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!

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.

How to Tell a Messy Story: Divina Trace by Robert Antoni

 

“This is magical realism with an avant-garde twist, as if Garcia Márquez and Joyce had themselves engaged in unholy cohabitation,” says Gustavo Pérez Firmat, referring to Robert Antoni’s Divina Trace. This is indeed an apt portrayal. Divina Trace is the story of Magdalena Divina, the patron saint of Corpus Christi, an imagined island in the Caribbean. We are introduced to the story by Dr. Johnny Domingo, Jr., who gives us the story from the points of view of his grandparents, a former slave, his father, the abbess of the local convent, the saint herself, and Hanuman, the monkey messenger from The Ramayana. The story itself is a wild ride, a mix of religions, histories, and sciences that come together to paint the ungraspable picture of miracles and mysteries. The elusiveness of this story is both created and made more manageable for the reader through the use of structure, language, form, and repetition.

Though the story itself is messy, with the blurred edges that come with the intense humidity of island life, the structure is nearly mathematical, precisely formed. In each chapter, Johnny Domingo introduces us to a narrator who tells him what they know of the story of Magdalena Divina. These narrators make a perfect palindrome, with chapters being told in kind by Granny Myrna, Papee Vince, Evalina, Dr. Domingo (Sr.), Mother Superior Maurina, Magdalena, Hanuman, Magdalena, Mother Superior Maurina, Dr. Domingo (Sr.), Evalina, Papee Vance, and Granny Myrna. In this way, the chapters mirror themselves, front to back, During Hanuman’s retelling, in nearly the exact middle of the book, lies a mirror. Almost exactly one-quarter and three-quarters of the way through the book, during the chapters of Dr. Domingo Sr., there is the same page from a medical journal. This structure gives the reader something to hold on to as the story and the language falls apart.

The language of this book plays a particularly big role. There are very few sections which are written in standard English. Even Johnny Domingo, who was educated in America, slips into Caribbean dialect as he writes. This is even more evident in the voices of the storytellers. Each person has their own language and way of speaking. Mother Superior, for example, uses Spanish and cusses like a sailor. Evalina talks in a thick Caribbean accent. Magdalena’s chapters are written like epic poetry or revelations from god. There are line breaks and it is the retelling of Indian epic The Ramayana. The most striking chapter is that in which Hanuman speaks. In this chapter, the language is meant to be English, but in the voice of a monkey. Hanuman invites us to look at the monkey in the mirror, “Dat sapian night, desperate, you dropasleep deaddrunk, again dreaming you writereading, you simian Bible of baboons e-eeing. Ayes close you now you simian fossil potto, you simian primate missinglink:” and then comes the page of the book that is a mirror. But this is far from the uneducated jabbering of a mindless chimp. This chapter references Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva, which forces the reader to think about the ways in which intelligence and standard English work together or don’t. This chapter is certainly disorienting, but by this time the reader is prepared for it because the language has been slowly becoming more and more slippery and nuanced as the different voices take the stage.

Antoni uses a variety of forms to tell this story as well. In addition to the mirror and the pages and pictures from medical journals, he also uses epic poetry, personal letters, knot tying diagrams, musical notation, recipes, and newspaper articles. The myriad sources underlines one of the main themes of the book: Who has the authority to tell stories and decide which versions are told? In each chapter, the story of Magdalena Divina is told again, sometimes negating previous chapters, sometimes adding new information, sometimes raising new questions. This is done in such an artful way that the reader is compelled to keep going, even through the sometimes confusing, difficult-to-read varieties of language.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing, subtle techniques that Antoni uses is repetition. Each chapter is a repetition of the story. We see the same scenes from different points of view and in different languages, which make them different scenes all together. The characters also begin repeating themselves and each other. There are echoes of phrases from previous storytellers, making it difficult for the reader to tell where the story is coming from and whose words are whose. This shines an interesting light on the way that myths and histories and collective stories are told, and retold, what gets picked up and what doesn’t. Highly recommend Divina Trace.

*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.

The People in Our Stories: Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking

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Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade is an examination of death and life through Lynch’s experiences as a funeral director. The book is structured as a collection of essays which range from a meditation on toilets to embalming his father to an essay against assisted suicide to instructions for Lynch’s own funeral. Throughout the book, Lynch asserts that funerals and all the things that people do surrounding death are really for the living.

The book is strongest when Lynch goes deeply into his own personal experiences. The experience of actually embalming his father and sorting out his own father’s funeral is a poignant one, which resonates deeply with the reader. Likewise, Lynch’s instructions for his own funeral, in which Lynch tells us “It’s yours to do – my funeral – not mine” (199), acts as a parting gift from Lynch, a reminder to be good to each other and that the details of the funeral – in February on a cold day, with no party – are really not the dead’s concern. It is also strong when it is being most straightforward – describing the processes surrounding death or the details that the living don’t think about. The route to the cemetery and why this matters, for instance, gives the reader a lot to think about in terms of how we think about death and its relationship to life and ourselves as individuals.

The Undertaking strives to look at the acts and ideas surrounding death in order to come to greater insights about life. This is a very ambitious goal and, unfortunately, many of the essays in this book fall short of that. The topic of death is so deep and meaningful and is ripe for insight and universal truths, especially considering the level of knowledge that Lynch has on the subject. I was so ready to love this book. However, instead of sticking to personal experiences and embracing the questions surrounding life and death, Lynch nudges his essays toward the pulpit. Some of the best books leave their readers with questions to ponder and things to ruminate on. Lynch is not shy about answering the questions he brings up.

Lynch takes the tone of a curmudgeonly old man as he bemoans kids these days and their technology and the way that they think about death. Instead of allowing the reader to come to the insight about how and why old ways were important, Lynch jumps straight to insulting possibly young readers by attacking the way things are done nowadays. He uses an incredible amount of “we” and “you” phrases assuming that his reader is on the same page with him. This reader certainly wasn’t and so these turns of phrase became incredibly alienating.

It was difficult not to question Lynch’s uses of other people’s names and stories in the book. The death of a loved one is an incredibly sensitive and intimate thing. Throughout the essays, Lynch tells the frightful details of the deaths that he’s undertaken, sometimes naming names and often giving enough detail to know who he must be writing about. I found myself wondering time and again if he had permission to write about people in this way.

It was especially egregious in his essay Uncle Eddie, Inc. in which he uses the gory details of a grizzly suicide to begin a rant against assisted suicide and abortion. This is, for me, was the point at which Lynch really lost me as a reader. He gives the details of the widow, who was suspected of having an affair, waking up to the spray of her husband’s blood covering her. He gives plenty of detail for the townspeople to know who he is writing about, but seems unsympathetic toward the widow, who he seems to think must have had it coming anyway. He uses this messiness to assert that assisted suicides should not be legal, because they, like abortions, are humans trying to play god. Lynch seems to think that it is fine for humans to play god by extending life, for he’s not against medication, but not shortening it. It’s hard for me not to commiserate with the widow in this story, to think of the way it would feel reading the details of her husband’s death for all the world to know, these details being used for a political essay, and then to even possibly wish that assisted suicide had been an option for the husband, instead of the terrible way that things had gone. Whether or not you agree with Lynch’s stance, the way it is written about feels off. It is hard to imagine that Lynch had permission to talk about this death in that way and for those purposes. It made him a questionable narrator, for sure.

There are moments in the book where Lynch certainly hits his mark, where the details and meaning that he makes about death and funerals give the reader new insights about life. However, these moments are so overshadowed with Lynch’s politics, his arguments and over-explaining, and the way that it feels like he’s using people that they lose their poignancy. The Undertaking is definitely a lesson in thinking about the assumptions that we make about our readers and as well as a lesson in the ways that we treat people as subjects.

*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.

Form and Format in Fiction: Les Guérillères by Monique Wittig

Les Guérillères by Monique Wittig is an otherworldly story of an apocalyptic war between men and women. Wittig writes in French, from a feminist perspective. In an attempt to subvert traditional ‘patriarchal’ forms of literature, Wittig uses a variety of interesting techniques to tell a different kind of story.

Structurally, it is difficult to call this work of fiction a novel in the traditional sense. There is no one character that the book follows. It could be argued that the book tells the story of “they” (humankind? womankind?) but there is not one personal main character. Occasionally, specific people are mentioned, but each is only mentioned for a few sentences before the writing reverts back to the more generalized story. Additionally, the book does not set up a linear narrative. Instead, Wittig writes Les Guérillères in a series of vignettes. These vignettes serve to give glimpses into the everyday life and the war of this possibly futuristic society. Some of the vignettes tell stories of specific people living in the society, some of them tell of the goddesses that the society worship, some tell of the collective history (which seems to point to a time much like present day) and some tell of specific points in the war between the sexes. It is not abundantly clear that the vignettes are even in a relatively chronological order, which raises some interesting questions. For example, is the seemingly utopian (all-female?) society at the beginning of the book the result of the war, or is it what creates the battle?

In terms of format, Wittig makes sure that this book looks different than other books from the get-go. The first thing the reader is confronted with in this book is a poem in all capital letters. As the book progresses, the vignettes are dispersed between lists of names which are also in all capital letters. The effect of these lists is like that of a war memorial, name after name of those lost in the fight. Less frequently, but perhaps more strikingly, the vignettes hold giant circles between them, whole pages on which the only thing that is written is a circle. There are quite a few vignettes that tell the significance of the circle, which is the symbol of the vulva. This importance of the symbolism of the female anatomy then comes up again and again in retellings of our society’s stories which are reworked to make the circle symbolism paramount.

The strength of this book, for me, is in this formatting. The ways in which Wittig subverts the reader’s expectations asks important questions. We know what the language and the literature of tradition looks like. But what does the language and the literature of the oppressed look like? Are there heroes or heroines? Does it undermine the traditional chronological order? Are symbols important enough to include? How do you tell the story of a group of people? Are there stories that are better told in non-traditional formats? What happens when these formats become traditional?

I can’t help but feel that something is lost in the translation of this book. There seems to be something very important happening in the pronouns being used and those pronouns leave the reader with a plethora of questions. Who are “they?” Who is included in this “they” and who is not? Are we as readers supposed to identify with what “they” say? Are we supposed to be critical of what “they” say? The answers to these questions make for very different readings of the book. If “they” are an inclusive group which tells the truth and speaks for all people, then we might take what they say at face value. However, if we question what “they” say (as we might when we say “some people say…”) then the society in this book might be read as a feminist dystopia, a matriarchal society that is ridden with the same problems as present society only with the roles reversed.

I think where this book falls short is in the heavy-handedness of the story itself. Perhaps I am idealistic, but I like to believe that it will not take an apocalyptic war to create an equal and free society. The combination of this war of mythic proportions and the unusual format come together in a way that feels pedantic. Though the book makes the reader think and ask questions, it also feels like it is leading the reader to specific thoughts and questions instead of allowing the reader to come to her own conclusions. Les Guerilleres feels like a hybrid between theory and literature, a theoretical discussion made material on the page.

*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.

Drowning in Truth: Lessons from Dispatches from the Drownings by B.J. Hollars

Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction by B.J. Hollars is a deep, poignant look into the nature of nonfiction, specifically in how it relates to truth and fiction. Dispatches starts with a very necessary Author’s Note, in which Hollars explains his project:

Sticking with my ‘75/25 theory’ on the validity of facts, only seventy-five percent of the following hundred drowning dispatches are based on true accounts. The other twenty-five are completely fabricated. I have made no effort to differentiate. In fact, in an attempt to thwart the sleuthing reader, I have gone so far as to manufacture false entries in my bibliography. (Hollars, xiv)

Thus Hollars begins an exploration of where truth is found in journalism, in creative nonfiction, and in fiction and where the lines are between these three genres. Though Hollars admits that this way of going about things will be maddening for some readers, he is also clear and upfront about his truthfulness (or lack thereof). It could be argued that this ends up being more honest than most journalism, which does not discuss the writer’s own motives, how she comes to choose the facts she chooses, or what she chooses to stretch or leave out.

Dispatches is indeed a fascinating foray into the exploration of truth in writing, but it is also much more than that. I found myself unable to put the book down. This, despite the fact that Hollars himself admits that there is very little suspense in the book. Most of the stories end the same way, with a drowning. However, Hollars uses many techniques to keep the reader going. Some of these are very straightforward. The shortness of the articles, between one hundred and five hundred words pushes the reader on. The use of white space in the book keeps the articles from running together and also allows the reader that sense of moving quickly through the pages. It is, quite literally, a page-turner. The writing is also captivating, making puns or drawing conclusions so that the reader must ask: Is this Hollars or is he “paraphrasing” what was already there? So many of the articles end with eyebrow-raising lines, like the one about the man thought to have had a heart attack: “On his last swim, however, his heart was no longer in it” (Hollars, 162) or the story of the drowning of the “inmate at the feeble-minded home” which ends with “It appears as if they boy who sought independence on Independence Day found freedom at last in the river” (Hollars, 136).

Some of the things that keep the reader going, however, go deeper into the choices that Hollars made. For one, there is a great variety in the types of stories that Hollars uses. While most of the stories end in death by drowning, they don’t all. The stories vary from the rescue of a pig, to lovers’ quarrels, to mothers drowning children, to men in logging accidents. The sheer range of possibilities of ways to drown is mind-boggling. Additionally, Hollars gives us also a range of details. The articles do not simply state the name and date, etc. Some give the process of grief of survivors, some give the background of the deceased, some give insight into how mental illness was portrayed at the time, some give details about clothing, customs, or celebrations of the time period. The effect is that the reader is not reading the same story over and over again, but instead is looking through one hundred peepholes which give tiny glimpses into the lives of the people and the past. This effect is heightened by the use of photographs from that time period and place.

This array of information given and information withheld also leaves the reader with questions that keep her going through the book. What is mother’s disease? Did they ever find the body? Was that really an accident? What happened to the money? Hollars plays to these questions by very rarely giving the answers. For about four of the articles, he also gives follow-up articles that explain the story more fully. This keeps the reader going in hopes that more might be explained. It is very rare that it ever is.

Perhaps the most powerful thing that keeps the reader going is the search for truth. Knowing that twenty-five percent of the articles are not factual makes the book into a game, as if the more the reader reads, the more insight will be gained, and therefore perhaps the reader will be able to tell the “fraudulent” articles from the real ones. The reader feels as if perhaps the next article will hold clues about how to tell which stories are real, about how to read this book. True to his philosophy, Hollars never reveals which stories we may take as truth and which he fabricated. Instead of leaving the reader maddened, this has the effect of leaving the reader haunted: haunted by the drownings which may or may not have taken place, haunted that we may never know what happened, haunted by idea that truth may not be as easy to grasp as we once thought. Indeed, Hollars writes that he leaves Dispatches with the same ghosts: “Despite all my research, I could no longer precisely recall which stories were factual and which I’d fabricated… I’ve studied the facts, I’ve fabricated the fictions, but I no longer know which me to believe” (Hollars, 184).

*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.