Monday, November 24, 2008

voice of a myth-The Underneath


It was such a pleasure to read "The Underneath," by Kathi Appelt. It would be hard to suggest which age group it might best appeal to, perhaps middle grade, but high school, or younger child, or adult, would find lots of appeal, too. For background structure, it recalls ancient tales of mermaids, and selkies (Celtic), ondines (German), and lamia, which some myths refer to as half-woman, half-serpent. In Underneath, it is a version of the lamia, as a 1000-yr. old cottonmouth snake, a giant water moccasin, which had once assumed the form of a woman, but after being betrayed by a human male, had reverted to her snake form. In Appelt's telling, once the myth creature reverts to its animal form, it can never change back to human. Grandmother moccasin has a sinister presence throughout the story, as she lies imprisoned in a clay jar buried beneath the roots of a lolbolly pine in the swamps of East Texas. A thousand years before, a man had taken her lamia daughter, Night Song, from her, and there was a price to be paid. Sssssss. Once she was free.

Another character in the story had been an evil young boy, perhaps bent that way by a vicious, abusive father, and who is now a lonely, fearfully evil man, called Gar Face, named after a vicious, ugly fish who lives in the swamp waters. Gar Face figures prominently in the story, but more so does his chained-up, abused bloodhound, called Ranger, and the two kittens, Sabine and Puck. Their mother, a calico cat, had sought refuge beneath Gar Face's cabin, trusting Ranger, and gave birth there to her two kittens. The story of the kittens growing up, their games, learning to hunt, but never daring to venture out in sight of Gar Face, is artfully told. Relating their playing and hunting strategies to their big cat ancestors is part of the marvel. Eventually, Gar Face discovers and captures Puck, and also his mother, when she goes to Puck's defense. Gar Face ties them in a sack and throws them into a river. Puck escapes, and the story becomes his struggle to survive in the swamp, and whether he will find his way home to Ranger and Sabine. In the parallel story, we discover in intermittent small chapters how Grandmother moccasin lost her daughter, Night Song, to another magical creature, Hawk Man, after they both had crossed into their human natures, and how they came to have a daughter. Who, of course, is the granddaughter of Grandmother moccasin--and grandmother knows of her and seeks her.

How the path of the characters intertwine and ultimately cross makes for an epic story.

The language of the story provides a good part of the enjoyment; I can imagine myself reading the suspenseful cadences to my own granddaughter, now grown, when we shared evening story times in my small, coastal cabin:

"Here then is a hard-edged bitter boy become a man known as Gar Face...Do not cross his angry path. Do not."

"Do not go into that land between the Bayou Tartine and the little sister, Petite Tartine. Do not step into that shivery place. Do not let it gobble you up. Stay away from the Tartine Sisters."

"Grandmother is waking up. 'Ssssoooooonnnnn,' she says, 'my time is coming. Sssssoooonnnn...' Do not look into that mouth of cotton. Do not."

Sunday, November 2, 2008

disreputable history and art


This time of year seems to invite more reading than writing, and some watercolor painting, as appears here. Most of my reading has been in short stories, but also a few YA, and some Indian-American, and Asian novels. I've spent only small amounts of time revising my earlier short stories, and hope to get a couple of them in shape for submitting in the coming months.

I recently finished "The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks," by E. Lockhart, a YA novel. I've always been attracted to stories with a prep-school setting, ever since the powerful experience of reading, as a young boy, "Tom Brown's School Days," by Thomas Hughes. The Disreputable History has nowhere near the tension and drama of Tom Brown, but it has some nice writing, character development, and harmless, if not sophomoric, pranks carried out by a males-only, secret society. Frankie, a spunky young woman, newly endowed with a terrific body over the previous summer, falls in love with one of the boys in the society. She manages to penetrate the secrets and inner workings of the society, and uses phony email messages to commandeer their programs.

The story is told generally in third-person omniscient, though at times Lockhart projects the reader into the mind of Frankie in some long passages, so that it seems like a first-person narrative. Frankie, and a less affluent, scholarship student at the school, a friend of Frankie's boyfriend, Matthew (can't remember his name), comprise the better developed characters in the story. Frankie can be maddening to a male reader, this one, anyhow, with her urgent need to know everything Matthew thinks, or the relationship is going nowhere. Still, she's engaging, and inventive. She goes a little overboard on her use of 'neglected positives,' like describing someone as ept, her presumptive opposite of inept. Frankie tells us in several places she's Jewish, which I thought might enrich her character further, but Lockhart leaves it to us to imagine how. I like ethnicity in characters, and sometimes use Irish connections in my writing.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

negative space in writing scenes


The concept of negative space might be as useful to writing as it is to art. I was thinking about this while trying to make a watercolor painting come alive. It involves some of the same challenges as making a scene in fiction writing come alive.

In a certain style of painting a nude figure in watercolor, we might start with a pencil drawing on a white sheet of paper, paint a light value color wash over the entire paper, following with a flesh color wash that covers and extends out from the nude drawing. Before these washes are fully dry, another light value wash might be brushed over the figure and surrounding areas. All of the hues and values are now established, but it’s a hodgepodge of color without any real focus. Perhaps like a scene in the beginning of a story, where several characters, objects, or activities may be vying equally on the page for the reader's attention.

Let's return to the painting. To "pop" the figure forward, I can apply a medium value (darker) color to the "negative space" outside the nude figure. The lighter, flesh-colored figure begins to emerge and draws the viewer's attention. But perhaps the effect is too strong, and the figure now seems too remote from the background. So, I wash over part of the figure with the same, medium value color. The lighter, flesh tone of the figure can still be seen through the darker wash, but that covered part of the figure is now partly subsumed into the background. My painting has become more integrated, but I'm concerned that I've lost some needed focus where I've washed over the figure. I go back in and apply a still darker value to the negative space outside selected parts of the subsumed figure. That's better; more of the figure emerges. The figure has become the main focus of the painting, and the related flow of washes surrounding the figure adds to the viewing experience.

To explore this idea, here's the opening to a story:

Geronimo and Corky, shirtless and wearing sweatbands, edge toward the red brick wall, pounding a handball against it as they advance.

Pocketa-pocketa-pocketa


Greg, a slender, dark-haired boy sits on the sidewalk with his back against the wall and watches the game. He's wearing a frame without any lenses, and a burnt cork mustache. He turns and looks as a city bus hisses to a stop at the corner curb. Luke gets off the bus, gripping a backpack over one shoulder, and walks over to stand and watch the game.


Okay, we've got some initial light color washes over the complete scene; a couple of areas of interest, perhaps, but nothing too compelling. Let's pop a main character forward by brushing some dark washes in the negative space around him. Luke is our man.

Corky hits the ball to the sweet spot in the corner, and it rolls back across the sidewalk, unplayable. Point and game—Corky throws up his arms and lets out a whoop. Geronimo pulls off his sweatband, curses, then squats beside Greg and flings an arm around his shoulder. He holds the struggling Greg in an arm lock, kisses him on the forehead, and looks up at Luke.

"He's mine; go get one of your own," Geronimo says, smiling. "I hear they got loads of these little darlings up at that school of yours?"

"Yeah, ease up on him; Greg's a little strange, but not that strange," Luke says. "He grew up with Corky and me and you don't think about that, but you should."

Well, that darkens the surrounding negative space, but I don't want Luke to pop too glaringly out of his background. I'll brush some of the darker wash from the negative space over part of Luke, and make him relate more to the background.

"Maybe you're not one of us anymore," Geronimo says. "Maybe you've gotten too good for us?"

"Nah," Corky says, sweeping up a gray tee-shirt from the sidewalk to mop sweat from his face and torso. "As long as the cops are still looking for who did the kid in the Grover Heights rumble, we've all got to stick together. Luke is in it as much as any of us. We're each other's alibi."

Well, that's enough of an exercise for now. Luke is shown as part of the darker background, but pops forward to a point of greater interest as character qualities of education and sensitivity are suggested.

Two art forms, writing and painting, and each may have similar scene management techniques.

Monday, July 28, 2008

chabon's yiddish mystery

The last three months have been a little rough, what with being in and out of the hospital a couple of times. A gall bladder wasn't doing its job anymore—it suddenly died—and had to be jettisoned. However, it didn't go quietly; complications arose afterward. When something like that is finally over with, and a sense of good health returns, it's something like an epiphany.

Before all that started, I'd been reading "Spud," by John Van De Ruit. I'd seen mention of it in several blogs that review YA literature, and the storyline sounded promising. A boy attends a boarding school in South Africa, and has to engage a rigorous educational regimen while fitting in amongst a disparate, and unruly group of boys in his dorm house. I was hoping for something like the classic "Tom Brown's School Days," which had made such a deep impression on me as a young reader. Tom Brown it was not, but was more of a slapstick, goofy series of escapades by the boys. Some of the plot elements might have led somewhere, like Spud being picked to play the lead role in "Oliver," but I'm afraid I lost interest midway.

As I've been convalescing, I've finished reading Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union." A very imaginative story—the U.S. government has temporarily settled Jews, driven from Palestine in the 1948 war (a 'what-if' fabrication), into their own, self-governing enclave in Alaska. However, the land is soon to revert back to the State of Alaska, and the Jews will have to leave. There is a plan to this madness, and Chabon weaves it well. Meanwhile, Detective Meyer Landsman of the Yiddish Police Department has a murder to solve, involving a Messiah, a fundamentalist, "black hat" Jewish sect, and loads of intriguing Yiddish lore, all of which are intricately threaded into the plot.

Chabon's writing style is often remarkable, with his choice of similes, and metaphors, and descriptive details. Sometimes the similes are stretched a bit, but they're so darn good you forgive him. A really good writer.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

cutting ties in YA

Reading, writing, and everything else was interrupted by removal of a gangrenous gall bladder early in May. There must be a short story hidden in the fog of that experience. I particularly recall being awakened every two hours in the darkness when the electronic LCD module, with its blinking red display, was wheeled up to my bedside. "Vital signs check," calls a voice from somewhere behind the Star Wars resemblance of R2D2. Fingertip clipped into a sensor, thermometer beneath my tongue, and a blood pressure wrapping on my arm: I wait for R2D2 to announce whether I am still with the Force, or fading.

Before going into the hospital, I finished reading "A Story of a Girl," by Sara Zarr, a 2007 YA novel, and "The Member of the Wedding," by Carson McCullers, an old classic that could be characterized as YA, also. The two novels are very different in tone, mood, and style of writing, but at least one similar, elemental plot line threads through both stories: the urgency as a chosen time for the protagonist to leave home approaches.

In 'Story,' Deanna's father had discovered her having sex with an older boy in his car when she was barely a teen. Not only does it undermine her relationship with her dad, the boy spreads the story around the high school, and Deanna's reputation suffers over the next several years. To complicate the family dynamics, Deanna's older brother has had to marry early, after getting his girlfriend pregnant, and he and his wife and child live in his parents' basement. Another defeat for dad's shaky morale. Deanna dreams of finishing high school and then escaping her situation by teaming up with her brother and his family to get a house together. However, the brother realizes he's got his own growing up to do, and plans for he and his wife to move out on their own, sans Deanna.

The story has strong emotional content, but the father, and mother, come close to being 'flat,' barely sympathetic figures. That's a hard writing obstacle to overcome, because with Deanna as first person narrator, we can't really get inside dad's head to experience his call on our sympathies.

"Member…" is a wonderful read, almost Faulkner in mood and tone. It describes the awful loneliness and anxieties of Frankie, a twelve-year old girl, and her obsessive decision that she's going to leave the house of her widower father following the wedding of her brother, newly home from the Army. She conjures up immature images of the adventures they'll have as they travel the world together. As the wedding date approaches, Frankie raises the tension of the story by naively accompanying a boozy, on-leave soldier to his hotel room. The conversations Frankie has with her father's black servant woman and her friends transport us back to the painful disparities between the races in the old South. A deep and satisfying classic story.

Friday, April 11, 2008

writing antarctica


"The White Darkness," by Geraldine McCaughrean, is the story of Sym Wates, a 14-yr. old British girl, and her Uncle Victor, actually an honorary title, and their perilous journey across the Antarctica to find the legendary Symms's Hole, a portal to a hollow Earth.

When Sym was a child, her father was a business partner of Victor, and Victor's obsession with finding Symms's Hole became the father's own dream, to the point of giving over his life savings and property to help finance their future discovery expedition. Victor even persuaded her father to place Sym on a regular regimen of antibiotics, to ensure her health, and protect any inhabitants of Earth's interior against contamination when he would take her to explore the interior. This drug regimen has probably caused Sym's near-deafness, requiring her to wear hearing aids. Victor also sees to Sym's education in all things pertaining to Antarctica. It is during this lonely, introspective period that her reading leads her to converse with a Captain Lawrence Titus Oates, who perished ninety years before, on Scott's expedition to the South Pole. When Sym's father dies, Victor dupes Sym away from her mother to begin the portal search in Antarctica. He has enlisted the services of a Norwegian writer, who has located the probable location of Symms's Hole using satellite imagery, and who is accompanied by his son. Thus far Victor seems a somewhat sinister figure who seems to have an alarming interest in Sym. Is he for real about this expedition?

In Antarctica, the situation becomes even more bizarre. Victor manages to drug the other members of his sightseeing tour, and commandeers the tour's tracked vehicle to transport himself, Sym, the Norwegian and the son, in a mad dash across Antarctica to the reputed portal location. Without giving up too much of the story, it can be said that the writer and his son aren't who we thought them to be, and Victor becomes ever more possessed. It may only be because of her voluminous reading of the historical Antarctica expeditions and scientific lore that Sym is able to navigate and endure countless hardships. It is also a testament to McCaughrean's writing that she is able to spin a plot and give us characters that can absorb us in such a wasteland of nothingness. Worth a read.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

bolting from the Rez



Only Sherman Alexie could have written "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian" and have carried along the reader so effortlessly, and intriguingly. It's not that a good writer couldn't imagine the hard situation and trapped circumstances described for life on the 'Rez,' but a non-Indian would probably encounter significant critical resistance to publishing such a story. So it's been a treat to have Alexi give us the 'Diary' with all its courage, and warts, and sorrows, and resilient hopes, of a boy who's been there, done that, and can talk of it in gallows humor, as well as with a great affection for the parents who tried their best to do the right thing by him.

The story gets underway with 'Junior,' or Arnold Spirit, nearing the end of his time in middle school on the Rez, and feeling like he's going to die soon if he doesn't get off the Rez. Alcoholism and unemployment are rampant, and life expectancy is mean and short. Junior conceives of attending high school off campus, at a nearby town called Reardon. Of course, this is going to be interpreted by his best friend, Rowdy, and most of the other boys on the Rez, as becoming a traitor. Regardless, he's too sensitive, and hungry for life, to let such worries dissuade him, and he makes the leap.

The boys at Reardon are at first skeptical about this kid from the Rez, but Junior has one good thing going for him. He's pretty good at basketball. And he manages to swallow his fears enough to give a good account of himself in a scuffle with one of the strapping big players on Reardon's team. Junior also acquires a serious crush on one of the Reardon girls, and it's good for a little humorous tension. Through it all he's still, of course, commuting back and forth to the Rez, where his audacity is gradually accepted by the other Indian youths. We continue to get a glimpse of existential life on the Rez, or the untimely demise of it, and we're glad that a promising boy has started his trip outward to more hopeful things.

Monday, March 10, 2008

boy's bonding

Author Meg Rosoff has come up with another thoughtful YA novel, "What I Was." Generally, boys are not known for intensity of emotional relationships with other boys, without becoming the story of an overtly gay, perhaps one-sided or not, relationship. "What I Was" never commits to identifying the protagonist Hilary's attraction to the mysterious boy, Finn, as gay, neither in Hilary's mind, nor in their experiences. But it is an underlying tension in the plot and keeps the reader wondering throughout, even into the epilogue, where Hilary reminisces as an old, never-married bachelor on his experiences as a boy at St. Oswald's.

Rosoff chooses an intriguing setting for her story, St. Oswald's School on the southeast coast of England, one of the austere, ancient boarding schools that seem to dot the country, and it contributes to the mood and dynamics that propel the story along. Finn, about fourteen, lives alone in a fishing shack along the periodically almost submerged headlands, and it is his grace, simple lifestyle and taciturn manner that intrigues Hilary, about sixteen, son of a wealthy family, who has been expelled from several boarding schools before St. Oswald's. Hilary is one of those boys who are recognized as 'different' by other boys, and his roommates delight in tormenting him. Meeting Finn, who does not go to school but has somehow escaped the notice of any authorities, makes life more tolerable, even interesting, for Hilary, who cuts school as often as he can to spend time with Finn. Finn becomes alarmingly ill at one point, and the story makes a revelation that adds a layer of complexity to what the reader may think about the nature of the special relationship that has been so cherished by Hilary. It is perhaps fundamentally unknowable, but invites some thought.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

economy of style


Ernest Hemingway is an exemplar of using simple, active sentences, stripped of adverbs and adjectives. He employs an economy of actions and dialog to reveal what's needed of back-story, emotion, inner thoughts, and the future arc of the story. I'm reminded of this search for economy when I'm designing a single-panel cartoon, like the accompanying one done for a California Native Plants Society newsletter. The lettering on the boat hull gives us the back-story—it's about global warming. The boat tour guide's dialog announcing that a local park beach is ten feet below the water surface conveys an element of the back-story in which glacial melt has raised coastal waterlines. He doesn't have to spell this out for us—we participate in the story being told. The guide also points out "mutant" Pitcher Plants off to the side of the boat. These are carnivorous native plants, ordinarily growing between ½ to 1 foot in height, but we "get it" that they've become monsters due to the greenhouse gases accompanying global warming. At least the newsletter readers will easily understand this part of the back-story, since they're already familiar with the natural plant. For a general readership, I might have needed the guide to refer to their natural height, and carnivorous nature, to convey the alarm that is intended.

I got started on this discussion after reading "Taking Tips from Hemingway—How the Master Revised His Way to a Masterpiece," by David Kalish, in The Writer's Chronicle, v40, #4. It was interesting to read some of the critiques that F. Scott Fitzgerald made on Hemingway's Ms. for "The Sun Also Rises." I think I would have been quite discouraged to receive some of those critical remarks, advising a lot of slashing and cutting of the Ms. Of course that was early in Hemingway's career, and he took them to heart and honed his story accordingly. Later, when Fitzgerald criticized the Ms. for "A Farewell to Arms" even more, Hemingway had gained sufficient confidence in his own judgments that he could ignore much of the criticism.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

omniscient narrator


I want to organize a few thoughts for a new short story, and reflect on points made by Jenny Dunning in her article "Reconsidering Omniscience in Contemporary Fiction Writing," published in The Writer's Chronicle, Feb. 2008. Most of my writing has been in first person or third person limited point of view, which is perhaps typical in contemporary fiction. Now, I'm interested in experimenting a bit more with a stronger, omniscient narrator.

As Dunning states in her article, all third person stories implicitly have narrators, but many contemporary stories veil this fact by employing third person narration in which diction and syntax belong to the character. The veiling of a narrator voice is most pronounced in "free indirect discourse," which takes place as the narrative's psychic distance to the character's consciousness falls away. It's an effective storytelling technique, but narration that moves between an overt narrator and character consciousness, or one that employs a degree of such omniscience, can also be a powerful strategy, Dunning says. The trick with omniscience is to use it with subtlety, to know when and how to tell. She uses a good example by Flaubert. Dunning also feels there's a difference when we locate a story as the character's story when it is actually the narrator's story; it affects the reader's understanding of the story.

I'll need to keep in mind the following points for the omniscient story. When the narrator speaks, s/he "tells"—but not in such a way as to close down the reader's involvement in the story. Also, I want to consider how the story might originate in the narrator, a storyteller who knows more than the characters, and who attempts to discover something about human existence in the telling of the story.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

an artful novel

The Caldecott Medal was announced yesterday for "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," by Brian Selznick. I'd just finished reading (assimilating?) the book, which is an artful arrangement of text and graphics. Interestingly, the book was a candidate both for the Newbery Medal, for a written novel, and the Caldecott, for a graphic illustration book, showing a new interest in a greater blending of the two mediums for telling a story. Unlike a graphic novel, with its steady progression of graphic panels, or a typical illustrated novel with perhaps only a graphic plate introducing each chapter, 'Hugo' is interspersed with multiple pages of text followed by one and two page spreads of artistic, shaded black and white drawings. Sometimes the drawings taken together illustrate only fleeting seconds in the action of the storyline, like successive still frames of a motion picture. Indeed, part of the storyline deals with the lost career of a French cinematographer dating from the early years of motion pictures.

Hugo, a young boy, lives in the apartment of his uncle, which is buried in the labyrinthine inner passages of the massive central train station in Paris. Hugo's father has died in a fire at a museum where he worked, and Hugo has been taken in and trained by his uncle, to assist him in maintaining all the clocks in the train station in good, accurate condition. However, the uncle has mysteriously disappeared, and Hugo struggles to keep the clocks running. He does not want to report his uncle's disappearance for fear he'll be turned out of the station, but he has to pilfer his food from shop owners in the station just to survive. In addition to his timekeeper duties, the mechanically talented Hugo is trying to restore a mechanical man, an automaton, that his father found in museum discards and gave to him. The automaton, a gear-driven marvel that can write and draw pictures, becomes the key to the mystery surrounding Georges Melies, the famous cinematographer, now a poor, novelty shop owner in the train station, and his adopted daughter, Isabelle, Hugo's newfound friend.

Five hundred pages of story and art that go together seamlessly and in just a couple of evenings of intriguing reading.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

three levels of story--J. M. Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee's latest novel, "Diary of a Bad Year, is an example of some interesting, major tinkering with the typical form of the novel. His credentials for experiment include winning the Nobel and two Bookers. The reviews I've read are somewhat mixed as to whether the experiment is a complete success. The idea, nevertheless, remains interesting. A principal protagonist, Señor C, like Coetzee himself, is a South African writer transplanted to Australia, and he is compiling a collection of his "Strong Opinions" for a German publisher, representing philosophical, political, and literary positions.

Señor C enlists the help of a young Filipina woman from his apartment building, named Anya, to type a manuscript from his voice recordings. The printed novel's format consists of three, subdivided sections on each page. The topmost section is given over to the transcribed essays on the "Strong Opinions" Señor C holds (similar to actual essays Coetzee has himself previously published). The middle section of the page contains Señor C's thoughts on how and why he has come to hold such opinions, speculates on how Anya might interpret them, and how that might reflect on him. The bottom section is in Anya's point-of-view, her observations, personal reflections, and a narrative of the unfolding relationship between her and Señor C.

The page's arrangement seems representative of three stages of consciousness in the writer. Whether we refer to him as Coetzee or Señor C, the analogy is the same. The topmost section is in Señor C's fully conscious mode, with all the writer's normal strategies of academic rigor, sophistication, propriety, and political correctness at work. Too often this might lead to uninspired, stilted writing. In the middle section Señor C steps back from some of his "Strong Opinions" and thinks critically of how and why he might hold such views. I'm reminded of a current affairs radio program, called "T-U-C; Time of Useful Consciousness," described as a brief flash of time before losing consciousness, when a pilot has to react to save his aircraft after his mind is subjected to acrobatic, super-G forces. Similarly, for Señor C, the wrappings of erudition and neat philosophical packaging fall away from his "Strong Opinions" and the raw instinctual elements of his subconscious shout to him. In the bottom section of the page we have the complete submergence of the writer's thoughts into a pure story level, in the POV of a fictional person, Anya, giving her own thoughts on the "Strong Opinions" she is transcribing, and her thoughts on the developing situation between her and Señor C.

It's interesting to think of new forms for the novel, and Coetzee has given us a unique and interesting model. My own, simpler musings barely rise above forms of combined graphics and prose.
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