Saturday, August 25, 2012

Literary Modeling Gone Wrong: Guest Christopher Chik

Who Shot First?
Modeling, an essential skill in any writer’s toolkit, is that sort of legal fringe where plagiarism becomes the art, becomes craft itself. When Jean Rhys wrote Wide Sargasso Sea, she modeled extensively on Jane Eyre, almost foreshadowing today’s fan-fiction. At times Rhys’ excess was a detriment to her narrative, which could have been a brilliant standalone novel.

Christopher Chik
Influences are some of the most important things a writer uses to contribute to our great human storytelling tradition. We update stories of the past, taking and combining elements from many in order to create something new. Sometimes, though, writers can love their influences too much, and the writing crosses from literary modeling to fan-fiction.

Should someone escape Jane Eyre’s torturous grasp during high school tenure, he could still read Wide Sargasso Sea with complete understanding. The average reader has a closer connection to Kevin Bacon than Rhys’ work has to Brontë’s, because the timeline order of the two novels is inverted. WSS is an origin story for Brontë’s character, Bertha Rochester, but takes place a half century later.

The central tension in WSS, which Rhys uses to explain Bertha’s craziness in Jane Eyre, is only possible because of the unique historical climate the so tightly woven into the narrative. The racial tension in the Creole culture exists because of an 1833 Emancipation Act that freed slaves in all British colonies. The events in Jane Eyre take place roughly forty years prior to that act, around the turn of the century. By contrast, Jane Eyre’s central tension hinges on how Jane will resolve her love for Bertha’s husband if she is alive, well, and crazy up in the attic.

Bertha would have been kept a secret by an aristocratic family in either time period, but in the Jane Eyre timeline, it’s more plausible for Bertha to be locked away in the home instead of an asylum. Mental institutions weren’t as plentiful and didn’t have the prominence they would in the late 19th century. As a little girl in the 1830s, Rhys’ version of Bertha would be well into the 1840s before she married Rochester. By the time she was a completely filled bag of crazy, locked away in an attic, time would have slipped into the latter half of the century. By then, WSS as a prequel becomes as plausible as Greedo shooting first.

When a writer’s efforts to model on others begins to undercut her own effort, as with Rhys, the work becomes more of an homage or poor tribute to the original piece, than something of true literary merit. There are moments in WSS where the modeling goes so far, the pieces seem shoehorned: Bertha’s doppelganger, Antionette, seeks out a voodoo woman who sets in motion the events necessary to make the Jane Eyre narrative happen in the future; Rochester’s doppelganger mentions he’d trade his eyes, something he loses in Jane Eyre, to have never married Bertha. It’s unfortunate Rhys chose to take her modeling to such an extreme, because she wrote a brilliant novel, which explores an interesting time and place.

Antoinette is an intriguing protagonist in her own right and deserves to be her own bag and blend of crazy. Everything about her circumstances is interesting and relatable in ways that neither Jane nor Bertha proved to be, throughout Jane Eyre. Short of a butler, live-in maid, or a nanny, who really identifies with Jane on any level beyond love that can or should not be? Anyone can identify with a woman driven to madness by insufferable circumstances; anyone can sympathize with a little girl growing up in the middle of racial tension and horrible violence. The reader doesn’t need Brontë’s Bertha to feel deeply for Rhys’ Antoinette.

As a writer, modeling should be an exercise; it should be a tool for improving the craft and developing one’s own stories, through inspiration from the past. We should emulate the great authors who inspire us. We should strive to understand what makes their voices unique, dissect the humble beauty of their sentences, and reprocess it all through our own lenses and pens. Going too far with our modeling, doesn’t always doom us to plagiarism. Sometimes, a runaway modeling exercise just creates too large an anchor, which then drags our writing down from a level at which it could have been.

Never be afraid to let your own voice shine brightly through your disguises, modeled on the great writing of others. That’s how we get Bradbury’s Leviathan ’99, brilliantly modeled on Moby Dick. Otherwise, we get lip-service fan-fiction. On the plus side, instead of Twilight, when someone writes Jane Eyre fan-fiction, we get something far more literary than Fifty Shades of Gray.

Follow Chris on the interwebs:
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Twitter – @g1mpy

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Craft of Writing Synopses by Robert Begiebing

The Craft of Writing Synopses is the final piece of a three-part series of posts by Robert Begiebing.  I had the privilege of working with Robert Begiebing on my first novel, including query and synopsis.  A recipient of the Langum Prize for historical fiction, Robert J. Begiebing is the author of seven books, a play, and over thirty articles and stories.  He is the founding director of the Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction, and Professor of English Emeritus, at Southern NH University. He's also just a wonderful guy.  

Please visit Tim Greaton's blog for Part One of the series, Selling Your Novel: Creating a Compelling First Impression  and Derek Flynn's blog for Part Two, The Craft of Writing Queries

The Craft of Writing Synopses by Robert Begiebing

We’ve discussed approaching agents and editors through sample chapters (the real key to gathering interest in your novel) and queries, but what about those synopses I’ve referred to?  These one-page, single-spaced synopsis documents typically accompany your query letter, both of which are intended to get the addressee to ask you to send along the sample pages/ chapters.

Your synopsis is just that—a one-page, single spaced, high-energy, no gimmicks/no B.S.  presentation of what your novel is about (main characters, setting, plot line, theme) that should make any reader, but especially an agent and editor, want to read it.  The biggest mistake writers make is turning the novel synopsis into a mere plot synopsis.  If there is some contemporary event or issue the novel addresses, emphasize it.  If you show your synopsis to colleagues, friends, and lovers and they are in any way unclear on what the book is about, you are not there yet.  If they would not be immediately interested in reading it, you are not there yet.  Some agents and editors will read a 1-5 page synopsis, but I recommend unless otherwise specified that you send along a one-pager for efficiency and to show you respect the reader’s time, to demonstrate you are a powerful, concise writer. This document is essentially an extension of your supporting paragraph in the query.  In most instances the letter and the synopsis, along with SASE for hard copies, make up your fiction query package.

The synopsis is a single spaced business document with double spacing between paragraphs.  The title of the novel along with the word “synopsis” should appear in the upper left margin, in bold font if you like; and note that either under the title of the novel or in the right upper margin you place the novel’s word count (as in a simple “70,000 words”).

Expect to hear “no” more often than you hear “yes”—that’s part of the publishing game and the ancient and honorable authorial struggle.  If your query package succeeds, you will be asked to send the first three chapters or 30-50 pages, sometimes the complete ms.
Editor and agent websites are usually very specific about what they want in a query.  Always check first.  Smaller presses might ask for more than the two basic documents at the start.   If so, you’ve got a nice package ready to go with your opening chapters already polished and intact.  If a small press asks on its website for your entire novel, send it along with SASE and a letter of transmittal—merely telling what you are sending (“as indicated on your website”), why you think this novel is a good fit for their list, and a brief author’s bio highlighting any professional credentials you might have for writing and researching this book.  As a writer as well as marketer of your own work, keep in mind that persistence (or good ol’ grit) is more than half of talent and success.

 The 20th anniversary edition of The Strange Deathof Mistress Coffin, a novel set in 17th-century New England, is now available in paperback and e-book. Originally published the early 1990s, Mistress Coffin was a Main Selection in The Literary Guild, The Mystery Guild, and Doubleday Book Clubs, and is currently optioned for a film.
Visit his website at

Don't forget to Twitter follow and say hello to Tim Greaton and Derek Flynn after you check out their websites!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Why Do We Still Read Ayn Rand? Guest Dillon Stone Tatum

It is hard to underestimate the power of Ayn Rand’s works today. In fact, one might be hard pressed to come up with another fiction writer from the twentieth century whose work carries such weight in contemporary political discourse—especially among the conservatives, and libertarians. But why? What is it about Ayn Rand that has allowed her work to become popular despite the fact that it is, plain and simple, poor fiction, with a rather terrifying pseudo-philosophy built-in? After all, the great Flannery O’Connor once remarked to a friend, in reference to Atlas Shrugged, that: “The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hoped you picked it up off the floor of the subway and through it in the nearest garbage pail.” And, a review in the National Review by Whittaker Chambers commented: “From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: ‘To a gas chamber—go!’” Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, may have been a terribly authored book, with a disturbing philosophical message as well (in this case about abstinence), but her book has not helped to characterize the philosophical battle lines in contemporary political discourse—that is, of course, unless we consider “Edward vs. Jacob” to be a major social and political dispute. Why Rand?  Why a second-rate novelist, whose fiction is not taken seriously by political philosophers, or professional writers and critics?

It’s not because of a lack of philosophical ammunition for libertarians. Libertarianism—the idea that the first and foremost liberty is the right to property (including self-ownership), with the implication that miniscule to minimum government is necessary and just—has a long lineage in modern philosophy. Whether this is from John Locke’s focus on absolute equality in the state of nature, John Stuart Mill’s rally against tyranny, or Friedrich Hayek’s theories of the free-market, there are important strands in modern political thought that have tried to honestly, and rigorously, defend the ideas of small government, and personal freedom, that many libertarians, and even Tea Party conservatives, bow to. But, there is something unique about Rand. This uniqueness is not about a particularly powerful view of “the good life,” or proper government. Rather, Rand’s novels are captivating for many because they tap into, and justify, the very greed and selfishness that big industry has instilled in contemporary Americans. The inimitable Gore Vidal summed it up all too well:

“This odd little woman is attempting to give a moral sanction to greed and self interest, and to pull it off she must at times indulge in purest Orwellian newspeak of the “freedom is slavery” sort. What interests me most about her is not the absurdity of her “philosophy,” but the size of her audience (in my campaign for the House she was the one writer people knew and talked about). She has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who dislike the “welfare” state, who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts. For them, she has an enticing prescription: altruism is the root of all evil, self-interest is the only good, and if you’re dumb or incompetent that’s your lookout.”

The irony should not be easily missed, as the small-government conservatives have managed to persuade even those who are at the very bottom of the income scale that the same unregulated markets that have caused them to lose their jobs, or to have their homes foreclosed on, are the backbone of America. To use Rand’s own imagery, the Titans of Industry as “holding up the world” is both a reflection of a mythology of the American dream that has yet to die, and also an appeal to our rather bestial, and subconscious, need to win at the expense of our fellow citizens. Fiction, used in this way, is not only a reflection of reality, but an attempt to reconstitute (or demolish) what we take to be our duties as citizens. What kind of Republic would ignore Aristotle’s dictum that man is a political animal, who is only whole because of his relations with fellow men?

Well, if Americans are not going to go back and read Aristotle (and, honestly, who wouldn’t want to?), maybe we need to think more of the power of literature, and the importance of themes like sacrifice, love, and the unique ability we have to come together when times are tough to defeat the forces of cruelty and “evil” that threaten us.

Hey, maybe Twilight doesn’t sound so bad after all.

Dillon Stone Tatum is a Ph.D. student, and Graduate Fellow, in the Department of Political Science at the George Washington University. He studies political thought, international organization and international security. 

Connect with him on twitter @Dillon_Tatum
Or visit his website

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Getting Serious About Grammar

I recently blogged about the Grammar Police, those social media friends who are compelled to correct tweets and Facebook statuses down to the last comma. But now it's time to be serious about grammar, punctuation and basic language skills. In writing, in business, in self-promotion it is very important to work towards perfection.

Yes, perfection.

I just visited a website for a company that writes press releases for various organizations and individuals and distributes the releases to publications for use. Their website was riddled with errors. I debated about sending the company an email to alert them (and ask if they'd like to hire a proofreader) and in the end decided: no. Honestly, if I sent emails to every website I visit that has errors, it would be an unpaid part-time job. So I have to pick and choose.

Joe's car wash? Yes, I would email them. Joe is probably just a decent, small business man that is trying to make a living by washing cars. Although he may not be particularly tech savvy, he does understand the importance of a web presence and probably hired his cousin to build a website for him. Joe may appreciate the heads up and possibly be receptive to the idea of a proof reader. I like Joe already.

But a PR firm? Aren't they advertising their exceptional writing abilities? Not only would I not hire them, but I would suggest they hire an editor. I can only imagine the email I would get in reply:

"Thanks for visiting our websigh. Are you interested on any of our servics?" (No, really not, thanks.)

Which brings me to the point of this blog. I don't expect everyone to be perfect. I'm certainly not. But, writers, or editors, or businesses that are in the business of selling their writing want to be taken seriously. Therefore, they should at least try to make their marketing material, or self-promotion, error-free.
Use an editor or a proofreader if you have to. Graciously accept and acknowledge those who find an error and let you know so that you can fix it.  Strive toward perfection.

Check out my (meant to be humorous) blog about the Grammar Police.