What’s onYour Shelf? I’ve Got “In the Pond”

I’m reading the books that I’m clearing off my shelves, preparatory to making more room in the office. This week I finished In the Pond by Ha Jin.

It reminded me of a family event. Years ago, at the high school graduation party of her daughter, my cousin lifted the three-tier, professionally decorated cake off the table to show it to her guests. In a sequence of moves that would put a Melissa McCarthy movie to shame, my cousin slipped on something, her foot shot forward, and her arms jerked up. The cake separated from the plate and summersaulted high into the air before the horrified gaze of all the guests, doing a beautiful swan dive straight into the retired, but still usable, chamber pot.

Somebody went out for donuts.

The story of Shao Bin, as Ha Jin writes it in In the Pond, is like that. A self-educated scholar and self-taught artist who works at a fertilizer plant in China, Shao Bin feels deeply wronged—and his wife deeply disappointed—when he is not assigned a bigger apartment for his growing family. Instead, only the party cadre “earn” larger spaces. Shao Bin—everyone—knows that the apartments are not allocated by need, as party rules dictate, but by party alliances, kickbacks, and bribes. He takes action, drawing a cartoon mocking the party leaders, which the local newspaper publishes.

This maneuver sets off a cascading series of events in which things can only go from bad to worse. Shao Bin applies for other jobs and is accepted for one, but the fertilizer factory party chairmen refuse to let him go because they don’t want the other workers to know that Shao Bin is qualified for such a good position. Bin applies to college and is accepted, but the factory party chairs refuse to let him attend because he is needed to draw propaganda at the plant. (And with slogans like “Utilize Methane; Turn Waste into Treasure,” who can blame them?)

Shao Bin challenges the leaders at every opportunity, breaking up meetings, writing letters of complaint, drawing cartoons and even graffiti to protest the actions against him. In time, the leaders at the factory find a solution for their troublesome worker, but it comes at a price—and it’s not exactly what he expects.

Winner of the National Book Award in 1999 for Waiting, Ha Jin paints a picture of life in a provincial Chinese town, with its depictions of the pettiness of the officials and their scheming to maintain status, that feels very true to life. And I had to root for Shao Bin, who takes up his narrow calligrapher’s brush to confront the powerful party leadership, with repercussions that reach far past his home town and the Harvest Fertilizer Plant. This book is dark and funny, even as you see the cake take off into the air and know that it can’t land anyplace good.

Elizabeth: And Now for Something Completely Different

Cooper thinks puns are hilarious.
Photo credit: Scott Eldridge

I’ve been reading a lot of “different for me” books lately, most randomly picked from the “Lucky Draw” shelf at the local library, which houses an ever-changing assortment of popular books, generally best sellers or book-club picks – things I normally would avoid like the plague.  The one I just finished was Less (winner of the Pulitzer Prize) by Andrew Sean Greer.  It’s the story of a novelist, about to turn fifty, who accepts a raft of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world in order to avoid his boyfriend’s wedding.

There was one specific little bit that really stuck with me after I had finished reading.  At one point in the story, the novelist – Arthur Less – is teaching a writing seminar in Germany.  His rather unconventional methods include “he cuts up a paragraph of Lolita and has the young doctoral students reassemble the text as they desire”, “he gives them a page of Joyce and a bottle of White-Out”, and he has them “write a persuasive opening sentence for a book they have never read”.  The result is not that they learn anything about literature but, they get something better:

“They learn to love language again, something that has faded like sex in a long marriage.”

As I read that I thought, I’d have loved that class. Continue reading

Jeanne: A Body in Motion

I just finished reading a first chapter for a friend who’d been wanting me to critique for her. (Note: I’m pretty sure this falls under the heading of “Be Careful What You Wish For”).

Her writing is solid—clear, grammatical, easy to follow—and the character she introduced was sympathetic and likable. Great start.

The problem I had with the scene was that nothing much happened. And not only did nothing much happen, but the character in question didn’t even move around very much. He got out of his car, climbed the steps to someone’s front porch, dodged a bee, and knocked on the door.

That’s not a lot of activity for eight pages.

After I fired off my response email, suggesting she incorporate more action and present conflict, I hopped on Instagram, where I came across a meme on “8 Reasons Your First Scene Isn’t Working.” They were all good points, but the list didn’t include lack of action.

One of the things we learned at McDaniel was that readers judge characters, not by what they say, or even think, but by what they do.

All of that made me think about the motion/energy/activity level in my own new first scene. My scene has conflict, but there’s still a strong aura of “talking heads” about it—just two characters standing around yapping at each other.

Which, now that I’m aware of it, I can fix.

What are your thoughts on this? Is it okay with you if the first scene in a book is just people talking or thinking? Or do you want to see some bodies in motion?

Nancy: What Gets You Out of Bed in the Morning?

Years ago, when I was in my previous life and profession and was using a white board for something other than character arcs and plot progressions, I kept a question on my board at work. It was, “What keeps you up at night?” This is a question used in sales in marketing to remind sellers to think about what the customer wants/needs/stresses about, NOT about the widget or service we want to sell.

Then about five years ago, I read an article that argued (rather convincingly) that we should stop asking what keeps our customers up at night, and start asking, “What gets you out of bed in the morning?” Do you see the shift from negative to positive? I brought that to the teams I managed with the goal of writing our business proposals with a different spin. We still needed to write about knowing the customer’s pain and how to solve it. But I started pestering my teams (and the business development execs who interacted with the customers) to learn about customer’s bigger-picture visions. I wanted to expand our message to say, “We support solutions, but also aspirations.”

By now you’re wondering, WTH does this have to do with fiction writing? I’m so glad you asked! Continue reading

Justine: WHEN Do the Kids Go Back To School?

overwhelmed momI’m not sure what sort of writer you are, but I’m definitely a big chunk writer. I need time to GET into my writing world and time to STAY in my writing world (preferably without interruptions).

With the kids home this summer (they’re 11 and 10), that just isn’t happening. So I’ve pretty much written off getting any substantive work done on my MS. Fortunately, their return-to-school date is August 1st (believe me, I’m counting down the days).

Instead of writing, I have been focusing on other things that are still career-centered, but make it a bit easier for me to handle interruptions switch gears.

Mark Dawson’s Self-Publishing Formula (SPF) Course

For those of you unfamiliar, Mark Dawson is a British writer who has put together some very thorough and detailed web courses on the ins and outs of self-publishing. It’s pricey and there are limited times during the year when you can sign up, but I think it’s well worth it. In addition to the typical nuts-and-bolts of self-publishing, he gives you some good tactical and strategic advice, such as about maximizing newsletter sign-up (both from your ebooks and your website), pros and cons of going narrow or wide, and launch strategies. All of his courses are one-cost-for-life, so you’re eligible for all course updates in the future. Continue reading

Michaeline: Kaiju vs. Dragons

Japanese movie poster from 1954 Godzilla with Tokyo on fire

Hydrogen bombs, giant monsters, love triangles . . . Godzilla has got conflict out the wazoo. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Dragon: 1. Archaic: a huge serpent 2. :a mythical animal usually represented as a monstrous winged and scaly serpent or saurian with a crested head and enormous claws 3: a violent, combative, or very strict person 4. capitalized: DRACO 5. :something or someone formidable or baneful. –Merriam-Webster, 2019 07 13

Kaiju is a Japanese word meaning “strange creature”. In English, it has come to mean “monster” or “giant monster”, referring to creatures of a large size seen in movies from Asia. –Simple English Wikipedia, 2019 07 13

Tor recently had a Dragon Week, and asked on Twitter, “Which is the deadlier dragon?” The choices were Smaug (dragon from The Hobbit; voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch in the movie) or Godzilla (a spitting lizard boi from the 1954 eponymous film).

And, Twitter (predictably) lost its mind, arguing that Godzilla was not a dragon. Continue reading

Elizabeth: Friday Writing Sprints

Everyone has their quirks – right?   One of mine is a horror of having to check luggage while traveling.  I’ve made several 3-week sojourns to Oxford with nothing more than a carry-on bag and a backpack, and the backpack was only needed for all of the books I had to take with me.

That particular quirk means I look at choosing what clothing to pack when I travel as a puzzle and packing as a showcase for the Tetris skills I developed in my video-game playing youth (it’s one of my super-powers).

Thus, I’ve spent the past week “trying out” outfits; deciding which ones will make it through the day, easily adapt from warm to chilly and back again, and which can be mixed-and-matched to get the most variation out of the fewest pieces while still looking distinct.

Sure, sure, I could have spent that time writing no doubt, but I had to get dressed for work every day anyway – might as well make a game out of it.

Anyway, now that the outfits have been narrowed down to a precious few and the shoes are lined up awaiting the “take” or “leave behind” final decision, it is time to at least make an *attempt* at getting some words on the page.  I think today’s story prompt and random words will be the perfect place to start.

Care to join me? Continue reading