Playing with perspective: A Visit From the Goon Squad

I am a lucky, lucky book lover.

A few months ago, I casually retweeted a @VintageAnchor tweet about a contest to win a call from Jennifer Egan for my book club. And I was one of three people who won the call. A week after that, Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer for A Visit from the Goon Squad, and a few weeks later my book club actually had a chance to talk to her over the phone about her book.

She was wonderful—very prepared, answered all our questions, and had lots of anecdotes about the book and the writing of it to share. This was our club’s second Egan book (we read The Keep two years ago), and we had plenty of questions about her experimental style.

One thing that particularly stood out for me in this call (Warning: Spoilers ahead) was near the end, when we were discussing the final chapters of the book, set in the future. I mentioned that I found the last chapter absolutely terrifying and asked if Ms. Egan frequently got that reaction. It turns out she does; people find the environmental foreshadowing an eerie possibility for our future. But that wasn’t what I was talking about at all. When I asked the question, I was thinking of a scene between two characters in a restaurant, when a teenage girl begins texting the person sitting across the table from her because she feels too uncomfortable actually speaking to him. I think it speaks to the power of the world Ms. Egan created that there’s plenty of fear to go around, while the chapter is ultimately about music bringing people together and offering them simple hope.

We all have different things that we’re afraid of, but the beauty of using different perspectives in a long piece like this is that you get to understand all the variations of fear that exist. We stay in Sasha’s head for a while and learn her fears, then later we see those fears overcome from another perspective. By the time we get to the end, we’ve faced down so many fears that all that’s left is the unknown future and the vaguely frightening and hopeful possibilities it affords us. That’s one reason why I think the experimental style of this “shnovel” or novel made of short stories (a phrase invented by the great Jack Driscoll) is so captivating is that it offers us this variety of perspectives, not just for the sake of variety as an end itself, but as a means of finding the best way to explore each character.

Not all perspectives work for all characters. Some must be written in third person past tense, others first person present. If you try to match the wrong perspective to the character and the story you’re telling, it just doesn’t work. Your piece won’t sing the way it should. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way myself, when, after a little experimentation, I found myself rewriting the first 50 pages of my grad school novel from a different perspective. You can’t be afraid to experiment, even if it means throwing out work or starting over. It’s the only way to learn how the story wants to be told. The reason Egan was successful with this novel was that she experimented and started again and threw away pieces that weren’t working and ultimately came up with a Pulitzer-prize-winning collection of various viewpoints that all feel honest, rather than form driven or experimental for the sake of experiment.

Quick Grammar Lesson One: Em-dashes, En-dashes and Hyphens

One of the most common errors I see when copyediting is confusion of em-dashes, en-dashes and hyphens. I don’t think these dashes are commonly taught in school—I know I learned the difference between them my first year in publishing. So here’s a quick lesson:

Em-dashes are the triple length dashes that separate ideas in a sentence.
Example: My dog—who loves to run—is chasing her tail.
Often em-dashes are used in place of parentheses.

En-dashes are (usually) double length dashes that are used to show ranges.
Example: The shrubs may grow 36–42 in. high.
En-dashes are usually used between numbers, like dates or measurements. In some fonts, en-dashes and hyphens are indistinguishable.

Hyphens are a single dash used within words (such as en-dash and em-dash), to join words (such as compound adjectives) or to break words at the end of a line.
Example: She wore an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka-dot bikini.

Like most grammar rules, these aren’t set in stone. Publications have their own styles. Many people use space–en-dash–space instead of an em-dash for example. Or they use a hyphen instead of a an en-dash. Or, when there is a hyphenated phrase containing a hyphenated word, the hyphens between words become en-dashes (as in the sentence before last).

To make it easy, here are three basics to remember:
1. Always use a single short dash (hyphen) to join words or break a line.
2. Always use a longer dash (en-dash or em-dash) to separate thoughts in a sentence.
3. Be consistent.

I suspect one reason people often use the wrong dash is that they don’t know how to insert the correct one. Hyphens are standard on any keyboard, including most smartphone keyboards. If you are using Microsoft Word, you can find both en- and em-dashes on the Symbol list on the Insert menu. On a Mac, the shortcut for en-dash is option+- and for em-dash is option+shift+-. If you can’t figure out how to make a real en-dash or em-dash, you can substitute a hyphen for an en-dash and two hyphens (–) for an em-dash.

Truth be told, these are old printer conventions, and as digital publishing evolves, things are going to change. As with most grammar quibbles, the important thing is to be consistent.

A Gate at the Stairs: Writing from a different perspective

Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs a classic coming of age story, set in a Wisconsin college town in the year following 9/11. Tassie Keltjin is a naive 20-year-old, looking to make money babysitting. Her job with a couple of east-coast transplants and their newly adopted bi-racial daughter brings both love and heartbreak into her life. The fear, uncertainty and racial issues of the post-9/11 world and War of Terror have an unanticipated impact on her sheltered life, both through her romantic experiences and family issues.

Moore’s descriptions and elegant sentences capture the post-adolescence of her young narrator perfectly. There’s an almost willful innocence, and sometimes ignorance, behind Tassie’s every move and thought, and the characters—even those that appear only briefly and then disappear—often tell us more about her and her mistakes and misperceptions than Tassie seems to realize for herself.

As a reader, I did run into a real dilemma reading this novel. As enjoyable as Moore’s writing is (as she does have a great style), the perspective and timing of the novel clashed completely with my own experiences. Perhaps I’m over-identifying (and it’s quite likely), but as a native Wisconsinite, who was in college at the time of 9/11, only a year older than the narrator, working as a part-time babysitter and as a classroom assistant in an urban kindergarten class in a Midwestern city with a sizeable college community, the perspective struck me as distinctly East Coast. The attitudes, especially in regard to race and world view, were exaggerated. I could tell that Moore, though she might teach at Madison, is definitely not a Midwesterner or a Wisconsinite. There were stereotypes and just some outright ignorance about the people and places she was writing about (especially Green Bay). Granted, young people exploring the world on their own for the first time will typically look back at their home with a little disdain (I know I did at that age), but since the narrator was looking back over a distance of time, this should have been tempered. It really read as though the mother, Sarah, was the one telling the story at times. Several members of my book club commented that the novel felt as though it were taking place ten or twenty years earlier than it was actually set. The Midwest of the novel is seriously dated.

How do we, as writers, write from a different perspective? Moore crafted a very well-written novel with a beautiful story, but the perspective will probably fail with many who should identify with it. Writers must stretch themselves to write beyond their own experience, but how do we stop short of writing caricatures? How do we capture a truth that we can’t know from experience? This is an issue I’ve encountered again and again: when the male author fails to capture the female perspective, when the author messed up the geography of my city, when I see movies featuring people who work as assistant editors living huge loft apartments…. Am I the only one who has this issue? I love reading stories about people who are vastly different from me in part because there’s little risk of this happening.

As a writer I don’t want to limit myself, but I’m reluctant to try to write from a male perspective. I think it’s incredibly brave when writers reach beyond their narrow world scope and try something different. (And in many ways, I think Fantasy and Sci Fi manage to escape this dilemma because none of us know what it’s like to live in the worlds these writers create.)

I’d be interested to know who you think writes well from a different perspective. What makes them successful?

Endings and beginnings


We lost our dog Benny last week. Not my dog, really, not anymore, but the last dog we got when I was still somewhat living at home. The silly, neurotic dog that sat on my feet day after day as I prepped application after application when I came home from college. The dog that had to do three counter-clockwise circles and army crawl under the dining room table every time he went from the kitchen to the front door. He was old, and skinny, and sick on regular basis the last few months and then, finally, he was done.

I’ve been thinking about him a lot this last week, particularly about my beginning with Benny. I was in California for the summer when he was born in our basement, part of Riley’s only litter. I almost missed him entirely, but his two littermates picked on him so much and so often that my parents kept him with them, separated from the other puppies for his own protection. By the end of the summer, they were so attached they couldn’t give him up. My mother had told me that the puppies had been taken away by the breeder, and I was disappointed to miss them entirely.

Riley (Benny's mother)

I flew back to Wisconsin on a red-eye flight, the morning of my grandmother’s funeral. I stumbled up the front-steps, bleary-eyed in every way possible, opened our front door, and pretty much tripped over him as he bounded outside.

New puppies are a marvelous distraction.

My story with Benny has a clean beginning, and a slow, unwinding end. I’ve been thinking about that, and how easy and difficult it is to write about beginnings and endings like that. Sometimes beginnings creep up so gradually you don’t know where to start. With my grandmother, for instance–where would I begin that story? Endings are, usually, much easier. Often there’s a definite finish.

One common problem that writers face is starting too early. Introductions drag on and on. Or a novel opens with a character’s entire back story, instead starting with the beginning of the story itself. (For this reason, I love Kate Atkinson’s “I am conceived!” beginning of Behind the Scenes at the Museum. You can only get away with this on purpose.)

How do we know where to begin? I think it’s part of the problem I’m having getting this blog going–I keep wanting all the support pages, the About Me and Links and other decorations to be in place before I start the conversation. I want the timing to be perfect, so I have time to think and write and edit everyday. But, obviously, that will never happen. Life always happens. There’s always going to be something.

This week, my dog died. But I’m going to try to begin here anyway.

“Writing is thinking”

Recently one of my friends shared this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education with me. “The Shadow Scholar” is essentially a freelance writer, writing assignments for students. I was fascinated with this article for a few reasons.

1. Ethics aside, I think this would be a fun and interesting job. Think of how much you would learn.

2. It’s really tragic. Think of all the things these students don’t learn.

Note: It should go without saying, but I feel compelled to mention I have a pretty strong anti-cheating stance. I’ve seen a very lackadaisical attitude towards cheating over the last few years, and it troubles me. But that’s not what this particular musing is about, so we’re not getting into ethics today.

Writing assignments aren’t just an exercise to prove you understand the material and can say something intelligent about it. Writing is about thinking deeply on a topic. The more you revisit and revise, the more creative and critical you become and the better you understand your subject. This is why revision and editing are the core of good writing and why, no matter how well you write or how well you understand your subject, writing about it always allows you to learn more–not just about the topic, but about your own thinking.

When I interviewed with my bosses’ boss for my current position, she said something that made me want to work with her: “Writing is thinking.”

Many people think that learning to write well is about mastering the mechanics of grammar or developing your own style. That’s important, it’s true, because without these fundamentals no one will understand what you are trying to say. However, developing an essay or a story or any other kind of writing is about exploration, discovering that idea that is uniquely yours and finding the best way to articulate it to someone else.

The best writers examine ideas both on a large scale (theme, logic, etc.) and a minute scale (Does this word, this sentence convey my ideas as clearly as possible?). If students skip writing assignments thinking that they can have those larger ideas while skipping the minutiae, they really are cheating themselves–although I suspect they don’t care to begin with. They don’t learn to think critically on the topic, and I suspect that the lack of emphasis on writing in school, and the misconception that good writing is all about grammar, is why there is such a lack of critical thinking (and good writing skills) in the work force.

As to my comment that the Shadow Scholar must learn a lot–sadly that can’t possibly be the case as fast as he is writing. There’s no time for the examination required of good writing. So there really are no winners here.

Musings on character

Today I’ve been thinking about character. Or rather, how to write a great character. Really, how do you create a character that resonates? One that people remember years after their first encounter. One they return to again and again. One whose birthday they remember.

Today is Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s birthday.

I’ll admit, I didn’t remember Buffy’s birthday myself. Twitter reminded me. But she’s definitely a character that has stuck with people through the years, myself included. The last episode aired in May 2003, and almost eight years later, people still think about it. That’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment for everyone involved.

But why? Granted, anyone who was a fan of the show will tell you that it was an ensemble piece. Great dialog, acting, plotting, special effects…I could go on and on. But the show isn’t really what I’m talking about today. I want to talk about character.

I’m a big fan of novels, book series, and television series. I think it’s because you get to settle in with the characters for a good long while. You watch them change and grow. You watch their actions leave lasting impacts on their lives. If they don’t, then it’s probably not a very good story. Because character is at the heart of story.

With a character like Buffy, you get a masterpiece. Sure, there’s the superficial allure: she’s a pretty cheerleader who hunts monsters. But beyond that, on the allegorical side, she walks right on the edge of the knife, the dividing line between feminine (pretty cheerleader) and masculine (fights monsters), adulthood (responsible for the safety of others) and childhood (a teenager who just wants to have fun with her friends), love (her boyfriend, friends, family) and hate (so often they become monsters themselves). Beyond the allegorical, she deals with issues that all teenagers deal with–fights with friends, struggles to fit in at school, trying to grow up. It’s just that the storyteller puts her in a position where her decisions on these everyday issues impact not just on her, but potentially the whole world.

If this was it, if allegory was all there was to this character, she still wouldn’t succeed–she still wouldn’t resonate with readers (and neither would similar characters, like Harry Potter). She needs to have flaws. Not dramatic Achilles Heels, but rather, those small issues that we all have, that make us human and sometimes lead us to make mistakes. Buffy has a superficial streak and abandonment issues. Harry Potter has a need to be the hero. These flaws make them vulnerable, but we can relate to them.

Still, a character would just be an idea without the flesh that shapes them. The way they speak, move, breathe, think…. Every sentence the writer adds must work to define this shape. Consistently. And consistency doesn’t even matter if it isn’t done well. If the dialog doesn’t have an actual voice. If the movement is jumbled or stumbles the plot. If the thought and action inexplicably don’t match. What do you have then? I think this flesh is perhaps the most important part. You can have great characters without the allegory, but you can’t have them without dialogue, action and motivations that move them. Otherwise they are statues. Or caricatures.

Doesn’t it seem impossible now? Look at all those piece, the stars a writer needs to align. And then, as the story moves forward, realign. And align again. The more I think about it the more daunting it seems.

But then I’ll think about those great characters, the ones that have stayed with me since I met them, and I think it seems worth it to keep trying. If those other writers hadn’t kept trying, think of all the great fictional friends we would have missed out on.