A pain that I’m used to

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Lives of Short Duration, Richards’ third novel, is not an easy read, not in story nor in form. Once again Richards places his tale in small-town New Brunswick, this time following the lives of  several generations of the Terri family as well as their extended family and friends.

The novel is unrelenting in several ways. The Terries are a family falling apart and nothing feels solid and dependable, not family bonds or social structure. The narration reflects this undependability as the story is told largely through the blurry perspectives and reminisces of characters that are either drunk or suffering from illness and dementia. As a result, the story spills out in a boundless form, slipping from past to present in a timeless stream of consciousness. The dense, unbroken text continues on and on, only divided up by four section headings and the occasional one-line break. As a result, you feel as caught up and stuck as the characters are in their own circumstances, circumstances that are often appalling, painful and unfortunate.

Lives of Short Duration opens with a party that is starting to sour. The Terries are hosting, though the familial ties are difficult to unknot, even for the Terries. George, the father, is drunk and acting up. His daughter, Lois, a mother of three young children, also at the party, yells at him after he threatens to set a bridge, which connects their property to that of a life-long friend, Lester Murphy, on fire, “Goddamn George, you ruin everything,” Lois shouted. “But ya aren’t ruinin my fun, you hear that—you aren’t ruinin my fun.” Later, you discover that her words are an echo of her mother’s, who moved away from the area after leaving George. Finding fun, at the expense of others and often to their own detriment, is a reoccurring justification for their decisions.

Once the span is on fire, the RMCP arrive to inform George that the body of his father, who had been missing for a year, has been found in the woods, and that Lester Murphy has been struck by a car and died. From this party, the story spins out along the timeline, past and future, of the Terries’ lives and of the region. Midway through the novel, the perspective changes and story restarts from the hours of the opening pages as seen by the doomed Lester Murphy.

The characters that populate this novel are not easy to care for or even like. They are self-absorbed, destructive, violent, cruel, grasping people. While you begin to understand their actions, it is difficult to really sympathize, not that they would want you to, either. The struggle of their lives overwhelms the small breaks of happiness, and they constantly return to a place of frustration, “To wake in the night in the midst of a shuddering hangover when the dismal past threatens you, when faces form in slow motion before you, so every particle of their flesh breathes misery…”. The misery is pushed down and swallowed up by drinking, drugs, and casual sex. These activities cover the growing distance between the characters, between people and their history, and between individuals and themselves.

The only character who elicits any sense of hope is Packet Terri, the eldest child of George and his ex-wife, Elizabeth. The other members of the Terri family seem to yearn for him (though they also resent him for their longing). At the party, George, after burning the bridge and his hands in the process, expresses anger at Packet’s choice to skip the party, and, once the RCMP arrive, Packet’s absence is even more noted, “There was a terrible thing happening. Everyone was saying that they needed Packet there.” Packet is set apart from the other characters both physically and emotionally. He leaves the area to work in the North, earning a decent living, though not escaping the violence of his home, and he moves around, even across the country to Victoria , BC .

He manages to break away from the destructive cycle in which his family is stuck, but he also returns to them. He sees in his family the good that the police, outsiders, and even the reader, would overlook in the face of all their struggles and destructive behaviour. Packet’s understanding and acceptance of his family is seen with his brother Little Simon, who is named after their grandfather, “And he was gone through the dry field in an October afternoon, with his hands in his pockets, his cap over his ears—and Packet would love him entirely, and be sad.” Little Simon is a drug addict and dealer. He is violent and often cruel, though he excuses it as a little fun teasing, and despite his illegal activities manages to elude the police for a long time. Both old Simon and Little Simon die as they lived – Old Simon in the woods where he lived for 60 years, Little Simon in a game of Russian roulette, a bit of fun played too seriously. Between them is Packet, the one who survives.

Reading Lives of Short Duration is a challenge, and I wish I had known what I was getting into before I started reading it. The experiences of the Terries are almost buried in the form, and I feel like I missed a lot by wanting to impose an order and untangle the messiness of their lives. I missed the good in the Terries and, therefore, I believe, one point that Richards is trying to make.

 

On a side note, this past weekend I had the great pleasure of attending of reading of Richards’ newest novel, Crimes Against My Brother. The short passage that Richards shared held all the traits that I love about his writing: controlled pacing, anticipation, the quiet sorrows and joys that life holds. His reading style was matter of fact; there was no need to add emphasis to the meaning built by his words. Afterwards, I stood in line, full of excitement and terror, to get his signature. I even managed to express some sort of appreciation for his work, though I was comically tongue-tied in front of such a great wordsmith.

 

All quoted passages from Richards, David Adams. Lives of Short Duration. 1981. McClelland & Stewart, Toronto.

Cut. It. Out.

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Last week I began a month-long discussion about description/exposition in fiction writing with a post of examples from the greats.

This week, I want to take a closer look at making each word count, cutting the fluff and the filler. The adage “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all” could easily apply to my editing strategy. If the words don’t improve or add to my story then they don’t need to be there.

Listen to Uncle Joey and Cut. It. Out.

For me, the extra words creep in as unnecessary adjectives and flowery language or direct exposition of the characters’ feelings. Reading it back to myself I feel like I am channeling my 14-year-old protagonist a little too closely when writing – she plays older than her age, thinks everyone either loves her or hates her, and, oh, the feels. There is too much wild emotion and it leads to wild writing.

No purpose, no plot, no book.

At the risk of completely embarrassing myself, I am going to share some of the lines that recently got hacked from my book.

 

Rosaline reached out and grasped the paper in his hand.

Um, in order to take something in your hand you must move your arm. No one is going to lift it, place an object in your hand and close your fingers for you. Delete!

 

Now seeing the last gift she had planned for Catalina gave her comfort; her loss was great because their love was great.

If the reader can’t tell how much Catalina means to Rosaline by the time she dies, than I need to do a lot more work on the beginning of this novel. This falls under the show don’t tell philosophy of writing. Delete!

 

“I know why you want to stay close to me,” Rosaline said, taking a step closer to him. She knew her head fit neatly below his chin. She could step three feet closer and lean against him and he would put his arm around her. “You like being close to me.”

Marco’s eyes glimmered and a faint smirk crossed his face before his low, rumbling laughter took over.

WTF. I love me some romance novels (see here, here and here) but, regardless of the fact that I changed the relationship between Rosaline and Marco, this is no YA love story. Ugh. Delete!

 

In an attempt to fill my head and my pages with better writing, I’ve started reading more about description. I am currently reading The Art of Description: World into Word by Mark Doty. While the book uses poetry for examples, I’ve found the focus on how much can be inferred with only a few lines and well placed words to be illuminating. I’m going to keep up my secondary reading on description for the rest of the month as well. So if you have any books to recommend, let me know in the comments.

Can you see what I’m saying?

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I’m a chatty person. I love a good, long conversation. I have pre-conversations with people to work out how I think a talk will turn out, often working myself up in the process or laughing at how I think they will respond. What I’m saying is that dialog, external or interior, is not a problem for me.

What I do struggle with is the stuff in between. How characters physically interact, how they move within a scene and from place to place, how the characters take in what they are seeing and feeling, how to share what they are thinking without just making it a interior monologue. You know, basically the bulk of the novel. Often, as I discovered on a recent editing pass (read about that here), my writing descends into cliché and melodrama when I have to write an extended scene with no thought or speech. Clearly, this is an area I need to work on.

So the plan for the month of October is to focus on the art of description.

What better way to start than to look at some examples:

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

In a review of this novel, John Updike (no slouch himself) had this to say about Atwood’s writing, “…scarcely a sentence of her quick, dry yet avid prose fails to do useful work, adding to a picture that becomes enormous.”

Updike’s words handily sum up what I think great writing should contain. Every word counts to creating that bigger picture and meaning of a novel. The Blind Assassin was the first Atwood book I fell in love with at first reading.

Farewells can be shattering, but returns are surely worse. Solid flesh can never live up to the bright shadow cast by its absence. Time and distance blur the edges; then suddenly the beloved has arrived, and it’s noon with its merciless light, and every spot and pore and wrinkle and bristle stands clear.

Possession by A.S. Byatt

This novel is in my top 10 all-time favourite books. I find something new every time I read it.

Roland looked at Maud. The pale, pale hair in fine braids was wound round and round her head, startling white in the light that took the colour out of things and only caught gleams and glancings. She looked almost shockingly naked…. He wanted to loosen the tightness and let the hair go. He felt a kind of sympathetic pain on his own skull-skin.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The novel had me from the start and when I read the following description all I could think was, as Liz Lemon would say, “I want to go to there.”

The man called Isaac nodded and invited us in. A blue-tinted gloom obscured the sinuous contours of a marble staircase and a gallery of frescoes people with angels and fabulous creatures. We followed our host through a palatial corridor and arrived at a sprawling round hall, a virtual basilica of shadows spiraling up under a high glass dome, its dimness pierced by shafts of light that stabbed from above. A labyrinth of passageways and crammed bookshelves rose from base to pinnacle like a beehive woven with tunnels, steps, platforms, and bridges that presaged an immense library of seemingly impossible geometry. I looked at my father, stunned. He smiled at me and winked.

“Welcome to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, Daniel.”

 

 

Structure vs. Chaos

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Lately, I’ve been feeling like one of those inflatable tube men that are put up in front of businesses that are having sales – flailing my arms, full of hot air, and not accomplishing much. Re read pages was supposed to help me focus on my writing by getting me to actually write, but I feel like it has become just another thing for which I’m not writing enough.

October is going to be different. And since I don’t just want to hope I’ll be different this month, I am making an October writing plan and giving my writing goals for re: read pages and my novel (a lot) more structure.

This is what I will have coming up this month:

Books to Read

Lives of Short Duration by David Adams Richards – Richards’ third novel, time to get back to reading my way through his works

Touch Not the Cat by Mary Stewart – this will be the second time I’ve read this novel; Stewart died this past May at the age of 97

The White Deer by James Thurber – another reread, this is a novel I first read with my mother when I was little

Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville – a debut novel and historical fiction, my two favourite things

On Writing Wednesdays

I will also restart my discussion of various aspects of writing. To help support my novel writing, I’ve decided to dedicate each month to an area I am interested in/struggling with in my novel. For October, the topic will be description, and I plan on talking about examples of great descriptions, cutting unnecessary fluff, using description to add foreshadowing, and getting the details correct, and offering a sample of what I feel is my best bit of description produced in October (yikes!). I’m flipping my Wednesday and Friday schedule for this week, just so I can introduce my plan, so Friday will be a post on description, but next week everything will be back to (the new) normal.

My Novel

The goal for the month is 14,000 words, dispensed in 500 words (minimum) per day segments. This is doable. I’ll update my progress every Friday, including the weekly word count (yikes 2.0!). I really need to get words on a page because, as Jodi Picoult has said, “You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”

The hard part will be making it a habit to sit down at the same time each day (at the end of the day when the kids are in bed) and hammering out those words. Hopefully I will become a more efficient writer with each evening’s work.

So there is my October writing plan. I’m hoping making a game plan will keep me more accountable, but feel free to shout at me if I start missing deadlines or if you have some suggestions about how to keep on track I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

– BJL

This is how you do it

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I intended to do a close read of The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant for re: read pages but instead the novel became a pleasure read that I devoured in almost one sitting.

The Birth of Venus is a historical fiction set in Renaissance Florence, and it grabbed me from the first paragraph. I couldn’t help but put my pen and notepad down, squish down into my chair and turn page after page. The opening lines open the story wide and already showcase Dunant’s gift for seamlessly meshing research and writing:

No one had seen her naked until her death. It was a rule of the order that the Sisters should not look on human flesh, neither their own nor anyone else’s. A considerable amount of thought had gone into drafting of this observance.

So much is said in just the first three sentences. We know that a nun has died. We know one of the rules under which she lived and the importance placed on hiding away the female form – the implication of the dangers of the flesh. And, because the rule is being pointed out, that the revealing of this nun’s flesh will yield more than just a naked body.

The opening paragraph goes on to outline the rules surrounding this observance. While Dunant’s understanding of the time and place in which the story takes place is evident, the information never feels like it is being dropped in, like a side note in the middle of lecture, but folds into the plot and drives the narrative.

I didn’t take any notes, as I usually do while reading for re: read pages. I was just enjoying myself too much to want to break away from the story, something that hadn’t happened in a long time.

The choices Dunant makes throughout the story just build strength on strength, with the historical setting supporting, influencing and revealing her characters. For example, the protagonist, Alessandra Cecchi, a teenager, is the daughter of a wealthy cloth merchant. The novel is set in Florence just as the Sumptuary Laws (rules limiting conspicuous consumption, such as fur lined gowns or jewel encrusted hair pins) were being blasted from the pulpit by Girolamo Savonarola, a real historical figure who enthralled the city and enraged the pope. So the very thing upon which her family has earned its fortune, the selling of luxury, is being questioned by the highest leader in the community.

As Florence is in upheaval around her, so is Alessandra’s life. She is interested in art and wishes to become an artist but also knows her duty to her family as a daughter of a marriageable age. Her response and her intelligence never take her out of her age or time, but still give her an autonomy that is uniquely hers, especially when compared to the life of her older sister.

The novel was a pleasure from start to finish, and I will definitely be rereading this novel. Dunant’s talent is admirable, and the final pages sums up how I feel about my writing in comparison to the greatness of her own.

Alessandra is reflecting on the art she has created through the years, including painting the chapel walls in the convent in which she resides, and concludes that it is “sadly mediocre” but does not feel the lesser for the results:

And if that sounds like a statement of failure from an old woman at the end of her life, then you must believe me when I tell you it is absolutely not.

Because if you were to put it [the chapel] with all the others…then you would see it for what it is: a single voice lost inside a great chorus of others.

And such is the sound that the chorus made together, that to have been a part of it at all was enough for me.

Get on with it

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Sometimes you just want to feel like you are accomplishing something and moving forward with your goals. With that in mind, I have decided to submit my novel to a publishing house that is accepting unagented authors in the month of June. I’m going in with no expectations; I just want a real deadline and a purpose to my progress.

 

So the month of May will be all about cleaning up my first 50 pages. I’ve been a little terrified about rereading my own pages. The impulse to delete everything because it is not good enough will be difficult to suppress, but this is where the hard work of writing comes in. Deny the doubt and get on with it.

 

That means I will be editing and reworking 14,400 words – too much of it dialogue. Since I’ve started this blog, I’ve noticed that the fiction I admire generally has very little dialogue. While I can’t completely change my style, it is a little chatty, like me in real life, I can work on being more selective with what needs to be said or at least present the same information in a less direct way.

 

I will also have to answer questions that I’ve put off answering in order to avoid more research, such as the size of personal libraries in late 15th century Italy (FYI, Google and Wikipedia are no help).

 

And I will have to decide where to begin. I’ve already changed the beginning twice. I’m not sure if I’ll keep the beginning I have right now, which is an extended flashback (admittedly another crutch in my writing), or rework the back story to be revealed as part of Rosaline’s character development.

 

The first step will be printing those pages out, grabbing a green pen (it stands out and isn’t as angry looking as red ink) and marking up my work. There is a different feel to editing in hard copy. I can see more when I have all the pages out in front of me rather than scrolling page by page on a screen. Call it old school, but it works. That is this weekend’s homework. Then I’ll set about putting my story back together again.

 

Now that I’ve started talking about it, I’m feeling more and more excited. Be sure to check back throughout the week and keep me honest!

 

BJL

 

 

84 days

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The last time I posted on this blog was in January. 84 days ago. It feels like forever but, despite my best intentions, I never had the time to put up a proper blog post. Instead, you would have been treated to the incoherent ramblings of a sleep-deprived proofreader whose work was tied to the corporate tax season. The timeframe is, mercifully, defined by law, but the hours are coo coo bananas.

Over those 84 days, I maintained my sanity by reading on the subway. I managed to read three books in 45-minute increments: Lucrezia Borgia by John Faunce, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss (I actually read non-fiction!), and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (third time is a charm). Plus, on my first real night off, I binge read Listen to the Squawking Chicken by Elaine Lui (a memoir, sort of, and great read to celebrate the return of free time). I’ll be posting my thoughts on the two novels over the next couple of Mondays.

My own writing was completely dropped. Terrible, I know. I did try to write while on my way to work, but more often than I should perhaps admit, my thinking between sentences turned into napping for the rest of my commute. But now that my work has slowed and I have more hours to myself, I am ready to rededicate myself to my novel, this blog, and reading.

To help get back into the habit, I am making myself a new goal: 84 days of writing. Every day from today until July 16, which, coincidently, is my wedding anniversary, I will write for at least 45 minutes. I will treat this time like the time spent on my commute – completely unavoidable – and, hopefully, at the end of it, I will feel more invigorated and inspired than I did at the end of tax season. Seems doable!

And just as a little motivational reminder, check out this post from the blog 101 Books on 7 myths about being a writer.

BJL