Thursday, January 26, 2012

Book Review: Angelology by Danielle Trussoni

Angelology by Danielle Trussoni should come with an instant refund
I want my money back.
I've typed and deleted at least 17 opening lines for this review, stumped by the prospect of finding a civil way to express my displeasure with this book and its publisher.

The premise was golden.  The reviews were glittering.  The words and the heart and the soul of this book are tarnished and rotten.  I can only assume that the publisher, Penguin, has paid off everyone from the the New York Times to USA Today in an effort to generate reviews good enough to get me to buy the book.   I want my $16 back.  

Let me attempt to make my case:

Minor Quibbles

1.  The title.  
Angelology.  It's clunky and awkward, as are words like "angelologists" and "angeleological."  Was there no interesting descriptive phrase or snippet of a Bible verse that could have sufficed?

2.  The cover.  
Could they have made this look more like an ad for a saints and sinners ball at a gay S&M club?  Ugh.  (If you haven't seen the cover, a quick Google image search will do the trick.)

Major Quibbles

1.  The writing.  
It's bad, folks.  Way too many compound sentences, too many coordinating conjunctions, too
many obvious thoughts, too much telling instead of showing, too many cliched descriptions and emotions, too many stilted and artificial lines of dialogue.  A few cringe-worthy examples:

Exhibit A
"Throughout the remaining weeks of October, Gabriella and I spent our days in Dr. Seraphina's office, working with quiet determination as we cataloged and organized the mountains of information.  The intensity of our schedule and the passion with which I strove to understand the materials before me left me too exhausted to ponder Gabriella's increasingly strange behavior" (173).

This sounds like schlock from the 19th century, B-level Balzac or a wannabe Bronte.  Why "quiet" determination?  To distinguish from "noisy" determination?   Why not describe the feel of the character's fingers, desiccated by shuffling papers?  Why not describe Celestine as she's keeping her eyes open, struggling against sleep, instead of merely telling us she's exhausted?  Also, since she's described Gabriella's behavior for us, she doesn't need to repeat that it's "increasingly strange."  We know.  We were there.

Exhibit B
"Standing in her white cotton briefs and cotton undershirt (standard garments ordered in bulk and distributed biyearly to all the sisters at St. Rose), she looked at herself with an appraising, analytic eye--the thin arms and legs, the flat stomach, the tousled brown hair, the golden pendant resting upon her breastbone.  The reflection floating on the glass before her was that of a sleepy young woman" (5).

"Biyearly"?  Google's dictionary function defines "biyearly" as every two years OR twice a year.  Which is it?  Was it too much trouble to distinguish between biannual and biennial?  Why use both "appraising" and "analytic"?  What's the difference?  Surely there's a better way than the old look-in-a-mirror gimmick to describe the main character's appearance.  And, having resorted to that gimmick, Trussoni then gives us absolutely nothing unique.  We get a thin, brown-haired girl.  That's it.  A totally wasted opportunity.  Does she have freckles?  Eye color?  Interesting shape to the nose?  Bangs?  Anything we can use to picture this
character?  Thin and brown-haired could be Angelina Jolie or Laura Bush.  And why that last sum-it-up sentence?  Why do we need to be told she's a sleepy young woman?  Thanks to the handy time stamp at the chapter's beginning, we know it's 4:45 am.  Unless she's superwoman, she's probably sleepy.  And unless she's a space alien confirming that her ectomorphic disguise is still in place, do we really need it confirmed that she's a young woman?

Exhibit C
"Her face had flushed as she spoke, and for a fleeting moment Evangeline could imagine the intense young woman who had arrived at St. Rose Convent more than fifty years before.  The physical effort of Celestine's speech overwhelmed her.  Lifting a trembling hand to her mouth, she began to cough.  She appeared to consider her physical frailty with dispassionate attention, as if noting how the mind burned brightly as ever even as the body made its way to dust" (341).

Why "a fleeting moment"?  Why not just "a moment"?  Far less cliche that way.  And why "intense young woman"?  Why not "tormented," or something a bit more descriptive?  And how awkward is "she appeared to consider her physical frailty with dispassionate attention"?  Bordering on pedantry, if you ask me.

This is what Booklist, via, calls "textured prose as seamless as the never-ending stream of prayers offered up by St. Rose Convent's Sisters of Perpetual Adoration."  Hmm.  The author bio states that Trussoni is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop.  Note to self:  Never go to the Iowa Writer's Workshop.  It obviously doesn't help.

2. The characters.  
I've seen more developed characters in children's cereal commercials.  You don't learn who they are.  You don't learn to like them.  They wander around like adolescent dupes, unquestioning, unseeing, unsympathetic.  Writing for the New York Times Book Review, Susann Cokal notes the novel's "dewy but adaptable heroine" and "dashingly cruel villain."  Um, yeah.  Not sure which book she got in the mail, but it's not the one that I bought.

3.  The plot.  
It has more holes than a colander.

Hole the First:  The background story.  Before the flood, when humanity was just starting to get out of control, God sent 200 angels (known as "the Watchers") to keep an eye on things.  They got the hots for human women, took them as wives, and had human-angel hybrid children, called Nephilim.  The Nephilim taught their children important skills unknown to mere mortals, like metalworking and healing spells and how to apply makeup.  The Nephilim go a little power-mad, banding together to bend humans to their will.  Humanity gets pissed, and the archangels come down to earth and cast the Watchers into an abyss, where they are still held.  The Nephilim, their children, ignore their cries for help.  Everyone in the book wonders why the Nephilim didn't help their fathers.  Even a premier angelologist, Dr. Seraphina, admits the Nephilim would have been stronger with the Watchers' help.  Why don't the sons rescue the fathers?  This is never explained.  Why don't the archangels do something to stop the Nephilim, if they're the real troublemakers?  This is never explained.  Why doesn't anyone ever question the god that's supposedly behind all this?  This is never explained.  Why can't creatures as smart and divine as angels can't find a way out of a few cages in a ravine, in thousands of years?  This is not explained.  Do you sense a pattern?

Hole the Second:  The artifact everyone's searching for.  It's a magical lyre that presumably belonged to the archangel Gabriel.  The Nephilim believe it will cure them of a wasting disease that has been attacking their ranks, thanks to an angelologist's research on the effect of celestial instruments on molecular structure.  That scientist, the main character's deceased mother, believed the lyre "was the primary instrument, the one that could return the Nephilim to a state of angelic purity unseen upon earth since the time of the watchers" (280).  At the same time, when the lyre is found and assembled, one character warns another, "Nothing is known about the correct method of playing the lyre.  The horrors you could bring upon the world are unimaginable.  I beg you, stop."  (440)  So...wait a sec.  There's a scientist who claimed the lyre would heal the angels thanks to its molecular vibrations, yet at the same time, it's also powerful enough to destroy the whole freaking world.  Which is it?  Cure-all or end-all?  It should be one or the other.  These characters don't know nearly enough to be speaking with such authority.

Hole the Third:  Nephilistic genealogy.  I'm still confused on this one.  "A child born to Nephilim parents, without the slightest trace of angelic traits, might in turn produce a Nephilistic offspring.  It was an uncommon occurrence, to be sure, but not unheard of...While humans carried the genetic potential to create a Nephilistic child, the Nephilim themselves embodied the angelic ideal.  Only a Nephilistic being could develop wings" (70).  Trussoni attempts to tie in Mendelian genetics and the idea of the double-recessive gene producing angelic traits.  The character who linked angelic traits to Watson and Crick's research is presented as a genius, killed for her valuable knowledge.  This is the same character who believed the lyre would both heal angels and rip apart the fabric of the world as we know it.  Later in the book, when one of the main characters actually develops wings, she is mystified.  Another character offers a lame explanation:  "Your father and I had you examined as a little girl, and we saw that your lungs were formed like those of a Nephilistic child, but from our studies--and the work Angela had conducted on Nephilistic decline--we knew that a large percentage of Nephilim do not grow wings at all.  Genetics are not enough.  there have to be many other factors present" (441).  Did I read that correctly....genetics are not enough??  Then why did Trussoni try and tie in Mendelian genetics earlier in the book?  It feels like Trussoni is trying to be Dan Brown (or Isaac Newton) and tie in religion, mythology, and science, when she doesn't know enough about what she's talking about to do it right, resulting in ridiculous disclaimers like this quotation.  The whole scheme feels half-baked, as if she started writing before she figured out the hard and fast rules of this universe she wants to create.  I don't buy it.

4.  The timing.
Everything happens in one day.  The characters have to constantly refer back to this point with internal thoughts like, "was it only the previous morning?" (451).  The male hero, Verlaine, supposedly falls in love with the heroine, Evangeline, in 24 hours, a fact that we're repeatedly reminded of in case we forget.  It's as if Trussoni knows how illogical it all is and has to take great care to tell us that, no, it's fine, it's cool, Verlaine doesn't really understand it either:  "Recent events had left him numb.  Perhaps he was in shock.  He couldn't reconcile the world he had lived in the day before with the one he had now entered.  Sinking onto a couch, he stared through the window at the darkness beyond. Only hours before Evangeline had sat at his side on that very couch, so close he could feel her every movement.  The strength of his feelings for her baffled him.  Was it possible that he had met her only yesterday?  Now, after so little time, she filled his thoughts" (448).

Guess what?  It baffles me, too.

5.  The missing elements.
Namely, religion and God.  For a book based on a Bible verse, the novel largely ignores both of these, focusing solely on angelic cosmology.  Is this realistic?  I don't think so.  One of the main characters, Evangeline, is a sort of apprentice nun in a convent.  She rarely thinks of God, despite being in a convent for more than ten years.  The story's modern events unfold between Christmas Eve and Christmas night.  No one mentions God, or the fact that it's Christmas, the holiest day in the year for Christians.  No prayers, no moment to even recognize the significance.  In fact, the novel's chapter headings make it painfully clear when the story takes place--but there's no actual significance to the story taking place either on Christmas or in the year 1999.   The only reason I can think of for the novel's taking place in 1999 is because the sequel plans to make use of 9/11 in some reductive, sickening way.

6.  The total lapses in judgment shown by major characters.
Celestine, a young apprentice angelologist, does nothing but read and study about angels, Nephilim, and the thousands of years of struggle between the two. Then, when she sees her friend and rival Gabriella in an embrace with a man who is supremely beautiful, she fails to connect the dots.  Trussoni writes, "His skin was luminous white and appeared to me--so startled by his presence--to have an unearthly glow...Aside from the fact that male guests were restricted from visiting our apartments, there had been something disturbing about the man himself, something eerie and abnormal that I could not fully identify.  My inability to understand what I had seen and the chaotic mix of loyalty and rivalry I felt toward Gabriella made it impossible to tell Dr. Seraphina..." (131-32).

Really, kiddo?  You see a strange, glowing being making out with your roomate, in the midst of a millenia-old war between human and angel in which you are intrinsically involved, and YOU DON'T EVEN CONSIDER THE FACT THAT THE GLOWING MAN IS ONE OF THEM?  How stupid can one character be?  This would be like a fifteen-year-old Steve Irwin seeing a crocodile's scales rising up out of the water and walking on by, thinking, hmm, that's an awfully big floating log.

A second fatal lapse in judgment happens to Evangeline.  When she goes into the convent's Mission Office to see her personal file (after reading letters that reveal her family's role in the human v. Nephilim battle), she finds that her file holds much more material than she would have guessed.  She finds lab results (blood tests), handwriting analysis, notes from a doctor's visit, and x-rays.  Yet Evangeline distinctly remembers her father never taking her to a doctor when she was younger.  She ignores this glaring warning and keeps paging through the file.  Really?  Really?  You're in the midst of discovering you aren't who you think you are, that your family isn't who you think they are, that nothing is as it seems, and you skip over vital personal information that doesn't match up with your own memory of your past?  Are you that stupid?  Apparently, the answer is yes.

7.  The feel, the soul, the heart.
The book left me cold.  It made me angry for what could have been.  It made me angry at the agent, editor, and publisher who pushed this thing through the publishing process with all of these faults, so deftly described by a multitude of reviewers.  Why this book?  Why this deeply flawed book and not another, better-written manuscript?  It boggles the mind.

We, the reading public, deserve better.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Friday Submissions: Progress Report

So, awhile back, I blogged about making submitting your writing part of your schedule.  I suggested Fridays--every other Friday to be exact.  Well, we're almost at the end of the month, which means this Friday could be your second submission Friday.  It will certainly be mine.

How's it been going?

For me, it feels awesome.  I submitted a heck of a lot of things almost two weeks ago, and I have a few more to submit this Friday, thanks to some suggestions from my adviser.  I have to say....I like the schedule and the rigidity enforced by this policy.  It forces me to have new stuff ready OR to find more markets for stuff that's already out.  This is the kind of thing I find it nearly impossible to make time for without such a structured schedule.

I really like the feeling of having so many pieces out and about.  Every morning, when I wake up, I think about checking my email.  Will today be the day?  Even if I get nothing but rejections (and I'm sure they're coming), it's still a mark that I held up my end of the deal.

Something else that helps me feel less bad about rejections is to visit the website for the journal(s) you're submitting to, and read the contributor bios.  Most of the stories published in literary journals are from professors who run English departments or MFA programs.  Many of them have won Pushcarts, book prizes, national awards, etc.  When I think about what they've done and what I've done, I feel a little bit better--I'm not at this level yet, obviously.  But I can get there!

If you're determined to be upset by rejections (and let's face it, some days, that's just how it goes), reading the contributor bios can help you in a different way.  Once you see that most of the contributors are professors or MFAs or part of the "establishment" in some way, you can start to see yourself as a kind of crusader.  An anti-establishment writer.  Someone determined to buck the odds.  So what if I don't have a PhD?  So what if I don't chair the English department at a small, northeastern liberal arts college?  It doesn't mean I don't produce kick-ass stories.  It just means I'm going to have submit more, take more rejections, submit even more, and work even harder to break through the cloud of incest that seems to hang over a lot of literary journals.  On really bad days, I think, well, they probably liked the story but not my bio.  And if that's what it takes to inspire you to do even better, so be it. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I Don't Usually Talk about TV, But it Relates to Writing, I Promise...

Did any of you guys watch the Alcatraz premiere the other night?  I didn't intend to, but...well....I didn't have anything else to do and it was on.  But the more I watched it, the more I began to edit it in my mind and treat it like a story.  It made me realize a few things:

1.  Just because you're handed a cool concept doesn't mean you'll do it justice.  You have to earn it.  
Alcatraz.  Crooks who should be dead walking around, looking just like they did in 1963.  Secret facilities, mysterious cop-like people who seem to have a clue, danger at every turn, something seriously supernatural or just plain wrong.  I mean, really.  Guys from 1963 who haven't aged?  These things should add up to something that glues me to the TV.  But at the end of the two-hour premiere, I felt...meh.  I didn't feel riveted.  I didn't feel sucked in.  I felt like I should have just had my world blown apart, but was somehow left cold.  

This tells me that they mishandled something.  Do not take bitchin' subject matter for granted.

2.  Do not underuse supporting characters.
So, the heavy guy from Lost plays some super-Alcatraz-PhD nerd who also writes comic books and owns a comic book shop.  (At least this is what I gathered.  If I'm misinterpreting something here, maybe I misheard.)   In other words, this guy is a fountain of knowledge.  He also apparently has a sense of humor, hence the comic book shop instead of academia.  But throughout the two hours, the writers drastically underutilized his character.  He was a largely voiceless sidekick, used only when the show needed to emphasize how horrible dead bodies are (yes, we're all desensitized, I get it).  They could have done so much more with him.  He got to back up a few facts or ideas spouted by other characters, but he didn't really do much on his own.  Why not?  Why is someone who has spent years of his life researching this stuff ignored most of the time?  Let him give the viewers some awesome facts about Alcatraz.  Make him the comic relief.   But don't shove him in a corner until you need a convenient dose of humanity.  That's lame.

3.  Do not forget to address the WTF-factor.
Maybe it's me.  But if I'm a cop chasing a perp and then I see that perp is my own freaking uncle, who looks exactly like he did when I was little, I'm gonna freak out.  I'm also gonna freak out when I find out the premise of the show.  In a nutshell, it is this:  guys locked up on Alcatraz all mysteriously vanished in 1963 (faked transfers and death certificates notwithstanding) and are now roaming the streets, murdering and doing all sorts of bad things, seemingly unaged and looking kinda like Mad Men extras.  WTF?  If this is the reality I find myself in, I don't follow Sam Neill around and chase criminals through cemeteries.  I call the NSA or the FBI or the CIA.  I raise holy hell, because, dude....people who aren't dead are ZOMBIES.  Why are there zombies running around?  If they aren't zombies, maybe they're ALIENS.  That's even worse!  The point is that this shit isn't normal.  I don't think I'd be capable of wearing henleys strategically unbuttoned to reveal just enough cleavage.  I don't think I'd be capable of much at all.  I'd be freaking out, big time.  That's where I think the show lost a little bit of verisimilitude.  They forgot to address the WTF-factor.    

If the show had done these things, I think I'd be on board.  As it is, I'm left wondering why I forgot about it entirely a day after I saw it.  I should be puzzling.  I should be wishing I thought of it first.  Instead, I'm thinking this concept is up for grabs....for someone to do better.  

I'm going to keep all this in mind the next time I write a supernatural story or an adventure story.  Don't fall into the Alcatraz trap!

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Result: Making Scenes Into a Story

On January 10th, I wrote about a challenge I'd set for myself.  I took a group of scenes I'd written as part of an exercise in a creative writing class and tried to weave them into an actual story.  So, in case you're wondering, here's how that went.

The good:  I did get a usable story out of it!  It's now a part of my final project for grad school.  Woo-hoo!  Is it the best thing I've ever written?  No.  But it's there, and it wasn't there a week ago.

The bad:  I had to write almost all of it from scratch.  I couldn't get the tone of the sketches to work in a story.  Basically, the sketches all had upbeat endings.  The story couldn't have that, for various reasons.  (It's hard to have an upbeat ending when the story is a schizophrenic woman who tried to commit suicide, and her sister, and the way that sister is dealing with the first sister's illness.)  Three-quarters of the material from the sketches actually got cut as I wrote the story.  I was able to pull some sentences and the idea of the sketches into the finished story, though, so there is some part of the original there.

It was an interesting process.  I can't say I'd try it again--I like starting from scratch so I don't end up with tone consistency problems like I did here.  But all the same, it showed me how everything can be tweaked or revised to suit your purposes.

The ugly:  Nothing is ugly if you get a new story out of it.  Nothing.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Challenge: Making Scenes into a Story

Last spring, for a creative writing class, our assignment was to write six brief scenes:  three each from the point of view of two different characters.  We were supposed to write from the point of view of character A observing character B, while character B did three different daily activities.  Then we did the same thing from the point of view of character B observing character A while character A did three more daily activities.

This was a fun exercise, but these short, unconnected pieces have been languishing on my computer for awhile now.  So I had a bright idea:  can I weave these six unconnected scenes into a story?  Is it possible?

At first, I thought this would be easy.  The scenes feature the same two characters, so all I'd have to do is weave the daily activities into some logical sequence, right?  Easy peasy.

Well, it would have been nice if it worked out like that.  But it didn't.  It's taking a lot more massaging and rewriting to get the scenes to flow.  It's a really fun challenge, though--it forces you to smooth rough edges and really think about scene order and how you can arrange them to build to some sort of emotional awareness and climax.  Of course, I made it more difficult for myself by writing scenes that end mostly happily, while most of the stories I write end on a decidedly morbid or depressing note.  That's what's taking most of the revising time.  I have to correct for tone in each scene as I weave it in with the others.  The cool thing is that now I have an entirely new story to play with.

If you have a little spare time, give it a try--write six random half-page scenes featuring the same two characters, with three each from a particular character's point of view.  Choose activities to describe that are mundane:  washing hair, watering plants, making the bed, feeding the dog, watching the news, cooking dinner, cleaning a bathroom, etc.  Then let them sit for awhile.  As you think about the characters and what they might mean to each other, think about what you want to say through those characters.  How is their simple, everyday interaction leading to a larger truth?  Then have at it--mash those scenes into a story!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Make Like The Cars and "Shake It Up"

I had a somewhat disturbing thought in the shower this morning.  Okay, that's a really weird and not entirely appropriate way to begin this post.  Let me back up a little.

I finished a new story yesterday evening--19 pages in two days!  It was a marathon, but I went with it and got everything on the page.  It was the first fiction I'd written since summer; my memoir class this fall had me writing all non-fiction.  It felt amazing to get back to made-up characters and situations!  I'm still in that finished-story-haze that's a little like realizing your crush likes you back.

Anyway, I was thinking about the finished story while I was in the shower and then it hit me.  This story has the same tone and feel of a story I wrote over the summer, which has the same tone and feel as a story I wrote last spring.  Then that horrible word popped into my head:  rut.

As a writer, do you find yourself writing the same kinds of stories?  The same message or the same feel or the same tone or similar characters?  I realized all my stories lead to this moment where a character realizes how alone she is, how alienated she is from the people and places that surround her.  The settings might be different and the characters might have different names, but the past few stories I've written have all been about the failure to make a connection with one's surroundings and the world in general.

Maybe this means I should tackle this topic on a larger scale, like in a novel.  Or maybe it means I need to not write anything else about alienation for a few months and see what other ideas I can come up with.  Or maybe it just means I'm sharpening my skill at writing this particular kind of story.

What do you guys think?  Do you write one kind of story or character, or are you all over the board?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Let's Get Organized

I can't resist it.  The files, the folders, the plastic cartons, the pencil cups...the urge to organize runs deeply in my blood.  I do it for fun.  How sick is that?  I organized my DVD and CD collections into genres.  I organized my dresses by length, so I could double-stack shoe racks beneath the miniskirts.  I group shoes by occasion, then color, then texture.  My stemware is sorted by occasion, then height.  It's a sickness, people, it really is.

Of course, there are always ways writers can use organization to better effect.  So here's what I'm gonna do for the new year.  I'm going to make a calendar that's all about writing.  Not the calendar I use for grad school assignments or things like doctor's appointments or when the propane guy is coming.  A calendar just for writing.  In print.  With a red star placed on every other Friday.  Those red-star days are submission days.  I want to send something out at least every other Friday.  That means I need a steady supply of stories good enough to print, and a list of markets they might be right for.

In the past, my submissions have been sporadic.  Three times a year, I send out dozens of envelopes and then anxiously collect rejection letters in the following weeks.  But I think I like the idea of forcing myself to be more disciplined in the way I collect those rejection letters.  Humans are creatures of habit.  We brush our teeth twice a day.  We go to the dentist twice a year.  We go to the grocery store once a week.  Why can't submitting stories be like that?  Why not carve out a few hours a week to print, stamp, and send?  There's no good reason not to.

So let's do it!  Hop to it.  Friday's getting closer all the time.