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Joseph E Bird

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novel writing

cuckoo's nest for writers

Want to know how to write a novel? Read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey.

I saw the movie…40 years ago? I just read the book.

There’s so much to talk about. It’s a great book (but not without controversy) and another day we’ll get into what the book’s about.

If you’re a student of the craft of novel writing, you know the rules. And as you try hard to stick the rules, you see so many successful novels that break them. Cuckoo’s Next follows the rules. And is brilliant for it.

Plot Summary:

Randle McMurphy is serving a sentence at a prison work farm and gets himself committed to a mental hospital in hopes of doing his time in a cushier setting.

The Beginning:

McMurphy arrives at the hospital. No backstory. No set-up. No character development. No prologue, just story. In medias res. The way it’s supposed to be.

Point-of View:

The rules say to tell the story from one perspective. Yes, modern sensibilities allow for multiple points-of-view, but that approach is fraught with potential trouble. One point-of-view is the safe choice.

Cuckoo’s Nest is told from the point-of-view of mental patient, Chief Bromden, a Native-American. Everything is told from his perspective. If Chief doesn’t see it, we don’t see it. Chief can only surmise character motivations based on what he sees and what others may tell him. The author doesn’t jump around and tell us what the other characters are thinking. It’s all from Chief’s point of view. No omniscient narrator. And because we know what he thinks, we know much more about him than any other character.

The Protagonist:

McMurphy is the protagonist. That doesn’t mean he is the most virtuous character in the book. That’s probably Chief Bromden. McMurphy is the classic anti-hero. He’s not a good guy, but he’s very likable. And as he hustles his fellow patients, he does it in a way that lifts their spirits. Everybody loves him. Everybody but Nurse Ratched.

The Antagonist:

Sometimes the antagonist in a novel isn’t a person, but something keeping the protagonist from reaching his/her goal. McMurphy fighting the system? Well, yes, but the antagonist in Cuckoo’s Nest is not so amorphous. It’s Nurse Ratched. No doubt about it. One of the most unlikable characters I’ve ever met. She’s not evil in a Bond villain kind of way; she’s just cold and mean and against McMurphy in every way. The lines are drawn. The reader wants McMurphy to win. And Ratched to lose.

The Ending:

I’ve read that in classic literature, there is comedy and tragedy. The comedy isn’t necessarily funny; it’s prime characteristic is the happy ending. The tragedy is just the opposite.

Cuckoo’s Nest is a tragedy. The happy ending may give you a moment of contentment, but the tragedy stays with you, haunts you, makes you think. What might have been? What if McMurphy had won? What if Nurse Ratched had lost? Could it have made a difference for Billy Bibbit? And what of Chief Bromden? Did he ever make it home?

If you read this 50 year-old novel, you’ll be jarred by some references that are considered offensive today. But is it Kesey or his characters making the references? The characters, of course. They’re flawed. But does that give Kesey license to let them say what they do? We’ll get into that in more detail later. What Kesey does that’s indisputable is craft a story that takes you to the edge of realism at a pace that seems perfect. In the second half of the book, when the story rolls like a boulder down a mountain, he does nothing to get in the way. It’s a great example of plot and character development in perfect sync.

Read and learn, fellow writers.

how to write a novel

If only it were so easy.

On page 83 of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Crossing, I had a moment of realization.

In the years before World War II, young Billy Parham has trapped a wolf and is determined to take it back from where it came, the mountains of Mexico. How the wolf is trapped, how he frees it from the trap, how he manages to transport the wolf while on horseback, is in itself a captivating story. The details provided by McCarthy, the knowledge of the pre-war cowboy, the behavior of wild wolves, his knowledge of geography, his use of language is masterful.

And on page 83, I realized that he couldn’t have accomplished all of this in the first draft. Or the first major revision. As I marvel at his writing, I know, without the need for confirmation, that this part of the story required so much work. I can see a first draft getting down the basics. Then another layer of detail. And another. And another. I can see complete restructuring of scenes when something strikes McCarthy as unrealistic or implausible or maybe not the right tone.

So much work.

Yeah, it’s hard enough to get to 80,000 words. But if you think you’re done after the first draft, you fooling yourself. The first draft is not worth reading.

It will be better after your first round of revisions. But it will take more. Painful edits. Re-writing entire sections. Killing off beloved characters. New beginnings. New endings.

But the truth is, if you want to be good, you have to work hard. It’s true for anything you do.

Can you handle that?

Buck up, friends. Do the work. Don’t expect it to be easy.

Huntington’s Disease

It’s been described as having ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s simultaneously.  There is no cure and the disease is fatal.

According to the Huntington’s Disease Society of America, there are currently 30,000 symptomatic Americans.  That’s less than 0.01 percent of the population.  But if you or a loved-one has Huntington’s, that’s a meaningless statistic.

My family has no first-hand experience with Huntington’s.  The wife of a former associate pastor at our church was my introduction to the illness.  When they came to our church, she was in the middle-to-late stages of the disease.  She was still able to walk and engage in conversation, though it was sometimes difficult to understand what she was saying.  Her symptoms at the time included chorea – involuntary and unpredictable body movements that affected her upper body, arms, and face.  Over the course of a few short years, her symptoms worsened.  Soon she was unable to walk and required a wheelchair.  Then a nursing home.  After a year or so there, she passed away peacefully.

She was fortunate in that she had a husband who loved her unconditionally and was by her side until the end.  I don’t really know what his life was like as the primary caregiver, but I have no doubt that it was unimaginably challenging on so many levels.  He leaned on his faith, as did she, with the knowledge that though in this life she was broken, in the next she would be made whole.

In my novel Heather Girl, Heather Roth has Huntington’s Disease.  I didn’t start out to write a novel about someone with Huntington’s.  My intent was to tell the story of a young woman with challenges, one of which was how she was dealing with a serious health issue.  As the story unfolded, I learned that Heather’s mother had Huntington’s.  It’s hereditary.  If one of your parent’s had Huntington’s, there’s a 50-50 chance that you will have it. As my story begins, Heather is becoming symptomatic.  And she knows where it leads.  There are other complications in her life and because her family is fractured, she doesn’t have the best support system.  She doesn’t always act reasonably and her decisions are not always the best.  But this story is fiction.

In real life, the effects of Huntington’s, like the disease itself, are varied.  Some, like the wife of our pastor, have love and support all the way.  For others, it’s a long, lonely journey.  If you know a family living with Huntington’s, you can be a friend.  Little things can help.  A Frosty from Wendy’s is always a treat and good for those with difficulty swallowing.  A bowl of soup for caregivers on a cold, winter’s day will mean more than you realize.  And a sympathetic ear is always appreciated.

Even if you have perfect health – and nobody I know has perfect health – life can be hard.  Be a friend, lend a hand, and help someone find hope in the compassion that we can all offer.

 

Kimo

In my novel Heather Girl, there is a photographer, Avery Graham, who specializes in capturing the true essence of a person through real-life, gritty portraits.

Meet Kimo Williams, an accomplished musician, photographer, and Vietnam vet.  We like to say everyone has a story to tell, but in the case of Kimo Williams, I’m sure it’s true.  Probably many stories to tell.

Though his background is different than Avery Graham’s, their photography work is similar.  (Yes, I know Avery Graham’s photographs exist only in my imagination, but they’re very vivid to me.)

Despite being part of a brutal and horrific war, Kimo Williams was able to find beauty in Vietnam.  It’s what drew him back many years after the war had ended.  His photographs of the people of Vietnam, from his original tour of duty and his return trips, are featured in an exhibit he calls Faces of Vietnam at his studio in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  There are lots of smiling people – kids and adults – but I’m drawn to those who aren’t smiling, those who seem to have something on their minds.  Like they know something.  Like they have a story to tell.

See for yourself.

Here’s the link to an article in the Sunday Gazette-Mail.

Here’s the link to his website, KimoPics.

Writing Tip – Slow Down

At a recent gathering of the Shelton College Review, three colleagues happened to be writing the pivotal scenes in their novels at the same time.  When submitted to the Review for critique, each scene fell short of the author’s desired emotional affect.

In each case, the advice was the same:  Take your time.  Let the scene develop.  Give the reader the nuances of what’s happening, both in the external environment, but more importantly, in what the characters are thinking and feeling.  The subsequent revisions proved the advice correct.

As the author, you’ve been building up to this moment for the entire book.  You feel it before you even write the scene. The temptation is to get right to the pivotal moment.  But the reader is probably not quite there yet and probably needs a little more time to catch up.  Slow down and embellish.  Let the reader steep in the moment and soak in the importance of what’s happening.  If you do, you’ll have a stronger emotional connection.

can you summarize your story in a single, compelling sentence?

I was at a conference last week and ran into a friend who knew I was a writer and he asked what I was working on.  I told him I was putting the final touches on my novel Heather Girl.

“What’s it about?”

“Well,” I said, “it’s about a middle-aged woman who is fighting Huntington’s disease and she just learned that her father has been paroled for the murder of her mother.”  As I was saying those words, I realized that it was not a very compelling summary of my novel.  Yes, that’s what it’s about, but why would anybody want to read such an obvious  bummer ?

“Yeah,” I said, “it’s a real feel-good story.”

I failed my elevator speech.  I realized I needed a better way to summarize the story.  How about this?

As her family falls apart and her health begins to fail, Heather Roth searches for answers, but instead finds hope and compassion that give her life meaning.

Ok, so it’s still not going to fly off the shelves like a James Patterson novel, but at least it’s not so ridiculously bleak.

Then, if they want to know more, there’s the cover blurb:

Heather Roth has little to look forward to. Her two sons, who have occupied most of her adult life, have grown and left her alone in the house in which she grew up.  Her ex-husband, for whom she still has feelings despite his abusive nature, lives hundreds of miles away.  And she’s being treated for Huntington’s, a disease that ravaged her mother, and for which she knows there is no cure.

Then the news she wasn’t expecting. Her father is being paroled from prison in Texas where he has been serving a sentence for the murder of his wife, Heather’s mother.

She’ll do anything to keep him out of her life, but when she is forced to take him into her home, she learns that the lives of her family weren’t what they seemed to be.  A story of tragedy and heartbreak, Heather Girl, delivers a whisper of hope and an abundance of compassion, even in the darkest hours.

black as night and twice as scary

He took another drink of coffee.

“I think a lot about that guy I hit upside the head with the shovel. Think about how I ruined his life. Destroyed his family. I feel bad. And you don’t know the depth of how bad. Cause there’s nothing I can do. I did it. It’s done.”

“Look, Darnell.”

He ignored her.

“When they sent me to prison, I just wanted to survive, like I told you before. That’s why I was lucky to find Pops. Do my time under his wing. Yes, ma’am, I was real lucky.”

She didn’t even try to stop him.

“But prison turns you into yourself. By that I mean, you have so much time to yourself, you can’t help but to think about things. Now the old guys, guys like Pops, they just live moment to moment. They know their time has come and gone and all they care about is their next cup of joe. But everyone else thinks about themselves. Why they did what they did. Whether they meant to or not. And how bad they think themselves is. They look inside and see that dark speck on their soul. And generally, it goes one of two ways. A lot of guys see that dark speck and think that’s who they really are. And they accept it. And that dark speck grows until it eventually just takes over. Black, Miss Heather. Black as night and twice as scary.”

“And you went the other way.”

“I know I did wrong and I can’t do nothing to change it.”

“What am I supposed to do, just pretend none of this ever happened? Forgive and forget? I’ll forget when he’s gone.”

“No you won’t.”

“It’ll be a step in the right direction.”

“There’s two kinds of forgiveness. The one where you suck it up and forgive the one that done you wrong.  That can’t happen unless he comes to you and tells you he’s sorry.  Even then, it’s a hard thing to do.  But your daddy can’t do that.  I mean, he can’t even remember what he did.  Before he went all loose in the head, he had that dark speck, and it was growing.  It was slow, but it was getting worse. By and by it gave way to mindlessness. But that ain’t what I’m talking about, anyways.”

“Good.  Because that’s not going to happen.”

“See, that first kind of forgiveness is for the benefit of the one that done the wrong.  So that he can move on.  The other kind is for the one that was done wrong to. God says to let it go and let him be the judge.”

“Really? You’re preaching to me now, Booger?”

“I ain’t preaching. Just telling you truth.”

“Well, thank you for that. I’ll take it under advisement.”

“You’ll be dead soon, too.”

“What the hell, Darnell?”

He shrugged. “We all will be. You have Huntington. I might drop dead of a heart attack sitting here at this table. Then again, we might have twenty years ahead of us. Maybe more. That’s a lot of time for that dark speck to grow. Best to let that bitterness go.”

“You think I’m bitter?”

“Best to let it go.”

“That’s easy to say when you have a future.”

He didn’t have an answer for that. As much as he screwed up his life, and in spite of his dire predictions of death at the kitchen table, it was very likely that Booger had another thirty or forty years to do something with his life. So, yeah, choosing a positive outlook made sense.

But his sermon had nothing to do with her situation. She was dying. In so many ways.


copyright 2018, joseph e bird, from the novel Heather Girl

the genius of Andrew Spradling

Harper Stowe.

Exhibit A in the case for the genius of Andrew Spradling.  The name of the female protagonist in his novel-in-progress.  She’s a detective.  Even now, you’re painting the picture of Harper Stowe.  That’s what a good name can do.  Genius.

Hilton Head.

Exhibit B.  The setting.  The vacation destination of choice for the moneyed crowd.  The beautiful people.  The extravagant homes.  The attitude of privilege.  Rich in possibilities.  Genius.

The Killer.

Yeah, it’s that kind of story.  Why else would you need Harper Stowe?  But Andy takes us inside the killer’s head with first-person vignettes that are chilling.  Exhibit C.  Genius.

The Obituary.

Obituaries used to be written by a professional at the newspaper.  Now they’re written by a family member.  Some are good, most are soon forgotten.  There is one such forgettable obituary in Andy’s story.  As I was reading it as part of the Shelton College Review, I was wondering why it was included in the novel.  It was written by the killer.  About his wife.  And in the obituary, dripping with the usual sentiment and over-stated tribute to the lost loved-one, are subtle glimpses into the the killer’s psyche.  I wonder if Harper Stowe will notice.  Yeah.  Cause she’s Harper Stowe.  Genius.

This is going to be a good one.  Probably be finished in time for next summer’s beach trip.  Just don’t take a copy to Hilton Head.

 

life above the common

Mohler1911
Mohler House, St. Albans, WV, 1911

Life above the common.

I really like that phrase.  I stole it from Larry Ellis.  It’s the theme of his novel-in-progress about Rachel, a young woman, who, upon the death of her husband, faces a choice.  She can either take her life insurance proceeds and live the good life sipping margaritas on the beach, or do something far more risky in the hope of building a life with meaning and purpose, one whose legacy will endure long after she is gone.   For Rachel, there is no choice.

She’ll buy the house – the house that once was a symbol of everything that was right and good about her town – and sink her savings into its restoration.  Not for her own vain pleasure, and not for the sake of an unrealistic nostalgic vision, but for the people of Walhonde, who may see in its restoration as a home, who may see in its revitalization as a community cornerstone, a shining example of what can be achieved when the choice is made to live life above the common.

It’s not the easy choice.  It’s the idea reflected in the West Point Cadet Prayer.

“Encourage us in our endeavor to live above the common level of life. Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won.”


Larry’s novel is inspired by the real-life Mohler House, located in our small town of St. Albans, West Virginia.  In the novel, the name of the town is changed to Walhonde.  Though a tale of fiction, Larry weaves historical facts about the house into the narrative which occurs in the present, but is supported by the legacy of the men and women who shaped the town – and the world – in the early 1900s.   You can read excerpts here.

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