DRIFTWOOD: A California Road Trip Novel by Elizabeth Dutton

I’ve been a serial obsessive for most of my life, and many of the things I’ve obsessed over–eating shrimp two meals a day, wearing green sweat pants, and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning, to name but three–I’ve managed to, more or less, move past.  But music and California are two obsessions that will always dominate my imagination. And in Driftwood, the debut novel by Elizabeth Dutton, I can indulge in both of those long-standing obsessions.

Here’s the basic set-up: Clem Jasper (great f-ing name!) is an L.A. trust fund kid with a well-known rock musician for a father who dies suddenly while playing ping-pong.  Still reeling from the loss and trying to figure out her place in the world, Clem receives a rather strange inheritance: a bundle of letters from her father instructing her to visit several meaningful yet mysterious destinations around California.

Clem’s a quirky and relentlessly self-commenting narrator, but an oddly likeable one.  She is one part misanthrope and one part romantic.   As a reader, I sympathized with her, gobbled up her irreverent remarks and witticisms and spot-on commentary about, well, everything. In short, Clem is that often-talked-about-but-rarely-realized round character.

The other brilliant aspect of this book is the setting: California. In Dutton’s hands, California comes alive, becomes something more real, more interesting, more quirky than the glittering yet static version of California that’s lived in my imagination for so long. I particularly enjoyed the oddball characters Clem meets in the towns she visits; I relished the descriptions of the landscape, the weather, the vibe of each new place she goes in search of gaining a deeper connection with her father. And, of course, there is the music. Yes, many songs and bands (both real and fictional) are mentioned, discussed, and evaluated, but what struck me the most was the (forgive me) music of the road.  Throughout Clem’s journey, she is attempting to find a rhythm for her life, to write her own song, one that redefines who she is and what family means.

Bottom line, I highly recommend this book. It will be widely released on November 4, but is available for pre-order now. Click on the link below.

 

http://www.amazon.com/Driftwood-California-Road-Trip-Novel/dp/1629144991/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1396222049&sr=8-2&keywords=driftwood+novel

 

 

 

 

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MacGuffin Revisited

Far be it from me to disagree with Alfred Hitchcock, but I believe the concept of the MacGuffin has evolved sense he first popularized the term with his 1935 film The 39 Steps. Below is a brief definition of the term from the excellent literary magazine The MacGuffin, which is published out of Schoolcraft College:

The moving force (and sometimes the solution) of a work of mystery fiction is referred to as a MacGuffin. . . Alfred Hitchcock used the term and said, “No film is complete without a MacGuffin because that’s what everybody is after.” . . .in short, the MacGuffin is any device or gimmick that gets a plot rolling. The MacGuffin itself has little, if any, fundamental importance, and, according to Hitchcock, is nothing in and of itself.

Now, I am a fan of Hitchcock’s films, especially Rear Window and Psycho.  AIthough I cannot be sure what precisely he means by “fundamental importance,”I interpret it this way: the MacGuffin is purely a way to kick start a story’s plot, and it has no real significance beyond that. Working from that interpretation, I must offer an alternative thesis on the subject: in films and books, the MacGuffin does much more than just get the plot moving. When used by skilled artists (including Hitchcock himself), the MacGuffin has both symbolic and thematic significance.

malteseTake mystery novels, for example.  More specifically, let’s examine The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett for a moment.  The valuable black bird figurine–a.k.a. the maltese falcon–does exhilarate the narrative, but it also becomes a symbol for greed (the figurine is worth a bundle) and trickery (the figurine turns out to be a fake); it becomes a tangible representation of human weakness. To take the idea a bit further, the maltese falcon also not only propels the plot forward, but it helps develop layer upon layer of characterization in the novel. In this sense, the figurine reveals (or helps to reveal) the uglier sides of basically every character in the narrative, sides which would have remained hidden without the introduction of the maltese falcon (the MacGuffin).

dude How about an example from the movies? The Big Lebowski, a personal favorite, has arguably two MacGuffins: the alleged kidnapping of Bunny Lebowski and/or the theft of The Dude’s favorite rug. But let’s discuss the rug as it is the more interesting MacGuffin of the two. When The Dude is employed to give the money to the kidnappers and get Bunny back, he isn’t so much motivated by the fee he will receive; he is more interested in recovering his beloved rug, the one that “really tied the room together.” Because the rug belongs to The Dude, who has precious little interest in material possessions, it takes on an added layer of meaning when he is willing to risk life and limb to recover it, and he does so in such a humorous and imminently watchable manner. Go a step further: I would argue that the rug has a metaphorical significance as well, for The Dude’s life before his rug is taken is tranquil; after the rug is “swept out from under him” so to speak, his life is chaotic and, in many ways, not nearly as happy.

hitchcockBottom line, I think Hitchcock’s definition of the MacGuffin is limited. In many ways, the MacGuffin contributes to a more deeply satisfying narrative in both film and books. I recently turned in my second Eli Sharpe novel to my publisher, and the MacGuffin in that one is a valuable baseball, which has been stolen. I intentionally tried to make the stolen baseball mean something different to every character in the novel, and, in a way, the baseball becomes a character in and of itself. Hitchcock did this also, made MacGuffins more than just plot devices. What’s more, I suspect he did it deliberately. How else would he have become such a master of suspense?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review of The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison

After twenty years together, Jodi and Todd have come to a bad place in their relationship. Todd, a successful real estate investor and serial cheater, has impregnated his oldest friend’s daughter, Natasha, who is twenty-five years his junior. But unlike his other dalliances, Todd is in love with and wants to marry Natasha; he wants (or thinks he wants) to start a family. Meanwhile Jodi, a part-time therapist, is kicking herself for never agreeing to marry Todd, something he proposed many times over their more than two decades together. In the eyes of the law, Jodi has no legal rights to anything, like, for instance, the couple’s expensive condo in downtown Chicago, or Todd’s sizable real estate holdings. After much reflection, Jodi realizes that everything she did for Todd–the cooking and cleaning, the emotional support, the looking the other way on his trysts–mean nothing to him, and she must do something about it. The whole sordid affair comes to a head when Todd serves Jodi with eviction papers, and from there, his violent demise is imminent, and, at least in this reader’s mind, somewhat justified.

Regarding the question of “Will Todd be murdered?,” there is no suspense. You learn practically in the first ten pages that he will meet a violent end. And yet, this an incredibly suspenseful novel, well-paced and gorgeously-written. The chapters alternate between Jodi’s voice and Todd’s and are each labeled HIM and HER. How the author completely inhabited the minds and bodies and souls of both Todd and Jodi is a marvel and was a true pleasure to read, but even more impressive is how she managed to make Todd hate-able and likeable at the same time, how she portrayed Jodi as both victim and perpetrator.  The author’s prose, the way she develops character deliberately, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter reminds me of the writing of Henry James and, more recently, Jonathan Franzen.  There were passages in this novel that were so lovely, so true, and so unflinchingly honest they demanded to be read aloud.

Bottom line, while this isn’t a mystery in the Whodunnit sense of the word, it is by far the best novel I’ve read in the last six months. The character development, the pacing, the prose, and yes, even the plot manages to, in the end, surprise the reader. I’ve read reviews of this book that compare it to Gillian Flynn’s work, particularly Gone Girl, and I can certainly see the similarities.  However, I do think The Silent Wife has one major difference: Gillian Flynn’s books are really, really good, and Harrison’s novel is great. Tragically, Harrison died recently of cancer, and I can’t help but feel a sting of selfish anger, for there will be no more books from this fantastic author.

silentwife

Salinger Documentary

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about why Salinger, a documentary currently on Netflix streaming, upset me so much, and I’ve come to a few conclusions.

First, it made me incredibly sad to learn the famous recluse built a brick building about two hundred yards from his house in New Hampshire, and he’d hole up there for days, sometimes weeks at a stretch, and just write, ignoring his family. I imagine his son and daughter looking out their bedroom windows and being able to see their father, but they couldn’t go talk to him; they couldn’t go visit with him unless they wanted to provoke his ire. Ditto Salinger’s wife. Now, on the one hand, I found myself envious of the man’s dedication, not to mention of the amount of free time he had to write and think and read. On the other hand, it sickened me to learn he (almost) completely ignored his family in order to write. Although I do live in my head, I still need connections with people, especially the two most important people in my life: Harry, my son, and Libby, my wife. Not only have those two made me a better person, they have also made me a better writer because I have experienced love through them. For that, I am lucky. Perhaps Salinger wasn’t so lucky.

Another thing that upset me was the man’s peculiar (I’m being kind) interest in young women and girls. Putting aside for the moment the unspeakably horrible things he witnessed during WWII, Salinger maintained a lifelong fetish for females who were not quite women but not quite girls anymore either. The film made it seem as if he wanted to live vicariously through these girls while also instructing them on how to live. This type of narcissism and self-righteousness can be found in Salinger’s later works, and yes, it is definitely present in Catcher in the Rye. 

I suppose what struck me the most about this documentary was that I, unfortunately, identified with Salinger. That instinct to hide from the world and indulge in writing and movies and books and daydreams and forget everything else is very real to me. At thirty-four years of age, I still haven’t shaken the romantic notion of the artist recluse, and it is a fantasy that I indulge in weekly, sometimes daily if I am particularly depressed or anxious. I, like Salinger, have impossibly high standards for myself and the world, and it truly bums me out when I don’t meet them; when the world–that beautifully-flawed orb I often times curse one second and marvel at the next–disappoints me, I want to escape, I want to retreat back to my favorite books and movies and TV shows and poems where there are fleeting moments of perfection, where the artist revealed something indelible about the human experience, and, not to sound adolescent, but you’re just not quite the same afterwards. Whatever else Salinger was or did or thought, he was also a guy who wrote Catcher in the Rye, a book that has more than its fair share of perfect moments. That book inspired me at a particular time in my life, made me comprehend certain things about the adult world and about myself.  But if you ask me if those perfect moments in that one book–a book I now have little patience or use for–excuse all his other transgressions, the answer is a resounding NO.. .

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http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1596753/

 

 

Advice for Writing a First Novel, Part 3

Congratulations!  You have a completed rough draft of your very first novel.  You deserve a bit of a celebration.  Grab a gluten-free muffin and a decaf.  Do a couple of deep knee bends, and put your butt back in the chair because now the real fun begins.  (Actually, I’m quite serious about the fun part; I really dig the revision process, but I am, admittedly, OCD.)

  • Read the entire manuscript and make notes only on plot issues. As a mystery reader and writer, I am obsessed with plot.  The narrative is what keeps a reader turning pages, so make sure your plot a) makes sense, b) creates tension and suspicion, c) moves at a moderately rapid pace, and d) provides a surprising, yet inevitable and satisfying ending. And the only way I know to achieve a, b, c, and d is to revise, revise, revise, revise, and then revise some more. A quick tip on revision reading: assign yourself no more than five pages per day.  Moving at this glacial speed, while tedious at times, will ultimately make your reading sessions more productive.  After you’ve identified the plot issues, make any and all necessary corrections.
  • Read the entire manuscript again and make notes only on tone.  Plot is important for mystery readers, but we also read for the voice.  Bottom line, we want an engaging, lively, and unique narrative voice, so take the time to make sure your first novel has one. Too, make sure the tone is consistent throughout. Characters, of course, can evolve (or devolve), but the tone should not. Think of it this way. I’ll bet if I  copied and pasted a passage from one of your favorite author’s books into this post, you’d be able to tell me right away who wrote it. And how would you be able to do that? Because the author created a distinct tone, a unique voice. After you’ve identified the tone issues, make any and all necessary corrections.
  • Read the entire manuscript again and correct any mechanical errors. Like I tell my students day in and day out: proofread for grammar, spelling, and punctuation.  An abundance of typos, misspelled words, and rambling sentences is just sloppy.
  • Have an astute reader read your manuscript.  This must be someone you trust to give you honest feedback.  Me, I give my manuscripts to my wife, who is a voracious reader and highly critical (in the good way). Quick story: I gave my wife my first Nick Suits novel, and she flatly told me the plot was all over the place, the voice was off-putting, and the dialogue was wooden.  This criticism, while difficult to hear, was, in a word, spot-on.  Even better: it was specific. My point is find someone who can do more than just say, “I enjoyed it,” or “It wasn’t my cup of tea.”
  • Put the manuscript in a drawer for a month…and then read it again. Honestly, I think all writers get too close to their work, so this break is very important. One other thing: during this break, start a new writing project. After all, writers write.quote-every-writer-is-a-frustrated-actor-who-recites-his-lines-in-the-hidden-auditorium-of-his-skull-rod-serling-167422