Showing posts with label Flannery O'Connor. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Flannery O'Connor. Show all posts

11 March 2017

Short Story or Novel?


by B.K. Stevens


My mother, of blessed memory, never took my pretensions as a writer very seriously. Even after Alfred Hitchcock's had been publishing my stories for over a decade, I could never get her to subscribe to the magazine. Once, I gave her a gift subscription as a Mother's Day present. She didn't renew it. "So they've accepted some stories from you," she said. "Who knows if they'll ever accept another?" She had a point. Who knew? Despite her skepticism, I kept giving her copies of the stories I'd published, and she always read them and often made shrewd comments. "Why did you throw that idea away on something so short?" she said after reading one story. "That was a clever idea, much better than the ideas for your other stories. You could've used it for a novel, maybe made some real money."

Again, she had a point. And I've never forgotten it--my mother was one of the smartest people I've ever known, and she had a way of being right about things. Over twenty years later, I've taken that story out again and am trying to turn it into a novel. I won't mention the title, since the attempt may come to nothing. But I figure after so many years, no one but my husband and our daughters will remember that story, so why not see if the idea will work as a novel? At any rate, the experience has gotten me thinking. Is there a way of knowing which ideas will work best as short stories, which will work best as novels? Obviously, I'm no expert on that subject, at least not according to my mother. So I decided to see what some far more successful writers have to say. Maybe my mother would have respected their opinions. (Then again, maybe not.)

In Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, Lawrence Block scoffs at the notion that novels require stronger seminal ideas than short stories do. The same ideas, he says, can work for either--in fact, short stories always require strong ideas, and novels often don't. He gets more "sheer enjoyment" from writing short stories than from writing novels, but each story "requires a reasonably strong idea, and the idea's used up in a couple of thousand words. I've written whole novels out of ideas with no more depth to them than short-story ideas, and I've written other novels without having had a strong story idea to begin with. They had plot and characters, to be sure, but those developed as the book went along." Most people, Block says, can't come up with enough ideas to make a living by writing short stories; he cites Ed Hoch as an example of one of those rare people who could. "So I take the easy way out," Block says, "and write novels." For most people, he believes, that's the more practical choice. So if you get a good idea for a story, stretch it out into a novel. I think my mother might have agreed.

John Gardner might have agreed, too, at least to some extent. In The Art of Fiction, he discusses several ways of developing an idea for a novel or story. One way is to start with an idea for a climax and then work backwards--how did this event come about? "Depending on the complexity of the writer's way of seeing the event," he says, "depending, that is, on how much background he [or she] feels our understanding of the event requires--the climax becomes the high point of a short story, a novella, or a novel." At the outset, the writer may not know which length will work best: "Writers often find that an idea for a short story may change into an idea for a novella or even a novel."

Gardner does think, however, that these three forms of fiction differ in fundamental ways. A short story usually has a single epiphany, a novella may have several, and a novel may have a completely different structure: "Whereas the short story moves to an `epiphany,' as Joyce said--in other words, to a climactic moment of recognition on the part of the central character, or, at least, the reader . . . the novella moves through a series of small epiphanies or secondary climaxes to a much more firm conclusion." Novels, on the other hand, should avoid a "firm conclusion" and make "some pretense of imitating the world in all its complexity." Gardner takes a swipe at mysteries and other traditional narratives when he says "too much neatness" mars a novel: "When all of a novel's strings are too neatly tied together at the end, as sometimes happens in Dickens and almost always happens in the popular mystery thriller, we feel the novel to be unlifelike . . .a novel built as prettily as a teacup is not of much use." So for Gardner, it doesn't seem to be that some ideas are inherently more suited to short stories than to novels. Instead, the crucial difference may lie in the writer's way of developing and resolving that idea--or, in a novel, of not resolving it.

Elizabeth Bowen, on the other hand, thinks short stories free the writer from the need to achieve the sort of resolution novels demand. In her introduction to the 1950 Faber Book of Modern Short Stories, she says many early English short stories, such as those by Henry James and Thomas Hardy, try to treat the same sorts of "complex and motivated" subjects novels do. That approach, she says, is a mistake: No matter how expertly crafted they may be, short stories that are essentially "condensed novel[s]" will not achieve the "heroic simplicity" that should be their trademark. In such stories, "shortness is not positive; it is nonextension." Consequently, these stories "have no emotion that is abrupt and special; they do not give mood or incident a significance outside the novelist's power to explore. Their very excellence made them a dead end; they did not invite imitation or advance in any way a development in the short story proper."

Bowen considers de Maupassant, Chekov, and Poe among the pioneers who truly broke free from the novel and explored the new, distinctly different possibilities the short story form offers. A short story, according to Bowen, should not begin with a complicated plan for a plot, as a novel might. Rather, it "must spring from an impression or perception pressing enough, acute enough, to make the writer write." Short stories must be carefully written, "but conception should have been involuntary, a vital fortuity. The sought-about-for subject gives the story a dead kernel." Bowen's ideas about the plot and structure of a short story are interesting enough to quote at length:
The plot, whether or not it be ingenious or remarkable, for however short a way it is to be pursued, ought to raise some issue, so that it may continue in the mind. The art of the short story permits a break at what in the novel would be the crux of the plot: the short story, free from the longeurs of the novel, is also exempt from the novel's conclusiveness--too often forced and false: it may thus more nearly than the novel approach aesthetic and moral truth. It can, while remaining rightly prosaic and circumstantial, give scene, action, event, character a poetic new actuality.
In fact, she says, the short story may have less in common with the novel than it does with some other art forms: It should have "the valid central emotion  and inner spontaneity of the lyric" and should be "as composed, in the plastic sense, and as visual as a picture."

Flannery O'Connor might take issue with Bowen's contention that a short story should spring from "an impression or perception." In both novels and short stories, O'Connor says in "The Nature and Aims of Fiction," "something has to happen. A perception is not a story, and no amount of sensitivity can make a story-writer out of you if you just plan don't have a gift for telling a story." She says the choice between novel and short story may depend primarily on the writer's "disposition." I can't resist the temptation to quote her comparison--or, rather, her friend's comparison--of the experiences of writing these two kinds of narratives: "She says that when she stops a novel to work on short stories, she feels as if she has just left a dark wood to be set upon by wolves." Since novels are a "more diffused form" of fiction, O'Connor says, they may suit "those who like to linger along the way" and have "a more massive energy." On the other hand, "for those of us who want to get the agony over in a hurry, the novel is a burden and a pain."

In another essay, "Writing Short Stories," O'Connor defines a short story as an interplay of character, action, and meaning: "A short story is a complete dramatic action--and in good stories, the characters are shown through the action, and the action is controlled through the characters, and the result of this is a meaning that derives from the whole presented experience." Of these three elements, character (or "personality") is primary: "A story always involves, in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality." Although she says a short story's action must be "complete," her understanding of "complete" definitely doesn't seem to involve the sort of "conclusiveness" Bowen sees as a flaw in many novels. O'Connor describes (without naming) her "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" as an example of "a complete story," even though the action breaks off in a way many readers might find abrupt (to put it mildly). For O'Connor, the story is complete because her exploration of the central character is complete: "There is nothing more about the mystery of that man's personality that could be shown through that particular dramatization." So perhaps writers shouldn't start by deciding whether an idea is better suited to a short story or a novel. Perhaps they should start by deciding if a character is likely to generate a good story. "In most good stories," O'Connor says, "it is the character's personality that creates the action of the story."

Edith Wharton, by contrast, thinks characters are supremely important in novels but not in short stories. As she says in The Writing of Fiction, "the test of the novel is that its people should be alive. No subject in itself, however fruitful, appears to be able to keep a novel alive; only the characters in it can." On the other hand, "some of the greatest short stories owe their vitality entirely to the dramatic rendering of a situation." The differences between characters in novels and those in stories are so great, in Wharton's opinion, that the short story could be considered the "direct descendant" not of the novel but of "the old epic or ballad--of those earlier forms of fiction in all of which action was the chief affair, and the characters, if they did not remain mere puppets, seldom or never became more than types." That seems harsh--did Wharton see the characters in her own "Roman Fever," for example, as no more individualized than "puppets" or "types"? Nevertheless, she insists "situation is the main concern of the short story, character of the novel."

Wharton shrugs off some other ways of deciding whether a subject is suited to a novel or a short story. For example, she says the number of "incidents, or external happenings" doesn't matter much. Many incidents can be "crowded" into a short story. But a subject that involves "the gradual unfolding of the inner life of its characters" isn't right for a short story, and neither is one that involves "producing in the reader's mind the sense of a lapse of time." Short stories should avoid such subjects and shouldn't try to achieve such effects. Instead, they should strive for "compactness and instanteneity" by relying on "two `unities'--the old traditional one of time, and that other, more modern and complex, which requires that any rapidly enacted episode shall be seen through only one pair of eyes." These limits, however, apply only to stories that are truly short; a remark Wharton makes at one point suggests she might have 5,000 words in mind as a typical length. She also mentions an "intermediate" kind of narrative. The "long short story," she says, might be suitable for "any subject too spreading for conciseness yet too slight in texture to be stretched into a novel."

"One of the fiction writer's essential gifts," Wharton maintains, "is that of discerning whether the subject which presents itself to him [or her], asking for incarnation, is suited to the proportions of a short story or a novel." It's too bad the writers quoted here don't offer us more consistent advice on such an essential matter. When I started working on this post, I knew these writers wouldn't agree about everything. I hoped, though, they might agree about something. Alas, that doesn't seem to be the case. If there's even a thread of consensus running through these essays and chapters, I missed it. At least I found the disagreements interesting; at least they pushed me to think about what I should focus on as I try to make that decades-old short story work as a novel. What about you? Do you agree with some of these writers more than with others? Or do you have other criteria for deciding whether an idea is better suited to a short story or a novel? I'd love to hear what you think.

# # #
Gardner discusses the novella as well as the short story and the novel; Wharton discusses "the long short story. This year, the Anthony ballot adds the novella (8,000 to 40,000 words) to the usual list of categories. So I'll just casually mention that my "The Last Blue Glass" (Hitchcock's, April 2016--9,470 words) would qualify as either a short story or a novella. So if your short story dance card is already full, you might consider "The Last Blue Glass" as a novella. You can read it here.


09 April 2016

Short Takes: The 2016 Nominees for the Best Short Story Agatha


by B.K. Stevens

"Being short does not mean being slight," Flannery O'Connor maintains in "Writing Short Stories." "A short story should be long in depth and should give us an experience in meaning." I think all the nominees for this year's Best Short Story Agatha would agree. The nominated stories include whodunits, suspense stories, and character studies. They include contemporary stories and historical mysteries, serious stories and humorous ones, realistic stories and stories laced with fantasy or whimsy. But all the nominated stories, I think, are long in depth, offering readers a variety of experiences in meaning.

All the authors of the nominated stories have contributed to this post. Each picked an excerpt from her story and commented on it briefly. I hope you enjoy these glimpses into the stories and also hope you'll decide to visit the Malice Domestic website to read the stories in full. And if you're going to Malice, I look forward to seeing you there.

 


"A Year without Santa Claus?" by Barb Goffman
Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, January/February 2015

Here's the passage:

"Look at this email from Santa."

"First someone poisoned Frosty's doppelganger," Stan read aloud. He turned to me. "Doppelganger? Who's he trying to impress with his fancy language?" 

Stan had never been a big fan of Santa's. Something about not getting a certain potato gun he'd wanted as a kid. I sighed loudly and tapped the tablet. "Read."

"Okay, okay." He looked back down. "First someone poisoned Frosty's doppelganger. Then my look-alike was run down. And now someone's offed an Easter Bunny impersonator. Shot him between the ears. New Jersey's too dangerous for me this year. Sorry, Annabelle. Maybe next Christmas. Love, Santa." Stan's eyes returned to mine. "Uh oh."

Uh oh indeed. I shook my head. This was a catastrophe. Santa couldn't skip out on our kids.
It's two weeks till Christmas, and Santa has just notified Annabelle, the head of everything magical that happens in New Jersey, that he's not coming there this year. A murderer is on the loose--it's not safe, he says. Annabelle can't let the poor kids suffer, so she sets out to catch the murderer. But even with her magical powers, Annabelle can't just conjure up whodunit. So she sets off to investigate the old-fashioned way, asking questions and taking names. But will it be enough? Can Christmas be saved?

To read the story:  http://www.malicedomestic.org/PDF/Goffman_Year.pdf


  



"A Questionable Death," by Edith Maxwell
History and Mystery, Oh My (Mystery & Horror, LLC)

In the following passage from "A Questionable Death," 1888 Quaker midwife Rose Carroll has brought a pregnant client of hers to see David Dodge, a physician at the new hospital in the neighboring town. Rose's client, Helen, has been showing symptoms of illness not related to her pregnancy.

"I'll need a small lock of your hair," David told Helen when he was finished examining her.

It had taken us twenty minutes to find a hack, we had to wait a bit to see David, and he had taken care with his examination, so it was now getting on for five o'clock.

"Why?" Helen asked, taken aback.

"Just to aid in assessing your health," David said, slipping me a look behind Helen's back. He handed her a small pair of scissors.

Helen shrugged, but handed the scissors to me. I clipped off a small bit from near her neckline and handed the deep brown lock to David, along with the scissors.

"Thank you for coming in," he said. "I'll have an answer for you within a day's time. And Rose, thanks for bringing her. I'll summon my carriage and driver to take you both back to Amesbury."

"That's very kind of thee," I said.

"I'll need to use the outhouse before we leave." Helen blushed a little.

"Oh, we have the new chain-pull toilets," David said with a note of pride in his voice. "The lavatory is just down the hall to the right. It's labeled Ladies." He pointed the way.

After the door closed behind Helen, I gave him a quizzical glance.

"My teacher in medical school would call it gastric fever." He gazed at me. "I suspect poison."

"Poison?" I whispered, moving to his side.

"Arsenic. I'll tell you for certain after I've analyzed the hair." His brows knit, and he went on, "Don't let on to her. Yet." 

This short scene comes about a third of the way through the story. It reflects the rapid changes in the late 1880s--the new chain-pull toilets in the hospital, the technology to analyze arsenic from a clipping of hair--contrasted with the horse-drawn carriages and Rose's Quaker way of speaking. It also gives the reader a likely cause for Helen's symptoms, which Rose will continue to investigate, and shows that she and David have a relationship as medical professionals in addition to their romantic one.

To read the story: https://edithmaxwell.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/questionabledeath.pdf 





"A Killing at the Beausoleil," by Terrie Farley Moran
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, November 2015

My Agatha-nominated story, "A Killing at the Beausoleil,"is a prequel to the Read 'Em and Eat  cozy mystery novels, including the Agatha Award winning Well Read, Then Dead, as well as Caught Read-Handed and the soon-to-be-released Read to Death.

In this excerpt we meet Sassy Cabot and Bridgy Mayfield on their first day in Fort Myers Beach. The building manager of the Beausoleil is showing them their new rental apartment.

Bridgy leaned in. "Sassy, what a gorgeous place to start our new lives."

Pleased with her comment, K. Dooney went for super-wow. He tugged on one cord of a wall's worth of creamy vertical blinds, and, like a well-trained platoon, they made a snappy left turn. Florida sunshine streamed in between the slats and danced all around the room. I fell into an instant fantasy of sipping my morning coffee while sitting on the terrace, drenched in sunlight. Mr. Dooney yanked another cord, and the slats marched in unison, half column left, half column right.

Below us, great white birds with wingspans measured in feet, rather than inches, circled lazily around fishing boat bobbing in the Gulf of Mexico. The horizon pushed on forever.

A view that might seem nice enough standing on the beach appeared majestic from the fourth-floor window. I let out a deep sigh of contentment.

Usually the bouncy one, Bridgy was more restrained. She tapped K. Dooney on the arm. "Who is that man sleeping on our terrace?"

In Well Read, Then Dead Sassy mentions that she and Bridgy moved to Fort Myers Beach three years ago. A number of readers contacted me because they were wondering how Sassy and Bridgy settled into their life on Fort Myers Beach. So at the urging of the readers, I decided to write this prequel short story, which was published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.

This particular scene comes early in the story. It is a favorite of mine because it gives the reader a glimpse of the vibrant south Florida setting while indicating trouble to come in the person of the "sleeping" man.

To read the story:  http://www.malicedomestic.org/PDF/Moran_Beausoleil.pdf




 "Suffer the Poor," by Harriette Sackler
History and Mystery, Oh My (Mystery & Horror, LLC)

Anne Heatherton, my story's protagonist, tours London's East End with a group of philanthropic women of means. The conditions that exist here in the 1890s appall the ladies. The group's leader expresses her view of how they should proceed.

"Well, ladies," Mrs. Pinckney, the group leader, announced, "we have a great deal to think about. But I am truly confident that we can make a difference. I believe it is our moral duty to share the blessings of our fortunate circumstances with others. But certainly not to be patronizing or morally superior. Don't you agree?"

The women nodded emphatically and whispered to each other as they moved toward the outskirts of the East End.
 This passage illustrates the dilemma of offering assistance to people who suffer from abysmal poverty and yet seek to maintain their pride and independence.

To read the story:  http://www.malicedomestic.org/PDF/Sackler_SUFFER_THE_POOR.pdf

"A Joy Forever," by B. K. Stevens
Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, March 2015


In "A Joy Forever," narrator Chris, an aspiring photographer, travels to Boston hoping to take a picture that captures "the spirit of New England." To save money, Chris stays with his crude, domineering uncle, Mike Mallinger. After a miserable day of failing to find a good subject for the photograph, Chris returns to the house, where Mike's second wife, Gwen, is working on an embroidery project. Gwen seems to be meek and submissive, seems to have surrendered utterly to Mike's bullying and abuse. She sympathizes with Chris's artistic frustrations and recommends patience, because "sometimes, you can't make good things happen right away." Here, Chris responds.

"You're sure patient." I walked over to look at her tapestry. "That's lovely, Aunt Gwen. Did you design it yourself? Are you going to fill in all that space with those tiny flowers? That takes more patience than I'll ever have."

The design consisted of a mass of flowers--not arranged in a landscape or vase, not forming a pattern in any usual sense, but a joyous profusion ordered by a harmony I could feel but not define. The colors were dazzling, the variety of flowers amazing. No two were exactly alike, and some, I was sure, bloomed only in her imagination, never in any garden. And each flower was composed of dozens of tiny stitches. Each must have taken hours to create.

She blushed--a proud, vibrant blush this time. "I'm glad you like it. I've been working on it for a long time. A long, long time. I take it out whenever I have a spare minute. So I can't do much at a time. But I work on it every day." Her smile hardened. "Every single day. I'll never give up, not till I finish. And when it's done--why, when it's done, it's going to be wonderful."
I hope this passage hints that Gwen may be keeping secrets, that she may be neither as helpless nor as harmless as she seems. I hope readers will sense that everything Gwen says may have a double meaning. She's talking about her tapestry, yes, but is she also talking about some other project she's been working on "every single day" for "a long, long time," some other project she'll "never give up"? Whatever that project is, "when it's done, it's going to be wonderful"--it's going to be a joy forever. This passage also continues the flower imagery I've tried to develop since the story's first paragraph, the imagery that represents Gwen's independence and suppressed creativity. And it juxtaposes, for the first time, Gwen's tapestry and Chris's photograph--two artistic projects that will come together again when the story ends.

To read the story:  http://www.malicedomestic.org/PDF/Stevens_Joy.pdf

The Authors

Barb Goffman has won the Macavity and Silver Falchion awards for her short crime fiction. She's been a finalist seventeen times for national crime-writing awards, including the Agatha, Anthony, and Derringer awards. Her award-winning story collection, Don't Get Mad, Get Even, includes seven of her nominated stories. She has two new stories scheduled to be published later this month. "Stepmonster" will appear in Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning (on sale 4/26), and "The Best-Laid Plans" will appear in Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional (on sale 4/28). Barb runs a freelance editing and proofreading service focusing on crime fiction. http://www.barbgoffman.com/

Edith Maxwell writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries and the Local Food Mysteries, the Country Store Mysteries (as Maddie Day), and the Lauren Rousseau Mysteries (as Tace Baker), as well as award-winning short crime fiction. Her "A Questionable Death" is nominated for a 2016 Agatha Award for Best Short Story. The tale features the 1888 setting and characters from Delivering the Truth, which releases on April 8. Maxwell is Vice-President of Sisters in Crime New England and Clerk of Amesbury Friends Meeting. She lives north of Boston and blogs with the other Wicked Cozy Authors, and you can find her on Facebook, twitter, Pinterest, and at her website, edithmaxwell.com.

Terrie Farley Moran is the best-selling author of the Read 'Em and Eat cozy mysteries series. Well Read, Then Dead, winner of the Agatha Award for Best First Novel 2014, was followed by Caught Read-Handed in 2015. Read to Death will be released in July 2016. Terrie's short mystery fiction has been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and numerous anthologies. Her short story "A Killing at the Beausoleil," prequel to the Read 'Em and Eat novels, has been nominated for an Agatha award for Best Short Story. She also co-writes Laura Child's Scrapbooking Mystery series. Together they have written Parchment and Old Lace (October 2015) and Crepe Factor (October 2016). website: www.terriefarleymoran.com

Harriette Sackler serves as Grants Chair of the Malice Domestic Board of Directors. She is a multi-published short story writer. Her latest story, "Suffer the Poor," appears in History and Mystery, Oh My! and has been nominated for this year's Agatha Award for Best Short Story. She is a member of Dames of Detection and is co-owner, co-publisher, and co-editor at Level Best Books. Her nonfiction book about House with a Heart Senior Pet Sanctuary will be published in 2017. Harriette lives in the D.C. suburbs with her husband and their two dogs. website: www.harriettesackler.com

B.K. (Bonnie) Stevens is the author of Interpretation of Murder, a traditional whodunit offering insights into deaf culture, and Fighting Chance, a martial arts mystery for young adults. She's also published over fifty short stories, most in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Some of those stories are included in Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime, a collection being published by Wildside Press. B.K. has won half a Derringer and has been nominated for Agatha and Macavity awards. This year, both Fighting Chance and "A Joy Forever" are nominated for Agathas. B.K. and her husband, Dennis, live in Virginia and have two amazing daughters, one amazing son-in-law, and four perfect grandchildren. www.bkstevensmysteries.com

10 October 2015

Write What You Know?


by B.K. Stevens

On a rainy night in late September (and this year, in Virginia, on just about every night in late September, it rained plenty), I had the pleasure of participating in a Mystery Writers of America panel at George Mason University's Fall for the Book festival. The moderator, fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor, opened things up by asking us to respond to a time-honored piece of writing advice: "Write what you know." To what extent, Art asked, did we draw on our own experiences when we created our characters and stories? How much did we push beyond the limits of those experiences?

The question came exactly one week before the release of my young adult mystery, Fighting Chance (The Poisoned Pencil/Poisoned Pen Press). My protagonist is a seventeen-year-old male athlete growing up in a small town in Virginia. I'm a woman, I'm decades past seventeen, I was never an athlete at any age, and I grew up in Buffalo, New York. If it's smart to write what we know, I'm in trouble.

The situation made me think back to a guest blog I wrote several years ago for Sleuths' Ink, a writers' group in Springfield, Missouri. In that blog, I compared the views of several classic authors who express opinions about whether writers should stick to writing about what they know. I decided to go back to that topic in this month's SleuthSayer's post. If two or three people on the planet still remember my old Sleuth's Ink blog--and that's undoubtedly a generous estimate--I can assure you this post will be different. Among other things, two of the authors I'll discuss this time are new.

"Write what you know"--next to "show, don't tell," that's probably the advice fiction writers hear most often. It can feel painfully limiting. What if you want to write a war novel, and you've never been to war? You can research battles and weapons, you can read soldiers' memoirs, but can you really know how it feels to run forward into a barrage of bullets or hurl a hand grenade at another human being? Can you describe those moments vividly enough to bring them alive for readers? Or should you forget the war novel and stick to writing novels about preparing tax returns, or tempting toddlers to try new vegetables, or doing whatever else your personal experience has taught you how to do?

Jane Austen stuck to writing what she knew, and she apparently made a conscious decision to do so. In letters written in 1815  and 1816, James Clarke, the Prince Regent's librarian, urges her to broaden her horizons. But when he suggests she write about a learned clergyman, Austen says she lacks the necessary education. When Clarke suggests she write a historical romance about the royal house of Belgium, her refusal is more emphatic. "I could no more write a romance than an epic poem," she says. "I could not sit down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life." Austen insists she should write only about the people, places, and situations she knows best.: "I must keep to my own style, and go on in my own way."

CassandraAusten-JaneAusten(c.1810) hires.jpgDid she think all writers should follow her example? In an 1816 letter to her nephew Edward, Austen praises his "strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow." She contrasts them with her own novels, which she describes as "the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labor." Some writers, Austen seems to imply, are right to attempt works with greater "variety" than her own.

It's possible, of course, that she didn't really admire her nephew's writing as much as she claims, and didn't really think so little of her own work. We all know how unreliable beta readers can be. But it's clear she thought some writers are wise to limit themselves to writing about what they know best.

Edith Wharton, in The Writing of Fiction, rejects such limits. "As to experience," she says, "the creative imagination can make a little go a long way, provided it remains long enough in the mind and is sufficiently brooded upon. One good heart-break will furnish the poet with many songs, and the novelist with a considerable number of novels. But they must have hearts that can break." The crucial thing for writers, according to Wharton, isn't experience itself. Even if your experiences are limited, your imagination can help you use what you've experienced as a basis for writing about what you haven't.

The Writing of FictionIf writers don't need to experience the things they write about, what do they need? Wharton sees two things as essential. First, writers must have emotional depth: "they must have hearts that can break." Could an emotionally stunted person create characters with powerful feelings, characters readers will care about? Also, writers must spend time reflecting about the events and emotions they've experienced, trying to understand them. Writers may not immediately recognize the significance in their own experiences. After an experience "remains long enough in the mind," however, its potential as the basis for fiction may become clear. 

Wharton's words echo Wordsworth's statement that poetry "takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." Both writers seem to agree that we should write not when experiences are new and emotions are raw but after some time has passed, after we've had time to think about what what happened. I'm struck, too, by Wharton's use of the word "brood." It calls to mind the image of a hen brooding over her eggs, warming them, nurturing the life within them. If we brood about our experiences, will we awaken the hidden life they hold? If so, maybe it's the quality of the brooding that matters most, rather than the experiences themselves. Maybe brooding is the key to finding a way to, in Wharton's phrase, "make a little go a long way."

Flannery O'Connor agrees. In "The Nature and Aim of Fiction," she has nothing good to say about people who "think they are already writers by virtue of some experience they've had." "These people," she says, "should be stifled with all deliberate speed." Not all Senators can write riveting political thrillers, and not all police detectives can write gripping mysteries.

If you're meant to be a writer, O'Connor says, you don't need a wide variety of experiences: "The fact is that anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can't make something out of a little experience, you probably won't be able to make it out of a lot. The writer's business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it." Like Wharton, O'Connor emphasizes the importance of contemplating or brooding upon experience.

Flannery-O'Connor 1947.jpg Both Jane Austen and Flannery O'Connor led quiet lives. Neither ever married. Both died young. Unlike Austen, however, O'Connor sometimes chose to write about bizarre characters and violent situations that lay far outside her personal experience. These two authors chose different paths, but both created enduring works of fiction.

Henry James agrees a good writer can "make something out of a little experience." In "The Art of Fiction," James describes experience as a "huge spider-web" that can catch "every air-borne particle in its tissue." Like a spider web, an imaginative mind "takes to itself the faintest hints of life." A true writer can convert those hints into compelling fiction.

To illustrate his point, James describes an unnamed English novelist who wrote a highly praised tale about young French Protestants. When, people asked her, had she observed her subjects closely enough to be able to portray them so realistically? The novelist told James she'd simply passed an open door in Paris and glimpsed some young French Protestants sitting around a table. "The glimpse made a picture," James says. "It lasted only a moment, but that moment was an experience." Writers don't need much actual experience, not if they have active, fertile minds. The crucial thing, James says, is to "try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost!"

Henry James.jpg"Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost"--has better advice ever been offered to writers? Some people can pass through all sorts of experiences without gaining significant insights into them, or having much to say about them. Other people can grasp at "the faintest hints of life" and use them to create characters and situations that go far beyond their own experiences.

Write what you know? Sure. But if your talents and interests lead you in other directions, you can also write what you guess, what you imagine, what you conclude after careful thought, what you infer from the inevitably limited opportunities for experience any single human life supplies.

If you want to write a war novel but have never been to war, go ahead. Stephen Crane did that, and The Red Badge of Courage has given millions of readers insights into what it feels like to be locked in a battle they can neither control nor understand. Take what you know of fear, of desperation, of honor, and infuse it into a situation you've never directly experienced. If you've observed closely enough, if you've brooded long enough, if you've analyzed deeply enough and imagined fiercely enough, you might just have something.

(One final note--when this post appears, I'll be at Bouchercon. I'll have access to my husband's laptop, but I hate laptops. It takes me many minutes to peck out a single sentence, and I utter many unpleasant words while I'm doing it. I'll try, but I may not do a good job of replying to comments on Saturday. But I'll reply to every one once I get home on Sunday.)

10 February 2015

Everything That Rises


by David Dean

Flannery O'Connor once wrote a story titled, "Everything That Rises Must Converge".  Like most of her work it's brilliant.  The title alone I found remarkable and has always stuck in my mind.  There was something about those words.  The truth be told, even after reading the story, I still didn't understand the phrase; the choice of the title.  Generally happy in my ignorance, I was content to coast along for many, many years with only the occasional thought about it.  But still it bothered me--those words kept returning.

Georgia has been fortunate to have produced a number of notable writers, many of whom, most I would say, having been female.  First there's Margaret Mitchell of course, there's no getting around her.  You are not allowed to graduate high school in Georgia without at least knowing who wrote "Gone With The Wind".  That question is also included in college entry exams as per state law.  Carson McCullers, the most notable writer my hometown ever produced wrote "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter", "Ballad Of The Sad CafĂ©", "Member Of The Wedding", and a number of other great novels.  Of the male persuasion there is Erskine Caldwell, who penned "Tobacco Road" and "God's Little Acre" amongst others.  And of more recent note, James Dickey, of "Deliverance" fame.  All of them formidable talents. 

Then there's Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964).


Flannery made her reputation during the 1950's and 60's predominantly with short stories.  She is one of the reasons that I learned to love them.  Afflicted by lupus, she lived a brief life, succumbing to the disease at 39 and after spending many of those years on a small farm near Milledgeville--notable for being the home of the state's largest psychiatric institution.  She never married, and beyond the occasional lecture at a nearby women's college, lived quietly and obscurely.  Though she certainly achieved a great deal of critical recognition during her lifetime, neither of her two novels became best-sellers.  I like to think she wouldn't have cared.

Like Margaret Mitchell's fictional heroine, Scarlett O'Hara, Ms. O'Connor was a Catholic and of Irish descent.  The more astute of you may have intuited this last from her name.  Also like Scarlett, she was born in the beautiful city of Savannah.  I have stood outside her family's townhouse, but was unable to go inside as it was not open to the public.  Which was a shame.  Beyond these things, Scarlett and Flannery could hardly have been more different.  I doubt Flannery would ever have said, "Fiddle-de-dee!"  I could be wrong.

If you've never read Ms. O'Connor's works, you may be in for a surprise.  This quiet, unpretentious, and devout woman will shock you with the violence, both interiorly, and often, exteriorly, of her characters.  Her stories are often driven by grotesque people, and seemingly depraved behavior.  No one is immune from the mortal upheaval of life, no matter their station, their opinion of themselves, their personal ambitions; their gifts, or their handicaps.  In "Revelation" a woman is devastated by a vision that reveals she may have to share paradise with those she considers undeserving.  A grandmother learns she is willing to trade the lives of her family in order to continue living in "A Good Man Is Hard To Find".  Then there's "Everything That Rises Must Converge", the tale of a mother/son bus ride to the YMCA that ends badly, but may result in wisdom, however unwelcome.  If a single theme could be said to run throughout her writings, it is that all are eligible for redemption: black and white, male and female, saint and criminal, and that everyone, however imperfectly, and sometimes violently, is searching desperately for it. 

Which brings me back to the beginning--what about that title?  Well, when you consider the body of O'Connor's work as the sum total of who she was, the answer may not be so surprising.  It refers to a work by the French priest, philosopher, and scientist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin titled "Omega Point".  Here is the pertinent quote: "Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love!  At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent.  For everything that rises must converge."  Remarkable words from a remarkable (and controversial) man, and embodied in a truly gifted writer. 

Father de Chardin (1881-1955) probably did not know that his theological and philosophical works were influencing a writer in rural Georgia.  On the other hand, most people at that time could not have told you who Fr. de Chardin was (As a side note: Fr. de Chardin was the model for Wm. Peter Blatty's Fr. Merrin in "The Exorcist").   Yet, he was one of those rare and luminous souls whose insight and brilliance have influenced millions of people, while the man himself has largely been forgotten.  Though a priest, he was also a scientist, and participated in the discovery and study of Peking Man.  And it was through his study of science, that he offered an alternative theory to the biblical origins of man--a theory that was controversial at the time and remains so.  *He posited that the  theory of evolution was entirely compatible with the Church's long-held belief that God created man; that, in fact, there was no conflict when one considered that God provided the essential spark to creation itself.  The actual mechanics leading to man's advent should not trouble us, as they were guided by our Creator.  Though many of Fr. de Chardin's teachings do remain unendorsed by the Church, and are suspect in many ways, it is worth noting that Pope Pius XII agreed that the theory of evolution was not incompatible with the Church's teachings, so long as it encompassed man as possessing a soul granted by God Himself, a view  repeated recently by Pope Francis.   

Less known, perhaps, was Fr. de Chardin's more subtle contribution in his capacity as theologian.  **Taking on a long-held belief that only the work of the religious (read priest, nuns, monks, etc...) contributed to the glorification of God, he held that all peoples, in their everyday endeavors, had it within their power to contribute to the sanctification of the world (Opus Dei--the boogeyman of "The Da Vinci Code" holds to this belief, as well--after all, Jesus was a carpenter).  In other words, he contended that by offering up their labors to God, anyone could serve in His glorification. In essence, that we should all be striving to move up, to rise up together..."For everything that rises must converge." 

It seems that Flannery O'Connor and Fr. de Chardin, each in their own way, did exactly that.

*Please note that this interpretation of Fr. de Chardin's theory is my own, and probably poorly represents his intentions.

**Again, I take full responsibility for whatever damage I do here. 

          









             
     


28 January 2014

Flannery O'Connor on Writing


by Terence Faherty



Flannery O'Connor
Some time back I wrote a post inspired by a haunting quote from Flannery O'Conner, the great southern novelist and short story writer.  Here's that quote.

"The writer can chose what he writes about, but he cannot chose what he is able to bring to life."

In the course of researching that article, I ran into a few other things Flannery had to say about writing and about mystery.  What follows amounts to a guest column, typed (and commented upon) by me but "ghost written" by Ms. O'Connor.

"Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.  I'm always irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality.  It is a plunge into reality and it is very shocking to the system." (Amen.)

"The writer should never be ashamed of staring.  There is nothing that does not require his attention."

"Art never responds to the wish to make it more democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those willing to undertake the effort to understand it."

"Manners are of such great consequence to the novelist that any kind will do."  (Ouch.)

"People without hope not only don't write novels, but what is more to the point, they don't read them."

"I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say."  (Nancy Pelosi may have lifted this.)

"Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and it you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction.  It's not grand enough for you."

"Not writing is a good deal worse than writing."

"Mystery isn't something that is gradually evaporating.  It grows along with knowledge."  (My amateur sleuth, Owen Keane, is now nodding his head.)

"Remember that you don't write a story because you have an idea but because you have a character."

"There is a certain embarrassment about being a storyteller in these times when stories are considered not quite as satisfying as statements and statements not quite as satisfying as statistics; but in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or its statistics, but by the stories it tells."

"I am a writer because writing is the best thing I do."


   

09 July 2013

Tether's End


by Terence Faherty

In a review of J.K. Rowling's recent book, The Casual Vacancy, I came across the following haunting quote by Flannery O'Connor, the Southern novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

Flannery O'Connor
"The writer can chose what he writes about, but not what he can bring to life."

The book reviewer (whose name I forgot to note when I was recording the O'Connor quote in my journal) was making the point that Rowling had breathed life into a series of books about an improbable boy wizard but had fallen short with a realistic novel about a contemporary English town.  I have no idea whether this was a valid criticism of The Casual Vacancy, but it got me thinking about some favorite mystery writers and about writing in general.

The first writer who came to mind was the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wanted badly to be Sir Walter Scott, creator of Ivanhoe.  Doyle chose to spend a great deal of his time not writing about Sherlock Holmes--even famously killing him off and one point--or any other detective and he certainly wrote many successful non-mystery tales.  But Holmes and Watson remained the characters Doyle truly brought to life, along with their fogbound, gas-lit world.

Another example is Dorothy L. Sayers.  She drew herself back from the brink of failure and poverty by creating a fantastically wealthy sleuth who never failed, Lord Peter Wimsey.  She wrote a series of increasingly literary novels about Wimsey before finally breaking out of the Wimsey chrysalis--as she saw it--to write religious plays and translate Dante's Inferno.   But neither of these efforts cast the long shadow of Lord Peter, as improbable a character as Harry Potter and yet just as lively.

Then there are other favorites of mine like Margery Allingham, who lent me a title for these musings, and Raymond Chandler.  They established successful realms in crime fiction and never strayed far from them.  Were they less adventurous than Doyle and Sayers, more certain of the value of their work, or more conscious of that invisible tether of which O'Connor hinted?

Naturally, I also thought of my own writing, of the years I spent writing in the voice of Owen Keane, my failed seminarian and mystery addict, and the years I spent trying to find other voices.  Also about my faithfulness to mystery writing in general.  Does that fidelity reflect a conscious choice or an unseen tether?  And if it's a tether, who's holding the other end?

I find something else O'Connor said about writing more hopeful:  "The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet.  His job is to find that location."

The implication, unstated, is that every successful fiction writer will find a different crossroads, due to the variables of time and space.  The hope, also unstated, is that the writer will recognize that crossroads when he or she finds it, like an Allingham or a Chandler.  The historical record suggests that this isn't always the case, but also that it might not matter, that a Doyle or a Sayers might be writing for the ages whether or not he or she suspects it.

Good luck finding your own crossroads.  When you do, write your heart out.