The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili

Are all epic novels worth their weight? Not always, but this novel is worth every page. When I came to The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili, it was clear that it was long, but it didn’t feel like traditional historical fiction. It was something else. This book has been reviewed as a new lens to see the turbid relationship with Russia and Georgia. Some have discussed the brilliant weaving of time and space over generations, where favorite characters move from power to poverty, innocence to experience, and navigate the twentieth century in stunning twists of fate that not only break the human spirit, but also touch something personal. The “Red Century” as the books refers to the time frame has become concepts and vision that we only understand in terms of socialism, fascism, and communism. But this book makes these terrible and complicated social and historical elements and turns them into personal, emotional, and sometimes terribly tragic moments in a vast timeline. In an interview with the New York Times (April 2020), Haratischvili, “who writes in German, has said her book is personal rather than autobiographical.” And the book does one important thing — it shows how devastating it is to live in a social experiment that was constantly breaking off the rails.

The one thing that no one has really discussed in other reviews is that this is a story told from the vantage of women. There are men in the narrative and we see them clearly, but this novel is significant, personal and vivid because it is framed through the vision of the women of Georgia and Russia. The story line follows the most important characters as they evolve and shift through the generations. Not only does the story create a sense of idealism at the beginning but masterfully shows the interwoven stories, history, and vision of a family. This is a personal story, one filled with curses, breath-taking beauty, betrayal, war, addiction, faith, and loss. It feels like we are in an epic struggle with intimacy, with empathy, with looking at the next generation and being terrified or hopeful. It is a significant and brilliant refocus of history through the voices of women who endured the violence, the change, and the constant uncertainty of family, love and loss.

This book feels epic and long because it covers a vast amount of time. Every time I picked up the novel, I was quickly immersed back into the story of family fates. Haratischvili needs to bring intimacy and personal vision to her prose, but she also has to capture the big picture, the epic visions of what history was doing to this family and how they chose to move forward. The prose style isn’t a lesson in history and historical details of what it felt like. It is a different, personal narrative that feels modern, but doesn’t get bogged down in historical notes and ideas. Those changes in history are inherent in the characters as they navigate their lives, their desires, and their hopes to carry on. The writing style creates a devastating accumulating effect.

This book is highly recommended, not because we need another long novel about Russia, but we need a great novel about the life of women in Georgia woven over a century. You will not only long for these characters after the book, but you will long (with them) for a different time and fall into the dream like vision of history, place, love, and hope from these stunningly powerful women. This is a long novel, but time brilliant spent with such a vivid and beautiful story of one hundred years. 

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Intimate Conspirators

It is hard to explain the process of writing a novel to people. There is so much brain power that goes into writing a novel. You have to be constantly planning and thinking. A novel takes over your head-space and it becomes an obsession. And once you write one, you know you can write more — better. It is frustrating and beautiful and it is the ultimate test to finding out if you can tell the story without looking away or giving up. With the creative power comes complicated spiritual, mental, imaginative, and ethical moving parts that move perpetual. These are just a few of those parts, but they are a good place to start. 

The Great Disappointment 
The novel not yet written is everything to a writer. Characters, plot, twists, language, the work, writing in coffee shops all seem so honest to the writer who has yet to write. There are endless possibilities to writing when you’ve committed nothing to paper. This is a visionary place of repose. The writer is all at once a visionary and a complete bull-shitter. The potential of what could be is limitless. And then the novelist begins to write. And you begin to make choices. 

In a book titled Why They Can’t Write by John Warner, he says, “A significant part of the writer’s practice – maybe the only part that matters when it comes to attitudes – is recognizing that writing is difficult, that it takes many drafts to realize a finished product, and that you’re never going to be as good as you wish.” Once you commit your ideas to real words, real chapters, real things, we see the talent collide with the dream. As far as the writing goes, you may do well for a few pages, but you are still making choices. You may even make a run to page fifteen or twenty until you hit your first problem. It’s a crucible, a test, a moment. And then it gets hard. This is where the writing begins. You may skip over this issue and write something else. But when you get to the next problem — you will begin to doubt your novel and wonder why it is all falling apart. You may even wonder if this is worth it. Janet Burroway in her book Writing Fiction also mentions “the idea, whatever it is, seems so luminous, whole, and fragile, that to begin to write will never exactly capture what we mean or intend, we must gingerly and gradually work ourselves into a state of accepting what words can do instead.” We must “work ourselves” into accepting this novel and that it will not be easy. 

I should mention that when the rough gets going in my writing, my craft journal gets a lot of new entries. The journal is made for solving and dealing with issues and problems. It really is a journal of disasters because all I do is work on what I am thinking and why it isn’t working. I highly recommend keeping one and showing it to no one. It is your personal space. More importantly, this is your running thought process as you write. In a few months, this journal becomes your archive to what you were thinking and feeling at the time. (More on journals here). 

As we write, we make choices, and I’ve used this word intentionally. Every time we make a choice in our novel, we are slowly moving the characters and the story to its completion (like a giant game of chess). Creativity is choice (what color, what effect, what do we want to say, is it enough, is it too much?). When we begin to choose we begin to resign ourselves to fastening our ideas into place. And like building a good foundation, from there we will hang more things on what we’ve already created. If your writing hold up through the great disappointment and survives, it is likely that you have a novel worth writing. Keep writing. And there’s good news. 

The Act of Writing 
In Why They Can’t Write, Warner explains that “a writer’s practice involves discovery, previously hidden things revealed by doing…. They will only reveal themselves to me as I write. This is not something mystical; it is merely a semi-organized, semi-systematic way of thinking.” And while I really like the clarity of this idea, I think it is semi-organized because in writing novels we can’t possibly know hundreds of details (choices) and concepts all at once, but pulled along a plot, built scene by scene – we can see an emerging design. Discovery in the act of writing is the lifeblood of my writing — it is why I write – to find things out. And it is completely undersold in writing books, courses, and articles on Medium

And to that point, writing produces more writing. And more importantly, the process of writing and making those “choices” into a powerful tool. I know there are a lot of writers and books that discuss knowing everything before they sit down to write. But that isn’t why I write. The greatest moments of creativity, vision, and emotion don’t come from some half baked outline on my computer. It comes from the very act of writing.  

Writing is a process of discovery and you have to be there, eyes wide open and really paying attention. You will come to see where a story takes on a life of its own, where it moves off script, where it blossoms out of words and into eloquence. You have to find it, write it, become intimate conspirators with the words. And then one day you will have an epiphany and realize, “that’s it, I found what I’ve been looking for.” You will know it because it will take your breath away, it will fire off neurons that have been waiting for a decade to fire off. It will create an emotional response. It is a feeling like falling in love, it is a feeling that you have tapped into something bigger than you, it is a feeling that you have created something new and emotionally important. And then you have walked into the light of artistic prose writing. 

Your Trophy
As a novelist there is no trophy. I would even go a step further and ask you a question that is raised in Why They Can’t Write — that writer’s seldom know or even have an clear process or effective gauge to measure their writing skills. “This is true for every writer regardless of experience and regardless of past success. There is no such thing as terminal proficiency.” Do you really know when you are done editing? Do you think if you rewrite the book again an agent might change their mind? Do you think — why isn’t this good enough? Maybe you are holding up your writing to something already written, a great novel, or something like a great novel – is that terminal proficiency? 

Look at the submission guidelines and ask yourself, am I all that? Should I jump through all those hoops to get someone to read my work? What if they don’t like it? What if they don’t answer? Is your work good enough? Are you at terminal proficiency? No one is going to tell you you are a writer. The hardest part of writing is the open ended, seemingly never-satisfied world that reads your book – I liked this but didn’t like that. It’s not right for me. Doesn’t fit. And there will be every reason to believe you are not ready. 

You are.  

Eco-Fiction and the Emerging Writer

As an educator, I work with a lot of students emerging as writers. Most of these students are moving through undergraduate and graduate courses and finding their path through storytelling. In the last few years I’ve worked with more and more writers in the genre of speculative fiction, particularly in the genre of fantasy. Students are emerging in a culture of immersion into video games, graphic novels, video games, books, role playing games, cosplay, and other elements. It makes sense that the concept of world building is an important vision for fantasy writers. With these trends, we see writers take on these genres because of their experience, passion, and ability to write alternative experience. A few weeks ago I read an article about fiction around nature, the concept of eco-fiction. And while I wasn’t surprised by this genre distinction, it related back to the emerging writers I work with and thought, why aren’t they writing about this. 
Eco-fiction is a branch of literature that is nature oriented (non-human) or environment-oriented where the impact of humans are the central tenet of the story. Not surprising that it emerged in the 1970’s environmentalist vision of the world that hearld in Earth Day and other important values around conservation and natural preservation. It makes sense that a book like Overstory by Richard Powers is a high profile title with the vision of eco-fiction at its core. 
This makes sense as a crossover genre for writers who have worked in the realms of fantasy, to move into the concept of eco-fiction. Typically, fantasy writers are really good at creating hybrid characters or concepts for their stories. Fantasy writers are really skilled at showing irony and societal change through a slightly different lens. In our time of environmental concern and activism, the emergence of eco-fiction as a speculative tool, a social activist tool, and a near future vision makes sense. I don’t think all fantasy writers should be writing eco-fiction, but it is clear that so many of the skills honed in fantasy could transfer into the world of eco-fiction. In the preface to Where the Wild Books Are: a field guide to eco-fiction, Jim Dwyer mentions, “Dana Stabenow, for example, is an Alaskan Inuit ecofeminist author who has written both mysteries and science fiction.” It is clear nature and ecology as a mode to represent storytelling is diverse. When you think about the poetry of Mary Oliver and her natural vision of the world, Annie Dillard’s vision of nature brings poetry and essay creativity and vision into the view of literary and the general reading public. He defines in his preface that eco-fiction covers the focus of Lawrence Buell — that “non-human environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history. The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest. Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation. Some of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text” Some of the elements that we would think about in terms of an alternative universe is growing. Dystopian and natural cataclysm has been an emerging vision from a variety of writers, but because of the emerging prevalence in the studies of how we are affecting the environment, literature is moving along with those trends. While Overstory is a great example, the eco-muder mystery Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk won the Nobel Prize in 2018. 
Being a storyteller or a novelist is about defining the world you write in. It is clear that the escape and visionary worlds of fantasy are important to emerging writers. Diversifying the skills of writers to work in a variety of themes, different modes (plays, poetry, novels), genres, and other professional writing opportunities. This gives writers a dynamic and visionary approach to their own work, their own ideas, and the possibility of having their work appear in a variety of different ways. That starts when we realize how valuable and skilled writers can be and make small adjustments and changes to the way they see the world.  
As we consider what we read and what we are interested in writing, it is important to trace the emergence of genres that are moving to the forefront of our bookstores, our bestseller lists, and into our conscious reading habits. In the end, it may not be what we thought we would write, but it is what is important now. Check out reading lists of eco-fiction and read a few. And then think about how those ideas fit into your vision of writing, thinking, and creating. 
Further Reading

Let’s Talk: putting your dialogue to work

My characters are just place holders in my writing until they actually open their mouths and speak. Then they come to life. That is why dialogue should be doing some heavy lifting in your novels. Dialogue is the best action that can be given to a character. Their ability to speak can bring to life a sense of who they are, what they are saying, and why they are saying it. But it doesn’t take a lot of telling to make that happen. Dialogue reveals once you start writing it. And when you begin to really develop good dialogue, it can change the way you see the writing.

There is a lot of focus on writing convincing main characters that may live on through a series. And while we spend time with the characters, what they look like and how they function, eventually, they will need to speak. But creating a character is far from using a D&D profile sheet and creating whatever makes sense in the moment. Characters often develop with the writing process, and they sometimes bend the story to their emerging will. Their conflict and desire (as Janet Burroway clearly defines it), can shift and create opportunities in the story that will change the fundamental scope of how you see the story and a characters role in it. It doesn’t until they speak.

Dialogue isn’t just about talking and making conversations, it is about action and this is probably the most important use of dialogue in a novel. In the book Writing Fiction: a guide to narrative craft by Janet Burroway, she discusses the concept of dialogue as action. She explains, “Speech characterizes in a way that is different from appearance, because speech represents an effort, mainly voluntary, to externalize the internal and to manifest not merely taste or preference but also deliberated thought. Like fiction itself, human dialogue attempts to marry logical to emotion”(45). Dialogue should be working for you on multiple levels. It can reveal a characters manner or impulse, it can reveal their needs and desires, it can show their apprehension to talk at all. But the most important element that dialogue can do is create action. “Dialogue is action when it contains the possibility of change. If in doubt, ask yourself: Can this conversation between characters really change anything?” This is where you can weaponize your dialogue from chatter to action and make it feel like when the characters speak, something is coming. That intensity and foreshadow is where the characters move from chatter to important and meaningful advances in the telling of the story.

It is important to value planning and vision when it comes to your writing, but I don’t think there is enough value placed in the flexible act of writing itself. Some pragmatist just rolled their eyes. Writers should listen to the characters speak. Shifts and changes in what they say and do are important to creating credibility, vision, and putting the reader into a state of active listening. This will lead to important dialogue and action points along well crafted interactions with characters.

Controlling dialogue and the way characters speak is important to understand the character, but it is also an opportunity to affect the story. In writing a story about a mother-in law, I wrote about her coming to the house staying with her children. It wasn’t until she finally got to a story about her husband that story broke open and began moving. As a writer, there is no better revelation than writing dialogue that shifts everything into place. Sometimes dialogue is meant to give the reader what is expected, i.e. this is the part where she is going to tell him she loves him. But sometimes, just a turn of phrase or an unexpected line will ignite action and story. Often is can’t be planned. It has to be developed through the story process and the developing understanding you have between your characters.

In the television show Atlanta (FX), Darius is by far the character who tosses off dialogue that challenges the other dynamics. Every time he says something, it changes the balance of things. Writing unexpected dialog isn’t just about opportunity or humor, but it is giving the reader something to think on, something to watch for. Don’t get me wrong, plotting and allowing for the audience to understand and predict some of the plot is valuable in buying in for reader. But sometimes, it is the dialogue that sets something into motion that a reader didn’t see coming.

Technical elements of dialogue are skills we develop and copy. How dialogue looks and work is important. But what is more important is getting the exchange down. Sometimes, it is better to forget all the formatting and write out dialogue like a play that is simple and concise. Then you can add format back into the traditional narrative that you are creating. When two people are speaking, the tags with names and attribution should be minimal. It get complicated when more people are involved. Practice and look for examples in book you admire. I prefer indenting dialogue when shifting speakers, but some writers prefer to embed their narrative into longer paragraphs. That is a matter of preference and vision for the sake of the writer. Lastly, I think it is important to discuss the outliers in dialogue. Cormac McCarthy doesn’t use quotes and other standard formatting elements, but the reader can understand the conversation once the reader understands the system has changed. Faulkner and others have mastered dialects but that can be tricky, forced, and offensive. Sometimes, it is best to suggest and then leave it alone. I also think in historical context, simplified or neutral language is better. Using contraction in the 1700’s just doesn’t sound right. Historical fiction is about being neutral with language. And if you aren’t sure what the voices should sounds like, look to the masters to see how they handled the speaking voices of history.

There is so much to think about as you begin your first draft, and like actors it isn’t a bad idea to get them talking early and try some scenes in your journal to see if they can open up a bit and share some of the dialogue created insights that can be captured when your characters start talking openly in your writing. It is often the defining moment between telling a story to the reader, and showing them something meaningful, important, and connective.


Journal of Disasters – Problem Solvers (Journal Series II)

In a Paris Review interview with James Cain (1978), among his conversation, he mentions two points that help us examine the journal of disasters. He says, “But novel writing is something else. It has to be learned, but it can’t be taught.” The focus being on the experience of going through the process and writing them. The hope is that you write one and think: that was really complicated, hard, confusing — but I can make the next one better. That is a hard pill to swallow for writers who finish their first novel and expect to send it off to the agents and begin their book tour. What it suggests is that you may have to write more books to get to that moment of acceptance. I know when I was younger that would have been the last thing I wanted to hear when I completed my first book. Yet, many of the craft books that you read discuss the idea of pipe-lining novels, working on a book and getting feedback and editing — but then work on the next one. 

The next bit that James Cain mentions is closer to the idea that your journal is meant to be a place for all your mistakes and ruminations. He says, “Writing a novel is like working on foreign policy. There are problems to be solved. It’s not all inspirational.” I appreciate his tempered vision of the novel here. There is the inspiration that moves a writer to research, think about form, and finally get motivated to write. But after some page accumulation and some decision making, the shine wears off and you have to sit down and work. This is where your journal moves from a series of ideas, to a series of problems that need to be solved. Your journal now becomes your map of poor decisions. That is not to say that you will use these poor decisions, but you pose them and you build ideas around them. 

“There are problems to be solved,” is something that should probably be on my tombstone. If being a writer is about seeing your work on the page, discussing books, and sharing the literary culture — I am on the wrong floor. My life has been about solving problems. Not just solving problems in my novel – i.e. what happens next, but also solving my own problems of dyslexia, lack of focus, grit, and just not seeing what is right in front of me.  In the end we are all problem solvers, from the first decision you make in your novel to the last, you are constantly solving the problems. That is your job. Your journal, your place in the world that no one sees, is not only a place to write these solutions and connections, but they are also a place to try them and see where they take you. Sometimes, it feels like I write three novels to get one good one, meaning, that I write in my journal, write the novel, and then write more in my journal. Between cut pages, silly sidelines, writing in my journal, and everything else, I probably take on 700 pages of writing. But it is also a way to refine the pages that people will see. It is a way to think and be creative. It is also a way to generate things that won’t make it into the novel, but will come back to your writing life. Nothing is wasted. No good idea will go away, it will just be set aside. That is what the journal is for. 

I realize that I am being hyperbolic when I say it is a journal of disasters, but it makes the point that we are problem solvers. My journal isn’t for rumination, it is to solve things and figure out how I got here. It makes the point that when the inspiration wears off, the work is hard. What can you live with? When is it right? What solution to your characters can you live with? What’s the right answer to a question that only you know about? How can you live this way? When you come to these questions, you are emerging as an artist. You are emerging as a thinker and a problem solver. We don’t get a chance to watch a Youtube video on how to solve the problems in our novels. We don’t always have someone to immediately ask. We have to read other novels, we have research, study, think – deeply. And this is deep and meaningful work. And when you get there (if you are not there yet), it will feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders. But isn’t this where you always wanted to be? You are a writer. And as long as you have a problem to solve, you will constantly move back to the process that has crafted you. 

Prologues and Prefaces – Let’s Consider Paratexts

Gerard Genette 

Building a novel, a writer would begin building scenes that interconnect. You create characters and conflict and your drive these elements to something that is powerful and meaningful. So, it feels strange to suggest that writers want to say something or create something outside of the narrative, before we even start reading the novel.

Prologues seem to off set the beginning of a narrative. How many prologues have really been first chapters and things that need to be woven into the narrative? In the book Paratext: Thresholds of interpretation by Gerard Genette, he explains, “The term prologue, which in ancient drama designates everything that, in the play itself, precedes the entrance of the chorus, must not mislead us: its function is not to make a presentation, but still less to comment, but to provide an exposition in the dramatic sense of the work, the most often in the form of a character’s monologue.” He explains the history and purpose of the prologue in terms of the shape and style of the “paratext” elements. And the fact that he discusses this so much as a paratext (text outside the principle text) suggests that he sees these prologues and prefaces as something hard to handle. 

The most important point that he makes is once we make an impression upon a reader, or we create a signpost, we are imposing upon the reader to see the story one way. An example is an introduction from Borges, which “is offered somewhat as the key to a riddle… it is Borges revealing, in the prologue of Artifices, that “‘Funes, the Memorious’ … is a long metaphor for insomnia.” Impossible after that to read the story without having the authorial interpretation hang over your reading, compelling you to take a position, positive or negative, in relation to it.” (224) Are we positioning the reader? Are we blatantly telling the reader that this will be purpose and point without allowing the reader to form their own interpretation of the text? This is an unfair position to put a reader into before reading a book.

Explaining or bringing out the meaning or vision of the story in a kind of preface or prologue has other issues. When I am sitting in a reading the writer (before reading) has this long preamble about the story, I feel like I am hearing about something of a patch or a fix that isn’t clear in the writing. I don’t mind if they pick a chapter in the middle and have to explain what happened before. But to have a writer create a caveat to the story: warning, you will need to have some stipulations and conditions placed on you so this will go better for you. That doesn’t work in a reading and I think the preface or the prologue can fall into caveats. “The main disadvantage of a preface is that it constitutes an unbalanced and even shaky situation of communication: its author is offering the reader an advance commentary on a text the reader has not yet become familiar with.”(237). Sometimes, new writers are simply telling us that the novel will be about this theme or about this idea. This undermines the purpose of the novel, to building something that reader must connect from beginning to end. 

It feels like some of the modern versions of prologues and prefaces are based in a sense that readers can’t possibly understand this amazing world that I’ve thought up, so I need to tell you some interesting things. Again, lazy writing. If a novel is an immersion into something new — why are you telling me something that you can’t show me in the novel. Many people will say, because it came in the novel before. If your novel speaks to previous novels — do the work and weave that information into the stories. 

Part of the fascination with prologues and prefaces might come around the idea of film making, and visual storytelling. How many times have we started a show or film and they show something — a scene, a weapon, the wreckage and then run the titles, only to go back in time and tell us how we got there. Common film technique and speaks to the way stories are told. But it is still an element of the story. When prologues and prefaces get confusing, it is because they are outside the narrative or forcing ideas on us before we even get into the story. Assuming a reader is paying for your book, has the ability to read critically, and wants to immerse into a novel — then why force them to see it your way before the story starts?

In some cases, (nonfiction, short story collections, anthologies, and translations), there may be a specific need to an introduction, prologue, or preface in terms of the design and collection of what is in the book. Some writers create a preface as a response to printing or publishing the book after a long period of time. Or perhaps it is a slightly different version and some discussion around that is important. I will leave introductions out of this conversation because most of the introductions to books I’ve read a written by scholars as reference to the book. I typically leave the introduction until I finish the book and then go back and read the scholarly context of the introduction. There are exceptions and if you read (please do) the experimental novel House Of Leaves and don’t read the introduction you will never figure out what is happening. Some of the content might be historical context, translation notes, or other para-text information. I am referring to focused story elements sitting outside the novel. 

Agents and publishers who looks at thousands of proposals and samples don’t tend to like this preamble. And many readers would say, just make this the first chapter. Are these elements inside or outside the narrative? Are they unnecessary fixes or tools that just make writing easier? What if we all wrote prologues and then when we finished the book, took them out, like a metronome for a musician. We don’t hear the tick-tock of time keeping because it is inherent in the music, but it might have been there to help start the shape and vision of the music.

Lastly, I am not a hater of these elements, but I feel like they should be discussed in terms of outside or inside the narrative and how we should be trusting readers, trusting good storytelling, and trusting people to understand the dynamic vision you have. Question those things we set up to get started and maybe we can just turn them off like metronome now that we clearly know and hear the music.

Genette, Gerard, and Jane E. Lewin. “Paratexts: Thresholds of interpretation (literature, culture, theory).” Cambridge: Univ. Pr (1997).

Note: This is a fascinating book about things that surround the main body of the books. I have referred to this book a lot. 

When Things Disappear: Books On Memory and Loss

I’ve noticed an emerging theme. In the last six months I have read books that deal with the disappearance of things. In some cases, the lost things are things we never thought we could lose. In other cases, it is the act of losing that is so devastating. These books have been fascinating and terrifying all at once. Here is a look at some of these books and why this type of idea is emerging in literature. 

The oldest book in the group is a very innovative and probably the most upbeat book titled Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn (2002), the deals with the disappearance of language. In the book is described as “a girl living happily on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop was the named after Nevin Nollop, the author of the immortal phrase containing all the letters in the alphabet, ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.’  Now Ella finds herself acting to save her friends, family, and fellow citizens from the encroaching totalitarianism of the island’s Council, which has banned the use of certain letters of the alphabet as they fall from a memorial statue of Nevin Nollop. As the letters progressively drop from the statue they also disappear from the novel. The result is both a hilarious and moving story of one girl’s fight for freedom of expression, as well as a linguistic tour de force sure to delight word lovers everywhere.” This book not only shows the absurdity of how we define rules and social construcut, but it also physically oppresses the reader. Each letter that is dropped from the language, gets dropped from the prose, making it harder and harder to understand. Until it becomes absurd, it feels complicated and oppressive. This brilliant short read feels like a silly parable, but the implications of the novel are deep and meaningful in terms of who makes the rules, who follows them, and the absurdity of principle over common sense. 

Avid readers tend to read a lot of books and many of them are the same. If you read genre murder/mystery novels then you come to expect some of the same common techniques and elements in these books. Novels and stories that stick out to me are the novels that innovate. They aren’t experimental, but they do something I’ve never seen before in a novel or in the genre. Sometimes, that is just a small element of the story. Sometimes, it is the whole book. The Book of M by Peng Shepherd (2018) is a novel that innovates in many different ways. Not only does this book innovate in terms of plot and conflict, it also uses language in innovative ways to close the gap between the unthinkable and the possible. In Alison Walkers review of the book, she describes it as this: “What if your shadow inexplicably held memories? And what if, one day, shadows began to disappear? One day in a busy Indian market a man’s shadow disappears, and with it his memories begin to unravel. Soon, the affliction spreads across the world, as more and more people slowly lose their memories—and with them their ability to reason. We see this catastrophe unfold through the eyes of Ory and his girlfriend, Max, who have gone into hiding in an abandoned hotel. When Max loses her shadow and disappears into the forest, Ory pursues her and heads south, hoping to find Max before she forgets him.” The ideas and language in the novel are so innnovative and compelling that the novel seems like the only place that this idea can happen. While this book has been optioned to the screen (or television), it will be very difficult to handle the range of loss and vision without the narrative and language in the novel. The book is always better, but in this case, the best parts of the novel can never be captured by visuals on the screen. That being said, the loss here is fascinating, overwhelming, and catastrophic. As a result, everything is at stake and the book is filled with the tension of complete calamity, personally, universally, across all realms of thought and feeling. This book is innovative and so exciting to read. And the sense of loss is complete in its effect on the reader. 

The last book on our tour of things lost, is The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (2019). This book not only considers the loss of things to our memory, but it also implies that there is a task-force that enforces that loss. While all these books could fall in and out of dystopian literature, this one feels the most oppressive. The book is explained here: “On an unnamed island off an unnamed coast, objects are disappearing: first hats, then ribbons, birds, roses – until things become much more serious. Most of the island’s inhabitants are oblivious to these changes, while those few imbued with the power to recall the lost objects live in fear of the draconian Memory Police, who are committed to ensuring that what has disappeared remains forgotten. When a young woman who is struggling to maintain her career as a novelist discovered that her editor is in danger from the Memory Police, she concocts a plan to hide him beneath her floorboards. As fear and loss close in around them, they cling to her writing as the last way of preserving the past.” This book feels like the dystopian classics, but also has a pointed and ironic sense of our contemporary times of authoritarian vision of oppression in a interconnected vision of being seen through the eyes of the technology and systems. 

Over the course discovering these novels, I found a vision for dystopian novels and ideas. The layers of self-reflected irony is often an element that adds meaning and empathy in a novel. It is clear that classic dystopian novels have meaning because they are close to the surface of our vision of society, relationships, government, and power. Orwell’s 1984 is still a stunning vision. And we often feel like we are moving closer to it rather than moving away. There is also The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood (now a television series), which envisions the darkest places in a society ruled by pain, suffering, and authority. Yet in these three novel, there is a sense that loss isn’t about moving through things that you can’t have, but the existential precipice around the idea that you may never know you had them to begin with. And that power, that fear of forgetting, or letting something go because it doesn’t mean anything any more is where the fear and anxiety derive. 

Is the world shaping these ideas through our vision of the world? Authoritarianism, war, refugees, and environmental disasters have shaped the last fifteen years. And with it has come a different way of seeing the world. But I also think technology has eroded the way we interact in the world. I think technology and the vision of the world is better. But, it also feels like technology is also scrubbing our brains from the act of deep thinking and retaining long term memories. That is not to say people don’t do these things, but we are pushed and shoved along the information highway and we are moved along from one devastating idea or construct to the next. We all know the exhaustion of just being overwhelmed by what is happening. That is also taking a toll on how we see the world. And perhaps these novels are a result of that idea. 

These novels represent some amazing innovation in writing. This article is meant to highlight these fascinating book around theme of memory and loss. But as a writer and someone who is constantly looking for innovation in novels, these book matter. In the end, these visions of what is possible should strike a chord. In terms of writing, we should be looking for the social messages that are woven in these novels. Writing novels are fascinating because they are complex and each element within the book has to connect with another. That being said, without context or memory, we couldn’t read novels. We couldn’t remember how parts connect (or who committed the crime), and these novels remind us through the innovation of memory, there is the unfathomable idea that we could, unknowingly, let it all slip away. 

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Let’s Talk About The Staff / Lucifer’s Wing

In a lot of my writing, I am captured by living close to the ocean, traditions, and the essences of living on the edge of the world. I don’t live on the edge of the world, but I do live near the sea, so the wind, the waves, the fog, the atmosphere of my life falls into the writing easily. 

In The Staff, they live in a small village by the sea. While it isn’t a seafaring book, it is based on living near the ocean and even some of the traditions they keep concerning the sea and the fishing fleet. Beyond that, there is an ominous nautical reference in the arrival of a large ship. This ship is not only imposing, but it is called Lucifer’s Wing and the bowsprit is a devil with its arm raised out reaching for the soul of the village. Thinking back, I saw that image somewhere. I think it came from my dictionary. I have an old 1950’s Webster New Collegiate Dictionary and I adore the book. It was always the book on my desk and even in the digital age of spell check, I still use it. Yet, when I looked through the dictionary, I can’t find that black and white spot image. 

DaVinci’s sketches 
When a tall ship came in this month and I saw the ships prow with a great face on it, I thought about my novel, and where that image of the devil on the front of a ship might be? I still don’t know where it is – if not on the pages of the novel. I was also inspired by Da Vinci’s portraits of old men. The senior council members were inspired from drawings and visions of things like the images below. This is how I imagine Langston and the boys. They always seemed tired and sketched. They felt like old bas-relief, scraped from a stone or some tree bark. 

Tall Ship in New London
It makes sense, I suppose, that all things in this book seem elusive and shifting. Perhaps that is the nature of lives built on lies, deceit, and desperate want for freedom. The last point of all this – is that seafaring culture is clearly evident in museums in New London, New Bedford, Nantucket, and all along the Atlantic seaboard. It is a culture of lighthouses, whaling, fishing, and living on the edge. A place so eloquently captured by the likes of Steinbeck and Rachel Carson. But there is little mythology (other than the overarching elements) that define the fables and the curiosity around the sea. The mythology is often generic, Poseidon orientated, or it is superstitious and linked to random things. My question, I suppose is where do we house the mythology of the sea? And how much of it is still emerging. 

Let’s Talk About The Staff is a series of discussion articles based on the novel The Staff by Ron Samul. For more information, check out the novel and read other linked articles. 

What Is A Writing Journal?

New Writing for the Hollihock Writer’s Conference 
“Your writing journal is a record of your thought process through time. It will evolve as the months and years pass, and it will become a powerful tool. Not only can you think and process your ability on the page, you can also see the history and the arc of ideas as they develop. It can be very powerful to see where you’ve been and realize where you are all at once.” – Read More Click Here

The Staff / Finalist in the 2019 International Book Awards

The Staff, a novel by author Ron Samul, is now an Award-Winning Finalist in the General Fiction Category of the 2019 International Book Awards. Jeffrey Keen, President and CEO of American Book Fest, said this year’s contest yielded over 2,000 entries from authors and publishers around the world, which were then narrowed to the final results. Awards were presented for titles published in 2017, 2018, 2019. 

Ron Samul is a writer and faculty member at Mitchell College in New London. He is also a Writing Mentor in the Western Connecticut State University Creative and Professional Masters in Fine Arts. A native New Londoner, Samul said this novel is based on living in a small community where everyone knows about each other. Some of those interactions are for the better and some for the worse. Samul enjoys talking about the book with writers and book clubs, and said, “Talking to people, I always find new ways to look at the novel. Books don’t work unless the writer and reader are working together to make it a shared experience. And to hear what people think of the novel, in their own terms, it is just as exciting as writing it.”
Samul’s work has appeared in Liturgical Credo, Outstide In Magazine, SNReview, Inquiring News, Library Journal, and other online media. He has presented his work at the Associated Writers Program Conference, The Northeast Popular Culture Association, and the Hollihock Writers Conference in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

In 2017, The Staff was short-listed for the Del Sol Press First Novel Prize. Don Snyder, author of Fallen Angel and Of Time and Memory explains, “Samul tells this story with such luminous prose and immense imagination that the reader is transported to a place beyond the borders of the known world where new meaning attends our longings and our fears, and where we discover a deeper understanding of ourselves. I believe this is the requirement of literary fiction.” The book is currently on Amazon for purchase in print and e-book.

The Staff Shortlisted for the 2017 Del Sol Press First Novel Prize

I am very excited to be a semifinalist for my novel The Staff in the 2017 Del Sol Press First Novel Prize. The winner will be announced in late August of 2017. 

Del Sol PRess seeks to publish exceptional work by both new and recognized writers, as well as republish literary work that we consider extremely significant and that have done out of print. Their approach is eclectic, but with an emphasis on original, unique, and accessible work with an edge. 

My sincere thanks to the nominating editor(s) and all the writers in the list. It is an honor to be among them all. Check out their website here

HERMOSA by Marisa Clark
MALL by Pattie Palmer-Baker
OUT LIKE A LION by Robin Martin
THE BEREAVED by Emma Schrider
THE STAFF by Ron Samul
DAUGHTER’S JOURNEY by Catherine Kapphahn
WRAPPED IN THE STARS by Elena Mikalsen

Creative Visual Reference 2.0

Sitting through a workshop this winter, I was amazed that writers struggle to find information important to characters and other visual ideas. A student in the workshop mentioned that they were struggling to see their character specifically. I immediately thought of Robert Olen Butler and his book From Where You Dream. And in his book he mentioned that we shouldn’t be stifled by the things we don’t know – the small intangible things that we can’t name. He suggests using a visual dictionary to help with some of these issues. These reference books help us name things that can help us be specific and clear in the writing. While I have one, I don’t use it all that much. However, I had recently noticed a writer who was using Pinterest for references to her writing. And I was fascinated how this social media tool might reboot the idea that visual references can inspire us and make connections. 

Pinterest is a collection of images and other media organized through headings known as “boards” that help categorize how and why they are relevant to the collector. In terms of a writing tool, we have a wide range of purpose and focus. For example, writers might need to know “Civil War Uniforms” and collect pins to support the look and feel of both sides of the battle. The more specific a writer can be, the better suited they can make their finds on Pinterest. If you need shoreline cottages in Ireland, you can probably create a collection.  But there is more than just collecting things. Pins and boards can become relatable. 

When you see things (from different pins) that begin to relate to one another, you being to make connections. That can bring ideas together. From hairstyles, fabrics, wood joining, to dishes, Pinterest can help. And while we know excessive detail can be grueling, finding the right significant detail can carry a lot of weight in prose. This social media can help. 

If your purpose is to know the names of things, this won’t be a good focus for you. But if you need to build visual relationships, to connect ideas, this might be the right space for you. What may be confusing is creating a visual for something you haven’t actually touched or seen. For example, if you needed to know what an Egyptian bug swatter looked like, you will probably find it. Then you will have a sense of what these things looked like. It may also inspire you to look at why Egyptians had so many bugs around them to begin with. Hence, a new line of inquiry and perhaps focus could enter into your writing (dying of malaria is a significant plot point). 

Social media is typically a writer’s worst distraction, but in this place, we should be considering different application, creations, and, connections to our craft. Sometimes, we find connection in the most unlikely things and places, and with a powerful search engine, this digital tool could change a phrase, a sentence, a page, or a story. It can also change the way we find inspirations and interconnections. 

What this social media platform creates is some foundational visuals that are important for writers, but not realized by the reader. This is a writers tool that is folded into the craft and transmitted through the story and words. You shouldn’t notice specific pins or websites on the page, but the story is more informed, concrete, and subtle because of access to these ideas and visuals. 

Between The Lines: Slaughterhouse Five Opening

Truth and fiction is a strange world. Writers are constantly invested in the vision of living many lives – some on paper while others are in real life. The complexity of writing fiction and understanding truth runs parallel to the idea that we can talk about truth and find its mirrored in fiction. In terms of writing, true stories and real accounts have a value to the general readership. We see labels splashed across book covers and movie posters that profess that they are based on a true story. And yet, the layers of fact to fiction can be complex and run deep into the story. 

Does it matter? Does fiction have to hold truth? Does a true story shift into fiction as soon as it is captured and told from different voices?  

It is important to write about these lines and ideas as they relate to both sides of the issue. It isn’t black and white, truth and fiction, but a combination of millions of possibilities and connections that make truth stranger than fiction. This series continues to discuss this concept. Sometimes, these entries will be brief notes and connections, while other articles will a bit more elaborate. 

In Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, we are faced with the kind of strange world that I want to continue to explore – perhaps for the rest of my life. I want to be the truth expert in fiction… whatever that means. 

“All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunman after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.” 

In looking at the way this opening reads, it is clear that fact and fiction are coming together. Most of the sentences in this section have disclaimers to the truth. “All this happened” is very declarative until it is disqualified with “more or less.” This builds the uncomfortable relationship that is being established. 

He moves on to the next idea, “The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.” Alluding to the idea that “pretty much” covers enough. As we move to the next sentence, we should acknowledge the emphasis on the words. “One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his.” This is a moment where you feel like the writer wants to look you in the eyes, look, this happened. Notice there are no names here. The next sentence continues this serious tone, “Another guy really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by a hired gunman after the war.” In these phrases, the narrator wants us to realize that there is truth, even fact in these words, but they can’t be verified. They can’t be questioned. You will have to take his word for it that they happened.

In the last two sentences, we have “And so on” as if we would just carry on with more of his stories. And then he forfeits it all by saying, “I’ve changed all the names.” The obscuring of the names isn’t at all a surprise, the narrator has teased out the balance between truth and fiction here, but to it does remind us – I will tell the truth by obscuring facts and leaving you merely with truth. Of course, this is merely an interpretation, but it does a back and fourth of reality that is being played one aginst the other. 

This work is considered semi-autobiographical which alone strikes at the heart of the matter. Half true, half something else. Part of what we are seeing here might be an answer for the mass destruction, the death, and the insanity of war. It can’t be shown to the reader without cloaking it in imagination, shifting the reality away from the reader, intentionally block the brunt of the evil so that the readers can begin somewhere. This novel was written twenty-five years out from his personal experience. Perhaps it is this distortion that helps define the balance between right and wrong.  – #

Ron Samul is a writer and educator. For more information or to contact him, reach out at

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On Mentoring / Only Connect…

This week, I’ve been thinking about the role of the mentor. I understand my official role as a mentor. But I feel like it has taken me some time to develop what I can do for students who connect. I am not the line editor, although I can pick out places where I think the writing needs work. I am the mentor who connects. Perhaps it is partly from the obsession I have with E. M. Forster’s epigraph at the beginning of Howard’s End that says simple “Only connect….” and he adds three pesky ellipses that just don’t connect. Ugh! That idea is like a hand grenade in my brain. It is such a simple puzzle: elegant, beautiful, and sad. This relates to my mentoring philosophy. I want to find ways to enhance the likelihood of the writer writing. That is my job. 

I don’t want to judge a student’s creative move – I want to prove its worth. I don’t want to change the book, I want to strengthen the reason for writing it. It is in this realm that I’ve done the most prolific searching about the worth of writing, thinking, and creating. I’ve pushed myself to say something relevant and important about writing that I would never have considered without the help of the student’s work, ideas, and connections to the world. And the result is when the ideas flow back with the same intensity. 

Every student that I’ve worked with on writing, thinking, and creating has been a direct and formidable challenge to everything I know about writing and thinking. For that, I am grateful to who I’ve become as a mentor and teacher. But more importantly, I am amazed at how important it has been to value a good mentor as a student and turn that value system into something sustainable as a teacher. Being a mentor isn’t about control – it isn’t about the words on the page – it is about listening, trusting, and waiting. 

In May, when I went through the Rhizo15 MOOC and challenged my own teaching style, I gave some students a chance to find their own paths, their own challenges, and their own results. That is when I saw something I had been waiting for as a teacher for a long time – inspiration. Students went out to the world and took on roles bigger than their experience. They saw themselves as model students who were sent out to work in meaningful and thoughtful directions. And they were given a trust that was tacit between instructor and student. This forging of teaching relationship based on letting go, empowering students, and seeing immediate results gave me new hope for the way I see the world of teaching. I did it again this semester – and empowered the students. And they also impressed me. Not only did they show me how to be independent and expansive in their learning, they also attended every class (which they weren’t required to do) and participated in the classroom environment. Amazing. Give the students more freedom and they over perform. But is that freedom? Or did I merely acknowledge their potential and they stepped into that potential?

I’ve made an analogy in class to content and form as coffee and a cup. The coffee is the content of the paper, but the form and function is contained in the cup that holds the coffee. In terms of a metaphor, it has come in handy in sharing the idea of whether I cam discussing form or content when they are co-mingling in the rhetoric of writing. Yet, when it comes to mentoring and giving students freedom, I can make the same type of metaphorical statement. If we can value the work the student does as the coffee, what I think is more important is what that cup looks like. That is where I can see skills worth having – discipline, motivation, tenacity, perseverance, grit, and all those qualities that change a person through hard work. How you will make it through this project, this paper, this novel —  is the coffee. How you will change over the course of doing it – that is all cup. And it is the thing that I want to change. I don’t want to change the creative choices that student makes. That comes with practice, instinct, and writing style. But I can push a student to think deeply, and not settle. I don’t want to change the creativity, but the way they think about it. 

Sometimes, I think Forster posed the epigraph “Only connect….” as an ironic statement of the modern age. And I use to revel in that sense of tragic loss and disconnection. But sometimes, I wonder if he left the phrase unfinished because we never complete the act of constantly connecting. There is always more work to do. There is always more to discuss. No one enters into art because they aren’t thinking and processing the complexities of the world. And so, it would be ridiculous that mentors and teachers would recycle their pat advice from one student to another, without seeking out deep and meaningful connections to that of the student’s art. Giving meaningful and connective vision to a writer (seasoned or student) is some of the most important work. It might be the first time they have spoken to their art with such depth and focus. It might be the conversation they’ve been waiting for their entire life. 

I was sent an email this semester from one of the students that worked on an independent project for me in the spring. She moved to a bigger university, finding her path in a different realm. She asked me to read over her essays on the ambition of woman in the community based on interviews she did with them. The project was still moving forward, even when courses and life changed, it was still happening. “Only connect….” didn’t have to mean ironic wordplay, but a continued sense of perpetual motion – always connecting – one idea, one student, one vision at a time; never stopping. As a teaching philosophy – that is all I can be as a mentor and a writer. Simply complex. 

The Beginning of the End

The whole idea of writing a novel can be intimidating. Let’s face it, we all know that writing is work and writing a novel can be compared to building a skyscraper. It is a good idea to have some character sketches, outlines, plot ideas, and maybe some themes floating around in your brain before you start your novel. For me, it takes more than just a basic skeleton to begin writing. I never start writing a novel until I have an ending. I know, you might be saying – I don’t have a beginning, how am I going to come up with an ending? Don’t panic. Knowing the ending will help you develop convincing story and significant plot.

E. M. Forrester explains story as a linear tool or what happens next. The reader will then ask – what happens next? Plot is not based on time, but on characters. The reader will ask – why? The difference is time sequence verses character desires and motivations. Among the many constructs that an ending may provide for you in the beginning, these two elements are important. Yes, writing a novel is exploration. Yes, writing a novel will take a shell of a character and fill it up completely, so that they will actually begin to function outside your wishes and desires. And you should be listening intently. But, they can’t move blindly. We must make our characters move somewhere logically. That is why knowing your ending will strengthen story, plot and character motivation.
If you are writing historical fiction, memoirs, or non-fiction, you might have a series of factual events from research that dictates your plot and final scene selection. When I was writing the historical account of Harriet Quimby, the first woman pilot to gain her aviation license, I knew the ending – I just had to get there. When I wrote the second novel which was entirely fiction, like a vision, I saw the ending very clearly. Knowing exactly where I was going made the scenes and plot tangible, giving me room to think of some of the higher constructs of the novel, like theme, subplots and hidden conflicts. Let’s look at character, setting and writer comfort with this strategy of writing to a known ending in mind.
The importance of seeing that ending clearly gives your characters direct desire and motivation that relates to those final scenes. In fact, you may realize, as you write, that they have conflicting desires and motivations concerning the ending – but that is what makes clear and meaningful plot twists and good storytelling. It won’t happen automatically, but as you project an ending and move your characters to it – the novel will move toward a purpose. It is similar to imposing an unforeseen fate upon them. Be sure to develop your characters to fulfill the ending scene and see it through. In Moby Dick, Ahab is driven by his loss and revenge to face the white whale and we expect nothing less by the time we get there. Did we ever think that he wasn’t going to find the white whale? Of course not.
The next element that is set right by knowing the end of your novel is the structure of your setting. Knowing the end, you can begin to construct locations and significant detailing for this ending to play out on. If you are going to have a barn fire at the end of your novel – then you need a country side, a farm, and yes, a barn. By knowing this ahead of time – it helps you build these elements in as you write. Setting is more than just scenery in many great novels and writing. Knowing where and how you will get to the end will define the construction you will use. You have so much to do when you start a novel, explain characters, define time and setting, establish plot, have a decent voice, the right point-of-view – to name a few – that it is important to flush as many of these elements as possible and direct them to your established ending.
Defining a clear ending will help you mentally as a writer. Having a sense of the ending makes it clear in your mind where you are at any given time in your novel. If you are writing a normal novel of 300 pages and you get to page 100, you have completed a third of the novel. This is a time to check and make sure you are where you hoped to be when you wrote the first paragraph. This will keep you on track and give you some indicators as to your scope and time remaining. My first novel was a gluttonous 530 pages. It came from a lack of experience and an attempt to write two books when I only needed one. My second novel was a brilliant 252 pages and it was a perfect length. I knew the ending and went to it without changing course too often. Mentally, as a writer, you have to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I must say that this method works for me. In the early stages of writing a novel-length project, I have a very difficult time writing outlines and character sketches because I feel that I don’t know my characters and motivations well enough. However, having an overall novel concept and an ending helps me define the answer to the questions I am about to put to my characters. That’s not to say that once you get to know your characters that you won’t modify the ending a bit; you probably will to keep your character’s motivations and desires in proper order.
If you can’t see the ending or a series of scenes that would conclude your novel project, then perhaps you’re not ready to write just yet. Once you write a novel, you will start to think, like any other writing form, about how to make another one. I do it by discovering great characters and defining where they are at the end of the novel (which includes people who are dead, alive, angry, confused, happy, miserable, satisfied or triumphant) and writing to that moment. If that final scene inspires you, makes you cry, makes you angry, makes you feel alive: that’s when you’ve got it. You will write to it. Don’t forget, by the time you write your characters and story to the known end, it will be stronger, filled with emotion and meaning. You will know your characters and their desire, you will have defined a sequence and a strong plot. And that end, like fate, will draw your characters quickly along to the end, like it was meant to be. It always was.

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