Monday, April 25, 2016

In the DNA?

Did he steal his fate or earn it?
Was he force-fed, did he learn it?*
 Anyone with even a passing interest in the Beatles and/or John Lennon probably thought the same thing I did when hearing "Valotte" -- the first single from Julian Lennon's debut album -- back in the fall of 1984: "Holy shit, he sounds a lot like his father!"

His father, of course, is John Lennon, and the resemblance, physical and vocal, between the two men is striking. One thing I do find interesting: Julian at twenty-one sounded less like his father in his twenties than he did his father at forty. Take a listen to something like "Please Please Me" compared to "Watching the Wheels" and you'll see what I mean.

I'm no expert, but there are two things that seem to go into creating a voice: the physical component is based on things like the shape and size of your larynx and vocal cords, chest and lungs, nasal and oral cavity, and probably more than that, but you get the idea. These things go into making the sound of your voice, the timbre, if I'm using that in quite the right way, and these things are determined by genetics. In other words, Nature.

The other component of voice is the way you speak (or, in this case, sing). It's in your word choice, pronunciation, accents, phrasing. These things are the product of non-physical factors: where you live, the people around you, socio-economics. This is nurture. Some things are absorbed, and some things are put on, but these things are easier to learn, unlearn and change than the physical components of voice. I say "Lawn GUYland" because that's where I grew up and that's how everyone talked. I add "eh" on the end of a lot of my sentences because one of my friends and I used to mock (lovingly) Canadian hockey players and broadcasters and that's how THEY talked; in my case, it became habit (Fun fact: in college, I had a guy peg me as from being from Long Island based on how I said the word "strawberry"; some years later, the sister of a co-worker thought I was from Canada).

Questions of voice and nature versus nurture occurred to me last week as I read Joe Hill's latest (published in 2013, so I guess it's already "old") novel, NOS4A2. Hill is the author of three novels, with a fourth due out in a few weeks, one short story collection and at least one graphic novel. He's also the son of "America's Horror Master," Stephen King, a fact he reputedly withheld from his agent for twenty years until his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box came out in 2007.

Last year, knowing full well that Hill was the son of King, I read both Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, which came out in 2010. I enjoyed both books and admit that I went in at least partly searching for similarities to King. While there were some, they didn't stand out to me hugely. Heart-Shaped Box felt like a solid debut novel (and Hill won major points with me when, in HSB--SPOILER ALERT--he let a side character that I liked live; I have no doubt his father would have killed that character off 'cuz that's how he rolls), while Horns was a little grittier. If there was any resemblance to King in that one, it was King when he was masquerading as Richard Bachman. But in NOS4A2? Oh, the resemblance is strong.

Aside from the fact that Hill references several of his father's works in this one (remember when I was talking about Easter Eggs last week? Yeah, that post could have been inspired by NOS4A2), it's the style that's eerily similar. There's liberal use of italics and parentheses (though not quite in abundance), and things that advice-givers tell newbie authors to avoid like the plague, like ALL CAPS! AND EXCLAMATION MARKS! AND THE BOOK IS 700 PAGES LONG! And it just really feels like younger Stephen King. So I ask the question: Can something like this be passed down from novelist to novelist, the way elements of appearance or voice (physical) can be? Or is it the result of learning and absorption? What do you think?

*"Victim or the Crime" by Gerrit Graham and Bob Weir

Monday, April 18, 2016

Easter Eggs

If you're a video gamer, regularly watch DVDs, or even just a user of computers (and who isn't at this point?), then you're probably familiar with "Easter Eggs." These are hidden bits of coding that reveal or unlock some special feature or joke: maybe an extra level in a game; a goofy message; an extra video clip; the names of the members of the development team. They don't necessarily add anything of real significance to the experience, but they are no doubt fun for the people making the product, and give the end users plenty to do as they seek them out.

He's even got Indy's trusty whip!
I remember the first Easter Egg I found was in the LucasArts produced game, Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine. While wandering through the game's last level, I took Indy down a long, dark corridor with a light at the end. As Indy stepped into the room, his appearance changed: he became Guybrush Threepwood, the hero of LucasArts' Monkey Island games; the room he came out in was a reproduction of a barbershop from one of those games, the walls lined with pictures of various LucasArts people. It was good fun, though it made me wonder what I may have missed in other games I've played over the years. When I was playing, however, I did not put a whole lot of time into trying to find these things. There were always other things to do.

Late last week, I found what I consider to be an Easter Egg in a book.

Technically I suppose it's not an Easter Egg. Books can't have Easter Eggs in the same way as so-called interactive media; what books can have are inside jokes and self references, spoofs and homages. Readers might get the literary references (when Stephen King and Peter Straub co-wrote The Talisman, you can be that naming their 12-year-old hero Jack Sawyer was a nod to Twain's Tom Sawyer), but they can't be expected to get the inside jokes--unless they know the author. In this case, I do, as she lives and works locally. More importantly, I know the person whose name she dropped, and while the way she used it didn't unlock any secret levels or hidden chapters, it did unlock a laugh from me. Right or wrong, I took it as a bit of a backhand at her boss.

When I write, I let bits of myself out into my characters. Places that are or were important to me often filter into it (I have a terrible habit of including ocean beaches as significant places in my writing), but I have not included names of people I know, or written directly about things that have happened to me or my friends and family. No Easter Eggs in my writing. What about yours? Do you include deliberate references to people, places and incidents from your life in your writing? Do you hide Easter Eggs?

Monday, April 11, 2016

Monday Musing, Post-Event Edition

Up at my job, we have a phrase we throw about from time to time: "It feels like the day after a board meeting." This phrase is usually uttered, you guessed it, the day after a board meeting. Said board meetings typically occur on Thursday evenings, and, while they only last a couple of hours, they have a tendency to disrupt the day that follows.

Saturday was one of the big events that we co-sponsor, Earth Festival, which draws a pretty big crowd for the day. And though yesterday was the day after, I'm still feeling it today. So, we'll just ramble here and there.

-From the Crazy Weather Department: In February, we scheduled two events in a nearby state park that were supposed to be snowshoe hikes. We saw some snow, tucked away in little pockets and hollows in the woods, but there was no snowshoeing to be done either day, and the second one was so warm, light jackets were all that were required. Tuesday last week I led what was billed as a spring hike in a state forest. When I woke that morning, the temperature was just above zero--yes, zero, on April 5--and there was five inches of snow on the trail. The daffodils that had come up before that 'spring' hike? Yeah, they're dead.

-From the I Sent it out Like That? department: I read Carrie's comment notes on my latest manuscript right away, but I delayed on delving into the actual manuscript for a week or so, just because I'm a coward. I swear, I went over this thing multiple times, ran spell checks, read for consistency, hangers, etc. And still, as I read, what do I find? Reading one especially bad sentence, I'm thinking, "She must think I'm a total idiot!" It seems no matter how often and how hard you go over things, something always seems to slip through. The very first piece I sent out to a literary journal had a bad typo in the very first line. Ugh.

-From the Here We Go Again Department, volume I: A while back, I think I mentioned how some Windows Update screwed up my MS Word, making the font look terrible on screen. I uninstalled that update, and when the next update came out, I installed that, and everything was fine. When I type in word, the spacing on em dashes and ellipses are all screwed up. They run together. And it's not just new documents. As I read through my manuscript, it's there, too. Carrie didn't mention it in her notes, so maybe it didn't screw up format for her, I don't know. Haven't seen any solutions on the web.

-From the Here We Go Again Department, volume II: Came home from my event on Saturday and found the Bruins, in their latest installment of "Must Win" hockey--lost. No playoffs, for the second year in a row. The Recency Effect points to their dreadful 3-8-1 record since March 15. All Other Things Being Equal, had they won one of their first three games this year, they're in the playoffs. Though maybe that isn't for the best.

Well. This whole post sounds a lot gloomier than it should. I think I need some more coffee...

Oh, I hope it's not going to be that kind of week....

Hope you all had a nice weekend!

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Reading List (Part I)

As I type this, my heat is running and I can hear the sound of a plow scraping along the county road nearby--April is always exciting in upstate New York! We're typically about a month behind on the onset of warm weather here (and, sadly, about a month ahead on the onset of autumn and winter) compared to where I grew up, so, in some ways, this is not unusual. The old phrase, "March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb" does not quite apply here. Still, even though it's not unexpected, it is a little disheartening to find ourselves waking up to temperatures in the teens and having a couple of inches of snow on the ground. It shouldn't last long, at least.

Okay. Griping about the weather is now over. Unless it's still like this next week.

Inspired by a variety of bloggers, I decided to keep an actual list of books read for the year, because, why not? It's sometimes interesting to look back and see a) how many books you read; and b) what they were. I tried doing this last year, but I got started so late that I couldn't actually remember everything: "Did I read that this year, or last year? Hmm." That sort of thing. So, in mid-January, I started a new document and listed what I'd read since the start of the year. Given that we've just now started the second quarter, I figured it's a good time to share. So, here it is, my first quarter reading list for 2016:

Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee (1980). Picked up from the Magpie's pile of books she read in the fall semester. I liked it quite a bit. A very effective tale about "us and them," and who's worse?

Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett (1953). Waiting to understand it. I can honestly say I didn't like it any better than when I read it in high school.

The Bone People, Keri Hulme (1984). STARTED, UNFINISHED. Third straight book picked up from the Magpie. I like the story, have gotten used to (mostly) the unusual writing style, but halfway into the book I find it really hard to see how this story can keep going in this vein for another 200+ pages. I'll come back to it, I'm sure.

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (1861). STARTED, UNFINISHED. Inspired in part by my re-read last year of The Cider House Rules, I started in on this (we had a copy floating around the house). I actually like it, but I'm kind of using it at this point as an "in between other books" read.

Avenue of Mysteries, John Irving (2015). I found this more enjoyable than his previous new book (In One Person), yet I'm starting to find Irving is becoming repetitive, and his main character has the appeal of a bowl of plain oatmeal. This was a disappointment.

11/22/1963, Stephen King (2011). Re-read in preparation for the TV version (which I think concludes tonight). Love this book. Maybe a little long (okay, a lot long), but it's entertaining piece, and has quite a love story, something King does surprisingly well.

Deal: My Three Decades of Drumming, Dreams, and Drugs with the Grateful Dead, Bill Kreutzmann, with Benjy Eisen (2015). Breezy and laconic at the same time, and surprisingly little insight into one of the oddest rock and roll bands in history.

Lost Boy, Lost Girl, Peter Straub (2003). I read this in early March, and it's already lost from my memory.

The Little Friend, Donna Tartt (2002). Far, far better, in my opinion, than Tartt's much-hyped The Secret History. I've always liked adult books about kids--err, wait, that doesn't sound quite right, does it?--and Tartt delivers a an effective child protagonist, along with a cast of interesting characters. I guess I'll have to tackle The Goldfinch after all.

The Doll Maker, Richard Montanari (2014). As is my custom, I looked at the reviews after reading this, and I'm mystified why this mystery gets as much love as it does. The plot was a bit of a stretch and there were too many "Wait, what?" moments in here. Not a terrible book, but maybe needed a firmer hand editing? The good thing? I was interested enough to read to the end, and, though this is part of a series, it stands on its own.

So, there you have it. Eight books completed, two begun (actually, three; I'm on the verge of finishing something else). Looking at the list, I realize I need to read a little 'newer' than I have been. Part of the issue is that I do most of my reading from the library and I tend to wander in there and have no idea what I'm looking for.

Anyway, that's it for me; what's been in your reading pile lately?