Posts Tagged Anne Tyler

What Makes You Read On? Does your book exemplify that?

IMG_1012 In September I was assigned three other members from the Women’s Fiction Writers Association to see if we would gel as an online critique group. We’ve had some bumps, and although all three of the other women are excellent critiquers, I’m not sure yet if I’ll continue, mostly due to the heavy reading load.

For our first go-round we tried ten pages a week. This went fast and was easily handled. We all have manuscripts that are in final draft stage, so we are understandably impatient at the snail’s pace of ten pages each a month. This month we’re doing 50 pages each for a total of 150 pages.

I also belong to a local critique group (WURDZ), which meets every other week. Last week I had between 40 and 50 pages to read for that. In the last ten days I read over 100critique pages. I also work part time and have other things to do, including my blog post. Needless to say, I did not get much new writing done. I am not sure I can keep up the pace of possibly 200-250 pages a month.

Both groups include writers of very different genres/styles. One of the women in WURDZ stated she wrote “commercial” fiction. Two others write fantasy/literary fantasy. The online group consists of a historical fiction writer, another more commercial writer of women’s/romance/mystery-thrillers, and the last writes women’s fiction which may be literary.

Today one of the online group members posted some openings to bestsellers, all but one of which were a decade or more old. I had read, or started to read, two of the aforementioned bestsellers, The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) and Good in Bed (Jennifer Weiner. Also included were Shutter Island (Dennis Lehane) and The Cold Dish (Craig Johnson). I found four books I really enjoyed, two of which were a few years older than the bestsellers. The other two were more current. My four books were A Patchwork Planet (Anne Tyler), Lambs of God (Marele Day), The Epicure’s Lament (Kate Christensen), and The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes). At least three of those authors are  major award winners.

The woman who posted analyzed why she felt each of the openings worked. Her question come down to “what is going on and why?” Those would appear to be good questions. All four of my openings raised the same questions, but more obliquely. Although of mild interest, the questions weren’t what primarily drove me to continue reading. I believe what all four of mine have in common is voice.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise to me since I’ve written other posts about voice and how it is of utmost importance, but I found it edifying. I’m often trying to write—especially beginnings—to satisfy the perceived demands of agents as expressed by my writing partners, writing conferences, and workshops. Maybe, as a writer and reader these aren’t qualities I enjoy and want to primarily foster. Possibly I’ve set myself an impossible task as it is hard to get an agent to buy on the strength of voice when all they have is my query letter. Possibly they would say voice doesn’t sell. They very well may be correct. It is also highly possible that my voice isn’t good enough to sell a story on that alone.

What, then, are my choices? I could stop writing altogether, but I’m not ready to do that. I could reframe each story to the demands of the market, whatever those shifting demands are. After talking with an editor this summer, I tried to reshape a manuscript to what she was looking for. I soon lost interest. My best option would be to find an agent who specializes in voice and happens to find mine to her liking. This is possible but not necessarily likely to happen.

The last option I see is to switch genre. The first story idea I had as an adult was in the realm of science fiction. I read science fiction as a teenager. I’ll continue to desultorily market some of my other finished manuscripts, but I think it is time to switch. The question is, do I continue with my current critique groups, especially in light of the time they are taking?

Can you identify what makes a book opening most intriguing to you? Does that have much to do with if you read on or not? Does your writing match the sort of opening you prefer?

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Is a Unique Setting Necessary to the Goodness of a Novel?

Maybe there are two kinds of posts, those that are opinion and those that require research. The second could also include opinion, of course. After reading a comment by Saytchyn (see comment to previous post) that didn’t actually make it into the comments section for some reason, I decided to write separately about my thoughts on the ten characteristics of a First Class Novel.

What she said was that what met the criteria was subjective, and of course it is, but it also seems as if at least a few of the categories might have more objective measures. For one, transporting us to “unlikely cultures or times” seems as it can be objectively determined, although I’m not clear on the qualifier, “unlikely.” The reader should know if a book is set in a culture, country, or time in which they have never participated. Yes, few of us alive have been to a time prior to 1914. Does that give all historical fiction a point in the 1st class category? The book that Saytchyn mentions, The Bone Key by Sarah Monette, is set in England. If the reader has never traveled to London, does this qualify it as an “unlikely culture”? What if you have visited? What about an English reader living in London? Are they likely to think less of the book if they are familiar with the setting?

Here is the list of the first ten adult fiction books I have listed on Goodreads. Not sure why they are in the particular order they are, maybe by date I rated them? I’ll give a quick assessment of whether or not they meet the culture/country/times criteria.

1. Dancer (Colum McCann)–set in Russia and the world of dance   YES

2. Confederacy of Dunces (John Kennedy Toole)–New Orleans of the 1960s. Setting marginally meets the criteria but possibly the characters make it an “unlikely” culture.   Yes

3. Let The Right One In (John Ajvide Lindqvist)–Sweden world of vampires. YES

4. Mother of Sorrows (Richard McCann)–suburban Eastern US, 1950s or 60s.This would seem like a no for anyone over 40.  No.

5. Chang and Eng (Darin Strauss)–mid-1800 world of Siamese Twins in the US. YES

6. Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes)–contemporary and mid-1900 England.  A very little bit, but how different in England from the US?  not really

7. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (Peter Hodges) mid 20th century mid-American small town.  No, at least if you’re over 25.

8. A Dangerous Woman Mary McGarry Morris –20th century small town.  No, again, if you are over 25.

9. Nobody’s Fool  and Straight Man Richard Russo–upstate New York, small town, 2oth century and college town in the Eastern Us.  No.

10. A Patchwork Planet (Anne Tyler)–20th century Baltimore. Again, not really.

What does this short analysis say? That I like books with a change in culture/time/country, but it isn’t  necessary for me to think a book first class. I know from that sampling that my love of Sense of an Ending was driven by the beautiful writing. The last five were related to the characters. Overall, for me, although a unique, interesting, or foreign setting adds to my assessment of a book, it’s not strictly necessary for me to call a book First Class.

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Anne Tyler, Emily Neville, and the Change in the Publishing World

For Christmas this year I asked to have hardback replacements for some of the paperback books I love. I thought this would be a good present since it was something I wanted and it would allow my husband to search ebay and other places online. I received copies of Morgan’s Passing (1980) by Anne Tyler

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and the 1964 Newberry Award winner, It’s Like This Cat by Emily Neville. Overall, I’m not a rereader, but with the passage of time and new copies in my hands, I decided to reread both.

I first read It’s Like This Cat in 5th or 6th grade. My recollection was that it was funny, touching, real, and I liked the love story. Rereading it fifty years after it was first published, I can see the points that I probably thought were humorous. The love story was very tame and hardly drove the story since it was mostly about a teenaged boy and his relationship to his father. He does change in the course of the book, but as literature for kids in past often did, it was more of a told than an shown change. Not exactly preachy, but probably not something that would be considered great literature these days. Since the language and situations are very sanitized, I’m wondering if kids in 2014 would enjoy this book? Although it is about a 14 or 15 year-old, it seems more like a story for a contemporary ten-year-old.

I must have read Morgan’s Passing sometime after it was first published as I discovered Anne Tyler while taking an Adolescent Literature class at Colorado State University. The main requirement of the class was to read so many pages of books for adolescents. I don’t remember what our page count was, but I know I read many books and someplace I have the index cards I made for the class with a summary of each book. This particular class helped me land a job working in the Children’s Department of our library, the place were the YA books were then shelved.

The book I read was A Slipping Down Life. Most of Anne Tyler’s books would not be classified as young adult, so the others I read were not for this class. I think I’ve read everything she’s written but one. The problem is, I don’t know for sure which one that is since a number of the earlier ones tend to blend together. My favorite of her oeuvre is A Patchwork Planet, one of her more recent. Reading Morgan’s Passing, a book I recalled as having a very quirky (even for Anne Tyler) character, I was struck by how much the world has changed. The character does things that I’m sure readers today think of as sexual assault and stalking, although most of Tyler’s writing is remarkably free of actual sex scenes.

The world of writing and publishing has changed as well. Anne Tyler had the privilege of being a writer who has done very little self-promotion. In this interview from April, 2012 in The Guardian, it states this is her first face-to-face interview in over 40 years! In doing some research on Emily Neville, it appears she did little self promotion, too, as she soon became a lawyer and died with little notice in 1997.

Although my writing has been likened to Anne Tyler’s—the characters, not the prose—I would wish my writing life could emulate hers as well. I’m sure I’m not the only writer who laments the need for self-promotion. A question might be, does this switch to the author having to self-promote change the face of “literature” as currently published? I’m sure many would respond that it is change in publishing world that is driving the necessity for writers to become promoters, but as agents look for a different type of writer to pitch to editors, does the style of book change? Or maybe the question is, who is driving the change to the more visible writer–someone tweeting away, blogging, doing interviews on the Today Show, online, at conferences, etc? Is it the reader or the industry? If the industry, does this do the reader a service, or are we now stuck with the equivalent of the movie industry with the constant blow them up special effects blockbuster?

To further color the analogy, are “mainstream”–as in non-strictly genre books, or those shelved in Fiction A–Z—the equivalent of independent movies with literary novels in the category of foreign films? And if so, do these have the attendant problems that are accompanying this burgeoning source of DVDs? (See “As Indies Explode, An Appeal for Sanity.”) Possibly the many DVDs are more akin to self-published books?

And writers, which type of author would you prefer to be?

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