Year of Short Fiction Part 7: Interpreter of Maladies

Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri, is one of those collections of stories I’ve heard about for years. It came out in 1999 and won the Pulitzer Prize. I think I dragged my feet on it because of the Oprah endorsement and the fact that I assumed I knew it already (i.e. it’s just another of those MFA story collection clones).

Today, I want to dig in to the first story in the collection, “A Temporary Matter.” It kind of blew me away. This is the type of story one should spend a lot of time understanding if one wants to do short fiction well. It packs a serious emotional punch but also has a ton of things to notice on subsequent readings.

WARNING: The entire story will be revealed. If you want to experience it as intended, read it first. The obvious Google search is your friend if you don’t have a copy.

Short stories tend to focus really, really hard on a single moment: think Joyce’s Dubliners. This is because if one is showing instead of telling, there just isn’t room to do anything else. Lahiri builds to this moment in “A Temporary Matter” with a lot of backstory, and to do this she has to “tell.” So it will be interesting to see how she does this in an engaging way.

The structure of the story is also really important. It jumps around in time, and this is done so that certain emotional reveals happen where they need to happen. Here’s the structure labeled in a way that can be referred to (the whole thing is told in past tense limited third person).

Present 1
Past 1
Present 1
Present 2
Past 2
(Present 2)
Past 3
Present 2
Present 3
Sequence of Past events revealed
Final Present moment

Here’s a brief summary. Present 1: Shoba and Shukumar receive a notice that the electric company will shut the power off for an hour each night to fix some power lines (a temporary matter). Past 1: We get a semi-flashback to Shukumar finding out that Shoba went into early labor while he was away at an academic conference. The baby dies, and Shoba resents Shukumar for not being there during the horrific experience.

Present 2: The first blackout night comes up and Shukumar makes dinner. Past 2: There’s a brief description of how they’ve developed nightly routines of avoiding each other. It’s brilliant how none of these flashbacks feel like flashbacks. It’s more like Shukumar is having idle thoughts while cooking. This layers in the backstory more naturally than a true jarring flashback. Past 3: We also get thoughts about Shoba’s mother coming to visit and help after the miscarriage.

Present 2: The real content of the story begins at this first blackout dinner. Under the safety of darkness, they decide to play a game where they each reveal a secret they’ve never told the other before. The secrets start out minor: cheating on a test years ago, getting drunk in the middle of the day once.

Present 3: The game continues each night, and they start to be able to talk to each other again. They start to fall in love again and move through the grief. They even make love. Then final night comes, and the power company finishes early. They have light.

They still play the game, because each has saved their bombshell for the final night. Shoba reveals that she has signed a lease to an apartment, and she’s moving out. Shukumar reveals that he actually made it back from the conference and held the baby after the miscarriage. The ending is left open.

As you can see, the structure is quite complicated, but it must be this way for the most emotional resonance. Let’s look at how these “flashbacks” work by taking a passage from the first one.

Each time he thought of that moment, the last moment he saw Shoba pregnant, it was the cab he remembered most, a station wagon, painted red with blue lettering. It was cavernous compared to their own car. Although Shukumar was six feet tall, with hands too big ever to rest comfortably in the pockets of his jeans, he felt dwarfed in the back seat. As the cab sped down Beacon street, he imagined a day when he and Shoba might need to buy a station wagon of their own, to cart their children back and forth from music lessons and dentist appointments.

There’s two things that make this fit into the story so well. First, it meanders like thought. So instead of jerking you to another time and place with a sudden hard break, it lets Shukumar’s thoughts wander, as if he’s actually standing in the present still, thinking about it.

The other thing is that it sticks to one important detail and drills into it: the car. At first it’s just the physical description. But then it becomes an emotional description. It’s not a detail for detail’s sake. This detail is important. He thinks about how he and Shoba would need a car like that for their future children. He has no idea that his wife is about to lose the baby.

Lahiri also lets Shukumar’s present thoughts bleed into this passage by indicating “the last moment he saw Shoba pregnant…”

The title is very clever. I don’t want to dwell on it too much, but it draws attention to how many of the disparate threads weave together. The lights going out is a temporary matter. The game is a temporary matter. We come to believe that the title is secretly about the rocky place of the relationship being a temporary matter. They’re moving through it and falling in love again.

But then it smacks us in the end. It’s actually their relationship which is temporary. Obviously, it’s easy to read too much into this, because everything in life is temporary. So the title would draw these themes out of any story.

There’s also a lot of interesting symbolic stuff going on. For example, the darkness each night doesn’t merely give them safety to speak their minds. It also represents that both are in the dark about the interior states of the other. It’s not an accident that Lahiri cuts the darkness short on the fifth night so that when the truth is revealed they are in light.

This is what makes the story so brilliant. One can read it without noticing any of this stuff and have a serious emotional reaction to it but then read it again and notice how all these details reveal who the characters really are and the conflicting themes and the symbols.

Talamir, Chapter 1

My next book, Talamir, is up for pre-order today. Here’s the first chapter in full. It’s available for Kindle through Amazon and will only be $0.99 during pre-order this next week. More details: here.

Enjoy!

A shard pressed into Drystn’s back as he struggled through the cramped tunnel. The cavern at the other end taunted him, and he squirmed to get through to it. If only it wasn’t digging so deeply, he could make one last hard push. The blood rushed to his head from the semi-vertical positioning of his body, and Drystn chastised himself for not turning back at the first sign of trouble.

Now he had no choice. He braced his feet against the side of the tunnel and thrust his body forward, somersaulting into the large, cavernous opening. A sharp pain arced across his back from the scratch, but it didn’t feel serious.

The cavern was full of the shimmering crystal deposits: mianl. These caves were where all of them formed, but he had never thought about what caused them to grow from the rock. Grow? Was that even the right word?

He heard the faint sound of running water in the distance. The enclave should have been dark, but the mianl gave off a delicate glow. Spior. He wouldn’t need to waste his torch yet. Drystn worried that he should have encountered the herb before now; the rare specimen had all but vanished from its cliffside existence. He’d need to find the water outlet for a better chance. He walked to the jagged wall and ran his hand along the mianl deposits. Not having trained as a mianlist, he could only guess at all their uses.

Drystn sensed the change before the attack came. The subtle tremor under his feet warned him of the inevitable. Like all Talamirians, his life of quakes attuned him to the signs. His legs discerned the pre-quake as naturally as his lungs breathed air. He glanced up to check how safe he would be: not very. Large stalactites hung like a torture device from the ceiling. They receded into the darkness, obscuring their true size. If the quake was large, he would die.

The beginning tremors shifted to a heavy shake. Drystn rolled to the ground out of habit; it would be safer than falling. One stalactite broke loose, but he had kept his eye on them in case this happened. The spike plummeted at his face with alarming speed, too fast to get out of the way.

Drystn willed his body sideways and rolled hard. It shattered upon hitting the ground, and a fragment shot into his arm. He howled into the emptiness. The sharp sting pulsed on his shoulder, and a trickle of blood ran along his arm. The quake ended as fast as it began. They were all like this now: short but intense.

Drystn stood, and brushed the debris off his skin. The puncture in his arm felt worse than it looked, and he decided it could wait until he returned to the school. He looked back to make sure the quake hadn’t knocked anything into the tunnel—his only means of return. He didn’t think the damage would add difficulty at other, clearer parts of the cave, so he turned toward the sound of the water. It had to be nearby, which meant the herb couldn’t be far either.

He wandered forward and took care with the fallen rock to not twist an ankle. Within a hundred steps, it came into view. A small waterfall emptied into a pool. Drystn glanced up to see where the water came from but could only see more darkness. The mianl shards weren’t growing this close to the water, so everything had a dark veil pulled over it. At the pool’s edge he bent down to examine the ground. He slid along the edge of the water, hunting. The crouched walk hurt his legs. It had to be here. If it wasn’t here, it no longer existed.

Drystn dragged his hand along the dirt, feeling where he couldn’t see. He scraped up against something fuzzy. Relief flowed through him. It had to be slaitn, the herb for which he looked. He plucked it and pulled it to his face for closer examination.

Drystn had trained as an herbalist for years. His experienced eyes scanned for the identifying patterns: five petals, hairy underside, ribbed stem; check, check, check. He carefully went through all the secondary defining features. The trip had taken too long and was too dangerous for him to make a mistake in identifying the herb. There would only be one final exam, and he wanted to do his best. If he didn’t pass this year, he would have to go through a whole extra year of training.

He placed the herb into the small pouch sewn into his gray herbalist trainee robe. He only needed one more herb to make the tea. It grew in abundance near the school, so all he had to do was survive the journey back.

The return went smoother. It was easier to traverse the tunnel now that he had been through it once. The quake must have knocked rocks loose, widening the diameter. He also didn’t have to keep his eye out for the herb. The other one would be easy to find along the Ahm River at the school. A light appeared at the end of the tunnel, and Drystn was glad to know he hadn’t wasted all his daylight.

The journey down the cliffs still left some danger. Mianlists made the trip all the time to gather their materials from the caves. He had only made this trip a few times in his entire life. The herbs that grew in the caves were few. Before beginning the descent, he looked out at Talamir.

From this height he could make out the entire world. Cliffs and mountains formed a large circle around everything. Three rivers flowed from the mountains to the center of the circle and emptied into Lake Uisc. This partitioned Talamir into three, equally sized regions.

Around and above the lake lay Talamir Center, a large circular building used for government matters. The lake was about two-day’s walk. Drystn had never visited it, because he left his village at ten to go to school at the end of the Ahm River. Children with the Talent had no choice in the matter.

Two-hundred years ago, the founders built the school on the outer edge of Talamir because of its proximity to the resources needed to learn the three pillars of spior: herbalism, mianlism, and soilism. There were a few cavern systems in the cliffs at other locations, but these were the easiest to get to by far.

Drystn longed to live in the heart of Talamir City, but he knew he would most likely return to the village of his parents and become the resident herbalist. It was tradition. Outside the dense city center were rings of scattered settlements. Drystn could make out a clear First Ring, Second Ring, and Third Ring, but the rings became sparser the farther out they went. The outer Ninth Ring contained the school as well as some less savory villages closer to the other two rivers.

He turned back toward the caves, squatted, and reached his foot over the ledge. The first drop wasn’t far, but he had to be careful to stay close to the red rocks. Each narrow ledge posed a chance for disaster. Once he got into a pattern, the activity had a calming effect. Squat, drop, squat, drop. Part of his training involved learning this skill, since the occasional journey to a system of caves would be a necessary part of any herbalist’s job.

At last, Drystn breathed a sigh of relief as his boots touched the solid ground of Talamir. Only then did he think about how terrible it would have been for the quake to have happened on his ascent or descent of the cliffs to the caves.

No one at the school would have paid the quake any attention. The banality of yet another quake had become a standard part of life. Drystn only noticed because of his precarious location. Dusk settled, and he hurried to make it back to school before true darkness arrived.

As he walked, he glimpsed something move out of the corner of his eye. He snapped his head over to get a better look, but it vanished—as if looking caused it to disappear. Phantom spior. Once one developed the ability to see spior, these phantom images were a common occurrence. Drystn shuddered. He hated being watched only to have the watcher disappear when looked at.

He tried to console himself with the fact that these phantom images appeared to everyone, but this somehow only made it creepier. Something didn’t sit right about the stock explanation that tufts of spior collected together for a second before dispersing to a more normal distribution.

The familiar stone castle grew in size as he got closer. The stone was typical Second Age construction. From a distance, it had a majestic look to it. Four pillars rose out of the four corners of the building. These were used for residences. Three for the three schools of students and one for the professors. Classrooms lined the boxy exterior, and a large room in the middle served as the great hall.

Halfway back, Drystn stopped to light the torch he brought. He picked up the pace, and returned to the castle well before dinner. There would be time to finish the exam tonight. Up close, the building lost its grandeur. The weather had worn the stone, and many parts looked as if they were ready to collapse. This was in stark contrast to the mianl buildings of the First Age, which showed no wear.

Drystn walked to the river bank and located the second herb he needed. He placed this in his pouch and began the trek to his teacher’s office. He was so close to graduating and now shuttered at the thought of the unnecessary risk he had taken for the exam. The spell would be very hard and delicate. The other students in his class had chosen the easier method.

Drystn’s legs felt weak as he made his way to his room to gather the necessary supplies. He already had the herbs and the flint for fire. He picked up his personal brewer. The contraption looked like two stone cups stacked on top of each other, separated by a small space. The bottom had a candle with a special wick that burned with strong consistency. The top could then be used to brew a single cup of tea. He had also prepared the distilled water he needed the day before.

Drystn went back into the hall toward the offices. Each final exam would comprise a single brew and a long oral exam to accompany it. When he had left to go to the cavern, three people stood outside Professor Cynwr’s office. Only five people were up for graduating as herbalists this year, so he knew everyone had taken the easy method of using local herbs.

He approached the large door and couldn’t bring himself to knock. He brought his hand up, and it stalled. Drystn watched it shake in disbelief. Eight years of his life had been spent here. Now it was about to come to a close. He didn’t want that just yet. This was his home. All of his friends were here.

A gentle female voice called out, muffled by the door.

“Drystn, you may enter. I haven’t got all night.”

Drystn opened the door, and a pungent odor filled his nostrils. Of course, his fellow students would have needed to brew boldh root. He felt bad for Cynwr sitting in this smell all day.

She often wore her hair up in a tight bun, and it looked strange and sad as it hung loose around her shoulders, like the mist coming off the Ahn waterfall. It must have been years since she had it cut, for it almost touched the ground while she sat. Cynwr usually had a wild and disorganized office that gave Drystn an unsettled feeling. He liked neatness. He half-expected to knock over a stack of papers or books any time he opened her door.

For the exam, the office had been thoroughly cleaned. She left nothing extraneous on the ground or the desk. The cleanliness startled Drystn. There was nothing quite like being surprised to start an exam.

She said, “I see you finally decided to show up.”

Drystn relaxed as Cynwr gave him a kind smile. She had taught him for eight years. She was on his side. He realized he had nothing to worry about.

“Um. Sorry. I journeyed to the caverns to get slaitn for the tea.”

Cynwr’s expression changed to one of being impressed.

“Let’s begin then. First, start by telling me the tea you are to make and why you think it would cure brotl.”

A chair rested in front of the desk for the examinees to use, but Drystn remained at his feet and paced. Pictures formed in his mind of the herbs as he said them, and he became so lost in his thoughts that he temporarily forgot it was an exam. The scenario shifted to any of the hundred times he had come to office hours and talked through his various ideas with her.

Drystn said, “At first, I thought this was easy. I could use four herbs to cure each of the four aspects of brotl. But then I realized that slaitn takes care of two and graecl takes care of the other two. I chose these ingredients, even though it would be more work to obtain and will be more difficult to brew properly.

“This is because of the simple rule of herbology that the more ingredients you use, the less potent each will be. Brotl is a serious illness, so I wanted the tea to be as potent as possible. Using four herbs could compromise the health of the patient.”

Cynwr said, “Very good. You seem to be the only one to have chosen this path. It is certainly the most correct one, and the one I would have done if faced with a real patient with the illness. Of course, I would have sent someone else to get the slaitn, but you don’t have that luxury. Let’s see if you can actually brew it properly.”

Cynwr leaned back in her chair as if settling in for a long process. Drystn lit his brewer and poured the distilled water into the top cup until it reached the first lip. If he filled it too much, it would overflow when he placed the herbs in. He wasn’t sure how much to explain, so he said, “This is distilled water, because the more pure the water the more—”

“—Okay. That is Year One stuff. I know you understand that. You can move on to the specifics of this particular tea.”

He continued to work. He set the two herbs on the empty desk next to the pot of grass. Cynwr had informed the class that this would be provided. Since grass was so abundant, there would be no need to test if students could find and identify it.

Drystn cleared his mind and reached for the spior within the grass. Once he sensed it, he latched on and pulled. Over the years, this had become second-nature, but it had taken him nearly a year to get his first pull to work. He recalled how scared he had been that maybe he didn’t have the Talent. Maybe they had misidentified him. The spior came free and hovered in a ball in front of him.

Spior could not be seen, but he used this visualization to help keep hold of it. Even holding on tightly, small amounts would escape the ball and return to nature. If he let go, it would all dissipate within seconds. He sensed how much he had, and calculated how much each herb needed.

This delicate calculation was the first dangerous part. If he gave the herb too much spior, it would become dangerously potent: too high a dose. The patient could overdose and die. If he didn’t give it enough, the effect wouldn’t come through. He pushed the appropriate amount of spior into each herb, and then let the rest release.

By the end of the brew, the grass would be dead unless enough had escaped his ball and returned to it. No one understood how spior dissipated back to nature. It just did. That was the way things had always been.

Drystn opened his eyes and looked at the two herbs on the table. They gave off a faint glow, so he knew it had worked. Next, he turned his attention to the water in the brewer. It would be getting close at this point. He placed his head over the cup and watched for the first small bubbles to appear on the bottom.

Cynwr asked, “Can you explain what you’re looking for?”

“Well, unlike the boldh root I smell from the previous exam, slaitn is very delicate. It cannot be directly boiled or it will scald and lose its potency. The healing property must be extracted gently. I’m watching for the first sign of bubbles, at which point I’ll blow out the flame and start the immersion.”

“Very good.”

A bubble appeared, and Drystn blew out the flame. He paused a beat to let the temperature drop for extra caution then put the two herbs in the water. Six minutes later, he served the tea to Cynwr.

Drystn confidently exclaimed, “This should cure brotl.”

She nodded with a smile.

“I agree. Let us proceed with the exam. I know this question is a mere formality, but the final is supposed to be comprehensive. Please recite the laws of spior for me.”

“First: Spior can never be created nor destroyed; it can only be moved from place to place, like with like. Second—”

“—Wait. Like with like. Can you explain that a bit more for me?”

“Yes. It means from herb to herb or from mianl to mianl or from soil to soil. Spior pulled from grass can never be moved to mianl for instance.”

“What about to a person?”

Drystn laughed. Cynwr didn’t look amused.

He put on a serious face and continued, “Sorry. That’s of course what people tried to do a long time ago. If a person with the Talent could pull spior from nature and give it to themselves, they would be able to live forever. Like with like and only between the three focal points. Never person to person.”

“Very good. Continue, please.”

“Second: Spior can only be moved by those trained to do so and born with the Talent. Third: The three focal points of spior are herbs, mianl, and soil. Fourth: Spior is in all things, living and non-living. Fifth: A living body’s spior is released upon death and is spread out in equal parts to all living things. Sixth: The natural life span of a living body is proportional to the amount of spior it contains.”

Cynwr’s expression dropped as Drystn recited the laws. She now had an intense sadness about her. Drystn quickly went over what he had said, nervous that he had made a mistake in the most fundamental of questions. He couldn’t fathom where the mistake had been, because he had been able to recite these laws for years.

She said, “You have made no mistake, but I feel I must tell you something. It only seems right. I have no doubt you will graduate top of your class. But this may not be as good as you think. Every three years, the top three students, one from each discipline, are sent to Talamir Center to work on a major project—”

“—What? I’ve never heard of this.”

Drystn’s heart raced. Talamir Center? A major project? This sounded like a great opportunity and way more exciting than becoming a village herbalist.

Cynwr said, “Shh. Let me finish.” She stood up and walked to the window. Her eyes had glazed over, but she stared out into the darkness anyway. “They don’t want anyone to know about it for some reason. It’s been going on for as long as I’ve been here, and I still have no idea what it is. It’s very secret but presumably very important. It also might be dangerous. I’ve never heard from any of these students again. They basically disappear when they leave.”

The course of the conversation dawned on Drystn.

“Are you saying this is the year? It’s been three years since the last one?”

“Yes. I fear it is.” She turned back from the window and leaned in to Drystn. Her hair flowed onto the desk, and she lowered her voice. “I want to give you the choice, since it seems unfair to force this on someone. If you would like to go live with your family, you can intentionally give some wrong answers. You won’t graduate top of the class, and they’ll take someone else.”

“Isn’t that just as bad though? Then the second person won’t have a choice.”

Cynwr contemplated this before answering.

“That is true.”

She gave no indication that she would say more on the topic. Drystn didn’t know what to do. He had longed to live in the city center all his life. He thought this wasn’t possible, but now the opportunity lay out before him. Still, it came at a cost, and he didn’t know what this cost would be without more details.

Drystn asked, “Do you think the people doing this research are okay? Why did you lose contact?”

“I have no idea. I know that once you find out what they are working on, you will never be allowed to tell anyone about it. They also only want the best and don’t give anyone involved a choice.”

A deep curiosity formed in the pit of Drystn’s stomach. The more he thought about it, the more it grew until his whole body tingled with excitement. He had to know what it was. He wanted to be more objective in this important decision, but he couldn’t overcome the sense that this had to do with the First Age.

He would probably find out what had caused the disappearance of the people from the First Age or at least work on finding out what happened to them. Plus, the city had so much in it compared to the outskirts where his parents lived.

He tried to hide the excitement in his voice, but he knew Cynwr would pick up on it.

He said, “I understand the implications of what I’m about to do.”

The exam proceeded, and Drystn continued to answer each question correctly. He couldn’t tell, but he suspected she had tried to come up with some very difficult and obscure questions to trick him into a wrong answer. Did she know something and not want him to go? Or was it to give him a plausible chance at giving a wrong answer? Each question he answered brought a little more sadness to her eyes.

She finished by saying, “Well, as you know, you’ve not only passed, but you are also the top herbalist this year. You’ve made your own fate. I hope you don’t regret it.”

Drystn had never seen her like this. He turned and left the room in silence. His only thought echoed through his head: What have I done?

talamirfinalcover

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I’ve come to a crossroads recently.

I write a blog post every week. It takes time. The last one was close to 2,000 words and required reading a book. For the past three years I’ve been writing full time, and so blogging can be a burden that cuts into this with no monetary rewards.

This blog is now over nine years old, and I’ve done nothing to monetize it. I think this is mostly a good thing. I do not and will not run any sort of advertisements. Even upon the release of my first book, I only did a brief mention and then no promotion afterward (and as far as I can tell, this converted to literally 0 sales).

I want this to be about the blog content. I do not want it to turn into some secret ad campaign to sell my work. I can think of many authors who have done this, and I ended up unsubscribing from them.

This brings me to the point. Putting this much work into something is not really sustainable anymore without some sort of support, so I’ve started a Patreon page. As you’ll see, my initial goal is quite modest and will barely cover the expenses to run my blog and website. But without anything, I will slowly phase out writing here regularly.

If this concept is new to you, Patreon is a site dedicated to supporting creative work. Patrons can pledge money to support people creating content they like. It can be as little as $1 a month (or as many podcasters say: “less than a coffee a month”), and in return, you not only help the site to keep running, you’ll receive bonus content as well.

Because of the scattered nature of my posts, I know a lot of you are probably scared to support, because you might not get content of interest for the month. Some of you like the math and tune out for the writing advice. Some of you like the critical analysis of philosophy and wish the articles on game mechanics didn’t exist.

For consistency, I’ll only put out something that would be tagged “literature” for the vast majority of posts from now on. This means once a month or less and probably never two months in a row (i.e. six per year spread out equally). This “literature” tag includes, but is not limited to, most posts on philosophy that touch on narrative or language somehow, editing rules, writing advice, book reviews, story structure analysis, examining pro’s prose, movie reviews, and so on.

Again, the core original vision for the blog included game and music and math posts, but these will be intentionally fewer now. If you check the past few years, I basically already did this anyway, but this way you know what you’re signing up for.

I think people are drawn to my literature analysis because I’m in a unique position. This month I’m about to submit my fifth romance novel under a pseudonym. This is the “commercial” work I do for money, and it’s going reasonably well. I’ve come to understand the ins and outs of genre fiction through this experience, and it has been a valuable part of learning the craft of writing for me.

My main work under my real name is much more literary. I’ve put out one novel of literary fiction. Next month I’ll put out my second “real” novel, which is firmly in the fantasy genre but hopefully doesn’t give up high-quality prose.

These two opposite experiences have given me an eye for what makes story work and what makes prose work. All over this blog I’ve shown that I love experimental writing, but I’ve also been one of the few people to unapologetically call out BS where I see it.

As you can imagine, writing several genre novels and a “real” novel every year makes it tough to justify this weekly blog for the fun of it.

If I haven’t convinced you that the quality here is worth supporting, I’ll give you one last tidbit. I get to see incoming links thanks to WordPress, so I know that more than one graduate seminar and MFA program has linked to various posts I’ve made on critical theory and difficult literature. Since I’m not in those classes, I can’t be sure of the purpose, but graduate programs tend to only suggest reading things that are worth reading. There just isn’t enough time for anything else.

I know, I know. Print is dead. You’d rather support people making podcasts or videos, but writing is the easiest way to get my ideas across. I listen to plenty of podcasts on writing, but none of them get to dig into things like prose style. The format isn’t conducive to it. One needs to see the text under analysis to really get the commentary on it.

Don’t panic. I won’t decrease blog production through the end of 2017, but I’m setting an initial goal of $100 per month. We’ll go from there, because even that might not be a sustainable level long-term. If it isn’t met, I’ll have to adjust accordingly. It’s just one of those unfortunate business decisions. Sometimes firing someone is the right move, even if they’re your friend.

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Those Words Are Different?

Here’s a list of words I routinely have to look up. Many of these I used incorrectly until quite recently, because I didn’t even realize they were different. A few others I’ve seen other people use incorrectly, so they were on my mind. We won’t rehash the to/too/two or there/their/they’re nonsense, because everyone knows those are different even if they mess it up sometimes. These are words many people don’t even realize are different words.

Lull vs Loll:

Lull means to put to sleep.
Ex: I lulled the baby to sleep.

This is easy to remember, because you can think lullaby.

Loll means to recline or dangle loosely.
Ex: The baby’s head lolled to the side as I lulled him to sleep.

The more common mistake seems to be writing “lull” when “loll” should be used.

Clamber vs Clamor:

Clamber means to climb up with all your body parts.
Ex: I clambered up the fire pole at the first sound of the alarm.

Clamor is an outcry or loud noise.
Ex: The protesters clamored their demands.

This distinction also has a trick. Climb has a “b” and so does clamber, so clamber means to climb. I’m not sure the error happens one way or the other more often, because it’s not clear to me most people even realize these are different words.

Pour vs Pore:

Pour means to dump a liquid, usually onto or into something else.
Ex: I poured myself a glass of orange juice for breakfast.

Pore means to gaze or study with much attention.
Ex: I pored over the photograph of a person pouring orange juice for a clue to the mystery.

I think the trick here is to remember that pore is a word. It seems to me most people use “pour” for everything without realizing the other one exists and is different. If you do confuse them, pour has a “u” just like dump and liquid.

 

Palate vs Palette:

Palate is the roof of your mouth.
Ex: You have a refined palate to be able to distinguish Merlot from Cabernet by taste alone.

Palette is the board you mix paint on.
Ex: Bob Ross sets up his palette carefully before he begins any painting.

I must admit that I wrote a whole short story about a painter where I accidentally used “palate” everywhere. I caught it upon revision, but I was alarmed at how unaware of this I was. I’ve yet to come up with an easy way to remember the difference, but this is probably another case of being aware that “palette” exists.

Flare vs Flair:

Flare refers to a bright light.
Ex: The motor on the boat died, so we used an emergency flare to signal help.

Flair refers to a talent or style.
Ex: My job as a server requires me to wear thirty-seven pieces of flair on my uniform.

The most common place I see this misused is in the expression: she has a flair for writing. Do not use “flare” in that case. Otherwise, I think people mostly know these are different words and what the difference is.

Cattle vs Chattel:

Cattle are bovine livestock, in other words, a group of cows.
Ex: I trained my dog to herd the cattle.

Chattel is mostly a legal term referring to movable possessions.
Ex: My cattle are my most valuable chattel.

Pretty much no one misuses cattle and pretty much no one has a need to use chattel, so you’re probably safe here. Various unsavory internet message boards can get them confused. For example, 19th century English Common Law had married women as legal chattel of their husband (this was called coverture). If you bring this up while arguing on the internet, it’s best not to use the word “cattle.”

For the record, they both derive from the Middle English “chatel,” meaning “personal property.”

Gantlet vs Gauntlet:

One “runs the gantlet” for punishment, and one “throws down the gauntlet” as a challenge. Let’s not dwell on this or argue over it. These are expressions, and the words are rarely used outside of those two expressions. And yes, the famous 1985 arcade game was misnamed.

All right vs Alright:

This is a trick! “Alright” is not a word. Always use “all right” when you feel yourself about to write “alright.”

I can think of a few more, but they fall more into the “I know they’re different but can’t remember which is which” category (born/borne, hoard/horde, tortuous/torturous, etc). I wanted to keep this to post to words many people might not realize are different at all.

Year of Short Fiction Part 5: The Call of Cthulhu

Somehow I went my whole life without reading a single thing by H.P. Lovecraft. Since we’re still doing short fiction from the early 20th century, I decided to rectify that. I’m not much of a reader of horror, but there’s certainly a lot any writer can learn by studying the genre. And let’s face it, The Call of Cthulhu is one of the most important works of horror to every be written both from a literary and cultural perspective.

There is a joy in experiencing this story with little knowledge of the plot, so I’ll word things in a vague way to keep the secrets untold.

The first thing to jump out at me was the dense prose style. The first two sentences already indicate this is not your average pulp genre writing:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

I had to look up a few words in the first pages, though some of these might have been more standard back when it was written (e.g. bas-relief). These opening lines set up much to come. The main character has to piece together various found stories to get the full picture (i.e. “correlate all its contents”). Later we will get a scene set on infinite black seas. So these lines had full intention behind them to set up later parts of the story.

I was a little surprised by how real it was. One might say it is written in a hyperrealist style. The level of detail provided is almost distracting. At times, it was hard to remember the story was fiction instead of reading actual travel logs and notes by people. There are many names, and each of these people have precise degrees and jobs and even full addresses (7 Thomas St., Providence, R.I) associated with them.

In other places, we’re given exact coordinates of various sightings: S. Latitude 34° 21′, W. Longitude 152° 17′. This gives the reader precise information about the settings of various events, but at the same time, it’s kind of useless unless you pull yourself out of the story to Google it (as I did). These details mostly serve the purpose of making everything as real as possible.

This story really hits upon one of the things I wanted to encounter when I started the series. There’s close to a full novel’s worth of material in it, but it’s somehow packed tightly into a single short story.

This hyperrealism is part of what makes this possible. Instead of getting lots of lengthy “show don’t tell” descriptions that usually flesh out a single moment into a full short story, Lovecraft presents several detailed fragments that the reader must piece together on her own. In this way, we get years of events in a few pages, and it all feels natural since we’re just reading a few primary sources along with the main character.

This makes it hard to tell exactly what is happening, but this is done to give the reader the same experience as the narrator, who also doesn’t know what’s happening.

And now we’re in horror. It’s often said that the most suspenseful and horrifying things are those things we can’t see or understand. The structure of the story brilliantly puts you in the unsettled feeling of the unknown. It opens with a vague description based on a symbolic representation of the monster:

If I say that my somewhat extravagant imagination yielded simultaneous pictures of an octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature, I shall not be unfaithful to the spirit of the thing.

This cleverly lets the reader’s mind run wild over the first half of the story about what exactly this Cthulhu is. Lovecraft proceeds to add mystery upon mystery: sudden deaths, cults, people going mad, and conspiracy. It’s somewhat brilliant in how it continuously adds suspense without resolving earlier mysteries.

Lovecraft keeps you guessing with that unsettled feeling. Is the main character interpreting this correctly? Is he putting together a set of unrelated things? Is he going mad? Or maybe, worst of all, he’s right, and all of this has been hidden from the rest of us.

Overall, I think a lot can be learned from studying this story. The dense and flowing prose style is impressive on its own. I may have to do a whole “Examining Pro’s Prose” on it. Moreover, the tension and forward motion Lovecraft creates through mystery and hidden information is excellent. Lastly, he brilliantly packs in so much information through the use of non-linear structure.

 

Everyone Should Write a Romance Novel Once

When I say “everyone” should write a romance, I mean everyone who wants to write in some genre whether it be literary or sci-fi or otherwise. I’ll start with the obvious: most novels have some sort of romance subplot in them. It’s always a good idea to do focused practice to get better at something. How many times have you cringed at the romance subplot of an otherwise good novel? Probably more than once.

But there are some less obvious reasons to do this exercise (and no, it doesn’t have to be a full novel or even good). I, and many other writers, get caught up in certain aspects of the craft. I tend to over-analyze and polish prose, as can be seen with the several dozen posts I’ve done here only looking at prose style. I’m also into plot, and I think most writers start a project because they are excited about a plot idea.

Now you might be thinking: what else is there? Exactly. That’s why you need this exercise. Romance novels almost universally ignore both prose style and plot. I know I’ll probably get in trouble for saying that, but just go look at the top few romances on Amazon. Browse the first few pages for free. The number 1 book for months and months has been Everything We Keep. The prose is almost laugh-out-loud funny, so clearly readers of the genre don’t care about that stuff.

This means you’ll be free to focus on other aspects of writing that often get ignored. The thing romance does well is create memorable, interesting characters. You’ll need to focus on characterization a lot.

Dialogue is very important as well. The dialogue should create tension and chemistry between the characters. Dialogue has to push the story forward by constantly revealing things. You can’t have a bunch of stiff “shoe leather” dialogue about the weather and small talk and greetings (unless its a historical where that type of thing might reveal status).

Lastly, setting description will be important. Romance readers want to be transported somewhere. This is a common focus of many other genres as well, but it’s one of the reasons so many romances take place in the lush countryside of Ireland or some Duke’s castle.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to write your romance. You are not to focus on plot. This has been predetermined. Pull up a random word generator. Here’s your plot. Answer the following questions using the random words. I’ll give sample answers.

How do they meet? Ans: “Dove”

Opening scene: They are both walking in a park and they stop on opposite sides of a pond to watch a dove. The dove flies off and poops on male lead. The female lead laughs. They meet eyes. He storms off.

Why can’t they be together? Ans: “Advocate” re-roll “Crop” So advocate for farming rights?

Male lead is a lobbyist for Monsanto-like corporation. Female lead is an activist against his company.

Next set of scenes: They meet at some high roller D.C. party, and she has infiltrated it with an attempt to wreck chaos as a form of protest. Right before she does it, they meet eyes across the room. He goes up and confronts her about laughing at him. Chemistry ensues. Early signs of love. Then she does her protest, and they realize they can’t be together.

They keep meeting up, falling more and more in love. They try to make it work despite their differences. There will be a sex scene or at least a kiss depending on how graphic you go. Eventually something so bad must happen that it seems they won’t be together.

You can use another random word here, or just tie it to what you have. Probably here it would be something like female lead makes male lead promise he won’t cross the line with some legislation. He promises, but gets caught in a no-win situation and crosses that line. She finds out and breaks it off. A scene or two of wallowing ensues.

Then there needs to be a proof of love scene. Here it’s easy. Male lead devises a way to kill the legislation, but it costs him his job. But that’s okay. Female lead is worth it. They live happily ever after. I know. This sounds suspiciously like The American President, but I swear those were my random words. And if you break down any romance, you’re going to find the same outline.

To recap, the form is easy. The leads meet. Only after some serious chemistry do they find a difficulty with their relationship. They make it work for a time despite this. Then something bad happens, and they seem to be permanently broken up. But then one proves their love for the other by sacrificing something important. They live happily ever after.

At any point that you can’t figure out what to do, use the random word generator. Throw some twists in with it. Do not, under any circumstances, spend a ton of time on the plot or prose. Get the characters and chemistry and dialogue and setting right. You’ll want to throw in a few side characters as well. Figure out their personalities with your word generator.

Side character 1: “Shark” So female lead has friend obsessed with sharks, maybe so much so that it offers comic relief. They sometimes protest together certain environmental causes, and this is how they met.

Side character 2: “Drunken” Male lead has alcoholic best friend. We see some of male lead’s redeeming qualities that female lead doesn’t see when he helps this friend in a scene.

I’ll end by reiterating that I do not believe this is how all romances are written. I’m not trying to make fun of them by doing this. The point is to forget about plot and prose as an exercise in generating interesting characters with chemistry and strong dialogue. So often these things get overlooked in other genres.

Also, it’s an exercise. Please do not publish this under any circumstances unless you take the time to make it good. The Amazon self-publishing scene is flooded enough with weak novels as it is.

On Self-Publishing

I sometimes sneak in my opinion about how self-publishing is the wrong path if done for the wrong reasons. Today, I’m going to talk about when I think it’s the right path. This is because I recently self-published my first novel: Sifting Out the Hearts of Men (I won’t promote it anymore than that—you can read the description by following the link if interested).

For context, I started writing this novel in 2010. I was in grad school, so it happened sporadically. I finished the first draft in late 2014, and I had it fully edited (professionally) and submitted to a slew of agents about a year ago. For the past year, I’ve submitted to a ton more agents with pretty much no reply.

Back to the post.

Publishing is a business. Businesses have to make money or else they will cease to exist. This means the traditional publishing industry isn’t interested in difficult or complicated or literary books.

There are, of course, exceptions. These exceptions are almost exclusively in the form of name recognition or knowing someone. I want to reiterate here that I fully understand their predicament. They have to make money. This isn’t a value judgment or moral condemnation. It’s just a fact about the world. You can’t buy books you don’t think you can sell or you will go out of business (this applies to agents as well).

There are a few things that an agent or publisher will look for to determine if it will sell. The first is a hook. Does the first page hook the reader into wanting to read more. This trend is fairly recent, and my guess is that it has to do with being able to read the first few pages for free on Amazon. The first page is part of the advertisement for a book nowadays.

If you look at something like the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, half of them wouldn’t be signed in today’s publishing world based on the hook: Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, The Grapes of Wrath, etc.

I think my novel actually has a reasonable hook, but it doesn’t happen right away. This means most agents won’t make it to the hook if they only read the first three pages. And I didn’t do it merely to break this “rule.”

I hate books that start in the middle of some action. I find it patronizing and condescending when an author feels the need to start with: Jack double back flipped through the air towards the nuke that would go off in thirty seconds and destroy the world. Start at the beginning. This obviously isn’t the beginning of the story.

Another thing an agent or publisher will look for is an easy summary and pitch and conventional plot that fits into pre-existing bestsellers. It’s easy to sell a book when you can say it’s Superman on Mars smashed with Fifty Shades of Grey. It doesn’t matter if the book is good or deep. Everyone wants to read that book, so it will sell.

I did come up with a reasonable sounding plot summary, but it’s pretty misleading (as any agent would quickly find out by reading it). The novel is highly symbolic. There are tangents on things like the Gettier problem in epistemology that, at first, seem to be irrelevant, but end up playing important roles later on.

This, in turn, gives the novel a bit too complicated of a structure to be easily grasped from the first chapter. Recall that I used to blog a lot about Barthes and postmodernism and critical theory and Lethem and people who valued this type of writing (I’ve changed quite a bit since then).

Needless to say, I’d be scared to take a chance on the novel if I were an agent as well. Again, they need to make money, so I don’t blame them. Also, I don’t think many of the greatest novels would be published today for these same reasons. What’s the two sentence plot summary of Les Miserables?

All of this can be overcome if you already have a following, because if you’re famous, you can advertise your book and your followers will probably buy it. Alas, I am not famous.

This brings me to why I decided to self-publish. It seemed I had two options. It’s pretty clear to me that no one will publish the book in the traditional sphere for the reasons I gave above. I could gut the whole thing and rewrite it in a more conventional way.

I’m confident I could do it (I’ve published a few genre novellas under a pseudonym, so I think I’ve got a grasp on what they’re looking for). But I’ve moved on to several other projects now, so I didn’t want to put those on hold to sink more time into something that had already taken up many years of work. This rework option was not a real option, and it still would have no guarantee of selling.

The other option was to self-publish. I wrote the book to be read, so if even one person reads it, that’s better than languishing indefinitely in fifty slush piles for the next three years being read by no one. This is a good reason to self-publish; the novel doesn’t conform to what traditional publishers want.

My next novel, which should be through edits by the end of the month, does fit the traditional publishing mold much better. It has a pitch. It starts with a hook. It has a normal story arc. It has some cool speculative fiction ideas in it. This means I haven’t given up going traditional. I’m going to try again with my next one.

Year One Roundup

Year one? But this blog is well over seven years old. As many of you have probably noticed, my posts have turned away from math and have had a heavy literature/writing focus.

The story is long and complicated and not the point of this post, but I should probably give some context. As many of you know, I left academia at the end of the 2013-2014 academic year. Almost none of you probably know that I left to be a full-time writer. I know what you’re thinking, “You’re such an idiot! You can’t make any money doing that. You could always just write as a hobby if you like it so much.” You’re right. But there’s more to life than money. I wrote a 3000 word essay detailing the complexities and difficulties in coming to this decision, so I can’t fully explain it here.

It’s hard to predict what a given person will find more shocking: leaving math or becoming a writer. I mostly went to school for math because I was good at it, so people told me to major in it. This led to grad school, because that’s what a 4.0 GPA math major does. I never recall making this decision for myself. Once at grad school, I didn’t find my research meaningful, and I wasn’t all that into teaching either. That meant academia would not be a good fit. There are plenty of people killing themselves for minimum wage adjunct positions. Why should I take one of those away when I don’t even want to be teaching?

As for writing, this should not be as big a surprise as many people make it out to be. At the top of this post, I pointed out that this blog has existed for over 7 years. I had a books blog for years before starting this one. I found the time to write about things even in the hectic schedule of grad school. It’s what I love doing and find time to do. I even wrote 50,000 words of my first novel during grad school. From the start, the blog has had a big focus on literary theory, analysis of literature, book reviews, and so on. My interest in this has been there forever.

So what’s year one? Well, I’m considering September 2014 – September 2015 to be my first year as a writer. As you’ll see, I didn’t really publish anything, but I consider that to be okay. I figured my first few years would be a learning experience. Like math, you may have been doing it your whole life, but you shouldn’t expect to publish a paper in your first year of grad school (first year taking it seriously). You have to build up the skills first.

Here’s my stats and analysis of what I did during year one. The point of posting this is to have it in an accessible place. It’s mostly for me, not you. This is not meant to be a “bragging” post or something. If anything, I’m embarrassed by my output, and showing it to the world should serve as motivation to do better in Year 2.

Weekly habits:
1) Blogged once a week.
2) Read a book a week.
3) Wrote a review of that book each week.
4) Wrote an album review each week.

I can recall no exceptions to the weekly habits, though they probably exist early on when I took the most time off (see the end for what this refers to).

Work produced:
1) Six short stories + a significant portion of a rough draft of another. These were submitted to 30 places. No acceptances, but one split vote on the editorial board. Several decisions are still pending.
2) Three essays published at Death Metal Underground (on analyzing/listening to avant-garde music).
3) One essay published at Imaginary Realities.
4) A novella (to be submitted mid-Sept).
5) A novel (to be submitted around Nov).
6) A chapbook of poetry (21 poems). The poems were submitted to 12 places. No publications, but one passed the poetry editor (vetoed by general editor).
7) About 20,000 words of a non-fiction book.

Stats:
1) Wrote approx 241,000 words.
2) Read over 21,000 pages.

A general issue this first year was taking time off. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas I took about a month off. I took another month off while finding, buying, fixing up a house, and moving. Other miscellaneous vacation included engagement parties, weddings, visiting parents, relatives visiting me, and 7DRL. I took close to 3 months of vacation in my first year of work. This isn’t good. I would have been fired many times over for this in a “real” job.

Goals for Year 2:
1) Keep weekly habits 1, 2, and 3 no matter what.
2) Write 6 more stories (one every other month is not bad when the primary focus is on a novel).
3) Double the number of places I submit to. Important! Acceptance is a numbers game.
4) Write a rough draft of a new novel (already outlined).
5) Complete this reading list.
6) Increase the number of words I write.
7) Only take one month or less of vacation. I’m not sure this is physically possible being a writer married to a professor. Our families would deem this excessively stingy: a week at Thanksgiving + a week each at Christmas + a week each in summer = 5 weeks already.