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The Turquoise Ledge

I’ve been very slowly listening to the audiobook of Leslie Marmon Silko’s The Turquoise Ledge. I read her novel Ceremony in an American literature course back in college, and her depictions of the horrors of the World War II Pacific theater (specifically the Bataan Death March) as well as native Pueblo culture and mythology were fascinating and eye-opening to me. I’ve been meaning to return to her work for a long time now.

Turquoise Ledge is a memoir, and especially compared to Ceremony, it is a remarkably gentle book. Pages upon pages simply describe Silko’s walks in the arroyos in the Sonoran Desert near her house in Arizona, where she collects pieces of turquoise of all shapes and sizes. She details the types of flowers and cacti in her garden, when in the day she goes out to water her plants and animals (she keeps a large menagerie of dogs and macaws), what time of year the wild bees and hummingbirds pass by her house, and under which outbuildings and geological features various rattlesnakes and racers live. Interspersed are stories of her native and Mexican family history, native mythology related to the local animals and weather patterns, and explorations of the portraits she’s painting of cloud patterns and star beings.

Both as an editor and as a writer, I’ve lately been immersed in the stricter forms of genre fiction and prescriptive nonfiction. When I’m editing nonfiction, I’m often working with authors to organize their chapters so they don’t repeat content and instead build a logical progression from topic to topic. Or in editing my own manuscripts, I’m trying to make my dialogue and action snappy and fast-paced to keep readers turning pages.

So at first, the rhythm Silko sustains throughout Turquoise Ledge felt jarring to me. It took me a bit to settle into the narrative and trust the seeming repetitions and the way that Silko returns over and over to different threads, such as her walks in the arroyos or her dogs’ fraught relationships with the rattlesnakes that live on her property. But once I got over my expectations of what a book “should” be like, I found the narrative engrossing and even hypnotic in places.

The eclecticism of Silko’s book was also part of what made it engrossing for me. Silko’s life is not simply different from mine in one or two ways but in pretty much every way. Even simple things like the climate she lives in and its flora and fauna are vastly different from mine (in the northern Midwest), to say nothing of the mythological stories her aunts told her when she was growing up or her experiences of communicating with cloud and star spirits. Several of the chapters end with lists of words and phrases in Nahuatl (Aztec) related to the topic at hand, and these sit side by side with chapters about her favorite Emily Dickinson poems or long tirades against her neighbor who is pillaging natural resources from the nearby national park.

It isn’t surprising, I suppose, since Turquoise Ledge is a memoir after all, but the unassuming intimacy of Silko inviting readers into her daily patterns, concerns, history, and artistic practices ultimately comes across as very generous of her and a quiet joy for the reader.

Short Fiction

I was recently talking to (read: complaining to) a friend who is also an editor and a fiction writer. I had just gotten a no from an agent who had been looking at my book, and very excitingly, she had just signed with an agent to represent her historical suspense novel.

“Have you considered selling some short fiction to work on your byline?” my friend suggested.

I didn’t explain right then that I have never enjoyed writing short stories. I write largely for my characters’ emotional, interior journeys, and I take a while to really get to know my characters and get invested. So writing short stories has always felt a little forced to me, like I’m trying to produce a strong emotional connection and a satisfying twist ending (what James Joyce called an “epiphany”—no pressure at all to make the conclusion feel significant!) in two thousand words.

My friend gave me the name of a magazine she enjoys, and not expecting much, I trolled around the submission page. They stipulated that they do not accept scenes from novel-length projects but they have no problem with characters or locations developed in larger works.

Perhaps stupidly, writing short fiction with characters from my novels hadn’t occurred to me. But once I considered the possibility, a few ideas came quite easily. What if I explored what happened to one character after he’s separated from his companion who’s the POV in my novel? Or what if I developed more of what another character got up to during her weeklong stay in a city? Not only was I already curious about these situations and the inner conflicts, but the characters feel psychologically fleshed out in a way that’s always been hard for me in short fiction.

As mentioned in my post last week, I’ve been obsessively watching a BBC art show, and so I’ve been thinking of these short fiction pieces as kind of like the preparatory sketches that artists make when leading up to a big oil painting. My novel is still the main piece I’m working on right now, but I’m learning more about my characters by having them interact with different people, or by seeing them from other points of view. And at the same time I’m working on creating what feel like complete pieces in very controlled word counts.

Working on short fiction also makes me feel a bit like some of my favorite modernist writers, who began with short fiction before publishing their novels. I think particularly of Hemingway, who described writing some of his early stories in Paris in his retrospective memoir, Moveable Feast. Of course, he was writing with rose-tinted glasses about a much earlier time in his life, and he was largely living off of his first wife’s money when he was starting as a writer.

I clearly don’t live in Paris, and I rarely go out to cafes to write, but I’m still enjoying the challenge of writing short fiction, honing my craft, and maybe even breaking into the market.

Detection, Pacing, Suspense

I’m writing this on Saturday, which for me is day three of lying on the couch with a viral infection feeling feverish, achy, sniffly, and generally atrocious. I’m especially grumpy because I had plans to visit my brother in West New York this weekend, but clearly that wasn’t meant to be.

The bright spot has been binging on my new TV obsession, BBC’s Fake or Fortune. If you haven’t watched the show, the premise is this: an international art dealer and a journalist take on unestablished paintings that have not yet been accepted as genuine works of well-known artists such as Monet, Rembrandt, or Homer. They use a mixture of scientific tests as well as archival research into historical materials, newspapers, and letters to try to conclude whether the piece in question is authentic.

Like any reality show, the story of each picture’s authenticity is played for maximum drama, and many of the scenes are of course staged. Do the show hosts really not know whether a Monet painting has been accepted as genuine before they ceremonially open a flimsy white envelope on camera that contains the decision letter from a famous art institute? Did they really not have that piece of provenance until the very last moment before the auction?

And yet I just want to keep watching, and not only for the historical tidbits about the artists’ lives, or the vicarious travel to famous cities and museums, or the glimpse into the materials and analyses used in the art world.

I watched a couple of episodes before I realized how strictly each is structured as a procedural mystery, with clues, setbacks, dead ends, red herrings, and breakthroughs. I’m not only learning interesting information and watching leisured British people with lovely accents bop around Europe, but I’m also constantly guessing as to what each test will reveal, what each archival rummage will turn up, and which paintings will be proved genuine.

This is a widespread example on the internet at this point, but I still remember when someone first pointed out to me that each Harry Potter book employs a mystery plot structure, often a classic whodunit. Who unleashed the terrible monster petrifying people in Hogwarts Castle (Chamber of Secrets)? Who is manipulating the Triwizard Tournament and trying to make Harry win (Goblet of Fire)? In addition to lots of good fun and human drama, J. K. Rowling consistently threaded a mystery through her books to keep the pages turning.

The portal fantasy manuscript I’m editing right now has this sort of mystery hook to the plot (Why has Maggie’s husband disappeared, and is he dead or alive?), and it plays well in the first and third acts of the manuscript. But since first drafting the book, I’ve struggled to keep the pacing and tension strong in the second act. Having spent an embarrassing amount of time in the last three days watching Fake or Fortune, I’m wondering if I need to take a second look at my working outline of act two and work harder to thread in some clues, red herrings, and breakthroughs to keep readers flipping pages.

Writing for Myself; Writing for Others

I started writing my portal fantasy novel soon after I moved to Boston to start a PhD program. It was my first time living out of state, hundreds of miles from family and friends. I remember the stress of starting my graduate program and navigating a new city much more than any feelings of homesickness, but working again on my portal fantasy, I clearly was quite homesick at the time.

The novel starts in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I’ve lived most of my life, and a lot of crucial backstory takes place in the Upper Peninsula, especially in Marquette (where I was born) and on the Keweenaw Peninsula (where we vacationed during my childhood). There are overlong descriptions of local haunts like Gaslight Village in East Grand Rapids and the Jampot, a tiny bakery attached to a Ukrainian Catholic monastery in far-north Michigan.

In small, pointed doses, my Michigan nostalgia does add a layer of lived-in reality to the narrative and characters. But I’ve been stripping out a lot of it during editing, when the detail doesn’t serve the story. I can delete a whole set and move the dialogue to a place the reader already knows. Or I can simply say Maggie took the kids to the park, and I don’t need a blow-by-blow of how they walked around Reeds Lake and then got ice cream at Jersey Junction.

The settings and description should help the readers immerse themselves in the story. When I’m namedropping things or places I know and love but readers may not know, I feel like I’ve become that annoying person at a party who is constantly namedropping films/musicians/philosophers you’ve never heard of but who are apparently a big deal.

This book’s been jumbling around in my brain for twelve years at this point, so some of the fantasy elements are also based on childhood games with my siblings that require much more explanation that I originally provided in the first draft. There are not-so-subtle references to Myst and Riven, two video games that had a huge impact on my young imagination; I’m still trying to decide whether to lean into those more or pare them out.

Of course, I still haven’t given the manuscript to beta readers, which is probably the quickest and best way to figure out whether I’ve done a good job of not only writing for myself but also for others. There are a number of plot and character issues I want to untangle first, though. (Not to mention this is the first book I’ve written where the romantic relationship basically is the point of the book; it’s making me weirdly nervous about feedback.) So far I’m on track for having this draft ready for early readers in the summer, which I’m sure will come soon enough. 2019 can slow the heck down, as far as I’m concerned.

Overwriting

I overwrite my first drafts.

And not just the odd “there is” or wordy passive-voice construction. In the last two books of mine I’ve edited, I took out around ten thousands words—even after adding new scenes.

Probably like many post-film writers, I want readers to be able to see and feel everything that happens, so I often end up overpacking my sentences. I’ll use two adjectives when I only need one. I’ll say that she got in the car and closed the door. I’ll tell the reader how a character feels and then show them how that emotion plays out in the character’s body language.

I’m editing my portal fantasy novel now, and these days the process feels fairly normal, and I’m less hard on myself than I used to be that my prose needs so much work even after I’ve “written” the book. Of course I’m still rewriting sentences or paragraphs wholesale because I didn’t get them right the first time, or I’m tweaking a character dynamic, or I’m adding content outright. But for much of the material, I’m going through and deleting a word here, a phrase there, a sentence here.

It feels like a puzzle I get to solve, or that cliché about sculptors “finding” their pieces inside the raw block of marble. Often I did get a nice phrase or telling detail in the first draft, but then I muddied it with another phrase or detail that got in the way. It looked just right in the moment, but a few months away from the manuscript helps me get some distance and see the text more as one of my readers might.

Here’s a paragraph I edited Saturday. Hopefully it isn’t just me that the second version feels tighter and more evocative.

Draft 1:

There was only one corridor to the carousel and exit, and she stepped down it quickly. People stood around the carousel in little pods, shifting their weight from foot to foot, now crossing their arms or folding their hands behind their backs. With just the one flight their luggage came quickly enough, and she hefted her suitcase off the carrousel and out onto the sidewalk. It was cold, the breeze blowing in the low sixties. She bounced up and down from her knees, rubbing her hand instinctively against the back of Aida’s carrier as she looked out across the quarter-full parking lot. She was looking for a silver Honda Civic, but now that she thought about it, she didn’t really know who Karen was or what she did or what she even looked like. Great planning, Maggie. This trip’s already been a raging success.

Draft 2:

A single corridor leads to the carousel and exit, and she hurries down it. People gather around the carousel in clusters, shifting their weight from foot to foot, crossing their arms or folding their hands behind their backs. With just one flight the luggage appears quickly enough, and Maggie hefts her suitcase out onto the sidewalk. She zips her fleece to her chin, a breeze blowing in the low sixties, and bounces up and down from her knees, rocking Aida as she scans the quarter-full parking lot. She’s looking for a silver Honda CR-V—but does she really know who Karen is or what she even looks like? Great planning, Maggie.

Present Tense

I’ve been on a present tense jag for a while now.

I wrote the first draft of my WWII zombie novel in past tense, with third-person limited POVs shifting between the three main characters. One of my beta readers’ first suggestions was, “Have you considered present tense? And what about first-person POVs?”

At first I was reluctant to try, because switching the tense and person meant that I would have to make changes to every single sentence.

But I was sold fairly quickly. I agree with the now-traditional wisdom that present tense feels more immediate and up close, and it works well for my zombie novel, which is often (as one might rightly assume) claustrophobic and action oriented.

But I like present tense for other reasons, too. As nerdy as it sounds, I like that present tense is usually shorter than past tense on the page, and past tense is always shorter than past perfect. I seem to write a lot of memories and flashbacks (often just a sentence to give emotional or plot context), so being able to use past tense for those instead of past perfect simplifies my sentences. Plus I get to feel good for trimming back my word count.

The first time I noticed present tense in a novel was when I read Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union in a literary criticism class in college. Chabon’s novel is self-consciously literary (in a good way; it’s still one of my favorite contemporary novels), and I remember thinking, as a young student who wanted to be a novelist, that Chabon’s use of present tense was part of what made his novel stylish and poignant, like his almost-but-not-quite-over-the-top metaphors and his well-thought-out, darkly humorous uses of alternate history.

More recently, my sister and I wrote the first draft of our pirate novel in present tense. And right now I’m editing my portal fantasy novel, and part of that process is converting the manuscript from past to present tense. Maybe I’m overthinking the significance of tense, but when I was rereading the manuscript in preparation for editing it, the past tense felt stodgy to me. It read like one of those Brönte novels (or The Life of Pi, or The Name of the Wind; pick your reference) where as a reader I knew the narrator was telling me the story retrospectively. All the events had already happened, and the story is the narrator’s best remembrance of what happened, not the events themselves. In contrast, present tense feels more like the immediate thoughts and reactions of the characters. The suspense is higher for me, because the characters don’t know what happened yet either.

In my Maggie manuscript, for instance, it’s the difference between, “She couldn’t remember if she had heard of Jon since—if he had had any part in that future with momentum,” and “She can’t remember if she’s heard Jon’s name since then—if he played any part in that better future.

So maybe it’s a subtle difference, not a huge difference. But it is a difference.

North of Dawn

I’m almost done listening to Nuruddin Farah’s North of Dawn. I don’t read much contemporary fiction, to be honest. Maybe it’s not escapist enough for me; if I’m going to sit down with a novel, it should at least take me a hundred years into the past, if not to another world entirely.

But I happened on a review of Farah’s latest book in the New York Times Book Review, and I was intrigued. It’s set in Norway (I have a bad crush on all things Scandinavia right now), and it’s about a Somali couple who welcome to Oslo the widow and stepchildren of their dead son, who died as a suicide bomber for an extremist Islamic group. I’ve worked a little bit with refugee populations in my hometown, and I’ve been meaning for a couple of years to learn more about Islamic cultures, so I thought I’d give North of Dawn a go.

The first thing that stood out to me actually was Farah’s use of a third-person omniscient point of view. Even within the same scene, he dips in and out of the characters’ thoughts and perspectives, which has been a no-no in English literature for the better part of a hundred years. Once I got used to Farah’s technique, there really isn’t any problem with third-person omniscient, and often I enjoyed being able to know what multiple characters thought about the same conversation or event.

I’m curious to know if Farah is tapping into a broader movement that’s challenging the fiction rules established by the mid-century New Critics. In a recent acquisitions committee meeting at work, several of my colleagues were discussing the new trend of killing major POV characters, even early in a book. Hugh Howey’s Wool came up—admittedly self-published, so he doesn’t have to play by the “rules”—in which apparently every major character is dead by the end of Act I, and the rest of the book continues with up-to-that-point minor characters.

The other aspect of Farah’s North of Dawn that took some getting used to is how forthright the characters are. Even the twelve- and fourteen-year-old characters say exactly what they think and have insightful analyses about African/European relations and the motivation and impetus for terrorism. On the one hand, I think it’s understood that Farah is creating archetypes: in a way that isn’t fair to people in real life, he’s asking his older Somali-Norwegian couple to stand in for well-established, secular Somali immigrants on a broader scale, in the same way that Johan and Birgitta stand in for liberal white Norwegians in general. On the other hand, my culture (see: “Michigan nice”) strongly discourages open disagreement and criticism, so I’m assuming there are also very real cultural differences between me as a reader and Farah’s characters.

Ultimately, the thing about North of Dawn that resonates most strongly with me is the comparison Farah draws between extreme Islamist terrorists and nativist Norwegian neo-Nazis, such as Anders Behring Breivik, the perpetrator of the 2011 terror attack in Norway, which is a major plot point in Farah’s novel. He draws attention to the way we treat terrorists differently depending on their race and religion, and how the victims are the everyday people caught between these two extremes.

The way Farah shows the intersecting relationships between all the characters is also eye-opening. The terrorists aren’t “over there”: the main characters’ son was a suicide bomber, even though his parents are secular Somalis, well integrated in Norwegian society. Their daughter-in-law (the widow) is fundamentalist and associates with radical imams, but her children are trying to distance themselves from her values while still retaining their faith. There are no simple answers, and us-versus-them dissolves as Farah explores the complex human networks that all the characters share.

I’m looking forward to wrapping up the last couple hours of the audiobook soon.

The Read-Through

This week I began the editing process for my portal fantasy novel that I have so far called Maggie, who is the main character of the story. (Side note: I hate naming my projects. I sit on a titling committee at work, and then I have all sorts of opinions about what other people should call their books. But my own novels? I only hope that if I’m lucky enough to publish them, my publisher will have a fantastic committee that titles all my books for me.)

I start my editing process with a complete read-through of the novel. I allow myself to take notes, both in the margins of the draft itself and in a separate Word file, but I don’t let myself make any changes yet. (Okay, maybe I fix typos and misspellings.) I’m trying to get a sense for the book as a whole. It’s not a judgment-free zone, as I’m evaluating each scene and character and thinking about how to make them better, but I’m trying to stay in observation mode instead of action mode.

I’d read significant portions of the book before, because I drafted the first ~50,000 words during the first year of my PhD program, and then I came back and completed the manuscript in 2017, at which time I read everything I had drafted previously. I first had the idea for this book on a spring break trip in 2007, so the characters and plot are very familiar to me at this point. I’m also quite attached to this project because it’s my first adult book—not in the sense that it’s “for adults only,” but it’s the first book where I felt psychologically and emotionally mature when I started drafting it, and it’s my first book that deals with adult relationships and dilemmas and issues.

Reading all the way through the manuscript was an uneven experience, because the manuscript itself is uneven. I’ve always liked the first hundred pages or so; the inciting incident brings so much tension and emotion and drama, and the narrative is full of possibilities. Of course, the prose is all overwritten (I was in grad school, on a steady diet of Great Literature at that point), though that’s fairly easy to fix. But Act II is a hot mess and needs a lot of structural work, although there are isolated scenes and conversations that are very strong. And honestly the climax of the book doesn’t work on a plot level or a world-consistency level. But the denouement is great, and the ending makes me happy.

There’s a lot of work to be done, and I’ve been making a fresh outline that not only includes the plot points in each chapter but charts the progression of Maggie’s character arc and includes major areas for revision. I’m feeling fairly confident that I’ll at least move the manuscript in a positive direction; however, I haven’t had any beta readers work through the novel yet, so I feel a bit like I’m going in blind without a second or third or fourth pair of eyes.

It’s one of those “edge of the diving board” moments. I think I’ll feel better about the whole editing process once I actually start digging into chapter one.

First Draft Done!

My sister and I both wrapped up our final chapters of the first draft of our pirate fantasy manuscript this week. I took a bottle of champagne when I visited her and her family across the state last weekend, but somehow we forgot to pop it open before I left. I trust there were good mimosas some morning in celebration, at any rate.

I forgot how unexceptional it feels to finish a first draft. It’s not “done.” There are still one hundred and one ideas buzzing in my head for how to make it better. I don’t even feel like I have a good idea for what the book reads like from start to finish.

But it’s done enough for now, and we’re taking a six-month hiatus until we get back into the manuscript and start edits.

I’m baking baguettes today, so my brain is making connections between the two processes. Maybe the first draft is like that stage where you’ve mixed all the ingredients together and kneaded the dough for a while, but it needs to rest in a quiet, warm place to let the flavor and texture develop. Perhaps our manuscript will be that much richer when we come back to pull the scenes into shape, cut out the extraneous bits, and add whatever pieces were missing.

In the meantime, I’ve been sending out queries furiously for my alternate history novel. I remember when I first started querying agents back in 2014; I was trying to sell an Edwardian steampunk novel. I sent out queries in discrete batches of fives, waiting for rejections to trickle back in before sending out more. I thought agents might provide me with some pointers. I fiddled with my query letter and first few chapters, asking friends to give me advice on how to make them better. I took comfort in the stories that J. K. Rowling got twelve rejections before landing her first contract, and Kathryn Stockett got an agonizing sixty rejections before selling The Help.

Perhaps I’ve swung too far to the other side of the pendulum, but now I send out masses of queries and don’t wait for anything. I don’t fiddle with my materials, and I tell myself, If they like it enough to read it and represent it, it’s not going to matter which action verb I used on page 2. Of course I trawl carefully through Publishers Marketplace and Manuscript Wish List to make sure I’m querying agents who are interested in alternate history, but I don’t have time to fret anymore. One agency I queried earlier today has on their auto reply that H. P. Lovecraft stacked up two hundred rejections before publishing anything. That seems more my speed.

I’ve also started rereading my portal fantasy manuscript that’s next on my schedule for editing. I drafted the first 30,000 words back in 2014, so it’s been a little rough going so far. However, I love the characters and the emotional story arc, so I’m excited to dive back in this winter and spring.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

I don’t remember when I first read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but it must’ve been at least two years ago. I had read Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, because it seemed like one of those books that I was supposed to have read already. I ended up enjoying it so much that when I saw a verse translation of Sir Gawain in the same series, I picked it up, though I had never heard of the translator, Simon Armitage.

Now I read Armitage’s Sir Gawain every year at Christmastime, and if possible I rope family members into reading it aloud with me, because it’s that kind of a poem. Alliteration has gotten a bad rap nowadays for being childish, and, yes, there is something Seussical about Armitage’s translation. But it’s simply great fun to read aloud lines like “for such prime pieces of perfect pork / and such sides of swine were a sight to be seen.” The long passages of people eating huge feasts and putting on expensive clothes and armor also lend a confectionary, festive air to the poem that feels appropriate for the holidays.

The plot itself is loosely Christmasy—at least as Christmasy as some of my other holiday favorites, like Nancy Meyers’s The Holiday and Bridget Jones’s Diary. Sir Gawain starts with a Christmas feast at Camelot, where King Arthur calls for some game or diversion to entertain his court while they eat, when a hulking green giant rides in (on a hulking green horse) and challenges King Arthur to a contest. The game is fairly straightforward, though it’s not going to top any Buzzfeed lists of favorite holiday games: King Arthur gets one swing of an axe to try to behead the green knight, and in one year’s time, the green knight will get one swing of an axe to try to behead King Arthur. Sir Gawain takes up the challenge in place of his liege, but things go sideways when the freshly beheaded green knight picks up his own head and rides away from Camelot, promising next year to behead Sir Gawain.

The hint of a magical ghost story—and later the threat of some illicit flirting with the beautiful mistress of a castle—are mostly just the intriguing backdrop for a cozy and indulgent yarn about people eating tons of food, staying up way too late talking for days on end, and hunting wild game to spice up their lives and add a bit of danger. At its heart, it’s silly and yet moralizing (like any good medieval tale), weird and weirdly relatable, addictively readable while at the same time inviting you to slow down and savor the beautifully rhythmic poetry.

And yes, I probably feel overly fuzzy about Sir Gawain because I’ve made a Christmas tradition out of it, but I already know I’ll enjoy reading it again next December. This year I read almost half of it to my niece, who seemed to enjoy it thoroughly. Who knows? Maybe next year I can get a whole room full of people reading it aloud while we sip glasses of spiced wine by the fire.