Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Fictive Dream and why it trumps polemics

Don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with polemics in literature.  Some of the best, most important books are inherently political, and overtly polemical.  I’m thinking for example, of Salman Rushdie’s Step Across This Line, or the essays of Arundhati Roy.  But neither Rushdie nor Roy employ polemics in their literature.  That isn’t the same as saying that their literature isn’t political.  The politics in both Rushdie and Roy’s work forms a powerful underlying theme – as can be seen by the political impact their books have had on those who’ve attacked these writers based solely on their fiction.  But neither of these writers are present as mouthpieces in their fiction, which is one of the reasons their fiction is at least as powerful as their nonfiction.  As a reviewer and manuscript assessor, I often come across work which has been written to make a point.  It’s a kind of fictionalised polemic, where the author is arguing politics through character, plot and setting.  Probably one of the best (worst) examples of this is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.  I’m not (here) arguing against “objectivism”, but rather Rand’s use of characters as a sounding board for it.  It makes for bad fiction.  Her character Howard Roark is presented as an “ideal man”, but of course there’s no such thing (nor an ideal women) – just compelling characters with flaws that may or may not be endearing, and desires which may or may not be safe.  Instead we have a wooden, unbelievable character using wooden, unbelievable dialogue, moved like a puppet along a contrived plot.  We have a similar situation with Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist, where the author’s argument takes precedence over characterisation, good plot, and multi-dimensional characters.  Flanagan, and Rand could very easily have written excellent polemical nonfiction – both are clearly capable of it.  And it would no doubt have been terrific, thought provoking work.  But instead they created bad fiction. 

Of course not everyone will agree with me on this point, and both Rand and Flanagan have many admirers (I actually love all of Flanagan’s other novels, none of which are even remotely polemical, although they still manage strong political messages).  However, I feel quite strongly that there is no place for authorial argumentation in fiction.  That isn’t to say that the author can’t have a political theme – even a strong controversial political theme – the best fiction often does.  But simply that a novel's theme has to be driven naturally from characterisation and not the other way around.  You simply cannot create a story and characters to present a political (or any other kind of) platform.  It always comes out stilted and the characters become unrealistic sounding boards.  The truth of the novel has to begin and end with the characters and you just can't have characters speaking the author's mind if you want the fiction to work, otherwise you lose the fictive dream entirely.  The fiction forms its own truth and the story has to work with that truth. 

Break the bond of trust between the reader and the writer – that is, the fictive plausibility of the character, the plot, and their interaction, and you break the fragile thread that holds the whole fictive process together.  The fictive dream involves sympathy, understanding, reader involvement, identification, inner conflict, and character transition—all those things that make for excellent fiction.  But it has to work naturally, and the work itself has to create a kind of inner truth that may well transcend the author’s own polemics.  So be it.  He or she can always revive those in the genre of nonfiction. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book Geeks: on the intersection of literature and technology

I admit it, I'm a bookgeek.  There's no nice way to put it.  I like reading more than almost any other activity (Eating comes a close second.  Reading while eating is heaven, especially if it's a handful of crunchy raw almonds...).  I'm also a techie.  Not a clever technie mind you, just someone who likes to mess about though I am a Certified Lotus Programmer (CLP to those in the know) if anyone wants credentials.  Until now I've had to keep my technie side and my literary sides distinct, but a new article on Digital Book World has convinced me to bring the geek out of the closet.  The article, written by Anne Kostick, states in no uncertain terms that the authors of the future will need to be technologically minded, coming out of their garrisons to collaborate with programmers and designers.  I've always maintained that my programming day job is all semantics - no 1s and 0s for me.  It's about translating the inchoate into the concrete - turning fuzzy desire into a working package.  That's reasonably literary, at least the way I look at it. 

Writing for me today, is such a different process from what it was back some 30 years ago when I first started writing poetry seriously.  I only use my pen to sign things.  I research almost simultaneously while I'm writing, looking for inspiration, images, meanings or chasing threads to pull into my work. You won't catch me talking or writing in binary - I'm just not good at that.  It's still all about semantics for me, whatever I do - whether on a page or on a screen. But I'm surely glad someone is able to manage the back end coding.  And I take Kostick's well made point that the notion of a 'digital work' is continuing to morph.  The immersive experience isn't, and won't, but how to get a reader there might well continue to change.  The geek in me is excited.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Kevin McNamee What Is That Thing (guest blog)

Today we welcome guest blogger Kevin McNamee, who will be talking about his children’s picture book, What Is That Thing?

Kevin McNamee is a writer and poet living in Yonkers, NY.   He mostly writes for the children’s market.  Kevin’s published work includes the picture books, If I Could Be Anything, The Sister Exchange, Lightning Strikes, The Soggy Town of Hilltop and What Is That Thing?    

Kevin’s poetry has been published in the collection, An Eyeball in My Garden: And Other Spine-Tingling Poems.  Other titles coming soon by Kevin include My Brother, the Frog, Papa’s Suns, Just for Today, and more.

Kevin, what is this book about?

Jenna has a vivid imagination.  When a new baby comes into the house, she uses her imagination to try and figure out this new person in her life.  Finally, she realizes that she doesn’t need to use her imagination.  Things are fine just the way they are.

Why did you write this book?
A new baby is a big enough adjustment for adults and children alike.  There may be children in the house who are struggling with the changing family dynamics.  I wanted to find a child-friendly way to help with that adjustment and to help calm any fears that might arise from having a new brother or sister.

Do you think this book can help?
Yes, I do.  To be unsure of the unknown is a common and normal reaction to big changes.  I wanted to both validate a child’s sense of uncertainty and to show that change, especially when it comes to having a new brother or sister, isn’t a bad thing.  I think this book accomplishes that in a way that children can understand.

What was the hardest thing about writing this picture book?
I had a hard time with this book during the editing process.  This book has three separate imaginary episodes that are completely different from each other.  Yet one scene flows directly into the other.  I wanted to make sure that the reader would be able to follow the story from scene to scene.  This is really where the other half of a picture book becomes so important, the artwork.  K.C. Snider’s illustrations did an excellent job of bridging any gaps.  The artwork blends the real and imaginary worlds together beautifully.  The end result was a delightful picture book that educates, entertains, and hopefully solves a problem. 

Is there anything else that you would like to add?
I really wanted to write a book that is both useful and entertaining.  I hope you and your child have fun reading this.  If you find that this book has helped, please let me know.  I love getting feedback like that.

What is That thing?

What Is That Thing?  by Kevin McNamee.  Illustrations by K.C. Snider
Print ISBN: 978-1-61633-141-2; 1616331410
eBook ISBN: 978-1-61633-142-9; 1616331429
 It’s an alien from outer space! … It’s a strange and smelly creature! … It’s a mysterious, roaring animal! … It’s my baby sister?!
Jenna uses her imagination to understand this new person in her life.  When she finally sees things as they are, will Jenna like what she sees?

What Others Are Saying

 “I recommend the book to any child who has younger siblings or is about to accept the arrival of a new sibling. They will be able to laugh and also accept the little being into their lives, and even be very happy and enriched by the new little baby sister or brother.” – Stories for Children Magazine

“McNamee has done a great job of capturing what the experience of having a new sibling can be like.
Illustrator K.C. Snider provided colorful pictures that show both Jenna's imaginary adventures and the real world in a cute way.” -  Janet Ann Collins - On Words

 “This cute and heartwarming story should be read to all children who already have or are about to have a new addition to their family.  Further value is added by the award-winning artist K.C. Snider, who elevates the story with her top-notch illustrations.” -
“In this delightful new story from talented poet and writer, Kevin McNamee, we see him doing what he does best–create a story that youngsters will love … What Is That Thing? would make a perfect gift for the little girl who is going to be a big sister soon.” - Children's and Teens' Book Connection

This book is available as a print book, a downloadable e-book, or a book on CD from

Books are also available from,, or ask your local bookstore.

To find out more about Kevin, please visit his website at or visit his blog at  

Kevin is also on Linked-In and Twitter, but he doesn’t tweet too much.

For another great author feature please stop tomorrow; Virginia Grenier will be featuring Robert Medak. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Podcasting for Writers Workshop

I'm excited to report that I'll be delivering the inaugural Writers on the Move Workshop. If you've always wanted to have your own radio show, or just want to know what a podcast is, and how to use it to promote your own work, then you're invited to join me to learn about Podcasting for Writers!  The workshop will be a LIVE hour long chat format, scheduled for May 16 at 7pm US EST. 

There is no charge for the workshop, but you will need to register. Please send an email to me at: so I can send you a password, attendance link, and workbook. 

A bit about the workshop:

The simplest definition of a podcast is just a recorded radio show and I will provide the information you need to get your podcast up and running. I’ll define what a podcast is and the many different ways you can either do a single podcast, or start your own “radio show” or even syndication with recorded podcasts.
This will be a very informative workshop for writers who want to bring their books and/or services to a larger audience. If you’re blogging now, the next step is to create podcasts and I can show you how.  It's time to take your promotions to the next level.  I'll look forward to you joining me!