Post #143: Cover Reveal

New Writing, The Writing Craft, Things You Should Be Reading, writing news

Friends, I’m so glad you’re here to see this. You’re looking at the cover of my debut novel, Blowin’ My Mind Like a Summer Breeze, which comes out on paperback, e-book, and audiobook on July22nd on Deep Hearts YA. I’m revealing the cover on social media later this week, but you’ve been with me from the beginning, so I wanted you to be the very first ones to see it.

I love it so much, and I hope you do too. It so perfectly captures the essence of this book, and my main character, Rainey Cobb, who I can’t wait for you to meet soon.

I plan to do a deep dive into the story behind the cover art and my amazing cover designer, Chloe White, in the days and weeks to come. But for now, I’m beyond thrilled to able to put it in front of your eyes.

Thank you for being here and supporting me. This is just the beginning of so much awesomeness to come. Stay tuned.

By the way, if you’d like to keep up with me on a more frequent basis, I have a new Instagram account for my writing life: @benjaminroeschwrites

Give me a follow!

Post #142: Control-F

The Writing Craft, Uncategorized, Writing Advice

I’ve been furiously editing my debut novel for publication this summer, and let me tell you, it’s a journey. Fraught with peaks and valleys, confirmations and surprises, tears and (near) laughter.

It’s also a supreme brain challenge, applying the editing skills you know you have to the words that you created, trying to erase the proximal distance between your analytical and creative brains so you can edit with clear-eyed clarity and polish your scenes and sentences to a spit shine.

I long ago developed a stomach for editing. They say to “kill your darlings” when you edit. No problem. What weapon shall I use? The machete? The butter knife? The rocket launcher? I’ve got them all and I’m not afraid to use them. Years ago, I wrote a very long (still unpublished) novel about a tennis player, and after a long walk during which I came to the conclusion that one of my sub-plots was totally not working, I sat back down at my desk and casually cut 200 pages from an 800 page manuscript.

Trimming excess fat, re-working scenes, saying goodbye to fluff. I can do that. It’s the blind spots that are starting to keep me up at night. The stuff I can’t see. The revelations that no amount of walks will unearth. Because I can only edit out the crap that I can identify as such. And before you bring it up, I’m not trying to do this alone. My publisher’s developmental editor has been through the manuscript, as have writing colleagues who know their stuff. Other eyes are deeply involved. But there are things that none of us can see with our bare eyes. I’m sure of it. And that knowledge is starting to make me a little crazy.

Luckily, our good friends who make word processing programs have invented tools to help uncover some of the crap you, and other knowledgeable, well-intentioned people can’t always find. I’m starting to believe that Control-F was invented for just such moments.

If you’re unfamiliar, which you probably aren’t, but just in case, Control-F is a word processing tool that allows you to search and find a word or phrase within a document without having to scroll through pages and pages trying to remember where it is. If you’ve never used it, I invite you to open up a document this very moment and try it out. Pick a word. A phrase. An image. Something you know is in there and type it into the Control-F box and watch your document magically race to that very spot. It’s truly amazing. It’s an especially helpful tool for those of us who write book length works where it can be very difficult to find what you’re looking for, no matter how well you think you know your book.

The other day, I was reading my book for the four hundredth time and I thought to myself, “man, is it me or is the word ‘like’ is in here a lot?” My book is 1st person YA, so on some level, it makes sense there would be an extra like or two, but still, I was feeling that from dialogue to similes, ‘like’ was everywhere. So, I typed “like” into the Control-F box. Then held my breath.

Sweet Jesus.

# of uses of the word “like” in my 70,000 word manuscript? 597. That’s less than 1% but still! The word was literally everywhere I looked. After my initial shock and terror subsided, I found myself incredibly grateful, wishing I could buy the creators of Control-F a drink or six. They’d helped me notice what was staring me in the face but I still couldn’t see.

I edited those pesky uses of “like” down to less than 400, and genuinely think I improved the manuscript in a very short amount of time.

Then, fearing I had a similar problem, I did Control-F for the word “just” and did the same thing.

As I was reading, I’d also noticed a proliferation of metaphors and similes involving birds in there so I did Control-F for “bird” and trimmed. Similarly, I’d noticed the same thing with puzzle-themed metaphors. Took care of that. Who’s next?

My teenage protagonist’s parents feature prominently, so there are approximately a billion instances of “mom” and “dad” in the book, but those words are either capitalized or not depending on the situation. Had I deployed the correct usage every time? I think you know what happened next.

I guess my point is that editing a manuscript takes you to some strange places, comes in a variety of forms, and that technology can occasionally be a useful friend along the way.

Thanks, Control-F.

Love, your pal Benjamin

Post #141: In Light of Recent Events

Book Reviews, New Writing, The Writing Craft, writing news

One of the best things about being friends with other writers is celebrating their successes, and I’m so here to celebrate. My good friend Amy Klinger recently published her debut novel In Light of Recent Events, and it’s such a likable, lovable book. I can’t wait for you to read it. Here’s what it’s about (from the back cover):

In the 1990s American workplace, survival of the fittest is sometimes less about clawing your way to the top than developing good camouflage. And Audrey Rohmer is doing her very best to blend in as an undistinguished middle manager. Uninspired by her job and uneasy about her father’s new marriage, Audrey coasts through the work week leaning on her “partner in apathy” – an admin assistant named Pooter – to keep her relationship with the married head of her department from becoming water cooler gossip.

But when an old family friend-turned-Hollywood-superstar crashes on her doorstep in the midst of a publicity crisis, Audrey’s under-the-radar status quo gets upended, and the writing may literally be on the bathroom wall that secrets will find a way out.

Sounds fun, doesn’t it? Like the kind of book you really want to read? It is.

Amy’s prose is airy, witty, and packed with observations so crystalline they make you want to read them again and again.

Did I mention this book is funny? Like, laugh out loud funny. Amy also is fantastic at set pieces and situational comedy making for some fantastically awkward moments.

Perhaps my favorite thing is the way Amy is willing to gently upend our expectations, making this book more surprising than you expect it will be.

It’s also quietly a book about grieving and loss, about the very blurry line drawn in our lives between childhood and adulthood, and about how hard it is to be a good person, even when it seems like it should be the easiest thing in the world.

This book has a huge heart and it will make you giggle. What’s not to love?

Friends, put this one on your to-read list. You can pre-oder it here and help support local bookstores.

Then register HERE for Amy’s virtual book launch on March 22nd at 7pm EST. I’ll be playing MC and helping facilitate some Q & A with the author.

Post #140: A Book of Magical Sentences

The Writing Craft, Things You Should Be Reading, Writing Advice

I recently finished Joan Didion’s National Book Award winning memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, and I can’t stop thinking about it. If you’ve never read it, it’s an account of the heartbreaking death of her husband John at the same time her daughter is battling a life-threatening illness. It’s brutally honest about grief, mourning, and loss. It’s as raw emotionally as anything I’ve read in a long time. Didion splits herself open, and you right along with her. It’s unforgettable. And rightfully on its way to becoming a classic.

But that’s not why I can’t stop thinking about it. Not solely why anyway. Of course, it’s Didion’s emotional candor and bravery in laying her grief bare that’s most noteworthy, most humbling, most nourishing. And I was deeply moved by this book. But it’s actually Didion’s language, and her sentences, I can’t stop thinking about. The way she varies short and long. Declarative and interrogative. The lack of modifiers. The strong, muscular verbs. The repetition. The unusual constructions.

In particular, there’s this one sentence from p. 213 that I’m pretty much obsessed with:

“In August and September, after the Democratic and Republican conventions but before the election, I wrote, for the first time since John died, a piece.”

It’s an odd sentence. Meandering. A bit of a mess, and yet utterly distinct, and because of that, deeply personal. Its confident style is what makes it feel personal. I read and re-read this sentence, thinking: I would never write that. Why wouldn’t I write that? Who would write that? Most interesting are those two words “a piece” dropped in there at the end. They feel like an afterthought, shipwrecked and abandoned, oddly disconnected from the rest of the sentence. And yet, the sentence still makes sense, still does the job it’s supposed to do. And maybe even something far more than that.

Let me try to explain what Didion does here in grammatical terms, and why it keeps catching my eye. Let’s take another sentence. How about this: For the first time in over a week, Jimmy walked his dog. Just a boring old sentence, right? Nothing special. It’s a sentence virtually any of us could imagine writing, or at least its equivalent.

But here, let me Didion-ize it for you.

Jimmy walked, for the first time in over a week, his dog.

Feels different, doesn’t it? Strange, maybe? Even a little confusing? Kind of. It uses the exact same words as the first one, and yet, I’d venture to bet that that’s not a sentence that many of us could imagine writing. I’m guessing it’s a small collection of people who would come up with that second version, or leave it that way upon re-reading.

Here’s why, maybe.

In this sentence, we have a subject (Jimmy) doing an action (walked) to someone/something (his dog). The someone/something is called a direct object. A direct object receives the action in a sentence.

I read the book.

I loved Pedro.

Emile cooked an omelet.

Bethany drove her daughter to school.

Typically direct objects are kept close to the subjects acting upon them so that their relationship is clear. Clarity is the soul of effective writing. So why, we might ask, would a writer of Didion’s caliber make the choice to put her direct object “a piece” so far away from the person (“I”) doing the action (“wrote”)? Did she do it on purpose? Is that just the way it came out? Did she fight with her editor about it?

Let’s go back to the two versions of Jimmy’s sentence for a second.

  1. For the first time in over a week, Jimmy walked his dog.
  2. Jimmy walked, for the first time in over a week, his dog.

Which sentence do you prefer? Which feels clearer? I’m going to boldly assume many of us would choose the first one, or at least say it’s clearer.

Now, which has more style? Which feels more personal? Which is more memorable? The answers to these questions feel harder to predict. And therein lies my fascination with Didion’s choice.

Of course, this is all totally subjective, and yet, that’s not to say that we can’t base our opinion on something. I taught high school English for 12 years, and I taught my students to prize clarity in their writing. To keep their direct objects within reach of their subjects so that their meaning would be understood. Writing with clarity doesn’t come that naturally. It’s actually something that most of us have to learn, and then learn again, and keep learning. Students often write long, meandering, messes of sentences, and part of what teachers can do is help them understand how sentences work so they can make more informed choices. To use language more purposefully, and with greater force.

It’s not so much about right and wrong. It’s about intent and communication.

What bothers me a bit is that if Didion was my student, say a freshman in my 9th grade Elements of Literature survey, her sentence would likely get the serious red-pen treatment. I’d likely write “awk” or “not clear” in the margin. I’d likely circle the words “a piece” and draw an arrow back over to the subject and verb.

I write a regular column about music for KIDS VT and I feel confident my editor would also flag this sentence for the many reasons outlined above.

Further, I’m also a graduate of a strong MFA program where I studied creative writing, and I have a hunch this sentence would get mauled in workshop. With good intent, of course. Those arguing that it’s meandering and should just say what it means and keep ideas together would be right, in a way. And yet, they’d all be wrong too. Why? Because if we all wrote to the workshop ideal, or limited our use of language to what would or would not flag a teacher’s red pen, or please an editor, people like Joan Didion may not have been able to develop such unique, indelible styles. When I read Didion, like when I’m reading Toni Morrison or David Foster Wallace or Haruki Murakami, I’m constantly thinking that she doesn’t sound like anybody else. There’s not much higher praise for a writer. And yet, as teachers and editors, despite our best intentions, it’s often our instinct to push back against what defies convention, what makes us think differently. But to what end, and at what cost?

Let’s take another look at Didion’s sentence.

“In August and September, after the Democratic and Republican conventions but before the election, I wrote, for the first time since John died, a piece.”

Here’s how we might edit this.

After I attended the Democratic and Republican conventions in August and September, I wrote a piece for the first time since John died.

With my editor’s hat on, I removed “but before the election” because thinking like an editor, I could argue that the sentence expresses the same idea without it, and therefore it isn’t needed. I know I shouldn’t edit Didion, but bear with me. It’s just a thought experiment.

Is this edited version clearer in its expression? Maybe a little. But is it consequently less personal? Somewhat. Less stylized? Absolutely. Less memorable? No question. By distancing herself (“I wrote”) from the thing she’s writing (“a piece”), she’s showing us how separated she felt from her life beyond the bonds of her grief. And by inserting her husbands’s death (“for the first time since John died”) in between the two, she’s reminding us, and herself, of the painful bridge she has to cross to re-claim her identity and live a life without her husband, who was also a writer.

What is style? And how is it caught up in other paradigms and inevitably burdened by larger political forces like the patriarchy and Western bias and sexism?

Why do some writers develop such memorable relationships to language, whereas most of us tend to listen to our editors perhaps a little more than we should? I don’t know exactly, but I have a hunch courage and conviction plays a larger role than we might at first imagine. Didion is a writer of tremendous courage and conviction.

David Foster Wallace’s editor wrote at length about the exchanges they would have where Wallace would defend his stylistic choices down to the very last syllable. Wallace went to war for every word. And this is a guy who wrote long. To invest that kind of time not only in the making of the language itself, but then in the defending of it makes me tired just thinking about it. The energy burns in his prose. I feel something similar in Didion. And though I have no idea, I’ll bet she was a pain in the ass to edit.

Here’s something Joan Didion said once about grammar:

“Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed. Many people know about camera angles now, but not so many know about sentences. The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind.”

When you read Didion’s thinking, you can begin to understand the way she thought about language. How deeply personal it was to her. You can begin to imagine the mind of the writer that would write:

“In August and September, after the Democratic and Republican conventions but before the election, I wrote, for the first time since John died, a piece.”

Instead of:

After I attended the Democratic and Republican conventions in August and September, I wrote a piece for the first time since John died.

And thank God that she did. The Year of Magical Thinking is full of wondrous, unexpected, sometimes strange but always true sentences, and I’m grateful for every single one of them.

This is the part where I say Rest in Peace to Joan Didion, who died December 23rd, 2021 at the age of 87. Thanks for arranging your words so carefully and challenging this writer to be more courageous.

Post #139: Ambitious Attainability

New Writing, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized, Writing Advice

I love some good goal setting just as much as the next guy. After all, setting goals + achieving goals = happier self. And who doesn’t want to be happier? But I’ve also developed a bit of an algorithm for my own goals, whether they be for my writing life or just my life in general.

I believe in setting goals that are ambitious, but still attainable. Ambitious so that I’m properly motivated and know that I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone. Attainable so that I have something to celebrate because celebrating feels good and is a really important part of the process. Most goal setting happens privately, and when it’s just you and you, small victories really matter. In the age of social media, it feels like everything is for public consumption, but deep down, most of us still know that we have to make ourselves happy first.

Now, I know that the notion of attainability sort of flies in the face of all the “yay-me!” feelings that are supposed to accompany goal setting in the greeting-card sense of the phrase. We’re always telling ourselves to “dream big” and “be our best selves.” To “reach for the stars” and be “the person we were always born to be.” But you show me a person who spends a little too much time dreaming big and reaching for the stars and I’ll show you a person who regularly doesn’t meet his goals and doesn’t get to celebrate success as often as he’d like.

Let’s get specific. At the top of this page, you’ll see a picture. Now, I’m not in this picture, but what you’re looking at is me celebrating successfully meeting a goal in about the least sexy way possible: by writing numbers on a page, and then writing more numbers beneath those numbers, and then more numbers beneath those. That’s my daily word count for last week.

I was off for a week over the holiday, and I knew I wanted to make some progress on my novel-in-progress, which I’d been struggling to make traction with as of late. But when you’ve got children dominating your life and schedule, Christmas to plan, not to mention food to eat and classic films to watch, days full of free time–the thing we all want more of–can whisk by in surprisingly brisk fashion.

I needed a goal. So, I set one. I decided that during break I would try to write 1,000 words a day. Now, I tend to write fast, and so 1,000 words doesn’t feel like an overly-huge haul, but I also knew that I’d be more likely to reach my daily goal if I set it for an attainable quantity. If I’m properly focused, I can usually write 1,000 story words in 2-3 hours. However, to reach this goal, I knew I’d have to wake up early and get my pages in before the family was up and the day swept me away so that I could properly focus. I’d have to skip morning time chatting with my wife and reading the Beatles biography I’ve been working my way through. I’d have to sacrifice. And sacrifice takes ambition. As does consistency, which was part of my goal. 1,000 words a day, every day. No excuses.

And that un-sexy photo at the top of the page? It’s proof. It’s my reward for a job well done. The first two days waking up at 6:30 when I wanted to sleep in kind of sucked. But with each passing day, I wrote down my current word count before getting to work, and as the numbers grew, I felt successful knowing I’d not only reached the prior day’s goal, I was proving to myself that I could reach today’s as well. And tomorrow’s. With each day, getting up early and getting my pages in felt just a little bit easier, and a little more satisfying.

It’s easy to get romantic about writing, especially fiction. But the dirty little secret is that writing, almost more than anything, is about showing up. And then showing up again. And again. You could write for twelve hours straight and bang out 7,500 words in a marathon Kerouac-style session, but you’re more likely to do it in small chunks. A little bit each day adds up to a lot.

This year, let’s practice ambitious attainability. Let me know how it goes. Very un-sexy pictures of celebration highly encouraged.

Post #138: You Know it When You Hear It

New Writing, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized, Writing Advice, writing news

Since my publisher, Deep Hearts YA, does not do much with audiobooks just yet, one of the tasks I’ve given myself in anticipation of my debut novel coming out next year is independently producing an audiobook of my book to accompany the paperback and e-book release. Why? Mostly because I love audiobooks. Secondly, because it sounded like fun. I know, I know. My version of fun isn’t exactly normal. But I’ve hosted my own podcast, know a little bit about recording and editing quality audio. How hard could it be?

The truth is that before I even got going, I confronted a serious problem. Who would narrate it? Initially, I had planned to narrate it myself. I have a background in acting and teaching and podcasting, which means I trusted myself to deliver a solid performance, and hey, I’m on a budget here. But when I mentioned this plan to my wife, she scrunched up her face in that way she does, the one that lets me know I’m a complete idiot.

You see, I’m a middle aged guy, and my protagonist is, well, not. In fact, my protagonist is a 15-year old girl. My wife gently explained that audiences would probably warm more to the story if the voice narrating the story was closer to that of its main character. She also pointed out that this was especially important given that the novel is in 1st person. But…But…But…

I had some serious Buts because this flew in the face of my plan, and my budget, and my selfish desire to read it myself. And, after all, how the hell do you find someone great to narrate an audiobook?

While I have some additional feelings on the topic of whether a narrator’s gender needs to always match up with that of a main character, my wife was right on this one. She usually is.

So, I thought about it: who do I know that could do this? I sent some emails to local theater organizations. I asked friends. I thought some more. I sent some more emails. Not surprisingly, not much came of this. So, I did what any sensible person would do. I quietly panicked.

And then I discovered ACX, which, as many people know is Amazon’s giant portal for authors and narrators to produce and publish audiobooks. It’s a place where narrators can post samples of themselves and where authors can discover the perfect narrator. I filtered for “YA” and “female” and no fewer that a billion or so narrators and their samples came up. I began clicking and listening. Clicking and listening. Some were fine. Some were not so fine. Some were excellent. Some were professional. Some were decidedly not professional. Some were clearly recorded on a quality microphone. Some seemed accidentally recorded by a phone’s voice memo function. I just kept listening, not quite sure what I was looking for, but hoping that I would know it when I heard it.

And then I heard H’s voice. Everything about her delivery and timbre, her ability to sound vulnerable and real, felt like it would fit perfectly with Rainey, my main character.

From there, things clicked together with a kind of serendipity that is truly unusual. I reached out to H, told her about my project, sent her some sample pages, and asked if she was interested in doing an audition. She was.

A few weeks later, she sent her audition through, and I got goosebumps when I listened to it again and again while walking around my neighborhood with a goofy smile on my face.

I’m happy to report this story has a happy ending, and that I’ve found my narrator. You’re going to love her.

Post #137: Book Title Bingo

The Writing Craft, Writing Advice

For me, choosing a book title is one of the hardest parts of the writing process. And by hardest, I mean it makes me want to jump out my office window into oncoming traffic. The problem, generally, isn’t generating ideas. Usually, the ideas are the easy part. It’s deciding which are the good ideas. And which is the best title. Because, truly, how do you know? And what the hell does “best” mean anyway?

Should a title be short and catchy? Long and poetic? Metaphorical? Stunningly direct? Common and memorable? Abstract and unforgettable? A little bit of everything.

You see where I’m going with this. Conventional wisdom would have us believe that shorter is better. And I don’t necessarily disagree. After all, you want to have a book title that’s easy to grasp, remember, share, and explain. And yet, from where I’m sitting right this very moment, long titles abound. Here’s a selection of longer titles I can see on my bookshelves just from my desk chair:

  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day
  • Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club
  • A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Of course, I can see plenty of, and probably more, pithy and short titles as well. To boot:

  • Pleasantview
  • Blindness
  • Dubliners
  • Deep
  • Autumn
  • Naked

Shit

I’m preoccupied by book titles right now because I’m trying to settle on the title for my forthcoming debut novel, which comes out summer, 2022 on Deep Hearts YA. To avoid confusion, I’m not going to share the working title here, but suffice to say, it’s on the long side. I’ve changed it many times, but keep going back to the original. Because I like it. And because it fits nicely with the book’s feel, content, and audience. But I can’t shake the nagging, and likely ill-founded, fear that’s it’s too long. Or something.

Ultimately, it probably matters less than I think it does. I doubt I would like The Great Gatsby or Beloved any less if they were called something else. Over time, we reimagine titles. We wrap them around the book as we imagine it to be. As we want it to be. If we love a book, chances are the title feels just right to us. If we hate a book, then it’s probably the opposite.

For the moment, I’ll keep making lists and checking them a thousand times. When the title is set, or when I likely give up and stick with my original title, I promise you’ll be the first to know.

Post #128: Some Thoughts on Ann Patchett

The Writing Craft, Writing Advice

9780062049810_custom-7ad2bd2af04c0ac867ab2c601a045a0fd85fd7b2-s99-c85            In Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel State of Wonder, she demonstrates how a writer can, and should, manipulate time to inform a reader’s experience and focus her attention. In a rudimentary sense, time = importance. By skipping briskly through time, for instance, a reader subconsciously infers that the story’s most urgent action is not currently happening, but coming, perhaps concealed just around the next corner/chapter. Conversely, such as in a long scene in the first chapter of State of Wonder, Patchett slows the story clock down to a crawl in order to draw the reader’s attention to the story weight the moment carries. In part, she does this in unsurprising ways, using description, conflict, and dialogue. What is surprising, though, and worthy of a closer examination, is how Patchett also uses repetition to quietly deepen our sense of who the characters are and how they will behave later in the story.

The scene opens in a suburban neighborhood where Marina Singh, the novel’s protagonist, along with her boss and (secret) lover, the aptly named Mr. Fox (think perhaps he’s devious?), have arrived at the home of Karen Eckman to deliver the awful news that Karen’s husband, Anders, is dead. And not only dead, but dead through suspicious circumstances in a remote section of the Amazon. Though the scene is quite early in the novel, for the seven pages Marina and Mr. Fox are in the Eckman’s household, time slows to a crawl. As they drive up, we get a long description of the Eckman’s neighborhood, as well as Marina’s internal wonderings about the finances involved in living there and how different her own life as a single woman is from her married colleague, a father of two. Then, after Karen Eckman opens the door and sees her husband’s colleagues standing there, clearly unnerved when she says “now this is a surprise,” Patchett withholds the reveal, building tension. We meet the family dog Pickles, who becomes a metaphor for the dead husband by scene’s end, and are treated to long descriptions of both the house itself, as well as the weather outside (it’s winter). We also glimpse a jungle gym through the window, a reminder that not only has Karen lost a husband, but two boys have lost a father. They just don’t know it yet.

When Karen asks if they’d like coffee, “Marina turned to put the question to Mr. Fox and found that he was standing directly behind her.” Meaning, of course, that Mr. Fox wants Marina to do the talking. At first we don’t make too much of this. But later down the page, Patchett repeats this character detail. “She {Marina} glanced back at Mr. Fox again…but Mr. Fox had turned towards the refrigerator now.” The repetition of the notion that Mr. Fox, who is not only the dead Anders’s boss, but the replacement male in this scene, shrinking back, thereby making Marina do the tougher, braver work, does two things. It tells us that Mr. Fox is perhaps cowardly, or at least deferential to a fault. It also tells us that Marina is, or will have to be, strong. It’s this latter character detail that Patchett gets the most use out of, for as State of Wonder progresses, Marina will over and over again have to dip into reservoirs of strength, bravery, and resilience she didn’t even know were there. Often, too, she has to do because Mr. Fox is (symbolically) hiding behind her.

Patchett continues to mine this tension through repetition as the scene develops. When Karen finally stops rambling and tending to the dog and says, “this isn’t good news, right?” Marina thinks to herself, “this was the moment for Mr. Fox to tell the story, to explain it in a way that Marina herself did not fully understand, but nothing came…Mr. Fox had his back to the two women.” A page, though perhaps only moments, later, Marina thinks “surely it was Mr. Fox’s part to give Karen the letter {in which she and Mr. Fox had learned of Anders’s death}…but then with a fresh wave of grief, Marina remembered that the letter was in her pocket.” Patchett is shrewd here. The main character is thinking one thing, that she’s doing what Mr. Fox should be doing, but Patchett’s goal is to both transfer power and responsibility, but also to prove Marina as a strong person who will rise to an occasion, demonstrated through this letter, an object Patchett uses to great effect here by placing it in Marina’s path.

Once Karen Eckman has absorbed the horrible news and read the aforementioned letter, again we are reminded of Mr. Fox’s lack of ability to engage in this most urgent moment. “The two of them were alone in this,” Marina thinks regarding she and Karen. The reason? “Mr. Fox had been driven from the room by the sound, the keening of Karen Eckman’s despair.” The repetition has built towards his very removal, enforcing the twin notions of female strength/companionship and absent men, which will both play central roles in State of Wonder.

Towards the end of the scene, after Marina has left Karen briefly to try to figure out what to do, who to call to support her and how to tell the Eckman boys, she returns to the kitchen to find Mr. Fox has finally stepped in and is “petting Karen’s head with a slow and rhythmical assurance” trying to put her at ease. He’s too late, though. The damage is done. And as Marina and Mr. Fox are driving away from the house, Marina thinks about how “she certainly blamed him {Mr. Fox} for leaving her alone to tell Karen.” She then wonders a heavier, more damning thing: “Did she blame him for sending Anders to his death in Brazil?”

By the time you’ve read State of Wonder in its entirety, this long, held moment early in the novel only grows in importance. Patchett slows down time and uses a range of craft elements, repetition most dynamically, to build character and introduce conflicts that will surface through the book, making this early moment a microcosm of who these characters are and how they will respond to difficult situations. Finally, it’s worth noting that Patchett’s use of repetition also achieves a great sense of contrast, for the focusing on Mr. Fox, important as it seems about him as a character, actually reveals even more about Marina, the novel’s heroine and most sympathetic and deeply developed character. In fact, the closer you look at this scene, the more you’ll wonder: how does Patchett do so many things so well at the same time? Writers of all stripes would be wise to study Patchett’s use of slowed time and repetition and try to borrow a bit of her craft mojo in their own work.

 

Post #122: Andrea Barrett

The Writing Craft, Things You Should Be Reading

A recent book that blew my mind was Andrea Barrett’s collection of stories called Servants of the Map. It was one of those books that, while reading, I could feel burrowing into my writer’s subconscious, re-arranging the wiring for what’s possible and what I want to be able to do in fiction. Here’s some thoughts on Point of View in a story from that collection, ‘The Forest.”

“The Forest” contains an astonishing twenty-four changes in point of view in only twenty-five pages of text. It’s a remarkably fluid and almost basketball like passing of perspectives back and forth between its two main characters, Bianca and Krzysztof. In the story’s early going, the changes in perspective—initially indicated by white space—seem geared to help us witness a party (and its guests), at which our two main characters find themselves, from different perspectives. That it does. Yet, by the story’s end, when Bianca and Krzysztof sneak away from the party and begin sharing details of their pasts, Barrett’s intention for such fluid, frequent (though risky) changes in POV grows more deeply linked to experiencing not just the story’s action from different perspectives, but its profound themes as well.

We open in the POV of aging and well-regarded scientist Krzysztof Wojciechowicz, who has just arrived at an esteemed colleague’s party at which many celebrated scientists are present. Krzysztof feels out of place. So too does Bianca, the young woman who helped chauffer Krzysztof to the party and is bitterly transitioning away from the world of science and academia. In the opening sections, the point of view shifts back and forth between them, trading off every couple pages.

On the micro level, when Krzysztof and Bianca meet, we’re in Krzysztof’s POV where we learn he “could not help noticing that she had lovely breasts.” A few pages later, now in Bianca’s POV and learning how she fits—or decidedly doesn’t fit—into this party dynamic, she stops to consider the strange elder scientist, noting “had it not been for the lizardike graze of his eyes across her chest, she might have felt sorry for him.” It’s a subtle moment—in fact, it could easily be played for comedy in another story—but Barrett seizes on it as a way to develop character and make the most of these new eyes through which we’re seeing the action. What do we learn? Krzysztof, though elderly, still can’t help a peek at a young woman’s chest. He wonders: “How was it he still felt these impulses?” This question raises the stakes of his indiscretion, and the fact of his looking matters even more when we learn that Bianca has not only noticed, but been miffed by the unwanted glance. Without the shifting POV, this moment can’t happen.

Similarly, in the first Krzysztof section, Bianca comes off as brash, agitated, and dismissive of Krzysztof. In the very next section, in Bianca’s POV, she sneaks to an upstairs bedroom and smokes a joint. Directly after this, back in Krzysztof’s POV, he awakes from an accidental nap to find Bianca “cross-legged on the grass, watching over him.” Something’s changed in her; he can feel it. “She seemed happy now; what had he missed?” Krzysztof doesn’t know she’s high, but he doesn’t need to. Here Barrett uses the shifting POV not just for character development and tension, but for dramatic irony as well, and to establish a gradually building closeness between them.

The macro benefits unfold more gradually as Krzysztof and Bianca’s perception of one another becomes more sympathetic and round. More human. For instance, Krzysztof recognizes that Bianca has spirit and he seems intrigued by Bianca’s complex relationship with her sister, Rose. Bianca’s sense of Krzysztof changes even more dramatically when he invites her to share some rare vodka he’s brought from overseas, and, buoyed by his kindness, and several shots of bison vodka, she finds that “…this man, whom at first she’d felt saddled with and longed to escape, was some sort of magician.” Barrett consistently justifies the change in perspective by showing us such powerful and revealing character insights.

Mid-way through the story, as Krzysztof and Bianca grow friendlier, and as their conversation shifts from the party to their pasts, especially their mothers, Barrett stops tipping her hand with white space and begins changing POV both more fluidly and more often. For instance, at one point we are in Krzysztof’s POV and he’s telling Bianca a long story about his mother, who helped keep the bison population alive in Europe, yet in the middle of his story, “Bianca interrupted him—he seemed old again, he was wandering. And crossing and uncrossing his legs like a little boy who had to pee.” When Bianca interrupts, the perspective shifts, yet the action continues without interruption. It’s this seamless story movement that keeps the increasingly shifting POV from growing cumbersome.

And yet, the “head hopping” that Barrett engages in walks a fine line and might, in lesser hands, detract from the story. In The Power of Point of View, Alicia Rasley writes that “the indiscriminate shifting from one character’s POV to another’s” is “like being trapped in a car with a driver who keeps changing lanes every ten seconds.” Good advice for those of us still learning how to use and harness point of view. What keeps this feeling at bay in “The Forest” though is both Barrett’s control and purpose for the shifting POV, and also the fact that she only shifts between two characters. If she changed perspectives as frequently with, say, four or five characters, or across more settings, the effect might be whiplash and harder to sustain or justify.

In the end, the characters end up witnessing the same climactic moment—a cluster of deer who come each day to feed in a patch of nearby forest—but end up focused on different things. Her time with Krzysztof has sent Bianca thinking of her mother and of the complex relationship she has with her sister. Krzysztof, though clearly affected by remembrances of his mother and the early part of his life, still seems more physically in the present. On their way back to the party, Krzysztof invites small talk and Bianca asks him about the bison his mother helped protect. “How pleasing that after all she’d paid attention to his stories,” he thinks. Though affected by the deer and his thoughts, he’s still very aware of this lovely young girl he’s ended up sharing the afternoon with.

Their connection to their past, and to their mothers, informs why they end up connecting in the present. Barrett’s shifting POV makes the context of their relationship richer and more deeply felt. It also helps deepen one of the story’s central themes, the sense of longing for and deep consideration of a past that has influenced the present. The story takes a darkly comic turn when Krzysztof hurts himself on their brief sojourn and Bianca has to bring him back to the party with braces on his legs. Rather than face the music, though, Bianca peels out of the driveway with the esteemed guests looking on, incredulous and worried. And yet, this ends up being a profound shared moment. “Back, Krzysztof thought” as they’re driving away, “back across the ocean and Europe toward home; back to the groves of Bialowieza, where his mother might once have crossed paths with Bianca’s grandfather.” In this moment for him, their lives have become joined both in the present drama and in the lingering past, uniting them more deeply. And yet, Barrett gives us one final shift in POV to show the ways in which their shared experience has affected them differently. “He thought back but Bianca, her foot heavy on the accelerator, thought away. From Rose, their mother, their entire past.”

It’s rather amazing what Barrett achieves in “The Forest.” On first reading, I felt aware of frequent shifts in POV and was impressed at how seamless it felt. On closer examination, finding just how often she changes POV and what she’s able to achieve as a result—just the simple fact that she pulls it off—I feel excited to explore how shifts in POV can deepen and broaden my own stories.