Saturday, January 21, 2012

Debut Novelist A. J. O'Connell on Writing, and the Craft and Art of Genre Fiction

Debut novelist O'Connell
Debut novelist A. J. O'Connell, a graduate of Fairfield University's low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, has just come out with the pulp fiction novella Beware the Hawk. Here's her take on the writing life, being a debut author, and the craft and art of genre fiction.

AMA: Tell us a bit about your writing background.
AJO: I have been writing (and telling stories) since I was a child in Oakville, Connecticut. I graduated from Trinity College and then went right into journalism. It was my first job in journalism that took me to Boston — I landed a job as an editorial assistant with the Boston Herald's business desk. Then I came back to Connecticut and worked for nine years for the Norwalk Hour. I graduated from Fairfield University in July 2011 with an MFA in creative fiction. Since 2009, I've had three pieces of short fiction published, and at the moment I'm working on the second draft of a novel.

AMA: How would you describe your book?
AJO: Beware the Hawk is a pulp fiction novella about a young woman who works as a courier for a secret agency. The group that employs her is so secret that even she knows very little about it, but the pay is so good that she doesn't ask questions. One evening she is called from her bed in Brooklyn and told to take the last bus to Boston because there is something there for her to pick up. Things go wrong the moment she gets off the bus.

AMA: What prompted the idea for the story?
Beware the Hawk
AJO: Beware the Hawk started in bits and pieces while I was riding the bus back and forth from Boston and New York to my parents' home in Connecticut. I was a year or two out of college, and I had no car and I spent a lot of time on public transit, listening to mixed tapes on my Walkman. I get carsick, so I couldn't read on those trips. Instead, I sat there listening to my music and daydreaming. This was a few years before September 11, and I remember thinking as I lugged my bags through various stations and terminals that I could be carrying anything. No one ever challenged me about what was in my bags (although it was just clothes and notebooks.) What if I was carrying something illegal? Nobody would ever suspect such a nerdy-looking girl of being a smuggler. That's when the story began to take shape.

AMA: What was your biggest challenge in writing the novel?
AJO: My biggest challenge was revising the piece. I wrote the story in 2004, a few years after I started thinking about it. At the time, I was working with my very first writers' group. I was just learning to tell a story then, and it was the first time I'd gotten any kind of real criticism, so I had a lot to learn. I worked on [the story] for a year, and then abandoned it five pages from the end of the first draft. After that, the piece sat untouched for seven years.

This past summer, a friend who had been in that writing group and who has since gone on to found a small press, asked me for a copy of the manuscript. That was pretty exciting, but when I pulled my manuscript out of a drawer this summer, less than a week after graduating from an MFA program that taught me to write and appreciate literary fiction, I felt my heart sink. The writing was no longer up to my standards. Worse, it wasn't the sort of writing I'd been taught to produce in the MFA program.

Oh no, I thought. This isn't literary fiction. It's suspense, it's thriller, it's espionage, and the tone is chick-lit. I was afraid no one would take me seriously as an author if my first published book wasn't literary fiction, and I worried that I might be boxed into a genre. And what would my professors think of this first foray into publishing? I had visions of the faculty from my MFA program marching up my front walk to revoke my degree, wearing disapproving expressions, chanting, "Have we taught you nothing?"

All these fears are ridiculous, of course. Everyone must start somewhere, and I like Beware the Hawk, even if it's not literary fiction. I eventually talked myself out of being nervous. I spent the month after graduation applying all the craft lessons I'd learned in the MFA program to the novella. I told myself that, yes, it was going to be genre fiction, but it would be the best genre fiction I'm capable of writing.

I have to say, that was the most difficult thing about this whole adventure getting over my fear of publishing a pre-MFA piece of work.

AMA: What was the best thing about writing it?
AJO: I think the best thing about writing Beware the Hawk was having the freedom to express my thoughts and opinions. At the time I wrote the book, I was working as a newspaper reporter, and I had to keep my opinions out of everything I was writing. So being able to write my own observations into a piece of fiction felt indulgent. In fact, I went a little crazy. I had to cut a lot of my character's ruminations when I revised the piece.

AMA: Where is Beware the Hawk available?
AJO: Beware the Hawk is available at Vagabondage Press and at Amazon, as well as various formats, including via Smashwords.               

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Editor's Checklist for Revising Short Fiction: Tips on Tone

 There's a proverb that says don't muzzle the ox while he's in the field, meaning don't restrain those hard at work; let them finish the job. The same is true of short fiction. If you can write the first draft of the story in one sitting, do it. Before sending your work for possible publication revise using the next series of posts as a "preflight" checklist. Today's tip is on tone.

Tone tells a lot
Tone is created by the writer's prose to reveal his or her attitude toward the subject, and toward the audience. Tone can be formal or informal, intimate or distant, playful or serious. Generally, the tone of a piece should complement the subject and story. Think of tone in writing as you would tone of voice in speaking. Usually, when you're angry, you allow your voice to reflect that emotion. If you're angry and use a different tone of voice, it's for a reason, usually to hide the intensity of your feelings, or to heighten what you're saying by using a contrasting tone. The same principle works for writing.

Exercise: Select the opening paragraph from a story you're working on, and consider how a change in tone would affect the piece. To prime your writer's ear, change the verbs in the excerpt to reflect a different tone, for example, from anger to ironic, or from straight narrative to anger. Notice what the change in tone says about your attitude toward your subject or story, and toward the audience.

We'll discuss mood in the next post. Happy writing!

P/S: To take your writing to the next level, consider author Robert Olen Butler's dreamstorming technique as described in From Where You Dream. For more on dreamstorming and how to select the right details for your story, see writer and editor Jack Sheedy's blog, Sacred Bull.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Fiction: Reality and Writing What You Know

A reality-based scene can work, too
The old adage, especially for emerging fiction writers, was write what you know, meaning what you're familiar with. The thinking was that this approach would tap the writer's strong points from the start and set him or her on a strong foundation. Then we jettisoned that notion. Why should the writer be constrained, we figured, by the familiar? Why not explore new worlds? It is fiction, after all, and there's leeway to create. Then came Angela's Ashes, the memoir by Frank McCourt, and other memoirs, and we returned to the notion of writing the familiar. You could blame the still burgeoning concept on reality TV, but it's more likely due to the sense that truth is not only stranger than fiction, it's more interesting. We instinctually relate to a story that feels real, authentic. Even in fiction, writing what we know of our lives and others' engages us with immediacy and a sense of trust, both apparently still strong attractions.

What are you writing that's based on a real incident in your life?