Chrome and Steel Poetics

Ford Rouge plant, Dearborn

Last Saturday was Michigan Statehood Day, and to answer the kind of question my young daughter would ask, no, I was not around for those festivities back in 1837. A few days before the anniversary, I learned something new about my home state that is another cause for celebration.

Emily Temple at lithub compiled a state-by-state list of winners of America’s three major literary awards: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Michigan, tenth in total population, ranked seventh in the list with 15 of these top prizes. New York was first, of course with 71, followed by California (29), Illinois (28), Pennsylvania (24), Massachusetts (20), and New Jersey (17), a function of population size and the location of the country’s cultural epicenters. New Jersey slips in by grasping the coattails of Manhattan and Philadelphia.

Detroit’s population peaked at 1.85 million in 1950, the year Detroit native Nelson Algren won the National Book Award for The Man with the Golden Arm. After that, the city’s population numbers went into a precipitous decline, coming to rest at 673,000 in 2017. Though the city’s prospects appear to be looking up lately, its downward economic spiral had statewide effects. Yet a dozen of the state’s literary awards occurred in the post-apogee.

We Michiganders can thank the poets for keeping our state in the award limelight, up to and including Jess Tyehimba, who won the 2017 Pulitzer for Olio. Poet Philip Levine is responsible for four of the awards, two for the same book, Ashes, and poet Theodore Roethke for three. Levine worked in the auto factories from the time he was 14 and was committed to giving a voice to the anonymous workers there—a Diego Rivera of words. Not all the poets are Detroiters, of course. Roethke’s work hearkened back to his childhood among Saginaw’s fruit orchards. One of my favorite poets, Marge Piercy, titled one of her poetry collections Made in Detroit, and a scrap of paper with an excerpt of  her “In praise of joe” flutters next to my computer (and coffee cup). She’s not on the list of prizewinners, but she auto be.

photo, top, the Ford Rouge plant, Wikimedia, creative commons license


Be Very Scared . . .

raven

drawing, rebeccarawrr, creative commons license

Credited with inventing detective fiction and contributing to the popularity of the then-new genre of science fiction, Edgar Allan Poe was one of America’s earliest authors to devote energies to the short story—as he defined it, a composition that could be read in a single sitting. Yet, his heart’s desire was to be a poet. Had he not died so young—at age 40—he might have been a great one.

This year, around the 169th anniversary of Poe’s mysterious death in Baltimore, Camden Park Press published Quoth the Raven, an anthology of poems and stories inspired by Poe’s work and sensibility, reimagined for the twenty-first century. Lyn Worthen was the collection’s hard-working editor. One of the short story authors, Tiffany Michelle Brown, interviewed seven of the collection’s 32 authors about their inspiration.

Brown: Imagine you’re in an old-timey elevator, a rickety one that boasts a well-worn, rusty cage. There’s a man in all black in the elevator with you, and he asks what your poem or story is about. What do you tell him?

Poet Tony Kalouria said she was inspired by the notion that unsolicited, unwanted advice is “for the birds.” Menacing, nay-saying birds, the spawn of Poe’s Raven.

Story-writer Susan McCauley used “The Cask of Amontillado” to inspire her story of murder and revenge, whereas my story sprung from Poe’s “Berenice.” In it, a woman sees her twin brother as the other half of herself and will stop at nothing to keep him close. In “My Annabel,” Emerian Rice told the story of two surgeons caught in a pandemic and their fight to stay alive for one another, and Sonora Taylor propelled Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” into the maelstrom of social media with “Hearts are Just ‘Likes.’”

“Considering the rust on this rickety cage,” said Stephen R. Southard, “I’m not sure we’ll even make it to our floors.” His story sprang from Poe’s tale about a balloon trip to the moon, which, naturally, left many unanswered questions. Poe intended future installments, but never completed them. “Someone had to write the sequel, so I did.”

Brown: What’s a story or poem – by any author – that has truly creeped you out (in the best way possible, of course)?

  • The Exorcist — book and movie! “I was considering therapy for almost a week, I was so traumatized. And pea soup was definitely off-menu for a very long time” (Tony Kalouria). Frankenstein. “It’s terrifying and heart-breaking at the same time. And the way it plays with ideas of gods and monsters is really quite genius.” (Donea Lee Weaver)
  • Emerian Rich chose The Woman in Black by Susan Hill. “I read it after watching the movie because I just adored the film. The book has this underlying chill that scared me more.” He said the house (or the bog) seemed to mesmerize characters into doing strange things or paralyze their thought process in some insurmountable way.
  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, said Susan McCauley. “I first read it in my early twenties and had to sleep with the lights on for several nights.”
  • Sonora Taylor picked the short story “Shadder” by Neil Gaiman. “ I read it in bed (having learned nothing since reading Poe’s “Hop Frog” in bed years before). Even though it’s short, even though I knew it was fiction, even though I had all the lights on, and even though my bed is up against the wall, I still felt the urge to look behind me at the end.”
  • Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow, said Steven Southard. “It’s a re-telling, and update, of George Orwell’s 1984 and a chilling tale of how easy it may be to slip into totalitarianism.
  • My pick was The Silence of the Lambs, the first modern “thriller” I ever read. The scariest film would have to be Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It was decades before I didn’t think of it when in the shower. Or the deeply disturbing ending of George Sluizer’s The Vanishing. Nightmares.

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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?

files

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.