Good Storytelling Works, Regardless of Genre

draft

photo: Sebastien Wiertz, creative commons license

Genre fiction is no longer disparaged as the poor stepchild to literary (i.e., “real”) fiction. In some ways, writing it can be harder. Jennifer Kitses for LitHub recently discussed why genre fiction is not necessarily easier to create and, more to the point, what lessons it teaches all writers.

The elements of noir she thought of as genre-specific—“high-stakes encounters, a mystery to solve, a protagonist in danger”—are key elements of good storytelling, regardless of genre, she says.

Readers of this blog will recognize in her words the sentiment of late Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, which appear on my website’s home page: “Every good story has a mystery in it.” Think Hamlet—a murder and a ghost story. Think Macbeth—a murder and an inciting female. Think the Greeks.

Kitses cites seven lessons from attempting her own crime novel:

1) don’t be afraid of adding tension – and remember that what ramps up the tension is not necessarily some violent episode. It can be a character’s own ongoing situation. A perfect example is Gin Phillips’s recent Fierce Kingdom, in which the tension is almost unbearable, while all the protagonist is doing is hiding herself and her four-year-old behind a rock. That situation may be internal, as when Melissa Scrivner Love’s Lola has to turn on her own brother.

2) give the reader a chance to breathe. Personally, I had to put Gin Phillips’s book down from time to time because of 1). This is one aspect of pacing, and many authors give their readers a break by introducing humor, typically among the detectives or with secondary characters. Tami Hoag is excellent at this in her Kovac and Liska novels.

3) chapter endings shouldn’t feel like endings. The last lines of one chapter should carry your readers into the next, keeping their curiosity piqued through artful (not cheesy!) cliffhangers.

4) let your reader know whom to root for. Thrillers commonly use multiple points-of-view to present the story. Poorly handled, that can dilute your readers’ focus. Tammy Cohen’s recent They All Fall Down keeps her character Hannah front and center by writing the chapters from her point of view in the first person, whereas chapters from other points of view are third-person, filtered through the narrator’s voice.

5) love your secondary characters. It’s great when they’re real, and not just moved onto stage like cardboard cut-outs. Nick Petrie’s character Lewis is a good example; I grinned when he showed up in Petrie’s second novel, Burning Bright. SO glad to see him again!

6) keep research in perspective. Research can be a way to avoid actual writing. Because I like research, I have to avoid the Too-Much-Already quicksand. What works for me is to do enough to start sparking ideas. After that, I confine myself to just-in-time research as I go along. When you do begin to write, your reader doesn’t need every detail. Feel free to hit the highlights and feel confident about the firm base underneath.

7) remember you’re writing fiction – just jettison plot developments that aren’t working. Characters too. I’ve swept up

characters from the cutting-room floor and put them in short stories. Lessens the pain.

How to Write: Chair, Door, Goal . . . Truth

typing

photo: Kiran Foster, creative commons license

Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft describes how this mega-best-selling author became a writer. Along the way, he gives common sense advice about writing that benefit anyone seriously interested in becoming a better author. The process he follows is just the start, and here it is.

Like most people who dispense advice to the novice, he emphasizes the virtue of writing every day, despite the pull of other responsibilities and distractions. Otherwise, he says, “the characters begin to stale off in my mind—they begin to seem like characters instead of real people . . . the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade.” The excitement King talks about is what gets me out of bed every morning before six.

He also insists that you shut the office door, “your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business.” Eliminate distractions—phones, beeping email alerts, insistent cats—anything that takes you away from the page. In my case, cats.

Goals are important, King thinks, and he tries to write 10 pages a day—about 2000 words. I’m a fan of powering through and getting a completed draft. I try not to get mired in all the inevitable issues and lapses and problems, but fix them in rewrite. Maybe make a note of them, if I see them, so my mind lets them go, and I can move on.

Ass-in-chair, closed door, goal. Adhering to these basics, King believes, makes writing easier over time. “Don’t wait for the muse to come,” he says, write. So many would-be authors talk to me about needing inspiration, as if it sprinkles down from the clouds rather than up from the mind’s carefully plowed field. King says, “Your job is make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day.”

By the time we’re adults, lots of other people’s words, many not very good, have passed into our brains from books, tv, and movies. When a phrase or scene comes too easily for me, almost unconsciously, my mind is simply replaying someone else’s words—they’re not original any more. In my story, they’re false.

So now King gets to the hard part. You have to tell the truth. Your story’s truth. “The job of fiction,” he says, “is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies.” Even when we love the characters in a book and we really, really don’t want it to end, if the book has told the truth, we feel satisfied when we turn that last page.

Despite how hard it may be to find and express a story’s truth, King says that even the worst three hours he ever spent writing “were still pretty damned good.”

Travel Tips: Central Ohio Destinations

A recent two-day visit to Cuyahoga Valley National Park (never heard of it? You’re not alone!) was the perfect jumping off place for several other lesser-known attractions in the Ohio Region.

Warren G. Harding Tomb & Home

Harding home - Marion Ohio

photo: uberdadofthree, creative commons license

Presidential candidate Warren G. Harding ran a “front-porch” campaign from his Marion, Ohio, home, giving speeches—newly enfranchised women, laborers, African-Americans, Native Americans, and many other citizen groups—numbering as many as ten thousand individuals at a time. They arrived by train to undoubtedly overwhelm this small town. His neighbors rapidly saw the opportunity, however, and set up lemonade and baked-goods stands.

Years before, when he was 18 years old, he’d bought a struggling local newspaper with three friends. He made a success of it and was a prominent newspaperman before running for state and national office.

A handsome man, he was notoriously unfaithful to his wife, Florence Kling, five years older than he. In recent years, DNA testing has proved that he fathered an illegitimate child and disproved the persistent rumor that his great-grandmother was African-American.

The origin of the phrase “the smoke-filled room” as a place where political decisions are made refers to how he was selected to receive the Republican party’s 1920 presidential nomination. Many considered him a weak candidate, and his reputation has been further tarnished by numerous scandals in his administration (Teapot Dome scandal being the best known), the extent of which emerged only after his death.

Harding died in 1923, partway into his first term, and was buried in an elaborate tomb at the city’s cemetery, with Florence now alongside him. A sign says the tomb is maintained by a local technical college, but the grass inside was in need of cutting and weeding. It was shameful, really.

The Mazza Museum

University of Findlay, Ohio

photo: Alvin Trusty, creative commons license

About an hour north of Marion is Findlay, Ohio, home of the University of Findlay, a private liberal arts college with more than 4,000 students. Its best-known programs are in education and equestrian studies [!].

In keeping with the campus’s emphasis on education, its Mazza Museum houses what at first may seem an unusual collection: artwork from children’s literature. The museum has some 11,000 illustrations, collages, paper sculptures—indeed, works in every medium—that have been used over the generations in children’s books. About 300 of these are on display at any one time.

Although weekends are crowded and during the school year, classroom groups frequent the museum, when we visited, we were the only visitors. It was really fun, with an enthusiastic staff member to show us around.

If you’ve shopped for a child’s book any time in the last five decades, you may have noticed how beautiful and effective the artwork is, but perhaps, like me, you haven’t thought much about it. A visit here is an astonishing visual treat!

Distances:

From Toledo, 47 miles to Findlay (45 minutes) and 97 miles to Marion (1.5 hours); from Cincinnati, 160 miles to Findlay (2.5 hours) and 145 miles to Marion (2.5 hours)

Read-Along:

You can order any of these books through the Amazon affiliate links below (yes, I get a few cents if you do!):

  • Warren G. Harding by John Dean – a 170-page bio that tries to refute Harding’s reputation as “worst ever” president
  • Beloved by Tony Morrison – the legacy of an African-American slave’s flight to the free state of Ohio; winner of the Pulitzer Prize
  • June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore – a novel set in small-town Ohio in which a terrible mistake changes a family forever
  • Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson – a classic collection of interlocking short stories that de-romanticize small-town life; published in 1919 and now considered one of the last century’s best novels

Family History Models (Part 1)

Queen Victoria's Family Tree

Queen Victoria’s Family Tree

Once you begin working on your family genealogy, there’s an infinite way to organize and present it. You can keep all of it on Ancestry.com or other websites, of course, but that doesn’t necessarily give you the flexibility of sending copies to family members who aren’t online, taking copies to family reunions, or having a few pages with you on a scouting trip to a history center or cemetery. Taking your laptop or tablet along isn’t always desirable.

Last Friday’s post covered general tips, today’s begins describing the wide range of ways to organize and report your genealogical findings, from the simple to the elaborate. Today and tomorrow, I’ll describe five of them.

Many kinds of reports can be created within the better software options.

“The Begats”

Some people are only interested in what I call “the begats”—who were the parents, the grandparents, the great-grandparents and so on. In addition to names, a genealogy organized this way often includes: dates of birth and death, date of marriage and name of bride/groom, and, possibly burial place. (The cemetery information is valuable, because many cemetery records are now online, for individual cemeteries or collectively, and they’re another research avenue.) Your begats may be in tree form, with boxes like an organization chart or it may be text.

When You Don’t Know Much

Sometimes, the choice about presentation style is dictated by the fact that you just don’t know very much. That’s the situation with my father’s parents, who immigrated separately to the United States from Hungary before about 1910. Research on the Ellis Island website brought up several people who might be them. Ship manifests, which provide key genealogical information, including age, home town, and place/person they were traveling to, helped me narrow my search.

The family history I prepared includes some background on the home towns of the two immigrants I believe are most likely my grandparents (about which my father’s generation knew almost nothing). Whether the information I found is correct in every particular or not, reading it you get some insight into the black box of their immigration story. You can get a feel for this kind of reporting with the stories of my grandmother, Maria Krausz, and grandfather, Ferencz Hegyi.

When You Have A Narrow Interest

Sometimes, you have a particularly narrow interest that suggests a focus for a family report. My seven-year-old grandson asked whether any of our family fought in the Civil War. I took the Civil War chapter of the family history I’ve written, revised the text to make it more suitable for a young person and added historical photographs and artworks.

The finished piece (25 pages) includes transcriptions of letters from our ancestors home. Since these soldiers they indicated where they were writing from, I summarized information about their units and the battles they participated in. I also created a Civil War family tree, focusing on the combatants. Grey boxes for our Confederate ancestors, blue boxes for the Union, and red lines for soldiers who died in the war. Seven so far.

Writing a complete family history is a formidable task, even for a writer like me, and much more so for non-writers. Taking a piece of it—in this case the Civil War, or the Immigrant Generation, or “Our Family in the Depression”—is for some people a manageable way to start.

WEDNESDAY: Family History Models (Part 2): The More Elaborate Options

Behind the Scenes at Murder on the Orient Express

set model, dining car

3-D Printer Model of Dining Car, Beowulf Boritt; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

McCarter Theatre Center’s annual Backstage Tour was expertly timed this year. Participants got the inside scoop on the fantastic sets and costumes created for the world premiere of Ken Ludwig’s Murder on the Orient Express, directed by McCarter artistic director Emily Mann.

Because McCarter does an elaborate version of A Christmas Carol every December, the production team couldn’t start creating the sets and costumes for Agatha Christie’s iconic story until early January, explained David York, the quiet genius who is McCarter’s Director of Production.

By then, they had the costume sketches from six-time Tony winner William Ivey Long, and the set designer, in this case Tony Award-winning Beowulf Boritt, had presented the production team with a highly detailed model of the set produced by a 3-D printer. Creating the sets and costumes involved  thirty-five crew members and some seven thousand hours of labor, first in the construction and costume shops, then, in a week of very long days, making everything work on stage.

Stage set

Portion of the stage set, Murder on the Orient Express, McCarter Theatre; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

The production team built two and a half truly spectacular railway cars that travel back and forth across the stage, using a braided wire rope system, much like San Francisco’s cable cars. The production also required a gorgeous new curtain, which has moving panels that can mask portions of the set, as needed. (Four painters spent four {?} days stenciling the Turkish design on the curtain.) Once the timing of every aspect of the play was finalized, managing the rail car and curtain movement is computer-operated.

Prop Master Michele Sammarco described the high degree of authenticity the production crew strives for. In a brief scene, the railway conductor delivers a tray with a roll and coffee. The prop department decorated both sides of the cup with the period-correct Orient Express logo, a detail probably no one in the audience can see, but which conveys a sense of being “really there” for the cast. Similarly, eight characters need passports from different countries. All eight look different and include the correct cast member’s photo and information.

Getting both the big, splashy elements—like the railroad cars—as well as the innumerable small touches right makes a big difference in the quality of the theater-goer’s experience. They are why eighteen thousand people have rushed to see this show in its two and a half-week run. If you’re not one of them, you have until Sunday, April 2, to try to get tickets! Call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

On the CriFi Horizon

June Lorraine Roberts

June Lorraine Roberts

Vicki asked me to comment on where the crime fiction (CriFi) genre is headed. I’ve enjoyed her diverse and timely blog for a while now. Certainly, her request has caused much reflection on my part.

Let me start with an online definition of crime fiction. Crime fiction is the literary genre that fictionalises crimes, their detection, criminals, and their motives. It is usually distinguished from mainstream fiction and other genres such as historical fiction or science fiction, but the boundaries are indistinct.

I quite like the term indistinct. It indicates the versatility and flexibility available to the genre. Two posts I did earlier this year were on the blend of science fiction and steam punk with crime fiction. For me it’s one way to broaden reading horizons and generate ideas on how to move CriFi forward.

Several books have done well examining marriage and family relationships within crime fiction since Gone Girl appeared on shelves. The word ‘Girl’ still appears in book titles, but not for much longer I suspect.

What’s next? If we could predict the next big trend we’d be hard at writing it now. However, there are authors who are using an inventive edge.

Currently, I’m halfway through Fickle by Peter Manus. Written as blog posts on two different websites, followers speculate and ask questions of the bloggers. The storyline is easy to follow, no talking over one another. And it’s well done. I have no idea how the book will wrap up, but it’s sharp and clever and I’m enjoying its modern, noir atmosphere.

Is it the next big thing? Probably not. But it makes the point that, when talent isn’t enough, a different way of looking at things can boost the likelihood of being published. One of the many challenges for writers today is beating the numbers and getting your book noticed. First by an agent, then by a publisher, and then by readers. Every year thousands of CriFi books are released worldwide by publishing houses. Imagine how many more are self-published!

A number of recent books run dual storylines: past and present. While not new, this construct is very effective at moving along a storyline, giving readers the backstory for the main character in a concise fashion. (I just reviewed one exactly like this—What Remains of Me—for CrimeFictionLover.com—ed.)

In other storylines, we have narratives written from the perspective of two or more characters. Add to that blog posts from two websites, and location changes for protagonists–all this shows a duality of nature that is as common as villain vs. hero. Perhaps there is opportunity here to leverage our creativity and reader interest. Or at least to have us think about storylines from a different slant.

It’s the openness to new ideas and the willingness to try an atypical approach that marks today’s crime fiction. It speaks to our society and the cultural mores of this place in time. Much has changed in the past 15 years. What we need to do, as authors, is harness the change and let it generate new ideas, and, as readers, be willing to experiment.

The thing about a book is that it is both tangible and intangible. You can hold a book in your hands and take it many places. But the story, the story is what you carry inside you, and it can take you to places you never expected.

Guest poster June Lorraine Roberts is a Canadian and a graduate of the London School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in Tengri Magazine and Aware Magazine. Her first CriFi flash fiction story was picked-up by the Flash Fiction Press earlier this year, and she continues to work at plotting devious story lines. Check out her website: MurderinCommon.com.

Summer in the City

MCNY

photo: Beyond My Ken, creative commons license

On what seemed like the hottest day of the year, I took the train into Manhattan to celebrate the birthday of my long-time friend Nancy. We plan these excursions for each other instead of another present. We give “the gift of time,” as another friend also named Nancy calls it.

We’ve done all kinds of things and had many delicious lunches in restaurants I’ve returned to gladly. Yesterday we visited two smaller museums 20 blocks up Fifth Avenue from The Met and still across the street from Central Park.

The Museum of the City of New York has three exhibition floors, with rotating exhibits. The new gallery of the Tiffany Foundation, “Gilded New York,” contained a few large portraits, gorgeous jewelry, and ornaments from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Small, but a gem. At the temporary portrait exhibit (through September 18), “Picturing Prestige: New York Portraits, 1700-1860,” we could get in close to see the incredible detail without worrying (or being told!) we were blocking someone else’s view.

“Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs,” is a large exhibit of the artist’s original drawings, New Yorker covers, and the like. It includes panels from her book, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant, about the decline and deaths of her parents, showing how she processed that experience through her art. Indeed, much of the humor in her work results because we recognize our own vulnerabilities and absurdities. “We’re not laughing at you, we’re laughing with you.”

There also are galleries devoted to the Yiddish theater (through August 14) and activism in New York, from suffragettes to civil rights, from Stonewall to immigration.

After we were finished there, crossed 104th street to El Museo del Barrio (free entry, because we’d been to the MCNY), which has a major exhibit on the fashion illustrations of Antonio Lopez. I’d read the nice review by Holland Carter in the New York Times and wanted to see it, but wasn’t sure where the museum is. Now I know. Easy to get to. The museum bills itself as “New York’s leading Latino cultural institution.” Only the ground floor of its big building is the gallery space. El Museo also sponsors a wide range of performing arts events, cultural celebrations, and educational programs.

Both museums have small cafés, but they are not up to birthday requirements, so we walked down Madison fifteen blocks or so (in the shade as much as possible) for lunch.

Thank you, Nancy, for being my friend for 43 years!

Museum of the City of New York – 1220 Fifth Avenue @ 103rd Street; small café, nice gift shop/book store

El Museo del Barrio – 1230 Fifth Avenue @104th Street; small café; gift shop

Fueling Creativity with—YES!—Boredom

Handwriting, boredom

photo: David Hall, creative commons license

In her faculty days, President of the Rhode Island School of Design Rosanne Somerson used an unexpected teaching tool: boredom. In a recent Metropolis essay, she says,

When I used to teach graduate students in furniture design, I would assign them an abstract problem that required them to sit in the studio and draw through free association over a long period of time without getting up from their seats.

 

After about 45 minutes, most students would start to squirm and get uncomfortable . . . I encouraged them to push through the discomfort because . . . right after the “squiggly” stage, something incredible happens.

Often, she said, students would stumble upon a completely new direction for their work, “something completely new and unexpected.” So, no getting up for a drink of water, no texting, no checking email, no snacks.

Somerson thinks of this purposeful elimination of distraction as creating time and space for the imagination to reawaken. Her drawing through free association sounds much like the freewriting practice writing gurus recommend for authors, with much the same motivation behind it–breakthrough.

Constant connectivity has made de-distracting our lives increasingly difficult. By filling our mindspace with constant and, let’s admit it, often mindless media consumption—yes, I watched the video of the cat playing the piano—we don’t clear the mental field for “creativity and discovery.” As Joshua Rothman said in a New Yorker essay last year, “Like typing, Googling, and driving, distraction is now a universal competency. We’re all experts.” Well, maybe not driving, not here in New Jersey.

If we set aside some distraction-free time, and, as Somerson suggests “bring back boredom,” we may find ourselves both more creative and more appreciative of today’s limitless fount of stimulating, intelligent, and entertaining distraction.

 

Where’s the Happy?

Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman, Sense & Sensibility, Jane Austen

Kate Winslet (Marianne Dashwood) & Alan Rickman (Col. Brandon) in Sense & Sensibility

Novelist Carrie Brown, in an essay in the Glimmer Train bulletin this month, advocates a reassessment of the components of conflict that writers incorporate in their work. Too often, she believes, less experienced writers, especially, lean too heavily on catastrophe. They include “too much dark and not enough light,” believing only the bad stuff is dramatic.

Bad stuff happening is the meat and potatoes of the genre I read most often—mysteries and thrillers. Yet even there, excess abounds. Authors feel compelled to pile up ever more bodies, to make the manner of death ever more grisly, to include female characters who might offer a hope of happiness only to put them out of reach, often because they’re dead, to give their protagonists’ souls so many dark places to hide that after a while, I wonder, “why does this character get out of bed in the morning?” When I start rolling my eyes, the author has lost me.

Brown believes “the mystery of people inclined toward charity or kindness has a drama as compelling as a story of decline and despair.” These positive forces are as powerful and as complicated as the impulses that propel other people toward evil. Jane Austen knew this. So did Dickens.

The key to presenting happiness well, she says, is to capture its complexity and contradictions. She uses an example “weeping with happiness.” Think of Emma Thompson in the movie Sense and Sensibility, crying with great, gasping sobs (see the clip!) when she realizes that Edward Ferrars is in fact not married. We are infinitely more moved by her happy tears than if she’d simply grinned delightedly.

It is not easy for people to be happy, and it is especially not easy for them to be happy when they have been beset by all the other fictional difficulties authors throw at them. But, Brown might argue, these characters can—and should—be happy for that precise reason. She says happiness depends “on the nearby presence of unhappiness to be felt most acutely. By necessity, it seems, the happiest man will also be the man most aware of unhappiness.” Going back to Sense and Sensibility, that would be lovely Colonel Brandon.

An example from Brown’s own work is her 2013 novel The Last First Day, in which a long-married couple—the headmaster of the Derry School for Boys and his wife—must face the declining health that forces his retirement. Said Reeve Lindbergh in her review of the book for The Washington Post, “Terrible things happen and have happened. These people struggle and are hurt. . . . Nevertheless, [the author shows] one can see with clarity and with appreciation for certain glimpsed miracles in every day, whatever else the day brings.” One is capable of a kind of happiness.

Princeton Literary Inspirations

Elvis, Fort WorthYesterday, poet Ciaran Berry and novelist Nell Zink read from their work as part of a series of author presentations at Princeton University, open to the public (that’s me!). On Friday, Man Booker Prize-winner and Ireland’s “first fiction laureate” Anne Enright will read excerpts from her most recent novel, The Green Road. I’ll be there!

The series of readings is conducted by the University’s Lewis Center for the Arts, with Enright’s presentation sponsored additionally by the Fund for Irish Studies. (Last year’s fantastic presentation by Belfast author Glenn Patterson was under the Fund’s aegis also.)

Ciaran Berry

Coincidentally, award-winning poet Ciaran Berry also is an Irish poet and grew up in County Galway and County Donegal. He now directs the creative writing program at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He doesn’t have the full-out accent, though.

Berry read several of his poems from various periods, including The Death of Elvis and Liner Notes. His particularly lovely poem For Shergar, Neither Ode nor Elegy, is a tribute to the legendary race horce Shergar, kidnapped and killed by the IRA, and includes this: “the past tense entering its perfect form.” It’s one of those, “wish I’d thought of that” lines.

Nell Zink

Nell Zink grew up in King George County, Virginia, but for many years has lived in Israel and Berlin, and has become a recent literary phenomenon in this country. She was introduced by faculty member Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex, The Marriage Plot) who said the classic “Nell” and its assertive “Zink” is “a name just waiting to be famous.”

Zink’s debut novel was The Wallcreeper, from which she read a passage about a married woman who plunges into an affair with a gas station attendant named Elvis—acknowledging the nifty segue from Berry’s poem. A New Yorker profile of Zink by Kathryn Schulz said The Wallcreeper “sounds like nothing you have ever read, and derives its bang from ideas you hadn’t thought to have.” Smart, funny, insightful. Likely to come to a bad end. In this setting, it’s hard to get a sense of the whole work, but the voice was terrific.

Her second excerpt was from the more recent novel Mislaid, a scene in which two gay men eating dinner in a crab restaurant make observations about other diners and themselves. The novel is notorious for its Caucasian main character Peggy, who reinvents herself and her white-blonde, blue-eyed daughter by claiming they are African Americans—“a high comedy of racial identity,” Schulz says, and not easy to pull off. About such tectonic plot shifts in her books, Eugenides said, “You cannot call them plot twists, because that implies some underlying straightness.”

In short, the subjects she takes up and the unflinching way she renders them make her, he said, “a bull in the china shop of contemporary American fiction.” More to read, more to read.