Saturday, December 28, 2013

#JIHADI, the novel with the best beta readers in the world

Whatever else may be going around the world to fulfill that ancient Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times," it's a blessed time in human history to be writing a first novel.

That's something I've been doing for six years now. Today, I am revising the manuscript of JIHADI, getting it ready for its big January tour among US literary agents. The current draft weighs in at 119,000 words. I remember when it was about ten pages long, and I was showing it off to patient friends like +Daoud Ali back while I still lived in Worcester, Massachusetts. (My family and I have since moved to Charlotte, North Carolina.)

It's been a long journey. Along the way, thanks to interactive media, I've gotten great feedback and encouragement from readers in:

The United States
Saudi Arabia

and now ... Iran!

Banoo Mahtab, aka +Islam in Persia, recently sent me this from Tehran:

Which was immediately followed by +Richard Gibney 's assessment from Dublin:

And earlier in the week, from +Katya Mills, out in that distant western land of reinvention never more than tentatively identified as California, this:

This kind of global support gives a guy courage to carry on! I have the best beta readers in the world.

To read an excerpt from the opening chapter of +JIHADI (novel by Brandon Toropov) , click on the picture of my #cat Paprika, below.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Writing a first draft vs. editing a first draft (And ... more great feedback on #JIHADI from readers)

Oh well. At least I have my #cat Paprika around to help me keep my Pulitzer hopes burning bright.

And -- this is fun -- I also have fan mail! Beta readers are starting to say very nice things indeed about the latest revisions on +JIHADI (novel by Brandon Toropov) .

+Richard Gibney wrote: "This man's novel is something else. A consummate, multi-arc storyteller. Page-turning literary thriller."

+Katya Mills wrote: "Hey, I'm 33% into JIHADI, and really think Becky sucks. Praying for sweet Child. And Fatima kicks ass! You've really got something here, started slow, now it's rolling in momentum. Nice, nice, nice."

+Mary Cain wrote: "I just fell in love.  With Thelonius.  The main character in Brandon Toropov's  novel JIHADI.  I did not see it coming.  Hit me like a freight train.  And that's the best way to fall."

+WT Gator read the Chapter One excerpt and wrote: "I want more!"

And +Adella Wright wrote: "The layering of story-telling works well, and the pacing is fantastic."

All of these good folks (with the exception of Richard Gibney, who's a glutton for punishment) are offering feedback from reading the early sections of the novel. It's the second half that has me wondering how the manuscript found its way into an episode of HOARDERS: BURIED ALIVE.

I do have a plan for de-cluttering and cleanup. Stay tuned.

To read an excerpt from +JIHADI (novel by Brandon Toropov) , click on the picture of Paprika below.

Click on the picture of Paprika to read an excerpt from Brandon Toropov's novel JIHADI

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Every word of this #TalkingHeads lyric connects to Act II of my novel #Jihadi

"My God -- what have I done?" Thelonius ponders a riddle and stares at a dead cat in his bathtub.

Pure synchronicity, as I only noticed this now, and I have been working on that part of the novel for at least two years.

You can read an excerpt from Chapter One of +JIHADI (novel by Brandon Toropov) by clicking here.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The #Terrorism Problem in Yemen: US Kills 14 Civilians in Wedding Party

The US Department of Defense defines terrorism as the unlawful use of violence or threat of violence to instill fear and coerce governments or societies. Is a drone attack on a wedding party -- not the first, I might add -- lawful? Is it violent? Does it instill fear? Is it coercive? If you are a US taxpayer, what are you paying for, if not terrorism?
Is this really just an operational problem? Or just a public relations problem?
Is it perhaps a moral problem?
Can anyone seriously maintain that we will move closer to defeating al-Qaeda with unmanned airstrikes?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The T-Dog Express

An interesting period begins. I now have great notes from Richard Gibney and Mary Cain and Adella Wright. Of these, Mary's are by far the most detailed and, let's be frank here, sadistic. Which is what I need. Everybody else who didn't get Mary as a critique partner ... tough luck. :)

Stepping back, I realize I still have a fair amount of work to do on JIHADI (novel by Brandon Toropov) before it is ready to send out to contests or agents in any form. I begin that work today. On a daily basis, total word count (currently 122k) will probably go down slightly. I'll post that. But I'm not going to worry about generating 500 new words a day for some new project, since a) I want to focus on this and b) all these revisions invariably generate lots of new text, but without pushing the overall manuscript count into the positive numbers. I don't have time to count how many new words I'm adding while cutting 500 or so a day.

The goal is to get this baby ready for inspection by the Pulitzer-Readiness Committee by the 21st of January. I still need help with the $@%^&* synopsis, which I loathe. Here is cat Paprika 's current draft: "Bad things happen, then good things happen." *Help.*

More eyes, more feedback welcome if you've got the time. If you don't -- stand back. Here comes the T-Dog Express.
You can read an excerpt from Chapter One of +JIHADI (novel by Brandon Toropov) by clicking here.

Sunday, December 15, 2013


Over at The Write Way, a cool crowdsourced listing of the top indie books of the year is underway. Rules: You can't nominate yourself. You have to say why you are nominating a book you liked. That's it. Bet +Ksenia Anske can't guess which book I picked.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Finished the draft of my novel #JIHADI, with #cat Paprika's help. (And a #flashfiction piece about her.)

(Alhamdulillah! Crossed the finish line at just over 123,000 words. Cut about 300,000 over six years. You can read an excerpt from the first chapter here. If you would like to be one of the beta readers who help me as I begin my December and January revisions, drop me a line. Meanwhile, here's a flash fiction piece I did about Paprika and her weirdo roommate.)

"But I won't go alone."

Paprika, the cat, was telepathically agreeing, after a period of sulking, to go to the veterinarian for a routine checkup. Last year's visit had been traumatic.

She had never (Yusuf replied telepathically) been EXPECTED to go alone. If she recalled, she hadn't been alone last year. They don't even let cats IN doctors' offices without their humans. The implication that Yusuf would allow her out of the house alone, or drop her off at the vet's without staying with her, or in any other way withhold his help and support, was insulting.

In addition (he pointed out) it was generally considered poor form to begin a sentence with a conjunction like "but."

"That's human syntax," Paprika said. "Don't bother me with that. You're getting fussy over nothing again. This is what the therapist was talking about. It's getting worse, not better, as you get older, you know."
Just don't accuse me of abandoning you when I have never done that.

"NOW who needs a visit to the doctor?" Paprika asked from the square of sunlight that had penetrated the study. "A HEAD doctor."

Take that back.
"No. You make drama out of anything. Correcting a cat's grammar. Who does that? I'm not kidding. You need to see a therapist."

I've already seen one.

"Then you need to see another one. And apologize. Grammar Nazi."

The sound of an argument in suspension.

I'm sorry.

"Good. You'll make an appointment?"

Yes. But I won't go alone.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Here we go.

OK, here we go, jumping in on what looks to be the last pass on chapter 31 of Jihadi .

Aim is to bring it in under 8000 words. 32 is only slated to be about 3000 words long, and 33, the last chapter, is about five sentences. amwriting

Below, a painting I like to call "Fatima's world." (via بانو مهتاب ) The rest of humanity calls it "Christina's World," by Andrew Wyeth. I am ALMOST DONE with this six-years-in-the-works draft, people. :) Current word count 118,000.

Good news for Mary Cain, #RileyAkers, and @swoonreads

Below, the happy ending to the spamming epidemic that temporarily marred the rave reviews for Riley Akers' gasp-inducing YA novel Paper Cuts, which is now kicking tail over at Swoonreads.

Kudos to +Swoon Reads for fixing this as quickly and as gracefully as they did. They just proved #crowdsourcing doesn't have to fall prey to people who try to game the system.
+Mary Cain  is the real-life Riley Akers. Moral: Be nice to her. Don't mess with her. Treat her with respect. She's going to be bigger than Quentin Tarantino very shortly.
I'm already mentally casting the movie version of #PaperCuts. Stay tuned.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Fear and Loathing on the #Swoonreads #Novel #YA Trail

Everyone who admires good work in new #ya #fiction, or any kind of fiction, should head over to in +Mary Cain's hour of cyber need.
She is on the cusp of getting a contract from Macmillan, but is being targeted by adversaries with nasty reviews there because her #novel is too good. No kidding. It's her #nanowrimo 2012 project, and it rocks. See for yourself.

Gregory House said, "If nobody hates you, you're probably doing something wrong."

#RileyAkers is her pen name.

Read #PaperCuts now, while it's free. And gasp. This time next year it will be all best-sellerish and she'll have too many people bugging her for free copies for her to deal with your request.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Last night, my #cat collaborator Paprika ...

... made me promise to post this remarkable video, THE ANIMAL COMMUNICATOR, about (among other things) the possibility of better communication between humans and animals. I'm glad she did. Watching it does consume some time, but then again, slowing down is part of the message here.

I can promise you that the time you spend watching this attentively will be among the wisest investments of your life.

It came to me via +Trevor Blake , author of the magnificent book THREE SIMPLE STEPS.

The Animal Communicator

Saturday, November 23, 2013

#waronwomen #rapeculture and my novel JIHADI

As I move into the final four chapters of my novel JIHADI, I find myself in a particularly painful part of the narrative.

Among the unexpected things I've learned on this journey: One comes to love certain characters, even to mourn for them. After six years, 103,000 words moved into the Ready for Prime Time manuscript, and something like 300,000 words written but deleted, I really hadn't expected to experience anything but joy as I neared the finish line. I certainly hadn't anticipated experiencing personal sadness at the loss of one of my characters. But that's what's happening. Maybe I'm grieving for what we've become. (Email me if you would like to beta-read the manuscript so you can get a clearer idea of what I'm talking about here.)

It's important for me to say here, whatever happens with the novel, that it is not anti-American, but it is defiantly anti-rape-culture. We have a big problem with rape and sexual abuse in the US, particularly in our military. If you don't think this problem exists, or don't think it threatens our security as a nation, or don't think it threatens our security as individual citizens, one of the things this book is meant to do is to invite you to consider thinking again.

This article will give you an idea of how overwhelming and savage the problem remains within the US military.

This sickening real-life case gives you a glimpse of the legacy we have left behind in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

File this post under Yes, It's Fiction, but No, I Am Not Imagining This.

I'll leave the last word to Toni Morrison.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Martha Alderson, #JIHADI, and the Thematic Cloud

Four in the morning, and I presumed to write this email to a gifted writer friend:
Hey. I was up anyway. I realized there was something important that you've not yet built into your story, or if you have, I've missed it. This is what Martha Alderson calls "Thematic Significance." (It's in her book THE PLOT WHISPERER, which you should buy.) Incredibly important.
Alderson writes:

"Stories show a character changing, at the least, and transforming at the most profound. This potential for growth reflects meaning. Meaning reflects truth. The thematic significance of a story shows what all the words in each individual scene add up to. ... The thematic significance of a story is a statement the story illustrates as truth."
Alderson goes on to point out that this theme needs to be refined into a single sentence or two, and warns that this takes some work.
It's basically the LESSON the protagonist learns as a result of the journey. You need to know what it is. You need to boil it down into a few words. This is a pain, but it's got to be done.
Alderson identifies the theme of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD as: "You never really know another person until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." This is what Scout learns.

[Here I shared with my friend the Thematic Statement of my novel Jihadi -- what my protagonist Thelonius Liddell learns from the journey -- which you can get when you read the book.]
From there, you can create what I call a Thematic Cloud that connects to your Theme Statement. (Alderson calls this grouping of words a Thematic Significance Bubble Template. I like Thematic Cloud better.) These are basically Lessons Each Individual Scene Must Touch On. They can touch on more than one, if necessary, but they have touch on at least one. So for my novel Jihadi the Thematic Cloud looks like this:

Intention / Authenticity / Communication/ Bullshit / Differing Perspectives /Truth / Falsehood
Justice / Striving
Injustice / Crime / Punishment / Corruption / Deception / Aspiration / Escape / Imprisonment
innocence / Guilt / Condemnation / Forgiveness
Just a little something for you to gnaw on in your spare time. You might or might not decide make a Thematic Cloud, but I bet you need a Thematic Statement that shows the lesson your protagonist learns from all his trouble.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Revolution 1, Revolution 9

You know that slower version of the Beatles song Revolution (aka Revolution 1) you like on The White Album?

You know that long, experimental piece  Revolution 9   on the same album that maybe you don't like quite so much?

Did you know they derive from the same take in the studio? Here's the proof.

#JIHADI on #Pinterest (and a shot of my beloved #cat Paprika)

It still boggles my mind how few males use Pinterest.

This HuffPost article says 72% of the site's users are female. To me, Pinterest is a seamless, easy-to-use visual platform that gives you instant access to images that connect to just about any topic, pursuit, or obsession you can name -- and then connects you with people who share the same interest. Nothing particularly gender-driven about any of that, at least not that I can make out. Perhaps women are more likely than men to share family-, fashion-, and hobby-related pictures?

Anyway, here is my Pinterest page. Follow me and I will follow you back.

Specifically, here is the Pinterest board for my novel Jihadi. Ditto.

Below, a picture of my #cat Paprika. She shows up on Pinterest, where I acknowledger her to be my faithful, if fitful, November collaborator as I bring the draft of Jihadi in for a landing. With her help, I might just complete it this month, but certainly by December 10, as scheduled, inshaAllah. 28 chapters down ... five to go!

My novel Jihadi is about an American citizen who is accused of terrorism. You can read the first three pages here.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Who Wrote the Quran?

The non-Muslim's answer to this important question usually sounds like this:

"The Qur'an was authored by a human being; it is not a literal revelation from God. It is a book created by human intelligence, like any other book. It was, as a matter of historical fact, written by Muhammad, in the seventh century A.D."  


If this is your view, rest assured that you have plenty of company!

You should also know, though, that this point of view is not without its difficulties. To believe it, you must also believe that Muhammad, peace be upon him:

- Knew that the Earth and heavenly bodies were once a single point, and were separated violently (21:30)

Now, if you don't believe that this man had access to special knowledge that made possible an extraordinary prefiguring of the modern Big Bang theory -- a theory entirely unknown to the Arabs of the seventh century -- you must conclude that 21:30 of the Qur'an is merely an intriguing coincidence, a matter of getting something right by chance.

Perhaps this passage is simply an intriguing coincidence. If it is, however, it is not the only one.



This man, the supposed "author" of the Qur'an, would also have to have:

- Known about the relativity of time (22:47; 23:112-114; 32:45; 70:4), a subject similarly unknown to Arab tribes of this period.  

Either he possessed some extraordinary source of knowledge allowing discussion of this subject thirteen and a half centuries before Einstein ... or we are looking at another intriguing coincidence.

Which is it?

Most non-Muslims will instinctively answer along these lines: "Even if it means granting the text of the Qur'an a second striking coincidental feature, the likeliest explanation is that both passages are merely examples of happenstance."  


And yet:

Consider that the same author would also have to have known that:

  • The universe is continuously expanding (51:47).

  • Matter is created in pairs (36:36). (By the way, this discovery earned the scientist Paul Dirac the Nobel Prize in 1933.)

  • Life is water-based, as modern biological science has established (21:30).

  • Iron is not native to the Earth, coming instead from an extraterrestrial source (57:25).

  • The planet Earth travels in an orbit (27:88; 21:33).

  • The sun, too, moves in an orbit (37:38), as indeed modern astronomy proves that it does. 

  • The Earth's atmosphere acts like a protective shield for living creatures (21:32).

  • The stages of human development in the womb unfold in a specific, describable sequence (23:14) that has been confirmed by modern experts in human embryology.

  • The roots of mountains extend deep into the earth and serve the function of preventing shocks (21:31).

  • The Earth's rain cycle functions in ways that that were mysteries to scientists until the twentieth century (30:48).

  • That bordering seas meet but do not mingle with one another (55:19-20), as modern oceanographic science has confirmed.

  • Oceans have complex subsurface wave patterns (24:40).

  • In communities of honeybees, only the females are workers (16:68-69. The Arabic verb forms can connect only to female beings).

In addition, this human author would have had to have:

  • Known to use the singular of the word YAWM (day) precisely 365 times in the text of the Qur'an, despite the fact that he lived in a culture that followed a lunar, not a solar calendar. 

  • Known, seven years ahead of time, that the humiliated Byzantine Army of his day would rejuvenate itself and secure a major victory, which in fact it eventually did against the Persians (30:1-4).

  • Known, two years before he did so, that he would enter Mecca in triumph (48:27).

  • Known that the body of the Pharoah who had opposed Moses would be preserved for future generations (10:91-92) -- it is today on display in the Royal Mummies Chamber of the Egyptian Museum. Either that or this passage, too, must be regarded as an intriguing coincidence.

  • Known to refer (12:54) to the Egyptian head of state of Joseph's, peace be upon him, era as king (aziz-malik) and not as Pharoah, the word that appears erroneously in the book of Genesis.

  • Known that the fabled Arabian lost city of Iram (89:6-8) whose historical existence was confirmed by archaeologists only in 1990, was a historical reality.

  • Known that the ancient flood that had beset the southern Arabian people of Saba from their dam system (34:15-17), similarly confirmed by modern archeology, was a historical reality -- either that or this passage, too, must be regarded as an intriguing coincidence.

  • Known the name of Haman (28:38), a historical figure close to the Pharoah of the era of Moses, peace be upon him ... despite the problems that a) the name Haman does not appear in the Torah's version of the story, and b) the ability to translate the hieroglyphic language system of the Egyptians had been utterly lost for centuries at the time of the revelation of the Qur'an, and indeed would remain lost until the year 1799. After the discovery in that year of the Rosetta Stone, scholars were able to unlock the mystery of the hieroglyphs and, eventually, to confirm that there was indeed a Haman, unmentioned in the Hebrew scriptures, who was close to this Pharoah in this period, and who was involved in construction, just as the Qur'an says.

If we believe that human authorship is the only possible explanation for the origin of the Qur'an, we must assume either that Muhammad, peace be upon him, somehow had access to all this information, or we must classify all of the above as a remarkably long series of intriguing coincidences.


There is another possibility.


How many coincidences do we need to get the message?

The message is simple: no human intelligence could have produced this book in the seventh century.

Please know that there are many, many more such "coincidences" in the Qur'an. I have listed here only a few that do not require advanced knowledge in such topics as Arabic, mathematics, Islamic history, or classical poetic forms. Even with the brief list I have provided, there comes, I think, a point at which one is obliged to evaluate the Qur'an's message carefully, closely, and respectfully. These supposed coincidences are, I believe, clear signs to humankind that the Qur'an's message is of a special quality, and must not be ignored.

Only the repeated exposure of the individual human heart to the Qur'an's message can settle such a momentous question as "Who wrote the Qur'an?"

If you believe that there is no such thing as a divinely inspired revelation, the question is: how many coincidences does it take for you to consider that such a revelation to humanity may be possible?

On the other hand, if you believe that there is such a thing as a divinely inspired revelation, the question is, how many coincidences are you willing to ignore before considering the possibility that a particular text presents such revelation?

Please know that I am NOT interested in any debate about the possibility that any ONE of these verses I have cited is just a coincidence, or is for some other reason unpersuasive to you.

The truly remarkable thing is that ALL of these features should present themselves in a text supposedly composed by human intelligence. Consider the profound unlikelihood of that!

Knowing what you now know about these supposed coincidences, do you honestly believe that the Qur'an is simply the product of human intelligence, a book like any other book? Or does it seem more likely to you that its message is of a special quality? Take a listen  yourself and make your own decision.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

#JIHADI: The final chapters of the novel ... and a word of encouragement from Elvis Costello

My novel #JIHADI is about an American citizen accused of terrorism.

With 27 of 33 chapters of the novel complete, there is just no doubt about it -- I am pulling into the final stretch, and will, Godwilling, have a presentable COMPLETE draft of my novel #JIHADI on or before December 10, 2013. #Alhamdulillah, #praisethelord. Looking like 115,000 words now. Every day I write the book in the wee hours of the morning. (Cue #ElvisCostello.)

So .... everyone whose G+ handle I'm about to mention has been ridiculously generous with time, attention, critique, and/or moral support over the past year or two as I've taken my bulging, half-decade-old file of notes and false starts and turned it into (gasp!) a manuscript that people can actually read.

The purpose of this blog post is twofold. This post is here to...

a) Thank you, all those whose names appear below,  for your generous support and encouragement of the project thus far and

b) Ask you: Do you want me to send you a PDF of the full draft of Jihadi when it's ready ... in return for a brief (five sentences or more) written critique sharing your feedback?

You can email me, or reply via the blog, with your response. (And if your name doesn't appear in the list below, and you'd like to beta-read the complete draft of Jihadi, you can email me about that.)

+Adella Wright
+Ann Smyth
+Ksenia Anske
+L. T. Dalin
+Adrianna Joleigh
+Daoud Ali / +Daoud Ali Chavez
+Quesiyah Ali
+Julie Griffith
+Mary Cain
+C.M. Skiera
+Brian Meeks
+Paul Kater
+Kim K
+Brandi Mazesticeon
+Sharon Ford
+Puddin' Tang
+Lisa Cohen
+Dionne Lister
+N. M. Scuri
+Nina MJ
+N. Dionisio
+Shar Banning
+Ellis Bell
+Catharina Lindgren
+Eustacia Tan
+Elizabeth Einspanier
+Giselle Minoli
+Richard Gibney
+Rachel Howe
+Reazul Islam
+A Long
+Laura Klein
+Lorrie Porter
+Martha Alderson
+David Eccles
+John Ward
+Aalia Khan Yousafzai
+Cat DuFoe
+Sarah Rios
+june seghni
+Emily L
+Giselle Minoli
+Madison Dusome
+Douglas Karlson
+Yussef Ikla
+A. J. Sefton
+Siobhan Muir
+Jessica Ralston
+Tressa Green
+Dee Solberg
+Becka McIntosh
+Becky Flade

LAST BUT NOT LEAST: +Elvis Costello and +Fiona Apple, you have provided many words and chords of encouragement along the way -- even though I haven't actually corresponded with you yet. So have you, +Paul McCartney, now that I come to think of it.  So if any or all of you three Muses would like to look at the PDF of the novel, just let me know.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Landmark Forum and #Jihadi

It occurs to me, upon review the last few months' worth of posts, that I haven't written about the single most important factor in the transformation of my novel #Jihadi from "good idea I am working on" to "life-changing possibility." That would be my participation in the Landmark Forum in April of this year.

This is to take nothing away from the support and encouragement of my great critique partners like +L. T. Dalin , +Richard Gibney , and +Adella Wright , but only to say that my relationship to the project, and to other people, and to my own past, got a whole lot clearer once I did Landmark. #Jihadi wouldn't be in the shape it is now if I hadn't gotten my head screwed on a little straighter, and that was thanks to Landmark.

I am planning on taking Landmark's Advanced course in 2014. If anyone reading this is in #Charlotte, North Carolina area (+Hannah Levinson comes to mind as one such) and would be interested in coming to a free #LandmarkForum preview on the evening of Tuesday, November 19th, please email me.

You can also email me if you are interested in beta-reading the manuscript for Jihadi.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

#Jihadi is a novel about an American citizen accused of terrorism.

I've been working on #Jihadi for six years. I choose to see that as a positive. The readable draft, which looks to weigh in at 110,000 words, completes 12/10/13, inshaAllah.

I don't write "first" drafts like other people do. I have to get a chapter right before I move on the next one. Some people think that's crazy. They may be right.

An excerpt from Chapter One of Jihadi appears here.

Here's a video of me reading the same text.

The Pinterest board for Jihadi is here.

The twitter feed for Jihadi is here.

A clickable mini-movie about me and my six-year journey writing Jihadi is here.

A synopsis, kind of, is here.

At the end of the day, Jihadi is a love story. Although I don't envy anyone the task of turning this novel into a screenplay, the three actors I have envisioned playing the leads are ...

Daniel Day-Lewis as Thelonius:

Julianne Moore as Becky:

Myriam Francois-Cerrah (aka Emilie Francois) as Fatima:
If you'd like to beta-read Jihadi, drop me a line.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Queenie Eye (Paul McCartney): A list of all (?) the celebrity cameos

Below, a list of celebrities who appear in the video for this week's favorite writing music. (I am now on chapter 24 of JIHADI, by the way. Nine to go.)

You may find more celebrities. I'm a Beatle freak, not a celebrity freak. The album from which "Queenie Eye" comes, NEW, is astonishing.

The "Queenie Eye" lyrics appear to me to be a set of instructions for excellence. I have shared them as such so far with +Richard Gibney and (obliquely) +Adella Wright, two standout beta readers of the past month. Having posted this, I intend to follow the "Queenie Eye" instructions and get back to work. Er, play.


Paul McCartney

(and in alphabetical order...)

Laura Bailey

Gary Barlow

Lily Cole

James Corden

Johnny Depp

Alice Eve

Tom Ford

Jeremy Irons

Jude Law

Giles Martin

Kate Moss

Sean Penn

Chris Pine

Jack Savoretti

Meryl Streep

Tracey Ullman

Remaining mysteries: The first dancing woman? The woman reading the red book? Feel free to pitch in.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Three Worlds: Victor Hugo's LES MISERABLES

+Catharina Lindgren, whom you and everyone should follow on G+, recently shared a quote about Victor Hugo's LES MISERABLES:
  • The Oxford Companion to French Literature has this to say about Les Miserables: 'The book is made still more unwieldy by the continual insertion of long historical, political, or sociological dissertations. Interesting ones are the description of the battle of Waterloo, the study of the end of the Restoration period and the figure of Louis-Philippe, the famous description of the Paris sewers, and numerous pictures of Paris and Parisian underworld life.'

To readers expecting only a clear character-driven narrative, these diversions are indeed unorthodox left turns that "don't move the plot forward." Let's call that "plot" part, the part where we are meant to wonder what is going to happen to a major character, The Drama. There are a whole lot of digressions that seem independent from The Drama, and these digressions usually go on for a bit. In fact, they take up 25% of the book. What are we to make of them? Some possibilities follow.

I have my own theory about the diversions in LES MISERABLES: they are there for the patient, and they are there for a reason. The first time you read the novel, they do indeed make the book feel unwieldy. They throw you for a loop. To use an archaic, sexist saying, they separate the men from the boys within the reader base. Wimps may proceed to the abridged edition. The second time through, though, you pick up thematic connections that you couldn't possibly have picked up the first time. And the book draws you in deeper as a result.

For instance, the long bit about Waterloo culminates in some musings on destiny that are somehow more relevant once you have taken in the whole story. A lengthy lecture on the nature of human progress means more once you realize it really is there for a reason -- Hugo is about to introduce four vicious career criminals. And the extended tour of the Paris sewers connects to broad thematic sequences of corruption, concealment, and power politics. The second time through, you say to yourself, "Ah -- I see."

This "I get it now" response is a reward for rereading a book designed to be reread. One experiences it, not just in the dissertations, but also when one comes across certain exquisite plot foreshadowings. No reader could possibly identify or make sense of all of these foreshadowings on first reading. An example: Fantine, still a beautiful young girl unacquainted with tragedy, watches a horse being beaten to death on the streets of Paris. She herself, in time, will be beaten down by the city.

Conclusion: Even at half a million words or so, this book is designed to be read multiple times, and deserves multiple readings. Of course, this is a subjective conclusion. For me, the second reading was better than the first, and the third was better than the second. Only a writer, perhaps, can grasp the difficulty of creating such a book.

In particular, I found that the diversions were (amazing!) all manageable the second and third time through. They take the book out of conventional fiction mode and tie it to a much larger experience, a journey that reserves the right to make stops at countless minutiae of history, architecture, the progressive impulse, urban development, gender relations, sewer design and on and on -- the journey of LIFE. It's a little like having Jacob Bronowski serve as a collaborator and guest host on a month's episodes of ONE LIFE TO LIVE.

If ever a writer won the right to fold dissertations into his soap opera, it is Victor Hugo. 

So what do we have? A book that never ends, and more than that, a hybrid that never ends.

I believe this book is designed to operate on at least three levels, only one of which (the first) shows up in the popular musical adaptation or in any other adaptation I've seen. The levels are:

1. The Drama (discussed above)
2. The Diversions (discussed above)
3. The First-Person Essays (discussed below)

These three worlds intersect to create, for patient readers, a single world of seemingly endless complexity and resonance. It's an illusion -- a literary trick -- but it's an astonishing effect.

Easier to miss than the drama and the diversions, which I've already examined briefly, is Hugo's careful, conscious decision to weave his own personal experience into the book. Let's look at those next.

The "I" essays give the appearance of being tucked into one of the other two compartments, and despite what I have called them they do not involve the first-person-singular "I" voice. Hugo achieves his multi-layered effect with a canny second-person "we" that fuses, in complex ways, with the book's editorial "we" -- and guess what that means? It means LES MIS is a personal journal, as well.

It is Hugo himself who tours the silent battlefield of Waterloo decades after the battle, and Hugo who shares his own personal memories of the barricades of 1832 as the insurrection raged in Paris.
These "I" reference-points are easy to miss the first time through because the reader is still off balance, trying to taking in larger episodes and/or rants. They become clearer, and more essential, on the second read. The "I" episodes are sometimes are very short. although the two instances I have given are lengthy ones. But they seem to me to present another conscious device: Hugo goes out of his way to establish and re-establish his own identity as an individual, though not as a character in the drama involving Jean-Valjean et al. You are never allowed to forget the author's literal presence in the story, and that presence increases in visibility and importance with repeated readings.

I've never read anything remotely like LES MISERABLES. It's a radical book, structurally, and I'm still not sure how he pulled it off. But I know these three worlds do exist, and I do know they cross-pollenate to create a variety of literary magnetism that's distinctive to this work.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

And a shout-out to my collaborator Fiona Apple

I am lying. That Fiona Apple (our generation's Piaf, our Ella, our Fiona) is usually my first or second choice when it comes to background music while I'm writing Jihadi does not entitle her to any portion of my royalties. It does, however, earn her an acknowledgment here, for spurring me on, and for recording what has turned into Becky Firestone's unofficial theme song, GET HIM BACK.

There is a pun in the title phrase. I wonder how many people grasp it. I don't think Becky does, but then she's cagy about such things.

Above is a not-to-be-missed performance of GET HIM BACK and a straight-ahead interview with Fiona, back when EXTRAORDINARY MACHINE was first released. She is, as host Craig Ferguson points out, a "very complicated person," and I'm one of those too, and bless her for what she's done with it. I hope to meet her at a good party sometime and thank her for her uncompromising words, for her powerful personal example, for her courage, for not apologizing for her own identity, and for taking as much time as required to finish the damn record.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Point of No Return

Update from the front: My novel JIHADI -- on which I have been working for about six years -- is now about 30,000 words shy of its 100,000-word target. 22 chapters down. Nine to go. As of today, I am on schedule to complete the working draft December 10 of this year.

My goal is to use this year's #NaNoWriMo to create the 60,000 or so draft words needed to fill the 30,000-word gap (assuming a two-to-one crap-passage-to-viable-passage ratio), then leave the thing alone for a month or so, then give it one good pass before circulating it among literary agents in January.

Translation: This is where it gets real. This is the point of no return. It is time to wrap this thing.

I feel comfortable saying that now, if only because I now have a clear, confident answer to that question, "So what's your novel about?" (It's about an American citizen who is accused of terrorism.) I used to just sputter and drool a lot whenever people asked that.

The wonderful news is that the book does, in fact, feel like a novel, and (though I say it who perhaps shouldn't) a good one. Here's a link to the current Chapter One. Here's encouraging feedback from past beta readers. (The three who have gone above and beyond the call are +L. T. Dalin , +Richard Gibney , and +Adella Wright.) And then there's the video above.

Feel free to follow me on Twitter, where I post more frequent updates on the novel's progress. And please do connect with me via Twitter or via email if you are interested in reading the manuscript in PDF form and providing a critique.

The moral of the story: I really am wrapping the thing up, Godwilling.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

GRAVITY: Six Reasons You Need to See This Movie Twice ... Especially if You're a Writer

The movie GRAVITY is now the #1 box office attraction in the United States, comforting evidence that my country hasn't yet completely lost its mind. (One wonders lately about the lucidity of the nation given, say, Congress's recent behavior, but that is another topic.)

Herewith six reasons to see this astonishing movie not once, but twice, in a movie theatre:

1) Its airtight script offers yet another compelling example of the power of what Martha Alderson calls the Universal Story. This endlessly resilient template for storytelling is outlined in Alderson's book THE PLOT WHISPERER WORKBOOK, which you should buy. Watch GRAVITY twice so you can see how closely the journey here matches up with her template: End of the Beginning (debris), Crisis (separation), Climax (I'm not going to spoil it for you, but it involves a discussion), Resolution (I'm not going to spoil it for you, but it involves transformation, renewal, and rebirth). If you are writing a screenplay, a novel, or a memoir, and you want to know how it is done, THIS IS HOW IT IS DONE, and the proof is that it triangulates perfectly with Alderson. I started working on my novel with renewed vigor after seeing what screenwriters Jonas and Alfonso Cuaron did with the Universal Story, which "is" Alderson's in the sense that the Collective Unconscious "is" Carl Jung's. So: If you want to see what good storytelling looks like, watch this movie, compare it to Alderson's template, and then watch it again (and read Alderson again).

2) It's directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who also directed the spellbinding CHILDREN OF MEN. If you saw that, you remember that it was one of the most important movies of that painful decade that ended in 2009, whatever we are calling that. Guess what? GRAVITY is even better, impossible as that seems.

3) You have, I promise, never seen anything like it. The cinematography here is so good that words do not to it justice. So I won't try.

4) The 3-D is not a gimmick but an integral part of the cinema experience. Don't miss that experience. The film would be incomplete without it, and you'll want two passes to get clear on just how well it works.

5) The lead performance in GRAVITY is not just the performance of Sandra Bullock's career, it's the performance of everybody's career. What I mean by that is: "Everyman is Actually a Woman" is a pretty impressive accomplishment, one we may have been working our way up to for several thousand years. It's what she and Cuaron pull off here. This is not (just) a space-disaster film, it's a movie about humanity and its response to adversity, and the performance that makes that possible is Bullock's. Her work here is something that people are going to be talking about for a long, long time to come. If this doesn't win Sandra Bullock an Oscar nomination, there is something wrong in Oscar-dom.

6) It's probably as close as you're going to get to the powerful, personal, transformative experience reported by astronauts. Too vague, I know. You'll know what experience I mean when you see this film, though, and whatever you choose to call that, you'll want to experience it again. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Revolution in the Head: Why the #Beatles' "Revolution 9" Doesn't Suck

"It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer." -- Albert Einstein

PALE FIRE. LES MISERABLES. 8 1/2. SYNECHDOCHE, NEW YORK. Here's to all that great, world-defining work out there that confounds, that confuses, that bores, that demands too much the first time through ... and rewards a second assessment (and a third and fourth and on and on). Add to that list John Lennon's landmark 1968 musique concrete collage REVOLUTION 9 :

Carefully leaving aside any insistence on the rightness or wrongness of personal aesthetic assessments, I offer to the skeptical some evidence in support of an unpopular idea. The idea is that purposeful structure, rich thematic resonance, and deep beauty are all to be found in  REVOLUTION 9, and that this track repays all those willing to grant it an open mind.

This composition has been described as the black hole near the end of the White Album, as a chaotic mess beyond analysis or defense, as evidence of what awful things can happen after you give drug-addled pop stars the keys to the recording studio. As, in short, the Beatles song that most clearly sucks.

I disagree. This complex piece is, as I hear it, a triumph, an open door to a place unsettling and worth visiting, a place that is anything, anything but random. 

It begins with a half-heard, half-abandoned conversation between two faraway people, and it ends with gunfire and the chants of a frenzied stadium crowd. In between, its careful, layered evocation of the liminal state -- the "halfway" experience between wakefulness and sleep -- offers uncountable, intriguing repetitions and progressions, many glimpses of a world descending into chaos and emerging from it and descending again. Listen for the endless, tortured variations on the words "all right," for the various comparisons of crowds and choirs, and for the running verbal themes of nakedness, clothing, and exposure.

Lennon used sound collage to build a world we occupy and recognize, but don't always want to explore, a dream world that unfolds whether we want it to or not, that might proceed at any moment into a nightmare. He used sound collage to summon dreams we might dislike having to come to terms with upon awakening.

As I hear it, REVOLUTION 9 is an experiential composition that challenges and strips away the supposed supremacy of the logical, intellectual, rationalizing aspect of the listener's mind and identity. If you are brave enough to engage with it on its own terms, you will find that you yourself enter a kind of dream state where your own rational armor slips away ... where "you become naked." Lennon used these eight unpredictable minutes as an open challenge to all the "rational" restrictions and interpretations that stand in the way of an authentic personal response to life. 

I am fifty-two now. So far, this seems to be the best age from which to approach the piece. A little more patience, a little more regret, a little more openness to new sources of discovery and renewal. A little more skepticism about external appearances. A little more receptiveness to the potential of dreams and accidents, and their role in shaping what comes next.  REVOLUTION 9 reminds me somehow of the first of that astonishing pair of couplets at the end of King Lear: 

The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

REVOLUTION 9 is, for some of us at any rate, a mirror, in spots more troubling than we deserve, in spots more beautiful than we deserve, but at any rate more relevant to our jaded, bloodstained, channel-hopping, information-saturated era than any other track the Beatles recorded. The intricacy of its design continues to elude many, but that may have been part of Lennon's point.

See this link to Ian Hammond's masterful critique of the piece.

And this one to Carlton J. Wilkinson's paper, which acknowledges decades of skepticism about the track, but shows how it "exhibits a very definite musical structure and a clarity of intent" throughout. 

And this link to one persuasive attempt to pin down the lyrics.

And this link to another.

And the perceptive essay that appears in the late Ian McDonald's fine book REVOLUTION IN THE HEAD.

I consider this track the Fabs' masterpiece. Then again, if it ain't for you, it ain't for you... :)