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"Make no mistake, my friend, your pointless life will end, but before you go, can you look at the truth? You have a lovely singing voice."

-Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

Monday, August 25, 2014

I just began reading Mark Haddon’s The Red House. Haddon, you might remember, is the author of the highly acclaimed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and the even more brilliant (in my opinion) A Spot of Bother. Haddon is, I believe, one of the best fiction writer’s out there today. I only got three sentences in to The Red House before I had to stop to read and reread and gush over a particular sentence, which is so finely crafted it almost makes me want to just give up writing because I will never be able to write anything this good.

“Seventy miles per hour, the train unzips the fields.”

Boo-yah!

Allow me, if you will, to unpack the beauty of this one sentence. There is, of course, the metaphor in here of a train, which, when combined with its tracks, looks like a zipper connecting the fields on either side. A stunningly apt metaphor, I think. Yes! That is exactly what trains look like.

But a metaphor is only as good as its connotations. What does the metaphor of a train as a zipper add to the text, you might ask. The image of a train as a zipper, unzipping (and not, it is important to note, rezipping) the world around it brings along subtle ideas of something burgeoning beneath the surface, something hidden that is about to be revealed. A pretty perfect opening to a novel, don’t you think?

But this sentence is brilliant for reasons beyond the fitting metaphor it couriers to the reader. This sentence is so elegant, so concise and economic in its language choices that the elegance of the metaphor can shine through. Many novice writers, or even decent but not brilliant ones, would have felt the need to expand the metaphor, to build on it or linger in it a bit longer to make sure the reader really gets it, notices how brilliant the metaphor’s creator is.

Another writer might have written, “The train looks like a zipper, its tracks the zipper’s treads. Quickly, it zooms across the tracks, unfurling the fields on either side,” or something along those lines. But what would that writer have added, for all those extra words? Fourteen extra words—more than twice the length of the original sentence—and no new meaning expressed. Yes, the reader is for sure going to notice the metaphor, but at what cost?

Beside the fact that it’s wordy, and unnecessary wordiness always feels self-indulgent to me, the new sentence is less subtle. Where the original sentence drops the metaphor on the reader and then lets the reader decode it and tease out the subtext, the new sentence tries to force the meaning on you: Look here! A metaphor about things becoming unfurled! That’s what’s going to happen in this novel! (That’s right, this other writer probably likes to use exclamation points.)

In spite of all these newly added words, the new sentence is also less exact. Where the original sentence just stated, explicitly and in four words, the exact speed the train is going, the new sentence rambles around the topic but never gets further than to tell us it’s going “quickly.” This other writer probably thinks the meandering sentences are more “poetic,” but really, they’re just verbose and imprecise.

And while we’re on the topic, should we point out that there are no adverbs in the original sentence? No. Of course there aren’t. Because expert writers rarely use adverbs. I know, I know. I used a lot of adverbs when I was first starting out too. I peppered my sentences with “quietly”s and “firmly”s and “sheepishly”s, and so on. There are a lot of reasons why novice writers overuse adverbs, and there are a lot of reasons why proficient writers don’t, but the main reason adverbs are rarely (I won’t say never, just rarely—and isn’t it funny that “rarely” is itself an adverb?) a good idea is exemplified in these new, sloppy sentences.

How quick is “quickly”? What does this adverb add that we wouldn’t have already assumed (aren’t trains usually driving quickly? And if you want to specify the speed, why not just offer the exact miles per hour?) The writer has included this adverb not because it adds anything to the text but because (most likely) he or she believes the sentence needs more words to read like the texts he or she studied in high school—you know, those canonical works, from back when writers got paid by the word. Those are the texts this writer believes he or she is meant to be emulating, not the ones that are actually, you know, GETTING PUBLISHED TODAY.

But enough ranting about bad writing. Let’s visit once more, shall we, the beauty of Haddon’s words? I’ll give you the sentences that come before and those that follow, and if you like them (and I know you will), I’ll remind you the book is called The Red House by Mark Haddon. Go read it for yourself. Following are the first six lines from the novel:

“Cooling towers and sewage farms. Finstock, Charlbury, Ascott-under-Wychwood. Seventy miles per hour, the train unzips the fields. Two gun-gray lines beside the river’s meander. Flashes of sun on the hammered metal. Something of steam about it, even now.”


BAM!

Thursday, August 21, 2014


Okay, time to really get into the meat of our novellas: the rising action. Step four directs you to write several chapters (two to four) and is the same for all tracks because we should be reaching a point in the drafting process where the story is taking control of itself. The story itself will direct you where to go. All you have to do is let it. By the end of this step, you'll be well over halfway through your novella and things will be really cooking, and the climax will be in sight.
All Tracks, Step 4
Write two to four chapters in which the results of the previous chapter’s inciting incident unfold and escalate. Since we will spend two to four chapters in the rising action of the story before we reach the story’s climax, you don’t need to rush things. The rising action will pick up speed naturally as you progress through these chapters.
Imagine the chapters of rising action as a snowball rolling down a hill. As the snowball rolls, it picks up more and more snow, getting larger and more out of control as it goes along. By the time the snowball reaches the bottom of the hill (the climax of the story), there should be a sense of inevitability to the impending crash of the snowball against whatever is waiting at the bottom of the hill.
Requirements:

1.      Each chapter must be 10-30 pages long.

2.      Set aside any plans you have already developed for the story’s ending. You should let the story unfold organically, not try to steer it in a particular direction. This can be difficult if your initial idea for the story came with an ending, but you absolutely MUST let go of any ideas for an ending, or the story will run the risk of feeling contrived. I PROMISE you, however this story ultimately ends, it will be the right ending for the story.

3.      Begin by rereading what you have so far in the story: your character profile(s) and the set-up and inciting event chapters. If it helps, you can try jotting some notes summarizing the important details and events you have to work with. This will help you generate ideas for where the story should go next, and if you get stuck, you can revisit these notes to get ideas.

4.      Now, write the first scene of the first rising action chapter. To write this scene, you only need to revisit what happened at the end of your inciting event chapter. What would be the organic next step in this story? Where will this character go, what will he or she do next, after what happened in the previous chapter?

5.      From there, you will work one scene at a time, using the most recent scene that you wrote to guide you into the action of the next scene. Don’t worry about where the story is headed. Just ask yourself, “Now that X happened, what happens now?” Each scene will lead you to the next, and as things pick up speed and begin to really snowball, you will reach a point where the climax will reveal itself—whatever it is that is waiting at the bottom of that hill will suddenly become visible, and the snowball will be headed right for it.
Since you are not steering the story in any particular direction, it will feel as though you are heading into an abyss, with only enough light to illuminate what is directly in front of you. Don’t panic. That’s the way it should feel. Embrace the not knowing. Remember that writing is not about the destination, but the journey (as trite as it sounds).

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

This summer, I read what is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever come across: Jen Hirt’s Under Glass:The Girl with a Thousand Christmas Trees. I’m prone to hyperbole, I know (people who’ve eaten Chinese food with me know that every crab rangoon I try is “the best” I’ve ever eaten), but this I say with no exaggeration: I LOVED this book.

I’ll tell you why, but first, a disclaimer: Jen is a friend of mine. That isn’t why I love the book, but it’s something you should know. I’ve worked with Jen at Penn State Harrisburg for a year now—she was on the hiring committee that offered me the job. Ever since I met her—actually, since I first read her Pushcart winning essay, “Lores of Last Unicorns,” which my brother had photocopied for me and passed along because, A) he worked with her (I didn’t yet), and B) I’d been obsessed with unicorns as a little girl and had owned and often poured over a particular book, the sequel of a book Jen talks about in detail in the essay—I’d been wanting to read her memoir, but it took me this long to finally get around to it.

I’m sure I was putting it off for a reason: it’s strange to read creative nonfiction by people you know. I suppose it shouldn’t be, with Facebook these days you can learn intimate details about people’s lives that they’ve never told you face to face. Still, a Facebook post is very immediate—they write it, you read it, they assume you read it, and all is well. With a published essay or book, the lines get muddier. Does she know I know these things about her past? Does she want me to know these things? What might have changed in the years between writing these details and their eventual publication?

As a result, I always feel awkward about bringing up that I’ve read a friend’s creative nonfiction. I want people to know I’ve read their books—I’m a firm believer that writers should support each other, and I make sure to buy and read the books written by people I know. Part of that support, too, means telling them the things I liked about their books. This is easy with poets and fellow fiction writers. Less easy, you see, with nonfiction.

So I suppose, on some level, this is my timid attempt at pouring out all my thoughts about this wonderful book, which made me feel so emotional by the end. Hirt’s prose (I’ll call her Hirt from this point forward—Jen is my friend and colleague; Hirt is the author of this amazing book, and though I know the two are the same, it’s difficult to reconcile them in my mind) is elegant and beautiful. I could pull pretty much any sentence out and display it as its own work of art—this is a writer who knows how to write!

Under Glass is at once both a memoir with a single narrative string and a collection of self-sufficient essays. It’s a style I’ve seen attempted but never quite pulled off in fiction. Books like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit fromthe Goon Squad and Tom Rachman’s TheImperfectionists are labeled as novels, though they’re comprised of individual short stories. The idea is that the individual parts work together to create an overall narrative, complete with beginning, middle, and end, as the cliché goes, but I’ve found that, though the individual stories might be excellent, and as a collection of linked stories, I love both of the example books (especially Rachman’s), I can’t get behind the “novel” label for them. The stories don’t work together to create a single narrative string, in my opinion.

But in Under Glass, the essays stand on their own, but they also work together to paint a full picture of both the history of this family business—from inception to destruction to rebirth as an online store with a new name—and Hirt’s connection to it. There is a definite beginning, middle, and end, an overall narrative arc, and ultimately these essays combine to create something much larger than a collection of linked creative nonfiction—there is a whole here that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the final essay, which describes Hirt’s grandmother Onalee’s unfinished journal. In her journal, Ony (ah-nee) chronicled the purchase and development of the swatch of land on which Hirt’s grandparents lived for most of their lives. Hirt describes the pages and pages of description of the different plants and trees Ony and her husband Hobart planted, the years of waiting to eventually have the money to build a house, the backyard swimming pool and greenhouse Hirt remembers from her childhood.

Through Ony’s journal, we can piece together the narrative of the family business, too, the ups and downs and eventual grand success of a thriving set of greenhouses. But Ony’s journal ends before the end of the narrative, and Hirt takes it upon herself to chronicle what followed: the demolition of the carefully planted and nurtured trees to make way for parking lots, businesses, the “city.” The controlled burning of the house, used as practice for the local firefighters. The Pier 1 and Famous Footwear that fill the space where the backyard greenhouse and house once lived, which calls to mind the CVS that now stands where the family business greenhouses once flourished.

This final essay, which would be powerful enough on its own, carries that much more force because of the essays that precede it. We know, by this point in the book, about Hirt’s childhood playing and working in the greenhouses. We know about the destruction of the greenhouses, just like we know about the destruction of Hirt’s parents’ marriage, Hirt’s mother’s health. We know that, as a young adult, Hirt found herself more concerned with the potted houseplant her neighbors had left on their porch to die than the vicious fights her neighbors themselves were having with each other (perhaps, the essays when read in conjunction suggest, because the plant is a problem Hirt knows how to handle). We know, too, about the reincarnation of the once named Strongsville Gardens and later, Hirt’s Greenhouse: Hirt’s Gardens, an online store that is, after it all, blossoming in the cutthroat world of e-commerce with Hirt’s brother, Matt, at the helm. We understand, then, the full meaning of Hirt’s final line: “Those woods are no longer here, but they are not too far away.”

I can’t do this book justice by just telling you about it. You should read it for yourself. Never have I so unreservedly wanted to recommend a book by a friend to everyone that knows how to read. Never have I been so in awe of the writing of someone I know. Read it! Read it! This book will not disappoint.

Monday, August 11, 2014

I’m sorry it’s taken me two weeks to come back and post the prompts for the second chapters of our novellas. How are they coming, guys? I’m feeling good about where I’m at with mine. I’ve been working on the one that will be my “track 1” novella of the four I will eventually write. I’ve got the first chapter complete (15 and a half pages) and after writing out these prompts, I have a good idea of what will happen in chapter two.

So anyway, without further delay, here are the chapter two prompts for all four tracks. You’ll note some overlap between some of the prompts. I tried to keep them different enough that if you are, like me, going to write all four and weave them into a single overarching narrative, you should be able to follow the prompts and still have distinct, unique feeling chapters. But yes, I repeated a few components that I thought were essential and/or worth repeating. Feel free to modify, combine, or flat out ignore the prompts. They’re just meant to jog you into motion. You gotta do what you gotta do.

Track 1, Step 3:

Write a chapter in which the inciting incident of the overall story arc occurs. This chapter will serve to set in motion the events that will create the arc of the entire novella.

Requirements:

1.      The chapter must be 10-20 pages long.

2.      The inciting incident in this chapter should be something small and seemingly insignificant to everyone but the main character. Based on what has been established about the character in the previous chapter, however, it should be immediately obvious to the reader why this incident matters to the character.

3.      The incident should occur when the main character is in an environment in which his or her reaction must be guarded (for example, in a public place, at work, with a loved one who would not understand the reaction, etc.).

4.      The chapter must get across the character’s initial physical reaction to the change

a.       What is the first physical thing the character does when he or she learns of the change?

5.      The chapter should hint at the character’s initial emotional reaction to the change

a.       How does this change affect the character’s perceived need?

b.      How might this change affect the character’s actual need?

Track 2, Step 3:

Write a chapter in which the inciting incident of the overall story arc occurs. This chapter will serve to set in motion the events that will create the arc of the entire novella.

Requirements:

1.      The chapter must be 10-20 pages long.

2.      The inciting incident should not appear until the end of the chapter.

3.      The chapter should consist of a series of small, escalating incidents that pave the way for the larger incident that will set the rest of the story into motion.

4.      The chapter should detail the main character’s physical and emotional responses to each escalating incident, but should leave the character’s reaction to the final, inciting incident unstated (the rest of the novella will deal with this reaction, so essentially we’re ending this chapter on a sort of cliffhanger).

Track 3, Step 3:

Write a chapter in which the inciting incident of the overall story arc occurs. This chapter will serve to set in motion the events that will create the arc of the entire novella.

Requirements:

6.      The chapter must be 10-20 pages long.

7.      The inciting incident must adhere to the following requirements:

a.       It should be out of the main character’s control

b.      It should be a large-scale change that affects many people

c.       It should have a particularly significant effect on the main character

(For example, my inciting incident for this track is that a new law is passed that has a particularly significant effect on my main character.)

8.      The character should learn of the change when he or she is in an environment in which his or her reaction must be guarded (for example, in a public place, at work, with a loved one who would not understand the reaction, etc.).

9.      The chapter must get across the character’s initial physical reaction to the change

a.       What is the first physical thing the character does when he or she learns of the change?

10.  The chapter should hint at the character’s initial emotional reaction to the change

a.       How does this change affect the character’s perceived need?

b.      How might this change affect the character’s actual need?

Track 4, Step 3:

Write a chapter in which the inciting incident of the overall story arc occurs. This chapter will serve to set in motion the events that will create the arc of the entire novella.

Requirements:

1.      The chapter must be 10-20 pages long.

2.      This chapter should follow the rule of threes: three similar incidents should occur throughout the chapter, but the first two should have a similar, fairly trivial result. The third incident should have a largely unexpected, weighty result and will set into motion the events of the rest of the story.

3.      Each of the three incidents should be set in motion by the main character. These should not be external incidents out of the main character’s control, but incidents that result from decisions that character has made.

4.      Because the first two incidents result in similar, inconsequential outcomes, the main character should not yet appreciate the full implications of the final, inciting incident at this point in the story. The reader, however, should be able to tell by the end of this chapter that the final, inciting incident in the series of three incidents will have enormous effects.

a.       This chapter, then, should make some use of foreshadowing (but with a very, very light touch, please). The chapter should end with a very subtle nod to the impending consequences of the inciting incident, but in a way that only the reader, not the main character, notices.