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

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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

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. 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:

perfected1

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