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.
In “Spirit of the Law,” a short story I’ve written, I wanted to explore life after death and something else—how the dead go on living or not living, if only in our memory, in the physical places where we’ve known them.
Of course, I’m not really capturing what life is like after death. It’s my imaginative portrayal of one woman’s experience, and it’s a way of articulating metaphorically how the dead live on in our minds.
It helped to read that Bernard Malamud would write eighteen drafts of a story, working until he got it right. It takes that kind dedication to find a story’s heart. To reach her readers, a writer needs the same kind of persistence as a religious person does in her determination to reach god.
Are audiobooks a substitute for physical books, or even e-books? What do you gain by hearing versus reading a book? What do you lose? And does anyone else feel as lost as I do without a physical book to devour?
I asked these questions last month (Audiobooks: The Chinese Food of Literature) because I noticed that listening to audiobooks was not as fulfilling as reading books. Audiobooks obviously have a place, and considerable merits. But even when I’m “reading” an audiobook, I still feel hunger for a book. A real book.
Despite the audiobook ads claiming that “listening is the new reading,” the experience I have with audiobooks doesn’t feel quite like “reading” to me. I wondered if anyone else felt similarly.
Her first name was India–she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. Or were they hoping for another sort of daughter? As a child she was often on the point of inquiring, but time passed, and she never did.
Thus begins Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge published in 1959. (One wonders if today’s editors would let the passive voice of the second sentence stand.)
Back in September in this spot, I was ruminating on the joys and sorrows of writing historical fiction, and what could possibly motivate writers to pursue such a demanding genre. Many of us are drawn to specific points of inspiration, and I mentioned D.C.-based author Carrie Callaghan‘s encounter with a painting as one example. I went back to Carrie and asked if she’d like to share in more detail what drew her to this project and what kept her hooked through long bouts of research. Here’s what she said:
I Stopped and Stared
In the painting, she’s wearing a stiff lace collar as wide as her shoulders, and fine lace cuff at her wrists. In other words, no clothes a painter would actually paint in.
Larry Fondation is the author of five books of fiction, all set primarily in the Los Angeles inner city. Three of his books are illustrated by London-based artist Kate Ruth. He has written for publications as diverse as Flaunt Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Fiction International and the Harvard Business Review. He is a recipient of a Christopher Isherwood Fiction Fellowship. Four of his books have been published in France. In French translation, his work was nominated for SNCF’s 2013 Prix du Polar. His fifth U.S. book, Martyrs and Holymen, will appear in France in September 2018. His sixth book, Time Is the Longest Distance was released in December 2017. We recently discussed writing, L.A., and his new novel.
What exactly is folk art?
When I was on a tour at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Va., a guide asked me if I knew what folk art is. I’m an antique collector, and I’ve seen a lot of what I thought was folk art, but I don’t have an exact definition.
The guide suggested that folk art is created by artists who have no formal training in art. Consequently, she said, most folk art paintings lack perspective or at best have very primitive use of perspective, such as outlines. As an example, she pointed out the dark spots beneath the children’s hands in one of Edward Hicks’ versions of “The Peaceable Kingdom.” The painting she was talking about, which hangs in the museum, is shown at left.
I’ve got that craving again, that gnawing, empty feeling I get when I am not reading a book. Over the holidays I tidily finished up Henry James’s Daisy Miller , Paul Auster’s Mr. Vertigo, and a nonfiction book. Since then I’ve been tearing through old magazines and listening to audiobooks. Just yesterday I spent four hours listening to an audiobook while on the road. And I will listen to more of it when driving into town today.
This audiobook is superb: Sebastian Haffner’s memoir, Defying Hitler. I look forward to finishing it. And yet I feel empty, and bookless.
Remember that old saying about feeling hungry again an hour after eating Chinese food? I’m beginning to wonder if audiobooks are the Chinese food of literature.
Tea, Sake, and a Glorious Life: An Interview with Novelist/Philosopher Carol Quinn
Carol Quinn is Professor of Philosophy and a Women’s Studies Associate at Metropolitan State University of Denver and also holds Graduate Faculty status at University of Colorado Denver. She was the 2017 recipient of MSU Denver’s Outstanding Woman Faculty Award and LGBTQ Ally of the Year Award in 2013. Her new novel, The Glorious Life of Jessica Kraut, was released just two weeks ago from Rock’s Mill Press.
Ron Cooper: Carol, I’m excited about the appearance of your new novel. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first tell us something about your background—where you grew up, your education, your early academic interests, etc.
Carol Quinn: I am a California girl who deeply misses the ocean and was forcibly transplanted to Colorado.
Whenever I read another writer’s novel, I’m curious about what that person’s process was in composing the book. Writer’s approaches to their work are as individual as the various themes they write about. No two methods are the same.
For me, Curva Peligrosa first took hold of me back in 2000. Here is what I wrote in my writer’s journal on 7/16/00:
Was taken with the image of the tornado that swept into Pine Lake, a resort near Red Deer, Alberta, yesterday, and has killed several people, flattening trailers etc. It isn’t the destruction that interests me. It’s devastating and unimaginable. It’s the image of the tornado, so innocent in itself, flattening a community, bringing with it so much sorrow. The tornado has a magical, mythical quality, reminding me of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.
Let’s face it. For struggling authors, marketing and selling a published novel is at best a necessary evil—about as much fun as reading the Congressional Record (which, thankfully, I no longer have to do for work). We all tackle the marketing chores in whatever way we can because we know we have to, all the while hoping we’re not badgering and offending those on the receiving end of our too-frequent pitches.
But there’s one part of the process that is wonderful: Being a guest at a book club. What could be better than sitting around with a dozen people who have read your book and found enough in it to spark a substantive discussion? I was lucky enough to do several of these after my first book came out, and this week I got to do one on my recently published second novel, Hawke’s Return.
This has to stop.
For about eight years now, I’ve been working on a novel about D’Annunzio, the Italian poet, novelist, playwright, memoirist, journalist, playboy, war hero and (arguably) proto-fascist. More than once I’ve thought the novel was finished, only to re-examine it a few months later and decide that it needed more work. I’ve queried agents about it—quite a few, sixty or seventy—and was surprised that none wanted to represent it. But recently, I took to heart what the most thoughtful agent had said about it (even though he admitted he had not read the entire novel) and began yet another revision—or perhaps more accurately, a rewrite, since it’s virtually a new novel now. In this essay I intend to describe how the novel has developed, where it has gone wrong, and what, if anything, I can hope to do about it.
Grant Faulkner, Executive Director of NaNoWriMo, in an 11/14/17 tweet: “I just stumbled on this quote and thought it was good advice for this point in NaNoWriMo. ‘One never goes so far as when one doesn’t know where one is going.’ — Goethe . . . Sometimes you have to write as if you’re Mr. Magoo.”
In a month otherwise dominated in America by Thanksgiving and the increasing notoriety/hysteria that characterizes Black Friday, NaNoWriMo has become a thing, to the point that even non-writers have heard about it. Having originated in San Francisco almost twenty years ago, National Novel Writing Month urges its participants to do one thing: write.
Yes, there are “rules”: the stated objective is for participants to write 50,000 words of a novel within a thirty-day period.
Liana Vrajitoru Andreasen is a scholar, professor, and writer from Romania who has been living and working in the United States for over twenty years. Her work has appeared in journals such as: Rampike, Alecart, Texas Review, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, The Romanian Journal for Artistic Creativity, Southwestern American Literature, The CEA Critic, American Book Review, Lumina, Fiction International, Calliope, The Raven Chronicles, The Willow Review, Mobius, a Journal of Social Change, Scintilla, and Weave Magazine. I recently enjoyed the opportunity to speak with her about her forthcoming critical book, The Fall of Literary Theory.
Joseph Daniel Haske: Tell us about your new book, The Fall of Literary Theory. How long have you been working on it and what was the motivation/philosophy behind it?
When you’re reading a novel, do you ever question the authenticity of the characters because they’re different from the author? Can male authors create realistic female characters? Can female authors create convincing men? What about white authors writing black characters and vice versa? These questions have been around since the beginning of literature. When the male/female issue is raised, critics like to cite the rich characterization of Madame Bovary, a testament to Gustave Flaubert’s understanding of a particular woman. And yet even great novelists can stumble. I’ve always contended that the male characters in Toni Morrison’s Sula are not as complex as the female characters and that the novel (excellent as it is) suffers for that.
When The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron was published in 1967, black critics banded together to denounce Styron and the novel.
Is there anything in life better than leaving the library with a new book? Well, yes, of course. Still, leaving the library with Hanya Yanagihara‘s A Little Life in hand the other day reminded me of a list I have been meaning to put together for decades. This list is supposed to contain life’s simple pleasures.
I’m talking about momentary delights, the ones you often overlook but that fill you with pure contentment tinged with possibility. I can only think of a few. Leaving the library with a new book in hand is most definitely one of them.
With Thanksgiving in the air, it seems appropriate to think of a few more.
Every writer has a first book lying in a drawer. So we are told. And we are also told that it is better thus: the book didn’t get published because it wasn’t worthy. That may well be the case. At present I have three novels ‘in the drawer’, and the second one will certainly stay there. The third, I hope, will eventually find a publisher, perhaps after I’ve done more work on it. But what about the first?
At the end of May, I was preparing to leave the United States permanently. I had cleared out my house, and the night before my departure, I was going through my cupboards, making sure I had left nothing important behind. In the darkest recesses of a closet in which I kept my modem and router and a Gordian knot of cables, I found two briefcases full of writing, most of which I had done in grad school.
Whether a new title is put out by a publishing house or is self-published, marketing experts advise that the work done months in advance of one’s release date is critical to a successful launch.
In addition to the burden of getting the book in shape in terms of content, the cover and the like, authors are asked these days to play a major role in advance marketing. These steps include building up following of friends, family and people who have expressed an interest in one’s previous titles, establishing a social media presence, and identifying potential reviewers.
In preparation for launching my sixth novel, Inauguration Day, on November 1, I offered advanced reading copies (ARCs) to a number of people I hoped would read the book and post a review in social media sites as well as on Amazon on launch day.
“If you don’t push against the mirror, how do you know you’re standing in front of it?” asks author Martin Pousson. His PEN award-winning novel Black Sheep Boy, also an L.A. TimesPick of the Week, inspired Susan Larson (NPR The Reading Life) to say: “An unforgettable novel-in-stories about growing up gay in French Acadiana, so vivid and almost fairy tale-like, drawing on folklore from the region, and yet so brutally realistic. Brilliant. I loved this book.” I loved it too, for Pousson’s poetic prose, among other reasons. I’ve been able to ask Martin Pousson a few questions about the novel. His answers reflect his literary acuity.
Maryland’s Poet Laureate Stanley Plumly will present a half-day intensive poetry workshop at the Maryland Writers’ Association conference March 23-24, 2018 in Baltimore. This prompted me to wonder what exactly a poet laureate is and what does he or she do?
As of 2017, poets laureate are appointed in 46 states and the District of Columbia. Although terms vary in length from state to state, the appointment is for one or two years in most states.
In Maryland, The poet laureate position was formally established by the Maryland General Assembly in 1959 and authorizes the governor to appoint a citizen of the state as Poet Laureate of Maryland. Past poets laureate include (in order of service): Maria B. Coker, Vincent Godfrey Burns, Lucille Clifton, Reed Whittemore, Linda Pastan, Roland Flint, Michael Collier, and Michael Glaser.
Sheridan Hough and I have much in common. We studied philosophy in graduate school. We are philosophy professors. We’re interested in 19th-century, European thinkers. I attended the College of Charleston (many, many years ago); she teaches at the College of Charleston. More relevant here, we also write novels. Sheridan and I recently discussed the crossroads of philosophy and fiction.
RC: Sheridan, tell us about your academic background. How did you get interested in philosophy?
SH: Now there’s a story! Off I went to college—Trinity University—at the tender age of 17, and I was determined to be a double major in English and Theatre. My first class on my very first day at Trinity was ‘Ethics,’ and Plato’s Republic was on the menu.
If you’ve ever taken a writing workshop, you’ve heard many times the bromide “show, don’t tell,” but often the showing part dominates the telling and becomes tyrannical. As a writer friend once pointed out, when we’re writing fiction, we are storytelling and not storyshowing, and there are many ways to tell an engaging story.
Of course, some beginning writers do tend to summarize more than dramatize. They haven’t learned yet how to traverse between generalities and specifics. And in our early drafts, even more experienced writers often are just trying to capture their characters before they can disappear. Showing, then, tends to happen later in the drafting process.
However, it is important to know when one or the other is required, and that’s the advantage of using this shorthand workshop comment.
Several years ago I combed my bookshelves and gave my teenage son some old paperbacks I thought he’d enjoy. Recently, while hunting for a book he asked me to send to him in college, I found the books neatly stacked next to his bed. I wondered if he had ever read any of them.
One he had probably not cracked open—or so I thought I had evidence to prove—was Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I figured this because when I myself opened the book, the pages started shedding.