The Ocean at the End of the Lane

9780062255655book by Neil Gaiman

annotation by Lee Stoops

“A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change.”

~ Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the end of the Lane (170)

The more I read, the more I want to find stories that can disregard rules (carefully or not, at least with full knowledge not only of the rules but also of their reasons) and fuse genres. These are the stories that address my needs as a writer and offer permission to really dig the story out in whatever way it insists on its own excision. The way a story is unearthed, or unearths itself, matters because each has extensive power to change the way readers see the world and the way they envision themselves in it. That power (or, potential) is not the point, though. Responsibility is the point. The writer’s responsibility is to his characters, to their world, because those things matter to the reader for more than just entertainment. Sure, I started reading the way most do: for some kind of entertaining escape. But it’s not enough, now. I still want that escape, but in doing so, I want the promise I’ll come back changed. For me, the stories that make familiar things strange make that easier. Set a story in reality and embody it with surrealism, and I start to believe almost anything is possible. The human being in me loudly claims it knows what’s real and what’s not, but the storyteller/lover in me begins to ceaselessly chant “I want to believe.” And that is where a writer like Neil Gaiman with his The Ocean at the End of the Lane both adheres to his responsibility as a storyteller and sends his characters (and readers) into an adventure of actual, possible mythic proportions.

Typically, when I write about writing, I look for specific language and craft techniques or examples at play – the things I can identify as either working or not – because identification usually leads to a better understanding of how I apply myself to my own work. In the practicing of my craft, I hope that I’m honing skills, sure, but more than that, I want to be growing in my awareness. While I could look at Gaiman’s short novel from a strict craft/construction/language perspective, I think it deserves a different lens – a bigger picture lens, and I hope to do that here.

The pond was smaller than I remembered…the pond that Lettie Hempstock had called…

It wasn’t the sea, was it?

She would be older than I am now, Lettie Hempstock. She was only a handful of years older than I was back then, for all her funny talk. She was eleven. I was…what was I? It was after the bad birthday party. I knew that. So I would have been seven.

And it wasn’t the sea. It was the ocean.

Lettie Hempstock’s ocean.

I remembered that, and, remembering that, I remembered everything (7-8).

Gaiman’s story opens with a short, intentionally ambiguous prologue, narrated by the adult version of the protagonist, arriving, serendipitously, at a small pond he knew during a short window of his boyhood that he only begins to remember while coming upon it (and will likely forget again once he leaves). His memories arrive all at once, in a wave that forces the story backward in time, the entirety of it to be told by the same narrator from his seven year old point of view. And though his narrator takes on the voice of a young boy, Gaiman’s done something significant: he’s established authority in the voice – authority for an ageless character to tell an ageless story about memory and magic and humanity. But more than that, the grown human nature of the story’s introduction give the reader permission to be swept away by a story that is full of things unbelievable: a pond that is also an ocean, a young girl and her family of women who seem to know everything and have lived forever, monsters who take various forms and remain invisible at times and to the willingly doubtful.

But through the telling of the story, Gaiman’s narrator calls on familiar tokens of human youth and frustration to lend even greater credence to the narrator’s somehow-forgotten-and-then-remembered impossible childhood story. The boy’s birthday party is a failure. He has no friends. A man his parents rent his room to runs over his cat. His parents refuse to listen to him. His sister is vile. Everything in life is unfair and pitted against him. And then the monsters show up. So, maybe it’s not just youthful themes. Gaiman, with clean prose and a personable, reasonably- (and intelligently-) voiced young narrator, has sneaked in those themes readers generally consider abandoned in adolescence but have really just relabeled as adult contentions.

“…Why do you think she’s scared of anything? She’s a grown-up, isn’t she? Grown-ups and monsters aren’t scared of things.”

“Oh, monsters are scared,” said Lettie. “That’s why they’re monsters. And as for grown-ups…” She stopped talking, rubbed her freckled nose with a finger. Then, “I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.” She thought for a moment. Then she smiled. “Except for Granny, of course” (112).

And along the way, he injects the narrative with bits of enormous wonderings, universal truths, (often) unspoken things. Rather than bludgeon the reader with these notes on humanity and the power of story, he gives them to the narrator, the narrator’s mysterious friends, and even the monsters. At the end of the boy’s narrative, the narrator says, “A story only matters, I suspect, to the extent that the people in the story change. But I was seven when all of these things happened, and I was the same person at the end of it that I was at the beginning, wasn’t I? So was everyone else. They must have been. People don’t change” (170). His questions and statements (taken with any tone they might elicit for a reader) force similar questions and statements, oppositional, or not, from the reader. They force, in some subtle and in other not-so-subtle ways, growing consideration.

I started writing for the same reason I started reading. And when my reading needs shifted, so did my writing needs. Daily, it becomes clearer that the process is not a series of stops and starts but a continuum of shifts in need. Stories like The Ocean at the End of the Lane affirm the continuum by illuminating the evolution of need. It’s not so much a disregarding of rules or an eschewing of genre as it is a welcoming of different tactics to the widening melting pot. I want to be a writer who makes room for anything that needs representation in my work. Neil Gaiman is a storyteller who proves there’s always room, as long as there’s consideration.



book by Jeff VanderMeer

illustrations by Jeremy Zerfoss

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I have this compulsion to buy people books—books they MUST have. But long ago I learned that it’s impossible to sustain a family on that impulse, so instead, I recommend.  The recommendations frequently come with a bossy, “Seriously, you HAVE to get a copy, you MUST read this,” or run in punishingly long emails about said books filling unwitting friends’ inboxes.

But this year’s recommend,  Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer has gotten a bit out of control, as, since I first laid eyes on it, I want every writer and teacher of writing to have a copy. I would like to lay it in the hands of so many people and have written so many emails and have used giant hand gestures with my students, insisting they each get a copy that, well, it’s getting embarrassing.

It’s difficult to talk about Wonderbook without totally spazzing out about its awesomeness, but fortunately, in this space, it’s not about reviews or raving, it’s about talking about what is useful to us as writers. So I can calm down. And be in control. Right?

Because of its subtitle: An Illustrated Guide to Writing Imaginative Fiction and the writers who appear in its pages (Neal Gaiman, Ursula K LeGuin, George RR Martin and Michael Moorcock, among others,)  realistic fiction writers or writers not in the genre of science fiction and fantasy may think this book is not for them. And that’s where I start jumping up and down and ranting.

As soon as the book arrived in the mail this past October, I started using charts from its pages to help teach my students (all of whom write a variety of types of fiction at a variety of levels) plot, character, process and whatever my class was discussing in our last few lessons. I can yammer all day about plots, their varieties and patterns, but the plot lizards do so much work in gorgeous images, not to mention the Story vs. Situation dragons (pictured above,) the Storyfish (who brings on the Ass Backwards Fish in the revision section, a gorgeous illustration of exactly what was wrong with a certain element of my novel before a very skilled developmental editor got his hands on it) and the evolutionary Lifecycle of a Story.

What stopped me – totally stopped me – in a gobsmacking way in the book was an illustration of The Middle Zones (116) of story. There on the page, completely illustrated, was something I’d tried explaining to so many writers over years of doing notes for friends or in teaching . From my screenwriting days, I’d called it the Second Act Wall. It’s when the initial steam of starting a script, or novel, poops out. You’ve introduced these characters you had so clearly in your head, the world you’ve put them in, the circumstances that got you excited to write it in the first place, but you have absolutely no idea how to proceed.  In this illustration, one of Jeremy Zerfoss’s little faceless (but totally animated) creatures walks around a chart, saying  things I’ve heard from so many writers who are stuck: “This senseless slog.” “I never should have started.” “I will never get to the end.” “My outline is stupid, method suspect. I no longer know what I’m doing.” The chart provides questions to ask of your manuscript, suggestions how to proceed (or as Diane Sherlock has been known to say, ‘poke it with a stick’), but moves in a circle, demonstrating so completely the utter hell that is the Middle Zone. When you’re in it, you feel you’ll never emerge. Along the edge of this wheel are hopeful words of encouragement and suggestions, “persevere,” “new venue,” “new energy.” And to describe it further is not going to get you any closer to having the book, which, if you are a writer and/or teacher of writing, you should probably do. (Like now.) Because a picture is worth a thousand words and I’ve used up only two-fifty in this chunk.

Useful (and beautiful) diagrams and gorgeous illustrations aside, the book is chock full of very useful and practical writing advice on every stage of writing, from inspiration, through characters, narrative design, world building, revision (progression was an revelatory for me and so useful now even in drafting) and the ecosystem of a story, which is my favorite section in regards to teaching:

 Like living creatures, stories come in a bewildering number of adaptations and mutations. Even within the constraint of written words, incredible variety occurs due to the near-infinite number of possible combinations. Anyone who tells you there are only a dozen types of stories should be viewed with as much suspicion as someone who tells you “all animals are the same.” A penguin is not a hamster; nor is a prawn a sea cucumber, an elephant a squid, an anteater, a dragon. (41)

So often I have students coming in with “rules” they have learned from various craft books, or from cranky teachers who believe that there is only one way to write. And often these rules have shut them down completely. It takes all manner of talking to open these writers up a little, to give them courage in their own process, and to give them the nerve to continue or sometimes to go back to the page at all. The greatest asset of this book is that it speaks gently and kindly to the writer. It contains volumes of information and knowledge, but isn’t bossy or didactic. It is more – like the chart of The Middle Zone – filled with gentle suggestions and useful information to help a writer proceed. Because at the end of the day, at least among the writers I know, we face enough demons, we don’t need an instructor prescribing our various processes.

But we sure could use a big, broad, colorful, but carefully laid out guide full of advice from so many writers who have been there, filled with encouragement, tools and tricks of the trade. This book has tools for novices, but also for pros and, were these words not copyrighted on another infamous Guide, DON’T PANIC (in giant font,) would be completely appropriate for its cover.

If you want to dip further into the world of Wonderbook, you can find more here.


9780451460752book by Rob Thurman

annotation by Melissa Olson

Like many English literature students, by the time I graduated college I’d developed quite a scornful attitude toward the fantasy novel.

It wasn’t a malicious thing – in fact, I’m not sure I’d even call myself a snob. It’s just that I had been trained in Literature, with a capital L. My undergraduate degree was in reading Literature. The master’s degree I eventually obtained was in writing Literature. I had no problem with the fantasy genre, or with people who wanted to read it. I simply considered myself better than those books.

Okay. Maybe I was a bit of a snob.

But about seven years ago, I was talking to my kid sister about what we were reading, and she started gushing over a book she was really enjoying: Nightlife, by Rob Thurman. She made it sound interesting enough, but I was still rather skeptical as I skimmed the first few pages of her copy. After all, it was fantasy, which to me meant I’d probably have to memorize a map and a couple dozen names that were mostly consonants. But by the time I finished the book – about eight hours later – the ground had shifted beneath my feet. I had discovered urban fantasy, a genre that I would read addictively for the next five years before writing my own.

Nightlife taught me that no only could the genre be wonderfully enjoyable and exciting and clever; it can also take bold risks. The story is written in first person, but halfway through the book the character is possessed by an evil entity, and the rest of the story is written from the entity’s point of view, filtered through the voice of the protagonist. That may sound silly when you read it as a description, but I promise that within the story itself, it is captivating. And as a vehicle for demonstrating someone’s writing talent, it is a breathtaking success.

Most readers probably have books that changed their lives, but Nightlife gave me more than a new passion: I eventually got a career out of it. Reading my first urban fantasy convinced me that I wanted to write my own. Reading Nightlife convinced me that I needed to wait until, like Thurman, I had an original story to tell.

It was years before I came up with an idea that I was proud of and hadn’t seen before. Dead Spots is about a young woman with a unique gift: she nullifies supernatural powers. Any witch, vampire, or werewolf who gets too close to her becomes a human again for as long as they’re in her presence. Because her ability protects her from the supernatural, she makes a living cleaning up their crime scenes so these creatures can stay hidden from the rest of the world.

I’m proud of Dead Spots and its two sequels, but four or five reads later, I am also as impressed with Nightlife today as I was seven years ago, if not more so.  That one book taught me to respect subgenres I didn’t previously understand, and to appreciate that although “genre fiction” may have a reputation for being assembly-line drivel, when you really look at it you can find a sublime, exhilarating creativity that is as joyful as it is original.

Writers Dreaming

book by Naomi Epel

annotation by David A. Napier

Writers Dreaming is a collection of essays by 26 authors who share their experience, strength and hope, with respect to writing, and the influence that dreams have upon their work.  There are common threads among many of these pieces.  Many refer to the psychological influence of Sigmund Freud.  Many say they never use dreams in their work.  Many tell stories of how the dreams influenced them and helped them to carve out new dimensional experience which never would have surfaced had it not been for a significantly vivid dream.

Beyond their dreams, most of the authors describe in great detail how they organize their lives, their writing lives that is, to enter into the world of the proverbial fictive dream.  Techniques, as varied as the writers themselves, are applied to help them enter the fictive dream.  Some meditate, some organize their thoughts, some organize their desks or work areas, while others magically drop into the dream after they start writing and the work overtakes them.  They cannot explain it but perhaps by metaphor or analogy, but when it does they feel it take over.  Entering the fictive dream is a feeling, a feeling process which overwhelms them.

In my fictive dream experience, it’s all about me, and it should be, it’s my work.  Well, that’s not entirely true because after I segue into the dream, I cease to exist.  I disappear.  The characters take over and the authentic voices of the characters come alive.  For me it’s like a holographic experience on Star Trek.  I’m standing there in the middle of this fantasy, a created scene, and the action happens around me.  I watch.  I observe.  I look for the vivid details in the story.  And just when I say it’s time for lunch, I look up and it’s four o’clock in the afternoon.  I awake from the dream and there it is.  I don’t have to worry about forgetting, as with most dreams that flit away in seconds, it’s there in black and white on the page.

But sometimes I’m eyeballs deep in a fictive dream and creating the most magnificent prose the world has yet to read.  It’s breathtaking, and I relish in the glory of creating a masterpiece beyond any yet seen by the naked eye.  I wrap up my day and pat myself on the back because I know a true artist is in the room, and I am the only one there.

The next morning, however, I open my laptop and reread this literary, pièce de résistance, and discover it’s rotten.  It’s not a fictive dream.  It’s a nightmare in black and white.  What was I thinking?

I can’t always control or predict the outcome of the dream.  Sometimes it’s magical, sometimes it’s maniacal, and sometimes it’s just not happening – it’s just not.  I have “not” days when it’s not happening and I’m not into it.

My favorite lesson to extrapolate from this book comes from page 66.  Sue Grafton says, “The truth of the matter is that if you give yourself away every single time, you fill up like a well.  It always replenishes itself.”

Entering the fictive dream is an investment that keeps earning interest.  Don’t always bank on that advice, but if you dream hard enough it may come true.


Book by Jonathan Franzen

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

The good thing about writing an annotation is that you can put aside the noise of whether a book is well-reviewed or not and whatever controversy is surrounding it and just get down to the nuts and bolts of craft. Although I must note that I was surprised that their was so much controversy about this book (outside of the Weiner/Franzen personality clash); it was neither a work of genius nor all that terrible. I suppose it’s proof that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Jonathan Franzen did some interesting stuff in Freedom and, conversely, could have used a machete to cut out other stuff. But there you go.

The book is an in-depth look at various involved characters’ progress from different points of view. I always find it interesting when these points of view bounce off of each other, or provide us with new insight when we’ve established our ideas from reading one point of view. Franzen does this well by opening the book summarizing the life of the Berglund family from the opinionated and breathless point of view of their neighbor. This gives the reader a broad overview of what’s going to happen, so that when we dip in and out of other characters’ points of view, we recognize where we are in the story. It is a clever device to keep in mind.

We then are given Patty Berglund’s point of view in a journal that she keeps for her therapist: in third person.  We are introduced to the love triangle of Patty, her husband Walter and his roommate/best friend rocker Richard Katz. This triangle is told to us in layers from each of its three points of view, giving us new insight into it as each person’s story unfolds. It is a clever investigation of how differently people are wired and how three people can all look at one affair from his/her own self-informed completely skewed perspective.

Each of these characters’ voices is engaging and absorbing. The book, despite its five hundred plus page length keeps a pace going for a good several hundred pages. It’s a solid example of how keeping each voice close and real can keep the reader aligned with even the most unappealing characters. Franzen’s characters are so real and so detailed that you do feel as if you’re on a long car trip with people you just met and don’t necessarily like. Franzen has a problem with women I just can’t put my finger on. It’s like listening to a serial killer talk about a cocktail party–something is essentially missing. I reached the end of the novel assured I wouldn’t want to hang out with any of these people again, but I reached the end of the novel and that’s something.

Franzen manages to create tension around certain incidents in these people’s lives. We know that Patty is going to marry Walter and their courtship is so clumsy and simply wrong-headed in places that the tension of “how the hell do these two end up together?” keeps us through the rocky ups and downs of their relationship.  We know that Richard has an enormous impact on their lives, so his self-absorbed meanderings are fascinating as he careens dangerously in and out of their lives. He’s a rock star celebrity who is vacuous and doesn’t think about life as a whole, but as a series of bad choices that weren’t his fault. Again, the voice, albeit close, third, is strong and Richard’s day to day decisions from not sleeping with his best friend’s girlfriend to sleeping with his best friend’s wife, from fixing roofs to trying to sleep with high school aged girls are mesmerizing. Franzen refers to Richard by his first name in any other character’s perspective on him, but when we are in Richard’s point of view, the character is referred to by his last name, Katz. This was an interesting way of not only differentiating points of view, but of distancing Richard from his own emotions, demonstrating his lack of contact with his own life. A clever tool I hope to steal at some point.

The writing itself did not dazzle, the way such front-runners in lists and contests do. There was no sentence-to-sentence exquisiteness going on, but Franzen’s powers of observation are keen and there is beauty in a few of his smaller moments of human observation, “She smelled like cigarettes, and she had a heartrending way of eating her slice of chocolate-mousse cake, parceling out each small bite for intensive savoring, as if it were the best thing that was going to happen to her that day.” (278)

Unfortunately Franzen has a political axe to grind. When Walter gets involved in mountaintop removal and population control, Franzen gets bogged down in the details and we are left with page up on page of proselytizing at the hands of Walter and his supposedly alluring assistant, Lalitha. It was difficult to feel attracted or sympathetic to Lalitha, as she comes off as a politicized talking head, thus making a dramatic turn later (not wishing to spoil that turn I’ll leave it there) lack resonance. The idea of removing a mountaintop to save a bird and that coal is better than petroleum is interesting for a one page article, but begins to grate when put in exhausting detail in the middle of what had felt like a very human drama. Franzen could have pruned down this point of view to maybe two pages in Walter’s life and remained reliant upon the character’s actions and poor choices, which were the motivating factors of the book. On top of this, he gives us Joey, the self-absorbed college-age son of Walter and his bum deal selling faulty truck parts to the American army in Iraq. Franzen squishes documentary and commentary into a story that had been doing just fine being told by characters. There is this urgent push to make the book something BIGGER than a close up long-term portrait of a family. It is there that he lost me. About the time Walter and Lalitha are trying to sell Richard on their warbler scheme, the book became a slog for its last two hundred pages.

But the story overall, the fact that family is not always what we hope it to be at the beginning that the very definition of a family may change several times in its lifetime–this is a useful aspect of human beings worth pursuing. As I move forward with my novel, which takes place over a span of time and through a few mutations of a single family, I am heartened that such a large story can be contained between two covers without becoming epic. And given an editor brave enough to face up to Mr. Franzen, this book may have become something worth all of the fuss. But my opinion doesn’t matter here, just the look at craft.


book by Jeffrey Eugenides

annotation by Kate Maruyama

Since I finished grad school, I’ve been trying the “read what books come to you” approach to choosing books and that approach was serendipitous this past weekend when I came across “Middlesex” in a beach house library. It turned out to be exactly the right book to read for what I’m working on. The general approach to this site is that every book you read is exactly the right book to read for what you’re working on, but some really are more relevant than others.

I enjoyed Eugenides first book The Virgin Suicides. It was tight, lyrical and wickedly funny, so it was inspiring to see him branch out into a much bigger story that crossed generations and cultures. Eugenides presents us with Cal as the narrator who tells the story of his genetic beginnings across oceans and cultures. We start with Desdemona’s journey from an incestuous relationship with her brother that led to a marriage, travel through Ellis Island and into the Detroit of the early car industry. The voice is immediate and absorbing and when Cal gets into these stories of his past, from Desdemona swinging a spoon over her pregnant daughter-in-law’s belly to determine the sex of the baby (the spoon was incorrect in many ways) to the sexual tension between a brother and sister left on a small island in Turkey which belonged to Greece, Eugenides keeps things tense and close.

I’m working on a novel now that takes place in the present and the past, and I was fearful of combining two such very different worlds. I come from film originally, and moving out of the confines of a tight, two-hour story feels treacherous and unwieldy. But that’s where my characters are taking me at this point. Fortunately, Eugenides has given me courage to forge forward and see where the story leads. It seems that as long as each scene is fully created, that as long as we are with aligned with each character, it is possible to create a larger story comprised of these scenes.

That said, looking at Middlesex as a whole, there seem to be some weak spots in the structure. Desdemona and Lefty’s story is so absorbing, and Cal’s coming of age story is similarly all-consuming, but something doesn’t hold in bringing them together with several other family stories. While Cal’s parents’ love story is important and reasonably well told, tension is lost in their section and in Cal’s present–his courtship of a woman whom he is afraid to tell of his being a hermaphrodite–seems like it is being told in another book entirely. Desdemona, who had been the center, the beating heart of the story, disappears in a manner so abrupt that the author self-consciously scrambles to make up for it:

“Patient reader, you may have been wondering what happened to my grandmother. You may have noticed that, shortly after she climbed into bed forever, Desdemona began to fade away. But that was intentional. I allowed Desdemona to slip out of my narrative, because…”(521). At that point I tuned out, a bit miffed by the clumsy excuse. If the excuse hadn’t been there I would have been baffled by her absence, but with the excuse highlighted the problem rather than dismissing it.

In looking at the book in an index-card fashion, holding up the scenes next to each other, something gets lost in the whole. The ending is triggered by Milton’s dramatic death, yet his portion of the story is so disconnected from its beginnings that the end becomes dissatisfying. Desdemona gets no closure whatsoever, having become totally out of it in her dotage (although she gives Cal lovely closure). Cal gets a happy ending in finally being able to open up to a woman about his different anatomy, but as we hadn’t gotten very emotionally involved in this “present” portion of his story (unlike his obsession with the Obscure Object which was a poignant, heart-rending love story), it all comes out somewhat unsatisfying. There seem to be three books here, two of them truly absorbing and brilliant (Desdemona and Lefty/Cal coming of age in Detroit) and the third sorta tossed in like that one ingredient too many in a salad.

While the different stories of lives wrapped together need to be equally involving, there has to be some sort of tight overall arc to pull it all together. Desdemona’s story could have accomplished this, having been woven more carefully into Cal’s coming of age, or Cal’s story could have accomplished this by rooting us firmly in the present before taking us back to fill us in. I’m not suggesting “fixes,” Euginedes accomplished a great deal in this book (as several rave reviews will attest), but while the reading of the book was encouraging for me, it was also a cautionary tale. It was a reminder that we all need to kill some darlings, cut entire scenes–even if they’re lovely–and pay attention to the larger story being told.

Tender is the Night

book by F. Scott Fitzgerald

annotation by Tina Rubin

I wish I had discovered this book earlier, because its influence on me was profound. I had been eager to read it, not only because The Great Gatsby is a classic and I thoroughly enjoy the era in which Fitzgerald wrote, but because this story involved a sort of juxtaposition of qualities between the two main characters, which is a main element of my novel as well.

In Tender Is the Night, psychiatrist Dick Diver starts out strong and popular while his mental patient wife, Nicole, is weak and impressionable; as the story goes on he deteriorates and she grows strong. In my story, Tristan starts out unethical and Eve tries to keep him honest; in the end they switch roles.

To gain insight into the psychology behind these character arcs, I tried to identify the turning points for the characters in both stories. For Dick Diver, it was his early interest in eighteen-year-old Rosemary Hoyt, which went again his grain and caused him anguish (but didn’t prevent him from pursuing it); his doing so rocked his self-identity and was the catalyst for his excessive drinking. For Nicole, it seemed to be more a reaction to Dick’s gradual demise. In my novel, Eve is taken out of her familiar environment and thrust almost captive into Tristan’s realm of distorted reality, to the extent that she can no longer trust her own judgment. Tristan reacts to Eve’s gradual demise, like Nicole does to Dick’s. These are complex issues of human nature, so it was helpful to see how Fitzgerald accomplishes them.

The writing in this book awed me. It wasn’t just Fitzgerald’s way with words or the thought-provoking way he used the narrator to link the story to the broader universe, but also the unusual techniques he used to tell the story. Two stylistic elements in particular resonated with me. One—which I played with in one of my early chapters—was his use of the em dash with the character’s thoughts coming from somewhere outside the reality of the action and creating a double entendre. Fitzgerald first used it in the story on page 89, when Rosemary’s friend Collis Clay is telling Dick about Rosemary and a college boy making out on the train. Without identifying that these are Dick’s thoughts, Fitzgerald writes:

— Do you mind if I pull down the curtain?
— Please do. It’s too light in here.

He uses these same two lines in several more places throughout the book, and the reader immediately gets it. (I wasn’t quite that clever when I tried it, but it was fun.)

The other element that impressed me came in the second section of the novel, Book 2, when Fitzgerald goes back in time and recounts his meeting and courtship of Nicole the mental patient. Dick has just met Baby Warren, who holds the purse strings, and she disapproves of him as a husband for Nicole; she prefers to “buy” a Chicago doctor for her sister. Without bringing Nicole into the action, Fitzgerald then does four stream-of-consciousness pages from Nicole’s point of view, encapsulating the next few years of their marriage in diary-like entries.

This kind of avant-garde thinking really appeals to me. I spent quite some time pondering how Fitzgerald would write the pages of my novel.

One last point that made an impact on me was his use of the omniscient narrator, as was the trend back in the day, but it made me realize that I have much more to learn more about points of view. When I tried writing my first-person novel in the omniscient p.o.v. the way he did, my writing opened right up. Interesting, huh?

Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular

Book by Rust Hills

Annotation by Kat Kambes

Rust Hills quickly lays out his thematic impetus in Writing In General and the Short Story in Particular. On the first page he states “only two things can be said about the nature of the short story.” He quickly points out that “a short story tells of something that happened to someone” and “…will demonstrate a more harmonious relationship of all its aspects than will any other literary art form…” This philosophy drives the books content, as the individual chapters each focus upon an aspect that Hills is quick to point out as an aspect, part of the necessary “harmonious relationships of all its aspects.”

Hills attempts to pull out the threads that make the cohesive whole, beginning with the story creating a change in behavior of the character. He drives this more explicitly to note that character does not really change, but that we are revealed something new about that character or witness the character understanding something new about himself. This is brought about through moving action. He explores the ideas of fixed action, something that is “constant (or repeatable) before the story happens,” as belonging to the beginning, so that the everyday, fixed quality of the character, will allow us to witness the “changed” character.

I particularly enjoyed the concept of “fork in the road” that was formative to the point where the real story is. These are events for the short story writer to focus on. The point of no return, where the character can no longer turn back. There has historically been much discussion about this point, the climax, the crisis point, or the crux and what is really driving here is that this moment bears a dynamic weight, that some truth be revealed. It might also be considered the “turning point” or reversal, but clearly the peak moment of change.

What Hills definitely approaches that is pronounced from the many books on writerly skills that I have encountered, is not the concept of internal conflict, which we have seen specified, but the astute further rendering of this idea: “…to be effective the situation of the conflict must be developed so that the forces or weights or values on each side are more or less balanced.” Stressing that the development of these forces, which heighten the conflict create more difficulty for the character. But this only takes us to the question of tension, in which Hills uses a definition close to is Latin root – tensus, meaning “stretch.” He states “Tension in fiction has that effect: of something that is being stretched taut until it must snap.”
Hills delves into character and challenges the writer to really know the character, the way their energy works, the abstract and mechanical intelligence, the sociability, habits, lifestyle, ad infinitum. It is through really knowing the character that an understanding of the character’s motivation can be made manifest. He states “…motive seems to create a sort of potential for movement in a character, to seem almost that part of character which potentially is plot.” He talks about using stress, and understanding the way this stress is expressed or suppressed in a character. We seem to know people more fully after going through a stressful situation with them.

As regards plot Hills states that “Plot…is never there for its own sake…. Any action in a story must be justified by its contribution to the whole.” He discusses at length the importance of selectivity in the short story form, how the selection process is crucial not just to characterization, but to setting, and that each of the aspects must subordinate themselves to the whole of the piece.

He does some exploration into the unique sections of the story, beginning, middle and ending and spends a good deal of time on point-of-view where he discusses both their individual usefulness as well as their limitations.
Hill was a long-time editor for Esquire magazine and strove heartily to bring the “literary” short story back into its framework. He spends a good deal of time extolling the virtues of literary endeavor and talks at length about the changing landscape of literature in our times.

This work of exploration on technique in writing the short story has at its core the perception of someone who has seen how the best of stories work. By this I mean, how all the moving parts fit together. For this reason, the book’s approach is different. Since Hills was an editor, he has a detached distance from the work. I previously read another book on craft written by editors Renni Browne and Dave King entitled Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, which was much more nuts and bolts, dealing with specific issues of tense, beats, mechanics, proportion. These were all issues of practicality.

What Hills strives for is a deep level of “understanding” in the overall cohesiveness of the moving parts, which he explicitly sees as being in motion, action being a key concept to the unfolding nature of the whole.