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A while back, I mentioned that I would start keeping a few Thursdays open for my posts and a few book reviews. Well, today, I’m starting with Wallace Stegner.
Stegner’s Angle of Repose is a 1972 Pulitzer Prize winner and a fine example of many facets of excellent writing craft. However, I found a “sameness” that permeated the work. Throughout, Oliver Ward struggles to satisfy his wife, Susan Burling Ward. He never quite convinces himself that he is worthy enough for her. His melancholy haunts the reader at every turn. Susan’s feeling of desolation and desire for a more genteel and literary life, expressed in her thoughts and letters, adds to the deep sense of sorrow. This sameness made it challenging for me to read more than one chapter at a time. That said, Stegner’s expert artisanship is evident throughout the novel. His craft is so powerful, so apparent that he can break “the rules” of writing at will with no harm to the story.
Stegner develops his characters so artfully that they become living, breathing people whose attributes and flaws make them into human beings we know and understand. He does not overload the reader with long and exhaustive descriptions. Instead, over many chapters, he reveals small details so that our view of the characters develops as the story unfolds. He gives the reader no more than what is essential.
When the Ward family is separated at the Cheyenne train station, the reader sees and feels hopelessness as a young man runs along the train. The emotion is palpable; one can feel the sorrow. The behavior of another is so vivid one can almost feel the glass he leans against. The family’s estrangement never ends.
Exposition is another tool used well by Stegner. Often writers use exposition to give the reader large doses of information that slows the pacing and can be a distraction. Stegner overcomes that with his exposition in the correspondence between Susan and a lifelong friend. Early on, he uses it to raise the possibility of a lesbian relationship between the two women.
In one of her longer letters, Susan speaks of a trip to San Francisco where she visits several other women from the East who have followed their husbands west. She and the women are alike in their shared feelings of loss.
Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose gives the reader many fine examples of his craft. It is not a novel that I enjoyed, nor is it something I would recommend as light reading. However, this is a must-read for writers, students of the craft, and history buffs.
Stegner, Wallace. Angle of Repose. New York: Vintage Books, 2014. Print
Vicki Weisfeld’s short stories have appeared in leading mystery magazines and various anthologies, winning awards from the Short Mystery Fiction Society and the Public Safety Writers Association. She’s a book reviewer for the UK website, crimefictionlover.com.
The crime/mystery/thriller genre is what I like to read, so that’s what I write. Puzzles, seeing justice meted out, preventing catastrophes. Some thirty of my short stories have been published, and this summer, my first novel, the murder mystery Architect of Courage, comes from Black Opal Books. I especially enjoy stories about ordinary people in difficult situations where they must use their wits and skills in new and unexpected ways. And I like a story with a bit of a lift at the end. Not necessarily a happy ending, but one trending toward better days.
My novel’s protagonist, successful Manhattan architect Archer Landis, is one of those ordinary people. Ordinary, that is because he doesn’t have any martial arts training or obscure weapons expertise. No experience tracking ne’er-do-wells. He is a Vietnam veteran, but his service was decades before this story takes place in the summer of 2011.
People often ask where I get my ideas. The short answer is: everywhere. Real-life events, interesting people, or amalgams of several of them, tricky situations born in my imagination can be an initial spark. Architect of Courage is a 350-page novel that started with a specific imagined situation. I envisioned a married man (Landis) entering his girlfriend’s apartment and finding her murdered. It’s all I had, and I covered it in the first two pages. 348 to go!
The threads that eventually worked their way into the story—his marriage, his troubled relationship with his son, how the police treat him, their suspicions about the dead woman, her faked identity, whom he relies on among his friends and colleagues, the succession of mysterious attacks—all that developed later.
If you know the terms “plotter” and “pantser,” you’ve probably already pegged me as a “pantser.” I could no more plot out all my scenes before I begin, as some excellent writers do than I could fly to the moon. I write by the seat of my pants, letting the story grow organically, and the relationships deepen as it moves forward. I throw in bits of information (potential clues) as they occur to me and keep those that ultimately fit. Yes, it’s a little messy at times, but I enjoy that thrill of discovery.
For example, early in the story, the police show Landis shocking photos of scars on his girlfriend’s wrists, evidence of a serious suicide attempt. He hadn’t known about that. The explanation of the scars isn’t revealed for 258 pages, when it emerges as a significant piece of evidence, totally unanticipated those many pages earlier. I credit my subconscious mind with figuring out that problem and giving me the answer when I could use it!
Truthfully, I do make some efforts to organize the chaos. When I get to a place where I can’t easily answer the question, “now what?” I take a big sheet of paper, write the main character’s name in the center, and array all the other characters around, maybe with a few notes about their conflicts or characteristics. Then I draw lines to show how they intersect. Opportunities for new and unexpected connections emerge and points of possible conflict. Perhaps a superfluous character is revealed—someone with few connections to anyone else. That person may best be edited out!
One strategy I’ve found helpful in moving from short story to novel is to keep a list of “story questions.” I can’t reveal everything upfront; it is a mystery! Unresolved issues may be, “Where did the gun come from?” or “How did he know she’s allergic to shellfish?” Making sure all those questions or clues have answers—artfully buried, I hope—means that when readers reach the end, they feel satisfied. Television programs too often do not do this. The credits roll, and it’s “What just happened?”
Nor can I withhold some key piece of information and plop it on the last page. Readers have to have reasons to at least suspect that two characters are brother and sister, for example. They need “Aha!” moments. As Aristotle pronounced a long time ago, the best endings are both surprising and inevitable.
I’m also asked what it was like to write a male protagonist. I’ve spent a lot of time around confident, assertive men. I know how they act. Landis is a busy, successful professional. He’s not rude, but he’s direct. It saves time. He’s also a mentor to the people working for him in a profession that requires creativity. He can’t squash their inventiveness, and he’s full of praise when it’s merited. Typically, he makes clear his expectations about end results and lets them figure out how to get there.
I did pick over his dialog to make sure it wasn’t laden with weak phrases like “I just want,” “If you don’t mind,” “May I suggest,” and qualifiers like “somewhat” or “kind of,” which I consider waffle-words. If Landis wants something, he says so. And I usually substitute “need” for “want.” There’s a website where you can paste in your manuscript—any length—and run it through an analyzer to find out whether it reads “masculine” or “feminine.” Architect of Courage is “weakly male,” but at least it’s male! I found that aspect of writing this book interesting. Fun, too.
A few words about the publishing journey. Long. Hard. Exhausting. Though I’ve internalized all the advice about crafting pitch letters, synopses, etc., my queries to agents rarely received a response. I gave up on that and turned to smaller publishers who take unagented queries and are open to genre literature, especially crime. Architect of Courage was professionally edited twice. While, on the one hand, I hoped this would suggest to prospective publishers they wouldn’t have to invest a lot of editorial time, on the other, I didn’t want to give the impression I considered the book perfect and would resist their ideas and suggestions.
The best advice I have for wading into the publishing waters is to develop a long—and growing—list of prospects and send queries (strictly adhering to their wildly varying requirements, of course) in batches of three to five. Two weeks later, send another batch. An Excel spreadsheet helps, and save a copy of each cover letter to be sure of what you sent. Having additional prospects in the wings keeps the job from being too disheartening. I handle my short stories the same way. Rejection? Fine. Next! At least it has worked for me thirty times!
Vicki blogs at www.vweisfeld.com.
Nick Chiarkas grew up in the Al Smith housing projects in the Two Bridges neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. When he was in the fourth grade, his mother was told by the principal of PS-1 that “Nick was unlikely to ever complete high school, so you must steer him toward a simple and secure vocation.” Instead, Nick became a writer, with a few stops along the way: a U.S. Army Paratrooper; a New York City Police Officer; the Deputy Chief Counsel for the President’s Commission on Organized Crime; and the Director of the Wisconsin State Public Defender Agency. On the way, he picked up a Doctorate from Columbia University, a Law Degree from Temple University; and was a Pickett Fellow at Harvard. How many mothers are told their child is hopeless? How many kids with potential simply surrender to desperation? That’s why Nick wrote “Weepers”—for them.
Weepers: The murder of an undercover cop in a New York City Housing Project in 1957 has unexpected ties to the unsolved disappearance of a young father walking home in those same Projects with his son, Angelo, on Christmas Eve 1951. The only witness to the cop killing is Angelo, now 13, as he was on his way to set fire to a grocery store at 2:00 am. The killers saw him. These events forge a union between a priest, a Mafia boss, a police detective, and Angelo, a gang member. In Weepers, we see that if you drop a rock into the East River, the ripples will go all the way to Italy. In the end, Weepers shows us that the courage of the underdog—despite fear and moral ambiguity—will conquer intimidation.
Awards for Weepers:
• Firebird Grand Prize Best Book Award (2022)
• Best Mystery Novel for 2017 the John E Weaver Excellent Reads Award by Earthshine. https://www.speakuptalkradio.com/nick-chiarkas-firebird-book-award-winner/
• Award Winner – Best Novel of 2016 by the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA)
• Award for Best Book Award by Midwest Independent Publishers Association (MIPA)
• Award for Best Young Adult Novel for 2016 by Bookvana
• Award for Best Crossover (Mystery & Young Adult) Best Books Award for 2017
• Award for Best Young Adult Coming-of-Age by Readers’ Favorite for 2018
Nunzio‘s Way: Nunzio drifted back to his childhood there on the Lower East Side. The narrow, trash-lined streets and alleys weaved together decaying brownstone tenements with common toilets—one per floor. Alone at ten years old, after his mother died, he learned to survive in one of the most notorious neighborhoods in the city. He shoveled coal and guarded the produce stored there by the ships docked off South Street to pay for living in the cellar at 57 Canon Street. After school, Nunzio mostly walked the streets. He recalled the putrid smell of decomposing cats and dogs covered with a trembling blanket of insects, rats, and things he didn’t recognize. And lying in the gutter against the sidewalk on Pike Street was a horse, with old and fresh whip wounds, shrouded in a cloak of flying and crawling insects. Only three years later, at the ripe age of thirteen, Nunzio killed his first man, a hulking longshoreman people called “the bear.” His life and the lives of four of his friends changed forever. Plenty of other horrors and hardships confronted him throughout his life, but when he closed his eyes, Nunzio saw the horse.
“Nunzio’s Way” In 1960, Declan Arden, an ambitious New York City lawyer, asked his boyhood friend and client, Nunzio Sabino, the most powerful organized crime boss of his time, to help him win the election for mayor. Nunzio agrees to help Declan, telling him, “In this city, you can have anything you want if you kill the right four people.” In Italy, after killing a top member of the Gomorra, Heather Potter, arrives in New York City seeking vengeance on the people who murdered her family. Those people include Nunzio Sabino and Mac Pastamadeo. Mac is the father of Angelo, the leader of the Weepers gang.
NICK’S FAVORITE WORKSPACE
Five fun facts most people don’t know about me (Nick Chiarkas)
- I received the Law Enforcement Commendation Medal from the Sons of the American Revolution, and I received the Equal Justice Medal from the Legal Aid Society – These two awards are not in conflict but in harmony. I believe that no one is above the law’s enforcement nor below its protection.
- I raised my two oldest children mostly as a single dad – just the three of us. They taught me a lot.
- I was one of a handful of NYPD cops sent to Woodstock in 1969 to provide security – it was incredible.
- While in an Army hospital, I received a very kind letter from J.D. Salinger.
- I was in the movie The Anderson Tapes (Starring: Sean Connery, Dyan Cannon, and Christopher Walken).
Available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, University of Wisconsin Bookstore, Mystery to Me, other local independent bookstores, and from the publisher.