How’s this for an appealing story? It’s about a young woman whose body will be a vessel that will save untold numbers of lives. Unfortunately, a powerful company wants to take her out if they can’t control her, so they assign someone to do the former. Fortunately, a dark and handsome man is ready, able, and willing to protect the young woman, no matter the cost.
What story am I talking about?
The Terminator, of course.
Why do I bring up James Cameron’s 1984 classic? Because Body Parts operates in a manner that is similar and dissimilar in interesting ways. (And if you haven’t seen The Terminator or Terminator 2: Judgment Day, do yourself a favor and go see them now, whether or not you like action movies. They are marvelous examples of storytelling.)
Body Parts, a novel by Jessica Kapp, tells the story of Tabitha, a young woman who begins the novel as the ward of a seemingly perfect orphanage. Everyone in the Center is extremely healthy and well cared-for. Tabitha herself, with her long, red hair, is perfect…aside from a slight issue that affects her heart. The Act One 15 Minutes In Turning Point of the novel occurs when Ms. Preen takes Tabitha for a ride to meet her new foster parents. Yay! Everything is fantastic! Until Ms. Preen gives her a knockout drug. When Tabitha wakes up, she discovers that there never was a foster family. The Center, you see, carves up these incredibly healthy young people to get their…body parts. (I liked the book a lot! Purchase it from your local indie store! Or Kobo. Or Barnes & Noble. Or Amazon.)
Don’t worry; divulging that much of the plot doesn’t ruin anything. After all, here’s some of the description from the book jacket:
Raised in an elite foster center off the California coast, sixteen-year-old Tabitha has been protected from the outside world. Her trainers at the center have told her she’ll need to be in top physical condition to be matched with a loving family. So she swims laps and shaves seconds off her mile time, dreaming of the day when she’ll meet her adoptive parents.
But when Tabitha’s told she’s been paired, instead of being taken to her new home, she wakes up immobile on a hospital bed. Moments before she’s sliced open, a group of renegade teenagers rescues her, and she learns the real reason she’s been kept in shape: PharmPerfect, a local pharmaceutical giant, is using her foster program as a replacement factory for their pill-addicted clients’ failing organs.
So, unless a friend blindfolded you and put the book in your hands and forced you to start at the first page, you knew the basic thrust of the first several chapters of the story. You knew the big reveal that changes Tabitha’s life forever.
Same thing with The Terminator or Terminator 2. Unfortunately, the surprises from the films are no longer surprises. Everyone is fully aware that Arnold Schwarzenegger is the bad-guy Terminator who wants to terminate the nice waitress woman named Sarah Connor. Everyone knows he’s a cyborg. In 1984, you may have been lucky enough to see the film without knowing a single detail other than the title. Every twist and turn would be a revelation! In Terminator 2, James Cameron took great pains to conceal the fact that Arnold was the good guy. Alas, in Body Parts and in The Terminator, the audience knows much more about the protagonist’s life than she does for quite some time. (Think about it; Body Parts is “that book about the teens who are sold for parts, but one of them escapes, etc.” The Terminator is “that movie about that woman who will give birth to the guy who will save humanity, so robot Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to kill her, etc.”)
I thought it would be interesting to discuss these two works in conjunction with each other because they approach their conceits so differently. In The Terminator, you’ll recall, Arnold uses the phone book to track down all of the Sarah Connors in L.A. The important one, of course, has a fortunate middle name that makes her last on the list. Sarah sees this creepy-looking dude scoping her, so she ducks into Tech-Noir, a cheekily named disco. Shootout. Then it turns out that the creepy, sweaty guy was actually protecting her. Now, Sarah is no fool. She (and the audience) need some exposition. What the heck is going on? Kyle Reese hotwires a car and tells her about the Future War, that her son will one day be the savior of all mankind.
Then more car chases and action interspersed with some romantic scenes and powerfully drawn characters.
Chapter 5 of Body Parts is the equivalent to the above exposition-in-the-car scene. Tabitha has woken from her pharmaceutical slumber and meets Gavin and the other members of the team dedicated to liberating young people from the grip of the Center. Gavin lays it all out in some healthy paragraphs set in the group’s “headquarters” and Tabitha accepts her new reality. “Parts,” she says. “I was being raised for parts.”
As I read the novel, I was wondering why Tabitha believed so easily and quickly. Now, to some extent, I am perfectly happy to just go with it. It’s a book. Sarah Connor believes Kyle Reese’s insane time travel/all-powerful computers narrative because she just had a giant Austrian man shooting at her. Ms. Kapp does something smart that forces Tabitha to deliberate more. After Gavin’s explanation, Tabitha (on her own) meets Mary, a much younger girl who was rescued–but not before the bad guys took her cornea and kidney. Writers must give the audience a reason to believe, just as much as characters must convince each other what is really happening to them.
The narrative of Body Parts is far looser than those of the Terminator films, which is both good and bad. On one hand, those movies are awesome. On the other hand, Body Parts doesn’t want to be a non-stop, pulse-pounding action story…and that’s okay. Instead, Ms. Kapp has other freedom and responsibilities. The looser story just means that she’s not as high on the scale with respect to plot. That’s perfectly fine, so long as she kicks up some other elements of her book. Here’s another way to think of it. This is a chart I made for Lee Martin’s wonderful Late One Night. That book is not at all a plot-heavy Tom Clancy book. Instead, Mr. Martin focused more time and attention on character and style than plot. It’s okay to go easy on some elements of our work so long as we compensate in another way.
Body Parts is an entertaining near-future science fiction novel that will entertain its YA audience, but will also appeal to those who are not very Y. Tabitha is a compelling character, and Ms. Kapp ensures there is a lot going on around her. Tabitha experiences her first love triangle! Her first…love feelings! Her first escape from people who want to cut her up and sell her organs! Ms. Kapp juggles her plot and its subplots in a felicitous manner and wraps things up in a way that I’ll just say that I wasn’t expecting.
Ladies and gentlemen, when the Founding Fathers sat down in a sweltering room in Philadelphia to devise a new system of government, they had a lot of weighty decisions to make. They needed to ensure that the people maintained the power, but that government at all levels could ensure domestic tranquility and protect the general welfare. They had to decide what it meant for the people to have representation and how best to make it as fair as possible.
Most of all, they needed to decide which rights would be guaranteed by the government. Think of that word choice: rights. Not “privileges.” A right is guaranteed to you, no matter what. A privilege must be earned. Then they needed to decide which right deserved to be mentioned first. What did they come up with?
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Isn’t the First Amendment beautiful? Those few words are the most important in the entire document because they protect all of the other rights and laws that make up our system of government. Think about it: you’re not happy with the American health care system and you want to tell your elected official that a change is in order? Can’t do that without the First Amendment… Continue Reading
Did you ever hear that story about the young boy who doesn’t have any parents? He lives in a place that he hates and dreams of doing something more with his life. One day, an older figure intrudes into his life and reveals a secret: the boy has powers that he didn’t know about. The mentor takes the boy to a place where he can learn more about his power. He makes friends who eventually help him out on his ultimate quest: to restore the balance between good and evil.
Can you identify the story?
If you said Harry Potter, I would tell you that you are wrong in an effort to confuse you and to make you think.
If you said Ender’s Game, I would do the same.
Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Odyssey…even The Hangover. To some extent, these are the same story.
No, friend, there are very few original stories. The great challenge for the writer, then, is to devise a new way to tell old stories. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of “borrowing.” Nothing at all! In fact, every single writer does it, but few have done it as well as Stan Lee, the living legend who created (or co-created) characters that have made approximately eleventy trillion dollars at the box office.
In Stan Lee, Bob Batchelor tells the story of the remarkable man who started out wanting to write the great American novel and ended up creating a universe instead. (Purchase links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, the publisher.) Mr. Batchelor takes a standard approach to the structure of the book; he begins with a prologue scene that represents the turning point of Mr. Lee’s life and then rewinds to the 1920s, when little Stanley Lieber (later Stan…Lee) entered the world. From there, the author engages in a linear description of Mr. Lee’s life, from his New York City upbringing to his Los Angeles second act.
Mr. Batchelor had a couple pretty big problems. First of all, the details of Lee’s life are fairly well-known. He’s been a celebrity for fifty years and has given about a million interviews. Second, Stan Lee’s life is fascinating and historic in relation to comic books and superheroes and modern mythology…but unless there’s something I don’t know, Mr. Lee was a pretty boring guy. In a good way. He was married for several decades, he and his wife had two children (one of whom lived to adulthood) and he wrote comic books and outlined comic books for others. I’m willing to bet that Mr. Lee is like the rest of us and has made some big mistakes, but it’s not like he was an evil scientist ninja or drove monster trucks from state to state in between liquor store robberies.
How did Mr. Batchelor tell a story that all comic book aficionados know in a new way and how did he make a comfortably mundane life interesting? The author took a step back from the protagonist of the biography and described the world and conditions that shaped Mr. Lee, allowing the reader to explore their own understanding of the character. The son of Romanian immigrants, Mr. Lee was part of a wave of Eastern European Jews who came to the United States in the first couple decades of the twentieth century. These people were amazing; they were crucial to the development of musical theater, standup comedy, and comic books. What about his origin story helped Mr. Lee become what he did? How did his experience as a child of financially insecure parents shape him in later life, and how did it shape the X-Men and Spider-Man and the Hulk and the Fantastic Four? Mr. Batchelor compensates for the relative mundanity of Mr. Lee’s life by hinting toward a greater, grander story about the combined nature of culture and creativity.
There are a lot of flashy and interesting moments in the Marvel universe and in Mr. Lee’s life, but Mr. Batchelor devotes a lot of page space to the everyday necessities of life that constituted the bulk of Mr. Lee’s days. We can all relate to the events around Marvel’s beginnings:
The tightwad boss who somehow manages to have enough money for himself
The young, ambitious kid who may or may not have screwed the established co-workers
The desperate desire to keep up with marketplace trends
Unnecessary governmental and societal intervention
The conflict between ambition and the desire to put food on the table
Mr. Batchelor offers us a book worth reading because he does more than distill Mr. Lee’s many interviews. Stan Lee teaches us that powerful writing comes out of adversity. Without the restrictions and worries that surely influenced Mr. Lee’s work, our shared cultural heritage would be different.
Perhaps most importantly, the author doesn’t skimp on the parts of Stan Lee’s life that you really want to know about. We get detailed tellings of the creation of the Fantastic Four, of Mr. Lee’s working relationship with Jack Kirby, and his somewhat unfocused later years. (Where do you go when you become a living legend by your fifties and live into your nineties?) Whether or not you’re a comic book person, Mr. Batchelor’s book is a worthwhile chronicle of a writer’s life and offers other writers the opportunity to see what it’s like to have your creative dreams come true in ways you didn’t expect.
Introduction, Jonathan Strahan
“The Future is Blue”, Catherynne M Valente (Drowned Worlds)
“Spinning Silver”, Naomi Novik (The Starlit Wood)
“Mika Model”, Paolo Bacigalupi (Slate)
“Two’s Company”, Joe Abercrombie (Sharp Ends)
“You Make Pattaya”, Rich Larson (Interzone 247)
“You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay “, Alyssa Wong (Uncanny 10, 5-6/16)
“A Salvaging of Ghosts”, Aliette de Bodard (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 01/03/16)
“Even the Crumbs Were Delicious”, Daryl Gregory (The Starlit Wood)
“Number Nine Moon”, Alex Irvine (F&SF, 1/16)
“Things with Beards”, Sam J Miller (Clarkesworld 117, 6/16)
“Successor, Usurper, Replacement”, Alice Sola Kim (Buzzfeed, 10/26/16)
“Laws of Night and Silk”, Seth Dickinson (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 26 May 2016)
“Touring with the Alien”, Carolyn Ives Gilman (Clarkesworld 115, 4/16)
“The Great Detective”, Delia Sherman (Tor.com)
“Everyone from Themis Sends Letters Home”, Genevieve Valentine (Clarkesworld)
“Those Shadows Laugh”, Geoff Ryman (F&SF, 9-10/16)
“Seasons of Glass and Iron”, Amal El-Mohtar (The Starlit wood)
“The Art of Space Travel”, Nina Allan (Tor.com)
“Whisper Road (Murder Ballad No. 9)”, Caitlín R. Kiernan (Sirenia Digest 125, 7/16)
“Red Dirt Witch”, N.K. Jemisin (Fantasy/PoC Destroy Fantasy)
“Red as Blood and White as Bone”, Theodora Goss (Tor.com)
“Terminal”, Lavie Tidhar (Tor.com, 04/16)
“Foxfire Foxfire”, Yoon Ha Lee (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, March 2016)
“Elves of Antarctica”, Paul McAuley (Drowned Worlds)
“The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight”, E Lily Yu (Uncanny 12)
“Seven Birthdays”, Ken Liu (Bridging Infinity)
“The Visitor from Taured”, Ian R. MacLeod (Asimov’s, 9/16)
“Fable”, Charles Yu (The New Yorker, 5/30/16)
As Mr. Strahan points out in his introduction–and don’t you love the introductions to best-of volumes?–science fiction and fantasy are fields in the midst of a great number of changes. Science fiction was one of my early loves. I started very early with Asimov and Ellison and Bradbury and other giants of the genre and loved Asimov’s and Analog and F&SF. I loved the way that ideas drive the field. Great SF is all about the truly extreme WHAT IFs.
What if the Axis won WWII and each took possession of half of the United States? (Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.)
What if there were a medical procedure that could make you and your husband young again; you both undergo the procedure, but it only works on your spouse? (Sawyer’s Rollback.)
What if a little kid general were Earth’s only hope against hostile aliens? (Card’s Ender’s Game.)
Everything changes, unfortunately. (I don’t like change.) Over the past twenty years, it seems to me, science fiction and fantasy have evolved in the same direction as literary fiction. Less focus on plot, more focus on atmosphere. More emphasis on playing with language. Keeping the reader by inviting them to resolve the abstract.
There are, of course, many ways to tell a story and Mr. Strahan presents a volume of work that engages a wide range of protagonists, settings and ideas. I thought it would be interesting to compare two of my favorites to demonstrate how we can take different routes to the same destination.
Rich Larson’s “You Make Pattaya” announces itself in an interesting manner and establishes character, setting and tone in a felicitous manner. Let’s take a look at the first paragraph:
Dorian sprawled back on sweaty sheets, watching Nan, or Nahm, or whatever her name was, grind up against the mirror, beaming at the pop star projected there like she’d never seen smartglass before. He knew she was from some rural eastern province; she’d babbled as much to him while he crushed and wrapped parachutes for their first round of party polls. But after a year in Pattaya, you’d think she would have lost the big eyes and the bubbliness. Both of which were starting to massively grate on him.
What do we learn immediately and what do we love?
There’s sex going on. Many people like reading about that sort of thing. (Subject matter)
This is science fiction. There’s some kind of TV show playing in the mirror. (Genre)
Nan or Nahm is a rural girl in the big city. She must be relatively poor and probably has found a lot of ways to make money, regardless of whether or not she’s being exploited. (Theme)
Pattaya. City in Thailand. Where there’s lots of water and therefore lots of boats. A place where, as I understand it from Law & Order: SVU, there are slightly different attitudes about the connection between sex and money. (Setting.)
Her bubbliness “grates” on him. Dorian isn’t the world’s sweetest guy. (Characterization.)
Mr. Larson gets the narrative off and running very quickly and packs all of the elements of our writers’ toolbox into as few sentences as possible. The story speeds along nicely, while still allowing the reader to enjoy the setting and the technology.
I don’t want to give away too much of the story, so I’ll be circumspect. It’s clear that Dorian feels great lust for Nahm. He also understands how hard she has worked to provide for herself; he’s a scammer, too. (He skims personal information from the unprotected devices tourists carry around.) The story takes place over a short period of time and drops the characters into a taut, compelling plot: Dorian and Nahm are going to team up and engage in a lucrative caper. (Capers are so much fun! Things happen! There are big stakes!
I also admired that Dorian and Nahm are not pushed into straitjackets and forced to act according to their…”demographics.” Sure, Nahm’s English is accented. That makes sense. But accents don’t mean as much about a person as their actions, right? Instead of writing Nahm to be a cartoonish virtuous victim of circumstance and economics, Mr. Larson allows her to be good and bad. Just like real human beings.
Ian R. MacLeod’s “The Visitor From Taured” is an interesting counterpart to the Larson story. A character named Lita tells the story, split into a number of different sections. Lita’s tale takes place over the course of several decades and is really about her relationship with Rob Holm, a handsome rogue who devoted his life to astrophysics. Lita, you see, is one of the rare old-fashioned people who goes to college to learn about those archaic, non-interactive narratives that people called “books.”
This story is not a whiz-bang caper. The narrative covers a massive amount of time in only twenty-four pages and a lot less actual stuff happens. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing. If the plot is not as big and flashy, the author must simply make sure that he or she offers the reader something else in return. How did Mr. MacLeod keep my attention, even though there wasn’t as much plot as a Star Wars movie?
Lots of book and English grad student talk. I guess this won’t work for everyone, but it did work for me because I could relate so well.
Romance! We all love romance. Lita tells us very early in the story how handsome and temperamental Rob is. My study of Hugh Grant movies has convinced me that is the magic combination to win over the ladies.
Seeds are planted and allowed to grow. Humans love beginnings, middles, and ends. Lita convinces Rob to try reading one of those confusing paper-based books. He soon likes books. His tastes evolve and change. Literature becomes a way for them to relate. See how this development can keep the reader’s attention?
Consummation. It’s pretty clear how Lita feels about Rob–and why she’s telling us the story in the first place. It’s altogether fitting and proper that she and he come together.
These two stories are, in a way, romance stories, but they’re helpful to us because of their differences. We can take our time with a narrative or we can zoom along, but we must always serve our specific characters and plot in a manner that will keep the audience’s attention.
Mr. Strahan has assembled a diverse roster of stories and seems to have taken great pains to search beyond the Big Three magazines. I’ve always thought of the O. Henry collections of literary short stories as the literary, experimental cousins of the slightly more staid Best American series. Perhaps Mr. Strahan’s collections are where you can turn when you are more in the mood for poeticism than plot or in a time when you have a hungrier heart than mind.
When the great Rod Serling sat down to write a second pilot script for a TV program he was calling The Twilight Zone, he heaped a big problem onto his shoulders. The episode, you’ll recall, finds a man meandering through a small town. He’s utterly alone. Not a person in sight. There are hints of habitation–a burning cigar, a ringing telephone–but no people. The man finds clues for twenty-plus minutes, but for all but a few minutes of the episode, he has no idea where he is or what is happening. (Don’t worry, I won’t ruin the story for you.)
Serling really complicated matters for himself. So much drama comes from two or more characters interacting. “Where is Everybody” is a one-man show. The restraints we place on ourselves, of course, force us to write our way around them.
In Luna Rising, Selene Castrovilla‘s titular protagonist isn’t exactly a loner. She has friends (including the enjoyably drawn Sunny), family, and a succession of boyfriends to keep her company. Still, Luna begins the (third person) book very much in her own head. Her husband has freshly come out of the closet. This complicates her life, along with that of her two sons. Luna is only thirty-eight. She’s still a woman and still has the requisite needs. Unfortunately, finding love in her situation is not the easiest thing to do.
The main love interest in the book is an older man named Trip. Will they end up together? Will they go their separate ways? Read for yourself, but remember: the course of true love never did run smooth.
So Luna feels a little lonely. That’s understandable. While she has a support system, she understandably doesn’t know how she is going to handle the changes that are shaping her new life. One of the ways to chart a character’s thoughts and to release exposition is the use of a confidant. There’s so much more you can do with a character and a scene if the character is not alone. Here’s an example: the gravedigger scene from Hamlet:
How different would the scene be if there were no “I knew him, Horatio?” There would be no reason for Hamlet to talk to himself. (I know…not that it stops Hamlet from doing so at other times…) And seeing as how Hamlet is dead at the end of the play, there would be no one to share the sad story of the ill-fated prince of Denmark.
Ms. Castrovilla gives a slightly lonely character a confidant: an imaginary friend named Jiminy. (Yes, after Pinocchio’s buddy.) Here’s how Jiminy is introduced in the first chapter of Luna Rising, before the narrative takes a trip to the past:
Jiminy is a useful character/device in the book because it allows Ms. Castrovilla to do the same work as can be done in a scene with an additional character. Luna certainly can’t tell Trip what she is thinking or how she feels–what a boring romance story that would be–but she can think what she is thinking and have an internal dialogue with Jiminy, who appears in the book a great deal.
Ms. Castrovilla did something very interesting with the characterization. Let’s look at how she introduces Luna’s ex-husband:
So she goes from straight third-person prose into a kind of profile divided by sections. Isn’t this an interesting choice? Ordinarily, exposition and characterization are released in straight narration or in dialogue; the author did something a little different here. It reminds me of the bare-bones exposition of the G.I. Joe profile cards that were on the back of the action figure packages.
As we all know, the value of a choice is determined by the effect it has on the work. On one hand, it could be considered inconvenient to drop such a big exposition bomb so close to the beginning of the book. Maybe Ms. Castrovilla really doesn’t need to tell us that the ex dislikes tomato seeds. Maybe she could release the necessary information in other, more felicitous ways. On the other hand, this is a fun romancey-type book. We’re reading this for enjoyment and to have fun. The bolded profile structure gives us a mental image of Nick very quickly. Ms. Castrovilla suggests other scenes (what it was like when Luna discovered Nick’s activities on the gay site!) and is clear about what Nick looks like. Looks are very important in romancey-type novels. Just the way it is.
So if we put all of this information on a scale, I think that the author made the right choice. She offers similar lists for the other characters in the book when appropriate, and they have the same effect.
Ms. Castrovilla imbues the book with a great deal of pathos and deals with it in much more comprehensive terms than you might find in straight-up romance novels. (The “heat meter” is also lower.) These choices make Luna Rising a novel that has a bigger emotional impact. Instead of chronicling how one finds passion, Ms. Castrovilla illuminates how people negotiate the minefield of love. I suppose it’s easy for two incredibly hot people to fall into bed for a night. This book is much more about how we build deeper feelings and appreciation for the people in our lives, from neglectful parents to our kids and especially the man or woman we love, even if their snoring makes us want to smother them in their sleep sometimes.
What does it mean to be an “American writer?” A “Chilean poet?” A “Martian poet?” (I wrote a short story about that last one.) I don’t really know. I think that these delineations are as fuzzy as they are useful. Americans, Chileans, and (future) Martians have virtually everything in common; they’re human beings. We all feel hunger, love, and fear. We all seek to address these feelings in similar ways.
On the other hand, culture is influenced by climate and geography and food and a million other factors that add spice to the human experience. Why wouldn’t there be some kind of cultural flavor baked into the poetry a person creates? It’s a delicate balancing act, to be sure, judging a poet on the basis of such a label.
Anne Bradstreet is considered the first American poet. Though she died a century before Lexington and Concord, the sixty years of her life took place during the time when the ethos of the United States was still coalescing. Mrs. Bradstreet (she was a 17th-century Puritan…something tells me she would prefer “Mrs.” as an honorific) arrived in Massachusetts when she was 18 and spent her life in the colony. Her Puritanism definitely influenced her worldview and her work; as Charlotte Gordon asserts:
Anne Bradstreet’s work would challenge English politics, take on the steepest theological debates, and dissect the history of civilization. She would take each issue by the scruff of the neck and shake hard until the stuffing spilled out; no important topic of the day would be off-limits, from the beheading of the English king to the ascendancy of Puritanism, from the future of England to the question of women’s intellectual powers. Furthermore, she would shock Londoners into enraged attention by predicting that America would one day save the English-speaking world from destruction. Hers would be the first poet’s voice, male or female, to be heard from the wilderness of the New World.
Okay, enough of that stuff. What do we care about? Her writing and what we can learn from it! I was quite charmed by “The Author to Her Book,” a poem that I can reproduce here because it’s obviously in the public domain.
Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.
In this array ‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.
Notes for those who may not be comfortable with old-timey early modern English yet: I know. It looks weird. But the writing is almost 400 years old. Your writing will look weird 400 years from now, too. Some things to remember:
Spelling was not yet standardized and words were assembled letter-by-letter by a compositor who built the movable type on the page. So when you see “joynts” or “hobling” instead of “joints” or “hobbling,” just go with it.
Old-timey people would capitalize nouns, (as is the practice in German).
The apostrophe in “caus’d” does the same work an apostrophe does now: it replaces a missing letter or letters. (In that case, the “e.”)
Most of all, just go with it. This is not a complicated poem.
Okay, so what do we have going on here? Iambic pentameter. Rhymed couplets. Should we be surprised? Not really. Christopher Marlowe had popularized the use of iambic pentameter in poetry; Ben Jonson called it “Marlowe’s mighty line.” Bradstreet was born when Shakespeare was winding down and Jonson was still trucking along. (Marlowe was dead…or at least that’s what they want us to believe…) Mrs. Bradstreet did not reinvent the wheel. She made use of the conventions popular in poetry at the time. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. First of all, you can’t innovate until you understand how writing works. Second, you’re producing work that your audience can understand. Finally, working within a structure allows you to stretch out and do something different in a different area of your work.
Mrs. Bradstreet indeed tackles an “unusual” subject in her poem: authorship. (And authorship by a woman, which was uncommon at the time!) It’s hard to believe now, but people didn’t see “authors” in the same way they do now. Copyright was a joke. There was no “Author! Author!” The aforementioned Ben Jonson was one of the first to write about the concept of the author. And look what Mrs. Bradstreet wrote decades later! A poem that oozes with a writer’s love for and regrets about her work! (It is also clear that Mrs. Bradstreet felt the same way about her work as we often do upon publication: we love the piece, but we still see its flaws.)
Importantly, this is not just a poem about poets. Mrs. Bradstreet keeps the poem relatable by making a comparison that we can all understand. Don’t we all think of our poems, short stories, essays and novels as our babies? Whether or not they have children of their own, non-writers can also relate to the comparison. See how this idea is useful, especially in a short poem like this? Mrs. Bradstreet did not overcomplicate things. I’d wager that if you could ask her about her poem, she would not say it was “about the incalculable search for understandingness in a worldrealm unfeeling to the now” or some such opaque twaddle. Remember; reading is not supposed to be homework. We do the reader a disservice when we encode meaning so deeply that the work is confusing and requires the reader to get out a pen and paper to chart what is happening in the poem.
Look at the world in which Mrs. Bradstreet was creating. This is a map of what the east coast of North America looked like around the time the poem was written:
Isn’t it amazing? Mrs. Bradstreet was in a world greatly in flux. Everything was changing and little was set. Childbirth was a real nail-biting experience and the elements were a real danger instead of an inconvenience. I suppose the biggest lesson we should learn from the author is that we should put aside the concerns of the day when we write. Authorship is our stab at immortality. It may not help the plants in your garden to grow or lure small game into your traps, but it is a reflection of personal identity in addition to national identity. Even though we all have a million problems on our minds and we’re trying to build our own figurative country (just as Mrs. Bradstreet was trying to build a literal one), the writing we do about ourselves and what we think and how we feel can matter a great deal.
Especially if we have something meaningful to say.
By July 1944, it was obvious to a growing number of Germans and Nazi higher-ups that Deutschland had all but lost World War II. Further, it was clear that Hitler’s obstinance was having a negative effect on whatever post-war future that Germany would have. As a result, many Nazi officials plotted to take out their Fuhrer and some even took steps toward achieving that goal.
On July 20, 1944, the Third Reich only had nine more months to live. Claus von Stauffenberg didn’t know that. The German army officer joined a meeting at the Wolf’s Lair (Wolfsschanze), one of the control centers Hitler maintained outside of Berlin. Von Stauffenberg placed his briefcase under the long table Hitler was pounding as he dictated strategy on the eastern front. After a few minutes, Von Stauffenberg excused himself and beat feet from the Wolf’s Lair. Soon after that, the meeting room exploded. Four people were killed. Hitler was largely untouched.
Why do I bring up an interesting event from recent world history? Because it relates to writing craft and Marianna Baer‘s Amulet Books YA novel The Inconceivable Life of Quinn. Von Stauffenberg planned to detonate the bombs he left beside Hitler with a pencil detonator. The device is a relatively simple one. It’s a spring-loaded cylinder. On one end is a percussion cap that makes the explosives go boom. On the other end is a vial of liquid chemicals that, when burst, will begin to eat away the spring mechanism. When the wire fails…kaboom. Here’s a diagram:
Marianna Baer has a pencil detonator in her novel. Quinn, the protagonist, finds out that she is a couple months pregnant. Can you hear the acid eating away that wire? Babies generally take nine months of oven time to cook. Two months have already passed. When a baby is in a mommy’s tummy, it gets bigger every single day and (unless there’s a problem) nothing can stop it. You can’t close your eyes and pretend a baby isn’t coming any more than you can stand on tracks and expect the train to disappear. Pregnancy is a great pencil detonator because it causes disarray and change by its very nature.
Ms. Baer makes smart use of Quinn’s pregnancy by allowing the drama surrounding the baby to increase as time goes on. The author did, however, have a little bit of a problem: everyone on Earth has either given birth or been born. There are currently more than 7.5 billion people on the planet; being pregnant is not unique in the grand scheme of things, but it is very special to the child’s parents. So. That’s the big struggle: you must make the mundane special in your work. As Gunnery Sergeant Hartman taught his recruits to repeat of their rifles: “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.” Everyone has been bullied. What makes the bullying in your story different. Everyone has fought with friends. What makes this fight different?
Fortunately, The Inconceivable Life of Quinn has a hook that makes the pregnancy worth reading about. Quinn is not only the daughter of a politician during an election year, she is a virgin and has no idea how she has come to be in the family way. In this way, there are two questions that keep us reading:
How’d the baby happen if there was no sex? Who’s the father?
What’s going to happen with the election? How crazy will the media get about the daughter of a NYC politician getting knocked up just before an election? (Shades of Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston!)
The great Lee K. Abbott loves to drop the following truth when it comes to writing:
On page 34 of the hardcover, Ms. Baer gives us a very sweet description of the first time Quinn hears the baby’s heartbeat. Her mother asks, “There it is. Can you hear that?” Then the narrator says:
A muffled, rhythmic sound. A distant drumming. Fast and strong.
A heartbeat that wasn’t Quinn’s own.
So this moment is nice and nicely written, but there’s a problem: there’s math involved. I’m the reader…I’m not supposed to have to do any work. Why should it be my job to go to the Wikipedia entry for “pregnancy” to figure out when the fetal heart starts beating? Should I be expected to get out a pen and paper and open the calendar on my phone?
Thank goodness, Ms. Baer saves me from this only five pages later. On page 39, she tells us that Quinn has been given a two-week window during which it was possible for her to become pregnant. (I think the author also says how many weeks the baby has been gestating, but I can’t find it in the text.) Don’t make your reader do math and don’t make them scratch their head and try to figure out, in this case, the baby is due and when it was conceived.
The Inconceivable Life of Quinn keeps the reader turning pages (or swiping the screen) by taking Quinn’s pregnancy and relationships in a number of unexpected directions. Ms. Baer populates her story (told from third-person vignettes from each character) with relatable characters who speak and act the way they should, even if those actions are not always pleasant. Quinn’s father should doubt her and ask several times about the father of the child. Some of Quinn’s classmates must be unpleasant to her.
The most interesting choice the author makes might be the way that she does so much to add unexpected elements to the pregnancy narrative. (I don’t want to reveal too much about those.) In this way, Quinn’s pregnancy, like so many others, is not simply an accident or a happenstance of biology, hormones, and impulse. The story of of Quinn’s “inconceivable” pregnancy becomes an emotional journey for the reader as much as it is for the prospective mother.
One of the great problems with contemporary literature is that it often overlooks the problems of the “average” person. The middle-class people (whatever that means in 2017) who worry about keeping a roof over their heads, who beat themselves up because they can’t buy their kid hockey gear for tryouts.
Netflix wisely picked up two seasons of F is For Family, an animated show created by all-time great comedian Bill Burr and all-star The Simpsons writer Michael Price. (That’s right, two people who have achieved everything I wanted to be well into adulthood. You can tell I’m at least a little bit of an adult because I have enough maturity not to hate them for it.) The program tells the story of the Murphy family, a middle-class suburban family in the 1970s. Frank and Sue have three children and a thousand concerns. I’ll go light on the Season 2 spoilers, but Frank has lost his job with Mohican Airways and is feeling pretty worthless. His wife Sue is picking up the slack by selling Definitely Not Tupperware to other women in the area, but she’s not happy, either. Youngest son Bill is dealing with a bully (who has an alcoholic father), teenage Kevin wants to be a rock star and little Maureen is on track to be a computer genius…if the adults around her give her that chance in time. The program features humor and pathos in equal measure, amplifying the effect of each.
So, there are obviously spoilers if you zoom in and read all of the beats the staff laid down. On the other hand, we’re writers. We can enjoy literary works on two levels: that of the craftsman and that of the audience member.
What should we take away from this rare glimpse behind the scenes?
Each episode (or chapter, if you’re writing prose) has emotional consequences. Look at the first cards under 201, 202, and 203. Frank is “hopeful,” then events leave him “devastated,” and then he “bottoms out.” Your story must have meaningful stakes that result in emotional change. Frank Murphy’s story does not result in earth-changing geopolitical consequences, but the events of the story have a big effect on him and his family. And that is enough.
The writers plan arcs for each of the characters. Think of Dickens. Or The Simpsons. Each character is a fully vested presence in the world of the story. Accomplishing this goal is not easy, but sometimes, all you have to do is give characters a small moment of emotional truth. In Season 2 of F is For Family, Frank is so desperate for work that he gets a job filling the vending machines in public places…including the machines he once walked past at Mohican. His new boss is Smokey, an African-American gentleman who expects hard work and hopes to avoid his wife. Smokey could simply be a stock character, but the writers go deeper with him on a few occasions. At one point, Frank screws up, which should cost him the job. Frank goes to great lengths to fix the mistake. Smokey subsequently lets down his emotional guard and has an oddly sweet moment with Frank. Two people from very different backgrounds grew closer in understanding. (I’m tearing up here!)
The writers fill a wall and put their whole story in front of them! I am not a big fan of over-outlining, but my work has gotten much better since I broke down each beat one by one before beginning my most recent book manuscripts. You’ll notice that the F is For Family team does not lock themselves into every single beat…the index cards can easily be removed or changed. The point is to have the shape of the story in your mind in a coherent way. The finer details, of course, will appear as you sculpt the work.
F is For Family is a show that is steeped in love. Sometimes that love is difficult and expressed in…confusing ways, but the Murphy family is all about love. The people around the family are also (generally) decent human beings. Being set in the 1970s, the writers have an obligation to represent the time with verisimilitude. (The appearance of reality in fiction.) One of the characters the Murphys see on TV is Tommy Tahoe, a Dean Martin manque who sings horribly misogynist songs about subjects like telling your wife to keep her mouth shut.
Everyone who reads this, of course, is a decent human being and would never think something like that about women, but that’s the point. For better AND worse, Tommy Tahoe would never be allowed on TV today. But this is the kind of entertainment that was mainstream in the 1970s. Have you ever seen one of the good, old-fashioned roasts? These stars, all of whom love each other, tell the most racist and sexist jokes you can imagine. But it’s all about togetherness and sharing a night together.
Mr. Price and his writing staff are surely great people, but did the right thing in presenting a heightened version of the 1970s as it was, not as we would like it to be. Another recurring element of F is For Family is Frank’s favorite show: Colt Luger. As you might expect from a crime-solver whose names are both guns, Colt is a hypermasculine crime solver who is not as…enlightened as we are. Example:
These kinds of shows were popular in the 1970s and reflect the time in which they were made. When you’re a storyteller, you must be more faithful to the story and the characters than you are to your own feelings. Otherwise, you’re not telling an honest story. You’re just giving a lecture.
Which brings me to one of the most beautiful parts of F is For Family: it’s very deep, but doesn’t force you to engage with it on that level if you don’t want to. In the contemporary parlance, Frank and Sue are struggling with gender roles placed upon them by themselves and by society. Frank’s neighbors are slightly cautious about the African-American who pulls up in front of Frank’s house. Maureen wants to build computers and Frank just has a little hold-up in his head that prevents him from giving his daughter what will make her happy. In a particularly sad Season 1 episode, Frank argues with Sue and calls the younger son Bill a “pussy.” Bill spends the rest of the episode sorting through his identity and how he wants to express it. So you could easily write college papers about F is For Family.
But most of all, the show will make you laugh and make you feel. What else could you possibly want in a work of fiction?
During World War II, the brave Allied servicemen in the Pacific theater were missing the comforts of home. Instead of Mom’s cooking, they were trying to swallow cold MREs in an unfamiliar climate halfway across the world. The men were scared: for their lives, for their country, for the relationships they put on pause to do their duty.
The political and military brass of Empire of Japan did the perfectly natural thing: they tried to take advantage of these feelings in order to demoralize the enemy force. Enter Tokyo Rose, the collective name for the sweet-voiced women who narrated radio broadcasts intended for American soldiers and sailors in the Pacific. The Pentagon and private agencies did their best to help the men keep their minds occupied while in theater–distributing radio programs, movies, paperbacks, comic books–but there was always an audience for any English-speaking voice they could catch over the airwaves.
Tokyo Rose told the Americans how beautiful Japan was and softly, sweetly urged them to give up hope that they would defeat the mighty forces of the Empire. She cooed into the microphone and told the guys about their girls back home, how Sally Strongheart from All-America, Kansas, wasn’t waiting like she promised. No, she was going to the sock hop with that 4-F she always said was just a friend.
See for yourself:
Of course, the propaganda effort didn’t work because Americans are so awesome (USA! USA! USA!), but the story reveals an important lesson about craft. The rhetoric of Tokyo Rose was not bombastic. She didn’t scream. No, she calmly appealed to the fears of her listeners. See how this relaxed and logical approach was a much better idea than, say, endless screeching?
We write because we have stories we need to tell, ideas we need to share. Our hearts burn with the need to commit our thoughts to paper and share them with others. But here’s the problem: we can’t get our message across if all we do is burn. No, the heat must be focused and have a purpose. In the words of the late, great Christopher Hitchens: “heat is not the antithesis of light but rather the source of it.”
Here’s an example of heat that produces no light, that casts no illumination whatsoever on the world or the human condition. This young woman was not pleased to see a Donald Trump banner on her campus. I think you’ll agree with me that she doesn’t make a very compelling argument.
I think you’ll agree with me that this young woman did not win any hearts and minds to whatever the heck she was thinking.
We are in a new and fascinating age of political literature. (I wish this age had begun fifteen years ago, but so it goes…) As reading rates have declined, the writing community has become ever more liberal, or whatever term you would like to use. On some level this makes sense. Writers have always been curious about others. We’ve always used empathy to put ourselves into the lives of others. But I think it’s reasonable to admit that the balance has shifted even further to the left than usual.
There are such amazing opportunities for writers! There are so very, very many things to say in this absolutely crazy political climate. We all want writing to remain what it has always been: a vehicle for entertainment social chronicle and change. Unfortunately, our work becomes less useful and less effective if we figuratively prance around the yogurt-puddled quad screeching at people who both agree and disagree with us.
Protest literature is boring and pointless when it’s all heat and no light, when it’s a screech instead of an argument. That is why I was so pleased to read a protest poem that actually meant something. Rachel Custer’s “How I Am Like Donald Trump” appeared in Rattle’s Poets Respond feature. Published a couple weeks before the election, the poem is not at all pro-Trump, but it’s also not packed with breathless hyperbole and unchanneled anger.
First of all, look at the title. Ms. Custer literally identifies with Trump and makes it clear that she is employing empathy. A writer can hate a character all they like, but they must empathize with the person about whom they are writing. No, this doesn’t mean that you forgive or even like a person. You must understand, to paraphrase the great Lee K. Abbott, who the character is in the dark.
Then Ms. Custer dedicates the poem, “for D.T. and other lonely people.” I know. I agree. Trump is bad. I don’t like his policies. I don’t like some of the things he has said. Did we gain anything from yet another affirmation against Trump? No. But we do get something out of thinking of the “villain” as a real human being, in this case a “lonely” one. For some reason, many of us are forgetting that the old-fashioned mustache-twirling bad guy who is just bad has fallen out of style. No, we like our villains to be complicated and to resemble real people who have real motivations. Thinking of Trump (in this case) as a real human being also makes your protest art more effective. Instead of arguing against a strawman, you’re arguing against a flesh-and-blood man.
The poem itself, it seemed to me, was quite sad and evocative. Ms. Custer could have been like so many other writers and written:
OMG I HATE TRUMP
HE SAID MEAN THINGS ABOUT THAT BEAUTY PAGEANT CONTESTANT
AND RUINED BILLY BUSH’S
See? Only heat. No light. Ms. Custer’s Trump is revealed to be a sad and pitiful man; her work is more effective than a thousand screeching undergrads. You can’t unseat a politician unless you understand them and why they do what they do. You can’t make a deal with a person unless you understand their psychology.
Ms. Custer uses the heat in her heart to generate light instead of merely adding to the fury that we find in so many places. Let’s try to do the same thing when next we try to change the world with our words.
When I was in eleventh grade, Miss Rowe introduced me to Tennessee Williams and his play The Glass Menagerie. I related to the characters in a number of ways, but most strongly when the playwright described a certain section of the Wingfield apartment:
Nearest the audience is the living room, which also serves as a sleeping room for Laura, the sofa unfolding to make her bed. Just beyond, separated from the living room by a wide arch or second proscenium with transparent faded portieres (or second curtain), is the dining room. In an old-fashioned whatnot in the living room are seen scores of transparent glass animals. A blown-up photograph of the father hands on the wall of the living room, to the left of the archway. It is the face of a very handsome young man in a doughboy’s First World War cap. He is gallantly smiling, ineluctably smiling, as if to say, “I will be smiling forever.”
That photograph of Tom and Laura’s father is a constant and tangible reminder of why the characters are in their situation. That man is part of why Laura is shy and reserved, why Tom is angry and wants to leave, why Amanda is in denial. Wingfield père never makes an appearance on the stage…but he is always there, from curtain up to curtain down.
The same kind of dynamic appears in Chelsea Sedoti‘s The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett, a YA novel that is a little bit of suspense, a little bit of romance, a little bit of character study. The protagonist is Hawthorn, a high schooler who always looked up to Lizzie Lovett. The latter graduated a few years ago; she was the most beautiful, most graceful girl in school. Hawthorn just knew that Lizzie is the kind of person who has an easy life because they’re perfect.
Then Lizzie goes missing. Hawthorn wants to know why, wants to know where Lizzie went. So she investigates Lizzie’s life. She takes Lizzie’s old job and quickly develops a crush on Enzo, Lizzie’s boyfriend. I got a Raffaele Sollecito vibe from Enzo, who is a dark and passionate painter; he’s also a suspect in Lizzie’s disappearance in the eyes of some.
Ms. Sedoti sends Hawthorn on an interesting personal adventure as she and Enzo cope with their loss. I don’t want to give away too much plot (like I said, it’s partly a suspense novel), but the author does a good job of creating a meaningful arc for Hawthorn and giving her interesting things to do.
Speaking of which, Ms. Sedoti gave herself a big problem in choosing her narrative, but also gave herself great opportunity. Stories about disappearances and murderers and the like are very interesting! Just think of any episode of Dateline NBC. These are what I call “shiny” stories because they attract a lot of attention very easily, just like shiny things you see when walking down the street. Ms. Sedoti created an interesting narrative out of a story that is decidedly far less “shiny.” Hawthorn didn’t know Lizzie well. She wasn’t involved in the disappearance. Lizzie remains missing for quite some time. This is not exactly the kind of story that will be made into a pure horror movie.
So Ms. Sedoti reflected Lizzie and her life through the lens that Hawthorn represented. All of the characterization for Lizzie came from a girl who wasn’t very close to her. One on hand, this kind of information is objective; on the other hand, it’s filtered through the perspective of a teenager. (And one who admired her.) Ms. Sedoti also made sure there were a few subplots to suggest the passage of time and to keep things rolling. There’s a homecoming dance! There’s a terrible bully! There’s an annoying but devoted brother! Most of all, there’s a romance that unspools very slowly and methodically.
My favorite thing about Ms. Sedoti’s conceit is the way that Lizzie hovers over the narrative in the same way that the Wingfield patriarch dominated Tennessee Williams’ narrative. The book opens:
The first thing that happened was Lizzie Lovett disappeared, and everyone was all, “How can someone like Lizzie be missing?” and I was like, “Who cares?”
So as the novel starts, Lizzie is already out of the narrative picture and can’t appear. (You know, unless and until she’s found or returns, yada yada.) Absent Lizzie is a mirror that reflects upon the characters. To Hawthorn, she represents the flawless princess lucky girl she wants to be when she grows up. Eventually, she reflects upon Enzo as an artist and a human being. Those who aren’t optimistic about Lizzie making a return are exposed as pessimists or realists.
In a way, Lizzie is not so much a character as a symbol. Have you ever met Abraham Lincoln? Didn’t think so. Like Lizzie, writing about him means projecting your own ideas onto him. These kinds of characters are (often) symbols. Hawthorn is a compelling teenage girl. She has romantic desires and fights with her brother and seeks wisdom from the hippie caravan near her house. She’s a living, breathing person! (In prose form.) Lizzie, on the other hand, is a kind of ghost who drives and reveals the characters.
Of course, Lizzie also reveals information about us, based upon how we perceive her and how we think about the search for her. Ms. Sedoti gives us plenty to think about, but in that good way. Hawthorn experiences a number of twists and turns. She grows up in some ways and not in others. The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett (like The Glass Menagerie) is a work about how we cope with absence and how we grow up in the face of grief and longing and will be enjoyed by those who are young adults in addition to those who merely remember being young adults.