Saturday, June 27, 2015

why you must read "The Far End of Happy" by Kathryn Craft

In the interest of fairness, I decided I should try reading a few things out of my usual comfort zone--literary fiction, memoir, creative nonfiction (you know, serious stuff)--and give something else a chance. So I picked up a mystery and a mystery-thriller by two well-known and multiple award-winning authors...who will remain anonymous.

I finished the first one and found it very well written with plenty of plot twists and authentic characters. Still, it left me feeling, meh...

I plunged into the second one, the thriller, with high expectations. It, too, was well-written. But, again, the multiple plot lines, intertwined characters, and rising tension left me feeling: so what? I got to within twenty pages of the ending...and I simply set it aside. I just didn't care how it ended after all that. Really??

Questioning my sanity, I then turned back to literary fiction with Kathryn Craft's newest release, "The Far End of Happy", a literary novel that fictionalizes a painful episode in her own life, a heartbreaking suicide standoff with her husband.

I know the real story behind it because she has shared it in several of her workshops. She wept when she talked about it, and we wept along with her. This book was a long time coming.

So, this is the thing. Craft nailed the experience of every woman who has ever struggled to maintain a semblance of normalcy for her children as the victim of an addicted spouse. In this story, the dreaded "dual diagnosis" was bipolar disorder complicated by alcohol addiction that proved to be a deadly combination. In real life, the reader can totally identify with the inner dialogue of the protagonist. Her courage and fortitude are enviable. The characters who interact with her during the crisis are believable, and the tension rises little by little all the way through the story until--BAM--it happens.

I ached as I read this book. Anyone who has attempted to distance herself from an abusive marriage, been manipulated by the threat of a spouse's suicide, or succumbed to the ill-informed advice of well-intentioned friends and family members should read this book. It tells the story of a memoir that would otherwise be too painful to put into words.

So what was missing for me in the mysteries? There was plenty of action and tension, good crisp dialogue, and rapid pacing, but what I missed was the inner dialogue expressing emotion and reaction--fear, confusion, grief (people were murdered, after all), and betrayal--emotions I might have identified with had they been expressed. As it was I couldn't identify with the characters. Nothing felt familiar.

The mysteries will soon go off to a book sale, while I re-read "The Far End of Happy."

A round of deep appreciation goes out to Kathryn Craft for her courage, perseverance, and verity. Thank you!
Kathryn Craft
"I am not what happened to me.
I am what I choose to become."
~Carl Jung~
Please excuse the appearance of this post. Blogger is being oppositional-defiant this week, and there's nothing I can do to fix it. Thanks.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

how to rule the world

I've been writing...or at least working at it...for a good seven years now. During that time I've amassed a small fortune worth of books on writing, covering everything from grammar and punctuation, to plotting and character development, to inspiration and motivation. A quick count today came to over 75 books on which point I gave up.

You get the picture...
Here are a few things I've learned:
  • According to Stephen King:

To which I would add, read like a writer. Pay attention to what draws you into a story and keeps you there. Take note when you have to turn back a few pages to check on a fact or to recall a character. Then avoid anything that takes your readers out of the story when you write. If you have a question about punctuation or dialogue, study how it's handled in the book you're reading. Scribble in the margins. Takes notes. Then apply what you've learned to your own writing.

  • From Toni Morrison I learned: 


Meaning, write like a reader. First and foremost, write the truth as you know it. Learn what makes a good book cover and title--the reader's first encounter with your writing. Then give your intended audience what it wants to read. Do whatever it takes to engage the bookstore browser in as few words as possible. Write what you want to read and compel your audience to read it, too.
  • At some point you must begin.
  • Get all the feedback you can. Join a critique group or two or three. Get thee to a good writing conference at least once or twice a year. Connect with other writers. Embrace revision.

  • Keep at it until you finish. According to Neil Gaiman:

Sounds simple enough.
  • Put it out there. Don't even think about slipping your manuscript into a drawer somewhere. Remember:

So, there you have it--all you need to know to get started in writing. Enjoy the journey!
"It ain't whatcha write.
It's the way atcha write it."
~Jack Kerouac~
I'm off to Dallas this week. Hoping to make some big-time progress on my WIP. Research more than writing. Asking more than telling.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

heresy, mutiny, treason for writers

I don't get it. Maybe I'm an indiscriminate reader, or perhaps, because I prefer to read and to write literary fiction, my tastes run counter to what is popular in the general population...the horror-thriller-fantasy lovers, and romance and mystery fans.

At the risk of coming off as a whiner, or ingrate, or worse, an uninitiated beginner at this, I have to question some of the conventional wisdom that is popular among today's literary agents, editors and publishers. No offense intended.

God knows writing a novel is hard enough without having to navigate an obstacle course in the process. Let's take a look at three of those obstacles, a.k.a. conventions of writing:

  • Rule #1-The opening scene of the novel: We are told never, and I do mean never, open a novel with a description of the weather, with a funeral, a dream sequence, or a character waking up to an alarm, among others. Frankly, I don't see the problem. As long as the writing is beautiful and engaging, and leads the reader into the story, what does it matter? I don't need to be frightened or mystified or left breathless by an opening scene. Remember, some of us have been on our feet all day. When we sit down to read at night the perfect opening might just be snow falling gently on a calm, moonless night.

I understand that weather can be important to a novel if it serves as an obstacle to the protagonist's goal, or if it foils the enemy's escape, but it also creates setting and mood. One of my novels opens: 

"The North Atlantic seaboard in February is reminiscent of a Soviet gulag except that here people endure the torment by choice—the gusty wind, the perpetual gull-gray haze, and snow that freezes into a sooty crust. It’s enough to keep a person under the covers all day long. Sadly this isn’t an option for me today. I have to be on my feet before daybreak and out the door before rush hour, before hospital rounds. Before all hell breaks loose."

My bad.
  • Rule #2-Never use cliches. Personally, I love an occasional cliche. It tells you so much in so few words. For  a example in the passage above, I use, "Before all hell breaks loose," to describe what my character expects is going to be a terrible day. I could have said, "Before I get hopelessly behind schedule," or "Before the emergencies start pouring in," but all hell breaking loose encompasses every imaginable disaster. Bam! The worst day ever.
  • Rule #3-Avoid words like very, really, even, suddenly, that, awesome, amazing, and actually. The list goes on. Eliminate adjectives, adverbs, and exclamation points. Limit dialogue tags to "said" and "asked." It almost makes you wonder what you have left to work with. Frankly, I don't have huge issues with any of those constructs, used in moderation. I love the image of the macho bad guy blubbering, "I give up." A "hideous" face leaves us to conjure up all kinds of blemishes and deformities. The writer doesn't have to describe every pimple, wart, and scar to get the point across. And, I think it's occasionally OK to...

The problem for aspiring writers is that violation of these rules may be cause for knee-jerk rejection...unless, of course, you're a NY Times best-selling author in which case, the rules don't always apply. You can get away with some of this because you write so well. Case in point.

What do you think? Should we--both the reader and the writer--be tethered to these rules? Do they go too far? Should some of the insurmountable obstacles to acceptance be lifted?


Last week I was in Nazareth, PA. This week it's Pittsburgh. Next week I'll be in Dallas. I love catching up with my family!