Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Announcing the Winners of The Writers Junction First Page Contest!


We read so many amazing entries, and are very excited to present the winners of our First Page Contest!

To view the winners, please visit our contest website, 


and click on the "Winners" tab.

Special thanks to Scrivener, and to our guest judges:

Jillian Lauren, author of Some Girls: My Life in a Harem and the novel Pretty
Michael Miner, screenwriter of the original ROBOCOP

A hearty congratulations to our winners, and many thanks to all who entered our very first writing contest!

Cheers,
The Junction

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Filling “The Casual Vacancy”: A Harry Potter Generation Reader Anticipates J.K. Rowling’s New Novel for Adults

by Jacqueline Fauni

For those of us chomping at the bit as we near the highly anticipated release of J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy, Ian Parker’s profile of Rowling in The New Yorker may provide some desperately needed fodder until the novel hits bookstores on September 27th. Parker writes at length about the trials and triumphs Rowling faced before and after the conception of the boy wizard on that fateful train ride from Manchester to London in 1990, and intersperses an account of her life with tidbits about her upcoming novel--the premise of which, incidentally, also came to her while in transit (except on a plane).

The Casual Vacancy has been advertised as a black comedy about a small, seemingly idyllic English town called Pagford that erupts into war over who gets to fill the empty seat left by a recently and unexpectedly deceased councilman named Barry Fairbrother. Though the premise is obviously very different from that of the Harry Potter series, Rowling acknowledges a “through-line” in the themes of “mortality, morality... the two things that [she] obsess[es] about.” Parker notes that Barry holds “the same virtues, in his world, that Harry had in his: tolerance, constancy, a willingness to act.” Perhaps, then, as we witness the corruption in Pagford's local election, we may be reminded of Harry’s conflict with the wavering and blinded-by-politics Ministry of Magic.

Parker also notes that many of the key characters in The Casual Vacancy are in their mid-teens, and that “the novel seems most comfortable when it’s with them.” The teenagers in Pagford, however, deal with much more explicit and intensely dark issues than Harry Potter and his classmates did at Hogwarts, including heroin addiction, sexuality, and abuse. Gone are the vague references to Ron Weasley’s unmentionably rude hand gestures and utterances of oaths--those are apparently replaced in The Casual Vacancy by more graphic images and phrases, such as “a used condom glistening in the grass” and “with an ache in his heart and his balls.” Those key distinctions aside, perhaps it’s not too surprising that the coming-of-age-amidst-war dynamic figures prominently in Rowling’s new novel, as the plight of the angst-ridden teen is one that Rowling speaks to most compellingly as well as personally, having struggled through particularly unhappy teen years after her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

One point in Parker’s profile that especially resonated with me was Rowling’s recollection of a girl she met in a shop who told her, “You were my childhood.” As a bookworm whose middle-grade through young adult years were mostly shaped by the Harry Potter books, I grew up right alongside Harry and his friends, and learned important lessons about love, friendship, and courage along with them. After I read the very last page of The Deathly Hallows, I felt a void I’m sure was felt by my fellow Potter fans worldwide--a void that cannot be fed by anything like the series we had just finished, because there can be nothing that compares to the wonder and the once-in-a-lifetime experience that they were. And even though The Casual Vacancy is written by the very same, wonderful woman who gave us the Potter series, it is probably a misguided hope to expect it to fill “the casual vacancy” left by the end of the Harry Potter books.

Rowling’s new story promises to be a wildly different animal--which is not necessarily a bad thing, or a reason to readily dismiss it. I will always treasure (and revisit, time and again) the magic of Harry Potter's world, and do acknowledge and appreciate the remarkably mature elements in his story, but I am curious about this story Rowling has to tell exclusively to adults, especially now that I am an adult. While I’m sure J.K. Rowling did not time the release of her books to fit my timeline of personal development, it is a happy coincidence that it has turned out so, and I look forward to the continuation of that coincidence and to the opportunity presented by this new chapter in her life as an author, and perhaps a new chapter in my life as a reader.

And I will try my best to follow along without making (too many) Harry Potter comparisons.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Freewrite of the Week: Missed Connections

by Jacqueline Fauni

Ever read through the missed connections on Craigslist? It’s fascinating to read the (sometimes very creepy) messages that people are compelled to release into the interwebs after a random encounter with that special stranger at the supermarket/coffee shop/intersection/[insert typical or extremely bizarre place to meet somebody here]. It can be especially fascinating to writers because lots of questions abound that can inspire how you answer similar questions regarding your own stories -- who are these people (characters), what did they say to each other (dialogue), what happens next (plot), why should we care (theme)? When you’re feeling blocked, the missed connections section can be a gold mine for hours of procrastination story ideas.

Missed connections function as a central element in several movies -- Serendipity, August Rush, Sleepless in Seattle, and Before Sunrise (ditto Before Sunset, and perhaps Before Midnight), to name a few. An Affair to Remember is a classic example (and, in my humble opinion, the most romantic of all time), and is in fact the film that inspired this writing exercise! Take a page from the book (or screenplay) of those films’ screenwriters and see how your characters would interact in a missed connection story.

The prompt: If your protagonist wrote a missed connection to a special stranger, what would it say?

*Bonus exercises: Write the scenes in which (1) your protagonist first encounters that special stranger, and (2) they reunite (or not) (or freeze in anguish because all they could say was, “hello”).

Have fun, and happy writing!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Writers Blogging about Writers Talking about Writing #2

John McPhee

 

This guy, more commonly referred to as John McPhee, published his first book, A Sense of Where You Are, in 1965, but The Paris Review didn't get around to interviewing him until 2010. Slackers (feel free to follow this characterization to all extremes of extrapolation).  Nevertheless, they did - fortunately - interview him and the whole thing went quite well. 

Among other things, McPhee discusses his history with The New Yorker, recurrent friendships with blind men, and a 60,000 word manuscript he read over the phone. Most significantly- a least for the sake of writers needing to blog about writers talking about writing - McPhee discusses the structure in his writing. Here he speaks specifically about working on Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), which covers confrontations between environmentalist David Brower and his ideological opposition:

...I read the notes and then I read them again... looking for logical ways in which to subdivide the material. I’m looking for things that fit together, things that relate. For each of these components, I create a code—it’s like an airport code. If a topic is upstate New York, I’ll write UNY or something in the margin...[Encounters with the Archdruid] had thirty-six components. What I ended up with was thirty-six three-by-five cards, each with a code word...I went into a seminar room here at the university, and I laid the thirty-six cards out on the table.
McPhee then explains:

After a while I was looking at two cards: Upset Rapid, which is a big-time rapid in the Colorado River, and Alpinist. In Upset Rapid, Brower doesn’t ride the rapid. Why doesn’t he ride the rapid? His answer to Floyd Dominy is, “Because I’m chicken.” That’s a pretty strong scene. What next? Well, there are more than seventy peaks in the Sierra Nevada that were first ascended by David Brower, hanging by his fingernails on some cliff. “Because I’m chicken”? This juxtaposition is just loaded with irony, and by putting the Alpinist right after Upset Rapid, in the white space between those two sections there’s a hell of a lot of stuff that I don’t have to say. It’s told by the structure. It’s all crackling along between those two things. So I put those two cards side by side. Now there are thirty-four other parts there on the table.
What McPhee describes here is a fundamental creative process that, most of the time, isn't given much deliberate thought: the arrangement of somethings and nothings. This is largely intuitive and, admittedly, the sheer vastness of somethings and nothings that comprise even a couple of sentences means it's easier this way. The same goes for art (the arrangement of positive and negative space) and music (the arrangement of sounds and silences). The 'nothings' in writing, the absences of details and the gaps in time, serve not only to frame the 'somethings' but to generate meaning that, as McPhee says, "[is] all crackling along between those two things." The Japanese even have a word for this crackling - Ma. Ma is not exactly negative space, or the interval between two things. Rather, it is the thing that takes place in the imagination of the human who experiences these things.

At the levels of sentences and paragraphs, we cannot be expected to attend to every something and nothing; however, on larger scales, it becomes more feasible to carefully and deliberately organize for powerful effect.

So, do as McPhee does. Try to draw out the ma in your work.

If you would like to read the interview in its entirety, just click here.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Hook #5: An Analysis of a Favorite First Line

In what may or may not be our final post in anticipation of the close of our First Page Contest, we offer up to you a few words mined from the opening page of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay:

In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier’s greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini.
Chabon is known for sentences like these, a dog pile of clauses and colorful prose sorted in something long and textured and clean. These opening lines push us back a step at a time from the now-ish to Chabon's mysti-historical, 1930s Brooklyn. Chabon establishes a sense of distance, one that not only reinforces the fundamental structure of a novel of such scope, but that will also be iterated in the lives of the titular characters. He brings us to the beginning, when the escape artists still believed the audience was only one being fooled. 

Josef Kavalier, having escaped from Prague, arrives in New York City circa 1939, a refugee staying with his 17-year-old cousin Sammy  Klayman. Between Sammy's ambition and Joe's talent as an illustrator, the two create The Escapist, a wildly popular comic book featuring the exploits of an anti-fascist amalgam of Houdini, Captain America, and The Scarlett Pimpernel, among others. The story that follows spans nearly fifteen years, as the duo's success is met without proper recompense or recognition; as Sammy struggles with his sexual identity and Joe attempts to help his family flee Nazi-occupied Prague; as loves are built, broken, and puzzled back together. In a book of escapes, literal and metaphorical, spectacular and disastrous, Chabon promises, from the first sentence, something big and enthralling, something that we will be able to disappear into for a while.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Hook #4: An Analysis of a Favorite Dedication

 by Jacqueline Fauni

We’re switching things up for today’s “Hook” post with Vaclav & Lena by Haley Tanner. The author’s first line,
“Here, I practice, and you practice,” 
is enough of a gold mine on its own, and I could easily go into raptures over how perfectly its parallelism and simplicity set the tone for Vaclav and Lena’s granted, intimate, just-us-two-in-the-world relationship. But for me, the real hook happened a little before I even read the first line--in the author’s dedication. In fact, I have never been so hooked by any first line I’ve ever read as I was by this:
Gavin, my partner in crime, my lovely assistant, 
my comrade, and the very best husband a girl could have, 
you are still my rising sun. 
You fill my life with wonder and joy and 
possibility every day. 
You were always on every page of this book, 
and now you’re part of the big, wild, gorgeous universe, too. 
I know you’re having fun out there, I can feel it. 
I love you.
Before we even get into the story, we are immediately swept away by Tanner’s unabashedly romantic, refreshingly earnest style, and are filled with the sense that we are about to witness something wonderful and profound. The graceful diction, lyrical movement, and overwhelming tenderness in Tanner’s dedication to her husband--who passed on after a six-year fight against cancer--pervade the light and whimsical, yet dark and intense love story that is Vaclav & Lena.

Vaclav & Lena is the story of two young Russian immigrants who met in an ESL class in Brooklyn at age six and have been incredibly close, destined-to-be-together-forever friends ever since. They go to Vaclav’s house every day after school and practice for their big magic show at Coney Island, proclaiming themselves to be Vaclav the Magnificent and his assistant, the Lovely Lena. Life for Vaclav and Lena seems as magical and pitch-perfect as their act, and Lena is drawn from her empty, unhappy home into the open arms of Vaclav’s warm, loud, and loving family. But everything changes the day Lena doesn’t show up for school and disappears from Vaclav’s life. His love endures, despite the probability that he’ll never see her again--but time, fate, and unyielding faith work their magic to prove how deeply connected Vaclav and Lena are, together and apart.

This sense of destiny, juxtaposed with whimsicality and a natural flow, carries over from Tanner’s dedication to small, poignant moments between Vaclav and Lena, like the first scene where Vaclav is practicing his introduction:
“Ladies and gentlemans, I give you, I present to you, I warn you in advance of his arrival, so that you may close your eyes or put your hands on your face if you are afraid, Vaclav the Magnificent, Boy-Magician.”
“Eh,” Lena says in a grumbly voice.
“Lena, what we are having here is perfect introduction to the act. It is long and perfect and made of only the best and longest thesaurus words,” says Vaclav.
Vaclav’s bright, garrulous personality is delightfully contrasted with Lena’s quiet brevity, and it is this effortless establishment of their voices and dynamic that lets us in to their own little world, and compels us to really care about them and invest ourselves in their fate.

* Moral of the day: Don’t skip over the dedication! You might miss a real gem. *

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Hook #3: An Analysis of a Favorite First Line

As we continue to post our favorite first lines, we encourage you to share yours. Next Wednesday, September 19th, we will compile your favorite first lines into a poll on our Facebook fan page to decide the favorite of favorites. Not only will the contributor of this quote receive a $10 Amazon Gift Card, but they will also be crowned Grand Champion of Quote Contribution.

Next up in our countdown, brought to us courtesy of John Steinbeck:
 "To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth." ~  The Grapes of Wrath
Steinbeck has managed to compress the thematic thrust of the next several hundred pages into all of  25 words. Destruction. Migration. Rehabilitation. The sentence is a declaration of movement, delivering us to a world that is anything but still. The Joad family, uprooted from their Oklahoman farm (escaping this, among other things), migrates west to California, spurred on by a stubborn optimism that pervades the novel. Their story is that of hundreds of thousands of Midwestern migrants forced from their land by merciless banks and the (even more merciless) Dust Bowl. As often happens, such shitty situations only get shittier: grandparents die, labor is exploited, goodhearted people are met with rancor and spite, fiances and brothers disappear, and babies are miscarried. For all that, though, Steinback leaves us with hope - and not the weak kind that's mostly a halfhearted lie. It is a feeling that echoes from the first words on the first page, carried on simple, rhythmic prose, engaging us from start to finish.



 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Hook #2: An Analysis of a Favorite First Line


by Jacqueline Fauni

For those of you just tuning in, we’re sharing our favorite first lines of all time as we count down to the announcement of our First Page Contest winners. What are some of your favorite first lines? What exactly makes them so compelling?

*** And here’s another contest for you! Comment on any of the “Hook” posts with one of your own favorite first lines by Wednesday, September 19th, and we’ll include it in a poll on our Facebook fan page, where people can vote for their favorite out of all the first lines submitted. The line with the most votes by Monday, September 24th, wins a $10 Amazon gift certificate! ***

The next first line in our countdown is not a classic, but intriguing nonetheless:
Once upon a time there was a young psychiatrist called Hector who was not very satisfied with himself.
Fran├žois Lelord’s first line in Hector and the Search for Happiness sets the playful, yet profound tone of his delightful parable. As the title suggests, Hector is the story of a psychiatrist (named Hector) who goes on an adventure around the world to find the secret to happiness. Along the way, as he travels from France to China to (an unspecified country in) Africa to the U.S., he meets many different people and learns many valuable lessons from them. Hector records his observations throughout his journey as numbered lessons in happiness, which are as remarkably insightful as they are beautifully simple, e.g.: 
"Lesson no.1: Making comparisons can spoil your happiness."
"Lesson no. 2: Happiness often comes when least expected."

In these lessons, and as he does in the book’s first line, Lelord uses minimal diction and concise phrasing to highlight the common, yet deeply philosophical sense in Hector’s observations. In doing so, Lelord makes us realize simple truths that we often overlook and would do well to be more conscious of.

From his first line, Lelord illustrates how Hector questions the worth of his profession as he works with patients who don’t necessarily suffer from any psychological disorders but are clearly unhappy, and then goes on to touch upon such topics as the economic disparities in society and the lack of access to mental healthcare for those who really need it, but can’t afford it. Pretty heavy stuff, but what’s interesting about Lelord’s approach to these issues is that he uses a lighter tone, and describes the state of society in general terms, e.g.
“Because, although everything worked better than in most of the world’s big cities, there were still some people who had only just enough money to live on, and some children who couldn’t stand school and behaved very badly, or didn’t even have parents to look after them any more.”
Lelord explains the world of his story as something that his readers are not familiar with -- only we find that we are, which creates a greater emotional impact on us. And by removing specificity from his descriptions, Lelord makes that impact universal (which might explain why Hector is an international bestseller). What is magical about the land of Lelord’s “once upon a time” is that it captures the realities of modern life on a basic human level. What is magical about Lelord’s first line is that it establishes our sense of that and of our relation to it, and ultimately compels us to immerse ourselves in Hector’s familiar world and idyllic, yet relatable quest.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Writers Blogging about Writers Talking about Writing #1

John Irving

 

Admittedly, we've been a bit negligent about updating the blog. But, with our new featured post "The Hook" counting down to the announcement of our First Page Contest winners, we've broken the inertia. So, in the spirit of momentum, we introduce the first of Writers Blogging about Writers Talking about Writing. 

A bit of background: In 1953, The Paris Review, newly established, published an interview with E.M. Forster that became the seed of what is now known as Writers at Work. This series of author interviews has preserved nearly sixty years of writers talking about...well...writing. So, we bring to you bits and pieces from these talks with the hope that they might be helpful, or at least pleasantly distracting.

John Irving - the be-scarfed New Englandy gentleman pictured above - was interviewed by The Paris Review in 1986 in the midst of working on A Prayer for Owen Meany. On whether or not Irving has fun writing, he says:

"...Writing a novel is actually searching for victims. As I write I keep looking for casualties. The stories uncover the casualties." 

If they aren't already, it may be time for your characters to suffer. Kill them, betray them, rob them (physically, emotionally, or both), let them descend into ruin and despair of such magnitude that recovering even the most broken version of their previous reality is impossible and they are left to cower in the fetal position, weeping, collecting their tears in crumpled Dixie cups so that they might hold on to their sadness a little longer before naught remains of them but a hollow, shriveled vestige of a person. Or, ya know, something along those lines.

In any case, if you would like to read the rest of the interview (and hear Irving dish on J.P. Donleavy, among other things), then place your cursor here and click.




Monday, September 10, 2012

The Hook #1: An Analysis of a Favorite First Line

by Jacqueline Fauni

As we count down to the announcement of our First Page Contest winners, we’ll share some of our favorite books’ first lines, why they work, and why we’re compelled to read on.

First up is a classic and -- fun fact! -- inspired the first line of our call for submissions:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
Interweaving her astute observations of society with her signature style and wry wit, Jane Austen is renowned for her mastery in the comedy of manners genre. The first line of her most beloved novel, Pride and Prejudice, is a perfect example of how succinctly she makes fun of her characters and their archetypal follies. In just one line, she captures the common plight of Regency era mothers in finding suitable husbands for their daughters, and smoothes the way for the introduction of Mrs. Bennet -- who is, arguably, one of the silliest mothers in all of English literature. By using such absolute terms as “universally” and “must,” Austen embodies the 19th-century mother’s narrow-minded determination and highlights the errors in her rationale.

That being said, Austen’s third-person omniscient narrator is more of an amicable spirit, who tends to poke and tease rather than jab and scorn. By establishing a voice that has a subtle, agreeable tone, Austen’s readers are more inclined to trust its authority and enjoy its censure all in good fun. And though the narrator claims a distance from mothers’ (and daughters’) fixation on acquiring an advantageous marriage, it is worth noting that Austen’s happy-and-successful-marriage endings for the eldest Bennet sisters subscribes to the very thing that the narrator pokes fun at.

The question of what we look for in a marriage is timeless, and however readily we may care to admit it, wealth is a factor we dream of and take into consideration. Perhaps the reason why Austen’s first line is so amusing is that -- to a certain degree -- it really hits home.