Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Book Review: Not Dark Yet, by Berit Ellingsen

Not Dark Yet by Berit Ellingsen
Two Dollar Radio
ISBN: 978-1937412354
Fiction, 202 pages

I don't review a lot of books, but when I do it's because I really want to--I want to share something important and real that I think other writers and readers will enjoy and benefit from. That's why I'm  taking a look today at Not Dark Yet by author Berit Ellingsen, a writer who has enriched my world and inspired me to keep writing, keep striving, keep going, and always take the time to read a good book.

I first heard about Berit via Twitter, the best source I know for discovering books and authors I wouldn't usually have the chance to learn about. Thanks to so many bookstores disappearing from my neighborhood (three more have just gone bankrupt this past month), social media has become my primary source for literary browsing, and when I read a post about Berit and her collection of short stories: Beneath the Liquid Skin, I had to order the book, prontoNothing in my extensive reading life had prepared me for the power and originality of those stories, so naturally I couldn't wait to read her novel, Not Dark Yet. I don't think anything else I've read before or after can compare with either of these books.

Berit lives in Norway, and her work reflects a beautiful sense of place, an isolated starkness that is in direct contrast with much of my own experience. Even desert-y Albuquerque doesn't have the sharp, cold lunar feeling I get from her descriptions. Coupled with this strong geographic presence is a staggering sense of precision to every word she writes, an exactness that has me re-reading many of her sentences for the sheer pleasure of it. In many ways I consider her a "writer's writer" and after I finished reading Not Dark Yet I sat down with my journal to examine what it was that made me love this book so much. Here goes:
  • Setting. An unspecified future; a mysterious Nordic city; a world without clear boundaries, countries, or cultures: the world of Not Dark Yet is a mystery. Yet despite the deliberate masking of time and place, I don't think I read a a single description that left me wondering where I was, or what the characters were experiencing. As I read, I felt every needle of rain, every clod of mud, every veil of mist--and I was actually sorry that I couldn't live there--and this was a depiction of a world in chaos and dangerous change! I mean, what kind of skill makes an awful world attractive?
  • Characters. Main character Brandon Minamoto isn't your everyday protagonist (thank goodness). A complex near-loner with a troubled military history, Brandon is torn between the need to form relationships and the need to be true to himself. I sympathized with his plight every step of the way and was heartbroken when I had to say good-bye on the last page.
  • Plot. I hate plot-spoilers of any kind so I won't drop even a single hint, but I was hooked right from the beginning. I HAD to know: WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO BRANDON?? You'll have to read the book to find out, but his story arc kept me glued to my seat.
  • Writing Style. Oh, wow. There is a zen-like simplicity and clarity to Berit's voice and style that I admire immensely. Seemingly matter-of-fact and terse on the surface, each sentence builds toward the next, roiling on your sub-conscious like some menacing monolithic disaster threatening to change everything you know or believe is true. It's rare to come across so much power in a deceptively plain-spoken sentence, and I found myself constantly wondering how she managed to control it.
  • Subject Matter. I hesitate to call Not Dark Yet science fiction, but I can't think of another category that would fit as well. Sci-fi isn't usually my first choice when choosing a book, but when it goes in the direction of also being character-driven literary fiction, I'm a fan. Not Dark Yet is an excellent example of how to blend (and bend) genre distinctions to good advantage, and one I wish more books would emulate.
  • Metaphor. I've always been impressed with Berit's use of metaphor and symbolism. Whether the focus is on food, the weather, or just getting dressed for a holiday--each scene, story event, or snippet of back story is rich with added-value meaning and subtext.
  • Discussion Points. Which brings me to my favorite thing about this book: I could talk about it all day. It's a book that makes me think. Good literature should lead to great (and memorable) conversation, and I can't imagine anyone not having an opinion or strong feelings about what happens to Brandon and the rest of the cast. In other words, it's the perfect book club book--especially if club members enjoy digging deep and aren't afraid to not always agree on social issues, character motivation, or "what would you do?" if placed in Brandon's shoes. Strong stuff.
So with all that said, I think I have to read the book again. Not Dark Yet is quirky, original, and packed with secrets--the kind you can't wait to unravel and sit with for a long while after. I found the book extremely compelling and one that has stirred my curiosity and desire to learn more, write more, and even try my hand at some fan-art. Highly recommended for readers who enjoy an authentic book of ideas and a serious voyage of self-discovery. Five stars from me--six if I could!

Tip of the Day: Be sure to check out Berit Ellingsen and her wonderful books. After all, to a writer it's love and reading that makes the world go 'round!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Pushing Past the Middle

Writing a series of poems based on my trip to Taiwan last year wasn't on my 2016 to-do list. It really wasn't, but now that it's appeared, I can happily say I've battled through and my first draft is well and truly finished. Yay!

That said, it wasn't an easy journey, especially when I reached a place several weeks ago where I was well and truly stuck: right smack dab in the middle. I was uninspired, tired, and beginning to worry that the whole project was a major distraction and a waste of time.

Reaching the middle of any project rarely feels like a victory. Instead, all I can usually think of is how much more work I have to do to finishSo when I found myself in the middle of A Taiwan Sketchbook (my working title) rather than writing the second draft of my new novel, Ghazal, I suddenly realized how long it had taken me to get to where I was, and how much more effort I had to put into the project before I could type THE END. Just thinking about all those hours of work ahead of me sent me to the couch and a headache.

While I was lying there, feeling both guilty and utterly defeated, I thought of all the stages of my project that had brought me to where I was, starting with my GRAND IDEA:
  • The excitement of STARTING. It was so much fun. I love starting new projects. All that anticipation, planning, preparing new notebooks and buying new pens. Nothing better!
  • Once all my tools were in place, the next stage centered around starting new rituals, new schedules, new dedication--writing every day, staying on track, marking my progress on a calendar.
  • And then . . . I had to skip a day. An appointment, having to stay late at work, no food in the house . . . 
  • So I had to put in double-duty the next time I sat down to write to make up for lost time.
  • Which meant: this is starting to feel like WORK. Where'd the fun go?
  • Before I knew it, I was in the MIDDLE of a project and it all seemed like chaos and hell and something that would take me the rest of my life to complete, if I ever survived to tell the tale.
The thing about all this, however, is it's happened to me so often it's nothing new. I know in advance that there will always come a day in my writing when resistance looms large, quitting sounds wonderful, and I'd rather be reading or painting. I've been on that same couch with the same headache so many times before, and yet, guess what? I've always started writing again. Here's how you can too:
  • Give up--yes! At least for the moment. Stay on the couch, read, watch a movie, take a break. If you really have reached the middle of your work, you deserve a little time off!
  • When you feel rested, start back at the beginning when you got those nice writing supplies. Organize what you have already accomplished into new folders and binders; brainstorm and create lists of what you need to do to finish.
  • Forget about order and following an outline. Write the scenes or portions of your work you want to write, don't worry about transitions or a table of contents.
  • Concentrate on your ending first. Write your last scene (or poem, or paragraph depending on what it is you're working on) and craft the rest of your story to fit your conclusion or theme.
  • Calculate how much time it took you to reach the middle. Now assign that same amount of time, plus an extra few weeks or so for emergencies, and give yourself a deadline. Write it down on a calendar.
  • Work fast. Remember this is first draft stuff. Just get there--it doesn't matter how!
If you've tried all this, though, and do discover that your heart truly isn't in a project, give yourself permission to stop, maybe even quit. Don't toss any of your work, but simply put it away and move on to something new. And if you find yourself missing the project at a later date, but you're not sure how to re-start it, evaluate what it was that kept you from continuing. Was it your choice of genre, voice, or style? Were you being too ambitious and trying to add too many (and superfluous) elements to your story-line? Were you trying to please readers rather than yourself? Spend a few days journaling about your situation and then see if things are really as bad as you thought they were. With any luck and a lot of determination you should be able to find some valuable solutions. 

Tip of the Day: Stuck in the middle of your WIP? Brainstorm! Create a list of 100 new "what-if's" and scenes. See which ones can inject fresh energy into your manuscript. And always keep in mind, once you've passed "the middle," it's all downhill from there!