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? 

Read more at Ploughshares.

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. 

Read more at Ploughshares.

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. 

Read more at Ploughshares

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.

Read more at Ploughshares

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.

Read more at Ploughshares

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.”

Read more at Ploughshares

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. 

Continue reading

A New Site and Two New Songs

The River’s Bend Sessions

Andrew and I decided our songwriting project needed its own home, so Andrew built something. It feels good to have given it a home. We just posted two new songs there. We wrote both of them in January, so they’ve been in progress for a long time.

You Never Knew Me

This one was at least 80% Andrew (the writing—the tracks are always about 95% Andrew). He wrote it on the last day of his two-week music focus. My memory of it is that I took our four-year-old down the street to his thirty-minute swimming lesson, dropped him off at a friend’s house (also just down the street), came home, and Andrew told me he’d written a song. Then he played me something that I thought was totally catchy and fully formed. I was excited because I liked the song a lot, and because he’d accomplished one of the things he’d set out to do during his time away from his regular work. I must point out here that although he wrote most of this song in an hour, it was on day ten of ten days he’d dedicated to thinking about and playing and writing music. This supports my theory (and I’m sure much research, which I don’t feel like looking up right now) about creativity. Sometimes it takes a long time to prepare the soil, and then when something grows it seems miraculous. But it’s not. He made the time and did the work. 

Continue reading

Happy Birthday Dear Blog

Today is my blog’s first birthday. It’s also my thirty-eighth birthday. It’s also my nephew Liam’s second Birthdaybuddiesbirthday. I started the day off right eating breakfast at the Deluxe Town Diner with him and a few other great people, and then we struck a birthday buddies pose in front of these trash cans. I think it’s fair to say that both Liam and I have learned a lot this past year. 

When I wrote that first blog entry, I had no idea what kind of year I was headed into, and it’s turned out to be one of my best. It even has a theme: the year I stopped allowing my fear of creating something bad to paralyze me. 

Exhibit A: I started a blog, even though there are many people better qualified to write about all the things I write about. I’d been meaning to start a blog for ten years. 

Exhibit B: I started writing the novel I was excited about writing instead of the novel it would have been more sensible to write. The one I’m writing is about musicians, which I knew had the potential pitfall of not being able to convey what it needed to convey about music. I knew this problem might be impossible to solve. I’m not at all sure I’ve solved it, but Andrew and I have been creative about trying to, by… 

Continue reading

New Song: Love Is a Sickness

Here’s our new song, Love Is a Sickness

I finished the 1992 section of my book during the first week of January, and since then I’ve been trying to get a handle on what comes next. I began this project with a sense of where the book ends and an outline for part one, but no outline for the rest of it. I’ve spent the past few weeks writing about the book instead of writing the book, and when I finally started actually writing part two we were barraged with snow and its evil companion: snow days. I’ve missed a lot of writing days as a result, but I’m still scribbling in my notebook and thinking about it, and it’s becoming clearer. 

It’s been great to have songwriting as a tool for figuring out what comes next. The book picks up eight (or maybe even a bit more—still not totally sure) years after part one ends, so the character has changed. I thought if we could write a couple of songs for Johanna for part two I would be able to get a handle on who she is eight years later. And I was right. I wrote one that we haven’t recorded yet, and then I came up with the lyrics for “Love Is a Sickness.” Apologies to Samuel Daniel, who coined this phrase in the 16th century. 

Continue reading