Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Fiction writers quickly learn how critical the first pages of any submittal are for moving a manuscript from an editor's slush pile toward serious consideration for publication. If the first several pages, usually mentioned as less than five, do not grab the editor's interest, most likely the submittal will be lost. That doesn't leave much slack for building the fictional dream, so eloquently described by John Gardner. At the minimum, the writer must quickly produce a character(s) of interest; a tension or suspense that moves the action along; and a competent, narrative voice; all of which combine to capture a reader's commitment to finishing the story.
The driftwood shelter sketch above can set the scene. Here's a first draft of a possible, related short story:
The brown, sandy beach extended a mile south of their driftwood shelter, sweeping a gentle arc, cut off by a rocky peninsula stretched out into the ocean at the far end of the beach. A tall, white lighthouse tower rose from the knobby end of the peninsula, where breaking waves threw up white plumes of spray.
"You never even mentioned having an ocean-going kayak," Teresa said. "How could you have just left it stashed out here in the dune grass. Weren't you worried someone could steal it?"
Tom leaned back against the latticework of ocean-polished driftwood. They'd built the shelter two months ago and the storms still hadn't swept it away. He took another toke from his joint. Medical marijuana, to use the new compassionate, or evasive, term for illegal, old-fashioned pot. In his case compassionate was accurate enough. He'd be dead in six months. He passed the joint to Teresa.
"I didn't have the energy to drag it back and forth to the trailer park," Tom said. "Anyhow, it's ready now for a maiden voyage."
"Why don't you just take it out a little ways for your first day and come back in, so I can watch you. If all goes well you can paddle down to see your son in Point Tucker tomorrow."
"I'll be fine. It'll just be getting through the surf might be tricky."
"Did you tell Brad I'd be driving you to the city for your appointment Monday?" Teresa said.
Tom nodded, took the joint from her and pulled a deep toke. He hadn't told her that he'd quit the experimental program. He'd thought a lot about the remaining options: this, or enter a hospice program. If he took this route, it wasn't really suicidal. There was a theoretical chance he'd make it to Hawaii. No sin involved.
"I need to get started if I'm going," Tom said. "Help me drag the kayak down to the beach."
They climbed the bank and trudged through thick dune grass to where he had concealed the kayak. The cockpit was covered with a tarp. When they lifted from both ends, Teresa gasped. "What have you got in here? It weighs a ton," she said.
"Well, you know, foul weather gear, radio set, GPS, all the stuff you need even for a forty mile jaunt. Better to be safe."
Okay, that seems to sort of set the scene and the situation. A couple more pages might do the job needed to invite a full reading by some hard working editor, but time to return to the novel already in-progress. Happy New Year.
Saturday, November 6, 2010
First, there needs to be an interesting idea or concept for a story. An image, and it usually is in the form of imagery, of some idea or concept springs from the subconscious mind, and depending on the energy the image brings with it, reveals itself to a writer as a possible story line.
Out of the solitary quietness of a walk along a deserted beach, the sight of a delicately assembled structure like the teepee fort can't fail to arrest one's attention. What sort of person(s) constructed this? Extrovert rather than introvert, likely; young, probably; feelings of insecurity, maybe; building sense, surely. Of course it would make for a neat twist in a story if the builder was someone completely unexpected, like an older woman, who lives nearby in her own home, on a small but adequate pension from her share of community property she got when she divorced her boring husband of thirty years. So why did she erect this teepee? It's intriguing me already. Don't steal this story!
Let's use the teepee metaphor a little further to explore the selection of elements needed to write the story. I'm currently reading "Letters to a Young Novelist," by the 2010 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Mario Vargas Llhosa. I'm not so young, but never mind; it's interesting. Llhosa describes the elements one needs to decide on when setting out to write a story as:
- level of reality
More on Llhosa later.
Thursday, September 30, 2010
Some of the books I remember from those formative years included most of the works of Charles Dickens, Robt. Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Booth Tarkington, and an assortment of other individual classics. But this is not meant to be an exhaustive reading list, just a takeoff point for reflections on a few, perhaps lesser known, but personal choices.
I read "Tom Brown's School Days," by Thomas Hughes at a time when I was thinking about what high school I might go to. Certainly the choices available bore no resemblance to the nineteenth century English public school that Tom was sent off to board at. I admired his sense of honor and bravery while there, and the hardships he came through in that difficult, sometimes brutal environment, to become a leader among his school peers. When I peruse those pages today, it's a wonder to me how I got through Hughes' Victorian style of 'Rule, Brittania!' literary expression, but the story was somehow deeply satisfying to the boy I was at the time.
An odd one next, "The Amboy Dukes," by Irving Shulman, which I read when I was at a NYC public high school in the late Forties. The old neighborhoods in south Queens where I lived were changing, with more of the inner city gang culture beginning to appear in our far out reaches of the city. Initially I thought it was a bit exciting, and of course girls were becoming a major related attraction. "The Amboy Dukes" story dramatized such developments; I knew the neighborhoods, and in a way, the characters of that story. But ultimately, I judged the story so disheartening. Luckily for me, I guess.
I'll close the chat with "How Green Was My Valley," by Richard Llewellyn. By this time I had started college, commuting daily from my home in Queens to CCNY, up in the Bronx. Being one of a large family of boys and one sister, I was taken with the closeness of the large family of young men and their sister, and loving parents, living in a coal mining community in Wales around the turn of the century. The narrator was the youngest son of the family, and described his coming of age trials in the harsh school system of that time and place, and the rough-and-tumble world of the youths his age. His father and all his brothers were miners, and if they did have a cheerful, song-filled approach to life, living was nonetheless hard with the wages and labor unrest of the time. The father had hoped his youngest son, a bright lad, would go on to a higher education than any of the rest had had. It was not to be, because as his brothers left one-by-one for a better life in America, the young boy passes up his chance for higher schooling and goes down into the mines to work alongside his beloved father. I think I was so overcome by the sentiment of it that, along with other factors, I decided to leave college and go to work as an apprentice in an uncle's construction union. That ill-advised foray didn't last too long--the work was too irregular, and I went back to school the next semester.
The formative power of books might often be a great thing.
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
In early sections of the story the drama plays out in the kitchen of the Addams house, during evenings of card playing, eating supper, and with Frankie giving voice to her anxieties and frustrations, her vague plans for breaking out of the maddening stasis of her life, only to be brought down to earth time and again by the more sage and practical Berenice, who's had four husbands and has been around the bend. Frankie's diction is forever entertaining, as she reaches for words and expressions of her feelings that belie her age. The sense of the slow moving rhythm of life in the small town is portrayed in their conversations, and in Frankie's restless pacing around the kitchen, and her volatile outbreaks. Although there is an underlying bond between Frankie and Berenice, Frankie sometime uses Berenice as a foil for her anger using aggressive language, but Berenice lets her have it back in style. Sometimes, to work out her pent-up anguish, Frankie practices knife-throwing against the kitchen wall. She alarms us.
The indignities and injustices of race relations more common in that era come out in some of Berenice's stories, and is evident from mannerisms of Berenice's friends, but Frankie doesn't seem much, if at all, tainted by that evil. In fact she is a sometimes visitor to Berenice's ancient mother, who tells her fortune, and is friends with Berenice's foster brother. It's amusing to hear Frankie attempt to give him her eloquently phrased version of grownup advice.
In Frankie's attempt to assume a maturity she doesn't have, she roams an unfamiliar side of town and befriends a alcohol-fogged soldier from the nearby army base, and agrees to meet him that night at his hotel to go dancing. Again, it's very amusing to hear her try to converse with this sodden soldier like a grownup, but soon the scene escalates into a trip to his room and Frankie has to almost bite off his tongue and smash him in the head with a pitcher to escape.
Frankie plans to escape her stifling environment by getting her brother and his fiance to take her with them after their upcoming wedding, and they can then have adventures together while roaming the world. It seems her last chance--and she's devastated when they go off on their honeymoon without her. Her world has collapsed.
In a sort of anti-climax, or epilogue, a couple of months later Frankie has found a very compatible new girlfriend in town, and it looks like life will go on after all. Sadly, Berenice is getting married once more, and has served a notice of quitting to Mr. Addams. We'll miss her.
Sunday, July 25, 2010
The NY Review of Books had an intriguing review by Wyatt Mason on a book written by David Lipsky,"Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace," published by Broadway, 320 pp. $16.99. The book encompasses a collection of conversations between Lipsky and Wallace.
Although Wallace's fiction has at times been cited as "excessive—not edited—arbitrary—self indulgent—mad—gibberish—nonsense", such criticism may have owed to his being "an avant-garde writer. He believed that one of fiction's main jobs was to challenge readers, and to find new ways of doing so." All well and good, and I may read some of his work to form my own assessments, but I was especially attracted in this review to a short section that analyzed a "spoken casualness that would become a characteristic quality of Wallace's prose. An excerpt from a Wallace story includes a suicidal-depressive narrator's description of his state of mind when he witnessed the driver of his bus get seriously injured:
I felt unbelievably sorry for him and of course the Bad Thing (an euphemism for his depression) very kindly filtered this sadness for me and made it a lot worse. It was weird and irrational but all of a sudden I felt really strongly as though the bus driver were really me. I really felt that way. So I felt just like he must have felt, and it was awful. I wasn't just sorry for him, I was sorry as him, or something like that.
The reviewer suggests: "The mix of registers here is typical of Wallace: intensifiers and qualifiers that ordinarily suggest sloppy writing and thinking ("unbelievably"; "really" used three times in the space of a dozen words; "something like that") coexisting with the correct use of the subjunctive mood ("as though the driver were"). The precision of the subjunctive—which literate people bother with less and less, the simple past tense increasingly and diminishingly being used in its place—is never arbitrary, and its presence suggests that if attention is being paid to a matter of higher-order usage, similar intention lurks behind the clutter of qualifiers. For although one could edit them out of the passage above to the end of producing leaner prose—
I felt sorry for him. It was irrational, but I felt as though the driver were me. I wasn't just sorry for him, I was sorry as him.
—the edit removes more than "flab": it discards the furniture of real speech, which includes the routine repetitions and qualifications that cushion conversation."
The paragraph by Wallace stands out as a unique "voice," that thing we're always being challenged to develop in our fiction writing, while at the same time being advised to tighten-up our prose, weed out all but the necessary adverbs and adjectives, "kill the little darlings," meaning our effusive metaphors, similes, and erudite words, and more often than not the use of any constructs like subjunctive moods (I wonder if Hemingway ever used them). Such tightening-up might not always be the best approach.
I think Mason has offered some nice insights for writers in his review. (As a postscript, I was also sad to read in the article that Wallace committed suicide in 2008.)
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
A few that spring to mind are "Catcher in the Rye," "How Green Was My Valley," "Lolita," and "The Great Gatsby." They all seem to have had that seamless, enfolding, fictional dream quality in both the character's voice and his narration of his own story.
In the case of a third-person story, a great deal more latitude exists for distancing the voice of a character and the voice of an independent narrator who tells the story. Perhaps any of the Charles Dickens stories would do to illustrate this, where the narrator has an educated, intellectual voice, clearly different than the character's own, lower class voice, or that of the criminal and violent class characters' voices.
In other third-person stories the narrator's voice may closely fit the intellect, mannerisms,and diction of the main characters in the story, and the reader remains generally unaware of the presence or agency of the narrator. This seems to have generally been the case in stories by Alice Munro, or William Trevor, for examples.
In the matter of narrator strategy, an author once wrote that he likes to be informed from the beginning how a particular story came into existence--how is it that it came to be written down for himself and others to read. Not many stories try to answer that question; most just take off into the fictional dream, but some, like David Copperfield, or Moby Dick, take a shot at letting us know how the story we are reading came about. The strategy can make for a compelling narrator presence.
A recent T. C. Boyle story published in The New Yorker, "A Death in Kitchawank," makes the case for still another strategy, the introduction of a second narrator, who inserts his own observation of the story events, and at a later point in time than the original narrator. The second narrator's asides, included as brief, italicized paragraphs, describe the emotions and responses of one of the secondary characters to the story's events. It didn't seem to make any dramatic changes to the original telling of events, but provided additional, bittersweet shadings toward a better understanding of that one character. Like other innovations in fiction writing, this could be a useful tool for a writer to think about.
Friday, May 28, 2010
The sketch is of a derelict truck, a Willys Overland, circa 1929 -1932 (I owned a Willys 1932 sedan once, long ago). I'd noticed the truck many times, half-hidden in the trees and shrubs, as I drove past on one of our county roads. There are no buildings visible in the area. Judging by the utility boxes on the back of the truck, it might have been some sort of repair/service vehicle, perhaps serving the logging companies that once operated here before the industry went into decline.
I searched my disorganized files for a few photos of old, abandoned timber sawmills, and nearby workers' houses, which I'd come across while working on two earth dams in northern California forests, but the photos remain hidden away somewhere. The memories of seeing those relics, closed chapters of other forgotten stories, came to mind as I sat sketching this truck.
Gathering such woolly material for stories is always part of the process, but it needs writing, too.
Friday, April 30, 2010
While viewing this unfinished portrait--watercolor on Tyvek (a semi-glossy film)--my internal fiction writer glossed over thematic material that might inspire a related short story: 1) Each were aware they may have the same lover, and seized on the modeling session to gain intuition over what to do next; or 2) The daughter had been given up for adoption as an infant and believed she had traced her mother--or had she? or 3) The girl had learned her mother was thinking of leaving her husband, the girl's father, and their mood is communicated by body and words.
The art seemed to lend itself as a springboard into some intriguing fiction themes. To be revisited.
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Whence, then, the acquired taste for Chekhov's stories? David Jauss, writing in The Writer's Chronicle, Mar./Apr. 2010, offers some insight. His article, "Returning Characters to Life: Chekhov's Subversive Endings," examines how Chekhov tends to end his stories by returning his characters to life and the problems created either by their change or their failure to change." In his stories, even when the character changes, "their changes either fail to last, merely complicate the existing conflict, or create a new and often greater conflict."
Today's writers who have had some exposure to degree programs, seminars, or workshops, usually work within the classic model of beginning with a character who faces some sort of major conflict, the conflict intensifies, often interrupted by other sub-conflicts, until there is some climax at which the problem(s) is resolved, or not, leaving the character changed in some conclusive manner thereafter. Not so with Chekhov: "But for all of their apparent inconclusiveness, his stories do have endings; they're just not the kinds of endings favored by...the average viewer of The Sopranos." Nice touch, that, hey? "They are subversive endings, endings designed to undercut our expectations and, thereby, force us to examine our conceptions about life and human nature."
Jauss cites and examines a wide array of Chekhov stories to demonstrate the various categories of subversive endings used by Chekhov to such powerful effect. Jauss says "Many of today's writers write as if unaware of some of the possibilities Chekhov opened up, and thus they end their stories in highly predictable and conventional ways." Jauss's article is suggested as a worthwhile reference for writers to broaden horizons for structuring their stories. A list of Chekhov's subversive endings as categorized by Jauss will give some idea of the range and depth of analysis provided:
2) Reverse Epilogues
3) Echo Endings
4) Chiastic Endings
5) False Climaxes
6) Omitted Climaxes
7) External Climaxes
8) Temporary Climaxes
9) Complication-creating Climaxes
10) Conflict-creating Climaxes
11) Extended Anti-Climaxes
12) Shifts in Address, Tense, and/or POV
The chance to revisit and appreciate Chekhov's stories will be an added benefit.
Sunday, February 28, 2010
This is the final strip of storyboard graphics for "The Summit." After taking the time to mull over the previous blog, with its story board and highlighting of interim complications/problems, the current revision of the short story seemed to invite a tightening up. The beginning of story implied a backstory of having just survived an avalanche, which was dropped. The characters have enough problems on their hands as is, and it seemed enough to show they're hard-pressed to achieve their goal of reaching the summit. Similarly, the complications of insufficient supplies of supplementary oxygen tanks, and strains of a failing relationship, furnished enough tension without adding the woman's secret knowledge of a pregnancy discovered just before their expedition. The story board seemed a good focusing tool for identifying perhaps too many complications, just as it might have been useful to alert the writer of no obvious, central or main complication that could provide ample tension for a reader.
The scene of arriving at the cobblestone altar to Kali on the summit showed a major turning point, with a debilitating decline in the physical condition of the scientist. The woman, almost physically spent herself, faces the daunting task of getting her incapacitated partner down the stormy mountain--the descent panel. She takes shelter for the night beneath a canopy of fallen rocks in the "notch,"--see the night shelter panel. Her partner is now unresponsive and she can only guess at the severity of his condition. After a fitful night the woman awakens to the early gray light of dawn. She checks for vital signs of her partner, but other than a still warm body temperature, she doesn't detect any. Depressed and exhausted she goes in and out of sleep and wakefulness. In one of her awakenings, she sees a figure at the entrance to her shelter. At first she perceives it to be their guide, Ranpur, but she gradually becomes aware of all the physical characteristics of the goddess, Kali, blue-skinned, holding a sword and human head. The Kali figure tells her to leave her partner and descend the mountain. The woman is frightened and confused--she can't just leave him without knowing if he's dead. Kali can't be consulted about anything further--she's gone.
The idea for the story arose in part from reading of the disastrous events in 1996 when 15 people died trying to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. Eight of these people, men and women, died in a confused scenario when three or four parties climbing simultaneously made a series of errors. In desperate attempts by the survivors to get off the storm swept mountain, partners unable to continue were left behind, whether dead or alive.
And so, the dilemma of our woman character: was it Ranpur, or the product of a stressed out imagination? Does it matter--should she leave while she still has the strength? Would the reader?
Well, the story, and the storyboard, were enjoyable to create, and will probably be repeated for some future stories.
Saturday, January 30, 2010
Some writers have only the barest of concepts in mind as they commence a first draft of a story; others prefer to work with a written outline, listing perhaps main characters, the principal and secondary problems, interim resolutions of secondary problems along the way, and a final resolution. Another idea is to engage the left brain in the conceptual process, and develop a story board before proceeding into the first written draft. The graphics needn't be elaborate, perhaps using only stick figures for characters and very rough sketches for the rest, but it may stir the imagination and help visualize the sequence of key scenes that are most dramatic in telling the story. The story board might also alert the writer to how well the arc of tension rises through the story toward some inexorable release in a final resolution of the main problem.
Story boards are most often considered for developing the very short stories of children's picture books, but they can, and have been, used for considering the skeletal structure of longer fiction, including novels. Whereas the story board might contain a graphic treatment for every page in a child's picture book, it might only show a panel for each major change of setting, or each complication, in the longer forms of fiction.
The partial story board shown above relates to my short story tentatively called, The Summit, which is currently being revised. The story opens (1) with the three characters, an older scientist, his much younger lover, an engineer, and a local guide. They are climbing a mid-difficulty peak in northern India. Their position is precarious, having just survived an avalanche, the westerners are resorting to supplemental oxygen, and the story needs to get moving. In (2) they face the next challenge on this lesser known route--a steep escarpment requiring some technical climbing. It seems important not to get bogged down in details here, but to just show the harrowing conditions. In (3) the climbers take refuge in a small cave on the face to escape worsening weather conditions. To pass time, the scientist draws his companions into a topic much on his mind, the existence of god. He's prone to dismiss it as myth, but seems apprehensive of newer complexities uncovered by science that may touch on it. The engineer offers one of the elementary theological arguments for god, but has little interest in the subject. She has more immediate concerns--what to do about a recently discovered pregnancy, and an intuition that the relationship is almost over. The guide simply makes them aware he is a devotee of Kali. Of course, there's not time to delve very deeply into the god or personal issues, but the idea is to show a state of mind that sets a course for what follows. As soon as the weather breaks a bit, the climb resumes. In (4) the route taken encounters a deep slipped-out region of rock, called 'the notch,' which they must cross on their path to the summit. The guide disappears during the crossing, and is assumed to have fallen into a crevice somewhere in the notch.
The complete story board for this short story is 8 panels total, and was done to aid the revision process. The blog for next month will show the final panels, together with a discussion of the remaining story. Comments are invited, and hope to see you back here then.