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Archive for the category “Authors”

Review: ‘Unfinished’ by Pat Bertram

Author Pat Bertram, who previously explored her own encounter with the loss of a loved one in Grief: The Great Yearning (2016), has brought her wisdom into the world of fiction in Unfinished (Stairway Press, June 27, 2017). The story will capture your heart and soul, while shining a spotlight on the fact that most people want those who grieve to get over it quickly because they make us uncomfortable.

Like many spouses, Amanda Ray defined herself as one half of a married team, leaving her without a sense of self when her husband David dies at 59 after a long illness. Her husband was a minister. Amanda’s role as the traditional minister’s wife  (hostess, assistant, secretary, and help meet) didn’t lend itself to separate goals or careers.  While she doesn’t know if she would cope with her loss differently if she’d had her own career to fall back on after her husband died, Amanda does know that the same friends whose visits grew more and more sparse during David’s illness have little or nothing comforting to say during or after the memorial service.

“I’m sorry for your loss” and “It’s time to get on with your life” are among the most popular sentiments. Yet, the grief is like a tide that’s always high and always coming in. Her daughter, already grown and on her own, exhibits an overt lack lack of empathy or sympathy when Amanda cries at everything, can’t sleep, can’t eat, and can hardly hope. Amanda looks for David, expects him to be in his study, wonders why he did this to her and why he was so distant once he learned that his illness was a terminal and painful cancer.

One small hope is a prospective relationship with a man she met at an online forum for cancer caregivers before David died. Sam’s wife also has cancer and isn’t expected to survive it. Amanda and Sam are drawn to each other in part because Sam doesn’t react to her tears and doubts with cliched platitudes. Some of their online chats become steamy. At times, she wonders whether he’s sincere or a predator because while he claims to love her–though they’ve never met in person–Amanda sees that he has less time for her than everyone else in his life. Is there a future here or not?

David, kept secrets from her. They are hidden in a computer file he didn’t want her to read until after he was gone. Now she can’t find the password. She did find the gun in the pocket of his robe and wonders if he bought it to end his life when the pain became more than he could bear. But then she discovers the gun has a longer history. At times, Amanda thinks she’s grieving for a man she didn’t wholly know, and that’s one of the things that makes her feel like everything is unfinished.

Bertram knows grief’s uneven terrain and has created a believable, three-dimensional protagonist who must not only deal with the uproar inside her head and body, but the secrets, the online comings and goings of Sam and the fact that she must face and box up all the mementos of her life with David and quickly move out of the church’s parsonage. Sam, while slightly less believable due to his gushing online endearments, plays a realistic role as a sounding board and–after most of the tears have fallen–a prospective future. The secrets unravel in a cruel progression that keep Amanda–as well as the book’s readers–off balance as though there’s continually another shoe waiting to drop.

Amanda’s story is a poignant story that delivers a heavy punch in a relatively short book. The lessons to be learned will last long after the last page has been turned.

Malcolm

 

 

Should Albee’s Unfinished Work be Destroyed?

“Edward Albee died last fall. But the renowned playwright is making one last request from the great beyond.

“Albee wants two of his friends to destroy any incomplete manuscripts he left behind.”

via Edward Albee’s Final Wish: Destroy My Unfinished Work – The New York Times

The public probably best knows his play and movie “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Scholars say the playwright’s wishes should be ignored, stating that unfinished works (and presumably any letters or notes) will help the world better understand his creativity and work processes.

The executors of the estate say they will follow his wishes. Yet, according to the story, it’s unclear whether or not any material has been destroyed or whether copies of Albee’s unpublished works might be also elsewhere.

If I were the executor, I would destroy the work simply because there’s no inherent right for the public to see it. The only exception might be a work that he planned to publish that has, to back up that prospect, supporting letters and other materials showing he was negotiating with a publisher at the time of his death.

What do you think?

–Malcolm

If you know where you’re going, you shouldn’t be going there

If you’re writing a piece of fiction, I’d urge you not to try to show anything—instead, try to discover something. There’s no way to write anything powerful unless your unconscious takes charge. – Ethan Canin in The Best Writing Advice of 2016

When I was in  school, authors and writing teachers preached the dogma that the first thing a writer had to do before writing a story was figure out the ending and then write in that direction. This advice was supported by psychologists and coaches who said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?”

My response to the psychologists and coaches is that I’m always exactly where I need to be. There is no there to head toward. And to those authors and writing teachers, I prefer to discover the ending rather than sabotaging the story by engraving the results of the experiment in stone before I begin.

Let’s stipulate that a lot of great authors knew where they were going, got there, and delivered entertaining and meaningful fiction in the progress. Perhaps their unconscious minds tipped them off and they were left to figure out how such an ending could possibly occur. Or, perhaps they succeeded in spite of their methods.

More and more authors these days are looking at their writing as a grand experiment, one without advance parameters (including various “rules”) that is in every way an act of faith and a means of discovery like walking into the forest primeval without a compass or a map or a box of matches. Why would one do such things?

To see what will happen. En route to that, the author discovers a lot about this evolving theme and characters because s/he’s given them free will. They do what they do and we write that down. If they’re puppets, then they’re simply computers following a code that’s all lock-step toward the only solution(s) the programmer or the writer will allow.

Joseph Campbell maintained that if you’re following a trail, it’s somebody else’s trail. There’s no spontaneity in that. few surprises, and the end result is that you end up where somebody else has already been. As writers, we don’t want to do that.

We need to surprise ourselves–and our readers as well.

Malcolm

 

 

Does one need to feel numb before writing a sad scene?

Probably not, but it helps.

It’s rather like sadistic directors during the years of the Hollywood studio system telling child actors and actresses their puppy died to get them to cry for a scene in which they needed to cry.

Goodness knows, today’s headlines are enough to make one feel numb, lonely and a bit hopeless about the state of things.

I have a sad scene staring me in the face, one in which I want the hopelessness of the situation to be thicker than fog. I’ve been avoiding writing it. I knew what it needed, but I wasn’t numb enough to create that.

So, to solve the problem, I raced through two, high-adrenaline, page-turner spy books. You know the type: ISIS vs. the U.S., Russia vs. the U.S., the kind of books where the authors explain weapons and commando methods in detail, the kind where both the good guys and the bad guys kill a lot of people like they’re just playing a video game.

The books are a rush, but when I’m done reading, I feel numb, wondering whether such tactics are what we need to keep a democracy safe. Human life in these books is very expendable. Now I’m depressed enough to write the scene.

It’s almost like somebody told me my puppy got run over.

–Malcolm

Michael Shaara and ‘The Killer Angels’

Dedicated to Michael Shaara, Author, who so poignantly reminded us of the mortal sacrifice made by the soldiers who valiantly fought at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1st – 3rd, 1863 Presented to The Pickett Society by Stephen Lang, Board Member, Thespian & Playwright

 

When Lesa and I visited Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond earlier this week where 18,000 Confederate soldiers are buried, we sound this bench dedicated to author Michael Shaara next to the grave of General Pickett. Pickett survived Gettysburg and was among those who facilitated moving the remains of the dead to Richmond. (He died in 1875.) Information about the bench’s dedication can be found on the Pickett Society website here.

Very eerie hill with so many gravestones from one battle.

On a hill where so many of the dead from Gettysburg (many unknown) finally rest in peace, this is a fitting place to honor Shaara. His Pulitzer Prize winning book “The Killer Angels,” about the battle of Gettysburg, is considered one of the best civil war novels.

“A gripping novel about the four days of the battle of Gettysburg, The Killer Angels is alive with noble figures and moves through its fated courses in a prose both simple and epic. Happily, a leading character is Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, a young professor of rhetoric from Maine, who speaks to his men with a power that Mark Antony might envy. When the largest gatherings of both the Union and Confederate armies meet by chance at Gettysburg, a battle follows that neither army wants at that time and place. But General Robert E. Lee, the proud rebel, is utterly set on dealing a death blow to the Union and stakes everything on the battle that forms around Cemetery Hill. After the first day’s fighting, Southerners sing victory songs. But Lee’s cavalry, led by gallivanting J.E.B. Stuart, has left Lee blind: he has no idea of the size or placing of Union forces. In a uselessly stupid gesture, he attacks the untakable hill. A strong, spirited, bloody book, equal to its subject.” – Kirkus Reviews

Shaara was a good friend and by far taught the best college writing class I ever attended. His influence on the work of those of us who met in his living room once a week is substantial.

–Malcolm

Buy It or Review It (Or Preferably Both)

If you are a writer, ask to be paid for your work. If you are asking a writer to appear, pay them. If you read a book, pay for it. If you accept a free book, post a review. Anything else is eroding the careers of writers everywhere.

via Buy It or Review It (Or Preferably Both) | FundsforWriters

This post, from several days ago, is in many ways about writers helping each other and notes that many people–including those on writers’ Facebook friends lists or who follow their blogs–sign on to accept a free copy of a book but then never read it, much less review it.

As Hope Clark mentions, it’s bad enough when a reader requests an ARC (advance readers copy) and then never posts a review; it’s worse when another author does it.  An Amazon-style review can be posted in a few minutes and it can make a big difference between the success or failure of a mid-list or an emerging author’s work.

We need to help each other and keep our promises.

Malcolm

 

Are writers outsiders?

“Writers are outsiders. Even when we seem like insiders, we’re outsiders. We have to be. Our noses pressed to the glass, we notice everything. We mull and interpret. We store away clues, details that may be useful to us later.” – Dani Shapiro

I’m not sure the answer is a simple yes or no.

In contrast to Dani Shapiro’s statement, Joe Bunting in Are the Best Writers Insiders or Outsiders? says, “Perhaps the insider/outsider question is a false dichotomy. If Cormac McCarthy can write masterpieces in his solitude and Salman Rushdie write them while dating supermodels and going to international parties, then maybe it’s not about being in or out. Perhaps the secret is to never stop being you, whether or not you’re inside or outside.”

Maybe Joe Bunting’s “you” can change personas and step into the mix and be a part of it when necessary or watch from the sidelines and observe when necessary. Or, maybe it comes down to whether a person is an introvert or an extrovert, facile or clumsy in social situations, or easily moves between a huge number of friends or feels more comfortable spending most of his or her time with a small group.

We’re always observing, I think. To some extent, that puts us somewhat outside. We do store away clues, as Shapiro says. In Bunting’s post, it’s not surprising to read that J. D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon are among the outsiders–far outside, as it turns out. Or, that F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Mark Twain were considered insiders.

When I read an author’s novel, I don’t know if s/he’s an insider or an outsider in any social group, town or career. I might leap to conclusions if I thought about it and consider those who write literary fiction to be outsiders and those who write romances and thrillers to be insiders. But, I might be wrong.

Perhaps insider vs. outsider doesn’t matter. Maybe the true consideration is: who do you need to be to write what you want to write?

Personally, I need quiet. I don’t want every week to be filled with dinners, barbecues, parties, movies, and day trips. That’s what works for me. Maybe you need a lot of activity, friends trooping through the house 24/7 and a full dance card, so to speak. If it works, what more could one want?

The late William Trevor (“Love and Summer”), a prolific Irish writer believed that “writers were outsiders, that they had no place in society because society was what they were watching.” I can understand the feeling even though I’m not convinced all writers feel this way.

If you’re a writer, how do you feel about this? (Yes, I know, maybe the insider/outsider discussion is about as meaningful about the old debate about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.) But I’m curious. Can you “make the scene” and still write about it or do you have to stand amongst the wallflowers and watch it before you can write about it?

Malcolm

 

Writing is not a calling

Working in the creative field is unusual in that we are driven to create, regardless of the outcome. But is it sacrilegious to want to earn a living from our artistic endeavours? The sooner we start treating writing as a profession rather than an unpaid calling, the better.

– Evie Gaughan in Fiction writers are real people too

Most people I meet day to day have no idea I’m a writer. Why not? As Evie Gaughan suggests in her wonderful essay about seeing writing for what it is, I don’t fit the mold.

I shop at regular stores. I’m not J. K. Rowling rich. I drive an old car. I don’t walk around quoting books. I don’t have a tattoo that says something elitist or precious like “take me to the library.” In fact, I dislike tattoos.

On the off chance somebody finds out I am a writer, they don’t say, “Wow” and run over to Barnes & Noble and buy my books. Why not? Because I’m a regular person and don’t seem like a writer. (So, how good could those books be?) Plus, they haven’t heard of me or any of my books. So, I’m not a real writer because if I were, they’d see my books on the grocery store shelves or find me listed on a bestseller list.

I have always wanted to say that these incorrect assumptions about writers and their books hurt the art and craft of our work because most writers will never be able to support themselves from their fiction. Being treated as “special” makes life harder.

We have regular jobs, and now that more and more people are expecting e-books to sell for 99₵, it’s more necessary than most readers suspect to be a teacher, civil servant, retail worker, or a laborer of some kind to make ends meet. But Gaughan has said what I might have said if I’d spent several hours working on this post. And, for those who don’t like the article, she takes the flak and I don’t. <g>

The few people who meet me who finally believe that I am a novelist start acting “funny.” Like I’m as unpredictable as a pit bull and might kill them. Like they have to clean up their act as though I’m the parson. Like they can’t speak because what do they know about language? Like I’ll put them in a book and turn them into hookers and con men and people who need to be in jail. Frankly, I want to shout, “For shit’s sake, just stop it.”

But, you know how people are when they’re acting “funny.” They pretend like they’re no acting “funny.” If they think you think they’re acting “funny,” they deny it and start acting totally insane. Sure, this provides good story material but it makes meaningful conversations more of a challenge.

So, thank you for your wisdom, Evie Gaughan. I hope some people will hear you and, you know, won’t start acting crazy–that’s the last thing any of us want.

–Malcolm

 

 

Promotions: What Type to Use When

“As indie authors, we have a wealth of types of marketing and promotional opportunities available to us. However, some types aren’t as effective as others, and some are more effective when you’re farther along in your career. As a newbie, where should you concentrate your efforts? As a more seasoned indie, what will boost you to the next level of visibility and sales?

“Here’s one list, together with our recommendations for when best to employ each type. Some are free; some, not so much. I’ve included a $ next to the ones that will cost you money.”

via Promotions: What Type to Use When – Indies Unlimited

Authors constantly debate which promotion strategies really work. Sometimes, those with high acclaim seem to have worn themselves out before most of us find them.

A lot of Indie authors are reporting that sales are down. Some blame a change in Amazon algorithms which purportedly favor the higher priced books from large mainstream presses over the modestly priced books that are self-published or that come from small presses.

Lynne Cantwell has done a great job compiling a list of strategies to try. Regardless of whether (or if) Amazon is tweaking its site to make more off the higher priced books, we still need to get the word out–and, perhaps, raise our prices.

Malcolm

Do we really need to see Sylvia Plath’s private letters?

A story in The Guardian, “Unseen Sylvia Plath letters claim domestic abuse by Ted Hughes,” focuses on letters Sylvia Plath wrote to her former therapist between 1960 and 1963, the last of which was sent a week before her suicide.

Sylvia Plath – Wikipedia photo

Scholars have sought information about this period of the author’s life for years and are drooling over the secrets contained in correspondence that isn’t part of any official public record (such as court proceedings) in hopes of understanding Plath, her poetry, and her marriage better. Frankly, I think the right of privacy shouldn’t end with a person’s death–and that goes to show that I would never make a literary scholar.

Fortunately, the letters won’t become wholly public yet because there’s a legal dispute over who owns them that may take a while to resolve. But the story in the Guardian gives everyone the gist of what, in my opinion, the public has no right to know.

I’ll stipulate that literary scholars and critics have always tried to more deeply understand authors’ influences, motivations, and output by looking at their lives through a microscope. This looking almost always includes studying and publicizing diaries, letters to friends and family, correspondence with agents and publishers, and other details that (when created) were considered to be private.

While the literary world sees the publication and analysis of such materials as scholarship, I see it as voyeurism that’s no higher in purpose than the scandal-oriented publications on display next to cash registers at grocery stores and gas station convenience stores. Sure, the analysis is usually better researched and better written, but it displays information that was never meant to be displayed.

Money often seems to drive such efforts. Person A, who was a close friend of Famous Person B, has a  box filled with the letters they received from that well-known author, actor, or artist. They see that they can make a lot of money by offering them to the public through an auction house. A scholar, museum or library archive buys them, Person A (who is now rich) believes without guilt that s/he has done nothing wrong, and the content of those letters is now open to everyone.

Unless Famous Person B tells Person A that it’s okay for the letters to be shown to biographers or donated to institutions engaged in scholarship, I believe such letters should be destroyed. They were never intended for public consumption and the death of Famous Person B doesn’t change that fact. Prying into an author’s private life may, indeed, shed additional light on his/her works, but the end does not justify the tawdry means.

–Malcolm

 

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