Book Report: Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers

Recently, a couple of my friends started an online book club, and Francine Rivers’s classic novel was the first selection.  I was familiar with Rivers’s work before reading the book – during my second year of college, before I came to know Christ, I met a girl who was a Christian who gave me a copy of The Atonement Child to read.  The book, a harrowing novel about a girl who chooses to go through with a pregnancy caused by rape, shook me to my core in its unwavering portrait of this issue.  I typically don’t read Christian fiction because even though it is supposed to adhere to my spiritual beliefs, I’ve never found the writing style particularly compelling.  Typically, the issue of coming to faith IS the plot, rather than having a storyline that evolves organically from the elements of character development, setting, and theme.  Instead, the books often tend to be preachy, and I don’t want that.  I know what I believe.  I just want to get lost in a good story.

Redeeming Love was like that for me.  A retelling of the book of Hosea set in California during the Gold Rush, the story revolves around Angel, a young woman from a severely troubled past.  Sold into prostitution at a young age, Angel grows up believing that beyond using her body as a commodity, she has no worth.  Although she is dressed in fine clothes and given everything by her employers, on the inside she is barren and hopeless.  It isn’t until Michael, a farmer who falls in love with Angel at first sight and feels that God has called him to better her life, comes into her life and takes her away to marry him that Angel’s process of recovery begins.  However, letting go of her past and abandoning her old self concept appears to be a challenge that, without Michael’s unwavering faith in God, is impossible to overcome.  While one weakness is that the story could have easily been shortened due to occasional repetitive action, an even bigger strength is how human the characters are, how relatable and easy to fall in love with.  The novel does retain some elements that bridge into the preachy aspect I mentioned earlier, but I felt that they did not detract from my experience of reading the story.

I think that much like young adult fiction, Christian fiction gets a bad rap because of books that make a conversion or having faith the plot rather than having it be one of many messages a reader can take from it.  It is for this reason – and I fully expect to get lots of “What the heck???” reactions here – that I believe Flannery O’Connor is one of the great writers of religious fiction.  When I first read O’Connor, I was convinced she was an atheist.  Her characters are some of the most faithless and downright reprehensible people in all of literature – they murder, lie, cheat, and swindle everything from money to prosthetic limbs.  They denounce and curse God.  But then, after battling a lupus-like illness for six months and reading about how her own lifelong sickness affected her writing, I learned of her identity as a Christian and how her devotion served as a guiding force throughout her experience.  It is this odd mixture of the knowledge of her imminent death and Catholicism, albeit with a rejection of its ritualism, that creates the dark world of her fiction.

Nonetheless, she explores the issue of faith by creating characters who are the antithesis of those who typically appear in religious fiction – by showing the lack of faith in their lives and how it leads to their downfalls.  And the results, for me as a Christian writer and reader, are stunning.  The Misfit of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” holds a cynical view of Jesus’ sacrifice that contributes to his bitterness, and his compulsion to murder.  Hazel Moates of Wise Blood responds to his loss of home and identity after World War II by turning away from God and establishing “The Church of Christ Without Christ,” which preaches hopelessness and the coming of a new Jesus that embodies this lack of hope – and the results are tragic.  In “Good Country People,” Hulga’s mother’s posturing as a Christian when her judgmental tendencies and selfishness actually go against the faith’s teachings creates a rift between her and her daughter.  Nearly every story she wrote illustrates this theme. True, it’s a subtle message that not all readers are prone to walk away with.  But the impact it’s had on me and my desire to address Christian ideas in my work in ways that are unique is immeasurable.

I don’t want to get pigeonholed as a writer.  I’ve never wanted to be a writer of historical fiction, or a “literary novelist,” or even a Christian novelist.  I want to be Kori E. Frazier – but I also want to acknowledge where my talent as a writer comes from.  And reading Francine Rivers provided an answer for me about what my ultimate purpose as a writer is.  Aside from the story itself, the most powerful part of the book for me was an essay in the back titled “Why I Wrote Enduring Love,” in which Rivers shares the role her Christian faith has played in her writing.  Originally a mass market romance novelist, Rivers put everything on the line as a young writer – including her family and her husband, who once told her, “If you were forced to choose between me and our children and writing, you would choose writing.”  It wasn’t until she joined a local church, and later a Bible study group that inspired Enduring Love, that she realized that her love of writing and her devotion to God could no longer be separate.  “I used to believe the purpose in life was to find happiness,” she writes.  “I don’t believe that anymore.  I believe we are all given gifts from our Father, and that our purpose is to offer them to him […] By the world’s standards, I was successful.  But it was all meaningless vanity. Now I have joy.”

Lessons from National Novel Writing Month

In preparation for my foray into the world of month long novel writing, I purchased a t-shirt decorated with a picture of a tent with a roaring campfire outside.  “CAMP NANOWRIMO” it reads in turquoise letters.  “An idyllic writer’s retreat – right in the middle of your crazy life.”  Now on the other side of the NaNo experience, I can say that this is exactly what the experience feels like.  A bugle call wakes you up for work.  You spend all day engaged in your responsibilities, all the while itching to go home and see where the story takes you.  You share metaphorical smores and scary stories with your characters.  You then emerge from the experience somewhat more hardened, smelling of ash and woods, and of course, slightly tanner.

Okay, maybe I made up that last part.  But the rest is true.  Even more than producing 158 pages in 30 days, I feel like I’ve accomplished more in a month than I did in much of my grad school experience.  Why?  Because I allowed myself complete artistic freedom and checked my Inner Editor at the door.  Since my Inner Editor resembles a scary fusion of Sue Sylvester, Ayn Rand, and my Nazi of a kindergarten teacher, I’m harder on myself when I write than most people are – although I acknowledge and embrace the concept that “the first draft of anything is $#*t,” those pesky self editing tendencies always end up creeping in.  I feel like I wrote my entire thesis with several nagging thoughts in the back of my mind: Is this thesis worthy?  Will my committee like it?  Is it publishable?  And although I loved the process of writing my thesis, I kind of wish that I’d just let myself go nuts.  Just once.  I wish I’d let myself write deliberately bad sentences and metaphors, writing as fast as I can and getting the story down, not worrying about how awful some of the writing was and shutting out all the axioms.  I think a story where my thesis characters go to Disneyland and ride It’s a Small World on acid would have been tremendous.  I may still write it.

That said, I’ve walked away from NaNo with more than just a certificate and a bunch of cool graphics for my Facebook.  I’ve learned the following lessons that I hope to take with me as I head into my novelist life and further experiences next November.  For any writers who want to sign up for Camp NaNoWriMo next year, I invite you to keep the following principles in mind.

1. You will have a lot more fun if you don’t outline.  As followers of this blog have read (if I have any followers – this is still to be determined) I spent the two months proceeding NaNo doing a complete outline of my entire project, from character sketches to an entire overview of each chapter.  I even started over.  Twice.  As I’ve written, there’s nothing wrong with outlining, especially on larger projects that demand your focus and consistency.  But when it comes to NaNo, nix the notes.  A simple plot statement and maybe a brief list of main characters is all you need (preferably written on a napkin).  As I followed the experiences of my writing friends who participated, I grew envious of how out of control their stories became, how free they were to take risks and let their characters run wild.  I wanted to do that, but felt bound to the notes I’d taken, to execute the project I planned.  I think I cheated myself out of a big part of the experience by sticking so close to my original idea.  Next year, I’ll welcome appearances by Don Draper, zombies, and old students.

2. That thing about not getting obsessed with your word count is totally true.  The reliance on my outline was complicit in this, but a big part of my NaNo routine was constantly updating my number of words on the website.  I loved seeing that little blue line go past my expected word count, I loved the feeling of being ahead.  But while word count is really the point of this whole crazy venture, it did something to me that is very weird, especially as someone with as severe a math phobia as you can get: it put the focus on numbers and took the focus off the story much of the time.  Don’t let this happen to you.  This is one of the reasons why I don’t expect to feel very moved when I reread my draft in a week or so – there were very few moments where I felt carried away by my story, and as the adage says, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”  Focus, focus, focus on your story.  The rest will take care of itself.

3. In the end, all this is okay, because the book you are writing right now isn’t necessarily the one you’re meant to write.  Forcing yourself to stay committed to your NaNo novel is like staying in a bad relationship – you know it’s not working out, but you can’t bring yourself to call it quits.  On roughly day twenty of my twenty five days of cohabitation with this project, something funny happened: I got a better idea.  Not only that – but it shares the same themes and basic character types as what I’m working on now.  The situation is extremely different – but after dealing with these kinds of personalities on such a close level, I feel ready to put that experience to work.  Does this mean that I won’t go back to this book?  Not necessarily.  What I do know is that if my 158 pages are a failure by the standards of good writing, the spin off will be even better.

At work, my boss talks to me a lot about how my biggest weakness is that I think too much – I tend to keep looking for the right answer even when it’s staring me in the face.  He’s right in more ways than one.  I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that I really need to lighten up.  Sticking to rules is good – but you need some wiggle room in order to function creatively and be productive.  I think that for my next draft, I will let myself go a little nuts.  That said, if Jon Hamm wants to bust out a wall and charge into my novel, he’ll be quite welcome.  Seriously though – take on this challenge, no matter how incompatible you think it might be with your daily life.  I promise you that the rewards will be great.

We return victorious!

After being AWOL for a month, Time to Write is excited to announce that I reached the 50,000 word summit of National Novel Writing Month this afternoon at 3:15 eastern time.  When I get enough time to catch up on sleep (more because of working Black Friday than because of losing sleep with writing), we’ll be back on schedule.  Preview of coming attractions….What I Learned from My NaNoWriMo adventure!

Book Report: Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

So I just finished reading this book, and it had such a stranglehold effect on me that I had to write something about it.  As I mentioned before, fellow writers have described their experience with Ishiguro’s novel as making them literally sick from the disturbing content to feeling numb at the end.  I can’t say my reaction was THAT extreme, but that I started it at lunch on Wednesday and finished it around ten o’clock that same night speaks for itself.  It is a gripping read, in both the sense of the writing itself and the mystery of the storyline, the way the reader is kept in the dark as much as the characters themselves, the pieces never quite fitting together.

Never Let Me Go is a dystopian novel that kind of seems like what the product would be if Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, and J.K. Rowling got together and partied, then decided to write something.  It’s part Handmaid’s Tale, part Atonement, and part Hogwarts, since the inciting action takes place at an exclusive British boarding school.  But the kids at the book’s Hailsham academy aren’t learning how to use invisibility cloaks and magic wands.  Uh-uh.  Instead, they’re being prepared, without their knowledge, for a future that is hopeless and disturbing beyond words.  Every one of them is a cloned child, raised solely to harvest for organs upon maturity, and living in an environment where they are given humanity and self expression as a veil to hide the truth.  Throughout the book, the narrator, Kathy, looks back on her past friendship with two other fellow students, thinking about how their dependence on each other during their childhood has altered their present day.  She remembers stories of their innocence and connects the dots, realizing how all the things that never made sense before are now perfectly clear.  As an adult, Kathy serves as a caretaker for peers who are undergoing the donation process, playing midwife to their imminent “completion.”  Nonetheless, she and her friends still possess a drive for survival.  Rather than become lambs to the slaughter, they attempt to investigate a way out.

Books where characters are facing a certain, dark future over which they have no control are really hard to write, because the characters tend to become brooding and lifeless, lacking a need to take action.  It becomes a challenge for the author to find a way to keep them active, even in the midst of knowing the outcome.  In Nevil Shute’s Cold War novel On the Beach, the main characters are living in Australia post-World War III, waiting for the radiation winds to drift toward the continent.  However, my fascination with the story lies in the way that none of them are willing to go lying down.  They embrace the glimpses of hope that enter the story, particularly an expedition Navy commander Dwight Towers makes with his crew to San Francisco, to investigate a morse code signal coming from a region that should have no life at all.  They drive racecars and attempt to find love.  They are determined to live normal lives, and while these actions can be seen as manifestations of their denial, the book is far from about characters who are reconciled to death.

The same goes for the heroes of Never Let Me Go.  Near the point where their time at Hailsham draws to a close, a teacher tells them the truth about what lies ahead for them.  And they’re disturbed by it.  But they still pursue lives and identities as young adults, they still dream of being actors and working in offices even though they know somewhere that it will never happen.  Some of the most affecting parts of the novel occur when the characters, as adults, talk about the past and slip back into the vernacular of their childhoods, referring to teachers and the various peculiar activities they participated in.  In a way, they are in a state of arrested development – their identities lie in their childhoods, and they’re so bonded together that they’ve never been able to move past it and face the future.  Mentally, Kathy herself spends more time looking back than describing the events of the present day.  It’s because she has nothing more to look forward to.  In reality, these characters aren’t much older than me – and their lives are essentially over.  It’s a mindboggling, frightening premise.

I was thinking about the book driving home tonight, and inevitably thought of folk singer Peter Mayer’s song “John’s Garden.”  It’s an appropriate choice, since Halloween is coming up and the song is about an anthropomorphized pumpkin patch.  In the song, the pumpkins of the patch are informed that on Halloween night, “everything about [their] life will change.”  They will be cut off the vines and turned into jack o’lanterns, and “for one night will be / bright lamps burning in the darkness.”  The pumpkins are terrified by this news and talk amongst themselves, unable to believe it.  The fact that being cut from the pumpkin patch will effectively end their lives remains unstated, but is what makes the lyrics so haunting.  In the end, one of them presents the choice of rotting in the dying garden, or having “a chance to shine,” and in spite of its brevity, that night will let them go out with a bang instead of a whimper (It’s interesting to note that those famous lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” served as the epigraph to On the Beach).

Fortunately, the science fiction worlds of these two books are not our real worlds, and children don’t have to deal with empty futures of being used for their bodies..  And in the end, that’s what Ishiguro and Shute accomplish: they make us value our freedom, and in the face of the horrifying circumstances of the stories, things like the rapid spread of technology and the proliferation of nuclear weapons look more sinister and let us see them as trends that must be halted, or at least diverted in order to keep these worst case scenarios from happening.  All writers have a responsibility to ask themselves “what if,” and the degree of uncertainty about their plots varies according to subject matter.  When writing about issues where the tension is heightened, the stakes are raised, and the characters are fighting for survival that they know make never come, the need for “what ifs” becomes stronger.

I’m not sure how Never Let Me Go will help me with my own novel.  Since I, too, am writing about a childhood relationship that shapes the way the characters develop as adults, I hoped that it might provide me with a model, but the two concepts are so vastly different that I’m not sure how this will pan out.  Nonetheless, it’s an incredible read, especially for writers who seek to communicate something powerful.

“Everyone’s awed and inspired by you, and it’s not very hard to see why”

As NaNoWriMo approaches, my bookstore job becomes more routine and less new, and I continue to work tirelessly at working in a novel outlining or blogging every day, I feel the need to stop craft talk and details about my life and pay tribute to one of my greatest literary influences.  No, it’s not Flannery O’Connor.  It is Belle, from the classic Disney film Beauty and the Beast.

I was a really strange kid.  I didn’t want to play with other children.  Not because I didn’t like people, to be sure, but because I had more important things to do, like tell stories with plastic dinosaurs.  This was okay when I spent my day time up to age five with my dad, but when I entered kindergarten, it started to become a problem.  Not for me, of course, but for everyone else.  I didn’t want to take part in class activities.  I wouldn’t follow directions when doing crafts and other assignments (read: I wouldn’t color inside the lines).  I brought my dinosaurs to school, went in the corner, and played out more elaborate dramas.  My other favorite pastime as I endured the tedium of school was reading in the bathroom.  Our classroom had its own bathroom, and it was the only place where I could have peace and quiet to read.  There was even this really cool ledge I could sit on.  Of course, my teacher was perplexed and called in my parents for a conference, and told them that they needed to learn to “control” their child.  I never hurt anyone doing these things, except for one time when I smacked a kid for trying to touch the dinosaurs.  But to the rest of the world, my love for stories and reading and my need to be alone seemed abnormal.  I felt like a freak, as much as a six year old can understand what it means to not fit in.  In spite of my age, I understood it well.

Then, my parents took me to see Beauty and the Beast.  I vividly remember sitting in the fourth row of the theatre, how the colors and animation seemed enormous and heightened on the screen.  And then, a girl with brown hair proudly brandishing a book in her arms came strolling down the hill, walking through her French village, oblivious to the fact that everyone around her was calling her names – “strange,” “funny,” “dazed and distracted,” “a most peculiar mademoiselle.”  She went to the bookstore and was ecstatic when the shopkeeper gave her her favorite book that she was ready to borrow for the third time, and ran out the door to the fountain outside to read it to a flock of sheep.  A conversation with her equally eccentric father in a scene that follows reveals that she harbors insecurity about the fact that she is unable to fit into their cookie cutter, routine town.  But still, she is unwilling to give up her love for language just because of what everyone says.  When that first song ended and she walked out of the town square, still reading, I was so happy that I could have cried.  There was nothing wrong with me.  If this intelligent, kindhearted girl could be content with who she was, then so could I.  I embraced my badge of nerdiness and went forth and read.

I’ve had conversations with people before about whether Disney princess movies are damaging to young girls.  Some say that they teach antiquated beliefs about the concept of female identity, that a woman’s primary goal in life should be to find a husband, even to the point of waiting around knowing that “someday, my prince will come.”  A girl I took a literary theory course with in college even went so far as to say that should she have a daughter, she would never show her any Disney films.  I couldn’t disagree more.  Were I to have a daughter myself, I would be open to the idea, but discriminate about what films she should see.  In particular, the anti-feminist ideology of the early Disney princess films, such as Snow White and Cinderella, would cause me to be reluctant to show her those movies, unless I could find a way to communicate to her that these are fairy tales and not something to model her life after.  But starting in 1990, The Little Mermaid brought a breakthrough for the princesses.  Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, and most recently Tiana of The Princess and the Frog are ambitious, strong young women with dreams and hope for their futures.  Although their identities can be deconstructed because the movies still end with a happily ever after with their princes, strength can still be seen in these characters because finding a man is completely secondary in their lives.  Belle rejects Gaston, the handsome hero of the village, because he is boorish and arrogant, Jasmine doesn’t even want to get married, and Tiana at first eschews the idea of a relationship altogether in favor of pursuing her dream of establishing her own restaurant in New Orléans.  Eventually, she does find her husband, but the two of them share her dream together, equally.

It is impossible for me to say that Disney is misogynistic because Belle is quite possibly the reason I became an English major.  I went back to see the film a total of fourteen times (and my poor dad sat through every single viewing).  Each time I saw it, I felt something that I now understand as empowerment to girls like me who were ridiculed for being different, who were teased because they would rather read books than play dodgeball at recess.

So thank you, Belle.  You promote literacy.  You tell young girls to be themselves even at the expense of petty, immature remarks from others.  You are one of my greatest heroes.

Watch the opening of Beauty and the Beast here. Nostalgia trip!

Read More Literary Fiction

 

Want to know what this means? Read Atonement by Ian McEwan

 

Let us return now to the bookstore, and one of my favorite parts of the job: straightening up the shelves, a task made for nerds who exhibit obsessive compulsive characteristics.  Every night that I close the store, I go around every single section and make sure that all the books are evenly placed.  I find it exhilarating that I get paid to do this, even when, as in the aforementioned children’s section, things are so utterly bibliochaotic (my friend James said he liked that word, so I’m going to use it again) that it takes forever to move onto a new aisle.

But there is a part of this job that saddens me, and I am reminded of it every time I go down the aisles devoted to “general fiction.”  Although popular authors such as Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts can be found in this section, most of it is occupied by the classics and current literary fiction.  And every night as I go through straightening the books, there is always very little work for me to do there.  Why?  Because people don’t buy literary fiction.  Aside from high schoolers coming in for cheap copies of A Raisin in the Sun and Of Mice and Men, books by marvelous authors are left untouched.

Literary fiction is one of those M.F.A. program sort of terms that is hard to define.  For the purposes of this article and in order to keep things as simple as possible, I as a writer see literary fiction as any novel or story that is plot and character driven in a way that weaves these elements together to portray a compelling real life story.  Unlike genre-driven fiction, literary stories are not given to following specific conventions – there are protagonists and antagonists, not “good guys” and “bad guys,” and in my opinion, in some of the best books the good guys don’t always win and the hero and heroine don’t always end up together.  There are surprising twists, reversals of fortune, and a storyline that demonstrates the growth of the character from beginning to end.  While there are some authors in genre-based fiction that I like and even admire, mystery, thriller, and romance stories generally follow a predictable pattern.

So why don’t people read literary fiction?  For one thing, the names aren’t familiar.  People crave the familiar, not just in terms of plot, but the authors in general.  They like the security of knowing they are reading something that has been vetted by the general public.  For another, they may see unfamiliar names, or even specific ones, as undesirable, or be unwilling to try them.  When I taught freshman English at the college level, I assigned a number of articles that were difficult reads in comparison to many of the readings in our composition textbook.  Most of them were from creative nonfiction anthologies and including authors such as John Edgar Wideman, Mark Bowden, Terry Tempest Williams, and David Foster Wallace.  Students constantly complained before even reading the articles about the fact that they were more than ten pages long.  Even the fact that Bowden wrote Blackhawk Down wasn’t enough to motivate most of them to read his essay “Finders Keepers.”  Sadly, it’s a trend in youth culture.  Young adults have time to play Farmville, but no time or desire to read.

With these things in mind, I’ve composed a list of literary novels that match up with current trends in popular reading.  I hope that this list will inspire readers to step outside their biblio-comfort zones (again with the new words) and check out the world of character driven fiction:

Romance – Atonement, Ian McEwan.  The writing is challenging at times, and it isn’t until the end that the reader is able to put the pieces together and see how each of the book’s parts add up to its stunning conclusion.  However, the relationship between Cecilia, the eldest daughter of a refined, cultured family and their housekeeper’s son, aspiring physician Robbie, is one of the most compelling parts of this novel.  What makes their story a true romance is the brevity and intensity of their courtship – after acknowledging their feelings for each other and acting on them, the two are suddenly separated by circumstances beyond their control.  They spend most of the book apart, but the absence of each from the other’s life is so powerfully rendered that it makes the reader ache for their reunion.

(NB: If you saw the movie, just pretend it never existed.  This is a book that so much depends on being a book that converting it to another medium simply didn’t work.  I actually think SockTube did a better job.

Vampires, Wizards, and the Paranormal – Madeleine is Sleeping, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum.  For the sake of converting the popular into the literary, I’d like to introduce readers to magical realism, a genre that takes the minutiae of daily life and injects it with a serious dose of the unreal.  At the risk of alienating a lot of readers, I’m going to classify Twilight, at least the first book, in this genre – it begins as a tale of a high school girl searching for a sense of identity, who becomes attracted to a strange boy who is seen as odd and isolated.  It begins with the real, but gradually descends into the supernatural.  Madeleine is Sleeping, which can be best summarized as a series of visions a young girl experiences while in a coma, is filled with the surreal and the ghostly, the mix of fantasy and reality, in a way that feels dreamlike to the reader.  While its structure can be puzzling, its heavy use of visual imagery will be compelling to those who admire the world of the unreal.

Mystery/Suspense – In Cold Blood, Truman Capote.  Anyone who knows me well shouldn’t find this selection to be a shock.  I mean, I did teach it in my creative nonfiction course during my grad assistantship.  But it’s still the original true crime novel – and what makes it even more horrifying is that it’s true.  In the winter of 1959, a well-to-do, respected family in a Kansas small town was found brutally murdered for no apparent reason, and with no apparent suspects.  The crime compelled Capote, who was searching for a new project, to journey to Kansas to interview those touched by the murder.  The book, which reads with the same suspense and shock as modern day fictional mystery stories, takes a true story and turns it into something terrifying beyond description, often twisting the reader’s sensibilities by placing them in the heads of the killers themselves.  Say what you will about the controversy of whether Capote exploited or edited actual events in order to make real life conform more easily to a “nonfiction novel.”  I defy fans of James Patterson and John Grisham to read this book, put their head on the pillow at night, and successfully block the story away.

Horror (also Western, if that’s your thing) – Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy. Remember Anton Chigurh from McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, made even freakier by Javier Bardem’s Oscar winning portrayal in the film version?  Anton’s a teddy bear compared to The Judge, the author’s most terrifying villain of all.  Like Anton, he’s a vicious killer.  Unlike Anton, he has no principles, no moral code.  He just lives to watch suffering.  Blood Meridian could perhaps be termed “historical horror,” as it centers around an actual band of vigilante scalp hunters waging a campaign against native Americans on the Tex-Mex border in the 1850’s.  Love blood, gore, and utterly putrefying death scenes?  This one’s a keeper.

Take a chance.  Take a challenge.  Read more literary fiction.

My excuse for being absent and a riff on novel writing

This blog has sort of been on hiatus for the last couple of weeks.  For one thing, a recent post I wrote that was really more of a rant than an article went live before I realized it had no place in a blog about writing in the real world.  For another, I’ve been trying to get take two of my summary outline finished in time for next month.  Why next month?  Because November is really big for writers.  No, it isn’t just because I was born in November – it’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  The goal is simply – you have produce a draft of a novel (50,000 words) and you have to do it in thirty days.  In other words, what typically takes writers months and months has to be done in one.  I’ve never done NaNoWriMo before because the timing has never been right.  I last wrote a novel in college, and the final draft I produced was already underway before I even knew about the month.  In grad school, I was consumed with juggling writing and teaching, and my thesis was not a novel, but a collection of linked stories.  Now, the timing is perfect.  I’m not teaching, I am working on an outline with one month to go, and in just a couple of weeks, the annoyance of my forty five minute commute will be over when I move.

There are variables to consider, though.  My job is demanding, both physically and mentally.  I am constantly multitasking and on my feet all day.  Not as demanding as teaching, but still, it requires brain power.  My dog Flannery has also entered into the equivalent of adolescence for humans and seems to want to rebel against pretty much everything.  Even outside of academia, there are still factors that provide welcome distractions from what I’m supposed to be doing.  In the end, after working this job almost a month, I’ve realized that it requires the same skills I developed in academia, though the balancing act between a day job and my work isn’t quite comparable to a job that forced me to take work home with me every night.  I have to stay organized.  In the case of my novel, producing a draft in a month requires writing 1,666 words a day.  That’s roughly four double spaced pages, which is highly doable.  Knowing me, I’ll get wrapped up in what I’m doing and produce twice that on most days.  Given the constraints, the end product will most definitely suck.  First drafts always do.  But it’ll give me something to go on as I keep working through the process.  I always think about my friend Lori from grad school, who wrote a draft of her novel over Christmas break, then brought the first fifty pages to workshop our first week back.  That’s dedication.  I want that kind of tenacity.

More importantly, I’ve realized that I really need to be reading more.  The reason my thesis turned out so well is because I read every novel in stories collection I could find.  Even though fundamentally flawed, my novel in college was a success on its own terms because of the lengths I went to in order to do historical research.  I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the two true life murder cases that are fusing together to create the backstory of my two characters, but source material alone won’t get you anywhere.  You need to examine the individual elements of the genre diligently by reading with your writing glasses on.  My first book up once I get back on a reading schedule is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, which was recommended to me not only by my former teacher Mark Brazaitis, but a fellow local writer, who was “shaken” by it.  Also on tap are The Truth About Celia by Kevin Brockmeier, Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, and Abide with Me, the second novel by Elizabeth Strout, whose Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge was a major inspiration when writing my thesis.

So it continues.  I’ll keep posting my progress, as well as interesting happenings in the world of day jobbing and plotting and keeping my literary named beagle sane.  Hopefully we’ll be back on a regular schedule soon.  This blog is all about having time to write.  It’s time to make some.