Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Telling Stories

By Pamela

Let me tell you a story. It starts with a main character, our protagonist, and ends with his overcoming a storm of conflict. Along the way, the other characters bend and break and rebuild him so, by the time you reach the ending, he will have evolved into a transformation of himself, a guy who sees the world differently. It's a pretty simple formula that's used in most works of fiction. At times it's man vs. man, man vs. beast, man vs. weather, or man vs. himself.

If you study writing, you learn words and phrases such as:

  • conflict / resolution
  • story arc
  • character arc
  • dialog 
  • setting

What you might not learn is the myriad ways to tell a story. Literary devices can be used to make your story original and when it works, it's fabulous. Here are some novels that employ their own unique methods of storytelling. I'd recommend each as required reading, especially if you want to devise your own unique path to take the reader from 'once upon a time' to 'the end.'
(NOTE: Text in italics is from the publishers.)

Defending Jacob 

by William Landay

Andy Barber has been an assistant district attorney for two decades. He is respected. Admired in the courtroom. Happy at home with the loves of his life, his wife, Laurie, and teenage son, Jacob. Then Andy’s quiet suburb is stunned by a shocking crime: a young boy stabbed to death in a leafy park. And an even greater shock: The accused is Andy’s own son—shy, awkward, mysterious Jacob. Andy believes in Jacob’s innocence. Any parent would. But the pressure mounts. Damning evidence. Doubt. A faltering marriage. The neighbors’ contempt. A murder trial that threatens to obliterate Andy’s family. It is the ultimate test for any parent: How far would you go to protect your child? It is a test of devotion. A test of how well a parent can know a child. For Andy Barber, a man with an iron will and a dark secret, it is a test of guilt and innocence in the deepest sense. How far would you go?

Throughout the book, we read transcripts of a trial that reveal the testimony of Andy while being questioned by ADA Neal Logiudice. Those transcripts help tell the story of how Andy continues to defend his son even as the line between guilt and innocence becomes increasingly blurred. It's a method of storytelling that works in this tale of paternal devotion at all cost.

Gone Girl

by Gillian Flynn

On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy's diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer? 

It took me a while to warm to the storytelling device of this novel--hearing Nick's side as told in typical novel formatting (i.e. action, dialog) and hearing Amy's voice, at first, through the pages of her diary. But as the story progresses, you understand why we're getting to know Amy this way. And it works masterfully.

Where'd You Go Bernadette?

by Maria Semple

Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.

Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle--and people in general--has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic. To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence--creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world.

As the publisher reveals here, the story is told through Bee's piecing together her mother's correspondence. I honestly didn't expect to get sucked into the story the way I did, but maybe because I have a fascination with people's private lives (What's more private than reading someone's mail?) and am a bit of a snoop, this novel was purely entertaining. My thinking is, though, that had it not been so masterfully crafted, it would have fallen flat. In Semple's hands, it was a treasure.

Reconstructing Amelia

by Kimberly McCreight

Kate's in the middle of the biggest meeting of her career when she gets the telephone call from Grace Hall, her daughter’s exclusive private school in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Amelia has been suspended, effective immediately, and Kate must come get her daughter—now. But Kate’s stress over leaving work quickly turns to panic when she arrives at the school and finds it surrounded by police officers, fire trucks, and an ambulance. By then it’s already too late for Amelia. And for Kate.

An academic overachiever despondent over getting caught cheating has jumped to her death. At least that’s the story Grace Hall tells Kate. And clouded as she is by her guilt and grief, it is the one she forces herself to believe. Until she gets an anonymous text: She didn’t jump. Reconstructing Amelia is about secret first loves, old friendships, and an all-girls club steeped in tradition. But, most of all, it’s the story of how far a mother will go to vindicate the memory of a daughter whose life she couldn’t save.

Similarly told as Gone Girl and Where'd You Go, Bernadette? in Reconstructing Amelia, we learn the back-story of Amelia Baron through her text messages and the blog posts of her classmates as her mother tries to piece the story of her daughter's life leading up to her death.

Big Little Lies

by Liane Moriarty

Big Little Lies follows three women, each at a crossroads: Madeline is a force to be reckoned with. She’s funny and biting, passionate, she remembers everything and forgives no one. Her ex-husband and his yogi new wife have moved into her beloved beachside community, and their daughter is in the same kindergarten class as Madeline’s youngest (how is this possible?). And to top it all off, Madeline’s teenage daughter seems to be choosing Madeline’s ex-husband over her. (How. Is. This. Possible?). Celeste is the kind of beautiful woman who makes the world stop and stare. While she may seem a bit flustered at times, who wouldn’t be, with those rambunctious twin boys? Now that the boys are starting school, Celeste and her husband look set to become the king and queen of the school parent body. But royalty often comes at a price, and Celeste is grappling with how much more she is willing to pay.

New to town, single mom Jane is so young that another mother mistakes her for the nanny. Jane is sad beyond her years and harbors secret doubts about her son. But why? While Madeline and Celeste soon take Jane under their wing, none of them realizes how the arrival of Jane and her inscrutable little boy will affect them all. Big Little Lies is a brilliant take on ex-husbands and second wives, mothers and daughters, schoolyard scandal, and the dangerous little lies we tell ourselves just to survive.

While maybe not quite as devoted to employing a device to tell story, Big Little Lies does feature the police interview transcripts of a Greek chorus of unreliable witnesses to a crime that Moriarty invokes to keep the reader enthralled in a seemingly everyday tale of parents behaving badly that ends in the death of one of the major players. It's humorous and yet compelling as we make our way through the story of lies--both inconsequential and life-changing.

Dept. of Speculation

by Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all.

Jenny Offill’s heroine, referred to in these pages as simply “the wife,” once exchanged love letters with her husband postmarked Dept. of Speculation, their code name for all the uncertainty that inheres in life and in the strangely fluid confines of a long relationship. As they confront an array of common catastrophes—a colicky baby, a faltering marriage, stalled ambitions—the wife analyzes her predicament, invoking everything from Keats and Kafka to the thought experiments of the Stoics to the lessons of doomed Russian cosmonauts. She muses on the consuming, capacious experience of maternal love, and the near total destruction of the self that ensues from it as she confronts the friction between domestic life and the seductions and demands of art.

Offill tells the story of a two people in a stream-of-conscious form of writing that's both extremely lean and exquisitely crafted. Part aphorisms, part reflections, part meditations, it's a quick read that you'll either embrace or dismiss. I'm betting you'll embrace it.

The uniqueness of these books' compositions is fraught with the gamble each author took to tell the story in a way that could have been perceived as gimmicky but instead bordered on genius. Do you have one to add to the list?

Monday, March 2, 2015


by Elizabeth

It's March. How'd that happen?

When the year was new, how many of us made a resolution? I often do, though it generally takes the form of a list of things I want to say are true when Father Time drops his scythe the last night of the year. This year, though, I added something in particular, tiny but significant. Well, significant to me, and maybe to my health, and not a big deal though surprisingly onerous at times. Yet I've done it.

Calcium and water in a pretty cup, exactly 8 ounces of resolve
I'm drinking more water. Specifically, a cup in the morning, and a cup at night, when I take the calcium tablet my doctor added to my daily regimen a few years back. Just a cup, a coffee cup in fact, and I drain the whole thing morning and night with my pill. No big deal. But sometimes daunting. Just eight ounces, and daunting! But I do it.

Have I seen real benefit? I can't say I have really. I don't feel slimmer, stronger, fresher, lighter for it; in fact, I'm currently working on shedding a few pounds that decided my body was a good place to hitch a ride. (Is there a set amount of human fat in the world? If I lose it, must someone else find it? Did this fat find me after someone else misplaced it?) So feeling lighter for the extra water isn't the case here, but I still manage to feel better for drinking it. Because I'm drinking it. Because I said I'd drink it, and I'm doing it.

My writing habits, like those of countless other writers, can be sketchy. An old friend once mentioned how heavy her pen can be at times--I loved that. And it's true. Although sometimes the hardest part of writing is sitting down to do it--and the excuse that we are too busy is rapidly put to shame by those who are busier than we yet manage to find hours to park their posteriors and write--it's something that can be done if we make it a priority.

Sometimes I feel like this blog is an exercise in self-reporting. Telling the truth of when I write, when I don't. One of those truths is that I wish I were better about sitting down in the chair and cranking out the words. Every day? Nope--not for me, though I wish I did. Not even when I'm on a roll, like the fall of 2013 when I finished up the first draft of the novel I'm querying now. I got a lot of work done, I met my goals, but did I write every day? Not even then.

But I take this pill twice a day, and for the past 50+ days have drunk my cup of water twice a day, which proves that if I decide to do it, I can do it. And since I am so far from the most disciplined human being around, it means if I can do it, truly, anyone can do it. Take a pill, drink some water, sit down and write a few words even if they suck.

I didn't resolve to write every day. And yet I also know there is nothing magical, not really, about January 1, and if I want to write every day, really want to, really decide to, I can. Just like one cup at a time, over and over and over again until I've drunk over 40 times my weight in water more than I would have without resolving to come the end of this year--well, if I can choke down the water, I can choke down anything. If I decide to. As can we all.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Found Objects

By Julie

I've wondered if other writers take as much pleasure as I do in a certain part of the research I undertake while writing a manuscript. I'll go ahead and call it found objects. These are objects that inspire, reinforce, enhance, and commemorate my writing.

Sometimes they're items I come across accidentally--or maybe serendipitously--that don't serve any real purpose other than reminding me of the work I'm doing. In this category is an infuser mug I bought at World Market when I was writing a story with a character who was a Japanese war bride, pictured here (the green one with the red lid).

After I bought it, I intentionally looked for items to represent each of my main characters in that novel, intending to keep them on my writing desk to help me stay on task. Too bad I didn't finish that novel, but it was fun finding the objects and displaying them for a while. Maybe the characters will make their ways into other stories eventually, and the energy and money I spent won't have been wasted. Another of those objects was an early 20th century era Catholic prayer booklet for mothers, which I found on eBay along with a vintage rosary. I was fascinated to discover carefully cut out flower art and a lace bookmark inside the booklet, as well as hand-marked spaces for someone to personalize it. I wondered who did that. Maybe it was simply an unused gift. But maybe someone started it for herself, then never finished it. A lost baby? Who knows, but my imagination was off and running.

Some of our readers might remember when I did a giveaway before Calling Me Home released of a necklace I found on Etsy. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw how perfect each of the items attached to the necklace was in telling the story I'd written in a nutshell.

I'm working on a new story right now, one I'm very excited about, and feeling more confident than I have in ages that it could be the "right" one. (How many times have you heard me say that now? But seriously, I'm all about writing the "right" story, so I'll keep hammering away until it happens.) I've been doing research until my eyes cross. I've read everything I can get my hands on about the topics contained within. I've written pages I'm pleased with, and pages I've deleted in disgust.

In the process, one of those "found objects" appeared this week. I confess my heart rate sped up a bit as I opened the package that came Thursday afternoon, a few days earlier than expected. Inside was a book I'd ordered, carefully wrapped in brown paper. A book published in 1931 -- a first edition, no less. I crossed my fingers it wouldn't smell too much of mold, as so many of my old books do. It was in good condition for being almost a century old, and I was thrilled to open the pages and find not only text, but slick pages with photos. A book that tells much more of the story I'm researching than I could ever find online or at any library in the area. Not only that, but it was the only copy I found for sale anywhere. One copy. I have to assume it was out there waiting. :)

I turned to the first page and began reading, and the sense I had of actually holding history in my hands was different than anything I've experienced yet while working on this story. I can't tell you more about it right now, but today, I feel very lucky about this "found object."

What about you? Share with us in the comments about "found objects" you have come across that have enhanced your writing or reading.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Weather as a character

by Joan

As I write this, ice taps the windows and wind batters the chimney cap. I’ve just come in from helping my husband raise the exterior shades on the two-story window and my fingers are still numb. A snowflake icon shows up on my app for tomorrow (or today, as you are reading). No, I’m not in the northeast; I’m in Dallas, where last week it was 75 degrees.

Maryland house, 1991 - 1999
For forty-five winters in Maryland, there was a particular dread I’d feel going into November, knowing that I wouldn’t be warm again until mid March. The jewel-toned October trees would strip naked and stand brittle and grey. The sun would slink away earlier and earlier, sometimes not showing up at all. I shivered constantly, no matter how many sweaters I crawled into. Some years were worse than others, but in my memory the winter scene looks just as it does now: temps in the teens, imminent or piled-up snow, wind that whips chill into your bones. 

Elmore Leonard said, “Never open a book with the weather.” But what if your book features haunting, beating, relentless weather. The problem with writing advice, particularly when it involves the word “never,” is that there are brilliant stories that defy the rules. Beautiful prose, tension, engaging characters; these are the elements which lure readers into a story.  

Kim just reviewed Nancy Pickard’s The Virgin of Small Plains, which takes place during a deadly Kansas blizzard. A while back, Julie reviewed Ann Weisgarber’s The Promise, set in Galveston, Texas, in the weeks leading up to the devastating 1900 hurricane. In Weisgarber's novel, a scandalized woman leaves Ohio to marry a widower in the south Texas town. She’s expecting a fine city house, but instead he leads her to a sweltering, rustic home and a skittish child. Her new husband’s housekeeper doesn’t trust her and is fiercely loyal to the memory of his late wife, even as she harbors her own feelings for him. When the hurricane arrives, her husband goes out to help neighbors and the animals, and she is left to protect his boy from the powerful storm that literally rips apart their house. It’s the weather that destroys everything, yet it also bonds them. 

In Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire,” weather is the story. Over the course of a day, a man attempts to walk over thirty miles of Canada’s Yukon trail to meet his boys by suppertime, despite an old trapper’s warnings. It’s seventy-five below freezing, snow as far as he can see, and he’s carrying nothing more than bacon-stuffed biscuits, nuzzled against his skin to keep from freezing. With only his husky for company, he is oddly confident. Both his and the dog’s beards have turned into crystal muzzles from the moisture of their warm breath. Soon the man’s cheek bones and nose are frozen, and his hands and feet are beginning to numb. The spruce under which he attempts to light a fire is so weighted with snow, its branches cause an avalanche. In wonderful foreshadowing by London, the man feeds the fire “with twigs the size of his finger” and “branches the size of his wrist.”

As I write my current story, I’m looking for places to introduce weather into an already dangerous climate: The Depression, prohibition, divorce, poverty. Wherever you are, I hope you are safe, warm and dry, reading or writing a book with all the right elements.

Friday, February 20, 2015

A Review of Nancy Pickard’s The Virgin of Small Plains

By Kim

About The Virgin of Small Plains (from the book jacket):

Small Plains, Kansas, January 23, 1987: In the midst of a deadly blizzard, eighteen-year-old Rex Shellenberger scours his father’s pasture, looking for helpless newborn calves. Then he makes a shocking discovery: the naked, frozen body of a teenage girl, her skin as white as the snow around her. Even dead, she is the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen. It is a moment that will forever change his life and the lives of everyone around him. The mysterious dead girl—the “Virgin of Small Plains”—inspires local reverence: In the two decades following her death, strange miracles visit those who faithfully tend to her grave; some even believe that her spirit can cure deadly illnesses. Slowly, word of the legend spreads.

But what really happened in that snow-covered field? Why did young Mitch Newquist disappear the day after the Virgin’s body was found, leaving behind his distraught girlfriend, Abby Reynolds? Why do the town’s three most powerful men—Dr. Quentin Reynolds, former sheriff Nathan Shellenberger, and Judge Tom Newquist—all seem to be hiding the details of that night.

Seventeen years later, when Mitch suddenly returns to Small Plains, simmering tensions come to a head, ghosts that had long slumbered whisper anew, and the secrets that some wish would stay buried rise again from the grave of the Virgin. Abby—never having resolved her feelings for Mitch—is now determined to uncover exactly what happened so many years ago to tear their lives apart.

Three families and three friends, their worlds inexorably altered in the course of one night, must confront the ever-unfolding consequences in award-winning author Nancy Pickard’s remarkable novel of suspense. Wonderfully written and utterly absorbing, The Virgin of Small Plains is about the loss of faith, trust, and innocence…and the possibility of redemption.

About Nancy Pickard (from the book jacket)

Nancy Pickard is the creator of the acclaimed Jenny Cain mystery series. She has won the Anthony Award, two Macavity Awards, and two Agatha Awards for her novels. She is a three-time Edgar Award nominee, most recently for her first Marie Lightfoot mystery, The Whole Truth, which was a national bestseller. With Lynn Lott, Pickard co-authored Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path. She has been a national board member of the Mystery Writers of America, as well as the president of Sisters in Crime. She lives in Prairie Village, Kansas.

My Review:

I don’t remember the last time I read a mystery/suspense novel, but The Virgin of Small Plains was one I felt compelled to pick up after Donald Maass spoke about it at length during his 21st Century Fiction workshop. (He’s not her agent.)

The praise was well deserved. The opening sequence of events, though not a surprise after the workshop, still kept me glued to the page. I read this book until two in the morning one night and picked it back up at seven. I read it while I made breakfast, while I ate lunch, in the car waiting for my daughter to get out of dance class, and every spare moment in between. Pickard is a master at letting out just enough information to keep a reader going, yet withholding the rest until the most devastating moment. I did figure out one key element long before it was revealed, but the “how” and “why” questions were equally compelling and not answered until the end.

Writers could learn a lot about pacing and point of view from dissecting this novel. It is also a prime example of a genre novel with literary elements. 

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Say What You Mean

by Elizabeth

I'm the mother of non-drivers (one close!), so I spend a significant amount of time in the car toting kids from point A to point B, both my own kids and their friends and schoolmates. Carpooling makes life easier for a lot of us in this boat, and modern technology makes carpooling even easier. Most of the time.

One recent afternoon near the final bell I group-texted the girls in my afterschool carpool that either both or neither could stay for tutoring that day. I got back two replies--both from my child--the first saying "Not going? (Friend)?" and the second, "Never mind. I'm staying."*

Look, a communication device! You'd think.
Me: "Is friend staying?"

(Call friend. No answer.)

Me: "2 or 0."

Me: "I am in car coming. You both need to come home."

Me: "I need you both to reply you got this."

Me: "No tutoring."

Me: "I expect to see you both at the curb. I really need you to communicate with me."

(Call daughter. No answer.)

Me: "I'm here. Why aren't you? This is not okay."

(Call daughter. Finally answers. Explains they both were staying for tutoring. I explain back that they had better get outside on the double.)

Daughter: "I am finding (friend)."

Me: "I am angry.**"

Daughter: "We are running."

You can use your imagination to supply the conversation that ensued when the girls got in the car a few minutes later. More than once I wondered if my daughter's silent friend would complain to her parents who would then nix the carpool. (I doubt it. I think they need it more than I do.) Let's just say there was some loud talking involved and the atmosphere was less than pleasant.

But then again, why should you use your imagination for this? I'm writing something intending to be understood, and you are reading something with the general hope to get something out of it. Just like the texts I sent, hoping to get some clear communication, so are you reading this with a similar goal.

My daughter at first defended her use of "I" to be understood as "we," but after some reaming she acknowledged that it was indeed some lousy communication. What I was angry** about was that this was a repeat offense, and what I was really angry** about was that the other kid who had apparently communicated with my daughter inside the school had failed to simply confirm that she, too, was staying. It was at best careless, and maybe even lazy, and certainly inconsiderate. (Though in the end, hardly a big deal, I know.)

It also reinforced the fact that good writing matters, and why good writing is fairly rare. It's easy to peck out a couple of letters on a keyboard and get some idea across. It's a lot harder to get a precise idea across, but for a writer, that's the job. Add elegance and style to precision, and suddenly it's clear that the writer's job requires far more than making sure "I" doesn't replace "we." It's clear that writing clearly and well takes both attention and respect.

We are living in an age of heightened communication, and this is surely not the first place you've heard someone lament that our increased communication perversely decreases our connections. My worry today is for what this will glean a generation from now. (Though history records that pretty much every generation, going back thousands of years, sighs at the thought of the next one's deficiencies.) Are we truly finally raising a population whose carelessness with writing might extend to fiction and formal writing? Or am I just "angry"** that I was inconvenienced and am illogically extrapolating a world of lazy novels and confusing biographies?

*I added punctuation. The serious deficiency of such is a rant for another day.
**Okay, I used another word.

Monday, February 16, 2015

50 Shades of Motivation

By Pamela

This past weekend marked the release of the film adaptation of the titillating best-selling novel Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. Full disclosure: I did not read the trilogy, other than a sample of book one on my Kindle, so I refuse to comment on the quality of writing other than to say the opening was fairly unremarkable. It's been a while and I can't recall anything noteworthy about it. So there's that.
Mr. Grey will read to you now!
Flickr image by Mark Hillary

But, when you sell greater than 100 million copies of your books, no one can deny that you've done something right. From what I've read, James wrote a piece of fan fiction based on her adoration of the Twilight series and fans responded so encouragingly, she gave them more; first self-publishing her book before landing a publishing contract.

I've never met James nor read her interviews, but I can't help but wonder if she's at all bothered by the criticism her works have received. Does the phrase 'laughing all the way to the bank' fit her take on her publishing journey? Or does it sting a little to be so widely panned as a writing hack that parodies and mock readings abound online?

We've all read books that make us wonder why publishing gatekeepers felt moved to offer a book deal to the author, and how many readers prior to publication kept their collective pie-holes closed regarding the content. But like any viable industry, publishing houses are in business to turn a profit and if the readership seems poised to purchase, they print.

As writers, we have options for how we respond when we see authors achieve greatness we perceive to be based more on luck than talent. We can virtually flog them with our criticism. We can join in with praise we say but don't feel. We can leave our 'helpful' reviews on sites such as Amazon or GoodReads. We can keep our own pie-holes shut and say nothing at all.

Or we can see their success as motivation to keep plugging away at our own manuscripts. Because, to me, 100 million copies in sales means people are reading, and as long as we haven't lost that, we've all won.
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