Sunday, August 28, 2005

Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans

Vintage Guitars,
New Orleans,

In June, I went to New Orleans for the Golden Crown Literary Society Convention. Everyone, from the taxi drivers to the hotel staff to the fiction "addicts" from the area were gracious and friendly, always mixing courtesy with a flash of humour. Because my time in New Orleans was brief, and convention activities were many, I didn't get out of the hotel much. I swore that for NEXT YEAR's convention, I would schedule one or two extra days to see something of the city, perhaps take a tour, certainly spend time on Bourbon Street.

Next year. Now Hurricane Katrina is threatening New Orleans and its people with a storm surge predicted to be between 18 and 28 feet. New Orleans, remember, is at or below sea level, and only her levies normally keep the Gulf of Mexico from covering the land. People are "buried" above ground, because the ground is too saturated for burial "six feet under."

Here's hoping the people of New Orleans, now under an evacuation order, make it safely through the storm. Here's hoping the city itself has less damage than is being predicted. And here's hoping the U.S. government delivers the promised help to the whole region after the storm.

New Orleans, I'll see you again next year.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Beginnings and pig races

I've been gone for a week and the best I can come up with is... life is like a pig race; blink and you miss it. No, really, I went to a fair and that is EXACTLY what I learned. You see, pig races are all about the BUILD-UP, the HOOK. Get the audience into the bleachers, get them to stick around for the MAIN EVENT... but then they'll miss it if they BLINK.

Novels, although they are usually a little longer than a pig race, need to hook the audience, too. (See how smoothly I did that? Not just ANYone can have a blog, you know. Well, I guess anyone CAN have a blog... but some of us are smooth.)

In literary novels (I’ve been told), everything you’re going to say in the book should be laid out at the very beginning, but in a way that doesn’t dull the suspense. You want the reader—admit it, the person who gives your manuscript a first read for a publisher—to have the correct mindset for the book, to be interested in your characters, to want to know what is going to happen to them... And you want your audience to keep their butts in the bleachers... I mean, to KEEP READING.

Clint McCown (War Memorials, The Member Guest, and The Weatherman), said in a workshop that every word in every sentence must serve a purpose and every sentence in every paragraph must serve a purpose—but none moreso (well, maybe he didn’t say “moreso”) than the very first sentence of the novel. THAT sentence bears the responsibility of getting you to read the SECOND sentence. I’ve read Clint’s books, and, well, I have to say that they were good—but I could have stopped reading after the first sentence of any one of them. BUT I get his point.

(Try it some time. Read the first sentences of your favourite books. Are you HOOKED? Please let me know.)

And, of course, I understand that, just as the first sentence bears a HUGE BURDEN, that of getting you to read the second sentence, then so does the first chapter, that of getting you to read the second chapter. From a business standpoint, publishers (and the minions of publishers, especially the minions—no one’s more busy than a minion) don’t have time to bother with a book that doesn’t grab you in the first paragraphs. In fact, what do publishers and agents ask to see? The first three chapters and ONLY the first three chapters. (And I thought I had a short attention span.)

I recently read a book by a Canadian author that illustrates that one CAN summarize a book in the first chapter (page 4, as a matter of fact) and without the reader (this reader) even being aware of it until the END of the book—or aware that this is why I read on even though The Stone Angel is not what I would call “my kind of book.”

Here’s the passage from Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel (The New Canadian Library edition, 1988. First published in 1964 by McClelland and Stewart):

Now I am rampant with memory. I don't often indulge in this, or not so very often, anyway. Some people will tell you that the old live in the past--that's nonsense. Each day, so worthless really, has a rarity for me lately. I could put it in a vase and admire it, like the first dandelions, and we would forget their weediness and marvel that they were there at all. But one dissembles, usually, for the sake of such as Marvin, who is somehow comforted by the picture of old ladies feeding like docile rabbits on the lettuce leaves of other times, other manners. How unfair I am. Well, why not? To carp like this--it's my only enjoyment, that and the cigarettes, a habit I acquired only ten years ago, out of boredom. Marvin thinks it disgraceful of me to smoke, at my age, ninety. To him, there is something distressing in the sight of Hagar Shipley, who by some mischance happens to be his mother, with a little white burning tube held saucily between arthritic fingers. Now I light one of my cigarettes and stump around my room, remembering furiously, for no reason except that I am caught up in it. I must be careful not to speak aloud, though, for if I do Marvin will look at Doris and Doris will look meaningfully back at Marvin, and one of them will say, "Mother's having one of her days." Let them talk. What do I care now what people say? I cared too long.

I hope that wasn’t too long a passage for “fair use.” Go buy the book, okay? That will make everyone happy. (Well, Margaret Laurence passed away in 1987, so she probably doesn’t care. But someone will be happy if you buy this book—probably you.)

When I finished reading The Stone Angel, I realized that Laurence had introduced the main characters and had clearly defined the theme and the dilemma—and even the resolution in that one paragraph. And by page 4, I was “hooked,” not by the first sentence of the book (“Above the town, on the hill brow, the stone angel used to stand.”) although that is a darned good first sentence, if you think about it. Laurence created in the first chapter, in the first few pages of her book, a character and a situation and with such skillful use of language, that I wanted to read on.

Quality. What a hook.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


Last Saturday there was a military parade and funeral in Vancouver. Yes, in this most non-militaristic city of a non-militaristic country, people turned out along Burrard Street to honour Sgt. Ernest "Smokey" Smith, the longest-surviving Canadian holder of the Victoria Cross. The ceremony honoured, not only the man, and not only his exploits during W.W.II, but a whole generation, what some have called "the greatest generation."

Since I'm writing a novel set during W.W.II and plan other novels set during that period, watching Smokey's send-off made me think about respect. How can one write a mystery or thriller set during that period and still show proper respect for the people who sacrificed in one way or another for what they perceived as the survival of democracy or of "our way of life" or even of civilization itself?

My parents were of that generation. My father, because he already had two children (no, not me!), was not eligible to be drafted at the beginning of the war. Financial obligations and health problems kept him from volunteering. His younger brothers, my Uncle Albert and Uncle Ernie, were in the Navy, and I remember seeing a wistful look in my father's eyes when they reminisced about "the war." It was the only time I remember him being silent when stories were being told. To be a man of that generation and not have gone to war was a heavy burden, a secret shame from which my father never quite recovered.

So how dare I write fiction set against the backdrop of that war? Especially light fiction. I'm not writing For Whom the Bell Tolls. (Yes, I know that takes place during the Spanish Civil War.) Or The Caine Mutiny. (That does take place during W.W. II.)

I guess I dare because all fiction has to take place somewhere and sometime. Setting we call it, right? Whether it's on a space station in the future or in Egypt during the second battle of Alamein, a story is anchored in a where and a when. I can't not write a story because someone someplace might not like the where and when--anymore than I'll not write a story because someone might not like what my characters might say about religion or politics or some other topic.

What I promise is to be respectful of the facts that underlie that setting. I will make clear that my characters and their actions are fictional, but that real events were transpiring and that real people were taking part in those events.


That's all I can offer.

Friday, August 12, 2005

John Irving and UNTIL I FIND YOU

John Irving’s novel Until I Find You has just been released. As you probably know, Irving has a long list of successful novels, including The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, and The Hotel New Hampshire. So someone writing her second novel is going to listen to this man. Attentively.

Last night I attended a reading by John Irving in Vancouver’s St. Andrew’s-Wesley Church. In his prepared presentation, Irving read from Dickens more than from his own novel. He shared a scene from Oliver Twist where a psycho pit bull is compared to Christians. Irving said he might have chosen a different selection if he had known he would be speaking in a church. Of course, it’s possible that his choice was influenced by his having just flown out of George Bush Airport. Besides reading from Oliver Twist, he read the first paragraph of the last chapter and first paragraph of the first chapter of Until I Find You, as well as one of the penis-holding scenes. (Why is Until I Find You entitled Until I Find You: A Novel? Was it possible the publisher thought we wouldn’t figure it out? Like maybe it was an 848-page short story or screenplay?)

Irving’s best insights into writing came during the question-and-answer session. Since it was a large audience and time was limited, questions had to be written down before Irving’s presentation. While some authors give the impression that many (or most) of the questions from the audience are frivolous or naïve, Irving gave thoughtful and respectful answers—even to the question, obviously from someone who had already read all or part of his new book, “What’s with all the penis-holding?”

Please note that the questions and answers below are somewhat paraphrased, the questions because Irving grouped similar questions, the answers for brevity.

Question: Is it the duty of a writer to push boundaries?
Irving: If there wasn't something in a work that disturbed me, I wouldn't bother to write it.
He told a story about having lunch with his friend Stephen King. A snobbish neighbor who saw them together later said, "You and King? I find it hard to believe you have anything in common with HIM." Irving answered, "Stephen and I like to disturb people in different ways."

Question: What is your writing process?Irving: I write from the end to the beginning. The first thing I write is the last paragraph of the last chapter and then the first paragraph of the last chapter. I refer to those often for tone and to make sure I remember how it all comes out. Then I write the last and first paragraphs of the next-to-last chapter and so on. I find when I have the first and last paragraphs, it's easy to fill in the rest of the chapter. I find that knowing everything that will happen lets me concentrate on the architecture, that is, what to tell and what to hide, and when and how to reveal what was hidden.

My comments: I’m waiting for it to get easy. Maybe if I wrote backwards, it would! That part about hiding and revealing things confirms that I’m thinking along the right lines. That’s currently the main reason for my choice of POV characters for each section of the novel I’m working on. Deciding when and how to reveal what is hidden is crucial.

Question(s): Your new book is 848 pages long in hard cover. How long was the first draft? When you revise, do you find it harder to cut material or to add it?

Irving: I spent 6 years writing the first draft, with a few interruptions. My first draft was in first-person. Then I decided that this was really a third-person book. I spent a year rewriting it in third person, which naturally resulted in the loss of several thousand words, since third person is more economical. You need less exposition in third person, less explaining of how your narrator knows this or that. For me, revising is not usually about gaining or losing words or pages, since I write a lot of detail and find myself putting in as much as I take out.

My comments: It’s heartening to a beginner to see that a pro like Irving can write for six years in the “wrong” POV—and then spend a whole year correcting the mistake. POV is one of those BIG decisions I’ve been struggling with—until I decided to write on as I’m doing and then, if it doesn’t work out, change the POV in the next draft. If I do that, I’ll be in good company.

Question: How has having children influenced your writing--since you have child characters in almost all of your books?
Irving: I was twenty-two when my first son was born, and now, at sixty-three, I have a thirteen-year-old son. I have had one or more children at home almost all the years in between. Each age a child reaches is bound to make you remember yourself at that age, what you were thinking and doing. My whole life I never told anyone about the sexual experience I had with an older woman at the age of eleven or thought of it as abuse--until my oldest son reached that age. Then I told him.

My comments: I don’t have children, don’t plan to have them to give me more depth as a writer. In Counterfeit World, my FIRST novel, two characters, Laura Sedgewick and Shon Emerick (the “I” of the book) discuss how not having children—not being allowed to have children—may affect people who work in Space:

“People who choose the life of a Spacer, they’re willing to take more risks than most. They drink and drug more than average maybe. And a lot of them don’t like rules.” Then as if this was something she’d thought about for a long time, she added, “With reproduction forbidden to them, well, I think that keeps some of them in perpetual adolescence.”

Twenty-four months in space meant no babies. Ever. That was the law. One of many laws made by Earthers for Spacers. I wondered if Sedgewick had faced that
choice herself. Maybe she already had a husband and six kids before shipping out. Maybe that’s why she shipped out.

What I said was, “I suppose that’s a hard decision, whether to give up the chance to have babies. What if you feel one way in your twenties and another a few years

“Spacers aren’t much on regrets,” she replied. “Me, I left Earth late. Already had a kid. It changes you, having a person you care about more than yourself. It’s not that all Spacers are irresponsible or anything, but some of them never quite grow up.”

Moral of the story: Kids or no kids, when you’re a writer, you use what you’ve got. Even if you’re writing science fiction like Counterfeit World, your own experience is what you have to draw on. This, I think, is what’s really meant by “write what you know.” I don’t KNOW life on a space station orbiting the sun between the Earth and Mars, but I do know what it’s like to be an adult without children and, in a sense, what it’s like to have that decision taken out of your hands.

John Irving on writers repeating themselves: All serious writers repeat themselves. It means you have something to say.
On complaints from those who disapprove of his work: I have no patience with people who are bothered by fiction. There are plenty of things in the real world to be bothered about.
On critics: It would be nice if people who don’t like long, old-fashioned plotted novels wouldn’t go on about how much they don’t like mine.
On reading his own completed novels: I reread passages from time to time. You can learn from yourself this way. I was trying to figure out how I could skip a long period of time in a novel. I went back to one of my novels where I had done that: “For fifteen years they were a couple.” Oh, that’s how you do it.
On why his books have deformed or disabled characters: Much of what I write has to do with missing things, with losing things, with not having things, with being “marked” in some way and how you handle this. The missing thing could be a hand—or a father. I write operatic—or gothic—novels and include a lot of perverse and macabre details.
On movies based on books: A book isn’t incomplete if it’s never made into a film. With Cider House Rules, I saw it as a movie from the beginning. It was the perfect shape for a film.
On the penis-holding: (Um… I think this post is long enough, don’t you?)

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Shani Mootoo and all those decisions

I just finished reading Shani Mootoo's second novel, He Drown She in the Sea. Shani Mootoo, if you haven't heard of her, is a writer who was born in Ireland of East Indian parents, grew up in Trinidad, and moved to Canada in the 1980's. In other words, a Canadian! Her first novel, "Cereus Blooms at Night," was a contender for a raft of prizes, as the jacket blurb tells us. (Note to self: second novels are useful for advertising your FIRST novel.) I first heard of Shani when I read her story "Out on Main Street" in The Vancouver Stories. Although there are lots of West Coast luminaries in that book, I thought Shani's story was the best, the freshest. Then I attended a reading she gave at Robson Square in Vancouver soon after the release of He Drown She in the Sea--and bought the book.

In He Drown She in the Sea Harry St. George loves Rose Sangha from the time they are small children playing in the Sangha home on the Caribbean island of Guanagaspar. But Rose is the daughter of the house, and Harry is the son of the house's laundress, which makes any personal relationship "unsuitable." Rose grows up to marry Shem Bihar, a suitable man, and Harry immigrates to Canada. Many years later Rose visits her grown daughter in Vancouver and renews aquaintance with Harry. Rose returns to Guanagaspar determined to rejoin Harry--but only after the holidays.

The story is told non-sequentially, mostly by Harry and, through her maid Piyari, by Rose. The dialect that was employed effectively in "Out on Main Street" is still present but what would have been tiresome in a longer work has become a rhythmic reminder that we're not in Canada anymore.

I could not stop reading this book and finished it with that reader's high that follows a well-written book with beautifully drawn characters--that high that is mixed with regret that there are no more pages to turn. But I also can't help reading like a writer now and, at this stage in writing my own second novel, I see He Drown She in the Sea as a series of DECISIONS. It's not that I question those decisions, far from it, but I see not only the novel that IS, but the novel that would have resulted from different decisions.

What are some of those decisions? There are the obvious and basic decisions of what story to tell, where to set it, what characters to include, etc. You know, all those EASY decisions. But I'm thinking more of the decisions that come during those first few chapters, the decisions I'm making. (Yes, it's all about me.) Shani decided to let Harry tell his part of the story directly, although in third person, not first. She decided that Rose would tell her part of the story indirectly by talking about her plans to her maid Piyari. (This actually means she tells her story in first person, using "I," although Piyari uses third person in telling about it. Got that? Read the book.) Shani decided to let Mrs. Sangha, Rose's mother, and Dolly St. George, Harry's mother (both of whom are memorable characters), tell part of the story. Shani decided to tell the story non-sequentially, filling in the holes, answering the questions she has caused the reader to ask. (Look at my sequential summary above. The way the story is actually told, allowing us to travel backward and forward in time, makes it much more interesting, much more of a puzzle, than a sequential telling.) Shani decided to use mostly past tense, but there are occasionally other tenses, and these switches work; I didn't even notice them at first.

If Shani Mootoo had made different decisions, the novel would be different, a little different or a lot different. Read the book Shani wrote. Then imagine it told in first person by Rose Bihar in the order events happened. Completely different book.

Decisions, decisions, decisions. I have seven (first-draft) chapters done, and I'm still deciding which version of this book I want to write. Gee, if there are alternate universes, then I guess I'm writing a version of this book in each of them. I hope this is the universe where I write the GOOD version.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Getting Started

When I finished my first novel, everyone said I should have a web page. Yes, everyone. Why? Because you need a web page when you have a novel. PEOPLE EXPECT IT.

So I got "Creating Web Pages for Dummies." I read about services such as Yahoo's geocities websites and aol's hometown websites, the ones for dummies like me, I guess. I even looked at html tags until my eyes crossed, which was for, oh, about two minutes. Then I found courses in The University of British Columbia's continuing education catalog, the one for "computer and tech careers." Well, I'm more of a liberal arts person actually, so taking one of those courses just wasn't going to happen. More crossed eyes, you know.

So then I got to--okay, skipped ahead to--the chapter in "Dummies" about blogs. Hmm... blogs. Those are kind of like web pages, aren't they? I mean, they're on the Internet, and you can post stuff on them. You WRITE in them. "Dummies" recommended Google's blogger, and, since I always do what a dummy tells me, I came here and signed up. In the next few weeks (months? years?), I'm mostly going to write about my experiences writing my second novel. I will try to keep the whining at a minimum, and I promise to also write about other things, maybe some of the things OUTSIDE my head and house.

There! I have a web page. Is EVERYBODY happy?