The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

How to write a novel

I finally got around to reading The Atlantic's 2010 Fiction issue, and I happened upon this essay by Richard Bausch:

Finally, a word about this kind of instruction: it is always less effective than actually reading the books of the writers who precede you, and who are contemporary with you. There are too many "how-to" books on the market, and too many would-be writers are reading these books in the mistaken idea that this will teach them to write. I never read such a book in my life, and I never will. What I know about writing I know from having read the work of the great writers. If you really want to learn how to write, do that. Read Shakespeare, and all the others whose work has withstood time and circumstance and changing fashions and the assaults of the ignorant and the bigoted; read those writers and don’t spend a lot of time analyzing them. Digest them, swallow them all, one after another, and try to sound like them for a time. Learn to be as faithful to the art and craft as they all were, and follow their example. That is, wide reading and hard work. One doesn’t write out of some intellectual plan or strategy; one writes from a kind of beautiful necessity born of the reading of thousands of good stories poems plays… One is deeply involved in literature, and thinks more of writing than of being a writer. It is not a stance.

He's absolutely right. Anyone can learn the notes; not everyone can learn the music. To write, you first have to read.

This goes for all forms of art. In college, I started as a music major. My first year, the music department instituted a requirement that all music majors take and pass a listening exam each year. My first year, only two of us passed. The department saw this as a disaster, for good reason: how could it produce musicians who had never heard music?

The exam consisted of 60 one-minute excerpts from major works of classical and contemporary music. To pass, we had to identify 45 or more of them by composer, work, and if appropriate, movement.

Lest you think this terribly unfair, I present two more facts: one, incoming freshies got a list of all the works that would be on each of the four exams they would have to take, organized by year. So at orientation, we all knew what would be on April's exam.

Two, they chose major, well-known works. The year-three exam, for example, had on it Bach's Magnificat, Debussy's Nocturnes, Mendelssohn's Symphonies #4 and #5, and Berg's Wozzeck. Now, someone might, conceivably, confuse the two Mendelssohn symphonies, but I can't imagine how a thinking person—even one who hadn't actually heard the works—could confuse Stavinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat with Josquin's Missa "L'Homme Armé." Even if you didn't know they were written 500 years apart, you would presumably know that one is an a capella choral work and the other is a ballet. (Not a lot of choral parts in ballet, you know?)

The point, of course, is that it's very difficult to teach someone music if they don't listen to it.

Neither Bausch in his essay nor I in this post mean to say that one should read (or listen to) only dead white men. But you really can't understand literature (or music) without having some immersion in the works that have lasted the longest.

A new record in Chicago

We did, in fact, break the snowfall record for February:

February 2011 will go down as the snowiest February in Chicago's 126 years of recorded weather history. One inch of snow fell overnight at O'Hare Airport, Chicago's official reporting station, pushing the monthly snowfall total to 726 mm. This surpasses the old record of 706 mm, established in 1896.

OK, maybe we didn't break the record, but the record, she is a-broken.

Snowiest February ever, almost

WGN and the Chicago Tribune reported last night that Chicago has experienced the most snow in any February since records began in 1883, breaking the old record set in 1896. As of Thursday Chicago had received 683 mm (the old record was 706 mm). The forecast predicted significant accumulation overnight, but O'Hare didn't get enough to break the record, falling 13 mm short.

All we Chicagoans want is validation. But, you know, it's like the Cubs on a record-setting losing streak and then winning one just before breaking the record: we get sad when they can't even do that right.

Aren't we a cheerful bunch?

Unusual hours

I do like the client where I'm spending almost all my waking moments, but because it's a short engagement, we're working pretty long hours. I got a chance to meet some friends in New York last night which, as a side effect, kept me offline for 18 hours yesterday.

Bottom line: I ent dead yet, and will resume daily blog postings when this project ends next week.

I love this client

A team member who works for our client said to two of us consultants today: "You know, it's 90% of consultants that give the other 10% a bad name."

(I have to assume, of course, that he thinks we're in the other 10%...)

Mayor Rahmbo

The AP and Mayor Daley are calling it; the Chicago Tribune isn't ready to commit yet. But with 55% of the vote, it looks like Rahm Emanuel has avoided a runoff and so will be the next mayor of Chicago:

City Clerk Miguel del Valle had 9.4 percent and former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun was at 8.7 percent.

Despite a tremendous amount of attention on the mayor's race and a slew of hotly-contested aldermanic races, election officials say turnout could be as low as 40 percent. That's far less than the 50 percent turnout officials were hoping for on Monday.

If no candidate scores a majority tonight, the top two finishers will square off for six more weeks of campaigning. A runoff election will be held to determine Chicago's next mayor.

Mayor Richard Daley, who is out of town today, isn't on the ballot for the first time since 1989. He'll leave office on May 16 when his successor is sworn in.

No word yet who'll be my next alderman. I assume it will be the one who outspent her opponents by an obscene margin. More later.

Update, 20:35 CT: Gery Chico has conceded; Emanuel has won.

I have felt stupider before, but only a little

Last night around 3:30, Parker whined at me and nosed me. Given the hour, this meant something important. I found pants, shoes, a sweatshirt, a coat, then got my keys from their usual spot.

Parker took about 5 minutes to sniff out the best patch of mud on which to make his after-hours deposit. After cleaning it up, I took him back to my building, reached into my jacket, and pulled out the keys to my other apartment.

At this point I said a bad word. Then I calmly told Parker this was his fault. He licked my nose.

Maybe a New Yorker would have handled this differently, but I figured, there are a few early risers in the building, how long could I have to wait?

Two hours. I must have nodded off because it seemed like only 90 minutes. In the cold. On the floor.

At least I was inside.

About this blog, v4.0

I'm David Braverman, this is my blog, and Parker is my 4½-year-old mutt. I last updated this About... page almost two years ago, so it's time for a quick update. In the interest of enlightened laziness I'm starting with the most powerful keystroke combination in the universe: Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V.

The Daily Parker is about:

  • Parker, my dog, whom I adopted on 1 September 2006.
  • Politics. I'm a moderate-leftie by international standards, which makes me a radical left-winger in today's United States.
  • Software. I work for Avanade (a company that has no editorial control over this blog and which wants me to make it clear I'm not speaking for them), and I continue to own a micro-sized software company in Chicago. I have some experience writing software, which explains why Avanade continue to tolerate me. I see a lot of code, and since I often get called in to projects in crisis, I see a lot of bad code, some of which may appear here.
  • The weather. I've operated a weather website for more than ten years. That site deals with raw data and objective observations. Many weather posts also touch politics, given the political implications of addressing climate change, though happily we no longer have to do so under a president beholden to the oil industry.
  • Chicago, the greatest city in North America, and the other ones I visit whenever I can.

I strive to write about these and other things with fluency and concision. "Fast, good, cheap: pick two" applies to writing as much as to any other creative process (cf: software). I hope to find an appropriate balance between the three, as streams of consciousness and literacy have always struggled against each other since the first blog twenty years ago.

If you like what you see here, you'll probably also like Andrew Sullivan, James Fallows, Josh Marshall, and Bruce Schneier. Even if you don't like my politics, you probably agree that everyone ought to read Strunk and White, and you probably have an opinion about the Oxford comma (de rigeur in my opinion).

Another, non-trivial point. Facebook reads the blog's RSS feed, so many people reading this may think I'm just posting notes on Facebook. They would like you to believe this, too. Now, I've reconnected with tons of old friends and classmates through Facebook, I play Scrabble on Facebook, and I eagerly read every advertisement that appears next to its relevant content. But Facebook's terms of use assert ownership of everything that appears on their site, regardless of prior assertions, and despite nearly three centuries of legal precedents. They want you to believe that, too.

Everything that shows up on my Facebook profile gets published on The Daily Paker first, and I own the copyrights to all of it. All the photos I post are completely protected: send me an email if you want to republish one. I publish the blog's text under a Creative Commons attribution-nonderivative-noncommercial license; republication is usually OK for non-commercial purposes, as long as you don't change what I write and you attribute it to me. With apologies to King James and Yaishua ben Miriam, render to Facebook the things that are Facebook's; and to the original authors what is not.

Anyway, thanks for reading, and I hope you continue to enjoy The Daily Parker.

Could this be the problem?

Here's a fun task. Let's take the U.S. military budget, and then add up the budgets of the next few countries in the ranked list of spending until we get to the same number. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the U.S. spent $663.2 bn on defense in 2008. Let's start with China, who had the second-biggest military outlay, and keep adding until we get to $663.2 bn:

2. China
3. UK
4. France
5. Russia

OK, we've now got the entire permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council, the four biggest militaries in the world after our own. Done? Nope. Let's keep adding.

6. Germany
7. Japan
8. Saudi Arabia
9. Italy
10. India

Right. Now the list contains all the principal belligerents from World War II, and accounts for nearly half the world's population. (The U.S. has about 5% of the world's people.) We're done, right?

No. Keep going:

11. South Korea
12. Brasil
13. Egypt
14. Canada
15. Australia

Seriously? There's more?

16. Spain
17. Turkey

Whew! We're done. You have to add up the military budgets of the next 16 countries to get to ours.


As you listen to the anti-deficit bloviating of Congressional Republicans over the next few weeks, ask yourself why none of them has brought up this fact. Do Americans really believe that the U.S. should spend 7 times more than China on defense? Or that we should be the only Western country to spend more than 3% of GDP on defense? Or that other countries to win the #1 position on military spending either by GDP or gross expenditures include the USSR and Imperial Rome?

And we're arguing about de-funding public television as a way to balance the budget?