Occasionally, while reading or listening to a story, I’m struck by a sentence or a paragraph that is just . . . so perfect, it makes me want to throw out everything I have ever written. Or, alternatively, to fix everything I’ve ever written so that it comes closer to what I have just read/heard.
Today, on my way to work, I was listening to the Glittership podcast, episode 6: “And Out of the Strong Came Forth Sweetness” by Lisa Nohealani Morton (@lnmorton).
The first two paragraphs of the story are as follows.
Great things were happening in the city: spaceports and condominiums and public works projects outlined their soon-to-be-erected monuments to great men and women and superior city living in holographic glows. Angels patrolled the sky, resplendent with metal wings that sparkled in the sun when they banked for a turn. Everyone seemed to be full of exciting plans for the future, but Lila came from a long line of barbers and her humble shop only seemed fitting. She called the shop The Lion’s Mane, because there were lions, once.
It was at this point that I completely lost the story. Not because it was boring or because something had kicked me out, but because of the stunning simplicity and beauty of the world building behind the phrase “because there were lions, once.” My mind wandered, imagining this story’s world. Something called the Collapse and something else called the Great Reboot are hinted at, but the single phrase “because there were lions, once” conveys important things about the character and the world and her relation to it.
It’s wistful and sad (to me, at least), and stated so matter-of-factly that there is no question in the reader/listener’s mind that the character feels this loss deeply. So deeply, in fact, that she has named her barber shop The Lion’s Mane in honor of the once-proud beasts. It tells us that lions are going to matter in this story.
The lion has long been a symbol of strength and wildness. If lions — the apex predator of an entire continent — no longer exist, what kind of world do these characters live in? I personally experienced a sense of loss upon hearing that phrase, as though lions really had been announced to be extinct. (I love big cats probably above all other animals.)
I missed the next half-minute of the story and had to rewind to that point, and nearly zoned out again, but pushed through, and listened to almost all of the rest on my remaining commute. I’m almost done with the story, and the promise of that phrase “because there were lions, once” is being fulfilled. I knew that from the get-go, of course, but this is how a skilled writer does it.
In 2012, I attended Viable Paradise, a one-week, intensive writing workshop held annually on Martha’s Vineyard the thirdish week of October. “Paradise” because duh, Martha’s Vineyard in October. “Viable” because only one week, not six. You don’t have to get a second mortgage and put your entire life — job, family, friends, etc. — on hold.
But you still get an amazing experience. A lot of awesome information from top-notch instructors; a lot of amazing socializing with your fellow students, the instructors, and staff; a lot of tasty food; and probably a little something else, as well: a tribe.
I wrote a retrospective post about it a few days after I got back. It’s linked from Viable Paradise’s page, and I notice an uptick in the number of hits each year around the time the new crop of students are accepted. :)
This year, 2016, marks the twentieth anniversary of Viable Paradise. Twenty. A two followed by a zero. That’s a lot of writers they’ve guided (~480ish!). They’ve put together a reunion the week before VPXX, and I’m going! As part of the whole ‘Twenty Years of Viable Paradise’ thing, they (the organizers) asked for volunteers from past years to write blog posts talking about their experiences, to help the VPXXers be ready for their week in Paradise. :)
This is one such blog post. And . . . it got a little long. I apologize, but I tend to get very excited and effusive about Viable Paradise. I can go on about it for hours if you let me. Just ask my very, very patient friends. :)
The rest of this is addressed directly to the twenty-four newly selected students of VPXX.
So, first things first! Which, I’ve discovered, is the perfect place to put things which are first!
Curse you, my old nemesis! I have it. Chances are, you have it, to some degree. I was absolutely convinced — convinced — that the only reason I got into VP was that they had found twenty-three awesome writers and needed a twenty-fourth person to make up the last place, and they pulled my application out of a hat. Never mind the illogic involved in that. Impostor Syndrome doesn’t do logic.
Know this, and try to take it to heart: you were selected because of your talent. Your submission was good enough, and you are in because you deserve to be there.
A lot of high-density information is going to be coming at you at relatively high speed. It will be fun information, and you will enjoy the lectures and the symposia and the . . . activities associated with The Horror That Is Thursday™. :) With that in mind, however, you might want to arrange to take a recording device to capture audio to take some of the pressure off of trying to take coherent, detailed written notes. They talk fast. :) A good many of the VPXVIers made recordings, and we have since shared them with one another using DropBox. They’re quite interesting to listen to and remember. I took notes and recorded. The notes consist mostly of bullet points.
You will get and give critiques. Maybe you’ve had a lot of critiques going into VP (I had), or maybe you’ve had very few or none. Either way, getting critiques from strangers — some of whom will be the instructors — can be a little daunting even if critiquing is old hat to you. One thing to keep in mind: No one there is against you. Or, indeed, your story. Some people may honestly not like it. Some people may gush over it. But all the suggestions, even the ones that might unfortunately be worded harshly or in such a way as to feel pointedly aimed at you and not the story, are done from a place of helping you to make your story the best it can be. To paraphrase Shakespeare (because pretension): “The story’s the thing.”
So! Try to make your own critiques about the story at hand, not the author, and try to phrase your critique in a way to emphasize what worked for you (and why!) as well as what did not (and why!). Avoid offering ways to fix it; just point out your issues and let the writer figure out the ‘how’ part. You’ll understand after VP. </cryptic> :)
Different things are going to stick with different people. And some of it doesn’t feel like you’re being instructed in writing at all, at the time. One of the instructors was showing us what I then took as just random stuff. Tangentially related — if at all — to the lecture he was giving at the time. But! The point he made when showing us the model house with the hidden, detailed room has stuck with me longer than any single thing any of the instructors said. I think about it almost every time I sit down to write. Your experience will almost certainly be different, and something another instructor says may resonate with you more than what Uncle Jim said does with me.
MacAllister Stone. OMG. I cannot say enough effusively wonderful things about Mac. But I’ll try. :) You’ve probably already received the email from her asking about dietary needs. And here’s the thing about Mac: she will take all of those requirements from everyone and come up with a menu that will be remarkably like all the other VP menus, but everyone’s specific needs will be addressed. For dinner, you will eat well. If you’re still concerned (and that is to be understood; I have issues I was very concerned about; see below), my big suggestion is this: ship some “safe” food to yourself at the hotel.
Dinners are social events at VP, but you’re expected to fend for yourself for breakfast and lunch. Uncle Jim has pancakes and what I’m told (see below) was amazing maple syrup for breakfast. But what I did was to get a box of non-perishable stuff and ship it up to the Island Inn about a week before we were supposed to arrive. When I got there, my box was waiting for me in the office. Cereal I knew to be safe for a diabetic. Stuff for late-night snacks. Whatever you think you’ll need that’s light enough to not cost an arm and a leg to ship, won’t spoil, and that you might need while you’re there. Just ship it and forget it. You will be told that food is expensive on the island (it is), and while they took us directly from the ferry to the grocery store/supermarket before hitting the hotel, I was glad I had shipped certain things from home. I bought perishables. Stuff to make enough lunch for the whole week (I know some people bought bread, peanut butter, and jelly; I got tuna, cheese, noodles, and veggies, and made a casserole.) Every room will (I believe) have at least a stove top, if not an oven. Plan accordingly. :)
When the week was up, I had some of my shipped stuff left . . . and I just tossed it. It wasn’t worth taking back home. I used all the perishables (milk, eggs, veggies). I had some olive oil left that I think I gave to Mac. :)
The staff of VP consists of VP alums, for the most part. They’ve been where you are, know how things work, and are there specifically to help you. If you have any problem, seek out a staff member. Feeling overwhelmed? Talk to them. Need a trip to a pharmacy or grocery store? Ask the staff. Need to blow off steam? Go to the staff suite. Want to socialize? Head to the staff suite.
Special Medical Needs
This one is aimed at people with specific medical issues. You can skip it if that doesn’t pertain to you. I have a chronic intestinal thing that crops up periodically, and has for more than twenty-five years. It comes with horrible pain and, if left untreated, a visit to an emergency room. My doctor and I go way back, and I can call him up and say, “Doc, I have that thing again,” and he believes my self-diagnosis and phones the pharmacy with a prescription for antibiotics. No wait, no muss, no fuss. Because this thing crops up related to stress and diet, I let him know that I was going to be on Martha’s Vineyard for a week, that I’d be eating food I didn’t have any control over, and that there would be potentially high levels of stress involved. He gave me a prescription for the antibiotics, just in case. You don’t know how much of a load of worry this took off me. If I ate the wrong thing or got too little sleep or whatever, and came down with this issue, I could have missed a day or more of VP dealing with the fallout. As it was, I knew that I could get the medicine in a matter of a couple of hours. So take care of yourself and if you have a medical problem like mine . . . maybe talk to your doctor ahead of time and set something up to ease your mind.
Now, onto more fun things. :) Socializing! This was something I deeply wish I’d done more of. There were dinners and other times when everyone was together, and I had a great time. I’m very much an introvert (No, really!), and shy around people I don’t know. (Golly! A writer who mostly spends time alone and has problems getting to know people? Go on! ;)) It’s very hard for me to start a conversation with people, even when we have a blindingly obvious thing in common: writing. As a result, I didn’t seek out more socialization. This is the biggest regret I have about VP. I’ve kept in touch with almost everyone from VP to one degree or another. But I barely got to know several of the others, and it’s entirely my own fault, and no reflection on them. So my advice: if possible, get to know those people. They’re your tribe. But, at the same time, you know you better than anyone else does. So take care of yourself, as well. If you need me-time, take it. Everyone will understand. Most of them probably need it, too. :)
I didn’t partake of any of Uncle Jim’s pancakes and maple syrup because I was worried about my blood sugar. But I could have gone up and joined in the fun, regardless. I went to bed freakishly early (midnight) every night, listening to everyone having a lot of fun upstairs (I was on the lower floor), but I knew (thought?) that I needed a certain amount of sleep or my immune system might compromise and I might get sick . . . but I wish now that I’d just gotten a couple of hours less sleep per night and spent time hanging out. The cold I probably would have gotten the week after would have been worth it. :) But again, you know you, and take care of yourself. People will understand.
Uncle Jim’s hikes! Again, I didn’t go on any of them because Reasons. Mostly because I felt like I needed that extra hour of sleep rather than getting up and spending an hour walking around Martha’s Freaking Vineyard in October getting a little exercise in the insanely fresh, nippy, early morning air and talking about . . . who knows what? I didn’t go! I have no idea what they talked about. But I’ll bet it was interesting! :) If you can manage at least one morning walk, don’t make the mistake I did. Again with the ‘you know yourself’ caveat.
The Wifi at the Island Inn is . . . there. Mostly. I wouldn’t rely on it too heavily. You won’t have time to be online much, anyway. But just know that if you’re used to lightning-fast network speeds, you’re going to be underwhelmed.
Bring a memory stick or something along those lines. Something handy to have on you for, say, copying documents on . . . to then dash up to the staff suite for printing . . . in the wee hours of Thursday morning, for instance. </cryptic> Oh, and virus-check the crap out of it. No need to give the staff your nasty computer virus. :)
Stay An Extra Day
I know this is something you’ve heard before, but if at all possible for your schedule and your expenses, stay the extra night and leave on Saturday instead of Friday. There is a lot of socializing that goes on that last night, and it’s a lot of fun. Also, since you can’t take home the open bottles of booze, they tend to form a . . . booze buffet, if you will. I did not partake, being a non-drinker, but there was much rejoicing. And music, and just . . . an all-around good time. So if you can, stay until Saturday.
I will close this lengthy post by relating a little story that exemplifies the entire VP Experience™ for me. I smile every time I think about it.
On Wednesday, a group of us walked into town for lunch. We also spent some time sightseeing. When we walked back, Nicole came dashing out of her room and ran up to us and said, “Quick! I need a way to dispose of a body by burning, but I have to be in the room with it while it burns!” (I’m paraphrasing, here, and I hope Nicole will forgive me if I’ve made her sound not like herself. Or, you know . . . kind of murdery. Which, one hopes, is not like herself. You know, I’m going to stop, now.)
Now, a random group of people selected off the street might have many reactions to a statement like that, but none of us even blinked. Instead, several people started offering suggestions and asking clarifying questions. “A fire that would consume a body will need to be hot. How big can the room be?” “Do you want the body reduced completely to ash?” “How much time do you have?” Etc. A short discussion ensued, but I didn’t hear most of it. Because I kept walking while grinning to myself. It had just hit me. These people are my tribe. They get me.
And that is a wonderful feeling to get.
Enjoy yourself. Get drunk (if you drink), but not too drunk. Have some Scurvy Cure. Play silly games. Play poker with Steve-with-a-Hat. Have pancakes. Take walks. Go and see the fireflies of the sea. Tour the town. See the Methodist Munchkin-land. Visit the lighthouse and watch the sunset. Read a dreadful romance out loud. Sing along. Have a beer with Billy. Bring your pajamas. Lament the dreadful, Dreadful, DREADFUL, unexquisite agony of writing. Become a Thing. Join the Mafia. Enjoy the food. Take a binding oath (or two). Seek out the staff if you have problems: that’s what they’re there for.
And the less said about The Horror That Is Thursday™, the better.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about how I’d recorded an episode of the Roundtable Podcast. (Follow the link to learn more!) Today, the first of the two resulting episodes is live and ready for you to listen!
This is Dave Robison’s and Heather Welliver’s interview with Kat Richardson about her background, writing, and processes. Good stuff!
Next Tuesday, the brainstorming part, with me, will go live. I’ll post then, as well. :)
As you may know, I adore podcasts. I listen to a lot of them. (There’s a not altogether up-to-date list, even.) They are my primary form of entertainment, learning, and news.
The Round Table Podcast has been around since early 2012, although I didn’t discover it until spring of 2013 or so. As I am wont to do, I started at the very beginning and worked my way forward.
RTP is hosted by Dave Robison and a “random” co-host. Dave, his co-host, and a pro-writer guest host invite a guest writer to come on with a pitch for a story. The guest writer pitches their story for five to eight minutes, and then, for the next forty-five or so minutes, the three hosts take the story apart, suggesting ways to make it better, where “better” is according to the needs of the writer. For instance, it might need more world-building, or better characters, or something exciting to put in Act 2. Whatever the guest writer is looking for, Dave, his co-host, and the guest host help, starting many phrases with “What if…” and offering up “literary gold.” (Or, as their disclaimer states, “complete bullshit.” I have found that disclaimer to be somewhat disingenuous, because even in the parts that don’t mesh with what the guest writer has in mind, there are nuggets of literary gold. If not for the guest writer, then for some of the listeners. :) ) The guest writer is involved, of course, answering questions, and clarifying any confusion on the part of the hosts.
It takes a while to work through the back episodes of a new-to-me podcast, because I have many podcasts I do the same thing with, simultaneously. When I discovered RTP, I put the first four or five episodes on in the car when me and my housemate were on the road to visit my mother a few hours away. I remember saying to her (the housemate), “I need to be on this podcast!” Listening to them brainstorm other people’s stories often gave me ideas for my own.
A couple of months into my catch-up activity, I noticed that no new episodes had appeared in iTunes for a while, and I went to their site to check and — Oh, no! They had gone on indefinite hiatus! (For good reasons, mind you.) I was heartbroken, because I really, really wanted to pitch my novel and be on the show. Crud!
After about a year (summer, 2014), they came back! I continued catching up. Again with the goal of becoming a guest writer in my mind, but not feeling like I knew enough about what my story was about to pitch it, effectively.
In February of this year, I decided to make my move. I had enough of an idea what my novel was about that I felt like I could coherently describe it to people. I started slamming episodes, listening to four or five of them at a time. Meanwhile, I went on their site and filled out the form to be a guest writer.
I got in! :) I won’t try to reproduce the sound I made when I got the email from Dave saying he was interested, but it resembled “squee,” and may have involved (since I was alone at the time) in-chair happy-dancing. I’m sure it was very dignified happy-dancing. You’ll have to trust me, as no video feed of the event exists.
We recorded my episode last Thursday night (4/12/2016). My “random” co-host was Heather Welliver and my guest host was Kat Richardson, one of my favorite writers in my genre (Urban Fantasy; her Greywalker series is very good and you should read all nine of them). She was one of two names I mentioned in my application under “Who would be your dream guest host?”
On Tuesday, May 31, an episode called “20 Minutes With Kat Richardson” will go live, and it will involve Dave’s patented stalkery introduction (which can go on for a good fifteen or twenty minutes) of Kat and then a forty- to forty-five-minute interview with her, with questions from both Dave and Heather. Then, a week later, on Tuesday, June 7, Episode 102, with me as the guest writer, will go live. Squee!
I invite all of you reading this to please go subscribe to The Round Table Podcast. It really is excellent. It’s basically a recorded session of “novel breaking” as practiced at Taos Toolbox and in the unofficial ‘free-time’ parts of Paradise Lost.
I got some really awesome suggestions. I’m still letting them swirl around in my brain to see what comes of them. I took roughly eight and a half pages of notes, and will end up archiving and listening to my own episode a time or two to get probably a couple more pages.
Now, a warning. Some people may or may not want to know the full plot of my novel, as they are expected to critique it at some point, and they won’t experience the twists if they listen to the episode and hear me outline the entire plot in 8 minutes. Assuming I don’t completely throw out my current plot based on what Dave, Heather, and Kat said. :) So if you’re among that crowd, just know that listening to the episode will spoil my novel. I’m not sure how badly, because after last Thursday, it may or may not end the same way. :)
<vague>. . . and not all of my characters may end up being the same people as they are currently.</vague>
As a side note: I’m a little miffed that I didn’t get to make my joke “on air,” as it were. Before the recording, co-host Heather remarked that we had three -sons on the show: Henderson, Richardson, Robison. Expecting her to make the same comment during the actual recording, I was ready to quip to Heather, “So, does that make you Fred MacMurray?”
Oh, no, you don’t! That was damned funny! And now only people who read this site will know the comedy gold they missed out on.
- This may seriously be the most pretentious phrase I have ever typed in my life.
- Until the extended hiatus, the co-host was almost always Brion Humphrey. After the hiatus, Brion had a new baby and other responsibilities, so now the co-host role is filled by different people in each episode, with a good bit of repeat “offenders.” ;) And “random” is in quotes because they’re selected at least partially based on the genre of the guest writer’s story.
- Oh, how wrong I was. Luckily, Dave is good at his job, and gave me some pointers to get my haphazard pitch streamlined and to focus on the parts that mattered, and damn! It worked. I couldn’t be happier with my pitch.
- Serially, you goofball, not simultaneously. But on 1.77x speed, which is the fastest I can listen and still understand and get anything out of it.
Pictured to the right are the attendees/students, instructors, and organizers of Paradise Lost 6, held in San Antonio, TX, from April 28 to May 1, 2016. I have been very slug-like in getting around to posting about it, in spite of the fact that it ended a week ago. But I’ve been busy. That’s my excuse.
That’s me on the left, peeking out from between Anna and Rosie. I loathe pictures of me, but everyone else looks fantastic, so I’ll allow it.
Paradise Lost is open to writers who have been to the Viable Paradise or Taos Toolbox writing workshops, or who are members of the online Codex writing group (which has membership requirements including juried workshops (such as Viable Paradise, Clarion, Taos Toolbox, Odyssey, etc.), or publication).
For reasons that remain opaque to most everyone who knows me, I decided to drive from Atlanta, GA to San Antonio, TX. It’s a 16-ish-hour drive, so, heeding advice from a good friend, I split it into two days and took it slightly easier. Both there and back.
Four other graduates from my year at Viable Paradise XVI (2012) were there. It was great to see them all again. I won’t do a lot of name-dropping here, because there were 20 others besides me there, and, frankly, it would take a long time to find and link all those sites. :)
The highlights: the lectures by the pros (one of which was an exercise about supply lines that actually made me think about something that needed to be thunk about in my novel, so yay!), the social times, the dramatic (some might say ‘melodramatic’) reading of Chuck Tingle’s Hugo Award Nominated Space Raptor Butt Invasion. It was . . . special. Very . . . special.
I pretty much can’t say enough positive things about this experience. If you have the means and the opportunity to go, do look into it. It’s four days of being around amazing people who are also all writers, story breaking, talking shop, drinking, playing games, playing music, dramatic readings of really bad erotica . . . I’m told there was even some actual writing that got done! :)
There are two “tracks”: a critique track and a retreat track. The critique track is just what it sounds like: you submit up to five thousand words of something you’ve written and (this year) two instructors/pro writers and six fellow workshoppers read and critique it. This year, the critiques for all seven manuscripts took place over two sessions (before and after lunch) on one day. The Milford method was used: the author stayed quiet while each of the critiquers got up to 3 minutes to hit their main points. It went in a circle, then the professionals each got . . . basically as long as they liked to make their points. There was a lot of dittoing and anti-dittoing. And bad puns. :) Then, at the end, if the author wished, s/he could briefly address any comments brought up during the critique. It’s a handy method, and one I’ve used before that works if everyone’s kind of on the same level, and there aren’t too many people in the group. :) As it was with seven authors per group, each person had to read and critique about 30,000 words in the two(ish) months leading up to the workshop. Not too bad.
The retreat track is there to just get away from all the big, hairy nonsense that interrupts their writing when they’re at home (kids, spouses, bills, work, laundry . . . life) and just write. I think next time, this is what I’m going to do. There was still puh-lenty of time to do all the social stuff and get writing done, or so I was told.
The best part for me was that two of my fellow Paradisians were able to give me some inside information on some things I need to know about aspects of my novel that I know nothing about: government and law enforcement. A bonus I’m over the top about, and which I was totally not expecting. This is why critique groups are so useful! People have a very particular set of skills, skills they have acquired over very long careers. Skills that make them a rainbow-farting unicorn-dream for people like me, who don’t have those skills, but need to sound convincing in my manuscripts. Or, as one instructor said, you have to do the research to know what you’re talking about before deliberately breaking the rules for the sake of story. (Paraphrased.)
Anywho, as I said, you should definitely give it a go if you can, and you write science fiction, fantasy, or horror. Or, to put it in Internet terms everyone will understand: A++++++++++++!!!!! Would attend again!!!!!!!
- Which means sixteen uninterrupted(ish) hours of podcasts I got to listen to. It barely made a dent in my backlog, but it was a nice start.
I hate my brain.
No, no. Don’t even try to defend that . . . that wrinkly, three-pound lump of fatty tissues! It and I are not talking at the moment.
On, you want to know why? Fine.
INT. GARY’S BATHROOM – NIGHT. BRIGHTLY LIT BY EIGHT (DOWN FROM TWELVE) CFT BULBS.
Gary brushes his teeth, then rinses his face and, especially, his eyes with warm, soothing water to relieve the slightly sandy, scratchy feeling. On Saturday, he tore his right cornea. On Sunday, his left. He has no patience for more cornea-tearing.
He applies copious amounts of the ointment he uses to prevent more-frequent cornea-ripping. He swirls his eyes around to spread the ointment, then makes his way across the bathroom, only able to make out bright and less-bright shapes. He makes it to the door of his bathroom, plots a path to his bed, then shuts off the bright bathroom light.
INT. GARY’S BEDROOM – NIGHT
Gary climbs into bed and spends several minutes getting comfortable. Pillows in just the right places. Blankie pulled up just to the right level. Breathing slows . . . he’s starting to drift off . . .
Gary snuggles into the pillow emphatically.
What do you mean, ‘no’? You don’t even know what I —
No! Whatever it is, it can wait until tomorrow. When I’ve had sleep. Remember ‘sleep’? You need sleep. My eyes need sleep. Otherwise, I’ll have a hard time staring at a computer screen tomorrow.
(in a disgustingly sing-song tone)
But you’re going to really liiiiike thiiiis!
Go. Away. I’m trying to sleep.
Brain vomits out the entirety of the remaining plot points of the novel Gary and Brain have been agonizing over for several months. In detail. With red herrings, false leads, and answers to all the difficult parts they’ve been butting against. With — BONUS! — motivations for the secondary protagonist.
Gary rolls over, opens eyes, stares blankly in the direction of the ceiling.
I loathe you. Why did you wait until — ?
Yeah, yeah. I love you, too.
Listen, you should probably write all that down.
Gary rolls over and closes his eyes, snuggling into the pillow once again.
I’ll remember it.
Gary gets out of bed, stumbles through blurry darkness to blurry slightly less-dark adjoining office. The night-light in the office is green, which casts eerie shadows on the walls. He moves the mouse on his PC. Immediately, bright light floods the office — and his bleary, blurry, ointment-filled eyes — with searing whiteness. He leans into the screen, locates the blurry outlines of the Evernote icon, clicks it. Types for about fifteen minutes, eyes closed, hoping he’s making some sort of sense.
You’ll thank me, later.
Gary makes his way back to bed. At least it’s still warm. He goes to sleep in less than five minutes.
So, yeah. My brain and I aren’t on speaking terms, today.
I know, I know. It sounds like I should be thanking my brain, doesn’t it? But, you see, what it did was, it waited until after I sent my first five thousand words off for critique at Paradise Lost 6 to supply me all this. Until after I wrote ten thousand or so words of the novel. Most of which now have to be rewritten. Or at least heavily edited.
Couldn’t it have done this . . . I don’t know, three months ago?
How can one be accidentally saved? That’s the question that pops into your head when you see the title.
*** MILD spoilers follow ***
Gracie Lee Eudora Abbott is ten years old. The summer is almost over, and school is looming ominously on the all-too-close horizon. So every single day is important! But her mother, Anne, makes her and her sister go to church every Sunday. They can’t even play all morning because they’ll get dirty, so it’s basically an entire day gone out of their busy schedules of being kids in the Mississippi Delta of eastern Arkansas in the early 70s.
Gracie’s father never goes to church with the girls and their mother. And that is totally not fair. If she has to go, why doesn’t he? Sure, he gets drunk (and mean) most nights after working all day on the farms. But that’s hardly an excuse.
So it’s only natural that Gracie would ask the preacher about it. Everything just . . . kind of got out of hand after that.
Boerner’s debut novel is full of wonderful prose, humor, and drop-dead serious situations that this plucky, curious, precocious ten-year-old girl has to navigate: school bullies, death, baptism, church camp, and the mysterious fate of the man in the gray house just down the street from hers. Did he really shoot himself? Is he all right?
*** END mild spoilers ***
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and look forward to Boerner’s future novels.
The writing reminded me a lot of A Painted House by John Grisham. It has a similar feel, and it’s also from the first-person POV of a child trying to make sense of adult situations. Highly recommended.
This is both an example of how my brain operates and how amazing The Internet is. And a writing lesson, but in a very left-handed sort of way.
Today on Facebook, a friend of mine made a post asking his friends to recommend a recording of a specific piece of music by Handel.
My brain instantly seizes upon the scene in a M*A*S*H episode where Charles Emerson Winchester, III, asks Margaret Houlihan for a specific recording, with the joke being that the recording doesn’t exist. (Or so I thought! Keep reading.)
Being the snarky person that I am (I’m sure you can’t tell that by any of my posts, here), I instantly responded by typing, “I recommend the 1923 recording by Shnobble” and then stopped. That’s not the exact line. But to get the exact line, I’ll need to know which episode it is.
I have a friend named Mike who is a huge M*A*S*H fan. As big as me. We have frequently talked for long periods of time about M*A*S*H and are able to recognize episodes based on a single line of dialogue or a fragment of plot. I knew it was a late-series episode, and that Margaret was asking a favor . . . but that’s all I had to go on. I asked Mike, and he recognized it, but couldn’t remember exactly, either, only noting that it was probably a 10th- or 11th-season epsiode. So I called up M*A*S*H episode guides and started looking through the titles and short synopses.
I immediately found one in the 11th season that looked promising: “Say No More.” But it involved Margaret coming down with laryngitis and not being able to make it to Tokyo for a probably romantic assignation, so Charles contacts the doctor and has him come to the 4077th, instead. An “uncharacteristic” nice gesture by Charles. But not the one I wanted.
A few minutes later, scanning backwards, I located another possible one in the 10th season called “The Birthday Girls,” which involved Margaret wanting to go to Tokyo for her birthday, but instead getting stuck in the godforsaken middle of nowhere, Korea, with Klinger in a broken jeep.
The episode guide didn’t elaborate, but I was sure that was the one. So I looked up the synopsis of the episode on a better site. It said that Charles asked Margaret for a particular recording in exchange for taking over her teaching duty that she had to miss in order to get to Tokyo, but didn’t reveal the name or the recording. Crap! I’d have to just watch the episode.
I break out my DVDs of M*A*S*H, locate the 10th season, find disk 2, and insert it into my computer. Where it was rejected. Several times. Drat! So I put it into my DVD player and played it on my big screen TV in the living room, fast forwarding to where the scene takes place. Captions on, of course, so I could get the names right.
Keep in mind that all of this is so I can make a one-line snarky comment on a friend’s Facebook post. Just wanted to remind you of that. :)
Charles says, “Lately, I have had a craving to hear the Beethoven Emperor Piano Concerto.” Margaret replies something to the effect of, “So that’s all it’ll take? I get you a record?” Charles continues, “Well, of course it must be the incomparable Artur Schnabel as soloist.” Margaret again replies about that being a snap. To which Charles qualifies, “Ah — And not the 1947 performance. It’s just tentative. On the other hand, the 1932 performance with its limpid runs. . .” Margaret replies that she’ll get it. “If I have to, I’ll find that Schnabel guy and bring him here to play it for you!” (or something like that).
And I had my quote. “I recommend the Schnabel performance, but not the 1947. It’s tentative. But the 1932, with its limpid runs…” Aaaaaand done. Research complete, I moved on.
I share the information with Mike, who in the meantime has also inserted disk 2 of season 10 and is watching it, and provided me with the exact wording of the entire conversation, as you see it above. (Charles’ parts only, which is why the Margaret parts are paraphrased.)
But . . . then I start to wonder who Artur Schnabel was. I’d never paid attention before to the name, because I assumed that because of the resemblance to the word ‘snob’ that Charles was just being a jerk and sending Margaret on a wild goose chase for a recording that didn’t exist, possibly by a piano soloist who didn’t exist. “Shnobble,” as I’d heard it before.
So I Googled Artur Schnabel. And discovered that not only was he a real person, he was quite famous for his recordings of Beethoven piano pieces, including a 1932 performance of The “Emperor” Concerto (The Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73). Stunned, I went to YouTube. And sure enough, there it was. The 1932 performance. I listened. I don’t know what “limpid” means in terms of music, but I’ll be honest, it was quite a performance. I enjoyed listening to it.
. . . Then, I wondered, “Well, was there a 1947 performance?” and I went to YouTube again. By now you’ve probably guessed that there was, indeed a 1947 performance of the same piece, and . . . it wasn’t as good as the 1932. Again, I’ve no clue what Charles meant by “tentative,” but I will say I greatly preferred the 1932 performance to the 1947.
“Wait a minute,” said my brain. It says that a lot, actually. (Just between you and me, it can get quite annoying.) “What,” it demanded, “was the point of that whole conversation, then? If Charles actually gave Margaret a legitimate recording, then it makes him far less of a jerk in that scene.” Note: LESS of a jerk. Instead of sending Margaret on a wild goose chase for a recording that doesn’t exist, he’s now just making fun of her for her lack of sophistication and knowledge about “classical” music, and perhaps for not being able to find a 20-year-old recording of western classical music in Tokyo, Japan.
Basically, my entire understanding of that character has altered, based on this little research rabbit hole down which I found myself falling. Don’t get me wrong: I dove in head first, secure in the knowledge that I would fall into something very like Wonderland.
To bring this back around to writing (because, hey, this is my writing blog): writer Lee H. Grant, who wrote that episode of M*A*S*H, added this little tidbit of character building to this episode, and probably knew good and well that the vast majority of the people watching the episode (in 1982) would have never heard of Artur Schnabel, may or may not know what Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 73 was, nor that it was also known as ‘Emperor,’ and nevertheless put it in there because the character, Charles Emerson Winchester, III, would know about it in 1952(ish), when the episode took place. Because Charles was a snob, was a music lover, and had a very wry sense of humor. Perhaps, the little smirk on his face after Margaret promises to “bring that Schnabel guy” back to the 4077th to play it for Charles in person was because Schnabel died in 1951, just a short while before the events of this episode would have taken place, and not because he was a supreme jerk who was reveling in the cruel joke he’d played on a friend.
What writer in his right mind would write something that obscure into his work?
Answer: A good writer, who knows his character, and wants to get the details right, that’s who.
What have I learned from this? Basically, that a good writer does his/her research, to get it as right as possible. “You’re an author. You know that borrowing of the real always gives a better foundation for fiction. There’s a rhythm and sense to reality that’s hard to fake.” This was said to me by Nick, the friend on whose Facebook post I made the snarky comment that started all this. :)
Thank you to Mike, Nick, and Lee H. Grant for making this little lesson in writing possible. And to the anonymous people who compiled the wiki articles about the episodes and the anonymous YouTubers who illegally ripped and uploaded the recordings of the music so I could hear them. They were “limpid” and “tentative.” Apparently.
Sometimes, we’re not able to see the patterns right in front of our faces, because we’re too close to them. One has to back up to see that there is, in fact, a pattern.
Lately, I’ve been trying to type up what amounts to a synopsis of my novel. It’s not written completely, yet, but . . . it’s for Reasons. That will become clear in the fullness of time. I was specifically trying to come up with what themes are included in my novel. I’m terrible at themes. A theme has to beat me about the head and shoulders with a dead fish before I notice it.
While I was working on that, I noticed something, and started looking at my other writing.
I have a distinct pattern. And it’s pervasive.
I shall give you a couple of examples.
A few years ago, I signed up for an eight-week writing . . . “course,” I guess? Kinda? . . . by local(-to-Atlanta) author David Fullmer. It was eight consecutive Wednesdays or whatever, and consisted of him giving us lectures, answering questions, and assigning homework, and us reading the homework aloud the next meeting. The first week, our assignment was to write a setting. To pick an interior or exterior scene and describe it so that others could see it. No dialogue. If characters are present, they’re ‘furniture.’
This is what I wrote.
I woke flat on my back and opened my eyes to complete blackness. Panicked, I struggled to sit up. Strange noises came at me from all sides, and I realized quickly that they were echoes of my own movements. I made a conscious effort to sit still and breathe normally. I listened, trying to gauge the size of the room. In the distance to my right I could hear the slow, steady drip of water into water. Plink! Plink! Plink! Plink!
“Hello?” I called, and it was redoubled and sent back at me in shards by walls an unknown distance away. I shivered in the still, icy air as the echoes faded away slowly. I was sitting on hard stone so cold it seemed to leech the warmth from my body. I felt around me with my hands, following the coutours of the rock as best I could, its surface rough and clammy against my skin.
Not my best effort by any measure, but it shows the pattern: David asked for me to make readers see the scene, and the only thing I wanted to write after that was a setting in complete, total darkness where seeing is impossible.
Another example. I have a time-travel novel that is currently trunked, waiting for me to come up with a better ending. The entire thing came from my saying, “Why is it in time travel novels that it always hinges on some cataclysmic event? Why can’t the event be something ordinary, but could only be done by a certain person?” (It is still trunked because I didn’t handle that premise as well as I wanted to.)
The very first self-contained short story I wrote was from the POV of a woman who was on the losing side in a battle against her second personality. Another was about an old woman who hires a vampire to cure her dying son. Another was the typical rookie-writer ‘Adam and Eve’ story where they were AI programs created sort of by accident on a limited budget by harried programmers. In my dragon and princess story, the dragon is the hero, not the knights. In my novel series, I wanted an Urban Fantasy specifically unlike most of the others that are popular: male cast, third-person POV, characters inside the establishment/law, magic is ‘out,’ no sexy vampires or werewolves, nothing sparkles, etc. Another story evolved from me saying, “If a psychic wants me to believe in them, they need to call me at home and say, ‘Gary, you’re in terrible danger!’ and then prove it.” And then writing that very scenario.
I think my pattern is that I look at the ‘rules’ and try to find a way to turn them on their heads, at least to some extent.
And, you know, I think all writers do this to some extent. But the fact that it took me this long to see it is kind of funny, I guess. How boring would it be to read the same characters in the same stories handling the same situations in the same way, every time? (It would be like re-reading the same book over and over again.)
Now, how does that answer the question about themes? It doesn’t. At all. I suck at themes. I may have mentioned that.
I unabashedly loved this book. It is full of humor and a lot of allusional gems to fairy tales and other works of beloved literature ranging from Oz to Narnia. And yet . . . it is not a frivolous story. These women (whom we would think of as Snow White (Bianca), Cinderella (CeCi), and Sleeping Beauty (Rory)) reveal real lives with real problems in their letters to their friend Zell (Rapunzel), who has recently upset their social structure by moving away with her husband and children to pursue her dream of raising unicorns. Her Pages (story) were done, so she was free to go “off-script,” as it were. In doing so, she allowed CeCi, Bianca, and Rory to dream of a different life after their Pages are completed.
But not every fairy tale ends with Happily Ever After. The friends have to find a new equilibrium as their relationships change, and yet fulfill their own Pages lest the very fabric of their reality (the Realm of fairy tales) is destroyed.
A wonderful read. I can’t recommend it highly enough.