Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Tsar of Love and Techno

Having read and enjoyed A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, I was eager to read his next book The Tsar of Love and Techno. I appreciate Marra’s beautiful yet spare style and am fascinated by his exploration of the Russian-Chechen war.
This collection of interconnected short stories treads the same war-ravaged ground, with a foray into a Siberia and its post-gulag life including surreal details like a faux forest littered with the dead and a chemical lake holiday.

Much of what I enjoy about Marra’s writing is on display in these stories. His ability to redeem tragedy (though he is not adverse to steal away some of that slim hope) through the lyrical use of language, to give it beauty, is on display in the first few stories. In particular, the story of the censor was exquisite.

However, the stories in the middle of the book were very gritty. The language itself lost some the beauty it had possessed earlier. And while this is likely the author’s intention as much of this section takes place during the Chechen war with all its attendant absurdities and horrors, it was very difficult to read as it felt like a descent into a nihilism.

While I think that the author achieved the lofty literary goals he set for himself in this book, it’s not the type of book I would chose to read again. Still, I would recommend this collection to those with a strong love of literary fiction and an understanding of its goals and ideals.

N.B. I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Grading by Chunkage

My youngest son Matthew is a sophomore in college. Because he has a college scholarship (covering tuition and books), he is required to maintain a very high GPA. So he’s always concerned about his grades and always he knows exactly what his grade is. Or at least he did. Until he took physics.

His physics professor will remain nameless (though I think he’d be an interesting addition to a dinner party) to protect his innocence. Or guilt.

After the first exam, Matthew went to his prof and said, “Uh, I think there’s an error with my grade. I got 106.25%, but you marked it as 102.99%. (Apparently, even hundredths are important.)

Prof: That’s not an error.
Matt: But I got a 106.25%.
Prof: But everyone else did badly. The average was a 56.7%. So I put everyone’s grades through a normalizing algorithm. And since you got the highest grade, you lost the most points.
Matt: Oh…
Prof: Yup.

Matt complained long and loudly. At home. (Technically, lots of other people got his points.)

Now it’s the end of the semester and Matt is calculating what grade he needs to get on each of his finals to get As in his classes. Then, he portions out his study time on the basis of those calculations.

Normally, this is a straightforward set of calculations. All the chemistry and math professors have data available explaining the weights and percentages of each test and what scores they consider A, B, etc. Not physics.

In preparation for the final, the prof explained his grading system while Matt cringed and mentally called down imprecations on all persons/things physics-related.
Prof: After the normalizing algorithms, I construct a histogram of all the grades. Then I look at the histogram, considering the chunks. I say, ah, this looks like an A chunk, this looks like a B chunk, etc.

When Matt told me, I (being exceptionally amused) said, “So your prof grades by chunkage?”
Matt: No. My prof is blowing chunks.

I wonder if Matt’s going to have this same professor for the second semester of physics…

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Veggies, DIY Doors, and Sunsets.

I'm almost halfway through the read-aloud edit of my latest novel. My goal is to have it finished and sent to beta readers before my daughter's surgery. (If you remember last May, my son had cardiothoracic reconstruction. My daughter also needs the procedure. Only hers will be a more invasive reconstruction. I know, it's hard to imagine anything more invasive.)

Besides editing, I've been doing some other things. Do you remember my Postage Stamp Garden? Well, it's mid-November and I'm still harvesting! (Though not in the quantities I was earlier in the season.) Here's some fruits of garden.

Bell peppers, jalapenos, ghost peppers, basil, and burgundy cherry tomatoes. Yum!
And since I'm never without a DIY project. Here are some photos.

I was going to paint the door on the left. But during some preliminary sanding, the paint began coming off in hunks and I had to start scraping. FYI to the previous owners of the house, you can't throw some latex paint on a solid mahogany door and think everything's going to be okay, i.e., latex on top of of oil isn't going to work. Ever.

In any case, on the right is the finished door to my office. And yes, you do see double-shelved stacks of books. (But no judging.)

And coolest thing of all, my dad found a strange, huge cocoon on a river birch tree in his yard. After a Facebook plea, we discovered that it's the cocoon for a Polyphemus moth, which has a six inch wing span. So we're going to put it in an empty aquarium and we can't wait to see it break free.

One last picture to share. Sunday evening on the way to church, we came over the ridge and were treated to this amazing sunset. And, of course, all I had was my cellphone and the photo quality doesn't do the sunset justice. (Sorry the photo is blurry. Traffic was whizzing past.)

Friday, November 6, 2015

Asterisk Edit and Aunt Sophie's Cigarettes

I’ve been busy. I finished a writing assignment that I’ve been working on for months, and I finished my new novel’s asterisk edit.

This is probably the first time you’ve ever heard of an “asterisk edit.” Because I made the term up. 

"Aunt Sophie," courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Here’s how it works. You’ve just finished your first draft of your latest novel. You celebrate (or weep). Likely both. Celebrate because “Hey, the first draft is finished!” Weep because a first draft is a celebration of everything that can go wrong on a page…and now you have to fix it.

You begin to edit. You fix, rewrite, rearrange, etc. But sometimes you’re not sure. You need a beat in certain spot but you’re not sure what type. Or something is wrong with a scene opening, and again, you’re not sure what. Or you think you already dropped a clue about Aunt Sophie’s fling in Paris in the ’20s, but you don’t know where. Or you need to verify a fact on Google. All of these things can really slow down your first edit—because spending an hour trying to figure out what brand of cigarette Aunt Sophie would have smoked in Paris is going to take you out of the plot and voice. When I run into something like that, I stick in a single asterisk into the text and leave myself a note in the text in parentheses. Then, I plow ahead.

After the grand first edit is complete, I begin the asterisk edit. Using the “Find” feature of Word (far right side on the top of the tool bar under “Home”), I type in an asterisk and Word will bring up all the asterisks I added to the manuscript. One by one, I deal with each asterisk, until they are all gone. Sometimes I can do a dozen asterisks a day. Sometimes one—it took several hours to discover Aunt Sophie may have rolled her own cigarettes.

For my current manuscript, I had 71 asterisks—in a document that is currently 75,000 words. Not too bad.

By the end of the asterisk edit, the novel is in decent shape. I’ve patched the plot holes, added in beats, and verified all historical issues. The next step is the voice edit. But that’s another post.

Anyone else have special types of editing passes?