Archive | June 2012

Jackson Hole Writers Conference 2012

Yayah! So much fun to have such a great opportunity close to home (well, just under 150 miles round trip, but we do still have compressed dinosaur blood, so relatively easy to get there and back every day). No Flash Fiction or Flash Poetry contests this year, but volunteers still participate for free, so all is well. All except for my ongoing and useless shyness–go figure! In the Forest, I can walk into almost any camp of strangers and strike up a conversation, cuz it’s my job. So, it is paramount upon my writing efforts to say–it’s my job to connect with strangers who are professionally attached to the writing/publishing communities in order to better my prospects of becoming more professional myself. So that is my primary goal for this year.

While none of the attending agents look to be a great fit, won’t that make pitching to them in the halls alll that much easier? Of course, it is disingenuous to pitch a story that is not ready to go yet. So easier yet will be preying on fellow writers. It has been a useful exercise for me to practice pitching and writing a synopsis just so I can be more clear about where the story needs to get cleaner and more precise. So I’ll be participating with documents in hand as I search for the appropriate writing partner(s). While I have Beta Readers lined up, none of them are writing, and I’d feel better about using people’s time if I could offer mine in return. So that is goal two.

Perhaps upcoming blog posts will be devoted to ice-breaker questions that can help me vet my prospective partners? Uh, no, that’s cheating. Will save those for my pen-and-paper notebook. If you’ll be there this coming weekend–drop me a line and let me know!

What’s up, Doc?

Have you noticed? Mary Doria Russell is a new favorite at our cabin–and I add Doc, her latest title, to my list of great reads. Unlike the famous movies about the shoot-out at the OK Corral, and the aftermath, this story explores Doc Holliday’s life before he moves to Arizona with the Earp brothers and their women compadres.These years show Doc in the center of a spiderweb of diverse relationships, as a consummate reader of people, and a cultured southern aristocrat who opened himself to the real stories of individuals from all walks of life and parts of the world.

This story defies conventional contemporary storytelling advice in many ways–and never failed to intrigue and enlighten as Russell rolled out her scenes to cast a little lamplight on the famous gunslinger. The first questions to set up a plot–What did Doc most want?–have surprisingly mundane answers.  Family, and to be useful. and life. What made him happiest? Kindness, and kindred curiosity, and the emotional resonance of classical music.

The book’s structure was based on card games and gambling–and served to highlight an interesting point about the volatility of the world before our dependence on multiple insurance policies. What you had to pull you through slim times was the family of solid friends you might create if you had no family at hand. Russell twice turned an expected understanding of gratitude around. 1) Doc expressed his idea of ‘selfish’ motivation for hosting John Horse Sanders’ wake and funeral: that he had taken the boy for his own, without John even knowing it. 2) Morgan echoed that sentiment to explain why the Earps were so dedicated to Doc’s care during his illnesses: that they had claimed him for their brotherhood. The costs of these claims were insignificant compared to the perceived benefits.

The Omniscient point-of-view is used again here, but with clear authorial intrusions that change the narrative feel almost to reportorial mode. The rhythms, though, carry echoes of Greek tragedy, and certain conventions, like the Fates, are specifically named. The prefacing quotation from Ernest Hemingway clues us in from the start: “This book is fiction, but there is always a chance that such a work of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.” The frame for the story is thereby set, and despite the potential for such techniques to hold a reader at distance, Russell’s power as a storyteller overcomes that pitfall without a second glance. One particular scene still brings me to tears simply remembering its emotion (in the chapter, Playing for Keeps). Reading its full beauty, its immense sense of life lived to the best even given a bad hand, is by itself worth the price of the book. The cover art magically, surprisingly, conveys the passion and pathos of that scene. At a glance, I can return to it all.

‘Character’ Novel

It looks like I might be narrowing down my target for ‘how I want my story to work’ by noticing what I don’t like about how some other stories are put together. Several blog posts have expressed frustration about typical tension-creating devices, such as fear for one’s life. So I investigated in the other direction–a book called The Folded Earth, by Anuradha Roy, an ‘evocative and deeply moving tale of a young woman making a new life for herself amid the foothills of the Himalaya’. Expecting a forward-looking desire to pull the story, rather than a backward-looking fear to push it, I was disappointed to find the narrative drive almost so subtle as to be practically hidden. Elegant descriptions of place-as-character and of well-drawn people I am unlikely to meet in my daily travels sufficed to keep me reading, but I am enough of a plot-snob that I would give this story pretty weak marks in that category (of course, I am not a highly-trained critic, either, and since The Folded Earth was longlisted for the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize, don’t just take my word on this).

I took particular offense that nothing actually resulted from the point of most violence, which readers are led to feel has great portent. Impending catastrophe managed to be avoided off-stage, by the amorphous larger community, in the passive voice. Our characters don’t have much to do with actively resolving the civil strife that the moment of violence supposedly foreshadowed. My frustration could easily be a cultural thing, or partly that I’m still watching closely the learnable craft points that seem to be given short shrift here. Quite likely more literary readers are perfectly comfortable with the required amount of suspended disbelief in order to slip past a number of plotting inconsistencies. The backcover blurb, after all, indicates that someone considers this a masterpiece.

Books in Books

As young adults–searching for truths that may be different from our parents’–we often identify strongly with words we find on a page, in a book, presented by characters to whom we feel some affinity, or simply by an author whose philosophy we find intriguing or alluring. A couple of books I’ve read lately have used this attachment in an interesting way.

Jessie Haas opens her YA book Chase with Phin startled alert from a book he had been engrossed in reading through the early hours of a morning. Books were his remaining connection to his mother, and to her dream of a better life for him. In an early reminiscense, his mother explained a passage from Emerson to him, with ‘a man’ in this case meaning a ‘person grown large, deep, subtle and strong in character.’ Much later, another Emerson quote connects him suddenly with people he has just met in an unknown place. It provides a common thread to their existence that they were otherwise not sure they would find. Once found, trust is almost immediate–or at least, the relationship can begin with trust until proven untrustworthy, instead of distrust until proven honorable.

Similarly, Mary Doria Russell’s latest novel, Doc, shows how the young Georgia dentist–alone in the wild frontier town of Dodge City–connects with Kate, a working prostitute who was raised an aristocratic Hungarian with a strong classical education. She could make an apt remark at the card table by quoting Homer or Virgil in the Latin or Greek. In a day when even lawmen and entrepreneurs moved mainly by the seat of their pants, and physicians as likely as not worked pure charlatan theater, Kate and Doc Holliday found refuge in each other’s educational common ground, even as that same bookish background separated them from so many of their comrades.

The Flash that Lingered

L.K. Madigan’s book Flash Burnout carries the best front-cover blurb ever. Perhaps this was the actual query letter format that caught the eye of an agent and led to Madigan’s first publication. The blurb is styled as camera shots–capturing the characters that are caught in the teen triangle of the story and reflecting not only the thematic structure of the story but the turning point as well. Maybe all-too-tidy for some, but it appeals to my innate delight in roundness. Two of the characters are related through their love of photography, and yet the technology also betrays them to the third.

Like an unexpected camera-flash in the eyes, this story lingered in my mind from the days before I started this blog, maybe even from the days before I decided that YA was where I wanted to thrust my swordly pen. And finally I returned to Flash Burnout, with the happy rediscovery of that catchy cover flap. Too, the interesting way the author chose to illuminate the wreck that meth makes of a life and a family–through the safer eyes of a narrator from a fun and functional family–probably provided some inspiration for the choices I’ve made in my story. The deadly reality of people living in the midst of a revolution is revealed only as it unexpectedly connects to the dramas of people in the relatively stable world of the western U.S. It doesn’t submerge young people in the terror, but it reminds them of its existence and shows how caring for individuals can connect us across vastly disparate circumstances.

Because I seemed to have learned something helpful from that book, I looked up Madigan’s website, only to find that she had passed on after only one other published title. A loss for many, but all the more reason to urge readers to pick up what she has left us.