This week, I’m thrilled to talk about “Death Defiant Bomba or What to Wear When Your Boo Gets Cancer” by Lilliam Rivera. I met Lilliam at an awe-inspiring AROHO Writing Retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico a few years back, where we climbed red rocks and talked like sisters. Since then, she’s recently published her book, The Education of Margot Sanchez (go read it!), a contemporary young adult novel from Simon & Schuster. The story we’re reading this week was originally published in Bellevue Literary Review and was a Pushcart Prize winner. I’m not going to even mention all her other stories and awards, but let’s just say this girl’s been busy (and you can read more about her here).
A few questions to get us talking about this death-defiant story:
- Would this piece work as wonderfully if it wasn’t told in second-person?
- Why the red dress?
- Bomba is a traditional Puerto Rican music and dance performance, and Lilliam uses the structure of the song and dance to frame the story. What effect does this have? Can you think of any other stories or books that use a similar method?
I discovered this story in an issue of n+1, and my first reaction was, What was that? I have to share this with MUG! Turns out, this “story” is a selection of vignettes from Sachs’s book, Inherited Disorders. Adam Ehrlich Sachs writes from Pittsburgh, and his fiction has also appeared in The New Yorker and Harper’s, among others.
1. The author explores the father-son dynamic in a variety of ways. What is the he saying about legacy? In what ways is the legacy passed down by one’s parents inescapable? To what extent can we surpass the legacies of our parents, or can we?
2. In several of these pieces, Sachs has created characters who write/say/do one thing but mean something else. Or they insist that their work/actions should not be taken at face value and instead mean something unapparent to their audiences. How does the author explore perspective versus intentions? How does he use this juxtaposition to enhance the story?
3. Why these nine?
4. To what extent do these pieces stand alone? What effect do they have together?
5. How does this story explore the extent to which a thing or person can simply be, versus how things/people are defined by others?
I’m not one for much Creative NonFiction, but lately, after seeing all the cool stuff that people are doing in this genre these days, I’ve been coming around to it.
Arguably one of my favorite new examples of CNF done very well is the collection of short, nonfiction essays by Amy Leach titled Things That Are from Milkweed Editions (one of my favorite publishers). Leach graduated with an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and now teaches at the University of St. Francis. This book is a string of fascinating meditations on the natural world and characterizes the creatures on this planet in captivating and vivid ways.
Today, we’re discussing one essay in particular, “Please Do Not Yell at the Sea Cucumbers.”
Some questions to consider:
- One thing that stuck out to me right away is Leach’s dense and very ornate prose. Sometimes it takes me several tries to read a sentence and often I have to slow down to understand her meaning better. How does her language, then, work for or against the content about which she is writing?
- In all of these essays, Leach flits around several different creatures/animals and uses them to collectively explore an idea. How does her movement from one creature to the next take you along as the reader?
- In what ways does Leach’s work serve as a meditation on the human condition? What does she ask us about ourselves even as she refuses to write about us directly?
- What do you believe does or does not allow Leach to achieve a balance between her obvious wealth of research and her lyrical reflections of them?
This week we’re reading a funny caveman story from the New Yorker titled “I Love Girl” by Simon Rich. According to the New Yorker, “Simon Rich tells the tale of a lovesick caveman, Oog, whose nemesis, Boog, has captured the attention of Oog’s beloved Girl with his abstract cave paintings and blustery self-confidence.”
Simon Rich has written several works of fiction, including “Spoiled Brats,” a collection of stories. He is also the creator and showrunner of “Man Seeking Woman,” on FXX.
The story starts:
I am Oog. I love Girl. Girl loves Boog.
It is bad situation.
It’s basically every love triangle ever written, but somehow Rich injects such humor and humanity into his caveman story. I hope you enjoy it!
- How does Rich keep the love triangle trope while also subverting it?
- Does the language bother you, or does it better transport you into the caveman point of view?
- How does Rich make a caveman story so relatable?
- Was the ending satisfying? Unexpected?
“The Black Company” is the first in a series of dark fantasy novels by Glen Cook. Cook is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, and spent his career working for General Motors in an automobile manufacturing plant while simultaneously writing as many as three novels a year. Now retired, Cook jokes that he got more writing done when he was working a full time job.
The Black Company series comprises ten novels and as many short stories, following the adventures of a mercenary company over several decades of their existence. Its tone is gritty and realistic, and rather than glorify war or follow more typical fantasy tropes, it simply presents its characters and situations in a realistic tone, portraying the characters as simple soldiers just trying to survive in some rather dark circumstances.
- Cook does several things in this rather extended first chapter. He not only sets up most of the main characters and their relationships to one another, he also illustrates the timbre of their morality, gives you their inciting incident and hints at the conflict to come, does an enormous amount of world building, and throws in a fair bit of excitement and action to boot. All this takes some time; do you think it works as is? Would you have split the chapter up?
- The story is written in first person, from the point of view of the Company doctor and historian, a man called Croaker. How do you think the point of view contributes to the narrative tone? What about to the world and character building?
- The main characters, even Croaker, are not what you would normally associate with the word ‘hero’. In fact they’re a vicious, bloody bunch of cutthroats who betray the political leader that hired him and murder several thousand soldiers in their sleep. Croaker shows a bit of hesitation at the betrayal, and that might be the only ‘save the cat’ moment in the story. Nevertheless, there’s something compelling about the characters. Did you find yourself identifying and/or sympathizing with them? Are you interested in reading more about them?
Hope you enjoyed this first chapter!
“The Ultra Thin Man” is a noir detective novel set in a future world; political intrigue, murder, aliens and some really captivating characters make this a page turner.
Patrick Swenson is a teacher, writer, editor, and publisher of the Fairwood Press, a small press publishing house, which he founded in 2000. The Ultra Thin Man is his first published novel. He has been published in short form in the Like Water for Quarks, and magazines such as MZB’s Fantasy Magazine, Figment, and others.
I know Patrick as the organizer of the Rainforest Writer’s Retreat, which I have attended each of the last few years.
- First chapters, and especially first lines, are the hook that gets an agent or editor going. We’ve heard about the importance of them over and over. How does Patrick’s first line hook you? His first chapter? Did you read what you could of the second chapter?
- In genre fiction, the world is often as important a character as the actual people in the story. What do you think of the world-building that happens in this chapter as Patrick sets the scene? How would you have done it differently?
- No matter how catchy a first line is, or how quickly an author gets your interest and pulls you into the next chapters, if the characters are not appealing the reader will quickly lose interest. Two of the characters in this chapter are seen only in hologram video playback; of the other two, one is mostly a technique to play the video, and the other is the narrator. What can you tell from this first person POV chapter about the character? Do you have enough information to become interested in him as a character?
Hope you enjoyed the chapter. Comments/Questions/Editorials are, as always, welcome.
This week we’re diving into the first chapter of the YA fantasy novel This Savage Song by Victoria “V.E.” Schwab. It’s an opening chapter that snatched me up like the dark monsters that lurk in this deliciously savage story. Here’s a little more about the book:
“Kate Harker and August Flynn are the heirs to a divided city—a city where the violence has begun to breed actual monsters. All Kate wants is to be as ruthless as her father, who lets the monsters roam free and makes the humans pay for his protection. All August wants is to be human, as good-hearted as his own father, to play a bigger role in protecting the innocent—but he’s one of the monsters. One who can steal a soul with a simple strain of music. When the chance arises to keep an eye on Kate, who’s just been kicked out of her sixth boarding school and returned home, August jumps at it. But Kate discovers August’s secret, and after a failed assassination attempt the pair must flee for their lives. In This Savage Song, Victoria Schwab creates a gritty, seething metropolis, one worthy of being compared to Gotham and to the four versions of London in her critically acclaimed fantasy for adults, A Darker Shade of Magic. Her heroes will face monsters intent on destroying them from every side—including the monsters within.”
A few questions to consider as you read the first chapter:
1) How does Schwab balance world-building and backstory while still writing a captivating scene?
2) Throughout the book, Schwab blurs the lines between human and monster. How does she show this even from the start?
3) There’s a lot of pressure for the first chapter to basically accomplish everything. How do you feel about Kate Harker, and what threads has Schwab sewn into the first chapter to hint at where the character arc and conflict are heading?
Reblogging to the Mugsters!
Now, let me toss off my writer hat and bust out the math:
AGENT QUERY STATS
Total submitted: 33 agents
Sources: Writing in the Margins Query Contest Winner (6 agent requests);
#DVpit Twitter Pitch Contest (19 agent requests); various other SCBWI resources
Timeline: I submitted to agents in March and April 2016, and then signed with an offer in May 2016!
Full requests :15 *happy dance followed by sheer panic at waiting for responses*
Offers:3 (Yes, THREE! This was a hard choice, and in the end I went with the agent that I connected with the most and knew would be an advocate for my work and bring diverse voices to mainstream fiction because #WNDB. Plus, Erin Murphy Literary Agency is a fabulous agency for the Children’s and YA book market!)
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Kelly Magee is the author of Your Sick and The Reckless Remainder, a collection of prose poems co-written with Carol Guess, as well as two new books to be released this year and in 2017. Carol Guess is a novelist and poet. Her books Homeschooling, Femme’s Dictionary, and Gaslight were nominated for Lambda Literary Awards. And they are both writers that I am fortunate enough to work with in the next two years!
Magee and Guess partner regularly to create bizarre and fantastic collections of stories, one of which being With Animal. Our story today, “With Killer Bees,” emerges from this adventurous hodgepodge of women who find themselves pregnant with another species. Be it killer bees, a hippopotamus, a dragon, or even a nebula, the result is haunting, all-consuming, and eye-opening. It’s truly one of the most unique examinations of sexuality, family dynamics and identity that I’ve read in a while and I’m excited to share it with yinz!
Here are some questions for today:
- A perspective flip happens when the woman who gives birth tells her story, then it flips back to our original narrator again. They do a better of indicating this in the story, but I think it still begs the question: Is this flip jarring? Does it just serve the purpose of providing backstory or is there more to it?
- I’ve paid a lot of attention to sex and gender identity in these stories, because it plays a prominent role in Guess and Magee’s work as they explore diverse relationships. Do you believe at any point that you know the narrator’s gender or sex? Does it matter?
- I love the ending, solely for how damn poetic it is. However, I’m still trying to make sense of it. So, join me, won’t you? What do you make of the last few lines, these pleading questions without one, straightforward answer?
That is all for now! (P.S. Sorry for what we did to San Jose in the Stanley Cup. Though I guess I’m not that sorry…)
Jack Cady (March 20, 1932 – January 14, 2004) was an American author. He is most known as an award winning fantasy and horror writer. In his career he won the Nebula Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the Bram Stoker Award, a special award from the International Horror Guild, and several others. He taught writing at the University of Washington and at Pacific Lutheran University, was a conscientious objector during the Korean War, a member of the US Coast Guard, and a fervent believer in the value of history as a means of understanding both politics and writing.
I found Cady’s work quite by accident. A collection of his short stories, including his most famous piece, “The Night they Buried Road Dog,” was lying on a mantle with a small sign that said ‘Free’ on it. Naturally I took it, and was immediately captivated by Cady’s voice. In this story, “The Girl in the Orange Hat”, Cady writes from the first person about a couple who frequent Golden Gate Park on the weekends and encounter a beautiful young woman that intrigues both husband and wife, though perhaps for different reasons.
- Cady’ voice is strong in this piece, counterpointing tersely descriptive sentences with rambling observation. Does it work for you? How does the rhythm and meter of the sentence construction contribute or distract from the story?
- The narrator/husband of the couple goes from a dispassionate observer of her reactions to the girl in the orange hat, called Maria, to an introspective review of his own knowledge about his wife and the conflict she’s seeing. Do you think this development is effectively communicated throughout the piece? How does the wife’s emotional distress resonate through his observations?
- Like so much literary fiction, this piece does not end so much as simply stop. There is, however, something of a climax and resolution as the events of the story unfold. Discuss how Cady brought his genre and literary sensibilities together to make this a compelling story arc.