trying my hand at a steampunk novel, here's what I have so far
Baron von Steamburg pumped up his revolver chamber and turned the corner. He flicked on his flashlight, causing a cone of luminescent steam to light up the dark corridor. “I have a bad steam-feeling about this,” he steamed.
“ A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are”
For most beginning fiction writers, the phrase Write What You Know sounds like advice to produce thinly veiled autobiography. That’s what I heard in those four words, and judging from what many of my MFA classmates churned out back in the day, it’s what they heard, too.
It makes perfect sense; what subject could you know better than yourself? The bitter realization that comes later—if you’re lucky—is that just because something happened in real life does not necessarily mean it will work in a story.
Let me repeat that. Something that happened in real life will not necessarily work in a story.
Kate Southwood, “Write What You Know Is Not Good Advice”
Happiness, as it exists in the wild—as opposed to those artificially constructed moments like weddings and birthday parties, where it’s gathered into careful piles—is not smooth. Happiness in the real world is mostly just resilience and a willingness to arch oneself toward optimism. To believe that people are more good than bad. To believe that the waves carrying you are neither friendly nor malicious, and to know that you’re less likely to drown if you stop struggling against them.
Enter the players. There were seven of us then, seven bright young things with wide precious futures ahead of us. Until that year, we saw no further than the books in front of our faces.
On the day Oliver Marks is released from jail, the man who put him there is waiting at the door. Detective Colborne wants to know the truth, and after ten years, Oliver is finally ready to tell it.
Ten years ago: Oliver is one of seven young Shakespearean actors at Dellecher Classical Conservatory, a place of keen ambition and fierce competition. In this secluded world of firelight and leather-bound books, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingénue, extra. But in their fourth and final year, the balance of power begins to shift, good-natured rivalries turn ugly, and on opening night real violence invades the students’ world of make believe. In the morning, the fourth-years find themselves facing their very own tragedy, and their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, each other, and themselves that they are innocent.
Part coming-of-age story, part confession, If We Were Villains explores the magical and dangerous boundary between art and life. In this tale of loyalty and betrayal, madness and ecstasy, the players must choose what roles to play before the curtain falls.
I’ve been following the publishing journey of @m-l-rio for a few years now and I am so excited to have a copy of her book in my hands. Her sharp wit, hilarious bookstore and theater stories, and unflinchingly honest nature is bound to translate into a highly engaging, intelligent debut.
If We Were Villains has been likened to The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and I’m dropping every other book I’ve planned to read so I can start it.
You can get your copy from your bookstore on April 11th, 2017, but for now, add it to goodreads.
To coincide with the paperback publication of God Help the Child in April, we have redesigned Nobel prize-winner Toni Morrison’s entire backlist. The covers were created in-house and aim to reflect the colour and energy of Morrison’s writing.
Beloved, The Bluest Eye and Sula are available now in Vintage paperback, with the rest of the series publishing over the next few months.
Every so often I have this conversation at a school visit.
THE CAST: STUDENT ENGLISH TEACHER ME THE SCENE: After my presentation, a student drags a beleaguered English teacher to my side.
THE CONVERSATION: STUDENT (always with a rather mocking tone): So, Maggie, when you put red curtains in a scene, does that mean that the characters are angry and stuff? ENGLISH TEACHER: That’s not quite— STUDENT: —Because we are supposed to analyze all of these books and I don’t think any of the writers actually put in an ocean in the scene just so that two hundred years later we could read it and think the ocean stands for longing. ENGLISH TEACHER: Sometimes a literary device— STUDENT: I think we’re just looking for stuff that isn’t there. The writer just put in an ocean because the book TAKES PLACE BY THE BEACH. And the rest was invented by evil English teachers. ENGLISH TEACHER: If I were evil, I'd— STUDENT: —So, you’re the writer: do red curtains mean anger? ME: Curtains do make me angry.
And then I was at LeakyCon, sitting in on a panel called “Is YA Literature?” to find out if I was writing literature, and this (summarized) conversation happened: THE CAST: A SMART YA WRITER A SMART ADULT WRITER ANOTHER SMART YA WRITER
THE SCENE: The panelists have just been asked to define what is meant by literary fiction.
THE CONVERSATION: SMART ADULT WRITER: All I know is, I know literary fiction when I see it. SMART YA WRITER: I got a look at the guidelines for assigned school reading and they suggested it be a book with enough content to be analyzed. Enough depth to support multiple interpretations. ANOTHER SMART YA WRITER: I think literary is a ridiculous term and value is assigned by our readers, right here, right now: do they like it or not? There’s no such thing as a good book or a bad book. There’s a book that matters to a reader.
I think you can talk in endless circles about what constitutes “literary” fiction and whether it’s good or bad or has no value or can be traded for a gallon of milk. And I also think you can talk in endless circles about whether or not there are “good” books and “bad” books and who gets to decide which is which. And if you do ever find an end to these circles, you can finish up with a indefatigable dessert course of the literary writing versus commercial writing debate.
So I’m instead going to talk about the one thing that interests me about fiction: getting into your head and moving stuff around. I am in the business of changing people’s moods and making them see scenes the way that I see them and feel things the way I want them to be felt. You may consider me Very Interested in learning everything I can about doing all that more effectively.
Sometimes, dear reader, this is going to mean making the curtains red.
Please know that I’m not much for literary writing for the sake of literary writing. I enjoy a nice turn of the phrase, sure. I do enjoy picking apart novels to see what makes them tick. But my academic pleasure runs out very quickly (now there is the least sexy sentence I’ve ever written). As a writer, I am delighted to be given literary prizes, but they aren’t on my list of goals. I’m chiefly interested literary devices insofar as they allow me to more effectively get inside your head and move around the furniture.
And they do. Allow me to demonstrate.
Here are two paragraphs from one of my favorite sequences from The Dream Thieves*:
*these are not spoilery, although they are from the middle of the book, so if you want to be totally uninformed on the action of Book 2, I suggest you wander to another corner of the Internet.
Oh, I had such
for this party scene. I wanted the reader to see it just like I did. The all-encompassing luxury, warm and old and unquestioned. The complexity of the political world, the beauty of wealth, and the stagnation and corruption of old, unchallenged value systems. Adam, as my point-of-view character, is feeling and thinking about all of these things, and I wanted the reader to experience it with him.
I could have told the reader all of those things. Point blank. I could have gone with a barebones description of the driveway:
The circular driveway was packed with so many elegant vehicles that the valets had to turn cars away.
And then just had Adam muse in italics about his feelings on being there. But then you would only
it. You wouldn’t have
it. I wouldn’t really be getting into your head and moving things around unannounced. I’d be walking in, hanging up a mirror, then pointing and saying “there’s a mirror. It’s yours now.”
Here’s another snippet from later:
Okay, the curtains aren’t red. But the runner is purple. How noble!
Man, I was working hard in this little section. In reality, the hallway of the house is lush and content and established. But inside our two protagonists, trouble brews — you can see it in the mirror. The side table, on the outside of the glass, is
But the mirror-image of the tidy hallway is
. Again, I could’ve just told you: on the outside, the boys look foxy and orderly in suits, but on the inside, they are hot messes. But I don’t want you to know. I want you to feel. And our old friends, those countless literary devices of simile, metaphor, allusion, figurative language … that’s the way in. It’s not about fancy literary prizes. It’s not about seeming impenetrable or smart or high fallutin. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I am trying to make you feel a story, that’s all. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t believe in the literary/ commercial divide. And I don’t believe that literary is good or bad. I believe that good novel makes readers feel, and the more readers I can make feel, the more successful I will consider that book. I also believe that sometimes that means making the curtains red.
I'm excited to read your review of Marlena! I'm about halfway through it and I think I like it. I say "I think" because it's using a lot of (for me) pretty tired MPDG tropes and Midwest Gothic and Drug Addled Past Now Affecting A Generic White Lady tropes, but it's getting better and I am rethinking my initial impressions. Suffice it to say I think I will ultimately have enjoyed it. It's an interesting read for sure.
I had similar feelings! I think Buntin undoubtedly has a remarkable way with prose, and remarkable insight about how insanely fucking hard it is just to be a teenage girl (much like Emma Cline and The Girls). However, I do think it’s the kind of book you have to be in the right mood for, because it’s so heavily literary and introspective that sometimes it feels more like a 200-page monologue than a story. If it were longer I think I really would have struggled to finish, but the prose and the characterization was enough to keep me going through the end. My biggest complaint was that she kind of gave the whole story away from the beginning? I mean, it’s not exactly a difficult conclusion to jump to but by telling the reader exactly what happens right from the start kind of start she kind of eradicates any sense of urgency and drive to find out what goes down. At least, that was my experience. I would have enjoyed it more without having the ending handed to me on page one.
Artist: Norman Guy
Octavia Butler was the first African American woman to professionally publish literary science fiction. She used the genre’s unlimited vistas as a vehicle to explore the complexities of the human experience. With her exceptional imagination and unique perspective, she explored “race,” gender, otherness, religion, relationships, hierarchical behavior, slavery, hybrid beings, extrasolar aliens, vampires, what it means to be human, and whether we can even survive as a species.
you said you were working on reading 10 trans and wlw books this year but you didn't mention what they were!
THAT WAS REMISS OF ME, because so far they’ve been mostly friggin’ awesome:
The Abyss Surrounds Us by Emily Skrutskie ♥ (wlw 1/10) – light sci-fi, light dystopian, LESBIAN MOTHERFUCKING PIRATES!!!!!!!!
This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel ♥ (trans 1/10) – this is what I was reading when I made that post, and it ended up being the borderline-literary, adult fiction, family + trans kid saga of my dreams
Luna by Julie Anne Peters (trans 2/10) – old enough to be considered a Classic of the very small, very niche genre, but is now suuuuper dated compared to everything else on this list (that possibly makes it required reading, tbh)
Beast by Brie Spangler ♥ (trans 3/10) – I absolutely loved this book! it’s ANOTHER boy meets girl ~*~with a secret~*~ (i.e. she’s trans) book but actually really refreshing and lovely
Coffee Boy by Austin Chant (trans 4/10) – this is more of a novella than a novel and also NOTHING HAPPENS but it was still cute
Peter Darling by Austin Chant ♥ (trans 5/10) – PETER PAN SEQUEL IN WHICH PETER IS TRANS AND COMES BACK TO NEVERLAND AS A GROWN UP AND FALLS IN LOVE WITH HOOK, A.K.A. MY DREAM BOOK
We Are Okay by Nina LaCour (wlw 2/10) – a lovely, quiet, sad-but-hopeful book (in which the protagonist just happens to be gay)
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (trans) – I’m not counting this towards my goal of 10 because it’s a memoir by someone who’s married to a trans man rather than A Novel About A Trans Person, but it was a really great read!
Days Without End by Sebastian Barry ♥ (trans 6/10) – one of the most fulfilling Book Surprises of my life was realising that Thomas is trans!!! the cherry on top of an already stunningly beautiful and moving novel
This Is Where It Ends by Marieke Nijkamp (wlw 3/10) – I wasn’t mad about this book, but two of the POV characters are lesbians who’re in a relationship with each other (and iirc they’re the only relationship in the book) so it counts I guess
Hold Your Own by Kate Tempest (trans) – this poem is trans in a THE GODS HATH TVRNED ME INTO A WOMAN way rather than a regular trans way, so I’m not counting it, but it was ELECTRIFYING and I loved it