How to Write a Story within a Story: Sucked into House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Danielewski House of Leaves How to Write a Complicated Story

Reposting this book review of one of the scariest books I’ve ever read in honor of the approaching Halloween/Samhain holiday! Get lost in the literary haunted house that is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski and enjoy a little bit of Reading for Writers to get you spooked and in the mood!

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is a stupefying maze of a book. It is a story within a story within a story which defies the conventions of traditional page formatting and linear narrative. The strengths of this book lie in the way that its strangeness and its narratives come together to leave the reader with some very strong overall impressions.

The main text of House of Leaves is a faux-academic examination of a non-existent film entitled The Navidson Record. The film is a documentary(?) that deals with the Navidson family, who moves into a house which begins to expand, shift, and change dimensions as they live in it. The academic exploration of the film is written by Zampanò, a blind man (yes, who is writing about a film) who dies while writing this treatise. The text is then found by Johnny Truant, who takes it on to try to complete it, inserting his own life as footnotes alongside the academic footnotes of Zampanò. Truant goes insane while working on the book, which is then found, edited and published by nameless editors, who also add their own footnotes. This is presumably the status of the text when it reaches the reader.

The theoretical examination of The Navidson Record is a clear riff on academic writing. It is written formal language and is footnoted with hundreds of academic articles to back up the theories that Zampanò espouses. The problem with this is that try as Johnny Truant might, he cannot find evidence that the film being theorized about even exists. Some of the footnotes come from sources that do actually exist (thanks to the comps list, I was familiar with Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air), but most of the sources do not. Danielewski (or Zampanò?) even goes so far as to quote actual people supposedly giving their take on The Navidson Record, including such well-known people as Anne Rice and Susan Sontag. This makes The Navidson Record seem like a notable film and the reader must constantly remind herself that not only are the theories and quotes mostly made up, the film itself does not exist.

This academic writing completely falls apart as the book progresses. The text itself spins out of control, the words of Zampanò’s theories literally turn upside-down, go down staircases, and run across the page. He begins writing nonsensical footnotes that appear in boxes in the middle of the page, run on forever in lists, and bleed through to the other side so that the reader is reading the text both forward and backwards. German and French litter the pages, sometimes untranslated. There is braille, musical notation, and ASCII pictures. Each time the word “house” is mentioned in any language, it appears in blue and slightly askew.

The footnotes also refer the reader to several “Exhibits” and “Appendices” in the back of the book. These contain photographs, lists of things that Zampanò plan to include but which are never found, and collections of poetry. The most notable of these contains a series of letters to Johnny Truant from his mother. She writes these while in a mental institution and they range from traditional-seeming letters to letters with scattered text to letters in secret code. The reader is referred to these letters early on and this helps the reader understand how to read other parts of the book.

The main reason that all this is tolerable is that it fits so well with the story itself. Like the house in The Navidson Record, the book folds in on itself, containing story within story. It is a maze, just like the house is, and the reader must navigate it in the same way that Will Navidson must navigate his house. It is impossible for the reader not to get lost in it. This mirrors the experience of both the people in The Navidson Record and Zampanò and Truant, who, as they are writing about the film, get lost in the darkness that the theoretical explorations suggest. Instead of being alienating gimmicks, the nuances of the book pull the reader in, making her feel like one more layer in the maze of stories that make up the book. The only way this effect could be more effective is if the book left space for the reader to footnote her own experience of researching the film (which I will admit to attempting, even knowing it didn’t exist) and reading the text. For my own part, I was so engrossed in House of Leaves that I felt nearly compelled to add footnotes that recounted what was happening in my world, that the leaves were falling, darkness was multiplying, and my house, like the Navidson house, seemed to be emitting a low growl.

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing. May contain affiliate links.

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NaNoWriMo Prep for Pantsers

Nanowrimo prep for pantsers

National Novel Writing Month is quickly approaching. They say there are two kinds of NaNo writers, the plotters and the pantsers. Is it possible for Pantsers to prep for NaNoWriMo? 

Let me get this off my chest right off the bat: I am the epitome of a pantser. My writing style is that I write a sentence or paragraph that belongs in one scene, and then my mind flits to another scene for just a paragraph, and then I get a flash of character description, and then I can see the setting so I need to get it down and suddenly I have 400 words, and they each belong in a different place in the book. This means that I end up printing everything out, cutting it up, and trying to sort it into some kind of order before having to fill in gaps that I missed or expand on scenes. Sometimes I even have to cut sentences in half in order to sort them.  Here is what my writing process looks like:

Ugh. I have always hated those people (I am looking at you, Husband) who just sit down and write the next scene like they have a map of where their book is going. Writing is fun and easy, they say. Writing is my escape. Like a movie in my head. You just sit down and write what comes next.

Get out of my face, you people who can just write what comes next. My muse obviously has such terrible ADD that she can only tell me one image at a time, which leaves me swimming in beautiful words that I have to somehow make sense of. 

Ok, rant over. 

I am eager to do NaNoWriMo this year. I have done it a few times before and never won, but this year, I have no thesis to write, I am not moving to another country (that I know of), and I am not pregnant, so I figure this year is my year. (Friend me on the Nano site: I am JaclynMaryLuke! Let’s inspire each other!) 

Because I am so gung-ho to actually follow through this time, I decided that I needed to do some Nano Prep.  But guess what, I am not a plotter. How do you prep for NaNoWriMo other than plotting out your story, or developing your characters? To me, the things that most people do to prep for NaNoWriMo are things that I discover and uncover in my process of writing, so it feels like cheating to start those before the big November 1st kick off.

I have, however, tried a few things so far this month that have definitely helped get me in the mood, and so I wanted to share them in hopes that some other pantsers out there could use them too!

1. Sign up!

I don’t mean this to be an infomerical for NaNoWriMo, but it can be really helpful to sign up ahead of time, meet some other writers, and kick off the month with a bang. Community support is what NaNoWriMo is all about. You could choose to write a novel any month, perhaps an easier month than one which has only 30 days and several holidays. But doing it in November gives you the support of thousands of writers who are doing it along with you.

When I lived in Fairbanks, they had a midnight write-in on October 31st, so you could really get going from the moment the clock struck November. They also did word wars on Facebook that I found useful, and of course write-ins at coffee shops.  This year, I’m in Anchorage, so I’m excited to see how it works differently in different places. The point is that you don’t want to spend your November writing time poking around the website, lurking on the forums, and stalking other NaNos. Do that now and get it out of your system!

2. Make a mood board

This is one I found on the NaNoWriMo Blog. Basically, the idea is to collect images that you can use to inspire your story. You can create a physical board out of newspaper and magazine clippings, or you can create a Pinterest board. Here’s mine, as an example. What I love about this prep is that it feels like I am steeling myself against future writer’s block. After just a little bit of time, I have inspiration for days. Author J.M. Ralley has a great post on using Pinterest for both inspiration and connection with readers.  Suddenly, on my Pinterest feed, there are pictures that are reminiscent of my story, which both inspires me and also tells me that I should be writing and not on Pinterest. One word of warning, though. Pinterest is excellent procrastination, so be careful with how you use your time.

3. Create a writing space

If you are going to make room in your life for writing, you need to make physical room in your life for writing. This can be as big as creating a whole office for yourself, or as small as transforming your dining room table. In the summers, the hubs, the toddler, the dog and I live in a one-room, off-the-grid cabin that is 12 feet by 16 feet. You can image that there is not room for anyone to have their own writing studio in this situation. But for me, the space is important and so when it’s time to write, our little table transforms into this:

I have my special writing fabric, my special writing candles, my special writing mug (Thanks, Maeve!), and my special writing plant. They all come out and transform the little table where we eat into my own space. The point is to have a physical space that gets you in the headspace — and to make sure you have it set up before November 1st so that when NaNoWriMo comes around, you can just sit down and immerse yourself in your writing. Bonus points for also displaying your mood board from above!

4. Create a writing ritual

In a similar vein, I need to get in the mood for writing. I find it extremely helpful to have a writing ritual that helps get my head in the game. Personally, I make myself some coffee, set up my space, and water my writing plant, reminding myself that I am helping my creativity and my story grow. Maybe you put on some music to write to, make yourself some tea, watch a NaNoWriMo Pep Talk, read some poetry, meditate, pray, do yoga, or draw a tarot card to inspire your day. Whatever your ritual/routine is, you want to make sure that it’s short and sweet and that it actually supports your writing. I personally start to get sucked in if I meditate or watch a pep talk, so these are not for me. It can take time to find a routine that works for you, so now is the time to do it. Don’t wait to figure out what works, or you might spend half of November testing out routines.

5. Create a cover.

This can be as easy or as involved as you want. I’m not talking about creating the final, be all, end all cover with the blurb and everything. Put your name on it. Pick a working title. Heck, even tag it with some Pulitzer Prize or “Best-selling” stickers. The idea is just to have some visual representation of the book you are writing in its complete form. I used Pixabay to find appropriate photos (which can also go on your mood board!). Canva actually has book cover templates that are super easy to use and free! You can print it out and put it in your writing space, or leave it on your computer desktop. Just make sure that you see it often and let the inspiration of seeing your book (YOUR BOOK!) get you through those difficult days in November when the sun is slipping and writing feels too hard. You got this!

6. Plotting for Pantsers

This one comes straight from the NaNoWriMo Prep Workbook. They call it the Jot, Bin, Pants method. This is the first time I’ve tried this and it’s working well for me. The idea is basically that you find a little time each day leading up to NaNoWriMo to sit and conjure up the scenes in your book. You can do this by meditating, just thinking over a cup of tea, scribbling what comes to mind before you go to bed, working on your mood board: whatever gives you ideas for scenes and images. You DO NOT WRITE THE SCENE (this is the most difficult part for me, because I see details that I want to hold on to, so they have become sub-notes). Instead, you just write a one-sentence summary. And then, conjure more, and write another one-sentence summary of the next scene you see. Once you have 50-100 scene ideas, you can begin sorting them. Which scenes need to come first? Which scenes don’t belong? Which scenes really strike your fancy? This is a way to get some semblance of order and some ideas on the page before November starts, but still allows you to go by the seat of your pants!

What are you doing to prepare for NaNoWriMo? Do you have any advice on how to prep for fellow pantsers? Ideas are greatly appreciated!

Different Kinds of Editing

Reposted from FireweedEditorial.com. Written by Kris Farmen.

I recently spoke on the phone with an editing client who was brand new to the process of writing and editing. I had read through part of her novel manuscript and found it to be a lively and engaging story, and I was looking forward to working with her. But because she’d never been through the book editing process, she was weighed down by elemental questions like, “What is developmental editing?” and “Why is copy editing necessary?” All the different kinds of editing services can be confusing. I explained to her the differences between developmental editing, copy editing, line editing, and proofreading, as well as the importance of each one. Then it occurred to me: she probably wasn’t the only one with these sorts of questions.  

Developmental Editing

Developmental editing goes by several names, including substantive editing, story editing, and structural editing (and probably a host of others). Whatever you choose to call it, developmental editing is the process of going through a manuscript to improve the flow of the story, to tighten up each scene, make sure there are no major Chekhov’s Gun issues, and to identify any places where the narrative drags or bogs down. In other words, the aim is to make the story itself as good as it can be.

Line Editing
Line editing focuses mainly on sentence and paragraph structure. A line editor helps you smooth out your language so that it flows like river water over a stone and keeps the reader engaged with the story. A good line edit will make sure that you’re saying what you want to say in the best possible way. Usually the feedback you get from the editor will come in the form of a redline document, that is, a version of your story with the editorial changes marked using Word’s Track Changes function.

Copy Editing
Copy editing, often confused with proofreading, is by contrast a much more technical edit on your manuscript. Its purpose is to catch any misspelled words (including affect/effect style misusage), rogue apostrophes, and any glaring grammatical errors. Copy editing is usually the last step in manuscript revision. With the manuscript done, you move on to proofreading.

Proofreading
Traditionally proofreading is done on galley proofs—the mock-up of what the final book will look like. The type is set, the margins are blocked in, drop caps are inserted. In short, it’s almost done. But any smart author or publisher will have one final read-through done on the typeset pages to catch any last-minute errors. Proofreading is just that: it’s the final editorial scan of the pages of a galley proof to like the extra period on page 112 or the en dash on page 209 that should be an em dash.

Every book manuscript needs multiple stages of editing before it goes to press, and the importance of a good editor cannot be overstated. Jack London, one of the most famous novelists ever, always refused to make any revisions on his first drafts, and it shows. Every time I read one of his novels the foremost thought in my mind is, This book could have been fifteen thousand words shorter and 20% better with an editor. 

Fireweed Editorial offers all the editing services described above, plus design and layout work. We also offer free trial edits so that you can feel confident that we are a good fit for you. But whoever you choose to help you, editing is absolutely vital to producing a great book.

Four Easy Ways to Revive Your Blog

How to revive your blog

Have you been neglecting your blog but want to get back in to it? How do you come back gracefully after years away? Here are a few tips to try!

  1. Give it a facelift. Maybe you are excited about restarting your blog, but scared of that first post. What do you say after two years of radio silence? Maybe you spent hours updating the look of your blog months ago and you are just now ready to start writing again. But in those months since you redesigned your blog, it’s been swirling in your head, so that finally, you are able to write again.
  2. Give some reasons. Or you could also call them excuses, I suppose. Maybe it’s been a really crazy two years. Maybe in those two years, you got married, moved to the Bahamas, got pregnant, moved to Florida, started a business, had a baby, had major surgery, spent six weeks in the NICU with your new baby, moved into a new house on the day you brought her home, drove across the continent with your new little family, and then moved back to an off-the-grid cabin in Alaska and started a blog about it. I mean, for example. Surely your readers can forgive you for not writing in the midst of all that chaos. 
  3. Give an apology. But are you really sorry? Maybe your readers were disappointed when your posts started trailing off, but that was years ago, really. They probably haven’t thought about it since. Maybe no one even noticed. But you noticed that your blog was going downhill. Maybe this form of comeback would be better phrased as  I’ve missed you. Our connection has been important for me, and I hope it’s been just a little bit important to you. Can we reconnect?
  4. Just jump right in. Or maybe you just want to get started. Maybe no one will even notice you’ve been gone. Maybe you can just pick up where you left off and act like there was no absence at all. Maybe if you start with a particularly useful blog post, something about writing and blogging and connecting with people. Something like, Four Easy Ways to Revive Your Blog. Because actually, something like that you could write very authoritatively about. You’ve been thinking about that very subject for the past two years.

Reading for Writers: Englishes in Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil

A former Tamil Tiger in an Australian detention center. A transgender grandmother in New Orleans. An Australian woman trapped in an abusive relationship in Uganda. With this wide, global view, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s collection of short stories, Foreign Soil: And Other Stories, examines issues of identity and displacement across an expansive swath of space and time. Clarke uses a poetic attention to vernacular to bring her readers past the narrative, offering an immersive experience with each story.

From the epigraph of the book (“Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard of things with it.” –Chinua Achebe), Clarke sets high expectations for her readers and she delivers. Throughout these stories, Clarke uses nonstandard English to tell nonstandard stories. The first story of the collection, “David,” follows a chance meeting of two Sudanese women in Australia, one who is Australian-born and one who was born in Sudan. Each woman’s voice mirrors the life she has known. These two voices side by side highlight the ways in which language shapes one’s view of the world but also the connections that can happen despite linguistic differences. From the outset, Clarke is playing with language. It’s no surprise that she is also a poet. Her attention to the smallest details of accent and sound are evident throughout the collection.

Clarke’s use of nonstandard English goes beyond dialog. For example, in “Gaps in the Hickory,” the narration is in third person but affects a dialect of the Southern United States that would be comfortable for the characters. “Ain’t no buckin up gon cover up how much Carter miss his gram,” (131) Clarke writes. Though the dialect is not always authentic (most Americans would use the term “bangs” for “fringe”), it nevertheless adds to the ambiance of the story and sets it more firmly in place. The use of dialect also requires the reader to set himself into the language and world of the characters, instead of trying to put the characters in a vernacular that is not their own.

Her most poignant use of language happens in the story “Big Islan.” In this narrative, which is written in a Jamaican dialect, we follow Nathaniel Robinson as he learns to read English. The language gives him a sense of place as he can find his home of Jamaica on the globe, but the language is inaccurate for his experience of the world. Nathaniel learns “E is for Inglan” (182) and “A is for Owstrayleah” (188). The letters don’t match his own speech. His newfound ability to read is a mixed blessing, giving him both H, which “always gwan stand fe home” (185) and “E fe envy” (189). In the end, his ability to read the newspaper makes “de city im grow te love so-so dear, Kingston, feel insignificant small” (191).

Clarke’s use of dialects makes her reader feel acutely the theme around which the stories in this collection rotate: displacement. Clarke does not stick to any one vernacular or voice. Instead, the stories cycle through some of the myriad Englishes that have evolved around the globe. Because of this, the reader can never settle in to one style of writing, but is constantly recalibrating her reading in order to adjust to the narrators.

The variety of characters, voices, and places in Foreign Soil underscores the variety of forms of displacement. One of the most compelling aspects of Foreign Soil is its “globality” (181), to use a term coined by the character Nathaniel in “Big Islan.” Clarke does not focus on one people or one part of the world. Nor does her exploration of displacement end with being in a new country. The collection explores racism, gender identity, immigration issues, and religious intolerance, to name just a few themes. Far from feeling scattered, the range of stories brings home Clarke’s point: that displacement in a global world can happen to anyone, anywhere.

The newest story in the collection, added for the 2017 edition, is “Aviation,” the tale of a Sikh child, Sunni, in need of emergency foster care. Sunni ends up on the doorstep of Mirabel, whose husband was killed in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center. In her attempt to provide a home for a child in need, Mirabel comes face to face with her own prejudices. In the end, the reader does not find out whether or not she fosters Sunni. This story, like many in the collection, is a story of people who find themselves in impossible positions. The narratives resolve and feel complete, but they also often leave their main characters and their readers to sit in the discomfort. Nathaniel, of “Big Islan” is left restless in Jamaica. The eponymous main character of “Harlem Jones” is left holding a Molotov cocktail. Sunni is left waiting to be fostered. These stories are not about how displacement dissolves or is overcome, but about the displacement itself, about being in the thick of it.

Her final story, “The Sukiyaki Book Club,” feels strikingly autobiographical. The struggle of a young single mother trying to make it as a writer, told in first person, is juxtaposed with a story she is writing about Avery, a girl who is stuck upside down in an impossible position on the monkey bars. Once again, Avery and the writer are characters displaced. These narratives side by side highlight the constant question throughout the book: can Clarke’s characters find a way down, a place to land?

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

Rejection Is Not Feedback

Thinking about doing another submission bonanza soon. This is a helpful read.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

For when you need a 1300-calorie dessert with a view

I need a sweater. So I go to the mall. (The mall is a temple of consumerism with an indoor ski slope overlooked by The Cheesecake Factory, because I live in Dubai.)

The first store specializes in argyle sweaters. Argyle is just not my thing. Do I:

A) Assume this brand is garbage and everything they will ever make is argyle.

B) Say “no thank you,” and head for another store, dismissing argyle from my mind because it’s not that big a deal, I’m shopping all day anyway and hey, someone else is going to love diamond plaids.

In the second store, I see a terrific red sweater. It’s got sleeves of exactly the right length and those cool little thumbholes so you can pull the wristbands over your hands, and it’s super soft. Then I look at the tag…

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Let Your Words Fly: Submission Bonanza 2015

photo (7)Do you have stories that have been hibernating over winter in the caves of your computer files? Poems that have sleepily spent the dark months hiding from the cold snuggled between the pages of your notebook? Blog posts or essays that are destined to fly in the summer breeze and see a new audience?

It’s time for a Submission Bonanza, and I’d love for you to join me!

Here in Alaska, the new, green life is taking shape. The air feels fertile and full of possibilities. Birds are sending their songs out into the world and all this makes me feel like I should follow suit. With the start of summer, there’s the reminder of the possibilities that exist and the importance of our art seeing the light of day, stretching in the sunshine and basking in the warmth of the outdoors.

Two years ago at this time, I began a Submission Bonanza. It was an attempt to start getting my work out in the world, which I had been terrible about doing. It had been a long time since I had submitted anything anywhere, thinking of myself as not-a-real-writer, as someone who just wrote to make myself happy. At some point, I realized that writing, for me, is actually about connection and the real reason I was not submitting my work anywhere wasn’t because it was “just for me” but because I was afraid of the rejection. I mean, this poem is my soul; how could I stomach someone saying it wasn’t good enough?

Two years and hundreds of rejections later, I am stronger. I know now how to take the rejection letters. Being an editor of a magazine myself, I see how subjective the process can be and I know that it’s not a reflection of the worth of my soul.

I also have quite a few publications under my belt, because as subjective and harrowing as the process can be, there will also be moments when your work falls into the lap of someone who gets you, someone who connects with what you are trying to say. And they’ll want to share that with other people. Which, honestly, is kind of magical.

I have to say, I’ve fallen off the wagon a bit, been remiss in keeping my work flying out into the world and, thankfully, nature has reminded me that it’s time again.

submission bonanza logo 2 copySo, I’ll be doing another Submission Bonanza this year, 30 submissions in 30 days. For the whole month of June, I’ll be keeping a running list of literary journals that I submit to, and I’ll highlight some of the best ones so that you can submit to them, too.

If you’re new to submitting, check out my Guide to Creating Your Own Submission Bonanza, Choosing and Selecting Submittable Pieces, Finding Literary Magazines, and Six Tips for Perfect (Professional) Cover Letters.

Feel free to use the Submission Bonanza logo and join up. I’ll keep you posted with how things are going. Keep me posted as well!