Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sparse Space, Mighty Muse – Part II

By Lisa Lopez Snyder

Are you making stereotypes of your characters? Are they predictable? If so, you need to give them a good hard shake and see what falls out of their pockets. If you’re lucky, you’ll find something deliciously odd, dangerous, or scandalous. The goal here, folks is surprise. And surprise for we writers is good, very good.

That’s at least one of the thoughts I came away with from my workshop with Danzy Senna at Skidmore College this summer (see previous post for Part I). In several of the sessions, we reviewed more than a few manuscripts that had some scintillating prose surrounding the character, but there was the predictable narrative that never got away from itself, e.g:
A compulsive young man spends his day watching and calculating every minute[okay, fascinating], but nothing every challenged his compulsive habit, and nothing changed about him or around him; a little boy places a bowler hat on his head to make himself invisible because life at home gets pretty scary [intriguing, let’s keep reading], but he keeps doing this, no one does anything, and that’s all that happens.
We’ve all done this! We get so into our characters and we love them, good or bad, but we don’t let anything happen to them to challenge them or transform them. Nothing pops out and hits them in the face. And to top it off, we may veer wildly off tone. Danzy explained this dynamic as the need to get a narrative strategy to help get inside your character, to get beyond the “clean and easy” (my term), and to get…well, “dirty” (her term). The idea, she said, is to get yourself out of your head.

She suggested reading some folk stories as a way to discover narrative strategies to strengthen your writing. “Notice the tone,” she said, “and study at the dialogue.” Using dialogue, she added, “helps you see more characters more clearly.” Folktales not only do this, but they use a framework that astounds not just us, but our characters, too. Here are a few that came out of that class:

• Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol’s "The Nose"
• Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales
• The Hebrew story about “the talking fish” that ran in The New York Times in 2003.,%20Town%20Buzzes&st=cse

On another note, I should add that during my stay the faculty and my peers continued to expand our recommended reading list. Ah, that we should live as long to read all the good books our friends suggest! Here’s just a snapshot of several on my “to-read” list:

Bad Behavior - Mary Gaitskill
Letters to a Young Novelist – Mario Vargas Llosa

Short Stories
“Women in Their Beds” – Gina Berriault
“Hole in the Wall” - Etgar Keret

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers – Mary Roach


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sparse Space, Mighty Muse, Part I

By Lisa Lopez Snyder

Thanks to a generous scholarship I had an opportunity this past July to spend two weeks at the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Describing the experience is akin to trying to express what seeing Yosemite Falls is like for the first time. Okay, so maybe that’s not the best way to illustrate my point, but the enthusiasm it generated might measure similarly.

Perhaps the most potent aspect of the Writers Institute is that it is truly a writer’s colony. In the midst of life’s madness, this gathering is a place where you can forget having to make a meal or clean a dish (you eat at the university dining hall), and just dive into the writer’s life all around you--every day. I was one of more than 60 writers who stayed in the dorms on campus and participated in fiction, nonfiction or poetry workshops.

During the first week my workshop (18 to a class) was led by Danzy Senna (, author of the phenomenal Caucasia and the autobiography, Where Did You Sleep Last Night? The second week I studied under Howard Norman, whose novel, What is Left, the Daughter ( will have you eager to explore the epistolary form. We had workshop three times during the week and on the alternative days all the groups came together for an afternoon discussion with other workshop faculty and visiting writers, who included Ann Beattie, Russell Banks, Joyce Carol Oates, Mary Gaitskill, Rick Moody, nonfiction writers Jim Miller and Geoffrey O’Brien, and poets Henri Cole, Jayne Anne Philips, Mary Kinzie and Peg Boyers. In addition to small group discussions with these authors about the craft of writing, we heard them read from their latest works later that night, and then on Sunday evening, we participants held our own public reading.

As a fiction writer, I came away with ideas on how to further explore character, dialogue and story. Ann Beattie talked about how “short stories can be like plays.” She urged us to “use dialogue to create situations” as well as to expose the raw, the “unredeemable” character. Emerging writers can be timid about exposing the “imperfect” character, Joyce Carol Oates said in another session. She reminded us, however, that “all great art is based on conflict.” Simply put, she added, “If you don’t want to upset your mother or father, you won’t be a writer. You can be a nice person, but you won’t be a writer.”

Henri Cole’s reading of his poem “Black Camille” struck me with the utter significance of word choice and how I might apply the lessons of poetry to my work. “What are you now but a blood-red palanquin of plucked feathers and silk airing in the sun?” he read one night. In the hush of the auditorium, I understood then, that the words we choose are not just for their rhythm or sound, but for their absolute urgency. And, we know that takes time. But it’s worth it, isn’t it?

Stay tuned for more in Sparse Space, Mighty Muse – Part 2 next week…

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Woman in Red Dress

By Laura P. Valtorta

During a recent disaster evacuation drill at Stanford University, all went awry. Workers and students were supposed to stand outside the buildings, twenty feet away, between 10 and 10:30 a.m., marked by siren signals. The sirens failed to go off as scheduled. Still, the Stanford police managed to rally most people outside, and situate them in neat clusters with their groups -- physics department, law school, visitors center, the Cantor museum, etcetera.

Dante and I waited outside the Cantor museum studying the beautiful sculptures by Auguste Rodin, including the Gates of Hell. We waited 30 minutes for the drill to finish.

At 10:20, a woman in a red dress strode out of the Cantor museum. The guards looked at each other. "What happened?"

"She was inside." The guards shrugged their shoulders. This was the first disaster evacuation drill, and all over campus it had been a disaster. Foreign, non-English-speaking tourists refused to leave the non-denominational chapel. The sirens either failed to sound entirely or they were too soft to hear. Students remained inside the dorms.

Then there was that woman in the red dress, who might have been an employee of the Cantor museum. If there had been an actual earthquake or fire, she could have been killed. But there was no disaster. Instead, she illustrated a point. She pushed the boundaries and disobeyed the rules, either out of stubbornness or ignorance. She showed the system did not function well. During this drill, she was an auslander.

Why does disobedience exist? As an outsider myself, I can testify there is no choice involved. Outsiders are born challenging the rules, questioning authority, stretching the boundaries. Auslander writers, such as the great Stieg Larsson, create new realities, illustrate our unexpressed dreams, and blast aside stereotypes. The result is Lisbeth Salander -- the woman every intelligent woman wants to become.

My goal as an auslander writer is to create a vision of the future that no writer has expressed. My future world is inspired with hope -- it is a utopia as opposed to the dystopia described by such writers as Margaret Atwood. Being an outsider causes me pain and disaffection on a daily basis. Oftentimes I fail to understand the world around me because it seems to be so driven by fear. There must be a reason for my pain. Outside thinking pushes the human species forward. It helps us evolve.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

What Ever Happened........?

By Beth Cotten

Remember the movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? As I recall, it bordered on a horror movie. The title stirred my muse to write this blog. My question is different and doesn’t provoke the same sense of dread as the movie title....but close. The question is, "What the $#@& Happened to James Patterson?"

On the way to visit my daughter in Indiana, I stopped at the airport gift shop to pick up a novel to read on the trip. I selected a James Patterson and quickly read the blurb on the book about the story line. Science Fiction is not my cup of tea, and this was a different genre from most of his nearly 60 books published since I read Virgin in 1980. So, I rationalized it must be good because it was a James Patterson novel.

I can count on one hand....maybe three many books I started and did not read to the end. One was written in Spanish, and it was taking me way too long because my Spanish was "way too long ago." This Patterson book, The Dangerous Days of Daniel X, had a total of 220 pages. I read 80 pages to the end of chapter 31. Almost every other page is the beginning of a new chapter. I did not read further. This is by far the worst book I have ever read!

The premise of the book is that Daniel X is born with an extraordinary power unknown to our world. He is capable of creating inanimate objects and human and alien beings. As a toddler, from his hiding place, he sees his parents cruelly slaughtered, but the killer is not aware of a witness to the murders. Later, he discovers a list of names of super-powered, evil, alien beings and determines his father’s mission had been to assassinate these evil beings to save the world; thus the explanation why his father and mother were murdered. At the age of fifteen, Daniel takes up the search to complete his father’s mission. I will not be the spoiler and tell more.

I did some research:

- Reviews about the Daniel X series were split between those who thought the books were substandard to Patterson’s previous novels and others who praised them.

- The average review was three stars out of five.

- The books were written for young readers between the tweens and teens. (Well, I am a bit older.) Patterson explained the books were written to encourage the younger generation to read something other than comic books.

-The favorable reviews were from the youngsters or from parents and grandparents who were thrilled their child or grandchild was reading rather than spending all the time in front of a computer or television.

-Since 2005, Patterson published an average of 5.4 books a year --- seven alone in 2008. Can any author write four to seven quality novels a year?

Please, Mr. Patterson, don’t leave us “Oldies-but-Goodies” hanging. We were here first!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Is Less More?

By Alex Raley

When I began writing fiction, I tried to include every thought, detail, and event that could possibly be related to the story and much that was not related. Dialogue was filled with things said that had absolutely no relevance to the story. Obviously, repetition crept in on kitten’s feet with tiger paws.

That same tendency to tell all carried over to my poetry; however, poetry taught me that less really can be more. For example, one of my early poems had over forty lines. After many revisions I finally have something that speaks to me. It is only twenty-two much shorter lines. Did I lose anything that I wanted to say? No. I have something that punches out exactly what my soul feels about an event that has hung in my memory for over sixty years.

I am not talking about brevity, which is another matter altogether. T. S. Eliot took twelve pages (more or less, depending on how it is printed out) to give us the classic “The Waste Land.” He even uses repetition – repetition that drives home his thought. An example is found in the section of the poem where he ponders the bareness of no water. “If there were water / And no rock / If there were rock / And also water /And water / . . . Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop / But there is no water.” Every line in Eliot’s poem moves his thoughts forward.

If you want both brevity and sharpness of thought, I invite you to read Galway Kinnell’s “Promissory Note.” In thirteen brief lines he captures the essence of one who knows he will precede his loved one in death and who exacts a wonderful promise from that loved one. There is no way to retell the poet’s thoughts. You can only experience them by reading Kinnell’s poem.

Though I am suggesting that the unnecessary be eliminated from writing, in the real world there are many examples of tomes being successful. My daughter introduced me to “The Girl” trilogy by Stieg Larsson. When I looked at reading five to six hundred pages per book, I thought, this is insane. What I experienced were exciting page turners. Sure there is repetition that comes primarily from constantly changing from head to head depending on whose version of the event you are hearing, and Larsson does love to tell the reader everything. But you find yourself enjoying all of it. I pondered why? I think it boils down to a compelling story, unlike anything we have read before, with good sequencing, and strong, ongoing suspense and expectation.

So, unless you envision yourself as another Larsson, work on eliminating the unnecessary. I might even suggest that you read some contemporary poets to see how they distill their thoughts into succinct lines. Poetry can inform fiction about unnecessary words. Try it.