Friday, September 30, 2005

What Is Magical Realism, Really? by Bruce Holland Rogers

"Magical realism" has become a debased term. When it first came into use to describe the work of certain Latin American writers, and then a small number of writers from many places in the world, it had a specific meaning that made it useful for critics. If someone made a list of recent magical realist works, there were certain characteristics that works on the list would share. The term also pointed to a particular array of techniques that writers could put to specialized use. Now the words have been applied so haphazardly that to call a work "magical realism" doesn't convey a very clear sense of what the work will be like.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

2006 US Agents Listing @ Writers Services Website

Writers Services has just updated their US Agents Listing. Please visit their website and check out the valuable resourse information posted at their site.

The title is the link to their website.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Principles of a story by Raymond Carver

From Chekhov to James Joyce, the short story defined modern fiction. The form later came to be defined by America. Writing in 1981, one of the great US writers explains why he came to prefer the story to the novel Raymond Carver.

This essay first appeared in the "New York Times Book Review" in 1981 as "A Storyteller's Notebook." Entitled "On Writing," it is included in "Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories" (Harvill Press) by Raymond Carver. © 1968 to 1988 by Raymond Carver, 1989 to present by Tess Gallagher.
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Back in the mid-1960s, I found I was having trouble concentrating my attention on long narrative fiction. For a time I experienced difficulty in trying to read it as well as in attempting to write it. My attention span had gone out on me; I no longer had the patience to try to write novels. It's an involved story, too tedious to talk about here. But I know it has much to do now with why I write poems and short stories. Get in, get out. Don't linger. Go on. It could be that I lost any great ambitions at about the same time, in my late twenties. If I did, I think it was good it happened. Ambition and a little luck are good things for a writer to have going for him. Too much ambition and bad luck, or no luck at all, can be killing. There has to be talent.

Some writers have a bunch of talent; I don't know any writers who are without it. But a unique and exact way of looking at things, and finding the right context for expressing that way of looking, that's something else. The World According to Garp is, of course, the marvellous world according to John Irving. There is another world according to Flannery O'Connor, and others according to William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. There are worlds according to Cheever, Updike, Singer, Stanley Elkin, Ann Beattie, Cynthia Ozick, Donald Barthelme, Mary Robison, William Kittredge, Barry Hannah, Ursula K Le Guin. Every great or even every very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications.

It's akin to style, what I'm talking about, but it isn't style alone. It is the writer's particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There's plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time.

Isak Dinesen said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair. Someday I'll put that on a three-by-five card and tape it to the wall beside my desk. I have some three-by-five cards on the wall now. "Fundamental accuracy of statement is the one sole morality of writing." Ezra Pound. It is not everything by any means, but if a writer has "fundamental accuracy of statement" going for him, he's at least on the right track.

I have a three-by-five up there with this fragment of a sentence from a story by Chekhov: "…and suddenly everything became clear to him." I find these words filled with wonder and possibility. I love their simple clarity, and the hint of revelation that's implied. There is mystery, too. What has been unclear before? Why is it just now becoming clear? What's happened? Most of all—what now? There are consequences as a result of such sudden awakenings. I feel a sharp sense of relief—and anticipation.

I overheard the writer Geoffrey Wolff say "No cheap tricks" to a group of writing students. That should go on a three-by-five card. I'd amend it a little to "No tricks." Period. I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or a gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. Tricks are ultimately boring, and I get bored easily, which may go along with my not having much of an attention span. But extremely clever chichi writing, or just plain tomfoolery writing, puts me to sleep. Writers don't need tricks or gimmicks or even necessarily need to be the smartest fellows on the block. At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing—a sunset or an old shoe—in absolute and simple amazement.

Some months back, in the New York Times Book Review, John Barth said that ten years ago most of the students in his fiction writing seminar were interested in "formal innovation," and this no longer seems to be the case. He's a little worried that writers are going to start writing mom and pop novels in the 1980s. He worries that experimentation may be on the way out, along with liberalism. I get a little nervous if I find myself within earshot of sombre discussions about "formal innovation" in fiction writing. Too often "experimentation" is a licence to be careless, silly or imitative in the writing. Even worse, a licence to try to brutalise or alienate the reader. Too often such writing gives us no news of the world, or else describes a desert landscape and that's all—a few dunes and lizards here and there, but no people; a place uninhabited by anything recognisably human, a place of interest only to a few scientific specialists.

It should be noted that real experiment in fiction is original, hard-earned and cause for rejoicing. But someone else's way of looking at things—Barthelme's, for instance—should not be chased after by other writers. It won't work. There is only one Barthelme, and for another writer to try to appropriate Barthelme's peculiar sensibility or mise en scène under the rubric of innovation is for that writer to mess around with chaos and disaster and, worse, self-deception. The real experimenters have to "make it new," as Pound urged, and in the process have to find things out for themselves. But if writers haven't taken leave of their senses, they also want to stay in touch with us, they want to carry news from their world to ours.

It's possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring—with immense, even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader's spine—the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it. That's the kind of writing that most interests me. I hate sloppy or haphazard writing whether it flies under the banner of experimentation or else is just clumsily rendered realism. In Isaac Babel's wonderful short story, "Guy de Maupassant," the narrator has this to say about the writing of fiction: "No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place." This too ought to go on a three-by-five.

Evan Connell said once that he knew he was finished with a short story when he found himself going through it and taking out commas and then going through the story again and putting commas back in the same places. I like that way of working on something. I respect that kind of care for what is being done. That's all we have, finally, the words, and they had better be the right ones, with the punctuation in the right places so that they can best say what they are meant to say. If the words are heavy with the writer's own unbridled emotions, or if they are imprecise and inaccurate for some other reason—if the words are in any way blurred—the reader's eyes will slide right over them and nothing will be achieved. The reader's own artistic sense will simply not be engaged. Henry James called this sort of hapless writing "weak specification."

I have friends who've told me they had to hurry a book because they needed the money, their editor or their wife was leaning on them or leaving them—something, some apology for the writing not being very good. "It would have been better if I'd taken the time." I was dumbfounded when I heard a novelist friend say this. I still am, if I think about it, which I don't. It's none of my business. But if the writing can't be made as good as it is within us to make it, then why do it? In the end, the satisfaction of having done our best, and the proof of that labour, is the one thing we can take into the grave. I wanted to say to my friend, for heaven's sake go do something else. There have to be easier and maybe more honest ways to try and earn a living. Or else just do it to the best of your abilities, your talents, and then don't justify or make excuses. Don't complain, don't explain.

In an essay called, simply enough, "Writing Short Stories," Flannery O'Connor talks about writing as an act of discovery. O'Connor says she most often did not know where she was going when she sat down to work on a short story. She says she doubts that many writers know where they are going when they begin something. She uses "Good Country People" as an example of how she put together a short story whose ending she could not even guess at until she was nearly there:

When I started writing that story, I didn't know there was going to be a PhD with a wooden leg in it. I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two women I knew something about, and before I realised it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter with a wooden leg. I brought in the Bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn't know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realised it was inevitable.

When I read this some years ago, it came as a shock that she, or anyone for that matter, wrote stories in this fashion. I thought this was my uncomfortable secret, and I was a little uneasy with it. For sure I thought this way of working on a short story somehow revealed my own shortcomings. I remember being tremendously heartened by reading what she had to say on the subject.

I once sat down to write what turned out to be a pretty good story, though only the first sentence of the story had offered itself to me when I began it. For several days I'd been going around with this sentence in my head: "He was running the vacuum cleaner when the telephone rang." I knew a story was there and that it wanted telling. I felt it in my bones, that a story belonged with that beginning, if I could just have the time to write it. I found the time, an entire day—12, 15 hours even—if I wanted to make use of it. I did, and I sat down in the morning and wrote the first sentence, and other sentences promptly began to attach themselves. I made the story just as I'd make a poem; one line and then the next, and the next. Pretty soon I could see a story—and I knew it was my story, the one I'd been wanting to write.

I like it when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories. I think a little menace is fine to have in a story. For one thing, it's good for the circulation. There has to be tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often, there simply won't be a story. What creates tension in a piece of fiction is partly the way the concrete words are linked together to make up the visible action of the story. But it's also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface of things.

VS Pritchett's definition of a short story is "something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing." Notice the "glimpse" part of this. First the glimpse. Then the glimpse given life, turned into something that illuminates the moment and may, if we're lucky—that word again—have even further-ranging consequences and meaning. The short story writer's task is to invest the glimpse with all that is in his power. He'll bring his intelligence and literary skill to bear (his talent), his sense of proportion and sense of the fitness of things: of how things out there really are and how he sees those things—like no one else sees them. And this is done through the use of clear and specific language, language used so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader. For the details to be concrete and convey meaning, the language must be accurate and precisely given. The words can be so precise they may even sound flat, but they can still carry; if used right, they can hit all the notes.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Sinclair Lewis Quote

"When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross." -- Sinclair Lewis

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Writing Suspense: Fiction vs. Reality

Writing Suspense: Fiction vs. Reality

by Michele Martinez

As a federal prosecutor in New York City, I spent most of a decade locking up hardened criminals. Specializing in narcotics and gangs cases, I knew crime inside out. By the time I left that job, I'd done so many drug trials, listened in on so many wiretaps, and debriefed so many cold-blooded killers and thugs about so many different types of crimes that I could have gone out and committed one myself. And gotten away with it. So it seemed like an obvious evolution to start writing suspense novels based on my gritty real-life experiences. I figured crafting a page-turner out of that material had to be a piece of cake, right?

The Motives of Villains and Heroes in Suspense Fiction

Suspense & Mystery
Shane P. Carr, Associate Editor, Suspense & Mystery

Unleashing the Dark Side
The Motives of Villains and Heroes in Suspense Fiction
By Shane P. Carr
©2001, Shane P. Carr



Did you ever wonder what the author’s mind must be like to think up such a twisted, sadistic character? Would you believe me if I told you that it was the character’s humanity that really sends those chills down your spine? Yes, believe it or not, it is the human side of such characters that make the hairs of your neck stand on end.

Let’s take Tom Harris’s Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ Lecter for example. Do you really think Dr. Lecter would have been nearly as terrifying if he didn’t have such passion for Agent Starling? Think about it. Imagine Lecter instead as a ten-foot flesh-eating monster that did not resemble a human in anyway. I’ll be the first to admit a flesh-eating monster can be scary, but it wouldn’t have unnerved you on that inner psychological level. If you let yourself think about it for a minute, you will realize that it is the fact that Lecter is human and responsible for such atrocities that is really unnerving you. The fact that Hannibal Lecter could be your everyday physician or the neighborhood mailman is what really makes people terrified of him. In Silence of the Lambs the author makes readers see the dark side of humanity, that inner evil that has the potential to manifest itself in each and every one of us.

This potential for inner evil is what all suspense writers should focus on when creating their villain. After all, it is the manifestation of this dark side of humanity that becomes the basis for your entire story. Now, this doesn’t mean that your villain has to be a flesh-eating serial killer with a taste for fine wine and art. The villain can be an anti-hero like a parent who has lost a child to drunk driver. The loss of the child could be what manifests the character’s dark side. The character could then become obsessed with avenging the child. Perhaps the character (let’s call her Carol) begins hanging out at bars watching which individuals drive after drinking. Carol then follows them home. As they step out of the car she runs them down and kills them.

Now, some readers will sympathize with Carol. Others will see her as having a screw loose. Either way, the author has made a suspenseful character. Carol is very human, yet the tragedy involving her child has manifested her dark side and driven her to kill. The fact that Carol, an average mother who has never harmed a fly, could become a killer is what will scare the reader. Readers will relate to Carol, yet they won’t like the fact that they do.

Carol is just one example and a far cry from Dr. Lecter. Yet what if I told you that, as a child, Hannibal Lecter lived on a farm. What if young Hannibal had a lamb on the farm that he considered a pet? Hannibal wakes one morning to feed his lamb, only to find a farmhand slaughtering it for the market. Hannibal’s father tells him the lamb will be used for food. The death of the lamb triggers that dark side within Hannibal. He soon rationalizes that instead of eating other animals it would be better to eat his own kind. Heck, from the animal’s point of view I’m sure it seems like a good idea.

Now we see Hannibal ‘The Cannibal’ as a tragic character that was scarred by the loss of a pet. Suddenly Hannibal is not all that unlike Carol. Each has suffered a traumatic loss, and in their minds they are bringing justice to the situation.

When creating a suspense villain, the writer must look into the motivation of the character. The writer must develop the villain as human first. He must understand what his villain’s life was like before the dark side manifested. The writer then must figure out what leads to the manifestation. Once this is done, the writer can begin writing about this character and his dark manifestation.

In most suspense stories, the villain’s motive is not revealed until the climax of the story, yet the writer must know what that motive is before writing the first word. The villain’s motive will help drive the story. The writer can reveal clues along the way and help the reader draw his or her own conclusion as to why the villain is doing such things.

This is where the writer can play with the reader’s mind. As the writer builds his cast of characters, he can create other characters that may also have a motive for committing the crime. This will keep readers guessing as to who the real villain is. This of course adds suspense, to the story and that is really what suspense writers are shooting for.

So far we know we must have a normal human side of our villain so we can get our readers to relate to him. We must have a motive that manifests the dark side within the villain. Finally we must know that motive before we begin to write. Accomplishing all of these things will bring the character to life and give him greater depth.

Since we now have a villain, we of course need a hero. In suspense fiction the hero is usually a police officer or private detective investigating the case. There are other professions that work just as well; for example, Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta is a forensics pathologist. Use whatever works for you. The hero is, for the most part, on the side of the law, seeking out the dark manifestation in order to halt its actions.

The hero's views will usually oppose the villain's, although you will sometimes find that the hero will relate to the villain's human side, especially in the case of Carol, which we discussed earlier.

You should have your hero’s motivations in mind before writing, as well. Now, on the simplistic level this could be: Tim became a cop to fight crime. Yet if you want the character to become three-dimensional, you must give him more of a life.

Suppose Tim became a cop because his father was a cop. Perhaps his father was killed by a serial killer that he was investigating at the time. The serial killer was never caught. Six years later the killings start again. Tim has since become a cop like his father. Fate finds Tim on the trail of the same killer who murdered his father.

See how we are adding depth to the hero. We now have a background on Tim. We have Tim’s motivation for being a cop. We also have something else . . . we have the potential for a dark side to manifest in Tim. What happens as Tim pursues the serial killer and eventually confronts him? Does the dark side manifest in Tim seeking vengeance for his father’s death or does Tim’s motivation to honor his father, by being a good cop, cause Tim to arrest the killer and bring him to justice?

See how we now have two characters on opposite sides; the suspense builds, and the story climaxes with the confrontation of these two characters. Situations like this will keep your readers glued to the page in hopes of seeing the outcome. Yet none of it works unless you know your two characters and their motives. You, as the writer, must get inside each character’s head and fully realize what is driving the characters in their actions. If you can do this, the plot for your story should begin to develop quite easily. You’ll then be on your way to creating a nail-biting story that can get under your reader’s skin.

To help you along, I offer a simple exercise. Watch your favorite movie or reread your favorite novel. While doing so, examine the hero and the villain. Write down each character’s motives. Then write down the things that make you relate to the character. Think about the villain’s motive and what lead up to it. If you were in a similar situation, could a dark side like this manifest in yourself? Could you become this villain?

On the other side, think of the hero. What drives him or her? How easily could this ‘hero’ manifest a dark side to stop the villain? Are the hero and villain alike in any way? Do they share a common trait?

When you’re finished, try developing some characters of your own. Develop some motives for the villain and hero. Let the dark side manifest from the villain and drive him toward his goal. Do a similar exercise with the hero. Give the hero the temptation of the dark side. See what kind of plot you come up with. I think you’ll be surprised.



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Monday, September 19, 2005