Friday, June 29, 2018

Book Review: The Snow Child

I took the book off the library shelf and read the blurb at least a dozen times this past year. I thought, Oh, I don't know, maybe next time. Didn't think it was for me and my reading peculiarities.

This time I brought it home along with the usual four or five books I think I might read in the next two weeks. Third book in I decided it was time to give it a go.

Didn't stop reading until 1:30 a.m. And then, reluctantly.  

I found magic in Eowyn Ivey's The Snow Child. From page 1 to page 388, I reveled in this author's enchanting, emotional story, told in language that sent my writer's heart soaring across the harsh landscape of the Alaskan wilderness. I swear I smelled spruce, and melted snowflakes on my tongue. The imagery is that well done, and so are the characters. I sat with Mabel all night as she sewed her snow child a new coat. I trekked with Jack through the snow in the forest to hunt moose to keep him and Mabel alive through the winter. I climbed the mountain to help him bury a stranger. I made snow angels with Faina. 

The Snow Child is a fairytale and folk legend blended with the realities of homesteading in the Alaskan wilderness in the 1920s. Ivey's prose is perfect, her imagination is boundless, and the heart of the novel is so very true to the hearts of all of us who wish for something with such ferocious longing that we make it real.       

Robert Goolrick, author of  A Reliable Wife, said of Eowyn Ivey's novel "If Willa Cather and Gabriel Garcia Marquez had collaborated on  book, The Snow Child would be it."

Ivey was raised in Alaska, and was a reporter for the Frontiersman newspaper. The Snow Child, her debut novel earned her a spot as a finalist for a Pulitzer in 2013. Her second novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, is also set in Alaska in 1885. She is an independent bookseller in addition to being a writer. An excellent writer.

And you all who know me, know I cried at the end. For the beauty of the story, and for my envy of the author.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Writing Between the Lines

Subtext in fiction implies that something important is not being said. The technique can take many forms, including symbolic dialogue and a character's actions while speaking. Subtext can also work with silence or digression when a character, for one reason or another, can't say what he thinks, or sidetracks from the subject.

When ideas are only suggested instead of directly voiced, the undercurrents can often hit harder than dialogue. Make use of subtle tension with voice inflection and facial expression that give deeper meaning to dialogue.

Silence is useful in presenting pertinent subtext. What is not being said is often more powerful than words spoken out loud.

In a scene from my own work, two key characters, both teenagers, have a conversation about one character's alcoholic grandparents and the many ways in which they are dysfunctional. Ironically, the character who complains about his grandparents' constant drunkenness is drinking a beer. Lately, it's become the norm for him to have a beer in his hand. His environment is such that it's perfectly normal for him to drink. When he does acknowledge his drinking, he justifies it by telling himself that every teenage kid does a little drinking now and then.

But his friend's awkward silence is far more telling than if he had said, "Hey, by the way, lately you're drinking like a sailor on shore leave, and I think you've got a problem." Because they are best friends, the character with the beer knows exactly what his friend is thinking. He knows, because the whispers of his subconscious are growing louder every day.

In subtext digression, a character who fears he will be rude or hurtful, (or get hurt, himself) often sidesteps the obvious by changing the subject. Like when someone asks "Is this a good color for me?" and you tell them their hair looks fantastic instead of saying "You look like a pumpkin in that particular shade of orange."

Dialogue is not the only way to suggest subtext. Subtext in description is a good way to give your writing tone. It's the old "dark and stormy night" without writing "dark and stormy night." Subtext in setting or description is a little more complicated than silence or digression in dialogue, and it's difficult not to fall into cliche when using subtext in setting or mood. (Please don't ever use "dark and stormy night." Please.)

Good mystery and crime writers often use subtext to point to a key piece of information that eventually answers the what, why, how, and especially, the who, questions.

Subtext is a secondary message to the reader that reflects on both character and circumstance. Weather, color, texture, facial expression, even architecture can enhance what your character thinks of himself and of others.

While one person might see a common chicken shape in the water stain on the ceiling, another character might see an elegant swan, Not only have you shown a character's state of mind, you've identified something about why she's in that state of mind. A water stain on the ceiling could indicate a "leak" in her life, and might also say something about the circumstances in which she lives.

Or maybe that chicken/swan stain on the ceiling is just one indicator in a list of things that point to a character's emotional state or circumstances. Maybe there are overflowing ashtrays, dirty dishes, beer bottles under the couch, a screen door hanging precariously on its hinges. These things can be perfect examples of subtext.

Or maybe it's just the opposite. The house is scrupulously clean, organized, and your character, who is OCD, is about to lose her mind over that one imperfection in an otherwise perfect home.

Subtext is the colorful vehicle that drives the reader from the start of the story to its promised destination at the end of the Ah Ha rainbow.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Set Your Sites

There are two kinds of writers: Those who are beginning and those who are continuing. As in just about everything else, Internet sites offer a place for every kind of scribe, those who are just starting to dip into that great sea of writing, and those who are already fully immersed.

Every writer has those times of sitting patiently (or impatiently) waiting for those creative ideas and the words to express them to drop out of the sky and onto the page. But when staring at that immense expanse of white for six hours doesn't help you be any more literate than a four-year-old with a limited vocabulary, there's always the Internet to inspire you. And I don't mean social media.

One day I decided to stop just sitting around staring into the abyss and waiting for my brain to produce actual words worth putting on paper (or screen) and went looking for somebody to smack me upside the head with advice on how to continue being a writer. Besides finding like-minded people, I found a treasure of helpful sites for those of us who dare to call ourselves writers.

Following are 10 sites that are worth the time to explore when you need advice, encouragement, and how and where to submit your work.

1. Writer's Digest. If you don't know WD, then you're not a writer. Or you're a very new one. Writer's Digest has been around since 1920. The print magazine routinely publishes author interviews, markets, calls for manuscripts, and how-to articles on every aspect of the writing life. Their website carries the same information, offering writing prompts, workshops, and lists of literary agents and publishers, among other services. Both the print magazine and the website are well worth a subscription.

2. Writers Write. This site offers well-written articles on everything from beginning a writing project to how to get through writer's block to dealing with publishers and rejection. Writers Write is a pretty comprehensive guide to finding articles on things like preparing your work for submission, and lists of current writing competitions.

3. Fiction Factor. A great site to find the basics, such as structure, punctuation, editing, critique methods, marketing advice and contests. They also do book  reviews.

4. Advanced Fiction Writing. Among other articles, this site bases its articles on using the "snowflake" method for structuring a novel.

5. Fiction University. This is one of my favorites. Writer Janice Hardy maintains this site, and presents articles on every form of writing. There are some very good guest blogs in addition to Janice's own, on planning your writing project, problems, editing, selling your work, and many other subjects. One of the best sites.

6. Funds for Writers. This site offers excellent guest blogs, contests, markets, and how to apply for grants. I found that the market listings are up to date and very comprehensive.

 7. Now Novel. Another excellent site with a very long list of how-to articles about writing, current market lists, and great tutorials. This is an excellent site for learning how to begin a novel and how to finish it.

8. WOW (Women on Writing). The site provides lists of contests, articles about women who are focused on their writing careers. Freelancers are welcome to submit articles, and the site has been known to occasionally pay reasonably well for blogs on the subject of writing in whatever form.

9. You can buy a subscription to this site, or scroll to the bottom of their homepage to get writing prompts. They also offer the opportunity for you to submit a writing blog for possible publication on the site.

10. Scribendi. This is a very professional site that maintains a long detailed list of market categories and articles for writers of every genre, including non-fiction.

These sites are just a few examples of help for writers, both professional and novice, who have those inspiration-less days when our writer-ly brains turn to mush and words fail.      

Friday, May 26, 2017

Literary vs Mainstream

For the most part, both short stories and novels fall into two categories: literary and mainstream. Agents and editors differentiate between them in several ways, but the two forms often overlap.

 Mainstream fiction is categorized as entertainment. A mainstream work of fiction usually incorporates overt conflict, whether between characters or humanity at large. The reader is told what is happening in a physical, clearly-defined world. Action drives the story forward. Tension is more apparent and less nuanced in "popular" fiction, making the work more accessible to a wider range of readers. Plot takes precedence in mainstream -- also called commercial -- fiction. In this type of fiction, the protagonist does the work.

Commercial genres include romance, mystery, and thriller, sci-fi and fantasy, and even some forms of humor in fiction.

Literary genres are more difficult to define.

 Literary works can be a manifesto of sorts, where the ideal is more complex than the plot. In literary fiction, the reader does the work. This type of fiction is directed to impact society in thought-provoking, and often controversial, ways by taking on social and cultural issues. Readers are led to question preconceived notions. Writing style for this kind of story doesn't rely on convention, but can be experimental, transcending structural elements, with subtext often used to reinforce the theme. The language is broad, elegant, and imaginative, putting the art of prose foremost. The pace is slower in literary fiction than in commercial fiction.

It used to be said that mainstream fiction was "light reading" and literary works were "serious fiction." But today, the genres often overlap into a category called "upmarket," a cross between literary and commercial fiction. The work is still literary but will also appeal to commercial readership. The story is written with a high command of language, but without being pretentious or "stuffy," which makes this type of fiction easier to market than it once was.

In the past, literary fiction was easy to identify, Most of these stories were classic English assignments: Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies, Moby Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird, among others that most of us have read. (Whether we wanted to or not. And hurray for Cliff Notes.)   

Today's A-list literary fiction authors include writers like Alice Sebold, Jodie Picoult, Annie Proulx, Toni Morrison, Sara Gruen, and Joyce Carol Oates. 

As writers, we should read in the categories we most want to break into with our own work. Remember that a well-read writer will soon turn into a well-read writer. (Think about that and it will make sense.) Actually, that's all we writers want, we want readers to read our work. 

And money. We want money. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Developing Your Writing Style

Loosely, the definition of writing style is: The ability to write in a unique manner, clearly, effectively, and with a readable rhythm that makes the work sound right to the ear.

We all have our favorite writers when it comes to style. Jodie Picoult, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Lisa Gardner, Wally Lamb. So many excellent writers, and not one of them writes like another, they've honed their writing skills over many years to develop their unique style. As writers, we usually read those whose work reflects the kind of writing we want to do. We take note of how our favorite authors achieve their colorful figures of speech, their flavor, their rhythm, without considering how many words these people have written in order to find their voice.

Style is a matter of choice. There are writers who are terse, blunt, or brisk. There are those whose words flow like untroubled waters. It's our own preferences -- and I would think, our personalities -- that for the most part dictates our writing style.

Technically, writing style involves both addition and subtraction. It involves subtracting words and phrases that clutter or muddy the meaning. When editing, cut all those fusty, pompous, or complex passages. Replace them with simple, clear, lively and engaging words and phrases. Or, if the passages are unnecessary, don't even bother to replace them. Cut out everything that isn't story.

Style also involves adding the perfect combination of words, when necessary, to express something in a way that moves the reader either emotionally, or in an Ah Ha, I get it now! way.

A pleasing style is one of continuing originality, using fresh, arresting word visions, with little twists of surprise in the manner of syntax. Avoid rare, difficult words, trite sentences, and cliches that are stale from overuse. There are times, however, when a cliche works, when the writer is sharp enough to use a cliche in a "tongue in cheek" (sorry) manner simply to point out that it is a cliche, especially when uttered by a cliche character.

In a previous post "Enhancing Your Fiction with Figurative Language", I offered a list of figures of speech that add flavor to writing. These devices, such as alliteration, assonance, consonance, personification, and many more -- are all language forms that can create a trademark writing style, adding flow, harmony, and grace.

Short sentences make more impact. Longer sentences smooth things out, and offer a lull in action so that the reader can relax and look around the fascinating world you've created for them.

Twist it. Turn it upside down. Let it go. Pull it back. Invent new words, play with old words. Punctuate it your way.

That's style.

Your style. 


Sunday, March 5, 2017

Using Conflict in the Short Story

Writing a full-length novel gives one far more leeway to practice the craft of storytelling without the pressure of trying to put all you need to say in 5000-7000 words or less. There just seems to be more anxiety when you attempt to create characters and story lines to fit into a concise, well-developed short story. So much to say, so little space. However, it's an art form that can build a loyal readership, and sometimes even put a few bucks in your bank account if you hit the right publication. At the least, you just might find your work published in an anthology that affords you bragging rights and the opportunity get your name "out there".  

While there are "literary" or "quality" short stories that are based mainly on characterization, most general market short stories require strong conflict to entice a reader to read on. Instead of pondering or musing about a universal condition or truth, or questioning the philosophies of the masses, mainstream short stories need to present a specific conflict.  

The scenes in a short story are used to characterize, to convey information, and most important, to produce conflict, whether that conflict is emotional or physical. Short story conflict has four main elements. 1. There must be a meeting between two opposing forces. 2. There should be exploitation of  the conflict.       3. There should be a suggestion as to the result of the conflict. 4. The conflict should set up the transition to the next scene. 

The meeting between two opposing forces sets up a win or lose situation. Somebody, or something (a force of nature, etc.), wins or loses, concedes a point, is forced into a decision, or brings about a revelation. And in those plot points lies the exploitation of the conflict, and the result, and thus sets the next scene.

There are three plot reasons for conflict: To eliminate an opponent, to overcome an obstacle (physical or mental), or to divert disaster. And although it's been said that there are only three plots to choose from, there are many variations for which conflict is possible.
Man against man.
Man against men (war).
Man against woman.
Woman against man.
Woman against woman.
Man against nature.
Man against disaster.
Man against environment.
Man against himself.

 Short story scenes are created for conflict in each stage.
1. Set the scene.
2. Introduce characters, pertinent information, and point of view.
3. Suggest the type of story it is through tone, style, and voice.
4. Relay background circumstances which led to the conflict.
5. Use a narrative hook to raise interest in the protagonist's welfare.
1. Present the complication.
2. Relay the series of efforts and attempts to solve the complications, and the failures to do so.
3. Present a situation that suggests a failed resolution of the conflict that convinces the reader that there is no hope of a satisfactory solution.
4. Present a decision that will point to the solution of the conflict, and put that decision into play.
The decision and the solution must be satisfactory and believable to the reader.

There's a lot that goes into a successful short story, but if you break it down into manageable components, 5000 words is no harder than 80,000 words.

"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story."
                                                                                  Toni Morrison  

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

What Kind of Driver Are You?

"If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." Toni Morrison.

Great advice, but what kind of novel do you want to write? In addition to choosing your genre, you also have to decide whether you want to spend more writing hours working on your exciting plot, or on those fascinating characters that live in your head. Often, your chosen genre dictates the structure of the book, but sometimes the lines can cross.

Although literary purists would say that you need to focus on one or the other, it's perfectly acceptable to blend the character-driven story with the plot-driven one. The key is balance.

A plot-driven novel focuses on the anticipation and excitement of what happens next. It involves physical events, and unexpected twists. There are often large-scale concepts involved in this type of novel. Like car crashes and kidnappings, aliens and avalanches.

Adventure, fantasy, horror, sci-fi, crime, and mystery novels are most often plot-driven stories. They are external, and considered commercial fiction by agents, editors, and publishers.

In a character-driven novel, readers connect with people like themselves, how they would or would not like to be seen. These are emotional stories and don't need a complex plot to progress from beginning to end. Of course, there is still a plot but it is based on character growth and change. There are goals and personal issues to resolve in a character-driven novel. Characters usually have to overcome obstacles to their happiness, and plot happens because of a character's desires, deeds, and needs. Decisions are made, whether they are right or wrong, and there is more internal conflict than there is action.

Romance, coming-of-age, friendship, and family novels are character-driven and are usually considered literary novels.

But there are no longer concrete rules for fiction, as in the past. Today's fiction often incorporates both types of stories in one. It's okay to create a story wherein you display your character's most intense emotions and psychological traits with an active plot that highlights their soul's journey. There's no reason your "hard-boiled" detective can't sign up for meditation classes, and you won't commit literary sin if your introspective, mousy librarian transforms into a kick-ass roller-derby gal on Friday nights.

 As writers, I believe we write what we enjoy reading. The kind of book you should write is probably sitting on your bedside table right now.