Monday, October 29, 2012

Confusing Fiction with Autobiography

by Joanne Merriam

What does it mean to “write what you know”? Based on some of the submissions I receive, I fear many writers are taking this common piece of writing advice too literally.

Audrey Niffenegger has never been a time traveler or a ghost. Robin McKinley has never met a vampire or a dragon. Margaret Atwood has not lived through the rise of a theocratic dictatorship or the end of human civilization. Jonathan Lethem is not an astronaut, or as far as I know the boyfriend of one. Shakespeare was never the king of any country, and his father was probably not killed by his step-father. Philip Roth did not grow up in Nazi America.

And so on and so on, and yet, they all wrote what they knew.

It’s helpful to draw upon your own experiences when you’re writing, but there's autobiography and there's autobiography. I work plenty of my own experience into my stories, but I don't get confused between myself and my characters or insist that they act the way I did or that events happen the way they happened to me, or even that the experiences I’m drawing on have any obvious relationship to the ones I’m writing about. For example, take my Alzheimer's/vampire story completely aside from the futuristic vampire backdrop which obviously isn't autobiographical, I'm also not a caregiver for somebody with Alzheimer's, nor a short order cook, and never have been. But I couldn't have written as convincingly from the point of view of a caregiver without the experiences I've had with my maternal grandparents, as well as family conversations about their deterioration and care requirements, and of course a great deal of research.

Research is what allows you to write factually about things you haven’t experienced directly, so you can put your character in 16th century China or on the moon and avoid anachronisms or scientific inaccuracy, so your readers are not pulled out of the story by knowing more than you do about its backdrop. Writing what you know, on the other hand, allows you to give the story emotional accuracy. For example, while my facial transplantation story drew information from my day job as the administrative assistant to several head and neck surgeons, as well as a lot of research on PubMed, to make it emotionally convincing I needed to draw on my own life experiences of times I have felt socially awkward and alienated.

Think about the emotional core of your characters’ experiences, and relate them to times in your own life when you have experienced something sufficiently emotionally similar that you can relate to their joy, their pain, their fear, their whathaveyou.

If you’re having trouble with a scene or character, break down what your character experiences into its most basic emotional components, then think of a time in your own life when you have felt those emotions (even if the incident that brought them on has no relationship to what your character is going through). Say your character has just found out their husband is cheating on them; think of a time when you’ve been betrayed by somebody you trusted. Say your character is an assassin sent to kill an old flame; think of a time in your life when your duty has conflicted with your desires. Say your character is facing seemingly insurmountable odds in a battle for the future of the human race; take a time when you’ve faced something difficult and expand on those feelings.

Writing what you know provides the basis for fiction that feels true to the reader. It means mining your past (especially the weird and painful parts) and, to torture this metaphor a little, smelting your experiences into stories that shine with authenticity.



Joanne Merriam is a Nova Scotian living in Nashville. She is the author of the poetry collection The Glaze from Breaking, several short stories, and several unpublished novels, and is the editor Upper Rubber Boot Books.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Patience, Grasshopper



My story collection, “Margins of Tolerance” came out in May, and for pretty much the entire year preceding its release I was consumed with the seemingly endless list of things one has to do when one has a book coming out with a small, independent press—revising the stories, begging for blurbs, obsessing over the book cover and lay out, securing the perfect author photo, creating a website, joining Twitter, etc—not to mention the endless amount of publicity one has to generate, a full time job in and of itself. Translation: pretty much no new writing done, at all.




By June, after several readings and parties, things had settled down a bit and I was excited to get back to writing. Specifically, novel writing. I had two completely different novels that I’d started the year before I found out about the book deal, and was lucky enough to have two residencies ahead of me to work on them. Two seemed like a safer bet—I wasn’t sure which one would captivate me, but surely if one didn’t speak to me the other would. I saw myself finishing fifty, maybe even a hundred pages over the summer and being well on my way towards a first draft.

What I didn’t plan on was how hard it would be to transition from story-writing mode back to novel writing mode.  Novels are entirely different beasts, and they require a great deal more patience, a willingness to sit and stew in your thoughts, to think about your characters lives and how to gradually unfold these lives across the span of a book.

I’m not sure who made this analogy about the difference between short stories and novels, but it goes something like this. Imagine as a writer you’re a real estate broker taking people on a tour. Novelists take people on a tour of the entire house: Here is the bedroom. Here is the living room. Here is the kitchen, isn’t it lovely? They take their time, and let people get a full appreciation of every nook and cranny. The short story writer, on the other hand, takes readers to a single room and asks them to linger there. Let’s really get to know this room, he says. The doors to the other rooms are open, and you can catch a glimpse, but we’re not going to go inside of them. Let’s stay here and let this room tell us all we need to know about the house.

It’s hard, when you get into the habit of lingering in one room and offering only glimpses of others, to allow yourself to explore so many other rooms. I found myself getting impatient and frustrated with the pacing of the pages I was writing. Nothing exciting is happening, I’d tell myself. This is all so slow and boring. I was seeking immediate gratification, something that’s a whole lot easier to achieve in a short story, where the conflict must be immediate and visceral and there is little time for build-up.

Several of my novelist friends have told me that at the beginning stages, a novelist has to get used to writing pages and pages of crap. That you have to “write your way through” a lot of material that will not end up in the book, because this process is the only way you get to really know your characters and story well enough to understand what the novel is about. But after a couple of years of writing short stories, my brain was hard-wired against writing twenty five pages of “useless” material. Twenty five pages! That’s longer than my average story. Even though I knew that the material wasn’t exactly useless, that it was exactly what I needed to do to make headway, I was still resisting and feeling dejected and paranoid.

After days of what I thought were false starts, I gave up briefly and returned to story writing. And for a while I felt better, more in control. Yet this is precisely what the dilemma boils down to: for a long while, especially at the beginning, you are NOT in control as a novelist. You have to be okay with that, with plunging into the unknown and failing.

So have I learned my lesson? I’m not sure. I’ve put aside those two other novels for now, but something inspired me at my last residency and it looks like I’ve started another. The interesting this is, this potential novel started out as a short story. As I began outlining it, though, I realized it was going to be a very long story. Maybe even a novella. The longer I thought about it, I realized it could almost certainly be long enough for a novel. Here, then, was my “solution” to this problem, one that may just work for other short story writers turned novelists as well: You may just have to trick your brain into thinking you’re just writing a story. A 250 page story, but still a story. And maybe once you do, all those doubts about whether you can write a novel will start to diminish.



Eric Sasson is an MFA graduate of NYU and has taught fiction writing at the Sackett Street Writers Workshop in Brooklyn. His short story collection, “Margins of Tolerance,” was the 2011 Tartt Award runner-up and was published by Livingston Press in May. This summer he was named a Tennessee Williams Scholar to the Sewanee Writers Conference, and was granted residency fellowships to Ragdale and The Hambidge Center. His story “Floating” was named a finalist for the Robert Olen Butler prize. Other credits include pieces forthcoming in Explosion Proof as well as recently published in The Wall Street Journal Online, BLOOM,  Nashville ReviewConnotation Press,The Puritan, Liquid Imagination, The Ledge, MARY magazine and THE2NDHAND, among others. www.ericsassonnow.com


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Cheating on NaNoWriMo, Again

by Sabra Wineteer

I am going to cheat on NaNoWriMo. Again. I've done it before. Two years ago when I needed to take an editing break from a work-in-progress novel and switch gears like the best of us.

Last time, I got a fair way into a novel that has yet come to nothing. There is sometimes a point in a writer's development in which ambition outweighs ability. This was the case with this "cheater" novel. I kept bringing in elements, not small little things that are quirky, interesting, and help to flesh out a character, but premise bending sorts of elements. Not to say that the novel's a mess, but it's got a lot of plates spinning, has a wonderful riff about London and the English language sort of thing. Bill Clegg would love it. But I didn't or probably still don't have the ability to pull together so many themes. I also fell out of love with it and have moved on.

This time, I'm cheating the same way I did last time. I'm not starting from scratch. Words are drafted. Thousands of words. Scenes are noted. I've invested in copious amounts of books to learn more about the world my characters will inhabit. According to the NaNoWriMo guidelines, this is a sort of cheating. Worse, I'm starting early. This week I have finished final edits (at least before an agent and/or editor gets hold of it) on a social realism novel. My speculative dystopian novel, now moves up in the world, becomes my work-in-progress novel. And for weeks this novel has been in the back of my mind, scenes coming to me while I walk the dog or take a bath or at night when I dream. I'm going to love on it now. This is early for NaNoWriMo. This is cheating on NaNoWriMo. Worst, I've already "workshopped" this novel. At least the first part of the first chapter. I've already edited it instead of doing a full on drafting blitz. NaNoWriMo is a drafting orgy.

 And I don't care that I'm cheating on NaNoWriMo. This novel has been crying out for attention for far too long for me to ignore it for another two weeks. So I won't. Call me cheater, cheater pumpkin eater. Or become my writing buddy and we'll cheer each other on, cheating or not. And let me know if you've ever done NaNoWriMo, especially if you've cheated on it.



*NOTE about my user name- dorcasweed- on NaNoWriMo. Dorcas Weed is such a bad name it's not just good, it's great. Dorcas Weed is also my oldest American female ancestor. At least that I've discovered. She was born in 1640 in Wethersfield, Connecticut. Wethersfield was a new Puritan colony founded by her parents, parents-in-law, and others.






Photo by Curt Richter
Sabra Wineteer grew up in Moss Bluff, Louisiana. She has since lived in England, New Zealand, Germany, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, and currently lives in rural Pennsylvania with her husband and their three tweens. Her work has appeared in TWINS Magazine, storySouth, The Rumpus, 7X20, and the anthology 140 And Counting. She has workshopped her fiction with Antonya Nelson, Charles D'Ambrosio, and Margaret Atwood. She is the 2012 Joyce Horton Johnson Fiction Award recipient and founder of Talking Shop, an upcoming online literary community. She's shopping a social realism novel and drafting her next- a speculative dystopian literary novel.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Switching Gears- Literary Ones


Breaking down the novel into bite sized morsels, or how to pretend you aren't writing a novel.

The idea of the short story is super appealing to most writers. Probably because it has the word short in it. Short sounds like this writing project could have a completion date in the current week, instead of the current decade. This appeals to the novelist.

T. C. Boyle said, "A short story is like a toothache and you must drill it and fill it. A novel is more like bridgework."

I heard Diana Gabaldon discuss her writing process once. She never outlines and doesn't write chapters in order, but random chapters that she later stitches together. She said that on her computer she'll have multiple files open at the same time and as she gets stuck in one project, she hops over to the other one and works there until she gets unstuck, then jumps back to the original piece. This may explain why the woman writes about time travel and men in kilts.

Yet, I found myself doing the same thing with my WIPs. I always have a short story going, and I use flash fiction and poetry to warm up my brain in the morning before I even open the novel file. I also walk around and read out loud, but that is neither here nor there.

When a paragraph in the trucker mystery gets sticky- in that I can't get rid of it and I can't fix it, I pull part of the paragraph out, stick in a blank doc and riff on it. This generally allows me to either find the way out or stab it in the left eye and leave it for dead.

Once, a single shoddy line pulled from a WIP became an entire sestina. (Super duper extra points if you knew what a sestina was without Googling it.)

The short story or flash fiction completion also serves another purpose. You can submit your work into the world, for glory and prestige or at the very least, let your agent know you're working.

There are also the famous novels told in stories sort of indie books. Perhaps you're writing one of those. I wrote an entire novel where every chapter had a really long title. I used that as a sort of permission to compose a short piece every ten pages. The problem came when I had to piece it all together, Then, I had the stitching problems of Gabaldon, without her mathematical mind.

I've heard about writers who compose stories on Twitter, even been invited to add a few of my own to the feed. This might seem like a good idea, and could work for you, but for me, I'd be clicking the ads and shopping for vintage snip toe Old Gringo cowgirl boots before I could post The End.

Whatever your process while noveling, you're probably storying— you just don't know it—the notes you're making as you shower, the long-winded gripes on Facebook, the silly observations you make on your phone in the checkout line at the grocer, the edits in the margin of your manuscript. They are all telling a story.

Again, TC Boyle says it perfectly, "The joy of the story is that you can respond to the moment and events of the moment. The drawback is that once you've completed a story, you must write another even though you find yourself bereft of talent or ideas. The joy of the novel is that you know what you're going to do tomorrow. The horror of the novel, however, is that you know what you're going to do tomorrow."






No stranger to stalkers, Linda Sands encourages you to connect via Facebook,  or Twitter. Browse her website or plan a writing escape with Linda and pals at Write By The Water: Retreats designed to let your writing flow.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Queen of Procrastination



It’s amazing I even was able to write this blog post since I am the Queen of Procrastination.  No one anointed me with this title; it is one I have given myself.  We as writers are known for being procrastinators, even joking amongst ourselves about how the kitchen is spotless, the laundry is done and folded, and all the meals have been cooked for the next fourteen days but the writing? The novel?  How is the novel going?  Eh, didn’t have enough time to work on it today.  I’ll definitely get to it tomorrow.
So what is the cure for this writerly malady?  Wish I could tell you, still searching for the answer myself.  I know the cause of it, of course, but simply knowing the origins doesn’t mean you can stop the behavior.  It’s sort of like acknowledging that you eat too many doughnuts when you’re distraught, but more importantly how do you prevent yourself from such gorging?  The irony is that you will feel so much better if you actually park yourself in a chair and write.  So why is there still all the procrastination in actually sitting down in the chair?  Why avoid something that could make you feel better?  The answer is obvious; it doesn’t always make us feel better.  Six shitty paragraphs aren’t better than zero shitty paragraphs.  Or are they? Yet the only thing to do, the only salve for the festering wound, is to write, and to keep writing.  Even though you may produce five pages of unusable work, the mere act of doing it guarantees that at some point your writing will improve.  That’s not to say you will reach a level of expertise (whatever that means) eventually, it just means that your writing will improve.  No one bakes a perfect apple pie the first go round.  But keep doing it, and you will end up with an edible and presentable pie, golden crust and all.  
Scheduling and organizing work and my life has never been my strong suit.  Efficiency always seemed like something reprehensible, the hallmark of an overbearing mother or a communist dictatorship.  I have always found it the domain of the office worker drone.  Yet every day tools are necessary in shooing away the evil procrastinating monster.  Other things such as exercising are scheduled, why not writing?  Don’t really productive people lead highly scheduled lives?  Don’t I want to be a highly productive person?  Yes, of course, but not at the expense of quality.  I am old enough to realize it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
How do you overcome procrastination? Is there something to be done?

Linda Tzoref was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She received her BA in philosophy from San Francisco State University and an MFA from Emerson College. Her work has appeared in Hot Metal Bridge and Diverse Voices Quarterly. Currently, she is based in Atlanta, Georgia and is working on her first novel. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

Narrative Transitions

 by Sabra Wineteer

I can’t stand novels that jump forward or back time without a few markers or anchoring descriptions. Perhaps it’s a literary pet peeve or something I find aesthetically annoying, or it could be I lack mental acuity or am too muddled in my daily life to suss out broad leaps in narrative time. But I read a lot and when authors do this it never fails to irk me.

When I’m reading a novel and this happens, I muddle through a couple three sentences thinking, “What?” As Margaret Atwood proclaimed, “Don’t give readers a what moment.” These transitions (or really the lack of them) pull me out of the narrative and, thus, the enjoyment of the book. “Where am I?” I wonder. “When am I?” “Which character am I with?” I don’t find it clever, or twee, or avant-garde to jack a reader around this way. This is either subterfuge on the part of an evil dictator author or laziness. And whatever the reason, I have to reread these sentences until I get the author’s gist- yes, we’ve moved a decade forward in time and now Joe is the point-of-view character.

Films don’t make jarring jumps in time, at least the well made ones don’t. I think of the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice (the one with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle). Because the narrative of the story takes place over many months and sometimes there’s not much going on between say summer and the following spring, the film shows us the passage of a great deal of time very quickly. For instance, we see Elizabeth on one of her walks, her bonnet is tight, she wears a long sleeved jacket with gloves. As she walks, we see that the leaves on the trees are different colors- red, orange, yellow. And if we, as viewers, are in any doubt about this big shift forward in time, the film bangs it home. We hear squawking, as does Elizabeth, and we see her look up as the camera angles to the sky. There are geese, V-flying south. Autumn. And that's all we get in scene for the whole season. Then the film moves onto winter, the Bennet's holed up in their house, frost on the windows, Mr. Bingley likely gone from Netherfield forever.

In her last novel, "The Years", Virginia Woolf employs these transitions. She’s quite fond of them and spends several paragraphs of each chapter making such openings. For instance, these are the hallmarks she gives at the very beginning of the novel.


1880

It was an uncertain spring. The weather, perpetually changing, sent clouds of blue and of purple flying over the land. In the country farmers, looking at the fields, were apprehensive; in London umbrellas were opened and then shut by people looking up at the sky. But in April such weather was to be expected.



This is just a little taste of her opening setting-the-scene paragraph; it goes on for 445 words.

Seventy-five years after "The Years" was published, we don’t have much tolerance (or attention span) for such lengthy expositions, but that doesn’t mean authors shouldn’t employ them. I keep a calendar for my characters- Thursday, December 23, 1999- trip to the OVR- so that I know at any given point, in any given scene, I know exactly what day my character occupies. I like using this site to give me the days of the week and the dates.  It might not seem vital, but in the case of the above example, I wanted a day close to Christmas, but not when this particular office, the OVR, would be closed. (I even called the office itself and learned that they are never open on Christmas Eve, even if it falls on a weekday. Thus, it had to be December 23rd or earlier.) Though I don't give the date of this scene, I do mention that "Christmas is the day after tomorrow." I hope in doing so that my readers are anchored in time and the many transitions I have during the part of the novel don't give anyone any what moments.

Authors can also show years pass in mere sentences. As a personal preference, I LOVE this. The most elegant way I’ve ever seen this done was with Gloria Naylor’s "The Women of Brewster Place." In one particular scene she is showing not only many years passing, but a character growing up. She narrates this scene cinematically. We have an unchangeable anchor, a chair, and we have the passage of time shown by the son’s legs lengthening (growing, he's aging) in comparison to this inanimate object.

Another reason I prefer these transitions is that I’m fond of cliff-hangerish chapter endings. Like a roller coaster, we can’t always be rising to the top of the structure. And we can’t be forever cresting over the edge. And no matter how hard gravity pulls us back down, there’s a bottom somewhere. There’s got to be some level bits in there, even if there are curves. So, for those suspenseful chapter endings, or even when there’s an emotional blow, revelation, or narrative bang, I like a little smoothness to even me back out before the tension builds again.

So more transitions, please. Anchor me and other readers in the who, when, and where before moving into the what and how. I know I'd be grateful.

Photo by Curt Richter
Sabra Wineteer grew up in Moss Bluff, Louisiana. She has since lived in England, New Zealand, Germany, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, and currently lives in rural Pennsylvania with her husband and their three tweens. Her work has appeared in TWINS Magazine, storySouth, The Rumpus, 7X20, and the anthology 140 And Counting. She has workshopped her fiction with Antonya Nelson, Charles D'Ambrosio, and Margaret Atwood. She is the 2012 Joyce Horton Johnson Fiction Award recipient and founder of Talking Shop, an upcoming online literary community. Her current work-in-progress novel is complete and almost finished.



Sunday, October 7, 2012

Route 28

by Karin Rosman 

Buses, trains and planes find their way into much of my fiction. I used to edit the material out, fearing an overused metaphor, but recently I’ve caught on to the ready made tension of strangers occupying a small space. Our skin perhaps crawls at the sensation of someone else’s body heat on the seat we’re currently using, the flesh that jiggles under the too short tee shirt when your average joe lifts his arm to hold onto the handrail.  Best, maybe, the woman shouting into her cellphone at her daughter: “You use my fucking car when I was in lockup?  Where were you?  I got to take the bus.  You don’t know what I’m going to do to your ass when I get home.  You don’t know.  I can’t say because I got this kid sitting next to me.  But you don’t know what I’m going to do to you.” (That kid was my son, who expressed his gratitude for chores for a full day after hearing that.)  Oh yes, public transportation is a beautiful petri dish for fiction.

Last month, I lost myself in the sheet music of Elliott Smith and snapped to reality in the loud back and forth of five men just out of county lockup. They sat in that intentional way of intimidation, close and on either side of me, shouting across to each other--so when one tried over and over to get my attention, I made like I was from Finland and ignored him. He persisted, and when I looked up, he didn’t smile but leaned forward, asked about the sheet music. I’d never met a hip hop artist, and even if I did, I don’t know what I would tell him about Elliott Smith.  Folk-mood/grunge? It’s complicated. It’s also complicated to explain that I’m not a musician, I’m a writer trying to learn the why of rhythm.

It wasn’t the easiest exchange, and I won’t say that I climbed down the ladder of social privilege to connect with someone who only shared a route number with me, but I couldn’t let the short conversation go.  The last time I met such persistence, I was fifteen years younger and a man, grotesque with expectation, was trying to pick me up in Rome.  But this young man wasn’t like that, he was curious about my music, and when I left, he made no effort to detract me, only thanked me.
 
I’ve been having issues with this fictional pimp in my novel.  He’s not obvious, he’s a church boy, older than he looks, and his mother adores him. He doesn’t get on the bus and sit to intimidate, nor is he verbose.  He blends.  He’s Milton’s cherub, the very devil with the ascending charm of a beautiful boy. When I sat down to write a particular scene, I found myself on the bus again, younger than I was in Rome, with sheet music. My dad waited for me at a downtown bus stop. The boy sitting across the seat from me is trying to get my attention.  He seems nice enough, but I don’t look up. He persists. We’re the only ones on the bus and I’m a good girl, a polite girl. I don’t like to ignore people. But I know that I should ignore this boy. I know that he is not what he seems. But I don’t see that side of him.  My dad does as he puts his arm around my shoulders and walks me away from the bus. My dad sees his smile hidden behind his hand. Later we argue and I win him over. Tomorrow, I ride the bus again.

I hope that the hip hop artist would forgive me for turning him into a pimp, but I don’t think he will ever know. It isn’t him on the page. It’s the blend of Roman memory and Seattle experience. It’s the concept of evil hiding so perfectly in good intentions. It’s just another bus ride.
 

Karin's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Gargoyle, Summerset Review, Platt Valley Review, Revolution House among others. She is currently working on a novel and lives in Seattle with her husband and son.


Thursday, October 4, 2012

If I’m Bored You’re Bored

by Jenn Marie Nunes

Of course that doesn’t mean that the writing process is – or should, right? – never be boring or frustrating or feel like work. It doesn’t mean that I never spend 20 minutes with my fingers poised, staring off into space thinking about whether or not it would be more productive to allow myself to go sweep up the dead cockroach that I just noticed under the chair, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t think that it’s ever necessary to slog through he-moved-from-this-room-to-that-room or this-is-how-these-future-glasses-work moments. But seriously. Chances are that if I’m bored while I’m writing, you’re gonna be bored while you’re reading.



Big thanks to the various other writers in my life who have said things along these lines. This was an important realization for me; I don’t think I would have ever attempted a novel without it. The things is, I’m a poet. A poet who ended up in the fiction side of an MFA program. A poet who grew up reading Madeleine L’Engle, Stephen King, Anne Rice, Anne McCaffrey; a poet in love with science fiction. When I was 5 yrs old I would fantasize about my novel launch when I couldn’t sleep. But then I grew up, and every time I would sit down to write fiction I would be exhausted before I started.

Fiction is hard. It is. For a poet, anyway. At least it looks hard. To me. It looks like I’m gonna have to explain so much. Like I’m gonna have to methodically plod through all of this tedious plot. But let me tell you, I don’t! I don’t have to plod! And plot is a lie – but that comes later.

Let’s start here: if I find I’m boring myself to death moving my characters around – trudging through time and space – to get from this bit of action to that, I stop, hit return twice, and there it is. It’s happening. It’s all happening! I just don’t have to be there to record every grimy detail. A lot can happen in the silences. A lot can happen in relief. Chances are that if I’m really into what I am writing, the details will be better, the dialogue juicer, the wit wittier – and all of the drudgery in between will insinuate itself into one’s imagination whether one likes it or not. Gotta trust “the reader” to create. Even in a novel.

Of course, sometimes there are details that can’t be left out. Details about how and where, such as how the world of the novel operates – even the more mundane-seeming world of a mid-west suburb or an up-state NY B&B. I still don’t think I should have to force my characters or my narrator to explain if they’re just not into it. For me, this has necessitated a more hybrid interpretation of the novel genre. If my character doesn’t want to talk about what she sees as she hitches north along the Mississippi, there are plenty of regular ol’ folks along the way who want to blog, tweet and chat about it. Thank god my novel takes place in a tech-glut world where everyone is connected. Thank god I’m obsessed with the marriage of form and content. I can always ask myself if this moment I’m killing myself over really belongs to this character – or if maybe it belongs to a podcast by an expert on evolution or a trucker’s chat room.

Obviously this second solution is less broadly applicable, but I do think it was helpful for me to realize that I could write any kind of novel I wanted – whatever kind was going to keep me in it. And now when I sit down to work on the novel, and all I can think is that it is going to take sooooooo freakin’ long for Cleo to essentially walk from New Orleans to Chicago through what has largely become a wilderness, I have a built in solution.  




Jenn Marie Nunes is a poet and writer living in New Orleans. Her work appears in such journals as Ninth Letter, Horse Less Review, Bateau, Finery and the Sonora Review. Her echapbook, STRIP, is available at PANK Magazine, and she is co-author of the chapbook OPERA TRANS OPERA, forthcoming from Alice Blue Books. Together with poet Mel Coyle, she is editor of TENDE RLOIN, an online gallery for poetry. She holds an MFA in fiction from LSU; this is her first novel-in-progress.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Novelist at Heart



In the Beginning…


I started writing a novel about four years ago. I signed up for a novel workshop, and even though I didn’t know at the beginning what my novel would be about, I did the work. I began to find my characters. I discovered their lives, including their wants and dreams and secrets and fears. I started to understand the story of the novel, which is to say I figured out what was happening in this world I was making up.


And then it all became too much for me. I made a very conscious decision to stop working on the novel. I dropped out of the workshop and planned to go back to writing only short fiction. I wanted to write and publish some really good short stories, and eventually, I would publish a collection. And then, in a complete surprise, I ended up focusing on poetry in an attempt to understand the form better. For the next two years, I wrote poems, almost exclusively. A couple of short stories worked their way out during that time, but mostly, everything that came to me came in the form of a poem. More than once, I went for a month or more when I wrote a new poem every day. It was exciting and fun because, even though the first draft of a poem might not be perfect, you can get the idea down on paper in a relatively short amount of time.


That was the problem I had with the novel. It took too long. And it was hard. I had figured out most of the mile markers, but I hadn’t gotten far enough fast enough. Now, let me clarify that many true poets won’t think much of my comparing poetry and novels in this way. I know a lot of poets who spend weeks and months, even years, returning to one poem before it’s finished. In that case, it might take as long to write a really fantastic poem –the poem of all poems—as it does to write a novel. But usually, the draft of the poem comes quickly, and the rest is revision.


The draft of a novel is different though. It takes far, far more words on the page before you can begin the true revision process. A novel is generally considered to be at least 60,000 or 70,000 words. Anything less is a novella, and when I was getting tired and bored with myself, I prayed to just figure out how to write a novella and put the idea to bed. Maybe I was just lazy, or maybe it wasn’t my time. I don’t know for sure, but what I do know is that even during those two years when I was writing poetry, I was thinking about the novel. I avoided writing it, but I was thinking about the novel. Everything I had written for the novel was in a binder that sat on my desk with a rubber band pulled tightly over it. I wouldn’t open it for fear it would suck me back in, but I was still thinking about it. I was always thinking about the novel.

In addition to not being able to get the novel out of my head, I couldn’t quit thinking of myself as a fiction writer. I was pumping out poems, some of which were getting published and winning contests, but I winced any time someone called me a poet. Not out of embarrassment or shame. I wanted to be a poet, but I didn’t feel like one. I might not have been a novelist, but I was a fiction writer more than a poet.

In June, I entered the MFA program at Bennington College. Determined to be a fiction writer, I broke down and opened the binder with my novel in it. Now that I’ve reentered that world, it has actually become more vivid and real. A big part of the job in these past months is just to fully realize where the holes are and start filling them in. As I said already, I had established the mile markers, but there were vast stretches of open countryside in between. It’s now my job to further explore.


Even after four years, I’m still in the early days of this work, and who knows if it will ever be finished. Even if I do finish it, there’s no guarantee that it will see publication. But I can’t think of that now. I just have to keep filling in the holes. I have to write. As of today I have about 22,000 words which make up what I currently see as the first nine chapters.

If you’re looking for blog posts from an experienced novelist, you’re reading the wrong blogger. But if you want to see how someone like me is bumbling through the process, I look forward to sharing these occasional posts. Now, it’s time to write.

Denton Loving lives on a farm near the historic Cumberland Gap, where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia come together.  He works at Lincoln Memorial University, where he co-directs the annual Mountain Heritage Literary Festival and serves as executive editor of drafthorse: the literary journal of work and no work.  His fiction, poetry and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in Appalachian Heritage, Minnetonka Review, Trajectory, Main Street Rag and in numerous anthologies including "Degrees of Elevation: Stories of Contemporary Appalachia."  He’s at work on his first novel.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Don’t be Evil

Or
Why Fiction Authors Must Choose What Kind of Dictator They Will Be
by Rayme Waters

For years when I said I was writing a book, people asked me which authors I
admired and I’d tell them in one breath: Dickens, Bronte, King, Egan. But I’d trip over the follow up question—I couldn’t articulate what these four authors had in common or how they influenced my more spare style of writing. I devoured what they wrote because I found it challenging and joyful. Conversely, Franzen’s "The Corrections" left me feeling ill. Updike’s "Rabbit is Rich" frustrated me so thoroughly that I threw the novel across the room. Novels that inspire physical reactions require a level of reader involvement that only a writer at the top of his or her game can summon. How could I hate two books—and many others not singled out here--that were so solidly crafted?

Recently, while promoting my own debut novel, The Angels’ Share, I was asked by author and book blogger Kelly O’Connor McNees if I weren’t a writer what my dream occupation would be. My first thought was “starting right tackle for the San Francisco 49ers”, but this small white girl is trying to tame the beast of sarcasm so I came up with another answer: benevolent dictator. In this dream job, I get to tell 16 year olds they aren’t allowed to get pregnant and I can chemically castrate rapists and child molesters. I wipe out student loan debt and tell casinos they can’t build on beaches. I fund the kind of rehabs where addicts can take time to recover and create opportunities where people who are fated to fall in love get second, third, fourth chances.

As I answered Ms. McNees, I realized that all fiction writers are rulers of worlds
they create and the authors I loved best were benevolent ones.

There are finely crafted, prize-winning books that leave you frustrated and
despairing, about how men hurt women, how families damage each other,
how the vulnerable will always be exploited and left to suffer. An evil dictator
will sacrifice the good nature of any character, debase any level of trust he or
she has gained with the reader, to parse their truth: that the world is a chaotic
place and human decency, if there ever was such a thing, is long lost. While
a benevolent writer doesn’t deny that the battles are bloody and sometimes
hopeless, he or she believes the war against What’s Wrong in the mind and on
the page is worth fighting earnestly, and the occasional triumph of good over evil, often near the resolution of the story, is not simplistic or outmoded.

(This doesn’t mean I endorse a third type of writer: the puppet dictator. Writers
of novels that that only scratch the surface of truth because the marketing
department wants everything to be pretty, comfortable and formulaic or because
the author is under the gun of time, putting what might have evolved into a strong novel into the straightjacket of a book-a-year cycle. A novel by a Puppet might start out with an amazing premise or a mind-blowingly good prologue, but leaves you feeling like you just ate a cheap package of sweet rolls [Jane Austen flirts with Puppet status, but ends always, firmly, on the side of a benevolence]. The Puppet delivers the whole story so prettily wrapped, yet so full of holes, once you close the cover you rarely think of it again.)

Despite many evil dictators superior writing skills, it is tougher to write the
Benevolent story than the Evil story because it is easy to be heavy, hard to be
light. To have characters meet our lowest expectations: walking out on their
families, choosing the drugs, trafficking the human, and then not facing the task
of unwinding that downward spiral, letting the characters, the story redeem itself means the author has only done half the work. The Benevolent, navigating the trickier artistic path, lays out the complications of a novel, lets the reader admire their beauty, their treachery, allows his or her characters to get into deep, painful trouble, and then backward navigates the reader with a thin beam of light, one that in the hands of a Benevolent will illuminate something you’d always thought but never put into words, something that fills your depleted tank such that you feel like the book you just read changed the way you think about life in ways both gentle and profound. Like Dickens and Bronte are able to give hope to those with wretched beginnings. How King’s Lisey’s Story explains that the bonds of a dedicated marriage are stronger than those of premature death. How Egan reminds us that time is ruthless and our behavior during our stay on earth matters. And if you finish those books or any book loving humanity more than hating it, feeling less empty, less alone, your author has been kind to you.




Born in San Francisco, Rayme Waters grew up in Northern California and the city of Link√∂ping, Sweden. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Dzanc Best of the Web Award. Most recently, her work has appeared in The Summerset Review, The Rumpus and The Meadowland Review. The Angels’ Share is Rayme’s debut novel.

Monday, October 1, 2012

On Beginnings



I've started writing a lot of novels (and I've even finished three of them), and as editor of Upper Rubber Boot Books I read the starts of a lot of submitted novels (many more than I read the endings of), and spend a lot of time thinking about beginnings. Editors are famously supposed to read the first paragraph or first page of a manuscript and decide whether or not to keep reading; many editors I know tell me they routinely reject novels on the basis of the first sentence.


The received wisdom, if you read a lot of writing advice (and, alas, I do), is that you need to have a killer first sentence, something that will grab the fickle reader, something that raises a life-or-death

question or creates tension right away, like-


Or, "Manfred's on the road again, making strangers rich." ~Accelerando by Charles Stross




(When we say "reader" above, what we really mean is "editor." Something that will grab the editor. The distracted, overworked, insomniac editor.)



Now, I love those first lines. I laughed out loud in delight and envy at Feed's first sentence. But I don't want every book to start with a bang like that. Sometimes I want a little foreplay.



One of the most celebrated books of the year, which was just rightfully shortlisted for the Booker, has this first sentence: "Futh stands on the ferry deck, holding on to the cold railings with his soft hands." ~The Lighthouse by Alison Moore


It's not a terrible beginning: it sets the scene and gives us some expectations for the style of the rest of the book; but it's not exactly gripping, is it? You didn't read it and say to yourself, "but what could possibly happen next?!" You might have some questions (where is he going? why doesn't he put on some gloves?) but they don't have any particular urgency. The Lighthouse takes a good couple of paragraphs to get into the swing of things (it's the third paragraph that pulled me into the story: "She had been gone for almost a year by then, by the time Futh and his father took this holiday together. Mostly, she was not mentioned, and Futh longed for his father or anybody to say, 'Your mother...' so that his heart would life. But then, when she was spoken about, she would invariably be spoiled in some way and he would wish that nothing had been said after all.") I didn't need a killer sentence to draw me in to this book, or to books like that take their time to establish an understanding with me.



The first page does need to shine in some way, either with the bright light of a killer line, or with the soft early-morning sunshine of a book like The Lighthouse. I'm probably not going to continue reading a book that begins with a long preface explaining the history of the world the main story is set in, or with the main character waking up (especially if the first thing they do is admire themselves
in the mirror), or with a description of the weather, because I've already read loads of other books that start like that which were limp and ham-handed and I don't want to read more, unless (there's always an exception) it's done in really a perfect way. Jane Eyre, for example, starts with the weather:


There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.  We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question.

I was glad of it; I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.


But really there's very little about the weather there; it's all about the family's reaction to the weather, and to inaction, and to each other.



A really great beginning doesn't have to shout or shock. Beginnings should have a distinctive voice, and some hints at characterization and conflict and setting, unless there's a compelling reason to postpone those things.


Probably the best book I've read this year, China Mieville's The City & The City, starts, "I could not see the street or much of the estate." This is a science fiction murder mystery, a combination of genres which both tend toward the killer first sentence paradigm of writing, but it isn't until the fourth paragraph that we get a truly killer sentence, no pun intended: "Nothing is still like the dead are still." Strictly speaking, we didn't need the rambling paragraphs about the people watching out their windows or the weedy grass and wheel tracks and gulls, before we got to the dead body, but they gave us a sense of the setting and the sort of person the point of view character is before we started thinking about where that corpse could have come from.


Strictly speaking, of course, we don't need fiction at all. The essence of the story of The City & The City could be told in a few paragraphs; The Lighthouse could be told in a few sentences. There's no prize for efficiency, and we don't have to kill with the first sentence. We can ease in, poke around the world we're establishing, and if we're artful about it the reader will come along for the stroll.




Photo by Peter Merriam




Joanne Merriam is a Nova Scotian living in Nashville. She is the author of the poetry collection The Glaze from Breaking, several short stories, and several unpublished novels, and is the editor Upper Rubber Boot Books.