© 2010 by Frederick Su
“Fine fiction is eclectic and, like fine food, delights the palate of the mind.” F.S.
“Easy reading is damn hard writing.” Nathaniel Hawthorne.
The greatest sin of a writer is to be boring. And, believe me, there are greater opportunities to be boring when writing fiction than there are in writing nonfiction. Nonfiction essentially catalogs a series of events under “what is,” “what was,” or “how to.” Fiction, on the other hand, has the author step out of his/her own skin to create a “what if” universe of untrue people doing untrue things with all the verisimilitude of real life. Moreover, tastes in fiction are entirely subjective, so appealing to the breadth of readers—as in a bestseller—is a monumental, often unfulfilled, task.
A novel, then, creates a world unto itself populated by characters who, though imagined, are real enough to jump out of the page, grab you by the lapels, and drag you into a set place and time. A good novel makes you care about the protagonist as you witness his/her struggles via a plotline, whether that plotline is grandiose or understated. A good novel paints, with words, a picture of setting, time, and characters who are as alive in the reader’s mind as people who inhabit our everyday lives. We become more intimate with the characters than we can possibly be with friends (at least my friends). The author invites you to peer into the most private aspects of the characters’ lives: their foibles; their hopes, dreams, and desires; their fears; their actions; and the reasons for their actions. In other words, this fictional world is real because it is alive in your imagination through the skills of the author. And, you—the Peeping Tom or Jill—lustfully desire to learn more, by turning the page.
A poorly written novel is flat and bland and easily recognized as such. Most likely, the author has failed to adequately describe the essence, movement, and emotion of the scene and characters, thus failing to persuade you to read more. On the other hand, a good novelist, through the subtlety of the written word, has transmuted those words into life on the written page. A good novel, then, has rhythm, tone, nuance, artistic grace, and the seamless transition of measured prose that sometimes approaches poetry, all the while capturing at least some aspect of the meaning of life. A tall order? Sure, but doable, and mightily strived for by many a man and woman. (That’s why writing good-to-great fiction is “damn hard writing.” That’s why the legacy of a good-to-great novelist is eternal fame. That’s why celebrities want to be novelists.)
As a proud member of Whatcom Writers and Publishers, I enjoy the thrill of discovery in reading other members’ books and being pleasantly surprised by the level of writing.
I am a fictionalist (novelist and short story writer), so I’m drawn to other people’s attempts at fiction. I’m especially drawn to small-press and self-published (sp2) novels. And while we have nationally recognized novelists who are members, such as Jo Dereske and Alma Alexander, I would like to comment on the sp2 novelists I’ve met and read, including fellow WWP members.
The best self-published novelist I know is Gary Worthington, author of the historical novels India Treasures and India Fortunes. I first met him when he and I were invited to speak at a Book Publishers Northwest meeting in Seattle in 2002. His novel India Treasures was a finalist in the Foreword Magazine Book of the Year, Fiction, and my novel An American Sin had won an IPPY award and was a finalist in two other contests. A few years back, Gary was invited to speak at WWP, and other members had a chance to buy his novels. If you doubt my word about the quality of his writing, just query Carolyn Leeper. More info about Gary’s novels can be found at www.timebridges.com.
As for WWP members, two are mystery writers—Sara Stamey, author of Islands, and Pam Beason, author of Wild. Both have captured the essence of place in their novels, Sara’s being the Caribbean and Pam’s being the wilderness of Utah. Their characters are alive. If you enjoy mysteries, you should enjoy these two. Pam’s novel is in the new genre of eco-mystery.
The other two WWP novelists (excluding me) are Jerry Watson, author of The Antiquarian Chronicles (Tate Publishing), and Dick Vander Yacht, author of Camp on the Crazy (Meadow Creek Press) and other Westerns. I’ve just recently read these two books and can say that I enjoyed both of them immensely.
In Jerry’s book, the protagonist, Lee Styles, is a Charleston antiques dealer pursuing the history of a Civil War-era Savage rolling block rifle he purchased from a New York City dealer. Styles has dreams about the rifle, and he and his pretty assistant slowly piece together its history. Along the way, we are introduced to the characters and circumstances associated with the rifle. One of the highlights, in my mind, is the total immersion I felt entering Bonesteel, South Dakota, where I became part of the Schumacher homestead and felt embraced by the Schumacher’s hospitality. The scenes bring back memories of the experiences I’ve had with farmers and Midwestern generosity.
In Dick’s book, Camp on the Crazy, set just after the Civil War, a Confederate veteran and his ex-slave leave their ancestral home in Georgia to head west. Garnett Stone and Rufe first visit St. Louis, where Stone would be reunited with his sister and his son. From there, the two head west to lay railroad tracks and hunt buffalo. Finally, Stone would settle in Wyoming territory near Crazy Woman Creek. Dick brings to life the history of that time, especially the hunting and decimation of the buffalo. Garnett Stone is a strong man and Dick fills that characterization nicely. Stone takes no guff, and he wreaks vengeance when it needs wreaking. (Love that!) And Dick’s portrayal of Maria MacDowell makes her so real (vibrant, beautiful, athletic, sassy, and sexual) that I’m left to wonder, how come I never met such a young woman when I was young?
Dick also paints landscape beautifully: “Like a whirling dervish, the water swirls over the canyon walls, throwing a white glistening spray into a halo on all sides. A wide pool beneath a waterfall slows the pace for a moment, dropping insects to feed the elusive cutthroat trout lying in wait in a small eddy. A tiny slate colored bird, the water ouzel, wanders along the bank, body constantly dipping up and down before it dives into the swirling stream to steal a morsel of food from the hungry trout.
The fluid moves onward, thrashing and churning, relentlessly wearing away pieces of rock, slowly turning many into gravel and sand. Bits of wood and other debris are seized up in the torrent and carried downstream until finally cast aside on some tiny, isolated beach. Each foot of travel has a purpose in the grand scheme of nature.
The roar of racing water is at times deafening, drowning out every other sound of the wild. One can sit, continuously watching this spectacle, and each moment see something different, always thrilled as the scene changes before your eyes. The drama is not unique to this one area. Similar scenes can be found in a thousand places all around the world but this particular spot is important to our story because it is the birthplace of Crazy Woman Creek.”
I have only one small criticism of Dick’s novel. If Garnett Stone had been real, I doubt he could have remained celibate. Mother Nature, though beautiful, is a cold, ambivalent mistress.
So, I suggest that, hey, the WWP fictionalists are pretty good writers! Their novels are as good, if not better than, a lot of those coming from New York. Buy their books!
“Here’s to us, none like us!”