Openings Continue to Challenge Seasoned and New Writers

We all should be Charles Baxter.

Openings are always a challenge to most writers, seasoned and novice. However, Charles Baxter captures it with profound precision. He ensnares the reader with many strategies. The first strategy is the use of curiosity that focuses on the sense of smell to lure the reader and to make him/her wonder what Detroit, Michigan, smells like. He forces the reader to linger in the first paragraph for the sole purpose of satisfying that curiosity. He releases the reader to move with radiating joy and lingering regret. The reader accepts this release for the purpose of moving with the speed in subsequent words so that he/she can discover much more.

Baxter employs, not just of the sense of smell, but he employs imagery in a no-holds barred sense. The first paragraph is riddles with an imagistic vision. Each word draws the senses and packs a punch. To conjecture a smell that takes up residence in one’s head is pure animation. The reader envisions such a forceful incident and smells the acridity of the industrial “chuffing.” Another succinct imagery bring forward “knitted beret, and his dreadlocks flapping in the breeze” to cause the reader to concentrate on characterization without making it into an undue chore.

Baxter draws in the reader with the juxtaposition of the familiar and the unfamiliar. He compares Anders’ native Sweden with the unfamiliarity of Detroit. In the narrator’s homeland, that sort of smell (smoke from natural wood burning) heralds the arrival of winter and calls forth all things natural. On the other hand, in Detroit, the only thing natural about the smell is that it permeates the city during summer when Anders arrives. The smell also arrives in the form of industrial pollution of a gigantic proportion; the acridity is artificial.

Another strategy that Baxter employs that entices the reader is the matter of coincidence. Baxter pits the protagonist’s arrival into the city with the coincide of the opening of the novel: two entry points, one external (character arrives) and the other intrinsic/internal (the opening of the novel). Both showcase arrivals of a sort, a double entendre of a sort.

Baxter snags the reader from the onset and builds tension by stacking nuanced occurrences in incremental actions and with subtle interpretations between the cab driver and the Swede. Both of them are foreigners who are poured into the “melting pot” that is America, but each character attempts to understand the other. Failing to do so, each character must release the challenge and shrug it off, as Anders finally had to do when he perceived himself misunderstood.

By their nature, short stories are economists. They force writers to weigh every letter, every word, every phrase, and every sentence for the maximum impact. Baxter weighs the impact of each word before he lays it down like a bricklayer who stacks bricks and mortar with precision. Compliance with word count is the albatross any writer must get off his or her neck. Baxter has conquered that responsibility. “Better to start with a small mystery and build up to a bigger one. The truth about a situation is always big enough to sustain someone’s attention.”

In an interview which appeared in Medium, one of Random House’s many media outlets, Baxter admits to that technique of wanting to capture the reader from the onset. “I want to create a condition with an element of mystery in it. I set up a question that I and my readers want to have answered…You don’t have to set a Chevrolet on fire or have someone murdered on the first page to get the reader’s attention.”

Even when he uses the passive voice, he does not detract from the gripping effect of the opening scene. Rather, the passive voice adds poetry to the opening and lessens the accusatory nature rampant in the active voice. “What he first noticed about Detroit and therefore America was the smell,” very lyrical as opposed to “Detroit’s smell greeted him…” or “Detroit’s smell slapped him in the face…”  Another passive voice uses two linking verbs (“seems” and “was”): “The smell seems to go through his nostrils…,” and, “But here it was midsummer…”

We all should be Charles Baxter when we craft our openers. If we cannot achieve that impossibility, we should study his style even as he himself studies Flannery O’Connor and other literary giants.

—–Frances Ohanenye lives in Houston and teaches composition at Houston Community College. She also teaches different literature courses, and one of them is through the Dual Credit Program at Mayde Creek High School.

Advertisements

My RSVP to NaNoWriMo’s Invitation!

Something about this year feels different. Dead dreams scream for resuscitation. Hope wants to live its name in me and in my abandoned literary works. Dread and the TERROR of an unfulfilled literary life wake me.

Something about this year’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) screams at me to heed the 30-day challenge and finish one of several novels that established a permanent but undeveloped colony in my brain or (at least) finish the revision of the novel that has remained unpublished for decades.

20191026_083244

Frances Ohanenye_The Penniless Millionaire

This is the year I take steps to shift my writing life to include year-round writing instead of summer-only writing when my full-time job takes a break.

The three years I was unemployed were the happiest my writing life has had. I was broke but happy. I woke up writing, I ate lunch writing, I burned many tea kettles while writing, I gave up food for writing, I did not want to do the 9-5 drill so that I could write, and I loved how darkness stole into my oblivious days because I wrote from sunrise to sunset. I was so euphoric that I called myself “The Penniless Millionaire.” Bliss thrived in me!

I established my NaNoWriMo account in 2012 and wrote about a thousand words. However, bills piled, and I had to heed the demoralizing downturn. I returned to the extravertive side of me that came with teaching and mingling.

Now, I must heed NaNoWriMo’s call once more and join hundreds of thousands of writers. I will pen a novel THIS YEAR before 2019 dries up like some of the pens I use to grade essays.

To honor me, my blog (Literary Nomad11), and my firm resolution, I will travel to any location and for any duration to write about literature.

Lethargy is not an option.

Procrastination cannot hold me in a deadlock grip any longer.

RSVP: NaNoWriMo, I will attend the best LITERARY party of the year! I will dress in my most elaborate attire and will write with my most creative pen. Thanks for the invitation.

Statistics/Facts to know: 

Challenge: Write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days (November 1 to November 30).

National Novel Writing Month Heads Into its 16th Year (NPR)

20,000 New Yorkers Just Tried to Write a Novel in a Month (The New York Observer)

8 Best-Selling Books Written During NaNoWriMo That Show You It Can Be Done (The Bustle)

The Way We Learn Or Should Learn

Hello,
Inside which of these situations do you function now in your job or in your writing?
Unconscious incompetence (You don’t know, and you don’t know that you don’t know.)
How can you get help when you don’t know that you need help? Should you be grateful to the person who exposes your incompetence?
Conscious incompetence (You don’t know, but you know that you don’t know.)
Should you get help, or should you continue to fool yourself until a colleague exposes your incompetence?
Conscious competence (You know, and you know that you know.)
How do you use this awareness? Do you allow this awareness to turn you into an arrogant, conceited person?
Unconscious competence (You know, but you don’t know that you know.)
Should you be humbled by this awareness? Should you be gracious to the person who recognizes your competence?
–Darcy Pattison’s Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise
Head over to Reddit to share your opinion.

A Sort-of Sonnet and a Sestina

Sonnet?

Examining Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est” is a feast for the poetry analyst. At first, the poem appears to be a sonnet, but it follows neither the Shakespearean nor the Italian sonnet form. Regardless, a sonnet is a poem that shows two contrasts in two stanzas. The first stanza examines or expresses an emotion (such as love), and the second stanza juxtaposes that emotion or pits a related contrast to the expressed emotion.

The first part of Owen’s poem appears true to form with the first eight lines of the first stanza and the six lines in the second stanza making the regular 14-line sonnet. After that, Owen seems to veer off to his own mutation of a classic poetic form by adding two lines in the third stanza, which kind of mimics the type of sonnet with two separate lines (constituting as Lines 13 and 14) and hanging at the end of the preceding 12-line stanza. However, Owen inverts it, thus confounding the reader completely. In a way, the second part of the poem, with its two and twelve lines, make up a quasi-sonnet. Technically, the poem is made up of two sonnets of irregular stanzas.

The rhyme scheme of the first sonnet is not true to form either: ABABCDCD ABABCA. For the second stanza, the rhyme pattern acts like a continuation of the last stanza with the CA. However, it is imperative to treat this section of the poem separately as another sonnet. Therefore, the scheme is AB CDCDEFEFGHGH. Had the last two lines ended in the same sound (GG rather than GH), one would have accepted or concluded that Owen’s poem mirrored the Shakespearean (English) sonnet most closely than the other two widely accepted (Italian and the Spenserian) sonnets.

Owen’s poem depicts the horrific reality of war and his experience during World War I. The Latin title of the poem (“Dulce et Decorum Est“) converts into English to mean, “It is sweet and honorable,” and the last line of the poem (pro patria mori) means “to die for one’s country,” and many soldiers sacrificed their lives for their countries. One such soldier could not get his gas mask over his face quickly:

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

 

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

 

I believe Owen chose the best structure for his message so as not to be lost in the complexity and confusion of form. A sonnet is straightforward enough even with an abstract theme or topic. Had he used sestina or acrostic, these forms would have defeated his purpose. Acrostic would have made his message seem less serious. Sestina would have found him repeating certain words and phrases at intervals, which would cause his poem to acquire a plaintive, wailing chorus.

“Sestina,” Elizabeth Bishop

Speaking of a sestina, Elizabeth Bishop’s sestina is a learning piece for up-and-coming poets. (I have written some sestinas and wanted to see if she stayed true to the structure of the poem.) A sestina has 39 lines of six lines of six stanzas and the last stanza of three lines. Because of its precise form, it can thread through most topics. However, it has a circuitous and rigid structure at the same time, one with a rhyming structure that calls for particular words to be placed strategically at particular places in order to achieve a particular feel.

Unlike Owen’s make-shift sonnet, the form of a sestina sometimes defeats the meaning and the message. The poet is pre-occupied with making sure he/she stays to form that meaning and message may be sacrificed. The rhyming patterns are always as follow:

Stanza 1          ABCDEF

Stanza 2          FAEBDC

Stanza 3          CFDABE

Stanza 4          ECBFAD

Stanza 5          DEACFB

Stanza 6          BDFECA

Stanza 7          EDA

The message is that a grandmother and her grandchild are in a house in September where the rain is falling during a fading light. They are reading an almanac near a stove. The summation is that since an almanac looks into the future, the grandmother is helping the child look into her future as they talk and laugh amid tears, which are hidden.

The atmosphere is sad and cozy at the same time with imagery such as the sounds, smells, touching, and so on with the kettle singing and the “little moons fall down like tears from between the pages of the almanac.” The tears from the kettle match the drops of rain on the roof.

The poem reminds the reader of the saying, “So close, yet so far away.” Even though the grandmother is in the kitchen with her grandchild, they appear disconnected in many instances and in many ways, like a generational gap. The last stanza takes away the reality of the poem and places it into a surrealistic plane.

—————————————–

Works Cited

Bishop, Elizabeth. “Sestina.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry Fifth Edition. Ferguson, Margaret, Salter, Mary Jo, Stallworthy, Jon eds. New York: W.W. Norton Company, 2005. Print.

Owen, Wilfred. “Dulce et Decorum Est.” The Norton Anthology of Poetry Fifth Edition. Ferguson, Margaret, Salter, Mary Jo, Stallworthy, Jon eds. New York: W.W. Norton Company, 2005. Print.

Feedback from Critics on “DOTS”

Due to my perfectionist nature, I have put “Daughters of the Soil” (“DOTS”) through the wringer (five covers, uncountable revisions, pre-view of Chapter 1 via FB and e-mail, and many literary workshops). It has emerged looking better for the wear.
Disclaimer: These are not official Amazon book reviews.  
Brandnewcover_Ebook
Feedback:

Good job crafting a story with a very clear sense of conflict and tension, combined with loss. You do a good job of using precise diction.

The description of the setting in this piece is on the lighter-side; you’re using the characters to illuminate the place.

I loved getting to know David and his run to the police station. It tells us so much about him, the town, everything else going on. SD

Good job of tying everything together about the two characters and by this point, I have established in my mind who Officers Audu and Orile are. AJ

·         Love this: The imagery, care taken symbolized by the imagery “raw brown eggs” – eggs being delicate and brown ones being even much rarer; I Love This Entire Imagery and dynamic portrayed here with Obi Udara’s family.

·         I read the first chapter and really appreciate the detail, description, and desperation that is in the run of David to the police station. I look forward to reading the entire book. –CM

·         I think more dialogue should occur between Emelda and Florence.

·         Regarding pacing, you could reduce how much time is spent on Emelda’s beauty.

·         Duplicate words slow down the pacing.

·         I would like to stay a little longer in Emelda and Obi’s bedroom when the shirt fell.

·         This is a great example of Showing us how the character feels about his family vs. telling us.–Ousmane

·         I have been hooked and pulled into this “world” of these characters. I am intrigued and want to read more.

·         The elegance of your writing, the synchronicities of each detail weaving into the next, seamlessly. I loved reading this; and again, I want more.

Your attention to detail is impressive!

The intricate personal traits you gave regarding Emelda, and the other characters, remind me of Flannery O’Connor’s work. When the narrator dipped into Emelda and Florence’s heads in a third-person omniscient, which is an older style, that is also in tune with O’Connor’s writing.–Deb

I feel like your story was something like Brave New World by Aldous Huxley because of your unusual word-smithing and “the women wanting to join the police force.” You have created so many lexicons and phrases. Is this the future?

The work reads beautifully.

·         Wow – there is so much elegance in your writing here (and throughout the piece). This section gives me a solid sense of Emelda’s character. I have a strong…bond with her character due to the care taken in describing her in this passage.

·         We, the readers, are learning so much about Emelda here – about her perfect mixture of class and humility. Wow. This is great writing. Thank you!

“The prose is fluid, lush, and vivid throughout. You have a good sense of rhythm and the dialogue flows naturally throughout. There’s also a strong sense of tension and conflict in the piece, which engages the reader and propels them to continue with the story.” SD

·         I love the way you wrap so many insights into your language, giving us the customs, fears, and hopes of the people in this country, not just the main characters. Really lovely piece. Excellent work. –SC

You have a wonderful lyrical and almost mystical quality in your work. Your work reminds me of Jhumpa Lahiri; Lydia Yuknavich; Amy Bloom; Isabel Alledne; Elena Ferrante; and magical realists like Bolano and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.” Sarah S.

Using an emotional physical space like a kitchen to do the work of revealing character, plot, tension and setting is so difficult, but you do it effortlessly.

·         Compelling characters and plot!

·         You have a real sense of symbolism in this piece, and reading it, it occurred to me that this is really your strength in terms of atmosphere, tone, and mood.  Your work always has an undercurrent to what’s happening on the surface, which is one of the strongest ways to establish symbolism without making it seem clichéd or forced. JG

·         Very strong work, attention to detail, and diction.

New Cover for You Sleuths Out There…

Brandnewcover_EbookHello!

We are unveiling (drum roll, please) the REAL, THE FINAL, THE UNDISPUTED COVER of Daughters of the Soil, an Udara Series, my first crime fiction/mystery novel.

All right! All you sleuth’s out there, get ready to solve a crime or unravel a mystery. 

Basic storyline: Emelda Udara’s kind, devoted, and romantic husband is found afloat Udia River. Nobody knows if he fell in, was pushed in, or was thrown in posthumously. Little David is sent post-haste to get the Udia police on the scene. (We are avoiding the use of “crime scene” for obvious reasons).

Big question: WHO DONE IT? or WHODUNNIT?

Here are the facts as the Udia Police knows it:

Who/victim: Obi Udara (late 30’s; father of two)

Where/scene: Udia River

What: Body was found floating on Udia River with no lacerations or apparent signs of injury/foul play.

When: July 6 (indeterminate year but toward the beginning of the 21st century)

How/weapon: That’s your job, sleuth! 

Why/Motive: That’s your job, sleuth! Motive, anyone? Serve it up!

Suspects: Let me tell you. The list is long! Thirteen usual and unusual suspects. Watch out for their descriptions, alibi (or lack thereof), and THEORIZED motives in a few days.

In the mean time, Daughters of the Soil, an Udara Series is on pre-order!! Please head over to Amazon. Search for Youkay Ohanenye or search for the book using its ASIN: B07FRZ42CJ.

Thank you!!

Joan Didion’s Essay Re-imagined

Joan Didion is one of America’s foremost writers. She writes her essays in what I have determined as a one-liner prose. She condenses her prose into as few words as she could.

Her one-liner prose sentences rivet me. If Didion collected all the one-liners and made them into poetry, I think they would really make me cry at the volume they speak with tacit, muffled words:

In my head I always see writers and poets write like Ezra Pound in “In a Station of the Metro.”

I have chosen to re-imagine “After Life,” the first essay she wrote after she lost her husband. After John’s death, Joan’s paper was silent for over a year.

I have transformed the sentences into poetry.

“After Life:” an essay by Joan Didion examining the day her husband died.

I have re-titled it as “A Make-believe Poem” (Frances Ohanenye)

 

Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.

For a long time I wrote nothing else.

Life changes in the instant.

The ordinary instant.

It is now, as I begin to write this,

the afternoon of October 4, 2004.

December 30, 2003, a Tuesday.

We had seen Quintana in the

sixth-floor I.C.U. at Beth Israel North.

We had come home.

We had discussed whether to

go out for dinner or eat in.

I said I would build a fire, we could eat in.

I built the fire, I started dinner,

I asked John if he wanted a drink.

John was talking, then he wasn’t.

I remember saying, Don’t do that.

When I read this at breakfast

almost 11 months after the night

with the ambulance and the social worker,

I recognized the thinking as my own.

I remember thinking that

I needed to discuss this with John.

There was nothing I did not discuss with John.

The sign-off, I later learned,

was called the “pronouncement,”

as in “Pronounced: 10:18 p.m.”

I had to believe he was dead all along.

If I did not believe he was

dead all along I would have

thought I should have been able to save him.

What did he mean?

Did he know he would not write the book?

You sit down to dinner.

“You can use it if you want to,” John had said when

I gave him the note he had

dictated a week or two before.

And then – gone.

My father was dead, my mother was dead,

I would need for a while to watch for mines,

but I would still get up in the morning

and send out the laundry.

I would still plan a menu for Easter lunch.

I would still remember to renew my passport.

Tightness in the throat.

Choking, need for sighing.

Lynn arrived.

We sat in the part of the

living room where the blood

and electrodes and syringes were not.

Lynn picked up the phone and said

that she was calling Christopher.

And I was.

Then I remembered.

For several weeks that would be

the way I woke to the day.

I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.

I needed to be alone so that he could come back.

The swell of clear water.

That was one way my two systems could have converged.

============================

See what I mean? I am crying.