Franz Kafka begins The Metamorphosis with a clear and crisp sentence that makes a promise as to what kind of book the reader has opened:
As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
The late Natalie Babbitt begins Tuck Everlasting with this description of a road that, like time, blurs into the infinite if you know when and how to look.
Kafka and Babbitt–two writers who deserve to be compared more than you might think–introduce their works of magical realism in ways that make promises and ease the reader into the unique world of the novel, a place so like and unlike our own. Ms. Babbitt slyly hints toward Tuck Everlasting‘s immortal characters, subconsciously inviting the reader to think of the nature of time on the very first page. Herr Kafka, of course, does what he can to make it very clear that, guess what. Gregor’s a bug. That’s what’s happening.
Authors make promises to the reader; not only are these promises with respect to plot and subject matter, but with respect to tone, as well. In his new novella Leonora Come Down (published by Los Angeles’s We Heard You Like Books), Agustin Aguilar must make promises; he must establish the right tone and he must guide the reader as he or she departs their world and enters the one of his creation. Let’s see what he did with the first couple paragraphs:
In terms of subject matter, Mr. Aguilar evokes the earth and history. His narrator adopts a tone that is highly detached from the characters and evokes the kind of entertaining grandeur that you find in many classic works. Say…The Bible. Stuff like that. I felt a similarity between the tone of Leonora Come Down and that of The 1001 Nights, the classic stories first written during the Islamic Golden Age. These are some of my favorite stories; they were passed down over countless generations and bring with them an inherent sense of weight and meaning. Compare the opening of Leonora Come Down to that of the opening of the narrative of The 1001 Nights:
Mr. Aguilar creates his own world within our own by adopting some of the tone and conventions of works that have shaped our own understanding of literature and the world around us. Leonora Come Down is the story of a boy named Arturo who befriends a pyramid. Mr. Aguilar seems interested in documenting how those around Arturo respond to such an unexpected circumstance. In this way, Mr. Aguilar reminds us that an idea is not enough; the idea must affect characters in some way that leads to some kind of new status quo.
Think of it another way. Are you particularly interested in reading a book for which the pitch is: “there’s a gang war in New York City?” Maybe, but you’re much more likely to want to read a story about: “Michael Corleone, a young man who loves his mafia-tied family, but wishes to have a life outside of organized crime, but must compromise that position once violence takes that luxury away from him.” Right? See how the the character is the true “hook” of the work? Arturo and the titular pyramid must deal with the residents of Wiskatchekwa, and those residents must adjust to its most recent neighbor–and its only one made of stone.
Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Aguilar creates a mythology for his unique world by borrowing from the mythologies of others. (Which is how culture and mythology, food and literature and everything else on the planet works.) The pyramid, of course, evokes thoughts of the Nile Delta…Arturo is given the honor of cracking a piñata…”Wiskatchekwa,” of course, is a reference to indigenous peoples and the town itself seems to me to be imbued with “traditional classic American culture,” whatever that may mean. Blending cultures and mythologies in this way makes the novella seem more timeless and plants it in the same league as other works that are the result of endless curiosity and the desire to use storytelling, that most innate of desires, to entertain and explain the secrets inside us and in others.
BONUS: Read this Nate Ragolia review of Leonora Come Down from As It Ought to Be.
2016, Agustin Aguilar, Magical Realism, We Heard You Like Books
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Deeds Publishing, Jordan Rothacker, Mystery
It wasn’t that she hated her husband; she just wanted something bad to happen to him.
So begins Martin Cloutier‘s “Punishment, Inc.,” a story published in the Volume 63, Number 1 issue of Shenandoah. The journal makes the story available to you for free. Take advantage! The story is a brief and fun read.
#MakeMoreReaders, Martin Cloutier, Shenandoah
Friends, every writer has his or her own story and their own unique path to success. As a guy who has been writing seriously for a couple decades and who has immersed himself in the writing world for as long, it’s been a pleasure to learn my craft from writers and work in every genre. I may certainly be incorrect, but I have seen a widening schism between “literary” writers and those who work in genre and other non-“literary” arenas. (What does “literary” mean? Who knows?) We miss out a great deal if we don’t at least dip our toes in the other parts of the storytelling ecosystem. If nothing else, we are missing out because these genres often outsell “literary” work and genre fans are often wonderfully passionate.
I tend not to discriminate; my goal is to be able to enjoy as many stories as I can. That certainly includes the romance genre. I had the pleasure of seeing Wendy S. Marcus give a talk at Oswego State in which she talked about her work and her journey. Ms. Marcus came to writing later in life than I did, but has published far more books than I have and knows a great deal that they don’t (but should) teach in MFA programs. In brief, Ms. Marcus wasn’t a big reader until she picked up a Harlequin romance on a whim and became hooked. After a while, she made that same move every writer has made: she figured she could do better than some of the books she read. So she started putting words down on the page. Once she had built up a support system of critique partners and started sending out her work, she began publishing for Harlequin, Loveswept (Random House) and eventually on her own.
Ms. Marcus told the assembled that writing is a job and feels a real necessity to find her readers. Do we in the “literary” community neglect the latter at times? I keep saying we need to #MakeMoreReaders, that there are millions of additional people who would read our books, if only we cared to invite them into a much bigger tent. Ms. Marcus and so many other genre writers are thinking of building, finding and entertaining an audience. I wonder if we “literary” folks are doing enough of that.
Of course, Ms. Marcus cares deeply about the craft of writing and devoted herself to learning the nuts and bolts of storytelling and language as she was learning the ropes. Her skill is apparent in The Doctor She Always Dreamed Of, her medical romance novel from Harlequin. (Buy it from the publisher, Amazon or Barnes and Noble! Follow her on Twitter!) In the book, Ms. Marcus clearly sets out her goals and achieves them, all while giving the reader a compelling story and–because it’s a romance novel–some lengthy descriptions of…you know.
Kira Peniglatt begins the novel as a case management employee at a health care company. She thinks her job is to make sure her roster of patients receive the care they need. Her jerky boss thinks her job is to cut costs. Kira has a particularly bad experience with the Limone family, particularly Dr. Derrick Limone, who is angry that Kira is seemingly depriving his mother the home care she needs. So angry is Dr. Derrick that he follows Kira to the bar where she intends to forget her terrible day. The meet-cute comes when a slightly toasted Kira propositions Derrick, unaware of who he is. Derrick is a gentleman; he can’t find her address anywhere, so he brings her back to the Limone family home to let her sleep it off. I think we all understand how the general plot works after that…
…Which is a good thing. Ms. Marcus gives us what we want from the genre and from the characters. The book is clearly in the genre of medical romance. We expect some romance and for the plot to be turned by the medical profession in some manner. Even if we don’t read romance very often, that’s fine. It’s a fun change of pace. Part of a balanced literary diet. Think of the TV shows you watch: you likely enjoy police procedurals, a drama or two, a game show, maybe a reality show guilty pleasure. They’re all enjoyable for their own reasons.
Ms. Marcus mentioned something interesting during her talk. The Doctor She Always Dreamed Of is at times heavy on dialogue, which is not only appropriate, but smart. The whole point of the book (and any romance, right?) is to get the two characters together, both emotionally and physically. How better to do that in dialogue?
One of my favorite romantic-type movies is Chasing Amy, written and directed by Kevin Smith. In the film, Holden is totally into Alyssa Jones, a fellow comic book creator. Only problem? Alyssa’s a lesbian. Holden is disappointed, but each sees something in the other and they become friends. Obviously, Holden wants more, but look at this very sweet dialogue between the two characters:
It’s all there: the conflict, each characters’ goals and the touching and rare feeling that two people get when they grow closer, platonically or otherwise. Ms. Marcus said that she sometimes writes dialogue scenes by plowing through the lines without adding what Lee K. Abbott calls “the stuff:” the bits in dialogue that fall outside the quotation marks. Isn’t this an interesting idea? I’ve never done that outside of playwriting and I don’t think I’ve heard anyone else make the suggestion. Try it!
Ms. Marcus also blends the narration and characters in an interesting manner. Here’s an example from page 129:
So had he. “See. It’s the alcohol.”
“No it’s not.” She leaned in to kiss his cheek. “It’s you…Derrick Smith.”
She climbed on top of him, straddling his hips, lowering his chest to his. “I’ve never picked up a stranger in a bar before.”
Hell yeah! He was totally up for some role play…
When I read “Hell yeah!” I laughed out loud (in that good way) because I loved that look into Derrick’s mind at that moment. Not only is that something the character would think, but it’s something the reader would think, too. We’ve been waiting for a while for the “magic to happen,” so to speak. And now it’s happening. Hell yeah! The writer, character and reader are all on the same page!
Another example from 115:
Kira threw her little wine bottle at him. Too bad it was plastic…and empty.
He caught it mid-air. Impressive reflexes. “Your turn.”
Fine. “Unlike you, I waited until college. Freshman year.” She took a sip of wine…
This kind of blend between narrator and character is so great because it’s quick and potent and fun. Guess what. Romance novels are supposed to be quick and potent and fun. Not only is there nothing wrong with this, but it’s a beautiful thing. What’s one way for us to #MakeMoreReaders? Make our works quicker, more potent and a lot more fun.
2016, Chasing Amy, Kevin Smith, Oswego State, Romance, Wendy S. Marcus
Welcome to another Great Writers Steal First Page Inquisition, a feature in which I take a deep look at the first page of a novel and isolate what the author did to kick off their book in a successful manner.
Today, I’m analyzing the opening of Jeanne Ryan‘s Nerve, a best-selling YA novel that was released by Lionsgate in July of 2016. Why not buy the book from your local indie?
Now let’s say that you are an agent or an editor and you know nothing about Ms. Ryan or her novel and that her work has popped up in your slush pile. Her work, like yours, must grab the reader immediately and must waste no time in establishing the setting, characters and tone. And it must also seem fun. And it must seem meaningful in some way. And it must seem commercial enough that lots of readers will want to buy it. And the summary and first page must convince the reader that the rest of the book is worth reading. (That’s right…the summary and first page are very important.) Continue Reading
GWS First Page Inquisition, Jeanne Ryan, Young Adult
Devotees of Great Writers Steal will recall that I spoke with the fun and generous Wendy J. Fox upon release of her short story collection The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories. Ms. Fox’s stories played with narrative and language in interesting ways, so I was curious what the author had come up with when I opened up her first novel, The Pull of It, published by Underground Voices. As of this writing, the book is available from Amazon.
The book is a first-person narrative told by Laura, a wife and mother whose malaise and vague sense of need carry her across the world, first to Istanbul and then to the Anatolia region of Turkey where she befriends and works for a woman who runs a boarding house. Laura thinks of her daughter Anastasia (and sometimes her husband Julian) while she figures out her life with the Cappadocian mountains in the background.
Ms. Fox’s book is a swift and fulfilling read. I’m sad to say I’ve never been to Turkey, but the descriptions of the people and places are lush and beautiful and it’s somehow easier to picture the parts that happen in Turkey than those set in Seattle. Laura’s immersion in Turkish culture is deep and genuine, though she is forced to wonder to what extent a person can escape the circumstances of his or her birth.
Laura is an interesting and well-drawn character, but I’ll admit that I disapprove of many of her thoughts and actions. Though married to Julian, she is still preoccupied with Daniel, her One Who Got Away. Laura loves her eight-year-old daughter, but still feels perfectly justified in taking off for Turkey for several months. What do we learn? A complicated and flawed character is an interesting character. Laura is not a real person, so she is not causing any real and tangible harm to others. It therefore makes no sense for the reader to pass judgment on her or to devote excessive thought to the dubious nature of her actions. I sometimes fall into this trap and I know many others do, as well. Ms. Fox made up a character and made up a story and when we conflate fiction with reality, we miss out on “story,” which is the most important facet of humanity.
Another example: As you should all know, I’m a big fan of Tom Perrotta’s work, including his book Little Children. In the background of this tale of suburban lust is Ronnie McGorvey, a convicted child molester who is not exactly the most popular guy in the child-packed neighborhood. We have the option to fold our arms and cluck our tongues at an unpleasant human being such as McGorvey or we can consider them on the basis of their humanity. Believe me, the latter is much more powerful. (And the more distasteful the character, the harder job you have!)
We know Ms. Fox for her slightly experimental short stories, but she is equally playful with the structure of her novel while remaining accessible. Don’t worry, I won’t give any spoilers, but it doesn’t take much to assume that Laura will eventually leave Turkey and return to her family. Let’s take a look at how many pages Ms. Fox devotes to each section of the narrative:
Section 1: 1 – 41 (40 pages), Laura in the United States.
Section 2: 42 – 212 (170 pages), Laura in Turkey.
Section 3: 213 – 249 (36 pages), Laura back in the United States.
Let’s break that down by percentages. (I know…more math. Don’t worry. We’ll live.)
Section 1: 16%
Section 2: 69%
Section 3: 15%
See how nicely the narrative resolves itself? There’s a symmetry to the story that just feels good in the mind of the reader. Beginning, middle, and end. Alvin, Simon, Theodore. First act, second act, third act. In fact, the 15/70/15 split of this book’s narrative adheres quite well to Freytag’s Pyramid and the three-act structure that screenwriters (and novelists) are usually advised to follow. See how the “exposition” and “denouement” sections are about 15/70/15?
Why does this matter? Why did Ms. Fox employ this felicitous structure, even if it was by accident? Because it just works. For whatever reason, humans absorb story according to this formula: we take in the protagonist’s status quo, enjoy watching as they face increasingly serious challenges and then feel relief as the protagonist begins life in the “new normal” they have created. Do you need to follow a strict “formula” as though you’re trying to make a pharmaceutical drug or a batch of Coca-Cola? Of course not. But good storytellers, including Ms. Fox, tell stories in ways that readers will understand and play within the confines of that formula.
The Pull of It is a worthy debut and deserves one of my favorite kinds of praise: it’s not just for those who are part of the literary community. Ms. Fox plays with form and language and does the work of the “literary,” but does not ignore her duty to the reader who simply wants to be swept away to a far-off land, where everything is the same, only different. The music made by the language that floats through the air, the mountains painted familiar and strange hue, the coffee that not only wakes you up, but can offer hints toward the future before you.
Wendy J. Fox was raised in rural Washington state, and lived in Turkey in the early 2000s. She holds an MFA from The Inland Northwest Center for Writers and is a frequent contributor to literary magazines and blogs. Her debut collection The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories won Press 53’s 2014 competition for short fiction. She currently resides in Denver, where she is at work on a second novel.
Turkey, Underground Voices, Wendy J. Fox
Friends, I don’t know if you share this experience, but I have noticed that literary writers increasingly use the phrase “of it.” As in, “It was oppressive, the weight of it.” Or, “She thought of the camp, the dirt of it bringing her back to her youth.”
There are infinite ways to make magic with words, of course, and rules are made to be broken, but I’ve always been reluctant to use such phrases. “Of it.” What is “it?” Words such as “it” and “things” and “that” can be imprecise.
I read a forthcoming novel that just happens to have “of it” in the title and the author was kind enough to tell me why she made the choices she did. Wendy J. Fox is already part of Great Writers Steal history; she and I discussed her short story collection The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories. Her debut novel, The Pull of It, will be released by Underground Voices in late September. I asked her why she would use an imprecise phrase like “of it” in the title of her engaging book. What does The Pull of It do that The Pull of Freedom or The Pull of Leaving doesn’t?
Wendy J. Fox responds:
First, let me say here that titles are notoriously hard for me, and The Pull of It was no different. This book was at first called The Crescent, from the crescent on the Turkish flag (parts of the novel are set in Turkey), and then it was called Deals, because in the opening chapter, the protagonist, Laura, makes a “deal” with her husband. Yes, I know. Both of those titles stink.
It seems there is an increasing shift in colloquial English, where we use unspecific words like it or thing. I listen to a great deal of public radio, and I’ve started to hear folks use “sort of” as the go-to verbal filler. In writing, it plays out a little different. Think of social media comments when people enjoy an article or image, as in “This is all the things” or, if something is emotional, “This hit me in the feels.” Why not post, “This is why I became a writer,” or “This made me so sad I had to call my mom,”? Some of these choices are stylistic, and some are related to the fact that language is always shifting.
When I went to contract with Underground Voices, the editor rightly wanted a different title than Deals, and we went through several iterations, and iterations that were certainly more specific than it.
Pull pretty quickly became non-negotiable—the word appears many times, in many contexts, and the concept of pulling (pulling towards, pulling away, pulling back) is extremely central thematically in the novel.
Variations on just pull alone seemed too basic and non-descriptive, and trying to pin it down one item down felt too narrow.
We settled on it to open the door to the book—to find out what it actually is, and also to acknowledge that through the course of the novel, it changes.
Still, the title of a literary novel is not the same as composing a social media post, but the hope is that the title gets at a sense of expansiveness. And, of course, I hope it hits readers in the feels.
WENDY J. FOX was raised in rural Washington state, and lived in Turkey in the early 2000s. She holds an MFA from The Inland Northwest Center for Writers and is a frequent contributor to literary magazines and blogs. Her debut collection The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories won Press 53’s 2014 competition for short fiction. She currently resides in Denver, where she is at work on a second novel.
The Pull of It, Wendy J. Fox
Friends, the Internet moves at the speed of light. (Well, the speed of electrons.) The Internet also offers us access to a dizzying range of the expressions of human creativity. If a work is online, it can be found in seconds with a quick search. This is great for lovers of the written word…not so much for those who apparently choose to appropriate the work of others as their own.
It has just been brought to my attention that a writer by the name of B. Mitchell Cator seems to have published the work of others in a number of literary journals under his own byline. Unfortunately, I have never attended law school, so I shall leave accusations to others. Here’s an example of the similarities that some folks have spotted. Continue Reading
B. Mitchell Cator, Pindledyboz, Smokelong
Trisha was a mother even before she had any kids. She had no choice, really. She had to grow up fast so she could protect her brother from their abusive mother and the procession of perverted boyfriends that went through their too-small home.
Rock Taylor was the Big Man on Campus, destined to accomplish big things in college football. He sees Trisha in the schoolyard one morning and it’s love at first sight…for him, at least.
The course of true love never does run smooth, of course, and Trisha has too many problems at home to even think about spending that valuable time and attention with Rock. Even though her heart rate increases every time Rock is around… Continue Reading
Abbi Glines, Simon Pulse, Young Adult
Cody and Meg were best friends before Meg went off to college at a private school in Tacoma, Washington. A little over a year later, Meg commits suicide by drinking industrial-strength cleaner. As you might expect, Cody wants to know what happened and why her friend chose to end her own life. Through the course of I Was Here, Cody undertakes a journey to come to grips with her friend’s choice and (obviously) reaches catharsis and a greater understanding of herself.
Gayle Forman is one of the superstars of YA, and for good reason. Her books confront big themes and are packed with big drama and give the reader big feels. Her book If I Stay was made into a major motion picture:
I Was Here is a well-written book, but it’s not a light, laff-a-minute novel. This is a good thing! We should all have well-balanced reading diets. The book is also a good example of contemporary YA, which is why it came to mind after a recent writers’ group meeting I attended.
A bright young man who has little experience as a writer, but is plugging away at a first novel (good for him!) described what he was writing. The young man had an interesting conceit and characters in mind, but, as he acknowledged, he was not sure about what would happen to them. All of that is just fine. If you are a beginning writer, the most important thing to do is put pen to paper. Over and over again.
During the meeting, we all talked about the three-act dramatic structure that is so popular in screenwriting. Why is this structure popular? Because it works. Works that adhere to this paradigm have a beginning, middle and end and stuff happens in a logical and compelling fashion. What else do you want from a story? If you don’t know about the three-act structure, I advise you to immerse yourself in the works of Syd Field.
I animatedly helped the bright young man who was burning to write a YA novel think about how the vast majority of great novels and films adhere to the three-act structure. I hope to see him again and give him my marked-up copy of I Was Here, but why don’t I break down the three-act structure of the book for the benefit of all GWS readers?
There are any number of ways to describe the three-act structure and I don’t want to steal someone else’s method, so I’ll sketch out my own. The point is that each story has three acts. The first establishes the world and pushes the protagonist on their journey. The second chronicles the protagonist’s journey as they make progress on their mission. The third ratchets the tension as the mission succeeds or fails. In the middle of each act is what I am calling a “plot rocket:” a turning point that changes the protagonist’s situation and keeps the plot moving.
Have you seen Terminator 2: Judgment Day? If not, you are missing out. If nothing else, enjoy James Cameron’s rock-solid writing and direction. Here’s how the story breaks down:
Want another one? You’ve probably seen Stand By Me, the film based upon Stephen King’s beautiful novella “The Body.” (Which could easily be considered a YA book.)
What about I Was Here? Well, here you go:
What’s the overall point? Ms. Forman employs the three-act structure to keep the story plugging along. Yes, Cody is very sad. She could linger for years in that sadness over the course of 2,000 pages. But that would not make for a very interesting book. No, Ms. Forman makes sure that things keep happening, things that are both driven by Cody’s actions and things that happen to her.
Not only should things HAPPEN in a story, but the ultimate point is that the protagonist’s situation should change. Their emotions should change. I don’t know if there’s such a thing as static drama. The three-act structure diagram reveals Cody’s emotional journey. Through the course of the book, she experiences shock, grief, anger…all of the emotions! (Particularly when she opens up to Ben a little bit.)
The young man who inspired this essay found the idea of breaking a story in this manner a little counterintuitive; that’s okay. Just about everything about writing involves practice. Next time you watch a movie or read a book, why not try to break it down into its three-act structure? Next time you are dreaming about your next story, think about where the plot point you have in mind may fit into the structure.
Here’s another way to think of it. If you are thinking, “I want to have a big fight between the the person on Earth who represents evil and one who represents good.” Okay, great. Guess what: that’s probably going to be the turning point in the middle of Act Three. Why? The idea as I expressed it is pretty heavy. It feels like a climax. If you have Luke Skywalker fight Darth Vader at the beginning of Act Two…you have a lot of movie left.
Let’s say you had a crazy idea about a person in prison who plays opera over the PA system for the other inmates to enjoy. Okay, great. But you need story before and after that. A guy playing opera over a PA system is not a punchy climax, really. You’ve seen The Shawshank Redemption; I just described the turning point of Act Two, according to Syd Field.
Here. I’ll even give you a blank version of the chart I made. Can you train yourself to break down the stories you enjoy by their crucial turning points? Ms. Forman can, and look what it did for her!
Gayle Forman, Penguin Speak, Young Adult