Thursday, December 29, 2011

mythic characters

An interesting article, "The Absence of Their Presence: Mythic Characters in Fiction," by Steven Schwartz, appears in The Writer's Chronicle, Dec. 2011. Schwartz shows how developing a mythic character in a fiction piece requires some attention to the use of the point of view (POV) chosen to narrate the story. A basic concept is a need to stay out of the head of the mythic character. The reader gets to know him or her only through dialog and action, and through reports of the story narrator. Even in a third-person, omniscient POV, the narrator should not move into the head of the mythic character to show any of his feelings or thought process.

"What might seem less than more at first--an external perspective versus an internal view--turns out to be the necessary narrative device for creating their unique myths.
Using "Moby Dick" Schwartz illustrate's his point:
"With more conventional characters we may feel cheated when their motivations remain opaque, and their psyches, like Ahab's, ultimately unknowable. But we do not make the same demands of mythic characters, often because the prearranged audience in the story reflects our own bafflement. By their surrogate reactions and scrutiny, they preempt our silent protests. That is, we need (the POV narrator) to act as our agent of disbelief..." and, "...we may clearly see what (the mythic character) do(es), but not why, and it's the why that creates a chilling gap of suspense."

Of course the mythic character has to present actions and dialog that elicit a tension and bafflement which grow to suspense. Often appearing as an outsider, with abnormal behavior, the writer should avoid having the observer-narrator explain away the mythic character's motivations, and "never minimize the complexity nor the significance of the strange."

Schwartz explores the mythic dimensions of Jay Gatsby, in Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," and of Bartleby, in Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener." I've read and enjoyed Gatsby, though he doesn't quite hold a mythic dimension for me. Still, we are never invited into Gatsby's head to discover what he really feels about his experience, and we have only Nick Carraway's first-person POV for a subjective opinion on Gatsby. Gatsby is an outsider in his society, but never really seems to show a strange or abnormal behavior. Bartleby, however, does seem to show such behavior, and in abundance.

Schwartz uses a Steven Millhauser short story, "The Knife Thrower," to illustrate other points about writing the mythical character. Interestingly, Millhauser uses the plural first-person, we, to serve as both narrator and audience watching the controversial knife thrower, Hensch, as he visits their town for a one-time performance. The narrator alludes to rumors that Hensch, in his early carnival days, had badly wounded an assistant. Now, the narrative leaves open a possibility that Hensch in his present performance mortally wounds an audience volunteer, a girl, who had wished to be marked by him. Schwartz discusses the story's use of the first person plural POV:

"All of which makes for a strangely normative viewpoint that in its plurality gives additional weight to its judgment of Hensch. On the other hand, this impersonal "we" relies on rumor and hearsay and is even more incapable of penetrating Hensch''s mystery than an individual observer-narrator such as Nick Carraway ... would be in gaining confidences, creating an extra layer of insulation from the subject. And Millhauser clearly wants it that way to promote the morally ambiguous atmosphere and mythic tone...

"At the conclusion of "The Knife Thrower," illustrating the elusive nature of the mythic, the collective viewpoint voices its frustration. The more we thought about it, the more uneasy we became, and in the nights that followed, when we woke from troubling dreams, we remembered the traveling knife thrower with agitation and dismay. This could well stand as a summary of all mythic characters. Fascinatingly inconclusive, they trick us into remembering them by the absence of their presence."

Creating a mythic character may be quite a challenge.

Friday, November 25, 2011

serial novels

The NY Times (11/21/2011) reports that the writer, Mark Z. Danielewski ("House of Leaves," "Only Revolutions") is planning a 27 volume novel, titled "The Familiar." The novel is planned to be released with one new volume every three months, beginning in 2014. Knopf Doubleday is reported to have paid one million dollars for the first ten books.

Danielewski has an optimistic view that a huge, long-running, serial release like his will generate perhaps daily, or at least ongoing, buzz about the characters and story-line. He hopes for something similar to what unfolds in newspaper columns, radio talk shows, and public conversations during a season of popular TV episodes, like the recent "Sopranos," or the current "Mad Men."

"Literature is capable of being a subject that people want to catch up on or discuss, whether at a coffee shop or a watercooler," Mr. Danielewski said. "It can become an intrinsic part of their dialogue." His editor says the books will be an attempt to create a "serial relationship" with the readers.

Well, certainly J. K. Rowling had epic success with serial releases (7) of her Harry Potter fantasy novels over about 10 years. According to Wikipedia, her book series has sold about 450 million copies.

Another greatly successful novel series was the eight books, beginning with "Anne of Green Gables," written by Canadian author Lucy Maude Montgomery, and published between 1908 and 1921. The books track the life of Anne, beginning when she arrives as a precocious 11-year old orphan at a farm on Prince Edward Island in Canada, up until she is a teacher there in her early fifties. The books have sold about 50 million copies, according to Wikipedia, and are included in school curriculums all over the world.

An example of success in serial novel publication in a different genre is Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin seafaring adventures, which included 20 novels published between 1969 and 1999. Jack Aubrey is a British Royal Navy officer, and Stephen Maturin is ship's surgeon, who serve together at sea during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. This series sold over 2 million copies, according to Wikipedia.

A more common serial novel enterprise is, perhaps, the more manageable trilogy. A good example of a well-done trilogy is the recent "Hunger Games," by Suzanne Collins. It is a young adult, science fiction series set at some time in what could be a not too distant future, in which the surviving sociopolitical structure of North America has been reduced by internal wars to a despotic capitol and twelve outlying districts--a thirteenth was assumed to have been annihilated--and wherein the districts serve all the economic needs of the capitol. Annual 'Hunger Games,' gladiatorial contests organized by the capitol, in which a male and female from each district are selected by lottery to fight until the death of all but one, serve to keep the masses sufficiently traumatized, and entertained. Each of the books in this series were on best-seller lists, and were critically acclaimed.

It is interesting to note in Wikipedia the structure adopted by Collins for each of her books in the series:
Each book in The Hunger Games trilogy has 27 chapters and is further divided into 3 sections of 9 chapters each. Collins says that this format comes from her playwriting background, which taught her to write in three acts. Her previous series, The Underland Chronicles, was written in the same way, as Collins is "very comfortable" with this structure. She sees each group of nine chapters as a separate part of the story, and comments that she still calls those divisions "act breaks".
It seems interesting to organize the structure of a story, as Collins has done here. It is reminiscent of the very organized and focused method advocated by Jon Franklin in his "Writing for Story." Franklin is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author. His craft has been honed on creative non-fiction short stories, but his writing advice seems equally valuable for fiction writers. More
next time on Franklin's methods that may be of use for serial novels.

That's it for some reflections for now on writing serialized fiction. Most 'unsung' writers would probably be happy to have the one novel that sells on the order of 30,000 copies. Onward!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

the God theme in literature

Poetry and prose writers through the ages have produced some epic creative works with their visions of the immortal God(s), as conceived at particular times in history. Think of the Greek plays and epic poems, the Hindu epics, and the Middle Eastern and European pagan mythologies. The gods and super-heroes in these may be immortal beings endowed with supernatural powers, but they generally resemble or approximate human form, and have familiar human appetites.

The rise of the later monotheistic religions, beginning with Judaism and proceeding through Christianity and Islam, present a more mysterious God, but either through revelation or inspiration, the later writers retain some anthropomorphic qualities for the one God. For example, He occasionally speaks in a familiar language; He's concerned with interpersonal relationships between Himself and humans, and between humans; and He has given some laws which are to govern these relationships.

The descriptive qualities and characteristics of God given by these three dominant monotheistic religions have not changed much, if at all, in the last 1500 to 2000 years, and seem somewhat frozen in the language and conceptual abilities of the authors who committed them to writing. The stasis became reason enough for some philosophers to declare God was now dead. Further modern scholarship, scriptural criticism, and science, have continued to bump up against the traditional, dogmatic views of God. Indeed, there now seems a plethora of books by modern writers promoting the atheist view: God is not Great, by Christopher Hitchens; The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins; and others. None of the atheists seem, however, to adequately address a resulting, fundamental issue of why then is there something instead of nothing?

Theologians have sometimes been hampered by religious authorities and a fear of heresy from more fully exploring the questions and nature of a revealed God in a religious dogma. Too bad. A lot more might have been discovered in all those years.

Even literary fiction might happen onto some useful insights to God, through imaginative story-telling, guided by human experience and psyche. Think: Moby Dick. Recently I came across a reference to Kafka in an article by Robert Pogue Harrison (NY Review of Books, Oct. 13, 2011), which got me thinking again about this topic:

"In his conversations with Gustav Jaknouch, Kafka reportedly remarked:

God dwells in darkness. And that is a good thing, because without the protecting darkness, we should try to overcome God. That is man's nature.

"These are the words of a modern individual speaking in the wake of what Nietzsche called the death of God. Something similar could be said of Shakespeare. Like Kafka's Deus absconditus, he withdraws into a protective darkness that prevents us from getting a secure handle on him, hence from overthrowing him."

Awesome. Hope the topic was of interest to blog readers.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

writing like it's the day job

Writing, for most writers, is a philosophical pleasure that needs to be supported by a day job. And maybe that's not such a bad thing. Most of us do want our books to be published and read, but except for a chosen few, the rewards are apt to be very modest for the long hours and energies invested in the writing.

The writer, Don Lee, describes a common chain of thought and events accompanying publication, as told in his interview by Jeanie Chung (Oct./Nov. 2011,Writers Chronicle):

"Maybe this will be big. And most of the time, it's not big. Most of the time, it goes all right. You get some nice reviews, maybe some not so nice reviews, and you sell a few copies, or not, and you move on. It's just a little blip. The purpose for your writing cannot be for that moment of publication. It has to be about writing the book itself."

It's a good, sobering reflection. It has to be about wanting to spend time alone with a particular exploration of thoughts and feelings, all channeled through a handful of characters and places dragged up from a subconscious mind. Sometimes it may be to explore past experience from other viewpoints, or to push past outcomes in different directions, or along new paths, and see what happens next. Most of the time, if we see our way through to finishing a manuscript, we can benefit by an enrichment of our conscious and subconscious being. Publication might only be a potential, added bonus.

As Lee's interviewer, Chung, noticed about a Lee character's commitment to making a huge sculpture that can never be exhibited and might not necessarily even be 'art.' For him, Chung surmises, it was all about the process:

"In some ways, (the character, Lyndon) may be advocating more of a workmanlike approach. Like it's your day job; whatever you do for a living, most people aren't working toward one big moment. It's just what you do every day."
Lee agrees, as might many other writers. A project one works on as an engineer is not usually viewed as heading toward any one big moment; it's the day job and we do the best we can at that stage in our career. In a related way, the fiction we write outside the normal day job doesn't have to be aimed at a one big moment, e.g., publication, with blockbuster sales; we do what satisfies the creative impulse best. Like Lyndon, maybe it's just engaging in the process.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

sensitive language

Here's a change-up pitch from the mound: instead of jumping off into a discussion of writing, this is a photograph of my watercolor painting, "Meditative Woman," which got a first prize in the current "Art in the Redwoods" exhibition at Gualala Art Center. The painting had its beginnings at a Life Drawing session held weekly at our local art center. Recognition for writers and artists can be so few and far between, so please allow this short and delicious vanity of including it in my blog.

The writings of V. S. Naipul interest me ("A House for Mr. Biwas","The Mystic Masseuse," et. al.), though Naipaul can be an enigma to me at times, too. I'm reminded of him from an article by Joseph O'Neill in the current issue of Atlantic Magazine. The novels I've read by Naipul are of life and people in his homeland of Trinidad, and the characterizations are vivid. Naipaul has had some bad press here and there from critics, but chiefly, it seems, about his colonial and racial attitudes, and his personal, marital life. His writing, after all, has earned him a Nobel Prize for Literature (and a knighthood). Some well intentioned people can be quick to censor others on a number of sensitive social issues, particularly those that may deal with race, class, or religion. I think that in the long run our First Amendment, dealing with Freedom of Expression, has it about right. We may not like what a person says or writes; still, we might gain something from it. There's at least a possibility that critics could be overly narrow, or too ideological themselves.

So as not to be too academic, I'd like to talk about a party I attended years ago at the home of my brother and his wife. She, and her brother who was also there, are first generation Asian-Indian-descent immigrants to the U.S. from a Caribbean nation, which is populated by mostly Asian-Indian and African-descent people, and all of them dark-skinned. My brother and I are white. In this party atmosphere the word 'nigger' was occasionally used in an affectionate manner. My brother-in-law probably noticed I was uncomfortable with his use of the word with his black friend. He laughed and said the word only meant 'ignorant,' and I shouldn't be worried about using it in a friendly way. Of course, the word has become too loaded with baggage in this country for me to do any such thing. Still, it's odd for a certain word to be accepted in good humor between certain people, and be sanctioned for use by other people. Naipaul would be quick to challenge any sanction.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

stealth endings in short stories

Occasionally as readers we encounter short stories that have 'stealth' endings. The stealth tag relates to the USAF B-2 Stealth Bomber, which is designed to fly under any radar surveillance on the way to its destination. Sometimes the trajectory of a story is almost as elusive, and we don't quite know where or how an impact is going to be felt. We may put ourselves on guard not to be too devastated by the culmination of ominous warnings, but if the author can stay under the radar for the best possible moment to break through and deliver the unexpected, a stealth strike can be memorable.

I am currently reading an excellent short stories collection, "Binocular Vision," by Edith Pearlman (2011). A couple of her initial stories had this sort of stealth effect on me. A good opener for a discussion, though, that has long lingered in my mind, is "Million $$$ Baby," by F.X. Toole, included in his story collection Rope Burns. The Oscar Award winning movie of the same name was based on this short story. It was about a young woman who had grown up in a hard-scrabble town in the Ozarks, and was intent on becoming a boxing champion as her way out of a bleak future. Maggie Fitzgerald wins the grudging help of a trainer/manager, Frankie Dunn. The writer, Toole, had worked as a 'cut-man,' patching up fighters during actual bouts, so he is able to write vivid fight scenes with Maggie in the ring. She fights her way to the top of her division, but is seriously injured and is hospitalized as a paraplegic. She has no hope, and asks Frankie to 'put her down.' Her plight is indeed hopeless, but this is way outside Frankie's religious beliefs. He has the means, though; he has frequently used legal injections to stem the flow of blood from fighters during bouts. He knows what too much can do, too, and it wouldn't be detected. Still, he refuses. Maggie seems to understand, but bites her tongue off in a later suicide attempt, which is thwarted. Another bedside scene, late at night, and Maggie pleads with Frankie by eye motions to do it. It becomes a devastating stealth scene. You didn't think he could, but it seemed somehow right.

In one of Pearlman's stories, "Tess," a child is born to a young woman of apparently limited mental ability. The child, Tess, has major congenital problems. Tess needs continuous life support systems and is connected by two IV tubes from the machines to her heart and intestinal system. Nonetheless she is a beautiful, though mostly listless, child, who is doted on by the nursing attendants. There are lovely, written scenes of the nurses attention and limited responses of the angelic child, but there doesn't seem to be any fulfilling outcome in store for the reader. First-person narratives by the young mother are interspersed throughout. She visits her child weekly in the beginning, while she tries to maintain her marginal, waitress job, but time between visits soon lengthens. She seems to keep a loving attitude, and vaguely understands her child's perpetual need for the tubes sustaining her life. In the stealth ending, she removes the slow pumping blood tube to Tess's heart and hides it beneath the sheets before she ends her final visit.

In Pearlman's story, "Fidelity," an aging travel writer with dimming sight lives with his wife near Boston. He doesn't actually travel, but writes of exotic travel adventures for a small, high-brow publication called World Enough. We get glimpses of his stories, which are very imaginative, and of the close relationship of the writer, Victor, his wife, Nora, and the editor in New York, Greg. The editor is always very solicitous in his calls and letters to Victor and Nora, and they were all close friends when everyone lived in New York. When an unusual antique armoire in Greg's room turns up in one of Victor's stories, Greg is aware Nora must have described it to him. In Victor's next story, which we read with Greg, it describes a traveling couple lying in each others arms, awaiting the eruption of a volcano near their lodgings on an island, whereupon they "will sink into that blue that never changes, unlike the fitful New York sky you and she watched those afternoons Greg you bastard." Greg learns from their daughter that Victor dies soon afterward, then Nora ten days later, from swallowing something. A strong stealth ending, in which the infidelity unfolds at the very end.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

unreliable narrators

(I'll add some artwork tomorrow; need to get this post in on last day of month.)

The writing strategy for a story told by an 'unreliable narrator' presents an interesting challenge to an author, and a recent short story in The New Yorker, "Gravel," by Alice Munro, set a few thoughts in motion.

The narrator in "Gravel" is never transparently unreliable, as is the narrator in "Catcher in the Rye," by J. D. Salinger, as that novel unfolds. However, a question of reliability in "Gravel" surfaces as we realize the events leading up to and surrounding a childhood tragedy are being told by a grown woman drawing on her earlier memories as a kindergartner. The story is constructed so well that it's worth exploring in this posting.

It takes just a column or two for Munro to develop her principal characters and a problem or complication that this story will deal with. The story seems to switch between the Point-of-View (POV) of a child, and the POV of her grownup self, recalling. The back-and-forth is relatively seamless as Monroe moves between the consciousness of each. There's never any question of who.

The younger sister, the kindergartner, is not named; her older sister, Caro, attends grade school. The father, a kind, educated, but gray sort of insurance agent, travels a lot.

The mother "had got busy with various fund-raising schemes for the theater and donated her services as an usher. She was good-looking and young enough to be mistaken for an actress. She'd begun to dress like an actress, too, in shawls and long skirts and dangling necklaces. She'd left her hair wild and stopped wearing makeup. Of course, I had not understood or particularly noticed these things at the time. My mother was my mother."

This passage kind of suggests the seamless way the mother and daughter each inhabit the consciousness of the narration. The kindergartner couldn't possibly have taken in all the earlier comprehensive detail, but her rudimentary observations are being fleshed out by an older self looking back.

A little later: "Well, then came a development that could have been foreseen, and probably was, but not by my father...She told him that the baby was Neal's."

"Was she sure?"

"Absolutely. She had been keeping track."

"What happened then?"

Neal is one of the amateur actors in the theater. This play-by-play commentary seems to be the sort of breathless commentary of the bewildered child, looking at astounding events unfolding. It works so well.

Neal is an idealistic liberal, a drop-out and turn-on sort of guy. The pregnant mother (she's never named), Neal, and the two girls, move into an old trailer beside a gravel pit outside of the town. One snowy morning the mother spies what she believes to be a wolf, and wants Neal to get a gun and shoot it. They argue.

"Easy. Easy. Let's just think a bit. Guns are a terrible thing. If I went and got a gun, then what would I be saying? That Vietnam was O.K.? That I might as well have gone to Vietnam?"

"You're not an American."

"You're not going to rile me."

It's the kind of laid-back guy he is. He usually smokes pot on weekends, and one time he lets Caro try one, but tells her not to tell her mother.

"I was there, though, and I told. There was alarm, but not quite a row."

"'You know he'd have those kids out of here like a shot,' our mother said."

The father begins to pick the girls up for visits with him on Saturdays, but becomes ill with recurring flu and stops coming for a while. It seems to have an effect on Caro, and she repeatedly sneaks their dog onto the school bus to leave it off at her father's house near her school. Meanwhile the mother begins acting more like a mother than a free spirit as the birth of her new child approaches, and warns the girls about playing at the rain-filled gravel pit near the trailer. Nevertheless the girls wander over to the pit with the dog one day. At one point the younger girl realizes her sister has given her some instructions:

"I was to go back to the trailer and tell Neal and our mother something.

That the dog had fallen into the water and Caro was afraid she'd be drowned.

Blitzee. Drownded.


But Blitzee wasn't in the water.

She could be. And Caro could jump in to save her."

She watches Caro leap into the water with the dog and runs to tell. But there's an odd interval of delay when she gets to the trailer.

The events at the trailer, and the recollections over the years haunt the woman. She's now a professor teaching at a college when Neal notices an article about her in an Alumni annual from his town, where she'd done her undergraduate work, and he writes her. She's reluctant, but agrees to meet him.

Neil tries to reassure her about the events of the past with his be-happy philosophy.

"I see what he meant. It really is the right thing to do. But, in my mind, Caro keeps running at the water and throwing herself, as if in triumph, and I'm still caught, waiting for her to explain to me, waiting for the splash."

Is it a case of the unreliable narrator? Did it really happen as the memories suggest? We can't really know. Great writing, though.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

mythic energies enhance fiction

My sketch is just a lead-in to our theme of immortality--and seeking a presence of eternal, youthful beauty.

Mythic energy in fiction may be hard to define in words, but we usually recognize its presence when we engage it in a work of fiction, whether as a reader, or a writer. When a fiction writer recognizes his story has mythic undercurrents, he would probably do well to sharpen the plot to exploit such material. Fiction that gets published and lasts generally touches on universal themes, stuff that excites emotional resonance in our DNA, and the stuff of myths typically does this for everyone.

Take a classic in YA literature, Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt. The story tells of the Tuck family, in rural, early America, where family members share the secret of a spring that contributes to their immortality. Another myth of the fountain of youth, tells of a search for it in Florida by an earlier, Spanish explorer, Ponce de Leon. Tuck Everlasting is beautifully written, with wonderful pastoral scenes, but it was the mythical undercurrents of immortality, aging, and related secrets, that gave the story its power.

I recently finished a contemporary best-seller that exploits the same theme: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell. In this story of Dutch traders in 1700s Japan, a Japanese woman, a midwife, whom Jacob has fallen in love with, is abducted by a powerful noble, and is forcibly confined in a secluded temple under his control. Ostensibly, the temple mission is to rescue destitute, often disfigured, women, and provide a place of refuge for them. (Spoiler Alert on reading following!) However, under the trappings of goddess worship, the women are made to bear children for the monks. The children are soon removed from the women, presumably to be given to good families on the outside, but actually the children suffer a terrible fate in the quest for the immortality of the noble and his monks. Again, an interesting background story of the Dutch East India Trading Co. activities and its people in early post-Edo era Japan, but with a bizarrely fascinating overlay of a search for immortality.

The yearning for immortality also comes to mind as a theme in Wagner's cycle of The Ring, a series of four operas based on Norse mythology. Our small town enjoyed live, closed-circuit video transmittal from the Metropolitan Opera in New York to our local movie-house for the first two operas of the cycle: Das Rhinegold, and Die Walkure. In the cycle, Wotan seeks to avert the twilight of the gods and preserve their immortality within a newer, and more resplendent Valhalla. In doing so he inadvertently entwines the fate of the gods with the heroic deeds of mortals. The music, staging, and drama has been superlative.

In conclusion, a universal, mythological underpinning has potential for breathing life into a work of fiction.

Friday, April 29, 2011

sketching character and plot

I'll use this post to explore approaches to inserting character and plot in fiction, employing art as a backdrop to the discussion.  

Two thumbnail figures can help set the stage for discussing how to introduce one of the main characters into our work of fiction.  The first charcoal illustration, barely formed, potentially attractive, is a very tentative figure.  Compelling, perhaps, as an art piece, but probably not as a suitably developed story character--yet.  The intent might be to have this character reveal more of herself as the fiction unfolds, and she is tested by the relationships and challenges she encounters in the 'fictional dream,' (as  in John Gardner, "The Art of Fiction").  Each new encounter fleshes her out a little more, so that the reader sees her ever more clearly, though he might bring his own subjective judgment to what he is seeing.  That should be fine with the author who values his readers.

The other illustration considers opening the fictional dream with a clearly shown figure, in a characteristic setting, and a composition and style that is somehow representative of the character.  The challenge for the fictional dream employing this opening may lie less in the suspense of how this type of character will respond to people and situations, but more with the depth and poignancy of the response.

I'm currently reading a novel, "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet," by David Mitchell.  Mitchell seems to have done a good job of starting out with emergent charcoal portraits of two main characters, Jacob, a clerk in the service of the Dutch East Indies Co. in Japan at the end of the eighteenth century, and Orito, a Japanese noblewoman.  Mitchell rather slowly reveals their psychological makeup, filling in the blanks as the characters are stressed, and all to good effect.  It's a wonderful read.

Till next month.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

revising brigadier's daughter

Hated to allow a one month gap in posts but the vagaries of the communications god, Mercury,  struck at my blog in the interval since the last post.  The previous wireless Internet Service Provider (ISP) went out of business, and connection to the net was down for about six weeks.  After making suitable burnt offerings to Mercury, and signing a 2-year contract with AT&T for their wireless data service, my net connection is again up and running.  The transmission speed is just as good for this rural area, about 3 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up, but there are frequent hiccups during transmission, which have the effect of slowing any computer commands a lot.  Maddening stuff.

A lot of writing time was taken up recently in researching literary agents to query for possible representation of "The Brigadier's Daughter," a completed YA novel discussed briefly in my last post.  However, a new book I just read invited another peek at comments my protagonist, Caitlin, makes about the classic, "Moby Dick," during her English class.  "All Things Shining--Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age," by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, devotes a chapter and more to discussion of possible meanings and allusions embedded in "Moby Dick."

 Caitlin is asked to discuss Melville's scene where Queequeg casts dice on the deck of the whaling ship to learn his fate, as an example of Pagan versus Christian attitudes toward death.  The book had been one of Caitlin's favorites, and being the whimsical person she is, she'd constructed an alternate reality for Queequeg.   In her imagination, he was probably from the Afghan village of her immigrant mother (still Pagan, even today).  When challenged by other students, Caitlin makes her case in her best, authoritative manner.  Since the "All Things Shining" book had new information about Queequeg I wanted to go back over Caitlin's discussion to see whether any revision might be useful.

A brief paragraph from the "All Things Shining" book illustrates the magic of Melville's novel:

...the whale is a mystery, so full of meaning that it verges on meaninglessness, so replete with interpretations that in the end they all seem to cancel out.  It is this tantalizing but ungraspable quality of the great Sperm Whale, we are later told--his facelessness, his imposing "pyramidical silence," but also the immensely amplified sense of the "Deity and the dread powers" that lurk within his brow---it is this unrelenting but also unyielding mystery that stands at the center of the universe.  "I but put that brow before you," a central character says.  "Read it if you can."

Heady stuff, but you don't need to be a philosopher to enjoy the drama of "Moby Dick."

Sunday, January 30, 2011

query letter

A Query is the Rock Breaking the Surface
It's been an interesting month of working on a YA novel, "The General's Daughter," which has evolved into "The Brigadier's Daughter."  Someone in an online writer's group pointed out that there was a 1996 movie with the first title, based on a novel of the same name.  Presumably, titles are not copyrighted, but it's no big problem to change it.  The mom is still a one-star general, which works out to be a Brigadier General.  Writer's groups, or writer's workshops, can be tough with critiques of a Work-in-Progress (WIP), but generally no one is shooting to kill, and if the author can just adjust to the flak he might better advance across the beachhead and come out with a better book at the end. 

The last blog talked a little about how the first 5 pages need to 'hook' the reader; they need to compel him to want to read further.  There's an even tighter window of opportunity to grab the attention of an agent or editor to want to read an offered manuscript.  It's one thing to write, say, a 50,000 words YA manuscript, and quite another to write that dreaded one-page query, which somehow has to distill all that material into, at most, about 300 words.  Helpfully, there is an online forum of writers accessible at, where a writer may post a draft query and invite critiques.  Of course there is an art to critiquing material, and not everyone is so artful, but generally a lot can be learned by careful attention to the sum total of all the critiques. 

The opening lines of a fiction query letter always contain introductory details of how the writer chose to contact this particular agent/editor, the title of the completed work, and the genre.  Some include the number of words here, and some insist it belongs at the very end of the query.  Probably the agent/editor would prefer it up here, so that they can decide whether to read further about any work that has an unsuitable number of words for the genre.  Gordon Lish may have been willing to edit down Raymond Carver, but it may be presumptuous of lesser writers to expect such willingness by the editor.

The next part of the query is the 'hook,' two or three lines giving the color of the story and a compelling element of tension about where the story is going.  Here was the first attempt for 'General..'

A prepping journey undertaken by teenagers to signal an independence from parents is difficult. If the parents divorce first, prepping is maybe half over. But when the remaining parent is a dominating, all consuming disciplinarian, an Afghan immigrant mother, who also happens to be a one-star general in the US Army, prepping takes on epic proportions. 

Most of the critiques commented that the voice wasn't appropriate for YA; too 'preachy;' or too academic.  Generally, sitting back and looking at it again, they're right.  That's how it's going to come across to the query reader.  The actual story doesn't have such academic overtones.  It's just the result of laboring to get a whole lot of ideas on the table in a couple of sentences, and using big words to do the job.  Here's a later version after the critiques and a couple of revisions:

When her Army Brigadier General mom is deployed to the war in Afghanistan, 17-yr. old Caitlin is anxious to toss all that horrible top-down discipline she'd grown up with, and make her own decisions. It's her chance to become her own person, but will it take an epic karate battle to discover just who that person is?

It's probably not there yet, but seems a lot better.
Creative Commons License
Fiction Writer's Blog by Gaelwriter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.