Monday, December 31, 2012

stories and memorials for tragedies

Possibly the most soul-draining themes for a story, non-fiction or fiction, include the devastating ethnic tragedies that have befallen peoples of the world.  What set off this line of thought for the present blog was a reading of "The Graves are Walking," by John Kelley, which engages with the death by starvation of over one million people over a couple years period in mid-nineteenth century Ireland, due to failure of the potato crop, and which caused another two million people (in a total population of only five million) to flee their homeland to escape such a death.  There have been larger total deaths in other famines, including 35 million deaths in China in the 1950s, but they didn't have the same imperialist-racist idioms of those in responsible charge of events.

I'd learned the outlines of the Irish tragedy while growing up; my grandparents had emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland later in the nineteenth century, and the folklore of the tragedy used to come out in asides from time to time in families like ours.  Since Ireland had been conquered and was ruled by Britain at the time of the famine, there were plenty of recriminations by the Irish about the enabling role of the British, bordering on charges of willful genocide.  Such willfulness might have been a motivation for some, for others maybe the tragedy owed to a cold-hearted indifference toward the plight of a conquered alien race, and for some it seemed a sign of God's displeasure with the supposed low morals, indolence and superstitions of the Irish race.  Better not to try mitigating God's punishment by lightening His rod with handouts of emergency food and shelter.  It could set a precedent.  Looking at the historical chain of events, the avowed political strategies, and the statistics for the period, there seems ample justification for anger toward the colonial overlords. 

Nonetheless, though the price was high, people survived the tragedy.  There have been recent efforts in Irish study programs at universities and with public sculptures, monuments, and memorial parks in Ireland and the U.S., to commemorate that crushing catastrophe, referred to in Irish as An Gorta Mor, The Great Hunger.  An example is the Irish Hunger Memorial in Battery Park, NYC, near where I grew up.  This seems commendable, but I also get caught up with a concern about public memorials on any grand scale to commemorate a sorrowful episode of victimhood.  Yes, the remembered of An Gorta Mor had a remarkable endurance and courage that helped many to survive, but the artistic dramatization is so often on people as victims and the magnitude of lives lost.  

In a similar vein I think of museums, artifacts, and memorials dedicated to the Jewish Holocaust, to the Armenian massacre, to our own Twin Towers and Oklahoma City terrorist events--non-combatants, civilians who were sacrificed to some megalomania.  Through history, populations were sometimes able to fight and overcome savagery of one would-be conqueror (or fanatic) or another, and it seems  unlikely to be different in the future.  We need the drama of passionate memorials honoring resistance.  The most life-affirming memorials might better focus on the heroic battles waged against oppression, won or lost, and there are plenty of them, but provide simple, quiet groves of prayer or reflection for mourning peaceful victims of atrocities who did not have the opportunity or means to fight back.

Tonight is New Year's Eve; Happy New Year to all.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

finding the character's virtual reality

"We all live in a virtual reality, and the brain is the final arbiter."

The Thinker
The quote, taken from a newspaper interview (NYTimes, 11/26) with Dr. M. Samuels, a neurologist at a Harvard, hospital teaching affiliate, was a cautious response to a colleague's best-selling book on a near-death experience and its accompanying visions ("Proof of Heaven," by Dr. Eben Alexander III).

The quote set me to thinking about an essay I'd just read, by Pablo Medina, titled "Lunacy and Longing: Don Quixote and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Writer's Chronicle, v.45, 2012).  Medina discusses related scenes and connections between the two fiction classics, which were interesting to think about in relation to our introductory quote on virtual reality (VR).

For example, there is the scene where Tom Sawyer persuades his friend Huck to accompany him on the ambush of a company of Arabs camped nearby with an entourage of elephants, camels, mules, and a rich treasure trove.  After the raid, Huck points out that it was just a Sunday-school picnic that they broke up.  Tom retorts that if Huck weren't so ignorant he'd have read Don Quixote, and would have known that the company of Arabs had been turned into the Sunday-school kids by their enemies, the magicians.  We observe that Tom is indeed acting out a borrowed VR, based on his reading of Don Quixote's adventures, while Huck's VR mirrors the down-to-earth, simple life realism of Sancho Panza.

Medina  suggests other parallels between the two books, some dealing with class distinctions and social mores of the two eras, but the idea of the brain interpreting the same scene as different realities for different characters is intriguing (and poses problems for a well-ordered society.)  Nonetheless, it has always been a classical, philosophical challenge to define any reality as 'truth.'  If you deviate too far from a contemporary norm, however, and do not have the mental capacity to grasp the difference, you could be in for difficulties.

The author of a fictional work, though he may strive to narrate his story in a third-person, omniscient, strictly objective point-of-view, will usually introduce some sort of VR for each of his characters, scenes and actions in the story.  And if his protagonist's VR is very unusual, like Don Quixote's, it may be well to have one or two characters with a more grounded VR, like Pancho's or Huck's.   Recognizing at least one character with a VR not too different from a norm might give a reader a little more confidence in staying around to see where the story is going.

To explore these ideas further, we could consider "Moby Dick," by Herman Melville.  Ahab's interpretation of a VR from his own experience is that it is possible for a brute force of nature, the great white whale, Moby Dick, to embody supernatural forces of evil.  He is outraged that this evil force has violated him by ripping his leg away in a past encounter, and so he has vowed to find and destroy Moby Dick.  Indeed, if God were to insult him, he would strike God, himself.  Such is Ahab's VR that he perceives himself to be an equal to God.

Ahab is intriguing, but his VR is so different from most reader's VR that it becomes difficult to find ways to sympathize with his character.  Fortunately Melville gives us a more grounded character, Starbuck, a brave and admirable ship's officer, who has a more down-to-earth VR, and gives the reader opportunities to examine the mind and character of Ahab during their shipboard discussions.  Starbuck is the Sancho Panza of the story, who sees Ahab's misfortune as simply another accident in a dangerous trade, and it is time to drop this Moby Dick obsession and get on with the business of hunting any and all whales, and filling the ship's holds with whale oil.

Well, the topic is certainly not exhausted in the foregoing, but probably worth revisiting in a future blog.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

critiquing fiction with ideas from paintings

Many writers plough through a first draft of their fiction in a heat of creative energy.  There may be a focusing theme, often a central protagonist, or perhaps a group of central characters,  and a framing of the place, or setting, of a story.

Pencil Sketch on Drawing Paper
The initial fast pacing seems all to the good--getting the creative impulse down where it can be studied for what might be needed to make it a better work of art.  To broadly relate the idea of developing a work of fiction as one would do for a painting (see similar discussion in an earlier blog, on 8/23/2009), we can use the preliminary pencil sketch of a reclining woman model, shown here.  The sketch was done during a twenty minute pose at a life drawing workshop.  

The idea is to make a rapid assessment of major forms and spatial relationships presented by the model's pose, then block in the shapes quickly on paper as one continually tests the alignments and proportions of the shapes. One can take some artistic license and depart from a photographic-like realism by selecting some particularly beautiful lines and accenting them in a sort of impressionistic way--perhaps by using a heavy charcoal line in places.  It probably wouldn't be useful to dwell too long on any local regions of the body at this point of the painting, just as it might not be too useful to dwell overly long at any particular conflict resolution contained in the first draft of a fictional work.

Color Wash of Sketch on Drawing Paper
A potentially more exciting phase of the creative work takes place as the artist or author assesses the preliminary work, and judges how better to amplify a potential for drama, by 1) using contrasts of light and dark shapes in the painting--or personalities in the fiction; 2) choosing a color palette for the painting--or mood for the fiction; and 3) studying how best to use such choices for creating eye movement or intellectual movement through the piece.  (The painting here is still very preliminary--a color wash on the original drawing paper.  Think perhaps of a first revision of a fiction draft.  A finished painting would be done on heavier, watercolor paper, using the insights gained in the sketch and wash process.)

Of course, it is not suggested that a writer use all these things in any rigorous checklist; however, if one took time to occasionally consider such analogies for telling a story in a painting and in a story, the insights might become part of a subconscious tool kit for creating a more dramatic and coherent work.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

dystopian plots

Dystopia is a gripping, palpable force at work in some literary works of the past century, and a few of the classics that might come to mind include: Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley; Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell; Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury; and perhaps The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood; Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut; The Hunger Games Trilogy, by Suzanne Collins; and various short stories by F. Kafka, and T. C. Boyle.

The particular dystopian condition that is the framework of the story might be a societal collapse, and a subsequent rise to power of an elite formed to arrest the decline, but usually at the mind-numbing expense of a majority underclass.  In most of these stories the root cause of the societal collapse has been political, the culmination of brutal, catastrophic conflicts, but the collapse might also be driven by a collapse of an environment.

Powerful dystopian stories seem to be on the rise again.  Can they actually be telling us something?  Collins' Hunger Games is a good example of the political story.  The first volume of the Hunger trilogy has already been made into a rather good Hollywood movie.  Now, a new example of the environmental collapse story has been published as The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker.  

In this story, the earth's rotation has inexplicably slowed, and the days are becoming increasingly longer.  As days and nights lengthen, various cultivated foods can no longer be raised in the natural environment.  Society separates into two groups of people: the real timers--those who order their lives by the lengths of night and day (the diurnal cycle increases to 72 hours); and the clock timers--those who attempt to work and sleep by the clock, ignoring the presence of light or dark.  

Other phenomena accompanying the slowing rotation include the decay of the earth's magnetism.  This may be related to the mass beaching of whales on ocean shores, and flocks of birds dropping from the skies.  How strong the physical correlations might be sail past us, but they seem plausible, and the reader rushes on.  The story is narrated by a quiet, sensitive, twelve-yr. old girl, and all the tender, emotional details of a first romance, while she tries to navigate a troubled relationship between her parents, and all amidst this collapsing physical world, make for good, solid reading.

Friday, August 31, 2012

using dialect to spin a tale

I've been rereading Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, and have been intrigued by his use of dialect peculiar to rural folk of northern Mississippi in the early twentieth century.  However, I've heard teachers of writing caution against a use of dialect in stories.  They seem to feel that the use of a proper syntax is the best vehicle for delivering a story of any literary quality.  They of course must allow for exceptions, like Faulkner, but would maintain it's always a hazardous undertaking.

My reflections on a few writing classes suggest that some of these hazards probably include being thought of as not politically correct, or PC; that is, of stereotyping people, especially if the writer may not be of the same socioeconomic class as his characters.  What a straitjacket for creativity.  Even if some of the vocabulary Faulkner uses for  folks of his famous Yoknapatawpha County is obscure, and the syntax  often very irregular, it certainly adds to the mood and moral dimensions of As I Lay Dying, as well as others of his novels and short stories.

One of the works-in-progress in the digital archives of my hard drive is a story that includes migrant farm workers on a truck farm near my boyhood home on Long Island.  They were from Florida, and became farming migrants as the annual growing season started up and progressed north.  I was an occasional worker on the L.I. farm in my later teens, because it was an available job and money was scarce at home.  I spent some long days in the fields alongside the migrants, harvesting vegetables and listening to their stories, and  accompanied them on some of their evening trips to beach towns near our area.  I'll use an excerpt from the draft to give an idea of what I think is a fair representation of a dialect that  intrigued me over the weeks and months I shared with my cohorts.
A field of kneeling, crawling men move forward in the muggy, warm air. The hunched over pickers are strung out along rows of radishes: Wild John, Bama Boy, and Edward, up ahead, to Artie, way back in the rear.  The migrant workers are picking four rows each, snatching up small red globes like found money, and swirling round each bunch with a cord loosened from a bundle carried beneath their belt.  Artie picks from just two rows, hesitant, gauging whether he has enough for a full bunch.  He loops his cord around the stems, pulls a double roll knot, and tosses the bunch to a pickup lane before sliding ahead on his knees.  He uses the back of a dirt-caked hand to wipe away gnats from an earlobe, and right there,  has another of those voojoo-day things, a sense of having been in a place like this before.  Like last summer, with a platoon mucking through a rice paddy in Korea, on his belly, pushing a rifle ahead.  Not so long ago, really.

Edward goes on in his laughing, singsong voice.  “So Lilly’s old man, Chester, he comin’ in a front door, still gots the postman suit and hat on, and Lily and me, we jus’ leavin’ the bedroom and comin’ out the hallway.  When I sees Chester, I fishes out a pad and pencil and I’m ‘zaminin the walls.  ‘I think I got all the numbers I needs, Ma’am, an’ I will be havin' you a es’imate a’ this paint job by tomorr'a mornin’.’”

“Well, you ain’t done no such thing,” says a picker a couple of yards back, laughing.

Edward turns and grins as he’s flying a string around another bunch of radishes.  “Sure ‘n hell I did, ‘n on the way out I tells Chester he can have a choice ‘a the five year, or the ten year warranty on the salmon paint, ‘n the black paint come automatic'al wit’ fifteen years.”

“Salmon ‘n black, my, you sure the man 'a the times,” says Bama Boy.

More laughs and digs on the story from pickers coming up behind .  A blizzard of  bunches flop into the pickup lane as  men waddle forward on their knees.  The farm owner, Mr. Mueller, the only other white picker besides Artie, scowls: damned nonsense is going too far.  He’s working just a few feet behind Edward, tight-lipped, and tugging his strings like he was garroting each redheaded bunch.
Edward has the boys humming now.  “That’s right, no jive,” Edward says, “The next day I’m layin’ low, see, case Chester do a drop-back to see this be a paint job or a snow job.  But the nex’ day—“

 “All right,  enough of that,” Mueller, says.  “We don’t need to be listening to all this trash—we're here to work.  You want to go on like that, pick up your pay and head down the road."

Silence descends, interrupted only by the flutter of leaves as radish bunches continue to loop through the air.  Later, a few comments test the subdued mood, a baseball score, deal-making on used car lots, chicory in coffee.  The migrants feel the tension, but it always be there. Mueller gets up and walks back along the pickup lane, tossing fresh bundles of strings to pickers as they call out, making a tick mark next to their names on his pad, and stops beside Artie.

I'll probably want to work more on the use of dialect in this story.  I think it holds promise for an effective telling of the story.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

intricate themes or universal themes in fiction

A casual reflection on what makes some classic fiction linger in memory suggests character and place are probably the most compelling reasons.  Character often includes a memorable physical appearance, personal traits, and voice.  Place in memorable fiction might be a character's interior state of mind: think of Kafka's stories; or, the external, physical world: think of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, or Llewellyn's coal mining region of Wales.  Also, memorable fiction tends toward having universal themes: love found or requited; bravery or cowardice; faith or lack of it; and so on.  The trappings or settings of any time period may also add to the interest of the story: for example, the clothing worn; the profession or trade of the character; the tools or machines of the time.

The framework of elements found in memorable fiction came to mind while reading Roberto Bolano's "Third Reich."  The novel is worth reading, but time is needed to tell how memorable it will become for me.  Two German couples, including the first-person narrator, Udo, are on holiday in Spain, do a lot of drinking in local bars, become acquainted with two local characters, nicknamed the Wolf and the Lamb, and another withdrawn character, called El Quemado.  He tends a fleet of rickety paddle boats on the beach, and sleeps among his boats each night.  Grotesque burn scars cover much of his body, and he is a very withdrawn man.

The story framework brings to mind some of the structure of Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises," another story set in Spain, with endless bar hopping and drinking, and portraying relationships of the men and women on holiday.  Where Hemingway uses sport fishing as a balancing literary diversion, Bolano uses Udo's passion for a war game, called "Third Reich," a board game based on WWII.  The game includes all the fighting units of the combatant armies, with details right down to the names, strengths, and weaknesses of the individual generals who commanded the actual fighting units.  Depending on the competing players' abilities, the outcome of a game may be different than the actual, historic outcome.  Udo is a renowned expert on the game in his homeland, and he keeps a game board set up in his hotel room while on vacation to help in research needed to write a current article on the game for publication.  Udo eventually teaches Quemado the rudiments of the game, and they begin to play an ongoing game for a few hours every day.  Unsettled by the presumed drowning of his compatriot Charly and the subsequent departure of their two girlfriends for Germany, Udo's game begins to suffer and the German Army positions wither.  Quemado's skill with the Allied Armies fortunes meanwhile improves rapidly, partly aided by the hotel's German expatriate owner spying on the games progress in Udo's room while he is away each day, and advising Quemado each night in his hut on the beach.  The story ends on a very somber, life-is-almost-over note for Udo.

A point of interest for a writer reading the story might be whether the inclusion of a somewhat specialized contemporary interest, i.e., the board game, which can require pages of narrative exposition, might diminish a universal appeal sought for most good fiction.  Bolano, however, does a pretty good job of telling us just enough to imagine the rules and mechanics of the game, and the strategies and goals, as well as contrasting the game's action with some of the parallels or reverses to the historic campaigns and outcomes.  He injects some passion into the fate of the set pieces on the board by somehow employing the flesh and blood attributes of the professional soldiers waging the battles.  How much that can influence the outcome of novel strategies tried by the players is hard to discern, however.

The sketch introducing this blog is sort of a universal theme pose from my recent life drawing session.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

elemental tales of penance

One can enter a mesmerizing and penitential world of biblical dimensions in stories by William Faulkner.  I'm thinking today of an essay by E. L. Doctorow, writing in the NY Review of Books, 24May2012, on Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying."  In basic outline the novel is the story of the Bundren family, including a bitter, worn-out mother, Addie, who has just died, and a journey by her family carrying her coffin in a mule cart across rain soaked, dangerously flooded terrain, to fulfill Addie's wish to be buried among her own people in a distant county.  Her wily, self-serving husband, Anse, enlists his four sons and a young, pregnant daughter for the task, using the occasion to seize the few material possessions they possess to buy things for himself on the journey.   And if Anse has to leave one of the sons suspected of being a little mental at an asylum, to save the family some legal trouble, well, so be it.  No need for everyone else to suffer needlessly; to Anse, that would be an affectation of no value in this world.

Doctorow, a wonderful author of novels himself, has some valuable observations about Faulkner's style of writing:

Faulkner does a number of things in this novel that all together account for its unusual dimensions.  Nothing is explained, scenes are not set, background information is not supplied, characters' CVs are not given.  From the first line, the book is in medias res: "Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file."  Who these people are, and the situation they are dealing with, the reader will work out in the lag: the people in the book will always know more than the reader, who is dependent upon just what they choose to reveal.  And at moments of crisis and impending disaster, what is happening is described incompletely by different characters so as to create in the reader a state of knowing and not knowing at the same time--a fracturing of the experience that has the uncanny effect of affirming its reality.

Surely an effective way of engaging the reader's attention and  piquing his interest in following along on the story's unfolding journey.  Often times I've spent many beginning pages of a novel attempting to give a complete exposition of who my characters are, how they arrived at this point in the story, and the problem they have to overcome in following pages.

Doctorow gives one more paragraph that illustrates these main points:

Of course Faulkner was not alone in his disdain of exposition.  Though he didn't begin to write screenplays for Hollywood until some years after this novel was written, film had been around all his life and it was film that taught him and other early-twentieth-century writers that they no longer needed to explain anything--that it was preferable to incorporate all necessary information in the action, to carry it along in the current of the narrative, as is done in the movies.  This way of working supposes a compact between writer and reader--that everything will become clear eventually.
Excellent essay, and valuable strategies to be considered by any writer.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

"The Quiet American," not "The Great Gatsby"

Most writers know that in addition to writing every day one needs also to continue reading regularly, including the best of the classics and also critically acclaimed contemporary work.  But where to find all the necessary hours in a day?  One strategy might be to better leverage the extra-curricula output of a growing number of colleges across the country that have added creative writing programs to their curriculum.  Instructors working in these programs, often published writers motivated by a love of the writing craft, and perhaps also challenged to share their teaching skills with a larger student body than they might have in a classroom, have made available some excellent learning materials on the Internet and in periodicals published especially for writers.  Much of the Internet material is free, accessible on the authors' blogs and home pages, and an access to author interviews and topical essays in periodicals is usually at only nominal cost.  I've used both resources, and my favorite among the periodicals is The Writer's Chronicle,' published by a professional association of those nationwide writing programs.

The great thing about most of the topical essays one finds in the periodicals is the critical spotlighting of material taken from the literature to illustrate the topic of an essay.  You might want to read such an essay, let's say, "On the Use of Epiphanies in Fiction," because you've been interested in examples of how this has been done successfully.  If it's a good essay, you're going to learn a few things about epiphanies, plus you may become interested in a new author, or a book you haven't had a chance to read yet, and which is listed in the references given by the writer for his essay.  Now you've added to a focused reading list for material that meets your current interests and needs.

Pursuing this sort of directed reading search, I came across an essay discussion using examples from "The Quiet American," by Graham Greene.  I'd read other books by Greene and was reminded of things I liked about him from the examples the essay writer had chosen.  Greene's fiction often has an engaging mix of political, spiritual, philosophical, and even comic elements.  "The Quiet American" has all but the comical.  Greene uses a direct, linear style of storytelling, and doesn't load an otherwise complex story with any more exposition than is necessary up to each stage of events.

The story is set against a backdrop of the twilight of French colonial rule in Vietnam, and the struggles of a communist-dominated Vietminh insurgency to overthrow the French.  The United States, critical of French imperialism but fearful of a communist victory in southeast Asia, seeks to undermine communist power in the insurgency by supporting rival warlord factions.

The core tension of the story is about the efforts of an aging, British journalist, Thomas Fowler, to hold on to his relationship with a young, Vietnamese girl he loves, Phuong, after a young, American diplomat, Alden Pyle, meets and falls in love with her, and asks to marry her.  Pyle can promise Phuong a security she'd love to have.  Fowler, however, is dogged by a handicap: he already has a wife in Britain who won't give him a divorce, so he can't marry Phuong.  He's fearful of losing her to Pyle, and of dying alone and pitiful.

Here are some random passages that are revealing of Greene's writing style:

(Priest)..."It's strange what fear does to a man."
(Fowler)..."It would never do that to me.  If I believed in any God at all, I should still hate the idea of confession.  Kneeling in one of your boxes.  Exposing myself to another man.  You must excuse me Father, but to me it seems, morbid--unmanly even."

(Fowler, on learning his newspaper wants him to return to Britain)...I had experience to match his (Pyle's) virginity, age was as good a card to play in the sexual game as youth, but now I hadn't even the limited future of twelve more months to offer, and a future was trumps.

(Fowler)..."What are you afraid of?" Phuong asked, and I thought, "I'm afraid of the loneliness, of the Press Club and the bed-sitting room, I'm afraid of Pyle."

In some ways the story structure put me in mind of Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby."  We learn most of what we know about the protagonist of each story through its narrator: Nick Carraway in Gatsby, and Thomas Fowler in Quiet Man.  Interesting twists between the stories lie in the characters of the narrators: Carraway is a well educated, quite moral man, while Fowler is a hard-bitten journalist, rather immoral and  solipsistic, and smokes opium.  Also, the characters of the protagonists are opposites: Pyle is of a moneyed family and a moral, if naive, man, while Gatsby has humble origins and got his fortune as a bootlegger.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

uncovering what works in sensory language

The Writer's Chronicle for May/Summer 2012 includes an article by David Jauss with the slightly hokey title of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Abstraction?: Modes of Conveying Emotion."  Nonetheless, as with most essays and articles by Jauss on the craft of writing, it helps identify strategies for mustering life into faltering prose.

Jauss is keen to make the point that emotions reside in the senses, and "without some appeal to the senses, ... it is very difficult, if not downright impossible, for us to make our readers experience our character's emotions."  He suggests the "primary ways writers can convey emotion through the senses are body language and metaphors."  But it can be hard work to convey such emotion on the page, and often the writer will take a shortcut, i.e. just use an abstraction, a sensory bypass, and get on with the story.  For instance:

Cornell experienced an immense grief.

But when we abstract like this, Jauss cautions, "we are asking the reader to do the hard work of imagining the physical sensations of the emotion for us, and the readers aren't any less susceptible to laziness than we are she just skips the trip entirely."  And maybe also closes the book.  Jauss gives his own examples where, instead of simply naming the character's emotion, as in the sensory bypass naming Cornell's grief, a writer might work a little harder at portraying the emotion in some unexpected way.  "In A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore makes Bo Keltjin's grief visible through his unusual use of a handkerchief at his son's funeral.  Instead of drying his eyes with it, as we might expect, he 'presse[s] it completely over his face, like a barber's hot towel.'  With a sentence like that, we don't need the word grief; we witness it."

And then we have the gloss.  "Whereas a sensory bypass might allude to body language but doesn't actually describe it, a gloss does describe body language--but then proceeds to interpret it for the reader.  As in:

Tears of grief wet Cornell's face.

The writer is trying to make sure the reader hasn't missed a turn somewhere and is interpreting those tears correctly.

Another interesting area of enriching sensory language to rescue it from mere gloss or abstraction as discussed by Jauss is to mix the body language with metaphor.  To illustrate, he takes another example from Lorrie Moore: "'Here Sarah looked at me mischievously, her look a complicated room one might wander through, exploring for quite some time if there were any time.'  If Moore had merely said, 'Here Sarah looked at me mischievously,' she would have been guilty of writing a gloss and the emotion labeled by the abstract evaluation mischievously would have been dead on arrival.  The metaphor brings it to life."

Jauss gives many more juxtapositions of body language, abstraction, gloss, metaphor, and action that can bring emotional life to your characters, and the complete article is worth reading.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

pen names and genre rodeos

Publishers seem to prefer to keep their authors focused on a particular genre after they've achieved at least some initial success.  No doubt there are business and marketing principles at work, and there are undoubtedly payoffs for both parties, but it might also be like fitting the author with a pair of horse blinders (remember those side flap goggles worn by the horse pulling the junkman's cart, to keep the horse's attention on the road ahead?).

The publisher may feel it has money invested in the author's name--the brand--and has hopes of building a faithful, ever larger consumer base for the brand.  Our author meanwhile may be pleased by the past commercial success, but he's an artist for god's sake and may want to give free rein to new creative energies.  So what if a venture into the new genre doesn't sell as well?  Well, life is hard, money is tight, shareholders have expectations, and authors might be a little crazy.  Still, if an author has a day job to meet subsistence needs, riding a new bull at the rodeo might be exhilarating.

Famous authors are more likely to get a nod from their publishers when submitting cross-genre work.  Some whom I have read with good crossover adult, young adult, and middle grade novels within their individual collections include Louise Erdrich, Carl Hiaasen, and Neil Gaiman, to name just a few.  So it can be, and is, done.  It's just less of a financial risk for the publisher, or career risk for the author, if the author already has a following.

Of course it's also less of a risk if the author is still inhabiting the same moral and physical universe of his other genres.  Neil Gaiman might not reverberate in romance genre as well as in his more typical fantasy genre.  It could be interesting to see what happens though.

Another way to potentially upset your hardworking publisher is to run your next piece of work past him with a pseudonym on it.  "Some famous authors publish under pseudonyms so that they can get a fresh reading of their work," says an article in the NY Times (2/23/2012).  "In 1987 Joyce Carol Oates released a book under the name Rosamond Smith but apologized and swore off pseudonyms when her publisher discovered what she had done."  Apparently they didn't think it was a very good decision in her case, but authors might resort to using pseudonyms for various reasons.  In earlier times women authors sometimes adopted men's names in hopes of being taken more seriously as writers.  Joanne Kathleen Rowling took the neutral gender J. K. Rowling in hopes of better attracting more boy readers.

The same Times article discusses an author, Patricia O'Brien, who had published several books including a novel, but whose most recent novel had been submitted to 13 publishers by her agent without finding a home.  An Internet check on BookScan showed it had sold only 4000 copies, which was considered a flop.  However, her agent, who had a lot of confidence in the book, said "I realized that the book was not being judged on its merits.  It was being judged on how many books she has sold.  I needed somebody who couldn't look on BookScan."  When the book reached another publisher under Ms. O'Brien's new pseudonym, Kate Alcott, there were no adverse digital footprints found on Internet searches, and it received an enthusiastic reading, and was accepted.  In time Ms. O'Brien came clean with the publisher, everyone remained friends, and the same publisher later bought another novel from Ms. O'Brien.  A fortuitous outcome in this case.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

the holy clay

Some earlier posts discussed the use of themes taken from myths, and the mythical characters, as archetypal elements for the writing of contemporary fiction.

This installment concerns a holy clay, lifted from the grave of a reputed saint buried in an ancient, ruined monastery of St. Colmcille on Tory Island, about a mile off the north coast of Ireland.  The story of the saint is part of the folklore of the island, and a few of the anecdotes are collected in "Stories from Tory Island,” by Dorothy H. Therman, 1989:

The cliffs along the north coast are penetrated deeply by inlets, or clefts (scoilteanna).  To the east of the lighthouse, not far  from the graveyard (of a shipwrecked crew of the HMS Wasp, another story altogether) is Scoilt an Mhuiriseain.  Onto its stony beach, in the time of St Colmcille, there drifted a boat carrying seven people.  Dr. Edward Maguire quotes Manus O'Donnell, the sixteenth century author of "The Life of St. Columba":  'The fame of his [St. Colmcille's] wisdom, his knowledge, his faith, his piety, had gone forth throughout the entire world, and the holy children of the King of India had conceived love for him on account of the rumours ... there were six sons (of them) and one sister.'  The children set sail in search of him and were not heard from for a long time, until they finally reached the northwest coast of Tory.  'And on their coming to land, they died in consequence of the fatigue of the sea and of the ocean.'  They were brought across the island and buried together at a place on the edge of what is now West Town, where the foundations of one of St Colmcille's little chapels are still visible.  But for three mornings in a row, the body of the woman was found lying on top of the grave, so she was buried separately and from then on rested peacefully.
Alfred McFarland, who visited Tory in 1849 and wrote "Hours in Vacation" (Dublin, 1853) believed that the seven were Scandinavian royalty; Mr. T. J. Westropp stated in the "Antiquarian Handbook Series" in 1905 that they were Hollanders. Dan Rodgers of Tory Island says the islanders thought the woman might have been a saint.  And it is from the grave site of the 'saint' that the eldest of the Duggan clan retains the perogative given to him by St. Colmcille to lift 'holy clay', which has the power not only to banish rats, but to protect fishermen from the dangers of the sea. (Rat control was a life and death matter for farmers needing to protect food storage cribs over the long winters).

A bit of the holy clay was lifted for the writer one night by the eldest of the Duggan clan living on the island at the time of my two weeks visit there. I still have the clay among my totems, and am as intrigued by the legend now as I was then. I prefer the legend of siblings from India. It has the elements of a Joseph Campbell myth, from his "The Hero With A Thousand Faces," (3rd ed. 1973). Campbell uses myths taken from cultures around the world, describing a hero's quest for some gift or boon for his people. The quest usually involves a perceived call, often supernatural, a series of trials while on the quest, attainment of the sought-after boon, and a return to the Hero's people.

In a short discourse on the Hero as Saint, Campbell relates how St. Thomas Aquinas reaches a boon of mystical spiritual revelation as he neared the end of writing his major opus of Roman Catholic doctrine, Summa Theologica, put down his pen to leave the last chapters to be completed by another hand, and died soon after, in his forty-ninth year. In his case, St. Thomas, unlike, say, the Bodhisattva, does not return to his people, but has: 
"stepped away from the realm of forms, into which the incarnation descends ... the realm of the manifest profile of The Great Face. Once the hidden profile has been discovered, myth is the penultimate, silence the ultimate, word."

Did the princess of India and her brothers receive a mystical spiritual revelation like that of St. Thomas upon reaching landfall after the perilous sea voyage? Or did their journey and its fateful conclusion have other meaning? There seems a lot of creative energy available to a writer in the pondering of old myths like this one.

Monday, January 30, 2012


 The generic term for the fiction story usually considered by publishers to be too long for a short story and too short for a novel is the novella.  A dictionary describes the word as derived from Italian/French forms of 'new,' and means: a story with a compact and pointed plot; or, a short novel or long short story.  It is generally thought to be somewhere between 15,000 to 40 or 50,000 words.

Probably most writers think of it as being hard to place for publication: too long for the literary journals and other short story venues, and too short for hardcover book publishers.  Unless, that is, you are a big-name author.  An article in The Writer's Chronicle, "Revaluing the Novella," by Kyle Semmel, provides some interesting reading on the use of the form.  Semmel grounds some of his views and analyses on the legendary author and writing teacher John Gardner, and his book,"The Art of Fiction."  It's a book I revisit often, and I'll paraphrase or quote some material Semmel chose from Gardner to describe the novella:

1.  The novella moves through a series of small epiphanies or secondary climaxes, usually following a single line of thought, and reaches an end where the world is radically changed.

2.  "The novella normally treats one character and one important action in his life, a focus that leads itself to neat cut-offs or framing."

3.  Notwithstanding the above norms, three distinctive types of novella include: (1) single stream ("a single stream of action focused on one character and moving through a series of increasingly intense climaxes"); (2) non-continuous stream, or "baby novel," ("shifting from one point of view [or focal character] to another, and using true episodes, with time breaks between"); and (3) pointillist ("moving at random from one point to another").

There are all sorts of experimentation with the structure and overlap of the types given above, and some powerful novellas have resulted.  Semmel's descriptions of the basic structures, and his discussions of example novellas, will provide a good footing for the aspiring novella writer.

I liked Semmel's discussion of the non-continuous novella, "Where the Rivers Flow North," by Howard Frank Mosher, in which the narrative moves in and out of the two main characters' points-of-view, that of a Vermont farmer, and his housekeeper,  but which is broken up by another third person, authorial point-of-view.  Sounds like a hard one to pull off successfully, but there you go!

I also liked an example given in Gardner's book for the continuous stream novella focused on a single character and moving through a series of increasingly intense climaxes.  Semmel didn't use this example, but check it out: "The Pedersen Kid," by William Gass.

In retrospect, I think one of my favorite 'short' novels (about 44,000 words), "The Member of the Wedding," by Carson McCullers, might also be thought of as a novella.  Challenge yourself this year with a novella.
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