Category: Novel

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 links here.  (Warning: as of this writing, Amazon hasn’t gotten the price change memo.    Barnes & Noble and Kobo have.)

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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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

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. Continue Reading

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:

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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.)

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

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Visit Mr. Rothacker’s web site:

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