Meeting old friends and getting ready for the Hands On literary festival.
My friend and MFA colleague, Matthew Blasi, published this strange, violent, darkly funny story in Drunken Boat magazine, about conquistadors, possums, and herbal drugs. They nominated it for a Push Cart award, Mat’s second.
Every night Francisco meant to call the men together, the hundred soldiers, and explain. Yes, they were to wait for de Soto. No, they were not to plunge into barbarism. God was watching, looking down from His holy throne and judging. But he never called the meeting. Every night at dusk it seemed too heavy a burden.
When de Soto comes, Francisco thought, he will set them straight. Marvelous, meticulous Hernando de Soto with his black curls, his oiled beard. He looked very fine in his painting—the one in Francisco’s tent: sleek and powerful in his shining breastplate. Ready to command. Ready to conquer. Francisco would be there on the shore when de Soto finally arrived, down on one knee, to welcome such a man properly. They had laid up plenty of beard oil, good smells. The winter would be mild.
Yesterday I promised a few posts about things I was happy about, and things I was not happy about, nothing major.
The “nothing major” part wasn’t entirely accurate. This first post describes something very big that happened to me–over Thanksgiving weekend.
Are you ready for a story?
Here goes. The other week, I posted some pictures of a journey I took to North Carolina. Many readers seemed to like the smoky white skies, the dark roads.
All the pictures in that post were from the road between Knoxville, here in Tennessee, and Asheville, but our actual destination was deeper in the North Carolina high country, a winery in the small town of Banner Elk. You may possibly remember a few pictures I posted back in the summer, when Jeni and I had visited that winery the first time. We had been very happy then.
But now it was late November, and snow storms were forecast on the mountains. All the week leading up to that day, we had been checking Ray’s weather warnings, working out how we might safely leave Knoxville, get to Asheville, and then on to Banner Elk. We drove to Asheville with no snow in sight and spent Wednesday evening there; on Thursday we had a simple Thanksgiving lunch in Whole Foods, watching through the window the dustings of snow come and go. Snow in Asheville was no big deal: snow in Banner Elk might be a problem.
Fortunately, when we were ready to leave Asheville, the sun was bright.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned how much, over the last two and a bit years living in this part of the US, I’ve come to love the North Carolina high country: the area around Banner Elk, Boone, and Blowing Rock, in particular. To me, there has always seemed something deeply peaceful and vivid about that area; the Blue Ridge Parkway, from there to Asheville, is an epic range of valleys and peaks stretching on for hours. (This fondness of mine is the result of several weekend trips; I know very little about the area’s actual life, only what it makes me feel.)
We weren’t in search of scenery on Thanksgiving, however–just to arrive on time. As we got closer to Banner Elk, the snow got closer, too. The picture below was taken, at most, an hour after the one above.
By the time we arrived at the winery, snow was falling fast, cars were crawling forward on the un-salted stretches, and the whole area was being covered over. We parked on the flat ground beside the winery, had a quick tasting, and then clambered through several inches of snow to the villa where we were staying.
In the morning, as the sun came up, the whole area looked, well, spectacular.
Back in the summer, when Jeni and I had been to the winery the first time, we had both noticed a flier for a wedding service. We hadn’t talked about it, then, but when, a couple of months later, we had decided to elope–to get married in a private ceremony–we both loved the idea of coming here. It seemed a great middle path, between a wedding we couldn’t really afford and a courthouse ceremony. Our parents were kind enough to help out with the cost of the “elopement package,” for which I am very grateful. They were also kind enough to respect the “elopement” part, leaving us to get married alone.
It was now the morning of Black Friday: we would be married that evening.
The winery had a few locations available for the ceremony. One was the winery tasting room itself, but this, once the evening arrived, was quite crowded with casual drinkers. It seemed silly to have come all this way, just the two of us, and to get married in front of a bunch of random types. But it was far too cold to stand outdoors. The winery, we learned, also had an “enchanted barn,” a building they had locked up with the passing of the warmer weather. We decided: we wanted the barn. A bit of organisational work, and the barn was cleaned up and some heating repaired.
Would you like to see some wedding photographs?
Looking at these pictures now makes me smile.
We spent the rest of the weekend at the winery, with the snow slowly fading away.
Jeni, by the way, is the director of the small press and literary events company, Burlesque Press, and a great fiction writer, too.
She runs the wonderful Hands On literary festival, in New Orleans, every new year’s eve–without any outside funding or external support, creating the whole the thing from her own hard work and the excellence of the writing community in the city. It’s remarkable what she’s able to do.
You should probably expect to see a lot of photos of that festival, too, in the early days of the coming year.
Thank you for reading my wedding story — I hope it was okay to share.
I recently recommended a new textbook for writers and teachers of writers: S.O.S. Writing. The author of that book, Don Stewart, presents an updated and redesigned version of a great method of teaching prose style, Francis Christensen’s “cumulative sentence.”
You will learn how the magicians of writing—writers like John Updike, E. B. White, J. K. Rowling, and Michael Crichton—do their tricks. Think back to your music lessons, where you learned a few measures of a Beethoven symphony, or a riff by Jimi Hendrix. By studying how the masters do it, a little piece at a time, you will learn how to do it too.
I asked Don a few questions about the textbook and the method. He was kind enough to respond at length.
- Why does your method focus on the sentence? Why teach writing from that level, and not start at the paragraph, the outline, the sequence of paragraphs?
Central to S.O.S. Writing is a copyrighted numbering system that applies to all kinds of writing, but it’s easiest to learn as it relates to the sentence. Once those simple principles are in place, we move on to apply them to the more challenging content of the paragraph.
At the sentence level, we begin by looking at models from real authors and real literature. In fact, the first example in the book is from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Before long we’re looking at sentences by Michael Crichton, Harper Lee, and even William Faulkner. It’s a great feeling to be able to write like Faulkner after a couple of weeks. It’s like learning how magicians do their tricks!
Here’s how it works—it’s called Levels of Generality. A Level 1 is the main part of the sentence, the independent clause, and the writer could put a period at the end of it. But instead, she puts a comma and adds a Level 2, which modifies or develops something in the Level 1. Then there might be a Level 3, a Level 4, or even more, and the levels might appear at the beginning of the sentence, or somewhere in the middle, as well as at the end. They’re called free modifiers, there’s only eight of them, and real writers use them all the time.
- How do you make the transition from sentences to paragraphs?
For most of us, the leap from writing fiction to writing non-fiction is a huge challenge, primarily because we all grow up hearing and telling stories. But at bedtime, no child ever says, “Daddy, read me an essay.”
Fortunately, with the numbering system, it’s easy to slide into more serious topics, first with the expository sentence, and finally the paragraph. In a paragraph, the Level 1 is the topic sentence, the Level 2s are the main points, the Level 3s are the details, a Level 4 might be a quotation. Like the sentences, there are many variations regarding the placement of the levels, but the ultimate result is that the writing contains Specifics, Organization, and Style—hence the name, S.O.S.
- If I want to use the textbook alone, for my own writing, how would you recommend working through it? What might be a good amount of time, on a daily or weekly basis, to study with it and try out the different sentence forms?
There are eleven chapters in the book, with 32 videos ranging from three to ten minutes each. They are meant to be taken in order, as they build upon each other to deliver the content most logically. But the amount of time spent on each will depend on so many factors, such as one’s own starting point, personal schedule, and ultimate purpose. The independent learner is welcome to go to the soswriting.com website and download the free Teacher’s Guide for additional lessons, exercises, and suggestions. And I hope everyone will participate in the Forum discussions.
- In many colleges today, writing classes often don’t teach sentence-writing explicitly. Many rhetoric or first year Composition courses largely avoid grammar, in fact, and instead focus on argument-making in general, working with students to improve their understanding of audience, intention, genre, context, the appeals of logos, ethos, pathos, and so on. What do you think about that way of teaching writing? Can the S.O.S. system be combined with such an approach?
You are right that grammar is taught very little these days, from college all the way down. The grammar that is taught is too often intent on finding errors that can easily be marked right or wrong. A good example is pronoun case error (“Can me and Freddy have some ice cream?”) Teachers love these kinds of mistakes, because they need to be able to knock off two points here and there to come up with a grade. This is Band-Aid grammar. It’s for all those minor cuts and scrapes that can be quickly patched up, and then the victim is sent back out onto the dangerous playground of writing.
You ask, what about understanding your audience or appealing through pathos? Well, you may have a very sad story to tell at the P.T.A. meeting, but how, exactly, do you write your speech?
The S.O.S. Writing system, as I mentioned, emphasizes eight free modifiers, which are simply the basic phrases and clauses. I sometimes compare it to music. An octave has only eight notes, but with those eight notes, the composer can write a symphony. With the eight free modifiers, and the S.O.S. Writing numbering system to show you how to arrange them, you can write a symphony of language.
Take a look at the book!
On Dean Koontz’s website, there is a page called Writing Q&A, answering questions from readers.
One such reader asks:
As a young writer, did you encounter rejection?–Allison, Pennsylvania
I sold the first short story I wrote. Then I received over 75 rejections before making another sale. My first four novels were never published. Later, after I’d been selling genre fiction routinely, I wrote a mainstream novel, ALL OTHER MEN. Editors sent me enthusiastic letters about it, said they loved it, but turned it down because they felt it was too disturbing and too avant garde to be commercial. But let me get to the heart of your question: young writer. There seems to be an implication here that I’m no longer young. I am as young now, Allison, as I have ever been, and not because of any form of dementia. I am young because my work keeps me young and the daily wrestling with our beautiful and supple language keeps me limber and youthful, as well. You may think that is bullshit, and it is, but it’s a sincere kind of bullshit.
That’s how I want to talk, once I get young 🙂
Fiction does not have the same shape as real life.
In real life, if you have a difficulty with your landlord, the conflict rarely builds to a clear and definite resolution; instead, you typically just grumble to the end of the contract and leave. Fiction is very selective with its scenes, in other words: it contains relatively few of them, but a lot happens in each. Whereas, in real life, one has breakfast each and every day–and, if one is lucky, nothing of great importance occurs during that meal.
Similarly, if you visit someone in real life, and you notice a gun mounted on their wall, you generally don't expect that gun to go off before your visit is over.
In fiction, the standard expectation is that it will.
But historical fiction is an odd category because it attempts to include a large amount of real life. Probably, all historical writers follow Sir Walter Scott in aiming to write “more a description of men than manners,” and to describe “those passions common to men in all stages of society, and which have alike agitated the human heart, whether it throbbed under the steel corslet of the fifteenth century, the brocaded coat of the eighteenth, or the blue frock and white dimity waistcoat of the present day.”
Yet it is still true that some of the point and pleasure of reading historical fiction is learning what a “dimity waistcoat” is.
I'm writing a historical novel at the moment (or, at least, it's a novel set in 18th century Scotland), and so I'm feeling very conscious of this aspect of the genre. It seems like there are two problems attached to it: on the one hand, it's important to get the details right. On the other, it's important that the novel still read like fiction. I'm curious what you, the reader of this blog, think is the more pressing of the two.
As per the first problem: it's easy even for highly studious authors to get a fact wrong–see Patrick O'Brian admitting to have been caught out during his Paris Review interview.
Do readers ever find errors?
A Cambridge don who interviewed me for the Times diffidently suggested in later conversation that I might be mistaken in having Sir Joseph Blaine attending a performance of Figaro at Covent Garden, for said he, there was no Mozart opera to be heard in London until (I think) 1832.
There’s nothing you can do about this?
Of course, one tries to reduce these risks by doing historical research. But the problem, I'm discovering, is that most historical studies tend to be written in a style that mushes different years (even decades) together, in the interest of creating a coherent picture. The historian works with surprisingly broad brush strokes. But the historical fiction writer, reading that history book, is frustrated: she wants to know exactly what buildings her protagonist will see if he leans out of his Princes Street window on a certain day in 1765 and looks left.
It's also the case that fiction prefers to concentrate a great number of events into a short time period, and real life doesn't always help out in that regard. One finds oneself keen to nudge certain events back a year, and others a year forward, in order to get that compressed fictional sensation.
But the second problem, which perhaps increases in importance as the writer does research and learns more about the actual period, is that the novel can start to feel like a collection of research notes, not fiction.
I've read novels in which certain sections felt like they had been included to justify a research grant: no matter the verve of the narrator's voice or the punch of the dialogue, the scene still feels half-hearted, because it doesn't do that thing that fiction does. The section didn't seem to advance the story or raise the tension; it felt excess to the novel's needs; it felt too much like it really did happen.
The urge to protect that fictional feel, I'm sure, is why so many historical fiction writers invent fictional “pockets” in their otherwise accurate settings. One makes room for oneself–room to craft a story-like story–by creating completely made up characters and locations within the larger, fully researched setting.
This invented street is mine alone, decides the author: although its inhabitants will wear the same dimity waistcoats as the real people of the past who inspired it, they will be far more like the characters who appear in other novels.
But that pocket-making urge, of course, then puts one back in conflict with the first problem, that of accuracy. At what point has the author made up so much that the setting's claim to authenticity starts to dissolve?
Or, perhaps the reverse happens, and during the process of writing, the author's imaginative “pocket” start to dissolve, because the experience of doing more research and study overwhelms it. Two weeks ago, perhaps, I chose to create a comic “inspector of the royal locks” character for a particular scene, but now I realise that there really was an inspector of the royal locks in 1765–he had a name of his own, and a family and an address–and so I feel less comfortable with the dialogue my invented inspector has said.
And then there's the dialogue / dialect itself! That's a whole other area of trouble.
What do you think? Does the historical fiction writer owe more loyalty to the past, or the story?