catholic with a small c

We survived the Great Eastern Blizzard of 2016 (otherwise known as Jonas), and I spent the weekend shoveling snow, eating popcorn and marzipan cookies and plowing through a bunch of great ‘indie’ novels that I picked up from NetGalley, (NetGalley and chill! Sorry, Netflix) as I plan my upcoming review page. I like everything I’ve read so far, but what I’m really looking to read is a great, thoroughly modern, Catholic novel—not a ‘Christian genre’ novel, but a true unregenerate Catholic novel, big C, in the style of Walker Percy, Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh, which would be grit and guts and unvarnished real life backlit with spirituality and tinged with the wan hope of redemption. No one seems to be writing those, so I may have to wait a while. And I confess that maybe this is what I’ve been trying to do, with my most recent work, The Novice Master—hence my utter dismay, when Amazon tried to categorize it as porn!

I want to stop here and recommend a terrific blog post I came across by the poet and writer Dana Gioia, about Catholic writers. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/12/the-catholic-writer-today. He is, by the way, the poet laureate of California, which you may or may not be impressed by. He seems to sum it all up perfectly, when he describes the mission of a Catholic writer: “They combine a longing for grace and redemption with a deep sense of human imperfection and sin.” He also notes that our faith is intrinsically communal, “extending to a mystical sense of continuity between the living and the dead.” I cannot make a better argument in favor of faith-based writing. All I can do is report from the trenches, and I can tell you, it’s damned near impossible these days to write in such a way, and be considered ‘publishable’ or even a respectable, serious writer. This might be changing however…

A few people have asked me if my own very recent novel, The Novice Master, is a ‘Catholic’ novel. And I say no. That seems a dated term that implies some sort of genre or pigeonhole, and I resist that kind of thing like crazy, even if I’m drawn to it as a reader. The term worries me, too, because it also conveys a kind of exclusivity, a holier-than-thou sensibility that seeks to keep out the non-believers and even Christian non-Catholics. Hence my preference of small-c catholic-ness (my spell-checker keeps trying to capitalize this), which includes everyone in the world, all of humanity, as potential readers. I’ve been marketing NM as a mainstream secular book, and it is in no way an apologia or attempt to convert. But it has a Catholic-cultural sort of setting; and my characters are small-time sinners, flirting with atheism and amorality, when you know at heart they are hardcore believers. But their beliefs are those of a very modern, post-Vatican II church, which stresses the importance of human love, compassion and community over ritual and mystery. I only use the rules and rituals for esthetics, for atmosphere and color. The dishy monk on my cover is meant to be mildly evocative, not a true or real clue as to what lies within. Those things alone do not make a novel ‘Catholic;’ however, the struggling, longings, and ultimate actions of my characters Ellis and Evan may be what does. But I feel like I’m not willing to use the ‘big C’ yet, and maybe I’m just a literary coward.

So let’s talk about small-c catholic fiction. I feel it’s mindful fiction that combines the grittiness and fullness of life while revealing—carefully, artfully, discreetly—the otherworldliness and spirituality many of us believe does exist in our world. A catholic novel can’t instruct, or lecture, or baldly lay out its purpose. It reveals: In realistic dialogue, in carefully crafted scenes and in graceful language; in realistically drawn characters who are actual humans, not ‘types’ or hollow, empty shells, but people who err and falter and sin and sometimes redeem themselves. Sometimes I think ‘high’ literary fiction works against this, with its puritanical shunning of exposition, and stark ambiguous scenes. How many times have you read an alleged ‘literary masterpiece,’ only to be left feel empty and unsatisfied—what was missing?

One of the reasons I’m writing this post is that I would really like to connect with other Catholic writers—whether or not your fiction is specifically faith-based or not. I am looking for my community, as scattered and far-flung as it might be. At the same time, I’m trying to strengthen my connection with all kinds of other writers as well, and thanks to those of you who have been responding to my blog and following me. If you’re too shy to post a comment or seek me out on Facebook, you can always contact me at kpcecala at yahoo-dot-com: I love getting emails that are not from idiotic retailers and marketers! And I always want to talk about fiction.

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‘Serious’ fiction

At work the other day, I found myself trying to explain to one of my fifth graders, for whom English is a second language, the difference between popular genre fiction and literary fiction—at least in terms of literature for grown-ups, not kids. In light of my recent decision to ‘go literary,’ I was heavily pushing the literary agenda. But trying to explain it all to her made me question the current state of literature in general.

“So…Popular fiction is bad? And we shouldn’t read it?”

“No…Genre fiction can be quite good. But…literary fiction is better to read, I think. You learn more from it.”

“So literary fiction is always best.”

“Well, no…but literary fiction generally tries to tell us a truth about life and living, and is more enriching to our brains—“

“But is harder to read!”

“It shouldn’t be, but (*sigh*) it can be.”

“But if popular fiction can be good, and literary fiction can sometimes be bad, who decides what books are best?”

Good question. It used to be much more clear-cut: There were the Gatekeepers, the big publishers, the big review publications, award committees and academics and teachers who were able to sort the grain from the chaff and dictate their decisions to us. Not that we mere readers always agreed with them, but at least you had the establishment of ‘classics’ and quality writing. Then self-publishing exploded and all hell broke loose. A huge surge of bad writing poured onto the marketplace like a tsunami, and what I think happened is that a lot of ordinary readers and also some of the Gatekeepers themselves forgot what quality writing was all about. We’ve begun to confuse ‘popular’ writing with ‘good’ writing. When I was learning to write, popular fiction always seem synonymous with poor-quality writing. Now it seems you have to prove your popularity—through reviews, and through sales and general publicity—in order to have any standing as a writer, despite the quality of your work. This is NOT a good time to be a serious writer. And it’s a confusing time to be a serious reader.

You could argue that the reading public have become the gatekeepers, and that among the crushing trove of books out there, there are gems that otherwise would not have made it to print if their authors had not taken the time to put them out there themselves. But if we readers are the gatekeepers now, what are our standards? And should we try to force them on other readers?

Just for the record, here are my own standards, my requirements for ‘good’ fiction. Let me state right away that I read almost exclusively literary fiction, or as a publishing professional might say, ‘mainstream fiction with a literary sensibility.’ I don’t read fiction at all when I’m in the thick of writing one of my own novels; then I generally turn to historical non-fiction. I do not read genre fiction of any type—not because I’m a snob, but because most of the time I just can’t ‘buy’ into it. And I have to really ‘buy in’ to a book in a big way to get all the way to the end. This is what I need:

–Graceful language. Or, language used gracefully and beautifully. Not over-written. Not overly detailed. But a work in which the words fit together beautifully like a well-constructed puzzle. There’ll be a sentence or phrase that will make you stop and just admire the simple beauty of it.

–Truthfulness, or authenticity. Even though it’s fiction…I desperately want a novel to be as close to real life as possible. I want to believe it’s completely plausible, and real, because I want it to help me figure out life and people in general.

–Intimacy. I want the novel to feel like a secret pact between the author and myself; rather like a late-night conversation in bed. And I think the novelist achieves this by being brave, and forthright; by not using distancing language (pretentious or unfathomable words), and also by being completely honest, even if it’s unflattering, in his/her depiction of a particular character or situation.

–Intelligent exposition. The writing teachers always crow: “Show, don’t tell!” But I like a little explanation from the author; it gives a book more of a storytelling feel and helps round out the fictional picture. And sometimes a book that’s nothing but stark scene after scene feel sterile.

–Strong, well-defined characters. I want to be able to recognize the protagonist and other players in a novel as real people, who I might encounter down the street or anywhere in the real world. And they should talk the way real people talk. Stilted dialogue, or dialogue heavy with messages or some kind of agenda is the worst.

–An intriguing setting. Someplace you wouldn’t expect a novel to be taking place. I’m really weary of novels that take place in New York City—I lived there and still live close by and feel like I know all I need to about it. And also—sorry to say because it’s a region of the US that I dearly love—the rural South. I feel like I’m seeing too many new novels about depressing rural Southern people, maybe because writers think that’s what publishers are looking for.

–a theme or Big Idea. Some modern writers will jump all over this, claiming the insertion of meaningful ideas into a novel is artificial, reducing the book to a kind of genre fiction. I don’t agree. The trick is to get the Big Idea in skillfully and discreetly without the reader realizing …until after they’ve finished the book. I love it when I read a novel, then think a few days later…Wow, that’s what that book was really about!

So, you may say, if you have such strong opinions about fiction—Kathy!—why don’t you review more books by other writers? You’re right, I should. And I’ve decided to rectify that situation very soon, via this blog. I’m intending to add a new page, solely for reviewing promising new novels. Maybe in February. It will be, of course, intensely personal and idiosyncratic, but my mission is to find serious, hard-working and talented writers, particular those who might be unjustly ignored or overlooked by the publishing establishment…as well as the general reading public.

Stars, hidden and otherwise

“Good friends are like stars. You don’t always see them but you know they are there.” I wish I was quoting from some great and wise book, but the truth is, I saw this sentiment in a greeting-card shop in Port Authority bus terminal in NYC. But I was touched by it. When I’m deep into writing, I huddle into a kind of a cocoon, unaware of anything or anybody—and the sky above is empty and dark. I never feel so alone as when I am writing, even if I am vaguely aware of my readers, my prospective audience. So I am especially grateful for my sometimes hidden stars. This past weekend was a triple-header for me: On Sunday, I got to see my youngest brother, Chris, who is my family champion. He is the one who goes out and actually buys my books, actually reads them, and will discuss them with me later. He will sometimes share them with his own students—he’s a history and English teacher. Then Monday, dinner with my other mainstay, my steadfast supporter and reader Diane, who I’ve known forever, whose opinion and feedback I’ve come to value immensely. And on Tuesday, a long-awaited reunion with another coming-of-age friend—no, not the fellow I mentioned a few blogs back, but a girl—a woman—who was my first friend at college, my roommate, my most enduring friend (I won’t say oldest!) Our friendship has stretched over four decades, but each time I see Claire, it’s like we’re dropping back into a long, cozy conversation that we’ve never left. And I’m grateful to her for reminding me of my own long-standing commitment to being a writer. “You’ve always been all in!” she reminded me, very forcefully, also reminding me of the day we met—

It was, I think, my second day at college—that strange little Catholic college ten hours from home, in the middle of nowhere. I was filled with doubt and terror, thinking I was supposed to be somewhere else, Boston maybe, or the state university at Storrs, Connecticut (which actually did have me registered as an incoming freshman) For solace, I turned to my journal, and was lost in my confused thoughts, when this dark haired girl walked into my room—I had left the door open, feeling somewhat claustrophobic. Claire told me later that she had been drawn in by the sight of me writing so intensely. She introduced herself as a poet, and I was instantly entranced. And we’ve been friends ever since, seeing each other through any number of crises and dark nights, joys and sorrows. We used to try and imagine ourselves as older women, even as old women. And now here we are, on the cusp of that part of our lives, still together and ready to plunge in, determined it will all be as rich and eventful and meaningful as our younger lives were.

Claire gave me a little gift, a paperweight engraved with this saying, attributed to Ben Franklin: “Either write something worth reading, or do something worth writing…” I’ve been trying to do both all my life, so it’s not time to stop now. Thank you, to all my stars and supporters, not just the ones I’ve mentioned here. I’ll try to remember you all, when the nights seem darkest.

Miscategorized no more (I hope)

So, this morning I checked my Amazon/Kindle stats for The Novice Master, and found that since introducing the book back in December, I have sold a grand total of…3 copies. Yes, you read that right: Three. I bought one of them, just to see how the book looked on my own Kindle, and I know who bought the other two. And even with two glowing five-star reviews…no appreciable sales in nearly a month. WTF? Okay, there’s the issue of all those people who said they were going to buy my book and didn’t…But, that’s not really the problem. The problem is that my book is still in the wrong damn category. In other words, it’s completely invisible. And I’m an idiot, when it comes to marketing my own work—which is why I hate doing it!

I would have thought, in theory, that “College and New Adult” would be the ideal category for my book. It’s not. It’s basically a sub-set of romance fiction, for readers who likely aren’t in college (no serious college student would be reading that crap). And apparently New Adult is just another term for light porn. So it was back to Pronoun, my publisher, for help in switching categories yet again. They are helpful over there, but only to a point. Basically, they threw the ball back in my court, saying that I was responsible for choosing the categories in the first place EVEN THOUGH you can’t really do that: You can’t input a category but have to choose from a drop-down menu that doesn’t necessarily give you the proper options. But it is actually all my fault for not having the balls to put my book squarely in the Literary Fiction category where it should have been in the first place. So I took the plunge and recategorized myself as a true literary novelist, and now I’m in competition with only about 17,000 other authors. Much better odds, actually. And then I tried to get the coming-of-age thing in, but the drop down menu would only allow: Literature and fiction > Genre fiction > Coming of Age. Apparently, according to Amazon and Pronoun, Coming of Age is not a valid category for Literary Fiction. Sorry, “Catcher in the Rye.” You can pick “Classics: Coming of Age” but I’m not so full of myself as to place  The Novice Master there. So apparently I am both a literary and a genre novelist.

We’ll see if this new move nudges the sales and ratings back up on good old ‘Zon. I know I said I didn’t care about sales, but of course I do! A little… And I want readers I know will love the book to find it. Besides, what I really meant was that I don’t care about being an uber-rich runaway best seller. Luckily, no danger of that any time soon!

 

 

Coming of Age

What is it about this genre that I find so attractive? Does anyone else feel this way? Are there readers for this sort of thing? There is no official classification in the book markets for ‘coming-of-age’ and I’m somewhat horrified to find the ‘college and new adult’ category chosen for my book seems to be little but titillating fluff and chick-lit in disguise. Wish there was a more concrete sort of category, such as “That Awkward and Intense Limbo-world Between Childhood and Adulthood,” or even “Literary Novels for Intelligent Adolescents and Twenty-Somethings.” Both my novel, The Novice Master, and my screenplay in progress, The Raven Girl, are essentially tales of young people stumbling into adulthood. It’s curious that I’m drawn to this genre as a writer, because I am not a young adult anymore, and my own coming of age was decades ago. You’d think I’d barely remember it. But I do, with a great deal of poignancy and bittersweetness–perhaps because it’s such a unique time of life. Life stretches before you, filled with possibilities, and everything feels more intense: Sadness, despair, happiness. You believe—and it’s probably true—that any decision you make, however small, will significantly impact the rest of your life forever. Any mistake or misstep seems to take on huge and seemingly irrevocable proportions. I remember our college president address to us, as freshmen: “These will be the best days of your life, and also perhaps the worst.” They were certainly were the most intense days of my life–rivaled only by my pregnancies later on.

It seems crucial to have a companion at this time of life, a friend who is not a mentor, but more of a confidant or comforter. Sometimes books can fill this role, something not. As I write this, I’m thinking of the boy who was my best friend in high school. It was not a romantic or sexual relationship, but a true, genderless sort of close friendship. He was ‘safe’ and we were both serious scholars: it was sweet, innocent, perhaps a bit childish, more the sort of friendship 12-year-olds might have rather than high-schoolers. I don’t remember having any deep dark discussions about life with him, although we both dabbled in each other’s religious faith—He was Episcopalian, I Catholic of course, so there wasn’t really anything too exotic about that. We simply hung out together, had little adventures, and the best part of it was that we could make each other laugh, and we truly enjoyed each other’s company. And the night before I left for college, I stayed up to three in the morning talking with him, as we both confessed how scared we were about the upcoming experience and our futures as well. And sadly, it was college that finally separated us—we corresponded faithfully freshman year, but drifted apart as we became upperclassmen. Eventually we lost touch completely. I have not thought of him in a while, but it occurs to me now that we were so valuable to each other then, helping each other through a rough-and-tumble time of life. It helped to know that there was ‘another’ out there who understood us no matter what. And maybe that is what we seek most through our comings of age—not necessarily a lover or spouse, but just another person to keep us company through it all. That is certainly what Evan, from my novel, seeks, searching for his ‘novice master;’ and Aedan finds it in his ‘raven girl’ Marra, the girl from the other world.

There are other meaningful aspects to the coming of age experience—notably the sexual awakening (because let’s face it, that’s huge!), but also an intellectual awakening, when it becomes astonishingly apparent that the world is filled with ideas, with books, with stories, with history and all kinds of enticing knowledge. When you’re an adolescent, you’re starting the big encyclopedia of life, but by my age, at the X-Y-Z volume, you’re a little weary of it, and you know which parts can be skipped. Sill, I’d give anything for just a bit of that heady exhilaration I felt, those first few week of college, literally the weeks before I turned 18…when I was ‘coming of age.’

And here is a question for you, dear reader (if you’ve gotten this far). That old high-school friend of mine—do you think I should track him down, find out what’s become of him? Part of me thinks it’s intrusive but the other part is curious to see what became of him. But then such actions can always have unintended consequences: Some stones are better left unturned!  Yes, no, yes, no…What do you think? Answer me on Facebook or leave a comment here; I’d appreciate it!

The Novice Screenwriter – Part 2

Since announcing my new project, I’ve been doing some online research into the whole business of movies and scriptwriting, and what I’m finding is not encouraging, or particularly edifying. I feel like a total babe in the woods, the rankest of amateurs—how dare I even attempt such an undertaking, when there are hundreds, nay, thousands of starving scriptwriters out there unable to sell their worthy efforts to studios. So, they’ve turned to the business of selling themselves as consultants, and for a sizeable fee, they can guide you, too, toward the scriptwriting success that apparently is eluding them. I’m told you really need an agent, but an agent won’t take you on if you’re nobody. I’ve been reading the Cardinal Rules of Scriptwriting and Submission, and how I have to write at least five or six screenplays before I produce anything remotely worth reading, and I’ve read the Ten Mistakes all Scriptwriters should Avoid., realizing I’ve already made about six of them. And I’ve learned that if I’m really serious about writing a script, I should drop everything, move to Hollywood and get a job fetching coffee for movie producers. Also, that novelists as a rule should never try to adapt their novels, or attempt a screenplay of their own work—that, I’m told, is Best Left to Professionals. Don’t try this at home!

*sigh*

So the idea of this learning-center teacher tapping out the script of her forgotten novel at her dining room table in New Jersey is probably ludicrous beyond compare. But I’m going to do it anyway. I’m not going to hire a consultant, or buy any more books, or spend any more time lurking on screenwriter forums. What I will do is continue to live my life, read great books, watch lots of great movies, and just plod along with my own efforts. And then edit, edit, edit.

Once it’s done…Haven’t a clue! I only know, dimly, that I somehow have to interest a producer in it. But I figure I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. A few years ago, our local library had a vaguely famous screenwriter give a presentation; I’m kicking myself now for not going to it. But I’ll figure it out. And if I don’t, it’s been a great experience just attempting it, trying something new. A great break from the chore of novel-writing—yet still being creative and productive. I see no downside. Yet.

Which leads me to another issue. Since releasing this last novel, I’m being targeted by these companies offering awards to writers. Not the Pulitzer committee or anything prestigious, but these are committees, panels, what-have-you which invite you to submit your book—often for a hefty fee—on the chance they’ll give you some kind of award, a gold sticker you can plaster on the front of your book. I do not know what to think of this. On one hand, anything that draws attention to your book should be good, but these just feel so spammy to me. Do readers really care if your book has won all kinds of awards? I suppose you could look at it as a kind of marketing and promotion campaign, but it just seems kind of pathetic to me. I think I can do without a gold seal on the cover of my book; I’ll take my chances.

Oh, this business of writing and getting published! I hate it! Love the writing part,love having written, but hate all the other aspects of it! Meanwhile The Novice Master is mired in the no-sales doldrums of the publishing sea–as expected, but didn’t expect it this soon. Whether it’s temporary or permanent, I have no idea  (although according to various media, January seems to be a poor month in general for overall book sales), but there’s nothing to do but wait it out, and have hope. Hope that all those Goodreaders who won my book will be kind of enough to leave me some reviews!

The Novice Screenwriter

Yes, it’s 2016, and I am writing a movie script. Not for the Novice Master, whose fate at this point is completely uncertain (and I see that as more of an HBO series than a feature film–lol!) but for my young-adult historical novel, The Raven Girl. It is such a pleasure to slip back into medieval Ireland, and revisit what I must admit is my favorite book of all that I’ve written, the tale of the mysterious dark-haired girl who turns up on a remote island off the coast of western Eire. This book was born during a family ‘roots’ visit to Ireland a few years ago (Though my grandmother was from Yorkshire, her origins lay in County Mayo) I was so taken by the beauty of Western Ireland that I decided I had to use it as a setting for something. In Galway, my dad and I visited the little historical museum by the Spanish Arch, where we learned to our surprise that Columbus had visited Galway a few years before deciding to sail west and discover you-know-what. And further research showed that while in Galway, Columbus—and he noted this himself, in one of his own books—saw two people being pulled out of a dugout canoe in Galway Bay. They were, alas, dead, but Columbus told of their ‘remarkable’ features—“Surely they are from Cathay!” All that got me thinking about what might happen if a live Native American girl somehow ended up in fifteenth-century Ireland—think about all that lore and superstition, what would they think of her?

The Raven Girl was pretty successful as far as self-published books go—if it had been published by a traditional publisher, it would probably be judged a failure, with only a few thousand copies sold. But I got terrific reviews for it, and a number of readers kept telling me they thought it should be a movie. Maybe an independent film rather than a blockbuster feature film, but still…I even had one semi-famous author try to convince his own agent to take it on as a possible screen project, but that agent sniffed that he did not handle ‘children’s projects.’ His loss! So I’ve decided to tackle it myself. I have NEVER written a script before, so there’s a huge learning curve. Frank gave me The Screenwriter’s Bible for Christmas, so I am tutoring myself in the art of screenwriting. In one way, it is very similar to constructing a novel, but so different in other ways: Everything is much more visual, and ideas have to be construed with as few words as possible. And the format is quite unforgiving, but I think I’m picking it up—I have the first scene down already! If there are any other screenwriters out there, I’d appreciate some helpful hints and tips.

If you are not familiar with The Raven Girl novel, I advise you to wait until Saint Patrick’s Day—for the past few years, I’ve been offering a day-long free giveaway of the Kindle version on Amazon. I’ll also be doing a Goodreads giveaway of the printed book as well this March. Or, you could always just go and buy it! It’s still for sale in both formats.