Moby Dick – Part II: I’m with the whale on this one

The following is Part II of my critique of Moby Dick from my old web site. At this point, I had finished the book, which was quite a relief to me. Last week I posted Part I, written when I was only half way through the novel. If you want to read Part I first, click here.

Part II: Finished with Moby Dick

Previously, I shared some thoughts formed while reading the first half of Moby Dick. Though I was not thrilled with the story, I was determined to finish it. I had seen a faint glimmer of potentially smooth storytelling and was really hoping this potential would blossom into an engaging second half.

Having finished the book, I am here to report that my hopes were dashed upon the rocks of long-winded meandering. The novel peaked somewhere between the 10 and 13 percent marks (as read on Kindle), and never came near reaching those heights again.

Moby Dick is bereft of likable characters. If I had to choose, I would say my favorite (i.e. the least annoying) character was Moby Dick himself. He is my favorite because he shows up for only the last 10% or so of the book, which is also good advice for any potential reader. Unlike Ahab, Starbuck, and all the other prominent, hard-bitten sea-farers, he doesn’t talk too much. I appreciate good dialog in a novel, but these sailors are forever spouting some drivel that means next to nothing. Even when they are not speaking, they are thinking pointless drivel. I wonder if Melville attended the same writing workshops as James Fenimore Cooper.

Moby Dick shows up for the climactic final scene, takes care of his business, wagging his jaw no more than necessary to crush a few boats, and then goes home. He wastes no time tripping over insipid attempts to make himself sound intellectual. If only the author could have been half as efficient.

The whale's not much for dialogue. He just takes care of business and goes home.

The whale’s not much for dialogue. He just takes care of business and goes home.

Instead, Melville wanders. At the beginning, it seemed like a major part of the plot would be the unlikely friendship between the Yankee narrator and a partially-civilized cannibal. Yet, by the time the ship shoves off from the dock, the cannibal has become no more noteworthy to the narrator than any other of the harpooners. This may be a blessing in disguise, for if nothing else, it prevented the cannibal from indulging in drawn-out soliloquies.

The author’s focus drifts in the wind throughout the book. Even at the very end, it is still drifting. Melville seems to forget, until it is nearly too late, that the narrator must actually live if we are to put any credence in the story he has just spent way too long relating to us. The narrator is almost certainly floating toward the light when Melville hastily yanks him back into the mortal world with an afterthought of a tale about his unlikely survival of the final battle.

It turns out that the great whale was efficient, but not completely thorough in his actions. He left one man alive to tell the tale. I wonder if he regrets this oversight as much as I do.

The Third Novella: a horror story about writing a Horror story

Writing a book is a solitary sport. Publishing a book is anything but solitary. You need a lot of people to help you. Even when you are lucky to have diligent people helping you, everything takes time, which means you will wait through various periods for them to do their work before you can get the thing published.

About 18 months ago, while I was waiting for some beta readers to go through A Housefly in Autumn, I decided that starting a new book would be more productive of my time than twiddling my thumbs.

I envisioned a book consisting of three novellas of a genre very different from A Housefly in Autumn. These stories would be contemporary and not suited to young adults. They are my nightmares, the ground where parenthood meets horror.

Though not horror in a gory sense, they are dark enough to put them into a genre in which I have not written since high school. Back then, I was completing creative writing assignments, not contemplating an eventual published book.

I finished the first two novellas in accordance with the vague plan in my head. The third came third because it was less well-developed in my mind, so I let it marinate while I finished drafts of the other two. When the third’s turn came, I had sat on it long enough to know that it would not develop further until I started to write it.

As I waited to get the cover art for Housefly, I began the third novella. Little by little, it picked its way through the forest of words until it found its trail of plot. It began to come together, the story itself inspiring new elements to fill in its missing pieces.

The ending still floated on the mist, but as I got closer, I began to see outlines of solid shapes in that mist. I was fitting it all together in my mind.

Then I got some really fantastic artwork for Housefly. It was time to start laying out the actual book that had always just been a manuscript. The new project got pushed to the back burner. When you have three little boys at home and a full-time day job, the back burner is off.

The third novella stopped cold. What time I could muster was applied to getting Housefly through the next steps.

I don’t outline. This works for me, except when it doesn’t.

Waiting for help on the last proofing of Housefly, I went back to that third novella. After six months, I didn’t recall which i was undotted and which t uncrossed.

I’d have to go back and read it. I didn’t like to because I prefer to get through the first draft before I read, and I was afraid of what I would find in my first mature attempt to write horror, even watered-down horror.

So far, I’ve read through about one-third of it. It’s not as bad as I feared. Now if I can only re-figure out how it ends, I might actually start to like it. Horror doesn’t scare me so much anymore.

the third novella

The Third Novella. That could be the title of a horror story. Anyway, this third novella is waiting to be finished.

Valet parking: annoying in real life, worse in fiction

I once read a novel in which Character A was driving to a meeting with Character B. They had a lot of very important things to discuss that would greatly advance the plot. I was eager to arrive at this meeting, because I am all about advancing the plot.

I was all ready to meet Character B and see what fascinating revelations he had for us. I think Character A was all hyped for it too, but what we wanted didn’t matter. The author stepped in to block our way until we had parked the car. We parked in a specific space, in a specific lot, a specific distance from the meeting place.

The spot where we parked the car had no bearing on the outcome of our meeting with Character B. It had no effect upon the story whatsoever. The fact that we drove to the meeting was of no importance. Yet, instead of beginning the chapter discussing juicy topics with Character B, we were made to suffer through parking the car. It made me sad.

It made me sad because I have far less reading time than I would like, and I don’t want to spend it parking cars when there are mysteries to solve – mysteries that have nothing to do with where certain cars are parked. My reading time is precious to me; please don’t make me your literary valet.

Don't park your plot

Save yourself 15 cents and a bunch of unnecessary words. Forget about parking and get on with the story. (Image: David Myers/US Farm Security Administration)

Parking cars, ordering coffee, having a particular eye color—these are fine things for characters to do, if they are relevant to the plot or show some insight into the character. Otherwise, they are just more words that are likely to block my path and divert my attention before I finish the book.

My rant is not against a particular book or author. Superfluous activities crop up often in fiction. They are a pet peeve of mine, especially because I am not immune to them in my own writing. The vast majority of writers probably have them in their beginning drafts. Part of the work of polishing a manuscript is locating meaningless actions and destroying them.

It may be impossible for the author to identify all the wasted actions in his own book, but it is crucial that he make a whole-hearted attempt. Each wasted action makes the story less intriguing, or to be blunt about it, more boring. It should be ample motivation for an author to know that every time he crosses one of them out, he makes his story better. Nothing should make hard work more palatable than that.

So, here’s the deal: I won’t make you park my cars, unless it’s crucial to your enjoyment of the story, if you don’t make me park yours. Hell, let’s not even drive if we don’t have to. Fiction is a kind of magic; we can just show up at our meetings when we need to. It will save gas, the environment, and maybe even our respective novels.