Most of us writers want to be published, but more than that, we want validation as a writer. If our book is accepted by an agent and then by a name-brand publisher, we achieve some validation unless the reviewers ring in with a different opinion.
The harsh truth is that agents are confronted by hundreds or thousands of queries a week. They may have a toothache or feel particularly jaded the morning yours arrives, or they might be looking for the latest trendy possibility, a quick sale, a young genius that will have a long life in their stable, or dozens of other reasons that have nothing to do with your book but result in refusal, nonetheless. Agents have been wrong many times—and publishers even more.
Garrison Somers and I have been friends since we met as undergraduates at the College of Charleston (SC) nearly 40 years ago. He was/is a couple of years older than I and soon became a big brother to me in many matters, not the least of which was, and continues to be, literary. After graduation he returned to his childhood home of New Jersey (by the way, his mother was from my home state of SC) and is primarily responsible for my attending Rutgers for my Ph.D. In addition to a writer and (in what I know he will say is by far his most important role) an extraordinary father to two spectacular daughters, he is the editor of The Blotter, a journal like no other, which you can find at http://www.blotterrag.com/
Ron Cooper: Garry, thanks for hanging out with me today.
I’ve gone bonkers over Per Petterson’s writing. Born in Norway in 1952, Petterson was a librarian and a bookseller before he published his first work in 1987, a volume of short stories. His third novel, Out Stealing Horses, became an international best seller. Since then, he has published three other novels, which have established his reputation as one of Norway’s best fiction writers.
I’ve now read all of his books, and, as a writer, I’ve learned a great deal from him about technique, especially point of view and his use of time. I Refuse, Pettersen’s most recent novel, captures the main characters’ lifetime in a compressed space.
September 2006 reunites Tommy and Jim, devoted friends in their youth, after they’ve been separated for 35 years.
In May, as Ireland voted to end its ban on abortion, I thought back to the Ireland of my youth and to Edna O’Brien, the Irish-born novelist whose vivid and unself-conscious description of sexuality shocked her native land.
When I was twenty-one, I traveled from New York to Europe with a college friend. The last week of the trip was the most exciting and the most terrifying for her. We were to visit her extended family in Ireland and meet her boyfriend from home, who was on vacation with his family. She worried that the garda, the Irish police, would somehow find the birth control pills she’d hidden in her purse, or the hotel wardens would catch her and her boyfriend sharing a bed.
Last January in the midst of a blizzard, my toddler grandson and I found the only safe space near Burlington, VT area: an indoor mall. Pushing his stroller through the corridors, zigzagging through clacking toys, overpriced kiddie togs, and alluring fast food, I remembered the many hours I’d spent walking mall floors with my own children. I actually think my older daughter’s first word may have been “mall.”
And then, after exhausting the commericial clatter, we saw it: a library!
The recent demise of the Nobel Prize for Literature, whether it turns out to be temporary or permanent, may lead us to consider what criteria are taken into consideration for literary prizes, and indeed for judging works of literature at all.
A perusal of the list of winners of the Nobel from 1901 onwards makes it clear that the prize has often been awarded for political reasons—the clearest example is Winston Churchill’s winning it after the Second World War—and often for quasi-political reasons, such as the understandable and in itself laudable desire to recognise the work of writers working in lesser-known languages like Hungarian, Greek or Swedish. (Sweden has eight winners of the prize, perhaps unsurprisingly, which makes it the best represented country of all, proportionate to its population.) I am not suggesting that the Swedes have done worse than anyone else would have.
Does anyone care what someone else is reading? Possibly not, but other than serendipity, choices are usually meaningful and those meanings might prove informative. “So here goes nothing.”
- Dennis Lehane, Coronado (2006). Lehane is one of my favorite contemporary authors. In addition to being best sellers and earning critical acclaim, his novels Mystic River and Shutter Island were made into excellent movies. Coronado consists of five novella length stories and a two-act play. In this thin volume, Lehane demonstrates why his stories are so compelling. The characters are those we don’t often meet, but yet link back to American culture and tell us something about ourselves.
- Rick Ollerman, Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals (2017). An analysis of a particular subset of mystery novels from the 1950s through the 1990s, Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals consists of inside baseball.
Bad Weather Doesn’t Stop Book Lovers
In the opening hours of the Ninth Annual Gaithersburg Book Festival, the skies were an ugly steel gray and the precipitation shifted across mist, sprinkle, drizzle, and steady rain — and still the book lovers came out in force. Sporting umbrellas and rain ponchos, they were ready to hear their favorite authors read from and discuss books at the different literary tents, browse the new and used bookstores and independent booksellers, get their books signed while chatting with those favorite authors, grab something tasty from the food vendors, and go back again for more.
Of the many book festivals that the Baltimore-Washington area now enjoys, Gaithersburg is my personal favorite. Though it often draws over twenty thousand attendees and attracts many nationally known authors, it still has a very intimate feeling.
In April I attended the 30th anniversary of Malice Domestic, an annual conference of mystery authors and fans held in Bethesda, MD. I’ve liked mysteries ever since I discovered Nancy Drew and realized there were books out there that dealt with hidden clues and buried treasure and lost diamonds and deadly secrets. Nancy Drew was always learning new things that played into the mystery to be solved. This planted the seed for lifelong learning in me. Mysteries also offer the adventure of exploring interesting jobs. Archaeologist, forensic anthropologist, B&B owner, apple farmer, bookstore owner, you name it, there’s a mystery series featuring someone in the job, often written by someone who held that job. When I’ve tried to give up reading mysteries for more “serious” literature, my life lost that special spark.
The other day I passed the beginnings of a new Amazon Books in Bethesda Row, a place where Barnes & Noble recently shut down. I still remember the days when Barnes & Noble and Borders (remember Borders?) were blamed for shoving out the independent booksellers. Now Amazon has come for them.
‘The only writer in English who has the power, range, knowledge, and wisdom of Tolstoy or James’, according to John Gardner. Whether you agree or not, it’s hard to think of a more prodigiously talented, or more thought-provoking, contemporary fiction writer in English than John Fowles. Having just re-read (for the third time?) his collection of novellas, The Ebony Tower, and having found it masterful yet again, I thought I might say something about the title novella, which for me is the standout piece, and one of Fowles’ best works.
The action takes place in Brittany—a Celtic land, significantly in view of the fact that the novellas are all, in Fowles’ view, variations on a Celtic theme. A young, successful abstract painter, David Williams, goes to interview a much older, even more successful one, in his manor house, where he lives with two ‘nymphs’, young Englishwomen in their twenties, both artists of a kind.
Book clubs are popular places for book readers, but running a successful book club is not as easy is it may seem. Here are some tips for starting and running a club that meets the needs of its members.
1. Set a limit of no more than 12 people. Why? You want the group to remain small enough so that each member feels comfortable expressing his/her views. Big groups can become impersonal or be dominated by a few people.
2. Set a regular meeting schedule. Once a month should work in most cases.
3. Find non-public meeting places. A group I belong to met in the lounge area of a supermarket for a while. Sometimes it was so noisy we couldn’t hear each other.
Published by Black Rose Writing on 2/8/18 The Long Road follows a young man, sometimes in mental turmoil, as he doggedly prepares for his dream career in aerospace engineering. I’m pleased to have first read this work in manuscript form and now to see it available for the world to read.
Question: What are a few of your all-time favorite novels, and what makes them so? Is there a type of fiction that you read most often?
Answer: My all-time favorite is Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I gravitate toward stories that are realistic and that include characters who take a long time to overcome their problems but are victorious in the end.(Dickens wrote two separate endings, one of which has Pip “victorious.”) I admire these characters more than those in thrillers.
Dialogue is notoriously difficult. You have to make each character distinctive. The speech needs to sound natural. Unlike you, characters can’t deliberate about word choice. Here are some tips that may help.
DON’T have characters speak grammatically correctly. Dialogue reveals much about your characters, and when they talk like scholars giving lectures, their speech sounds contrived. Even college professors don’t got to follow no rules when chatting with friends. Vary grammatical mistakes for distinctive voices. One character can’t use the right prepositions for save his life. Another get subject-verb agreement wrong. Even if characters speak proper English . . .
DO have them speak in sentence fragments. Ordinarily we take pride in well-crafted sentences, and perhaps a character, say an academic, needs to be erudite or pompous.
Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for the love of it, then you do it for a few friends, and finally you do it for money. —Moliere
Recently, I’ve been struggling with this idea of writing for money. Moliere suggests writers are prostituting themselves if they write for money. But what of doctors or lawyers? Doctors charge patients for treating them, and lawyers do the same for advocating, things they’re trained and skilled to do? I’m sure Moliere had complex reasons for thinking this way about selling one’s writing, many connected to his era, economics, and his philosophy on life.
But when I read this quote, I felt a certain twinge, as if I might be damaging myself in some way, exploiting myself, or misusing a talent.
A short way into Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men (recreated so memorably by the Cohen Brothers), the protagonist Llewelyn is out hunting in the plains of southern Texas when he stumbles upon the aftermath of a shootout between rival drug gangs. There are bodies everywhere, and the one survivor is soon to die. But the really important discovery is a satchel full of money. Like a character in a fairy tale, Llewelyn opens the case, and finds unimaginable riches. Here is the key quote:
[H]e reached and unbuckled the two straps and unsnapped the brass latch and lifted the flap and folded it back. It was level full of hundred dollar banknotes. They were in packets fastened with banktape stamped each with the denomination $10,000.
(Another Dyspeptic Powellian Rant)
The catchphrase of the hideously-named NaNoWriMo, ‘the world needs your novel’ is one of the more egregiously fatuous mottoes of commodified literature. Let’s dismiss it at once. The world doesn’t need your novel. There are thousands of brilliant ones already, far too many for anyone to manage to read all of them. So why should we need more? Are you going to outdo Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy? At best, if you’re immensely talented, you’ll manage to say what the greats have been saying for millennia, in a new or newish way.
That brings me to a concomitant lie: that every writer (every human being) is special, and has something unique to contribute. It’s true that each of us is slightly different, but the similarities between us are far greater, and growing greater all the time in this era of groupthink and social media.
When I retired in 2007 and began writing my first novel, I thought my case was unusual––that most writers who had the talent to make a career of writing fiction were discovered when young. Maybe that was true once upon a time, but the world of writing has changed dramatically in the past decade. Today, when I attend writers’ conferences and workshops, half or more are seniors or retired.
To begin a new career is always a daunting undertaking, so what is motivating this generation of older writers to take the plunge? One reason is that people are in better health than ever before when they retire from their work careers. Fewer retire for health reasons, and therefore they have the energy and interest to try something new.
As a mystery writer, I am fortunate to live in the Washington-Baltimore metropolitan area with its plethora of agencies involved in fighting crime. Yesterday, I spent the day at the U.S. Treasury Department, finding out how money is made and being amazed at the many intricate details that go into foiling counterfeiters. Even the paper used in printing money, a blend of cotton and linen fibers, is difficult for counterfeiters, who will generally stick to wood fibers.
We took the standard tour for visitors, then were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour by a friend who works as an engraver there. He pointed out the painstaking care and high craftsmanship required to prepare the plates for printing the money. This includes incorporating many more details to foil counterfeiters.
Amidst all of the chaos at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Tampa last week, I actually found some time to write up a somewhat humorous piece about the whole experience. Unfortunately, that document was left behind in the haste of re-packing my bags with almost no recovery time. I arrived home to the realization that we only had a few hours to spare before leaving for Mexico this week, so I don’t recall much of that clever insight. As disoriented as I was, I’m surprised I didn’t forget the laptop.
As all of the major events kicked off last Thursday, I was thrilled to speak with Michael Gills again as we met up for our afternoon fiction reading, “The Places America Forgot.” The audience was fantastic and I think everyone had a great time, even though we certainly missed hearing from our third reader, Jodi Angel, who couldn’t be there because of familial obligations.
After years of neglect, I decided to try to read all three volumes of Remembrance of Things Past. How depressing it was to discover a bookmark towards the end of Volume 2. I had no memory of making it so far. I also had virtually no memory of anytihng I had read.
On June 1, my novel While You Were Gone, about three sisters navigating life and love in the “new” South, will be published by C&R Press. Even though While You Were Gone will be my fifth book, the writing does not get easier. Each new project comes with different problems and challenges.
Here is the synopsis for novel: As young adults growing up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the three Nash sisters are still haunted by their mother’s early death. Shannon, the middle sister, wants to be an investigative journalist. Paige, the youngest, wants to channel Bessie Smith, her mother’s favorite singer. Claire, the oldest, desires stability through family and career.
When their father is diagnosed with terminal cancer, the sisters cope with the loss in different ways.
Among books I pulled off my shelves in search of especially interesting beginnings, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men struck me not only because it’s captivating but because it captivates by description. I must warn the reader, however, that this 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is set primarily in the U.S. South between the two world wars, and its first-person narrator employs racist slurs as a matter of course. But, really, isn’t it better that we face our heritage as a country of slavery and racism?
So if you are willing to accept being shown in the national mirror something we are collectively ashamed of, I ask whether you’ve ever read better descriptive prose than Warren’s beginning of All the King’s Men or whether you’ve ever been more drawn into a book by a descriptive beginning?
Readers are pulled into a novel by the promise of a fascinating story. They finish the novel, though, because of intriguing, realistic characters. Here are a few “do’s” and “don’ts” that may help readers connect to your characters.
DO use real people. Everyone you know has a story that can enliven a fictional character. When you discover that your neighbor whom you’ve known for ten years did jail time for torching a baby food plant, you see everything else about her in a different light. Those same people probably also have interesting traits—Sally likes to flip a quarter across her knuckles—or annoying habits—Henry hums “Muskrat Love” as he eats . Be careful, though, that you . . .
DON’T use real names.