Book Review: “A Spool of Blue Thread,” by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler’s 20th novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, is a departure of sorts for her. While it explores the themes of family dysfunction familiar to fans of Tyler’s work, she widens the lens in this multi-generational family saga.

The Whitshanks seem like a family everyone can admire. Red is a second-generation home builder who owns a construction company. Abby, his wife, is a retired social worker who cannot resist trying to fix everybody with whom she comes into contact. The present-day action in the novel centers on the failing health of Red and Abby, who are in their early 70s. Red suffers a heart attack and is beginning to go deaf. Abby suffers from occasional memory loss and is prone to wandering the neighborhood while her family searches for her.

Concerned about the safety of their parents, the siblings rally around them. The loyal son, Stem, who is not a Whitshank by birth, his do-gooder wife, Nora, and their children move in with the Whitshanks. When their rootless and unpredictable son, Denny, shows up to pitch in with his parents’ care, it stirs smoldering hostilites in the family.

The Whitshanks’ spacious, well-appointed home on Bouton Road serves as both a character and a metaphor for this family, in which appearances and myths mask secrets and resentments.  Junior, Red’s father, built the house to his exacting standards for a wealthy family, the Brills. Through a bit of chicanery, he convinced the Brills to sell the house to him. Like a lot of Tyler’s characters, Junior learns that when he attains what he craves, it doesn’t make him happy.

This is a topic Tyler has explored throughout her body of work–the restlessness that inflicts family members as they sacrifice their ambitions and their individuality in the service of family harmony. 

In this novel, a catastrophic event is the trigger that Tyler uses to send the narrative back in time. Tyler peels back the layers of the Whitshank family, first by exploring the events that led to the relationship between Red and Abby. There is a beautifully rendered scene in which Red wins Abby’s affections away from a rebellious boyfriend. There is a passage about Red’s father, Junior, who is entrapped by a precocious 13-year-old girl into a relationship that causes him to flee North Carolina, but eventually brings about their marriage. There is also a quiet battle waged between Junior and his wife over the color of a porch swing he has lovingly restored for her. These types of passages, which date all the way back to the Great Depression, are not typical in Tyler’s novel, but there is a comon thread of wishes, aspirations, pretensions, and deceit. 

In the end Tyler provides a glimmer of hope that Denny might turn his life around, but, like life, the finale is ambiguous. This is what I like about Tyler’s endings, a true-to-life quality. 

Ths is one of the most ambitious and satisfying of Tyler’s novels, and that is saying a lot. 

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Short Story Markets

In my two most recent posts, I discussed tips for writing the short story and how it differs from the novel. Here, I will look at markets for short stories. 

Writers who seek to build credibility by getting published will do well to focus on short stories. There are a number of opportunites, from literary journals to university publications to online sites. Writers should start by purchasing the 2015 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, which contains numerous listings for book publishers, literary agents, fiction publications, contests, and more. 

Poets & Writers has a listing of publications that accept short stories, which includes genres and submission requirements. Random House has a comprehensive list of literary magazines, including contact information. Duotrope allows users to search for literary magaines by genre, response time, and acceptance rate. It requires a subscription fee of $5 a month, but there is a free trial.

Reading through these lists can overwheilm the writer, especially one who is just starting out. I wouldn’t dream of submitting a short story to the top literary publications like Atlantic, Missouri Review, The New Yorker, Paris Review, Ploughshares, or Virginia Quarterly Review. Okay, I submitted a short story of which I was proud to the Missouri Review and I never received a reply. All of these publications have an acceptance rate of less than one percent.

This begs the question: why submit to these lofty literary journals? It’s best to aim lower, but first the writer must make sure his work is ready for prime time. Novice writers should join a local writer’s group ad submit their work for feedback before submitting it for publication. Or, if a writer’s group doesn’t exist in a writer’s region, find a critique partner. 

What about online magazines or self-publishing on I found a site, Every Writer, that listed the best online literary magazines. This seems like a great resource. It contains a list of criteria they used to compile the list. As for Amazon, it is tantanlizingly easy for a writer to draft a short story and upload it. Viola! The writer is published. However, the most important piece of advice I can give is to resist the temptation to publish your work before it is ready.  And the writer is not the best judge of whether his work is ready. 

For the writer whose work is ready, the short story is a great route to publication. This is especailly true for writers who have the foresight and technical skill to come up wiht a serial or series that will keep readers buying their work online.

I have not pursued this path myself, but I am interested in learning the experiences of others who have done so. 


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Writing the Short Story, Part II

Author Zadie Smith once reportedly advised writers who are planning a short story to start as close to the end as possible. In Part I of this series, I discussed the narrow focus of the short story. Since the short story is generally limited to 1,000 to 3,500 words, writers must keep to a minimum the number of scenes, characters and time frame. Beginning a story close to the end might sound contradictory, but there is a logic to it.

Let’s say the crux of a short story centers on the deteriorating relationship between a father and a son. Substitute a husband and a wife or two lovers. The ending is the final break between the two people in the story. It is irreparable and absolute. In a short story the writer doesn’t have the space to explore the relationship from its beginning and to delve into the origins of the conflict. What the writer will convey in a short story is the final break, the tipping point.

If the short story centers on a journey, it must be a short one–a drive from Boston to New York as opposed to a cross country trip. A hero’s journey in a short story must begin “in medias res”–in the middle of the action. In a novel, the hero faces a  series of mounting challenges before the ultimate test. In a short story the hero is in the middle of the final battle, the ultimate challenge. The writer may weave into the story some references to the hero’s humble beginnings or earlier challenges, but it must be a fleeting glance back.

Similarly, the writer cannot give the protagonist multiple problems or challenges to solve in a short story. Choose one problem that signifies the larger issue. If the protagonist must overcome his need to get out from underneath his father’s shadow, show this through a single episode that pays off the theme. The protagonist should face one problem in a short story. The problem must link to something the character wants (or something the protagonist doesn’t want to happen to him). And, as in a novel, there must be a consequence for failure, though it doesn’t need to be as life-transforming as in a novel.

Though others may differ, I believe strongly the writer must stick to a single point-of-view (POV) in a short story. Multiple POVs work in novels because a writer can select a POV character for a scene and switch POVs in other scenes, based on the needs of the story and who is affected most by the scene. Changing POVs in a short story which has one or two scenes at most will confuse the reader.

Similarly, I would advise sticking to one setting, or two at most, in a short story. The setting, of course, must match the mood and the genre of the story. 

I will discuss short story markets in the next installment.

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Writing the Short Story, Part I

This blog focuses primarily on providing tips on writing novels. In today’s publishing landscape, writers can gain traction by focusing on short stories. There are markets out there for short stories. The short story requires less of a time commitment than the novel. When I was cutting my teeth as a fiction writer, I dabbled in short stories before I attempted a novel.

Conventional wisdom suggests it is easier to write a short story than it is to pen a novel. I’m not so sure. So let’s explore the differences between the short story and the novel. Chief among them is obviously the length. How long should a short story be? In my research, I found a wide range of answers, from 1,000 words to a maximum of 20,000 words. A good rule of thumb is to aim for 3,500 words, or about 14 typed pages at 12 point type, double spaced. Of course, a writer must check the guidelines of the publication to which she is submitting her work as there is usually a maximum word count listed.

With fewer words, every word must count in a short story. The word count limit means a writer must take a different approach to the short story than she would when writing a novel. The story must have a tighter focus. While a novel can span years and even decades, a short story usually takes place in one scene or two at most. Think of a short story as a snapshot, or a microcosm. Short stories challenge writers to reveal large themes in few words.

In a multi-generational novel, the writer can explore intra-family relationships over the course of decades. In a short story, the writer must capture the relationships and conflicts among characters in that family in one or two scenes. For example, a rift may develop in a family over many years. In a short story, one pivotal scene that shows how and why this rift developed must suffice. The writer must shift from a “macro” to a “micro” focus. 

While a limited focus is essential in writing a short story, the writer should also curtail the number of characters. Populating a 3,500-word short story with eight to ten characters doesn’t make sense and will confuse the reader. I would limit the number to three characters, but a writer may need more than that number of characters to serve the needs of the story.

In developing characters for short stories, there is no space for detailed character development. The character’s transformation may be more subtle in a short story than a novel. A few well-placed, descriptive words can delivrer insight. For instance, if a writer describes the main character as having wild hair and a scruffy  beard and wearing tattered jeans, that evokes a certain image. The writer doesn’t necessarily need to go into detail about the characer’s upbringing. Calling a character a grifter and giving that character a test sets up the elements for the story.

I will cover other aspects of the short story in another installment.

What about you? Do you write both short stories and novels? Which do you find more challenging?

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Stage Directions in Fiction Writing: Where is the MC?

I read a piece submitted by a member of my writer’s group. In the opening scene, the point-of-view character looked over the shoulder of his wife, who was seated in the corner. Wait a minute, I thought. If she was seated in the corner, how could he look over her shoulder? Or, was he looking beyond her shoulder. My confusion took me right out of the story. And it was a strong piece.

In my own work-in-progress, I must have read the opening scene a half-dozen times before I discovered the main character at one point was standing in the kitchen, putting English muffins in a toaster. A moment later, she was seated at the kitchen table and I had not described how she got there.

Janice Hardy blogged about this topic here in February. She emphasized the importance of balance in stage direction. “As with everything else in writing, good stage direction requires balance and subtlety with the rest of the text. Too much and it feels like the scene drags, describing every little move a character makes. Too little and it feels like something was missed.”

Nat Russo, posting on the blog A Writer’s Journey, observed that stage direction can bog down the pace of the story. “Stage direction impacts your pacing directly be slowing it down wherever it appears.” Russo wrote.

“Managing your stage direction well can be crucial to pacing and overall readability. Too many stage directions and you’ll drain the lifeblood of your story (the drama and tension), too few and you leave the reader navigating without a compass and any idea of where True North is,” Russo wrote.

My take on stage direction is that the writer does not need to describe every movement in detail, but the writer must at a minimum let the reader in on where the character is situated in a scene. And why the writer made that choice. The level of detail depends on what the writer wants to accomplish in a scene. If a couple is about to have an argument, does the writer place them nose to nose or on the other side of the room.  It depends. If they cannot stand the sight of each other, perhaps they want to be as far away as possible.

Is movement important to the scene? In the opening scene of my novel, the main character’s father storms out of the house. This means he has to walk through the kitchen, the dining room and the parlor, with his daughter walking behind hm and pleading with him not to go. The distance allowed me to heighten the tension. If he was at the front door and decided to walk out, the tension would have quickly dissipated.

Small details, such as a character fidgeting in his chair, can be revealing. Describing the chair in detail and where it was in the room could be distracting.

It all comes down to balance. Give the reader enough stage direction to allow her to visualize the scene, but not so much that it drags the scene down.

What is your take on stage direction? How much is too much?

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Book Review: “Let Me Frank With You,” by Richard Ford

Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe is one of my favorite characters in modern literature.  Bascombe embodies the hopes, dreams, restlessness, complexities, and insecurities of middle aged white males navigating a changing landscape in late 20th Century and early 21st Century America. Introduced to readers in “The Sportswriter” (1986), Bascombe’s journey continued in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Independence Day” (1995) and “The Lay of the Land” (2006). 

Ford brings Frank back in a series of four linked stories entitled, “Let Me Be Frank With You.” Frank was rootless and recently divorced in “The Sportswriter,” transitioning to a career as a real estate agent in “Independence Day,” and finding his way in “The Lay of the Land.” In Ford’s latest work, Frank is retired and is facing the issue of his own mortality.

In 2006, Ford thought ‘Lay of the Land’ would be the last Frank Bascombe book. In a recent interview Ford said Hurricane Sandy was the event that compelled him to bring Frank back. Ford was so affected by the storm’s destructive power and the crushing of human lives and dreams that he had to revive Frank, as the New Jersey landscape provided the backdrop for all three Bascombe novels. The stories take place in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, right before Christmas.

Told in the present tense, the stories find Frank reflecting on the past, living in the present, and sober-eyed about the future. In the first story, “I’m Here,” Frank travels to Seaclift to see his former beachfront house, at the behest of the man to whom he sold the property. The destruction he witnesses is a metaphor for Frank’s realization that nothing is permanent and death looms large.  As he drives to his former home, Frank observes that “civic life has sustained a fierce whacking–house roofs sheared off, exterior walls stripped away, revealing living room full of furniture, pictures on bed tables, closets stuffed with clothes, stoves and refrigerators standing out white for all to see. Other houses are gone altogether.” 

At the twilight stage of his life, Frank is looking to jettison things, including friends. He makes lists of words he dislikes and bonding is one of them. “Emerson was right–as he was about everything: an infinite remoteness underlies us all. And what’s wrong with that? Remoteness joins us as much as it separates us, but in a way that’s truly mysterious, yet completely adequate for the life ongoing.” 

When the homebuyer, Arnie Urquhart, hugs him as they depart, a gesture Frank seeks to avoid, he is unsteady on his feet and the embrace saves him from falling. And then Arnie says to Frank, “Everything could be worse, Frank”…”and he is surely right.”

Which brings the reader to the next story, “Everything Could Be Worse.” Frank returns from his weekly volunteer stint reading for the blind at a radio station to find a middle aged African American woman at his front door.  It turns out the woman, Charlotte Pines, had lived in the house years ago, until a horrific tragedy that occurred during her teen-age years forced her to move. The former realtor in Frank reflects, “No one wants to stay any place. There are species-level changes afoot.”

When Charlotte tells Frank that her troubled father killed her mother, brother and then himself in this house when she was 16, Frank asks her if it is beneficial to come back to the scene of the grisly events. Charlotte said it is helping and later asks Frank if he found it hard to move back to Haddam. “It’s been the easiest thing in the world. Most everyone I knew from before is gone or dead. I don’t make much of an impression on things now–which is satisfying.”

The next story, “The New Normal,” is the most satisfying for me. It centers on Frank’s visit to see his ex-wife, Ann Dykstra, now afflicted with Parkinson’s Disease and living in a high-end “state-of-the-art, staged-care facility.” The ostensible reason for Frank’s visit is to deliver to Ann a special pillow (a “yoga-approved, form-fitting, densely foamed and molded orthopedic pillow…recommended by neurologists in Switzerland to homeophatically ‘treat’ Parkinson’s…”). 

While ruminating on his marriage, Frank reveals that he is prone these days to inhabit his “Default Self,” which means the self he would like others to see in him. It is how he believes others understand him to be: “a man who doesn’t lie (or rarely), who presumes nothing from the past, who takes the high, optimistic road (when available), who doesn’t envision the future, who streamlines his utterances (no embellishments), and in all instances acts nice.”  Ann, on the other hand, is preoccupied with bedrock truth. She holds to the belief that the marriage failed because Frank didn’t love her. Frank will not concede that point. What Frank believes pushed their marriage over the cliff was the tragic death of their son, Ralph, to Reyes Disease at the age of nine, an event covered at length in “The Sportswriter” and “Independnce Day.”

Ann  believes we all have ‘selves,’ characters we cannot change. Frank doesn’t buy it. “Character, to me, is one more lie of history and the dramatic arts.  In my view, we have only what we did yesterday, what we do today, and what we might still do.” 

As they depart, Ford offers this tender description. “There is no urge to touch, to kiss, to embrace. But I do it just the same. It is our last charm. Love isn’t a thing, after all, but an endless series of single acts.”

In the final story, “Deaths of Others,” an old friend from the Divorced Men’s Club, Eddie Medley, is dying and invites Frank for a visit. Eddie makes a disturbing deathbed confession to Frank, revealing a shocking act of betrayal that would have sent Frank off the rails years ago, but he takes the news with surprising calm. When Eddie asks if the news changes anything, Frank say it doesn’t. “It’s just the truest thing I can say…A wound you don’t feel is not a wound. Time fixes things, mostly.”

And that may be the truest and most lasting legacy of Ford’s Frank Bascombe coda.


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Book Review: “Rodin’s Lover,” by Heather Webb

Heather Webb’s second novel, “Rodin’s Lover,” is historical fiction, but it defies easy categorization. Rodin’s Lover tells the stirring story of the art-fueled, stormy romance between French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) and his student, muse, and lover, Camille Claudel.  This story is much more than a romance. Told from Camille’s point-of-view, Rodin’s Lover chronicles both Camille’s struggles with her inner demons and her efforts to gain acceptance as a woman in a male-dominated field and society.

They met in 1883, but Camille’s story began much earlier. Webb takes the reader through Camille’s childhood in Villeneuve, where she showed an early interest in sculpture. Her mother disapproved of her interest in sculpture, but her father supported it. Eventually, her father arranged for Camille to move to Paris with her ultra-rigid mother, brother, and sister in 1881. She pursued studies in sculpture under Afred Boucher, who introduced Camille to Rodin.

Webb skilfully brings to life the sights and sounds of Paris in the late 1800s, from the gaslit streets and cafes to the ateliers where sculptors did their work, often using nude models.  What also comes through is Camille’s passion and devotion to her art, which borders on obsession. 

Similarly, Rodin was obsessed with Camille and pursued her relentlessly. While Camille resisted him at first, they began an affair that lasted for years, but he refused to leave Rose Beuret, his longtime companion whom he married late in life.

After the affair between Rodin and Camille ended in 1892, they remained in contact. Eventually, Camille descended into madness and was committed to a psychiatric hospital in 1913. She spent 30 yearrs in confinement and died in 1943. Much of the book is devoted to the affair with Rodin and Camille’s struggle to attain recognition for her art.

Much of this gripping story takes place within the intense, perceptive mind of Camille and this is where Webb’s well-paced narrative shines. Webb’s tension-filled scenes dramatically show the tumltuous relationship between Camille and her mentor.

Rodin’s Lover is a fitting follow-up to Webb’ excellent debut, Becoming Josephine.    

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