Stories + Race

It only seems appropriate on a blog about storytelling to take a moment to talk about some of the intersections between story and race, given the peaceful protests sweeping the United States in response to the police killing of George Floyd (and other black men and women), and in light of the violent criminals who have been exploiting this moment and attempting to side-track the national narrative from racism and policing practice in our country.

Even from my own limited perspective on storytelling and race, there are so many different angles and avenues to explore. I could talk about my brief experience of dating a woman from Kenya and how conscious I became of the fact that most of my favorite movies and shows are entirely populated by white people who look like me. I could talk about our argument over whether William Shakespeare’s plays are “white,” when she had a rich history of interacting with Shakespeare’s texts in Kenyan schools and theaters. I could talk about how exhausting it was for her to explain to me how “black” various podcasts/venues/shows/businesses were, or when and how she was treated as “African” or “black” or even “African American.”

Beyond the stories I’ve heard or interacted with in personal relationships, I could talk about storytelling by black authors I’ve read. That Harlem Renaissance class I took in grad school, the syllabus full of George Schuyler and James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston. The differences and eerie similarities between early-twentieth-century texts investigating black experience in America and books I’ve read by Toni Morrison or Alice Walker, or films like Get Out and Moonlight. The further different, disorienting experience of reading Nuruddin Farah’s North of Dawn, tracing the immigration of Muslim Somali refugees in Norway. Or the many, many short snapshots of black experience being publishing in newspapers and magazines and social media posts, the notifications pushed to my phone every day at this moment in time.

But there are also the big, unspoken stories, the narratives that help shape how people view the other. Stories about who is dangerous, who we need to fear. Who’s hard-working and who’s lazy. Who’s middle-class and who needs a handout. Who needs to forgive and forget. Or the counter-narratives: Who needs to remember, because generations of oppression and disadvantaging don’t suddenly right themselves. That hard work isn’t enough when divorced from opportunity. That the most dangerous people in America usually look like me: young, white, and male.

Obviously I’m not an expert on storytelling and race. But I was struck recently by a list of nonfiction, novels, and poetry Dr. Clint Smith recommended on Pod Save the People, and it reminded me of the opportunities I’ve had to engage in experiences, memories, and stories unlike my own through books I’ve read. Any novel is a gateway to a life, a city, a time, a family, a job, a relationship that can teach us something new about being human.

And right now seems like an important time to be engaging with stories that are not my own.

Story Elements in Short Fiction

I recently revisited two flash fiction pieces I wrote last year. They both feature characters from my portal fantasy novel, but I tried to pick incidents and themes that didn’t overlap with the plot or character arcs of the main story. I submitted one for publication and received feedback from one magazine, and the other I shared with beta readers but then left to sit on my hard drive.

Rereading them was informative. I still liked the prose itself: the description, the dialogue, the voicing.

But there was no plot. No conflict. No decisions to make. No character growth.

I had to sit with my flash pieces for a few days to admit these facts to myself. After all, I’ve been writing for twenty years. I have eight full-length novel manuscripts under my belt. I spent eight years in college and graduate school studying literature and reading some of the best books written. I’m a professional editor and conference speaker and literally get paid to tell other writers how to strengthen the narrative tension, characterization, and dialogue in their books.

And yet, I had completely neglected to include a real storyline in either flash piece. In one of them, a secondary character has an aha moment at the end and learns something, but the main character doesn’t see that growth or grow himself.

This is probably why short fiction intimidates me, and why, after realizing the problem with my stories, I promptly went online to look at short story collections from Suzanna Clarke, Ted Chiang, and Neil Gaiman. Because short fiction requires all the same story elements as a full novel, but instead of spreading the work out over ninety thousand words, you have to fit it all in in four thousand words. You have to have telling bits of description and dialogue to show characters and their motivations, and real conflicting character desires, and action, and plot progression, and resolution—all in twenty or fifteen or ten or five or two pages.

And I don’t know about you, but I sure like to write long paragraphs of description and drawn-out, slow-burn interpersonal tension.

Slowly, grudgingly, I’ve been outlining a fresh short story. Starting with the “epiphany” at the end and double-checking whether it reflects real character change, whether I have a clear plan for how to show readers the resolution of the conflict rather than implying it. I’ve scribbled a few paragraphs about what each character wants and how they are at odds with each other or how they misunderstand one another. I’ve written a line about each scene so I can see where I’ve doubled up plot work or included a scene that doesn’t pull enough weight.

Of course, I haven’t written it yet, and it’s the execution that’s scaring me. But then I’ll share it with my beta readers and get feedback and look at it hard again and edit out the parts that aren’t working and rearrange the rest and look at it again and fiddle some more until I’m happy with it.

And maybe this one will even have a plot when I’m finished with it.

My Brand

For a recent submission, I was asked to describe myself as an author and how I would define my brand.

The question caught me off guard, although I’m not sure why. I’m well aware of writers having brands—the brand of, say, Ernest Hemingway is unique and recognizably different from the brand of P. D. James, which is very different from the brand of J. K. Rowling. And I’ve had conversations with other writer friends about themes or character types or situations that recur throughout my novels.

I was drinking coffee with my sister in a Barnes and Noble discussing our fiction when I realized almost all my novels feature war, including traumatizing circumstances such as enemy occupation, genocide, and torture. In my novels that don’t feature war, the main characters still endure some sort of defining trauma, like the betrayal of a spouse or the unearthing of a damning secret.

“What do you think that is?” my sister asked.

The armchair analyst in me assumes I’m constantly processing my own wounds and insecurities and fears through my writing, through the situations I put my characters in, through the ways they react to each other and change. But I’m not sure if the working out of my own experiences accounts for a persistent focus on trauma.

In thinking more about repeated themes in my novels, I realized the proposed responses or solutions for trauma changed as I grew older. In my teenage fiction, the heroic response to violence and genocide was revenge: the good, satisfying ending of the story was killing the bad guys. The novels of my early twenties were more ambivalent: trauma visited my characters even when they meant well, or sometimes it was self-inflicted. These characters were powerless to help themselves, and all they could muster in the end was confusion and grief at what had happened. If there was a clear enemy to fight against, the heroes could do their best to protect others from the villain, but there was no final victory or justice, no putting them behind bars where they couldn’t continue to hurt society.

My more recent novels have been more optimistic and more social, even as they are just as dark or darker than my early fiction. The characters still experience deep loss and pain, but they are generally more resilient people, with more functional social networks who are better able to adapt and grow. Their problems aren’t all tied up in a neat bow by the end of the book, but they can see a path forward and can imagine a future for themselves.

If trauma is the inciting incident of almost all my novels, and my “color palette” tends toward the gothic, the developing theme I’m finding is empathy. In their own dark circumstances, my characters find the connection and support they need when they can put aside differences or prejudices or assumptions and see others as they truly are.

Unsurprisingly, this is also the work I think fiction does best: putting us readers in someone else’s shoes so we can really experience their thoughts and feelings and actions. If I think such acts of imaginative empathy are good for my characters, of course I think they’re good for my readers too.

“Knives Out”

I rewatched Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019) this weekend. I’d heard rave reviews from friends since it came out and even tried (and failed) to go to a sold-out showing when it was still in theaters. I finally watched it after it came out on video, and knew after finishing it the first time that, with all its complex twists and turns, I would have to see it again to fully appreciate the plotting, foreshadowing, character development, and scene setting.

I’ve sporadically enjoyed Johnson’s films since his debut, Brick (2005), which was introduced to me by a film major friend in college. As a fan of hard-boiled detective novels by writer such as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, I appreciated Johnson’s deft nods to genre tropes and expectations while placing his hard-bitten hero in a California high school. On the other hand, I hadn’t read James Joyce’s Ulysses before watching Johnson’s sophomore film, The Brothers Bloom (2008), which I didn’t particularly resonate with (and never went back to rewatch to pick up all the subtleties). 2012’s Looper is the one Johnson film I haven’t seen, and while I agree to a certain extent with the haters that The Last Jedi (2017) is not the most satisfying Stars Wars film, I think it is the most ambitious and thoughtful of the latest trilogy.

I was excited when I heard Johnson was returning to the mystery genre, and in fact tackling the traditional closed-house murder mystery. Like Brick, Knives Out wonderfully (and lovingly) blends the stereotypical tropes of the genre with plenty of modern-day subversion and surprise. In the lineage of Agatha Christie, Johnson sets his mystery in an old, wood paneled, overstuffed estate with an ensemble cast of eccentric characters and a larger than life detective, a Southern gentleman sleuth played surprisingly and dryly by Daniel Craig. Unlike the pulp mystery writers of the 1930s, however, Johnson plays freely with nonlinear storytelling, disrupts the standard timing of the murder and revelation of the murderer, and injects an amount of serious social commentary that belies the humor and typical fluffiness of the genre.

The nonlinear storytelling particularly caught my attention the first time I saw Knives Out, and called for rewatching. Through flashbacks early in the film, the viewers learn far more about the events surrounding the murder than the detective, Benoit Blanc, at first knows. Typically in a murder mystery, the reader is limited to the detective’s knowledge so we can try to solve the mystery at the same pace as—or just ahead of—the detective. But in placing the viewer closest to the presumptive murderer, Johnson forces us to empathize with Marta Cabrera and hope, on some level, that Blanc’s investigation is foiled. To have viewers present for the murder also disturbs the conventional order of a murder mystery and “reveals” the conclusion too early, which only makes it feel cleverer and more satisfying later that the real murder—and mystery—are revealed with a proper flourish right at the end by the detective.

Catching all of the careful scripting and foreshadowing is well worth rewatching Knives Out, and as a fan of murder mysteries and Rian Johnson, I’m happy to hear that Lionsgate has already greenlit a sequel.

 

“A Morbid Taste for Bones,” Ellis Peters

Since reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, I’ve been feeling a hankering for more quality medieval fiction. Unsurprisingly, I’m a sucker for all things Gothic and Romantic, and have no problem indulging in the pastoral fantasy of “simpler times” when people spent a great deal of time growing vegetables and copying books by hand and reading by candlelight. Throw in some philosophic musings about historic contemplative Christianity and some whodunit murders, and I’m a very happy camper.

I’ve heard about Ellis Peters’s Cadfael Chronicles for some time: friends at work have mentioned how much they’ve enjoyed the series, and streaming services have recommended the TV adaptation (starring Derek Jacobi, always a good sign) to me. There are twenty novels in the Cadfael series, but I figured I should start with book one, A Morbid Taste for Bones.

Brother Cadfael’s debut is a compact novel of 250 pages but still offers enough scene setting, characterization, clues, and red herrings to satisfy. It opens with the promise of a closed-monastery mystery but then quickly moves to the Welsh countryside, on a mission to dig up a saint’s holy bones, and indeed the social commentary on medieval English-Welsh relations is some of the most interesting historical detail in the novel. Brother Cadfael is himself Welsh and acts as interpreter for his English brothers, providing the protagonist (and thus the reader) a dual English-Welsh perspective on the characters and events.

A Morbid Taste for Bones released in 1977, and immediately striking to a contemporary reader is the pacing and point of view. There is no dead body until approximately page 90, well over a third of the way into the book—hopelessly too late, by today’s publishing standards, to “capture” the reader’s attention. The progressive plot revelations feel straightforward, too, in that the bad guys are identified early on, though the reader doesn’t know which one, exactly, is the murderer, or how the murder was committed, until the end. Peters serves up some curveballs to the reader, certainly, but the plot is well controlled and self-contained; unlike those mysteries where a freak motivation or circumstance is revealed at the very end that the reader could never anticipate, the conclusion feels elusive and yet forgone in a way that is actually quite satisfying.

As to point of view, the narrator dips freely into the heads of side characters and suspects alike—a practice I haven’t seen in most mysteries I’ve read. At first I was surprised, because Peters seems to give up some amount of suspense and information control by allowing readers these extra points of view. But what she loses in suspense, she gains in character development, allowing her to build a robust cast of side characters in a shorter page count. As a character-driven writer myself, I appreciated Peters’s tradeoff, although I do wonder if she would be able to do the same thing if she were publishing this book in 2020.

As for Brother Cadfael, he is an insightful, generous, unassuming hero to follow, and I can readily understand why readers come back again and again to Peters’s sleuth for his understated, nostalgic mysteries.

Tiger King

I’m not sure if I should be ashamed to admit that I embraced national lockdown solidarity (read: succumbed to groupthink) and binge-watched Eric Goode and Rebecca Chaiklin’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness on Netflix. After hearing about it repeatedly on everything from John Krasinski’s Some Good News to friends on Instagram to Seth Meyers, I watched the trailer with a mixture of curiosity and skepticism. It looked sensational, disturbing—and, yes, intriguing. And it was about cats, big cats, so what wasn’t to love?

While trailers don’t always accurately represent what the show is actually like, Tiger King is indeed sensational, disturbing, and intriguing. The cast of characters is often unbelievable, so wholly removed from anyone or anything I interact with on a daily basis, the turn of events are often shocking (Did he really just run for governor of Oklahoma?!), and the real-life fallout of the events covered is troubling. The show left me with a strong storytelling hangover: I wanted to know what happened next, to continue following the characters—but I also felt sad and disaffected, and I didn’t actually do any follow-up research online.

Having seen Tiger King, I think I understand why it’s so bingeable, and not simply because it released at a time when everyone was stuck at home due to COVID-19. Tiger King is that rare combination of trashy reality television mixed with hard-hitting documentary. It uses the traditional techniques of blockbuster fictional storytelling (snappy pacing, deep characterization, cliffhanging plotting) while also engaging in the broadly appealing, broadly applicable reality of nonfiction. As a show, it engages us, entertains us, horrifies us, enrages us, and educates us—all at the same time.

What stood out to me most about the storytelling in Tiger King was the impressive pacing. The overall structure is brilliant, withholding key information from viewers early on (everything from divorces to suicide to buy-outs to life-altering accidents) and carefully revealing them to flesh out a full picture of the characters, their motivations, and their actions. Deft foreshadowing cues viewers into important facts: for instance, in the first episode a one-armed person is interviewed, but how she lost her arm in a significant event isn’t shown until later. The flow of information is by no means slow, however, as viewers are continually thrown unexpected twists and baffling exchanges, the characters and events only getting stranger and more surprising as the episodes progress.

The characterization is also engrossing, the filmmakers finding just the right clips and pieces of dialogue to showcase the huge personalities on display. From the physical “descriptions” of the characters—their clothes, hairstyles, tattoos, and mannerisms—to their unique ways of speaking and interviewing, the viewers get a close, deep look at the characters. The filmmakers occasionally appear in the show, documenting the events at what appears to be real danger to themselves (for instance, multiple people point loaded guns at the camera at different times), so I’m guessing the filmmakers themselves got a close, deep look at the people they filmed.

On this side of binging Tiger King, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the show to others, but it certainly was a fascinating trip into storytelling, documentary filmmaking, and the illegal big cat industry in America.

Short Form

I was talking with my brother over the weekend, and independently we both mentioned that we’d been considering working on more short-form projects. I’m editing an oversize fantasy novel right now, and my brother’s finishing his dissertation, and we each described how we’re feeling a little bogged down and overwhelmed with our writing.

I’ve written essays and short stories before, and published a couple of poems, but I’ve always thought of myself as a long-form person. Novels give characters space to breathe, to develop and grow on readers over a longer period of time. Series can be even better, their plots going beyond that one story problem or crisis as characters enter new life stages and deepen their relationships and friendships or discover new ones.

But I’ve never felt like I’ve gotten the knack for writing short stories. In college, I read my share of short fiction by Raymond Carver and Katherine Anne Porter and Leo Tolstoy, and I think I recognize a well-written short story, or one that sticks with me and makes me think, or one that’s both. But they still feel, well, short. Like a window into a person or a situation or a concept—but I shouldn’t get too comfortable because there won’t really be time to sit with these characters. The Joycean school of thought that there should be a reveal or epiphany at the end of the story also feels like a lot of pressure, and I’ve never to my own satisfaction struck that balance between a surprising ending and an ending that feels foreshadowed and appropriate.

And yet, despite my ambivalence, I’m feeling like it might be time to work on my short game. Where I’m at in life right now, I don’t have a lot of time for writing, and to slog away at a developmental edit of a 120,000-word novel isn’t very fast or rewarding work. I have another novel I’m shopping with agents, and a complete manuscript that needs a second edit, but both of those also sound daunting. Something that’s manageable, that I can finish with half an hour here and half an hour there, may be just what I need these days to keep some momentum going.

One of the problems of tackling something new, of course, is that there are so many different avenues or ideas I could pursue. Do I want to write short stories featuring characters I’ve already developed, or do I want to explore different worlds and possibilities? Do I want to stick in speculative fiction or do something more literary or contemporary? Or I could work on my poetry—but again the question is whether to revisit a known project, like my sonnet collection, or try my hand at something more open-ended. And there’s something so immediate and satisfying about researching for a crisp nonfiction essay, but finding that unique angle to an ever-green topic doesn’t just happen on its own.

I suppose having options is a good problem. I’ll just need to make sure that this well-intentioned plan to build writing momentum actually leads to writing—and momentum.

 

Rejection

I got probably the nicest rejection letter I’ve received late last week. Of course the writer was still saying my novel wasn’t a good fit for them, and better luck elsewhere. And of course it means I’m still trying to sell this manuscript I’ve worked on for years and wished I’d placed by now. But the writer took the time to mention a few strong points in my novel, suggest areas for improvement, and encourage me to keep pursuing publication.

I’ve never received the infamous Downright Hostile Rejection Letter you hear about on writing websites and forums, but I’ve run most of the gamut. The form letter rejection. The no response at all (even though their website promised a response to all queries). The personalized rejection with no explanation. The personalized rejection with some explanation that’s not actionable (“The sample content just didn’t grab me,” “the field is so subjective”). The rejection with links to helpful online articles and agency databases. The rejection where they loved X about my writing and wished they could take on the project except for Market Reasons Y and Z.

When I’m first sending out a project, my hopes are high that this novel might finally be The One. Maybe I’ll get an agent. Maybe I’ll sell it to a solid publishing house. Maybe it’ll sell well enough to contract book two. In those first weeks and months, I feel every rejection keenly. It hurts because the book is as good as I know how to make it. I agonized over the cover letter and synopsis. But as the rejection letters pile up, I’m less hopeful and less confident. So many others didn’t want my book; of course this one doesn’t want it either. Until I get a bite—someone wants the first fifty pages or maybe even the whole manuscript—and then I get excited again, and feel the pain of each rejection again.

It helps that I’ve gone through this whole cycle for several novel-length projects now and seen the stages, and also that I sit on the other side of the desk for my day job. As an editor, I review plenty of proposals and manuscripts from both agented and unagented authors. I know what it’s like to really like the prose or characters in a novel but know that the project just doesn’t fit with our current publishing plan. I’ve written those rejection letters where I really liked and believed in the project, but our acquisitions committee rejected it for Market Reasons Y and Z. I’ve seen how empty a green writer’s bio and platform look like, and I know that’s what mine looks like too.

But rejection is still rejection, even when I’ve seen it hundreds of times before and know it well. The book I’ve spent hundreds of hours outlining and writing and editing and proofreading is still just a Word file on my computer, and I still ask the question of whether I should be doing something else with my time.

Which probably just means it’s time to send something out again.

“The Nine Tailors,” Dorothy L. Sayers

I have now read all eleven of Dorothy L. Sayers’s mystery novels featuring her intrepid aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. Despite The Nine Tailors often being called Sayers’s finest mystery novel, and the high recommendations of friends and family alike, I somehow saved Nine Tailors for last. I’ve even tried to read it before, but failed out multiple times, at least once because I had borrowed it from the library and it was due back before I finished. I figured, however, if I made it through The Five Red Herrings, which was nearly unreadable (and I say this as generously as possible; Sayers is one of my favorite novelists ever), than I could certainly manage to finish Nine Tailors.

Sayers is considered one of the four Queens of Crime of golden age British detective fiction, and that reputation is well deserved. Alongside Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh, Sayers crafted intricate plots with unusual methods of murder, lots of red herrings, and clues delivered in unexpected ways from unexpected characters. In Sayers’s capable hands, Lord Peter Wimsey offers wit and humor to boot, creating a series of breezy, intriguing, fast-paced novels.

Despite my previous failed attempts to read Nine Tailors, it is an excellent mystery novel, and I quite understand why people consider it the pinnacle of Sayers’s detective writing. Perfectly conforming to Ronald Knox’s “Ten Commandments” of mystery fiction, the plot builds methodically, with the reader learning all the clues at the same time as the detective and slowly getting a complete picture of the crime. While there are plenty of twists and turns, the primary suspects are introduced early, and there are no cheap switcheroos or deus ex machina to throw readers off. And even though I’ve read many detective novels and watched all the Northern Gothic BBC crime shows, I still didn’t see coming the final reveal of the murderer (which Sayers saves for the second to last page). The setting is also well developed, taking place (as a good British mystery should) in the English countryside, in a quaint village in the fenlands of East Anglia. The local characters are caricatures, of course, but they are charming in just the tea-and-roaring-fire-while-it’s-raining-outside way that they’re supposed to be.

While Nine Tailors is a supreme example of golden age detective fiction, I have to admit that Sayers’s Harriet Vane quartet are still my favorite novels of hers. The character development, complex romance, and exploration of social issues such as class privilege and women’s rights and education create a more fully rounded story that engages me beyond the mental games of a well-crafted murder mystery. Golden age detective novelists themselves made fun of the increasingly absurd methods of murder they came up with in the pursuit of unexpected plots, and in her essays Sayers described both the challenges and the freedom of using the detective novel to delve into some of the pressing social questions of her time.

Perhaps more than her other novels, Nine Tailors displays Sayers’s mastery of fiction writing and the mystery genre specifically. But having finished Nine Tailors, I’m actually just itchy to reread Gaudy Night, my favorite of her novels. Which I suppose is just a sign of how much I like her work in general.

“Everyday Life,” Coldplay

Somehow I missed the release of Coldplay’s eighth studio album in November. I remember seeing advertisements for the live stream of their concert in Jordan on YouTube, but I assumed they were playing from their backlist; after all, rumors surrounded A Head Full of Dreams that it would be their final album. I was living in Boston when they were touring for Head Full of Dreams, and sidewalk paint stencils with tour dates started popping up on my walk from my apartment to the university where I was working. In retrospect, I kicked myself many times for missing what I thought was my last chance to see them in concert.

So I was very excited when, scrolling through my Amazon Music app, I came across a new Coldplay album, Everyday Life. I started listening to Coldplay late, familiar with hits like “Viva La Vida” and “Yellow” but not actually listening to their albums until Mylo Xyloto (2011). I first heard it in Hawaii when visiting my Army brother; he picked us up at the airport with leis, takeout sushi, and homemade cookies, blasting “Hurts Like Heaven” as we drove away from the airport to pick up the H-2 to the North Shore. Needless to say, Mylo Xyloto makes me smile every time.

I missed early Coldplay and ate up their later albums (including Ghost Stories and Head Full of Dreams), all in for their descendent into synth pop and the increasing spiritual bent to their lyrics, samples, and album structure. So I was surprised when I went back through their earlier music and read the reviews, most of which agreed that Coldplay hit their peak with A Rush of Blood to the Head and Viva La Vida. The critics faulted Coldplay’s later albums for playing it too safe, for not experimenting enough—or as I cynically quipped to a friend, “I guess they’re upset that Coldplay sounds too much like Coldplay.”

Everyday Life definitely sounds like Coldplay, whether you’re listening to up-tempo pop anthems like “Orphans” or moodier ballads like “Daddy.” Chris Martin delivers plenty of woo-hoos and lyrics striking that esoteric balance between profound and nonsensical. Flowing naturally from Head Full of Dreams tracks like “Kaleidoscope,” plenty of interludes featuring voices in foreign languages deliver statements on the nature of God and the human condition.

But Everyday Life does bring new things to Coldplay’s oeuvre. Tracks like “Guns” and “Trouble in Town” feature explicit language for the first time, an offensiveness commensurate with the disturbing social issues like racial profiling that the band faces head-on. Martin delivers some lyrics in French, and tracks bear titles in Yoruba and Persian. The album offers a more clear-eyed look at the world today, yet retains Coldplay’s now trademark hope and optimism.

And if I’m honest, I think that’s what I appreciate most about Everyday Life. Throughout the album, they tell stories of injustice, exploitation, loss of faith, and loneliness, inviting listeners to sit with the discomfort and pain. But in sharing this reality, “Everyday Life,” the concluding track, reminds us that we are not alone—that we are, in fact, united. And therein lies the power of storytelling, and the hope that Coldplay seems unwilling to give up.