Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules For Writing

March 4, 2013

elmore 2As an agent, I get a lot of fiction submissions. Usually I can tell if I don’t like them by the end of the first page. Sometimes by the end of the first paragraph. I’m a little embarrassed to make this admission. Some people might think that my method makes me a literary philistine. And sure, there are lots of examples of masterpieces that I probably would mistakenly throw out because I was bored on page one or even page 10. Most of the great novels of the nineteenth century might not pass muster. As an example, just look at Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. We all know the story, don’t we? Well, in the likely event that you loved the play or movie, as I did, you probably tried to read the book but gave up. The hero, Jean Valjean, doesn’t even show up until about page 50. And the stuff before his entrance is deadeningly, crushingly boring.

When I talk to inexperienced writers, I usually tell them to read Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing. And if you don’t treat the rules inflexibly, they are all very sensible. We’ll let Victor Hugo get by with a few peccadilloes. Well, actually Les Mis has about 800 pages of peccadilloes. So here is Leonard’s list with my modest annotations:

1. Never Open a book with a weather report. We all remember the most celebrated bad first line in literature: “It was a dark and stormy night.” from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford. The novel was considered a masterpiece when written. Now it has become a subject of ridicule and condescension by high culture snoots. There isn’t anything wrong with writing about the weather if you are building a scene. But for me this kind of beginning smacks of the equivalent of novelistic throat clearing, a sign that the author lacks the self-confidence to jump into the story.

2. Avoid prologues. Screenwriters love prologues. But then screenplays are usually about 20% as long as even the shortest novel. Movies have to get backstory information out quickly and concisely, and the prologue is an obvious vehicle for this. But novels are different. Again, prologues were ok in the nineteenth century. Probably the most influential artist of that time was Richard Wagner. His masterpiece, The Ring of the Niebelung, runs for 4 nights and is over 14 hours long. The entire 2 1/2 hour first opera, Das Rheingold, is a classic prologue written entirely to bring out the backstory of the epic myth. Wagner gets to break the rules; but you, gentle writer, do not. Editors in New York are pretty demanding about how authors should handle backstory. They expect it to be dribbled out on a “need to know basis”. Editors condescendingly refer to backstory prologues as “info dumps”. Another sign of an inexperienced author.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. Ok. This is a little extreme. I’m sure Elmore wouldn’t have a problem with “asked” or “thought”. But it’s probably a good idea to avoid most other tags. Plain vanilla tags like “said” are transparent to the reader and keep the reader’s attention on the dialogue and the story. More complex and descriptive tags like “he wondered” or “he mused” or “he regurgitated” [unless, of course, the subject is actually tossing his cookie] are distracting. An exercise in “telling” rather than “showing.”

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely. Same as rule #3 above. Adverbs tend to be clumsy and lazy. That said, I just finished rereading The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald loved adverbs. And who am I to criticize Fitzgerald? So, like Wagner, we’ll give him a literary “get out of jail free” card.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. YOU HEAR THAT RULE, BUB?! You try using those exclamation points with me, and you’re outta here!!!

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” What Elmore is really saying here is that you should avoid clichés like the plague (ha, ha. joke). Another sign of lazy writing. And you might also take the advice of Strunk and White and not use “weak” adjectives like “nice”, “beautiful”, or even “weak”.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Dad gummit! I agree with Elmore on this. It’s another example of how good style should be invisible. A novel should draw the reader into a kind of trance-like state. When the style distracts the reader from the story, she falls out of the story. I see a lot of stuff by inexperienced writers who are smitten by the need to flaunt their style. Excessive alliteration and misplaced similes, for example. There are lots of examples of great writing where style trumps substance, but in general this is a good rule.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. I’m not sure I would agree with this as a general rule. But what I think Elmore means is that characters are best described by their actions and their words in dialogue. Another admonition of “show, don’t tell.” But go ahead, you can break this rule if it works.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. I’d really like to make a snarky remark about Henry James right now, but I will forgo that temptation. As above, sometimes this rule is more honored in the breach than in the observance. Sure, if you are writing like Hemingway, Raymond Carver, or even Elmore Leonard, rule #9 is sound advice. But there is room for other styles in good writing. Certainly you should avoid unnecessary detail. Actually you should avoid unnecessary anything.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. This rule speaks for itself –uh– Henry James? Are you listening?

Learning from Lee Child

August 13, 2012

A few weeks ago I was asked to do manuscript evaluations at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference. After reading the first 20 pages of a few of these, I started noticing that the writers were having a difficult time getting the story going. Sometimes the author  started out with a long description of the weather. Sometimes he began with  a prologue that delayed the beginning of the real story in order to  frontload some backstory information into the text.  Sometimes he just seemed to be in love with his own vocabulary.  I realized that by the time I was 20 pages into these submissions, I  didn’t know much about what these stories were really about.

I decided that it might be useful to analyze the start of a crime novel by a really good writer. Here is the first 200 words of  The Killing Floor by Lee Child. Let’s read the complete text below and then go over it line by line and see exactly how much story Lee Child packs into these very few words.

I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.

The diner was small, but bright and clean. Brand-new, built to resemble a converted railroad car. Narrow, with a long lunch counter on one side and a kitchen bumped out back. Booths lining the opposite wall. A doorway where the center booth would be.

I was in a booth, at a window, reading somebody’s abandoned newspaper about the campaign for a President I didn’t vote for last time and wasn’t going to vote for this time. Outside, the rain had stopped but the glass was still pebbled with bright drops. I saw the police cruisers pull into the gravel lot. They were moving fast and crunched to a stop. Light bars flashing and popping. Red and blue light in the raindrops on my window. Doors burst open, policemen jumped out. Two from each car, weapons ready. Two revolvers, two shotguns. This was heavy stuff. One revolver and one shotgun ran to the back. One of each rushed the door.

Now let’s take it one line at a time.

I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee.

By the third word we know a very important piece of information,  that this is going to be a crime story.  The narrator and main character, Jack Reacher, is in a diner, not at his supper club.  This tells us that he is a guy who lacks pretension. He’s having eggs and coffee, not brioche and cappuccinos.

A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.

He sets the scene. It’s  daytime. It’s raining. Lee Child isn’t spending much time giving the weather report. Just what you need to know. And he gets a lot of other information in as well. The fact that he is walking in the rain instead of driving tells you more about Reacher, that he is modest, that his tastes are simple. He didn’t drive up in a Ferrari or a Buick. He walked.  And he’s walking from the highway to the edge of town. He’s coming into the town, not going to the diner from his home. He’s an outsider.

The diner was small, but bright and clean. Brand-new, built to resemble a converted railroad car. Narrow, with a long lunch counter on one side and a kitchen bumped out back. Booths lining the opposite wall. A doorway where the center booth would be.

Nice short description of the scene. Most people already know what a diner looks like. So he doesn’t need to embellish much.  He focuses on the big design. Bright and clean, resembles a railroad car, etc. Doesn’t bother to go into the details, what’s on the wall, color of the table tops.  The reader doesn’t need to know all these details, and Reacher, the narrator, wouldn’t be noticing them either. That isn’t what Reacher is all about.  The fact that it is a diner also  sends a kind of ineffable message. There’s a noir quality to the scene.

I was in a booth, at a window, reading somebody’s abandoned newspaper about the campaign for a President I didn’t vote for last time and wasn’t going to vote for this time

Tells us more about the kind of guy Reacher is. He’s  cynical and worldly wise. Not sentimental and not  an idealist, not an intellectual. Doesn’t suffer fools.  (He’s reading a discarded newspaper, not a copy of Hegel’s philosophy.) And notice how he uses short choppy sentences, sometimes just phrases. The words are simple.  You wouldn’t find Reacher in a Henry James novel.

Outside, the rain had stopped but the glass was still pebbled with bright drops. I saw the police cruisers pull into the gravel lot. They were moving fast and crunched to a stop. Light bars flashing and popping. Red and blue light in the raindrops on my window. Doors burst open, policemen jumped out. Two from each car, weapons ready. Two revolvers, two shotguns. This was heavy stuff. One revolver and one shotgun ran to the back. One of each rushed the door.

Now the action begins.  It starts right out of the gate. Lee Child’s delivers. We are about 150 words into the book. And the police cars pull up with lights flashing and popping. The cops burst in armed to the teeth. Covering all the doors.  We already know they want Reacher.

Hey —  let’s turn the page!

Mary Mackey on Writing Poetry and Fiction

October 10, 2011

Mary Mackey  is a novelist, a poet, and a teacher. We interviewed her last year in this blog upon publication of her historical novel, The Widow’s War. Mary’s new book of poems, Sugar Zone, is being published this October by Marsh Hawk Press. Her poetry has been praised by Wendell Berry, Jane Hirshfield, and Marge Piercy to name but a few. She is the author of 13 novels and her work has been translated into twelve languages.

Mary will be giving readings  of Sugar Zone throughout the month of October in the Bay area and New York.

I thought it would be a lot of fun to talk to Mary and compare the creative experiences of writing poetry and fiction.

Andy: Mary, let’s start by talking about a poem in your new poetry collection Sugar Zone. Here it is:

The Kama Sutra of Kindness: Position Number 5


in the flame
of a single candle     entire cities
are appearing
and disappearing

my hands tremble on you
my fingers pass through you
your tongue tastes like apples
your flesh is fog

above our roof     the jealous moon
has torn a hole in the sky

Could you tell us a little bit what went  through your mind when you were composing this poem?

Mary: This is a love poem, the fifth in a series about the spiritual dimensions of passion. For thousands of years, poets have been writing about how passion can seize us, pull us out of ourselves, and unite us not only with another person but with the Divine. As I wrote this poem, I had a vision of lovers creating a moment where time stopped for so long that entire cities could appear and disappear in the flickering of a candle.

Andy: In plain English, what are you saying here?

Mary: That’s a hard question. When you put a poem into plain English, it’s no longer a poem, but let me try: I’m saying that passion combined with love is one of the paths to the Divine. I’m not the first poet to say this. Saint John of the Cross, one of the most important mystical philosophers in Christian history, wrote passionate love poems to God.

Andy: This is a gorgeous poem.  I think I had to read it out loud several times to really appreciate it. But having read your fiction, I’m a little surprised that this has come out of the same mind as the person who wrote The Widow’s War. That novel was also beautifully written but it was an adventure, a popular novel. It would make a good  big budget movie. Are you a literary schizophrenic?

Mary: No, I’m not even all that unusual. Marge Piercy, whose work I admire greatly, has been writing both novels and poetry for over 40 years. I’ve been writing poetry since I was 11. For the first 15 years of my literary career, I was known primarily as a poet. Poems and novels come out of different parts of my brain.

Andy: Other than Marge Piercy, who are some other poets you admire who also write fiction?

Mary: Thomas Hardy, Maxine Hong Kingston, Michael Ondaatje, Ishmael Reed, and Paul Auster, are some of my other favorite poet-novelists.

Andy: Your novels have been on The New York Times bestseller list. Your last novel The Widow’s War made The San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list. All told, your novels have sold well over a million and a half copies.  So why did you choose to write the poems in Sugar Zone instead of writing another novel? Are you nuts?

Mary: Probably. No, seriously, I wrote those poems because they came to me with an urgency that told me that right now I would not be happy writing anything else. I have the great luxury of being able to write what I want when I want to write it, not because I’m rich but because I’ve always had a day job. When I was a teenager, I read a lot of biographies of authors, who were forced to write pot boilers to put food on the table. I like regular meals, so I decided to get a Ph.D., become a professor,  write whatever I wanted to write, and teach college students for a living, which I did. This was a good choice because I love teaching.  I think it’s important for writers to do something besides write. You need to get out in the world, experience life to the fullest, have a few Hemingway-like adventures.

Andy: What do you get out of poetry that you don’t get when you write a novel? Certainly not money. You’ve said that. I’m sure your agent couldn’t care less about this part of your writing life. I don’t represent poets. I have a mortgage to pay.

Mary: You’re right about the money. During my first ten years as a writer, I only got paid once for a poem: $1.75. My last book of poetry Breaking The Fever, actually made money thanks to Garrison Keillor who read three of my poems on The Writer’s Almanac, but I couldn’t retire on my poetry income unless I lived like Gandhi. What I get out of writing poetry is joy. When I write a poem, I feel elated, as if I had gotten in touch with some deep, hidden part of myself. I don’t write poems that read like a diary, but there is more of the real me in my poems than in my novels. Writing poetry is my spiritual practice, like meditation. It gets me in touch with my unconscious.

Andy: What’s the difference between writing novel and a poem? Talk about the creative process a little bit.

Mary: Writing a poem is more immediate experience. I write most of my poems out in longhand in one sitting and then start putting them through revisions.  I’ll sometimes revise a poem 20 times before I am happy with it.  Occasionally a poem will come to me without  a word that needs changing. Ideas for novels also come quickly, but the novel itself  takes a long time to write—three years of daily work all done on a computer. Writing a novel is like planning a huge convention: you need to be highly rational and well-organized; you have to work within the limits of plot and character, and you have to think about whether or not your publisher is going to be able to sell your book; because publishers, agents, and booksellers  do indeed have mortgages to pay. But with poetry, anything goes. It’s more like play than work.

Andy: Does the craft of writing poetry bleed over into writing novels? Do good poets make good novelists?

Mary: I like to think my novels are better written because I write poetry. I love language, I’m sensitive to the rhythm of sentences, I’m in touch with the unconscious impulses of my characters. But you also have to resist poetry when you write novels or you will spend three pages ecstatically describing a sunset, neglect the plot, mess up the pace, and bore your readers.

Andy: Mary, it seems to me that in America, poets get no respect. I remember in the Soviet Union where free expression was not permitted, poets were authentic superstars who would draw thousands of people to their readings. That doesn’t really happen  here. It doesn’t happen in the new Russia either. Does poetry thrive on adversity?

Mary: Under an oppressive dictatorship,  poetry often becomes the last stronghold of freedom of speech because dictators underestimate its power to inspire ordinary people to resist oppression. Poetry can be very dangerous.

Andy: How do poets make money as poets?

Mary: Most don’t. The most common way for a poet to survive in America is to teach. Well-known poets are paid to do poetry readings, lecture, and give workshops, mostly at colleges, universities, and at writer’s conferences.  If you write poetry, don’t give up your day job.

Andy: I can’t write a story to save my life. But my clients who write fiction never run out of stories to tell. I assume that it’s a gift from the muse and that I have not been so blessed. Is this true? Is the gift of poetry the same gift or different?

Mary: They are both the same gift expressed in different ways.

Andy: Will you ever write another novel?

Mary: I am working on one right now.  I have more ideas for novels and poems than I’ll ever be able to use in one lifetime.

Linda Watanabe McFerrin Talks about Zombies

September 6, 2010

Linda Watanabe McFerrin is an award-winning novelist, short fiction writer, travel journalist, writing teacher, and all around literary guru.  Her first novel, Namako: Sea Cucumber, was published by Coffee House Press in 1998 and was awarded a Best Book for the Teenage from the New York City Libraries.

Linda’s newest novel, Dead Love, published by Stone Bridge Press, is being released this week. It is a novel about zombies centered in Japan. It begins when Clément, a lovesick ghoul, falls for the beautiful Erin. What follows is a breathless story that moves from Tokyo to Haiti to Amsterdam to Malaysia. Along the way you will encounter Yakuza (Japanese gangsters), Haitian witch doctors, ballet dancers and assorted horrible characters.  There is even a little zombie sex mixed into this pot. Yuch! 

 You can buy Dead Love in paperback, e-book, or a special limited hardback edition that includes a manga treatment of one of the chapters.

Linda will be making a number of appearances around the Bay Area.

 Andy: Linda, congratulations on the publication of Dead Love. I want to talk about zombies today. When we first began speaking about this book (full disclosure: I’m the literary  agent who represents Linda), you made the striking comment that you believed zombies really exist. Well, excuuuse meeee!! But I don’t believe I have encountered many zombies at Cody’s over the years or even in your literary salon, Left Coast Writers. How can you defend this astonishing claim? Could you tell us a little bit about the science of zombies and how one can identify them.

Linda: Thanks, Andy. Right. Dead Love was actually inspired years ago when I read a book by noted ethno-botanist, Wade Davis, who also happens to be one of my literary and travel heroes. Davis’ book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, was about his search in Haiti for a kind of zombie formula—the substances that bokors, the Vodoun shamans or witchdoctors, have been using for generations to drug their victims into a death-like stupor. This is actually a crime in Haiti, and I have an old newspaper clipping about a man who was sentenced to prison for the crime of zombification. Zora Neale Hurston famously wrote about zombies in Tell My Horse. There are photographs of the unfortunate creature in her book. Because my novel is truly bizarre fiction grounded in fact, I include the truth about zombies in the first chapter of the book, and I footnote many of the ultra-weird things that are fact-based. They are essentially much stranger than fiction, and that is a big part of the point of Dead Love: that what’s real is often extremely surreal.

Andy: When I see the deals coming down for new titles, I notice that there are a lot of people writing in the zombie genre. Why do you think they have become so popular?

Linda: I actually think the zombie craze is part of a larger attraction that has taken literature and other art forms by storm, and that is a fascination with the supernatural. Perhaps this fascination has something to do with the absence of myth in our supposedly reality-based lives. Myth and magic are manifestations of the unconscious and its odd connection to the numinous in the everyday world. I think zombies are, in some ways, symbolic of a state of mind. We all feel a little like a zombie from time to time. We succumb. This is not an enviable position, which is probably why we want to kill zombies. They are that loathsome (and for some, very lovable) part of ourselves.

Andy: I know when I’m acting like a zombie, Leslie doesn’t find it particularly loveable. But let’s go on.  What about zombie spin-offs of the great classics? Pride and Prejudice For Zombies was one of the best-selling books in many years. Can you think of some other classics that would be good grist for the zombie mill?

Linda: Oh, Wuthering Heights is just begging to be repurposed for zombie fans. I also feel Brave New World would be wonderful with zombies in it, though it kind of has them already, don’t you think? Actually a lot of Shakespeare’s plays, Titus Andronicus for example, would be super if the characters were zombies. And what if Romeo and Juliet had a happy undead ending in which the star-crossed lovers rise again as zombies? Come to think of it, dig up almost any of the great old works of literature and I believe you’d find them suitable for reanimation with a zombie twist.

Andy:  Yes, Linda. I think it would be simply splendid to have Don Quixote tilting at zombies instead of windmills.  There seem to be a lot of zombies and vampires in books for young adults. Why do you think teens are so attracted to these creepy characters? Are teen girls looking for different things than teen boys?

Linda: Kids have always loved fantasy. We all do. That’s why fairytales have endured. These are the new fairytales. And even in those old stories collected by the Brothers Grimm there were witches and evil trolls and devilishly deadly folk. And there was a lot of gore. At root, I don’t think the lust for gore is gender based, but I do think it goes well with a little romance and possibly some humor.

Andy: Dead Love isn’t really a teen book though is it? Do you think teens are going to read it though?

Linda: No, it isn’t a teen book. It’s full of sex, death, and dismemberment. But it’s an easy read (wasn’t it Ernest Hemingway or Nathaniel Hawthorne who said, “Easy reading is damn hard writing”?) and a darkly poetic one. It’s also quite cinematic, so I think teens are going to be drawn to it. They always ferret out what’s best in literature. If they’re lucky, they can pull marvelously inappropriate books from their parents’ bookshelves. I remember grabbing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas from my mother’s bookcase.

In Dead Love, the young Erin carts around her mother’s books on ghouls; so there you have it. In fact, a few teens have already gotten their hands on the novel. One of them said, “So usually when I read 300 page books it takes a little while. This one was different … every page seemed to just fly by (not like it was unmemorable) but because it was really good.”

Andy: Maybe I’m just a sicko, but I really enjoyed the zombie sex in this book. Can you give us a few tips and techniques to have better sex with zombies?

Linda: Andy, please remember that Erin is only part-zombie, which accounts for the amazing sex … kind of the best of both worlds. If you are talking about most zombies, well, let’s just say that there is generally quite a bit of slobbering involved, as well as considerable sucking and biting, which might not be so bad, depending on your proclivities. However, I should warn that eventually all of this leads to chewing and you need to be careful about your partner’s parts falling off. That’s never a good thing.

Andy: Linda, I’m getting really turned on by  all this. So I better end this interview before things get out of hand.

Enhanced E-books

August 24, 2010

Just when you thought you were beginning to understand what an e-book was, along comes “enhanced e-books.” These are e-book editions that are being “enriched” with multimedia content. These kinds of books (or whatever they are) were unavailable as long as there were only e-book reading devices like the Kindle that handled text only files. But now that we have the iPad and other multimedia tablet knockoffs on the way, the door is wide open for all sorts of “content enrichments.”

Publication of enhanced editions seems to have begun with  the release of an enhanced version of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth   on July 20 of this year.  It   coincided with the television mini-series and includes content from that series. It has material about the characters in the show, an author interview, music from the 12th century, and behind the scenes material. The edition is available at the iPad store.

Not to be outdone,  on July 29 Simon and Schuster issued  an enhanced edition of  Rick Perlstein’s  Nixonland. Embedded in the text are news clips of the Nixon-Kennedy Debates, the death of Martin Luther King, and of course, all things Watergate.

Every major publisher seems to have joined the bandwagon and are making daily announcements of  enhanced e-book editions.

It’s pretty hard to predict how this will play out by next month,  let alone  next year. But we can expect to see such enhancements as: cooking demonstrations in cookbooks, author interviews in reading book editions, film clips in history books (like Nixonland) and all sorts of ways of exploiting media spin-offs. I wonder whether psychological self-help books will have clips of the psychotherapist-author sitting at his leather chair and thoughtfully rubbing his chin while staring out at the reader   and saying: ” Hmm. I see.”

The creative possibilities are infinite. Ask the Agent will let the reader decide whether this opens up a brave new world of literary enrichment or whether we will descend into a McCluhan-esque inferno.  I’m a little concerned that I won’t be able to sit down and read the newest translation of  Cervantes’ immortal Don Quixote, without  having to listen to  Andy Williams singing The Impossible Dream  in the backround.

Literary Beginnings: An Interview with Wendy Nelson Tokunaga

May 1, 2010

Today we are going to have a conversation with Wendy Nelson Tokunaga    on literary beginnings. Wendy is a novelist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her debut novel, Midori by Moonlight is available in paperback from St. Martins Press.  Her new novel, Love in Translation   was released last November and is also in paperback from St. Martin’s.

Wendy is giving a class at Book Passage called: Strong Beginnings: A Workshop for Novelists on Saturday, May 8 from 10 AM -4 PM.

Andy: Wendy, last week I did a blog entry having some snarky fun with literary first lines. But all the writers I know take the first lines very seriously. Why so?

Wendy: I enjoyed your fun take on literary first lines, but I have to say that I don’t obsess about them. If you can write a grab-worthy first line that everyone will quote from years to come, that’s great, but I don’t think it’s mandatory. What is mandatory is writing a compelling opening to your novel. As I’m sure you can attest, agents and editors will find any reason to toss a manuscript into the rejection pile as quickly as possible. So it’s crucial to make a good impression in a novel’s first five pages.

Andy: Is there any general advice you can give about how to manage the opening? Is there a single objective that needs to be met? Do you want to set the scene? Is it all about foreshadowing? Do you just want to grab the reader’s attention with something unexpected? Or is it more je ne sais quoi ?

 Wendy: Well, there’s a lot of je ne sais quoi that goes into writing a novel, that’s for sure. But I think that the one thing the opening must have is “profluence.” This is a term used by John Gardner in “The Art of Fiction,” which basically means to move forward. There has to be a forward momentum, an emotional energy and feeling of  “getting somewhere” that will compel a reader to want to continue reading. Another important factor is a strong “voice.” This includes the words the writer chooses (diction), how she arranges and groups the words (syntax), the order in how she presents events (structure) and the attitude toward the characters, subject and events of the book (tone).

Andy: What are the big mistakes with literary beginnings that you see repeatedly by other writers, both experienced and newbies?

Wendy: Common mistakes I’ve seen include starting the story in the wrong place (e.g starting at the very beginning of the story is not necessarily the best strategy); opening with a scene that is too mundane and thereby lacking tension (e.g. the character wakes up, has a cup of coffee and ponders the start of his day); loading the opening with too much backstory and extraneous details; and using an action scene that serves no purpose other than the mistaken assumption that any “exciting incident” will draw in the reader.

Andy: Your class at  Book Passage looks fascinating. What do you want the participants to get from it?

Wendy: We’ll be doing “close readings” of the openings of some recently published novels by analyzing the craft techniques these authors use to pull it all together and get us to keep reading. By looking at a variety of different styles and genres of novels I hope that students will come to see the value of learning from observing an author’s craft techniques without worrying about whether the book is one they would personally choose to read. In other words, you don’t necessarily have to “like” a book in order to learn things from the way it’s crafted that will help you improve your own writing. And, of course, the techniques we’ll discuss can be applied to the writing of the entire novel.

We’ll also analyze the first five pages of students’ novels to see what works and what needs improvement. Students whose work is not discussed in class will receive feedback from me via email if they wish.

The class is designed especially for students who have finished their novels and are considering querying agents or those who are searching for answers as to why their manuscripts have been rejected. Writers who have yet to finish their novels are also most welcome.

Andy: Wendy. One last thing. Can you describe some of your all time favorite literary beginnings?

Wendy: Here are some that I like from an eclectic selection of books:

Notes from the Underground – Fyodor Dostoevsky (1864)

“I am a sick man. . .I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts. However, I don’t know a fig about my sickness, and am not sure what it is that hurts me.”

The Stranger – Albert Camus (1942)

“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.”

Play It As It Lays – Joan Didion (1970)

“What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.”

Story of My Life – Jay McInerney (1988)

“I’m like, I don’t believe this shit.”

Beginnings: First Lines in Literature

April 25, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings, first lines in literature. Which ones are satisfying and what makes them so? And others, admired by all, that still just leave me cold. My friend Susan and I walk around Lake Merritt every day and talk about this. Susan is writing a novel, and we are having , uhh, differences of opinion on the subject of first lines. There is a bunch of material on the internet about beginnings. Lists of the 100 best first lines in fiction. Advice to writers about how to construct a first line. Stuff like that.

Since I’m not a creative writer, I can’t dispense writing tips with any authority. As a literary agent though, I have to take beginnings seriously. For me the  first line is the most important sentence in the book. Editors are very busy people and  receive stacks of manuscripts every day. If they get turned off by a clumsy first line, they are likely to cast a cold eye on the rest of the manuscript.

So here are a few of my random thoughts on this subject focusing on some illustrious examples.

“Call me Ishmael.” –  Moby Dick by Herman Melville

 This first line is always at the top of the list. The most famous first line in all of literature. So what’s so great about it, anyway? I thought about that today and decided that it was overrated, that it is one of those things that people  think is great because everybody else thinks it’s great. It’s catchy. It’s different. But why would it lead me to read the rest of the book?  What if I wrote a book that began: “My name’s Andy”? I don’t think it would make the 100 best  list of anything. Why didn’t Melville start with something like: “Ishmael’s my name. Whales are my game.”? Think about it.  Tells a whole lot more about the story. It really is a better lead, —  wouldn’t you say?

But stay with me on this. Let’s  dig a little deeper. Here is the second line in Moby Dick .“Some years ago–never mind how long precisely –having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.” Wow! Now that’s writing. Here we have a book that does more than tell a story. It has the boldness to tackle THE BIG QUESTION;  man’s struggle for truth in the face of an indifferent and inscrutable universe. I mean, duh! We are not in “chick lit” territory here. And this second line —- what would the critics call it? Understatement? Ironic foreshadowing? Because whatever this book is going to be about, you know it isn’t going to be about sailing a little to see the watery part of the world. Magnificent!

***

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” —   The Bible  by God  (or was it King James? Or was it The Gideons?)

 

 

 This is pretty good as far as beginnings go. I’m trying to think of a better one. The only thing I can come up with  as an alternative is: “Call me Yahweh”. And that really  doesn’t work as well. But when we think of the Bible as literature, we really think of the King James Version which, as the learned biblical exegetes will tell you, is a triumph of form over substance. Not an accurate translation at all.

Here is a literal translation of  The Book of Genesis  from the Young Literal Translation Bible:

“In the beginning of God’s preparing the heavens and the earth –the earth hath existed waste and void, and darkness is on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God fluttering on the face of the waters.”

Not exactly something you expect to hear from  the deep, rich voice of James Earl Jones. And can you imagine Michelangelo’s God in the Sistine Chapel with little yellow and black butterfly wings  “fluttering” on the face of the waters? I’ll stick with King James, thank you very much.

***

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness”.  — Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

 

This famous beginning has really become a kind of joke, a metaphor for bad first lines. Just mention it at a cocktail party of literary snoots, and you will hear uncontrollable guffaws and  belly laughs around the room. Honestly, I don’t think this is such a bad first line.  Maybe a little overwritten with some murky syntax; maybe a little bloated; maybe a little attenuated by the author’s sense of the of his own unmerited importance. But otherwise, not bad.    It sets up the scene pretty well. The reader really has a sense of where he is. And it gives us a pretty robust  foreboding of what will follow.  Now let’s compare it to this famous first line:

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from the swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

 I bet you can’t name that one.  It’s Finnegans Wake, you moron!   I bet you can’t tell me what it means. I bet Thomas F**king Pynchon couldn’t tell me  what it means.  Try dropping that first line at the literary cocktail party. No snarky snickers with this one. The room will be silenced by the crushing weight of your gravitas.  And you might as well forget about your designs on that sexy assistant editor  from Knopf  wearing  the black dress standing by the sushi platter. Because tonight   you’ll be going home alone to the solitude of your bedroom,  Bub.

***

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” — The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

 

Oh yes. This is really sweet. I bet every modern writer has wished they could have thought of this beginning. And I suspect that many of them think of it still when they sit down staring at their blank page ready to begin  their novel. By the way, gentle reader, if you know of any beginnings by great modern writers that are clearly derivative of this masterpiece, can you share it with other readers of this blog?

 ***

“In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. —  The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon

 

 This is my favorite. I won’t sully Gibbon’s gorgeous beginning with an impertinent comment. Gibbon’s language is commanding, lofty, elegant, and confident. Worthy of a work of such grandeur.   What is even more remarkable is that this level of writing continues over six volumes and 3000 pages. And look at the vocabulary, the syntax, the voice and the cadence. It is the quintessence of perfection. It has the faultless precision of Mozart and the epic splendor of Wagner.   I am in awe!

I’m going to leave this now.  But I don’t want this to be the last line. I would really like you readers to weigh in with your favorite first lines and why you love them.

 
 
 

Laurie McLean on Genre Fiction

February 25, 2010

Laurie McLean

Laurie McLean is a literary agent specializing in genre fiction. That is a term of art for such categories as: romance, thrillers, mysteries, fantasy, horror, westerns, science fiction, etc.. Laurie has been a literary agent for 5 years and works at the Larsen Pomada Agency in San Francisco. The agency’s website is at: http://www.larsen-pomada.com/lp/pages.cfm?ID=15. She has a fantastic blog, Agent Savant at: http://www.agentsavant.com/as/, which is a good place to start learning about genre fiction.

Today I’d like to talk to Laurie about genre fiction.

Andy: Laurie, can you give us a definition of genre fiction? I mean, don’t all book subjects fit into a genre?

Laurie: The term, genre fiction, is used by marketing folks inside publishing and bookstores to help book buyers, also called readers, find the type of books they like to read. If one is a reader of mysteries, then it makes sense that a bookstore would shelve all mysteries together to increase overall sales. That’s really why the term genre fiction was coined—to differentiate these specific genres from general commercial or literary fiction.  It’s also similar to the way non-fiction is shelved by interest rather than author.

Andy: I’d like to go through each of the genres and have you describe them and tell me what publishers are looking for now.

Laurie: Science Fiction: It seems that the UK is the biggest audience for hard science fiction, while US readers prefer space opera and softer speculative fiction. There is also cyberpunk, where man has integrated with computers; time travel; alternate history; military SF; and the newest craze, post-apocalyptic or dystopian speculative fiction.  Think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

Fantasy: Epic fantasy, also called sword-and-sorcery or high fantasy, is the coming of age quest tale like the Lord of the Rings or the Sword of Shannara books. It has gone down in popularity today by what is called urban fantasy, stories that revolve around the conceit that supernatural creatures, mainly vampires, werewolves or other shapeshifters, ghosts, demons, etc., have lived among us forever but are now recognized by humanity and begrudgingly accepted—until a rogue creature starts wreaking havoc and humans and preternaturals must team up to put things back in balance.  It features a lot of ass kicking but no quests.  There is also interest currently in steampunk, where everything from appliances to weaponry to transportation runs on steam and the devices and clothing are very Jules Verne-esque; futuristic fantasy; superhero fantasy, etc.  Fantasy and Science Fiction can sometimes genre blend or bend and are often located in the same section of the bookstore.

Romance: When you have a hero and heroine who meet, with sparks flying, then internal and external conflicts keep them apart despite their mutual attraction until the end of the book when a happy ever after ensues, you know you are talking about the largest genre in fiction by far: romance. More than 50 percent of mass market [pocket size paperbacks] fiction sales in the United States each year are genre romance.  The biggest trend in genre romance lately is paranormal romance, but there are also contemporary, historical, comedies, romantic suspense, inspirational and erotic subgenres.

Mysteries/Suspense/Thrillers: I’ve lumped all these together, although they are all different. In mysteries you have a murder in the first scene and the remainder of the book is spent trying to figure out who dunnit.  In Thrillers, the fate of the world is at stake and the clock is ticking.  Suspense novels are somewhere in between where a family could be in jeopardy, or a town or group of friends and the protagonist(s) must save them with, again, time against them.  You’ve also got subgenres within these categories such as cozy or detective mysteries; legal, crime, action, disaster, conspiracy and religious thrillers; and more.

Horror: While horror, now sometimes called Dark Fantasy, is more popular on the movie screen than in books, you have everything from serial killers to splatterpunk (think the Saw movie series) to dark fantasy, to more psychological horror.

Young adult: This is not a genre, per se, but one of the healthiest and fastest growing categories in fiction. The young adult, or YA, category was created by a savvy bookseller who observed families coming into the bookstore, the young children going to the children’s section, the parents going to the adult stacks and the teens going to the coffee shop. The young adult section was created and all of a sudden teens had a comfortable place to shop for books about subjects ranging from chick lit and teen fantasy to more contemporary realistic gritty fare about teen suicide, pregnancy, drugs, sexuality preferences and more. Urban fantasy and post-apocalyptic fantasy are currently big trends for teens.

Andy: In the greatest works, doesn’t genre fiction cross over into literary fiction? Isn’t the greatest romance novel ever Wuthering Heights? Can you give us some examples of contemporary works in the genre that are also literary masterpieces?

 Laurie: When a genre book is superbly written and an instant classic, it rises out of the genre shelves and migrates over to the general fiction or bestseller stacks.  Think anything from Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer for romance—or modern names like Nora Roberts and Jayne Anne Krentz; Stephen King or Dean Koontz for horror; Terry Brooks, Neil Gaiman or J.K. Rowling for fantasy; John Grisham, Dan Brown and Tom Clancy for thrillers; William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Orson Scott Card for science fiction; Janet Evanovich or Sue Grafton for mysteries; Stephenie Meyer and Scott Westerfeld for young adult.

Andy: Which of these categories are hot and which of them are not?

Laurie: Hot: Young adult, steampunk, paranormal romance, urban fantasy, political thrillers, apocalyptic fiction.

Not hot: Chick lit, contemporary and inspirational romance, epic fantasy, quaint cozy mysteries.

Andy: Do you think that the rise of the e-book offers opportunities or challenges for genre fiction? It seems to me that these titles are perfect for the new electronic formats.

Laurie: Erotic romance was one of the first genres to do well in the eBook format and some credit this subgenre for the rise of eBooks today. Ellora’s Cave was a pioneer in racy romance. But really all genres do well in eBook format. They are perfect for this digital format in terms of storage (you can fit a lot of vacations reads on your eReader but not in your suitcase) and anonymity (no one can see that you’re reading a “bodice ripper”, the disparaging term for romance novels).

Andy: You ran a public relations agency for 20 years in Silicon Valley. Why did you get out? How do you like being an agent?

Laurie: I got out of high tech public relations when the lucrative nature of the business could no longer hold my interest as the challenges declined and ethics began to get compromised.  Being a literary agent, to me, combined the best of both halves of my brain, similar to the way being a publicist allowed me to be creative and strategic simultaneously. I love the publishing industry because it really is about the writing. They money’s not the greatest unless you’re a bestseller or handle a stable of bestselling authors, but every day is different, the pace is often bracing and exhilarating, and the people I deal with on a daily basis are wonderful. I think I’ve found my calling!

Andy: How has your experience in public relations been helpful in your second career?

Laurie: All the facets of what made me successful in PR—time management, marketing savvy, the ability to think on my feet, contract negotiations, interpersonal skills, a diligent hard work ethic, attention to details, the ability to think outside the box—all come in handy for a literary agent.

Andy: When we had lunch the other day, you astonished me by saying  that you receive 1200 unsolicited queries a month. How do you manage to address this ocean of pitches?

Laurie: Well, this is kind of like the frog in boiling water analogy. If you put a frog in boiling water, it jumps out immediately. But if you put a frog in cold water and turn on the heat, that frog will boil to death because of the gradual nature of the temperature rise. I started off with a small number of queries each day and could easily give personal suggestions for improvement and reasons for rejections. When I got busier, I switched to a form rejection letter where I could add a few sentences of advice in many cases.  But by the end of 2009 I was receiving more than 1200 queries a month. I was boiling. So, I’ve had to change my submission process. Now I have a separate email address for queries only (query@agentsavant.com) where I have an automated reply that informs the writer that I’ve received his or her submission, but they will not hear from me again unless I want to read more of their work. It’s not something I ever thought I’d do, but once I’d given up my spare time, some of my sleep and meal time, and it still wasn’t enough, something had to give. Now I don’t have the monkey on my back screaming and clawing at me. I can read queries on the weekend, as many as I can fit in the hours I have, and ask for more from those that interest me.

Rushdie and Me: After the Bombing

November 23, 2009

Last week I wrote about my experience at Cody’s during the Rushdie Affair in 1989.  It didn’t really end the day the bomb went off. The melodrama continued for months, both in my life and in the  book world.

After the bomb squad detonated the bomb in the store, I hung around for the rest of the day watching the FBI sort through the rubble in their investigation. My wife, Joyce Cole, contacted the media who had been filming all this and told them that my life was in danger and they should block out my face. That night we watched the 6 o’clock news and saw the interview of me with my face looking like a  Picasso in his Cubist Period. Like Rushdie’s fake mustache in Hyde Park, this wasn’t going to fool anyone.

The same day Peter Mayer, the publisher of Penguin Books, called us and offered the services of their security advisory agency. The Satanic Verses had been out of stock at the publisher for a week, and almost no one in the country had it. The chains probably did, but they had taken it off their shelves. Peter said that because of our courage (or whatever  it was),  Penguin was going to overnight our shipment of the next printing, so we would be the only book store on the street  (and probably in the country) selling it. This was a touching expression of gratitude, but one not likely to help me sleep  more peacefully.

 The security consultant provided to us by Penguin had a lot of experience protecting companies against labor unrest, but  I doubt that he understood any more about terrorist bombings than I did. On his advice, my family left our house and settled in at  my friend’s house  for a week. Although I wasn’t aware that the Ayatollah had issued a Fatwa against me, we felt it was the prudent thing to do.

 The next day there was a picture of Cody’s on the front page of The New York Times. I’d been waiting all my life for this moment. Unfortunately, the picture they decided to use was of a guy from the cleaning service sweeping up. I thought that was the end of my fifteen minutes of fame.

But I was advised by the security people to stay out of the news anyway. Though I ate bitter bile, I told the Cody’s folks to deal with all media queries by saying “Mr. Ross is unavailable for comment at this time”. That is what they told  Dan Rather. That is what they told The New York Times. That is what they told McNeill – Lehrer. For all I know, that is what they  told the Pope.

For the next 2 days and nights, I sat at my desk designing a security plan for Cody’s to be implemented when we reopened after the FBI went home. When it was completed, it was a pretty impressive document. But  I knew then, as I know now, that it was something of a formality to make the employees feel more at ease. It was going to cost a lot of money and be a big hassle and wasn’t likely to deter a serious or even a casual terrorist. The plan included specific procedures for dealing with “suspicious ” people, evacuation procedures, inspections at the front door, dealing with media, and metal detectors in the shipping room.

The first scare we had was when we found a letter addressed to me. The bells and whistles went off when we scanned it with a metal detector. We evacuated the building. The police courageously told me to open it myself. It turned out that it was a  cutesy note from Melissa Mytinger, the events manager, with a little smiley face metal foil sticker inside.

We did see a lot of customers with sort of  sinister Middle Eastern looks to them and shifty eyes. I would usually get a warning call from the information desk saying  that they saw “a sort of sinister, middle eastern looking guy with shifty eyes”. It turns out that there were a number Muslim individuals who came into the store looking to buy the book. The shifty eyes may have had to do with the fact that they were doing something naughty. But I don’t know. They also warned me about another suspicious person. It turns out that he was from New Delhi, a Hindu, and a friend from the book business.

One of the most poignant  encounters I had was with a group of Muslim students at UC Berkeley who wanted to express their compassion for Cody’s and to tell me that they were ashamed of all this. As you can imagine, any Muslim in America was getting a very raw deal with the hysteria that was going on. I told them that I wanted to apologize to them for what they must be suffering. I realized something important during that encounter.

We still kept getting calls from the media  who wanted six o’clock news clips of the security measures. For some reason, they all wanted to ask me if we were going to put the book in the window. As if I would risk getting by ass blown to smithereens so they could have a sound bite. I think what they really wanted was for me to get up on a soap box in front of the store facing a thousand cameras  and say: “Ayatollah Khomeini, Read…..my….lips!”

Eventually things settled down. We slowly in stages phased out the security plan. There was a lot of debate about eliminating each measure. The gist of the conversation at each step was something like: “What do you care more about? Human life or money?” But we moved on. We sold over 700 copies of  The Satanic Verses the week after we re-opened. I think that it was more an act of solidarity than an interest in the book. A lot of people told me later that they never read the damn thing.  Some people wanted me to autograph it. I think I demurred. What did they want me to inscribe anyway? “I am Salman Rushdie!”

A few months later, I was called by the National Association of Newspaper Editors and asked if I would be on a panel at the convention to talk about my experiences. I told them that I had been trying to avoid the media. They told me not to worry. It was going to be quite discrete. I can’t imagine how I believed that  a speech in front of every major editor of every newspaper in the country could ever be discrete. So I went there. I was on a panel with Larry McMurtry and Robin Wright, a distinguished journalist covering Iran. I should have known that there was nothing discrete about the meeting when I saw the prime minister of Israel who was giving the presentation before  us, followed later by the Palestinian representative to the UN.

I got there and saw that the whole show was being broadcast on C-SPAN. I told them my “Ayatollah, read my lips” line and got a lot of laughs. Then I went home and watched myself on national TV. As you can see, I lived to tell about it.

The following summer Susan Sontag was invited to give a speech about the whole affair at the American Booksellers Association  Convention. I went there hoping that at last she would acknowledge that Cody’s did something special. She was extremely critical of almost everyone in the book business who refused to stand up and be counted or who didn’t allow their names to be used in full page ads in The New York Times. But she did want to acknowledge the commitment shown by independent bookstores. And she wanted especially to single out  one in Berkeley, California: Black Oak Books.

I guess this just shows that in real life stories don’t always end the way you would like.

Reading Narnia to My Daughter

October 19, 2009

narniaA couple of months ago, I decided to read The Chronicles of Narnia to my seven year old daughter, Hayley. It was a test to see whether  she or I had the patience to read a book that was a masterpiece of children’s literature and probably a little advanced for a girl of her age.. Actually we were inspired by seeing the  two wonderful Andrew Adamson films of the epic story. She and her friends were play acting the characters after seeing the film. Hayley liked to play Susan. So she was excited about listening to the whole story.

Well, 1500 pages later we finished reading the sixth book, The Silver Chair. Hayley’s patience started to flag as had C.S. Lewis’s inventiveness (in my humble opinion). I still couldn’t give it up, so I read the final volume: The Last Battle by myself. It was an annoying and entirely unsatisfactory ending. More on that later.

Several years ago, the publisher had changed the order of the books. For most of the time, the books were numbered sequentially as they were written by Lewis, beginning with The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. For some reason, and probably an error in judgment and in marketing, the publisher changed the sequence to coincide with the order of   internal time in which the stories took place in Narnia. The result was that instead of reading The Lion… first, we read The Magician’s Nephew, a prequel that tells how Narnia began. It is an inferior book.   I recommend starting with The Lion. It is certainly the best of the stories and a good way to get hooked on the series.

What struck me about the books, particularly in comparison to the films,  but also in comparison to popular young adult books being written today, was their slow moving plot. I suppose this was to be expected. Films have their own dynamic. Action needs to be compressed. And commercial considerations require the story to move along at a good clip. I wonder, though, whether Lewis’s leisurely pace was a result of the fact that he was writing in another time when life was a little slower and narratives could be more drawn out.

What raises Narnia to the level of literature is neither  plot nor  character. It is Lewis’ majestic conception of the story. When the movie came out, there was a lot of talk amongst a highly opinionated segment of the population that I happen to hang around with, that the books and the movies were didactic stalking horses for Christian dogma (a very bad thing).

I felt otherwise. Without the character of Aslan, unarguably a metaphor of Christ, the story would have been, well, just another story. Aslan  gave Narnia  a sort of larger than life universality, an epic dimension that raised  it  from  being simply  a wonderful story into an enduring masterpiece. At least until the final volume,  Aslan can be appreciated as an character representing  the quest in all religions and in all cultures  for something greater than our life on earth. In the final book, The Last Battle, Lewis does succumb to the temptation of reducing  the story into what is simply a Christian parable.  And the story suffers as a result. Additionally the return of the Pevensie children to Narnia, which could have been a dramatic  and moving experience even as a Christian story, was undermined by the author’s  flawed decision (from a dramatic perspective)  to have one of the children, Susan,  not return. How sad that was. She was always the most interesting  of the Pevensie children, anyway. I finished the book by throwing down The Last Battle in  rage and disgust. Shame on you, C.S. Lewis!

Narnia has had a huge impact on readers and writers over the years.  Most recently and most successfully, Philip Pullman created a fantasy trilogy: His Dark Materials. I heartily recommend it to anyone reading in the fantasy genre. The story is complex, the characters deeply drawn, and the plot  ingenious. Pullman was highly critical of Narnia and of Lewis’ Christianity.  Indeed, it struck me that one could call Pullman’s trilogy the Anti-Narnia. At the end, Pullman pointedly rejected the “kingdom of Heaven” for a “republic of heaven” here on Earth.

But all of this is of no consequence to Hayley. For her it was a beautiful and breathless story. She loved Aslan, particularly as he would come bounding into the story in the nick of time to insure that good triumphed over evil. And even though Susan was banished by Lewis from Narnia heaven, Hayley still plays her in school yard pretend.


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