From novel excerpt to short story

pencilI’ve been working on a couple of short stories. I’m in awe of how difficult, and liberating, it is to write a good one. Every gesture, scene, and piece of landscape and dialogue has to matter and work to move the reader towards a defining moment.

I’ve learned an interesting lesson with one of these stories, “Letting Go.”  I took a chapter from the novel I’m working on and tried to make it a standalone story. The novel is in first-person present.  I may change that, but for now that’s the narrative point of view.

So I printed out the chapter excerpt from the novel (the point in the novel when the heroine’s mother is dying) and marked it up, adding a little information to make it clear who the characters are, why the mother is dying, etc. My writing group gave this revision the thumbs up. Mind you, they had the benefit, or disadvantage, of having read everything that proceeds and follows this chapter.

I thought the story was ready to send out.

Then I gave it to my husband to read. He hadn’t seen any of the new novel. So he came to the story cold. He was very frank, which I love about him. The story didn’t work. Not enough background, not nearly enough time with the main character. It was “weird.”

I sulked for a day (for me, resistence always proceeds a major revision), then got to work. Cut the story to ribbons. Changed the point of view (to third-person) and tense (to past).

Guess what? It’s better. And different. The standalone version gives the reader enough distance and background (I hope) to be able to take in what the main character’s experiencing at a critical moment of her life.  

I’ll give the story another pass for typos, substitute a verb here and there for better one, and then it’s outta here.


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Seven reasons to read “The Twenty-seventh Man”

stalinNathan Englander’s, “The Twenty-seventh Man,” the story of the house arrest and execution of a group of poets and writers in Stalinist Russia, is one of the best pieces of fiction I’ve read in years.

Here are seven reasons why you should read “The Twenty-seventh Man,” which you can find in For The Relief of Unbearable Urges, Englander’s startling debut collection.

1. A minor bureaucratic error leads an unpublished writer (the 27th) to find his readership seconds before his death.

2. Most of the story takes place in a single cell with only four men, and yet you feel the presence of the other 23 because Englander doesn’t let you forget them.

3. Englander illustrates the obsessive passion of writers. The 27th man composes a story in his mind, which he completes and recounts to his colleagues only moments before their execution.

4. A literary symposia takes place in the cell in which arguments about the state of literature in Russia eclipse the poets and writers’ self-interest and survival instinct.

5. Englander is a pre-modernist (my term). He’s a good storyteller whose prose is ample, and characters deeply sympathetic.

6. One of Englander’s characters drinks and fornicates with abandon and when he cleans up uses the DT’s and his remorse to fuel his poetry. Another character is so pious he thinks the state has arrested him because he possesses a deck of girly playing cards.

7. Englander knows his history and he knows people. In “The Twenty-seventh Man,” he shows the transcendent power of art and humanity in the face of evil and extreme ignorance.  

Give the story a read, then read “The Tumblers,” the second in the collection. It’s almost as good.

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Right now

scaleMy day job, a freelance marketing writing business, has come to a standstill. Longstanding clients have pulled their writing projects in-house, or cancelled them all together. (I’m still getting some work but the projects are tiny and pay far less than the hourly rate I’m used to). 

Pretty much every day, after working on the new novel or a story (I’m cranking on one at the moment), I apply for projects and jobs on Craig’s List. I rarely hear back on these job posts. I can only assume employers are overwhelmed by the volume of applicants. Or that the expanding talent pool is making it tough to stand out in the crowd. Or as a colleague explained to me, some posted jobs are cut before hiring even begins.

So, yeah, we’ve been feeling the economic situation. But my husband has a steady job, thank God. Consequently, the sense that things are “bad out there” is still somewhat suggestive. A feeling in the air. A refrain one hears, daily, maybe hourly.  In line at the grocery store. In Peet’s Coffee where dozens of customers peer at lapstop screens–polishing resumes, surfing the job sites, calling old contacts. Hoping to make something–anything–happen. 

On Sunday our neighbor across the street told me he was on “work furlough,” a euphemism for work without pay. He works for a clean technology company looking over the financial precipice. He’s hitting the pavement, worrying about his COBRA health benefits running out for his family of four. 

One of my dearest friends, an IT and operations executive with decades of experience, has applied for 90 jobs. Out of this effort, he’s had two promising interviews for jobs that have fallen through. 

The country, maybe the world, is waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Fear (perhaps rational) stops us from consuming, borrowing, investing. This may be a good thing in the long run–a chance to reflect on how we’ve been living and the choices we make. An opportunity to redefine “need.”  

There’s a sense the banking and real estate debacles haven’t fully rippled out. That more jobs will be lost, more homes foreclosed on. The economists and pundits say we we ain’t see nothing yet. 

This is what I try to remember: At the moment my family and I are okay. Better than okay. This isn’t smugness or denial on my part–at least I hope not.

What I know with certainty is tonight we’re making dinner with close friends visiting from Bend. The kids are a building a fort of pillows and blankets under the dining room table. The chicken on the grill on the patio smells heavenly. And outside my window, right now, I can see the California Poppies on the hillside, vibrant as freshly lit flames.

Right now, everything’s all right.

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Forever in the sweet wood


The Heart of the Wood

My hope and my love, we will go for a while into the wood, scattering the dew, where we will see the trout, we will see the blackbird on its nest; the deer and the buck calling, the little bird that is sweetest singing on the branches; the cuckoo on the top of the fresh green; and death will never come near us for ever in the sweet wood. By Lady Augusta Gregory

Note: Lady Gregory was a major figure in the Irish Literary Revival, also known as the Celtic Twilight, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Poem from The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Kiltartan Poetry Book by Lady Gregory.

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The Corrections

thecorrections2I finally read The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. He’s the author who got pissed off at Oprah for picking his book for her book club.

Franzen’s inconceivable reponse to what most authors consider the ultimate success story aside, The Corrections is a fantastic novel (it won the 2001 National Book Award).

Pithy, edgy, and painful, this study of all things wrong with modern Western culture–and the American family specifically–is a total page turner. (Franzen might be offended by this description but the novel is no less “literary” for it.)  

I couldn’t put down The Corrections. The story’s force-field pull is Franzen’s smooth yet surprising prose and the Lambert family. I feel like I know these people: Denise the uber-attractive urban chef who’s coming out of the closet; her brother Chip the relationship addict; their older brother Gary, the deeply depressed and in-deep-denial-about-it stockbroker; and their endearing, maddening parents Alfred and Enid. Alfred is railroad builder and inventor has Parkingson’s disease, Enid a housewife straight out of the 1950’s with a severe case of optimism. Franzen alternates between each character, bringing them together masterfully by the novel’s end. 

I laughed out loud at Chip’s masturbation scene (you have to read it to believe it), teared up when Albert debates putting the barrel of a shotgun in his mouth, cringed when perfectionistic Gary pisses in a beer mug while visiting his parents at Christmas, and tensed up with Denise decides to take care of her ailing parents.   I lived with these people from page one to page 567. Dear Enid gets her wish (sort of)–one last Christmas with the entire family in St. Jude, Il. As for the rest of the Lamberts, you’ll have to read the book.

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On story and setting

marriage1In the best novels (or those I like anyway), setting is inextricably linked to story. Think John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, and, more recently Andrew Sean Greer’s The Story of a Marriage. Greer’s second novel is set in post-WWII mid-1950’s, predominantly in the Sunset district of San Francisco. This is the era of glass bottles of milk delivered fresh to your doorstep, air raids, and the Rosenberg trials.

Greer tells an eerily suspenseful story of an American couple and their son on a precipice of change, like the city and society in which they live. He writes:

“If you clenched your right hand in a fist, that would be my San Francisco, knocking on the Golden Gate. Your little finger would be sunny downtown on the bay, your thumb would be our Ocean Beach out on the Pacific. They called it the Sunset.”

I know the Sunset district intimately. Or I did back in the 80’s when I dated a guy who lived on 32nd Avenue at Taraval. I’d get off work at my cocktail waitressing job along the Embarcadero, jump on the L Muni streetcar and ride it out to the cold, salt-kissed avenues to spend the night with him.

The boyfriend is long-gone but the neighborhood remains: The relentless fog, an intermittent sun sometimes strong enough to break through and cast its lonely light on the terracecotta rooftops and stucco houses of every color of the rainbow. Eternal, this landscape.

With a major exception–Playland is gone (it closed in 1972). Greer’s characters frequent the amusement park and reading his book, I recalled the giant wood slide, and my five-year-old hands gripping either side of the tiny slice of mat; the waves off Ocean Beach and my own heart beat audible under the cheerful song of the carousel pipe organ.

The paperback edition of The Story of a Marriage is now available.

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Farm-grown writers

pigI was invited to be the “featured” reader at Poetry Farm last Monday night. (I read from The Love We All Wait For.)

I’ve been hearing about this Marin County writers community for several years. I had no idea what I’d been missing.

The “farmers” at Poetry Farm are a wonderful mix of poets and prose writers–most of them of a certain age (comme moi).

I read and answered questions, and then singer/songwriter and guitarist Sam Neff played a beautiful tune, “Everything to Me” (the chorus has stayed with me). Kirsten Neff read half a dozen poems that blew me away. (“California Cousins,” a sensuous celebration of two young cousins on the 4th of July, is gorgeous.)

Donna from Kentucky read a lovely prose piece about a ten-year-old boy watching a fly “on the wrong side of the screen.” Mark, a slam poet  flips through sheets of poems like a mad orchestra conductor, and Marilyn’s “April 12th” made me cry. There were other readings–like the clever, whimsical poem about Quantum Physics. (The reader’s rhinestone eyepatch was a nice touch.)

Poetry Farm is more than the sum of its parts. It’s community at its best: People sharing their work, encouraging each other and talking about the ups and downs of writing and publication. A place to keep growing.  

Poetry Farm meets the second Monday of the month at 7 pm at Dr. Insomnia’s Cafe on Grant Street in Novato. Fortify yourself with the great coffee and tasty homebaked goods on sale–the scones are to-die-for.

I’ll be returning to the Poetry Farm just to listen next time. I hope to see you there. Bring something to read. There’s a signup sheet for scheduled and impromptu readings.

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