Wednesday, December 30, 2009

To Kindle or Not to Kindle: A Holiday Mix

The editor of a literary journal recently asked me about my thoughts on emerging technologies such as the Kindle reader (the Kindle reader? Is that like saying CD-ROM instead of CD? High definition instead of Hi-Def? Home Box Office instead of HBO?). In response, I said I feel like an old man wrapped in a twenty-seven-year-old body, meaning I prefer the good old fashioned door-stop of a novel, want nothing to do with the Kindle, and if you put one in my hands I’m going to search it for the mark of the beast. Why do I fear the Kindle? I can’t say. Really. I’ll admit, my feelings are about as founded as those of a neighbor I once had—a real purist—who insisted on keeping his VCR around because, as he said, “he just wants the movie. None of that fancy fluff.”

Is that it? Am I afraid of the fancy fluff?

It’s not that I’m not technologically savvy. I mean, I can work a computer, can Google just about anything, do most of my research on Wikipedia, use YouTube as both a noun and a verb, and the moment I step out the door, you better believe I’m walking the streets in my own little iPod music video. So maybe it’s time I quit whining and get with the program. After all, authors are beginning to write exclusively for Kindle (Stephen King just wrote a novella about a pink Kindle that picks up signals from alternate universes, which will only be available for, you guessed it…Kindle).

And if I’m willing to, for example, give out an iPod as a gift (complete with my own special mix of songs, which, yes, I agree is a bit presumptuous), then why stop there? Why not pass out Kindles, pre-uploaded, of course, with “books” from my favorite authors, for everyone’s reading/viewing pleasure. To further this hypothetical—and to prove to myself that I am not an old man but a young buck who can text eighty-six words per minute—here it is: my gift of the Kindle (the Kindle? Or just Kindle?) to each and everyone, complete with a “mix” of books I found especially powerful this year:

1.) War Dances, by Sherman Alexie
This collection of short stories and poems is equivalent to that one song that makes you feel real tough and sensitive at the same time. Blast this from your Kindle and the (graduate school) girls will go wild.

2.) The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, by Breece D’J Pancake
Only hardcore short story readers will know who this incredible writer is, and what his first, and only, collection (published post-mortem) is all about. This collection will gain you instant street cred. And like a Raymond Carver story, these stories are usually about nothing, until they are.

3.) A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore
This beautifully-written novel takes place in a post-9/11 world in which the academic bubble has been popped, thus exposing all of its once safe, oblivious, and self-satisfied occupants to an ugly, indefinable world. It’s that one beautifully constructed song where you’ll hear something different upon each listen.

4.) The Space Odyssey Series, by Arthur C. Clarke
This cosmic magnum opus—though you could really read the first novel, 2001, and then skip right to the final installment, 3001—will either inspire night-long discussions on humanity’s role in the greater history of the universe, or weird looks and wedgies. But with the weight of the very final line of the first novel—a line even more memorable and devastating than, “My God, it’s full of stars!”—it should inspire the former, especially in these times.

5.) As She Crawled Across the Table, Jonathan Lethem
This quirky little novel creates a love triangle between man, woman, and black hole, to the point where—metaphor or not—it doesn’t matter. It’s just too much fun. It’s that song that will make you feel light as air, young, hip, and oddly affectionate toward your high school physics textbook.

6.) The Women, by T.C. Boyle
This novel, penned by a man who writes in a hybrid style of Charles Dickens and Johnny Rotten, tells the story of Frank Lloyd Wright through the eyes of his many women, which, to make things even more complex, is a narrative re-created second-hand by a Japanese immigrant who worked for FLW. Boyle’s prose is flawless from a technical point of view—though his wordy, fast-paced, and often overwhelming style is better suited, perhaps, for short stories—and the novel itself is, like, multi-layered, man.

7.) Truth and Beauty, by Ann Patchett
This is the devastating memoir Oprah should have chosen way-back-when. It's about an extremely destructive friendship between two women and it likens to that one love song that sometimes isn’t a love song at all, depending on your mood, but a hopeless tragedy instead where you find yourself screaming at the characters to stop already--enough!--but then, somehow, it’s a love song again.

8.) All That Work and Still No Boys, by Kathryn Ma
This collection of short stories received the Iowa Award for Short Fiction. While at the Workshop, I remember reading this manuscript among a slush pile of over four-hundred and knowing instantly it was going to the winners circle. Buy it now. The title is only the beginning of all the funny, don’t-look-now-but-your-heart-is-broken family crisis content inside. Perfect holiday fare.

9.) Brownsville, by Oscar Casares
A monkey head! A fireworks stand! A boy’s pre-pubescent affair with an older next-door neighbor! The miracle tree! This first time collection of short stories by this Texas man will read like a macho manifesto, until you realize that it is this very machisimo that is the hairy antagonist throughout.

10.) Faithless: Tales of Transgression, by Joyce Carol Oates
What more is there to say about the Queen of Letters? This often over-looked collection of stories about, well, transgressions, is juicy, dark, sexy, weird, gross, beautiful, ugly, terrifying, and, like all of Oates’ work, plain old fascinating. It’s like that album you used to have to hide from your parents because, judging by the surface alone, they’d think you a pervert. Which you are.

There it is. And of course, just like a mix of music, someone can perhaps look at this compilation and come up with a general conclusion about my tastes (and what would I call this mix? What would they call this mix?). That’s fine. Maybe that’s what the Kindle can offer us that books cannot: a quick, scrollable glance of all that makes us, us. Without all that fancy fluff.

Monday, December 7, 2009

When in Doubt, Time Travel

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about endings. No, not of the Roland Emmerich “Oh my God, the Mayans were right, save us, John Cusack, save us!” variety, but more in terms of our craft as writers. What can I say? Endings are tough. Especially when it comes to short fiction, a form that should, as Kurt Vonnegut once noted, start as close to the end as possible. And since simply inserting the phrase “The End” no longer provides the same amount of closure it once did in the second grade, I find myself—as a writer—all-too-often fearing, well, the end.

Of course, everyone has their theory on how to successfully construct an ending. And while I’ve been in enough fiction workshops to realize that everyone’s an expert, I recall one in particular in which our instructor—a brilliant writer herself known for her ability to slap the norms of short fiction in the face with a leather glove—informed us, on the first day of class, of the four short story endings that were hereby forbidden from use, not only for that semester, but the rest of our humble writing lives, Amen.

So. While I won’t attempt to formulate the perfect ending to that story you’ve been working on about the time you spent an entire summer carving babies out of blocks of cheese while the rest of the kids at camp actually got to second and third base, I can provide, in no particular order, four endings you can sure as hell rule out:

Forbidden Ending #4: And They Were All Cows

Fooling us readers into believing we’ve been following a group of lost souls as they wander the lonely country side in search of love, hope, hatred, pain—some form of human connection—only to reveal on the very last page that they were all, in fact, cows looking for nothing more than some grass to chew is just not cool. Unless your Donald Barthelme—then you get a pass.

Forbidden Ending #3: The Big Explosion

There’s a pretty phrase in Latin that alludes to the moment that the writer has clearly hit a wall in plot, and so he must bring in an all-too-convenient—not to mention often loud, messy, and completely random—occurrence to go BOOM!, shake things up a bit, and provide his protagonists (not to mention readers) with some kind of consolation . And while the phrase eludes me each time, there is an unofficial American translation for this phenomenon: The Stephen King. (Don’t get me wrong—I’m a fan of Mr. King, but c’mon, he says it himself when providing background to one of his earliest novels.) So unless you’re sitting on The Return of Cujo--or better yet, It 2: That--just don’t do it.

Forbidden Ending #2: Hospital Bed Death Scene

Or any variation thereof. It’s weepy, melodramatic and, well, easy. But let me clarify: some brilliant stories have been—and will continue to be—written about death (read Sherman Alexie’s short story, War Dances, now). The difference, however, between the good and the bad, is that the good will never use death as a way to neatly wrap up any and all prevalent themes; but instead, as a way to crack open the much more complex behavior of the still-living. In other words, if you must kill off grandma, do it with that big explosion. We’ll forgive you this one time.

Forbidden Ending #1: And it Was All a Dream

Maybe we’ve all used the dream sequence before in our writing—that one colorful scene where we get to throw from the window all that pesky logic that’s been holding back our story from the beginning. And while dream sequences are fun in that anything goes (not to mention it’s a sure-fire way to bring any lurking psychosis to the surface) the problem is, when the story itself can be dismissed as a mere night of tossing and turning, well, then us readers are going to want to throw something else out the window as well. And that’s completely logical.

So there you have it. But it doesn't all have to be bad. There are, of course, those techniques that certain writers have been bold enough to actually encourage. I’m thinking of another instructor—this one at Iowa—who was very clear about what to do should you find yourself at that moment when the story is calling for an ending, but you have no idea where to, uh, begin. His advice? Flashback. Go back in time. Return your character to a moment in childhood, a simpler time, a first date, a first fall, a first kiss, a first heartbreak, a first anything—just return, I say, return!

Since hearing this, I’ve actually come to notice the countless number of famous stories that utilize this method, which makes me wonder: will the flashback ever grace a forbidden endings list in a creative writing workshop far, far away? Maybe. But until then, I have yet to spot a chink in the armor (I blame Tobias Wolff for making it look so easy) and so in honor of the literary time travelers before me—and because I now sit at the very moment in question—I offer you this:

When I was five or six years old, my dad read me a bed time story and I remember complaining about the ending, to which he said it wasn’t the ending—not really—but merely the moment the writer got tired of telling the story. So if I didn’t like it, he said, I should feel free to find a better one. He turned off the light and I lay there, imagining the Berenstain Bears sitting around a table, not doing much of anything, not even talking, just staring at one another—Mama, Papa, Brother, and Sister—waiting I guess, waiting for me, and I realized then that endings were easier said than done. But if I closed my eyes, maybe I’d dream up a real good one.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Best of Our Stories in Print!

Dear all,

I'm proud to announce that we are now in print at long last.

The Best of Our Stories combines all the stories and interviews and essays from each volume bound in a classy looking paperback.

Find more information here at

Thank you all for your support and help!

Friday, December 4, 2009

another workshop success story

Our Stories workshop student Townsend Walker writes that a story which we worked on this past Spring will be published by Pine Tree Mysteries in February. Keep your eyes open for this twisty little tale of double murder. Any other former students out there holding out on us? Do let us know when you publish the stories we workshopped--I, for one, get a huge rush knowing that all your hard work paid off.