
but then you still pursue, and you are determined to make me reveal my secret passion, and being both jealous and worried that I might spend more and more time in this solitude, where you are not allowed to take part, you continue, and it gets sharper and sharper.
“You do like them, don’t you? she asks. A surviving bit of her old southern accent streches the “i” in “like”.
“I don’t really know him.”
“Do you like her?”
She gives him a look. Of course Iris, who else are they talking about?
She, Kate, then arranges for them to meet Iris and Hampton at a restaurant, and the dialogue at that restaurant, also replayed in Francine Prose’s book, gives me a very direct and also a bit saddening view of our human nature, showing its more dark and cynical sides.
As the novel continues, we follow Daniel and his love for Iris, but we also follow several parallel stories, setting the relationship drama in its place in society. It is about race too, I did not say that before, but you will see that it is a significant element in the book, and there are also repeated references to a real high-profile court case, represented in the novel by Kate writing about the O.J Simpson trial.
And there is bad weather. You will meet storms and snow, causing electricity outage and blocked roads
The electricity cuts out for about the time of a long blink, the world disappears, then shakes itself back into existence
and sometimes these natural causes play their part as puppeteers for the love-seeking characters in the book. And even if not everyone says it,
“I love you”, Daniel says in the darkness
They say I have to have a voice.
A voice when I am writing, that is. A voice that makes my writing instantly recognizable as mine. But where is this voice? And do I have it? Perhaps I have no voice at all!
I decided to practice. This was when I took my first steps in the preparations for writing a draft for a novel. I had previous experience in writing, that was clear. I had written research papers and even a thesis. So perhaps I had a scientific, tech-voice? If you want a sample of it, it may sound like this:
Fast motion along a predefined path is important in many robot applications, and requires utilization of the maximum allowable torque range. If the torque is at the limit, there is no margin to cope with disturbances or modeling errors, which may result in deviation from the path. A path velocity controller for modification of the velocity along the path when the torques saturate can improve path tracking. The path velocity controller acts as an outer feedback loop outside the ordinary robot controller, and modifies a nominal velocity profile, computed by minimum time optimization using available methods.
But now I should do fiction. What was meant by that? That I could, or perhaps should, make things up? That was sort of unfamiliar, at least if I wanted to gain some experience from my previous writings.
They say that authors blend in their own life in their stories. I had certainly heard of that. And I had also heard of angry relatives suing authors for making too many private things very public. So here one might need to tread softly, to avoid breaking hearts and making people upset. And it would also be important to show some dignity towards people who know me, and still want to know me, even after I have written the book.
I read Alan Watt, and I really liked his suggestions of stream-of-consciousness writing. I started with capturing small scenes from my life, and then trying to reproduce them onto a piece of computer screen. Here is a lunch sample, where a bunch of work-oriented persons eat, in a Scandinavian setting, doing their best to avoid the unspoken taboo of talking about work during lunch time:
They talk during lunch. Sometimes the conversation flows freely, and sometimes long periods of silence occur, broken after a while by some of the group using their creativity to come up with a new subject to talk about. They mostly talk about facts. They do not talk about feelings. No one says “did you read that book, it was truly fantastic, it gave me a complete new picture of the Chinese culture”. Perhaps someone says “did you know that there is a golf player who can reach 300 meters using only his putter”. This may be followed by a comment, like “did he do it in a contest?”, and perhaps a somewhat scientific observation in the style of “can he control his muscles or does he hit that hard all the time?”.
Since I always was a strange cross-breed between science guy and something more artistic (perhaps writing, perhaps rock and roll, perhaps opera – I still do not know), I tried to put some art into the writing. So here is Michael, character-to-be in Prevention – the book that I now prepare, leaving his rehearsal, only to be attacked and hit to the ground some minutes later:
Michael Dalton did not know, then, as he prepared himself for the rehearsals, that he was in for a new period of silence. This time it would not be determined by himself, as a result of a failed audition, but instead by forces outside of his own control. He did not know it when he sang his aria, or during the majestic sextet when he listened to the almost divine beauty of the Dove sono aria, and he did not know it when he said goodbye and see you tomorrow to his fellow actors and singers. Instead he felt happy and full of enthusiasm and life. He did not know, shortly thereafter when he mounted his bicycle for the short ride home, that this was the last rehearsal for him, at least for a long time to come.
He only knew it later in the night, when he woke up, stirred awake by a nurse at the nearby hospital, telling him to be quiet and yes you heard me right, you are not allowed to sing, neither to speak actually. You have to be very calm, and stay where you are, in this bed, at least for some days to come.
I found this a good way of practising, and I listened to the wise words of Austin Kleon, saying that no matter how hard you try to copy something or someone, you will always end up doing something original. I decided that this was a way of writing – take your experiences and write about them – however in a state of mind where you feel free to really invent things as you go along. And as a result, some new stuff, completely invented and not very true at all, may come out.
And when you read it afterwards, and revise it, you might even find it a bit interesting!
Of course you need structure too! I studied a bit about structure, for example by following a sequence of good videos in the Plot Whisperer series by Martha Alderson, and by reading a bit in Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting.
I also found the snowflake guy a.k.a Randy Ingermanson interesting, and I started to subscribe to his newsletter.
And piece by piece, mood by mood, some scenes and also some characters emerged.
I also decided on the beginning. There would be a prologue, somewhat secretive with some hidden symbolic meaning at the end. And then there would be the first scene, opened by Annie Dalton, daughter of the great Oliver Dalton, professor of System Studies, in a phone call indicating potential problems.
Her first words are simply
“Dad, I’m sorry, I can’t make it. I have this pain in my stomach. I think I need to stay at home tomorrow.”
The timing is not perfect, since this is the day before Oliver and his wife Elizabeth are leaving for Munich, where they will meet Annie and where they will celebrate Oliver’s birthday, and everything is already neatly planned, including a list of all museums that Oliver wants to see.
They are not yet aware that Annie plays a part in a bigger scheme, where powerful organizations do what it takes to shape the society, and its inhabitants, in a for them desirable direction. And the old tradition of Eugenics, pioneered in the early 1900s, is suddenly both alive and well.