Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Amusing myself while filling my writing pen after its annual thorough cleaning, with some pondering on the potentially superstitious nature of a writer's chosen instrument.

 There have been times when I ran out of ink, and I wasn't able to refill my pen, and wanted to continue writing,
 where I have forced myself to use another pen, despite queasy feelings of its unnaturalness and betrayal;

 but I admit that I would do that writing on scrap paper,
 and then properly transcribe it into the manuscript with my true writing instrument as soon as I could.

Is this akin to the athlete who won't play without his lucky socks? Do surgeons insist on using one particular scalpel? A painter's one precious brush? Or is this a special kind of screwy reserved for writers?

Thursday, August 08, 2013

We have Honorable Obscurity, How 'Bout You! - The Experiental Review of "The Honorable Obscurity Handbook"

The mark of a good book on writing, whether it involves craft, theory, or the writing life, is that it causes me anxiety, and I want to stop reading it. More on that later.

The Honorable Obscurity Handbook's cover says it all: the book is a collection of writing and supporting quotations on the importance of continuing to strive for your art, regardless of recognition. When it says 'ample quotations', it means it in the same way Rubens would paint an 'ample' lady.

I've followed Cunningham's writing for a while now, so many of the essays were familiar, because I had read them on his blog, or in their original publications. But these writings are of a type that are useful to return to. They help fortify the will of self-doubting writers; writers that are beginning to lose their ambition to persevere through the mire of publisher rejections, unresponsive agents; writers who have yelled their work into the wilderness, and never received an answering call that yes, someone has heard your words and enjoyed them - please send more.

The Honorable Obscurity Handbook is Cunningham's fourth book, with (at least) one other book waiting for the diamond band of acceptance for publication. This following quote (which does not appear in the book), was written before the publication of his first book:

"The challenges never let up; after facing one you find another waiting just around the bend -- but this is what I love about it all. Nothing else could possibly challenge me, engage me, force me to confront myself as much as writing. In essence, the whole craft seems to be a game of balances. Maintaining balances."

Though a decade lies between when this quotation was written, and his the publication of his 'Handbook,' Cunningham's course has remained true. With the tailwind of praise, or bushwhacking through modern publishing, he has stayed committed to the the creation of his written art - and in this book has shared the moments on kinship throughout the ages, the communions of reading, that have kept his quest moving forward.

Before I said that good books on writing cause me anxiety, and I want to stop reading them. They cause the anxiety to be creating those 'Honorable' works, to lay down another's book to build up my own. And so fellow writers, 'Obscure' or no, I advise you to pick up your own copy of The Honorable Obscurity Handbook (the book itself is honorably obscure - don't look for it on Amazon; I couldn't even say that I've read it on Goodreads; unless you're in Portland near Powell's, buy it direct from the publisher Atelier 26 Books), and when your nerve is tested, and your vision dims, read a section, read one of the 'ample' quotes, let that anxiety crackle in your body until it must be released through your fingers in whatever your method of writing.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

What I read instead of reading - The Experiental Review of "The Sweet Hereafter"

I've got three kids: 12 year old boy, 10 year old girl, 4 year old boy. They are all smart, funny, unique and beautiful. The thought of any of them ceasing to be is unimaginable, and I refuse to speculate on how I would be able to work through such a tragedy.

Now, I knew the general plot behind Russell Banks' novel The Sweet Hereafter before I started reading it - it wasn't like being waylaid and destroyed by the heartbreaking beginning of Pixar's Up. I first heard of the story through press for its film version, and then picked up the novel at a library sale. So I knew that it was a sad book that involved the death of children in an accident, but when I decided to read the novels I own by Russell Banks, I felt forewarned, and confident that I could treat it as any other tragic drama that I would encounter; I felt that I was a strong enough reader to separate the book's narrative from my own.

The book is split into five parts, with four narrators. The first section is narrated by Dolores Driscoll, a small-town school bus driver, and details the everyday procedures and bus route she takes to pick up many of the town's children and get them to school safely on a snowy winter's day, and how the mundane instantly becomes life-shattering as the bus goes off the road into a half-frozen, flooded sandpit. This section is thick with foreshadowing and imminent tragedy, with a strong-voiced narrator, and does an excellent job of introducing the community. When the section suddenly ends, just over the brink of the accident, at the starting point of action, I was compelled to continue reading.

The second section is narrated by Billy Ansel, a widower who was the only witness to the accident, who loses his two children. His narrative involves the dissolution of an affair he was having with another parent who lost a child, some back story on his past marriage and his relationship with his kids, and how his way of dealing with the tragedy is to lose himself in the bottle. As a father this section was certainly hard to read, but I felt so removed from the characteristics of Ansel that I was able to keep my emotions somewhat in check.

Now I considered taking a break from the book at this point - to read something with a lighter tone for a while - and would have if not for Banks' excellent structuring, having the narrator of the next section be Mitchell Stephens, a lawyer who comes to town looking to help out the victims' families. Now, while Stephens has his own family problems (a drug-addicted daughter), exploring the legal dimension of the tragedy provided the emotional break I needed to stick with the story.

But then there was the fourth section, which is narrated by Nichole Burnell, a fourteen-year-old girl who was paralyzed in the accident. Her voice, and the layers of emotion and tragedy that come out on top of that of the accident (such as a history of sexual abuse by her father), sapped my motivation to continue the story.

It was summer vacation for me by the time I got into the fourth section. I had time on my hands for reading, and didn't want to read my book in progress. Now, where was an avid reader to turn, to take a break from a heart-rending story? Should I read a lighter book in the interim? A so-called "summer-read?" A trip to the local library gave me the answer: graphic novels!

In high school I was an dedicated comic book collector. My interest waned in college, but I would pick up the odd graphic novel or comic collection from the library every once in a while to feed my love of graphic narration. My early tastes in comics were heavy on Marvel, with only a smattering of Batman comics, and John Byrne's "Man of Steel" mini-series comprising my DC holdings. Over the past decade my graphic novel reading has mostly involved DC's Vertigo imprint series (Alan Moore's "Saga of the Swamp Thing", Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" & "Black Orchid", Bill Willingham's "Fables", anything with John Constantine) some mature Indies (Robert Kirkman's "The Walking Dead", Alan Moore's "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" & "From Hell", Frank Miller's "300") and titles I could enjoy with my kids (Jeff Smith's "Bone", Kazu Kibuishi's "Amulet", David Peterson's "Mouse Guard"). Besides Kevin Smith and Frank Miller's work for DC, I generally had no interest.

But, driven by my desire to read anything else but The Sweet Hereafter, I read a few DC graphic novels, including:

Batgirl: Year One
Batman: Battle for the Cowl
Batman: The Black Glove
Batman: Blind Justice
Batman: Death in the Family
Batman: Golden Dawn
Batman: Haunted Knight
Batman: Hush
Batman: Hush 2
Batman: Hush Returns
Batman: Heart of Hush
Batman Incorporated
Batman: Private Casebook
Batman R. I. P.
Batman: Under the Hood
Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?
Blackest Night
Blackest Night: Rise of the Black Lanterns
Brightest Day: Volume One
Brightest Day: Volume Two
Brightest Day: Volume Three
Catwoman: When in Rome

Final Crisis
Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds
The Flash: Rebirth
The Flash: The Dastardly Death of the Rogues
Green Lantern: Secret Origin
Green Lantern: Rage of the Red Lanterns
Green Lantern: Agent Orange
Green Lantern: Brightest Day
Green Lantern: War of the Green Lanterns
War of the Green Lanterns: Aftermath
Green Lantern Corps: Fearsome
Identity Crisis

Like I said, a few graphic novels.

Then I read "Kick Ass: Hit Girl", and finally, all five volumes of Brian K. Vaughan's brilliant and affecting "Y: the Last Man" which was the first time I can remember being moved to drop a tear for a graphic novel.

At that point, though there are a few more random graphic novels available at my two local libraries, I broke down and finished The Sweet Hereafter in the waiting room while getting my car serviced. It did not wring any tears from me, but I think that it because the sadness the novel instills in its parent readers is like a deep ache. But I was able to use denial that such tragedy could occur in my family to finish my reading: I was able to stop questioning how I would ever get through losing a child, and keep the story's characters at a distance. So, as another Dolores Driscoll section bookends the narrative, and the characters are shown beginning to move on, I moved on as well, and finished well before my oil change and tire rotation did.

Next on my reading list is Russell Banks' Cloudsplitter - and I have no idea what it's about. I just hope it's not as sad as The Sweet Hereafter - I don't have enough graphic novels available to get me through!

Friday, July 19, 2013

An Update on Updates

It took me a while to come around to the idea of updating published works. When I gave up the idea of having my books traditionally published, I had no idea that there was anything more to Ebook self-publishing than 1. write a book; 2. make a cover; 3. publish! With the exception of Stephen King's The Stand: The Complete and Uncut Edition, publishing meant finality: like it or no, the words were set, and weren't going to ever change.

But then after becoming part of the self-publishing community, particularly through Smashwords, and following founder Mark Coker's blogs, posts, and guides, I found that clicking the little publish button didn't have to be the end of any story. So when I started getting feedback from readers I respected on my novel, I found that there were things I should change, and things I wanted to change.

As a part of the self-publishing community, I found an editor who volunteered her proofreading skills to find the unintentional grammatical & mechanical errors (& more), and solicited feedback from willing readers - something I probably should have done before publishing I know, but didn't know how to before becoming part of the Goodreads community, and discovering "beta-reading."

The outcome of that proofreading, and beta-reading, is the 2013 edition of my novel Alexander Murphy's Home for Wayward Celebrities, which features a draft significantly more free of unintentional grammatical/mechanical/spelling errors (some were intentional), a revised chapter system, and over 17,000 words of new content - including a new character, and an new ending. I even threw some color on the cover.

I was happy returning to the world of the novel, finding that there was more going on there than I had first imagined. So then, is it finished? All I can say is that it is finished for now, but if there is something I find later that belongs in the book, Ebook self-publishing means that my story will remain an open world that I can return to to play in.

My second update was to my story collection, My Governor's House & other stories. Now, though I have embraced self-publishing for my books, I still like having my short stories traditionally published through literary magazines before I compile them into my own collection, and some of the stories I want to include in My Governor's House are still looking for that lit zine first home. After they are published in zines, and the rights have reverted back to me, they'll get added to this collection, or the next collection. EBook self-publishing gave me the opportunity to publish a small collection of my previously published stories, and watch it grow to full as my orphan stories get placed. So this update was to include the story "The D. C. S. G. Meeting," which had been published last year in the fall 2012 issue of Menacing Hedge; audiobook fans can also find a reading of the story by the author there as well.

New readers will get the updated editions automatically; previous readers can update their files at any time to get the new edition - there is no extra charge for this: once you've bought the book, you have access to every future incarnation of the book.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Quotations Various - Fatherly Advice Edition, with help from Tom Robbins

Sometimes the advice you give your children require an outside source to enforce your point. My eldest son has anxiety about making mistakes, in his studies, in sports, etc. This anxiety often keeps him from participating at a level that we know he is capable of, for fear of failing. Over and over we stress how mistakes help you learn, how proud we are of him, how much we respect effort - an though he trusts us, he struggles living it.

And then rereading Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls get the Blues, I came across this passage, that made him smile, and think.

"So you think that you're a failure, do you? Well, you probably are. What's wrong with that? In the first place, if you've any sense at all you must have learned by now that we pay just as dearly for our triumphs as we do for our defeats. Go ahead and fail. But fail with wit, fail with grace, fail with style. A mediocre failure is as insufferable as a mediocre success. Embrace failure! Seek it out. Learn to love it. That may be the only way any of us will ever be free."

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Bibliographic Augmentation

My latest short story is now available in Boston Literary Magazine. It is a 100 word story titled "His Life in the Papers," and was inspired by one of the educational conversations my US History teacher had with his class (in lieu of teaching the history of our country; we never minded). I heard that he passed away a few years ago, and thinking back on the things he taught us - this old football coach teaching history in the last years before his retirement, more interested in teaching his experience than names and dates - eventually fermented into this story.

Also, I love that it's published in a Boston zine, whose office is just down the street from where I lived for a year in Allston. Boston love!

Click on "The Drabble" to find the story.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Seven Compelling Reasons Never to Lend Josh Karaczewski a Paperback Book

I am hard on things. It is entirely unintentional, but objects in my possession over any prolonged length of time - like, say, the period of time it takes to read a book amid an overloaded and distracted schedule - draw the risk of being battered, bent, spilled upon or otherwise stained, so on and so forth. Hardcover books are a bit safer, because I leave their dust covers on a high shelf, and I have a fabric book-cover that offers a measure of protection. But paperback books knock and slide around my bag, get stuffed in jacket pockets, get pried open with one hand while the other is engaged with potentially messy activities like eating and drinking, etc.

And do not think that my affection for an author offers any measure of protection - quite the opposite. My favorite authors, as will be demonstrated by the following photographs, receive the rudest treatment: pages with quotes I like get dog-eared and pencil-noted, then weighed spread-eagle open when I copy out said quotes; the margins receive my greasy fingers more than the standard amount as I reread exceptional passages; and the best books, the ones I don't want to end, or want to sip long and savor, spend more days in the dangerous containers of transit, and in the company of imbruing food and drink.

So here is fair warning to anyone who is considering lending me a book: when it is returned, you will know that it has been read, and read hard. It will bear my physicality upon it.

War and Peace never had a chance. It just takes too long to read to keep safe, and any paperback binding is insufficient for that amount of pages. There is no way to read the middle chapters without creasing the binding. I had the same trouble in high school with Les Miserables, but I suspect that that copy became so worn from long usage that I threw it out when I finished my reading. Note, however, that the cover managed to hold on and protect its pages to the last: well done soldier, well done.

The reader's offending fingers display the shipping-tape used to reattach the cover.
 Love the vintage Woolco price sticker!

A vicious tear - my bad Ken!

God may or may not have blessed Mr. Rosewater, but he certainly forsake this book!

 You may have survived the bombing of Dresden, but your cover couldn't survive Josh Karaczewski!
A different primate's rude fingers did this to your collection of short stories.
Even Sissy's great thumbs wouldn't have been this unintentionally brutal.

And finally, the worst example of literary bookslaughter I have to confess to. This was not a book that I particularly liked - not a Brave New World-esque story to be seen throughout. After reading a short story that I didn't care for, it would sit for a couple of months before being picked up again. I have had to shimmy under the bed to rescue it a few times after it fell off the headboard. I would start reading a story, give up, and then would have to reread the beginning to muscle through its completion. Notice that the front cover is missing altogether - I have no idea where it ended up, or even if it is still in the house! Sorry Aldous, but you were a victim of my tastes, and your book paid the ultimate price.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Authorial Interactions - with Nath Jones, Session 1: An electronically-facilitated introductory Q & A

One of the benefits of writing is the opportunity to talk about writing with other writers. One such writer I recently came into contact with is Nath Jones. Jones is the author of the On Impulse e-Book Series, a four-book collection of short fiction, flash fiction, prose poetry, and memoir.

We're not sure where the following series - I suppose you can label them guest blogs - will go, for having no specific destination or locked parameters of form in mind is part of the allure. As we learn about each other, so readers will (hopefully) gain insight into our work, our working, us, and writing - in general, and in specific.

Below are Jones' responses to my introductory questions. Check her Facebook author page for my responses to hers.

-Josh Karaczewski: Who is your blog for? Describe your ideal reader.

Nath Jones: I don't really have a blog. I have a new website with a cool plug-in for the blog. But. I'm still debating about what to do with it. I always had a huge resistance to blogs. It just seems so ridiculous to tell everybody everything. But. Then I ended up doing that very thing in emails and on Facebook instead of on a blog. Probably should have just had a blog.

My ideal reader? Loves books. Likes mine. 

-JK: What themes have you been exploring? And in what format?

NJ: I'm doing some ground tests in relation to the ruggedly individual capitalist American Dream. I think it's funny how art gets divided from our busy, headlong lives. I want to see where that divergence occurs.

-JK: What keeps you blogging, especially video-blogging? (I'd say v-blogging, but that sounds like what happens after a night of alcoholic excess.)

NJ: V-blogging is fine with me. I spent some time figuring out what would be sustainable for me. I'm not a fan of subjective opinion. To me it's bad enough to be telling everyone everything all the time. I really don't want to be judging everything all the time. So. Reviews are not for me. But. I really do love books and want to share them with people. When I was a kid I always had this idea that I'd have a late-night radio show and just read books to people all night. So. The Literature Break is a derivation of that dream.

-JK: How do you esteem and value fiction? Why should we bother investing our time?

NJ: Writing is my first priority. For my life and time, writing and reading are everything. They come before friends, before family, before work. Everything else is secondary. That really confuses people. But. After folks understand my priorities they respect it.

For myself, I really do have the compulsion. So. There's no should in terms of why we're bothering to invest our time. For me, it's happening and that's it. So. I really can't speak for anyone else. I can't say that anyone else would really talk to their work scheduler and ask to work all weekends to have enough time to write. For me, that's what seemed right.

And I really don't feel that others should do anything. I don't care if people read and write. Why does it matter? They can do whatever they want. I'm not one of these literacy enforcers.

But. For me, there's no other way to lose myself, to transcend daily life, and to enter a space of total flow.

-JK: Have you ever been to the San Francisco Bay Area?

NJ: Yes. Definitely. I love it. I love Muir Woods. I love the Marin Headlands. I love the tourist stuff with the seals. The museum where you can see the cables working to pull the street cars. Golden Gate park. The gorgeous vistas. Come on. It's an amazing city. I love the food--hate that Enrico's closed.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

On Emotional Attachments to Electronic Representations: Uncharted 2-Among Thieves

When I finish a great video game, there is a period of mourning afterward. Just like a book can be reread, a game can be replayed—and many video games augment this reanimation with alternate endings, or by rewarding different playstyles (stealth vs. frontal assault, weapon vs. melee, etc.)—but nothing can compare to that first play/read.

Finishing a good game, I am anxious to find another game to play. Finishing a great game, there is a time afterward where I either don’t want to play games at all, or only play casual games like Angry Birds; games I can quickly pick up, and just as quickly set down.

And when I do start that next game, my initial impression of the new game will always be negative: I’ll get frustrated with the controls; I won’t connect to the characters, and their objectives will seem unimportant. I will play terribly, because I will not want to invest in the new skill-set. When I fail to accomplish their objectives, or get them killed, there is no guilt, no frustration in my failure, no sense of loss, because I am removed from my part in the interactivity. I haven’t been able to connect with the new game only because it is not the old game.

I am undergoing this feeling now, having just finished Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. I played through the game twice: once on Hard for the story and an initial exploration of the world, and then on Crushing for the challenge, to find the remaining treasures, and earn the last single-player medals. I was able to avoid the loss of finishing Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, because I transitioned from one game directly to the next – like reading books in a series. I might have been able to avoid this if I owned Uncharted 3, but with the state of our household’s economy, I have to be strict with the same rule I have for my book purchases: nothing new until I have finished what I already own, or until the stories I peddle bring in wealth—whichever comes first. But my single-player file is at 100% completed, my kids aren’t old enough to join me in co-op, and I have little interest in multiplayer. I’m at that point where playing the game now would be a regression; it would diminish my experience with Nathan’s adventures. In a few years, when my children are mature enough to play the game, I will enjoy the reunion; but if I returned now, it would be like visiting high school too soon after leaving for college: I haven’t established myself fully in a new game environment, and seeking the familiarity and comfort of Uncharted 2 will only serve to make the necessary break more difficult.

So, reflecting on how affected I am by great games begs the question: what makes a game great? Good games abound, games I can enjoy, and then put down without any regret at finishing them, and then move on to the next: Far Cry, Fear, Resident Evil 4, Half Life (1), Starfox 64, anything with Mario in it—these would strongly fit in this category. They were obsessions during my play of them, but not from any emotional connection. Emotional connections are the key.

Now, “emotion” brings the connotation of sadness, but it’s much more than that. When I enjoy a film with my emotions, I usually mean that it has made me feel with the characters; the music definitely helps push me over—but character is key: in Shawshank Redemption I felt the struggle against injustice; in Braveheart I felt loss, betrayal and sacrifice; in Love Actually I felt, well, love (actually). But in every great movie that moves me, it is fraternity that I am affected by most—by the friendships that become family. In The Lord of the Rings, the bravery was stirring, but it was all Frodo and Samwise that brought the water. Andy Duphrain had Red, William Wallace had his warrior poets, and Nathan Drake in the Uncharted series has Sully, Elena, and even Chloe. Sully, who risks himself to let Nate get away in Uncharted 1 & 2; Sully, who is willing to almost bankrupt himself to get Nate out of a Turkish prison; Sully, who will travel the world with his friend, scheming, adventuring, getting him in trouble, and then helping to get him out of it. I covet Frodo his Samwise, Andy his Red, and Nathan his Sully. In the game chapters with Sully, when I would misstep, or my skills would not be enough to keep my electronic representation alive, and the color drained out of screen, the last thing I would hear before the reset to the last checkpoint would be Sully’s anguished voice yelling “NO!”—such a simple word to so clearly express the unbearable shock of losing your friend. It made me play more carefully, so that I wouldn’t break Sully’s heart when I died. In the Borneo chapter, when Sully called out that he was pinned down by gunfire, I immediately darted out from the safety of my cover—no thought for my own safety—to kill any minion who dared threaten my friend.

Me and my buddy, Sully

 Then there is Elena. Righteous, strong, capable, opinionated and fierce, alluring even when spattered with mud, willing to put herself in a warzone to expose wrongdoing, Elena makes Nathan a better person by setting high standards for herself: for Nathan to partner with her, he is required to make himself more honorable. I love how the ladies in the Uncharted games are self-sufficient; they can hold their own platforming, and in a gunfight. They are equals in your adventure, and don’t need you to babysit or protect them. And they, like Sully, are traumatized by your death, causing you to build your skill as a player, to spare them the pain of witnessing you die.

 Muddy, fierce, lovely.

Much has already been made of Uncharted 2’s action set pieces, circular narration techniques, and enthralling story. So all I will say in closing is, when you play, swim wherever you can, climb whatever you can, stop to play with the mountain children, pet every yak, look at every page in your journal, and enjoy the views (“I was talking about the mountains, really”).