1. This song.
Do you like Bon Iver? Same lead singer.
2. I’ve liked Jeff LeMire since Sweet Tooth. Just finished The Underwater Welder. A smartly written, beautifully illustrated graphic novel about, yes, an underwater welder. But it’s also about one’s obligation to family, family secrets, and redemption in a lonely seaside town.
3. Remember Braddock, PA? There are a number of good people working to rebuild the struggling postindustrial town, and Braddock Avenue Books is working hard to publish bold and urgent new voices. I’d recommend stopping by their website, which has interviews and blogs featuring writers such as Ian McEwan, Allison Amend, Christine Schutt, and Caitlin Horrocks.
Photo from Top Shelf Productions.
I don’t know how I missed this when it came out, but Susan Lynch at The Conium Review read the spring 2011 issue of The Kenyon Review and mentioned “Solitude City”:
Yune’s short story is enlightening: deft storytelling with a savvy of world markets, corporate gamesmanship and Korean culture. Characters are smart and sharp and tender and funny – polysyndeton intentional – as is the dialogue, internal, external, digital, human.
Wow. I’m thrilled to hear that the story connected on so many different levels. And I don’t think anyone’s ever used the phrase “polysyndeton intentional” to describe my writing. But (after looking it up), it makes perfect sense. The entire review, which also talks about Deema Shehabi, Andrew Hudgins, and Katharine Larson, can be found here.
I’m honored to be reading on the Finally Be Friends tour. This reading is free & open to the public. Since it’s being held at a distillery, Wigle signature cocktails, drams, and sample flights will be available throughout the reading, with a portion of the drink proceeds going to the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council. Thanks to Joel Coggins for inviting me, and hope to see you there!
This is just the way my mind works: when I see a movie I’m not entirely satisfied, I start thinking of changes I would have made. I’ve started writing them down in this segment, which I’m calling “Script Doctor.”
Spoilers ahead. I liked World War Z. The producers faced some pretty big challenges, especially in offering something different in an already-crowded genre. Their solution was to create an “outbreak/epidemic” zombie movie, and it generally works. The international focus is refreshing, especially the action sequences set in Jerusalem. The setting, along with the rationale Israel uses to prepare for the epidemic, is really interesting. In survival horror movies, different types of people are forced to work together, and World War Z takes this trope to the extreme by solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Didn’t see that one coming. There are some genuinely tense moments (especially in the WHO facility in Wales), and the Israeli soldier sidekick adds a neat dynamic in the film’s second half.
My main issue with this movie is that Gerry (played by Brad Pitt) is characterized as a family man who agrees to a dangerous assignment to protect his loved ones. Fair enough. However, Mireille Enos (who is charismatic and convincing as Gerry’s wife) doesn’t have much to do, and his daughters are props at best. After they board the aircraft carrier, Gerry’s family is never in real danger, and most of Gerry’s problems are zombie-related.
Here’s what I would have changed:
1. After Gerry crashes in Wales, he is rescued by the Israeli soldier he was traveling with; the soldier, Segen, gathers together a small group of survivors, including the co-pilot of the Belarus jet, and they walk together towards the WHO building.
2. Meanwhile, on the aircraft carrier, government officials believe Jerry is dead and send his wife and children to the Nova Scotia safe zone, which is overcrowded. The day Gerry’s family arrives, the soldiers guarding the base barely manage to repel a small boat filled with zombies and are subsequently low on ammo.
3. Gerry wakes up in the WHO facility and talks to the scientists there. He learns about his family and tries to have them moved back to the aircraft carrier. The government refuses and ridicules Gerry’s plan to solve the zombie crisis through Meningitis. Gerry is upset. He talks to his wife, who describes the lackluster conditions in the safe zone.
4. Later that day, Gerry talks to the co-pilot of the Belarus jet, who tells him there is an airfield nearby and a flight to Nova Scotia is possible. Now, Gerry has to make a choice: does he keep serving the government, or does he decide he’s done enough and return to his family in Nova Scotia?
5. Jerry decides that his family, as the commander in one of the trailers declared, is not exempt from the end of the world. He suggests his solution to the WHO scientists, who tell him about the diseases they have stored in the facility’s vault. Except, of course, the vault is infested with zombies.
6. Meanwhile, in Nova Scotia, Gerry’s wife Karin is deals with the food shortage. She has her own daughters to feed, and also the young boy Tommy, whose family helped the Lanes in New Jersey. Karin has an opportunity to steal food but instead bluffs her way into a meeting with the base commander. Once she’s in the control room, she learns that another zombie invasion into their safe zone is imminent. She looks at the map on the wall and suggests different ways to fortify their position using the tides and an existing seawall. (Some explanation for this would have appeared earlier in the movie. Maybe she grew up in a fishing village in England or something. They could talk about this when they’re stuck in the traffic jam early in the movie.) Impressed, the base commander moves her and the children to a more secure area and gives them ice cream.
7. Gerry injects himself with Meningitis and survives. He helps create the vaccine, which helps give the soldiers in Nova Scotia an edge. They are able to defend the safe zone despite having low ammunition and supplies. Gerry arrives and greets his family.
8. World War Z seemed like the first of a series of movies, each perhaps focusing on a different aspect of the zombie war, in the spirit of the novel. In that case, I would have added a couple scenes at the end suggesting a few different directions the series could take: a nurse fighting an outbreak in Nepal, or a soldier in Kansas who stumbles upon a 1980s-era government bunker filled with zombie test subjects.
It took me a while to get through Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. It’s narrated by Frank Bascombe, a middle-aged man whose life fell apart after his young son’s death, so it’s probably better suited for a rainy week in October.
At any rate, here are some writing techniques I picked up. Spoilers ahead.
1. Ford has a gift for physical descriptions of characters, especially minor ones. For example:
Sergeant Benivalle appears through a back office door, and he’s exactly the fellow I expected, the chesty, flat-top, sad-eyed man with bad acne scars and mitts the size of work gloves. His mother must not have been a spaghetti-bender, since his eyes are pale and his square head stolid and Nordic. (His stomach, through, is firmly Italian and envelopes his belt buckle, squeezing the little silver snub-nose strapped above his wallet.) He is not a man to shake hands, but looks at the red EXIT sign above our heads when we meet. “We can just sit here, Mr. Bascombe,” he says. His voice is hoarse, wearier than earlier in the day (319).
In this brief paragraph, we learn a little about the narrator (expectations, preconceived notions about Italians), but most of our attention is directed at Sgt. Benivalle. Note that in addition to the visual descriptions (chesty, flat-top, sad-eyed), we also learn about the cop’s demeanor and, through the quick line of dialogue, both what he says and how he talks.
First impressions count, and there’s something odd and appropriately shabby about how the cop appears through a back office door and conducts official business with Frank while they’re sitting on a public bench. It’s as if the author is gently reminding us that there will be no closure here, no tidy epiphanies.
I should also mention Ford’s description of Wade Arcenault (261), which is just as precise. Later, during a conversation between Frank and Wade in the basement, we get a number of abstract-yet-specific descriptions of facial expressions and attitudes. Maybe ”airs” is a more apt word, though it feels too Victorian:
“So now how was the trip down, Frank?” Wade says with brusque heartiness. There is a frontier tautness in his character that makes him instantly trustworthy and appealing, a man with his priorities straight and a permanent twinkle in his eye that says he expects someone–me, maybe–to tell him something that will make him extremely happy. Nothing, in fact, would please me more (262).
2. Frank’s first encounter with Walter Luckett could have easily been a necessary but rote scene, an information exchange/comparison between himself and another sad sack divorcee. However, Ford livens up the scene in a few ways:
a) We learn a few pages before the scene begins that Bascombe and Luckett had an unbearably awkward meeting in the past, and that nervous energy helps propel this scene forward.
b) Ford adds tension to the scene by giving Bascombe another obligation that night (he’s late for a date), so he really doesn’t want to meet with Luckett anyway.
c) Bascombe’s reluctance makes him more interested in the bar’s decorations and patrons–they become distractions and take on an interesting significance as such.
d) Seemingly out of nowhere, Luckett makes a startling confession that completely derails the scene and ultimately alters the entire novel’s trajectory. It’s a neat trick, and perhaps a necessary one. On page 92/375, Ford is letting you know that this novel still has a few surprises in store.
4. Speaking of Walter Luckett. He only appears in the novel twice, and the second meeting is also significant. I think subtlety is incredibly difficult to pull off as a writer. If a connection or idea is written too subtly, the reader will probably miss it completely. If a connection or idea is too overt, you’re talking down to the reader.
When Walter Luckett appears the second time, notice how his visit is basically a pretense to tell his story about Ida Simms, a woman with mental problems who disappeared. Before telling it, he finally “bolts” his drink and asks, “Do you want to hear it, Frank?”
After, Luckett changes the topic and provides a distraction by talking about his ex-wife. We learn about Luckett’s suicide later in the novel and the connections become clear; the story about Ida Simms was a cry for help, one Frank didn’t really recognize.
5. A novel should have a horizon, and The Sportswriter’s slow pace is bearable mostly because there’s always something on the horizon. Usually, it’s an event in a specific location: Frank is taking his girlfriend Vicki on vacation to Detroit. Frank goes on assignment to interview a paralyzed football player. A meeting with Vicki’s family in Barnegat Pines. Frank is always leaving one appointment and on his way to another, which is the main way the novel propels itself forward. However, not everything on the horizon is tied to a place. Frank carries Walter’s suicide note around for awhile, which changes the tension briefly to “When will he read it and what does it say?”
6. This isn’t exactly a technique, but I was impressed by how this novel shows Frank’s interests and problems through his occupation. Aside from the obvious connections (Frank gives up a promising creative writing career to become a sportswriter), the narrator is interested in mystery, and to my mind, one of the novel’s central questions is which factors or events determine the course of one’s life, how someone ends up in a particular situation. It’s a maddening issue in sports: teams spend countless hours watching tape and observing players, but it’s difficult to predict how successful a player will be on the field. The paralyzed football player Frank interviews highlights this (as does the unpredictable nature of the interview itself).
Sports and mystery converge several times, but one moment that stuck out to me was when Frank gives a perfect metaphor to explain the mystery of teams: “A team is really intriguing to me, Wade. It’s an event, not a thing. It’s time but not a watch. You can’t reduce it to mechanics and roles” (281).
7. Ford does this a couple times in the novel: he’ll introduce a character by having Frank mentally check off what he knows about someone while filling in gaps with speculation and projection. For example:
“Do you work here,” I ask disingenuously, since I know with absolute certainty that she works here. I saw her down a corridor a month ago [....] She is an intern down from Dartmouth, a Melissa or a Kate. Though at the moment I can’t remember, since her kind of beauty is usually zealously overseen by some thick-necked Dartmouth Dan, with whom she is sharing an efficiency on the Upper East Side, taking the “term off” together to decide if a marriage is the wise decision at this point in time. I remember, however, her family is from Milton, Mass., her father a small scale politician with a name I vaguely recognize as lustrous in Harvard athletics (he is a chum of some higher-up at the magazine). I can even picture him–small, chunky, shoulder-swinging, a scrappy in-fighter who got in Harvard on grades then lettered in two sports though no one in his family had ever made it out of the potato patch. A fellow I would usually like. And here is his sunny-faced daughter down to season her resume with interesting extras for med school, or for when she enters local politics in Vermont/New Hampshire midway through her divorce from Dartmouth Dan. None of it is a bad idea (358).
Since this exposition is related to an important character, the reader is engaged as s/he discovers in the next 18 pages which of Frank’s observations were actually correct. (For example, we learn a page later that this woman’s name is not Melissa or Kate. It’s Catherine Flaherty.)
Not all of Frank’s descriptions of strangers are this extensive, and Catherine’s is unique because so much of it is in Frank’s head–it describes her family history and shoots us way into her future. Many of Frank’s descriptions are of minor characters, and they’re colorful and detailed enough that we don’t need to know any more about them. It’s interesting, though, that seeing characters only through Frank’s eyes suggests that they also exist independently of his projections. The world of the novel feels a little more alive as a result.
For those of you who asked, here’s a copy of my query letter, with some stats below.
I noticed you’re on the list of agents appearing at the Writer’s Digest Conference and saw that you’re interested in literary with a focus on place. I hoped you might be interested in my manuscript. EIGHTY DAYS OF SUNLIGHT is a 94,200-word novel narrated by Jason Han, who, after suffering a childhood “accident” involving a campfire and a bullet, spends his childhood being cared for by a doctor in Princeton, NJ while the rest of his family lives in a factory town near Scranton, PA. Years later, as they prepare for college, Jason and his older brother reluctantly work together to investigate their father’s suicide. After their investigation concludes violently, the brothers move to Pittsburgh and attempt to cohabitate peacefully while they settle their father’s complicated estate. Together, they explore the city once described as “hell with the lid off,” full of post-industrial landscapes and sultry coeds. The brothers also travel landscapes of guilt, betrayal, and secrets as they try to figure out what destroyed their family—and how to save what’s left of it.
EIGHTY DAYS OF SUNLIGHT has lyricism similar to Chang-Rae Lee’s NATIVE SPEAKER and Michael Chabon’s THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH. Its humor is similar to Chuck Kinder’s HONEYMOONERS and Flannery O’Connor’s WISE BLOOD. EIGHTY DAYS’ attention to place is similar to Don Lee’s YELLOW and Stuart Dybek’s I SAILED WITH MAGELLAN.
The second chapter of EIGHTY DAYS was published in Avery and earned an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s April 2009 Family Matters contest. I earned an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh in 2008. The same year, I received a full tuition minority scholarship to the advanced fiction workshop at the NY State Summer Writers Institute.
Last year, I was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction contest and was one of five finalists for the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, selected by Sherman Alexie and Colin Channer. I’ve published or have stories forthcoming in Green Mountains Review, The Kenyon Review, and Los Angeles Review, among others. I’m currently the fiction editor of The Fourth River, and this past summer, I worked as a stand-in for George Takei.
I would love to send you sample chapters if you’re interested. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely,
Writing titles in all caps is the proper formatting, but it still feels weird. Every time, it feels like I’m shouting book titles at people, which seems especially improper somehow.
When it comes to query letters, it’s hard to gauge success. Without taking a time-consuming poll of everyone who read it, it’s hard to tell whether the synopsis, bio, or other section made a difference in how people responded. When composing the letter above, I asked to see my friends’ and consulted Noah Lukeman’s excellent book. My success rate is detailed below, but I’ve purposely omitted all agency/agent names.
Between 2009 and 2012, I sent the novel out to 39 agents. I researched each agent/agency and was careful to email people who would be interested in my project. The math:
11 outright rejections based on the query letter alone. A number of people said they simply didn’t have time, and many felt the project wasn’t right for them.
3 agents asked for a sample, then rejected the book.
8 agents asked for the entire book, then rejected it.
1 agent offered detailed editorial feedback–really precise and sensible questions. I made edits and she then rejected the book, although she gave a very detailed explanation. Although I really appreciated her honesty and help, obviously I wished things had worked out differently. After her rejection, I addressed a number of issues she raised and the book was stronger for it. All in all, this process took about six months.
16 no-reply rejections.
If the point of a query letter is to get an agent to request a sample, then my query letter had a 31% success rate. To my mind, that’s not bad, considering you only need one agent to say yes. If you account for only people who responded (and definitely read the query letter), that success rate skyrockets to 52%
If you haven’t heard the news, Eighty Days was picked up by Thought Catalog Books and is forthcoming in the fall of 2013. How it got published is a long story, which I’m currently writing about for TC. At any rate, it took 6 years for me to write this book and 3 years to sell it, so right now I’m feeling like this:
Also, this happened today.