Saturday, 13 March 2010

My Two Magna Cartas

Two years ago I wrote my first novel in thirty painful days, following Chris Baty's NaNoWriMo model. It was a dystopian story about a world in which a seemingly benign state deftly removes those of its citizens which it deems to be the unproductive – the disabled, the ill, and the elderly. It has all been done before, of course, but I like to think that my story added something new to the genre, a contemporary comment about ruling a society through fear and the way in which religion can be used to either keep people in check or stir them into action. I like to think that there is a germ of something really quite good hiding within that 50,000 words, and one day I'll go back and salvage what I can and build it into something great.

Baty's book, No Plot? No Problem: A Low-stress, High-velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days, chivvies participants along with a combination of good-natured pep talks of the you-can-do-it variety and stern advice on overcoming 'writer's block' through the discipline of daily writing. One of the exercises I found most insightful was an examination of the books I like to read and those I am apt to dismiss.

In a chapter entitled 'The Two Magna Cartas', the reader/writer is encouraged to make a list of the qualities he enjoys in a novel. Baty calls this list the Magna Carta, and suggests that the qualities one appreciates as a reader will be the qualities one excels at, as a writer.

As a way of reminding myself where my priorities should be as I struggle with my second attempt at novel writing, here is my Magna Carta I.

These are the things I enjoy in novels:
  • Third-person, present tense narration;
  • Unreliable first-person narrators;
  • A distinct narrative voice;
  • Multiple viewpoints;
  • Non-linear plots;
  • Short chapters;
  • Playing with language;
  • Beautifully constructed sentences;
  • Psychological conflict;
  • A search for identity;
  • A big, unseen enemy;
  • Landscape;
  • Landscapes that mirror emotional conflicts;
  • Rural settings;
  • Character-driven stories;
  • Puzzles;
  • Protagonists who are on the outside;
  • Protagonists seeking forgiveness;
  • Characters on the edge of madness;
  • Characters struggling with religious/moral issues;
  • Protagonists racked with guilt;
  • Flawed characters;
  • Punchy dialogue;
  • Dream-like narratives;
  • Implausible events made real;
  • Finely crafted imagery;
  • Ambiguous endings;
  • Positive, life-affirming messages.
Baty describes Magna Carta II as the ‘Evil Twin’ – a list of all those things which I, as a reader, find unappealing in a novel. Here’s my list:
  • Protagonists I don’t connect with or don’t care about;
  • Nasty characters without redeemable qualities;
  • Two-dimensional characters who serve only one purpose in a story;
  • Gratuitous anything;
  • The writer’s pomposity showing through in the narration;
  • Preaching – messages which are too obvious or overworked;
  • Teenaged angst;
  • Middle-aged angst;
  • Endless descriptions that don’t serve a purpose within the plot;
  • Mute characters in particular, and lack of dialogue in general;
  • Anything with ninjas;
  • Simplistic plots of good vs evil;
  • Interesting strands of plot which are not fully explored or are simply dropped midway.

Monday, 8 March 2010

A Chapter by Chapter synopsis of Linwood Laughy's novel, The Fifth Generation: A Nez Perce Tale

During the late 18th century, according to tribal oral history, Nez Perce spiritual leaders predicted that a major change was coming to their culture. This change would come from the east, the tewats said, and the Nez Perce people would have difficult times for five generations.
~ Epilogue to The Fifth Generation: A Nez Perce Tale
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Linwood Laughy’s first novel, The Fifth Generation: A Nez Perce Tale is set in the area around Kamiah, Idaho. The protagonist, Isaac Moses, is a 32-year-old Nez Perce man, living alone in his family home. Over the course of a year, Isaac’s life changes as he stops the destructive drinking which has marred his life, and seeks to reclaim his heritage. This is a story of self-discovery and hope for the future. My review of this novel has just been accepted for publication by the Western American Literature journal at Utah State University and I will post a link to it, via Project Muse, when it is printed later this year.  

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Gathering historical research on William Clark's Nez Perce son

During the past year, I have been attempting to gather all available information about William Clark’s supposed Nez Perce son, variously known as Tzi-Kal-Tza, Halahtookit, Al-pa-to-kate, Daytime Smoke(r), and Son of Daytime Smoker. The name I find the most poignant, however, the name that links into my research on personal identity, is the one he is said to have called himself – Clark (Moulton, vol 7, p 241).
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The idea for my project started to emerge about ten years ago, when I visited the Nez Perce Historical Museum in my hometown of Lewiston, Idaho. Among the exhibits were collections of artifacts from early white settlers, the Nez Perce tribe, and the Lewis and Clark expedition which passed through the region twice: in September 1805, on their way to the west coast; and in May 1806, on their return journey to St. Louis. As I grew up in Lewiston, I thought I knew the history of the area fairly well, but tucked into a display of beaded gauntlets and stone tools was a piece of information I hadn’t come across before.