Tag Archives: narrative arc

The Monday Book: OUR LADY OF THE LOST AND FOUND by Diane Schoemperlen

virgin-mary_2085222bSo what would happen if Mary the mother of Jesus came to stay with you for a week, just for a break?

You would spend a lot of time re-examining your life and the life of women, and you would do a lot of research on her other appearances. Which pretty much sums up this novel. The novel is neither rude nor kind about Christianity; it kind of takes a sideways approach to Mary’s story, leaping back and forward between telling the narrator’s story – she never gives her name because she doesn’t want people to believe she’s crazy – and encyclopedia-esque entries about Mary’s other appearances.

I found it fascinating. Narrative arcs are overrated; this narrative ping-pong game is a lot of fun. The analytical nature of the first-person narrator (who is an author) as she examines her own life in light of Mary’s visit gives insight ito the lives of women overall. It’s aga saga light, latte lit, chick lit with bite. And the Mary visits chronicled through history are so interesting. Especially when she follows up on what happens to those so visited.

Perhaps the book meant more to me because I’ve actually visited Mary’s house near Ephesus – the one John took her to after the disciples left Jerusalem. It’s a tiny thing, not any bigger in its two rooms than our bookstore’s main one. But it was an amazing thing to see.

Oddly enough, Mary has never appeared at her own home. But this book does a good job with that famous “what if” approach to fiction: what if she appeared in mine?

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The Monday Book: THE YEAR OF FOG by Michelle Richmond

FogPublished in 2007, this drifted into our bookstore, and I picked it up because it had a beach on the cover. It’s been a long, cold, lonely winter, and despite what your teachers told you, yes, you can judge a book that way.

From this inauspicious beginning, Fog turned into one of those books you carry with you from bathroom to bedroom, stuff into your purse in case you get a spare minute, sneak open when you should be dusting. It’s a cracking good read.

Richmond has a kind of four-part harmony going throughout her novel: it’s part mystery, has a lot of science bits about the brain and camera function in it, contains about three love stories, and is lyrically philosophical. Too intellectual to be a fast read, too compelling to be a slow one, all I can say is Richmond may well have invented a new genre: smartlit.

The story rolls around a central theme: a photographer named Abby, engaged to a man with a little girl, takes her for a walk on the beach, and the child vanishes. The whole next year is about memory, loss, memory loss, and how our brains work–not to mention Abby’s search for her missing step-daughter-to-be. Reminiscent of Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams, but more tightly woven as one story, the themes swirl around each other: protagonist Abby relives a bad love affair while trying to keep her current one alive; she researches brain activity, giving lovely insights into what the hippocampus and amygdala do and how we live that out day to day; she explores what it means to be the stepmom in a family, to love two people as part of a whole package; and then there’s the actual mystery of where the little girl went, and why.

My agent Pamela and I often discuss narrative arcs (she sometimes in despairing terms at my journalistic writing style) and this book is not only a good read, but teaches a great deal about how to create one. The themes are so tight intrinsically, yet bounce off each other so well that, if one of them doesn’t interest you all that much, you can skip it and still enjoy the story. I didn’t give two hoots for Abby’s old love affair, but skimming those parts didn’t diminish devouring the book an iota. Richmond’s writing is an odd amalgam of tight and fast, yet relaxed and unhurried. It’s as if Ernest Hemingway had allowed himself to be happy in life, and this got reflected in his writing.

As our shop cat Valkyttie would say, two paws up for Richmond’s The Year of Fog. This author has other books; I’m going to keep an eye out for them.

 

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What Yarn has Taught Me about Writing

Wendy yarnMy name is Wendy, and I’m a yarn hoarder [pauses for hellos from the assembly].

Not that this is a problem, mind. I enjoy my addiction. In fact, yarn has taught me many good things over the years, particularly about writing. The processes are similar: sit down, follow a thread, create a whole piece.

So here are a few pieces of wisdom that have found me during yarn meditations:

1) Every tangle – be it plot, wool, or life – has two entry points: the beginning, and the end. Find  either one, and it will eventually lead you to the other. And help you untie your knots. And leave you with a nice little ball to play with.

2) While tension is required to hold a project together, knowing when to finesse with gentle fingers (or words) versus when to give a good hard yank, is important. Too much tension creates an impossible situation–remember that television series known as 24?–while too little leaves a shapeless messy mass. Enough tension to keep the needle (or pen) moving with surety, not so much that the project fights its own creation: that’s the way to do it.

yarn kitten3) Cats do not help with the actual physical goal, but they sure are fun to have around during the work. Kids, too. Cuteness never hurts, and it lowers the blood pressure. Even if maybe you ought not let the cat or child actually write on any of the manuscript…. or play with the yarn.

yarn tangle 14) When dealing with a particularly large or vicious muddle, the first thing to do is separate out that which does not belong. Not everything in life is tied to everything else, even in Buddhism. Get rid of the bits that don’t contribute, and what you have left is a thread you can follow. Of course some projects are made of multiple colors and threads, but the time to weave them together is after they’ve been disentangled from each other and understood as themselves.

5) Don’t underestimate how much you’ve got to work with–or how fast words can pile up. Sure, kids, meals, day jobs, and the other stuff get in the way, but when you pick up your project–be it knitting needles, or nouns and verbs–just give it a few rows and don’t worry about speed. When you look back from the far end, you’ll be surprised at what those little bits and pieces of time and effort added up to, over the long haul.

birds in the nest6) Have fun. Joyless crocheting is like joyless writing: dull, misshapen and lumpy. You’re doing something cool. Disappear into it. Dive deep. Tangle and disentangle, sing the colors, swing those needles, and drink wine–or diet coke. It’s your project. Do what you want!

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The Jabberwock vs. the Narrative Arc

So the last time I finagled a weekend away from the bookshop and holed up to write, the Jabberwock roared and a lot of work got done. But I also discovered something. Three days isn’t as good as two days.

If you have three days, well, it stretches out, luxurious, like a snake in the sun, SO much time to get things done. If you have two days, you arrive the night before and haul your writing utensils onto the desk and slam some food in the fridge and start making notes to yourself so you can get up in the morning and hit it hard.

I come from a long line of procrastinators – which is in itself an oxymoron; think about it–so it doesn’t surprise me that time is the first thing I squander when there’s “plenty” of it. And this past weekend, with just two days to write, I got double the word count of my three-days wonder in late January.

It was less listening for the roar of the Jabberwock (if you’re going “huh” just now check out the blog postings from a few weeks ago) and feeling his claws pull me in, than constructing a framework on which to build: “this goes here, write a section that bridges that,” managing word flow and putting things where they make a cohesive narrative arc.

Oh, that sodding term again. For those unfamiliar with it, the narrative arc is what distinguishes a series of fun, comedic episodes forming individual chapters from a story with a beginning, middle, end, and series of events and consequences that spark other events and merge into a whole. A whole, not a hole. Narrative arcs are what make stories compelling because you want to find out what happens next, as opposed to just a pleasant read one can dip into and come out of at will.

Narrative arcs are flippin’ hard work. But once you get the frame up, they really help move the story along.

Which is a roundabout way of saying, sorry we forgot to put a blog up yesterday and we’re back on schedule now: Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, with Jack guesting once a week.

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Me-me-me Memoirs

Most of you reading this will already know that St. Martin’s Press is releasing The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap: a memoir of friendship, community and the uncommon pleasure of a good book in October. Which makes me very happy, of course.

And very busy. The month of January and (it now appears) most of February are sacrifices to editing. Waking moments are consumed with questions like “where in the story should this part go, where it happened in time or with the stuff it matches philosophically”; “how long should I spend on this painful subject as opposed to the funny stuff, where’s the balance”; and “flow, flow, narrative arc, flow.” Soon they’ll find me in a corner, gibbering sentences full of split infinitives and dangling participles. I’m already boring as a lunch companion.

Patricia Hampl said, in her wonderful memoir The Florist’s Daughter, that nothing is harder to capture in a straightforward flow of words than an ordinary life. She’s right. I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs lately, looking for that elusive quality. Some of the 100 or so I’ve read deal with extraordinary circumstances–like The Russian Word for Snow, about a couple bringing an orphan back to the States through red tape and corruption. And some with very mundane things, such as Sweaterquest: my year of knitting dangerously. It’s a lovely, well-written book about a woman’s attempt to knit a very difficult sweater pattern from an exacting designer.

Yeah. It’s a book about making a sweater. And I really enjoyed it.

The secret to memoirs seems to be that relentless pursuit of ordinariness in extraordinary terms. Memoirs fall into big categories: the silly experiment (A.J. Jacobs spending a year living Biblically, or the number one bestseller in April 2011 about the woman cleaning out her closets to get happy); the city slicker move to the country (Have you got time for a list of these? Printed on paper, it would fill a Subaru.); ordinary people coping with extraordinary circumstances (many of these having to do with illnesses and adoptions); and the homecoming (Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is a great example, and a great read.)

So what makes  a memoir good, asks the soon-to-be-published-author-of-one? Years ago, when I was a young’un cutting my teeth in storytelling, Dan Keding made his first appearance at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesboro, TN. Everybody loved him, and since my job at that time involved setting up storytelling workshops at ETSU, where I was the grad assistant in the storytelling program, we quickly booked him for one. During his three days with us, Dan gave some great advice about personal storytelling, which I can’t exactly quote, but here it is from memory twenty years down the road:

A personal story is not about you. It’s about all the people around you. If you are the hero of your own story, it’s not going to come out right, ring true, or be interesting enough to hold people’s attention. You won’t be able to tell the difference between what’s important to you and what’s important to the story. Talk about what happened to other people first, and how you felt about that, what you did because of it, will naturally flow as part of the story.

Then he told us  about growing up in Chicago with a Holocaust survivor friend named Stan. His story was about Stan, but when it was over, we all knew so much more about Dan. And we understood what he’d meant about not being the star, just shining through the background.

It’s good advice for memoir writers. The story is the star, we the privileged, lucky ones who get to tell it. That’s certainly a theme emerging as I’m wrestling The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap into final form. It’s fun, and it’s hard work, and even when I’m ready to chuck my laptop across the room and take up sheep farming (not a slight on sheep or their peeps; this appeals to me!) it’s compelling. The bookstore has a good story behind it, an American story, as one editor put it. It resonates with small towners, big dreamers, crushed spirits and persistent cusses; it’s my job to make sure they get their story told.

So I’d best get back at it. But because they’ve been on my mind lately, here are some memoirs that I thought did a great job of  telling a simple, or complex, or personal, or universal, story.

Cherries in Winter, Suzan Colon – a nice read about family history and current economic times, weaving together past and present and the strain of resilience that threads from generation to generation, particularly but not exclusively mother to daughter

Confessions of  a Prep School Mommy Handler, by Wade Rouse – Now here’s a good example of how an ordinary story can capture people with no common interest. I’m not gay, male, rich, a teacher, or interested in the doings of prep schools, yet I laughed my way through this book. Rouse makes it right there for you, full of what it would feel like. Humor and truth dance the jitterbug together in his work.

Heart in the Right Place, Carolyn Jourdan – [disclosure: Carolyn is also a friend] This is a universal-theme story about doing the right thing by family, and how silly that can get. The “coming home” motif from Washington D.C. to a small town is thought-provoking, offset by the hilarity of pandering to hypochondriacs and x-raying goats.

If You Lived Here I’d Know Your Name, by Heather Lende – a fun read specifically about living in small-town Alaska, but more about just living

My Korean Deli, by Ben Ryder Howe – Okay, so a lot of the books I’ve enjoyed have the theme of people burning up or out and leaving power-play places for “simpler” circumstances. But this cliche only goes so far for Howe’s book. Editor by day, deli owner by night, family man always, he tries to negotiate his own life when control seems to hard to get. The story is funny, poignant, and sweet, and it might be a little sadder than anyone wants to admit.

The Necklace, by Cheryl Jarvis – Perhaps less memoir than journalism, this is a professional writer’s interviews with 13 women who went together and bought a diamond necklace, then shared it across a year. What they learned about themselves, material consumption, values and being American got really interesting without being particularly preachy. A lot of food for thought, especially as the author keeps a light touch. She tells you what happened, not how you should feel about it.

The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio by Evelyn Ryan – The movie actually did the book justice, but her turns of phrase are so very worth reading.

Queen of the Road, by Doreen Orion – A neurotic cat, a fitted-out-for-camping bus, and two people with a huge poodle and another cat set off to discover themselves by pretending to discover America. Fun, cheerful, like a sing-a-long for writers…

Riding the Bus with my Sister, Rachel Simon – This is a lovely read about family ties tied up in a lot of details and annoyances. Never saw the Lifetime Movie, assuming they would seriously mess such a subtle, nuanced book up big time…

So Many Books, So Little Time, Sara Nelson – a cheerful romp through why we read, what we read, when we read it, and how all that jumbles together to make us who we are

A final word to the wise: if you are trying to publish a memoir, go poke about a bookstore and library, read several, and see how they put their stories together. Then, when you write up your proposal and send it off to an agent or publisher, do NOT tell them your book is just like Eat, Pray, Love. Trust me on this one. :]

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