Monthly Archives: May 2016

Kind of Almost Done, Sort of

flying booksApproximately four years ago, give or take whatever it actually was, I started writing a new novel, eventually arriving at a grandiose plan that would alternate chapters of plot with occasional discussions, with four main characters, two female, two male, who would all have a developed story and chapters written from their point of view.

Not long ago I finished the draft of that book. The two male characters had shrunk to secondary in one case, and minor in the other, with no chapters of their own. And the occasional discussions—what the hell was that about? One evening in a writing group in Washington, DC, took care of that, because hey, what century are we living in? Nobody wants to read that stuff.

In the years it took me to write the book, I believe I first tried every possible option other than the ones I eventually used. I’m just meticulous that way. Thus I threw away chapter after chapter, thrashing through the verbiage looking for a plot, a character, something, anything . . . I need a cookie just thinking about it.

The book is now in three sections, and as I finished each one, a friend who I have often worked with agreed to read them. With her feedback, I continued to write. Getting that kind of feedback while writing really is critical if you want to make it as good as you’re capable of. The feedback is not about catching mistakes or fixing typos and so on. These days you can easily hire someone for that nonsense. Come to think of it, that’s what I do in my day job with the medical journal.

The real benefit of having a good reader while working on a novel is that the reader can gently tell you, with love and great enthusiasm for how you write, which parts of the book are confusing, dull, and just plain stupid. As the writer, enthralled in your own genius, somehow those minor things slip by you.

For most of the time I’ve been working on this book I haven’t had the faintest idea for a title, but since the main setting of the book is a village where I lived back in Pennsylvania, I called the book by the name of that village, Boalsburg. Eventually I floundered through a dozen possible titles and had a few friends look at them, to see how many reactions I got along the lines of  “Uhhh . . . huh.” Inspired by lines from the Epic of Gilgamesh, I decided on Malevolent Gods of Levity. And I liked that title, but did I love it like it, or just like it like it? Now, for a complete change of tone, I’m using a variation on a line from a poem I wrote, for the title The Invention of Colors.

I’ve just read the book from start to finish, the first time I’ve ever read it. At least for now, I like it. So it’s time to move ahead, which means a process of revision, thusly:

1) Fix obviously stupid things.

2) Pay particular attention to character development, always one of the most important things about a book for me. Since I have two characters, whose points of view alternate between chapters, I’ll go through the book working only on every other chapter, to focus just on one character, then go through again looking at the other chapters, to consider the second character.

3) Pay special attention to the style of writing. This is one of the hardest things to do, as I read a sentence which is fine and which does what it needs, and I ask, “So how can it be better, more interesting?” I stare at the screen sighing a lot while doing this.

4) When I get through all this revision, I have more readers who have agreed to read the entire book and give me an opinion. I do not take that offer lightly, as it is extremely hard (in my experience) to find people who I trust willing to do this. By the way, in the author business, we have created a jargon term for these people—they’re beta readers.

5) Take the comments of the beta readers and consider what else needs to be done with the book. Revise more.

Then the book will be done. Champagne! Better cheese than usual! KitKat bars!

At that point I will approach literary agents and publishers, and wait for them to tell me what needs to be changed.

Reading all this probably makes you want to write a book. I do not take responsibility for that.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming)

Not Quite Lying By Necessity

Donald Trump

But by choice

Given that we’re in the middle of a presidential election, and since the human race has not discovered drugs strong enough to numb the horror of our current politics, I felt moved to write this blog entry on rhetoric.

One point I wanted to make is that rhetoric, at least what we study in school, is not the same as overt lying. Really. No, really, although that is the general perception of the word. Yesterday, however, I had a text from a friend complaining about the appalling stupidity of one of her coworkers who was arguing a point by citing things she had heard but ignoring other relevant information.

I texted my friend back and wrote, “To some extent selective choosing of facts is a common rhetorical approach, but it is never a truly honest argument. In fact, it’s a sign of weakness, to be unwilling to deal with opposing facts.” In writing that, however, I thought Hey, I seem to be saying that rhetoric is dishonest.

OK, it’s complicated. The ancient Greeks began to recognize how people were using language, and it occurred to some of them, that by God (actually, they said “by Zeus”), if you think about what you’re doing, you could actually learn to be good at this. Rhetoric is about persuasion, thinking of what to say and how to say it to get people to agree with you and do things you want.

Of course you can get them to agree—temporarily—by merely lying, but if people realize you’re lying, unless they’re Donald Trump supporters, they stop listening to you. The idea of getting people to listen brings up the thing I really wanted to talk about. I’ll refer to ideas from Aristotle here, because even now, no one has surpassed him on this.

So here’s the deal: no matter how honest you are, no matter how much knowledge you have, no matter how much you might truly be a good person, if people don’t believe you’re honest, knowledgeable, and good, they won’t listen to you. Everything you say is useless, because no one listens to someone  who they don’t trust.

This is credibility, or as we call it from Aristotle, ethos. If the audience doesn’t already trust you, then part of your rhetorical job, before you can make the points you want to make, is to establish a good ethos, so that they’ll listen. The things I mentioned above (honesty, knowledge, goodness) are from Aristotle’s discussion of what is needed to have a good ethos.

For most politicians, for most humans, in fact, this is how it works. You can’t just walk up to me and give me unusual medical advice and I’ll nod my head and say, “Uh, OK.” Are you wearing a  white coat? Are we in a doctor’s office? Do you sound like you know what you’re talking about? What Aristotle was describing is normal human psychology.

But in our current political campaign, in which the hounds of hell have been released to run baying through the trailer parks, the normal psychological phenomena don’t seem to apply. The usual requirements of at least appearing honest, knowledgeable, and decent don’t apparently matter for some voters.

For anyone who cares, Donald Trump is such an obvious liar that it hardly seems necessary to cite the examples. If you can read, you should know (but to cite just one instance: years ago he called reporters and pretended to be a different person, talking about how great he is; now he says he never did that). Knowledge? Ask Trump for information on any actual policy. And decency? Does that even need discussing about a person who treats women like objects to decorate his house, who winks at support from the Ku Klux Klan, and who openly tells people to engage in violence, because he’ll pay for the lawyer?

Trump did not come out of nowhere. The Republican party has been dying for years, and Trump is the smell of that death. Nevertheless, it’s astounding that a person who violates all of the logical bases for earning trust has people practically willing to dress in brown shirts and salute him. How did he become the nominee of the Republican Party? Something is very badly broken in America, when lying, ignorance, and viciousness will get you elected.

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The Girls Are Standing

Irish girls“On Good Friday the shops were closed and every place was sad. Purple-sad. Death-sad.”
Description of Dublin, The Country Girls

In 1960 Caithleen Brady and Baba Brennan stepped onto the pages of Irish literature in The Country Girls, and in this short novel, the two girls helped set off a firestorm against the book and the author, Edna O’Brien. I mentioned in an earlier blog post that this book was banned by the Irish censorship board (in a time when they still had such a thing), and the book was burned in O’Brien’s home town by a priest.

Regarding the controversy caused by this book, O’Brien said much later that it was caused in part because “there had not been a tradition of women writers” and also because at the time she wrote, Ireland had a “narrow, claustrophobic, judgemental religion”. Nevertheless, the book inspired other Irish writers, and nearly a quarter of a century later, it was made into a movie in 1984.

The story is told in first person, so every word in the book is Caithleen’s voice, every thought is her thought. She is a somewhat naive girl, and the author shows Caithleen feeling insecure, not knowing things, and discovering new aspects of life. Throughout the novel, Caithleen is accompanied by her friend Baba, as they go together to a convent school and then room together in Dublin. Baba comes across as more sophisticated, more daring, and occasionally harsh toward Caithleen, so that their friendship can be baffling to understand sometimes.

Although The Country Girls is a fairly short book, written in just three weeks, it leads the reader through a great transition in the life of Caithleen. When we come into her story, she is a young girl living with her mother and father in a country house outside a small town. The novel then has her leave home to go to the convent high school, and by the end Caithleen is a young, but independent, woman living in Dublin.

O’Brien wrote this book in what is usually considered a realistic style, using a straightforward narrative to move the story forward. As an aspect of that style, there is a great attention to the details of each scene, as if it were the author’s purpose to meticulously record the settings and incidents she was describing. When the girls first arrive in Dublin, for instance, the man they rent from is described sitting in a dining room:

“There was a piano in one corner, and next to it was a sideboard that had framed photographs on top of it, and opposite that was a china cabinet. It was stuffed with glasses, cups, mugs, and all sorts of souvenirs. Sitting at the table was a bald, middle-aged man eating a boiled egg.”

An aspect of the novel that must have caused some heartburn is a strongly irreverent attitude toward religion, seen in the attitudes of several characters, or in the way Baba speaks (once when Caithleen doesn’t want to go somewhere, Baba says, “In Christ’s name, why not?”). In addition, there are scenes in the convent school that make the nuns look foolish, at best, such as a nun who reads an obscene note, has a mental breakdown, and has to be taken away.

What surely set the Guardians of Morality to goose-stepping when this book was first published was the sexual element. Though those references are mild by modern standards, the mere presence of sexual implications was pushing against the barbed wire of social rules in 1960. Furthermore, the novel was written by a woman about young women on their own. Not only did the Catholic Church want to control sexuality, but in particular, they wanted ironfist control over women’s sexuality, like nearly every religion and culture on the planet earth. Some things don’t change.

This book, at its heart, is about two village girls yearning to experience life, to eat some of the sweet fruit that all people reach for. Caithleen is also aching for romance, and over the course of the book, we see her pursuing a possibility that may strike most readers as not a very good idea.

In an interview a few years ago about this book, Edna O’Brien said that “a lot of literature and the literature that I admire is about longing”, and this novel very much embodies basic human longing. Desire for something more, something better, runs through the book for practically every character. In the same interview, O’Brien also said that “writing is from the unconscious”, and in The Country Girls she has reached into her own unconscious to pull out Caithleen and Baba as representations not only of Irish girls in their time, but of what it is like to be human at any time.

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Pushing the Quill in the Peach State

Stone courthouse

Old courthouse, Decatur, Georgia

Here in Georgia, every other year, a literary award called the Townsend Prize is given for fiction. Because it’s a Georgia prize, both dogs and hillbillies are allowed to attend the awards dinner. As proof, I offer the fact that last week I attended. I said I was a golden retriever.

In spite of wagging tails and occasional shouts for more banjo music, it’s a serious literary affair, and some winners have achieved national acclaim, such as Alice Walker for The Color Purple (in 1984) and Kathryn Stockett for The Help (in 2010).

This year the ceremony took place at the history center in downtown Decatur, a town with lots of really good restaurants on the east side of Atlanta. The history center is in the old courthouse, a beautiful two-story building made of stone. (The courthouse with actual courts, next door, is about ten stories and architecturally it’s, um, let’s don’t talk about that. We’ll just start crying.) The old courthouse is also one of the venues used by the Decatur Book Festival, a rather fabulous bookorama extravaganza that happens in September.

I’m getting off topic here, but then again, this is a blog. What topic? I went to the Townsend Prize ceremony this year not because I’m so sophisticated as to naturally be there (cause aw, shucks, I ain’t hardly), but to see who I might talk to, to network if possible. In addition, I was hoping to meet the writer Stacia Brown, who wrote Accidents of Providence. Two years ago I was at the Townsend ceremony, and afterward I reviewed four of the nominated books for the website artsatl.com. Stacia’s book was one of them (very nicely written—read Stacia’s book), so I was hoping to meet her in person, but I didn’t see her.

One of my friends from Georgia Perimeter College, now incorporated into Georgia State University so I don’t know what the hell their name is, runs the awards ceremony. By chance beforehand I was talking to her just as the keynote speaker entered the room, so I was introduced to him. He was T. Geronimo Johnson, and man, if I could have the name Geronimo, I’d even tolerate a common name like Johnson. We talked about five minutes or so, a pleasant conversation about writing and finding time to write. He told me I should write in the mornings when I’m feeling fresh, which I might could do on the weekends, when I don’t go to work, but I don’t, because I refuse to get my good-God-lazy ass out of bed on Saturday and Sunday. Mr. Johnson was there because he was promoting a book, called Welcome to Braggsville, and it sounded good to me. I think I will read it.

I was surprised by how many people I knew at this event. I expected to see one or two, but some people were coming up saying hello to me as if I were worth the effort, and I wonder if they mistook me for someone interesting. Other than Mr. T. Geronimo Johnson, none of the people I talked to were well-known writers, but decent people, nevertheless. In fact, everyone I knew was connected with one of the two schools in town where I either worked or was a graduate student. It was nice to see them, and I was glad I was wearing my silk scarf writer’s uniform. You never want to go to a literary awards ceremony without a silk scarf. You young writers remember that.

The ceremony more or less began (that is, after we filled up our plates with snacky stuff that would constitute dinner), with the writer Terry Kay, who is prominent here in Georgia, talking about knowing Jim Townsend, for whom the award was named. I’ve heard Terry talk before to a group of my students when I was still at the college, and I have to say that when it comes to literary connections, I never knew a luckier bastard than Terry Kay. Pat Conroy (you know, Prince of Tides) helped Terry publish his first novel.

Before the award was given, T. Geronimo gave a talk, and I wish I had taken notes, because I would tell you some of it. Since I remember almost nothing, you now get only the fact that I was impressed by his erudite intelligence. I went up afterward and told him I wouldn’t mind having a beer with him. If he didn’t mind the dogs in the kitchen. And I was sorry that I kept yelling for more banjo music.

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