Category Archives: Literary World

When Gravity Departs, the World Scoffs

Happy almost Fourth of July! Fireworks, barbecue, family and friends… all in celebration of the birth of a nation!

I thought I’d share a writing piece based on the concept of something strange happening. Something that by all accounts shouldn’t be possible. This piece was a writing assignment I completed in graduate school, and it was challenging for me, because I’m so used to writing fantasy and futuristic science fiction. I couldn’t just jump into automatically suspending my disbelief. It’s a short piece, and I hope you enjoy the characterization.

11106539483_320911bee1_b

Without Gravity

At nine AM, Lena Delani sauntered past my cubicle. Her four-inch fireball red heels clip-clopped against the cream linoleum, while her multi-colored python satchel bag swished against her side. She entered Mr. Durham’s office. The glass door sealed shut silently behind her. He was on the phone, his back to the wall of glass separating him from the multitude of cubicles making up the refurbished warehouse turned office space.

Lena flung her bag onto the high-backed button tufted chair in the corner of the room and pounced on Mr. Durham’s back. Her arms wrapped around his neck and she kissed him. Her lips left a smear of red on his cheek.

Mr. Durham started, but when he saw it was Lena, he dropped the phone, twisted around, and grabbed her fully in his arms. He swung her around in a circle. Her heels cracked against the dark cherry desk. A chip of wood flew through the air, smacked into the wall of glass, and then thwacked onto the floor. Mr. Durham’s striped shirt slipped free of his belt and a thin layer of pudge wobbled.

“You’re staring again,” my coworker Annette said. Her head appeared over the lip of her cubicle. Bits of frizzy hair stuck up in all directions. The bun she’d tied her hair into had failed.

A sliver of blueberry was lodged between her two front teeth.

“No, I’m not.” I jabbed the keys on my keyboard. There was nothing on my computer screen, but the clacking of my fingers against the keys continued.

“He’s not going to leave her. Look at her.”

I didn’t.

Annette continued, “She’s got those legs and that hair and that skirt. And those boobs.”

My arm itched. My fingers slammed into the keys. Mr. Durham cared about more than looks. His first wife had been short and fat. His second wife had freckles, like me.

Lena was a break from his previous marriages. She was twenty-one, a model, if you called posing in a clothing catalog and a tattoo removal commercial modeling, and wore skirts that showed off her butt cheeks. Her butt cheeks didn’t sway as she walked. Nothing but her hips and hair swayed.

“Did you hear about that crazy story on the radio?” Annette asked.

I stopped typing. Lena’s fingernails were manicured. Her toenails were too, except they were painted either red or pink or sparkly. Mine were bare and one of them was breaking. If Lena were rated, she’d be a dime. A perfect ten. Me? I hit the delete button on my keyboard.

At Helly Marketing there was no need to be a dime. Forty some cubicles and a few floor-to-ceiling windows that showcased the employee parking lot, arriving at work in the dark, leaving work in the dark, people dressed more for comfort than looks.

And then Lena Delani strode in and morphed us all into pale, wrinkled wraiths.

“The radio? Mary, are you listening?”

Lena laughed, high-pitched and loud. Any louder and the wall of glass would rattle.

“What about the radio?” I asked.

“Some guy said he saw this homeless man float away.” Annette shoved her arm toward the ceiling. “One minute he was standing and the next he rose off the ground and into the air.”

“Lucky him.”

“Lucky? He floated away, and more his head caved in on one side.”

I tapped the Rosie the Riveter Bobblehead on my desk. Rosie squeaked as her head wobbled. “The story’s a hoax. The radio was trying to drum up ratings for their show. You know how it is.”

Annette worked for Helly Marketing for two years before I was hired. When I came in for the interview, Mr. Durham had been there. He wore a dark blue suit and shiny black dress shoes. No pudge, but that was seven years ago. I was still in the same cubicle as when I was hired.

Annette dropped her arm to her cubicle wall. “Maybe, but another radio show I listened to talked about a woman who witnessed two kids up and float away.”

If Lena floated away, her legs wouldn’t be wrapped around Mr. Durham’s waist. Her fingers wouldn’t be clawing at his hair. Her skirt wouldn’t be riding up. If she flew off into the sky, her hair would knot. She’d lose her four-inch heels. Her legs wouldn’t be so great then.

“I did some surfing and found more stories, all over the world. It’s not just people. Bits of ocean and fish. Trees. No one is paying attention, but something’s going on.”

I flicked Rosie harder. She toppled over. Her head clanked against my desk. “People don’t float away.”

Lena’s legs tightened around Mr. Durham’s waist. A stack of papers clattered to the floor. The glass orb Mr. Durham’s daughter made for him, when her sixth grade class went on a field trip to a glassblowing factory last year, teetered on the corner of his desk.

“I’m telling you, there’s something wrong with gravity.”

–The assignment wasn’t to write an entire story, but maybe one day I’ll use this within a larger context…or perhaps it’ll remain as it was originally intended: a writing exercise.

Have a wonderful holiday tomorrow!

(Photo courtesy of Guillaume Delebarre.)

 

The High Stakes of First Sentences

5727282051_02397935ed_b

You probably already know that a story’s first line is of upmost importance. Not only does it set the tone and expectations for the rest of the novel, but the first line also introduces tension and hints at bigger things to come. Your story’s first line introduces readers to your world, and if readers don’t like what they read, they may not go to the next sentence.

That’s a lot of pressure for one line!

The best way to learn how to write phenomenal first sentences is to read a lot of first lines.

Here are some great examples:

“I tell Mama I waitress in the Village so she don’t have to cut me out of her heart.”

–Kiran Kaur Saini, “A Girl Like Elsie”

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

–Norman Maclean, “A River Runs Through It”

“In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.”

–John Updike, “A & P”

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

–Hunter Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

“There are cavemen in the hedges again.”

–Stacey Richter, “The Cavemen in the Hedges”

The trick with first sentences is to start with the stakes high and then keep moving up. Grab readers from the get go and then don’t let them go!

What are some great first sentences you know of?

(Photo courtesy of Keith Williams.)

“The Serpent King” Book Review

The Serpent KingEvery high school has those kids that don’t fit in. In The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, three teens from Forrestville, a small Tennessee town named after the founder of the Klu Klux Klan, are bound together as misfits and as best friends. Lydia comes from loving and prosperous parents; she’s got a popular fashion blog and is on her way to college in New York City. Travis escapes his father’s drunken beatings in the fantasy world of knights and noble quests. Dillard Early Jr. can’t escape his name: his snake-handling, poison-drinking preacher father was incarcerated for child porn and his grandfather went around wearing snakeskins and killing every snake he could.

Written in third person, this novel alternates among the three characters. The story covers the characters senior year of high school and is filled with poverty in the rural South, enduring friendship, heartbreak, clinging to faith at all costs, fear of the unknown, and learning the courage it takes to survive and to thrive.

While it took me several chapters to get sucked into the story, I ended staying up way too late to finish the novel. The book covers the harsh reality so many outsiders have to live in. And while parts of the novel did showcase that this was a debut, it’s a phenomenal coming-of-age story about hope and courage, of salvation and betterment, of surviving and flourishing when life seems too bleak to continue.

(Photo courtesy of myself.)

“Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight” Book Review

Health at Every Size“Health at Every Size” (HAES) by Linda Bacon, PhD is not a diet book. It’s the philosophy that showcases how well-being and healthy habits are more vital than any number on a scale. HAES’ basic tenets are to:

  • Accept your size. Grow to love and appreciate your body. It’s the only one you’ve got. Self-acceptance empowers you to make positive life changes.
  • Trust yourself. Your body intuitively knows how to keep itself healthy. The problem is that society has taught you to ignore your body’s natural internal regulation systems. Relearn to trust your body’s natural signals of hunger, fullness, and appetite.
  • Adopt healthy lifestyle habits. Find purpose and meaning in your life. Often you’re eating to fulfill some social, emotional, or spiritual needs, instead of for hunger.
  • Embrace size diversity. Humans didn’t evolve to be one size fits all. We come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Recognize your unique attractiveness.

This book is a must read for anyone who’s ever wished to be thinner. One of this novel’s strengths is how it’s split into two parts. The first half of the book deals with research showing why the traditional diet fails and how society has warped body image and ideals, and research on how the HAES method has been more successful than traditional dieting. The second half of the novel deals with the specifics of the HAES method, and gives you resources to change your life.

Many aspects of this novel are empowering. The research provided a solid argument against dieting, especially focusing on calorie restriction, by showing that dieting doesn’t produce lasting results, the false notion that if you’re overweight you lack control, and demonstrated how the food, pharmaceutical, and dieting industry have manipulated peoples’ senses of hunger and satiety for profit.

Despite all that, I had trouble believing Bacon’s argument that “fat does not cause any of our leading chronic diseases, except for some cancers, sleep apnea and osteoarthritis.” While there are overweight and obese people who are healthy, many are not. Bacon doesn’t discuss the ways that obesity can lead to disability. She spends all her time focusing on body acceptance—which is a concept I completely support—and seemingly being a fat activist. I don’t understand why encouraging people to fight obesity, in order to prevent disability, and fighting discrimination about overweight people has to be mutually exclusive.

It’s important to love yourself and your body, to listen to your signals of hunger, to eat fulfilling and healthy foods—limiting processed foods, to have meaning in your life, to realize that much of society’s war on obesity is sponsored by companies that profit from peoples’ fear of fat, to take measurements like the BMI scale with a grain of salt, and to not discriminate against overweight people. I’m just struggling to convince myself that there should be utter fat acceptance. (If you’re not familiar with the FA movement, check out the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance’s website.)

This book’s notion that your weight shouldn’t keep you from enjoying your life is why I recommend you give it a try.

(Photo courtesy of myself.)

Easy and Simple Aren’t the Same for Motivation

Recently someone asked me how she could motivate herself more. That’s not a rare question. Many people ask themselves how they can be more motivated to lose weight, run faster, eat better, get that job promotion, finish a novel… I’ve asked myself countless times how I can be better motivated.8078194256_db53b66f8d_k

Lately, something I’ve struggled with is going through beta reader feedback and editing. I keep finding other things to do. I realize that I’m making excuses, but even though I acknowledge this, I can’t bring myself to focus on editing.

That’s unusual for me, so when someone asked me how to improve motivation, I thought about what I’d want to hear. Better yet, what words would work to motivate me?

I’ve never been the type to seek out motivational quotes. More often than not, I roll my eyes at inspirational sayings. They seem cheesy and hollow. They don’t resonate, and when something doesn’t resonate, how can it inspire?

I started searching for the right way to answer the question of motivation. How could I inspire this person?

There wasn’t a correct answer. Each solution was personal. I couldn’t give that individual what she wanted. Because I could talk and talk and talk to her about inspiration and do anything and everything I could to motivate her, but the bottom was that she had to find what worked for her.

All I could tell her was the words that inspired me:

“When you get into a tight space and everything goes against you, till it seems as though you could not hang on a minute longer, never give up then, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”

— Harriet Beecher Stowe

Life isn’t usually easy, but think of the things you’re proudest of. Were they easy accomplishments? Or did you struggle and persevere?

Was the effort worth it?

(Photo courtesy of Luke Kondor.)

Frozen in Silk: A Trip Down Poetry Lane

I’m trying something different today. Something that I haven’t dabbled much in. Something that, when I’ve attempted it, has thoroughly kicked my butt. I’m posting a poem I wrote.

Yikes!

While I’ve studied poetry, I never had too much interest in writing it. Those times I’ve had to for class, I struggled to put words together to create a dense, but flowing story, a story that was supposed to sound like music, but always seemed to clatter loudly.

This poem came together by piecemeal. After many edits, my fingers are crossed that the image and message I want to convey is received. Let me know what you think!

31812134672_a65d9397b7_k

Frozen in Silk

My love,

 

Do you dare shout?

Do you dare sing?

Do you dare breathe?

 

Or are you forever holding your breath,

staring straight ahead,

a living statue.

 

Do you ever dance?

Do you ever laugh?

Do you ever see me?

 

Or do you stare through me,

never seeing what I hold in my hands,

a heart that beats less and less,

a breath that is turning cold;

I am freezing with you.

 

Soon we will be together,

two statues, a Romeo and a Juliet,

frozen just before their time-shattering deaths.

 

Living, breathing,

encased in ice made of satin and silk.

One day the ice may break, and

we may be free to walk hand-in-hand.

 

But for now we wait,

sleeping an endless sleep.

 

(Photo courtesy of Shutter Runner.)

A Badass Hidden Gem: “Wool” Book Review

8660068500_07e518186c_z

A breathtakingly creative and horrifyingly disturbing post-apocalyptic novel! Hugh Howey’s “Wool” is one hell of a ride. Starting as a short story, this tale grew into a novel due to popular demand, and then, once it became an online sensation, was picked up by Simon & Schuster and became a New York Times bestseller.

In a twisted futuristic world, where everyone lives underground in a silo because the surface was horribly poisoned hundreds of years ago, and where the levels of the silo are split into different social classes, mistrust breeds rampantly and the worst thing a person can do is ask to go outside. Because, while there’s a sheriff and a mayor, the true power lies with the highly secretive and malicious IT department, and they are more than willing to grant your request.

Howey created a phenomenal aura of dread and desperation. Claustrophobia claws at you, begging you to ask the same forbidden questions those who take a one-way trip outside do. Told from multiple characters, this story is rife with suspense and contains so many plot twists that I couldn’t guess the end!

I can’t say it better than Kathy Reichs, bestselling author of the Temperance Brennan series, “Wool is frightening, fascinating, and addictive.” “Wool” is flooded with a highly detailed and authentic world, realistic and relatable characters, and a terrifyingly believable story. A compulsive read.

(Photo courtesy of Sam Cox.)

When Beauty Destroys the Beast: “Uprooted” Book Review

13442434765_96be7d8e81_k

Before I began Uprooted by Naomi Novik I had high expectations. With over 50,000 ratings and nearly 9,500 reviews, this young adult novel has over a 4 star rating (out of 5). This book had to be phenomenal! At least, that’s what the overwhelming majority of the reviews indicated.

The first pages—almost the entire first chapter—grabbed my attention. This book is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, where the Beast is a magician known as the Dragon and Beauty is a village girl about to discover that she has a much larger role to play than she’d ever imagined.

However, after the first pages, I had a difficult time reading the first third of the book. It didn’t seem any different than most of the young adult books out there. The protagonist Agnieszka is a seventeen-year-old brown haired, clumsy girl, whose best friend is beautiful and talented and brave. The Dragon is a one hundred fifty year old guy, who looks like he’s not much older than Agnieszka and is a jerk. (Where have we heard that scenario before?)

In the original Beauty and the Beast, the Beast was also a jerk, but I felt that there was a reason behind it. (He did look like a monster, after all.) The Dragon seemed to be a jerk just for the sake of being a jerk.

I felt like the Dragon being terrible and incredibly rude to Agnieszka for no reason, and she reacting like some exceedingly self-conscious, mumbling, and messy girl, was a story plot I’d seen before. One where the jerk of a guy was going to be the love interest. A story plot I’ve never liked.

But that all changed when I entered the second half of the book. Basically, I liked the book better when the Beauty and the Beast retelling ended and the story took on a life of it’s own.

Agnieszka started growing as a character. She began standing on her own two feet. As the world, characters, and plot built layers and layers on itself, I was pulled back into the story. I ended up not being able to put the book down. Some of the my favorite scenes were when Agnieszka and the Dragon were separated, because then I got to see what Agnieszka could do and what her personality was truly like, without the Dragon’s shadow looming over her.

While the final third of the book made me late a few mornings to work—I ended up reading longer than I should have—there was one scene that chucked me headfirst out of the story. Normally, a scene like this one wouldn’t have bothered me, if it were in an adult novel. However, this scene was in a young adult book that is intended for thirteen to seventeen year olds. This scene is a detailed sex scene between the Dragon and Agnieszka. Detailed enough that I could picture everything that was happening. I wouldn’t have wanted my fifteen-year-old cousin reading this scene. When I was fifteen, I read books that had sexual content, but never anything that I’d describe as soft Harlequin.

Other than that scene, the final section of the novel was extraordinary. The creativity and imagination fueling the rising action, climax, and resolution was brimming with excitement and depth. When the ending finally came, it was satisfying, mature, and realistic. It was a perfect ending to a book that turned out to be an incredible fairy tale.

Have you read any good books lately?

(Photo courtesy of Chris Alcoran.)

Imitation is an Intensely Challenging Flattery

Imitation of others work is said to be a form of flattery. That flattery can often be mistaken for plagiarism. However, when it comes to writing exercises, imitation can help expand your writing repertoire, especially if you’re attempting to imitate a writing style very different from yours.

By imitating sentences, punctuation, paragraph format, word flow, etc., you can improve your writing. You can take commercially successful works, literary works, and works that have survived throughout the ages and toil away on increasing your knowledge of varying writing styles.

By mimicking others’ works, you introduce yourself to different sentence patterns, expanding your vocabulary, and more, so that you avoid becoming repetitive in your work, whether it’s a short story or a novel.

 

 

Imitation Smiles

Bring on the challenge!

I mimicked three different works: “Stoner” by John Williams, “Desert Breakdown, 1968” by Tobias Wolff, and “Atmospheric Disturbances” by Rivka Galchen.

I chose these three stories because of their wide-ranging writing styles. “Stoner” is written in a very factual format. The beginning of the novel starts with detailing information about Stoner’s life. The writing is detached and unbiased, and from the start there is a desolate atmosphere of disappointment.

“Desert Breakdown, 1968” is viewed through the eyes of a narrator, who falls short of his own moral measure, and the reader’s measure of him. The narrator has impulses toward abandoning his family in search of dreams that will most likely never come to fruition because of his self-defeating nature and his need to have someone else to blame for his failures.

“Atmospheric Disturbances” quickly questions narrator reliability, specifically bringing attention to close-up, first-person narrator unreliability.

I wanted to compare the same basic story through different writing styles to see how the various writing styles would change the tone of the story. I also wondered if the order you read the imitation pieces in would affect your impression of the story.

The basic premise I decided to use was about a friendship between two girls, Elizabeth Kendricks and Catie Abrams. I won’t go into any greater detail about them here, but will explore their story through the three imitation pieces.

“Stoner” Imitation (“William Stoner entered…by Stoner’s mother.” pp. 3-5):

Elizabeth Kendricks moved to the town of Wistburg as a child in the year 1997, at the age of six. A few years later, while playing soccer in her yard, she met Catie Abrams and recognized her as her new best friend and as a kindred soul, where they remained friends until the fall of 2010. She did not realize how much college would change her, and that she would discover how quickly her best friend would demote her to a pawn in some of her more fanciful games. When their friendship ended her ex-friend made no move to rectify what had happened between them. This lack of apology still effects Elizabeth Kendricks to this day, an emptiness within her: “I will never forget what transpired that fateful weekend, my memories will never fade, and I will never be the same. Forever void.”

Anyone who happens by what transpired may wonder why these two people were ever best friends, but no one digs too deeply beyond the surface. Elizabeth’s teammates, who held her as the most determined of collegiate athletes, think of her ex-friend vaguely now; to her old high school friends, that weekend is an admonition of the continual death of friendships, and to her newest friends it is nothing more than a story with which they wade through blankly and put aside.

She was born in 1991 in a hospital in Falls Church Virginia near the city of Arlington, some two hours from Wistburg, where she would ultimately meet Catie. Though she had happy early years in her childhood cul-de-sac—playing with other children, making her Barbie Dolls kiss—she found, when her father said he was leaving, happiness couldn’t last. At thirty-five her father left; taking his car, he looked at the horizon with the hope-filled eyes of a newly single man. Her mother stared at her three children, as if she were stuck with an impossible task to endure alone. Her eyes were red and her cheeks blotchy, and the yellow of her hair was beginning to give way to premature gray worn back with a hair clip at her neck.

With the earliest memories she possessed, Elizabeth Kendricks knew she was good. As a little girl she helped anyone who needed it, practiced ballet and soccer in the yard in front of her house, and worked hard to impress everyone she knew. And during her short stint in private school, she would, from the moment she woke to the moment she slept, do everything in her power to make people feel special. At thirteen the weight of the world was already weighing too heavily on her shoulders.

Being good was a solitary pursuit, of which she was sorely tempted from, and with Catie she felt tied together with a good sister she never had. In the mornings the two of them walked to middle school together as siblings often would, laughing with each other; many people believed they were sisters, the only times they were apart was at night when no one could see them and even then they’d spend hours whispering through their phones to each other under their bed sheets.

Their houses were across the street from each other, and the brick stairs were a favorite hangout spot. The stairs had with so much teen gossip taken to crumbling into the front gardens—purple and rust red, streaked with yellow.

Between their houses was a smooth neighborhood road, lightly lined with trimmed trees and a few scraggly weeds, and a basketball hoop, where the girls spent most of their afternoons together. Behind their houses were two backyards, each with an outdoor lawn set, a pile of wood, and a fence, with a dent and paint streaks on it. The grass was a yellowing green, unsymmetrically grown and speckled with mud, up through which worms wriggled and were pulled apart each summer by the girls’ brothers.

 

“Desert Breakdown, 1968” Imitation: (“Krystal was asleep…was an opening.” pp. 119-120)

Elizabeth was dancing when they entered the auditorium. Catie had sworn to not shoot a video, but when they reached the stage she took out her phone and did so. Elizabeth’s face was pale from the brightness of the stage lights. Her hair, too unruly for a dancer, clung drenched to her body. Only an odd strand swung into the air. She had her arms raised above her and that made her seem much taller than she was.

The music rang across the cheap flooring of the auditorium. The seats swelled along both aisles, red as the rotting stage curtain. Catie saw the silhouette of Elizabeth on the curtain with each pirouette across the stage, and the glint of metal under the curtain. Then Elizabeth went still. Braggart, Catie thought, and for a moment she felt as fantastic as she had predicted to feel.

But it didn’t last. She had ignored her promise, and she was going to get a look for it when Elizabeth gave her some attention. Catie nearly threw her phone at Elizabeth. But she didn’t want to lose a phone, and fib to her parents, and watch Elizabeth scold her again. By now Elizabeth had hundreds of examples of Catie, Catie with rocks in her hands standing in front of Elizabeth and beside her and behind her and the three instances she’d bitten her since becoming friends.

Catie did not react well. For some reason she always exploded. But those tantrums gave the wrong impression. An old friend of Catie’s had expressed it right—“fun, wild, and self-serving.” Well, that was the perfect picture of Catie. All the world was waiting for her. All she needed was a cohort.

 (“Krystal was awake…low anyway.” pp. 121 – 122)

Elizabeth was sitting now too. For a second she didn’t speak or do anything. Then she looked over at Catie out the corners of her eyes. “So tired,” she said. She tucked up her hair over her shoulder and turned to Catie. Catie kept her eyes on her feet. “Home from the dance,” Catie said. “Man, thought you’d never stop.”

“The video,” she said, “Catie, the video.”

“There was nothing I could do about that,” she said.

“But you swore.”

Catie glanced at her, then down at the floor. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I couldn’t help it.”

“I don’t want an apology,” Elizabeth said, and stood up. Catie could see that Elizabeth was biting her tongue. It made her feel happy. “Okay,” Catie said. “Do you want me to erase it?” She got out her phone to show she meant it. “If that’s want you want I’ll do it.”

Elizabeth let out a sigh.

Catie put her phone away.

Elizabeth started to walk down the middle of the aisle. Catie didn’t move anywhere. At least Elizabeth was mad at her and not another. “Hey, Elizabeth,” Catie said. “Look. I bet a chocolate bar that you’ll have forgiven me by ten o’clock.”

Elizabeth gave Catie a look that Catie felt all the way to her core. “A chocolate bar,” Catie said. “Think so?” She went after Elizabeth and saw her hands were fists. She tapped her shoulder. Elizabeth paused, then turned around and flexed her fingers, as Catie knew she would. Elizabeth was not one to stay mad. She wrapped her arms around her friend.

“A big chocolate bar,” Elizabeth said.

“It’s giant, I checked.”

“No YouTube,” she said. “This time don’t put me on YouTube.”

Catie stopped hugging. Then, without blinking, she puffed out her cheeks. Elizabeth snorted and rolled her eyes at Catie. Catie immediately started laughing and put her hands on her hips, where she tried to imitate Elizabeth.

“I have to go,” Elizabeth said. She rubbed her arm. “I have homework, a lot, to do tonight.”

Catie frowned. Elizabeth could study three times the amount of time Catie was willing to do homework, and when Elizabeth got straight As she liked to describe in supreme detail what she did to get there. It made Catie angry.

“Next commercial break,” Catie said, “I’m bored anyway.”

 

“Atmospheric Disturbances” Imitation: (“Last December a woman…puppy trembled.” pp. 3-4)

This morning a girl walked into the dorm room who looked precisely like my best friend. The girl slammed shut the door after her. In a pair of glittering midnight purple heels—Catie’s heels—she was dangling a flabby condom. I did not know she had condoms. And the real Catie, she didn’t let condoms hang out in the open, she didn’t have sex at all. The lemoncrustedly skunk odor of Catie’s ganja was swarming the room and through that audacity I peered at this girl, and at that condom, admitting to myself simply that Catie was exceptionally bad.

She, the girl, the likely condom user, reached up to de-dress. Her arms concealed her eyes slightly, and my tongue choked the end of my throat, but yet, I could watch: identical yanking off crumpled dress, identical pushing up of same dark purple bra with spilling peach breasts. Identical brows lined thick across like on caterpillars with all those innate stripes that fail their singular purpose to become winged beings flying up in the blue sky around the plants. Identical female, but not my Catie. It was a new awareness, that’s why I noticed. Like the instant at the end of a movie where I can hardly say to myself, “I was deceived.” I recall thrice standing up from a movie where the girl, hidden now for ten-some years, was snorting popcorn in her reclined seat, jabbing her finger at the guy on which there was a sticker “I Spit, I Suck, Fisted in Many States.” I would attempt to remove the sticker from the back of the guy, but the girl kept swatting my arm, re-snorting, throwing popcorn, a noise like a burst of tinfoil crunching on the ground. When I would leave I looked all about the theater for the guy, and around the parking lot as well, but I never spotted him.

“Hey!” the fraudulent said loudly, appearing to ignore the stifled air. “I’m still drunk.” She duplicated Catie’s subtle lisp thoroughly, the words slipping over each other. “You are awake this early?” She pressed those sparkly purple heels against her thigh; the condom wiggled.

 

Wow! Okay, so that exercise demanded more intellectual awareness than I thought it would. I had to consciously focus on the core elements of each sentence. Doing so helped me become more aware of structure, both in terms of punctuation and style. Not only did I look at where the commas, semi-colons, and periods were, I examined word order, flow, syllable count, sentence length, parallel structure, and more.

Reading over my imitation pieces, I know I succeeded in some areas and failed in others. When I began this exercise, I had thought to use the same section of story for each imitation piece. I quickly realized that was something I couldn’t do, so I switched tactics and used each piece to express something different about Elizabeth and Catie’s friendship, or more accurately, their relationship, as well as different periods within their relationship. “Stoner” is the overarching summary of their association, while “Desert Breakdown, 1968” shows a glimpse of them during high school, and “Atmospheric Disturbances” shows them in college, near the end of their friendship.

With the “Stoner” imitation, I was able to get an accounting of when Elizabeth and Catie became friends and was able to give some background into Elizabeth’s personality and life without getting too subjective. For “Desert Breakdown, 1968” I found that using Elizabeth as the protagonist didn’t fit, so I switched to Catie as the protagonist. This time you get a sense of who Catie is, and that she may not be the best of people.

In the “Atmospheric Disturbances” imitation, I was able to shed a different light on Elizabeth and Catie’s relationship. One part of that was due to the story being in first person, while the other two pieces were in third person. This gave a zoomed in view of Elizabeth rather than a wider angle because everything readers were seeing was through Elizabeth’s eyes.

I also didn’t want to follow Galchen’s (“Atmospheric Disturbances” author) narrator unreliability so much as give the impression that something occurred the previous night between Elizabeth and Catie, something that Catie doesn’t yet know about, something that Elizabeth discovered about Catie, which has changed her perspective of her best friend so much that she doesn’t recognize her. I’m not sure if I was successful in that endeavor, but I hope I was at least in part.

Overall, it was very difficult to create a different story from the ones John Williams, Tobias Wolff, and Rivka Galchen were telling, while still keeping true to their stylistic elements.

As for whether or not the order the imitation pieces are read in alter a reader’s impression of the basic premise, I believe they do, especially if you read the “Atmospheric Disturbances” imitation before either of the other two pieces.

Have you ever done imitation pieces? How’d it go?

(Photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk.)

 

Every Good Book Contains One Simple Core Conflict

Writing a novel is no small feat. It takes a lot of time and energy. A novel is an investment, and like all investments, we hope for a payoff. This isn’t always a monetary value. Sometimes, we just want people to enjoy, absorb, and remember what we’ve written.7630486140_5b0503051d_k

Like with all good books, there is a singular, simple core issue that the entire novel is centered around. Maybe it’s having to save your grandmother from the evil troll. Maybe it’s having to get your pregnant girlfriend to the hospital. Or maybe it’s having to quit drinking because of liver damage.

This simple core problem is the main plot. There can be numerous subplots, but everything in the book links back to the main plot.

However, it’s easy, especially for new writers, to write a novel without a central issue. This may not seem like something that could happen. After all, to write a book you have to choose something to write about. So, how does not having a core problem occur?

Instead of focusing on the core issue, we focus on insane surprises and twists, witty banter, over-the-top description, and shocking moments. We end up creating enormously lavish worlds that are missing the key component, so that if we’re asked what’s the story about, we can’t explain it.

This is a problem, because a book without a core issue is fatally flawed.

I critique novels that are works in progress. This means that I read novels that are either being written or revised and provide feedback. One such book I’m about half way through and I’ve been struggling with it. There are parts of the novel that are fantastic and exciting and move the plot along, but more often are the sections that don’t do anything to move the plot forward. They seem contrived, and I’d been grappling with pinning down the underlying issue… I finally discovered it: the core conflict has been lost.

Yikes!

The overall comments for this author were challenging to write, because I had to tell this person that their novel was fatally flawed, without using that phrase.

I finally settled on saying:

  1. You mistake melodrama for drama. Melodrama does not move the plot forward. It injects arguments and fights into the book that come out of nowhere or escalates absurdly fast. They’re injected into the story for the sake of something happening.

How do you fix this?

Consider each character’s baggage. The baggage is the essential subtext that prevents characters from solving the core conflict. It’s the road bumps in the story. Baggage naturally causes conflict. Without it, conflict must be forced onto the characters and scenes, and readers will notice the difference.

  1. You lose sight of the core conflict, or never had one to begin with. Before writing your novel make sure that you can identify the core problem in one concise sentence. Then, keep this core issue in the forefront of your mind. The core problem helps keep the story conflict genuine. Without conflict your story devolves into complicated.

There’s a difference between conflict and complicated?

Yes. Conflict evolves from a single, simple problem that needs solving. Complicated is attempting to throw so much at readers that they don’t realize you can’t explain why the events in your story are occurring.

Regarding the novel from earlier, many of the arguments seemed shoved into the story just to complicate people’s lives, and sometimes there were so many characters that it was difficult to understand what was going on. I was bogged down by confusion and found myself rolling my eyes because the characters were acting like petulant children. I wanted to yell at them, “You’ve got a much bigger issue to worry about. Why are you fighting over this? It doesn’t matter!”

You don’t want readers to have that reaction. They will stop reading.

In the end, take an honest look at your story and characters. Keep what moves the plot along and axe the rest. It won’t be easy, and it’s an excellent idea to have someone who knows how to critique look at your work. It’s too easy for you to miss the mistakes and/or weaknesses in your story.

What’s been your experience with core conflict issues? Got any intriguing tales?

(Picture courtesy of DVIDSHUB.)