Once in a great while I drift away from fiction and such to read a book that seems to underpin my interest in creative writing, how ideas are communicated through stories, and what makes these stories historically and socially enduring as well as darned fascinating. Which is today’s lead-in to a book dryly entitled, “The Natural and the Normative: Theories of Spatial Perception from Kant to Helmholtz.”
Okay, before you retch on your computer keyboard and go a-Twittering about the dweeb who can’t stay away from arid philosophy, let me say this: My post here isn’t going to step into author Gary Hatfield’s philosophical quagmire. What it will do is draw a probably tenuous line between Hatfield’s philosophical history and what books – stories and literature – mean to us. Here goes.
Spatial perception means how we view space. Not Star Trek’s “final frontier,” but the empty elbow room that contains things. Believe it or not, how we understand that space exists has flummoxed humans for centuries, and this is the crux of Hatfield’s book. It’s been an argument that’s occurred over centuries and, to hear Hatfield tell the tale, our understanding of it seems to continually go in circles, ever ending up where it began.
Emanuel Kant, a German philosopher, stands in the eye of this academic storm, his interest settling on geometry. The significance of geometry throughout this centuries-long debate has to do with how things are structured (or at least how we perceive them structured) within the abstraction of space. Of void. Of nothingness.
But what does this have to do with books and literature? Literary theorists have battled for at least as long as Hatfield’s story has existed over the relationship between three things:
• What the writer intends to do in writing a piece of fiction, non-fiction, or poem.
• What the reader draws from the writer’s “product," and how it's significant.
• What, in fact, the story, book, tale, saga, poem, history, etc. actually is – to both reader and writer.
You might actually think of the “text” of the piece of creative writing as something similar to a geometric structure. That is, the writer “builds” such a textual structure, with all its linguistic quirks, its pacing, omissions, entendres, and the reader (and, of course, the literary critic) reads it, experiences it in some way, and makes some sense of it. (I’m not blogging on this randomly – I plan to sprinkle a bit of literary theory between books I review here – -soon!)
“So, what??” as this post’s title demands to know. The main import of Hatfield’s book to avid readers of creative writing (and it's minimal, I admit) is that philosophy's job is to underpin – among many, many other things – the writing and reading of those paper devices we pull from shelves at Barnes & Noble. It’s that simple (and yes, I have tongue wedged deeply into cheek.)
Irish novels always prove interesting reads to me, in that they take on a poetic sensibility. But they often dwell in what seems insular fashion on Irish idioms, culture, and places to a degree that keeps me running to keep up, as if I’m experiencing life there in an all too exotic manner. As a result, I find it hard to lose myself in such stories.
I should say at the outset that this book of McCabe’s reminds me a lot of several of Ian McEwan’s books. That’s not a criticism of either person’s work – rather it’s a literary motif that seems prevalent in the Isles these days, one of seeking a person’s place in a long-established, slowly morphing society.
McCabe’s novel, winner of The Irish Novel of the Year Award in 2008, is such a book, but with a few charming twists. The story centers on first person narrator, Chris McCool, a sixty-seven year-old from Cullymore, who had a blast four decades earlier, during the exhilarating, notorious Sixties. And being Mr. Wonderful to songstress Dolly McCausland back then simply iced his cake.
But CJ, as he was known, overreached his elated state during those days by attempting to forge a friendship with a young black man, Marcus Otoyo, who seemed to share his passion for Catholicism (something Protestant Dolly couldn’t give CJ) and the sensibilities of British literature, particularly that of Joyce and Stevenson. But Marcus eventually disappointed, as did Dolly.
The story is that of an aging McCool flashing back on this past, even as he attempts to resurrect his earlier life with current Croatian lover, Vesna Krapotnik. Vesna ultimately disappoints as well, but CJ’s mellowing allows forgiveness this time, something he couldn’t manage with Dolly. CJ’s life quest, ironically, turns out to be found, not in Dolly nor Vesna nor Marcus, but in the much recurring metaphor of The Holy City, a magical locale of the mind in which McCool might find the pathway to an open and honest heart.
McCabe’s story and principal character toy with fabulism throughout, particularly at story’s end. And he punctuates this with passing references to a formerly idyllic Ireland, in which life had gone on much as usual for centuries, each village its own universe. But in today’s world, CJ must struggle with Ireland’s surrender to the ephemeral substance of commerciality and materialism. In his coping, CJ and McCabe give us the Irish soul’s lyrical, joyous nature along with a darkness that includes rage and murderous intent.
Reading fictive tales from other cultures isn’t necessarily the stuff of immersion and shared identity. Instead, it’s a way of peering past human strangeness to a common depth than can be shared only in dribs and drabs. McCabe seems acutely aware of this narrowing in The Holy City, but he hardly seems daunted by it. In the end, he's given us a powerful novel of human vulnerability, strangeness, and resilience.
Now that I’ve completed my WWII novel manuscript and have breathed a sigh of satisfaction, it’s time to sit before the task of selling it. This is the point at which many of us flail in frustration – there’s just not that much consistent information or advice out there as to how to go about it.
Like most published-and-aspiring-to-more writers, I’ve had my share of advice along these lines. But over these past years, I’ve boiled things down to something reasonably consistent.
First and foremost, you need to master the dreaded query letter. Strangely (and I include myself in this group), I find such a letter harder than creative writing. It goes against the grain, I suppose, to reduce your creative panorama to a few sentences.
But the best query letter (and it should be written in a business format) can be reduced to three or four components:
The hook: The first paragraph should convey something intriguing about your story. The agent or editor will want to know what sets your story and character apart from the maddening crowd.
The ever-so-brief synopsis: the hook should segue into a very brief depiction of your central character and his/her conflict within the story.
Sell yourself: The third paragraph can be a listing of your publishing credits – or an accounting of life experiences that connect with your story and main character.
Finale: Simply ask if you can send your completed story (or a portion) and thank the person for his/her time.
Often, agents will ask for other, ancillary things to help them decide if you story is for them:
Synopsis: This amounts to a one or two page condensation of your story. The trick here is peeling away the twigs (incidental or peripheral aspects) from your story’s main trunk and limbs.
Chapter outline: at rare times, an agent or editor will ask for this. It’s laborious, but usually amounts to three or four lines per chapter. Just give the story’s main thread as it appears in each chapter.
Writing sample: you’ll usually be asked for the first 30,50, or 100 pages of your text, double-spaced. Warning: if you’re reluctant to send the first chapters instead of something from the middle or end, your beginning is probably too weak, or you began at the wrong place in the story’s sequence.
Afterthought: these days, agents and editors are more and more willing to receive submittals by e-mail. I recommend it. It gives quicker turnaround and costs virtually nothing.