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.

The essay inspired me to look into Mr. Norman’s work and I picked up a copy of his 2011 novel Domestic Violets.  (You should, too.  Indie bookstore.  Barnes & Noble.  Amazon.)  I read the first chapter and even though I should have been working on what I hope ends up as my follow-up YA novel, I spent the next few hours with Tom Violet and the people in his life.

Domestic Violets is right up there in quality with the work of Tom Perrotta.  (And you know how I feel about his stuff.)  The book tells the story of Tom Violet, the son of a famous novelist who just won a Pulitzer.  He has some marital troubles, he hates his corporate job and his coworker Greg, he quite likes his coworker Katie.  How will Tom get through a trying time in his life?  Read the book and find out; Mr. Norman tugs your heartstrings and tickles your funny bone.  What else do you want?

Mr. Norman was gracious enough to answer some questions for us.  As always, I wanted to know why he made some of the little choices that he made.  If you’d like him to go into painstaking detail about his grand literary philosophies, why not catch him at his next reading?  (And come early.  And sit up front.  And bring friends.)

1)  Your whipcrack stretches of dialogue make appropriately sparse use of “stuff.” (That’s what the great Lee K. Abbott calls the dialogue tags and additional information in dialogue.)

My most recent and in-progress novels are also in first person present; I am always worried that I’m overusing “I” and “Me” in the narration.  Do you share this worry?  How did you keep your narration from sounding like a singer who is warming up?  (“Me me me memememe…”)

I don’t know if I’m technically a minimalist, but I try to avoid “stuff” as much as possible, particularly in dialogue. I very much believe in Elmore Leonard’s rule that the dialogue belongs to the characters, not the writer. Loading on a bunch of descriptors or adverbs to dialogue is just the writer sticking his or her nose in where it doesn’t belong. Plus, it just messes up the rhythm of the dialogue for the reader. Dialogue creates a nice breather for readers, so I prefer not to rob them of that.

As for overdoing “I” and “me,” it’s definitely something I think about. If it’s a problem, I usually pick up on it when I’m editing/revising. Reading your own work aloud over and over again helps, too. It’s a great way to find ticks and trouble spots in your prose.  


2)  Curtis Violet, freshly Pulitzered, appears on David Letterman to read the Top Ten List.  The description of Curtis’s segment fills three whole pages of the book.

Were you daunted by the idea of making up five minutes of a TV show starring people whose rhythms and patterns of speech are so familiar to so many?  How did you make it seem like a real Letterman show?

That chapter was so much fun to write. I grew up watching Letterman pretty much every night, so I wasn’t particularly daunted by it. For decades, the formula was the same. He’d come back from the first commercial break, jabber with Paul for a bit about nonsense, then introduce the Top Ten List. I imagined how it would go if Curtis was on, and I sat down and hammered it out. It was a blast to write, like I said, but I think it’s an important scene because it gave me a nice way to put Curtis’s fame into context for the reader. Is he a movie star? No. But he’s famous enough that if he wandered onto the stage at the Ed Sullivan Theater, pretty much everyone would know who he was.


3)  DOMESTIC VIOLETS is very much a product of its time.  You say in the end matter that you did a full rewrite after the economy started to go kablooey in 2007 and 2008.  The book also includes a number of cultural references: The Hills, Barnes & Noble (how long will we have bookstores?…), Morgan Freeman, Russell Crowe and the film Gladiator, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Johnny Rockets, The English Patient…

Those who make the rules of writing advise writers to ease up on such references, lest the book seem dated.  I think they’re wrong in the case of DOMESTIC VIOLETS and other books, but how did you make sure the novel will be as hilarious in 2031 as it was in 2011?

Very early on, I made a commitment with this book. I was going to make it up-to-the-minute current, I was going to have Tom be extremely referential to pop culture, and I wasn’t going to hold back at all. To me, it just felt right and, more importantly, realistic. My generation is very referential. We’re constantly talking about movies, music, headlines, high art, low art, whatever. To strip Tom of that insight would have done harm to the book.

However, I’m well aware that my decision came with a cost. Of the references you mentioned above, The Hills makes me shudder. Believe me, I wish I had that one back, and I’m sure there are a handful of others that haven’t stood the test of time. But I can live with that. Will we find Domestic Violets funny in 2031? I don’t know. Odds are we’ll be too busy battling our robot overlords to care.    


4)  It’s not much of a spoiler; about halfway through the book, we find out that Tom’s mother (Curtis’s ex-wife) also attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was far more successful than Curtis was.  Then she just stopped writing and focused on teaching.

Why did you wait so long to include that sad and beautiful exposition?

A really good writer friend of mine dropped an epic line on me a few years ago about this. He said, “Never tell readers something until they need to know it.” That’s a great rule of thumb when you’re deciding when and how to reveal information, which is one of the toughest challenges of novel writing. If you hit them with everything right away, they’ll probably get bored with all the blah-blah. But if you withhold too much for too long, they’ll get annoyed because it’ll feel like you’re toying with them.  You just need to feel it out, basically. When you’re revising, and you come across a piece of exposition, ask yourself…“Does the reader need to know this right now?”


5)  So, DOMESTIC VIOLETS is a book about the son of a Pulitzer-winning writer who is a writer himself; one of the subplots centers upon the son’s burgeoning writing career.  From time to time, writers will tell other writers not to write about writers because that’s what a lot of writers have heard.

For my money, DOMESTIC VIOLETS is like WONDER BOYS or SIDEWAYS, books that overcome any problems that can afflict books about writers.  How did you approach writing about the Violet family business of writing?

Yeah, I’ve heard that, too. Writers shouldn’t write about writers. At some point when I sat down to write Domestic Violets, that crossed my mind. I quickly ignored it, though. As a writer, I think you should write what you want to write…and I really wanted to write about a famous writer and his wannabe-writer son. So I did.

One potential problem that can arise with books about writers is that they can feel too “inside baseball.” Writers blathering on about writing isn’t much fun for the vast majority of readers who aren’t writers. So, I did my best to keep the blathering to a minimum, and I made sure I hit on themes that were more universal than just Tom’s struggles with the page. Fathers and Sons. Husbands and Wives. Workplace misery. Economic doom. That’s all writer-free stuff.  


6)  There is a LOT going on in the book.  In the first few chapters, you gracefully establish many of the overarching conflicts that Tom Violet must navigate.  His erectile dysfunction, his obvious marriage problems, his disruptive but lovable father, the threat to his job caused by the stress of the global financial crisis, Tom’s oddly respectable lust for Katie…phew!  And there’s so much compelling and suspenseful plot that follows.

Without getting into too much detail, and without asking for too long and specific an answer, how’d you balance so many characters who have so many conflicts and resolve them all (in some manner) by the end of the book?

The characters all existed in my head, along with their motivations, character arcs, and the moments in which those things would intersect. To organize all of that more tangibly, I used—and I continue to use—a notecard system. Here’s how it works. Every plot point, big and small, gets a single notecard.  I pin those cards up chronologically on a giant corkboard in my office.  It’s an imperfect system, and there are always tons of gaps and inaccuracies.  But it gives me a quick, easy way to see how the story is laying out without having to back and dig through what I’ve already written. Plus, it lets me know exactly what I’m writing toward. I highly recommend the notecard system to anyone who’s writing a novel. Honestly, I can’t imagine finishing a book without it.       




Matthew Norman lives in Baltimore with his wife and their two daughters. His writing has appeared on Salon, the Good Men Project, and the Weeklings. His first novel, Domestic Violets, was nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award in Best Humor. Visit his blog at www.thenormannation.com, or follow him on Twitter @TheNormanNation.

His second book, We’re All Damaged, is in fine bookstores everywhere.

Ken Levine, Great Literary Citizen, Teacher and Co-Writer of the Frasier Episode “Room Service”: Character Is Everything

If you have laughed while watching TV sometime in the course of the past forty years, you likely know the work of Ken Levine and his writing partner David Isaacs.  Cheers.  Frasier.  Wings.  M*A*S*H.  For the love of Springfield, Mr. Levine created the Capital City Goofball!

Mr. Levine has also spent a great deal of time teaching other writers.  For the past decade, he has been dispensing daily stories and truth on his blog, By Ken Levine.  His podcast Hollywood & Levine, as of this writing, is about to premiere and will, no doubt, be a must-listen.

While you should spend a week going through the blog, I’ll point out one of the most helpful things Mr. Levine does.  Mr. Levine and Mr. Isaacs (along with Robin Schiff) created the sitcom ALMOST PERFECT.  The show ran for two seasons on CBS and starred the luminous Nancy Travis, who played the executive producer of a cop show.  From time to time, Mr. Levine uploads an episode of ALMOST PERFECT to his YouTube channel and explains why he did what he did.  How often do we have the chance to hear a writer describe his process?

By all means, enjoy this episode of ALMOST PERFECT (ignore the unfortunate thumbnail):

And then read Mr. Levine’s comments on the creation of the episode.

Now that you are firmly acquainted with Mr. Levine’s work and his generosity as a literary citizen, I would like to discuss what Mr. Levine says is one of his best scripts.

I remember watching Cheers when I was too young to understand all of the jokes and I enjoyed Frasier in part because I was old enough to understand all of those jokes.  I remember catching this episode when it first ran because it featured Bebe Neuwirth, on whom I had a fascinating crush.  Lilith Sternin-Crane is, according to Carla and the gang, an “ice queen,” but the actress who portrays her is incredibly talented and beautiful.

“Room Service” is the fifteenth episode of season five of Frasier.  As of this writing, it is available for streaming on Netflix and can be seen in many other outlets.  The episode was directed by David Lee, himself a sitcom deity (The Jeffersons, Cheers, Wings, Frasier).

The episode clocks in at 22:40.

Scene 1: INT. RADIO STATION (0:00 – 4:00) – Frasier and Roz are doing their call-in show.  Roz encounters Lilith in the hall; the latter frightens Frasier when he sees her through the studio glass.

EXPOSITION: Frederick is doing well.  Lilith’s husband left her for a man.  Frasier invites Lilith to tag along that evening, when he and Niles attend a fancy party.

Scene 2: “Strange Interlude” INT. CAFE NERVOSA  (4:00 – 6:47) -Frasier and Niles drinking coffee.  The former is worried; whenever Lilith is around, he finds her vulnerability alluring.  The latter is vulnerable because his divorce is a difficult one.  Frasier tells Niles about Lilith’s problems.

EXPOSITION: Niles is having narcoleptic fits because of the stress of divorcing Maris.

Scene 3: INT. FRASIER’S APARTMENT (6:47 – 10:40)-  Martin and Daphne are not pleased to learn Lilith is on the way.  When Lilith arrives, she’s in a sheer dress that…interests Frasier a great deal.

EXPOSITION: Niles agrees to help Frasier resist Lilith’s charms.

I love this bit.  Scene 3 ends with Frasier proclaiming his strong resolve.  “Let her bat her eyes all she wants to.  Let her push her breasts up to Canada!  I won’t budge!”

The next image is Lilith’s bare leg wrapped in a bedsheet.  I love the nonverbal response to Frasier’s line.  Of course, there is a twist; it turns out Lilith has slept with Niles, not Frasier.  Big problem!  Big laughs!

Commercial break!

Scene 4: “Long Night’s Journey into Day” INT. HOTEL ROOM – (10:40 – 22:40) – Lilith and Niles wake up and realize what they’ve done.

Knock knock…it’s just room service.  And he needs to come back with some ketchup.  (Of course he does!)

Knock knock…it’s Frasier.  Niles must hide in the bathroom along with the incriminating room service cart.  Frasier tries to seduce Lilith.

The toilet flushes after Niles has a narcoleptic episode and depresses the handle.

Frasier changes into a robe in hopes of getting something started with Lilith.

Knock knock!  The room service guy brings ketchup and needs the bill.  Room service guy knows Lilith is up to something!  Niles knows he and Lilith are up to something!  Lilith knows she and Niles are up to something!  FRASIER DOES NOT KNOW.  (This is the nature of comedy.)

Still in the bathroom, Niles knocks over some room service dishes because of the strongly-established temporary narcolepsy.

Frasier discovers what has happened!  His ex-wife slept with his brother!  He leaves in shock and disbelief!  This is the climax of the story!  It occurs at 16:20 out of 22:40.  Look how perfectly Mr. Levine and Mr. Isaacs fit this episode to Freytag’s Pyramid!  They built the action to a hilarious fever pitch and now have a few minutes to establish the new status quo and to allow the characters to reflect.


Knock knock!  It’s Frasier.  “I’m in a robe, you jackass!”

The falling action takes control.  Lilith explains that she was lonely and needed validation.  The characters are doing character work and hashing out their serious issues.  There’s still tension and fun, but it’s a different kind of fun than during the sequence in which Niles is trying to hide from Frasier.

Lilith and Niles are both happy; they helped each other recover from the emasculation and e…gynulation? they each felt after their spouses left.

Frasier and Niles are not okay after this experience.  But, as Frasier says, they “will be.”

Knock knock!  Room service guy is back and has a hilarious reaction to TWO men in the room.  This is the perfect button to the story.  It recalls the broad humor of the climax and also offers an outsider’s view on what is happening in the hotel room.

Then there’s the credit sequence; Lilith eats her breakfast alone, at peace and with great aplumb.  And while sitting on the toilet.

EXPOSITION: Niles walked Lilith to her door and…you know.  Niles told Frasier he was taking Lilith home.  Room service guy is in play; he’ll be knocking on the door.  Frasier discovers what happened.  Hilarity ensues.  Niles is able to talk to Maris without falling asleep.

Phew!  Okay.  Now that I’ve broken down the episode for you, why does this piece work so very well.

First and foremost, Mr. Levine and Mr. Isaacs ensure that the action comes out of the characters.  Okay, yes.  They had the benefit of working with Frasier and Lilith, who had been around for fifteen years and were already embedded into our hearts and minds.  But that doesn’t make their use of character any less awesome.  The writers establish very early what each character wants.

Frasier wants to help his ex-wife…and to sleep with her.

Niles wants to get over his ex-wife and the narcolepsy she caused.

Lilith wants to feel womanly after her husband left her for a man.

The whole farce of the hotel room scene (that occupies half of the running time of the whole episode) works because we understand what each character wants.

Each character also has internal struggle.

Frasier desperately wants to resist his attraction to Lilith and even enlists Niles’s help.  But when he sees Lilith in the dress…

Niles desperately wants to finalize his divorce and move on.  He and Maris had a very cold relationship.  (Note the bit about Niles falling asleep on the ice cube tray.)

Lilith desperately wants to seduce Frasier to affirm her womanhood.  She doesn’t want Frasier to hate her for sleeping with Niles.

If your characters and their motivations and needs are clear, you can do virtually anything you want in your story. 

And look how Mr. Levine and Mr. Isaacs build the humor in the climactic scene.  (A scene which would not be out of place in any great stage comedy.)  The tension and humor build because of the knocks.

BASE CONDITION: Niles and Lilith slept together.

Knock 1: It’s room service.  He brought breakfast.

Knock 2: It’s Frasier!  Now there are two characters who are piercing this bubble of privacy.

Knock 3: Room service guy brings the ketchup.  He needs Lilith to open the door, revealing she has a different guy in the room.  Funny!  Tension!

Knock 4: Frasier returns to the bubble, realizing he’s not wearing his clothes.  He is forced to deal with the emotions and situation…this is comedy!  (And drama.)

Knock 5: Room service guy is back…now there are two men in the room.

The writers wring comedy and drama out of the situation by introducing an outside character (who can serve as audience surrogate) and by the repetition, in this case, the knocks at the door.

For another beautiful script that makes use of repetition, check out “Lucy Does a TV Commercial,” written by Jess Oppenheimer, Madelyn Pugh and Bob Carroll.

Mr. Levine admits that he is grateful to be part of the world-class sitcom writers who came of age in the seventies and eighties.  When you think of The Mary Tyler Moore ShowM*A*S*H, Taxi…any of those great shows, you notice the marriage of humor and heart.  The secret, of course, is that the humor comes out of the heart.

So even if you don’t visit my site again, make Mr. Levine’s hilarious and informative blog a place you visit from time to time.  He’s a great literary citizen…and he loves baseball.  What more do you want?

Serena Chase’s INTERMISSION and Remembering the Old Versions of Ourselves

Faith Prescott is sixteen years old and in love…with musical theater.  Even though her parents and siblings are hard-charging people who have degrees in “real” pursuits, Faith wants to major in theater.  Life gets even more complicated when Faith starts to have feelings for Noah, a powerful performer who, it turns out, is nineteen.  No, the course of true love never did run smooth, and it certainly doesn’t for Faith (soon to use her middle name of Madeleine) and Noah.

I don’t want to ruin any of Serena Chase‘s plot twists, but I’m sure you can guess most of the beats in the story of Intermission.  Girl falls in love with older boy, girl and boy star in The Sound of Music together, girl tries to be just friends with older boy, girl’s mom is not happy about older boy…you get the drift.  Faith/Madeleine, like Liesl Von Trapp, is at that wonderful age where society and your parents treat you like a child, but you have the body, hormones and desires of an adult.

The book is a lot of fun and the characters are very solidly drawn.  One of the things I like best about the book is that Ms. Chase makes such great drama out of problems that adults outgrew a long time ago.  Ms. Chase was able to put aside her adulthood and maturity and to give her sixteen-year-old character the kind of problems a sixteen-year-old really has.  This is not easy!  I don’t know how old Ms. Chase is (nor is it my beeswax), but she isn’t sixteen.  She’s had a lot of life experiences that blot out the day-to-day concerns of an adolescent.

But!  This is YA we’re talking about.  The author must be able to construct complications with heavy stakes that are appropriate to the character and their situation.  The needs will change depending on the characters, genre, and plot, but the complications and the stakes must be appropriate.  Madeleine is sixteen and wants to date a nineteen-year-old.  Normal adults don’t think twice about a three-year age gap because who cares about 32 and 29?  45 and 42?  101 and 98?  But when you’re sixteen and you like someone who isn’t even in high school anymore?  That’s a big deal, both for you and your parent(s).

Remember keeping space between your body and that of your date during school dances?

Remember leaving your bedroom door open if you had an opposite-sex visitor?  (As though the open door would completely prevent showtime…)

Remember doing the calculations to determine when you would graduate in comparison to the guy or gal you liked?

You have to remember these feelings if you want to write good YA.  Ms. Chase gets these details right.

My first (and unpublished) YA novel was written for musical theater nerds, so I was frustrated to see the first blurb for Intermission.  Jenny B. Jones said, “FINALLY someone has written a YA for all of us musical theater nerds!”  I did, too!  I just wasn’t good enough.  Sigh.  The point is that we must immerse our characters in their environment.  It’s not enough for Madeleine and Noah to simply say that they love musical theater.  They must talk about musicals and sing showtunes.  And not just easy ones.  They must be able to name some obscure musicals, just like the musical theater nerds you run into in the real world.

Ms. Chase organized Intermission in an interesting and valuable way.  The book begins with a brief overture, followed by Act One, an intermission, an Entr’acte, followed by Act Two, then the final curtain and a curtain call.  That’s right, Ms. Chase appropriated the structure of a musical to tell the story of these theater-mad characters.  The form of a story should reflect its function.  What kind of structure can you appropriate?  The nine-inning structure of a baseball game?  The theatrical, ritualistic structure of a Catholic Mass?  

Let’s take a look at the beginning of the Overture and do some good, old-fashioned textual analysis:


We have a mention of Rodgers & Hammerstein.  Good.  This gets the musical theater motif going.  But look what Ms. Chase does with the prose.  Look at those tick-tick-ticks.  Sure, they indicate the passage of time.  But look at what else Ms. Chase does.  She begins her novel about musicals with a rhythmic fanfare.  Those ticks and thrum-bums remind you of a real theatrical overture, don’t they?  Here’s an example:

Ms. Chase literally uses rhythm and sound in a musical manner to ease us into the novel, just as a composer employs these same tools to prepare you for the musical you’re about to see.  

Intermission is a lot of fun and is very sweet and packs the requisite dramatic punch, particularly as Ms. Chase weaves Madeleine’s mother and siblings into the story.  Whether you are currently a theater nerd or were one many, many years ago, the book will evoke memories, pleasant and not so pleasant.


Just for fun, here are some more overtures I like:


Kate Jarvik Birch’s PERFECTED and Immersing Your Audience In Fascinating Situations

Perfected begins with a delightfully disturbing scene that demonstrates the reader is in the hands of a capable storyteller who has a rip-roaring yarn to share.  Take a look at the first few paragraphs:


The conceit of the book is that the protagonist, later named Ella, is a cloned 16-year-old girl who has been sold as a pet after recent legislation has made such things legal.  Though cloned and genetically manipulated, Ella is, of course, a human being with hopes and desires that she discovers and explores through the course of the novel.  (I don’t want to reveal more of the plot than I have to; it’s a fun ride that is surprising in spite of the appropriate parallels that Ms. Birch draws.)

Kate Jarvik Birch plays with very powerful themes and evokes such a cool tone–disturbing but fun–that the reader simply must read on to figure out what happens next.  Perfected is in the same wonderful vein as the 2011 film Sleeping Beauty.

This film, obviously, is not for the young ones!  In the first few minutes, the film plops you into a creepy, strange situation and hooks you.  Can you ask for more from a story?

Perfected is also spiritually related to the 1990 Luc Besson film Nikita, in which a young woman is sent to a finishing school for spies instead of prison.  Nikita must, of course, understand her new life and how her own desires relate to her obligations.  (The film was remade in the United States as Point of No Return, starring the always excellent Bridget Fonda.)

All three of these works are excellent because the storytellers immediately immerse the reader (or viewer) in the protagonist’s very strange world.  None of us will ever be cloned human pets trained in an awful finishing school, but just about everyone is protective of young women.  We get over the shock of the disturbing nature of the story because our empathy meters are turned to eleven as the prospective buyers investigate Ella’s skills and beauty.

Further, Perfected (and the two films I mentioned) release exposition about the world in a fun manner that answers our questions before we ask them.  Ms. Birch must let you know all about Ella’s world: that she essentially has the legal rights of a dog, that she was not taught to speak to children, that she was not taught to read or swim, but she can’t tell you everything all at once.  She must unpeel the onion one layer at a time.  (And the book just might make you cry; there’s no shame in that.)  Essentially, Ms. Birch asks herself the question that all writers must confront: what does the reader need to know, and when must he or she know it?  (Unfortunately, there is no one right answer to the question.  But that would be nice, wouldn’t it?)

Another reason the book is so great is that Ms. Birch clearly loves her protagonist, but subjects her to constant indignity.  This is a variation on the writing truism that you must “murder your darlings.”  In order for there to be a story, Ella must suffer.  She must be treated poorly and subjected to the kind of oppression that no one deserves.  The great thing about this idea is that Ella regains these necessities little by little.  This is the basic structure of a story.  Every good story, anyway.

Ella’s new owner is a congressman, and one of the people who pushed through the legislation that made the “pet” program legal.  The man is also…not the best guy ever.  No one should be surprised that the congressman has more and different interest in his new sixteen-year-old human girl than people have in their rescue Chihuahua.  Perhaps it’s a tangential point, but I found it fascinating that Ms. Birch, it seemed to me, held back in this area.  Don’t get me wrong; the congressman is a creep and a weirdo and a creepy weirdo.  But I wasn’t sure if…how can I say this…he would have the restraint he had.

Any quibbles I have with the book are trifles.  Ms. Birch is brave enough to put her heroine into danger and to let her work her way out and so many interesting things happen to Ella that you can read the book in a single sitting.  (Which I did.)

Agustin Aguilar’s Leonora Come Down and Maintaining Magic and Reality in Magical Realism

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.

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The Great Writers Steal Podcast: Jordan Rothacker, Author of And Wind Will Wash Away

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Martin Cloutier’s “Punishment, Inc.” and Worldbuilding in Fiction

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.

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Wendy S. Marcus’s The Doctor She Always Dreamed Of and Satisfying the Reader

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. Continue Reading

GWS First Page Inquisition: Jeanne Ryan’s NERVE

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

Wendy J. Fox’s The Pull of It and the Outward Turned Inward

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?

freytag2Why 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.