Hello and welcome to this installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). Lately I took a gander at the master of comic/gothic stories Neil Gaiman and also posted a story of my own. Now I’ve turned my attention upon two of whom I would consider to be the greats of the form: Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain. I dove into both collected stories of theirs (for Hemingway just the “first forty-nine”) and found solid lessons for writers within, much as we all can. Let’s get to those, then I’ll conclude with some of my favorites from each author.
Use of language - This is an obvious strength of both authors, but they use it in quite different ways. Twain is ever the master story-teller, filling his yarns with impeccable illustrations of local dialogue and language, making it abundantly clear how much he understood his own country. Hemingway as I’ve covered before, generally has the opposite quality, but manages to tell an impactful story nonetheless. His characters come to live in equally breathtaking ways, despite the use of such basic structure.
Good first line - Both authors really understood this, and I was quite taken away by how much better a story can be by just having a great opening sentence. “When he saw us come in the door the bartender looked up and then reached over and put the glass covers on the two free-lunch bowls.” (“The Light of the World” - Hemingway) - and “Somebody has said that in order to know a community, one must observe the style of its funerals and know what manner of men they bury with most ceremony” (“Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral” - Twain) were two of my favorites, but many of these memorable tales have a great beginning.
Overall, while I didn’t get to every story in each collection, I felt I took a pretty decent tour through each author’s oeuvre. These two knew exactly how to tell a story for a certain number of pages, and in the introduction to the Twain collection Charles Neider notes that most of Twain’s novels are basically interconnected stories. The Twain collection also included some passages from Roughing It, which I’d never read and enjoyed quite a bit. Some other favorites were: “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg,” “The 1,000,000 Bank-Note,” and “Journalism in Tennessee.” For Hemingway it was definitely the greats: “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “The Big Two-Hearted River,” and also “A Clean Well-Lighted Place,” and “Soldier’s Home.”
But of course, I would be bereft in my writerly duty if I did not recommend these two for anyone looking to hone their short story skills. They were quite possibly the two greatest American short story writers, and they set down the guidelines by which many of us writers tread even today.
And on that note, I’m now going to head in another direction by reading two books I’ve never encountered: Roald Dahl’s bizarre stories for adults, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (and others). I also hope to submit one of the fifteen stories I’ve been working on to a lit journal, send another to an editor, and (if I can summon the courage) post one more on this here blog. I still will get back to the novel re-write by the winter months, but for now I’m content to remain in this “sub-experiment.” Thanks for reading!
Short stories: what are they? This is a question I'm taking another run at this year, and while I continue to read some of the greats (and will craft more essays on them coming soon) I thought it was high time I started posting my own work on the blog again.
Readers from last year may recall I did something similar with an older college story (check out parts one and two here), but I feel my abilities have grown a bit since then.
To that end, I'd like to present a rather political story, influenced by the events of the last year. This takes place in an unknown, uncertain future in which even Trump supporters have finally started realizing who they elected into office. Please enjoy "#OccupyTrump."
“Thanks, Stan. I’m standing here in the midst of hundreds of people who have camped out at the White House for weeks. As you can see behind me there are dozens of people with camping gear, guns, ammo, and enough supplies to last for quite some time. I spoke to some of the leaders of the OccupyTrump movement earlier today.”
*roll interview footage, then B roll*
“Well, he ain’t done what he said he would. That’s why I’m here.”
(voiceover) “Richard Derby says he came to Washington on a whim, after a friend told him about a bus that was going out here for the protest.”
“He told me they was rollin’ up here to protest The Donald. Now, I like the man, I like what he’s done for the country, how he’s revitalized our side. That ain’t the problem.”
(interviewer) “So what is?”
“I told you. He ain’t done what he said.”
(voiceover) “That’s been the common refrain among many Trump supporters camped out here today, leaving their lives to come bother the president who said was on their side.”
*roll footage of Trump backing out of building the wall, and of replacing Obamacare, and firing his white supremacist advisors*
“I’m mostly upset about the Obamacare thing. How many times did he say it? Repeal and replace, repeal and replace. I counted on our GOP brethren in Congress to do it, and they never did. Trump said all along the campaign that this was a huge priority. Now he’s going to keep most of it? Give me a break.”
(voiceover + B roll of hospital footage) “This woman was speaking about Trump’s many promises to eliminate the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Despite pledging to get rid of the legislation, the President has failed multiple times to sign any repeal legislation. That gets under the skin of supporters like Max Caldwell of Mississippi, who rode all the way up here with a caravan full of Trump supporters from his state.”
*roll footage of bikers, huge recreational vehicles, people dressed in leather*
“It’s the Obamacare thing, goin’ back on his word. It’s the Hilary thing, basically refusing to prosecute her for the many crimes she committed. And it’s the illegal immigrants, many of which we still see crawlin’ all over my wonderful state. It ain’t their state to do what they will anymore. I’m coming’ to DC to try and get this man to listen to me: these people need to be deported, just like he said he would do.”
(voiceover) “For others, it’s that he hasn’t followed through on anything he said he would. Supporter Casey Rogers of Iowa said she was disappointed about how quickly Trump turned into what she describes as a ‘regular’ politician.”
“It was just shocking to me. I mean, he said all these things on the trail. Made all these promises. Then, after he wins he starts going back on them. Don’t he know these things mean something to us people out here? That he can’t just take advantage of our support? That we’re gonna send our people out to DC to make sure he hears us?”
(voiceover) “When I mention to Ms. Rogers that this movement bares more than a passing resemblance to the Occupy camps that sprung up years ago, she is dismissive.”
“Nah, they was a bunch of hippy dip liberal punks pounding drums in the street. We’re here to spur action.”
“Perhaps the biggest concern here, Stan, is the lack of focus on employment. Despite early promising signs that Trump was cutting deals with some companies here in the US to keep them from outsourcing jobs, that effort has largely failed in the wake of recent mega-mergers, which the administration’s Justice Department signed off on with barely a comment. This might be the biggest reversal that Trump’s fans find upsetting.”
“Oh yeah, that’s been on all of our minds lately. Sure, maybe a few hundred people got to keep their jobs in Ohio. So what? We down in South Carolina been hurtin’ for generations. This week he says he suddenly believes in climate change, so we can’t have no more coal burning here? That’s weak tea, buddy. How am I gonna feed my children?”
(voiceover) “Supporters like Randy Wilson think they’ve been duped. And they want our newly elected President to feel their pain.”
“I sure wish he’d just come out one of these days. I know he’s in there. People spotted his helicopter landing’ yesterday. He’s spent a full week inside there ignoring his own people. We ain’t gonna sit by and let this happen.”
(voiceover + B roll of protesters) “But that’s exactly what the President seems to want to happen, keeping his full schedule of roster events this week while not issuing a single statement to the press about the demonstrators camped out in front of his official residence.”
(footage of protesters) “Build the wall! Build the wall! Lock her up! Lock her up! Deport the illegals!” (illegible crying, screaming)
(quick zoom in on one of the front windows of the White House, in which an orange visage seems to be peeking out before ducking back)
(voiceover) “For now, these protesters will have to be content to not have their cries heard.”
“Well, we ain’t goin anywhere. I emptied my bug-out chamber for this. Since we got Trump elected I have less fear about the world ending. So I felt we could take a chance, since he ain’t been following through on his promises. We got to let him know what we think.”
“Some have been grousing that given Mr. Trump's spurious business record and his history of treating people he does business with as disposable, why couldn’t his supporters see this coming?”
“I just thought he was different from all the other politicians. He said he’d drain the swamp. Instead he invited it right in the front door. That’s not The Donald I know from the campaign trail. He said he’d be our advocate in there. He’s not.”
“And until that goal is met, these Trump supporters are not going anywhere. At least not until police start turning on fire hoses, which is expected by early next week. Back to you in the studio, Stan.”
“Thanks Desiree. We’ll keep you folks updated on the #OccupyTrump movement, and of course you can make your thoughts known using that hashtag on social media. With last week’s major reversal on climate change, here are a few peoples’ thoughts on our own site regarding this.
It’s total bs. He said it was a hoax made by the chineses weirdos, and I still believe that. It’s not like he would make that up for votes. We the ppl need to call him out on the lies. #OccupyTrump
He’s going back on his word. We used to excoriate Obama when he’d do this for lot less. Can you imagine what we could have done with his ‘white house is a dump’ comments? Come on people, we have to up the pressure. Come join us. #OccupyTrump
I don’t trust a lick of politicians, but this one hurts more than most. I thought he was one of us. Come to DC and #occupytrump
Are you serious? You people really thought this guy was telling the truth? No wonder he took your support like the rubes you are. Good luck in 2020, if the planet survives. #OccupyEverywhere
“And now we turn to local news….”
Hello out there and welcome to this installment in Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). Last time I reviewed the major lessons that we can surmise from Jack London’s best works. Now I have pivoted to a short-story mindset in the hopes of gaining similar wisdom from the greats. To that end, my wife generously bought me Neil Gaiman’s 2006 story collection Fragile Things.
This collection contains mainly work the great comic/children’s book/fiction/mythology writer has published elsewhere, in other fantasy mixings or places like the liner notes of a Tori Amos CD. I must admit my love for the world of comic books is intensified when it comes to this man’s contributions, and while I’ve barely begun the epic Sandman series in its entirety, it probably should be a goal of mine to finish next year (I plan on mixing this experiment up a bit if we survive until then, spoiler alert, etc.)
All of that being said, I found it rather difficult to get into some of these tales. But before I get to my moronic griping about this iconic figure, let’s take a look at the major lessons from these stories.
Story within a story. Gaiman uses this in a few collaborative and commissioned pieces, and while I’m not sure I would ever want to use the technique it is very interesting. One story he considered a first attempt at The Graveyard Book, but is introduced in a completely different way. Another begins as a stranger’s tale in a club, and one that begins with the narrator meeting a former acquaintance in a diner. And the final novella takes place entirely in a whole other Gaiman-verse.
Writing for your audience. This is obviously a gigantic talent of Gaiman, and while I was encountering certain genres (such as gothic) here for the first time since I’ve read Poe, I can see how he knows how to write a certain type of story. Despite his massive success over in the States for decades, most of these tales still remain firmly in British territory in terms of style and language. Once I deduced this, it was actually easier to like these stories, as in general the Brits seem to outpace us quite well in many literary ways (yeah, I said it).
Some of my favorites from the collection were: “Bitter Grounds,” “Harlequin Valentine,” “Feeders and Eaters,” “Goliath,” and the American Gods inspired novella Monarch of the Glen. But I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t recommend this entire book to anyone looking to hone their short story writing skills.
While I’ve since learned to overcome my initial hesitation to some of these stories/genres (not to mention Gaiman’s wonderful poetry throughout has singlehandedly made me that much more interested in that type of writing) and did enjoy this book, some of these tales didn’t work for me. I’ll take one example: “How to Talk to Girls at Parties.” While this is generally considered one of his best, I found myself unable to believe that even a kid at that age wouldn’t respond to the fantastic dialogue being spun. But could that be that I once again cannot wrestle with the fact that this is a writer deliberately leaving many things in his worlds unresolved? I find myself too inexperienced (and too enamored with this man’s great skill in creating art) to fully argue this point, and will leave it there.
Up next I will travel a few different directions in this vein. I hope to be able to post another example short story (or two) to the blog soon. I am also going to plunge head first into some other masters of the form: Hemingway, Twain, Chopin, Dahl, and a few more. And as always feel free to toss me some recommendations if you have ‘em. Thanks for reading!
I’ve been struggling for the better part of this week to put something, anything, down to words regarding the recent tragedy in Charlottesville.
First, if you haven’t watched the VICE News documentary HBO posted online, please do so. You really can’t understand a lot of this without witnessing it. And since we’re supposed to put “trigger warnings” on stuff now, there are some incredibly disturbing and violent images within that doc, but again I would strongly recommend every American watch it. Those of you gazing at the angry fulminations emanating from my social media platforms will know how I feel about this. But what does this actually mean?
Next, I feel some basic things about this event must be stated, and repeatedly. A group of white supremacists/nationalists and neo-Nazis marched across a college campus with torches chanting “You/Jews will not replace us,” and finding their rallying base around a statue of a Confederate war general. This happened in America in 2017. The next day, during clashes at a protest people were injured, and after police ordered everyone to disburse a car driven by a supremacist sympathizer rammed over several dozen peaceful protestors, killing 32 year old Heather Heyer. The President of the United States has still been unable to issue any kind of statement making it clear where the majority of the violence on this tragic day was to be found. As of this writing, a week after this all happened, while almost everyone he brought with him to the White House is gone, he still has not issued any kind of statement to correct the record. This is how the President of the United States thinks, in 2017.
Third, these things are all irrefutable. And yet I find myself immersed in social media discussions in which many people out there cannot seem to understand, let alone morally grasp, the terms of this “debate.” This is rather unnerving because we Americans take it as a point of major pride that we helped Russia triumph over the Nazi menace during the Second World War. And yet even that type of speech is now considered by some people to deserve equal footing with anti-racist slogans and agendas. How did this decoupling of morality and consequence occur? Well, it sure didn’t happen one week ago.
We live in an age right now in which we are asking gigantic questions about society that seemed solidly in place even years prior. But many of these changes were accelerating in the first part of the great “War on Terror” with Dubya. This is a time that a lot of young people have no memory of, or if they do remember it’s filled with war. It bears repeating that the United States has been at war in Afghanistan for longer than any other war in its history. The lies came fast and furious after 9/11, and many precedents for Trump were set right here. “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “reality-based community.” Just three examples of words twisted beyond recognition by an administration bent on war and reaffirming the supposed world order of things by any means. And of course there were other egregious cases, such as pretending a great southern city (New Orleans) didn’t really exist in its time of most dire need. These are all things that are barely a decade past us.
Obama came, but we saw very little change in substance when it came to the militarization of our populace. While the Nobel Peace Prize-winning President got a lot of great press for supposedly winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in reality our nation got ever more enmeshed in the Middle East during his tenure, and Obama became known as the “Drone President” for how much he shifted military reliance on this technology. But the twisting of language didn’t stop under this man, as words like “imminent threat” became used to justify the preemptive assassination of American citizens abroad who were suspected of terrorism.
And there’s that word again. The word that has lost all meaning to today’s populace. The acts of James Alex Fields were certainly those of terrorism, especially as the media loves to define it today (car being driven over multiple pedestrians). And yet never more was the establishment media at pains to describe this as exactly what it was: an act of terrorism, perpetrated by a domestic terrorist. This debate has been worn out in the years after 9/11, but it’s hard to pretend as if most people don’t see it precisely this way: “terrorism” is stuff done by “those” people (i.e. anyone not white, but mostly Muslims). Again, the terms of the debate shifted steadily under the Bush II administration, but Obama did very little to quell this. And the GOP was literally using their racist bases’ impulse to go against that president through groups like the TEA Party.
This all leads us to where we stand now. Everyone wants to bemoan the state of “polarization” in our politics today, but very few seem to grasp the roots of our outrage. Could it be because:
The United States has never been forced through a truth and reconciliation process over any part of its horrifying racist past? Talking about the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, KKK, the list goes on. There is a reason why somebody born after 9/11 could still be indoctrinated in this type of evil mindset. Because generations before never had to be fully confronted with the malice of their deeds. And the rest of us were apparently OK with this for our generations.
Most of our US populace has become inherently deadened by the Neoliberal regime initiated by Reagan and Thatcher in the 80’s and was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt in the 2008 financial crash to be the largest financial swindle in history. This pernicious ideology has led vast swathes to view the entire world as a transactable thing, and leaves little room for other considerations. This alone has led to pain and suffering throughout the world that has the convenient excuse (still today!) of pretending as if it is an unchallengeable ideology (it isn’t). For more on this topic, I’d highly recommend Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine.
Or perhaps it’s just a simple lack of education, with our elite betters exploiting it against us at every turn. Millions of people turned up in the streets to protest the Iraq War, but it still happened. Thousands of leftist, anti-racist and antifa organizers turned up at the Charlottesville protest, but somebody still got murdered. And the President sided with the murderers. Hard to think of a more concise example of the stark terms of the situation.
So yeah, this is war. In some ways it’s a war that never got resolved, much in the way the Korean peninsula situation threatens to spiral out of control because the war fought there by our nation a half-century ago led to much death and destruction but very little verdict. These things occur, and then pass us by as our populace becomes more and more inured to the catastrophic future awaiting us through climate change and political instability.
All of these things being predicate, how did we get here in 2017? I have no idea if the concepts I’m laying out here do justice to that question. But, as with the Boston Marathon bombing four years ago, these types of terrorist attacks have a large piece of context that never quite gets discussed in the media even when they happen.
Surely there is a reason these types of attacks are occurring on what appears to be a daily basis. Why is it so easy for most of us to throw around the “terrorism” label when it’s happening over there, and yet have such an inability to realize that it is our own foreign policy providing large amounts of “terror” to the world population? This kind of cognitive dissonance was a large part of what Trump was able to exploit to “win” the election, and continues to balance on moronic statements like “both sides.” It becomes apparent that this is racist balderdash is what the President truly thinks, and why wouldn’t he if his chief news sources are Fox News and Alex Jones? Our cherished belief to insulate ourselves in filter bubbles is only making these problems worse, and for those already massively uninformed, downright dangerous.
That’s essentially what we saw in Charlottesville: a large group of amazingly uninformed people acting on those beliefs in a violent way. Now, one could argue that’s the general thrust of American politics (as Tina Fey pointed out recently on Weekend Update, it was actually us who stole all of this land, another convenient fact to forget), but that is leaving off the hook those other problems I mentioned. And until that type of stuff is resolved, this all is only going to get worse.
The Right wants to paint all of this as “political correctness” gone awry, and while there is a grain of truth to some of that argument, I would argue that the statement of murdering a young woman in cold blood for no reason kinda of puts a lot of that to the side. Doesn’t mean we should go after these people with violence, but I’m finding it very hard to feel bad for some of these guys who are so internet savvy on the alt-Right but didn’t think about how a public doxing of their own might ostracize them from their communities. There should never be a single law against any type of speech in this country, but many courts have rightly made exceptions regarding violence to others. Again, some of this becomes blurry in our age of American insanity, but if the next rallies get worse be prepared to watch all of this take on a larger significance.
For those reading this, I wish I could come to a better conclusion than this. But there are solutions to many of the problems plaguing the nation. Single-payer healthcare, massive investments in alternative energy and basic infrastructure, and gigantic tax increases on the wealthy would significantly help a lot of what ails our country and the planet. But we cannot get there until we wrangle ourselves together as a populace who wants to make things better. The way some of the discussion has tilted in the wake of Charlottesville, I don’t think we are remotely there yet. But there is still time left (not in climate change terms, as we’ve now reached decade zero).
And it is time to get angry. For people like me, who stupidly didn’t understand the current electorate and the powers that seek to manipulate it, and for people who weren’t angry enough even after the bigot-in-chief was sworn in. People are now literally dying in the streets for these principles. It is incumbent upon all of us who reject white supremacist ideology to make our feelings known, online and in letters/calls to our representatives, and especially in the streets and through activism.
Because all of this, I fear, is only the beginning.
Hello readers and welcome to this update in Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). Last time I finished exploring Under the Dome, and after took the plunge back to an author I hadn’t read since school: Jack London. Specifically, The Call of the Wild. But I was in luck, as the copy I purchased also included some of this man’s best short stories. After I got through them I decided to read White Fang as well, and was richly rewarded. I’m assuming most of you are familiar with this author and his works, so I’ll go directly to the lessons I gained from reading these classics.
Use of language. This was London’s speciality, and I would argue he was Hemingway-esque before it was cool. London’s language through all these works is simple, easy to follow, and grimly detailed. Despite the stories being largely similar and no gigantic words to be found, the novels about the Wild and its impact upon creatures as well as the short stories carry heavy messages and are deeply impactful on many levels. You don’t have to be experimental in your language if you know what you want to show the audience.
A broad perspective. As is well known, the two novels are essentially allegories about nature and the meaning of the Wild. London is quite deft and noticing when his creatures are compelled to act by forces beyond their control (such as instinct) and expressing the importance of this to their survival. He also ruminates quite heavily on the nature of “gods” and how humans and animals might consider such a thing; while humans can never be sure theirs exist, animals’ are all around them, proving their might. It’s worth contemplating how large a perspective you want to have as you explore this in your own writing.
To Build a Fire. While my collection included some of London’s other famous short stories (including the devious “Batard” and the hilarious “That Spot”), I want to take a minute to look at what I consider the best one I’ve read in some time. “To Build a Fire” is the tale of an inexperienced man who ignores advice of an old-timer and ends up paying for it with his frozen corpse out in the wilderness. This was a haunting story, and kept me on the edge of my seat as London’s perfect use of language built up the environment and character. I can’t think of a single other story I could recommend as a finer example of the type. This one hits all of the previous themes and also remains an incredibly powerful parable about the dominance of nature over man.
I also want to recommend White Fang. For some stupid reason I always thought of this as a “lesser” work to The Call of the Wild, and I can’t express enough how wrong-headed that is. This is truly a masterpiece all on its own, and I would argue that London shows great growth as a writer from one to the other - not just in thematic elements but in overall storytelling ability. I would go as far as to say you can’t read one without the other, thinking of them as two parts of a larger whole.
I hope it’s pretty obvious that I emphatically enjoyed returning to this author, as I feel he has a much deserved place in whatever is considered the “canon” these days. While Hemingway would refine this type of writing, it was Jack London who paved the way in some regards. I would totally advise you to pick up any of this man’s books, as not only will you enjoy them, but will gain your own insights even from those I outlined.
Up next, I’m segueing into more short story collections (including a vacation gift from my wife - Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things) and continuing to write more of my own. I’m less concerned about publishing at this time and more about doing them well, and hope to be able to craft a similar post about lessons learned from reading the masters of the form. After that it will be back to novels to close out the rest of AYOF. Thanks for reading!
Hello readers and welcome to this update in Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). After working my way through Tim O’Brien’s masterly In the Lake of the Woods, I decided my “summer read” would be Stephen King’s gigantic 2009 novel Under the Dome. Those who have followed my work know this man has registered as my favorite author for a good chunk of my life. While I’m not sure that’s the case any longer, this book is one of his best and taught me a ton about writing. First let’s get to the major lessons:
Number of characters. You can get away with a massive novel filled with upwards of 50 characters. If you’re Stephen King. It’s not quite that severe, but it’s well worth time as a reader to see how he does this right, giving a handful of characters very memorable details and thoughts. “Big Jim” Rennie, the ostensible villain of the piece, will go down in history for me next to big King baddies of the past like Randall Flagg. It’s not quite as effective with the protagonists, but I was still rooting for them ‘til the end. Even characters who die early on are worth considering in light of later events. This book is full of examples of how to drop details into descriptions for your reader to keep them hooked on the story.
Use of omnipresent narrator in a few key spots. King to my knowledge hasn’t employed this technique in quite some time, if ever, and it really works in this book. During crucial events under the Dome, he takes a panoramic view of the entire city of Chester’s Mill and gives us a quick update on a bunch of the characters all at once before swooping back into their own lives for individual chapters. This gives a sense of connection, but it's best if used sparingly. An interesting technique to try out for yourself.
Using a novel to talk about society - and the darkness underneath. King has obviously employed this technique for decades, using his eery eye for New England culture to show the blackened underbelly of the world around us. This story, which takes place in roughly our time, is one in which the human drama takes center stage despite the bizarre instances all around them. Most of the older and wizened residents who may have a chance at calming things after the Dome falls are unfortunately killed right off the bat, leaving the manipulators and strugglers to figure out how to raise the structure. There are other, deeper elements too, including the rise of rural drug epidemics, and religion, which I’ve always felt King handles with a scary deft of ease. I won’t go much further for those who haven’t read this one.
You can come back to the same themes over and over. If you are Stephen King. I hate to keep using rules that apply only to this one guy, but his career would seem to bear me out. Under the Dome is a monstrosity of previous themes in his works: people placed in a very unordinary situation, the evil residing in the human heart, a town coming apart under stress, narration from almost every character’s viewpoint (even a dog a few times). And yet, this book read as fresh to me as anything he’s ever written, and I would go as far as to say its length places it alongside other epics such as The Stand and IT. I kept reading and thinking I knew where he was going, but I never did. That is the power of storytelling.
The importance of research. In an author’s note King mentions he’s had the germ of this idea in his noggin since the 70’s, but never had the time to appropriately research the technical aspects of it (pondering such lovely questions as: what would happen if a town was covered by an invisible alien structure and a massive explosion took place?). While many of us will never have the luxury of such time to work on a gigantic project like this, we should still plan our lives like we’re expecting it.
I wanted to get back to King as I hadn’t read anything he has produced in the last decade, while seeing his books continue to fly off the shelves ever since he claimed he was “retiring” all those years ago. But to go wider, I want to briefly discuss this author’s place of influence in my life.
I’ve tried using these experiments to veer both into literary history and popular fiction. The popular fiction I’ve come across has been mostly dreck, but I have always regarded Stephen King as firmly outside the banner of “popular” anything. To me, he’s an acquired taste, and I had nearly forgotten his penchant for over-the-top violence as I read this story, which was supposedly about an alien structure covering a small town but felt much closer. He has taught me so much as a writer, and a few of his books (Needful Things, Misery) will always be regarded as favorites. Hell, I basically wrote my second novel (Last Man on Campus) as a love-letter to the guy’s achievements, trying to appropriate his creepy stylings for my supernatural thriller.
And yet, over the past few years I’ve read some of the greatest books of my life, and have come to see the value of expanding our literary minds as far as possible. While I’m not sure I can definitively say I have an “all-time favorite” author I can finally admit that Stephen King does not reside in that place. Well, at least not alone. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop reading him, or trying to learn from him (I haven’t mentioned On Writing yet, but I’m assuming anyone reading this is probably aware of it). And I would recommend the same to anyone out there interested in this author and his tremendous body of work.
Up next, I’m going to revisit a classic I haven’t read since my schooldays: Jack London’s Call of the Wild. The edition I have also contains a few of his short stories, so I will be back here with a post about that as I segue into other collections (and attempt writing a dozen short stories of my own) in this second year of fiction. I hope to be back to reading novels and finishing another major rewrite of my own by the Fall/Winter.
As always, thanks for reading. (And thanks for your patience while I took a little break from the bloggy.) See you next time!
Hello readers and welcome to installment number five of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). After taking on All Quiet on the Western Front I decided to pivot to a Minnesota author who is rapidly becoming a favorite of mine: Tim O’Brien. In this case I chose his landmark 1994 novel In the Lake of the Woods.
While I’m not sure it’s quite as brilliant as The Things They Carried, this book is without a doubt an incredible piece of fiction masquerading as fact. The story, about a Minnesota politician residing in a remote cabin with his wife after being soundly defeated in a primary, is deceptively simple, but O’Brien weaves his narrator through the pieces of the puzzle, offering explanations as to what may have happened. The chief characters are John Wade and his wife Kathy, but we meet a dozen others through the course of their lives, and also as pieces of “evidence” the narrator has assembled for our viewing. The story is intricately told and kept me riveted until the end. But more on all these themes in the lessons I took away from this monumental work:
If you can’t tell from my effusive praise, I very much enjoyed reading this novel, and would highly recommend it. There is a reason O’Brien is consistently cited as one of the best wranglers of the written word over the past few decades, and has miles to teach within his books. I hope to be able to visit all of his works over the coming years.
Up next, I’m going to take a bit of a break before I dive into what will be my summer read: Stephen King’s gigantic 2009 novel Under the Dome. I hope to also hit a short story collection or two, and get some of my own written. Have a safe and fun season everyone, and thanks for reading!
Hello readers, and welcome to the fourth installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). After previously suffering through John Grisham’s The Firm, I moved backward in time to what is generally considered the greatest book about war ever put to paper: Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front.
First, I would absolutely agree with the critical consensus. I’ve finally gotten to a fair amount of phenomenal war novels in the last few years (Catch-22, Slaughterhouse V, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Johnny Got His Gun) and this was the best one I’ve read. I believe I understand the reason as one of the major lessons to draw from this impactful work. And so:
I’ll conclude this with a hearty recommendation for anyone who enjoys great literature to pick this one up. It’s important to recall this war happened only a century ago, and to ponder its lessons for today.
Coming up next in AYOF: I will be taking on (Minnesota author) Tim O’Brien’s landmark 1994 novel In the Lake of the Woods. Thanks for reading!
My first novel was published by North Star Press nearly three years ago. 2014 seems like a long time ago: Obama was still POTUS, and nobody even considered the upcoming election much yet. I was preoccupied with a lot that year, including getting the book, Our Senior Year, finished and the cover ready to go for my events. For those of you who haven’t read it, the book is essentially a fictionalized account of my time at a small high school in Iowa. I named the town Clarmont, a pastiche combining another nearby town, and patched together a few of my best friends at the time as characters. I also split my personality in half and had them be best friends, a decision I’m not quite sure worked very well but was useful in telling the story from two different (albeit similar) perspectives.
I’d recently read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, one of the first “horror” novels (depending on your time frame) of the modern era, and one told entirely through epistolary forms of the time: monographs recorded for others to listen, letters, and diary entries. This got me considering a journal entry to tell one character’s side of the story. This journal is located by the other main character at the beginning of the tale, and he uses it to tell the story in what ends up being the actual book. There are some plot twists based on my experience at that town over four years, including an amalgamation of some car wrecks, and a suicide.
The friends were based on people I got to know quite well during my senior year there, as I had run with a different group of people aimlessly (and neurotically, though I wasn’t aware at the time) up to that point. I realized the people in my own grade were having an awesome time, and that it was time to start seeing what they were into. I have since come to understand our activities as pretty stupid, but no too much outside the norm for kids of any era. But all of this did not bode well with my parents, who raised me on a farm outside the town based on pretty strict religious structure. This is reflected in the character’s attending a youth group night at a local church.
This entire novel was really a reaction against my upbringing. Circa 2013, when I was finishing the last drafts, I was coming off an important conversation with my parents a year earlier regarding my breaking away from their Christian faith. I would end up telling them parts of what the story would entail, and tried to make sure they were aware that the parent characters are not really them. One is an alcoholic, and my father doesn’t touch the stuff, and my mother was not overbearing and mean like in the novel. Still, I had conceived the novel in my high school days as being against this type of strict upbringing.
Yet I couldn’t view this work through any other lens than a strictly religious conflict up until now. I’ve recently had some powerful emotional breakthroughs regarding all of it (the ignorance coupled with the extreme fundamentalism) and have come to some much better ground surrounding it. I’m not so angry any longer, and it feels better. I thought it would be as good a time as any to revisit what was driving this first novel.
A lot of it was driven by anger, and fear. Since our initial discussion I had since come to see how I was raised through a mostly negative light, and struggled to distance myself from it through this novel. There is a discussion in the book dealing with a documentary I watched in real life produced by PBS describing a lot of the fallacies in where the Bible comes from. After, the father and son discuss why they don’t believe in this stuff anymore, but must for the sake of their mother. This was one of my first clumsy attempts at inserting commentary I’d arrived at much later into a fictional time zone where part of me existed. I was also at the time afraid my parents would know more about what I thought. I thought this passage in the novel would be enough to cover some of this. It never was.
But that’s another great revelation to hit as a writer: I’m not who I thought I was. That’s right, I can evolve, both through life and in my work. My marriage has taught me a lot about the life part, now it’s time to tackle the writing bit.
The person who finally finished that book in 2013-14 is not the person sitting here writing this today. I have a new, and different outlook on religion and all of its various manifestations through society. And instead of forgetting about it, like it’s not a part of me, I have come to the conclusion that I can only incorporate it into my writing. I have seen so much of it used in the wrong way, in ways that will affect me for the rest of my life. But instead of the anger, I have to approach it with the opposite. Compassion, understanding, but also ruthless interrogation. What causes humans to believe such things? Where does it come from, and where is it going?
I have no idea, and things are only getting more confused with the technological revolution of recent years. AI appears to be the closest thing we might get to a “god” on this planet, so what does that mean for religion? These are all things I didn’t realize I wanted to write about until they wouldn’t go away and kept turning into a huge idea. Therefore, I am going to begin drafting a new book, involving ideas about the future, climate change, technology, and seeing where it leads. I’m also going to continue re-writing Observe and Detach so it’s ready for an agent, but I can’t suppress this any longer. It’s time to start harnessing the tide of creative growth that comes from a healthy examination of one’s path.
That’s my main point for you aspiring writers out there. Look at where you come from, gaze at what you wrote, but don’t let it define you. You are never who you thought you were. I wish there was some other better way to figure this out besides time travel or something. But as I near the midpoint of my thirties, I’ve come to understand that if you can learn from your mistakes, and where you come from, you’ll go a long way toward finding out where you’re going.
(Also when I first started thinking about this essay, I couldn’t help get this infamous YouTube video out of my head. Denny Green was a perennial character in my parent's’ living room as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings a million years ago…)
Hello readers, and welcome to the third installment of Another Year of Fiction (AYOF). So far I’ve read a deeply disturbing murder mystery and what has been considered the first feminist novel. Next, I decided to take a veering course into commercial fiction with John Grisham’s 1991 novel The Firm.
This novel and its author are quite well-known in the literary world, and if I’m being honest I’m not quite sure why. This was quite possibly the worst book I have ever read. Despite this, it sold millions of copies and produced an epic movie that went on to cement Grisham’s status in the pop culture realm. I won’t spend much time on the plot, which for me was the only thing that kept me going, except to say it’s a legal thriller involving a young attorney who joins a Memphis tax firm which he ends up realizing (through the FBI) is a front for organized crime. Yet I still found a few (counter-intuitive) lessons to draw from this book:
I unfortunately must conclude that due to these glaring issues I will not be picking up this author anytime soon, if ever. I would recommend this book only if you are looking for a quick read to breeze through over the summer, but even in that category there are doubtless better books. I hate to wrap up this review in such a negative light, but it bears mentioning that even reading books like this can clue an author into what is popular in today’s market. Grisham manages to crank out a book every year, and while working at a bookstore has taught me the ethereal nature of big-name mystery authors, there is no doubt he has found success despite his shortcomings.
Up next, I’m taking a major step back into the past and revisiting one of my favorite genres, the war novel: in this case, Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front. I also hope to get a few more essays for the blog completed by the halfway point of the year. Stay tuned to this space for more updates on Another Year of Fiction!
John Abraham-Watne is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.