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Posts Tagged ‘novels’

When good intentions backfire, sometimes it leaves you a smidge paranoid the next time around.

During my first marriage a long time ago in another chapter of another book of my life, I lived in a triplex. A couple and their baby moved in the apartment above us, and they befriended us instantly.

The husband was well spoken; his posture and mannerisms screamed “Prep School Grad”. She was … well … not. She was clearly born on the opposite side of the tracks from him, and she didn’t even possess all of her teeth. She had a tendency to misspeak, and to dress and behave inappropriately—like wear revealing clothing and brushing up against my husband.

This couple was so mismatched, we speculated that perhaps he married her because he got her pregnant. We later learned we were right. But that part didn’t matter. Their history was irrelevant in the here and now. They were friendly and personable and liked us. Since I assume no one will like me before they even meet me, when they do show fondness towards me, it comes as a surprise and shock and they’d have to do something terrible for me not to reciprocate.   

Soon, however, we began to sense something amiss. The four of us were slowly evolving to just the three of us. We were seeing less of the husband. I felt as if he were in the role of someone hired to find a home for a stray and her litter. His job was done.

Her neediness made us pause. She didn’t work and would latch onto anyone who was home during the day. My husband had weekends off; I had Sunday and Monday. Her husband was gone every day. What he did every day remains a mystery. So she unwittingly became ours, invaded our lives. Every time I turned around, she was there. She was always asking for something, and we were always giving it to her. Either that or she’d help herself to whatever we weren’t offering.

She’d call my husband and ask for assistance in moving furniture around or for minor repairs. She’d flirt a little or a lot, he’d tell me later. Later we would find out she was only sixteen and a high school dropout. Her husband, twenty-three and a university graduate. We would also find out later they were both con artists. Her job title was Statutory Rape Blackmail. His was Lawsuits.

They didn’t just wait for opportunity to knock, either. They made it happen. And we learned of it before they had a chance to strike. We were their next target; our only crime was in our good intentions. And they weren’t happy to know we were on to them. They made out lives miserable for a while.

Even while all this was happening, I was writing the story in my head, filling in the blanks. My novel (the one I haven’t written yet) will someday reveal the mystery of their pairing, his and her upbringings, and all the whys of it, the wheres, and the what happened next.

Then I made a mental movie of it. I can’t put you into my head so let’s use Pacific Heights‘ yuppie horror film tagline: “It seemed like the perfect house. He seemed like the perfect tenant. Until they asked him to leave.”

Mine will be like this: “She likes anyone who likes her. He will help anyone who asks. They meet the couple. They seemed like perfect friends. Until they weren’t.”

Being the imaginative person that I am, I, coincidently, use the same actors. The con husband sort of looked like Michael Keaton, and my husband sort of looked like Matthew Modine. Melanie Griffith looked more like the slut in my story, so I assigned her that role. Angelina Jolie will play me of course. (stop laughing.) I might have a hard time erasing years off their looks enough to play sixteen to twenty-three-year-olds—details I’m still working out..

That was one of my more vivid memories of good-deed-gone-bad. There have been other times my good intentions backfired. But each time now that I perform a neighborly service, do a good deed, or befriend a new person, my suspicious mind triggers a story, an outcome with tragic consequences. I can’t help it; it just happens.

A few years ago, I found myself watering an Australian tree fern at a vacant, foreclosed house in my neighborhood. I was paranoid each time I crossed the grass and turned on the hose that somehow the house became occupied overnight and I would be arrested for trespassing or shot. My mind works that way. And I wrote a story about it titled Tree Hugger, published at The Earth Comes First.

Do you have any tales of good deeds gone wrong?

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I would like to introduce my special guest today, Sybil Baker. I’m her last stop on the WOW blog tour. You can catch all the previous tours by visiting  Wow-Women on Writing.

Sybil will be giving away a copy of her book here, so be sure to drop in and say hello and ask her any questions you might have.

About the Author:
 
Sybil has always had wandering feet. First, she left her hometown in northern Virginia for Boulder where she completed her Master’s in English at the University of Colorado. She eventually moved back to Virginia but soon the wandering bug bit her again. This time she spent twelve years teaching English in South Korea and traveling the world. So far she has checked off over 30 countries, many in Asia. Her path did lead back to the United States where she received her MFA at The Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2005 and began teaching creative writing at the University of Tennessee in 2007. These days she satisfies her wanderlust by writing about exotic locales from the Chattanooga home she shares with her husband.
Just Thought You Should Know:
Sybil is also the author of a novel The Life Plan. You can learn more about The Life Plan and its WOW Blog Tour at http://muffin.wow-womenonwriting.com/2009/03/sybil-baker-author-of-life-plan.html
 Author’s Websites:                                                  

Sybil Baker’s website: http://sybilbaker.com/home.html
Sybil Baker’s Blogs:  http://sybilbaker.blogspot.com/
 

Novels vs. Short Stories

 

                When you start a new project, do you know if it will be a novel, short story or essay? Do you start out with a specific genre in mind for your piece, or do you start writing and see where the piece will take you?

                When I have an idea or an image for a new piece, I usually know if it’s going to be a short story, novel, or an essay. Essays spring from some experience that I believe works better as nonfiction—they explicitly explore ideas and events that I don’t want to fictionalize. Short stories usually come from a character or conflict that I see as focusing on one event or issue—what Poe calls the unity of effect or impression. When I have a character whose journey will be layered and long, then I have a novel.

I recently finished the draft of a novel about two sisters and the secrets they discover about their family. The multiple plot lines and complexity of their relationship could not be covered in a short story. On the other hand, I recently finished a story about a young woman in a bar with her new boyfriend—that event and her conflict was much more focused and worked best as a short story.

                The exception for me was Talismans, which is a linked short story collection and reads more like a novel through stories. When I wrote the first story (“Fur Elise”) many years ago, I thought the main character Elise would exist only in that story. But then a few years later I wrote a story about a woman who in Korea and falls in love with a Korean man. When I finished that story, I realized that the woman was Elise. I wanted to learn more about Elise—how did she get to Korea, and what else happened with her relationships with her mother and father? I wrote more stories to discover those answers. After a few years, , I had a collection of  ten stories that followed Elise’s physical and emotional journey across many years. At that point, I could have taken the stories and rewritten them as a novel, but for some reason Elise’s life as seen through the stories worked better for me. I think the linked stories—connected yet separate, work best because Elise also felt so disconnected and fragmented. The linked story form best reflects Elise’s world.

                Linked short story collections must work as stand-alone pieces and must also work as part of a larger narrative arc. This is not easy. I spent a lot of time revising the stories so that the images and conflicts in the first story would echo and build through the collection. I also made sure that the last story resolved in some matter the conflicts in the first story.

                When you’re writing a short story or a novel or an essay, occasionally step back and ask yourself if you’re working in the right form for your piece. Maybe the novel needs to be compressed or distilled, or maybe a short story has too many elements and needs to open up. Maybe your fiction piece is best served as a creative nonfiction piece. Be aware of the constraints and possibilities of the genre you’re working in, and allow your piece to become what it needs to be.

Leave a comment for your chance to win a copy of Sybil Baker’s book Talismans

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The good news is I have a new publication up at Imitation Fruit.

The bad news is I don’t have anything in the queue, nothing forthcoming. And this makes me very nervous. I had been on a roll and I wasn’t finished rolling in it. Since April I had a publishing a month. I didn’t know I had a pattern until recently, but once I did, I didn’t want to break it.

I wonder if I could e-mail all the editors that I have submissions out on and ask if they could accept me on the grounds of I’m neurotic. After all, this is my own personal cosmos of stars and we must keep them in line. How should I word this? Is this too weird of a request? If not, would it be pushy to demand a November publication, even if they had already selected their November contributors?

If you are an editor out there and you need a November slot to fill, look no further than right here. I can write anything. Except quirky, insanity stuff. I can’t write in that mindset, don’t understand it. No siree bob, I’m a straight arrow kinda gal. Calm, cool and collective. That’s me. Don’t worry be happy. Relaxed … ACCEPT ME! NOW! HURRY!

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What turns you off when reading a novel? For me, it’s stories within stories. Not subplots, mind you, I love those. Many stories have a lot going on and in multiple points of view. What I’m talking about is like a back story, only it has nothing to do with the scene or the story as a whole. A good back-story catches the reader up on what happened before said event/scene took place. It can be as small as an interjection or as large a chapter.

The Hour I First Believed is an example of long passages of history that I found irrelevant to the story I first became interested in. I would skip entire chapters of his family history. I’m sure the author would rush to his defense and give me sound reason for this style. I wouldn’t blame him. But it is an example of what turns me off; it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

I read another author recently who had a different take on throwing me off track in a book. This guy had at least a quarter of his book interrupted with his protagonist’s little sister’s personal writing. There would be pages and pages of her fictional story inside his completely unrelated story, a different genre entirely: western. I don’t read or watch westerns, so I felt jipped that I got duped into buying one. It seemed as if the author really wanted to write a western but his agent said, “There’s no market for that, son.” So he sneaked it in anyhow. After tricked into reading a couple of these short stories inside a novel, I skipped over them, and the book became instantly better.

At this present moment, I am encountering another such style of writing that really chaps my hide. I’m reading along, the author has successfully hooked me with an idea of a plot, and even more so with my love of the members of a family. Then something happens to the seventeen-year-old daughter. Something bad. Do I get to find out what? Hell if I know. I’m having to wade through a family history, how the parents met, how the mother came to know Christ, the back story of a boy from school they just introduced, and the weather patterns of the area. I’m flipping, not reading, just to get to what happened to the girl. The girl is the best character and if she dies, I’ll throw the book in the trash and never buy another from this author again. But I may just do that anyway because I’ve flipped through entire chapters, scanning for any hints that we’ll be getting back to the story anytime soon. I’m at about 200 pages into the book and technically I have only read 100. I said above that stories inside stories aren’t wrong, just not my cup of tea, but with this book IT IS WRONG!

This isn’t personal taste here. THIS IS WRONG WRONG WRONG. No opinion. FACT!

Okay (out of breath, wheezing), I let my emotions run away with me, again. If you’re a regular of my blog, I’m sure you’ve adapted to my emotional spin cycle. But come on. What was she (this author) thinking? My first two examples above at least didn’t leave a cliffhanger before embarking on 100 pages of uninteresting stories, which, as I said before, really chaps my hide.

You’re talking to someone on the phone and they say “Psst, did you hear what happened to Mary? Well, she was walking home from school and she heard a noise and—Timmy shut up, I’m on the phone. Hang on I got to get Timmy a cracker. I’m back, Timmy’s teacher said he’s such a blessing in her classroom. He painted a picture of his grandpa. Did I ever tell you about my dad? He owned a gas station down on Fullerton—”

“You were talking about Mary,” you say to her.

“Yes, Mary. So anyway, she was walking home from school and she heard a noise and—Danny’s home. Hi, love. How was your day at the gas station? Sorry, I’m bak. Danny took over the station after my dad retired. blablabla. Danny and I are going on a cruise for our sixteenth anniversary. Did I ever tell you how we met?”

WHAT HAPPENED TO MARY?

You’d hang up on the scatterbrain if you weren’t so curious about Mary. But this is the only person privy to the Mary info so you stick it out, watch TV while she rambles, and you keep one ear open for the word Mary. 

What chaps your hide in books?

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In reference to my last post, Bookshelves, I have this question: How on God’s green earth can I even have a bookshelf if the world is going Kindle on me? If I were the type to read a book then store it away in a box in the attic then I might be a candidate for Kindle. I get how they could be great for travel: finish a book on the plane then buy a new one and begin a new story—cool. Same with itunes—great for travel. But I know where it’s headed: the same direction albums went. And photo albums. Nowadays everything is downloaded and stored in invisible places that require usernames and passwords to assess. Photographs on computers, books on Kindle, and music on ipod.

In the old days (like just a few years ago) you could walk into someone’s house and have conversation pieces displayed everywhere. Guest looking at gigantic album sleeve: “Aw, I see you like The Bay City Rollers, too.” Now, looking at a picture on the mantle: “And who is this cute little cat? He looks just like you.” Now looking at bookshelf: “Oh, you have an autographed first edition of Phyllis Diller’s Guide to Housecleaning, too? My goodness we have so much in common”

Technology has now made snooping into other’s lives that much more challenging—and I don’t like it.

And worse, technology requires more sitting tying to learn it all, thus causing extra, irreversable poundage of thy hips and thighs.

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