Archive for the 'Voice' Category

Writing contests: some pointers, perils and peeves

Herewith an item I wrote for a professional association about my recent experience as a judge in a writing contest. All views entirely subjective and idiosyncratic.

The weary evaluator looked at the pile of writing samples, then the digital egg timer, then the unopened Shiraz on the counter. Would it be wrong to drink while judging a writing contest?

old-typewriterMaybe. But he needed something to brace himself for another submission that began like all the others. They invariably described their subject in some small situation, threw in a few details – like ‘Shiraz,’ or ‘digital egg timer’ – then pulled back to announce the subject and significance of the piece: This is an article about judging a writing contest. It includes pointers for anyone thinking of entering one, which could help you some day.

OK – so I exaggerate.

Truth is, my recent experience judging an awards competition held by a large North American professional organization was at times humbling, at times exasperating, but never, never dull. I and two others had the privilege of assessing magazine features, news releases and specialized writing from a variety of publications. It got me thinking about what worked and what didn’t, what resulted in automatic disqualification and what automatically got a second look. Here are my pointers and pet peeves.

Distinguish yourself.

Rest assured that most of the entries in a writing contest are going to be solidly written and researched pieces about interesting subjects. Consider it the minimum threshold. But there’s a difference between good and award-winning. To get to the winner’s circle, you’ll need to stand out. Look for a fresh approach – if you didn’t surprise yourself a little bit when you wrote it, you’re not going to surprise the reader when she reads it. And kidding aside, there really is a certain safe similarity in much that gets submitted. Surprise us.

But don’t distinguish yourself in a bad way.

It’s a sad fact that with so many good entries, judges are looking for a reason to reject yours. Sure, your editor may have been asleep at the switch, but if you misuse a word, misspell it, make grammar mistakes or include errors of fact, we’re hitting the buzzer. For example, Machiavelli might approve of the term “complicated machinations,” but it isn’t the right way to describe the intricate workings of a mechanical device. “Impassable” doesn’t mean the same as “impassible.” “Who” and “whom” are not interchangeable.

And don’t waste my time.

You’re going to have to grab me by the lapels right from the git-go. The best entries pulled me 10 paragraphs in before I remembered I was reading. And make sure it is plainly obvious what the significance of your story is. There is nothing more frustrating than being tantalized by a strong opening, then reaching the end of a lengthy feature and having to ask, “So what?”

Writers try readers’ patience in smaller ways, too. You know that puffy quote from the VP that reads like a PR winkie wrote it? Cut it, or at least write it so that a breathing human being might actually have spoken it. There may be some in your audience who will understand your specialized jargon, but don’t assume so.

When it comes to length, aim for the Goldilocks standard.

Just right. Have you got enough story for the length? Have you got enough length for the story? In other words, news releases shouldn’t be three pages. If you’ve cured cancer, you may want to  consider sending two pages, but most of the time you should be able to say what needs saying in one. Beware of repetition. And don’t leave out the important bits, either. If your piece raises more questions than it answers, it’s incomplete.

Other peeves:

If you’re writing an obituary, and you lapse into “he was born” way up in the third paragraph, it will seem like the deceased didn’t do much of significance.

Sometimes that clever, winking lead will work, but sometimes you’ll wind up wearing it. If there’s a chance someone can construe something, someone will.

Don’t bother describing what the subject is wearing, what colour their eyes are or the state of their office unless those details really do indicate something unusual, or reveal something important about character. Is your interviewee standing there with a hand in her pocket? Sorry. Don’t care.

For longer magazine pieces, you need a frame, an arc, or some other structural engine that will bear the weight of the length. It’s not enough simply to connect one paragraph full of facts after another and expect to pull the reader through. We want story.

Don’t bother trying to dazzle me with your writing. Aim for clarity, detail and engagement. Be careful about inserting yourself into the story. If you’ve got a blockbuster of a subject, the best strategy might just be to get out of the way.

Does your ending resonate? Recall the beginning? Make me feel satiated? Endings deserve figurative as well as literal closing punctuation.

There is an unspoken contract between me the reader and you the writer: in exchange for my time and attention, I’m expecting you are going to give me something of value. Maybe it’s information I haven’t heard about, a way of seeing the world I haven’t considered, or your own entertaining grasp of language. Fulfill your end of the bargain and you’ll earn a place in my memory – and if I’m a judge in a writing contest, that’s the only place to be.

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Time-traveling with Harlan Ellison

When you return to a writer you loved in your youth, it is also in some sense to return to the person you once were. If you’re lucky, the cringe factor will be slight in both cases.

I’ve had the opportunity to do a little literary time-traveling with the recent release of the bio-doc Dreams With Sharp Teeth, which is an entertaining look at the life and world of science fiction author Harlan Ellison. Has there ever lived a more pugnacious, irascible writer? ‘Prickly’ would be another apt word. (The film’s trailer is embedded below — you’ll get a pretty good sense of the type of guy he is in two-and-a-half minutes.)

It’s been said that if we’re really lucky, not only do the books from which we will most benefit find their way into our hands, they’ll do so at exactly the most opportune moments of our lives. I’ve always thought Ellison had pretty good timing that way. I was a geeky, outsider adolescent in the 1970s when I first stumbled on his work and I was immediately transfixed by that voice: clear, angry, fearless, smart — and with a conscience.

Here was another apparent outsider who felt the same way about many of the things I did. I nibbled at his short fiction but positively devoured his essays and other non-fiction, such as his scathing indictments of ’60s and ’70s television, The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat. I can remember buying his short story anthologies just so I could read his introductions; now and then I’d finish one of the stories, too, but more often than not I’d put them away until the next impassioned diatribe came along.

After watching Dreams With Sharp Teeth I thought I’d dip back into his work and see how it’s held up. Tellingly, despite the many culls my book collection has undergone over the years (seven boxes punted before the last move), I’ve never quite managed to let go of the handful of Ellison books I own. These now have faded, creased covers, missing dust jackets and some with a shaky name inscribed by a 14- or 15-year-old mini me.

Here is an excerpt from the introduction to the short story collection Approaching Oblivion, which encapsulates both Ellison’s tone and worldview. He refers to a letter he received from a James Chambers, who has described the four Kent State university students who were killed when the National Guard opened fire at a demonstration as “communist-led revolutionaries, hooligans and anarchists.”

Now that scares the piss out of me.

That is approaching oblivion. It is reaping the whirlwind of half a decade of Nixon/Agnew brainwashing and paranoia. It is a perfectly apocryphal example of the reconditeness to which The Common Man in our time clings with such suicidal ferocity. I won’t go into my little dance about the loathesomeness of The Common Man, nor even flay again the body of stupidity to which “commonness” speaks. I’ll merely point out that the Ellison who believed in the revolutionary Movement of the young and the frustrated and the angry in the Sixties, is not the Ellison of the Seventies who has seen students sink back into a charming Fifties apathy (with a simultaneous totemization of the banalities and mannerisms of those McCarthy Witch-Hunt Fifties), who has listened long and hard to the Chambers letter and hears in it a tone wholly in tune with the voice of the turtle heard in the land, who — when the defenses are down in the tiny hours after The Late Late Show — laments for all the martyrs who packed it in, in the name of “change,” only to turn around a mere five years later and see the status returned to quo.

I still find that compelling, but maybe not quite as much as I once did. Can any indignation burn as hot or self-righteously as adolescent indignation? And the angry writer, angry Jew schtick in Dreams With Sharp Teeth strikes me at times as simply wearisome. OK — everyone in the world has their heads up their butts except him. Whatever.

The short stories in Approaching Oblivion are uneven. (Yes, all these years later I’ve managed to read all 11.) Despite the strange and bleak futures they depict, they serve as strong indicators of the age in which they were written. Many carry the burdensome freight of a really important MESSAGE. Some show signs of quaintness, a susceptibility to which science fiction, as it ages, seems particularly prone. For example, in “Hindsight: 480 Seconds,” one man is left alone on earth to record for posterity the death of the earth when an asteroid hits. And what does he record his thoughts on? “Memory cassettes.” I guess at least they weren’t “Memory Eight-tracks.”

In “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty,” a successful man travels back in time to visit the persecuted boy he once was. Like re-reading Ellison, the experience is tinged with various parts excitement, nostalgia and sadness. You really can’t go back again. Sometimes it’s the memories of things that are best savoured, and not the thing itself.

But I’m still not getting rid of his books.

It’s hard not to gush about Price’s Lush Life

Lush Life by Richard Price is flat out one of the best books I’ve read. I’ve always loved his novels for the windows they open on urban life, for their rich portrayals of people caught in awful events, and for their sheer propulsive drive. Clockers, Samaritan, Freedomland — these are books one can’t help but guzzle in a few long, greedy gulps; Lush Life is no different.

But calling it a page-turner or crime novel devalues its abundant artistry, and there is much here to admire. I’m painfully aware that trying to tease apart all the different strands that go into fine writing is a difficult and clumsy business. Focusing on narrative pacing leads to a discussion of scene construction and before you know it, to plot, with several branching threads like tone and setting emerging at the same time. And can you really separate character development from dialogue, description and plot? The sum is definitely greater than the parts.

Nevertheless, Price’s greatest gifts may be with dialogue and in rendering character in a few deft strokes. Here’s his introduction of one of the main characters, Eric Cash, 35, who runs the front of the house at a restaurant called Berkmann’s:

He had no particular talent or skill, or what was worse, he had a little talent, some skill: playing the lead in a basement-theater production of The Dybbuk sponsored by 88 Forsyth House two years ago, his third small role since college, having a short story published in a now-defunct Alphabet City literary rag last year, his fourth in a decade, neither accomplishment leading to anything; and this unsatisfied yearning for validation was starting to make it near impossible for him to sit through a movie or read a book or even case out a new restaurant, all pulled off increasingly by those his age or younger, without wanting to run face-first into a wall

Why is it so many writers still insist on providing physical details like hair or eye colour? Are those details ever important? Price, in just one sentence, situates his character within the arc of his own life — and then gives us the character’s response to that.

Even the relatively minor characters in Lush Life have lives that are rich and textured. Making the most of  the walk-ons gives a novel heft and authenticity; it makes the world being created seem deeper and therefore more believable.

Realistic dialogue is another technique that aids in the portrayal of character, but also keeps the narrative humming along.

“See you din’t live round here back in the heyday, so no way you’d know, but about ten, twelve years ago? […] Man, it was, there was some bad dudes up in here. The Purples on Avenue C, Hernandez brothers on A and B, Delta Force in the Cahans, nigger name Maquetumba right in the Lemlichs. Half a them got snatched up by RICO for long bids, the other half is dead, all the hardcores, so now it’s like just the Old Heads out there sippin’ forties and telling stories about yesteryear, them and a bunch of Similac niggers, stoop boys, everybody out for themselves with their itty-bitty eight balls, nobody runnin’ the show.”

“Maquetbumba?”…

“Dominican dude. Dead now. My brother told me him and his crew had the Lemlichs sewed tight.”

“What kind of name is that.”

“I just said. Dominican.”

“What’s it mean, though.”

“Maquetumba? Man, you should know, you Dominican.”

“Puerto Rican.”

“Same shit, ain’t it?”

Tristan shrugged.

“Sss,” Little Dap sucked his teeth. “Like, ‘he who drops the most,’ some shit like that.”

“Drops what?”

Little Dap just stared at him.

And so on. I love the omission of question marks in some of those questions — it’s pitch perfect. Price manages to capture the speech sounds of these two without resorting to an overabundance of annoying word contortions. He gives us one “din’t” for didn’t, but doesn’t overdo it. “My brother told me him and his crew had the Lemlichs sewed tight,” is just as strong and less distracting than something like, “Ma brother tol’ me him ‘n’ ‘is crew had the Lemlichs sewed tight.” Our ears are already filling in the speech patterns by that point.

Lastly, Price’s lower eastside Manhattan also figures as a character. Here’s a nice bit of rendered setting — a description of a desanctified synagogue that now serves as a condo — which also gives us some detail about the main character:

“But for all this reborn carriage house’s ingenuity, its artful attempt at appeasing its own history while declaring itself the newest of the new, it was the double layer of evicted ghosts — pauperish tenants, greenhorn parishioners — that still held sway for him, Matty having always been afflicted with Cop’s Eyes; the compulsion to imagine the overlay of the dead wherever he went.”

One of Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing is to leave out the boring bits that readers tend to skip over. There’s nothing boring here; this is a riveting account of what happens after a routine mugging turns fatal when a twitchy teen holding the gun overreacts at a victim’s bravado. So rich. So believable. I recommend it without reservation.

Incidentally, there’s an interesting interview with Price about Lush Life at Amazon, here, and another from NPR’s Fresh Air, here.

Zombies: at last lurching into the limelight?

If we can say Bram Stoker’s Vampire, Count Dracula, personified fears of unknown perils and unchecked appetites when if was written in 1897, then the Zombie seems to be a fitting trope for our Wal-Mart world of rampant globalization fostered by sociopathic corporations. The Vampire mesmerizes, plays on repressed sexuality, and “vants to drink your blood.” The relentless Zombie, together with gazillions of his friends, just keeps coming at you — “brains…brains,” he moans.

Zombies have pursued the living up on the silver screen since the 1950s, well before George A. Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Since then, comic books, video games, many more movies — and novelizations of movies — have followed. But the Zombies have never quite cottoned to the printed page like the vampire. A Google search for “Zombie fiction” yields 18,400 matches, while “Vampire fiction” delivers 155,000. The difference in the number of fictional titles at my local library is even greater: Zombies – 15, Vampires – 301.

There could be many reasons for that. Books were the dominant entertainment medium when Stoker popularized his Vampire, while the Zombie is very much the child of cinema. (Even so, numbers from the Internet Movie Database also indicate Z. has a long stagger to catch up to V.) Zombies have little, if any, personality, intelligence or sex appeal, so it’s pretty much impossible to create an engaging character out of one. Reanimated decaying corpses are just too conceptual and machinelike and can’t capture the imagination like those charming, shape-shifting vampires can.

But perhaps a new day dawns for the dead with the publication of World War Zby Max Brooks. And yes, I freely concede I’m betraying a certain snobbery by suggesting Zombies haven’t fully arrived until they’ve broken into the bookstore and mainstream bestseller lists. So go ahead — bite me. I mean, as long as you’re not a Zombie or anything.

Brooks gives us a future history describing the global conflagration known as “The Crisis,” “The Dark Years,” “The Walking Plague,” or simply “World War Z.” The real genius of his novel is to appropriate the journalistic technique pioneered by Studs Terkel, in which the event is told from a multitude of different voices and perspectives. Just as Terkel’s war reporting ranged across time, rank and theatre of operation, Brooks covers the progress of World War Z from Sydney to Jerusalem, Manitoba to Tokyo. And then some.

Through more than 50 different voices we learn about the early days of the conflict, The Great Panic, pivotal battles like Yonkers, cleaning up frozen Zombies in the north and the rationale for key decisions by world leaders.

It’s all very richly imagined and capably told. Although the narrative structure precludes the development of any genuine suspense, Brooks does register a reasonable creepiness quotient. Consider this scene told by a Japanese man about how, as a teenager, he managed to flee his infested apartment building by climbing down the outside, balcony by balcony. (Note: he uses the Japanese word for Zombie, siafu.)

I looked up at my balcony and saw a head, the one-eyed siafu was squeezing himself through the opening between the rail and the balcony floor. It hung there for a moment, half out, half in, then gave another lurch toward me and slid over the side. I’ll never forget that it was still reaching for me as it fell, this nightmare flash of it suspended in midair, arms out, hanging eyeball now flying upward against its forehead.

It takes a very special ear to be able to particularize the speech of more than 50 different speakers and if I have a quibble with World War Z it’s that many of the accounts wind up sounding much the same in tone and diction. Brooks sets himself a formidable challenge and does succeed admirably with several memorable accounts — but one wonders what might have been achieved by a more gifted ventriloquist. For example, here is an excerpt from a novel I’m reading now, Lush Life, by Richard Price:

See you din’t live round here back in the heyday, so no way you’d know, but about ten, twelve years ago? […] Man, it was, there was some bad dudes up in here. The Purples on Avenue C, Hernandez brothers on A and B, Delta Force in the Cahans, nigger name Maquetumba right in the Lemlichs. Half a them got snatched up by RICO for long bids, the other half is dead, all the hardcores, so now it’s like just the Old Heads out there sippin’ forties and telling stories about yesteryear, them and a bunch of Similac niggers, stoop boys, everybody out for themselves with their itty-bitty eight balls, nobody runnin’ the show.

I didn’t tell you anything about who was talking or where, but I bet the dialect and detail helped you form a pretty reasonable picture. Although I know nothing about this milieu, it sounds pretty authentic to me. And I guess that’s the trick – capturing the specific cadences, slang, attitude and character-appropriate imagery to create a believable portrayal.

Those misgivings about World War Z aside, there is still much to enjoy and shudder about. On the macro level it attains resonating plausibility. We’ve already got a brimming Pandora’s box with global warming, illnesses hopping species to species, and humanity’s clumsy and dangerous interference in so many areas. Is a Zombie-like plague really so farfetched?

So if you want to see how it all might go down, check out World War Z. If nothing else, you’ll know what supplies you might want to think about laying in….

Incidentally, if you care about this sort of thing, Brooks is a former Saturday Night Live writer and the son of filmmaker Mel Brooks and actor Anne Bancroft, according to the World Wide Web, which is never wrong. A movie based on the novel is in production for a 2010 release by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment.

Looking for the great 21st-century Pakistani novel …

I wanted very much to like very much the novel Broken Verses,whose author, Kamila Shamsie, has received high praise.

brokenverses.jpgAfter the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister, I began to wonder about the country’s literature and why I could name several writers from India but not a single novelist from Pakistan. That led me to an excellent piece in The Guardian by Shamsie, which made me feel not quite so poorly read, and that, in turn, persuaded me to rectify this particular deficiency with one of her books.

But alas, we were two ill-suited ballroom dancers who were out of sync and occasionally on one another’s feet.

For my part, I’ll admit that I brought my own clumsy expectations to the reading enterprise and sometimes found myself annoyed by what the novel wasn’t doing. ‘Give me more Pakistan — more local flavour and context and political insight,’ I kept thinking. But criticizing a novel for what it’s not is hardly fair.

For her part, Shamsie was sometimes distant and distracted in the writing. The story centres on a young woman’s remembered experience of her charismatic mother’s love affair with an equally charismatic poet. The mother, Samina, is a political leader and something of a firebrand; her relationship with the poet is played out during a time of great turbulence in the country.

Sounds pretty good, yes? And oddly resonant with current events. I would certainly be interested in a novel about these two lovers. But it’s not their story. At least I’m pretty sure it’s not. It’s Aasmani’s, the narrating daughter who attempts to find meaning in those times and solve the mystery of the mother and poet’s disappearance — which, it turns out, is only a mystery to the narrator. (I won’t spoil the ending, but the overall effect is a bit like reading a detective novel where not only is the bad guy never caught, it turns out there may not even have been a murder in the first place.)

Although the remembered action of the past is often dramatized, it seems too far removed and I feel like the first-person narrator is keeping me at a distance. Maybe this is a deliberate strategy — the two lovers would probably dominate the novel entirely if they were made any more immediate, and as I’ve said, Shamsie’s story is about the daughter.

Lastly, Broken Verses is many time zones away from Chick Lit (or at least what I understand to be Chick Lit) but I do have a nagging suspicion that women will cotton to it more than men. Where women might see a certain emotional richness in the struggles of the narrator, men would likely see a surfeit of self-absorbed hand-wringing.

You say ‘tomato’…I say ‘tomato’….

A book is rarely all bad, of course, and Broken Verses has many things to recommend it. The narrator is sharp-witted and engaging, and, despite my grousing, the book does open a window on Pakistan. I will certainly consider reading whatever Shamsie offers next….

Amuse bouche*: Lorrie Moore

Here is a strong opening from a short story by Lorrie Moore called “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”

self-help.jpg11/30. Understand that your cat is a whore and can’t help you. She takes on love with the whiskery adjustments of a golddigger. She is just a gorgeous nomad, an unfriend. Recall how just last month when you got her from Bob downstairs, after Bob had become suddenly allergic, she leaped into your lap and purred, guttural as a German chanteuse, familiar and furry as mold. And Bob, visibly heartbroken, still in the room, sneezing and giving instructions, hoping for one last cat nuzzle, descended to his hands and knees and jiggled his fingers in the shag. The cat only blinked. For you, however, she smiled, gave a fish-breath peep, and settled.

‘Oh well,’ said Bob, getting up off the floor. ‘Now I’m just a thing of her kittenish past.’

That’s the way with Bob. He’ll say to the cat, ‘You be a good girl now, honey,’ and then just shrug, go back downstairs to his apartment, play jagged creepy jazz, drink wine, stare out at the wintry scalp of the mountain.

There are a couple of things conspiring here to quicken a reader’s interest:

  • A dated, diary-like entry, but with a curious use of the second-person perspective, which comes with all those imperatives — “Understand…,” “Recall….”
  • Strong imagery, such as “Guttural as a German chanteuse,” “familiar and furry as mold…,” “wintry scalp of the mountain”
  • And some well-observed details about cats: “a gorgeous nomad, an unfriend.”

The first sentence also begs the question — Why does the narrator need help, anyway? The diary device promises privileged, inside information and narrows the gap between writer and reader. At the same time, the unique prism of the second-person perspective filters the speaker’s voice into a weird and compelling light.

I haven’t read anything else by Moore, but after reading “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” I plan to.   

* “An amuse-bouche, also called an amuse-gueule, is a tiny bite-sized morsel served before the hors d’œuvre or first course of a meal. These, often accompanied by a proper complementing wine, are served as an excitement of taste buds to both prepare the guest for the meal and to offer a glimpse into the chef’s approach to cooking.” -Wikipedia

Amuse Bouche: G.B. Edwards

bridgereflect1.jpg

Voice rules.

Whether it’s the writer’s voice, or the writer’s characters’ voices, we can’t help but be drawn by the sound of another soul manifesting itself through voice. Sometimes characters figuratively grab us by the lapels and sometimes they quietly charm. However they choose to draw us into their worlds, their primary medium is voice.

I’m starting a feature I’m calling Amuse Bouche — a little sampler of compelling voices that tantalize and awaken the senses. I’ll serve a few of these up, from time to time.

See what you think of this, the first paragraph of a strange and wonderful book by G.B. Edwards called The Book of Ebenezer Le Page.

Guernsey, Guernesey, Garnsai, Sarnia: so they say. Well, I don’t know, I’m sure. The older I get and the more I learn, the more I know I don’t know nothing, me. I am the oldest on the island, I think. Liza Queripel from Pleinmont say she is older; but I reckon she is putting it on. When she was a young woman, she used to have a birthday once every two or three years; but for years now she have been having two or three a year. To tell you the truth, I don’t know how old I am. My mother put it down on the front page of the big Bible; but she put down the day and the month, and forgot to put down the year. I suppose I could find out if I went to the Greffe; but I am not going to bother about that now.

I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly looking forward to what the rest of that meal might hold. Conversational, slightly gossipy, and from someone who is above all from a different time and place — this voice promises to give us a story. Or two. The first-person allows for greater intimacy but compelling voice can be heard in all the POV’s. More examples to come…