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:

oklae

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:

schindler1 schindler2

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!

barth1

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?

Vanessa Blakeslee’s “The Lightness of Absence” and the Beauty of Having the “Wrong” Emotions and Thoughts

There’s a narrative that dictates how one is supposed to feel after a terrible event occurs.  When a family member or acquaintance dies in a car accident, most people feel and act the same way. As Claudius said of the reaction to his brother’s death:

…it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe

The reality is that everyone is different and will respond to trauma differently.  In her Prime Number essay, “The Lightness of Absence,” Vanessa Blakeslee tells the story of her reaction to the very sad murder of her cousin and describes how her feelings about the matter evolved.

Ms. Blakeslee introduces the death in the first line, taking advantage of the inherent power in such an extreme condition: “When I was twenty, my cousin Cara was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. We were both attending college in Florida at the time.”  All of Ms. Blakeslee’s readers are surely as human as she is, so the release of this exposition earns instant emotion from the reader.

Much more interesting is the way Ms. Blakeslee deals with an emotionally loaded issue in a very calm and methodical manner.  If you haven’t read the piece, do so now, as I’m going to discuss the ending.  (I even linked it twice.)

Ms. Blakeslee certainly mourns the senseless loss of her “childhood best friend,” but she doesn’t give us a standard grief narrative.  Instead, the author confronts a much more unanticipated question and one that invites thought from the reader: “What do you call it when even the weight of loss has disappeared?”

Ms. Blakeslee had a little bit of a problem.  How do you create tension and keep people reading when that “weight of loss,” those emotions that were much stronger years ago, are currently absent?  The solution is simple: you turn the absence of emotion into the story.  

On one hand, I think I would love if the piece were a little bit longer, if we had more of a discussion of the dilemma posed by the end of the piece.  Then again, ending the piece with a dilemma forces the reader to go through their own discomfort with respect to the issue.

  • There are certain events and conditions that don’t evoke as much emotion in me as they might.  Is there something wrong with me?
  • Do people say and do things that makes me treat them differently?  Is this wrong?  When is it wrong?
  • How long should I grieve for those I’ve lost and the bad things that have happened to people I love?  What does it mean to “get over” a misfortune?

Further, the ending of the piece is appropriate to its length.  At 1600 words, Ms. Blakeslee had to avoid some of the more complicated possibilities for the material.  So what could be more appropriate than ending the piece with an ethical quandary?

Nicola Yoon’s EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING and Kinetic Narratives

When I learned about the conceit of Nicola Yoon‘s Everything, Everything, I was engaged as a reader, of course, but the book attracted my interest as a writer.  The novel is a YA book about a young woman who has spent her entire life in a clean room because she is sick.  Madeline has severe combined immunodeficiency and cannot enter the real world or have contact with people who have not been decontaminated, or else she’ll die.  She’s a bubble girl, essentially. Continue Reading

Hey, Jim Pransky, Why’d You Do That in Your Novel THE TENOR WITH THE GOLDEN ARM?

Writers are asked many general questions about their craft.

…”What is your overarching philosophy regarding the inherent power of fiction?”…”What IS–character–to you?”…”What is the position of place in your work?”…

These are great and important questions, but I’m really curious about the little things.  In the “Hey, Why’d You Do That” series, I ask accomplished writers about some of the very small choices they made during the process of composition.

Jim Pransky is an interesting man who has the kind of career to which many of us aspire.  He’s been a baseball scout for many years and is currently with the Colorado Rockies.  When he isn’t identifying talent and evaluating young men for their suitability to make it in The Show, he likes to write books about our great National Pastime.  In addition to writing biographies of overlooked players that deserve attention, Mr. Pransky writes novels that use baseball as their setting. Continue Reading

Wanda E. Brunstetter’s The Amish Cooking Class – The Seekers and Bringing Characters Together for Drama

Hey, everyone.  It’s time to be a little bit jealous of Wanda E. Brunstetter.  But not too jealous; that would be a sin.  Ms. Brunstetter has published a lot of books and has a devoted audience for her Amish inspirational romances.   I know many people aren’t literary omnivores, but I love reading all kinds of books, even though I’m not exactly in the stereotypical demographic for these kinds of novels.  Still, Ms. Brunstetter has a lot to teach us.  More importantly, she writes fun books and fulfills every promise she makes with her books.

Check out this book trailer for the first book in The Amish Cooking Class series: The Seekers.  

The novel is centered upon the farm of Lyle and Heidi Troyer.  They are a proud Amish couple–but not too proud; that would be a sin–who have a beautiful place in Ohio.  Lyle is an auctioneer and Heidi decides to make a little money and to share her gift with others by teaching a weekly cooking class.

I guess I’ll introduce the first lesson here…Ms. Brunstetter very wisely came up with a conceit that allows her to put a bunch of drama-prone characters together.  Think about it.  While Heidi Troyer is a very calm and dignified woman who has most everything figured out, she surrounds herself with people who have far more problems than she does.  Ron is a Vietnam War vet who ends up camped on the Troyer property when his RV breaks down.  Kendra is pregnant and her family has turned her away, not that doing so will stop the baby from arriving.  Eli lost his wife and is looking for companionship.  See?  All of these people have discernible problems and needs.  Guess what?  Ms. Brunstetter allows the characters to grow and change based upon their interactions and their own internal struggles.  (And maybe Heidi has her own problem that needs to be solved…)

We certainly can’t fashion every single one of our stories in this way, but creating a nexus of conflict and drama is a time-tested tactic for teasing trouble out of our characters.  Here are some examples:

  • Cheers, the bar from Cheers, is populated by a number of well-drawn characters who unite in one place.  Each of them have their own problems and needs and the writers wring drama (and comedy) out of having all of these characters in the same place.
  • Rick’s Café Américain from Casablanca is a meeting spot that facilitates conflict.  Everyone goes there.  The Nazis, the French, ridiculously beautiful refugees played by Ingrid Bergman…everyone.  Placing everyone in the same nightclub allows the drama to blossom.  (If you haven’t seen Casablanca, please do so.  It’s for the best.)
  • Eerie, Indiana is the new home of Marshall Teller, a town where all kinds of creepy and cool things happen.  The gents who created the TV show, José Rivera and Karl Schaefer, created a place where weird and wonderful things can happen.  The show could have (and should have) run forever.

Heidi’s Amish cooking class offers Ms. Brunstetter near-inexhaustible opportunities to cycle interesting characters in and out of the orbit of the Troyer kitchen.  This seems to be the plan, as The Seekers is Book One of a series…

This is an Amish inspirational romance-type book, so you know there won’t be any of the flashy kinds of conflict on offer.  The international spy rings, serial killers and terrorist attacks will appear in other kinds of books.  Still, Ms. Brunstetter allows her characters to be unpleasant, particularly in the context of the genre and story.  Ron, the Vietnam vet, repeatedly lies to the Troyers and takes advantage of their hospitality.  He even steals from his hosts.  Kendra made “one little mistake” and got pregnant out of wedlock.  Ms. Brunstetter does not examine these themes in the same manner as writers in other genres might do, but she is still allowing her characters to misbehave and to do things that the Christian characters shouldn’t do.  The principle applies to characters in all genres.  On occasion, I read YA books in which the teenagers are impossibly polite and respectful of the opposite sex.  Not only does this kind of attitude pose problems creating drama, but it’s also not realistic.

Those who write Amish books have a problem that is easily transferable to all other authors who include other languages in their work.  The Amish are generally fluent in Pennsylvania Dutch and the language is a very important part of their culture.  (As it is for every culture.)  Ms. Brunstetter has an obligation to include the language in her dialogue–the characters would use these words!–but she must also ensure that the audience knows what she’s talking about.  Let’s take a look at an example of how the author handles this problem:

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See what she does?  She italicizes the word the reader probably won’t know and then defines it in the following line of dialogue.  We were already told that Lyle is married to Heidi, so we know fraa =  wife.  Kichlin = cookies.  There are other ways to handle the problem, but this is one.

I’ve read a few of Ms. Brunstetter’s books, and The Seekers is as fun as the others.  The world that the author creates, this Amish version of Ohio, is everything that her readers want it to be.  It’s simple.  Plain.  People still have conflicts, but they resolve them calmly.  (And with the help of God, as her target readers expect.)

The great strength of this book (and of so many others in the genre) is that the authors make promises to the reader and keep them.  Ms. Brunstetter promises the reader in this case, that they will learn about Amish food, they will see characters solve their problems together and with the help of their religion and that the book will be a calm and unobjectionable read that has a discernible conclusion that wraps everything up.  (Aside, of course, from the story strands that will likely be taken up in subsequent books.)

I don’t know how many Great Writers Steal writers have given the Amish inspirational genre a chance, but they should.  A writer must have a balanced reading diet.

 

The Great Writers Steal Podcast: Serena Chase, author of Intermission

Download the podcast

Visit Ms. Chase’s web site:

http://www.serenachase.com/ Continue Reading

Hey, Matthew Norman, Why’d You Do That in Your Novel Domestic Violets?

Writers are asked many general questions about their craft.

…”What is your overarching philosophy regarding the inherent power of fiction?”…”What IS–character–to you?”…”What is the position of place in your work?”…

These are great and important questions, but I’m really curious about the little things.  In the “Hey, Why’d You Do That” series, I ask accomplished writers about some of the very small choices they made during the process of composition.

Matthew Norman first came to my attention when I saw a Twitter notification about the Lit Hub piece he published in May 2016.  I obviously have a very soft spot in my heart for writers; as a born showman (though not a good performer), there’s little I fear more than taking the stage, only to see no one is watching.  In prose that is hilarious and full of heart, Mr. Norman tells the story of giving a reading to an audience that primarily consisted of chairs, tables and people who were trying to skim half a dozen $100 art books they wouldn’t buy while sipping a $3 coffee. Continue Reading