2015 is a year of kickass women

I’ve been cleaning up my study this week, shelving stacks of books and bagging issues of comics, and as I’ve been working, I’ve noticed something:

This year has given us a lot of amazing women in art to celebrate. Films, comics, books, television — women are kicking ass.

furiosa-madmax-650-1Two of my hands-down favorite films this year were Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Each included an absolute badass woman lead, an action heroine who was also a fully rounded human being and the center of the film she helmed. Charlize Theron so dominated her film — and it was Furiosa’s film through and through — that I usually refuse to refer to it as anything but Fury Road, dropping Max from the title altogether.

And (no spoilers here, really), Rey is such a force to reckon with in the new Star Wars movie that the old guard from the original trilogy are basically supporting characters, circling this new, amazing young woman. Daisy Ridley puts in a hell of a performance and absolutely owns the scenes she’s in, but more importantly, her character is skilled, intelligent, and fierce but also has a full range of emotions and a believable character arc. (Yes, there’s some discussion of her being a “Mary Sue,” a term I’ve only just learned this week, but I won’t brook any such complaints here. See the recent io9 article on the subject if you want it put to rest.)


And women aren’t just kicking ass on film. I’ve recently started collecting serial comics again, and three of my favorite comic book series this year are all woman-centric, and all three are woman reboots of traditionally male characters.

prez-1I’ve been loving Mark Russell’s Prez, and while the wit and and satire throughout the series have been spot-on (and sometimes eerily prescient), Beth Ross, a teenaged girl at the helm of the nation, is the smartest, savviest, and most humane character in the whole series. That comes as no surprise since it’s her series, but it’s breathtaking to see on the page — and it’s worth noting that in the original Prez series from the ’70s, the character was a boy. None of that patriarchy in the Year of Women!

I’ve also become hooked on Spider-Gwen, which I picked up as a curiosity but have been totally charmed by. There’s a lot of gimmickry in the series, with its multiverse in-jokes about the fates of long-established characters in this alternate reality, and personally, I’m not thrilled with the way they’ve turned MJ into a vapid fame-hungry narcissist. But the character of Gwen is beautifully rendered, a believable image of a young woman thrust into heroism before she was ready for it, with some of the same problems that Peter Parker faced when he first became Spider-Man but also with a whole range of new issues that feel unique to Gwen and her competing roles in her new life. It’s an interesting book that seems to be successfully outliving its function as just another experiment in the Spiderverse, and I’m enjoying the story direction.

Thor issue 5 from Marvel ComicsAnd then there is the big powerhouse herself, the Goddess of Thunder, Thor. She caused quite an uproar both in our world and in hers, in our newspapers and within her own Asgardian world, when a woman took up Thor’s hammer and became Thor herself. One of my favorite moments in the whole series was when the old Thor, who has renamed himself Odinson, conceded that she was now Thor, because whoever wields the hammer wields the name. The new Thor is powerful yet conveys some wonderfully human doubts, and, as drawn, she is feminine without being sexualized, and her appearance expresses enormous strength without resorting to an overmuscled, “masculinized” form. There are also some fabulous feminist assertions in the series on behalf of several characters, and it’s as strong a female heroine as I’ve ever seen in a comic book.

I also bought the first collected volume of Bitch Planet, which looks and sounds an awful lot like sexploitation but is in fact brilliantly subversive in its feminism. “Think Margaret Atwood meets Inglourious Basterds,” the website says, and that’s about as awesome a line of praise as I could imagine. And, most importantly, the series is written by a woman. It’s an important series, I think, and one I’ll be keeping an eye on!

Speaking of women writers: several of my favorite books this year have also been by women, including Portland’s own Margaret Malone (People Like You) and Lydia Yuknavitch (The Small Backs of Children). Both women have written books primarily about women and womanhood, and the results are powerful, assertive, sometimes funny and sometimes brutally violent, yet also beautiful, illuminating.

In fact, as in years past, my reading list this year has been dominated by brilliant women writers, including Ellen Urbani (Landfall), Sally K. Lehman (In the Fat), Gwen Beatty (Kill Us On the Way Home), Gay Degani (Rattle of Want), Linda Barry (Syllabus), and the ever-present Jane Austen (this year, I read Emma and reread Sanditon — and speaking of Jane, I’m genuinely interested in seeing the film version of the fun but silly novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, because that’s how relevant Jane manages to remain).

agent-carter-768On television, my wife and I both became immediate fans of Agent Carter (we eagerly await her return next year!), and our favorite characters on The Librarians are the two women, one of them a genius and the other a kickass soldier. I also let myself get sucked into Supergirl in spite of myself. It’s ridiculously silly, all comic book colors and camp, but it tries (not always successfully) to present a feminist message, and the lead actress is utterly charming. She also does a great job of conveying uncertainty in her own power but also “Super” ferocity in defense of her city, her friends, and herself. (I’ve not seen Jessica Jones because I don’t have Netflix, but I hear it is amazing and the perfect example of the superheroine we all need. Supergirl’s got some womanning-up to do!)

outlander-the-story-continues-key-artMy wife and I also became immediate fans of the tv series Outlander. (My wife is reading the novels now; I hope to pick them up soon.) The series, like the books, is ostensibly a period romance, but it’s brilliantly subversive within its genre, not only bending the genre with elements of time travel but also upending many romance tropes, especially in the bedroom, where Claire is an experienced and commanding lover, and on the battlefield, where Claire — a former wartime nurse — is equally commanding and competent but also suffers from the same PTSD as her male comrades-in-arms. The complexity of the roles throughout the series is admirable, but it’s especially thrilling to see such a strong, complex woman at the center of the show.

Of course, we’ve always had these women in our arts. Notice I titled this post “a year of kickass women” — one among many. But for some reason, the importance and blockbuster appeal of strong, intelligent, complex women is feeling more prominent this year, and with some eagerly awaited books, films, and comics on the horizon, it looks like we’ve got some momentum for more equal — and more exciting — representation in our popular arts. And that’s thrilling.

Your 2015 holiday shopping list: books, books, and books!

It’s been a great year for books, y’all. And now that the crunch is on for gift-giving season, I wanted to share some books published in the past year by friends of mine! There is a LOT to love here — poetry, prose, anthologies, even a few adult coloring books! So I’ve included some blurbs or endorsements so you know what you’re getting into, and I’ve sorted the whole list by something like genre, as well as a couple of sections for particularly prolific publishers I love.

Click the links to zip down to the kinds of books you’re looking for, or just scroll through and buy one or two of everything.

I’ve even included a few books scheduled for publication early next year — they’re on pre-order now, so get in early and snap those up, too!

Poetry  |  Anthologies & hybrid collections | Novels & collections  |  Memoir  |  Young Adult

Blue Skirt Press  |  sunnyoutside press

Coming in 2016!


How To Be An American, by Ally Malinenko

The poems in How to Be an American strike the chords of conversations we should be having, should have already had and resolved, or conversations that should be irrelevant. In this generation’s remake of democracy, Malinenko’s book is an incendiary device.

— Jason Baldinger, author of The Lower Forty-Eight

Confluence, Sandy Marchetti

Marchetti’s debut collection, Confluence, delivers taut, emotionally-charged poems that never cease to surprise. These poems are unified and purposeful, but are also dynamic and nuanced. Marchetti knows just when to shift gears, to spring a surprise on her readers, so that reading Confluence becomes an enthralling, epic journey, while also musing about the merging between large and small, real and imaginary, nature and urban, lover and beloved.

— review by Michelle Donahue in The Rumpus

Hive, by Christina Stoddard

Hive is a remarkable debut collection of poems about brutality, exaltation, rebellion, and allegiance. Written in the voice of a teenage Mormon girl, these poems chronicle an inheritance of daily violence and closely guarded secrets. A conflicting cast of recurring characters — best friends, sisters, serial killers, and the ominous Elders — move through these poems as the speaker begins to struggle with the widening gulf between her impulse toward faith and her growing doubts about the people who claim to know God’s will. Ultimately she must confront what it means to believe and what it costs to save ourselves.

Last to Leave, by Christie Grimes

In Last to Leave, Christie Grimes two-steps through the heat and seasoning of Texas and embraces rural northern New York in poems that sweat and chuckle, question and speak of resolve. These poems are familiar with salsa and barrooms, classrooms, and warm kitchens. These are rites of passage painted in language lush with flavor and craft.

— Georgia A. Popoff, author of Psalter: The Agnostic’s Book of Common Curiosities

The Existentialist Cookbook, by Shawnte Orion

In his debut collection, The Existentialist Cookbook, Shawnte Orion sifts through the absurdity of modern living for scraps of philosophy, religion, and mathematics to blend into recipes for elegies and celebrations. From Kurosawa films to “Project Runway,” writers to rock stars, influences are embraced and wrestled as Orion magnifies mortality through the prism of chronology and humor.

Anthologies & hybrid collections

The Part Time Shaman Handbook: An Introduction for Beginners, by Michael Gillan Maxwell

Part-Time Shaman Handbook blasts us back to childhood with peyote force of recognition, strips us of stagnant, uniform blinders that have “adulated” us. Don’t leave home without it!

— Meg Tuite, Bound By Blue

Bear the Pall, edited by Sally K. Lehman

How to sing a song of remembrance when our voice is gone in grief? What is the weight of a life when that life is gone — and how do we bear that weight? In love and sorrow and joy, in celebration and confusion and contemplation, the authors and poets in this slim but beautiful book have crafted a touching tribute to parenthood, a eulogy for fathers and mothers everywhere.

— Samuel Snoek-Brown, author Hagridden (that’s right — I blurbed this book!)

Novels & Story collections

America’s Most Eligible, by Corie Skolnick

America’s Most Eligible is a hilarious romp about an ambitious young woman who has come of age in the pretentious world of Southern California. With great humor, Corie Skolnick satirizes “the bad tweed set” of literary academia along with the self-important characters of Hollywood, journalism, self-help Psychology, politics, and especially traditional commercial publishing even as the latter languishes in the throes of death at its own hands.

Find more of Corie’s work at Broadway Books in Portland or online.

Spirits, by Todd McNamee

Spirits is a compelling novel about a man with psychic abilities that have been enhanced by the government. Over time Sean’s gift has become a curse due to a combination of the constant barrage of telepathically hearing the multitude of people around him every day and the horrific things his government requests of him. The novel begins with Sean’s profound struggle with alcoholism and regrets for the things he has done. He is contacted by a group who inform him that they need his help to fight a coming evil, a rogue agent with his same powers who is not afraid to use them to create his own army of mind slaves. Sean acquires other allies along the way, including a ghost and a coven of witches. But it all depends on whether he can hold it together long enough to save the world.

Find more of Todd’s work at foxflame.net.

Your Little Red Book, EJ Runyon

Two voices.  Alexis in the unconscious second person style scribbles, sketches, and keeps notes; like she’s tracing out someone else’s story. Maureen, just doing the best being honest with herself about the women in her life.  Alexis, a broke young artist with problems reading and writing, keeps her little red book close at all times. It holds her life. She wants to be sure she’s gotten it all down as it comes. She narrates to herself in illegible script, unaware of her unique style of recording her own world. Here we have one half of a She said/She said scenario. Maureen, a successful owner of a small chain of Art Supply stores, catches Alexis in her store with a pocket full of stolen tubes of paint. And she’s smitten from first glance. Knowing all too well the pitfalls ahead, Mo wants only to help. Only for a while. Only in any way she can. No one told her she’d have to fight nearly every step of the way. And therein lays the other half of said scenario.

You can find more of E.J’s books at her website

Rattle of Want, by Gay Degani

The stories in this book are a masterclass in narrative craftsmanship. From the brief sparks of her microfiction to the meditations of her long stories to the tapestry of her novella-in-flash, Degani displays a mastery for calling forth human characters and conjuring whole lives out of meticulously wrought images and moments. Rattle of Want is a beautiful, smart collection.

— Samuel Snoek-Brown, author of Box Cutters and Hagridden (I blurbed Gay’s book, too!)

Killer &VictimChristopher JH Lambert

Alexander, the first crowd-sourced city, has come to rival NYC as the premier metropolis in America. It’s known as The Paradise City, the first step of a new era. But tonight: A haunting art performance. A killer’s quest for redemption. And a photo shoot in a field set aflame. These plant in Alexander seeds of chaos that, when they blossom, will see paradise tearing itself apart.

Landfall, Ellen Urbani

Ellen Urbani’s story of Katrina and its aftermath is an important part of America’s modern mythology, a chronicle of one of our greatest national trials. But Urbani’s characters reach beyond mythology: two rich and complex young women, two troubled and heartbreaking older women, whose separate journeys and literal collision are unique yet timeless. Landfall is a mirror in the floodwaters, showing us our own distorted faces in the murk and mayhem of our recent past.

— Samuel Snoek-Brown, author of Hagridden (yep — I blurbed Ellen’s book, too)

The Small Backs of Children, Lidia Yuknavitch

A fierce, provocative, and deeply affecting novel of both ideas and action that blends the tight construction of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending with the emotional power of Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children is a major step forward from one of our most avidly watched writers.

In the Fat, by Sally K. Lehman

The voice of In the Fat‘s narrator, Sky, feels sometimes adult and sometimes childlike and is the perfect rendition of a young woman in transition — a forced transition — from girlhood to womanhood. This novel is a hard, honest look at mothers and daughters, sexuality and psychology, fear and friendship. Lehman has written a powerful book about a whole range of difficult subjects filtered through the mind and voice of a strong young character.

— Samuel Snoek-Brown, author of Hagridden (I blurbed this book, too!)

The Animals, Christian Kiefer

Bill Reed manages a wildlife sanctuary in rural Idaho, caring for injured animals — raptors, a wolf, and his beloved bear, Majer, among them — that are unable to survive in the wild. Seemingly rid of his troubled past, Bill hopes to marry the local veterinarian and live a quiet life together, the promise of which is threatened when a childhood friend is released from prison. Suddenly forced to confront the secrets of his criminal youth, Bill battles fiercely to preserve the shelter that protects these wounded animals and to keep hidden his turbulent, even dangerous, history. Alternating between past and present, Christian Kiefer contrasts the wreckage of Bill’s crime-ridden years in Reno, Nevada, with the elusive promise of a peaceful future. In finely sculpted prose imaginatively at odds with the harsh, volatile world Kiefer evokes, The Animals builds powerfully toward the revelation of Bill’s defining betrayal — and the drastic lengths Bill goes to in order to escape the consequences.

The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert, Rios de la Luz

Rios de la Luz’s writing blows minds and breaks hearts. A sort of new and bizarre Tomás Rivera, Rios is able to blend the familiar of the domestic with all the wilderness of the universe. Her stories will grab you in places you didn’t know you had, take you by those places to where you’ve always wanted to go — though you never knew how to get there. Buy this book and enjoy that journey.”

— Brian Allen Carr

People Like You, by Margaret Malone

Malone’s writing could be seen as a close cousin to the work of Tom Drury, Mary Robison, or Denis Johnson — stories that casually draw you in and leave you wanting more. People Like You feels like being let in on a secret that won’t stay secret for long.

— Joshua James Amberson, The Portland Mercury

Kill Us On the Way Home, by Gwen Beatty

Six short stories of where and how life moves ever forward, with or without the person living it. Birds and amputees and hot dog vendors go in circles. The cars all still run but can’t seem to leave town. Beatty pulls gum from under the park bench and you chew for what seems like forever before finally swallowing, the thing stuck between your ribs like your mother always warned you it would.

The Sorrow Proper, by Lindsey Drager

The Sorrow Proper is a novel-length investigation of the anxiety that accompanies change. A group of aging librarians must decide whether to fight or flee from the end of print and the rise of electronic publications, while the parents of the young girl who died in front of the library struggle with their role in her loss. Anchored by the transposed stories of a photographer and his deaf mathematician lover each mourning the other’s death, The Sorrow Proper attempts to illustrate how humans of all relations — lovers, parents, colleagues — cope with and challenge social “progress,” a mechanism that requires we ignore, and ultimately forget, the residual in order to make room for the new, to tell a story that resists “The End.”

I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them, by Jesse Goolsby

Wintric Ellis joins the army as soon as he graduates from high school, saying goodbye to his girlfriend, Kristen, and to the backwoods California town whose borders have always been the limits of his horizon. Deployed in Afghanistan two years into a directionless war, he struggles to find his bearings in a place where allies could at any second turn out to be foes. Two career soldiers, Dax and Torres, take Wintric under their wing. Together, these three men face an impossible choice: risk death or commit a harrowing act of war. The aftershocks echo long after each returns home to a transfigured world, where his own children may fear to touch him and his nightmares still hold sway.

Jesse Goolsby casts backward and forward in time to track these unforgettable characters from childhood to parenthood, from redwood forests to open desert roads to the streets of Kabul. Hailed by Robert Olen Butler as a “major literary event,” I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them is a work of disarming eloquence and heart-wrenching wisdom, and a debut novel from a writer to watch.

The O’Henry Prize Stories 2015 (includes “The History of Happiness” by Brenda Peynado)


My Unsentimental Education, by Debra Monroe

A misfit in Spooner, Wisconsin with its farms, bars, and strip joints, Debra Monroe leaves to earn a degree, then another, another, and builds a career — if only because her plans to be a Midwestern housewife continually get scuttled. Fearless but naive, she vaults over class barriers, but never quite leaves her past behind. When it comes to men, she’s still blue-collar. Negotiating the world of dating, Monroe pays careful attention to what love and sex mean to a woman ambivalent about her newfound status as “liberated.”

An Unsuitable Princess, by Jane Rosenberg LaForge

In An Unsuitable Princess, Jane Rosenberg LaForge, a Los Angeles native, combines imaginative narrative and personal memoir to show how her own coming-of-age was warped by her hometown’s peculiarities, particularly the constant, confusing mashup of glittering fantasy with the complex urban reality that, ironically, provides the fantasy with vital context and support.

review by Diane Josefowicz in Necessary Fiction

Young adult

Silverwood, by Betsy Streeter

A story of finding where you belong, even if it involves time travel, shape shifting, and hacking. Helen Silverwood, fourteen, is sick of life on the run with her mom and her younger brother. Nothing makes sense. She doesn’t understand why she has recurring dreams of shape-shifting creatures, why her mother is always disappearing, and how her brother can draw things that haven’t happened yet. Most of all, Helen longs to know what happened to her dad is he imprisoned, a fugitive, or gone forever? When someone blows up the apartment where Helen lives, the stories of the ancient Silverwood clan and her role in it begin to unravel. All Helen wants is to feel like there is someplace she belongs but getting there will prove very, very complicated.

When Stars Die: The Stars Trilogy, by Amber Skye Forbes

Amelia Gareth’s brother is a witch and the only way to save her family from the taint in his blood is to become a professed nun at Cathedral Reims in the snowy city of Malva. [. . .] Now Amelia must decide what to do: should she continue on her path to profession knowing there is no redemption, or should she give up on her dream and turn away from Cathedral Reims in order to stop the shadows who plan to destroy everything she loves?

Shadowgirl, Kate Ristau

Shadowgirl tells the story of fairy teen Aine, who is haunted by a fiery dream, where her mother loses her mind and her father makes a devastating choice. Áine escapes into the Shadowlands to discover the secrets of her family and her past. But the moment her foot crosses the threshold, Áine is thrust into a war that has been raging for centuries. Guardians, fire fey, and a rising darkness threaten the light, and Áine must learn to fight in the shadows — or die in the flames.

Blue Skirt Press (currently offering special deals, including a coloring book package!)

Women: Heart & Whimsy, by MaryElizabeth Mono

Explores the feminine with an uplifting sensuality that invites the observer to look deeper. This book contains 20 original images to color.

Nightmarish Dreams, by Chris Bonney

This book contains 21 original 8 by 10 images to color. Chris Bonney’s artwork has been described as a cross between Tim Burton and Dr. Seuss.

Broken Parts, by Gayle Towell

Jake Smith, a book smart loner hiding in a dead-end welding job, is thrown for a loop when his fifteen-year-old brother Ben shows up on his doorstep after outing their father for molestation. During Dad’s trial it comes to light that not only was Jake also abused, but he turned a blind eye for years as it happened to his brother. But with Dad in jail and Mom insistent that Ben is lying, Ben is forced to rely on Jake even if he can’t forgive him, and Jake is forced to step up and care for his brother despite struggling with his own trauma and brutal flashbacks.

The Shepherd’s Journals, by Drew Andrews

Constantly seeking God in both the everyday and the esoteric, an obsessive and conflicted prophet known only as the Shepherd lives out his salvation under streetlights, in grand visions, and in the arms of others. These journals chronicle his experience as he struggles with divine calling and human need. The Shepherd’s Journals is part poetic love letter, part prayer, and part feral howl against modern living. Its musical rhythm pulls readers in and guides them through an uneasy, spring-tension urban landscape.

The Butch/Femme Photo Project, by Wendi Kali

There are many identities within the LGBTQI community. Among these are butch and femme. Both of these identities date back to the beginning of the 20th century and are a part of the lesbian and bisexual subculture. Both have taken on many definitions. In this collection of photographs, people from across the United States and Canada who claim these identities today share their own definitions and describe how they express themselves uniquely.

sunnyoutside press

Songs & Yes, by MRB Chelko (poetry)

Scattered Trees Grow in Some Tundra, by Cheryl Quimba (poetry)

Lot Boy, by Greg Shemkovitz (novel)

Coming in 2016!

Revenge and the Wild, by Michelle Modesto (YA)

The two-bit town of Rogue City is a lawless place, full of dark magic and saloon brawls, monsters and six-shooters. But it’s just perfect for seventeen-year-old Westie, the notorious adopted daughter of local inventor Nigel Butler.

Westie was only a child when she lost her arm and her family to cannibals on the wagon trail. Seven years later, Westie may seem fearsome with her foul-mouthed tough exterior and the powerful mechanical arm built for her by Nigel, but the memory of her past still haunts her. She’s determined to make the killers pay for their crimes—and there’s nothing to stop her except her own reckless ways.

Every Anxious Wave, by Mo Daviau

A high-spirited and engaging novel, Every Anxious Wave plays ball with the big questions of where we would go and who we would become if we could rewrite our pasts, as well as how to hold on to love across time.

The Folly of Loving Life, by Monica Drake

Following her acclaimed novels Clown Girl and The Stud Book, Monica Drake presents her long-awaited first collection of stories. The Folly of Loving Life features linked stories examining an array of characters at their most vulnerable and human, often escaping to somewhere or trying to find stability in their own place. These stories display the best of what we love about Monica’s writing — the sly laugh-out-loud humor, the sharp observations, the flawed but strong characters, and the shadowy Van Sant-ish Portland settings.

My mother, my teacher


Julie Snoek

I just learned that my mother, a retired teacher with a 35-year career in elementary and middle-school classrooms, was a guest on Episode 14 of The Teaching Experience Podcast!


In the interview, my mom talks about her lifelong love of teaching and learning, her devotion to teaching each student according to the context of that student’s life and abilities, her near-burnout under the strain of political rather than pedagogical demands placed on teachers but also her reinvigoration through empowering her students in the classroom.

I grew up in the midst of all of this, helping my mom prepare her classrooms each year and helping her mimeograph (remember those?) assignments and using her teaching materials to play “school” with my stuffed animals and my siblings, and later visiting my mom’s classroom as a guest and watching her work with her students. I’ve learned my teaching styles from a long succession of my own former teachers, but I learned first and most from my mother, and, most crucially, she taught me how to learn about teaching by observing teachers.

Today, I teach college, not elementary school, and I’ve only been at it half as long as my mother was. But a lot of my attitudes and practices in the classroom come from her: my enthusiasm for the profession even in the face of sometimes overwhelming extracurricular demands, my desire to listen and to reach each student on that student’s terms, my insistence on empowering students to take command of their own learning, my love of learning about learning and my love of sharing the whole educational experience with students.

I have always been proud to follow in my mother’s footsteps. But whenever I see my mother getting long-deserved recognition for her career, I fill to bursting.

Thanks, Mom.

And thanks, too — as we wrap up the fall and head into our long winter naps — to all the teachers everywhere for the hard, hard work you do and for the inspiration you provide.


Setting aside Chekhov’s gun

I love Anton Chekhov. His sense of story rooted in character and culture has long held me spellbound, and I hold him as an unreachable ideal for what the best of short fiction can look like. He also had some terrific writing advice, probably the most famous of which was in favor of necessity in the details:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story,” Chekhov said in a whole range of ways in letters, essays, and interviews. It’s good advice, but on its face, it’s not very sexy, which is why it’s more well known for the example he gives:

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.”

We call that rule “Chekhov’s Gun.”

But a lot of the time, when we see it, we stop right there. When we encounter a beginning writer who’s never heard the rule, we feed them the line about the rifle. A forcefulness and a conspiratorial giddiness enters our voice, and we tend to emphasize the action that follows: “It must go off.” We are grateful for the permission, and we can’t wait for that gun to go off.

We invite violence into our fiction.

We have good reasons for doing so. As I’ve written before, good fiction depends on conflict, and violence is conflict made manifest in the loudest, most unsettling ways. Violence is a part of the world we write and it is a necessary and important part of great fiction. It’s also an easy and useful means by which to arrest our readers’ attention.

But it’s not the only way, and when we succumb to the temptation of easy violence in fiction, we are ignoring the rest of Chekhov’s advice:

“If [the rifle is] not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

These past couple of years, I had been drafting a violent novel absolutely chock full of guns. I name the guns; I describe their actions, their ammunition, their weight and smell. Some of the characters practically fetishize the guns. That obsession with firearms and violence is necessary, because the story is set during the Reconstruction, that turbulent and bloody aftermath to the US Civil War. And the violence isn’t invented for the sake of a good story — much of the surface narrative of that novel is rooted in various historical events that occurred in the borderlands between Texas, Arkansas, and what was then Indian Territory.

I’ve written before about how I drafted most of the novel and then threw it out because the voice wasn’t right. Last year, I started over and made fast progress, up to a point; over the summer, I took that novel to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and found my direction in the book, and when I came back to my home desk, I made more progress on the book.

And then I stopped.

I was wrestling with how to write a novel about men who glorify and revel in warfare and gunplay without seeming to glorify and revel in that violence myself, and I was beginning, too, to wonder what my book might have to say about a long-ago war when we are beset by war today. I think there are plenty of things to say — it’s why I wrote Hagridden — but I wasn’t sure anymore what this book was saying.

Eventually, I got out of my head found my way back to the story, but before I could start writing again, a sick man went on a self-righteous shooting rampage in my own state of Oregon. I grieved with my students, I shared words at candlelight vigils, and by the time I returned to my novel, I found I no longer had the same interest in writing about self-righteous men exacting their vision for the future through gunfire and terror.

This is, frankly, exactly the reason I should be writing that book. Some of my best work has come from trying to express in fiction the issues I am most interested in and most afraid of in the real world. But I was reaching a saturation point, and I decided I needed to get some distance from the real violence before I could keep writing fictional violence.

And I have since realized that I will not get that distance. I will not enjoy a few months’ reprieve; we cannot even go a few days without mass gun violence and ideological terror being enacted somewhere in our world. As of two days ago, we could not even go a single news-cycle without not one but two mass shootings in America.

As a nation, we said in our earliest chapters that we should have a rifle hanging on our national wall. Lately, we seem to have decided that it absolutely must go off, on practically every page.

And I am exhausted by it.

So I am heeding — and reverse-engineering — the latter part of Chekhov’s advice: I don’t want to write a novel in which a gun goes off, so I am writing a novel now in which I never introduce the gun in the first place.

The book I’m working on still involves a shooting — a single gunshot, a stray bullet, a dead child. Last month, during my NaNoWriMo drafting, I spent a lot of time figuring out who had fired the shot, and why, and how that character felt about it afterward. But yesterday, I decided to cut that character and those pages out of the novel.

The gunshot still happens; the child still dies. But I’m not going to reveal who did it or why. I’m not going to spend any pages wringing hands over motives or prevention. Instead, I am going to follow the grief of the people left in the wake of that moment of gun violence.

I used to write violence in my fiction because we live in a violent world. And I still will write that fiction, because our world is still violent.

But I don’t want the attention to be on the violence. I don’t want to hang a gun on the wall of my writing just for the excuse of firing it. Instead, I’m locking the fictional gun away and writing about that other terrible reality: we are a world of victims, a community of grievers.

NaNoWriMo 2015: the end is the beginning

NaNo-2015-Winner-Badge-Large-SquareWell, I have crossed the finish line and then some. As of today, my word count stands a little more than 57,500. Of course, as I said in my previous NaNoWriMo post, a lot of those words I’ll wind up throwing out, and I also know a lot of those words might stay but become drastically different words. There’s a lot of work left to do on this book. But something interesting has happened with this one: I’m looking forward to that work.

When I finished Hagridden, I was aware of the work still to come but was so elated to have finished the draft (and also so eager to head off for vacation) that it was pretty easy to set the book aside for a few months. But with this new book, I don’t want to set the work aside. I’m still fired up about this story — the characters, the structure, the arc the story takes. I still see clearly the work I have left to do, and I’m eager to keep doing it. Fortunately, I only have a couple of weeks left of school and then I’m on winter break, which I very much intend to use writing and rewriting this novel.

I’m also learning a lot from this book. I’m fond of the adage that with each new story, a writer has to learn all over again how to write. That can feel daunting sometimes, because it’s so much easier to go into a familiar routine, to think we have it all figured out; it’s comforting to think that writing is a skill that you can practice and perfect. But outside a handful of strictly formulaic genres, writing rarely works that way. Each story, each book, is its own entity with its own process, and each time you sit down to write something, you learn something from that act.

One interesting thing I have discovered in the writing of this book is the permission to change my writing style. The prose on this book is a bit sparer, the sentences a bit shorter, than I usually like to write. I had thought this was simply a product of rushing through a draft, but the more I think about it, the more I realize it’s a stylistically appropriate move. With Hagridden, the landscape was so lush and sometimes impenetrable that a florid, dense language, focused on landscape, felt appropriate. And in my previous in-progress book, the language had been tied to the dense woods and marshy bottomlands of Northeast Texas, and I was riding on the coattails of Hagridden, so the style felt not only right but also familiar.

But this book is set in flat, dry Oklahoma in the spare years leading up to the Depression and the Dust Bowl. So — I realized recently — of course the language would settle down, of course the sentences would flatten out. That realization is one of the things that keeps me coming back to the page even after NaNoWriMo is finished.

Another discovery is the emotional heart of this story. The book I set aside so I could draft this one was much more action-driven, much more concerned with plot and structure. There’s a strong sense of structure in this Oklahoma novel, too, but this story is driven by emotion rather than action, which makes it a pleasure to sit with and ruminate on instead of worrying over every turn in the story or every plot point on a graph.

That’s something else I have learned writing this book: I spend too much time obsessing over the details of plot and structure. Yes, I do need those things, and knowing them up front can help me organize such a lengthy, complex project as a novel. But one thing this year’s NaNoWriMo experience has reminded me of is the importance of getting out of my head and just putting words on the page.

One problem I’d been having with my previous novel is that I gave myself permission to slow down and think my way through that story, and all that extra time allowed me to second-guess every turn, every motivation, every outcome. I not only talked myself out of whole chapters, I even threw out the entire first draft.

On my current novel, because I haven’t given myself time to second-guess the direction of things or the ending I have in mind, I’ve been much more successful at plowing ahead with the book.  But because I had at least an organizing principle to guide the story if I ever got lost, I was able to keep writing no matter how many side paths I took in my meandering, fast-paced drafting.

Maybe it won’t always work this way for me. But I’m seeing now how necessary this particular process, this balance or plan and structure with heart and organicism, has been for my writing. When people claim that you can’t teach creative writing, I think this is what they mean: not that you can’t teach skill sets, or that you can’t share experiences, because you can and I do. It’s why I teach the classes I do, and it’s why I’m writing this now, to share. But I think there are certainly some lessons about one’s own writing and one’s own process that one can only learn through the practice of it. If even then.

And this is the main thing I’ve learned in these past thirty days: that for a first draft to work, I somehow have to know where I’m going and then no worry about how I get there; that I have to keep a momentum going so I stay out of my head and stay inside the story; and that, most importantly, sometimes the stories just come to you. I’ve forced my way through six NaNoWriMos now; only one other year has been as successful as this one. I couldn’t have predicted that. It just happened. But if I hadn’t continued showing up — if I hadn’t pounded out tens of thousands of words, if I hadn’t failed or nearly failed at four other books — maybe I wouldn’t have found this one. So I keep coming back to the page, week after week, year after year, and once in a while, something amazing happens.

How fun that, twice now, it’s happened in a November. And now the real work begins.

Happy revising, y’all!

Feeling thankful for my students

I held classes on Wednesday. At our community college, we’re on a quarter system and only have ten weeks or so per course, and in a writing class, that’s never enough, so we need to use all the days we can. Of course, the day before Thanksgiving, many of my students understandably take off to visit family or prepare to receive family for the holiday, and I never penalize them for doing so. But this year, I decided to reward the dozen or so students who did show up for class: I offered them extra credit for writing what they’re thankful for, and they agreed to share their words here on my blog.

I won’t share everything from every student, but I would like to share a few of the full responses, from two different classes. And I would like to add that I am deeply grateful for all my students. Without them, I would just be in a room talking to myself (which I do plenty of already); but because these people decided to enroll in college and try their hands at writing, I get to join them in the classroom each week as we all pursue this adventure of education together. I learn so much from my students, and I am grateful each day we hold class, even — or especially — when it’s so near a holiday.

“Lessons from an Asparagus, by Delaney A.

When I think of the word “thankfulness,” a little tune emerges from the fog of my distant memory. When I was a child, one of my favorite movie series was VeggiTales. In each short, animated film, anthropomorphic vegetables (like Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato) used humor and skits to tell Bible stories and teach life lessons. One of my favorite movies in the series centers on the theme of thankfulness. In the story, the French fruit Madame Blueberry buys up every gizmo and doodad from the local mall, because she’s “so blue she [doesn’t] know what to do.” But after her house literally explodes as a result of all her purchases, she realizes that possessions are not the most important thing in life, and that more stuff does not equal more happiness. She already had so much to be thankful for. At the end of the movie, her little friend Junior Asparagus sings, “A thankful heart is a happy heart, I’m glad for what I have, that’s an easy way to start. For the love that [God] shares as He listens to my prayers, that’s why say thanks every day.”

One thing that I am thankful for, something that makes my heart happy, is the encouragement of imagination from my parents during my childhood. After watching skits on VeggiTales, my sisters and I would run along and create our own stories. My childhood days were filled with playing pretend. I picked the dry grass from our dusty, southern Oregon yard, imagining that it was wheat and I was a pioneer baking bread for my hungry family. I loaded my Bitty Baby doll into a pink, plastic stroller and took her for a walk around the house. I spread my arms and ran in circles across the green living room carpet, pretending I was a jet plane soaring over fields of crops.

While my sisters and I spent our childhood days playing and imagining, my parents were always right there beside us, fostering our creativity. When my sisters and I decided to dress up in gowns and fancy hats and have a tea party in the front room, my mom used cookie cutters to shape cheese, lunch meat, and cucumber slices into flower-shaped finger sandwiches. Another time, my sisters and I spent an entire day putting the details together for a full Barbie wedding; we picked and named the bride and groom, selected a preacher, dressed the bridesmaids and groomsmen, filled the audience, and decorated the aisle and stage. When we begged our parents to attend the grand event, they willingly seated themselves on the daybed in our playroom and watched as we used our dolls to conduct the ceremony. And when my dad came home for his lunch break, he would fall to his hands and knees, seat us high atop his back, and then neigh and puff as he trotted us cowgirls around the house.

Although some of my love for imagination may have come from a show like VeggiTales, the majority of it is due to my parents. They let us play, imagine, and create, and then encouraged the art, plays, and stories that we created. To this day, I still make constant use of my seasoned imagination, through writing, acting, and music. And my parents continue to encourage my creativity by reading my stories and papers, watching my plays and skits, and listening to my music. Like Junior Asparagus sang, thankfulness for their support of my imagination, gives me a happy heart.


“Thankful,” by Salim H.

Throughout this time of year we see long posts of Facebook of what people are thankful for. Or you get the typical twenty-five days of thankfulness posts too; you get hashtags, Instagram photos, etc . . . . I personally think this is like Game of Thrones’s “winter is coming,” but instead it’s Thanksgiving so let me tell the world, if they don’t already know, how thankful I am. But after this it only gets more dramatic than an episode of Days of Our Lives. Because as soon as that’s done, everybody does the same thing just on a super-jumbo-larger scale for Christmas. Most people are thankful for the typical things, like grandma’s homemade cookies, or their big brother who’s pain, but it’s his pain in the butt and nobody else’s. But people forget about the small things that they’re thankful for, so here’s my thanks for the small things in my life:

I’m thankful for every time I plug in my charger chord and it’s not too short and it charges my phone. I’m thankful for each time I pick up a piece of paper and I don’t get those annoying paper cuts. I’m thankful for never working at a Friday’s on a Friday and never getting off on time on a Friday because it’s busy every Friday. I’m thankful for my student ID that I use everywhere to get discounts. I’m thankful for the annoying neighbor who has a rooster that never crows at the first sight of sunlight but crows at 3:30 am every morning; thank you, Steve the Rooster, for your free alarm to the neighborhood.

I’m thankful for good gas mileage on my car so even if I’m at a quarter of a tank I can still go about two weeks before filling up. Those are just the small things I’m thankful for, but I guess I’ll shed some light on some major things that I am thankful for.

I’m thankful for living in a neighborhood that doesn’t have drive-by shootings or gangs on every block or every corner. That way, if I feel like walking to school, I don’t worry about being bothered. I’m thankful also for living in a neighborhood where I can walk to the library, which is open seven days week. I’m thankful for the little kids in my neighborhood that look up to me, because they’re the extra push I need when I think about giving up. I’m thankful for living behind a college — waking up and seeing it every morning makes me realize that my dreams are really close to me, and not out of reach. I’m thankful that my neighborhood hasn’t had any gentrification. I’m thankful for the hand-me-down clothes I’ve received throughout the years. I’m thankful I live in a country that doesn’t have a war at its front door. I’m thankful that I live in a house rather than in a hut, even though I live in a house that has busted pipes almost every winter and no insulation, that has no heat or a/c and the kitchen lights don’t work, and there’s big hole in the wall that we cover up with a cut-up black garbage bag.

Most importantly, I’m thankful for my family: I’m thankful for my Mom for always feeding me to death, even when I just come back from dinner with a friend. I’m thankful for my Dad for not only breaking the stereotype that is placed on black men but for also teaching me my history that wasn’t really ever taught in school. And if it was, it was on the shortest month of the year and just really a cookie-cutter version of what they thought I wanted to learn. I’m thankful for both my parents for teaching me how to dress and buy three-piece suits, for teaching me chivalry, how to pick out flowers and open doors for women when in this day in age that it’s frowned upon or forgotten. I’m thankful for the enormous closet full of books that they had me read every summer and give book reports. I’m thankful for them always giving me their last when they could have given me only just half.

Moving on down the chain I’m thankful for my five brothers and two sisters. Even though I’m the middle child, I am a proud middle child. I’m thankful for all you being my cooks, cleaners, movie credits, fashion consultation, taxi, and vice versa.

Even though I could go and on (and I wish I could, but class is almost over), I must print this out. But I want to give one last special thank you . . . . Thank you Dr. Snoek-Brown for making me fall back in love with writing when I didn’t think I could.

“I’m Thankful,” by Morgan Y.

I’m thankful for what I am grown to understand. A year ago, I thought I knew what was going on in the world, whether it was in my country or another. Since then, I have learned that I was dead wrong. I’m thankful that I have learned to understand that not everything is better for everyone and that I can help change the world for the better. I know that this doesn’t sound like a very Thanksgiving-type of thankful, but I have never felt lighter, knowing that people are more awake than ever, including myself.

“I Am Thankful,” by Claudia O.

I am thankful for being able to share another Thanksgiving with my parents and my family. When I was growing up, my parents always prepared me for the day they wouldn’t be with me anymore, because they had me at an old age, and as we know, as we grow older, illnesses start to build up. This only made me cherish every holiday I got to spend with my parents even more. My uncle died this past September, and his kids no longer have both their parents to spend Thanksgiving, or any other holiday, with. I think that sometimes we take such important people for granted; we don’t think about a day they won’t be there. My family means a lot to me and they’re not always able to all get together. So on this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful we all can get together after going through so much.


NaNoWriMo 2015: revising without revising

It’s been a while since I’ve posted updates on my NaNoWriMo. That’s because it’s been a busy month, with a lot of side obligations I’ve been fulfilling. I judged a literary contest, I blurbed a friend’s book, I did a couple of readings, I wrote an essay a magazine solicited. It’s also been a busy month of my usual, primary obligations, like attending meetings and catching up on grading. (I am proud to report, by the way, that at least one of my students is also participating in NaNoWriMo this year. Like me, she has been struggling to keep up with the word count in addition to school work, but I’m super-impressed that she’s tackling NaNoWriMo, and for a while she was even outpacing me! We’ve been discussing our progress outside of class, which has been a treat.)

Screen shot 2015-11-25 at 6.41.04 PMSo, with all this other work, I feel I could be excused for falling behind on the novel, and if you look at my word count meter, it looks like I sat around and wrote nothing for about a week or so and then all of a sudden, in a burst of inspiration, hammered out something like thirteen thousand words.

In fact, I’ve been needling away at it here and there all along, but it wasn’t until the other day that I remembered to update my word count. I’m thrilled to say that I’m nearly at the 50,000 word goal (I currently sit at 45,645 words), and this Thanksgiving break, I plan on crossing the finish line.

But what’s interesting is looking back over what I have been writing this month and realizing how much of it is just thinking my way through the book — and therefore realizing how much of it I’m going to wind up throwing out.

When I wrote my first NaNoWriMo, I hammered out 53,000 words in a mere 15 days and then packed it in for a long Thanksgiving break. When I went back to revise, I found I had far more to add to the book then to cut, and over the next few years, I added another 20,0000 or so words to flesh out the story and develop the characters. Sure, I also cut several thousand words, and the resulting book wound up around 68,000 words (and I think it turned out much better). The result, for people who are just now following me, was my first published novel, Hagridden.

For my most recent NaNoWriMo, before the one I’m writing now, I wound up doing something like the opposite: I got nearish the official goal but never crossed the finish line, and, after a year or so of reworking that book, I realized that I had approached the story in entirely the wrong way and wound up throwing out the whole book. (I’ve since restarted and have written about 30,000 words on the new version of that book.)

But for my current novel, I’m experiencing the same sense of vision I had with Hagridden, and I’m already able to foresee enough of the book to know what works on the page and what doesn’t. So I already know now — rather than later, in revision — what I need to throw away and what I will end up using in the book, and I also know, in advance of when I eventually throw away the unneeded text, what I am going to replace it with.

It’s a strange feeling, revising in my head as I am still drafting. One would think that it’s frustrating to wind up putting so many thousands of words on the page while knowing I’m going to throw them away later, but this is the nature of the process, especially in NaNoWriMo. You hammer out the words whether they’re useful or not, just to get you through the text, and in this case, it’s actually been very instructive to me to see, in real time, this editorial process.

Sometimes people ask me if I’m planning on writing a sequel to Hagridden, and I always tell them that I’m not. The truth is, I like all of my work to connect to all of my other work in some way, and I have already written a handful of short stories that are in fact related to Hagridden, some of them prequel stories and some of them concurrent with the novel. And my previous book, which I still plan on finishing, is not a direct sequel to Hagridden but does include some of the same characters and is definitely in the same thematic vein. But sometimes, people don’t ask me about Hagridden; they just ask me what my next book is going to be, whatever it is. And the answer to that question is much simpler:

You never know what your next book is going to be.

I could tell you what book I’m working on, or what book I want to work on next, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be my next book. The book I’m writing now wasn’t the book I intended to be writing now. It just showed up, mostly whole and with the revisions already in my head. And now, nearly finished with this NaNoWriMo draft though nowhere near finished with the book itself, I have a feeling that this thing might wind up being my next novel, whether I wanted it to be or not.

But I won’t really know until I finish this “prevision” draft, a few days from now, and then sit down to begin the long, long process of revision.

Allow me to show you Where There Is Ruin

11038149_820445841383185_3496110615123760053_oI am thrilled to announce that my fiction chapbook, Where There Is Ruin, has been accepted for publication at Red Bird Chapbooks! I’m a big fan of Red Bird’s work, and this new chapbook is especially exciting for me because I get to be part of their impressive roster of authors and poets, including my friends Matthew Burnside, Eirik Gumeny, Michael Lambert, Meg Tuite, and Joe Wilkins (whose books you should all buy).

Where There Is Ruin will be available sometime in 2016, so stay tuned for updates!

NaNoWriMo 2015: plot, structure, shape

I struggle with plot.

Freytag's pyramid

Freytag’s pyramid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In grade school, I learned that plot was just another word for story. Later, I learned a more mechanical version, that plot was the arrangement of events in a narrative. It is the order in which things happen, and it has a shape. Mostly it looks like an arc — often a sharp one, like two sides of a triangle, with a definite, pointed apex at which things come to a head and then begin their inevitable decline — though in college I saw Kurt Vonnegut give a version of his “Shapes of Stories” lecture and learned that the classic “arc” isn’t so classic, and it certainly isn’t the only shape a story can take.

Then in grad school, I began to learn the new-old lesson that the best literature is character-driven, not plot-driven, and I sighed with relief, because I had figured out by then that I was no good at plot. Where I got this idea, I couldn’t say — a workshop comment? a professor’s remark on a story I’d turned in? — but figuring out the sequence of events in a story scared me, and I was glad for the excuse to just focus on my characters and let plot sort itself out.

This let me forget my anxieties over plot for a while — even to pretend that plot was no problem at all. I remember having a conversation with a grad school friend of mine who’d gone into our creative writing program with an eye toward writing genre fiction. We were discussing the absence of plot from our curriculum, and I remarked that professors probably didn’t bother teaching plot because it was the easiest part of writing — if you craft well-rounded, believably human characters, you can simply let them behave as human beings do and your plot will evolve on its own.

My friend countered that perhaps professors didn’t teach plot because they didn’t really understand it — they didn’t know how to explain how it functioned. And I think she was perhaps onto something there. Plot is certainly something I have difficulty explaining, and every time I try, I find the explanation too thin or too formulaic, too focused on the insignificant progression of moment to moment and not enough concerned with the evolution of a consciousness. I remember my early lessons in responding to literature; I remember how often teachers would steer me away from simple plot summaries and toward more nuanced, critical analyses: don’t tell me what happened — show me what it means.

And yet, in narrative, things do need to happen. There are events in a story, and they should follow a certain order. It doesn’t have to be the triangular arc; it doesn’t even have to follow any of Vonnegut’s shapes. I know a lot of writers these days who vociferously eschew “linear narrative” in favor of a more emotionally or intellectually charged jumble of associations. And I’ve certainly played with breaking shape and violating order. But even disorder, crafted correctly and with purpose, is a kind of order, and the way we arrange those events, linearly or nonlinearly, is still plot.

For me, plot now usually comes down to questions geometery, of shape and pattern. I’m very much in that camp that sees possibilities in nonlinear narrative, and I’m not terribly interested in a mere sequence of events, but I have become attuned to the importance of order in narrative, to the power of a sequence of emotions or ideas. And these are what give shape to the stories I want to tell.

While working on this NaNoWriMo novel, I went in with only a handful of ideas — a few characters, a setting, a traumatic event, a powerful set of emotions — but no idea of plot. At the outset of the story, a character dies, and I was interested in exploring the grief of the other characters in the aftermath of that death. But to what end? I had no idea, and after the first week, with several thousand words all in disjointed scenes and meditations, I wasn’t at all sure I’d be able to stick with the story long enough to discover where it was headed.

Then, while driving home the other day from work, I was thinking about the novel and dictating a bit of text into my phone, when I hit upon a connection between two characters that I hadn’t thought of before. The connection surprised me, and I stayed with it for a while, and I discovered another connection, and another . . . in the space of about 90 seconds, I saw the whole novel, the shape of it, the relationships between characters and events, the larger narrative arc as well as the small character arcs, the resolution, everything. Everything! I saw at a glance both the summary and the symbolism, what will happen and what it will mean.

I began to shout in the car. I looked around at the cars passing me — in my exhilerating creative vertigo, I’d decelerated considerably — as I searched for someone to witness the moment. I felt like I’d just finished reading my own unwritten novel, all in one sitting, all in one rush. I felt like I’d just jumped from a plane — I wanted to spread my arms, to increase drag and extend the freefalling giddiness for as long as I could.

Some day this will make more sense. When I’ve finished the novel and can talk more openly about its shape, its structure, readers will better understand this excitement I continue to feel about that sudden insight. It’s not that the structure is especially brilliant — it isn’t — but it’s the right structure, the necessary shape for this story. And in the days that have passed since, as I have started putting that structure into place and am blazing forward according to this new narrative map, I have begun to see not only that it works but also why it works. And here’s the trick, gang:

It’s about connections.

My teachers were right: great fiction is character-driven. But plot doesn’t evolve from crafting a strong character and then seeing where they go or what they do. Plot comes from building a whole world of characters and letting them interact with one another. Plot is about the moments where a character connects with — or fails to connect with, or refuses to connect with — another character. Plot isn’t Harry Potter discovering he’s a wizard; plot is Harry meeting Hagrid. Plot isn’t Holden Caulfield running away from school; plot is Holden refusing to touch or be touched by any other character, rebuffing everyone in a kind of antipolar magnetic repulsion that drives him through his story. Plot isn’t simply a gang of vampire-hunters out to stop Dracula; plot is Dracula invading — infecting, really — London, one person at a time, bite by bite, with all the problematic ethnic and colonialist complications that implies.

English: Spider web

English: Spider web (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Connections, as well as missed connections and disconnections, are what move a story forward and define when it must end. And this past week, folks, I saw the whole web of connections between my characters. I saw each path fork and intersect and ultimately tie off or drift out into another story, somewhere beyond the confines of this novel. I saw the whole thing, in one big spiderweb, one single image.

Now I just have to write it.

NaNoWriMo 2015: inspiration

A few months back, while looking through some old family miscellany, I had an idea for a new novel. This month, I’m writing that novel for NaNoWriMo. But unlike in years past, I’m trying to avoid reading much of anything while I’m writing the book — I have a pretty clear narrative voice and, as of yesterday (more on that in a later post), I have a very clear sense of structure, and I don’t want other reading to distract me from that.

But I make an exception for the material that sparked the idea in the first place: my maternal grandmother’s family documents. So, in addition to revisiting the legal and financial documents I found a few months ago, I’m also reading a shoeboxful of correspondence among various family members, almost all of it from the early 1920s, which is near when my novel is set.


The letters are mostly between family in Oklahoma, though I have found the occasional postmark in Texas and Louisiana. And I haven’t got far in their content yet — mostly I’ve just organized them chronologically and by author/recipient — but already they are offering some fascinating clues to the period. And I’m finding some wonderful stylistic quirks in the few letters I have perused while sorting, like a whole series of letters addressed to “Dearest Boy of Mine” — I love the human warmth in that!


(Also, the family farm had letterhead! Though note that this isn’t the same Breeze Hill Farm that currently exists in New York, nor is it the Breeze Hill Farm in Kentucky, and it’s not the Breeze Hill Farm in Virginia either . . . . Turns out, there are a lot of Breeze Hill Farms, though the modern ones seem to exist mostly east of the Mississippi)

I even found some old Valentines, though they seem to have never been mailed — there’s no postage and not much beyond a name written on the backs, so perhaps they were hand-delivered, or else were just collected as pretty cards.



I also have a file folder full of memoir narratives my grandmother wrote, as well as a bunch of tall tales written by her father (whom the family still refers to as “Daddy Bill”). And that man, folks, was a hoot! Look at his humorous experiments with dialect, for example!

“The Bar I Met When I Was 15”

I am gettin to be a ole man now, so gess I will tel u a few uv the things that happened to me when I wuz groan up. They wuz purty eksitin to me when they wuz hapenen so u mite enjoy herrin about them. I wuz bouarn bak in the das when oklahoma wuz still injun teritory an i didn’t hav no edication only ma tot me to reed an rite.

We get it drilled into our head in writing workshops that we should avoid dialect as much as possible, a lesson I kept in mind while trying to capture the accents and idiomatic quirks of my characters in Hagridden, and here, it’s easy to see why that rule exists — you almost have to relearn English in order to read a text written entirely in dialect! But you can also see the temptation of dialect — look how much fun that is! (And before people chime in with examples of dialect done right — Robert Burns, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Irvine Welsh, etc. —  I know. I’ve seen it work, too, and I love it. But there is definitely a learning curve both in the writing and the reading of it!) And I certainly enjoy watching my great-grandfather play with words on the page!

So what am I doing with all this material? Some of it is already providing details for my characters, in much the same way that my grandmother’s narratives provided crucial details for Hagridden, though this time the facts are more contemporaneous to my novel. In fact, several of my grandmother’s narratives, both of her own life and of the stories she’d heard growing up, are providing crucial insight to the world I’m writing about.

Sure, I’ll be fact-checking all this and reading more academic accounts of the time, the regional history, agricultural lives in pre-Depression Oklahoma, and so on. And already I’ve started taking notes on a few details, like the types and mechanical operation of 1920s cars and farm trucks, phases of the moon and growing seasons, and so on. But I know from experience that research, especially the detail-oreinted kind, can too often serve as a distraction from the writing, and these family narratives and letters can provide me with a lot of intimate, human details of actual lives lived in that time and place without sending me down into a cross-referenced labyrinth of other research. Which, so far, is how I’ve been using these: I just sit with them (or, to use my grandmother’s phrasing, “set with them”) and read them for pleasure, and whenever a detail leaps out at me, I either make a note and keep reading or set aside the pages and start writing my novel.

Speaking of which: the word count, as of this post (which doesn’t include the writing I’ll do later this evening) sits at 16,735.