Feb 27, 2012

Erasing the Line Between Literary and Commercial Fiction

by Stacy Clark

Writers loved the workshop I attended, last week, in San Miguel de Allende. Led by Susan Sutliff Brown, Ph.D., a James Joyce Scholar and a top-notch literary coach, “Everything You Need to Know About Creating Great Fiction in 90 Minutes or Less” was a fast-paced literary adventure. We couldn’t get enough of Brown’s anecdotes involving the “hybridization” of fiction.

“Open with a violation of the natural order of things,” Professor Brown directed as we endeavored to write an introductory passage of a hybrid novel, whereby a tantalizing, addictive storyline is delivered with great literary style. “If Henry James had done that, he’d have been so much more readable,” Brown argued.

This hybrid, Brown explained, was pioneered by a new breed of literary fiction writers that emerged in the 1990s, when well-written detective series and mysteries reached best-seller status. “These novels shared three common traits,” Brown outlined—“astute characterization; psychological complexity; and well drawn scenes.” Brown and the standing room only crowd of aspiring authors smiled when she suggested, by way of example, a “page-turning slasher novel with significant psychological importance and literary merit.”

So, who are these hybrid best-sellers? Consider James Lee Burke's Black Cherry Blues and Dennis Lehane's Mystic RiverThe authors, who were teaching creative writing by day, while polishing their own works at night, realized that to actually sell a book they would have to revise, yet again, and incorporate a commercial formula. Lehane and Burke thus set out to blend classic literary themes, such as the distribution of wealth and power, corporate corruption and class conflict with a healthy and unapologetic dose of well-crafted entertainment. And, it worked! And then there is Daniel Woodrell's Give Us A Kiss. Woodrell came out of the prestigious Iowa Writers' School and has approached crime fiction from the point of view of the criminals themsleves. 

How to get started?

Brown suggests reviewing this formula for a successful novel, identified in James Hall's soon-to-be-released book, Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century's Biggest Bestsellers:

Describe a crime or serious violation on the first page;

Choose a hot-button topic and hook the reader, at the very beginning, with a puzzle, riddle, or unresolved problem;

Create a main character that is rugged and rebellious and likely tired of the status quo and a fictional family that is fractured, non-traditional and conflict-ridden; and then,

Fill the story with insider knowledge and endless minutiae about an unfamiliar world or secret world.

If you would like to attend Brown’s next workshop, she will present “James Joyce Meets Judith Krantz” on Friday, April 20th (9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.) at The Woodstock Writers Festival

Aug 19, 2011

"An Author is Published"

by Stacy Clark

INKUBATE Writer Profile

This is the first in a series of profiles of INKUBATE Authors who have given us permission to speak publicly about their life and work.

Dianna Hutts Aston is not only the face of INKUBATE’S Tour and a twelve-time published picture book author, but she’s also one of INKUBATE’S earliest adopters, having posted three of her unpublished manuscripts this year. They include “Sticks and Stones,” “Martin’s Story” and “Wheels.”

A former journalist and an avid hot-air balloon enthusiast, Dianna grew up in Buda, Texas and remembers the carefree days of summer, while visiting her grandmother in Oklahoma. “My mother remembers me saying, ‘I’m going to the tall grass prairie.’ These were the rolling hills I loved to explore in eastern Oklahoma. I remember that I loved how free I felt and the happiness of roaming the countryside independently. I could see forever then and the sense of freedom was intoxicating. I knew then that I never would want to be trapped.”

Dianna’s current life in San Miguel de Allende is a constant source of inspiration for a writer who thrives on the deliverance of the out-of-doors. Gravitating primarily to nature themes, Dianna’s most recent book, “A Butterfly is Patient” (Chronicle, March, 2011) is masterfully illustrated by Sylvia Long. It’s the duos’ third book in a lyrical science series that has garnered high acclaim. “Every day I open my email, I read another review about BUTTERFLY and I recall the first time I read it to a preschool classroom in Dallas, before it had been officially released. The children loved it, especially Sylvia’s illustration of the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, the world’s largest butterfly.” The series includes “A Seed is Sleepy” (2007), “An Egg is Quiet” (2006) and also the yet to be released, “A Rock is Bubbly.”

“I love each of these stories because they spotlight the natural beauty around us. I’d like to write another one about bugs, but I haven’t yet identified the theme. ‘A Bug is Creepy’ doesn’t really sound right. I love ladybugs because they quietly and beautifully accomplish their mission. I’d like to think that I’m a ladybug warrior – making the most of the world and resources around me. Maybe “A Bug is Busy?”

Dianna relies on the creative talent of the writer-illustrator community that she has discovered nestled in the Bajio Mountains of central Mexico. “There are so many friends here that inspire me every day. Jody Feagan grew up in Franklin, Kansas, but now lives and works here. She’s the Founder and Producer of the St. Miguel Writers Conference and Festival. She is very with it and knows everyone. I love learning from her. Together, we started the annual Teen Writers’ Workshop and it’s exciting to be involved each year.”

Dianna’s books have won many awards. Her Chronicle series is a highlight. “An Egg is Quiet” not only sold more than 70,000 copies, but it also won the 2007 American Academy for the Advancement of Science Prize for Excellence in Science Books. Publisher’s Weekly’s Starred Review read: “Like the subject matter it describes, this book packages with understated elegance the substantive matter found within it….This attractive volume pleases on both an aesthetic and intellectual level.” BUTTERFLY has also received starred reviews from Publisher’s Lunch and Booklist and has been hailed as a winner in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and The Washington Journal. Scholastic is featuring it in its spring library fair, which means that it will be in every library in every school.

Dianna also received the prestigious Coretta Scott King Honor Award for her 2009 picture book, “A Moon Over Star,” about a girl named Mae and her family who, in 1969, watched with wonder as Apollo 11 landed on the Moon (over the town of Star, Texas). Booklist loved the story: “….the text combines dignity and immediacy in a clean, spare telling of events….A quiet, satisfying tribute to this milestone in human history and its power to inspire others….Perfect for one-on-one sharing, this lovely book has a universality that gives it broad appeal.”

With so many awards and such broad appeal, it’s exciting that Dianna has three children’s submissions posted to Inkubate. “Yes, it makes sense…I have a plethora of unpublished works because of a lack of interest from my editors. That doesn’t mean it’s not good work. Inkubate seems like the logical home for these stories, which I happen to love.”

Dianna’s close friend, Jody Feagan feels the same way: “Online is where the world is going…Travel and conferences are expensive and moving the initial connections between writers, publishers and agents online has real market potential. Publishing is changing and it’s never going to be the way it was.”

In addition to writing for children, Dianna manages her non-profit foundation, The Oz Project (www.theozproject.org), which provides inspirational experiences to children in orphanages, rural villages, and children with special needs.

To read more about Dianna, visit her website at www.diannahaston.com

Dianna on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DHAston

Dianna on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/#!/profile.php?id=100001161814374

Stacy Clark, a co-founder of Inkubate, is also an educator, writer and researcher who lives in Dallas, Texas.