Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Something From Nothing

Copyright © 2009, Steven E. Houchin

This summer, I thought I was well on my way to completing my third novel, Snowbound. I figured I ought get it done soon, seeing how it was chosen as a finalist in this year’s (2009) PNWA Literary Contest. But a funny thing happened on the way to the finish line: I didn’t have an ending, it was too short, and the middle didn’t have enough oomph (a technical term meaning giddyup). Other than that, it was a masterpiece. I desperately needed ideas to move it forward.

My critique group grumbled when I arrived each week empty handed. “Just write!” they’d say. “It all comes out crap,” I responded truthfully, having suffered brutal critiques of obviously rotten prose the last few times. I was stuck. Drastic action was necessary. So, I formulated a bold and decisive plan: do nothing. Nothing! Put the damned thing away and wait. Let the story rattle around in my head for a few weeks, or even months if necessary. So, I did.

For the next several weeks, mid-story plot scenarios played out in my mind, coming and going like bad TV sitcoms and stale leftovers. My exasperated critique group-mates threw out ideas. I felt pressure to keep writing. But it just felt ... wrong. So, the manuscript sat, forlorn and unloved - the lousy piece of #*!{%!~$">#$.

But, doing nothing begat real inspiration. After a couple of months, a new plot idea bubbled up from the muck and said, “Look at me! Ain’t I pretty?” I thought it through and said, “Why, yes you are!” Once again, my manuscript was loved and adored as I pounded out the new story line into the middle of what existed before. The chapters flowed out and the story revved up as I added new action, suspense, bumbling, and shootouts (you simply must have shootouts).

I still need an ending, but the ball is rolling again. Amazing how one can get something out of nothing.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Book Review: The Coffee Trader, by David Liss

Copyright © 2009, Steven E. Houchin

The Coffee Trader -- book cover
The Coffee Trader is set in Amsterdam in 1659. It tells the story of Miguel Lienzo, a trader at the town's raucous commodities exchange. In the opening chapter, we learn that Miguel is badly in debt due to a collapse in the sugar market. This problem haunts him throughout the book as he dodges his creditors, handles family dissention, and solicits new partners to reverse his misfortunes. As a Portuguese Jew, he is a second-class citizen in Gentile Amsterdam, and is subject to ethical scrutiny by the Ma'mad, the local Jewish council. A bitter rival, who is a member of the Ma'mad, seeks to ensnare him in some scandal and haul him before the council for punishment. With all this turmoil surrounding him, Miguel stumbles upon a new, exotic commodity that might restore his fortunes: coffee.

What makes this book great is that it maintains a sense of growing intrigue and mystery without the usual "corpse and detective" story line. The characters are well developed and believable. Miguel is no heroic protagonist; he plots and schemes, seduces the chambermaid, manipulates other traders, and makes promises he likely can't keep. But the reader is drawn to his vulnerability and precarious situation. He must keep up appearances of success while penniless and living in his disapproving brother's dank basement. Along the way, you never know who will betray whom, and whether Miguel's scheme to manipulate the coffee market will succeed or ruin him.

The Coffee Trader starts out a bit slow, but soon has you eagerly turning the page. It also does an excellent job of transporting your mind's eye to 17th century Amsterdam.