Hello readers and welcome to another series on this here blog I’ve been struggling with for years: shorter pieces focusing on the writing life and its challenges, daily affairs, and all it entails. That was initially what this blog was going to be all about, but it sort of got hijacked by the reading list and my “how to write a book” project. The first essay is here if you missed it. And without further ado, here is the second installment in the Writing Life.
Embrace the failure. I know, it sounds counterintuitive and perhaps like every other piece of writing advice you’ve encountered on the internet and elsewhere. But there is perhaps no other more important part of the writing life than this one. Because it will be all consuming, and inescapable. Forget the general people out there who may be repelled by your work, or never even find out about it; there are yet to be legions of lit mags, online outlets, editors and publishers who all will reject your work for various reasons. This is a huge part of refining our skills. I suppose I should lead all this failure announcing that I am finally going to have a short story published this October, after a half-decade of writing them and not getting anywhere (more on where to find this particular story coming soon). This represents the culmination of getting an idea, drafting a basic concept story, showing it to a few people, getting some great feedback, rewriting and rewriting it, looking it over a few more dozen times, submitting it and receiving (at least) ten rejections, from lit mags in Minnesota and beyond, until finally it will be published by an outlet that has also published my editor, Libby Copa.
Speaking of Libby, a while back she pointed me to this essential LitHub article by Kim Liao about the importance of seeking 100 rejections per year. I know that I didn’t even get close to that with this story, and that feels pretty great but doesn’t make me underestimate the amount of work required to get even more published. If the dream is having some kind of story collection ready to go by the time my other manuscripts can get shopped, I will need to get hundreds of rejections piled over a dozen stories (at least). I have come to find the necessary rotation should be around five-six stories sent out to as many places as you can, while keeping track of them through a spreadsheet or document. And while it felt odd to have to withdraw the piece from other places I’d submitted it, I didn’t mind the reason.
This essay was also inspired by some thoughtful reviews of my books on GoodReads, which is another great resource for feedback (even if they point out errors I too have gone on about at length). And as much fun as it was to see someone created a profile just to give my first novel a one-star review, it is all a part of dealing with the fact that some people just won’t like your work. It seems hard to overcome that at first, but the more you embrace it, the more you will see how it doesn’t define you but is used to make your writing better. I have a lot more confidence now that an independent party has verified that I might know what I’m doing. This will in turn help me get my current manuscript in the best shape it can be, and eventually get it published as well. So learn to embrace the failure, for your own good.
Hello readers and welcome to this short installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! Finishing up the first half the year reading nothing but contemporary female authors (last time was one of the best), I am wrapping up this portion with a local author, Julie Schumacher and her hilarious 2014 novel Dear Committee Members, a novel-in-letters unlike that I’ve encountered since maybe Dracula.
Schumacher is a professor at the U of M in the Department of English, and it comes through in every inch of this tale, which is told entirely through Jay Fitger’s letters of recommendation, whether that be of current and former students, or for literary honors. This conceit becomes increasingly bizarre as Fitger’s life intervenes upon his students’, including one who is re-imagining Melville and ends up with one of the more darker ends of the piece. The rest of the time I was laughing out loud repeatedly, reading out loud lines of prose that were just so ridiculous (and let’s face it, would never be included in a “real” LOR but perhaps that is the point) yet cathartic and abrasive. Schumacher notes in her bio she has “written more letters of recommendation than she cares to recall,” and the entire novel (short and succinct as it is) revolves around this theme.
And even for a book published five years ago, that theme was quite obvious. Though the letters take place over the school year of 2009-2010, for both her and her character the writing is on the wall. Liberal arts doesn’t have the luster it once had in the era of unaffordable college; the economics department gets its floor upgraded as we hear about ad nauseum (Fitger is a stunning creation, a witless once-talented creature inhabited by many people the author must have encountered over the years); Fitger’s recriminatory letters continue to gain in self righteousness and self loathing; I have never seen character work done like this and it’s quite impressive. As I keep digressing, the major theme is the deconstruction of the academic scene via economics, and one man’s vigilant (some of the other characters might say vicious) crusade against it. In an era in which presidential candidates are actually calling for free college and abolishing student debt, perhaps this is an idea whose time has come. And in the end Figer’s colleagues (rightly or wrongly) vote for him to chair their department back to its former glory.
Overall I would highly recommend this novel for anyone looking for a short, funny read that also grapples with some important issues about art, books, and where all this stuff is heading (Young Adult literature that sells for six-figures is a prominent presence, for example). Schumacher clearly has a good grasp of what she wants to say with the unctuous Fitger, and it comes across as he degenerates through the year and tries to redeem himself through tragedy.
Up next, as promised I’m taking a pivot into science fiction as I plunge head first into the manuscript re-writes (which are going pretty well, by the way): the legendary Robert Heinlein and his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. And there will be more updates in the Writing Life and on my book. Thanks for reading!
Hello there readers and welcome as I finally get to another series on this here blog I’ve been struggling with for years. After working on the initial blog post (still entitled “What’s a writer for?”) for months and seeing no end in sight (but there are gonna be tons of links!) I have decided to try something different for this series. And that is, shorter pieces focusing on the writing life and its challenges, daily affairs, and all it entails. I mean, that was initially what this blog was going to be all about, but it sort of got hijacked by the reading list and my “how to write a book” project. So without further ado, here is the first installment in the Writing Life.
I’m writing a book about climate change. It’s not like I haven’t said this before, but I think it deserves its own post because it’s pretty much all I have worked on for a solid year. And the entire thing needs to be re-written, because the perspective is wrong. By next year I might have a solid draft to show people. But until then, I can talk about it. So, why climate change?
If you somehow haven’t heard about it by now, the IPCC reports essentially spell out what is rapidly becoming the challenge of my generation: climate crisis and how little time we have to do anything about it. While this issue has waffled over my lifetime as something Americans care about, and then don’t (remember #climategate? No, I’m not going to link to that), it seems that we have reached a relative tipping point with legislation like the Green New Deal reaching massive audiences and people my age realizing this is going to affect the rest of their lives.
It’s important, and if you have been following me online for any length of time you’ll know how much I scream into the void about it to little result. This is my attempt to rectify that in what I feel is my greatest capacity: writing. Specifically, a story about climate change, how it may be manipulated into use via geo-engineering and how that may lead to an utter division of the planet. And that just scratches the surface of this beast, which also tackles AI, religion, technology, cloning, environmental catastrophe, time travel (can you see why it is kind of a mess at this point?), and other stuff. Oh yeah, journalism too. Cuz that’s what I’ve devoted a lot of my time over the years, and informs a lot of this book.
And as my editor stated, this book pushes a lot of buttons. I come from a conservative religious background that ultimately didn’t take, and I want to examine it through my fiction. But I also want to examine a culture that allows the generational selling out we’ve witnessed via the climate crisis, and how it’s up to us to do something about it. Again, in the real world we have maybe a decade to reduce emissions to the point where human survival is a possibility. In my novel, that is not quite a foregone conclusion, and for the hell of it I will give away a major plot point in the hope it may interest you. I conclude that the only thing that may wake up the populace is the sudden loss of half the landmass of Florida. Again, sitting here reading this you may not believe it. But the science tells us enough ice is melting rapidly that something like that could happen, and in my lifetime.
Speaking of my editor, she was also right to point out that this is merely one way to get involved. Contact your representatives, create your own art about it, get involved in the protest movement that is growing by the day, and try to use as little fossil fuel as possible. I know it sounds hyperbolic but this is truly the challenge of our generation, and we need all hands on deck.
Thanks for indulging me as I shine a light on my manuscript, and I hope you’ll one day be able to read it as I publish it. Some other topics I have lined up for this series include: failure and why we should seek it out, how to learn to listen to others (i.e. editors), time management, and some other things. And of course I’m still working on that (initial) blog post about what writers are for, which takes on new meaning by the hour of teh #Drumpf tweet. On that note, thanks for reading and writing.
I never noticed that small crack in the upper left corner of the bathroom, winding its way toward the pinnacle of the ceiling. A bit of mold grows around the base, a sick greenish-black splotch. I open the old mirror and its hinges squeal in protest. From within, the remains of a previous life stare back at me. I avoid looking at the floss in its small rectangular box. It taunts me; reminds me of what used to be.
Sylvia used to make me floss every night. Said it was good for me. I haven't touched the stuff since she left and took the kids. I don't notice a difference in my teeth. I feel around with an index finger to make sure. As I am doing this, my eyes land on other containers. The shaving cream I bought the week after she moved out. It's not as good as what she got me, but I don't care. I don't have to care anymore. My razor, the dull blade reflecting the glare of the overhead bulb. A pack of cotton swabs she would use to clean the disgusting wax from the caverns of my ear cavities. My mother used to do the same thing when I was six years old. I see peroxide for my little cuts, bandages for the larger ones. My gaze shifts to the tweezers sitting next to the bandages. She used to use those to pull little hairs right out of my skin. God, how I hated that. God, how I loved it.
Sylvia left behind what she didn't want at her new place, the overstuffed plaid couch we found at a garage sale the year we were married. Our cat Diana, before we even started talking about having children, used to eat the white fluff that poured from its sides when she scratched it with her long, merciless claws. Diana lives with Sylvia and my children now. I think they even got another cat.
I see Sylvia took all the "female" stuff from this squeaky cabinet. The makeup, the hair ties, the pins, facial cleanser, hair spray. All the pills she had to take for allergies, headaches, muscle injuries. And the bottles that would make her smell nice when we were alone without the kids. I don't need to smell like a damn thing now. I'm still a man, aren't I? Our gender was never supposed to smell like roses. Just like we were never meant to clean up after ourselves. Don't even think on that kitchen right now. Focus on the task at hand.
My eyes arrive back upon the tiny white box of string. If I am going to do this, affirm that I'm ready to move on, it's best to get it over with while I can. I don't see or feel anything wrong with my teeth. But I'm not looking hard enough. I reach out and pull the little box down to the sink. A string dangles from the edge. I grab it taut and pull out a length of it. Start on the back, I tell myself. That was always the hardest. Six months ago my dentist said a cavity was forming here. Sylvia said to just take care of it; we'd worry about how to pay for it later. I should have listened to her. On the bright side, there is nobody to nag me about what to eat now. I wonder what's left in that refrigerator. Ouch. Focus.
Damn, this hurts. More than it did last time. I shouldn't have broken this habit. I shouldn't have done a lot of things. We thought new trips would help our situation. Did our ski vacation in Denver last winter? Not according to my bruised ass, and damaged ego. I didn't know the pain of snow grinding against flesh quite until then. Charlie, our oldest, almost slid right into a tree. And the traveling out east to see some of Sylvia's judgmental relatives? When we left screaming out the door on the way out to our rented minivan, Uncle Mike said in mighty plain language we were not welcome back. Sorry I brought up how good I thought oil was for the country at large. Didn't realize it was still so communist out there. What's been happening to this country.
My thoughts return to the slow movement of my fingers, moving along the right side. This side hurts even worse. Could there be another cavity forming here? Why wouldn't the dentist have told me this?
Sylvia, you shouldn't have taken the kids. I lost control of the narrative. Christ knows what she's telling them about their absent father. About what a jerk, what a loser he is. He doesn't even floss, Charlie. Did ya know that? Doesn't even take care of himself. What kind of man is not able to continue basic hygiene once his partner is gone? Not somebody she wants you to know, Lisa. I suppose it's more important she knows what men are like, now, before she grows up. Before she goes into this world, and finds out what it's really like.
Forget about all of that. Keep going. I am doing this because I want to, not because it was a routine, like all the others only you could keep me doing. Not because it reminds me of the ways you affected my life. I'm conducting this painful exercise, this tour of duty because I want to, and not for any other reason.
This part, in the front, doesn't hurt so much. This is what it's supposed to feel like. Gives the mouth a nice clean feeling. Doesn't that feel better, Sylvia would say. Yes it does, I would say in grudging reply. You were right. I got used to saying that quite a lot. She nailed the fact that I wouldn't be able to keep that job in her father's firm. Of course, there was more to it than that. Besides, I got this new job at the diner. Pays the bills for this place, for now. I'll find work elsewhere. It's not like I'll be working at a suck hole restaurant down the street for the rest of my life.
Now it's time to floss the other side. This hurts like hell in the back. I must be developing more cavities. It's in my diet. Sylvia used to force me to eat the most disturbing foods. Healthy crap like broccoli, potatoes, carrots, and fish. Can you imagine much worse? And this was every night. She said it was good for the kids to grow up with healthy bodies. What about what might be good for me?
Sylvia and I used to have routines. Go out to the potholed street to pick up our mail together each night after work, dodging the kids on bicycles and then old folks out for their stroll. Sometimes we'd walk further too, out into the park across the way. We'd sit up late at night reading, her with a book and me with a hunting magazine, as the fire warmed. I don't even remember the last time we went out to see a movie. Not since the kids came along. They went to see their own stuff now, and we didn't because we were too exhausted. Routines are only held together by commitment. I'm finding that out now. I keep telling myself I'm doing this for my own good, but I know the truth. I'm doing this because she used to make me do it. I can't not do it. I want to be told to do it. To be held to a standard.
I pull out another strand of floss, circulate it to the lower regions. It still hurts, but not as bad as at the beginning. I should just go to the dentist. You would want me to do that, even after all of this. You forced these routines on me because you knew I could be better. Even through my resistance. You knew I wanted better. But maybe I don't want to be better anymore. You're not around to make me. Not since that night.
You had your suspicions. Lipstick on that envelope from my co-worker in your father's office. I know you had your father spying on me. In the break room, in my office, in the hallways. He even had his secretary looking through my mail. Why was I so stupid? I left that envelope out on my desk, knowing she would see it. Knowing you would find out. Maybe I wanted to be found out. Maybe I knew it was wrong all along. Plus it never could have worked out. The girl was half my age, didn't even know who Ronald Reagan was. I was a damned fool.
Truth was, I didn't think I was happy. I couldn't imagine getting that from you and the kids. I wanted out. And now that I am, it's everything I thought it would be. But much worse.
Back to the flossing, I have rounded third and am getting to the front teeth now. A piece of the frozen pizza I inhaled earlier is flung at the mirror. I watch as it smacks the glass, falls a few centimeters and gets plastered in place right above my left eye in the mirror. It takes up room among the other stains: toothpaste, soap, my own sweat, water marks. These things she would have washed off so I wouldn't have to look at them. It is time to be done.
I hold a lingering glance at the cabinet after I swing open the creaky door. The floss was left in there. You knew I'd want to use it again someday. My eyes fall on the rest of my products; drop to the sink as I close the door. I have to get that door fixed. Along with the crack in the ceiling. And the mold. You would have noticed that months ago.
My gums are on bloody fire, the pain is excruciating when I open my jaw. I recall you one evening yelling at me, telling me I had to endure the pain before I could understand it. The worst pain of all I brought upon you, and the children. I can never be forgiven for this. I'm not sure if I even want to be.
Back to the main room, where the ratty, comfortable couch remains. Nobody around to tell me I can't set my food plates right on the cushions, either. Like a disgusting hog in a pen.
I have everything I could ever need. Sylvia took all of her clothes, leaving metric feet of space in the bedroom closet. This is my chance to see how long I can make it with my current wardrobe. I told her once I could live in these clothes for years. Now is the time to prove it. I think it's time to get some beers from the liquor store across the street.
I will miss you. I will always miss you. I cannot dwell on the past, not when I have this sweet bachelor pad. Not when I have the opportunity to meet new people. It's easy to make friends after you turn forty, right? You moved on with your friends quite well. None of them want to speak to me, and it serves them right. I never liked them, anyways. Once the girl in your dad's office found out I was married, it was over. I guess women don't like to be deceived. Now I am on my own, for the first time since before I met you. I did it before, I can do it again. Right?
Shit, it is chilly out here. I wish I remembered to bring my coat. No bother. A few vagrants linger around the shelves in the liquor store, harsh white fluorescent light blasting the scene for the closed circuit cameras. I grab a twelve pack of brew from the cooler and hoof it to the counter, where two meth heads are dueling it out for supremacy over a large forty ounce bottle. See, there are a lot of people in this neighborhood to meet. Back in the apartment building, I run up the three flights since the elevator remains out of order. I need the exercise, just like I needed to floss.
Now I just want to settle in for some television. I click the button, but nothing happens. Damn, I forgot she paid for it. I should have asked her to transfer it to my name. I need my Spike-TV. Oh well. I suppose now I can relax on my own. Do some quality reading. Like we used to in front of the fire. Where's that Norman Mailer novel.
Now it's 2:00 am and darkened in this house we used to share. I forgot the damn light bulbs. I hear myself moan in the darkness as I lift myself out of the ratty couch. Leave those beer bottles for tomorrow. You have all the time in the world before you have to walk back into that kitchen. The stack of dishes can remain a mystery until tomorrow.
Sylvia, you were right to take the kids. Charlie and Lisa will grow up the right way under your guidance. I'm an unfit parent. Can't even take care of my fucking teeth. No child should have to endure that. I had do with my father, as I told you on our second date. You saw it coming a mile away.
I stumble into bed, using my phone as a flashlight. I forgot to brush my teeth. After all that work. This thought is borne away on a stream of false consciousness. When I think I am back in reality I see Sylvia, Charlie and Lisa in front of me, standing in front of this apartment, waving but moving out of my vision. And then they are gone, and I'm alone in this bed, in this apartment with my rotten teeth and my eternal misery.
Short stories - what are they? How do they work? This is a topic I have been struggling with since I began writing for this website (almost) four years ago. The first short story I ever posted here was a re-posting of a terrible story I wrote for a creative writing class back in my university days (if you’re a glutton for punishment, here are parts one and two of that initial workshop).
Since that time I have carved out a dedicated space each year to simply read short story collections. Beginning with Jack London and Neil Gaiman, I later moved the “pivot” into these collections toward the end of each reading year before finally realizing this type of writing cannot be constrained to when I would like to think about it. I began reading pairs of authors but also spent some deeper time with those I thought were the best. I also posted a few more stories to the blog in that time. One was political in nature and got a few good responses, but without a doubt the story that made the biggest splash was “Flossing,” which I posted in September 2017. (Here is a link for those who’d like to read the original.)
Since then I have continued working on it, combining aspects of another story and cleaning up the perspective and emotional tenor. To that end, I sent the revamped story to my “other” editor Anne Nerison of Inkstand Editorial to get her take on how this story could be improved. I also asked her if I could use some of our editing conversations for this post in order to try and show the process of how to write a short story, something that has bedeviled me for quite a while. Those who do choose to go back and read the original will see a clipped, single-perspective story concerning a man who has lost everything in his life. While I decided to keep that overall theme, I wanted to say more about the concept of toxic masculinity through what happens when we of the male gender act as is our wont. Thankfully this came through enough for Anne to see as well.
Of course, every editing partnership contains some give and take. My “main” editor Libby could attest to that, as most of our early working relationship involved her telling me how to make my books better and me not being willing to listen to some (or all) of it. I have since learned how to trust her expertise, and I am trying to do the same here even on our points of divergence. In the case of this story, there were two places in which I told Anne I didn’t take her advice, and here was her very thoughtful consideration when we discussed the second case:
“Everything I change or comment on are suggestions, for you to take or leave as you wish. After all, this is your story, and you know best what message you're trying to get across and how you want to get there. I see my role as being an outside eye and making those suggestions, but I certainly don't expect that every author will accept 100% of them.”
The first case was more subjective, involving the main character getting a job at his (now ex-) wife’s father’s firm and how that led him into temptation. Anne suggested I cut most of this, and I decided to go a different way and pull more of a narrative from that. When I told her so, she actually said she liked the changes. This is an example of how sometimes you should stick to your original thought, but be respectful in exploring how you came to that understanding. I’m very grateful that Anne is such an amazing editor (you should follow her on Twitter too) and is very open to such a back and forth.
There was also another point of contention regarding a change of setting, and while I’m still not sure I made the right decision in whether to keep it, sometimes writers are just bull-headed and want to keep stuff in their work. This is an impulse you should listen to every once in a while, but always keep it carefully weighed against what your (very smart, talented) editor has to say on the matter.
Besides those points of divergence, every other suggestion Anne had made this story much better. It is my hope that in posting it to the blog readers can see how much it has changed in nearly two years. I am also open to any thoughts/criticism regarding the theme, which I am still not sure I have hit correctly even with this rewrite, but I am trying...
In the interest of keeping this part to its own topic of introduction, I will be putting the actual story in its own post. And I look forward to any and all reader comments, since this thing will never see the light of day for publication in an actual literary journal but is a piece that will live on my blog for demonstration purposes. I do have a few other stories I have been circulating through journals and contests over the past month; more on that if I am lucky enough to hear back from any of those outlets (all rejections so far, but they’ve come with notes from editors which are usually great).
Thanks as always, for reading my work.
Hello readers and welcome to 2019. All right, we’re a month in but who’s counting? Just the calendars?
Long-time readers will recall that I’ve been doing some sort of fiction reading and posting since 2016, and last year I decided to just make this a regular series. And again, I’m back with a post looking over the year and what these authors taught me. Just a few quick hits: both Margaret Atwood and Emily St. John Mandel taught me how to write an incredible, dystopian tale; Donna Tartt showed me how to maintain such control over one’s writing that you can give away the ending; Virginia Woolf showed me (and many male authors of her own time) how to spin a dramatic life out of a single day; DeLillo quite simply blew me away with his immense talent; Joyce Carol Oates illustrated family life in ways I never thought possible; Flannery O’Connor deftly proved how to weave religious themes into secular morality tales; James Baldwin showed how to speak boldly and causticly about our racist American society; and Chekhov gave me a master class in short story writing at the end of the year (I also shoved in two more story collections into the first month of this year).
I also delved into a brilliant Netflix series, took a detour into drama and finally made it to a graphic novel (albeit also not until this year). And I was again able to blast through a fair amount of phenomenal nonfiction at my day job, which this year included Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants, Naomi Klein’s climate polemic This Changes Everything, the late Anthony Bourdain's second collection The Nasty Bits, Andrew Bacevich’s The Limits of Power, Daniel Kahneman's masterful Thinking Fast and Slow, and Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget. All told, while I didn’t quite manage to get everything shoved into 2018 I read around 25 books, which if you’re keeping score at home is about twice the amount I have been able to get to in years past.
Looking back, I’d have to say while I met the overall goal of reading more fiction, I still have a ways to go including non-white and female authors. While I made some strides in that direction this year, it is something I am going to continue to work on and include in my reading lists (and as always, I’m open to any recommendations). As I stated last year, the Reading List is going to be an ongoing, never-ending series for the rest of my career, so I am not concerned with promising a certain amount of titles per year anymore.
This brings me to my second overall lesson, which is how to switch up this series. For three years now, with each work I have attempted to draw out at least two major lessons for writers. Some authors had many more than this, some barely made it at all. After all this time I have decided I have illustrated this enough, and now hope to do a more “review” style post on each work, describing what I liked and didn’t like, what worked for the story, and whether or not I would recommend this to other writers.
Regarding some of my other goals from last year: I was able to begin a series called “How to Write a Book” - if you missed any of it the first time around part one (Ideas & Outline) is here, part two (Drafting) is here, and both of parts three (Editing) can be found here and here. The “Writing” series continues to be a no-show, mostly because I have been working on a blog post titled “What are writers for” for a few months and it’s still not done. But I hope to get that series at least begun in 2019. I also hope to keep broadening my horizons in terms of inspiration, and to that end I hope to cover more Netflix shows, and of course the other genre/types such as drama, poetry, and graphic novels. And now that I’m down to a single magazine subscription (Poets & Writers, which I would highly recommend) I would like to read even more nonfiction at work throughout the year.
Overall I would say this was my most successful year of reading, both in terms of books read and in how much I learned. And even though I don’t work with her any more, I’d like to again extend a thank you to the coworker who encouraged me to include more contemporary women authors on my list. I hope to continue that trend with other non-gender-binary and non-white authors. As always, thanks for joining me on this journey. I hope you gained some writing insight through these posts, and I really hope I was able to encourage everyone to read more in what sure looks like America’s dark age. And as I posted last time, the first novel for the revamped Reading List will be Ann Patchett's 2011 novel State of Wonder. Thanks for reading!
Hello readers and thank you for sticking with me as I jam the last bit of the 2018 Reading List into January before taking it in a little different direction. Last time I got through the Salinger collection Nine Stories, and while I am still planning on re-posting a short story to the blog I am wrapping up the collections in favor of novels for the next few months. But before I get into the 2019 Reading List I wanted to get to a type of work I had on deck for last year: the graphic novel.
Being a comic book fan for most of my life I have been familiar with the superhero genre in this area for years, but have yet to read much of the more “serious” fare that has gained national attention for decades. While I’ve caught up with a few over the past years (Maus and the first part of Persepolis for two examples) I have yet to actually write about one. So I chose an author and a work with which I thought I’d have some affinity: Craig Thompson and his 2003 mastework, Blankets. I want to try and do the usual thing here with respect to the lessons writers can get out of a work like this, but also want to say a little about the emotions evoked out of the story.
The use of illustration. This is one of those lessons that, especially in this medium, probably gets a response of, “well duh.” And while that’s kind of the entire point of the medium, Thompson is a genius of the form. There are full page spreads devoted to various images such as angels, regular humans, humans in trees, and multitudes of Biblical images flowed on pages seamlessly into the “actual” story. In between these are the regular frames, filled with gorgeously rendered dialogue and exquisite character interactions.
Use your pain. This ties in with the overall message of the book, which struck home with me in a few ways. Apparently Thompson wrote it as a way of telling his parents he was leaving his faith, which I have also had to do in various ways over my life; the way he tells the story resonated with me in ways few other pieces of art have. It didn’t hurt that he also grew up in a cold farmhouse, and with pressures coming from his family church and the places he would hang out, and youth group trips (similar to themes to those of my first novel, *cough* shameless plug *cough* Our Senior Year). This story is one of the best examples of using details of your life to make excellent work.
This piece worked for me on several levels, I guess mostly because of the personal turmoil I have gone through in the last year, but really in my whole life. I too have struggled with leaving the Christian faith and understanding myself to be atheistic, and both Thompson’s art and the way he described his journey made me consider my own in different ways. While there were some bits I wish he would have explored more (what happened to Raina?!) overall this was one of the best graphic novels I have ever read.
Well, that officially wraps up the 2018 Reading List! This series will continue in the new year, going back to novels written by females beginning with Ann Patchett's 2011 novel State of Wonder. I am also hoping to do a post on lessons learned this time around, similar to what I did at the beginning of the 2018 list, and pointing the way forward for this series. I am going to keep the type of works included as broad as possible, while changing up how I approach the posts at this juncture in my career. But more on all of that later. For now, I’d like to say thanks for coming along with me on this journey. When I started this as a series of experiments in 2016 I never could have imagined how important it would become to my career, and my life.
Thanks for reading, writing, and thinking about all of it. Here’s to a happy and healthy (and maybe better?) 2019.
Hello readers and thank you for hanging in with me as I front-load the remainder of the 2018 Reading List into January. Now that this series is continuous I hope to initiate further changes this year. But more on that later. First we need to take a look at another short story writer, who while maybe not as good as Chekhov definitely holds his own in a certain time and place: Richard Ford and his 1987 debut collection, Rock Springs. This book was initially recommended to me by my editor Libby and centers around small towns in Montana and the fascinating people that populate them. While I had some issues with decisions he made (more on that later), I want to take a look at what Ford gets right in these realist stories.
Use of character. Each of these tales contains at least a few memorable characters, people whom it is quite clear are based off those Ford must have encountered in his life, and situations that seem almost too ridiculous (and sublime) to have been totally made up from whole cloth. I would have to say the story “Winterkill” may be the best example of this, with a main character in a wheelchair snagging a dead deer in a river. This can work the other way too, though, with each story seeming to also contain different versions of the same character (which could also be considered a general running theme, along with…)
Use of place. This Ford uses to his advantage perhaps even better, evoking a parched, dry and dirty landscape in which his seedy characters go about their business conducting affairs in motels, going into the wilderness, or generally living miserable lives in which there are glints of happiness. The final story (“Communist”) is a great example of how to build up to a scene of nature and wildlife and then let it play out around the characters.
Overall I would have to say the main story “Rock Springs” was my overall favorite, a stunning almost thirty pages that shows this guy as a true master of the form. Unfortunately I found some (“Children”) to be downright creepy and one (“Empire”) that could have easily been cut in half, and for some reason contains an additional paragraph after what I thought should have been a masterful closing line. My bellyaching aside, there is more good to be found here than bad and a lot of instructions for those who want to follow in the Raymond Carver tradition of short story.
Up next, I’m still going to take on Salinger’s Nine Stories and then I may take a brief pivot into the one genre/type I didn’t make it to in 2018: the graphic novel. I also have some more ideas (inspired by my wife) for the 2019 Reading List that I hope to be able to share in an upcoming piece looking back on last year and my goals. And for those who do enjoy my fiction writing, I got one back from my “other” editor Anne that I will be posting here again (last time it was called “Flossing” now it’s just “Floss”) to try and deconstruct the process. Happy New Year and let’s have a slightly better 2019!
Hello readers and thank you for bearing with me as we march through this last part of the 2018 Reading List! After getting through a few pairs of books I made my annual “pivot” to short stories, taking on a writer highly admired by Francine Prose, whose book Reading Like a Writer I read two years back. She turned me onto the work of this 19th century Russian but I had no idea of Anton Chekhov’s true legacy until I read his stories. They are are that good. Normally I head into the major lessons to be learned from such a phenomenal writer (and I will) but the best lesson for me was: read Chekhov. You will be hard pressed to find a better short story author at any caliber, at any time period. So now let’s take a quick look at two major factors of why that is:
Use of setting. This is not arguably Chekhov’s strongest suite, but the playwright in him shines through in the introduction of many of these stories (I had Norton Critical Edition collecting his best known). Nature is described quite beautifully and flowing, but is only allowed a few sentences at the beginning of sections. This was all Chekhov considered was necessary in telling a story about human drama. The characters are also set in the stage in this literary way, placed either in favor or against each other, just as the master wants them.
Use of character. This is what critics have spent their entire lives trying to figure out, and I’m hardly going to say it’s the use of one specific description or story that really shows it. It’s in all of them; that’s how amazing every story he wrote was. But for just a few examples - in “Misery” the poor carriage driver is reduced to explaining his daughter’s death to his horse because no one else cares; in “The Teacher of Literature” a man starts out in what he think is a great life only to end up miserable; and in “The Lady with the Dog” two people wind up in love at the worst possible time. These are but three examples of the incomparable control Chekhov exercised over these character’s lives in order to present life just as it is, not as we would like it.
I also tremendously enjoyed “The Bishop,” “The Betrothed,” “Anna on the Neck,” “Sleepy,” the list goes on. I am at a loss to go any further than my first piece of advice regarding this author: read him. He wrote several hundred stories in his lifetime, so it’s possible you may encounter an entirely different collection than I did, and have your own experience. I also must add that in Reading Like a Writer, Prose recommends checking out Chekhov’s letters. In the edition I had there were quite a few excerpts he wrote to his contemporaries about writing that I found enormously interesting and helpful. Which goes back to my major point - if you are studying someone to see how they did what they did, take it all in, not just the stories but the process and how they accomplished it, and their own thoughts about it (if they offered them). Not all authors were good enough to leave such a trove when they passed. I also was lucky enough to read a few literary essays contained in this edition, which helped my understanding of the author and his stories.
So what’s left to close out the year? Readers who have been with me for a while probably recognize that I usually get in a few more novels after “short story” time. Well I have realized that short stories are not something I am going to have the convenience of shoving into a certain part of the year, so they are now going to be worked on all year round. This means more short story collections added to the yearly Reading List, so send me your recommendations. This year, I hope to get through another few collections and get an essay done about them by the end of the year - Rock Springs by Richard Ford (recommended by my editor, Libby) and Nine Stories by JD Salinger. I have also sent a short story to my “other” editor and hope to get a post about that process up here in the coming weeks.
To all my readers: thanks for sticking around while I spent close to two months poring over this legendary author. I still plan on mixing up the Reading List as I did somewhat this year, including adding more stage plays and graphic novels. And as always, thanks for reading and writing!
Hello and welcome to the third part of an ongoing series. It is my earnest attempt to document the process of composing a novel in the hopes that it may inspire others to do the same. While I think this series will be interesting to all readers, be aware that it is going to get pretty in depth into the writing process. (I also hope to gain further insight into how I come up with this stuff.)
(For those who want a refresher part one - Idea and Outline is here, and part two - Drafting is here. And “segment one” of this Editing series can be found here.)
Editing. I am going to continue shifting gears away from my newer projects in favor of my current manuscript, Observe & Detach. In the previous segment I queried one of my editors, Libby Copa of Sherman Writing Services. For this bit I wanted to get the opinions of my “other” editor, Anne Nerrison. Anne originally worked with me on the second novel I published through North Star Press, Last Man on Campus. While most of the initial heavy lifting on that manuscript was done by Libby, Anne was instrumental in making sure it was a great book. She has now started her own editing venture, Inkstand Editorial, and has worked on a short story of mine. I asked her a similar set of questions as I did Libby.
First was about the editing process itself, and how she sees it: “In all cases, I see my job as helping make the book the best it can be (and by extension in some cases, help the author become a better writer). Certainly this sometimes means fixing errors in grammar and punctuation, but sometimes it's querying word choice, working to develop plot points, or questioning character development and/or motives. The latter cases I don't see as errors, but rather stylistic choices by the author or elements that could be developed further or in a different way, or viewed in another light.”
I also wanted to ask her about the “trust” issue like I did with Libby, because I have had to trust Anne’s judgement over the years. With two brilliant editors to work with, sometimes it becomes a matter of learning how to trust each voice. I want to highlight this portion of her answer:
“Trust can also lead to good discussions about manuscripts and suggested changes. I want writers to know that I'm editing with the book's (and by extension, their) best interests in mind. My goal is always to help authors, and I want to know what's helpful and what's not. If I'm not helping an author, then I need to look again at what I'm doing and figure out how to be a more effective editor. And my changes are not always correct; I'm not infallible, and my mentor taught me that if there's one good way to write something, there's a thousand.”
In other words, if I may be so bold to interpret this, we authors don’t always have to follow the course our editors set down for us, and in fact this is a crucial part of our own work. While most of the time the editor will conceive of a better or more efficient way of how to set down a particular passage, it’s up to the writer to actually do it.
This was a struggle I had with Libby for quite a while. I almost thought I had some kind of a rule for it: 80/20, in that eighty percent of what the editor said should be changed was worthwhile, and twenty percent (or less) should be your own discretion. Here is how Anne sees her role now that she has her own editing business:
“As a freelancer working largely with indie authors, I leave all changes up to the writer. I have no control over the final, printed copy, so I have no say in how much of my advice an author takes. Of course I hope they'll take my changes and comments into consideration, but the writer knows their own work better than I do, and I know there will always be a few changes I suggest that the writer feels don't fit the story as they see it.“
Working with Anne on that short story, we used track changes (generally thought of as a Word application but can be used in free programs like Libre Office) and she highlighted portions of the text she thought were confusing, or needed cleaning up. But she made sure to note that I didn’t have to take a single one of her corrections, even though most were quite warranted.
I also want to include some of Libby’s thoughts on this topic, because I didn’t get to them last time. Here is how she considers her role:
“I try and review the story that the writer is trying to tell (not the story I want them to tell) and provide feedback that aligns with that. All decisions are made by the artist, this is their story-- I can only hope they are being thoughtful when they reject suggestions, that they consider why I took time to point something out, and that they can justify to themselves and future readers why they do not make the change.”
I think that is a great summation of the relationship, and why it’s so crucial to find an editor who can give you the space as an artist to tell your story. Even better if you can find two such people who are so great at their jobs!
To that end, since last time I showed off a little of my manuscript and how the introduction has changed, I wanted to post some more of the first chapter for those who have interest. I’ve been talking/writing about this book for three years, and Libby has been hard at work over that time showing me how to make it better. While I still plan on sending her another draft by the end of this year, the text is much stronger with her suggestions.
So without further ado, here is another portion of the first chapter of Observe & Detach:
The day had not started promising. VP and head accountant Phil, thick mustache waving as he berated, enlightened me on the finer points of precision within our accounting database software. By “started” I mean eleven thirty, because Phil never got to the office earlier than that. As head of operations, he was a cranky bastard.
“Hello there, Mr. Walter. You got a minute?”
“Sure, Phil. What's up?”
“I was running your key inventory numbers this morning,” he said, slapping down several printed-out pieces of paper. This was a favorite tactic: producing evidence to the accused so they'd fess up. I once saw him do this to my co-worker Kari over a messed up store order that was probably Mona's fault. “You're off on your lock box inventory count.” Phil's mustache twitched in revulsion at me.
“Oh really? Sorry about that.”
“Yeah, you were off by five whole units. It's not a big deal since you're still new to some of this. But we gotta make sure those numbers add up. Signal Corp, for all their bullshit, makes up a huge portion of our revenue. You outrank Mona over there in the store big time when it comes to money flowing in here from agent purchases of these damn things. We have to make sure our numbers are correct.”
“I know,” I said, averting my gaze. “I'll keep a closer eye on them.”
“Make sure you do. I don't want to have to fix it every month. Just count 'em right the first time. And be accounting for those defective boxes you're sending back. Those were also wrong.”
“I'll do that,” I said.
“Thanks, Mr. Walter.” He grabbed the spreadsheets.
“The other thing I wanted to bring up was attitude,” Jack continued. The light from his office window bounced from his gray head, which stretched to black toward the bottom by his earlobes. “I haven't noticed this myself, but others tell me you may not be coming up to the front counter with the greatest...gusto. I'm not saying you have to be like Kari. She can become too much in a hurry. Just be glad to see the agents walk in here. You know, like family. Make sure to smile, make sure they are satisfied with their encounter. We are here to serve them, you know?”
I wasn't feeling restrained after what happened the rest of the day, so I made a mistake.
“Well, perhaps if you would come out of hiding from your office once in a while instead of hearing the gossip from Mona, you'd know what I actually do around here.”
He gave me his best vacant stare, then closed his mouth. “Excuse me?”
“I-uh, look, that came out wrong, but...”
“I don't go into my- I, uh, I don't do that. You know it. I'll ask you not to speak to me in such a manner, Walter.”
“I'm sorry, Jack.”
“It's all right. You haven't been here long enough to know how this place works. Mona and I go back a long way. You also don't know the full story on Betty. You don't know enough about anyone at this point, except to show respect.”
“I'm sorry,” I said again. I felt my face flush.
“You're damn right. Now, that being said, it's important for us that you want to be here, Walt. That you are happy being here. That's important.”
“Well, I do want to be here.” It was better than a series of restaurant gigs over the past half-year.
The discussion devolved into a twenty minute soliloquy on his cabin in Grand Marais, then into the proper way to clean a duck carcass. I stared out the window into the parking lot and watched our CEO Alan Dunbar leave, an hour and a half before we closed. His dark green hybrid SUV was parked as usual in the nonexistent spot under the oak tree.
John Abraham 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.