Tag Archives: fiction

Be Gone, Girl Titles

 

Gone Girl. Girl on a Train. Nowhere Girl. You can scarcely walk by a bookstore or scroll through Amazon without coming across a title with the word “girl” in it. Publishers, who like nothing more than riding the coattails of last year’s best seller, are churning out Girl titles left and right.

So what’s the problem? Most of these novels are not about girls. They are about women. And I think the tendency to call a girl a woman is about a lot more than the syllables in a word or the potential for alliteration. A girl makes a good victim – vulnerable, easily frightened, powerless. But a woman is an adult. She is powerful. She might get in your face and object to being called a girl.

This phenomenon transcends fiction. As I begin to write this, Tom Petty’s “American Girl” is playing on Pandora. What does it say about us that it took a Canadian band to write “American Woman,” and that was in 1969? And the Guess Who song was not, by the way, exactly an anthem for what at the time was called women’s liberation.

Some fine novels have “girl” in the title, and I blame not the authors but the Great Publishing Machine that determines titles, designs covers, and creates often artificial genres for its wares. Consider Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly. Of its three female characters, two start out as teenagers, but for the majority of the novel they are adults responsible for their own choices. Last year also saw The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (Lisa See, who also wrote Shanghai Girls), The Atomic City Girls (Janet Beard), and The Girls (Emma Cline).

Some of the “girls” in the above titles start out as such, but they grow into women over the course of the story.

What about novels with “women” in the title? There certainly are some: The Woman in Cabin 10 being the most prominent recent example, as well as The Woman in the Window and The Women in the Castle. But can’t you picture some marketing team member suggesting that they change the title to “The Girl in Cabin 10” or “The Girl in the Window”?

It was not always thus. Can you imagine if Jane Eyre had been “The Poor Girl”? Or if Louisa May Alcott had called her most famous novel “Little Girls”? Or if Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca had been “The Girl in the Boat”?

It’s time writers stood up to this abomination and banished the word “girl” from their dust jackets.

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The science of metaphor

The last time I had any interest in science was probably in fourth grade. We got new textbooks that year, and they featured finely wrought pencil sketches of a boy and girl conducting experiments, keeping nature journals, and collecting leaves and rocks. If that was all “science” involved – keeping a journal, walking around outdoors, and occasionally mixing up some vinegar and baking soda – I was in.Geology 007
By the time I got to Junior High, I was more interested in the cute boy from Hope Valley with the hair in his eyes than Mr. Bannister’s Earth Science class. The teacher literally carried around a shoebox of rocks. Rocks! Could there be anything duller? We tried to get him talking about the war; as soon as he said “When I was in Korea,” we knew he was good for a 15- or 20-minute digression.
By ninth grade, all hope of my science education had disappeared. My notes for Introduction to Physical Science were layered with Aerosmith and Rolling Stones lyrics. I think I learned how to use a slide rule. That came in handy.
So now what am I doing, 55 years old, earnestly studying a Geology textbook, tracing epochs in the Book of Knowledge, and taking notes on Paleozoic time?
Yes, I’m still a novelist, and the only subjects I’ll ever be qualified to teach are writing, English, and journalism. But decades into this writing thing, I’m wishing I had paid more attention to Mr. Bannister’s quartz and granite samples. I’m trying to remember something from 10th grade Biology – besides the earthworm we pinned and sliced. Because I’ve finally realized the connection between science and writing, between the empirical world and the literary one.
The physical world is the source of all metaphor. We know this, as writers, but we don’t pay it much mind. We think our imaginations can conjure up whatever tree, flower, or stone wall will dress up our passages. After all, we are writers, we deal in words, and what else do we need but a facility with vocabulary?
The truth is we must apprehend the real, physical, dynamic world before we can write about it. We have to see with the intensity of the scientist observing phenomena. We have to take notes and report with the accuracy of the geologist or botanist, then translate what we know into the vernacular – making our metaphors clear to the average person without losing the essence of that understanding.
The best writers know this. Think of Andrea Barrett’s haunting story, “The Littoral Zone,” about a pair of scientists whose infidelity places them in a netherworld not unlike the shoreline area they are studying. Whether it’s Melville on whaling or Michener on the origins of Hawaii, the writer must explain the physical world before he or she can be trusted with the metaphysical.
It happens that my latest protagonist is a scientist, a botanist to be precise, so of course I need to be able to think the way she does. Because she is teaching college classes in 1953, I’ve collected introductory botany texts to get some sense of the material she’d have at her fingertips. I’ve bought guidebooks to wildflowers in the Smoky Mountains, where she is doing research, and I’ve even read my aunt’s dissertation on that subject, since the character was (very loosely) inspired by her life.
But what’s up with the geology? I wanted to explain how those mountains formed, that’s all. That led to a brief study of geologic time, and notebook pages of jottings – from Archaean time, “earth a solid globe,” I wrote, to the upper, lower and middle Cambrian periods of the Paleozoic, with seaweed, mollusks, and the first vestiges of terrestrial life. I had the vague idea that the mountains emerged where once was sea.
It was only later, when I sat down to write the brief passage this research informed, that I realized the true metaphor I’d unearthed: my character, like this mountain, is comprised of deep compressed layers, shaped by a certain heat and violence.
None of which I would have guessed back in eighth-grade science, when terms like igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic where just vocabulary to be memorized, and when I knew what metaphors were but never guessed they could be found in a rattling shoebox full of rocks.

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Go Set a Watchman: To read or not to read

I’m trying to decide if I should buy Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. The book will be released to much fanfare on July 14. HarperCollins, her publisher, has printed a first run of 2 million copies, and pre-orders already have pushed it to the Amazon best-seller list.
Why are people buying it?
Do thindexey hope it will be as good as To Kill A Mockingbird? The novel, about a white Southern girl confronting racism and hard truths in a small Alabama town of the 1930s, is a classic, was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck, and can still be found on many high school reading lists. Whether you read it as a child or adult, it’s the sort of book you don’t forget, mostly because of the naïve, riveting voice of Scout Finch.
Or do they suspect it might not be as good? It is a unique characteristic of human beings, especially writers, to want to bear witness to the failings of their peers. Would it make us all feel a little better to discover that To Kill a Mockingbird did not emerge fully formed out of a genius mind? Maybe reading Lee’s earlier effort would give us some shred of hope that we, too, might someday beat the odds and produce something timeless.
If our motives lie in the latter category – and come on, writers, you know who you are – let’s take a moment to consider the editor at J.B. Lippincott who advised Lee to rewrite the manuscript from the point of view of Scout as a child. Apparently this was Theresa “Tay” von Hohoff, who worked closely with Lee on the revisions. According to the most recent telling of this story, Hohoff read Go Set a Watchman, suggested Lee set the novel in Scout’s childhood, and Lee returned with the finished product. The actual process was a lot more complicated, according to the account given by Lee’s biographer, Charles J. Shields, in Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. When it first arrived, the manuscript of Go Set a Watchman was no more than a series of vignettes. The publisher hated the title, which was briefly changed to Atticus, after Scout’s father. Hohoff worked closely with Lee to add dramatic tension to the novel, particularly focusing on a trial that occurred in her hometown in the 1930s, of a black man accused of raping a white woman.
Go Set a Watchman is, then, an earlier and quite probably inferior version of the classic novel. As such, you would think that Nelle Harper Lee would not be crazy about its publication, particularly if she remembers the revision process that Shields called “excruciating.” Some have questioned whether she freely consented to its publication, but even if she did, we might question her judgment. Would Lee have agreed to it 20 years ago? That’s a question that we can’t answer, but the state of Alabama, conducting an investigation into the matter, concluded she was competent to sign the contract.
By throwing in our own money ($14.77, if preordered on Amazon), are we enabling the publisher to profit from exploitation of an elderly author? Are we part of this feeding frenzy, in which the celebrity of the writer takes precedence over the quality of her work? And, most importantly, are we supporting a system in which publishers put millions behind a few choice books while they let the other writers on their list fend for themselves?
The details of Lee’s contract have not been made public, but you can be sure she will see substantial royalties from Go Set a Watchman. Now imagine if HarperCollins invested even a quarter of that money in its stable of lesser-known writers, or, better yet, published 10 first-time novelists instead. With even a small percentage of its profits from the Lee novel, HarperCollins could start a fellowship program for unknowns.
I’m not talking about just handing an advance to 10 debut novelists and letting them sink or swim in the marketplace, which is publishers’ typical M.O. I mean a program in which the writers would be guaranteed three books – time to find an audience, develop a voice, and perfect their craft.
Unlike Lee, most novelists aren’t overnight sensations. Consider Anthony Doerr, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, published last year by Scribner and still No. 8 on the New York Times Best Seller List (where it has hung in for 40 weeks). All the Light is his second novel and fifth published book, and while he had won many prestigious awards prior, this novel was a breakout success. Publishers, though, still waste far too much time looking for overnight sensations instead of nurturing talented writers. This all-or-nothing philosophy leads predictably to low sales for most newcomers, who rarely get a second chance at the same publishing house.
So as writers, how do we stop this cycle? If you are published, you know that, after the initial euphoria, reality sets in – a low advance, hours doing your own publicity, self-funded book tours, and a scramble for a second contract. When publishers like HarperCollins invest resources in “found” manuscripts that perhaps have little merit beyond the academic – or, like Simon & Schuster’s $8 million advance to Hillary Clinton, put their eggs in the celebrity basket – they are committing a provocative act: taking money away from their stable of writers and turning their backs on potential future classics.
Go Set a Watchman will make millions for HarperCollins regardless of its merit. But let’s challenge the publisher to invest some of that money in long-term relationships with new writers who deserve the editorial care and nurturing that made Harper Lee a star.

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Up on the board: visions of future stories

The bulletin board in full view: paintings, postcards, even prose.

The bulletin board in full view: paintings, postcards, even prose.

Creativity board 004I’ve written before in this space about the creativity bulletin board. I started this version when I turned my oldest son’s bedroom into my office, but in truth I’ve been doing these photo mash-ups for many years. When I was in college, I pinned up newspaper photos of Watch Hill and Misquamicut, to assuage my homesickness, and Bruce Springsteen, well, because he’s Bruce Springsteen. Even as a teenager I would cut out photos and paste them into my journal – paintings of flowers or brooding models or New England scenes.
As writers, we paint with words. But no one really thinks in words. We dream in images. Our memories are not verbal stories so much as collections of images in a certain order. We talk about our mind’s eye because the brain – which processes experience, forms memories, imagines the future – is a visual organ. If you are a memoirist, the stories you are telling started out as pictures of the world, before being cemented into visual memory. Even our fantasies are a kind of experience that gets firmed up into a memory that can be called up, again and again, like a re-run on television.
The creativity bulletin board may seem chaotic, but it holds as much logic as visual memory. Up on my board today is a mishmash of photographs, paintings, maps, postcards, and, yes, even text that is all connected somehow to various writing projects I’m working on. Some of it has to do with a novel I’m writing. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park map, a postcard from 1950s Florida, the painting of vintage gas pumps, a portrait of my Aunt Dot, the watercolor of columbine by the Canadian artist Barrie Rennie, and photos of my mother are tied to this story, as is the word conte: which, in French, means story, and is also the name of the mountain in the novel: Leconte.
Other images are tied to a memoir I’ve started – obviously, these include pictures of myself as a 17- and 19-year-old, but less obviously are models wearing clothes from the 1970s and text from an FBS catalog of that time.
The third set of artifacts is connected to my father: he’s here sawing lumber in the early 1980s, and at a lumberjack competition before I was born. The toolbelt painting, by the artist John Whalley, also evokes my father. I am not explicitly writing about him at the moment, but one function of the bulletin board is inspiration, for writing projects not yet imagined.
The black cat? I don’t know why she’s there, either, but I like the ambiguity of her white paws. The elegant woman, a portrait by the Italian American painter Luigi Lucioni (1900-1988), struck me similarly. You could say she has a Mona Lisa smile, but her gaze strikes me as not only mysterious but confident and self-possessed, even disdainful. Yet, as the Jackson Browne song goes, “there was just a trace of sorrow in your eyes”: this woman is beautiful, possibly wealthy, but she has been knocked around a bit by life, I imagine. The contradictions in her face are where character begins.
The wave painting by Connecticut artist Antonia Tyz Peeples is one of the few images I rarely take down. It’s hard not to get caught up in the spell of a wave, frozen in motion, every jump of spray captured as though by a camera lens. Life crashes over us, again and again, yet each arc of spray hits us differently.
There’s nothing difficult about this process. There are no rules. I collect images that I like: postcards, advertisements, snapshots, clippings from art magazines. I switch up the board’s contents every few weeks. At the very least, the board gives me something to look at it when I’m “lost in thought.” At the most, it gives me ideas, connections, a starting point.
A few weeks back I wrote about who we as writers surround ourselves with. Just as we should be spending time with people who are leading creative lives, so too we should surround our writing space with images that appeal to our visual selves. How can we expect readers to visualize our stories if they aren’t born of the visual?

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Revision, A Woman’s Wash Day

I’ve been doing a lot of cooking lately. Finding new recipes, buying the ingredients, then sifting, stirring, folding. Something about baking, especially, is compatible with writing. I work on a freelance story or the fledgling novel, then I go downstairs and stand in the kitchen, happily taking out the whole-wheat flour, salt, sugar and eggs.
The laundry, however, is a different matter. There’s nothing soothing about toting dirty clothes down to the cellar, emptying and filling the top loader, then leaning over the bed to square off T-shirts, crease pants and match socks. In fact it makes me downright grumpy.
Cooking, you see, is creation. It’s generation. Just as we writers enjoy that moment of seeing a story unfold from the pen or in computer typescript, so too do I like to watch the lemon pudding cake softly browning in the oven, or the muffins rising in their round little homes.
But laundry is revision. It’s trying to put order where there seemingly is none. There always seems to be a stray white athletic sock with no mate, a sleeveless undershirt that might be a daughter’s or a son’s, towels (upstairs) mixed up with dishtowels (downstairs). Laundry means sorting whites from darks, climbing up and down stairs, wrestling with static cling.
Just like the piles of laundry that seem to breed by themselves, my drafts build up, demanding attention. And fixing them is no easier than sorting, washing, drying and folding – in fact, it’s a chore, which is why I put it off, attending to the easier projects instead. The newspaper story I can dash off in an hour. The mood piece the magazine requested. The blog I’m writing right now.
With the short pieces, it’s like baking cookies: nearly instant gratification. Cookies don’t hang around for six months or a year, like some of my memoir pieces that refuse to be “done.” In the oven, out of the oven. Bam, as the chef says.
But the laundry piles up. It’s a series of mundane yet variegated tasks, and there’s never a sense that there – you’re done. No sooner is the linen closet restocked with towels, then you notice your son’s hamper is overflowing. As quick as you hang up your husband’s shirts, you begin running short on pajamas. It’s hard to get excited about laundry, or revision, when you never feel like you’ve accomplished anything.
But revision, like laundry, must be attended to. And like the mounds of married socks and fluffed towels, some good does come of all that effort. It’s just hard to see the final draft when your laundry baskets are full of stray commas, dead phrases, and limp endings. It seems like you should be done, after spending hours rewriting that beginning, over and over again, or taking out the small anecdote and then putting it back in, once, twice, three times. If you read that piece about your childhood one more time, you’ll rip it to shreds. It seems like you’ve made it worse than better. But how could that be, when it was so terrible to begin with?
Take heart. Just like housework, we must mix our chores to stay sane. So keep baking those cookies and shaping those meatloaves, as long as in between you dash down cellar to reload the washer. Keep checking that little basket of unmatched socks. Sooner or later, their mates will turn up – just as you will finish that story, eventually.

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