Author Archives: CG Blake

About CG Blake

I am a fiction writer and blogger. My interests include writing, music, sports, and politics.

Book Review: “Little Fires Everywhere,” by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, begins at the end—in the aftermath of an arson fire that destroys the tony suburban home of the Richardsons, the family at the center of this story. From there, Ng goes back to uncover the origins of the “little fires” that smolder at first and ultimately ignite the conflagration.

Little Fires Everywhere is a brilliantly plotted story that touches on hot-button issues of race, assimilation, abortion, adoptions, motherhood, the tenuous family bonds and the furtive lives and shifting alliances of teen-agers. That’s a lot of ground to cover, but Ng does it skillfully and without coming across as preachy.

Set in 1998, the novel offers powerful lessons that are relevant today as our nation struggles with racial tensions and deep fissures that roil on national political debate.

The Richardsons are in many ways the embodiment of the American Dream. Elena, the matriarch, is a third-generation resident of Shaker Heights, a progressive suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, built on order and rules. Their lives are upended when an itinerant visual artist, Mia Warren, moves into town with her teen-age daughter, Pearl. Mia rents an apartment in a home owned by the Richardsons at a below market rent, which Elena sees as an act of charity.

Pearl quickly forms a bond with Moody and the two high school sophomores are inseparable. But Trip, a year older than Moody, has designs on Pearl. And, complicating matters, Lexi, the Richardson’s oldest sibling, a high school senior, takes Pearl under her wing. And that’s just the children’s dilemmas. Conflict erupts among the adults when Elena and Mia find themselves on the opposite sides of a custody battle after family friends of the Richardsons try to adopt a Chinese-American baby. Elena, who works as a reporter for a local paper, is suspicious of Mia’s motives and begins digging into her past. What she discovers is troubling and she makes the fateful decision to act on it.

The most mysterious figure in this tale of two entangled families is Isabelle (Izzy), the youngest Richardson. A high school freshman with no filter and an iconoclastic streak, Izzy is able to grasp the toxicity of the situation, but lacks the judgment and maturity to deal with it in a constructive way.

Secrets and mysteries can create unbearable burdens, just as a slavish devotion to rules and order can cloud judgment and impede empathy. At the same time, people who believe they have progressive views on race can act in ways that are contrary to their professed beliefs. These are among the chief take-aways from this thought-provoking story.

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Not All Revisions are Alike

Writers tend to use the word “revision” as a catch-all term that applies to every type of self-review of their manuscript. The fact is that all revisions are not the same. A recent blog post by Janice Hardy on Fiction University outlined three different types of reviews: revision, rewrite, or redraft. In a revision, changes are minor. “The focus is on the text and the flow of the scenes,” Hardy wrote.

The next level is a rewrite. “The focus is on reworking an existing story to bring out the core idea,” she wrote. In this type of revision, “large chunks of the novel are often scrapped or reworked, but the bones are there to build on.” In a rewrite, “goals, conflicts, and motivations frequently change to reflect the new direction of the story.”

A rewrite is necessary when the writer is happy with the idea, “but the story isn’t quite unfolding the way you want it to yet.”

Then, there is the third type of revision, and the most comprehensive. This is the redraft. In this type of revision, she wrote, “the focus is on the original idea and how to get back to it.

“Nothing you’ve already drafted will work—it’s too fundamentally flawed to save. You have changed your story in a significant way.”

In a redraft, the writer is “not happy at all with what’s there.”

In my current work-in-progress, I’ve done all three types: revisions, rewrites, and redrafts. By far, the most difficult type of revision to undertake is the redraft. I threw out half of my draft novel after receiving feedback that the story didn’t work. Specifically, certain events in the story and decisions of the main character made her appear cold and unfeeling, the exact opposite of how I wanted the reader to perceive the protagonist. Discarding the latter half of my book meant wholesale changes to the story itself. In the original draft the main character’s mother is murdered after she goes out looking for her daughter (the main character), who was kicked out of the house. Now it was important to the story that the main character lost her mother, but there were other ways to do it (talk about killing your darlings).

In the first draft the father kicked the main character out of the house after she told him she intended to have an abortion. She doesn’t have the abortion, so she should have come back home, right? That was the reason she was kicked out, but she doesn’t come home. She stays away for 10 years, because it allowed me to use all of these phony plot devices.

In the redrafted story, she comes back home shortly after she decides to have her baby, only to discover her mother has dementia. In her condition, her mother is lost to her and she ends up dying a lot sooner, anyway. The main character is forced into a role she is not ready for and it challenges her in ways that relate strongly to her internal goal and obstacles.

The lesson for writers is that there may come a time, even after multiple rounds of revisions, when the story still doesn’t work. That’s when the writer is confronted with a difficult decision: undertake a redraft or scrap the story entirely. What makes this such a difficult decision is the redraft is a daunting, time consuming challenge, that occurs at a time when the writer has already put a lot of time into drafting and revising a story. What makes it worthwhile is the possibility that the writer can create a more powerful story.

How does one know whether to kill or redraft a story. Here are some questions to ask:

–Does the main character have a strong internal goal? Is that goal clear to the reader? If achieved, is the goal worth the reader’s time?
–What are the stakes and how do the stakes relate to or threaten the main character’s achievement of the goal?
–Do the oppositional forces, whether an antagonist, external events or other obstacles, grow naturally from the plot in a way that makes sense?
–Do the events of the story relate to the main character’s internal quest?

In my case, I hadn’t spent enough time identifying and developing my main character’s internal goal and the forces that prevented her from achieving it. Instead, I piled on a lot of external events (a plan to hide from her family in plain sight, a murder that her brother unwittingly caused) that I thought at the time would create a better story. Those events only served to weaken the main character and cause the reader to lose respect for her.

Once I thought through the main character’s internal goal and identified the obstacles that would block her from achieving it, everything fell into place.
Redrafting can bust a writer’s confidence, but once the writer moves past the fear of the work required, it can be satisfying to resurrect a moribund story and breathe new life into it.

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Cures for the Sagging Middle

The word “middle” gets a bad rap. Middle age is associated with “midlife crisis.” Middle of the road in politics means wishy washy, often referring to a person with no guiding principles. In music, MOR signifies an artist who takes the safe route, the plain, formulaic and predictable road.

In fiction, the middle is where novels either soar or die. Mystery writer James Scott Bell has written a book about the importance of the middle, where many authors get stuck. Here is his recent post from The Kill Zone blog.

Bell’s book is called, “Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between.”

In the classic three-act structure, the midpoint is when the main character must take a stand. The main character shifts from reactive to proactive. Often it is referred to as a reversal. As Janice Hardy puts it in her Fiction University blog:

“The midpoint reversal creates the center point for the story arc, and connects the beginning with the ending. The first half of the novel is all about the protagonist discovering he has a problem and trying to solve it, and the second half is all about the protagonist realizing it won’t be so easy and he’ll have to go above and beyond to succeed. It’s also a solid turning point to write toward to avoid a sagging middle.”

The midpoint reveals who the main character is and what she must do to overcome her obstacles and reach her goals. I can hear that author voice in my head saying, “But I already know who the main character is. I’ve written a five-page character sketch. This advice doesn’t help me at all.”

Fair enough, but the question the author must answer is this: how have you forced the author to confront her fears? Have you put your main character to the test? Have you made it harder for your author or have you let her off the hook?

Here are some of the causes of the sagging middle, based on my own experiences:

• Failure to think the story through. This is a particular problem for pantsers. As a recovering pantser, I’m guilty of this. I’ve started many a story with a great premise that includes a beginning, a middle and an end. Or least that’s what I thought. But when I got to the middle my story ran out of steam. I hadn’t considered all the possibilities. I hadn’t put the main character through the kinds of challenges that result in transformative growth. I envisioned a straight road to the finish line, but I failed to put any bumps or potholes in that road.

• Lack of complexity in the story. This relates to the first cause. Let’s say you are writing a murder mystery. The detective discovers the identity of the killer in Chapter 3. He was the only one who had a weapon, a motive and a key to the victim’s apartment. Not much of a story there. What if those same circumstances existed, but the obvious suspect had an airtight alibi? He was in Australia at the time of the murder. Now what? Did someone close to him steal the key? Who else could have had a motive? What if someone else fingered this guy to hide his own guilt? What about that insurance policy that named his younger sister as beneficiary, and not his close friend? Ah, now you have multiple suspects.

• Poor character development. This sometimes stems from a writer not giving his character serious flaws that prevent her from reaching her goals. Or, placing daunting challenges in front of her. Weak characters produce weak stories, which are often exposed when the writer gets to the middle.

• Lack of imagination and a failure to explore all the possibilities. It’s been said that writers when developing a story should ask a series of “what if” questions. What if this happened? What if I put my character in a terrible situation? How would she react? What would she do? How could she make her situation worse? Or to paraphrase literary agent and fiction writing guru Donald Maass, Ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen to your character Then, make it happen.

So what should writers do to avoid to add sizzle to the middle of their stories? Here are a couple of ideas:

Use the midpoint reversal Janice Hardy described in her blog post. As she puts it, the midpoint reversal throws the plot sideways because the main character realizes her worldview or plan will not work and, as a result, she has to change in some fundamental way. But not just internally. Her actions have to change. Events have made her goal harder to reach. What she was doing in the past won’t work. This occurs around the halfway point. Often it is manifested by a disruptive event that creates peril or a crisis for the main character. This launches the second half of the novel.

The midpoint reversal almost always involves higher stakes and a loss of the main character’s support system. A supporting character is no longer available. Or, the main character loses her job. Or there’s a death in the family. There are numerous ways a writer can create a more challenging road for the main character. Whatever event you choose it should grow organically out of the story or there should be some foreshadowing of it.

Think about how to disrupt the main character’s world and create ever-increasing daunting trials. The possibilities are endless. Use all the tools in your toolbox: opposing characters, antagonists, deep, dark secrets, family dysfunction, power struggles.

What about you? Do you struggle with the sagging middle of your story? What works best for you?

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Is Setting Goals Setting You Up for Failure?

It happens every January. I go to the fitness center to work out. I can’t get on a treadmill. They are all taken. So I wait until someone finishes their workout. By March, I have my choice of unoccupied treadmills.

Studies show that most people abandon their New Year’s resolutions within a month or two of making them. I used to set annual writing goals and post them on my blog at the beginning of each year. I’ve stopped doing it. It’s not that I don’t believe in goals. Taking stock of my life, my writing, and my work periodically is healthy. I do it more than once a year. I do it whenever I find myself in a rut.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about goal setting and it gives insight into why so many well intentioned New Year’s resolutions fail. Setting too many goals and unachievable goals is a recipe for failure. What has helped me more than anything is to focus on The One Thing that is causing the problem. And once I’ve identified The One Thing, I can turn all of my attention and energy to fixing it.

Let’s look at resolutions or goals that are too ambitious and unrealistic. Let’s see…I want to work out four times a week, eat healthy, lose weight, meet the person of my dreams and crank out a novel—all in one year. When I fall behind, when I can’t get to the fitness center, when I’m too tired to write, when I don’t have time to eat and I wolf down some fast food because it’s cheap and delicious, those goals fade away. And it shatters my confidence.

How to get back on track? Focus on The One Thing. Two years ago, for health reasons, I revolutionized my diet. I dedicated myself to work out three to four times a week and eat a health diet with no sugar, no processed foods and very little red meat. Two years later, I feel great. I’ve lost weight, I’m fit and I sleep better. I did that by focusing on The One Thing. And I’m a more productive writer.

While I am still struggling six years later on my novel (one of my old goals was to write a novel a year), I am a better writer now. Writing is hard. Writing is time consuming. My work-in-progress is stronger now because I’ve torn the story apart twice and rebuilt it into a more coherent and powerful narrative. My novel is infinitely better than it was two and a half years ago, when I sent it to my editor. I thought it was ready for publication again, but I had a long way to go. I’m now writing with focus and purpose.

So here’s my take on setting goals:

1. Set realistic goals, assessing where you are and what is realistic. Setting a goal to run a marathon in six months is unrealistic. Start with a quarter mile, buildi up to a half mile and you will be running a mile before you know it. It’s the same with writing. If you’ve never written a book before, it might not be realistic to expect to write one in a year, though that shouldn’t stop you. If you can’t get to 1,000 words a day, try, 500, or 300 good ones.

2. Take small steps. You’ve heard the advice that the best way to tackle a big project is to break it down into small pieces. It’s true in writing goals and in life goals. Using the word count analogy, if you have only 30 minutes a day, you can probably write 500 words. That’s 3,500 words in a week, and 42,000 words a year. Not bad for a half hour a day. of course you could always do more with more time to write.

3. If you don’t achieve your goals, recalibrate them. Small achievements lead to big ones and you’ll be surprised how much progress you will make.

So go for it. Set realistic goals and focus on achieving them.

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Book Review: “The Ninth Hour,” by Alice McDermott

Alice McDermott’s new novel, The Ninth Hour, begins with a suicide and a failed cover-up, setting off a series of events tinged with moral dilemmas that cascade for decades.

Fired from his job as a train man for the BRT and with a pregnant wife, Jim, an Irish immigrant, commits suicide in the apartment he shares with Annie. An elderly nun, Sister Saint Saviour of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, takes pity on Annie. The crafty nun makes a foiled attempt to cover up the suicide, wanting to give Jim a Christian burial.

The scene highlights the conflict between the Catholic Church’s rules and the compassion Sister St. Saviour feels for the fallen man and his poor widow. It’s a theme McDermott returns to throughout the story.

The nuns give Annie a job in the basement laundry room of the convent, where they practically raise her daughter, Sally. Annie befriends Michael and Liz Tierney, and their families become close over the years, their stories intertwining with hers.

Set in early 20th Century Brooklyn, The Ninth Hour portrays the nuns not as overly virtuous or inhumanly harsh caricatures, but as three dimensional sober-eyed champions of the downtrodden: cleaning bedpans and soiled clothing, ministering to invalids and poor people, and giving comfort to people without hope. Their morality is guided not by the priests, who rarely appear in the story, but by their own sense of what is right and fair.

The nuns are richly drawn characters. Sister Jeanne, a young nun who takes Sally under her wing, “believed with the conviction of an eyewitness that all human loss would be restored: the grieving child would have her mother again; the dead infant would find robust health; suffering, sorrow, accident and loss would all be amended in heaven. She believes this because…fairness demanded it.”

Sister Illuminati runs the basement laundry room with energetic efficiency. Here, McDermott’s fine eye for detail is on display as she writes of Sister Illuminati’s assortment of laundry ingredients: “the store bought Borax and Ivory and bluing agents, but the potions she mixed herself: bran water to stiffen curtains and wimples, alum water to make muslin curtains and nightwear fire resistant, brewed coffee to darken the sisters’ stockings and black tunics, Fels-Naptha water for general washing, Javelle water (washing soda, chloride of lime, boiling water) for restoring limp fabric.”

There is the no-nonsense Sister Lucy, who is described as having “a small tight knot of fury at the center of her chest.”

Each of the nuns makes compromises in the name of love and mercy. Sister Saint Saviour, when she reflects on her attempt to obtain a Christian burial for a man who committed suicide, prays to God, “Hold it against the good I’ve done, she prayed. We’ll sort it out when I see You.”

On the cusp of adulthood, Sally believes she has a vocation for the convent. However, during a train ride to a Chicago convent where she will prepare for her orders, Sally is revolted by the cruelty and squalor she experiences. She quickly decides not to become a nun.

What she desires more than anything is to find happiness for her mother, who spends her afternoons with Mr. Costello, a milkman, but cannot marry him because he is married to a bedridden, invalid woman. Sally witnesses Mrs. Costello’s cruelty and contempt for the nuns who care for her each day while Mr. Costello is on his milk route, and she wishes life were more fair.

Eventually, Sally marries childhood friend Patrick Tierney. Later we learn from their children that she has plunged into clinical depression in midlife.

McDermott chooses as her narrator Jim and Annie’s grandchildren, which gives the story a panoramic scope and the perspective of the passage of time. Interwoven are vignettes about the family’s history and the sacrifices made and sins committed in the name of love.

There are many lessons to draw from this novel. The one that resonates most for me is that we are all imperfect, but we must strive to do what is right. As Mrs. Tierney, Sally’s mother-in-law puts it, “God’s not going to hold it against you if you’re something less than a blessed saint. Aren’t we all human? Aren’t we all doing the best we can?”

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Late Revisions Can Save Your Manuscript

I just finished a round of major edits on my manuscript. I was pleased with it, until I received a very thoughtful email from a member of my critique group who had read the latest iteration. Something about the actions of the protagonist’s love interest early in the story bothered her and she presented a way I could fix it. The fix would require major changes later in the manuscript and months of work.

As much as I didn’t want to make any late changes to the story arc or the characters, the more I thought about her suggestion, the more I convinced myself she was correct.

Keep in mind I’ve been working on this story for five years. I’ve reached that point where I am growing tired of the story, but the scene in question is a pivotal one and it had always bothered me.

In the problematical scene, the main character’s lover leaves her without notice when she is seven months pregnant and doesn’t return for a year and a half. He eventually tries to win her back. My colleague’s issue was that his initial action makes him so unlikeable that it is impossible for the reader to believe that he could redeem himself. And she was right. I was conscious of that on some level, but I was too wedded to my original concept to consider changing it.

Now I’m going to have to rewrite that scene and many others. In the new version, he will have a reason to leave. His mom is going through a crisis. He will leave a note for his lover and stay in contact. She will, of course, still harbor resentment, and whether he left to run away from his relationship will remain a source of conflict between them.

All of this raises important questions for writers who are in the late stages of revising a manuscript. At what point does a writer call it a day? How does a writer know the story is done? Is the writer too close to the work to even know?

Here is a series of questions to help make that decision:

–Does the story arc hang together in a cohesive way?

–Do the actions of the main characters make sense to an objective person? A lover leaving his pregnant girlfriend might make sense if he is an antagonist who is going to be an obstacle to the main character achieving her goals, but not if he is going to attempt to reconcile with her.

–Are the actions of the characters consistent with their roles in the story? In the case of the protagonist, is the character’s growth and transformation to achieve her goals realistic? Is the way the protagonist overcomes her weaknesses believable to the reader?

–Are there any unnecessary scenes or characters? Does every scene pay off the story and relate to the protagonist’s transformation?

–When you identify changes to the story, will those changes improve the story in a significant way?

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The Value of a Writer’s Retreat

WU Writers RetreatI returned on Nov. 14 from a six-day writer’s retreat with 15 close friends and colleagues from the online Writer Unboxed writer’s community. Here’s what we accomplished:

Total words written: 126,205
Screenplay drafts: 1
Revised short stories: 4
Poems written: 13
Book Manuscripts Completed: 2

The numbers don’t begin to tell the story. It’s difficult to describe the magic that happens when a writer is united with a supportive group of colleagues infused with a common purpose.

But, first, let me describe the setting. The retreat took place at the When Words Count retreat center, a restored farmhouse built in 1809. The sprawling house is perfect for a retreat, with many writing spaces and cozy nooks perfect for writing. There are 16 acres of rolling hills and farmland surrounding the house.

Our days were unstructured, except for breaks each day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, served onsite. What we accomplished was completely up to each of us. Many of us rose early in the morning (okay, some earlier than me) and began writing well before the 9:30 a.m. community breakfast. During the afternoons, after a rigorous six or so hours of writing, some writers took walks to enjoy the breathtaking views of the farmland and the mountains in the distance. At 5:30 there was a cocktail hour, when we could unwind and discuss writing challenges, family life, or anything else that came to mind. A few hearty souls even wrote well into the night, but most of us called it a day at dinner.

After dinner, the conversation was free form and relaxing. One evening, we had a sing along with the renowned Sean Walsh, husband of Writer Unboxed co-founder Therese Walsh, leading us on acoustic guitar. Sean was in fine voice, as usual, and the rest of us did the best we could. It was just the tonic we needed after a day spent in intense concentration.

If you are weighing whether to attend a writer’s retreat, I can say from experience it is worthwhile. It will jumpstart your work-in-progress and you will make new friends and colleagues. Here are some tips for maximizing your retreat experience:

–If possible, arrange to attend with writing colleagues. I’ve never attended a retreat with complete strangers, but the advantage of writing with friends is that you have already formed a bond and can discuss a variety of writing challenges in a candid fashion.

–Check out the retreat space in advance. If it is close enough to where you live, take a trip there. Ask for a tour. Make sure there is ample space for writing. During my last retreat in 2015, I had a positive experience, but the writing space consisted of a large dining room table, where the 10 writers were cramped. There was a smaller table on the second floor where some writers worked, which relieved the crowding. Look for a place with plenty of light and lots of room to write.

–Have a plan and goals going into the retreat. This is the most important tip. If you are working on a first draft, set a goal of finishing the draft. Even if it’s a stretch goal, it will give you something to work toward. Six days is a long time. It’s a rare gift to have a dedicated chunk of time. You must take advantage of this gift.

My goal was to finish the latest draft of my work-in-progress, A Prayer for Maura, and then begin building and editing the manuscript, which was contained in separate chapter documents. I worked feverishly during the weeks leading up to the retreat to get as close to the finish line as I could. On Friday morning, the second full day of the retreat, I finished and then began the tedious work of putting together and editing the manuscript. I finished a few days later, cutting an unwieldy 114,000 words and 46 Chapters to 92,000 words and 21 Chapters. It’s amazing what one can achieve with a block of uninterrupted time.

I am so thankful to my Writer Unboxed colleagues for sharing their experience s, love and support with me. Special thanks go to Amy Rachiele for organizing the retreat, to my roommate, Brian B. King for putting up with me, and to Therese Walsh for creating and leading such a nurturing writer’s community.

Have you attended a writer’s retreat? What advice do you have for others considering a retreat?

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