Wednesday, December 30, 2015

starting the story in medias res--into the midst of things

A stream of consciousness flows on into
an ocean of imagination
(a site near my home)
A Happy New Year to all, and I may wish to take a sabbatical from blogging next year to devote more time to my fiction writing.  But for now:

Sometimes an author has written substantial sections of vivid, suspenseful, engaging material, but such sections lie buried somewhere in the middle, or perhaps closer to the end of the story.  The author has chosen to first introduce his cast of characters, perhaps fixes them somewhere in the social hierarchy of a place, and dramatizes a few of their strengths and weaknesses, before revealing the main tension(s) they must attempt to resolve.

It may be that if the introductory material has characters of unique personalities, and the special quality of 'voice' so often stressed in Creative Writing 101, or in countless writers' conferences, the reader may stick around long enough to reach the really compelling sections of the book.

Alternately, perhaps the better strategy for structuring the book is to consider the technique of in medias res (into the midst of things), and find a way to bring the best material forward to the beginning.  Capture the reader early on, and fill in details as needed for the progression of the story toward a final resolution.

"A Manual for Cleaning Women," by Lucia Berlin, is a collection of short stories that mostly begin in medias res.  The stories are first person narration, but since the action starts almost immediately we don't get to learn much about who our narrator is, or her relationship to other named characters, until Berlin drops the appropriate links which tie the characters and events together without interrupting the trajectory of her story.  Berlin often writes in an abbreviated, urgent syntax, sometimes inserting independent observational clauses that surprise us but increase our interest, and she uses stream of consciousness thoughts on the unfolding action.

Taking a few excerpts from the first two pages of her story, "Emergency Room Notebook, 1977:
You never hear sirens in the emergency room--the drivers turn them off on Webster Street...If it is Code Three, where life is in critical danger, the doctor and nurses wait outside, chatting in anticipation.  Inside, in room 6, the trauma room, is the Code Blue team.  EKG, X-ray technicians respiratory therapists, cardiac nurses.  In most Code Blues, though, the EMT drivers or firemen are too busy to call in.  Piedmont Fire Department never does, and they have the worst.  Rich massive coronaries, matronly phenobarbital suicides, children in swimming pools...

Madame Y is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.  She looks dead, actually, her skin translucent blue-white, her exquisitely boned Oriental face serene and ageless.  She wears black slacks and boots, mandarin-collared jackets cut and trimmed in Asia?  France?  The Vatican, maybe--they have the weight of a bishop's cassock--or an X-ray robe.  The piping has been done by hand in rich fuchcias, magentas, oranges.  Her Bentley drives up at nine, driven by a flippant Filipino who chain-smokes Shermans in the parking lot.  Her two sons, tall, in suits made in Hong Kong, escort her from the car to the entrance of radiation therapy...

She is dead now.  Not sure when it happened, on one of my days off.  She always seemed dead anyway, but nicely so, like an illustration or advertisement.

So we're two pages in and we know almost nothing about our narrator but we see lots of activity through her eyes,  and the style of writing and quirky observational detail promise interesting reading ahead.  A writer might learn some useful structuring and elements of style from Berlin.

Monday, November 30, 2015

taking the hatchet to a draft

Writers' conferences can provide good venues for learning from featured speakers and fellow writers which techniques had worked best for them in producing good, publishable fiction.  However, what works well for one writer might not yield good results for another.  Perhaps rules for a sort of terse, active, and staccato delivery suits the range of fictional dreams at work in the mind of one writer, but may be entirely out of synch for the fictional dream flows of another writer.  The point arose when scanning notes I'd taken at several Mendocino Coast Writers Conferences in past years.  We've probably all heard of the need to go over our first drafts, to take out all the flab, exposition, discursive wanderings, and such, to better focus our stories.  A lot of this is absolutely necessary, but the subtractive process might also become destructive of an otherwise beautifully written, fictional dream.   Let's look at an excerpt from a piece by James Joyce, from his short story, The Dead:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window.  It had begun to snow again.  He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.  The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.  Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland.  It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.  It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.  It lay thickly drafted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.  His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
I've always loved the imagery, the sense of hushed sound, and sense of timelessness in the arc of our lives.  I wondered if the same feeling could be maintained if the more severe draft editing rules were to be followed.  Here are a few typical, random notes taken from lectures given at the conferences by two accomplished writers.

John Lescroart (crime fiction)
Get rid of your 'to be' verbs, like 'when' and 'as.'  Don't use 'thought' to convey a character's thinking.   When reviewing draft, do a search for 'had,' which usually signals some sort of exposition.  Get rid of it, or replace.  Don't use any '-ly' adverbs.

John Dufresne (general fiction)
Eliminate progressive form of syntax; i.e., 'I was brewing coffee.'  Say I brewed coffee.  Don't use adverbs--you just haven't got the right verb yet.
 In the following, I've applied such rules to Joyce's piece as closely as I was able, while trying to maintain his complete thoughts and sentences:

A few taps on the pane made him turn to the window.  It snowed again.  He watched the flakes, silver and dark, fall against the lamplight.  It was time for his journey.  The newspapers had it right: snow all over Ireland.  Snow fell on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, upon the Bog of Allen, and fell on the dark mutinous Shannon waves.  It fell, too, on every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.  It lay in drafted heaps on crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.  His soul swooned at the sound of the snow that fell through the universe and fell, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

I think it lost some of its beauty and whispered softness. There are undoubtedly other ways to edit the piece with the same rules that might yield better versions, but it is hard to imagine anything that could approach Joyce's offering.  So, while I think the lecturers have given useful advice, it need not be considered rigidly in every case.

Friday, October 30, 2015

metaphysics in literary fiction

Celtic celebration of Samhain,
or Halloween, where a door opens
briefly to the other world.
Perhaps one of the most profound mysteries we are confronted with might be simply stated as "why is there something instead of nothing?"  Countless philosophers, theologians, and scientists have addressed this question, some from the seemingly unprovable first cause principle--a prime mover, or God.  Others, most often the scientists, are apt to point out we just are not there yet, but look how far we've already come in understanding our universe.  We can even demonstrate all that exists today, starting from a distant Big Bang event, which happened some 14 billion years ago, and the complete, scientific answer is just around the corner.

Well, since this is a fiction writer's blog we are hesitant to delve too deeply into the philosophical or rhetorical arguments that support either camp.  However,  might we sometimes ponder about what view of God's existence was held by certain characters in our reading?  If the author had had an opportunity to seamlessly integrate a spiritual viewpoint in the fiction, might it have given even greater depth, some flesh and bones, to the character, and the choices he makes in the story?

Some of this thought process springs from the reading of The March, by E. L. Doctorow.  The historical fiction covers the devastating Civil War march through the southern heartland, by General William Tecumseh Sherman.  Sherman's army of about 60,000 Union soldiers carried out a scorched earth campaign through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, as the war neared a close and a collapse of the Confederacy.  Like many, if not most, soldiers in either army, it seems safe to assume from writings of that era that the existential view of the combatants was Christian, fundamental Protestantism.  However, most of the officers of that conflict were trained at West Point Academy, which would have had a tradition from the Founding Fathers of the U.S. for a belief in God, but not necessarily in a dogma of any established religion.  And so the concepts of sin, resurrection, and eternal life in heaven, may not have been the uniform view of officers from the Academy.  It was rewarding to read the following, given as internal dialogue of Gen. Sherman before the battle of Savannah:
But these troops, too, who have battled and eaten and drunk and fallen asleep with some justifiable self-satisfaction: what is their imagination of death who can lie down with it?  They are no more appreciative of its meaning than I...

In this war among the states, why should the reason for the fighting count for anything?  For if death doesn't matter, why should life matter?
But of course I can't believe this or I will lose my mind.  Willie, my son Willie, oh my son, my son, shall I say his life didn't matter to me?  And the thought of his body lying in its grave terrifies me no less to think he is not imprisoned in his dreams as he is in his coffin.  It is insupportable, in any event.
It is in fear of my own death, whatever it is, that I would wrest immortality from the killing war I wage.  I would live forever down the generations.
And so the world in its beliefs snaps back into place.  Yes.  There is now Savannah to see to.  I will invest it and call for its surrender.  I have a cause.  I have a command.  And what I do I do well.  And, God help me, but I am thrilled to be praised by my peers and revered by my countrymen.  There are men and nations, there is right and wrong.  There is this Union.  And it must not fall.
Sherman drank off his wine and flung the cup over the entrenchment.  He lurched to his feet and peered every which way in the moonlight.  But where is my drummer boy? he said.
 And where else might a writer also go to study a moving portrayal of the metaphysical views of a major literary character in American literature: perhaps Moby Dick, by Herman Melville:

"What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is as an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who's to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar? But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the air smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new-mown hay. Sleeping? Aye, toil we how we may, we all sleep at last on the field. Sleep? Aye, and rust amid greenness; as last year's scythes flung down, and left in the half-cut swaths—Starbuck!"
But blanched to a corpse's hue with despair, the Mate had stolen away.
Ahab, too, is of an earlier era when fundamental Protestantism was the rule of the land, though his First Mate, Starbuck, finds Ahab to be of a frighteningly blasphemous nature.  Note the ornate dialect, almost as if reading from the King James bible, and which makes the passage doubly dramatic.

So far, the discussion relates only to how a central character struggles to express some understanding of a God-based meaning of life, usually falling somewhere within the tenets of written Scriptures of three major monotheistic religions, and on reflections of the character's own life experiences.  A big hurdle is that, however inspired the Scriptures may have been, they were written about two thousand years ago and by men of uncertain erudition.  Since then, vast amounts of human learning and experience has occurred, but religious dogma, once established, changes only at glacial speed.  It might be refreshing to have a few characters express new visions of what a God-based vision of life is for them, where some rational account is taken of the exponential growth of experience and knowledge gained in that two millenniums.

The strange perplexities of quantum mechanics comes to mind as a potential backdrop for new, innovative fiction.  A recent NY Times article discusses ongoing confirmations for a proof of entanglement theory in subatomic physics.  In essence, subatomic particles, like electrons and photons, have an infinite but measurable range of properties, such as velocity, location, and spin.  However, as soon as a measurement is made of a property in one particle of any entangled pair,  the entire range of potential properties collapses into finite, correlated values in each of the particles.  Experiments demonstrate that this happens no matter the distance  introduced between the particles, presumably happening for a distance even  to the far side of our universe.  Einstein did not like the idea, and he and other major scientists fought it.  There was 'the finger of God' aspect in it for them.  Nevertheless, the theoretical underpinnings and the experimental data have continued to hold up through today.

What new kind of characterization of God might this prompt in literary fiction writing?  Perhaps it might lead to concepts far more sophisticated than the anthropomorphic characterization we presently are constrained with in our stories.  

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

point-of-view narration can make all the difference

A new book on Vladimir Nabokov was published recently, Nabokov in America--on the road to Lolita, by Robert Roper.  Reading it gave occasion to reflect on Nabokov's writing of Lolita, one of the most widely known novels in contemporary American literature.  Lolita is the story of a middle-aged man who pursues an obsessive love relationship with a twelve-year old girl, a stunningly controversial theme for mainstream literature at the time.  Early editions came out in Europe in the mid-fifties, and by 1958, a first edition in America.  Many of Nabokov's academic circle and some editors warned him it would not be well received; nonetheless, it proved a literary and financial success.

Although this first-person narrative seemed moderately engaging, it did not exert as powerful an influence as some critics have ascribed to it.  Humbert is a unique, sophisticated though demented, character, who is also a blundering assassin.  The reader may find some sympathy for his character, but it gets harder and harder to sustain as Humbert reveals his near murder of Lolita's mother, and toward the end his actual murder of a rival for Lolita's favors.  As for Lolita, she remains almost a cipher to the end, regarding her inner emotions or hopes, or the level of comprehension she may have regarding the two men who dominate her life.

In contrast, the third-person limited, simple but powerful novella length Member Of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers, 1946, tells the story of another twelve-year old girl coming into a growing awareness of an inner, vaguely sensual nature, a coming-of-age anxiety, which eventually leads her into a harrowing, near-rape experience with a drunken serviceman in her hometown.

The first-person narrative of Humbert doesn't really allow us to reach into the consciousness of Lolita, and how could we believe much of what this demented person tells us about Lolita, anyhow?  We can observe how Lolita physically acts in various scenes--sometimes she initiates the intimacies--but that doesn't help us to know her very deeply or on what level we can sympathize with her.

In Member, the writer easily moves us into and out of the consciousness of the girl, Frankie, without the many constraints and prejudices potentially imposed on a first-person narrator.  In consequence, we get to know Frankie more deeply
than her counterpart Lolita, and become more moved by her story.

No doubt there were many considerations Nabokov weighed in choosing to write his story as a first-person narrative, including the writing strategies of a rambling journey across the American landscape of sterile motels, a chance for him to use stream-of-consciousness Joycean dialog, chances for literary allusions, and other perks that appealed to his imaginative and writing powers.  His story was well received by many other readers.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

more of new digital publishing opportunities

In a past post on new developments in publishing we discussed a new Amazon company called Kindle Scout.  Unlike a previous Amazon business plan to acquire books for its Kindle unit, where the only income received by an author is through royalties, the new program offers an advance and a 5-year contract for rights to a digital version of an author's book.  The advance is $1500, and a 5 yr. contract provides that all rights may revert to the author on request if royalties are less than $25,000 during the contract period.

It's not a huge amount compared to what one might get from a legacy publisher, if one could get through their lengthy gatekeeper hurdles, but Kindle Scout appears to promise a lot of marketing for a new author's book.  An author might not be intrigued much by the financial aspects, but their new book should have a far better chance at reaching more readers with the Kindle Scout program than existed before.  If Amazon has an investment in the game, as they do here, they will probably work much harder on marketing the book.  Any new author might do well to seriously consider this new contracting arrangement.

The process of winning a contract involves an online, public nominating period, whereby Kindle Scout will introduce your book to readers who visit their website, and gives them a chance to read your submitted book description, several sample chapters, and your author's bio.  If a book appeals to a reader, they have the opportunity to click on a 'nominate' button.  If Kindle Scout finds there's enough nominating interest for any book over a 30 day listing period, they will then offer the author a publication contract.  Readers who nominate any book on the site are notified if and when their nominated book has been selected for publication, and will receive a free copy of the book.  It's both a little incentive to get them to click on a book, and the beginning of a marketing effort.

The image at the top of this post is the cover of a new book I submitted to Kindle Scout.  The link to the book's campaign site where one can check out the details of the book and nominate it if they choose is at:

It's still important for the author to invite friends and associates, through email, and blogs, to be aware of his book campaign so that they might have a chance to nominate his book.  

I invite your comments--click on the comments link at the end of this post--and  also hope you will visit the link given above to visit the Kindle Scout page, and perhaps nominate the book if it appeals to you.  

Monday, August 31, 2015

reader-powered publishing

Monks and Scribes Guild Seeks Injunction
Against New Self-Publisher, Gutenberg
Recently we've discussed some of the attractions that no-cost self-publishing providers offer to book writers.  Amazon's KDP for e-books, and CreateSpace for printed books, were the focus of our earlier discussions, though there are also other providers.  I published a Young Adult novel, Leaving Major Tela, in both formats with these providers, and found it a generally interesting and encouraging experience.  Now, another new development has arrived: reader-powered publishing.

It reminds one of how the music industry's decades-long, rigid control of who gets to have their music made available to the public, and how much it should cost, crumbled with the arrival of internet alternatives.  Some, like pirating, were not valid alternatives, but others like You Tube gave artists a chance to gain an audience, and revenues, from a large, potential fan base without going through the major labels.  Here's how things have evolved in a related way for book publishing.

Legacy publishers are the long-serving, traditional publishers for the book industry.  Over time, many of these publishers and their imprints have been acquired and merged into a fewer number of mega-corporations.  The modern business practices and required profit margins imposed by the mega-corporations on their new publishing divisions have led to smaller editorial staff to acquire new manuscripts, guide them through the publication process, and conduct the marketing program.  Since they have trimmed their work force to far fewer skilled editorial staff to do this work, the initial acquisition process has largely been farmed out to private, literary agents, who now act as the industry's first-line gatekeepers--at no cost to the mega-corporation.

Gatekeepers--there appear to be many literary agents available to do this job, but they all must compete to sell to the same mega-corporations.  The marketability of any manuscript may depend on genres and themes that are currently in vogue, as researched by the mega-corporations, and a new writer working with a theme in any other area has difficulties getting past the gatekeepers.  Agents, without a sufficient number of well-known writers contributing material to them, may choose to resort to passing along part of their overhead and operating costs to their hopeful, new writers--an increased price of admission for the writer.

The mega-corporations also depend to a much greater extent now on enlisting the free services of authors in their marketing campaigns, such as making book-signing tours.  Some authors may relish this, others may not.

The early business models of the new, self-publishing providers seem designed to give authors greater access to getting their book produced in e-book or printed versions, with minimal gatekeeping hurdles, and at essentially no cost to the author.  However, there has been little marketing followup by the self-publishing provider, aside from displaying an attractive webpage wherein the book description and its contents may be sampled online by the prospective reader, and which provides the reader an opportunity to click on the ordering button.  But how to coax the reader to find that page?  Providing links on your own blogging pages, or getting the book reviewed by other bloggers, are typical author strategies.  An author can also make his book more attractive to the casual web surfer by publicizing favorable reviews from prominent readers' websites, like, or    Such marketing is hard, and requires a degree of luck to get a following, but it can be done in a writer's available time, and from his own office.

The newest business model of "reader-powered" publishing" is the (Amazon) Kindle Scout venture.  In this model:

Authors who want to get their books published submit to Kindle Scout and accept the Submission & Publishing Agreement. The first pages (about 5,000 words) from each book are posted on the Kindle Scout website for a 30-day scouting period where readers can nominate up to three books at a time. The more nominations a book receives, the more likely it gets discovered by the Kindle Scout team. If selected, the book will be published by Kindle Press and all the readers who nominated the book will receive an early, free copy and be invited to leave reviews. 

When an author's book is selected by this process,  Kindle Press offers a $1,500 advance and 50% e-book royalties.   Kindle Press books will be enrolled and earn royalties for participation in the Kindle Owners' Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited, as well as be eligible for targeted email campaigns and promotions.  The advance and e-book royalties seem acceptable, but the proposed Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited compensation is not specifically given.  In the past my opinion of those programs in the earlier (and ongoing) business model has been they provide library content to serve as free perks to attract subscription-based customer programs, but provide little or no compensation to the writers.

I think I might like to submit a manuscript to Kindle Scout, and if so, would report more on the experience later.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

elements of choice for how to start the writing

Begin -- and find the personality
Last week one of our leading authors of fiction died--E. L. Doctorow.  He was noted for creating fiction in a historical setting and mingling real persons of the period along with his fictional characters.  For example, in his novel, Ragtime, he has a fictional episode with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, sharing a ride at Coney Island.  NPR aired an earlier radio interview with Doctorow in which he said he preferred to think of such writing as 'national' fiction, instead of historical fiction.  Perhaps because he veers more widely from the known historical script for the characters and period, though he captures the true characters and place settings of the era all the same.

In the radio interview, Doctorow discussed his writing of Billy Bathgate.  He had spent a lot of time thinking out the character of Billy and the elements of plot and motif, but was having a difficult time getting started with the actual writing.  It wasn't until he wrote out the first line of Billy himself telling us who he was, that Doctorow knew where he was heading and what Billy was to be about.  From there on it was a process of learning from his characters what had to follow, and how best to get there.  The method strongly suggests a process of listening to some inner muse, or the author's subconscious, to commune with the characters in writing the most authentic, compelling fiction.

This process is at the other end of a writing spectrum for starting a work of fiction, wherein it has been suggested to first develop a written outline of the novel before beginning to write, and maybe even a preliminary storyboard (a graphic, sequential display of the principal plot elements, as was discussed in an earlier post.)

The hazard of starting a new work without a well developed outline can lead beginning writers to "spaghetti-ing,"  a term coined by Jon Franklin, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, in his book, Writing for Story.  Franklin's book is honed toward creative non-fiction writers, but he stresses his advice is meant as well for fiction writers, too.  His point being that as any story moves along, more and more complications can arise; precedents that have been established seem to be falling by the wayside; motivations seem to be clashing; and so, the flow "is taking on the consistency of horse-hoof glue."  Seems like an apt description for a manuscript in trouble, nonetheless, one can allow that a writer as gifted as Doctorow may avoid such calamities, even without an outline, by being truly in communion with the characters, and practiced enough to consult his muse at key points about where the ongoing plot may be leading.  I've usually been a follower of Franklin's advice, but I think I might have written enough over the years to dare taking Doctorow's approach, even if just occasionally.  It certainly seems a bit more exciting and perhaps more creative--in skilled hands.

So, we have Doctorow's concrete example of how he began a specific, highly acclaimed novel (which led to a movie of the same name, featuring Dustin Hoffman); Doctorow had his character tell us who he was and what he was about.  This also presented an early opportunity to establish a unique voice for Billy, an eventual 'must' for any character in a compelling piece of literature.

  Another often used competing motif is to start with a description of time and place setting for the story.  The thought being these are principal screening criteria for many readers trying to decide whether to go any further before choosing a book.  Recalling another frequent advisory, there are arguably only three to five pages to capture a reader, agent, or editor.  Although place can indeed be an important element in a story, almost as compelling in stature so as to be a 'character' in itself, this choice might also easily devolve into some static, overly wrought descriptive language for opening a story.

 A closing thought on choosing a beginning motif is to consider the use of in medias res (into the middle of a narrative, into the midst of things.)  It might also provide a good opportunity for incorporating voice and place setting together, and right up front.  Select some dramatic scene that was visualized for later in the story and bring it forward, perhaps a scene that shows the principal character in action and speaking in his own, unique voice.  Keep in mind, three-to-five pages, at most, before your reader might, perchance, add the book to his cart and proceed to checkout. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

leaving--a theme for writing fiction

Gaelwriter, 1990, on wilderness hike
in Sweetwater Mountains, CA
One of the universal themes in fiction writing is "leaving." Our main character has been left by another, or he/she has left someone else.  The event, whether it be a death, divorce, abandonment, or dismissal, typically sets off a powerful series of predictable emotional grief stages, which might be exploited by the writer in plotting an arc for a novel.  These stages are variously described in the literature (esp. E. Kubler-Ross's On Death and Dying) as including denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  Some studies have suggested adding a couple more stages, but Kubler-Ross' basic five will do for our discussion.

A recently published book, Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, provides a vivid example of writing a story with a theme of leaving (Wild is actually a memoir).  Like her mom, somewhat independent and venturesome as a young woman, and strongly attached to her mother, Cheryl is stunned when her still early-forties mom is diagnosed with inoperable cancer. At the time, the mom, with her second husband, and Cheryl, and two younger siblings are living in comfortable but spartan, homestead-like conditions in a wooded area of Minnesota.  

There is the first stage of the leaving theme, where Cheryl angrily denies the likelihood of her mother dying, and vents her anger toward the medical staff, as well as toward her siblings, for failing to meet her expectations to support their mother.  Then, as things look very bleak, the inevitable bargaining with God, and more anger when it seems God will not respond.  A sort of depression follows the mom's death, as Cheryl, married just a couple of years earlier at nineteen, plummets into a long period of risky and sordid behavior, involving random, extra-marital sex, drinking, and drugs.  She was determined to ruin her own marriage, and does, and goes on to wallow in depression.  During her spiral down, she happens to read a guide book for hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, a very long trail that traverses desert and mountains across California, Oregon, and Washington, to Canada.  Although never having done anything like this trek, she's had a very woodsy upbringing, and feels this could be a sort of redemptive journey for herself.

From the very beginning, when she starts out alone and with a backpack she can barely lift, at first hiking only six or seven miles a day, she has some mesmerizing adventures and encounters on her epic three months, eleven-hundred mile long journey along that part of the PCT reaching from the Mojave Desert in California to the Bridge of the Gods at the Washington state border.   Refusing to quit through all the adversities and fearful encounters along the PCT, Cheryl succeeds in finding her way through her final stages of grief following her mother's departure--to a genuine acceptance of herself.

A really engrossing, well-written memoir.  Reminded me a bit, just a bit, of my own, much shorter wilderness hiikes, though mine also had a strenuous element of total fasting, just water during a special, four-day "Vision Quest" segment on each of those trips.  The three trips, all in California wilderness areas, included Sweetwater Mountains, Inyo Mountains, and Death Valley.  The photo above harkens back more years than one remembers easily.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

poems for enhancing fiction, and reflections on Seamus Heaney

Color may enhance art - a poem may enhance fiction
In earlier posts we've discussed the enhancement of writing long works of fiction with reference to artistic design principles for a good painting: value contrasts, shape arrangements, a balance in complementary spectrum of hues, and the planned arrangement of soft and hard edges, to name an important few, translatable topics for art or fiction.

In this post we'll contemplate potential multi-art enhancements for writing fiction, using brief poems and the works and writing philosophy of the Irish poet and Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney, for a guide.  Heaney, who died in 2013, and whom we've admired for his books of poems in North, and in Station Island, and his translation of Beowulf from old English, was the subject of a recent reminiscence by Thomas Sleigh.  The article was titled A Man of Care--Seamus Heaney's Primal Reach into the Physical (The Writer's Chronicle, May-Summer, 2015).  Sleigh is a widely published author of books, has won many literary awards, and works as a journalist in Syria, Lebanon, Somalia, Kenya, Iraq, and Libya.  In other words, the hot spots of the world today.

Heaney is no stranger to hot spots of the world, himself.  His early books of poems, North, and Field Work, include the poet's agonized, interior response to the Troubles, that armed conflict between Republican and Unionist militias in Northern Ireland.  In Heaney's words:
Pure poetry is perfectly justifiable in earshot of the car bomb, and it can imply a politics, depending on the nature of the poetry.  A poetry of dramatic wit, of riddles and flips and self-mocking ironies, may appear culpably miniaturist or fastidious to the activist with his microphone at the street corner, and yet such poetry may be exercising in its inaudible way a fierce disdain of the activist's message or a distressed sympathy with it.
Thankfully, there has now been a long ceasefire in the Troubles, but the quoted passage may give some idea as to the temperament of Heaney.  We might now move on to a focus theme, regarding the short poem that could be incorporated into a longer work of fiction to good effect.  One of the more basic concepts of Heaney's approach to constructing poems, gleaned from reading some of his works and from the discussions given by Sleigh, is the attention Heaney gives to acute, subjective observations of earth's surfaces, human activities thereon, the meanings they ascribe to what they are doing, the uninterpreted words they use in telling it.

Heaney accomplishes this from his habitual practice of observation, "an activity which is averse to overwhelming phenomena by the exercise of subjectivity, content to remain an assisting presence rather than an overbearing pressure."  As he said of Pound's work, which he admired, "Pound's strictures--"the natural object is always the adequate symbol," "Go in fear of abstractions," don't use phrases like "dim lands of peace" because it mixes "an abstraction with the concrete" and "dulls the image."

For instance, Sleigh has Heaney say, about the imaginative powers conferred by sitting in the basalt throne of "the wishing chair" at the Giant's Causeway (a long line of upraised basaltic columns stretching out into the Irish Sea, toward Scotland), not only should the rock make "solid sense" against the small of your back, it should also freshen "your outlook/beyond the range you thought you'd settled for."  I'd visited the Giant's Causeway during a two-month bicycle tour of that Northern Ireland region.  I didn't occupy the wishing chair, but I can feel the physical sensation of the poetic image, occupying not only the now of time, but the vast, geological age of time, and without any need of interpretation by the poet.  It's perhaps something concrete to strive for.

Following is a working draft of a poem that I was considering using in my introduction to a YA novel, to be titled "The Young Molly Maguires," set in the coalfield labor violence of the late nineteenth century in Pennsylvania.  It has allusions and similes, but I'm thinking it has concrete, non-abstract points of reference most readers' imaginations will readily grasp.

A Lament

God lifted noble man from earth 
crowned him lord of all creation
until a stunning fall from grace
banished him to a life of toil and sweat

Impoverished men reentered earth
pillaging black coal so they might live
The miners toiled mightily to earn their bread
How so, earth’s new owners demanded more

Till the miners raised up a young prophet, Union, 
to lead a way from slavery,
but Union could not strike water from a rock,
and the miners withered in despair 

An ancient Joshua rose up to besiege the owners,
when the Molly Maguires entered the fray 
and smote the owners’ captains from ramparts and wall,
until undone by perfidy of state and church

Who struggle for justice, sing a lament for the Mollies,
though brutal men rode horseback from both  camps
it is forever the victor who writes history,
and cartloads of Mollies swung in the air 

J. O'Rourke

Thursday, April 30, 2015

backstory: this volume or next?

We sometimes begin our stories in medias res, in the midst of things, with no preamble as to who these characters are, or how this situation developed.  It's often a good strategy, and can help capture a reader in the crucial early pages of a book.

A competing strategy for a writer is to first spend some time characterizing the protagonist(s), the principal problem(s) he faces, and the obstacles or opponents he must overcome.  In this strategy, a tendency exists for the writer to load the development of a story with too much detail, before a reader might even have had a chance to become invested in the characters or the problem of the story.

Depending on our chosen writing strategy, if we need to reveal some important facet of the character's life, or the development of the problem, before the time of the narrative, i.e., a backstory, the writer will often resort to a 'flashback.'  The flashback can be as short as a few sentences, or it might encompass an entire chapter embedded within the narrative of the current story.  Regardless, an effective flashback can be difficult to use without disturbing the 'fictional dream' (John Gardner, The Art of Fiction) for the reader, and possibly losing our reader.

It was interesting to note how how author Marilynne Robinson addressed the absence of any backstory for an otherwise quite interesting character, Lila, who appeared in Gilead, her 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning novel.  Lila was an intriguing young woman who appeared out of nowhere to marry a much older preacher in this spare, beautifully written story set in the mid-ninteenth century Iowa plains.

Robinson devoted a subsequent novel, Lila, to explain this unique woman.  I'm in the middle of reading it, and a confluence of yesterdays's life drawing session, see my watercolor sketch above, and this week's evening readings of Lila, gave rise to the musings about a use of backstory in fiction.  I hope it's been interesting.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Stoker's writing of Dracula, and an annotator's twist

Modern Vampire
The classic story of Dracula, by Bram Stoker, originally published in 1897, has had a long, and continuing run with readers of fiction--or was it even fiction?  In the 2008 special edition by W. W. Norton, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman, and annotated by Leslie S. Klinger, we read in the preface by Klinger:
My principal aim...has been to restore a sense of wonder, excitement, and sheer fun to this great work.  To that end, perhaps for the first time, I examine Stoker's published compilation of letters, journals, and recordings as Stoker wished: I employ a gentle fiction here, as I did in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, that the events described in Dracula "really took place" and that the work presents the recollections of real persons, whom Stoker has renamed and whose papers (termed the "Harker Papers" in my notes) he has recast, ostensibly to conceal their identities.
As Stoker wished.  What did that entire sentence above actually mean?

I have been reading this book as the Feb - April quarterly selection of a Goodreads-Ireland discussion group.   I saw the Bela Lugosi movie many years ago, and have been more than a little surprised by the popular interest in all things 'vampire' over the past decade--Anne Rice's books, TV series like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," lots of YA novels, etc.  However, I had not previously been drawn to read anything in the genre.  Once I decided to read this volume, I just glossed over the preface and introduction and waded into Stoker's originally published manuscript.  I liked the writing and the story quite well, and at first I mostly ignored the numerous annotations made by Klinger on almost every page.  The story flowed well and was quite mysterious.  However, as the plot unfolded through the Transylvania region, I began referring to the annotations, many of them quite informative, but kept noticing earnest arguments for and against the veracity of certain events and geography.  It began to seem like Klinger was taking care to point out things that did not match some real, but little known history of the vampire, Dracula.  

As the story progresses, and Dracula makes his way to England, his depredations become more ghoulish.  Klinger's notes begin to compare the attacks of the vampire, and the countering strategies employed by the four men and one woman opposing Dracula, contrasted with previously known folklore, or testaments as to the powers and habits of vampires. The reader begins to be seduced into believing there might be a quasi-historical foundation for vampirism.  However, the 'fictional dream' state necessary to sustain good fiction suffers somewhat whenever the reader's attention is drawn from the flow and suspense of the storyline to check on what Klinger has to say about events.  Sometimes what he has to say has a strong rational skepticism--like when Professor Van Helsing makes on-the-spot transfusions of blood to one of Dracula's victims on three separate mornings, using different volunteer donors each time from among the men.  Klinger remarks how fortunate that these transfusions were all successful:

Truly remarkable doctoring.  Although the science of blood transfusing was still in its infancy, there was some understanding that compatibility of donor and recipient was important.  Having transfused Lucy twice successfully (by blind luck), Van Helsing rolls the dice a third time, risking serious problems, rather than fall back on a tested donor.
 Klinger's point seems valid, but it seems unlikely that the "blind luck" aspect would otherwise have jumped out at the reader enough to disrupt a continuity of the 'fictional dream'.  Other critical annotations might question distances traveled in elapsed time periods, conflicting dates of diary entries, etc., unethical legal behavior of the solicitor, Jonathan Harker, credulousness of Professor Van Helsing, criticisms of Helsing's dialect (I disliked it, too) etc.  However, many such items were not likely to cause the reader too much difficulty in staying with the story. There were only a few items pointing out an inconsistency in the powers available to the vampire which might have given me some pause even without the annotation.

I liked the overall story line and wished I'd read it through completely before looking at any annotations.  However, once I had discovered the annotations referring repeatedly to differences or agreements with the "Harker Papers," which I'd been alerted to in Klinger's preface before starting the story, I felt I needed to stay aware of how they fit into the scheme of things.  At the end, however, I realized the "Harker Papers" were a fictional construct of Klinger.  He wanted to suggest that the events of Dracula really took place, and that this was "as Stoker wished."

The actual documentation left by Stoker for his conceptualization and writing of the Dracula novel are a collection of Notes, prepared circa 1890-1896, and held by the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and an interim manuscript prepared sometime prior to the published version of 1897.  The interim manuscript is currently held by a private owner, Mr. Paul G. Allen.  Klinger had reviewed all of these documents for the annotated volume published by Norton.  It appears the "Harker Papers" are only a terminology used by him for interviews we are to presume were made by Stoker with real people, and who were involved in real events described in Dracula.  Klinger suggests that the existing Notes were subsequently prepared from those interviews, after changing names to protect identities of the real people.  An original set of "Harker Papers" predating Stoker's Notes are thus Klinger's "gentle fiction."

The idea of the interviews suggested by Klinger are not so far-fetched, however. The creative process followed by Bram Stoker employs typical elements that some, if not most, writers might consider in developing such a novel.  The concept is the usual first step, followed perhaps by an outline. Not all writers will employ the outline, preferring to give the first draft free rein without any such constraint. However, before starting a first draft, some writers will conduct a written interview, as if it actually happened, with one or more of their main characters.  Such a process can help a writer find a unique 'voice' and personality for a character, and how they might be disposed to act, given the tensions anticipated in playing out the concept of the story.  Thus, the idea proposed by Klinger that a collection of interviews of real people by Stoker actually fits as a conceivable step in the writing of Dracula.

It is recommended to read the story through at least once without reference to the annotations, to enjoy the full mystery and atmosphere of a compelling story, and then enjoy reading it again with reference to the annotations by Klinger.  Many are rich in content, others perhaps a little carping, but writers will appreciate both Stoker's, and Klinger's, feats of imagination; first in the creation, and secondly in heightening, the mystery of Dracula.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

dialects, use them or avoid them?

Fand, Celtic Goddess of the Sea,
soaking up the rays
Dialect, "a particular form of a language specific to a certain region or group" as one dictionary has it,  can be an alluring facet for writing a fictional work.  It can lend an air of greater embedment in the unfolding of a tale, an immediacy of being among, or of the characters, instead of hearing a more grammatical narrator speaking in his own voice to give a report of dialog between story characters--which is effectively a translation of their dialect, and perhaps, as translations do, loses some of the native emotive content.

A character in a short story I wrote some years ago was a young, partially-disabled vet, working on a produce farm alongside migrant farm workers from out-of-state.  They were black, and he was white.  The migrants had a rich, rural southern, dialect, and the vet had a northern, lower working class, dialect.  A lot of the story included raucous episodes the migrant workers lied and joked about during their long hours of creeping forward on the soil beds, harvesting the vegetables as they went.  I wrote the story using a voice and idioms of other farm migrants I had worked alongside, part-time, for several years as a teenager.  I then rewrote the story in a third-person limited POV, using proper, grammatical diction.  I thought the dialect version seemed richer, but they're still just drafts.

I was thinking about the pros and cons of using dialect as I read Foreign Gods, Inc., by Oke Ndibe, a Nigerian-born writer who also teaches African and African Diaspora literatures here in the US.  The theme of the story involves a Nigerian immigrant to the US who earned an economics degree here, but had been unsuccessful in landing a job in his field.  After hearing more than enough criticisms of his accent, Ike has given up pursuing that career path, and has been driving a taxi for thirteen years.  Reading an article about a dealer in foreign gods in his resident city of NY, he visits the establishment, Foreign Gods, Inc.  He proposes to sell them an ancient war deity from his village in Nigeria, but the dealer is reluctant to estimate any potential value until he can inspect the actual piece, and sees some documents or publications attesting to the provenance of the deity.  Ike borrows from friends and maxes out his credit card to make the trip back to his village in Nigeria.

A major part of the story following includes a Nigerian dialect, incorporating a sort of local, pidgin English.  Often it results in very humorous mashups of Nigerian and American diction.  In the story, Ike has neglected for some time, because of a gambling addiction developed back in the US, to send any money for his mother and sister.  Now he's come back to rob the village of their deity, Ngene. Wouldn't matter to the mother and sister, since they, with a large portion of the village, have fallen for the new allure of the Christian gospel as promulgated by a slick, duplicitous local minister.  He had viewed Ike as a probable easy American mark for $50K to build him a new church.  There's a comical, if a little unsettling, bible belt preacher vs. smug religious cynic sort of opera going on here, but it holds together well enough.  The tension created by Ike's need to purloin the deity from a sort of Elk's Lodge temple, presided over by Ngene's high priest, Ike's beloved uncle, is almost palpably painful.

I would say that Ndibe has written a pretty good story, but I found his extensive use of such an idiosyncratic dialect wore me down a bit in the reading.

Friday, January 30, 2015

further explorations of second person POV

Second Person Point-of-View  (archaic)
Perhaps it is getting to be the season to consider writing fiction in second person point-of-view (POV-2).  Our last exploration of POV-2 was October, 2014, and a new article on the topic has just come out in the February issue of Writer's Chronicle, by James Chesbro, titled: "Notes to You--Second Person in Creative Nonfiction."  Chesbro's examples are taken from essay and memoir writers, but the techniques will be the same for fiction writers.  His article is sometimes a bit complex and difficult to follow, but can further an
 understanding of the effects in using POV-2.  

In many, perhaps most, cases, the persona or real identity of the protagonist addressed by the "you" of POV-2 is actually the narrator of the story.  For example, in the case of a memoir the person "you" addresses is often the narrator himself at some earlier age.  However, intermittently, and sometimes in the same paragraph, the "you" being addressed may be the reader.  This slipperiness might be used to good effect in conflating the tensions felt by the protagonist with those felt by the reader.  When the reader is cast in the role of "you," he or she becomes more intimately associated with the protagonist.  He or she becomes the protagonist.  

Let's look at an example given by Chesbro, from the essay, "Swimming With Canoes," by John McPhee:
The canoe rocks, slaps the lake, moves forward.  Sooner or later, you lose your balance and fall into the water, because the gunwales are slender rails and the stern deck is somewhat smaller than a pennant.  From waters deeper than you were tall, you climbed back into your canoe.  If you think that's easy, try it.
In the early part of the paragraph the narrator's "you" is self referring, in a scene that took place when he was a young boy.  The reader may be gripped by the risks and dangers faced by the boy, but can keep some distance from what is happening.  However, in the last sentence of the paragraph, Chesbro suggests a slippery switch by the author from self address to direct address of the reader:
"(which) can trick the mind of the reader into placing himself on the gunwales of the canoe and slip just as the boy character slips into these complex and elusive aspects of you. We can deduce that the conflation of direct and self address is a purposeful affect of McPhee's multi-faceted utilization of second person construction."
 Fair enough, "If you think that's easy, try it," does indeed have an effect of causing the reader to more directly imagine just what he might have done in that same incident.  

Let's move now to another example from Chesbro, a beautifully straightforward example of POV-2: "If You Should Want Flowers for Your Table (Advice to a Daughter)," a 565 word essay by Marsha McGregor. The second person construction serves here as a direct address to the narrator's daughter.  The mother's voice is part of what makes this undemanding use of second person work so well.  Ostensibly, the mother is advising her daughter on how to care for flowers, but "we can see the metaphors on conduct, morality, and how to live."  In excerpts from McGregor:
"A small garden patch to call your own is lovely, but even a sad, weed-choked spot near the highway will yield plenty...Last week I veered off the road near that custard stand you loved, parked the car on the shoulder and waded into a riotous patch of wild sweet peas, all tangled tendrils and wiry stems, reminding me of the way you looked as a child when you slept...If you pursue the wild things, love, look out for bad drivers and poison ivy.  Be careful."

Gorgeous writing.
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