I decided to sign up for Cathy Day’s Midwest Writers’ Workshop online course “How to Start Your Novel.”
Oh, I’ve started it, Cathy. I’ve even revised the damn thing, but somehow I just fell out love with it. It’s not even just out of love, but more like a hostile dislike that would have me stalking this novel on Facebook, looking at pictures of it at the beach with other, more attractive writers, not giving a damn about me.
No matter how many times I tell students just to keep at it, to plug away line by line, sometimes you just need someone to help you get excited again, to hold your hand and help you breathe. Right now we’re outlining the novel Election by Tom Perotta, breaking it down scene by scene and I can tell already this is just what I need. To go back to the basics: what drives a plot? What motivates a character? Who tells the story? I know how to do this—hell, I teach others how to do this—but somehow that doesn’t matter. As a writer, I will never stop being a student. At least I hope not.
My grandmother used to love a good deal and was upset when coffee prices rose to fifty cents a cup, but I think even she would approve of a book on sale for only $1.99.
Both my titles are available for all e-readers this month for that low, low price each, so grab your copies, peace out to Grandma, and settle in for some short story love.
The Millions published their list of most anticipated books of 2016, and ooh doggy, there are some good ones! I’m most looking forward to Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, and Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool based on my past reading preferences. I haven’t read books by these authors, but also think Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard and You Should Pity Us Instead by Amy Gustine sound amazing.
Seriously though, it was hard to shorten the list to just these. So many great books on the horizon!
I just started this book. I wanted to quote the whole thing on this blog because I couldn’t pick just one section to admire. When I was thirty-seven pages in my husband asked me what it was about and I had so much to say about art and life it sounded like I was discussing a whole novel, not just thirty-seven pages. So far, I am in love with this book.
I finished a draft of a novel last week. I should be more excited about this than I am, but 297 pages in and all I can see is the work ahead of me. It took me probably six weeks to write the last twenty pages, partly because I didn’t quite know where I was heading, but mainly because I knew once I finished I’d have to start all over again. I do not get excited when the reward for finishing a job is more work.
While I was procrastinating those pages I wallpapered my bathroom, made a bunch of food to freeze for busy nights, made pillowcases and a cat pillow for a friend, shopped for accessories for the new bathroom, started a finance class, did ceramics with my daughter, and painted our new shed. You know what all these things have in common? Once they’re done, they’re done. I buy a soap dispenser and the soap dispenser remains bought. I wallpaper the bathroom and (god willing) the wallpaper stays up. Granted, I make a shit-ton of burritos and we eventually eat them and I have to make more, but every time I make them, at least they turn out.
I’ve long thought it’s important to have things to make in your life that you’re not perfect at but that you’re pleased by. I tried this kind of fancy border thing on the cat pillow and the corners are super weird, but you know what? Still looks cute and will be fine for the cats. You might want to squint when looking at the top corners in my bathroom, but I don’t care because I take pride in the fact I did these tasks, and with projects I like to keep in mind my friend’s mantra: ninety-four is still an A.
I need to remember, even if the novel draft isn’t very good (yet!), I should be pleased that I made it to the end. And I need to shift my thinking to remember that the writing itself is its own kind of reward, and to stop putting pressure on the task. Write breathe revise, and be pleased.
Stephen King is active on the ‘ol Twitter, and Bustle was kind enough to put together a list of eleven books he’s recommended. My sister and I are busy reading and just finished A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay, which I thought was pretty great.
In other related Stephen King news, he met the president! I also met the president before he was the president! So now we have both shaken hands with Barack Obama, which leaves us with only one degree of separation. Plus, we both got to shake hands with Barack Obama.
And finally, my six-year-old daughter said to me this past weekend, “I think Stephen King should write his books in cursive. That way, people who aren’t old enough to read his books won’t be able to read them. You should tell him that.” So, SK, there you go.
The New Yorker is announcing the longlists for the National Book Awards this week, starting with Young People’s literature, out already today. Here’s the schedule for the rest of announcements:
Poetry, Tuesday, September 15, 9:00a
Nonfiction, Wednesday, September 16, 9:00a
Fiction, Thursday, September 17, 9:00a
Set your alarms!
I have a new review up at Heavy Feather Review, of Sarah Hepola’s Blackout. I don’t know why I love addiction narratives as much as I do, but let me tell you, this is a good one. If you’ve ever had an issue with alcohol or know someone who has (that ought to cover about everyone), I think you’ll enjoy this book.
I’ve written before about these two articles by Tim Parks on reading, but as I’m preparing to teach them again this week, I’ve added an exercise where we’re applying his questions to a story we’re reading. The story is “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story” by Russell Banks about a beautiful man who dates an ugly woman. (You can buy the issue of The Missouri Review in which it originally appeared here.)
My guess is students are going to have some negative reactions to this in that the main character is so fixated on his own beauty and her ugliness to the point it’s of the utmost importance, but the question then is, is Banks endorsing this viewpoint or is this just the qualities/concepts he’s working in? Whenever I teach something I want to remind students that exploring one side of an issue doesn’t mean you endorse it. This can apply to so many things–racism, sexism, feminism, and so on.
So in relation to this story, I’m asking students to discuss these questions from Parks in relation to the Banks opening:
- What are the qualities/concepts that matter most to the author in the opening of this story?
- How are the characters positioned in relation to these qualities or concepts?
- What is the emotional atmosphere behind this narrative? What is the consequent debate arising from this atmosphere?
- How is the writer trying to draw you into the mental world of his characters through his writing? Through his conversation with you?
- Is the world authentic? How so?
After this, we’ll do a writing exercise where students write an opening that considers these questions from the reader and how they want them answered. We’ll see how it goes!
This semester, we’re starting out with George Saunders because I can’t think of a better introduction to anything than that.
We’re reading “Speaking of Style” by Debra Spark from her book Curious Attractions where she talks about style really being about your vision of the world. I’m pairing it with “Sea Oak” by George Saunders (a story so funny [and tragic] I tried reading it aloud to my husband but was laughing so hard I could only get through the first scene) as well as “The Tenth of December” from the book by the same name. These stories are clearly written by the same author, but have very different outlooks on the world. In class we’ll read highlights of this interview with Saunders from The New Yorker. Here’s a excerpt:
“Getting through that and finding yourself at the other end of the tunnel—it opens up a certain space in the artistic mind, I think. Living through those twenty-five years and then making a fictive world that had only pitfalls and misfortune would feel false. And/or incomplete. If you think of a work of fiction as a kind of scale model of the world, then the positive valences—where things turn out better than you thought they would—ought to be in there somewhere, too. Something like that.
“So in this book—although there’s still a lot of cruelty and darkness and all of that—I found my eye being drawn to the moments when things don’t go totally down the shitter, and asking, well, how does that happen? I started to feel that, at certain points in some of the stories, the most interesting aesthetic motion—the plot twist, if you will—was the one that swerved away from what I might call the habitually catastrophic.”
Ah, George Saunders. I read your work and have to practice my Jealousy Abatement Breathing.