Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Back from the Grand Strand

I just returned from the South Carolina Writers Workshop conference at Myrtle Beach, and I'm still recovering. Well, that's not the right term, really. Sounds like I'm "in recovery"-- a detoxing celeb. The conference was 3 days, fabulously organized, and chock full of workshops. It was a working weekend for me-- I gave three workshops ( 7 hours worth), critiqued 11 one-to-one manuscripts, and "hosted" two dinner tables. The best part about Myrtle Beach in October is that it doesn't look like Myrtle Beach-- there aren't that many people around. The place has been devoured by developers and in warmer months is teeming with tourists, but in the off season, you can actually glimpse sea oats and sandpipers beyond the dinosaur putt-putt. Mary Alice Monroe was a terrific keynote speaker. Her novels reflect her ardent love of the environment, especially the low country of SC...I plan to read Sweet Grass soon.

The immensely talented Robert Morgan--of Gap Creek fame-- was there, too. Of course, I'm partial to a writer who has such an uncanny sense of place...especially when that place is the hills of the Carolinas. His latest is a biography of Daniel Boone, which is drawing accolades, and looks to be as absorbing as any of Morgan's novels. "Forget the coonskin cap; he never wore one." Now that's a first line.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Debra Spark's Super Smart Essay on Suspense and Surprise

My first semester as an MFA student, I lucked out big time: my advisor was Debra Spark, whose fiction and nonfiction is terrific. Her essays on writing are just unbelievably sharp. Her latest article, "And Then Something Happened," appears in the current issue of The Writer's Chronicle:
"I believe than when it comes to snobbery about genre fiction, I am the reigning queen, yet I'd like to tout the virtues of suspense and surprise. Not psychological revelations or character complications, but an interesting shift in events, of fiction that is structured to make one curious, sometimes desperately curious, about what happens next." p. 74
Debra provides a compelling investigation into the craft of suspense in "character-driven" literary fiction as she discusses "the writerly embarrassment about plot." Quoting from E.M. Forster, Lily King, Dan Chaon and Laura Kasischke, she offers an unflinching look at what works and what doesn't when it comes to "creating a suspenseful piece of literature." Chaon's comments about how he organized the narrative of his novel You Remind Me of Me is fascinating; he was influenced by the masterful structure of Michael Cunningham's The Hours and "was interested in what serial TV was doing--The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, ER. How they cut up multiple story lines and juggled, how the create intense suspense by crosscutting."

How much information do we, as writers, give to the reader? How do we structure events? How do we parcel out narratives among a constellation of characters? How will the parts connect (or how will reader make the connections?) "All this has to do with time," Debra writes, "and how we are going to manipulate time."

Thursday, October 4, 2007

I'm Not Pulling Your Leg...This is REAL

This article from my local newspaper is priceless. I... didn't make it up. Oh, but I sure would love to claim it.

Upstate man gets leg back
Man who found amputated limb in barbecue cooker he bought threatens lawsuit
Thursday, October 4, 2007 - 2:00 am

Monday, October 1, 2007

AWAY...Mapping the Travel Novel

I just finished reading AWAY by Amy Bloom when I happened to hear her interviewed on NPR's All Things Considered. I loved the novel--about a young Russian immigrant named Lillian Leyb who strikes out across North America toward Siberia to find her little girl. AWAY was engrossing, and also filled with the beautifully crafted sentences and scenes that Bloom is known for, and plenty of memorable characters (Gumdrop, the Seattle prostitute. You won't forget her). As an "epic adventure," AWAY chronicles Lillian's odyssey, and each chapter eventually means another stop on the map and another close call. Which got me thinking of the odyssey in contemporary novels--Charles Frazier's COLD MOUNTAIN, and Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD, not to mention Kerouac, and Nabokov's LOLITA. The structure is ancient as myth, tried and true. And from a novelist's perspective the American road trip novel-- picaresque or dark adventure-- provides a tempting structure on which to hang (or fill?) one's prose.

A friend of mine, who is writing her fourth novel, says structure remains the hardest part of writing for her. Timelines, setting, plot points...yeesh! But with a travel novel, you have setting--already mapped!--you have time, you have a character yearning for something at the end of her harrowing journey, and you know it all before you begin chapter one. Still, Amy Bloom mentioned she had a poor sense of direction (which made me feel better...I rent a car with GPS and still manage to get lost...after awhile the voice just sighs and says whatever.) Amy Bloom had to pin up maps on the wall to remind herself where Lillian would venture next. And still, the author agonized:

When Bloom began writing Away, she didn't have a clear ending in mind. But gradually, one did reveal itself to her.

Bloom says she took three months off entirely from working on the book, "to wander around my house, tearing my hair out." She would take breaks late at night and go to the baseball field near her house to smoke cigarettes and kick around some dirt.

"'Doomed, doomed, doomed,' is what would be going through my head," Bloom recalls.

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