Fracking, Glove Making, and Elevator Inspection: Industry in Novels

Covers

I delighted in Alexandra Petri’s column, “An Easy Guide to Writing the Great American Novel.” A writer must be able to laugh, kindly, at herself, and perhaps less kindly at others, especially when those others are extremely successful.

One of Petri’s must-haves in the great American novel is a “painstaking description of an intricate craft or a science thing that the average reader will not be able to fact-check, which is fortunate because it is such a lovely metaphor.”

I hadn’t even realized this was a thing. Of course it is a thing, and I love it. And even worse, I should probably figure out a way to do it in my own novel, which is set largely in a recording studio. So far there is quite a lot of tape moving from reel to reel, with hissing and whirring and clicks and silences that are something more than silences. But the writers I admire do something much better. Instead of slathering details of the specialized trade everywhere, they distill it into one or two scenes that resonate through their novels without exhausting the reader.

In Heat and Light, Jennifer Haigh tells the story of a coal mining town gone bust and then seemingly reborn when a natural gas company starts buying up land rights. It’s a sweeping book, with a large cast of characters, and Haigh spends time building the characters and the world before she shows us fracking.

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Serial, Timelines, and Fiction

Timeline image zoom

In  “Route Talk,” an episode from the first season of Serial, Sarah Koenig and her producer attempt to recreate the state’s timeline of the murder of Hae Min Lee. As I listened to them test what was possible, I was struck by how similar their exercise was to one creative writers perform.

Whenever I move a scene, I have to rearrange the novel’s timeline. If I want a character to be a certain age at the time of a historical event, I have to live with (and keep track of) that birth year. It’s a painfully obvious point, but it can be an inconvenience for other aspects of the story. If I want people to go on vacation at a certain time, because it makes sense for the narrative, that needs to happen at a time of year when those characters would actually take a vacation. I am constantly squaring things up, and I misplace weeks and days with alarming frequency.

Writers have handled the problem of the timeline in many different ways. Joseph Heller handwrote a stunningly detailed outline of Catch-22, complete with a timeline. (It’s worth zooming in.) As freewheeling as Catch-22 seems, Heller kept careful track of details like the number of missions Yossarian had flown as the book progressed. 

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My Uncle’s Books

Chuck post filter

A year and a half ago, my uncle Chuck died unexpectedly. My family wanted me to have his books because I was a reader like he had been, and I was also a writer. And I wanted the books, especially his Library of America books, which looked so lovely and uniform and canonical. More importantly, I wanted to continue the conversation we’d been having since I’d learned to read—the “what are you reading,” conversation—because we were both always reading something. We were insatiable. We understood this about each other. There were so many things I would miss about him, but I knew I would miss this conversation the most.

There were about two hundred Library of America books, and my family wanted me to take them all. My home is small. The bookshelves are in my small living room. My inheritance of books was a mixture of boon and responsibility and onslaught. I found a spot for another bookshelf behind the couch. I went through the Library of America books and chose the ones I thought I was most likely to read, all fiction. I stored the other half (George Washington’s diaries and the like) in my mom’s attic. She rarely offers attic space, but she knew I couldn’t stand the alternative just then.

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Time and Opening Chapters: Gaining Trust

Time

Lately I’ve been thinking about time in novels. How to manipulate it, whether it should be linear or nonlinear, and what that choice means for a story. I began to examine it more closely after a recent weekend novel workshop I took with Lauren Grodstein. Part of her advice was that I reconsider the timeline of my novel, which now progresses linearly. This suggestion is drastic enough that it could have been horrifying, but Lauren made her case so well that instead I’m excited to try it. 

Independent of this advice, I’ve been feeling more and more strongly that in the first chapter or two of a novel, the writer teaches the reader how to read the book, sets expectations, makes promises. I don’t mean the writer gives everything away. I do mean she establishes trust and provides a sort of map. 

The reader wants to know: what kind of book is this? Part of this question has to do with the story’s timeline. Is it the kind of story that jumps around in time? Is it the kind of story that moves forward linearly but then skips ten years, and then another ten? If we leave a time period will we circle back to it or is it gone forever? If the rules are established too late, the reader can become anxious and distracted, and at worst completely alienated. How can this be avoided? 

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Photo credit: Daniel Waters, Co.

When Parents Die: William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow and Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs

Mother headstone

Last week my friend’s mother died, with brutal speed, of cancer. Ten years ago, my father died of a neurological disease so drawn out and cruel that we all wished for its end. Parents die, usually before their children, and so both of these deaths were inevitable in one way or another. But as the narrator of William Maxwell’s novella, So Long, See You Tomorrow, says of his mother’s death, “the idea that kept recurring to me…was that I had inadvertently walked through a door that I shouldn’t have gone through and couldn’t get back to the place I hadn’t meant to leave.”

The narrator is ten when his mother dies of influenza during the epidemic of 1918. It’s an event from Maxwell’s own life. The story of her death is told in chapter two, and the narrator is defined by it. His father and older brother are distant and never speak to him about their shared loss. The book is ostensibly about a lurid murder that occurred in the narrator’s town, committed by the father of a boy he once knew. But his mother’s death permeates the novella. He spends half the book imagining the story of the crime, but in the final chapter we find him lying on an analyst’s couch. 

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Photo credit: Anathea Utley

The Art of the Sad Birthday

Birthday cake  main image

Are you a writer looking for a situation with built-in irony and ample opportunities for subtext? Have you considered a melancholy birthday scene? I’ve collected a few merciless examples for consideration.

Referential,” by Lorrie Moore

Moore dives into the irony of the sad celebration in the first paragraph of the story, from her most recent collection, Bark.  

“Mania. For the third time in three years they talked in a frantic way about what would be a suitable birthday present for her deranged son. There was so little they were actually allowed to bring: almost everything could be transformed into a weapon and so most items had to be left at the front desk, and then, if requested, brought in later by a big blond aide, who would look the objects over beforehand for their wounding possibilities.”

The story is more about a flagging relationship than it is about her son, who is in an uneasy state of equilibrium when the story begins. The protagonist’s sort-of boyfriend, Pete, who retreated when her son grew ill, accompanies her on the visit. Pete is the only named character in the story. The son, in the grip of his illness, eschews subtext in conversation, asking Pete questions his mother never asks: “So where have you been?” and “Do you miss us?” However, the son believes that nearly everything, including the “soft deckle-edged book about Daniel Boone” his mother eventually settles on as a birthday gift, contains subtext meant only for him. She knows he’ll become obsessed with the messages he finds in it. Everything has wounding possibilities. 

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Photo credit: Omer Wazir

Clever Girl, Boyhood, and the Importance of Blank Spaces

Clever girl cover

One of the greatest challenges of writing a novel is choosing where to begin it. Choosing where to end it is also important (or so I’ve been told). But even once a writer makes those big decisions, the novel is fraught with similar choices at the micro level. Where does each chapter begin and end? Where should the story pick up after a break in the chapter? And more to the point, is there any way to avoid the exercise of writing the boring parts and then cutting them out later?

Tessa Hadley’s novel, Clever Girl, provides a master class in choosing what to skip. At the end of each chapter a large amount of time passes—a year or two or four or fifteen. Some of the most dramatic events of the narrator’s life occur in the spaces between chapters.

I finished reading the book for the first time just before I saw Richard Linklater’s film, Boyhood, and I was struck by their similarities, though one begins with a boy in Texas in 2002 and the other begins with a girl in Bristol, England in the 1960s. Hadley covers forty-two years of Stella’s life in 250 pages, divided into ten chapters. Linklater spans twelve years of Mason’s life in just under three hours, divided into twelve sections.

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Grace Paley’s “Wants”: Activism and Civic Involvement for Writers

Woman at window

After years of dodging PTO meetings and volunteer opportunities, I became involved in a school overcrowding issue in my town because I didn’t want my children’s class sizes to become enormous. The problem seemed simple at first, but soon enough I was attending school committee meetings, spending hours writing emails, and holding forth at a four-year-old’s birthday party about educational inequity.

As I sank deeper into the quicksand of civic involvement, wondering if this were one of the times I’d said yes when I should have said no, I remembered a passage from my favorite short story. I pulled the book off the shelf, as I’ve done so many times before. “Wants,” the classic Grace Paley story, is three pages long, and it contains the entirety of the narrator’s life. 

The narrator runs into her ex-husband at the library. She returns two books she’s had for eighteen years, pays the fine, and checks out the books again. Her ex-husband rehashes their marriage, brags about the sailboat he’s got money down on, and says, “But as for you, it’s too late. You’ll always want nothing.” Left to consider this “narrow remark,” the narrator sits on the library steps and lists the things she wants.

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Photo credit: Erich Ferdinand

I’m Blogging for Ploughshares

I’m excited to be writing for the Ploughshares blog in 2016. My personal blog will, of course, suffer for this, but these are exactly the kind of subjects I want to be writing about, and I’ll post excerpts and links here. My first one appeared on January 11. 

Majestic Endings

As I closed in on the first draft of a novel, I wrote toward an ending I’d held in my mind for months. It was a quiet climax in keeping with the, ahem, literary nature of my novel. I knew that when I finished the draft, I’d have to smooth out the road between, say, pages 75 and 300, maybe even rewrite them completely. But that final scene was divine. Tears would probably fall to my keyboard as I wrote it, and readers, in turn, would weep.

Instead, when I reached my perfect ending it was dead. After a period of mourning, I pulled out my trusted writing books and flipped to the sections on endings.

I began with Robert McKee’s Story, a book about the principles of screenwriting, which is to say it’s about plot. It’s peppered with references to Aristotle’s Poetics, including Aristotle’s requirement that an ending be both “inevitable and unexpected.” McKee’s prescriptions can be reductive but his confidence is overwhelming. If nothing else, I figured his advice on the matter of endings would be clear.

“If…as the protagonist takes the climactic action, we once more pry apart the gap between expectation and result, if we can split probability from necessity just one more time, we may create a majestic ending the audience will treasure for a lifetime. For a climax built around a Turning Point is the most satisfying of all.”

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The Trouble with Endings

Old orchard

Two weeks ago I finished the first draft of the novel I’ve been working on for a year. My kids were spending the week with their grandparents and Andrew was backpacking with his brothers for a few days and I went feral—falling into irregular patterns of eating, sleeping, and grooming—and wrote over 13,000 words in five days. I was determined that I would finish it during this huge gift of a week and then actually enjoy our upcoming family vacation. I would bask in the glow of this momentous accomplishment and let the draft rest during the back-to-school crunch and agonizing transitions of September. I would pick it up again in October and revise it during the coming academic year. 

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