A New Journey Begins

This blog is meant to be a literary discourse between my cousin, Preston, and me. We’ve let it drop off a bit since July when we started a radio show called Write On SC. Then, in August, Preston went to grad school at the University of Miami and has gotten busy with real literary discourse, not just the stuff we prattle about.

But a week ago we lost our Papa. He was 91 and eight months – that extra time matters for old people like it does for babies – and he’d been broken hearted since November 12thwhen his eldest son, our Uncle Howard, died.

Papa was a good man. Our Nana, who passed in 2014, used to say she thought he’d been a slave in a former life. He worked that hard without expecting pay, compliment, or reward. He was a servant to his family, to his community, and to his God.

In the service this past Friday, the minister said Papa was a humble man who put duty first. His phrase was, “Do what you have to do,” with the unspoken admonishment, “before what you want to do.”

He had a sense of right, a moral compass that championed hard work and faithfulness. He was a dedicated cheerleader for all of his children and grandchildren, even if he didn’t fully support the work we were doing.

I remember him at a regatta at Clemson when I was on the crew team not fully understanding the sport but knowing it was important to attend and smile and cheer and encourage. He listened to me talk about everything from graduate school to entrepreneurship to the latest venture, the radio show.

His advice was consistent: work hard.

Not “work hard until…” or “work hard and …” just “Work hard.”

He was not a man of art. I can’t remember him watching any shows or going to any theatre performances or movies or even concerts. He wasn’t much of a reader though I remember my mom giving him biographies on everyone from Harry Truman to Bobby Bowden. I never knew if he had a favorite song or a favorite band or musician. If you asked him, he’d just shrug.

He danced. He and Nana frequently went to the Shrine Club for dancing and drinking. He loved to have a good time. He loved Clemson football and attended ball games religiously for decades. He threw a helluva tailgate.

Papa didn’t play games. Nana loved cards and was a member of two bridge clubs. But Papa couldn’t waste his time on that. He never golfed, either. He used to say he wouldn’t waste time chasing a ball around someone else’s lawn when he could be working in his own.

He kept the most glorious garden. It had cucumbers and squash and eggplant and tomatoes and he was like Farmer MacGregor when we were children – we were terrified when an errant ball tumbled into the garden.

There are so many things Preston and I will take with us through the remainder of our lives that our Papa taught us. Sitting on his couch, listening to his stories, hearing the deep tone of his voice when he was instructing us or the high chuckle he’d let loose when he was teasing us.

He had joy in his life and in his heart. And though he’d gone through tragedies and experienced loss, he believed the life he was leading was predestined by God and in God’s hands. He put himself to service as he was called to do and he remained steadfast until he died.

That faithfulness, I hope, is one we can explore here. As partners in literature and intellectual exploration, perhaps A Book of One’s Own can become an exploration of how life matures in art, how art preserves life, and how we, as artists, can experience art through grief and healing.

It’s a new journey now we’ve lost our Papa. Let us begin.

Still a Shitty Draft

It probably shouldn’t take 140,000 words and a persistent series of editorial red marks to realize the book isn’t anywhere near ready.

But it did.

I went into the editor experience knowing I needed help. Knowing there’s something just not quite ready about the book and it needed a good working over from a third party.

I selected a writers’ group friend and English professor who probably reads enough of other people’s poorly written crap to wade through mine with less disgust than a professional editor might show.

I was wrong. There was plenty of disgust.

“Lots of descriptions of people smoking in this book.”

“These conversations are getting tedious. You need more action.”

“Nothing really happens in this scene. How is this contributing to the plot?”

I know the book is complex. It’s got vampires which requires world building and time travel which requires methodology. It’s got a GenX vampire which requires moral compass orientation and Lord Byron which requires historical research and a new take on an old character.

The frame of the story is the GenX narrator telling a story to Lord Byron and the verb tense shifts between the scene in which the story is being told and the story itself.

It’s a lot. I know.

Words that come to mind are: ambitious, over reaching, trying too hard, and “Lord Byron and vampires? It’s been done.” (said with the dismissive disdain of someone who’d rather read anything else but this)

The usual requirements of a novel still hold true: engaging first 10 pages, carefully included exposition, enough action to keep the pace moving, dialogue that’s realistic and purpose driven, a character we give a damn about telling the story.

This is version seven and I’m still asking each scene if it has the usual requirements. Let alone all the richness and layers my ambition is dictating.

And frustration is mounting. Why can’t I get it right? Why can’t I make it work? Am I asking for too much? Is there a magical tool out there that can help me properly adjust this 140,000 word monstrosity into a best seller?

Le sigh.

This weekend I took the printed V7 to the beach for a writing retreat. I also took pencils and sticky notes. I fully expected to architect my way through this version and emerge on the other side ready for a comprehensive re-write. Something that meets my expectations.

I’m not starting from scratch which is the only encouraging thing. Because this week it’s become evident I succeeded in creating Anne Lamott’s shitty first draft and this is my seventh try.

Get Back to Reading Good Work

Reading challenges scare me. But I realized in December 2015 that I hadn’t read nearly enough already-published literature in 2015.

I was a book club drop out who mostly read on planes.

So this year I decided two fiction and one non per month. That’s 3 books a month for a 2016 total of 36. Here’s where I stand Mid-March:

January:

Disrupt Yourself (nonfiction), Whitney Johnson

Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty

Rump: The True Story of Rumplestiltskin, Liesl Shurtliff

February:

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

The Guest Room, Chris Bohjalian

No Ordinary Disruption (nonfiction), Richard Dobbs and James Manyika (in progress)

March:

White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess In Between, Judy Batalion (in progress)

Dark Currents: Agent of Hel, Jacqueline Carey (in progress)

So trucking right along.

My sources for books are the new book club I joined, recommended reads on my Kindle, the dusty now-full shelf of unread books in my library, and the Business Books wish list I keep on amazon.com. I add to that whenever someone quotes a book in an article I’m reading.

I also thought to join Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf, a Goodreads book club reading feminist literature, but I haven’t been able to get the first three books read. I’ll try again in April.

What I’m learning is that reading takes time and that my time is pretty well spent building my business, writing, and spending time with Charlie and Hollie. The 36 books goal may have been too ambitious. Or maybe I’m just too annoyed by the book club books to be enjoying the 36 book goal.

Also, nonfiction takes more time. It requires thought and notes and discussion and I find I’m interested in the subject but no one else is reading it (except me) and so I’m not able to get discussion going on it.

I’m going to start reading nonfiction in the strain of my own nonfiction efforts: redefining work. So the next non-fiction will be Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It by Cali Ressler and Jodi Thompson. And since the book club selection is a memoir (cue gag reflex) I’ll count that as nonfiction and pick up another fiction selection this month.

Reviews/insights to come.

Trashing the Slush Fest

Anytime I’ve been to a slush fest I’ve walked away pissed.

Slush fest has rules: Print the first page of your novel and bring it in to be read aloud. The panelists will raise their hand where they would have stopped reading had this been a queried submission.

This is not the place for the thin skinned.

I’ve done three of them. All brutal. Two for one novel and one for a different book.

The first one was with agents. They ragged all over the work about why it wasn’t sellable, how they didn’t care about the main character, what was wrong with the diction and the pacing.

I went home and revised the hell out of it.

Then I took it to another one. This was agents and a publisher. They ragged all over it about how much they hated it. Barely got past three sentences. Brutal.

I went home and revised the hell out of it.

Then I took a different first page. This one was all writers. They hated it. One of them challenged me aggressively over the point of the story, the character’s desires, the purpose of the scene. Another told me Byron and vampires had been done and implied I shouldn’t bother.

Then they said the dialogue was good but the description was too heavy. And that the true first line was much further down the page. Useful. Thanks.

I went home and revised the hell out of it.

It’s worth noting at that last slush, I was the only writer who submitted following the guidelines. By that point in the conference I’d sat politely through five sessions most of which I was the only attendee and asked studious questions and taken copious notes. I’d shown, I thought, respect and courtesy to all of the writers who ended up on the slush panel. With the exception of one whom I hadn’t met.

But some of their comments were condescending, generic, and borderline rude. The one who pursued my objective so aggressively actually said, “I’m going to nail you to the wall on this.”

The whole design of the exercise is flawed, frankly. Without a summary or a query, the readers have no frame of reference. Even book buyers would read the jacket copy before opening to the first page.

I recognize writers don’t have to participate in slush. Not on either side of the table. Maybe I don’t have a thick enough skin. I left when they’d finished with my work. The Tigers were playing football and I was more interested in that than in listening to them critique the work that had been submitted via cell phone.

Guess that makes me unprofessional.

 

 

Literary Fantasy: An Attempt to Define

When I describe the vampire novel I do one of two things:

I downplay it as genre fiction “Who hasn’t written a vampire novel?”

I elevate it as literary fiction “I’m working with the Byron/Shelley vacation which is a popular topic but hasn’t been treated in quite this way yet.”

I’ve named the new genre Literary Fantasy and have been working to define the term. Here’s a first pass at the effort.

Literary Fantasy — a subgenre of both Literary Fiction and Fantasy Fiction, a hybrid approach combining the elements of the fantasy genre (world building, magic, supernatural elements, archetypes and standards) and the requirements of Literary Fiction (storytelling structure has purpose, allusion usage, some level of modeling used).

An example of fantasy fiction is the Game of Thrones series in which Martin creates an entire geography, social structure, customs and traditions, family lineage, and system of mysticism/magic.

An example of literary fiction is Cloud Atlas in which each section is written in the voice and manner commonly employed in the era in which the section takes place. Cloud Atlas even predicts the literary conventions of a time in the distant future.

So where are there examples of Literary Fantasy? The best ones I can think of are Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and his latest, The Last American Vampire where his vampire protagonist hangs out with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker. I promise to expound on those works in another vampire-specific post. For now, though, I’d like to pretend Literary Fantasy can include all types of fantasy — not just vampires.

I think Jacqueline Carey’s Phedre’s Trilogy meets the literary fantasy definition. I’m not just saying that because I got hopelessly addicted to them.

Carey tells Phedre’s story in Kushiel’s Dart, Kushiel’s Chosen, and Kushiel’s Avatar. It’s worth noting that Kushiel’s Dart was Carey’s debut novel because it’s so intricately crafted, I was in awe of her abilities.

The first novel establishes the geography borrowing the European continent and a slightly-altered British Isles. It’s an epic journey story following Phedre from her home city through the neighboring nation-states. The second novel takes her to the far south and the third across a desert landscape that may be the Mesopotamia region. The sweep of the geography is generous and physically if not politically realistic.

The era is decidedly middle-ages with conveniences like baths and toilets and electricity eschewed. The social structure even mimics developing civilization with castes, monarchies, and education all related to birth and marriage. The costumes echo earlier eras of modesty as well with some exceptions allowed for by the social mores established. Weapons and military tactics are also middle ages with some use of gunpowder in cannon fire.

The religious structure is where Carey shows her literary proclivity. She establishes an entire religious construct for Terre d’Ainge that consists of a fable surrounding one God, Elua, and his followers. The followers are each Gods in their own rite with specific contributions to Elua that are repeated by the God’s “House” or descendants. Every citizen of Terre d’Ainge can trace ancestry back to one of Elua’s disciples.

Despite some allusions to common world religions, Carey strays from the vocabulary of greek mythology and Bible or Koran accounts. She creates distinct social requirements for the various Houses, delivering a society completely devoted to the mythology that spawned it.

She even delivers competing societies that follow different faith tenets and allows for mutual respect between them as well as competition and war resultant of the differences with others. The theological structure is complex, informing everything from physical appearance to value systems. Its familiarity, though, makes it believable.

Next blog: The structure of the Literary Fantasy novel

From “Being Blue” – Transformation Stories

Our narrator in Being Blue is a time-traveling vampire. His story is told in three voices: 40-year-old Blue living in Switzerland in 1816, 22-year-old Blue living in Kansas in 2002, and the journal entries that make up the journey stories. -Kasie

Transformation stories for vampires are about defining what kind of vampire we will become. Will we kill only for revenge seeking out pedophiles and rapists and enacting vigilante justice? Humans call that shit karma but really it’s a vampire.

Will we live like merciful angels delivering the suffering from this world into the next? Making the lonely feel loved and the cast-offs feel wanted and then at the exquisite moment in which they feel the very best they ever will preserving them like taxidermists.

Will we avoid killing altogether and drink from blood bags or animals to satisfy our requirements? Will we pretend to be disciplined though we know the blood is only part of the kill and that we’re denying our nature?

Transformation stories occur when we suddenly have something to lose.

There comes a time in a vampire’s life when he’s gotten control of his senses, figured out the best ways to feed and exist, and then he has a vision. That vision is of the life he could be leading.

For me, the vision came when I met Sara. Suddenly I saw myself as a man with a companion. A mate. Another creature just like me with whom I could share my interminable existence. We could experience all of this life together.

When I saw the future for Sara and I, the story I imagined did not include time-traveling at all. I had no idea I was capable of such a thing. My vision was our home with Dahlia and Maryanne, perhaps Drift and Lila. My vision was the porch swing and my room upstairs, reading books and swimming in the reservoir.

It was limited, admittedly, and it didn’t take into account the competing desires of the people around me.

Sara had begun mercy killing. She’d go to the truck stop and find a runaway selling herself for enough to buy a burger. Sara would befriend the girl, rescue her, hold her, and cradle her, and then, when the girl once again felt safe and loved, Sara would deliver her from this world.

The killing was wearing her out, though. It was an unsustainable deception she’d started when Lila made her go back to the club. Sara hated the exposure of being on stage and when she felt raw and ruined by it, she went to the truck stop to find someone who had it worse.

I would have liked for Sara to come to me with those wounds. But she did not trust me to help her. She was ashamed of herself and so she hid that side from me.

My vision of our life together was only a façade for Sara. She hardly believed it even as we inhabited it. Sara kept waiting to be changed.

The Mirage of Innocence, Development 1

[FYI this is very rambly, as will most of these posts. {side note to the FYI: I am aware rambly is not actually a word.}]

So, as I noted on the About page, all of this exploration into story-telling is an attempt to understand what it means to tell a story. I am a writer and I am working currently on my first big fiction piece, working title The Mirage of Innocence. I’ll give a little background on what Mirage is about next. What I’m hoping to accomplish with this blog is (methodically) how reading can inform writing. How are these storytellers telling their story? What devices do they use? How are these characters going through different things and making decisions at each turning point that raises the stakes, truly? These are all things I need in my novel and I’m hoping this exploration gets me close to an answer—this is the “Book of One’s Own” from the title. Plus, you know what they say: the best writers are the greatest readers.

So, about Mirage:

The Mirage of Innocence is a coming-of-age novel/novella (I haven’t decided yet) about how a little girl named Lilly goes from a beautiful bloom to “a flower with no petals.” Through journal entries from her first 18 years of life and then, at nineteen, her lamentations on the melancholia she feels, we hear her story.

[I know this is vague, but the specifics don’t matter as much for this post.]

This post is about the first development coming out of this process: a frame narrative. For a long time, I have worried about telling Lilly’s story because I worried a lot of my story was getting lost. (This novel is an attempt to tell the story of my childhood through the eyes of a girl who lives in Italy—first problem, I did not grow up in Italy). My worries have been about how I can take something that happened to me and then sort of translate that into Lilly’s life. So, really, the metaphorical storytelling in Lilly’s story is my attempt at distancing myself from writing a memoir. But my problem up to this point with doing this is that Lilly is not me. Some of the things she goes through are not things I have gone through. So my worry, of course, is How do I accurately portray this without sounding cheesy, or inauthentic? This is, of course, a very writerly insecurity. Nonetheless, I think I’ve found a way to fix both of these problems (I see it as two: the inauthenticity of Lilly’s story and the not telling my story).

With a frame narrative, I’ve decided to create a character who is writing Lilly’s story. This author-character is more so me and is dealing with the insecurities that I am dealing with now. He is not me, of course, because I don’t want this to become a memoir about me writing a book. But in creating him, I can be more me than a little girl growing up in Europe (something VERY not me).

This frame narrative also gives me a chance to solve some other problems I was worried about writing this novel, like structure. The structure of the novel before was Part A: journal entries age 6-19, Part B: lamentations at age 19. The problem with this is that there really is no conflict until we get to Part B with the lamentations. And without conflict right from the beginning, no one is going to read a thing. I thought about inter-weaving Part A and B to see if the conflict could appear sooner, but I fear this may make the storytelling more clunky. So, with the frame narrative, I can follow the author‘s conflict, not just Lilly’s.

I’m still interested to see how this is going to manifest itself in the novel once I get back to writing, but I wanted to share this development because it is, indeed crucial. I’ll share my findings as the develop.

– Preston