On Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian. I don’t know where to begin with this book.

It’s a western, or an anti-western. I’ve heard it called the greatest work of southern gothic lit out there, if that helps at all. It follows the kid (he has no name, always referred to simply as “the kid”) through 1850’s northern Mexico who joins the Glanton gang as they go on a scalping spree.

It’s fantastic. Maybe the best novel I’ve ever read. Definitely provocative, controversial, often difficult to read, eye-opening, mind changing, terrifying. The prose is sparse, gripping, often perfect, I mean really truly perfect as if some greater power wrote through Cormac McCarthy. What a novel. What a novel.

So many people have written about Blood Meridian, throwing my hat in the ring hardly feels justified. Doesn’t matter, I’m giving it a shot. My goal isn’t to be illuminating. I don’t think I can help you fully comprehend this novel. I just want you to read the damn book and wear the same look of shock on your face that I did during the three months it took me to soldier through it.

Sketches by JaradOwen of characters from Blood Meridian.

No it’s not a long novel. But it demands your full attention and concentration. Sometimes reading it was so taxing, I had to put it down for several days before I had the energy to pick it back up again.

And you should read it. No matter what I say throughout this piece, remind yourself that you owe it to you to read this book. It’s a masterpiece.

What’s it about? Professional American scalpers in 1850’s Mexico. The Glanton gang who butchered Indians for a buck, then Mexican villagers and American soldiers. They get consumed in the violence before getting consumed by the violence. Saying Blood Meridian is violent is kind of like saying water is wet. It’s a stupid sentiment because it’s so clearly evident from page 1 til the end.

Eye gouging in chapter one is the least of the atrocities. Scalping becomes commonplace. There are several massacres. The violence is never exciting. It’s never thrilling or fun. It is a gut punch until you grow numb to gut punches. By the end of this novel, you’ll form a callous around your heart. You’ll walk through life in a kind of stupor, replaying scenes in your mind over and over again. Will you gain a greater understanding? Probably not. But it will consume you, that much is certain.

Found this on Pinterest. Could not find out who the artist is… If you know, let me know, and I’ll link here.

There is a kind of illumination in the violence. Illumination of what, I don’t know. Was the novel written in defiance of God? I don’t know. Was it written with hands blessed by God? It could go either way. More than once I found myself seriously considering whether Cormac McCarthy is extremely blessed or cursed, sanctified or damned. I still don’t know. But God is in this book, and so is the devil.

The devil, in fact, makes perhaps the most literal appearance in the form of The Judge. But I’ve read convincing arguments that The Judge is in fact God. Who ever he is, he’s chilling.

The prose often require some effort to gain a full understanding of any given paragraph. Here’s a quote showing how difficult some paragraphs are to read, but you can’t deny the imagery these words conjure. This is perhaps Blood Meridian at it’s most difficult, but I personally didn’t mind:

A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained wedding veil and some in headgear or cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a Spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braids spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one whose horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone land of Christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.

Holy shit! Did you read what I just read? Damn it, I might need to give up the craft. That’s the kind of thing you’ll be reading throughout Blood Meridian. For some, this is enticing, but it may dissuade many. Do not let it. This book is worth it. Trust me.

Another quote:

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

I mean, come on! It’s beautiful, dark, enlightening and nearly indecipherable on first reading.

There are scenes that will linger in your mind long after you put the page down. Such as when the Judge lifts a meteor over his head in defiance of the universe. Such as when the Glanton Gang make gun powder of piss and bat guano and lava rock, then gun down their pursuers with their crude recipe.

There were sentences so perfectly wrote I threw the book down and cursed because I’m fairly certain I’ll never be able to write half this well. It’s infuriating to see someone using language near perfection, even when it’s contained in a few short lines describing the way spit evaporates in the desert and how the lizards will drink it up before it bubbles and dries.

A Blood Meridian poster I found on Red Bubble

And that last paragraph. If you’ve reached this point, and you’re convinced that you’ll never read Blood Meridian, you owe it to yourself to read that final paragraph and see if it doesn’t give you chills. Even removed from all context, the final words of this novel will make your blood curdle.

I loved Blood Meridian because it more than once made me pause and think “How was that written by a person, a human being like me?” Can a man really be that good a writer? I don’t know. Can I ever be that good a writer? I don’t know. Probably not, and even typing that makes me sad.

It does, however, give me something to strive for. I’ll revisit this novel, of that I’m certain. And when I do, I think I’ll type out the best of pages word for word just so I can see how it feels to mimic what I can only describe as perfection. I have so much to learn from Blood Meridian.

Read it. Just read it.


I highly recommend Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. I consider it a book that changed my life. If you’re thinking about reading it and want to support this blog, buy it in paperback herebuy the hardback edition I own here, or listen to the excellent recording on audible.

All The Threads Are Coming Together

Stats

  • Words added last month – 14,295
  • Total word written – 42,812
  • Named Characters – 24 (give or take a couple)
  • Drafted Chapters – 11
  • Drafted Scenes – 58
  • Paperback pages – 215

Excerpt

“It sucks feeling small, doesn’t it?”

Nat nods.

“And doing what we do, it makes us big. Just like you said, alone you can’t do anything. Nobody listens, nobody cares, everyone is dying and everyone knows it. I’ve seen people dying everywhere in slow and ugly ways. Nothing I can do about it. What I do now makes a difference. Makes a big difference. People all over are scared of me. They don’t know it’s me they’re scared of, but they’re all frightened of my shadow, of my influence, of the threat that my existence brings. Not just the surface dwellers, not just the undercity, all of ‘em. You, the girls, everyone. And if you don’t think so, it’s because I haven’t had a reason to show you yet.”

Above is a snippet from a recent scene written in Grim Curio. It’s been a while since I shared a proper update, so let’s dive in.

Threads are Coming Together

Grim Curio has a decently complex narrative. There are three separate threads that affect each other both directly and indirectly as the story progresses, eventually all merging into a single thread. At times it gets difficult to write in a way that everything makes logical sense and is fun to read, so the further I get, the slower progress is coming. Right not I’m in the thick of it as all three narratives are coming together, but once that’s complete I expect my progress to pick up again.

Feedback

I’ve also shared the first four chapters on /r/DestructiveReaders, a subreddit I frequent in order to improve my writing and get feedback from readers while the book is still in progress. Feedback has been great!

Three or four months ago I shared these same chapters in an earlier form, and the critiques prompted me to overhaul the style (you can read about the decision to rewrite everything I’d written here). I’m glad I did because readers are responding much more favorably to GC now, with feedback focusing on specific elements rather than the broad strokes.

By the way, I wrote a blog post on how to use critiques like these to improve your writing. If you’re interested in improving your prose, read my critique feedback loop strategy here.

Become Part of the Process

Some readers have approached me with a desire to become part of my writing process. There are actually lots of ways to do this, so I thought I’d share them with you.

Become an alpha reader

You may have heard of beta readers, but with my GC I’ve been taking it one step further with alpha readers. While beta reading is a structured process with a predefined set of readers giving regular feedback, alpha reading more free form. You can learn the differences here.

I share chapters on /r/DestructiveReaders, and you read and either leave comments in the Google Doc, and/or write a short summary of your thoughts. If you want to be notified whenever a new chapter is released, go to the contact page and send me a message. I’ll email you whenever a I share a new chapter.

Conclusion

That’s what’s been going on with me and my book lately. We’re chugging along. If all goes according to plan, I expect to finish the novel by the end of the year. Want to be notified when Grim Curio is released? Sign up for my mailing list so you don’t miss out!

Aaron Burden

How to Harness the Critique Feedback Loop to Become a Better Writer

As I write my novel Grim Curio, I’ve been sharing excerpts on /r/DestructiveReaders  and my development diary to get feedback. At first I did this just to get an idea of what people thought of my work in progress. Then a pattern emerged, and through it I found myself becoming a better writer.

I’m calling this pattern the Critique Feedback Loop. It’s nothing revolutionary, I’m sure, but it’s been incredibly useful for me, so I thought I’d take a little time to share this pattern with you.

image

Phases of the Feedback Look

  1. Write a draft (1000 – 4000 words).
  2. Share the draft with a critique good group. Emphasis on good. For me it’s /r/DestructiveReaders.
  3. Make changes based on feedback.
  4. Submit again.
  5. Repeat 3 and 4 until changes are no longer significant.

Like I said, nothing revolutionary here, but it’s been immensely helpful. Not only does it make my drafts higher quality, it informs my green field writing, giving me areas of weakness to focus on improving as I write new content.

Why it works

Every round of criticism has been focused on one of my weaknesses. First was character, then setting, now structure. It’s amazing to see my previous weaknesses no longer getting mentioned as new ones emerge.

If you want to see proof that your writing is getting better, there’s no better way than submitting the same piece over and over after each rewrite. But this only works if your writing community is: 1) blunt, 2) informative, and 3) has a culture of 1:1 critique ratios.

Let’s break down what a constructive community looks like.

How constructive /r/DestructiveReaders can be

/r/DestructiveReaders is the best feedback loop I’ve ever found. Better than in-person writers workshops. Better than any other message board or online community I’ve been a part of. But why is that?

1. The attitude

When you submit your work to /r/DestructiveReaders, you are fully aware that people are there to give you unfiltered feedback without much regard for your feelings. They’re not being dicks, but they will tear your writing apart if they don’t like it. They’ll mention line by line what bothers them, what you can improve, and what you’re missing all together.

Nothing makes you a better writer than having your flaws bluntly pointed out to you. Often this will come with a suggestions for improvements, and it’s up to you to filter through the suggestions and choose what to work on. Of course if someone is pointing out a weakness, it’s also up to you to consciously improve it.

2. The 1:1 ratio, aka don’t be a leech

If you submit a piece to critique without first critiquing someone else’s work of equal or greater word count, you’ll be labeled a leech. Don’t be a leech.

But you know what? That’s how it should be. First it keeps the critiques coming, keeps the tone civil (even when the critique is brutal), and it teaches you as a writer the clear line of what you like and don’t like in a piece.

As I read others works, I have to think hard about why I don’t like the sentence structure, or why a pieces character development doesn’t work, etc. When I then turn to write my own work, the critiques I wrote for other writers is fresh in my head, actively forcing me to cut out the passive voice, build the setting, and make the characters feel real.

3. Line edits

There are two phases to most /r/DestructiveReaders critiques: 1) line edit, 2) critique essay. Both are very useful but cover very different things.

We use Google Docs to share our work, and line edits come through the built in commenting feature. Line edits tend to focus on style, grammar, dialog, confusing passages, etc. This will lead to a lot of quick fixes to your text, but I don’t think that’s where the real value comes from.

The real value comes when you sit to write the next day. You know for a fact what you’re struggling with now. Your weakness might surprise you.

4. The Critique

First let me say that I have not received a bad critique. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve received fairly brutal ones, but they have always led to significant improvement in my work. The amount of work /r/DestructiveReaders users put into their feedback is staggering.

Most critiques begin with a short paragraph on what the reader liked and didn’t like. That’s followed by an in depth, point by point essay that often exceeds the length of two pages or more.

Everyone critiques slightly differently, but there is a trend to focus on title, style, plot, character, pacing, etc. individually. This format in particular is so helpful, because it helps you as a writer see the boundaries between these skills, and inform you of what techniques you’re using incorrectly and how they affect the reader.

The feedback loop

Sure, you can submit a piece, make changes and move on. If you’re goal is to get the most words critiqued over the shortest period of time, then this makes sense. But if your goal it to improve your writing, then submitting the same piece after making significant changes will be much more informative.

The reason for this is simple. Most pieces have one pronounced weakness, and several less obvious ones. The first round will likely focus on that weakness, which allows you to go back and improve it. But if you don’t re-submit your work after the changes are made, you’ll miss out on discovering the next pronounced weakness that’s been lurking just a layer deep.

Submit a piece to get critiqued, wait at least three days for the critiques to come in, make significant adjustments, then submit again. Once your critiques only point out minor mistakes, then move on to your next segment to get critiqued.

This is a slow and deliberate process, so you can’t let it hold back you’re overall progress. Keep on writing green field words, reading your critiques, and adjusting your writing process accordingly. In this way your entire work benefits without your progress coming to a halt.

What if I want to submit, but I’m too nervous.

That’s normal. I’m terrified every time I share a piece of writing. Terrified but excited. I know my writing isn’t for everybody, there are plenty of people who don’t like my genre or my style, but that’s fine.

You can’t please everyone, so don’t try. Instead focus on writing what you like to write, and then take the criticism with gusto. Even someone who hates your piece will give you valuable advice. And if it’s brutal, if people just rip your work apart, be thankful and start making changes.

On the flip side, if you’re lucky, people will actually enjoy your work. You may gain a small group of authors who regularly read your writing because they genuinely enjoy helping you.

So, yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s natural to be scared or nervous. Power though, it’ll be worth it.

Closing comments

I hope you found this blog post useful. If you’re new to this development diary and want to follow along my entire writing process as I write Grim Curio, consider following me here or on Facebook or Twitter. Finally, I’d like to hear what you think of this. Have you ever submitted your work for critique? How was the experience?