Sunday, January 26, 2014

New from TAS: "A Song for the Girl with the Almond Eyes"

In his brilliant treatise on screenwriting, appropriately enough entitled Story, Robert McKee makes a simple but stunning observation; if a writer changes one of her characters, she changes the story as well. Likewise, changes to the plot necessitate changes to the chief characters who act it out. In the best dramatic narrative, character and plot are so inextricably bound up, that to change one is to essentially alter the other.

Yet, how many genre outings have we all read in which, it seems, story and character are little more than menu items—traits and plot points chosen at random from Column A, B, or C—mechanically interchangeable cogs, fungible, generic “plug-ins”? To be sure, there are a lot of accomplished, very smart, and exceedingly well-compensated people doing this sort of assembly-line writing, seemingly building their stories with stencils and flowcharts, churning out their highly successful cookie-cutter products with impressive regularity.  I do not begrudge these writers their success; there’s clearly a place for what they do in the contemporary commercial scheme of things, though, the handful of them that actually give a rat’s tuchus should know that their books will never be reviewed on EFTBB. 

I was thinking about McKee’s observation as I approached, for what seemed the hundredth time, yet another reworking of my first novel. Changing the ethnicity and personality of the main female character necessitated a good deal of revision, not to mention a lot of continuity editing, though it wasn’t quite as tedious as it might have been. I have lived with this book for so long now, one would think I’d have grown weary of it, put it aside once and for all, and moved on. Yet something about it has retained my interest over the years. It was never badly written, only awkwardly structured with, perhaps, a bit too much philosophical padding. A good, lean story was always there, even if the narrator’s obsession with explaining everything made it look fat. (The original first draft of what became Last to Leave Parts 1 and 2 weighed in at 152,000 words!) In the beginning I had many stories to tell, and tried to tell them all at the same time; lots of ideas, too, which I simply couldn’t resist going on about. It took a while for me to learn that good storytelling isn’t so much about what a writer puts on the page, but what he has the humility, the courage, and the sheer ruthlessness to leave out. What is that oft-repeated advice about killing our beauties—or is it our darlings? (Ginsberg was it? I’ve heard it attributed to Faulkner as well.) In the end, effective self-editing is essentially an exercise in healthy self-criticism. The sooner a writer figures this out, the happier she will be in her chosen profession.

At 72,000 words, A Song for the Girl with the Almond Eyes is the new, leaner, sleeker iteration of a work that has occupied me off and on for the better part of a decade. A young man, coming of age in the suburban upper-Midwest of the 1990s, deals with overwhelming feelings of sexual obsession, and in the inevitable denial of his desires, a crushing frustration, which he must find a way to work through if he is to move on with his life. I have tried, in this novel, to elucidate an honest, thoughtful male perspective on sexual desire. My aim, as with everything I write, is to explore the human condition through those thoughts, feelings and emotions that accompany sexual experience and physical sensation. I categorically reject the oft-repeated criticism that, when it comes to telling stories about sex, “all men are assholes.” Certainly, some men are assholes—including a few portrayed in this book—but that’s hardly a fair indictment of the whole class of male authors. Admittedly, those in search of gossamer romanticism, candlelit seductions, hearts and flowers, sugar and spice, will not find it here; nor will most readers find the sort of blithely unexamined, facile adolescent obsession with merely “getting in and getting off” that characterizes porn. Some may complain that I have exaggerated, or even that, when it comes to recording dialogue among women, I don’t know what I’m talking about; but be assured this story is based in part on my own experiences, as well as things I’ve heard and seen while sitting at the edge of the crowd. It is, when all’s said and done a labor of love. As such, I hope it will not go wholly unappreciated.


Next month here at EFTBB, we’ll be getting back to a regular schedule of reviews and commentary.

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