Finding the Core of Your Story

figurine

px here, creative commons license

Now that Glimmer Train is winding down its publication schedule, I find myself returning to earlier issues to read the author interviews again. Sometimes I’m in the very wrestling match with a short story that these notable writers describe.

So it was with my recent return to the interview with Kirstin Valdez Quade (interviewed by Jeremiah Chamberlin, Issue #100, Fall 2017). Quade authored the prize-winning book of short stories, Night at the Fiestas and her work has been seen in “all the best places.”

Chamberlin commented on how Quade resists big epiphanies in her endings. “There are moments where the stories turn of shift,” he said, “but the characters don’t experience Joycean flashes of recognition.” Quade explained that she writes slowly, and it sometimes takes her “a long time to figure out what’s going to happen in a story.” She might write a long buildup, putting in lots of potential elements, in search of the one that will reveal what the story is truly about and therefore, how to end it. Ah. Like me, a pantser.

Once she takes hold of her ending, the core of the story, she trims away what isn’t necessary and can “write toward the ending.” She also eliminates any unnecessary rambling that comes after the ending. Perhaps she’d heeding Chekhov’s advice “to cross out the beginning and the end” of a story,” as unnecessary warm-up and (one hopes) unnecessary explaining. This is an exercise that would have improved Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, in my opinion, but Chekhov said to do it because “it is there that we authors do most of our lying.” Eliminating the temptation of those further thoughts also prevents an overly neat-and-tidy resolution. Trust your reader to get it, he might have said.

The heart of the story may lie in the backstory, in an unworked-out thought or subconscious association that needs to come forward into greater prominence. During Quade’s revision process, she might list all the characters, settings, and objects she’s put into the story so far and see whether she should be doing more with some of them. “That will often help me find my ending.” Or at least get her closer to it. Those people, places, things are in there because they hold meaning, even if she hasn’t clearly identified what it is yet. It isn’t, perhaps, their surface meaning, but some significance for the characters.

I just read a fine story by Simon Bestwick, “If I Should Fall From Grace With God” (Crimewave 13), in which a man’s lover is murdered, her flat trashed, and all the cheap souvenirs she bought from second-hand shops smashed. He exacts revenge on the men responsible for her death, dropping a few bits of broken china or glass on their bodies—not because these fragments held meaning for him, but because they meant something to her. Memorable.

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If You Met Poe, What Would You Say?

raven

drawing, rebeccarawrr, creative commons license

My fellow-authors in the anthology inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe, Quoth the Raven, have bonded via social media. Tiffany Michelle Brown, author of the story “My Love, In Pieces,” has interviewed a number of us regarding our experience looking at contemporary issues through a Poe-ish lens. Her interview with me is now posted on her website.

I loved Tiffany’s story because it grew from the seed of Poe’s gothic tale “Berenice,” as did my story, “Tooth and Nail.” Yet, they’re so different! She notes that when “Berenice” was first published by the Southern Literary Messenger, readers were so disturbed by its graphic content, they complained to the editor. When Poe published it subsequently, apparently he toned it down a bit. Hmph!

Dark like the days, and scary like the times.

What Writers Know – Part 2

typing

Kiran Foster, creative commons license

Writers receive an endless stream of advice about what they are doing wrong (!) or could be doing better(!!). Since most of us can admit that we are not yet perfect, this firehose of negativity becomes wearing. Recently, I posted a few words of praise for what we get right. With a promise of more to come.

My thoughts are prompted by Reedsy founder Ricardo Fayet’s recently reprint of “12 Common Writing Mistakes Even Bestselling Authors Make.”  Let’s look at the second half of his list, plus my own #13.

Prepare to pat yourself on the back.

  1. We can punctuate! We know that (in the U.S.), the comma and the period go INside quotation marks, the colon and the semi go OUTside, and the question mark and exclamation mark, well, it depends. We know (and I admit to still be working on it) not to overuse the dash, we know to put commas before independent clauses and not dependent ones, and, if the brouhaha over the Oxford comma is ever resolved, we stand ready to hear the outcome. I’ll acknowledge sloppiness in first drafts I read regarding the need for commas before AND after people directly addressed: “I’m telling you, Mom, but you never listen”; in city-state pairs (Princeton, New Jersey, is a fine place); and around the year in month-day-year trios (December 7, 1941, a Day that will Live in Infamy).
  2. We eye-roll over dangling modifiers we see in the local newspaper and eliminate them in our own work – “Through hard work, the draft was at last ready to go!” If only our drafts would do the work themselves.
  3. Our characters say or ask. They don’t chortle or declaim or insinuate or interrogate. And they usually do so without any adverbial boost. Those of a certain age may recall the “Tom Swifty” (I know a truly filthy one; don’t ask). Its perils may make using adverbs seem downright dangerous.
  4. We make sure the names and spellings of people and places are consistent. Of course. (I deliberately violated this precept in my short story “Tooth and Nail.” Bear in mind, the narrator was unhinged.) Moreover, spare me manuscripts whose characters are Berger, Brager, Benton, and Beaton. I will never keep them or anything close to them straight. We know many of our “readers” are actually audiobook listeners. A name heard is harder to remember than one read. Thus the nametag.
  5. We are not time-travelers. We don’t mistakenly flip back and forth between past and present, and we establish the way-back time with a “had” or two then drop the “hads” in the interest of simplicity. Led properly, our readers know where they are.
  6. Homonym errors. OK, enough about there, their, and they’re and its and it’s. We know the difference between carrots, karats, karets, and carets. But even when my brain knows the right word, sometimes my fingers do not. Words with homonyms are landmines: “reign it in,” “beyond the pail,” “the plane truth.” In a story set in Alaska in which a character was eaten by a bear (bare), I referred to his grizzly death. I was making a pun, but I’ve since run across writers apparently unfamiliar with the word “grisly.” Lee Masterson compiled a nice list of these and their cousins: heteronyms, homographs, and homophones.
  7. And, when in doubt, we consult the experts.


Read What Writers Know – Part 1

Inspiration

lightning, thunderstorm

pixabay, creative commons license

The title alone of Kimberly Bunker’s essay for Glimmer Train—“The Fear of Not Saying Interesting Things”—is irresistible. She says this fear never stops her from talking, only writing. I’d guess many authors and most talkers, judging by overheard conversations, feel the same way.

Bunker favors waiting for interesting subjects and ideas to appear versus trying hard to find them. Which is not the same as waiting for your Muse to ring the doorbell, accompanied by her handmaiden, Serendipity. Said Louis Pasteur, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

This seems to be Bunker’s message, too. “Cultivate a mindset that’s receptive to but not obsessive about ideas, and . . . be methodical about pursuing ideas that seem worth pursuing.” In other words, find the right balance between the idea that inspires and interests you and the necessary work to polish up that idea for the public.

In some respects this is the same wavelength the young Flannery O’Connor, a devout Catholic, was on when she wrote prayers at the Iowa Writers’ workshop. One of them began, “Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine.” I suspect most other writers would expect more credit.

In a letter to “A,” she also wrote, “the greatest gift of the writer is patience . . .” Here again is needed a balance between the patient, painstaking work of getting a story or book into shape while preserving that initial lightning strike of inspiration.

Noir at the Bar

photo: Jo Sutera, with permission

Last Sunday, the Manhattan efflorescence of Noir at the Bar had one of its irregular celebrations of crime fiction writing at Greenwich Village’s Shade Bar (where the food is pretty darn good too). Ten crime fiction authors read from their works in three sets, with intermissions for nonstop talking and grabbing another beer.

Jen Conley and Scot Adlerberg are the m.c.’s, of the Manhattan group, and make an effort to exert some organization (no doubt plenty goes on behind the scenes). But the vibe is more good-natured free-for-all. Jen is an editor at Shotgun Honey and read her short short story about the meetup of two teenage girls’ soccer teams—one preppy, the other from the “New Jersey girls, they have big hair” school. It doesn’t end well. Scott also read from his crime fiction, and he has written novels and short stories and conducts a series or two of Manhattan-based meet-ups about films.

The stories live up to the billing with their emphasis on noir. Dark deeds and dark characters on the underside of down-and-out. Jennifer Hillier’s excerpt from her new novel, Jar of Hearts, featured a woman about to be released from prison; Rick Ollerman’s story about a bunch of lowlifes in Las Vegas (I think), ends with a real ouch! twist; and Danny Gardner read a chapter from new work. At a previous Noir at the Bar I attended, he read from his highly rated A Negro and an Ofay, and the new work sounded just as powerful.

photo: Jo Sutera, with permission

What else? Especially enjoyable was the glamorous Hilary Davidson’s excerpt from “Answered Prayers,” a story that appeared in the May/June Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Even though we only heard a few minutes’ worth, the conviction that a diabolical imagination lay behind what she read had everyone chuckling. Shout-outs also to Rob Hart, Alex Segura, and Kenneth Wishnia. My writing group does a public reading in March and October, and I can attest to how helpful it is for authors to have a live audience and get that feedback.

In the book raffle, I was delighted to choose a copy of James McCrone’s Faithless Elector. Now what made him think that the people who actually elect U.S. presidents would be of any interest at all? Go figure.

Many U.S. cities have Noir at the Bar events. Including, but not limited to Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Durham, N.C., Washington, D.C., St. Louis, New Orleans, St. Paul, the Bay Area, Dallas, Chicago, Denver, Baltimore, Miami, Queens and Staten Island, Seattle, Monterey, and cities around the world, from Glasgow to Melbourne. It may take a bit of sleuthing to find one near you—try Facebook—but it’s a fun evening meeting authors, hearing new work. Treat yourself!

Bill Murray’s “New Worlds”

Otsego Lake

Otsego Lake; photo: Corey Seeman, creative commons license

Comedian and actor Bill Murray brought his “New Worlds” show, created in partnership with master cellist Jan Vogler, to Princeton last week. It’s an unusual, interesting, and often thrilling hour and three-quarters (trailer).

Murray reads excerpts from authors as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and James Thurber, Walt Whitman and Mark Twain, accompanied by Vogler, Mira Wang on violin, and Vanessa Perez, piano. Murray sings, too—movingly on “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” and comically in selections from West Side Story. He dances with Wang in a tango by Argentinean composer Astor Piazzola. Throughout, the music is sublime.

Murray and Vogler have created juxtapositions of text and music that are full of unexpected resonances. When Murray reads a lyrical passage about the beauty of Otsego Lake from The Deerslayer, the last of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales, Vogler plays Schubert. Both Cooper and Schubert loved nature, but that coincidence is amplified by the revelation that Schubert was reading the Leatherstocking tales on his deathbed.

Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s “Moon River” accompanied an excerpt from Huckleberry Finn in which Huck and Jim are on the raft, floating down the river at night, anticipating sight of the lights of Cairo, Illinois, where Jim will be free. There’s a startling coordination of images of moon, river, the shore lights that are not Cairo, and “two drifters off to see the world”—and, certainly, “my huckleberry friend.”

The audience exercises its lungs in George Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” sung by Murray to a musical arrangement by, of all the unexpected people,  Jascha Heifetz. That irreverent selection is counterbalanced later in the program by a powerfully moving version of Van Morrison’s “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God.”

Reviewer John von Rhein in Murray’s home-town newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, says the actor has again reinvented himself “in a rather wonderful new species of performance art few others would have dreamed up or could have brought off so beautifully.” This unique and unforgettable show has many forthcoming dates around the country—and the world. See it if you can. And, if you can’t, Amazon will let you stream it.

“Up-Lit” — What Is It and Why Are We Reading It?

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photo: Nasir Khan, creative commons license

Book publishers, scrambling to find a toehold as the Niagara of new manuscripts cascades over them, have latched onto the concept of “up-lit.” According to Hannah Beckerman in The Guardian, novels that offer “decidedly upbeat accounts of the kindness of strangers” are increasingly garnering publisher and prize committee attention, and more important, the loyalty of readers.

Perhaps it’s a reaction to the long run of dystopian novels or perhaps a reaction to the daily news, but, as HarperCollins terms them, “books that give us hope,” such as Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Cecelia Ahern’s The Marble Collector, and Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time, have shown there’s a strong market for books whose subtext is optimism and empathy. We’re not talking lit-lite here: George Saunders’s Lincoln at the Bardo (2017 Man Booker prize winner) is riddled with human compassion. Though it comes from the dead. Hmm.

Says author Joanna Cannon, “I write about communities, kindness and people coming together because that’s the society I wish for. I write what I’d like to happen.” I would put Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow in that same category. Would that there were more people like Count Alexander Rostov, and, hey, why couldn’t I try to emulate him, and hew to a code of unfailing courtesy (even while retaining a bit of private deviousness in service of a higher good)?

We’re not talking Pollyannas, either. Beckerman quotes Rachel Joyce, author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in saying that up-lit stories’ characters can confront all the bad things in life—“devastation, cruelty, hardship and loneliness”—and yet say, “there is still this.” She says, “Kindness isn’t just giving somebody something when you have everything. Kindness is having nothing and then holding out your hand.”

To the extent that people read novels for escape and enlightenment, why not escape to a kinder, better world? Why not be inspired to greater empathy rather than snarkiness? The speculative novel Fever, by South African thriller writer Deon Meyer, takes place after an uncontrollable virus kills ninety-five percent of the world’s population. It could have described a society that devolves into anarchy and rapaciousness (think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Stephen King’s The Stand), and, while there are people in the novel who follow that path, the principal characters envision a better, more equal world and work hard to build it. They face logistical, emotional, and moral struggles, but the fact that their better world can be envisioned at all and collectively pursued is, ultimately, affirmative.

Not having read many of these books, I hope you have and that you’ll leave a comment reporting what you think of them.

Mistakes Happen to the Best of Us (Writers)!

scissors, blood, editing

(photo: Guzmán Lozano, creative commons license)

Ricardo Fayet, one of the founders of Reedsy (the service that links authors with top-quality expertise in many areas of manuscript development and publication) recently wrote a BookBub post with the enticing title, “12 Common Writing Errors Even Bestselling Authors Make.” Since I’m sure I make them all, I read it carefully.

Fayet based his list on feedback from the developmental editors, copy editors, and proofreaders Reedsy employs, and the items on it fall into three broad categories: narrative problems, creating confusion, and grammar/punctuation. The grammar/punctuation problems are the ones we’d expect, and the sources of confusion can be boiled down to point-of-view problems (sound of gnashing teeth—mine!) and when writers omit relevant information, or more likely, when they include it in draft #1, but lose it somehow in draft #12.

“Show, Don’t Tell” Again

If only someone would show me how to do that and quit telling me! Sure, we know that creating scenes and dialog makes the action of a story more meaningful for readers. Yet this SDT issue keeps coming up. In my writer’s group, “I want to see this in a scene” is practically a mantra.

At the same time, dialog that goes nowhere is deadly; scenes that don’t contribute much are a waste of energy. A pithy summary can move a story forward quickly—say, when we need to close a gap of years or introduce a new setting or character. That’s information that changes the chessboard. It has to be just as relevant and interesting as a scene. A crime novel I read recently gave a two-page information dump, on cue, each time a new character was introduced. Bad enough, but these “back stories” were hackneyed, full of predictable details. Cardboard descriptions of cardboard characters. Better to skip it.

Overdescribing and Overexplaining

Can we show too much? Yes, if we fall prey to overdescribing. No point in having a character “nod her head”; she can just nod. No point in having a character get out of his chair, walk to the window, look out, then turn and say . . . . Let him just “look out the window and say.” Labored locutions are common in first drafts, because we’re visualizing the action of a story and setting it on the page. We need to be attuned to them, though, so we delete them later. We need to trust that readers understand people don’t leave the room without getting out of their chair first (though I can imagine situations where that extra information would be needed). More about overexplaining here.

Strong Openers

Showing, not telling and avoiding over-explaining help give a story a strong opening. Elmore Leonard famously advises never to start a story with the weather. Yet a surprising number of books begin with something like “It was a bright, sunny day. Hot for May.” I yawn,  unless May is one of the characters. It isn’t weather per se, it’s the banal we need to avoid.

I tend to write a couple of opening paragraphs—like I’m warming up—before getting to the story’s action. My critique group advises me to delete them, and I do. They must have read Chekhov, who said: “My own experience is that once a story has been written, one has to cross out the beginning and the end. It is there that we authors do most of our lying.” My flaw isn’t exactly lying, it’s more forecasting the direction of a story before even I know what that will be.

Check out this opener from Mick Herron’s MI5 thriller, Slow Horses: “This is how River Cartwright slipped off the fast track and joined the slow horses”; and Deon Meyer’s post-apocalyptic adventure tale, Fever: “I want to tell you about my father’s murder. I want to tell you who killed him and why.” Starters like those make readers keep going.

Regarding Chekhov’s point about endings, we should leave it to “you, dear reader” to form a conclusion. Although I liked Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, the last twenty pages were a sort of rambling essay on the book’s meaning, as best I could figure them out.  To me, they were a turn-off and unnecessary. If I didn’t get it after reading 750 pages, I wasn’t going to.

Unbelievable! Please, no

Fayet says Reedsy editors find frequent examples of “unbelievable conflicts.” I wonder sometimes why a protagonist doesn’t just pick up the phone and clear up the whole matter. Though keeping secrets is a common source of story conflict and tension, we need to show (not tell) why doing so is important to this character in this situation. Clichéd actions are as unsatisfactory as clichéd dialog.

Thrillers and family dramas are equally prey to preposterous situations. I suspect this holds true for the romance genre, as well, judging these books by their covers. We can show all we want, but if what we’re showing is unconvincing, our millions of readers are lost.

The Friends Book House: Haven for Authors

Albania, books

photo: Rebecca Forster

Guest Post by Rebecca Forster – In the movie, Wag the Dog, the U.S. president’s PR team creates a ‘war’ in Albania to deflect attention away from a brewing scandal. When the mastermind of this plan is asked why he chose Albania, he answered, “Do you know where Albania is?”

But today, magazines and newspapers are rife with travel articles about the country and action/ adventure movies have riffed on the Albanian mafia. I’m not surprised by the interest; I knew it would be only a matter of time. You see, I stumbled on Albania years ago and I will soon be going back for an extensive stay.

My love affair with the country can be explained by the fact that I am a lover of mysteries. The people are at once welcoming but guarded, generous yet clinging to blood feuds over personal infractions. But my affection for Albania is more than that of a traveler; it was fueled by a shared passion for the written word.

From mountain villages that may be no more than a cluster of clan houses to the streets of the large cities, books are everywhere. In the cities brick-and-mortar bookstores stand alongside pop-ups where inventory is laid out. They may run the length of a city block by the river or along the footpaths in a park. An architectural flourish on a building becomes a display shelf where the pages of magazines flutter in the breeze and the covers of books glint in the fading light of day.

Friends Book House

And, in Tirana, there is Friends Book House, a haven for people who write the books.

I found a mention of Friends Book House in the pages of a throwaway visitor’s guide. It said writers were welcome. To reach it I navigated crumbling sidewalks, dashed through traffic that stop for no one, and wound my way through narrow alleys.

At first glance it appeared to be like a thousand other Albanian coffee shops, until I was ushered to a lower level and through a glass door into a large room decorated in red and black, the colors of the Albanian flag. Upholstered banquettes, large tables, and low-slung couches hugged the walls. Wine bottles, brass hookahs, and paintings decorated the room. There were pictures of authors and diplomats who had come to this place to discuss their writings. Classical music played softly. There were books everywhere. I slid into a booth, opened my computer and began to work.

In the month I lived in Tirana, the owner, Lati, and the baristas became my friends. My tea was always waiting. The quiet room was always welcoming. Friends Book House was, quite simply, inspiring, and it was there I began to write Eyewitness, the fourth book in The Witness Series. It is a novel about a clash between ancient law and modern justice. I have Albania to thank for the inspiration.

I am going back to Albania soon. Lati knows I’m coming. I will sit in the red room and write. For three weeks I will be in a writer’s heaven created by a man who admires writers in a country that loves books. I know how lucky I am to have found Friends Book House because every writer needs a special room. Sometimes it is steps away and sometimes you find it half-way around the world.

Albania - Friends Book House

Rebecca and Lati at “her” table in the Friends Book House

Rebecca Forster is a USA Today & Amazon best-selling author of the Witness Series, the Finn O’Brien Thrillers, and more. Her latest in the Finn O’Brien series (just in time for St. Patrick’s Day) is Secret Relations.

American Writers Museum: Chicago

book coversOn the lookout for something new and interesting to do in Chicago? Try the American Writers Museum, the first U.S. museum devoted to authors. If you are a writer, you may find it’s a tangible uplift. It both celebrates American writers and shows their pervasive influence on “our history, our identity, and our daily lives.”

The museum is huge in heart, if not in size, and, unless you’re one of those people who must read every word of every exhibit (in which case you’d better set aside a day or two), you can probably explore it in under two hours. Although it doesn’t claim to be exhaustive, the museum nevertheless includes authors and works from throughout the nation’s literary history—poetry, song lyrics, speeches, drama, fiction, nonfiction, journalism,and more. The displays are well designed and captivating.

So many iconic American writers are associated with Chicago—from Studs Terkel to Nelson Algren to Gwendolyn Brooks, from Carl Sandburg to Sandra Cisneros—it’s fitting that there’s currently a special exhibition on the talent nurtured there, complemented by an exhibit of photographs by Art Shay of writers at work (and play).

When I visited, a school group was there, and it was amusing to hear the teacher explain the operation of a typewriter. “There’s this ribbon thing, see, and there’s ink on it . . . And then when that bell rings, you move the carriage back.” Numerous hands-on exhibits let museum-goers experiment and play with words. Poetry construction. Where words come from. Where writers come from.

You can vote for your favorite novel. To Kill a Mockingbird leads the list, followed by The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath. My guess is the “voters” feel less confident about 21st century books and fall back on what they studied in school. That process needs an infusion of more recent stellar work. I’d like to see Jennifer Egan’s Black Box there. Kids could relate to a novel in tweets.

The museum isn’t just about the already-written, though. It also has an extensive educational program, including the Write In Youth Education program for students in middle and high school. And series of panels gave good advice about craft and process for writers of any age.

The AWM, which opened only nine months ago, has been chosen in a USA Today Reader’s Choice poll as “Best Illinois Attraction” and by Fodor’s Travel as one of “the World’s 10 Best New Museums.” Find it at 180 N. Michigan Avenue, Second Floor, Chicago, IL 60601.