Marianna Baer’s THE INCONCEIVABLE LIFE OF QUINN and Pencil Detonators

By July 1944, it was obvious to a growing number of Germans and Nazi higher-ups that Deutschland had all but lost World War II.  Further, it was clear that Hitler’s obstinance was having a negative effect on whatever post-war future that Germany would have.  As a result, many Nazi officials plotted to take out their Fuhrer and some even took steps toward achieving that goal.

On July 20, 1944, the Third Reich only had nine more months to live. Claus von Stauffenberg didn’t know that. The German army officer joined a meeting at the Wolf’s Lair (Wolfsschanze), one of the control centers Hitler maintained outside of Berlin.  Von Stauffenberg placed his briefcase under the long table Hitler was pounding as he dictated strategy on the eastern front.  After a few minutes, Von Stauffenberg excused himself and beat feet from the Wolf’s Lair.  Soon after that, the meeting room exploded.  Four people were killed.  Hitler was largely untouched.

Why do I bring up an interesting event from recent world history?  Because it relates to writing craft and Marianna Baer‘s Amulet Books YA novel The Inconceivable Life of Quinn.  Von Stauffenberg planned to detonate the bombs he left beside Hitler with a pencil detonator.  The device is a relatively simple one.  It’s a spring-loaded cylinder.  On one end is a percussion cap that makes the explosives go boom.  On the other end is a vial of liquid chemicals that, when burst, will begin to eat away the spring mechanism.  When the wire fails…kaboom.  Here’s a diagram:

Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr
Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr

Marianna Baer has a pencil detonator in her novel.  Quinn, the protagonist, finds out that she is a couple months pregnant.  Can you hear the acid eating away that wire?  Babies generally take nine months of oven time to cook.  Two months have already passed.  When a baby is in a mommy’s tummy, it gets bigger every single day and (unless there’s a problem) nothing can stop it.  You can’t close your eyes and pretend a baby isn’t coming any more than you can stand on tracks and expect the train to disappear.  Pregnancy is a great pencil detonator because it causes disarray and change by its very nature.

Ms. Baer makes smart use of Quinn’s pregnancy by allowing the drama surrounding the baby to increase as time goes on.  The author did, however, have a little bit of a problem: everyone on Earth has either given birth or been born.  There are currently more than 7.5 billion people on the planet; being pregnant is not unique in the grand scheme of things, but it is very special to the child’s parents.  So.  That’s the big struggle: you must make the mundane special in your work.  As Gunnery Sergeant Hartman taught his recruits to repeat of their rifles: “This is my rifle.  There are many like it, but this one is mine.”  Everyone has been bullied.  What makes the bullying in your story different.  Everyone has fought with friends.  What makes this fight different?

Fortunately, The Inconceivable Life of Quinn has a hook that makes the pregnancy worth reading about.  Quinn is not only the daughter of a politician during an election year, she is a virgin and has no idea how she has come to be in the family way.  In this way, there are two questions that keep us reading:

  1. How’d the baby happen if there was no sex?  Who’s the father?
  2. What’s going to happen with the election?  How crazy will the media get about the daughter of a NYC politician getting knocked up just before an election?  (Shades of Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston!)

The great Lee K. Abbott loves to drop the following truth when it comes to writing: recite-1a4r72o (1)

On page 34 of the hardcover, Ms. Baer gives us a very sweet description of the first time Quinn hears the baby’s heartbeat.  Her mother asks, “There it is.  Can you hear that?”  Then the narrator says:

A muffled, rhythmic sound.  A distant drumming.  Fast and strong.

A heartbeat.

A heartbeat that wasn’t Quinn’s own.

So this moment is nice and nicely written, but there’s a problem: there’s math involved.  I’m the reader…I’m not supposed to have to do any work.  Why should it be my job to go to the Wikipedia entry for “pregnancy” to figure out when the fetal heart starts beating?  Should I be expected to get out a pen and paper and open the calendar on my phone?

Thank goodness, Ms. Baer saves me from this only five pages later.  On page 39, she tells us that Quinn has been given a two-week window during which it was possible for her to become pregnant.  (I think the author also says how many weeks the baby has been gestating, but I can’t find it in the text.)  Don’t make your reader do math and don’t make them scratch their head and try to figure out, in this case, the baby is due and when it was conceived.

The Inconceivable Life of Quinn keeps the reader turning pages (or swiping the screen) by taking Quinn’s pregnancy and relationships in a number of unexpected directions. Ms. Baer populates her story (told from third-person vignettes from each character) with relatable characters who speak and act the way they should, even if those actions are not always pleasant. Quinn’s father should doubt her and ask several times about the father of the child. Some of Quinn’s classmates must be unpleasant to her.

The most interesting choice the author makes might be the way that she does so much to add unexpected elements to the pregnancy narrative. (I don’t want to reveal too much about those.) In this way, Quinn’s pregnancy, like so many others, is not simply an accident or a happenstance of biology, hormones, and impulse. The story of of Quinn’s “inconceivable” pregnancy becomes an emotional journey for the reader as much as it is for the prospective mother.

Bill Burr and Michael Price’s F IS FOR FAMILY and Being True to Your Story and Characters (Or Else I’ll Put You Through that Wall)

One of the great problems with contemporary literature is that it often overlooks the problems of the “average” person.  The middle-class people (whatever that means in 2017) who worry about keeping a roof over their heads, who beat themselves up because they can’t buy their kid hockey gear for tryouts.

Netflix wisely picked up two seasons of F is For Family, an animated show created by all-time great comedian Bill Burr and all-star The Simpsons writer Michael Price.  (That’s right, two people who have achieved everything I wanted to be well into adulthood.  You can tell I’m at least a little bit of an adult because I have enough maturity not to hate them for it.)  The program tells the story of the Murphy family, a middle-class suburban family in the 1970s.  Frank and Sue have three children and a thousand concerns.  I’ll go light on the Season 2 spoilers, but Frank has lost his job with Mohican Airways and is feeling pretty worthless.  His wife Sue is picking up the slack by selling Definitely Not Tupperware to other women in the area, but she’s not happy, either.  Youngest son Bill is dealing with a bully (who has an alcoholic father), teenage Kevin wants to be a rock star and little Maureen is on track to be a computer genius…if the adults around her give her that chance in time.  The program features humor and pathos in equal measure, amplifying the effect of each.

Mr. Price and the rest of the writing staff have been extremely friendly and accessible on Twitter.  At one point, they tweeted out the index card-plan they made to plot the course for Season Two.  Mr. Price was kind enough to let me share it with you:

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So, there are obviously spoilers if you zoom in and read all of the beats the staff laid down.  On the other hand, we’re writers.  We can enjoy literary works on two levels: that of the craftsman and that of the audience member.

What should we take away from this rare glimpse behind the scenes?

  • Each episode (or chapter, if you’re writing prose) has emotional consequences.  Look at the first cards under 201, 202, and 203.  Frank is “hopeful,” then events leave him “devastated,” and then he “bottoms out.”  Your story must have meaningful stakes that result in emotional change.  Frank Murphy’s story does not result in earth-changing geopolitical consequences, but the events of the story have a big effect on him and his family.  And that is enough.
  • The writers plan arcs for each of the characters.  Think of Dickens.  Or The Simpsons.  Each character is a fully vested presence in the world of the story.  Accomplishing this goal is not easy, but sometimes, all you have to do is give characters a small moment of emotional truth.  In Season 2 of F is For Family, Frank is so desperate for work that he gets a job filling the vending machines in public places…including the machines he once walked past at Mohican.  His new boss is Smokey, an African-American gentleman who expects hard work and hopes to avoid his wife.  Smokey could simply be a stock character, but the writers go deeper with him on a few occasions.  At one point, Frank screws up, which should cost him the job.  Frank goes to great lengths to fix the mistake.  Smokey subsequently lets down his emotional guard and has an oddly sweet moment with Frank.  Two people from very different backgrounds grew closer in understanding.  (I’m tearing up here!)
  • The writers fill a wall and put their whole story in front of them!  I am not a big fan of over-outlining, but my work has gotten much better since I broke down each beat one by one before beginning my most recent book manuscripts.  You’ll notice that the F is For Family team does not lock themselves into every single beat…the index cards can easily be removed or changed.  The point is to have the shape of the story in your mind in a coherent way.  The finer details, of course, will appear as you sculpt the work.

F is For Family is a show that is steeped in love.  Sometimes that love is difficult and expressed in…confusing ways, but the Murphy family is all about love.  The people around the family are also (generally) decent human beings.  Being set in the 1970s, the writers have an obligation to represent the time with verisimilitude.  (The appearance of reality in fiction.)  One of the characters the Murphys see on TV is Tommy Tahoe, a Dean Martin manque who sings horribly misogynist songs about subjects like telling your wife to keep her mouth shut.

Everyone who reads this, of course, is a decent human being and would never think something like that about women, but that’s the point.  For better AND worse, Tommy Tahoe would never be allowed on TV today.  But this is the kind of entertainment that was mainstream in the 1970s.  Have you ever seen one of the good, old-fashioned roasts?  These stars, all of whom love each other, tell the most racist and sexist jokes you can imagine.  But it’s all about togetherness and sharing a night together.

Mr. Price and his writing staff are surely great people, but did the right thing in presenting a heightened version of the 1970s as it was, not as we would like it to be.  Another recurring element of F is For Family is Frank’s favorite show: Colt Luger.  As you might expect from a crime-solver whose names are both guns, Colt is a hypermasculine crime solver who is not as…enlightened as we are.  Example:

These kinds of shows were popular in the 1970s and reflect the time in which they were made.  When you’re a storyteller, you must be more faithful to the story and the characters than you are to your own feelings.  Otherwise, you’re not telling an honest story.  You’re just giving a lecture.

Which brings me to one of the most beautiful parts of F is For Family: it’s very deep, but doesn’t force you to engage with it on that level if you don’t want to.  In the contemporary parlance, Frank and Sue are struggling with gender roles placed upon them by themselves and by society.  Frank’s neighbors are slightly cautious about the African-American who pulls up in front of Frank’s house.  Maureen wants to build computers and Frank just has a little hold-up in his head that prevents him from giving his daughter what will make her happy.  In a particularly sad Season 1 episode, Frank argues with Sue and calls the younger son Bill a “pussy.”  Bill spends the rest of the episode sorting through his identity and how he wants to express it.  So you could easily write college papers about F is For Family.  

But most of all, the show will make you laugh and make you feel.  What else could you possibly want in a work of fiction?

Rachel Custer’s “How I Am Like Donald Trump” and Light Instead of Heat

During World War II, the brave Allied servicemen in the Pacific theater were missing the comforts of home.  Instead of Mom’s cooking, they were trying to swallow cold MREs in an unfamiliar climate halfway across the world.  The men were scared: for their lives, for their country, for the relationships they put on pause to do their duty.

The political and military brass of Empire of Japan did the perfectly natural thing: they tried to take advantage of these feelings in order to demoralize the enemy force.  Enter Tokyo Rose, the collective name for the sweet-voiced women who narrated radio broadcasts intended for American soldiers and sailors in the Pacific.  The Pentagon and private agencies did their best to help the men keep their minds occupied while in theater–distributing radio programs, movies, paperbacks, comic books–but there was always an audience for any English-speaking voice they could catch over the airwaves.

Tokyo Rose told the Americans how beautiful Japan was and softly, sweetly urged them to give up hope that they would defeat the mighty forces of the Empire.  She cooed into the microphone and told the guys about their girls back home, how Sally Strongheart from All-America, Kansas, wasn’t waiting like she promised.  No, she was going to the sock hop with that 4-F she always said was just a friend.

See for yourself:

Of course, the propaganda effort didn’t work because Americans are so awesome (USA!  USA!  USA!), but the story reveals an important lesson about craft.  The rhetoric of Tokyo Rose was not bombastic.  She didn’t scream.  No, she calmly appealed to the fears of her listeners.  See how this relaxed and logical approach was a much better idea than, say, endless screeching?

We write because we have stories we need to tell, ideas we need to share.  Our hearts burn with the need to commit our thoughts to paper and share them with others.  But here’s the problem: we can’t get our message across if all we do is burn.  No, the heat must be focused and have a purpose.  In the words of the late, great Christopher Hitchens: “heat is not the antithesis of light but rather the source of it.”

Here’s an example of heat that produces no light, that casts no illumination whatsoever on the world or the human condition.  This young woman was not pleased to see a Donald Trump banner on her campus.  I think you’ll agree with me that she doesn’t make a very compelling argument.

I think you’ll agree with me that this young woman did not win any hearts and minds to whatever the heck she was thinking.

We are in a new and fascinating age of political literature.  (I wish this age had begun fifteen years ago, but so it goes…)  As reading rates have declined, the writing community has become ever more liberal, or whatever term you would like to use.  On some level this makes sense.  Writers have always been curious about others.  We’ve always used empathy to put ourselves into the lives of others.  But I think it’s reasonable to admit that the balance has shifted even further to the left than usual.

There are such amazing opportunities for writers!  There are so very, very many things to say in this absolutely crazy political climate.  We all want writing to remain what it has always been: a vehicle for entertainment social chronicle and change.  Unfortunately, our work becomes less useful and less effective if we figuratively prance around the yogurt-puddled quad screeching at people who both agree and disagree with us.

Protest literature is boring and pointless when it’s all heat and no light, when it’s a screech instead of an argument.  That is why I was so pleased to read a protest poem that actually meant something.  Rachel Custer’s “How I Am Like Donald Trump” appeared in Rattle’s Poets Respond feature.  Published a couple weeks before the election, the poem is not at all pro-Trump, but it’s also not packed with breathless hyperbole and unchanneled anger.

First of all, look at the title.  Ms. Custer literally identifies with Trump and makes it clear that she is employing empathy.  A writer can hate a character all they like, but they must empathize with the person about whom they are writing.  No, this doesn’t mean that you forgive or even like a person.  You must understand, to paraphrase the great Lee K. Abbott, who the character is in the dark.

Then Ms. Custer dedicates the poem, “for D.T. and other lonely people.”  I know.  I agree.  Trump is bad.  I don’t like his policies.  I don’t like some of the things he has said.  Did we gain anything from yet another affirmation against Trump?  No.  But we do get something out of thinking of the “villain” as a real human being, in this case a “lonely” one.  For some reason, many of us are forgetting that the old-fashioned mustache-twirling bad guy who is just bad has fallen out of style.  No, we like our villains to be complicated and to resemble real people who have real motivations.  Thinking of Trump (in this case) as a real human being also makes your protest art more effective.  Instead of arguing against a strawman, you’re arguing against a flesh-and-blood man.

The poem itself, it seemed to me, was quite sad and evocative.  Ms. Custer could have been like so many other writers and written:

OMG I HATE TRUMP

HE SAID MEAN THINGS ABOUT THAT BEAUTY PAGEANT CONTESTANT

AND RUINED BILLY BUSH’S

CAREER.

See?  Only heat.  No light.  Ms. Custer’s Trump is revealed to be a sad and pitiful man; her work is more effective than a thousand screeching undergrads.  You can’t unseat a politician unless you understand them and why they do what they do.  You can’t make a deal with a person unless you understand their psychology.

Ms. Custer uses the heat in her heart to generate light instead of merely adding to the fury that we find in so many places.  Let’s try to do the same thing when next we try to change the world with our words.

Chelsea Sedoti’s THE HUNDRED LIES OF LIZZIE LOVETT and Main Characters Who Never Appear in the Story

When I was in eleventh grade, Miss Rowe introduced me to Tennessee Williams and his play The Glass Menagerie.  I related to the characters in a number of ways, but most strongly when the playwright described a certain section of the Wingfield apartment:

Nearest the audience is the living room, which also serves as a sleeping room for Laura, the sofa unfolding to make her bed.  Just beyond, separated from the living room by a wide arch or second proscenium with transparent faded portieres (or second curtain), is the dining room.  In an old-fashioned whatnot in the living room are seen scores of transparent glass animals.  A blown-up photograph of the father hands on the wall of the living room, to the left of the archway.  It is the face of a very handsome young man in a doughboy’s First World War cap.  He is gallantly smiling, ineluctably smiling, as if to say, “I will be smiling forever.”

That photograph of Tom and Laura’s father is a constant and tangible reminder of why the characters are in their situation.  That man is part of why Laura is shy and reserved, why Tom is angry and wants to leave, why Amanda is in denial.  Wingfield père never makes an appearance on the stage…but he is always there, from curtain up to curtain down.

The same kind of dynamic appears in Chelsea Sedoti‘s The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett, a YA novel that is a little bit of suspense, a little bit of romance, a little bit of character study.  The protagonist is Hawthorn, a high schooler who always looked up to Lizzie Lovett.  The latter graduated a few years ago; she was the most beautiful, most graceful girl in school.  Hawthorn just knew that Lizzie is the kind of person who has an easy life because they’re perfect.

Then Lizzie goes missing.  Hawthorn wants to know why, wants to know where Lizzie went.  So she investigates Lizzie’s life.  She takes Lizzie’s old job and quickly develops a crush on Enzo, Lizzie’s boyfriend.  I got a Raffaele Sollecito vibe from Enzo, who is a dark and passionate painter; he’s also a suspect in Lizzie’s disappearance in the eyes of some.

Ms. Sedoti sends Hawthorn on an interesting personal adventure as she and Enzo cope with their loss.  I don’t want to give away too much plot (like I said, it’s partly a suspense novel), but the author does a good job of creating a meaningful arc for Hawthorn and giving her interesting things to do.

Speaking of which, Ms. Sedoti gave herself a big problem in choosing her narrative, but also gave herself great opportunity.  Stories about disappearances and murderers and the like are very interesting!  Just think of any episode of Dateline NBC.  These are what I call “shiny” stories because they attract a lot of attention very easily, just like shiny things you see when walking down the street.  Ms. Sedoti created an interesting narrative out of a story that is decidedly far less “shiny.”  Hawthorn didn’t know Lizzie well.  She wasn’t involved in the disappearance.  Lizzie remains missing for quite some time.  This is not exactly the kind of story that will be made into a pure horror movie.

So Ms. Sedoti reflected Lizzie and her life through the lens that Hawthorn represented.  All of the characterization for Lizzie came from a girl who wasn’t very close to her.  One on hand, this kind of information is objective; on the other hand, it’s filtered through the perspective of a teenager.  (And one who admired her.)  Ms. Sedoti also made sure there were a few subplots to suggest the passage of time and to keep things rolling.  There’s a homecoming dance!  There’s a terrible bully!  There’s an annoying but devoted brother!  Most of all, there’s a romance that unspools very slowly and methodically.

My favorite thing about Ms. Sedoti’s conceit is the way that Lizzie hovers over the narrative in the same way that the Wingfield patriarch dominated Tennessee Williams’ narrative.  The book opens:

The first thing that happened was Lizzie Lovett disappeared, and everyone was all, “How can someone like Lizzie be missing?” and I was like, “Who cares?”

So as the novel starts, Lizzie is already out of the narrative picture and can’t appear.  (You know, unless and until she’s found or returns, yada yada.)  Absent Lizzie is a mirror that reflects upon the characters.  To Hawthorn, she represents the flawless princess lucky girl she wants to be when she grows up.  Eventually, she reflects upon Enzo as an artist and a human being.  Those who aren’t optimistic about Lizzie making a return are exposed as pessimists or realists.

In a way, Lizzie is not so much a character as a symbol.  Have you ever met Abraham Lincoln?  Didn’t think so.  Like Lizzie, writing about him means projecting your own ideas onto him.  These kinds of characters are (often) symbols.  Hawthorn is a compelling teenage girl.  She has romantic desires and fights with her brother and seeks wisdom from the hippie caravan near her house.  She’s a living, breathing person!  (In prose form.)  Lizzie, on the other hand, is a kind of ghost who drives and reveals the characters.  

Of course, Lizzie also reveals information about us, based upon how we perceive her and how we think about the search for her.  Ms. Sedoti gives us plenty to think about, but in that good way.  Hawthorn experiences a number of twists and turns.  She grows up in some ways and not in others.  The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett (like The Glass Menagerie) is a work about how we cope with absence and how we grow up in the face of grief and longing and will be enjoyed by those who are young adults in addition to those who merely remember being young adults.

Colonel Sanders/Catherine Kovach’s TENDER WINGS OF DESIRE and Why We Love Reading and Writing in the First Place

The news stories seemed too good to be true: Colonel Sanders had written a romance novel(la), just in time for Mother’s Day.  Tender Wings of Desire was offered as a free download on Amazon.  A lot of the discussion has centered around the obvious: the book is obviously part of a KFC® marketing campaign.  KFC® wants to make money, so they came up with the idea to get attention and spread goodwill by hiring a writer to produce a novel that they could make go viral.

While I have my compunctions about marketing and corporations and the like, I immediately thought this was a great campaign and a very fun and honest way for KFC® to build excitement around their brand.  Ad industry people have written about Tender Wings of Desire from their perspective, and I am writing about it from the Great Writers Steal perspective: what can we learn from the book?

Quite a lot, actually!

I absolutely love that Wieden + Kennedy Portland used an honest-to-goodness book as a freebie giveaway.  A book!  Literature!  Not some branded Frisbee or stress ball that will be thrown away the next day!  The ad agency is treating a book as though it’s an everyday object that people need.  (Which it is.)  As reading rates decline, anything that we can do to get people to smile and chuckle about a book is a blessing.  We need to get our books into the hands of readers any way we can.

Best of all, the book is good!  It’s fun!  What else do you want?  Yes, it is a romance novel; the genre carries an unfair stigma in some places.  The identity of the real author is no secret.  Catherine Kovach seems to have been on the scene for the past several years, and points out the unfair attitude some have toward romance authors:

Yes, every writer has different goals, and that’s fine.  But don’t we all want to produce work we love and to have an audience for that work?  Romance writers (and those who trade in any genre) make their readers happy.  Lots of romance writers outsell fancy-pants literary writers who win all the awards.  Ms. Kovach has succeeded on all counts and is building her audience.

Let’s look at the most important thing: the book itself.  Ms. Kovach followed the conventions of the romance novel without satirizing them.  What do we have?

  • A free-spirited, beautiful young woman resisting social conventions
  • A “more beautiful” sister who loves the social conventions
  • An arranged marriage with a handsome royal
  • A fancy ball where the women wear pretty dresses
  • A midnight horse ride to escape
  • A new life of the protagonist’s own choosing, when…
  • A handsome stranger takes the protagonist’s breath away.

I got a real Austen vibe from the plot and the prose is solid and fun.  Every reader enjoys (or should enjoy) a change of pace every so often.  I’m not in the prime demographic for romance novels, but what does it matter?  I contain multitudes.  So do you.  Tender Wings of Desire is a part of a balanced reading diet.

Perhaps it’s just my own perception, but a “balanced diet” seems far more “acceptable” when we’re talking about other kinds of media.  Joyce Carol Oates enjoys the fancy-pantsiest possible literature out there.  She also loves and has written extensively about boxing, a sport where two musclebound people try to punch each other unconscious.  (The sweet science, of course, has its own poetic beauty.)  If you look at some of your “literary” friends on social media, they’ll talk about the latest Pulitzer winner and then tweet about The Bachelor.  I’d love it if the much of the barrier between “literary” and “entertaining” would fall away.  Ms. Kovach fulfills her responsibilities as a writer: she made promises to the reader and kept them.  Two promises apply to all books: the writer must give the reader a reason to pick up the book and must entertain him or her.

Now let’s get specific about Ms. Kovach’s prose.  Narratively, the book is solid.  The handsome Harlan appears virtually halfway through the book.  Had Ms. Kovach been making a goof, she would have brought Colonel Sanders in earlier, seeing as how his presence is the “joke.”  (She also avoids gratuitous references to delicious KFC® Original Recipe® chicken or their scrumptious gravy®.  Or that butter substance® you can put on their flaky biscuits®.  I’m hungry now.)   Ms. Kovach plays it straight, knowing that a good, entertaining novella will do more good for the reader (and her boss) than a throwaway read.

Here’s that critical moment.  Are you ready to see the instant in which Madeline’s life changed forever?

wings1 wings2

Ms. Kovach does the smart and expected thing; Chapter Five ends on a cliffhanger.  The reader doesn’t see the romantic lead, but Madeline does.  We get the reaction–Madeline is speechless–and are tempted to turn the page.  (Well, to swipe the location or whatever.)

Ms. Kovach also plays with the reader’s current knowledge and expectations in a smart way.  She doesn’t need to describe everything about Colonel Sanders’ accent.  We’ve all heard it.  We’ve all heard Norm Macdonald and others do the accent.  Instead, she remains committed to the honest nature of the book and simply writes, “a soft version of an American accent.”  The reader’s mind does the rest.  No overkill.

No, I don’t expect that Tender Wings of Desire will start a trend in which companies give writers money to produce branded books that are written with a surprising amount of dignity.  (And a surprising lack of obvious mentions of KFC®‘s several delicious $5 Fill Up® options.)  But here’s hoping that other ad agencies and corporate bigwigs will take note that you can get attention and make money by making literature a small part of your branding.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to resist going to my local KFC® restaurant (where the employees are all exceedingly polite, by the way) to get a 3pc. Chicken Big Box Meal® so my day will end with a HEA, just like Tender Wings of Desire.  (“HEA” is romance writer jargon for “Happily Ever After.”)

Freshman-Suggested Alternate Reading Group Guide Questions for Tom Perrotta’s JOE COLLEGE

I often assign my students to read Tom Perrotta’s fantastic Joe College.  (And if they don’t read the book, I ask them to at least follow the advice I gave people about how to discuss a book they didn’t read.) Continue Reading

Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ SHATTERED and Privileging Aesthetics Over Ideology

No matter your ideological or party affiliation, you simply can’t deny that the presidential election of 2016 was a story of Shakespearean depth.  Two incredibly powerful and wealthy people fought to command the will of the people.

No matter what you think of Hillary Clinton, you simply can’t deny that she could easily be the protagonist of a Greek tragedy.  Clinton’s hamartia and her hubris had a direct impact on the events that took place before the curtain dropped and many Americans and most Clinton supporters…and Clinton herself are searching for catharsis.

Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign reads like a thriller whose conclusion we already know.  (Buy the book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or your local indie.)  We all stayed up on Election Night and were probably surprised as the conventional knowledge turned out to be wrong.  We all bore witness to the death of a powerful woman’s dream, a goal to which she had been working for decades, and wondered how it happened.  Mr. Allen and Ms. Parnes, authors of a previous book about Clinton’s time as Secretary of State, attempt to answer this question.  They spent the last several months of the campaign on the inside, gaining access with promises not to release information they gathered until after the election. Continue Reading

Go Read Okla Elliott’s Stuff, Please. (A Remembrance)

The unthinkable has happened.  Okla Elliott has shuffled off this mortal coil.  It is also fair to jettison the euphemism and to point out that he died, but the truth is that he accomplished so much and touched so many in his years that he could only have died in the biological sense.

Okla was one of the most brilliant people I have ever met, though one of the most giving.  He devoted so much of his limited time on this planet helping other writers in large ways and small.  In the few days since his passing, I have been comforted by reading so many anecdotes from writers he took under his wing at a conference or who received hours of counsel about their manuscript.

I started Great Writers Steal on December 2, 2012 out of the same kind of desire to serve the writing community.  Even though he was deservedly a zillion times more successful than I am, he was always happy to help out with my endeavors.  This, combined with my love of his work, means that there’s a lot of Okla in GWS.

Here he is on my podcast to talk about his epic novel The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (co-written with Raul Clement):

I featured him in a QuickCraft:

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I built upon an argument Okla put forth in an essay about the big MFA debate:

I reviewed his novel for Serving House Journal.  He deigned to publish some of my thoughts on As It Ought to Be.  You get the point.  I am pleased to know that he had affection for me and I certainly returned that affection.

I am very grateful to have known Okla during his all-too-short time on this all-too-often cold and unfeeling planet.  Please do yourself a favor and check out his work.

Here‘s a list he compiled of his online publications.  (Wow…this is sad.  It occurs to me that I need to archive the page, as Okla is no longer around to re-up his web hosting.)

Here is his Amazon page.  Here is his Barnes & Noble page.  Here is his Kobo page.  (We need more than one bookstore on Earth, friends.)

When I was looking for a real writer’s story to reprint in and thereby add value to my collection of essays about the 2012 Best American Short Stories, Okla instantly volunteered one of his own.  I’ve changed the price of the book to free; please download and read his story.  (You can ignore the bits I wrote.)  Download from Amazon here.  Download from Kobo here.  Download from Barnes & Noble here.

You don’t even need to act on my recommendation.  Okla was the best and he earned laurels from the best:

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It is somehow unthinkable that life will go on in the face of our loss, but such is the nature of human existence.  I was and remain distraught at the news, but Okla (who was as alive as ever mere days ago), would not want us to mourn to excess.  He might ask us to remember his kindness, to remember his work, but most of all to remember that those who remain deserve to be treated with human dignity.

This is the first Okla-less sunset.  There will be so many more.  Let’s keep him in our hearts and minds and forge a world that more closely resembles the one he was trying to build.IMAG0410

 

 

Christi Barth’s GIVING IT ALL and the Voice of the Romance Narrator

Logan and Brooke had crushes on each other during high school, but never told each other how they felt.  A decade later, they have an improbable meeting in the Caribbean and engage in a steamy love affair that may just turn into something more…

Giving it All is Book 3 of 4 in Christi Barth‘s “Naked Men” series.  (Purchase at Amazon or Barnes and Noble or through your local indie store.)  The “Naked Men” are occasionally naked in literal terms, but the title refers to the blog set up by the male protagonists.  The Naked Men are friends and help each other through their problems.  Will Logan and Brooke share a HEA (Happily Ever After)?  Time will tell, but there will be a lot of hot lovemaking before we find out.

I don’t know how many of my readers or friends have picked up a romance novel recently, but I maintain that we are all missing out if we don’t work them into our balanced reading diet.  They’re fun!  And why are they fun?  Because the author is focused on making sure that the reader is having a good time.  He or she makes some very clear promises and (one hopes) fulfills them.  As I pointed out in my GWS essay about Wendy S. Marcus’s The Doctor She Always Dreamed Of, the narrator in a romance novel can add greatly to the fun.  Ms. Barth uses her narrator to great effect in Giving it All.

No matter what you write, the narrator’s persona must fit the purpose of the work.  Or as Hamlet said, “suit the action to the word, the word to the action.”  Take a look at the opening of the beautiful but dark and sad Thomas Keneally novel Schindler’s List:

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Keneally’s narrator makes it very clear that this will not be a laff-a-minute joy ride.  Look at the chauffeur’s joke–“icy as a widow’s heart.”  That’s sad.  The widow (and the teller of the joke, I suppose) don’t express full empathy and humanity.  We are told this is a story about evil.  We read “the beast” and “fatal human malice.”

The narrator of Schindler’s List establishes the tone of the book and sweeps the reader along with him or her.  Giving it All is a very, very different book (obviously) and deserves a different narrator.  And what a fun voice it is!

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Ms. Barth’s narrator fits the plot and the characters, doesn’t it?  If you’re willing to read a romance novel, you are probably having a good time with this narrator.  (If reading about people seeing each other across the room and feeling sexual attraction is a problem for you–Brooke gets her chance–then you probably aren’t going to pick up a romance novel.)  The narrator of the book doesn’t stand at a distance; he or she is right beside the reader, acting in the same manner as a person with whom you are sharing guy talk or girl talk.  The tone is so much fun and invites you to pretend that a buddy just jabbed you in the ribs and said, “Hey, bro.  Isn’t that that cheerleader you had a huge crush on in high school?  Shoot.  She’s looking good.  You should say hi.”

Which is a good way to introduce another reason that Ms. Barth’s book is successful: Giving it All appeals to a universal desire.  Didn’t we all have at least one big crush in high school?  No matter how happy you are in life, no matter how many years have passed, doesn’t the memory of the proverbial Little Red-Haired Girl or Boy have a place in your heart?  Young crush love is very pure.  Sure, Brooke and Logan wanted to have sex with each other when they were in high school.  But because they were teenagers, their hearts unscarred by life, there was a purity to their feelings.  Readers enjoy living vicariously through literary characters…particularly the ones in romance novels.  Ms. Barth taps into these common desires, gaining easy access to the reader’s heart.

Giving it All is a satisfying read, not only in the context of the romance genre.  Ms. Barth includes plenty of “heat,” as romance people say, but also makes the reader care about Brooke and Logan and their individual problems.  Perhaps most impressive (and pleasing), the men in the book feel like men.  They speak like men and think like men.  Sometimes we love to say cruel things to our friends.  Sometimes we are 100% focused on our redhead friend lying beside us.  Sometimes we just want to provide for everyone we love.

The book, like the relationship between the protagonists, is not merely a white-hot sexual bacchanalia.  It’s also the chronicle of two people falling in love…after a white-hot sexual bacchanalia.

 

C Stuart Hardwick’s “Dreams of the Rocket Man” and a Narrative that Skips Like a Stone

C Stuart Hardwick‘s “Dreams of the Rocket Man” tells the story of Jimmy, a man who looks back on his youth and his relationship with Mr. Coanda, an older gent who enjoyed building rockets.  The story appeared in the September 2016 issue of Analog: Science Fiction and Fact, one of the top three SF/F magazines out there.  Mr. Hardwick is kind enough to offer the story on his web site; check it out!

The piece is an interesting example of a story whose narrator looks back and skips through time like a stone on the surface of a lake.  By design, these kinds of stories don’t spend much time in any one scene and don’t delve particularly deeply into any one moment.  Lots of work is structured in this manner; one of these is my short story, “Masher Doyle.”  Unfortunately, no one has ever read that one.  Here are some real examples:

That’s all I can think of at the moment.  (Feel free to add other suggestions in the comments!)

What Mr. Hardwick loses in depth of scene by employing this structure, he makes up for in the scope of his story.  By taking a look from a distance and zooming along to focus on the important bits, the author is able to chronicle a wide swath of Jimmy’s life.

Come to think of it, a lot of Stanley Kubrick’s work operates in the same kind of way.  The “narrator” of The Shining takes a long-distance look at the Torrance family’s fateful winter and skips along to feature the important bits.

The “narrator” of Full Metal Jacket takes a long-distance look at Private Joker’s Vietnam experience and skips along to feature the important bits.

The “narrator” of 2001: A Space Odyssey takes a long-distance look at humanity’s relationship with the universe and skips along to feature the important bits.

The “narrator” of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (developed by Kubrick, though directed by Spielberg) takes a long-distance look at David’s life over the millenia and skips along to feature the important bits.

(Hmm…I’ll bet someone has written a paper about Kubrick and narrative structure.)

The protagonist is a young man (then a grown man) who loves rocketry.  As a result, Mr. Hardwick has a duty to depict this love in a realistic way.  The story must have verisimilitude: the appearance of reality in fiction.  Mr. Coanda and Jimmy must sound as though they know a lot about rocketry or readers might bail, having had the magic spell broken.  Let’s look at how Mr. Hardwick handles some of the “smart person rocket stuff.”

He said that in space travel, the cost of a launch is determined by all kinds of things, not just the weight of machinery, fuel, and oxidizer, but also the aerodynamics and trajectory which control how much air resistance and gravity a rocket must fight before it reaches orbit.

I knew all that stuff!  The sentence is also a nice summary of some of the most important basic principles of rocketry.

As it staged and staged again, the ground slowly warped into a fisheye ball. When the propellant finally ran out, the Earth was just an azure band beneath the inky black of space.

Mr. Coanda let a handful of popcorn fall back into the bowl. “Holy hell,” he said, “if that ain’t a beautiful sight.”

I was similarly entranced. “How high do you figure we went?”

“I don’t have to figure. I have data. Ah…63,000 feet.”

“Wow! That’s almost in space!”

“Not quite. Minimum orbit’s eight times higher, and then you have to accelerate to orbital velocity in order to stay there.”

I stared at the glowing earthscape. “Still…”

Isn’t the “azure band” part pretty?  I love how this bit evokes the kind of awe that we should all have for this kind of science and the author also reinforces that Mr. Coanda knows his stuff and that little Jimmy is very bright, but still learning.  The part about the orbit and orbital velocity isn’t totally necessary, but it adds credence to the characters and their milieu.

“And it works terrific,” he said, “It’ll never produce enough LOX to do the whole job alone, but that’s another trade-off. If it can do much better than pay its own way, then–“

Lox?  Is Mr. Hardwick trying to get us hungry for breakfast?  No, he means “liquid oxygen.”  As an enthusiast of Gemini/Mercury/Apollo-era spaceflight, I knew the character didn’t mean salmon.  You’ll also note that Mr. Hardwick includes the phrase “liquid oxygen” to give the reader a hint, but it’s not wholly necessary.  If the reader doesn’t know the terms, they will just gloss over them while understanding that the characters know what they’re talking about.

I could never, ever pass a calculus class and Dr. William Widnall loses me when he talks about smart people stuff, but he, like Mr. Hardwick, convince me that they know what they’re talking about.

SPOILER ALERT!  Just read the piece if you didn’t.  Here are the last few sentences of the piece:

I’ve run the camp now for longer than I worked in engineering, but to these kids and the world, I’ll always be the Rocket Man, a mythological hero from a golden age. And that’s fine by me. I’ll proudly wear that title while I fan the flames, till the next bearer comes along to change up the world behind me. It’s not the adventure I imagined for my life, but you never quite know where dreams will lead.

Okay, so Mr. Hardwick is in the same place I was when I wrote “Masher Doyle.”  We both told the narrator’s story from childhood to adulthood.  Both of us wrote about mentor figures who helped our narrators build themselves up from childhood problems.  So what to do with the conclusion of the story?

The last paragraph can be your opportunity to unspool poetry for poetry’s sake.  The storytelling is largely over, so why not tip the scales in favor of aesthetic beauty over plot?