Friday, July 30, 2010

Gotham Writers’ Workshop, Writing Fiction

If you need to remind yourself of how vast the industry of writing how-to books is, just take a look at this list of “some of the newest books on the craft” of writing. The list is put together by the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, which hosts a plethora of online writing courses. The Gotham crew also has a book of its own: Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School (New York, 2003; 291 pp.). That’s what this post is about.

What’s distinctive about this “practical guide”? First, it’s wide-ranging: it goes from fiction on chapter 1 to the industry of fiction on chapter 11. That’s a lot of bases to cover, and they don’t flinch before the task.

Second, it’s very accessible, without being dumbed down. They’re not out to write treatises on character or point of view. They mention whatever’s essential, spice it up with insights, intersperse exercises, and that’s it. Chapters are a topic each, and about twenty-five pages apiece. There are plenty of exercises, not end-of-chapter exercises as in many other writing manuals, but during-chapter prompts. That makes the book feel like a course wedged between two covers. Hence “practical.”

The book pulls off an interesting feat. Each chapter is written by a different author, but they all have a consistent mix of anecdotes, general advice, and examples, filtered through an easy-going and amusing voice. The editor spliced the different chapters so well that you could easily fall into the illusion that the book was written by a single author. Polyphony is a virtue, sure, but it always involves the risk of having chapters that aren’t up to par. It isn’t the case in this volume.

Two recurrent quarries for the examples in the book are Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatbsy and Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral.” For easy reference, the editors included “Cathedral” as an appendix. And it was a good call, since it’s such a fantastic story.

Now that I’ve gushed about the book for a few paragraphs, here’s the caveat: I wouldn’t recommend it for more experienced writers. What I mean, more specifically, is people who have been writing for a while, read profusely, and have plowed through a few books on writing craft. Then again, if you have a read a few of those, reading another one that covers the bases doesn’t hurt.

Say you’re anxious to get the most out of the book in the least amount of time. Then the editors thought of you: there’s a “cheat sheet” at the end that distils each chapter into a few basic questions. But that’s almost like cheating, you’ll say, and I’ll agree. In that case, turn to Peter Selgin’s chapter (“Revision: Real Writers Revise”). It’s masterfully written (funny, clever, insightful) and it acts as a Baedeker to the whole book, gleaning the wisdom of each chapter as you’ll use it during the process of revision. It’s enjoyable and useful. Read at least that.

And, if you’re serious about fiction, read the last chapter: Corene Lemaitre’s on the business of writing. It’s remarkably lucid and down-to-earth. You’ll read about royalties and contracts, about the short story market and the enterprise of finding an agent. There even are tips on writing cover letters and two sample letters: one for short stories and one for novels. How can you go wrong with that?

Friday, July 23, 2010

Betsy Lerner, The Forest for the Trees

People often have warped images of writers: they drink or smoke too much, they obsess (think of Joshua Ferris’s cunning portrait in his recent short story “The Pilot”), they are quirky and maniacal (think of Jack Nicholson’s two roles as a writer). Thus, many people, afflicted by those images, shake their head mournfully when they hear you’re interested in pursuing writing as a profession.

Some of these stereotypes come from people who’ve had few encounters with writers (perhaps they bumped into a pungent and mustachioed English major sporting a beret). Some come from deep within the writing trenches: Gardner presents a caricature of his own in On Becoming a Novelist. It’s healthy, though, to read accounts written by people who are deeply familiar with real, professional writers. Betsy Lerner is one of them. She worked as an editor for years, and got an MFA before that, so she’s been around writers for a while. She wrote The Forest for the Trees (New York, 2000; 284 pp.) by drawing from that experience, and she did so with writers and editors in mind.

The book is divided into two parts: writing and publishing. The first puts the spotlight on writers as they toil away. It’s not preoccupied with techniques, but rather with the profile of writers and with how that profile often interferes with writing. She discusses the idea of “natural” writers (chapter 2), and claims perseverance, rather than raw talent, is the best predictor of success (33). She describes how the pull of family and community holds some writers back from gushing out on certain subjects (chapter 3). The pressures writers face—for instance, when dealing with self-promotion and fame (chapter 4)—often lead to neurotic behaviors (chapter 5) and even to substance abuse or even mental illness (chapter 6).

These chapters are deeply sympathetic. Lerner does not belittle the compulsions she’s found in many writers, the anxieties that drove many to therapists’ couches. But, even though Lerner wrote and published, she sees the pack of writers from the outside, unlike, say, Gardner’s portrait or the wide array of writers’ testimonials and memoirs. She acts more as an ethnographer than as an autobiographer.

The second part tackles publishing. Lerner stresses how much the publishing industry has changed since the days of legendary editors like Maxwell Perkins and Michael Korda. It is now fiercely competitive and commercialized, and publicity plays an extremely important role.

Lerner digs deeper. She wants to prepare writers for what they’ll face once they cross the glass doors they’ve been misting with their breath and actually get inside the publishing industry. The result is often very different from the land of milk and honey writers expect to find upon signing a contract: even successful books toss writers into a world ripped apart by bad reviews, intense pressures to score another hit (which may produce the so-called sophomore slump), or even worse: silence. The book may be ignored by reviewers and readers. Writers need to be prepared for this, Lerner explains. They need to learn to cope with rejection, neglect, meager returns on their hard work.

Some of the specifics of this second part of the book are useful. Lerner covers ground such as whether to get an agent (yes) or call an editor who’s reviewing a manuscript (no). She describes how the sales conference works, how the flap copy is assembled, the deleterious effect of making changes on typeset pages. Titles, jackets, and author photos are all mentioned.

If you’re looking for a book on craft, this isn’t it. If you’re looking how to write the next runaway novel, this isn’t it either. If you want some insights from a kind insider, which will help you question your resolve and prepare for what to expect after getting published, then it’s a good book. It’s packed with editors’ lore and snippets from authors’ interviews. It pays more attention to poets and poetry than any writing books I’ve described on the blog. To a good extent, it’s because poetry was the author’s genre of choice when she wrote. In all, this shouldn’t be the only book on writers or writing that you read, but it’s a helpful addition to others of its kind.

Oh, a revised edition is coming out in October, so you might as well wait a couple months to read it.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

David Michael Kaplan, Revision

We’ve seen editing tackled by professional editors (Self-Editing for Fiction Writers) and by a literary agent (The First Five Pages). Both perspectives are useful. But David Michael Kaplan’s Revision: A Creative Approach to Writing and Rewriting Fiction (Cincinnati, 1997; 226 pp.) is a book on editing written by a creative writer.

The result is an excellent volume, which adds an important dimension to the discussion: while editors and agents focus on what to edit, Kaplan also tackles how and when to edit. These may seem like trifles, but they aren’t: you can revise before writing (by planning), you can revise while writing (for instance, I’ve chosen midway that another point of view was better, so do I go back and correct everything I’ve written?), and of course you can revise after you’ve written (even after you’ve published). Kaplan goes through all these issues, and offers both encouragement and knowhow. He’s been down that road; he knows it’s hard. He often proves his points by showing you how he has revised his own short stories (several of which are quite good). As I said, an excellent book.

Unlike most writing books these days, Revision focuses specifically on short stories. Sure, sometimes Kaplan refers to writing novels. But short stories are his real concern, and this directs his approach and informs many of his suggestions.

Perhaps the most helpful of all the lessons of the book is the order in which he suggests writers should revise. As Kaplan says, “many beginning writers assume” that the whole of revision is “stylistics, or fine-tuning prose for power and punch” (175). He has interesting things to say about that, with a list of errors to look out for (Kaplan’s Laundry List of Stylistic Glitches, he calls it). And stylistics is important: choosing the right words, avoiding the clutter that flags a text as amateurish. Recall Lukeman’s The First Five Pages, and remember how easily an editor can reject a manuscript just by looking at the use of adjectives and adverbs. Kaplan doesn’t deny that. What he says is that writers should worry about it at the end, after revising other things, like “character, conflict, plot, pacing” (175). It’s a waste of time to spend hours on a paragraph only to cut it because it no longer fits with the revised plot. Go through all the other stuff first, and turn to specific language last—even if editors can pick at the language first, with a lasting effect on your manuscript.

It’s a great book. While other books on revision help writers and at the same time assist editors and agents, this is a writer’s book for writers. If you don’t take revision seriously, Kaplan explains why you should. If you do, Kaplan offers a sympathetic but critical tour through what revision entails.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages

Would you rather have an avuncular, didactic writer who walked you through the editing process, or would you prefer the guidance of an impatient, help-us-editors-not-waste-our-time author? Noah Lukeman, an agent, comes much closer to the second voice in The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile (New York, 2007; 207 pp.).

It’s a book about editing a manuscript, not about starting from a blank computer screen. And it’s not a book that unveils a ten-point plan to guarantee publication. As the subtitle says, it’s about avoiding rejection: “There are no rules to assure great writing, but there are ways to avoid bad writing” (11). Lukeman goes through some of the more egregious faults, starting with presentation and hustling all the way to pacing and progression. Some faults, things you may have been doing unthinkingly and insist on being harmless, are cardinal sins that an editor or agent will notice in a matter of seconds and toss the manuscript into the bin. After all, editors are not reading for pleasure: “they read solely with the goal of getting through the pile, solely with an eye to dismiss a manuscript” (13). Lukeman shows how to avoid making that too easy for them. (Because they read too much, says Gardner in On Becoming a Novelist, editors “become hyper-critical, gun-shy, cynical” [101].)

The author built The First Five Pages by compiling a list of common mistakes he’s encountered after years of working as an agent. Each chapter presents a general discussion of one of those problems, followed by proposed solutions, some examples, and exercises. Unlike Browne and King’s book on self-editing, most examples here are forged to illustrate a point. That generally turns them into extreme cases, but they are useful to make a particular problem palpable. Besides, no background explanations need to be provided, and supplying those often slowed down Browne and King.

A few of the end-of-chapter exercises are helpful. Some specific ideas are too. There is a long discussion of dialogue that, as always happens after reading these books, broadens the list of things to look out for (or to flout consciously as opposed to carelessly).

One chapter in particular is outstanding. That is chapter 2, called “Adjectives and Adverbs.” The earlier a chapter appears in the book, the more its problems make the manuscript easy to reject. Hence, misused adjectives and adverbs jump off the page for an editor, mark the author as an amateur, and condemn the work to rejection. I recommend that chapter above all. Plenty of other books flag adjectives and adverbs as problematic. But the pithy discussion here, and especially the end-of-chapter exercises, help diagnose and treat the problem with stunning precision and efficacy. If you’re thinking about buying this book, read (and implement) chapter 2 and judge for yourself.

I’ve mentioned before (here, for instance) how skeletal plots and the tepid exaltation of the mundane have become of one of the standard forms assumed by workshopped fiction. I’ve mentioned before (here, for instance) how skeletal plots and the tepid exaltation of the mundane have become of one of the standard forms assumed by workshopped fiction. I’ll conclude this note with two quotations that are a salutary complement to that discussion: “Unfortunately, these days, ‘literary’ writing seems to have become synonymous with ‘showy’ writing, writing that is beautiful but doesn’t tell a story. This is a misguided trend” (67); “the single biggest mistake modern-day M.F.A. writers make is to presume that the modern-day reader is interested, above all else, in realism, interested in mundane, everyday dialogue from the East Village that doesn’t go anywhere or serve any greater purpose” (92). Despite these sane comments on plot, Lukeman doesn’t discuss plot in this book. He does it in another, equally helpful volume, which I’ll describe later. This triad of notes about books on self-editing will close with my favorite: Revision.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Browne and King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

The author of a craft book I reviewed recently had this to say about writing: “Writing is way overrated. The truly creative writer gets the most mileage out of editing and revising” (98). Great. The question is exactly how to go about it? Sure, reading, letting it sit, rereading. Maybe finding some good readers to comment on it. Of course, making the plot strong and the characters complex and memorable. Of course, getting the grammar and the spelling right. But it would be useful to get some guidelines so that you can do your own editing after you’ve finished writing. The ideal would be to develop techniques that made you approach your writing with as much distance as if you were someone else. A very incisive, probing, and articulate someone else.

Plenty of that is to be found in Renni Browne and Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print (2 Ed., Collins, 2004; 279 pp.). It presents bundles of good advice, tied around a handful of basic ideas that are explained, exemplified, and easy to read. Some of the more familiar material (showing and telling, characterization, point of view) is discussed in a way that lets you glean useful ideas. You will end up making a checklist of things you can’t afford to miss on your next revision.

One of the book’s main goals is to emphasize that fiction should provide readers experiences in such a way that the story is not bungled by the mistakes of a novice. A tacky phrase, an evident cliché, a cheap way to characterize—and your readers will escape from the story and start to wonder about that device you used poorly. (In Gardnerian terms, such mistakes will cut short fiction’s profluent dream.) Rather than etching rules on stone, Browne and King present the centrifugal consequences of certain stylistic choices.

For instance, what’s wrong with presenting a character’s defining traits the minute he walks on stage? Well, the authors say, doing so prevents the gradual acquaintance that gives readers a more complete sense of the character’s complexities (26). The chapters on dialogue (there are three of them) show particularly well how good dialogue can be wrecked by poor mechanics, such as using a legion of synonyms for said. The chapter on language (“Sophistication”) doesn’t have as many specific recommendations as other books. However, each recommendation is accompanied by demonstrations of the effects of following and not following the suggestion. It’s up to you, they’ll say, but take a look at this.

I liked that the book is very conscious of the moment of the development of fiction we’re in. We’re not writing Victorian fiction now, in which settings were “described in exhaustive (and exhausting) detail” (8). We can skip details often, as readers tend to have a more cinematic frame of mind and have even developed plot expectations inspired by movies. This doesn’t mean that a novel should be a screenplay hidden under a coiffure. In fact, novels have advantages that movies can’t grasp, such as allowing “for the expression of unexpressed thoughts: interior monologue” (117). But a movie culture has certainly changed the literary landscape. Browne and King are well aware of this: descriptions tend to be more pared down than they were just “a few decades ago, when generous, detailed descriptions were the norm. It’s the influence of movies and television again—readers are used to jump-cuts from scene to scene rather than long transitional shots. Fiction writers, in turn, are much freer to use ellipses, to leave more of the mundane, bridging action up to their readers’ imaginations” (68).

There are writing exercises at the end of every chapter. Par for the course with writing books nowadays. But something about the exercises is not: they have answers at the end. Since many of the exercises involve putting editing techniques into practice, it’s nice to see how much your editing resembles that done by Browne and King. They’re not infallible. Still, it’s good to have a product with which you can compare your own results. You often find interesting ways in which they propped and tweaked the text. It’s interesting that several of the excerpts presented as exercises come from published novels.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is a good book and a quick read. Some of the examples that are woven into the text work better than others, but they make each recommendation more concrete and malleable. There will certainly be a thing or two you’ll pick up from the authors in order to make your fiction stronger. I’ll turn to two other books on self-editing next, closing with the one I liked best.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist

We already saw (here) that Gardner’s The Art of Fiction gave good advice on writing techniques. But writing is more than techniques. Being misunderstood and frequently undervalued by people outside of writing seem to be common denominators for writers, who are thus often prone to recurrent anxieties. In his second book on writing, On Becoming a Novelist (New York, 1983, 1999; 150 pp.), Gardner counsels writers on their expectations, frustrations, and challenges. He knows about them. He’s dealt with rejection and with publication. He has good advice on what to make of all the turmoil. In today’s parlance, we could call him a writing coach. He’s not proselytizing, turning people into writers; he’s talking to “serious writers” again (as he did in The Art of Fiction), and he wants to walk them through the questions and the struggles without wearing rosy lenses.

Here’s the bottom line: “Nothing is harder than being a true novelist, unless that is all one wants to be, in which case, though becoming a true novelist is hard, everything else is harder” (70). Prepare for difficulties, while remaining uncertain of the outcome. Prepare for “spiritual profits” (149), and—for very few—financial ones too. Prepare for menial jobs that won’t, or so we hope, drain you enough to mangle your art. Prepare to be disgusted by terrible books that gain critical and commercial success. As I said, no rosy lenses here. If, in spite of the life you must prepare yourself for, you still want it, chances are you’re a novelist at heart.

The intense doubts that assail writers, particularly beginning writers, are convincingly portrayed by Gardner. Do I have enough talent for this? Am I wasting my time marooned in the room while others are out in the world enjoying professional success? Am I crazy to opt for reading and writing as a profession?

The first of these questions begins the book. There is no definite answer, says Gardner—as one would expect him to say. But he does tackle the issue seriously. He presents four indicators of talent in a writer (3-70): verbal sensitivity, accuracy of eye, the special intelligence of a storyteller (which includes rejecting stupid ideas and a requisite amount of the right kind of strangeness), and daemonic compulsiveness.

Gardner still favors getting a college education (as he did in The Art of Fiction), but he takes on writing programs more specifically. Yes, many are bad, and can even derail a talented beginner, but more often than not, they do help by providing admission to the writing community, with its much-needed encouragement.

On Becoming a Novelist dedicates a chapter to publication. Should I look for an agent? Sure, and particularly if you’re a novelist. What should we make of editors? “One should fight like the devil the temptation to think well of editors” (100), he says, but goes on to explain that deep down they mean well and their flaws are often the result of their being overworked. Don’t take an editor’s rejection too seriously—unlike an agent’s: agents evaluate potential, and not just the manuscript as is. Seek the reassurance of publication, but don’t become obsessed with it. Concentrate your compulsions on the work itself, aiming “not [for] publication at any cost, but publication that one can be proud of” (xxiii).

If you’re having second thoughts (or third or nth thoughts) about writing, this book is a good resource. Technique is valued highly, but it’s not Gardner’s main concern here. The mindset of writers is. It doesn’t hurt to know that you’re not alone in suffering those anxieties. We’ll come back to other similar books over the next few days, but this one has the advantage of being written by a professional writer.

Monday, July 12, 2010

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers (Vintage, 1983, 1991; 224 pp.) is a classic. It’s printed like a classic: thick paper, hazy letters. It speaks like a classic: note the subtitle, for young writers, which we would most likely write today as beginning writers. Gardner’s voice in the book has the gusto and loftiness of an early twentieth century don, with an inordinate faith in formal, humanist education. It’s surprising that, despite the old-fashioned tone, Gardner died at the early age of 49. Finally, the work is self-consciously a classic in its intended audience (“What is said here […] is said for the elite; that is, for serious literary artists” [x]) and in its high regard for itself (this book, says Gardner, is “the most helpful book of its kind” [xi]).

The claim that Gardner’s book is the most helpful book of its kind has ceased to be true in view of the profusion of writing manuals published over the decades that separate us from 1983. Gardner’s volume may be important and revealing, but others have produced books that are more useful. Nevertheless, it’s a good, witty, and committed book, both because of the theory of literature it presents and because of the writing techniques it sets before us (more on both below).

I mentioned an old-fashioned tone. The book did often strike me as dated. Would a book on writing published today dedicate several pages to what Gardner considered “fiction’s primary forms,” that is, “realistic narratives, tales, and yarns” (33)? How about emphasizing that “the nature of our mortality” conditions what we consider important, dislike, or feel indifferent to in fiction (55)? And how about proposing to use the voice of “a black” as an “interesting variant” in telling a yarn (197)? Gardner takes a long time dissecting and remonstrating with artistic movements, such as surrealist, superrealist, and objective fiction, whose virtues have seeped into contemporary literature while the movements themselves don’t garner as much attention in today’s writing manuals.

The book also feels old because of the author’s faith in university education, which is, as I said, inordinate. (Gore Vidal has said that Gardner saw “Heaven as a paradigmatic American university.”) Gardner expects every serious writer to get a literature degree at a university, or at least a few years’ worth of courses, where he or she needs to learn “how to analyze fiction” (13). The writings of the self-taught, he says, no matter how brilliant, suffer from ailments such as the “spottiness and therefore awkwardness of their knowledge” (12). He proves his point by focusing on more recent authors, so one is left to wonder what his assessment would be of, say, Shakespeare’s “little Latin,” or of Homer’s and Cervantes’s educations. To be fair, these views are tempered in On Becoming a Novelist, where Gardner admits it’s possible to be a good writer without a university education, and that a writer can come from any intellectual discipline (92-97).

So, according to Gardner, reading a lot is not enough. Living a lot isn’t, either (“the first-hand knowledge of a dozen trades is likely to be of less value to the writer than twenty good informants” [14]). Writers must learn the right way, read the right authors, grasp the right emotions, and work awfully hard guided by their intuition.

Intuition stands high in Gardner’s assessment of writers. Sometimes, this teeters toward the Romantic obsession with great creators; at one point, Gardner compares a writer with a séance (49). But, more often, feeling and intuition balance a picture of artistry that can seem pompous and aloof. And so, despite the book’s evident elitism, Gardner can reach out to “lesser” forms of literature when underscoring literature’s sensuous and entertaining side: “drugstore fiction can often have more to offer than fiction thought to be of a higher class” (40). We must “beware of reckless high seriousness,” he says, and recognize that “the true literary artist and the man or woman who makes ‘toy fiction’ may be the same person in different moods” (81). He often turns to such “lesser” forms of literature as models, and some of the exercises at the end of the book engage with those genres.

Once you set aside those distracting details, and the discussions that consume pages unnecessarily, you’ll find yourself surrounded by interesting sentences and insights. There are plenty of them, like this one: “Nothing leads to fraudulence more swiftly than the conscious pursuit of stylistic uniqueness” (163). You’ll also see Gardner’s much quoted theory of fiction: fiction is understood as a “vivid and continuous […] dream” (97). You’ll run into interesting examples of the creative process: specifically, three descriptions of how a story can be created from scratch. There are illuminating literary critiques. There’s a whole chapter on plotting, “the hardest job a writer ever does” (165).

Furthermore, there’s a handy list of common faults. Some are “failures in the basic skills” (99), like excessive use of the passive voice, shifts in diction level, lack of sentence variety, lack of sentence focus, accidental rhyme, and needless explanation. Some are crass mistakes made by “very bad writers” (112), like faulty chronologies and an awkward presentation of details. There also are mistakes “of soul” (115), namely, sentimentality, frigidity, and mannerism. True, we can quibble about the categories. True, we can say Gardner’s censure of some devices is antiquated. But his discussion of each fault is useful. For instance, he presents the three main syntactical slots in a sentence (subject, verb, object), and recommends not to load with descriptions more than two of them—and preferably just one—so that the sentence doesn’t lose its focus (105-106). Elegantly put. Also, the fledgling manner of ramming details into the reader’s eyes, while thinking it was done smoothly, is a fault that Gardner describes lucidly (114).

Say you don’t want to read Gardner’s whole book. Then you can safely skip part I and move straight to chapter 5. Just keep the dream theory in mind, which is arrived at and fleshed out in the first four chapters. Chapters 5 through 7 are the most practical. You can omit the exercises at the end, and turn instead to book-length compilations of writing exercises, such as Naming the World or Now Write! If you want to abridge further, skip the first half of chapter 6. In that succinct version of The Art of Fiction, the tapestry’s remaining threads are still useful and they give a good sense of Gardner’s outlook and tone.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Hobart 11

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten on writing is also one of the simplest: let your fiction sit in a drawer (or hard drive) before reading it again. Here is Gardner’s version: “when the manuscript is ‘cold’ […] the faults stand plain” (On Becoming a Novelist, p. 65). The most savory variant went like this: writing is like cooking a stew; if you want to remove the fat, you have to allow the stew to cool off so that the fat will rise to the surface (I owe that one to Rafael Reig). The impression I got upon reading Hobart 11 (Spring 2010) was that it wasn’t allowed to cool off, and thus the undesirable ingredients were mixed in with the good stuff. That’s probably because it was a themed issue, so most contributors likely wrote their pieces according to the theme (the outdoors), and had to cut back on revisions in order to submit them on time. That doesn’t mean there aren’t good elements in the issue. There are.

Last time I commented on Hobart (here), I referred to each of the longer stories individually. I had thought of presenting a broader portrait this time, more impressionistic than detailed. But some of the longer stories do deserve a brief note. Again, the shorts were not great (Adam Peterson’s were the most engaging), so let me skim through the longer pieces.

B.C. Edwards’s “Evitative” presents an apocalyptic flood. The narrator, a woman, has escaped from it by living in the trees with an apelike, barely verbal man called Jo-Jo. A group of people drifts by, craving to snatch and eat them. The story was repetitive and slow, and it would’ve worked better as a much shorter piece. I liked how people spoke with a lisp because their teeth had been chipped off by chewing on bones. Clever. Details like that linger in readers’ minds.

Patrick Somerville’s “The Fish” is about Ben returning home to Montana to visit his mother, who had a stroke. He stumbles onto an old family friend, Carl, who may have had an affair with Ben’s mother. Carl had an accident years back that may have precipitated the ruin of Ben’s father. Carl’s incident, with a few tweaks, could’ve been the whole story. But the author is desperate to go beyond a good story and add a layer of psychological significance (see another example of the same thing). Even as the story stands, there was much to cut off, like the first couple of pages, with unnecessary warm-ups and explanations. The story takes off on page three, when Ben walks into a bar.

Becky Hagenston’s “The Lake” is funny and well paced, in my judgment the best story in Hobart 11. There are great dialogues, poignant scenes. David is a young man whose father, ruined and aging, has decided to move out into a cabin in the middle of nowhere. David has to drive over to his father’s to deliver a gun that was stashed in David’s house. We hear how David’s parents’ marriage dissolved, and how David’s own marriage, to a great character called Saffron, is fraying. Despite my praise, there are things to improve. Sometimes characters are described more than was needed. Take this: “‘I don’t know! How am I supposed to know that?’ His father is angry, nearly stomping his foot” (50). The dialogue was enough to show us that his father was angry. But if we were getting a description anyway, why not let the man just stomp his foot? Now notice this: “Saffron frowned and shook her head, disapproving” (52). Saffron’s body language is enough to convey disapproval. The final adjective was unnecessary. Taking a step back, the story did need a dash of focus: there was a strand too many. I would’ve suggested concentrating on David’s parents, instead of going through David’s own marital problems, which rear their head unbidden. A tighter, more focused story would’ve been marvelous. It’s still a strong piece.

Elise Winn’s “Picture Our Mother” is ably told and richly described. But if it referred once more to the narrator’s absent mother, I would’ve incinerated the whole magazine. It’s a story about two girls who grow up with an often-absent father after their mother abandoned them. Some images are good. But it really does the mother’s absence to death. More restraint with these references would’ve allowed the story to hatch into something good.

Gabriel Urza’s “Cold Travel” is a story with struggles and in which something does happen. (It sounds unnecessary to point this out, but stories are too often bogged down in the quotidian.) Urza is clever in withholding key information about the main character, something another story in the magazine (“The Fish”) would profit from. However, “Cold Travel” galumphs slowly to the climax, and its language is so bleached out that sometimes I had to prod myself along. Look at this sentence, for instance: “The stale autumn air trapped inside the cabin was warm and inviting” (81). Warm and inviting? Still, the ending stirred me with genuine interest. One of the best pieces in the magazine.

Mike Alber’s “A Deer Big Enough to Show” is about a guy who skins deer in winter and who’s desperate to get back together with his girlfriend; she dumped him a year before and is about to move in with a new boyfriend. The story sparked no interest in me at all. The characters were beyond my empathy. Also, the narrative slugged along. I tried to pinpoint reasons for this. In part, the pace was due to the abuse of participial phrases (e.g., “Men had gone in the woods before him, hunting for food and honor” [119]), often bundled with speech attributions and unnecessary descriptions (e.g., “‘It’s fine,’ she said, shutting him down with an unamused look” [116]).

Matthew Derby’s “A Minor Affordance” is a sci-fi tale involving a contest so elaborate and cruel that I wonder if it wasn’t eviscerated from a novel and gift-wrapped as a short story. The characters seem like debris scattered throughout a dystopian world that is the real interest of the author. The narrative tends to produce lyrical phrases that struck me as unnatural. And one wonders how the narrator could afford such a major dose of adjectives (e.g., “Black smoke roiled from a jagged cavity in the building’s sheer, mirrored surface” [134]).

Meghan Kenny’s “All These Lovely Boys” is narrated by a man whose son is a skydiver who dresses like a ballerina (both on and off the show). This has skewed the relationship between father and son, and led to the narrator divorcing his wife. The story is brief, and ends with the father witnessing his son’s skydiving show for the first time. The dramatic situations are narrated in a reluctant voice, almost deadpan, that made me doubt their verisimilitude. The marriage ended just because the narrator’s paternal love wasn’t instinctive and all-forgiving? Also, the story is slowed down by descriptions that interfere with the pace of dialogues, and by dry, specific accounts like this one: “Then Kirk moved the rock, rolled it on over in place, and sat on it, looked down at the ditch, and he leaned over and smelled a rose” (144). Note the abundance of prepositions, the dearth of short phrases strung together, and the repetition of over.

Shya Scanlon’s “Portrait of the Oughtist” presents an artist who paints a portrait of his father. The “Oughtist” is the father, so called because he “cloaked a command in the soft grammar of suggestion” (149). The father has divorced the artist’s mother and married a hippieish and likable woman. The narrative is too often glossed and flashbacked to allow it to develop a good rhythm. It moves on tiptoes. The opening feels out of place, tacked on: “His father had finally agreed to sit for a portrait.” Yes, the father accepts grudgingly, but the word finally implies a sustained effort of cajoling the man to agree, which is not evident. Plus, after the opening, the story jumps brusquely back to a different narrative moment; hence the sense that it’s tacked on. Furthermore, the story closely follows a painter, but it is not painterly in the least. Compare it with, say, David Michael Kaplan’s “Anne Rey” or Nam Le’s “Meeting Elise,” and you’ll note how well those stories handle the terminology and outlook of painters. The most technical you get in “Portrait of the Oughtist” is a reference to turpentine. That doesn’t feel true to character.

The last three stories are episodic and fragmented. They read like pieces of flash fiction drawn from a bag and laid out on successive pages. Eliza Tudor’s “Person, Place, or Thing” is the most sequential. A woman is depositing her stuff (children’s teeth, father’s tie rack, etc.) here and there: she is making caches, she says. She has an accident while she is doing it. Her mother is dismayed and furious. There is some likeness with Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” minus the war and minus the clever progression of expansive lists that O’Brien handles so well.

Curtis Dawkins’s “Why I Don’t Go Outside” bundles together a series of ruminations on how Nature (the Outdoors, God, etc.) wants to harm us.

Steve Himmer’s “An Encyclopedia of Urban Farming” was as clever-clever as Daniel Nester’s piece in the previous number of Hobart: encyclopedic, playful, dreary. I had to make an honest effort to read it through. I’m not sure I succeeded.

To wrap up, let me just say that over at the Emerging Writers Network there were some discussions with the editor of Hobart about this number of the magazine, here. Hobart is a great project. There are at least one or two remarkable stories in each number, and that’s a lot to say for magazine fiction these days. I’m looking forward to Hobart 12 already. It’s not a themed issue, which is even better.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Publicación: “Un accidente”

Se acaba de publicar el libro de cuentos El corazón habitado, editado por el español José Manuel García Gil. El subtítulo resume el contenido de la antología: Últimos cuentos de amor en Colombia. No tengo todavía el libro en las manos, pero me refiero a la publicación porque se incluyó un cuento mío, titulado “Un accidente”. El prólogo del libro está aquí, y en este blog Carlos Castillo (uno de los autores incluidos en la colección) reprodujo la tabla de contenido.

El cuento mío que seleccionó García Gil se llama, como lo dije, “Un accidente”. Reproduzco aquí la primera página.


Un accidente

Fue un accidente. Helena escuchó esa frase demasiadas veces: de su mamá, de los médicos, del conductor al que Helena le hubiera encantado siquiera castrar. Llenos de esa frase, llenos de cables y tubos y sondas y sangre; así fueron los meses después del accidente.
Una de las esperanzas de Helena era volver a ver a Julián. No al Julián atrapado en la cama, un enredo de músculos y cables con un olor insoportable a mentol. No. Ella quería regresar al Julián cínico y atlético, el que la hacía estallar en risa incluso cuando estaba furiosa. El que cantaba en la ducha todas las mañanas, y cantaba horrible, inventándose las letras de las canciones para que fueran de amor por Helena.
Otra esperanza de Helena era no volver a ver a Julián, aunque no lo admitiera, ni en público ni en privado. ¿Volver a esas discusiones que algunas noches terminaban con él escapando, quién sabe hacia dónde y hacia quiénes? ¿Continuar con el sentido de compromiso que dependía de un puñado de recuerdos borrosos?
Helena sabía que estas preguntas rondaban su mente. Pero pensaba antes que nada en mantenerse de pie, a pesar de la asfixia que le producía el pulso débil de Julián, un pulso obligado a recorrer pantallas indiferentes bajo la mirada de expertos.
Helena sí volvió a ver a Julián. Pero no fue el mismo Julián. Los médicos hicieron entrega muy orgullosa del paciente, tras dos semanas de operaciones intensas, seguidas de meses de adaptación y terapias. Fue el fin de un proceso que empezó cuando cierta noche llegó al hospital un accidentado con la mitad del cuerpo destruida. En busca de este hombre vino una esposa con un desespero esquizoide. Los doctores vieron una buena oportunidad para hacer avanzar la ciencia. Los consentimientos informados fluyeron sin pudor. La reconstrucción congregó a decenas de médicos y exigió docenas de millones de dólares. Acaparó páginas enteras en los medios. El resultado fue Julián. Pero no fue el mismo Julián.


Friday, July 2, 2010

The New Yorker

Over the past week, I’ve discussed a story from The New Yorker every day. This is a good chance to list those stories from The New Yorker on which I’ve posted comments on the blog (some of them are very brief, some not that brief). Here’s the full list. I’ve starred those stories I liked best.

Marisa Silver, “Temporary” (September 28, 2009)
Claire Keegan, “Foster” (February 15 & 22, 2010) *
Ben Loory, “The TV” (April 12, 2010)
Roddy Doyle, “Ash” (May 24, 2010)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

George Saunders, "Victory Lap"

Here’s a blast from the past that is well worth a note. It’s one of the best stories that the TNY has published in the last year or so. I mean George Saunders’ “Victory Lap” (TNY, Oct. 5, 2009) (which tied as the TNY 2009 story of the year in Perpetual Folly’s ranking).

Saunders pulls off a tremendous feat by combining three very different voices (two teenagers and an older man) in a story in which something actually happens: a guy tries to kidnap a teenage girl (for perverse sexual reasons), and a teenage neighbor intervenes to save her. What makes all this an even greater achievement is that the voices come out clearly while using a third-person narrator, inflected in accordance with the character each section follows. The ending, in which the most gruesome scene is blurred by protective parents, is masterful. The sections focalized on the teenage neighbor (Kyle Boot) are hilarious, each detail a testimony to the maddening obsession with precision and control that drives Kyle’s parents.

If there is room for improvement, I find it in the first section, focused on Alison Pope: it was too long and too static for a story that size, very clearly an introduction in which you can see telltale signs of the writing techniques being used. After that section, action takes over, and characters are fleshed out according to the action; the problems with section one are long gone by then, and a great story emerges. Oh, a couple sentences missed their step with regard to the tone of the section; I’m thinking of these, which I would’ve suggested extirpating: “When you studied history, the history of cultures, you saw your own individual time as hidebound. There were various theories of acquiescence.”

In any case. Terrific story. One of those pieces that reward you for sticking to The New Yorker’s fiction.