Saturday, December 22, 2007

coming-of-age inside a mystery

Just finished "Edenville Owls," by Robert Parker, a recent MG/YA novel about an indie club of Middle School basketball players who take on local JV school teams, the team leader's journey toward discovering his first girlfriend, and a diabolical figure threatening their eighth grade teacher. The author has published over fifty bestselling adult detective stories before this, his first book for young readers. The story is set right after WWII, so I can relate to the boy's descriptions of his favorite radio stories and other background. The mystery part of "Owls" is a little bizarre, but the story has its charms.

I enjoyed the nostalgic asides of the narrator, our protagonist, talking about the radio shows he liked—those old adventure and detective stories, even the commercial jingles mentioned struck a memory chord, as well as the double-feature "B" movies appearing at the local theater on the weekend. Parker fed some of these nostalgia trips into the story as two-page chapters, in italics, to set them off from the ongoing plot line. While it was interesting to me revisiting that old stuff, I wonder how well it worked for a young reader today? Well enough, I suppose, since the story included lots of poignant moments, and the ongoing excitement of the basketball competition, and the mystery. On the "short" side, not much literary irony to mull over, but hey, it was a pretty good read.

Monday, December 10, 2007

thoughts on a genre label

The New York Times Book Review recently listed "Out Stealing Horses" by Tor Petterson, a book I read this past year, as one of the 10 Best Books of 2007. The book encompasses a coming-of-age story of a Norwegian boy, Trond, beginning with a summer in 1948 when he lived with his father in a rustic cabin near the border between Norway and Sweden. The title derives from the boy and a local friend stealing rides on a farmer's horses at night. Other accounts of Trond's subsequent summer experiences at the cabin are given as reflections when Trond returns to the cabin to live out his final days as an old man. We learn that Trond's father was part of the Norwegian Resistance against the occupying Nazi forces, and of an occasion when Trond accompanies him on one of his trips into Sweden. As Trond becomes an older teen, he helps his father float logs, cut from their cabin property, down the river to a sawmill in Sweden. The quiet, ending days of Trond in the wintery cabin have an almost poetic simplicity.

I suppose I would have wondered whether to pitch this novel, if it were mine, wishful thinking, as a YA or general literary fiction novel. Would it have been any easier to market as one or the other? Would it have been as successful if marketed as a YA novel? Would the declining arc of Trond's life, no matter how beautifully written, engage a young reader?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

repaving route 66

Some YA authors are able to construct stories that will keep a reader turning pages even though the conflict situation and structure may be somewhat familiar. Laurie Halse Anderson's "Twisted" is like that, and though the protagonist, a high school senior named Tyler, has had to work off a minor vandalism rap at his high school, he's not really serious 'Gangsta' material. He and his younger sister, Hannah, do have some problems with a psychologically abusive, work-driven father, who's been shaped by his own father-abused childhood. Predictably, the mother at times retreats into the solace of a drink or two rather than confront her over-controlling husband. Tyler falls for an air-head rich girl at his school, and endures the hostility, and ultimately a violent encounter, with her brother, another classmate.

It could be an all too familiar scenario and characters, but Anderson's writing is good and she injects the right amount of tension to keep moving the story along. A good secondary character, Hannah, Tyler's younger sister, just starting her freshman year at Tyler's school, enhances the story. She metamorphoses from a dutiful, homebound girl into an exuberant, confident, breakout personality, eager to set Tyler and herself onto the popular track in school life—though there's still the grinding problem of dad.

Previously toured themes can still reverberate in the hands of good writers.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

more on graphic novels

Re-Gifters is one of the new graphic novels, though one can as easily refer to it as a mass market—which includes literary work—comic book, geared to Middle-Grade or High School readers, but appealing to some of us adults, too. Re-Gifters, like some of the early comic books, has an authors' team, Mike Carey, writer, and Mark Hempel and Sonny Liew, illustrators. Read more about comic book author teams in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon.

The Re-Gifters story is about a Korean girl, Dixie, who would like to gain the romantic interest of her top competitor, an Anglo boy, who is in her training club, or dojo. Dixie lives in a rough section of Los Angeles, and in an early scene she's confronted by a group of toughs. She's on her way to being nailed, but is rescued by a cool-talking Hispanic boy with attitude, who's also a loan shark. The gang looks up to him and Dixie now has a useful friend. Later, she uses money her father had given her to enter a big martial arts competition, and instead, buys a statue of an ancient Korean warrior to give as a present to the Anglo boy. It's a futile gesture, and now she's lost her chance to compete in the tournament. In a series of misadventures, the statue comes back to her as a gift from the Hispanic boy (hence, Re-Gifters), and she is given a free 'wild card' chance to enter the tournament. The Hispanic boy provides her with a dilapidated 'gym' at his home for training. As Dixie advances in the tournament, the Anglo boy, also moving up, gets concerned about her potential, and tries to sweet-talk Dixie into throwing her semi-finals match. She disdains his attempt, and goes on to defeat him in the finals. In the closing, the Hispanic boy is a dinner guest in Dixie's traditional Korean household, and the future, at least for a while, seems rosy.

The graphics are dynamic and nicely drawn, and the story has some appealing multi-cultural aspects, though it's a little worrisome to contemplate that Dixie's new boyfriend is, after all, a loan shark, though with a seemingly good heart. Graphic novels will never replace the deep immersion and imaginative world of prose novels, but they have an appeal all their own.

Monday, November 5, 2007

story endings

In finishing three short stories, novellas really, in the "Elephanta Suite," by Paul Theroux, the crafting of convincing, satisfying endings for a story came to mind. Theroux's stories, all set in India, are engrossing and beautifully written, with the endings for the first two stories powerful and seamless, and convincing, but the ending of the final story, "The Elephant God," seemed not to fit the portagonist's character. The story is gripping until that point, but though the protagonist, an American woman, looking for a spiritual life while living in an ashram and simultaneously working as an instructor of American speech patterns for employees of a technological call-center, is a resourceful, strong-willed woman, her dramatic retaliation against one of the employees who assaulted her is not quite believable. Though she's been stalked and abused by this man, her last, cold, calculating action seemed over the top, though satisfying to some degree.

Endings were on my mind when I read an interesting essay in Writer's Chronicle, Nov. 2007, "A Tale of Two Endings: Dicken's Great Expectations," by Douglas Bauer. Dickens' original manuscript ended on what seemed a contrived, chance meeting between Estelle and Pip in the city, and a parting between them that seemed final. Bauer says, "…if you read Great Expectations as a novel that steadily acquires real emotional and psychological traction, then Dickens's original ending—with its almost contemporary, quietly stated irony, bracingly free of his famous sentimentality; and one that's contemporary too in its powerful truncation (all those what-ifs" that get said in all that isn't said)—is the preferable conclusion."

However, an author friend of Dickens who was asked to review the original manuscript convinced him to write a more hopeful ending. Dickens's rewrite hedged a bit, making it seem like a continued relationship between Estelle and Pip was foreseen, though the final line was left somewhat ambiguous—"I saw the shadow of no parting from her." That version got published, and the following year (1862) in a second printing, apparently now more satisfied with the idea, Dickens made the line less ambiguous: "I saw no shadow of another parting from her."

Perhaps Theroux might also have received suggestions to have his ending less extreme, a more subtle irony, but he went with a powerful truncation concept. It's still got me thinking, so perhaps it did its job.

Some of Bauer's other thoughts on endings were also interesting: "... any ending that succeeds both culminates and at the same time continues the story…the mix of these two factors naturally varies according to whether the writer's principal desire is, on one hand, to bring everything together, or, on the other, to leave matters more elliptically open. But both qualities, culmination and continuation, are fundamentally always present." And, "The question, then, facing the writer is how to write an ending that benefits from all the complicated momentum that has been funneled into it; one that sounds its confidence and retains a narrower but still resounding power, even as it sings its final notes alone." Not bad.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

keeping a bit of the loony in the story

Do those old classics need to be as long as they were when first published? Maybe not, if we agree with British publisher Orion and a new series of "compact editions" of some nineteenth century classics, including "Moby Dick," "Anna Karenina," "Vanity Fair," and "The Mill on the Floss." Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker (22Oct07) reports they were neatly cut in half, so that they can be taken in quickly and all the more admired. He notes wryly, however, that the names of the abridgers were curiously withheld; perhaps they were alarmed at the magnitude of what they had done. Gopnik says that "Melville's story is intact and immediate; it's just that the long bits about the technical details of whaling are gone, as are most of the mock-Shakespearean interludes, the philosophical meanderings, and the metaphysical huffing and puffing." Wasn't all that half the magic of "Moby Dick"?

Gopnik imagines the soothing letter that Melville might have received from his editor accompanying the suggested cuts, had he been alive to receive it. "Herman: Just a few small trims along the way; myself I find the whaling stuff fascinating, but I fear your reader wants to move along with the story—and frankly the tensile strength of the narrative is being undercut right now by a lot of stray material that takes us way off line."

The Orion publisher's editing job is perhaps what a modern critic or professional editor might say about the original book if it arrived over the transom today—"too much digression and sticky stuff and extraneous learning. If he'd cut that out, it would be a better story." A small shudder is in order. Gopnik reflects on how "masterpieces are inherently a little loony…" but how that often contributes to their originality. He reflects, "What makes writing matter is not a story, cleanly told, but a voice, however odd or ordinary, and a point of view, however strange or sentimental." Although we're often told in the revising process for our fiction, tighten, cut, cut, out with the darlings, kill the adverbs and adjectives, it might be well to remain aware not to lose all loony ambiance and originality.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

notes on tc boyle's process

T. C. Boyle has another of his vintage short stories in a recent New Yorker, entitled "Sin Dolor." It's a story of a young boy who was born with some sort of genetic mutation that causes him to feel no pain. The doctor who examines him for numerous burns and lacerations when he is a child at first suspects child abuse by the parents, though he's at a loss as to why the boy feels no pain. The doctor becomes interested in doing long-term medical observations and since the boy is from a poor family he is able to have the boy spend a great deal of time at his own house, eating, teaching the boy, and generally taking a paternal interest in him. However, after a long period of this, the father appears at the house one day, removes the boy, and leaves the village with him. After a long period the boy and his father return to the village and the doctor comes upon the spectacle of the boy performing on stage, putting red hot blades to his flesh, and piercing his cheeks, while the father is taking up donations. The father has made a sideshow of him to earn money. The doctor manages to speak with him, but the boy is resigned to his fate of earning money to support his family. He dies shortly after.

This is the sort of wrenching story I'd come across in the past from Boyle. Language, style, drama is always superb, but there seems always a hard psychological and visceral toll on me. I remember another of Boyle's stories that stayed with me a long time. A young couple in a new home in southern California, where the high crime rate is of concern, engages a home security firm. They provide the couple with a sign for their lawn warning that intruders will face armed response. This enrages one of the crazies who lives in the area (Boyle has already convincingly portrayed this crazy being interviewed by a woman real estate agent), and he invades the home of the young couple firing a gun and demanding an armed response. He locates the cowering couple and kills them.

I marvel at the power and craft of such writing but I get a sense of hopelessness from the theme and denouement. So, Boyle intrigues me and I couldn't help but go straight to an interview by Diana Bishop with Boyle in my latest Writer's Chronicle. In some selective excerpts, Boyle says he's "fascinated with these other guys to see how they've ruined their lives. Maybe writing about them provides a cautionary tale for me." He says "the theme of man as animal often plays a part" in his stories. "I don't want my readers to do anything. I'm not imposing anything on them. They come to me because they like to communicate…I am simply an artist. I'm disturbed by things, amused by things, love things, am horrified by things. I want to constantly address this mystery of the world and so that's why I'm creating art. If it communicates to people then I'm very gratified." All this fits my take on his stories.

Boyle is currently interested in identity theft—his recent novel, "Talk Talk," takes up this theme. "What is identity, who are you, how do you find out?" I'm not sure I'm ready to tackle a Boyle novel—the short stories affect my mood for long enough periods—but perhaps.

What about his drive, and process? "(F)or me the thrill of producing fiction, of pursuing and discovering something ineffable, is enough…because it's such a rush for me to explore something and see where it will go." As you might also infer from this, Boyle is someone who doesn't write to an outline. Bishop asks, "When you start to write a short story or novel do you know the ending or do you like the exploration?" Boyle says, "I know nothing at all. Nothing. The first line comes and I start…I begin by seeing something and then its translated into a voice talking to me and then I follow it and see where it will go." Bishop asks him how he revises? "Constantly, as I go along." Revisions after the first draft is completed? "It is, with minor exceptions, exactly as it evolved on the keyboard," and apparently doesn't need much more before going to the agent.

I like this one too. Bishop asks, "While you may begin writing short stories or novels with a question, you may not end up with the answer? "No." Also, when Bishop asks can art save the world, so to speak? "Well, the world is unsavable to begin with. Art illuminates you. It makes you feel that somebody else is feeling the same thing that you are so you're not alone. But it doesn't have a political agenda; it can't. Because an agenda destroys the aesthetic impulse of the discovery and the exploration of what you're doing. You're doing it because you have no answer. That's why you do it."

I admire a lot about Boyle.

Monday, September 17, 2007

wilderness survival

A youth struggling to survive in the wilderness makes for compelling reading, and "Touching Spirit Bear," by Ben Mikaelsen, 2001, is another addition to the genre, with an interesting twist. The wilderness struggle is set up as a juvenile justice experiment. This sort of rehabilitation has been applied in Native American justice, and in this MG/YA novel it is portrayed as being tried for a non-Native American youth offender in Minnesota.

Cole, a violent tempered high school student has badly mauled a classmate in a fight. A chance to avert a jail sentence is offered to him by an experimental Circle Justice council brought in by the court. The Council offers Cole a chance to spend a year in isolation on a deserted island, somewhere in Minnesota, as a means of promoting justice and healing for the criminal offender, the victim, and the community. Cole is interested only in escaping a prison sentence and accepts, though inwardly mocking those trying to help him. While on the island, he destroys the shelter and food he was provided with, and tries to escape, but fails. His rage is directed at a white bear that ventures near his camp, a bear known to Indians in the region as the spirit bear, and he is badly mauled by the bear. After he is found by his Tlingit Indian supervisor who visits the island periodically, he is nursed back to health and elects to return to the island to try and complete his trial. The story is interesting, with compelling wilderness aspects, but the character of Cole, the violent young boy who was beaten by his alcoholic father while growing up, and the father, was a bit flat and stereotypical, though believable.

Monday, September 10, 2007

place in fiction

In my MFA program, I wrote a thesis on the use of place as a literary device in stories. Place can play an important role in stories, sometimes almost as great a role as the characters that populate a story. It can be a character. I was reminded of this in reading an article titled "The Mushroom Hunters," by Burkhard Bilger, in the New Yorker (8/20/07). The rain soaked forest habitat of the secretive mushrooms makes for just such a character.

Picking for the market began in about the Seventies, in the National Forests of Washington and Oregon, and was mostly done by locals who kept their patches secret. However, mushroom hunting exploded beginning in the Nineties. The pickers in the referenced article lived in a roughshod, primitive campground, and were roughly divided into ethnic groups—Hmong, Mien, Cambodian, Laotian, Mexican, and Caucasian. Most of the pickers were Asian. Matsutake mushrooms may sell for up to one hundred and sixty dollars a pound, and though a highly experienced picker might find up to seventy-five pounds in a day, an experienced Cambodian couple together averaged less than twenty-five pounds a day. In six weeks they earned ten thousand dollars. The work can be arduous and pickers search for the mushrooms from sunup till sundown. One needs a sort of sixth sense, because the mushrooms usually lie hidden beneath a carpet of pine duff on the forest floor. Pickers are very clannish and each group is suspicious of any other group. The atmosphere in the camps can be a bit like the old Forty-Niner gold miners, with guns fired in the air during evening celebrations in camp. Pickers also fire guns in the deep forest to keep up a contact with each other and avoid getting lost. There's a story hidden in the sort of place described, and waiting to be populated with other characters.

David Guterson populated such a mushroom world with his own unique characters, in his novel, "Our Lady of the Forest," published in 2003. A frail young woman ekes out a marginal living hunting mushrooms in a National Forest in Washington. She has visions of the Virgin Mary appear to her in the deep forest, and when word gets out, people drive from all over seeking to witness the apparitions. Crowds follow her through the forest on her daily workday. A priest is dispatched by the Catholic Church to investigate the authenticity of the apparitions. It was an engrossing story and showed the power of place in the fictional world that Guterson constructed.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

POV, age level, and other gems

Reading a writers' craft book authored by a literary author, as compared to a 'nuts-and-bolts' author, can be a gratifying experience. Particularly where the author guides the reader through examples taken from classical literature—whether short stories or novels—or from contemporary literature that may yet await a judgment of time. Francine Prose's book "Reading Like a Writer" is interesting enough to read straight through in daily sessions, though it might be better to take it slow and intersperse such craft reading with a good fiction book. Give the subconscious a little more time to dwell on the writing strategies visited. A good interview of Prose by Andrea Dupree appears in the Writer's Chronicle, Sept. 2007, and touches on many of the topics included in her crafts book.

One of the topics Prose discusses that was of interest to me in my YA fiction writing deals with the voice and Point-of-View of a young person. At times, some authors use a wiser, more mature narrative voice than a first-person YA protagonist might be thought to use. Prose says "I've been writing a novel from the point of view of a fourteen-year-old girl, and I was tormented by the question of adult consciousness versus child consciousness, adult language versus child language—you know, that stupid statement: I don't think a fourteen year old would say that." Nonetheless, Prose goes on to discuss a story by Leonard Michaels where a seemingly adult consciousness works for a kid at times. "And when I read the Lenny Michaels story, I found things in the story that clearly come from the pre-adolescent kid, and things that clearly come from the adult looking back... It's first person, but sometimes it's a first-person twelve-year-old, and sometimes it's the first person forty-year-old, and it really works…" It's somehow freeing to read that, but of course if one is an unknown writer it could be a risky business.

Along that line, Dupree says to Prose, "In 'Reading Like a Writer,' you encourage people to disregard the typical rules that are trotted out in writing classes. At the same time, do you feel that writers who are transgressive in their writing have as good a shot of breaking in as others who are more conventionally polished?" Prose allows that it may set a higher hurdle to overcome in selling the book, but, "I don't think there's any choice. If somebody is talented, they're not going to be able to write for what they think the market wants." Sounds right, or ought to be right.

Another kernel that Prose tosses out, "…the better the writer is, the greater the degree of self-doubt. I've had students who really think they're Tolstoy, and they're not the best students I've ever had. Whereas my friends, whose work I respect enormously, whose work I feel lucky to read, are tormented by self-doubt."

There's a certain thrill in reading a good crafts book. One usually concludes that, armed with such insights, the next book is going to be written better than the last. Give Prose's book a try.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

innovative story concepts

Summertime has translated into more reading than writing for this blogger. A few posts ago the topic was high-concept YA novels, and this will be a brief discussion on one of them. "I'd tell you I loved you, but then I'd have to kill you," by Ally Carter, has an intriguing concept—the students at the 'Gallagher Academy for exceptional young women' are actually pursuing rigorous academic and field training to become spies. The secretive academy is off-limits to outsiders, and even the town in which it is situated has no idea of its nature. In addition to normal studies, the high school level girls learn to be fluent in up to fourteen languages, and are trained in covert operations, including the use of lethal force on adversaries. This would be an ambitious set of plot elements for any writer to keep in play while selecting and pursuing a story conflict and resolution. It could be addressed seriously, or perhaps as a spoof. Carter seems to have alighted somewhere in between. The story is nicely written, often humorous (Gallagher graduates were responsible for inventing such useful spy materials as 'Velcro' and duck-tape, and some national heroes—e.g. Amelia Earhart—are revealed as graduates). But the basic storyline is about Cammie, the girl protagonist, falling in love with a lower middle class boy from the nearby town. Now, all the esoteric spy elements can be dealt with as points of intrigue, and not treated too strenuously, while a straightforward, universal appeal, romance story is told. A fun, chick-lit story.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Boy's tribalism, and rites of passage

In all strata of life, in every neighborhood, and every ethnicity, there seem to be common rites of passage that all boys must wend their way through in one style or another. Girls will have their own rites of passage, in some ways similar, other ways not. The rites endure, though the threats change with times. The pensive mood of this piece arises after having read Chris Lynch's "Sins of the Fathers." Lynch can be such a powerful writer (disclosure—he was a faculty member at my Vermont College MFA). The three boys of the novel form a tightly knit tribe to themselves: Drew, the narrator and most expressive, Skitz, the fatherless clown, and Hector, seemingly the strong, silent force. Drew's terrific dialog, flowing smoothly from inner to outer expression, draws the reader into almost inhabiting his physical character. The setting is a Catholic parochial school in Boston, and rough as they are, or would like to see themselves, they respect the sisters who teach there and the three parish priests who oversee the school. One of the priests is a newly assigned, young, hippie-like Jesuit, who tries to befriend the boys, and continually uses bad judgment, drinking on outings with the boys to a Bruin's hockey game, rolling a joint in Drew's presence—immature conduct, and ultimately damaging to him. The boys have some destructive habits themselves: popping St. Joseph aspirin with RC cola to get a buzz, and one of them experiments with sniffing glue. A deeper, darker theme emerges toward the end of the novel. The abuse of minors by some clergy is all too common in the news these days, but it is unfailingly wrenching with each new disclosure. One of the boys has probably endured such a betrayal, and we hope his tribe will be able to keep him from falling into an abyss of remorse and substance abuse, and that the three friends will help carry each other forward.

Friday, June 22, 2007

email query tangles

Many of the literary agents today invite email queries from authors. Some accept only email queries, while others accept only snail mail. Email seems to offer a convenient, economical means of reaching an agent and getting a faster reply, but it has some pitfalls which writers should be aware of. If a writer drafts his query letter in a word processor program, like MS-WORD, and then copies and pastes it into an email, problems can and do occur. This may happen because email does not recognize your word processor's formatting codes. In reviewing many agent blogs and writers' comments, the most common problem is the use of 'smart quotes' by WORD. These are the curly-shape quote marks that also have different shapes at the beginning and end of a quote (most writers recommend turning this feature off in WORD). The email recipient will see smart quotes reproduced as a clump of strange symbols on his end of the transmission. Other WORD formatting that will be lost and replaced by other strange symbols are italics, bolds, and em symbols (conversion of double dashes into a single long dash). To avoid these problems, the writer should save his WORD document as a Text file, then copy and paste from the text file into the email. This should resolve those particular problems. Some writers advised an intermediate step of copying the WORD file into a Notepad, or other Text-editing file, and then copying from there into the email. However, that shouldn't be necessary; copying from a WORD text file should be sufficient.

The next problem occurs if the agent requests sample pages be included after the query, and within the body of the email. Indents and double spacing within the paragraph will be lost when copying and pasting from the WORD manuscript into the email. It appears that the best the writer can do to improve the appearance for the benefit of the agent-reader is to manually insert a blank space between paragraphs. The email format does not allow providing double spacing within paragraphs, as is customary when submitting hardcopy manuscripts.

The situation is a little daunting yet, and has led some agents not to accept email queries, but hopefully things will improve in the future. Hang in there, writers—and agents.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

high-concept plots

The past week has been light on writing and adrift on planning, and not so much planning as contemplation. Time to get going on a new novel. The finished one is out in the ether looking for an agent, and I need the bones of a new dreamtime. I tend to recall stories as either character-driven, or plot-driven, though the best ones generally had both elements. A good author/teacher like John Dufresne, in “The Lie That Tells a Truth,” suggests setting your character in motion and just watch what happens. Get it down. That would certainly get a story started, but not having anything for a plot is daunting. Then there are the writers for whom the plot is all consuming. “What I’m Reading Now,” a blog by Allisa Lauzon is a wonderful collection of her YA book reviews that I’ve been following lately, and the biggest thing that seems to hook this reader is most often the plot. Some are so pumped-up and bizarre that I’m just going to have to read them to see if the author really pulled it off. Here’s a terrific example of a high-concept plot from “I’d Tell You I Loved You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You,” by Ally Carter:
"From the outside the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women appears to be a boarding school for rich and snotty young women. The school, however, is actually a training school for future spies. Cammie is a Gallagher legacy and the daughter of the school's headmistress. By her sophomore year, she is already fluent in fourteen languages and knows how to kill a man seven different ways and is starting her first covert operations course...”

The concept is almost outlandish—and yet, it’s totally intriguing. Is it going to be tongue-in-cheek, or serious stuff? Ally has another spy-themed book in her credits, so she probably knows the genre; I’ll just have to read this one to see. Another high-concept plot I found intriguing was “Blue Bloods,” by Melissa De La Cruz:

“The most powerful and elite families in New York City are hiding a secret- a secret that their children are about to discover as they are inducted into The Committee. They are Blue Bloods- an ancient race of Vampires. Schuyler's life changes dramatically when her invitation arrives to join The Committee. She soon discovers that they are hiding things- especially after a young Blue Blood turns up dead- her life force completely drained. An interesting new take on a vampire novel. Blue Bloods moves quickly, capturing readers’ interests from the beginning.”

A belief in vampires today is a rational stretch, but the concept has a long history in storytelling, books, movies, and TV, so that the readiness to suspend disbelief is already at work for the author. Here, Melissa has a great plot, but she’ll have to work a lot harder to keep the reader wrapped up in the “fictional dream,” as per writing guru John Gardner. I love the ambition of her setup and I’ll read this book, too.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

contemplating don quixote

I've inserted a watercolor done at my life drawing session last week. The pensive mood is nice, and it's time to start another novel, which will involve some casting about for concept and theme. My present evening reading is Cervantes’s “Don Quixote,” translated by Edith Grossman. I’ve read other, earlier translations, but this is both scholarly and a handsome edition, replete with footnotes about Cervantes’s story references, and the manuscript history. A jacket blurb by Lionel Trilling says, “It can be said that all prose fiction is a variation on the theme of “Don Quixote.” Perhaps. The theme of an addled but learned man coming centuries late to the call of knightly chivalry, and setting out in comical, makeshift knight’s regalia to seek adventure, has the ingredients of a comical farce, and yet, it never admits to anything like tongue-in-cheek comedy. We groan and shake our heads at Quixote’s foibles, even smile, ruefully, but the language, and often the wisdom sweep us along. Another jacket blurb by Milan Kundera says it well, “Don Quixote is practically unthinkable as a living being, and yet, in our memory, what character is more alive?” There are many story variations on this hero’s journey, or quest, from the crossing of the threshold from our world into the story world, the trials the hero must face along the journey, the winning (or losing) of some treasure, and the return—richer or poorer, in wealth or spirit. Perhaps none have, or will, make the journey quite like Don Quixote.

Friday, May 25, 2007

psychological aspects of POV

A fiction writer is faced at the outset with the decision of choosing a theme and the POV that will be used to tell the story. Various considerations enter into the choices, including whether a first-person or third-person narrative might achieve the desired closeness with the reader, and whether the POV can adequately dramatize the envisioned scope of story. Often the story theme may be based on a personal life experience. That experience may offer some sort of hidden meaning the writer wants to explore, and then it seems there should be some best POV for the cast of characters and the type of story being considered. However, it may be that the POV choice actually takes over and steers the story into directions and choices that are driven by it, and which more closely relate to the writer’s own psychological makeup than the fictional story he starts out to tell.

In a NY Times article, “This is Your Life, and How You Tell It: In Storytelling, Deep Clues to the Self” (by Benedict Carey, 22May07), some recent research looked at ways people narrated their life stories. Those with mood problems had many good memories, but the scenes were often tainted with some dark detail. By contrast, those individuals who scored more positive, “generative” personalities on psychological tests might recall the same sorts of life problems in a reverse way, as linked by themes of redemption. “They flunked sixth grade but met a wonderful counselor and made honor roll in the seventh.” In other words, their understanding of their life’s story drove their narrative themes. That might be a useful observation to keep in mind when choosing the experience and setting out to write.

The research then seemed to offer other useful insights to the fiction writing process, and the retelling and reinterpreting of experiences from our own life stories. How do we recall the most vivid scenes from our experiences? An important factor was the perspective people in the study were told to take when revisiting a life experience—whether in first-person, or third person. The investigators found that revisiting a bad experience—an argument, say, or a failed exam—was significantly less upsetting when viewed in the third person, as compared to first person; and, a shift in perspective to third-person allowed the storyteller to deepen and even reshape the event instead of being immersed in it.

Which POV is going to create the stronger fiction story? If the event is compelling enough, and focused, total immersion in a first-person narrator might work okay. If the event is still not clearly understood in the author’s own mind, using third-person narration to explore a deepening and reshaping of the personal event might lead to a better fictional story.

Monday, May 14, 2007

vying for a query

Still in revision on the Sci-Fi, but occasionally returning for scans of a YA novel, "Black Crane," that was finished, revised a few times, and laid aside last summer. It seems ready for trying to interest an agent or publisher, but perhaps it will have to wait until after the Sci-Fi effort plays out. Taking into account some of what has been discussed in blogs by literary agents, a query for "Black Crane" might contain the following:

What do you do with all that built up discipline when your army general mom goes off to Iraq, and you’re sent with your siblings to live with your absentee dad?

Sixteen-yr. old Caitlin is ready to break out into her own life, but that’s kind of hard to do when General Rose Su Wei expects her to be the Rock of Gibraltar to her younger sister and older brother. Her dad, Cyrus McCormick, expects life will go on as usual while they’re living with him, but he’s clueless about things like peer pressures, soft drug use, and drinking, that go on at the high school parties. As a new high school newspaper reporter, Caitlin is keen on learning all about these things. Her articles alienate her cryptic editor, and a libertarian, athletic boy named Cody, a karate champ. Caitlin, trained by her mother, is no slouch at karate, either. An intense love-hate relationship between her and Cody leads to the epic battle of The Black Crane vs. The Golden Dragon.

Energies feel divided now, and perhaps the Black Crane effort should have been carried through to the query stage. It was probably a question of confidence.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

plot twists

Just finished reading “Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini. The story opens in Afghanistan just before the Russian invasion in ’78. Amir is a middle-class Afghani boy, about thirteen, and his closest friend is a servant boy, Hassan, a Hazara—a minority ethnic group descended from Asian Mongols--who works in Amir’s household. Amir and his dad are Pashtuns, a majority ethnic group in Afghanistan, and are Sunni, a dominant Islamic sect. Hassan and his dad are Shia, a despised minority sect of Islam, and so Hassan suffers a double burden in the boys’ daily contacts with other Afghani boys. Though Hassan is devoted to Amir, and risks dangers when defending Amir against other boys, Amir remains almost indifferent to him.

In one episode, an Afghani boy rapes Hassan for defending Amir, who cowardly watches from hiding. Our sympathies for Amir take a further plunge when Amir later frames Hassan for stealing his watch. He’s jealous of his own father’s affections for Hassan, and hoped to drive him away from the household. When the Russians invade Afghanistan, Amir and his dad flee to America. There Amir matures as a better person, aspiring to be a writer, and meets a young Afghani woman and marries her. He regrets many of the weaknesses he’d shown in his boyhood, and when news comes after the Russians are driven out of Afghanistan, that the victorious Taliban have slain Hassan along with many other Shia, Amir returns to try and rescue Hassan’s surviving eleven-yr. old son.

In Afghanistan, he learns that Hasan was actually his illegitimate half-brother. In the dangerous search for Hassan’s son, he encounters the same man who once abused Hassan has now bought Hassan's son from an orphanage, and is abusing the boy. A horrible plot twist. In some desperate actions, and after suffering brutal injuries, Amir rescues Sohrab and flees with him back to America. There, Sohrab is a lonely, almost mute boy from his experiences, but Amir and his wife adopt him, and wait patiently for him to heal.

The plot skirts close to having too many coincidences, and takes some brutal turns, but it held a lot of suspense and gave the sense of a very different world. I spent four years in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, Pashtun country, and traveled to Kabul and other places in Afghanistan. That was '68-'72. The story was an unsettling but riveting revisit to that country.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

cut the hook

I entered a "Hook" for my current Sci-Fi story in a contest sponsored by an online site of published authors, called "fangs, fur, and fey." It's basically an exercise in writing a short (300 word max.), book-jacket type blurb that will catch an agent or publisher's attention when reading a query letter. The site promised online critiques by their authors for each accepted entry. Apparently lots of us writers were interested in such an exercise, and feedback, because the site's 250 submittals limit was reached in the first twenty-four hours. It was fun, and I learned from it. Here's my entry and the critique received:

Josiah, an American mining engineer, discovers beryl ore—the source of a rare, space age metal, beryllium—within a powerhouse excavation in the Andes. He conspires along with his boss to sell the ‘waste’ excavation for personal gain. He’s getting on in years and needs a pension plan. Distressingly, he begins having hallucinatory, epileptic seizures, in which an ancient, woman warrior, Akla, tells him he’s a reincarnated space druid and orders him to destroy ‘the beryllium eaters.’ But who are they? He hopes he can finish his beryllium heist before he becomes further unhinged.

Soon after, he encounters two Skatha, creatures from another planet, who are formed like humans but are organically encased within a sheathing of beryllium. They arrived on Earth long ago to search for beryllium, and became hidden allies of the Inca in their conquest of South America. The Skatha stayed on, to allow Drost, the male commander of the mission, to continue pillaging the skin sheath of humans. He ‘fire-tongues’ his victims, bio-electrically depositing their skin onto his beryllium sheath, enabling him to experience the tactile pleasures of life for a limited time.

Eila, a female Skatha, is a reluctant subordinate of Drost, and still wants to remain true to their original mission—a complication after she falls in love with Josiah. Akla becomes increasingly impatient with Josiah’s incompetent efforts to carry out his assignment. Drost’s egomania grows, and he forms an international society with Inca trappings, where he slags people into computerized adherents of his will, by putting a programmed, bio-metallic compound of beryllium into their initiation drink. One of his slags, an Israeli Deputy Defense Minister named Vasthi, overcomes her slagging program and challenges Drost for the leadership of the slags. She and Eila contend for Josiah’s love during the fight to defeat Drost.

Reviewer's Notes:

Good: Fantastic eye for detail. The writer has a great imagination

Bad: Unfortunately, this is another short synopsis. The writer packed the entire story into 300 words (it's 300 exactly, I checked because I thought it might have been over.) This type of detail leads to information overload. The writer might have written a great epic story, but the hook is too complex and doesn't quite work.

Suggestion: the hook should read more like a back cover blurb. When a reader flips a book over in a bookstore and glances at the back, that blurb has maybe ten seconds to capture that person's attention. It's hard to captivate when there is so much information crammed into so little space. Less would have been more in this case.

I appreciate the intricate set-up, but unfortunately this is a pass.

So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut might have said. Less would have been more. Too long for a hook. But the reviewer didn't fault the overall plot or characters populating the story. I liked that.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

constructing characters

An interesting writer’s article appeared in the Jan/Feb issue of the SCBWI Bulletin, entitled “Character Building,” by Louise B. Wyly. Wyly discussed using the Myers-Briggs personality test groupings, to construct interesting characters that logically support or conflict with each other. For example, you want a boy or girl who places high value on cooperation from others—a born leader—one who takes for granted that he or she would be followed. For this, Wylie selects an ENFJ type individual. The test assigns four dominant personality traits for any individual:

E or I; Extrovert or Introvert
N or S; Innovative or Sensation/Practical
T or F; Thinking or Feeling
P or J; Perceptive or Judgmental

Once you’ve selected perhaps two dominant traits you’re looking for, you might complete the characters personality with two other tentative traits, and try to stay aware throughout your story how that character would logically react in each conflict or problem situation. Any grouping of four traits has a certain frequency of occurrence in the population as a whole, and this has been borne out in many years of M-B testing. That’s not to say that a fiction writer couldn’t have a character switch traits in a stressful situation, but it doesn’t run true to form, and the reader might need extra convincing.

My own grouping when I took the test years ago was INTP, which is something like five percent of the population, and representative of an engineer, my “other” profession. People can gradually change their grouping over time, though, as a result of changing life experiences. The book Wyly gives as a reference for her article is “Please Understand Me,” by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates, available in bookstores. Might be useful stuff to think about for a writer.

Monday, April 9, 2007

hooks in queries

At the point where we finish our novels, we’re faced with the need for the dreaded query letter, with its required ‘hook’ content. The hook must lure the publisher or agent to think for a moment about whether to consider this wonderful opportunity a little further. How are we going to do that? How can one possibly condense the excitement and thrills of this literary gem that we’ve labored over for the past year, or years, into a make it or break it, attention grabbing, terse invitation to read the whole. Or at least to ask for a synopsis and partial. Criminal, we think, shouldn’t have to be done. But it does, and even if the novel is a fairly good read in its entirety, we may as well accept that the preliminary hurdle must be overcome, with class, with élan, before anyone might invite us to the next hurdle, the equally dreaded synopsis.

One informant tells us to consider the hook as a movie trailer for our story. That seems an apt approach. Get a clear sense of the problem, and of the people we’ll want to care about up and running, and show some emotional conflicts they’ll face in gaining a resolution. But don’t shoot ourselves in the foot by using unfortunate language while doing it. Easy, right? Well, no, but it's a necessary skill set to acquire. A few days of browsing the tons of aspiring writers' mail discussed on a blog like Miss Snark-Literary Agent is worth the cost of several craft books--and loads of fun.

There's a contest beginning April 13, where Fangs, Fur, and Fey, an authors' blogging site, will accept up to 180 hooks, in specified genres, 300 word maximum length, and will post on-line comments made by published authors who reviewed the hook submittals. Could be another learning experience, for those of us with thick skins (submitters will not be identified--thankfully).

More later on synopses.

Monday, April 2, 2007

techniques of distancing and close-up

“wait for me,” by An Na, her latest novel after her Printz Award winner, "A Step From Heaven," is able to summon a good deal of emotional response from the reader. It draws on the powerful, basic need of every youth to adhere to a parent’s expectations, but often trying at the same time to find a different life path than the one held out by the parent.

Mina’s mother, Uhmma, is intent on her oldest daughter going to a prestigious university, preferably Harvard, and the mother consumes herself, while ignoring her disdained husband, and her youngest child, Suna, in pursuit of her goal for Mina. But Mina has been deceiving her mother for years about her less than adequate grades at school, and has been pocketing money from the receipts at their dry cleaning shop, meant to help support herself when she will look for a job after graduating high school and leaving her difficult home life.

An Na manages to create reader sympathy for hardworking Uhmma, and a mystery is raised early on as to whether Mina may have a different father than Suna. The close relationship between the sisters is lovingly portrayed. A Mexican boy, Ysrael, is hired to work at the cleaners, and a tender relationship grows between him and Mina, though kept hidden from Uhmma. The story is brought to a strong resolution point when Mina must choose whether to follow Ysrael when he leaves for San Francisco to study music, or stay at home to nurture Suna until she is strong enough to overcome her dismal lack of acceptance by Uhmma.

The story has a number of points interesting to a writer. Alternating chapters give Mina’s first-person POV in immediate past tense, and Suna’s third-person POV in present tense. Suna’s story can move rapidly from distancing scenes to close, inner consciousness scenes. Sometimes the portrayal is ethereal, in keeping with her dreamy, sleepwalking nature. Mina’s dialogue with Uhmma is sometimes given inside quotations, and sometimes not. Possibly this, too, is done for distancing/close-up effects, but it wasn't always consistent. The writing of scenes between Mina and Ysrael can be deeply emotional, sometimes skirting a romance genre, but An Na remains overall a fine literary writer.

Monday, March 26, 2007

reading ease of YA novels

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing—Traitor to the Nation, by M. T. Anderson is a challenging read on many accounts. To start reading without benefit of literary reviews, it takes many pages to get grounded in the story. Is it a futuristic, or fantasy novel? People who are members of a curious enterprise called The Novanglian College of Lucidity, ‘devoted to divining the secrets of the universe,’ and called only by digital representations, 03-01, 07-04—that give some measure of a person’s social standing and his profession—what’s going on here? What period of time are we in?

A first clue, or not, is that the language seems a sort of archaic English. Gradually the reader learns the setting is Colonial times, near Boston. At the beginning of the story, the main character is an African boy, named Octavian Nothing. The college purchased him and his mother, an African Princess, in the slave market, to be studied for the characteristics of their race. Can they learn Western music? How much of what they eat is converted to energy, to waste? These and other seemingly banal quests for knowledge leave the reader questioning the mental capacity of the college’s intellects.

Gradually, possible story themes emerge, of how unenlightened the social, philosophical, and scientific thought might have been in some circles of Revolutionary-era America, and particularly how unenlightened it was toward African slaves. It might not have been as harsh as in the more agrarian South, but seemed just as degrading.

The complete story of Octavian Nothing will be published in at least two volumes, reportedly, and this volume carries us up to Octavian’s participation in some early Revolutionary War clashes, where slaves were “loaned” by their owners to the Patriots for some of the heavy work of war, and to ‘excuse’ their own lack of participation.

Anderson has set in motion an ambitious story, which is not an easy read, but seems to have all the hallmarks of intensive research—from the language of the times, to the previously little known attitude of Colonial New England toward slavery. Apparently it has received favorable attention from young readers, and that renews confidence in youth’s abilities to wrestle with a difficult literary work, if it encompasses a good story.

To point out what is meant by difficult reading, a sample was taken at random, p.54, and analyzed with WORD’s grammar check, to find the following interesting statistics:

Words per sentence—40
Flesch Reading Ease—55 %
Flesch Kincaid Reading Level—11th Grade

As noted in earlier blogs, the scores for some bestselling authors and a Pulitzer Prize winner in a study have typically shown vocabularies suitable up to Grade 6, and Reading Ease up to 80 Percent. Perhaps Octavian’s reception is welcome news for writers of young people’s literature who might like to use more difficult but expressive language, and intricate plot development, but were held back by assumptions about youths.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

more on graphic novels

Graphic novels have been increasing in popularity and rather than being any threat to prose novels they may reinforce reading habits for some. I think graphic novels invite far more introspection than a completely passive diversion, like TV, and they invite art appreciation right along with story participation. Good graphic novels have a clean-cut similarity to attractive block prints of modern art . The coupling of art forms and expressions to the story in progress can be intriguing.

One of the best I’ve read is “Blankets,” by Craig Thompson. It’s an engrossing memoir of a young man who has been raised in a severely strict, fundamentalist Christian family, and who meets an attractive young woman, Raina, in a Christian summer camp. Raina is a warm, beautiful, liberal-minded individual who is very popular among her similar-minded friends. She intrigues Thompson, and invites him to spend a couple weeks of his winter break visiting at her home in another town. Her family has some internal disconnects, but Thompson falls in love there with Raina, and although it becomes clear it can’t last beyond this visit, he grows and matures in ways he couldn’t have imagined before. The artwork is great, and the graphic unfolding of the story is wonderfully done.

More recently I enjoyed American Born Chinese, by Gene Luan Yang. This is a handsomely done graphic novel about a young boy of Chinese immigrant parents growing up in America, mostly centered around his life and friendships in school. Episodes from the Chinese Monkey King fables are interspersed in the story, and they seem very much to belong. Jin Wang is so intent on being "American" that for a part of the book he's drawn as Western-looking boy named Danny, though we don't quite know what's going on yet. Danny's visiting cousin from China, a crude stereotype, mystifies us, and is an embarrassment to Danny in front of the all-American girl he idolizes. The threads come together when the Monkey King comes to visit Jin and convinces Jin he'll be a happier person if he'd just be himself. Besides the great graphics, it's a well structured story.

I’ll have to mention just one more, Amelia Rules-The whole world’s crazy,” by Jimmy Gownley. It’s a MG graphic novel, kids playing at being superheroes, and coping with life at school and at home. Story is, of course, a lot less sophisticated than the older books discussed, but the graphics are neat and appealing.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

voices and alternatives

Voice is such a difficult quality to establish for any main character, and is usually the first task a writer considers in making his story come alive on the page—and be marketable. Some writers might seize on direct qualities, like regional dialect, or notable class distinction in the character’s diction, to create a unique and interesting voice. Others might use introverted or extroverted modes of expressing their character’s speech—hesitant, thoughtful, fearful; or blustering, assertive, combative.

Still others may bag the whole exercise of creating a compelling voice, and instead give their character some challenging condition that will create interest in them as a character. This may be more hazardous to the writer’s success than finding a distinctive voice, since the writing must now also avoid any unearned praise, or blame, for the character solely because of their given condition. The writer must be very good to succeed at this type of story, and some have been. Two YA books that come to mind include:

Stoner & Spaz, by Ron Koertge
A H.S. boy with Multiple Sclerosis falls in love with a girl who uses and deals drugs. It’s an epiphany for the boy, and he also becomes interested in filmmaking. The romance ends, the girl goes back to drugs, but the boy is a better person for the experience.

The curious incident of the dog in the night-time, by Mark Haddon
An autistic teenager decides to find the murderer of a neighbor’s dog and discovers his father killed it and it leads to the uncovering of the mystery of why his mother left home. The author inserts lots of graphics and scientific puzzles to dramatize the teenager’s inner world and interests.

But the challenging condition might be made a lot less severe than in those cases, as in the following YA book I’ve just read:

An Abundance of Katherines, by John Green
The main character is a HS senior who’d grown up as a child prodigy. He doesn’t have much of a voice, and his introverted, nerdy condition is definitely an added challenge. Some nineteen girls have dumped him through the years, and all were named Katherine. He goes on a summer road trip with his best friend (he’s half-Jewish, the friend is Arab), and through much of the story he works on developing a theorem, shown in mathematical curves, that will predict whether the partner in any relationship will be the dumper, or dumpee. During his road trip he meets an opposite temperament—extroverted—Tennessee girl in a backwater setting, and redemption is at hand.

Voices and Alternatives—both equally challenging.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

fictional truth

An essay by Frederick Reiken in The Writer’s Chronicle, Mar./Apr. 2007, titled “What is True?—Thoughts on Fictional 'Truth,' Unconscious Metaphor, and Celery” had so many good parts to it, and I want to try and capture a couple of them here.

One of the ideas is that a ‘fictional truth’ needs to rise above the ordinary, factual, black-and-white happenings of real life if we want it to support a literary work. We’ve often heard, in workshops and such, ‘just because it happened doesn’t make it interesting.’ Reiken’s essay used an excerpt from a short piece titled “How to Tell a True War Story,” included in Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam fiction work, The Things They Carried, as follows.

You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.

For example, we’ve all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on the grenade and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.

Is it true?

You’d feel cheated if it never happened.

Without the grounding reality, it’s just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen—and maybe it did, anything’s possible—even then you know it can’t be true, because a true war story does not depend on that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die though, one of the dead guys says, “The fuck you do that for?” and the jumper says “Story of my life, man,” and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.

That’s a true war story that never happened.

That provides such a great illustration of literary, fictional truth. Another idea I valued in the essay touched on a fiction writer’s use of story ambiguity. Quoting work by author John Berger, Reiken says “Authentic writing depends primarily on a writer’s willingness to stay faithful to the fundamental ambiguity of experience.” Also, “a writer who attempts to close too many ambiguities at once without opening others will run into a problem…” The idea of keeping ambiguities afloat during a fictional work seems so important to me, to extend the suspense of events, and to keep the reader turning the pages. One of my favorite creative writing teachers, John Gardner, also gets some play in Reiken’s essay, on topics from Gardner’s book entitled, “On Moral Fiction,” and dealing a lot with the ‘metaphors’ of the essay title. In sum, this is an essay I’m going to have to read over a couple of times—good stuff.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

point of view thoughts

Point of View is a writing concept in which it can be easy to err. For most of my YA fiction I’ve either used first-person, or third-person limited, and lately, more of the latter. I had come to believe it gave more freedom than first-person, but some critiques of my recent work had me wondering whether I’ve completely understood the third-person POV, or perhaps the boundaries are shifting today.

I think one of the great instructors of creative writing, as well as being a first-rate author, was John Gardner. His book, “The Art of Fiction,” (1984), is an outstanding craft book. In reviewing some of Gardner’s comments on POV, I noticed that long ago I highlighted this passage:

“We may go along for years without ever noticing that the third-person-limited point of view is essentially sappy…the third person limited point of view forces the writer into phony suspense.”

Gardner sets up a story situation in which a man named Alex Strugatsky is taking his Saturday morning ballet class when his mistress, the wife of the local Chief of Police, comes in to stand watching. Alex is distressed—he does not want their affair known, lest the police chief shoot him; but he does not want to be impolite, because his mistress, Genevieve Rochelle, is a beauty. Gardner shows that if we start off this story in the omniscient point of view, as Checkhov would, we can get the important facts in right away and get on to what’s really interesting, such as: What will Alex do? But if the writer starts off in third-person-limited, where, Gardner says, the writer limits himself to the thoughts of the central character, mentioning nothing not directly present in the character’s mind, Alex’s story quickly becomes sappy. The sappiness occurs because the writer has no other way of showing what happens except by somehow putting it into Alex’s head.

However, Gardner’s non-omniscient, third-person POV seems to be broken down into two separate categories by Lynna Williams in her chapter, “And Eyes to See: The Art of Third Person,” in "Creating Fiction," edited by Julie Chekoway. The ‘sappy’ construct of third-person-limited given by Gardner is Williams ‘third-person-unified,’ in which “everything, even the “telling” that goes on in exposition, is filtered through the point-of-view character’s consciousness (see bold passage in Gardner). However, in Williams third-person-limited, the POV character:

“will continue to be our angle of vision on events, and we’ll still have access to her thoughts. But in this use of third person, we’ll also be able to take advantage of objective narration; that is, neutral exposition that is not tied to the character’s consciousness.”

It’s the latter type of third-person limited that I’ve followed, rather than the bold-marked version quoted in Gardner’s discussion. So perhaps I've been correct in my POV treatments. Still, I’m about ready to believe that third-person omniscient may be the more powerful, best, all-around way to go in fiction writing.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

synopses crapometer

Some days there seem to be few words of literary craft or reflection that might merit a blog entry. That may be good—as when all free time is suctioned into the present enterprise of creating a science fiction novel, an unusual genré for this writer, but enjoyable, nonetheless. A second draft is coming along reasonably well, but a few thoughts on one of the hard tasks ahead might be worth musing about now. Synopses of stories are difficult to write, even for mainline fiction stories, but a synopsis for a science fiction story could be especially challenging. Lots of ground has been broken for some plot premises, which sci-fi readers might be expected to be familiar with, but any totally new concepts could be hard to get across in a synopsis. After reading online some synopses examples gathered by a literary agent, Ms. Snark, where writers have submitted them expressly for her Crapometer assessment exercise, a certain amount of trepidation now hangs over the anticipated synopsis writing task. Some of the synopses Ms. Snark received were rated good, but one of the sci-fi ones was so easy to lampoon. Lots have been written in craft books about writing synopses, but this was quite a lesson. Check it out.

Friday, February 16, 2007

inventiveness in writing

I'm currently reading "Just in Case," by Meg Rosoff. She's also the author of "How I Live Now," last years Michael L. Printz" award (for a book that exemplifies literary excellence in young adult literature). "How..." was interesting, with a 15-yr. old American girl visiting her cousins in England at a time when some shadowy guerrilla force has risen all over the countryside. She and her cousins are left to fend for themselves while the adults of the household are gone. The character and voice of the girl was compelling, and the book was a little daring in that she becomes involved with her same-aged first cousin. A good read. The title of the new book, "Just in Case," is a play on words, as the protagonist, a 15-yr. old who has a doomed outlook on life, changes his name from David Case to Justin Case, not recognizing the irony. As he's in a clothing store looking for a set of threads to go with his new persona, he meets a girl who's decided to help him dress tastefully. Here's the author's description:

"Justin turned slowly. The voice belonged to a girl of perhaps nineteen who peered at him through a heavy, clipped pink fringe. Her eyes were thickly rimmed with kohl, her mouth neatly outlined in a vivid shade of orange that clashed perfectly with her hair. She wore four-inch platform boots in pale green snakeskin, wildly patterned tights, a very short skirt, and a tight see-through shirt printed with Japanese cartoons over which was squeezed a 1950s-style long-line beige elastic bra. A camera bag hung from her shoulder.
Even Justin recognized that her dress sense was unusual."

I love that inventiveness, which is typical of Rosoff; how can the reader not keep turning the page to see what kind of person we have here? The age difference intrigues, too; what's the author going to do with this? Agnes is obviously a lot more extroverted than the doom-struck Justin. Rosoff goes on with her inventiveness, and it all flows nicely without seeming contrived at all. It's entirely engaging. That's a great way to write.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

probabilities and agents

Like lots of writers these days I've thought about using some of my energies to search out and enlist the aid of an agent to try and improve the chances of marketing a Ms., or at least, one for my latest YA novel. Agents, of course, would prefer a novelist with credits, so in the past I've tried the unsolicited Ms. route to the better known publishing houses. If you're not going to do simultaneous submissions, which many houses say they do not accept, it's a pretty time consuming route. Out of several YA novels I've submitted over the past eight years, the maximum number of submittals I've managed for any one novel was about six--twice I waited up to a year for a reply. I don't know what the probabilities are at book publishers, but I read an interesting article by an associate editor at a literary journal, on the success rates for short story Ms. at such journals. He figured there was an average one-percent chance of being accepted, and since that encompasses a lot of marginal work, he gave himself at least a five-percent chance of having his own stories accepted at any given journal. He had a math instructor do his statistics and he figured he needed on average to submit his Ms. up to 56 times to be confident of having a story accepted. I would have thought with a probability of five-percent it would have been twenty submittals, but you get the idea. If the percentages are the same for books, and it took on average about six months to hear back from a book publisher, you might not learn whether you had a viable novel for up to ten years. A competent agent would have a better idea of the market than me, and assuming the agent liked the novel, it would seem like a win-win situation to sign on with one. So much for the marketing quandry; I'm looking forward to some fiction writing tomorrow morning. To have a few smiles about what comes across the transom of a sharp, no nonsense agent, see Miss Snark's blog.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

young people's literature

I noticed today that the story "Bridge to Terabithia," by Katherine Paterson, (1977), has come out as a movie again (also in 1985). BTT is a moving, sensitive story about an anxious, artistic boy named Jesse, and an athletic tomboy named Leslie. Leslie is the 'new kid on the block' having moved into the locale with her New Age intellectual parents--lots of books, no TV, no formal religion--and she easily wins a school race that Jesse has long trained for. Nevertheless they become fast friends and create their own mythical world, Terabithia, in the woods near their home. (Warning--plot tip follows). The book created a shock in its day because of the tragic death of a young character. Such an attitude would seem very condescending today. It even surprises me for then, since an old, classical favorite, "Grimm's Fairy Tales," had plenty of young deaths. Other young people's literature taboos were also apparently crossed by BTT --Leslie's parents New Age spirituality, and a supposed sexual content. If sex was there it completely escapes my memory. And yet BTT was on ALA's “Ten Most Challenged Books of 2002”...for "offensive language, sexual content, and references to the occult and Satanism." Wow, I read it and never even picked up on any of those. I thought it was only a moving, sensitive story. Nowadays many of those taboos have fallen--though not always to the benefit of a good story. Still, I think the more liberal attitudes have been rewarding for young readers on the whole.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

scoring manuscripts

Many writers will be familiar with MS-WORD’s spelling and grammar check capability in its Tools menu. I’ve often used this check to evaluate a completed Ms., particularly to find my total word count, Flesch Reading Ease score, and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score. It’s been interesting to check the Reading Ease and Grade Level of my work compared to more than a dozen best-seller authors analyzed by author James V. Smith, Jr., in his “Fiction Writer’s Brainstormer.” Smith's analyzes show that all of his best-seller authors typically log Reading Ease Scores between about 70 and 90; whereas, a U.S. Government manual describing combat actions that “any credible fiction writer could have turned into high-energy writing,” scored about 37. His best-seller authors also scored Grade Levels between about 4 and 6—which was surprising, since one of them, Wallace Stegner, was a Pulitzer Prize winner. So, even in good adult literary fiction, the grade level required to understand the language chosen was not necessarily high. The Gov. manual scored almost Grade 13. My most recent YA novel manuscript, about a girl who competes in karate, had a Reading Ease of 77, and a Grade Level of 6, so I figured that part was pretty good. Now, if only the story is interesting and marketable. You'll notice, if you try it, that brief, intense discussions like this, and story synopses, tend to score poorly because one tries to get too much info into a short piece. This post scored 52.5 in Reading Ease, and 11.2 in Grade Level.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

the king dork code

I’ve been reading the YA novel, King Dork, by Frank Portman, a lead singer/guitarist in a San Francisco Bay area punk band. His main character, Tom Henderson, a high school ‘dork’ who fantasizes on starting his own rock band, has pretty much read all the YA ‘classics,’ and prides himself on being nothing like the characters in them. He heaps sarcasm on Catcher in the Rye, and Separate Peace, and this works to give him his unique, conflicted voice. He dismisses teachers and parents who found those books and similar heroic in their own youth. Especially Catcher, which I sort of liked back then, but I can understand that. Attempts by Tom to decode messages tucked into the books left to him by his dead father are a little involved, but work to advance plot and subplots. High school bullying and sex seem a little far out at times, but maybe not. Tom’s spacey mom and flower-era stepdad provide good backdrops for Tom’s angst. This is a first novel by Portman, and a pretty good startup.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

stephan king syndrome

Sort of a stunning walking experience two days ago. Reminded me of author Stephan King's awful experience walking along a highway in Maine, though it was much worse for him. I was on the last lap of my three-mile walk--a repeated one-mile loop of empty, paved roads in a little-used state park. I was on my last lap, heading home, when I heard a squeal of tires behind me and I moved to the side of the road. When I looked over my shoulder a red car was skidding right at me. I ran off the road and fell while trying to get up a low slope. I could see in slow motion the grill work and bumper headed for me as I lay on the grassy slope. The car jammed to a stop a couple feet away. I was looking eye-level through the windshield and a young woman seemed to be laughing, perhaps nervously, or perhaps she was stoned, sitting behind the wheel. Her passenger boyfriend just kept looking at her and wouldn't even look at me. I was pretty shaken; I got up, dusted off, and stalked away, down the road. They got the car started again and gave me a wide berth as they drove by. It was very eerie. Something like getting visited by a banshee, a female harbinger of the end. Or as my son put it, a bean sídhe (Irish, pronounced the same) must have been driving the car. Well, perhaps it will make good material to give verisimilitude to a strange sort of fictional story.

Friday, February 2, 2007


It’s a worsening problem to keep up with the publishing houses and know who is accepting unsolicited Ms., and whether they will return a Ms. in a SASE, or even whether they’ll send a form rejection in an SASE included with a Ms. that doesn’t have to be returned. Some now just tell the writer to submit a complete Ms., and if they’re interested they’ll let the writer know. It’s a pretty cold way of doing business, and these conditions keep changing. Just submitting a novel on spec may cost thirty to forty dollars, and the editor will likely make a decision on the first four or five pages. It shouldn’t be any more work and expense for them to invite a query letter, an outline, and up to ten pages of the Ms (with SASE for reply). They may have taken this step to hold down their slush pile, but if the probability of uncovering a good Ms. remains about the same, and probably it does, they may be passing up profitable opportunities. A friend told me about a new writer’s site that will track and update changing publisher’s needs and provide a forum for writers: I registered as I'd like to keep up with this situation.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

language and translations

Another production of Brian Friel's Translations has opened on Broadway. Set in rural Ireland in 1833, it tells of the British Army ordinance survey after the country's conquest, to remap the land, changing all the Gaelic place names into Anglicized names that will better speed troop movements, and facilitate administrative functions. Overnight, a thousand years and more of local legend and myths associated with the original place names are repressed. The characters include a "hedgemaster," who teaches the locals in the forbidden Gaelic tongue, and also teaches some of the ancient Greek and Latin classics in the original tongues. He's aging, and one of his sons tries to carry on in his nationalist tradition, and the other cooperates with the British in their mapping efforts, thinking it will bring economic progress. A young British Lieutenant falls in love with one of the women students and adopts the Irish ways, causing problems. The play is so elemental in its problems and conflicts, particularly in the deep roots of language, informing who we are, and who we will become. Good stuff for a writer to ponder.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

gene robbers

Recently our Grange held a benefit for Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian, who owns an organic farm raising canola (rapeseed) plants situated near other farmers using Monsanto's genetic canola seed. Percy's crop became contaminated with the genetic strain (wind, birds, who knows?) and when it was discovered, Monsanto ordered him to pay for a license or to have his crop destroyed; otherwise he would face legal action. Our benefit was held to help him with his legal costs. It seems a case of intellectual property and patent rights gone amok. An article in the newspaper today discusses how patents are given to researchers on human genes they discover as markers of certain genetic traits, especially genetic disorders. So perhaps someone may actually own the rights to some genes we have in our body. I hope they don't find out about any of us pirates, and require us to license 'their' genes. Or destroy them. Might be a story hidden in there.

The other sci-fi story is doing okay, sixty-five pages, and moving.

Thursday, January 25, 2007


My recent issue of the 'Writer's Chronicle' had an ad for a new book titled "Against Workshopping Manuscripts," (It's a damnable thing, etc.) . I disliked workshopping when I first started a graduate program in creative writing, and it was a ragged process for the first one or two residencies on campus. However, I think people quickly came to see that the point was not only to highlight what was not working--and let's get past minor stylistic mistakes--but let the writer know in a constructive way why they thought it wasn't working, and just as important, what was working for the reader. In later residencies, it became a much valued process for author and critique responders both. Since then I've attended a couple of workshops in writers' conferences and it continues to be an interesting process. There may be nothing quite like having experienced workshoppers in one's personal writing group to enhance a writing life.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

graphic novels

The 2007 Printz Award for a YA novel was announced, and was "American Born Chinese," a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang. I'm glad to see the recent successes of graphic novels; I also liked "Blankets," by Craig Thompson, a YA graphic novel I read last year. For some young readers the written novel will have a greater power for capturing imagination, but for others the graphic novel will retain a greater appeal. The graphic novels mentioned here had the story line and graphics developed by the same author. Being a (student) artist and writer myself, I'm intrigued by the combination. Last year I read "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: a novel," by Michael Chabon, which described a team of an artist and a writer who developed comic book stories of the Fifties. I think the graphic novel has been an interesting development, and I wish all the authors a continued success.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

islands in the sea

I heard an interview of Michael Parker on NPR, about his new book of short stories, "Don't make me stop now." One of the stories was about an elderly black man and two elderly white sisters hanging on and living out their days on one of the Outer Bank Islands off the east coast--NC, I think. They're the last ones on the island. The man's son is trying to get him to leave, telling him those sisters don't mean anything to him, but there's some sort of relationship and he's staying. I love the idea of people trying to hang onto a disappearing way of life. Especially near the sea. I've read two memorable books about the near-last inhabitants of the Great Blasket Islands, off the west coast of Ireland, "Peig," by Peig Sayers, and "The Islandman," by Tomás O'Crohan. (Of course I've still got them on my shelf.) The island people finally grew weary of their hard existence and petitioned the government to resettle them on the mainland, in the late Thirties, I think. The books were written in Gaelic and translated into English. Great reading.

Friday, January 19, 2007

laying the groundwork

Blogspot has been acting overloaded lately, so I’ve missed an entry. The sci-fi revision seems to be going okay. The tendency is to get the technical scope and boundaries defined early in the story, and let the conflicts build from there, but there can be a risk of overloading the human-interest elements of the story line. I think the characters, other-worldly and human, are intriguing enough in their early interactions and dialogue to carry some of this technical load, but I’ll have to be careful. I'll be interested to see how my writing-exchange partner responds to this part. It’s a great thing to be able to share a Ms. with a writer-friend.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

a balance--humor and straight talk

The revision of my sci-fi story seems to be progressing okay. One of the large considerations has been how much of the tongue-in-cheek humor to retain from the original draft. I originally wanted something of a comic, bizarre effect, but the story also turned out to have a somewhat intriguing plot. How to keep the best of both? I think my strategy has evolved to developing the most believable dialog in the revision, and to retain any underlying humor in a straight-faced manner.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

free will--story theme

The 02Jan07 Times says "a bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control." Free willers generally hold that whatever choice you make is unforced and could have been otherwise, but it is not random. "That strikes many people as incoherent," a Dr. Silberstein said. Every physical system that has been investigated has turned out to be either deterministic, or random. "Both are bad news for free will," he said. I like that monkey riding a tiger image. There's a story waiting to be developed.

Monday, January 15, 2007

thematic material--tribal

I've often wondered why the U.S., almost alone among the leading, developed nations, has such a draconian social network of health care, unemployment benefits, welfare arrangements, and such. A recent article in the NY Times, about or by a researcher, suggested that it may be because of our diverse ethnic and racial population. People may feel that others outside the tribe ought to look out for themselves. I'd always thought extreme ambition was more the driving force. Other countries with a more homogeneous population might think more benevolently about their neighbor. I wondered if a tightly focused example of this tribal concept might be the theme of a short story, avoiding, of course, being anything like didactic.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


Motivation of the main character--this has slowed me to a degree in a current revision of my sci-fi novel. Of course, a motivation was already written into the plot, but it's so important to carry the reader along with a seamless, consistent understanding of the motivation of the character, or the writer may introduce a fatal interruption of the "fictional dream" (John Gardner, The Art of Fiction) for the reader. And everything may be lost. It's an especially nuanced task for sci-fi, where the extraordinary needs to be made believeable.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

recycling the mood of places

I'm reminded in the revision of my sci-fi novel that the site in the Andes where I worked many years ago was first used as a place setting in that story, and again last year was used as a place setting in a mainline short story that was published in the Oracle Literary Journal. I'd associated a lot of energy, mood, and drama with the place, and I feel I still have some meanings to work out about it in future stories.

Friday, January 12, 2007

sci-fi underpinnings

It's enjoyable to explore the use of real, philosophical underpinnings in writing sci-fi, but it's also important I think to make it seamless and unobtrusive when used in the story plot. I've had characters, even young ones in mainline stories, toss off allusions to some concepts of Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit geologist who did exploration in China in early Twentieth Century (he discovered remains of Peking Man). In a sense, Teilhard felt that all matter in the universe had a level of consciousness--even rocks. Young readers have liked that idea. In another sense, all components of creation become more complex as time advances. Think of man as a complex molecule, becoming ever more complex. Great underpinning for sci-fi, but keep it subsumed in an interesting, dramatic storyline.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

revision of old work

Finished re-reading and started revision of an old sci-fi novel I wrote perhaps fifteen years ago. It's the only sci-fi genre I've ever done. I wasn't too effective in getting it out to publishers--maybe two or three, and unsuccessfully--but that was the day of typewriters, and it was so hard to make revisions and still keep a clean copy. It's actually pleasurable now to revise and hone a Ms. on a computer. Anyhow, the plot and characters are pretty imaginative, and the Ms. is entitled "The Beryllium Eaters." It's set in Ecuador, where I worked once as a geotechnical engineer, and involves outer-space, bio-metallic creatures, who arrived at the time of the Inca conquests, and present-day people. I like the feeling of having another major writing project ahead of me for the winter months. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


There seems to be a lot of marvelous and creative venues available on the internet now--and for free. Amazing. I've posted four pieces of my art (watercolor paintings and art print) on a student art site hosted by a large British advertising agency, which I read about in the NY Times. I'll provide a link on my blog page when I get settled in. And then there's Google's blogging service--this page. I'm looking forward to posting things, perhaps daily, about my own writing and writers/writing that I'm interested in at the moment. I'll leave it at that for today.
Creative Commons License
Fiction Writer's Blog by Gaelwriter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.