Keep it Clean.  I.E., Puns Welcome

Monthly Archives: September 2012


Certain groups stick with you, sometimes for no reason you can quite put a finger on.  The best class of I ever had: a group of sixth graders, back in St. Paul, back in the mid 80s.  No stars that I remember, no particularly bad apples either.  It was one of those groups which just… gelled.  We laughed every day and everyone was in on the joke.  Even the bad days with that group were pretty good days.  One of the best years in my career.

Pop Literary with a Goth Urban Edge

Yesterday, Cathy Day, my colleague (way, way) over at Ball State posted on Facebook about a lively and engaging discussion she had with her novel class concerning the identity labels we slap on books.  She asked her students:

“Do you think of the book you’re writing as literary or commercial?” Only 3 out of 15 students said literary, but just as we started getting in a really good discussion about THAT, I realized that class had been over for five minutes and nobody’d noticed.

A Bit of Calm Before

Author Questionnaire off to the press, books out to four generous writers who agreed to write blurbs for the back cover.  (I am always surprised and delighted when people say “yes.”)

So, there are a few days in here—a week if I’m lucky—where things should be fairly quiet as far as the book is concerned.  Then arrives the manuscript marked up with the comments and questions and suggestions from the editorial team.  I recall not actually enjoying this part of the process much.  The battling over the placement of commas (less is more) and queries over words I probably made up: Actually, I LOVE that part.  It’s the last chance part.  This will be the last chance to make my novel just the way it will be.  From now until…

And not that there’s exactly nothing to do—lest we forget the undergrads at SMU and three terrific grad students at Warren Wilson MFA and a couple of other projects on various burners.  But nothing on the book this week.  He hopes.

So we’ll call it a much-needed half-breather.  And then there’s this…

Later this week, here on the blog: What happens when someone brings a story to class based on actual events?  And what happens when another student in the same class also knows all the parties involved and sees the events entirely differently?  And what if all of this has already been splashed across the local papers and is headed to court?

Stay tuned.

Author Questionnaire #2

For a while back in the mid 00s, it seemed as if you couldn’t turn on the news without another parent murdering her children.  Her, because often enough it was the mothers committing the crimes, and my limited perspective also suggested that Texas seemed particularly affected by the epidemic.  The stories devoted a lot of energy to analyzing the murderer’s motives and psychology: How could she do it?  And then there was the thing that I most wanted to know: What about those left behind?

These questions intersected with another of my long-standing obsessions:  parenting a difficult child.  This fixation stems from my years as a middle school teacher, where the occasional student would leave me wondering, “Who the hell could live with that 24/7?”  More than a fit of pique over the occasional bad afternoon with the occasional bad apple, every few years I would encounter a kid who left me baffled.  It was never about naughtiness, and I retain genuine fondness for any number of truly  disturbed children whose behavior created constant problems for me, for others and for themselves.  No, the children who haunted me then and still are the ones whose general…unpleasantness made them difficult to be around.

Bored, in a writing studio at the VCCA, the meme merged with the obsession and the idea for a novel took root. The novel continues the exploration of a theme also at the heart of THE FULL MATILDA, the persistent presence of the past in our lives.  My father lived into the first few years of his 100s, and he had his children relatively late in life, so for over forty years I was privileged to know a man with vivid memories of the first part of the 20th Century, a man who had known, when he was young, men and women who lived as slaves.  It doesn’t matter to what extent we are aware of it, each of us carries forward in many ways the lived memories of those who precede us.  Historical time is short.

In my novel, Daniel Davis receives a request from his mother, Keisha to come visit her in prison.  Ten years earlier she had murdered his three siblings and their father and he now lives with his grandmother, Janet WIlliams, who is determined to protect him from the past.  Janet’s best friend, Estelle Birnbaum, is eager to settle her father’s estate and share with Janet  a lovely condo on the beach in Florida.  Estelle, too, has default custody of a grandson–the angry and moody and impulsive Ari.  A STAR IN THE FACE OF THE SKY is the story of the intertwined lives of these two families as they struggle to reconcile the varied demons of the past.  There’s a lot of pain in the book and a lot of love, too; some of it’s sad and some of it’s awfully funny, I think.  I hope it is as much fun to read as it was to write.

Five Ideas about Narrative Design

My offices (home and SMU) are littered with scraps of paper from with summary ideas about craft, always in list form.  These were almost always created for one-shot presentations before community writing groups.  These classes  always contain a large numbers of beginners and folks for whom writing is a hobby, if a serious one.   My goal when speaking to these sessions is to leave the writers with something that is easy to take away and that I hope will be likely to push the writing forward in some way.   As a way of clearing my office, I will be peeling these post-its from the computer screen and unpacking them from the complimentary tote bags to be posted here on the blog.

  1. Characters must want or need and want or need deeply
  2. Characters must act
  3. Opposition must be present and palpable
  4. Most action should be in scene and not narrative summary
  5. Unexpected outcomes should change the trajectory of the story

Next Stop: The Author Questionnaire

Due the day before yesterday, as it happens, and  I am preternaturally inclined to postpone any and every similar task, be it a census form or the annual “activity” report required of all faculty members at SMU.  Name, rank and serial number notwithstanding, I see blanks and I go blank.   Or I go to Zuma Blitz instead and play a couple dozen games.  Believe it or not, the forms do not magically disappear when you ignore them.  There it is now.  Right there.

Right up top is the stuff they need for the copyright page, a few other sundry questions thrown in.  Place of birth?  The hospital, I believe, although I’m not really sure who needs to know this.  Then there’s the description (already whined about on an earlier post), but a.k.a. in that same section as a “Statement of Purpose.”  Which sends me immediately into post-traumatic flashback mode, reverted to any number of unfortunate meeting rooms where seemingly rational adults debated “Mission Statements”–it goes without saying always to no good end.  This was and remains one of those pernicious bleed-overs from the world of corporate America, where some d-bag decided that the reason his company fleeced more rubes than the one down the street was because all of his minions could recite the corporate mantra: Tasty Chicken, Smiling Suckers, Fewer Sliced-off Fingers.  He made his second or third fortune convincing schools and arts organizations to hire him to improve their “outcomes” by sitting around conference tables and spending a week or so inventing their own “statements of purpose.”  To wit, this blast from my mission statement past:  High Tech, High Touch, High Teach: God help you if that sounds the least bit familiar.

The next four pages of the questionnaire are all about slinging product, and do I really have to think about that today?

Yeah, I’m just not gonna.  Tomorrow at Tara, I think.  In the meantime, how’s this for purpose:

To Serve My Readers With a Quality and Safe Page-Turning Experience While Maximizing Profits in a Competitive Bookselling Environment.  

Tomorrow morning I’m having T-shirts printed up with my new motto.   Order yours now.


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