Good Night, Irene

Hope everybody who’s in Irene’s path is staying safe. It’s rare for a hurricane to smack New England around, though it does happen. I remember Gloria in 1985, which took out a huge weeping willow next door. Fortunately it fell away from their house and into a section of our yard that was open. And I’ve seen pictures of the 1938 hurricane that damaged several buildings in my hometown.

Down here, Camille is the one people talk about when they think of bad hurricanes. Some of the Nelson County residents who died in Camille just disappeared — their bodies never were found. More recently, Isabel got hung up crossing the Blue Ridge in 2003 and dumped 20.5 inches of water on one section of our county, flooding many places in the eastern portion of the county as the water flowed down to the Chesapeake Bay. That was a long night.

We’re just too far west of Irene to get much more than rain and some wind, but most of my family is on the South Shore and Cape Cod in Massachusetts, so I’m hoping they ride out the storm in one piece. If they’re keeping with tradition, my parents will have a Monopoly game going. All three of us learned how to play during a hurricane. (Gloria for my sister and me, Bob for my brother.)

Reality drives my storytelling deeper

Back after Rep. Giffords was shot in January, I did some blogging about storytelling from that, riffing off some Twitter discussion among Jesse Stern and NCIS fans. In short, there’s the possibility of preaching when writing about big issues, but there also are ways to tell stories that let those issues drive authentic storytelling. “To Kill A Mockingbird,” probably my favorite book ever, is one of the latter. Most of the former turn me off before I get far enough in to even tell you what it’s about.

The discussion with Jesse was the third in a series of posts I nicknamed Storytelling with Big Issues, which had started after the DADT repeal vote in December. In the process of writing those, I found an article by a professor I had in college looking at how Mark Twain started to shift too much toward the big-picture look, at the expense of the storytelling that marked “Huck Finn” and other novels. “Huck Finn,” of course, tackles some issues so big that even today it is one of the most-commonly banned books in the U.S. But Twain did it the right way, by putting specific characters in a situation in a particular context dictated by history and then let them act.

To steal from the Giffords blog post:

“And Jesse came back with a similar response: “While I’m all for smuggling meaning, depth of character and complex ideas into entertainment programs, it’s the wrong platform for preaching.” He’s right.

But saying that then gets back to my original post debating where the line is between preaching and storytelling, and how you stay on the right side of that. Because the minute you waver across the line, it destroys the impact of your story because everybody’s focused on the message. Using Faith as the example again, many of the complaints were about the choice to tell that story in the Christmas episode. So, let’s look at that. 

Did the plot require it to be Christmastime? Not the case piece of it, which was the controversial part. And the case wasn’t hugely connected to the Gibbs-Jackson subplot, which was the piece that really was both big and Christmassy. Did it echo the father-son bits? Yes, it did. But there have been many other father-son or father-daughter episodes in the series that didn’t require this type of controversial case. And the bigger question: Would the case have been less controversial if it had been in a regular episode, not the Christmas one?

Heck if I know. I’m sure there are a portion of the people who were upset who would have been OK with it in a non-holiday episode. I’m equally sure, after years of reading comments on our newspaper forums, that if the holiday piece wasn’t there, some would have found another aspect to take issue with to hide their disagreement with the general idea in the story. The impression I get from the commentary was that writer Gary Glasberg intended to tackle that topic. And, again returning to the two earlier posts discussing this, I think that’s generally where trouble starts. 

Jesse’s got a good dichotomy here: Meaning, depth of character and complex ideas are good things. They help us tell better stories. When we resist the easy way out, when we tackle the things that don’t have easy answers and let the difficulty in wrestling with the ideas drive the story, we can get good storytelling. When we go in planning to use the story to make a point, I think that’s when we’re preaching. When we have the end in mind, it can be difficult to avoid tinkering with the means to get there to make our point stronger. And every time we do, we weaken the case for it.”

My journalism background makes accuracy important for me as a writer, even in fiction. The Thrown Out stories are all set in different time periods, mostly because I was looking at these characters at specific points in time before the present-day events that will unfold in Fate’s Arrow and Better the Devil. In all cases, the setting was determined by the age of a specific character relative to the present — Ellie, Chris, Becca and Tim, respectively. From there, reality (to steal an Andrew Greeley phrase, in God’s world, not mine) dictated some of the context and events.

To tell these stories, to be true to the characters, means dealing with some of these issues. As a writer, they just naturally flow into the telling of the tale. This is reality, these are the characters; the combination will drive the story as events unfold. As I get down to the final crunch on Thrown Out, one element that still needed drafting was short pieces Kyrie had wanted between each story, author’s notes of a sort. Yesterday morning, I sat down to draft and realized that each story, behind the storytelling, has a theme. Each story is different; each theme is different. It’s weird to me to step back and see what I wrote into the stories without meaning to. I’ll be eager to see in two weeks what readers think about the stories — and if they agree that this was a case of storytelling rather than preaching.

My favorite books that tackle big issues well are Mockingbird and Huck Finn. And the best example I can name of a book that sets out to tackle a big issue and succeeds with good storytelling is Nat Hentoff’s “The Day They Came to Arrest the Book.” What’s your favorite big-issue book?

E-books vs. print books: Paper lasts longer

Amid all the discussion about the future of publishing, there’s the perennial debate about if print books will ever disappear. I don’t think they will — TV didn’t eliminate radio, and neither one has eliminated newspapers. Online hasn’t done away with print editions of the paper either. In all cases, the new medium reduced the availability of the old one, but didn’t remove it. This was driven home to me last week when I was at my favorite used bookstore in my hometown.

Back in the winter, I bought my first e-book because I didn’t want to wait to read “The Buffalo Creek Disaster” by Gerald M. Stern. His son had mentioned it on Twitter, so I looked it up and realized it was the type of nonfiction book I love. But it wasn’t going to be readily available at the local bookstores, so I decided to try the e-book. I devoured it in an hour and it’s become one of my favorites. The e-book version means I have it anytime I want.

Fast-forward to last week — I was browsing the Shire and found a hardcover first edition of the book with the dust jacket. It made my day! For all I love the immediacy and portability of e-books, having the print version was still important because it’s a book I really care about. Just as the day after a big news event, people run out to get the paper to save the front page and its headline, books we really care about will continue to have a life in print. There’s something more permanent about the paper copy.

Do you think you’ll ever give up print books completely? If not, which ones will you always keep in hard copy?

Indie publishing in every corner

I’ve been quiet lately, mostly because I’ve been traveling the past 10 days. But I wanted to take a minute and thank everybody who downloaded the Thrown Out excerpt and took the time to leave comments. I really appreciate the feedback on the story and the characters!

Spent lots of time this weekend talking about indie publishing with people at my hometown Italian festival, and I’ll have some thoughts related to that once things settle down a bit. I’m surprised at how far the concept seems to have spread, and how many people are now reading e-books who I never would have expected to be comfortable with the technology.

For now, head over to Anne R. Allen’s latest blog post — she does a wonderful job summarizing the state of the publishing industry and analyzing where we go from here as authors. It’s essential reading for anybody who’s writing with the intent to publish, no matter what your preferred path to publication.

Sneak peek: Thrown Out: Stories From Exeter

It’s official: Thrown Out: Stories from Exeter will be released Sept. 6! Until then, I’ve got a free PDF excerpt of the first (and by far the shortest) story in the collection, Bones of the Past, available for download. Please feel free to download and share. If you like what you read and want to be notified when the full collection is available – and get a coupon code for a discount – please e-mail me to get on the mailing list.

ETA: Thrown Out is now available!
Amazon – Kindle
Smashwords – all ebook formats
Amazon – print (coming this week!)

Book update: Release set for later this month

The past couple weeks have been an insanity of rewriting as Kyrie and I shepherd the stories that make up Thrown Out through revisions before publication. The biggest story of the collection, Thrown Out, has more than doubled in size. Another story was removed, replaced by a different Story Cubes Challenge-inspired entry. And to round out the package, I’m adding a fourth story. The new fourth story has pushed the release date back from this Friday to what will likely be Aug. 19. There’s a slight chance, thanks to my vacation from both the paper and the gym that starts Friday, that it will be out before then. If you want to be notified when the release date is officials, e-mail me and I’ll send out the details once they’re confirmed.