I could not put down Suanne Schafer’s new novel Hunting the Devil until I ran out of pages to read. You might recall that I wrote about her first novel, A Different Kind of Fire, and loved it. The new story is entirely different from the first one, but another literary success. Furthermore, Hunting the Devil seems a very important book.
Here is my review, which is also posted on Goodreads and Amazon.
Suanne Schafer demonstrates once again that she knows how to write novels that defy genre boundaries and engage on many levels. Hunting the Devil, her most recent publication, is a historical war story that takes place in Rwanda, but also holds elements of a medical thriller and an unconventional romance complete with love triangle. The cinematic experience of reading this important book is still with me weeks after reading the last page.
Dr. Jessica Hemings, an American medical doctor, is in Rwanda to establish a clinic to treat poor Rwandans when civil war breaks out. With her biracial American features, Hutu paramilitary identify her with the Tutsi population they are committing atrocities upon, so her life is in danger. After her twin babies are killed, Jessica escapes across the country while planning revenge upon the murderer of her children.
The short chapters with initial place names and dates make a complex book easy to follow. Schafer’s descriptions are apt and illuminating, but never drag down the pace of the story. An ex-physician, she knows how to write about medical issues in a way that is believable and comprehensible to the layperson. The interpersonal relationships and inner landscapes of the main characters are well drawn. Unlike a lot of writers, Schafer even writes sex scenes well.
I knew so little of the Rwandan Civil War when I began this book. Since finishing it, I’ve done some more reading. Schafer has cast this devastating and enthralling story upon a well-researched setting. In doing so, she introduces her readers to an event in history that needs a prominent place in our understanding of world history. She does this through an action-packed can’t-put-it-down storytelling style. I have been recommending the book to family and friends. When anyone asks me how I could read about the atrocities, I explain that as a reader one becomes so caught up in Jessica’s experience that one is compelled to keep going. There is no going back. And for that I am so grateful. The book changed me forever.
When I attended the Stanford online writing program, I met fellow writers with whom I’ve developed a lasting bond. One of my favorites was not even in my nonfiction program, but rather a fiction specialist, Suanne Schafer. Before her first novel, A Different Kind of Fire, was hot off the presses and in my waiting hands, I knew it would be a good read. I just didn’t know how wonderful a book it would turn out to be! When I finished reading this historical (women’s, LGBTQ, art, Texas) novel, I begged Suanne to write about the book for my blog, and she kindly agreed.
MEET SUANNE SCHAFER, AUTHOR OF A DIFFERENT KIND OF FIRE
A Different Kind of Fire began as an homage to my grandparents. According to family legend, my grandfather had vowed he would never marry unless he married his childhood sweetheart. My grandmother, though, had other ideas. She traipsed off to the Chicago Art Institute with the goal of becoming an artist. Several years later, she returned to West Texas—one child in tow, pregnant with another, and abandoned by a fellow artist, a European nobleman she’d had to marry. Steadfast Bismarck waited seven years for her husband to be declared dead before Bismarck could finally achieve his goal.
To disguise the fact that I was writing a family history, I set A Different Kind of Fire some twenty years before my grandmother went off to art school. Originally, I adopted the contemporary romance format of alternating points of view to reveal a love story. Eventually I realized I didn’t really want to write a family history—I wanted my story to be larger than that. The more I researched the Gilded Age, the less interesting Bismarck became. Back on the ranch doing the same thing day after day, he wasn’t as intriguing as a young woman suddenly on her own in a big city, encountering suffragettes, bohemian artists, misogynist professors, and handsome European nobles. I wanted to write herstory not history.
I chose a very close third-person point of view for A Different Kind of Fire because I wanted readers to feel as though they were Ruby. To accomplish that, I had to become Ruby, to see only through her eyes, to experience only those things she could directly experience. Showing Ruby’s world through an artist’s eyes proved to be a two-part task. As a teenager, I painted well enough to be expected to follow in my grandmother’s footsteps. In an act of defiance, I became a photographer instead. Both art forms required an eye for line and color as well as a sense of composition, so I already saw the exterior world as an artist would. Thus, translating Ruby’s love for her West Texas home was relatively easy. For her, the drab landscape carried colors most folks never saw: “clouds turned scarlet and yellow against the cobalt sky” and “moonlight silver-plated puffy clouds … and gave an argent shimmer to the grasses below.” She sketched a bleached cow skull and “lightly penciled a copperhead wandering through the eyeless sockets, an insolent S snaked” over paper washed with a “venomous green.”
What proved more challenging was revealing how art permeated every aspect of Ruby’s existence. When she first saw Bismarck nude, her immediate desire was to draw him—she created precisely-detailed anatomic sketches guaranteed to shock viewers of the era. Art influenced even Ruby’s subconscious. I pulled an experience from my own life to illustrate this. I always knew when my grandmother occupied my dreams—I woke to the smell of turpentine. So, when talking to her friend Willow, Ruby confided that she “dreamed of art in the same way she dreamed of making love, awakening with the smell of turpentine and linseed oil in her nostrils, as rich and intoxicating as a lover’s scent.”
Line, color, and composition also informed Ruby’s emotions. When her third child was stillborn, she tailored his christening gown to fit his premature body, then “cradled his skull and, with her hand, fixed its geometry in her brain. Her thumb inscribed the arc of his brow in her memory. Her nose imprinted the scent from the crook of his neck on her dreams. The pad of a finger applied the burnished new-penny color of his hair to her mind’s palette. Her arms held him, awed by how his tiny body made her soul feel so heavy. Finally, she sketched her son so she would never forget his innocent face.”
Years later, when Bismarck became paralyzed by being thrown from a horse, Ruby saw him in terms of color: “His eyes, the new-denim blue now turned to faded chambray … By kerosene light, his skin looked yellow. The color of life giving way to death.” The intimacy of working with his frail body gave Ruby new insight into the Biblical scene of Christ in the Selpulcher as she painted “the blue-gray of lips no longer warmed by blood, the greenish cast to the face, the way white flesh hung slackly from bone when unsupported by functioning muscle.”
Ruby experienced the births of five children, the loss of three of them and her beloved Bismarck. At age fifty-four as she pursued another love in New Mexico, she still viewed the world through the filter of art, seeing the world’s highlights and shadows as if on a canvas, “With little atmosphere to filter the sun, New Mexican light blazed intense and harsh, blinding her. The effect was strangely unsettling. Brilliant daylight bleached important details. Dense shade obscured others. Salient information got lost in those extremes. The narrow range of mid-tones didn’t tell the full story.”
Through a close third-person point of view, I hope I captured not only the tastes, smells, and other sensations that made up Ruby’s life, but the sentiments that bound her to her family, her lovers, her home; the innate disposition and moral code that overlay her actions; and most of all the colors, lines, and composition that guided her art.
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Writing short stories and personal essays is a marketable skill in publishing. These types of short pieces are submitted and accepted every week. And the great news about this kind of writing: Writers don’t need a literary agent to participate in the process. We can independently market our prose and land bylines that make us proud. It just takes sending our work to the right editor, at the right time, and in the right way.
In 2009, I founded the Market Coaching for Creative Writers program to help writers get their short stories and personal essays published in magazines. In that program, I teach writers how to create targeted cover letters, professionally format their manuscripts, and find hundreds of perfect markets to match their voice. They study magazine guidelines and submission etiquette, learn the difference between copyright and the rights available to sell, and set up a system for keeping their submissions organized. By the end of a Market Coaching session, writers are not only able to submit their work to viable magazine editors with confidence; they’re able to repeat the process for every piece of short writing they produce in the future.
Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays is going to teach you all of those things, too and more. This book is a complete conversation on the topic of publishing short works.
THE SHORT STORY
A short story is a short work of fiction. Many of the same craft techniques used to write novels are used to write short stories, but the short story stands apart as a separate form of prose—one delivered with concise language. The use of compression and microscopic storytelling makes short stories unique. A short story isn’t a chapter from a book but a complete experience delivered in a small package.
Besides length, short stories are unique because the action usually revolves around a single dramatic event. It is a glimpse of a character’s life—perhaps one year or even one hour. Every moment in the story is a dance between action and reaction that is related to a single dramatic event. These stories begin as close to the main conflict as possible, giving an unmistakable immediacy to the prose.
Short stories can be enjoyed in one sitting, but that time frame varies from story to story. Short stories can be as simple as six words or run eighty pages long. Most short stories published today fall somewhere between one-thousand and seven-thousand words, but longer stories and shorter stories can still find homes. There is no hard rule to follow with word count.
The terms “flash fiction” and “microfiction” refer to the very shortest of stories. Microfiction is a story that tops out at one hundred words. Flash fiction is anything between one-hundred to one-thousand words. Anything above one-thousand words (and up to twenty-thousand words) is simply called a short story.
Well-written short stories are highly desirable pieces of prose. There are plenty of markets to place this type of work. You’ll find short stories in literary magazines (The Literary Review, Black Warrior Review, Passages North, etc.), genre magazines (Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Asimov’s Science Fiction, Lightspeed, etc.) children’s magazines (Cricket, Highlights, Ladybug, etc.), and commercial magazines (The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, etc.). Some are even sold as digital shorts on Amazon or other digital retailers.
I mention the caveat “well-written short stories” because even though there are many outlets for short stories, the competition to earn a space on the pages of a journal is quite stiff. For any writing project, you must create, revise, and polish your work until it meets the standards of the market to which you’re submitting, and in the world of short stories, that standard is skyscraper tall. Short stories are some of the most clever, experimental, urgent, and fresh prose being written today.
Part of the reason is the long-respected history of great storytellers and their iconic short stories, such as Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers,” Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf,” and William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” I could go on for quite some time before running out of names, but the point I’m making is that short-story writers still aspire to equal the masters. This category’s authors and publishers will always hear the echo of notable writers in the distance. So today, editors search for contemporary yet barrel-aged stories that have been given enough careful crafting to mellow into greatness.
Personal essays are appealing first-person stories often found in magazines and newspapers. They’re true stories told by people willing to share their intimate thoughts and feelings about life. They are incredibly popular to read, with plenty of submission opportunities for writers.
These stories are nonfiction, but they stand apart from other nonfiction pieces because of their purposeful use of storytelling. We’re not talking about self-help, how-to, or informational articles, which all require the writer to slip into an invisible narrator’s voice. Essays bloom well beyond that informational tone. Well-written essays harness cadence, individuality, a narrative arc, and creativity.
Studying the craft of writing is essential to creating publishable personal essays. Writing the truth is important, but great storytelling holds equal weight. Personal essays have rising tension, compelling characters, and mini-plotlines that push the reader toward a conclusion or a realization. A personal essay isn’t simply an anecdote but an in-depth exploration of a subject.
Essay categories include travel, parenting, grief, humor, satire, nostalgia, divorce, friendship, personal growth, and much more. Essays can cover a trip with your mother-in-law to Las Vegas or a midlife moment in the mirror. They can explore the injustice of racism or the beautiful healing nature of butterflies. They can be filled with hope, anger, or angst. Essays have that delicious inclusion factor that grabs readers by the heart and makes them feel something.
Personal essays whose style strongly emphasizes literary elements (symbolism, setting, style, tone, theme, characterization, etc.) find homes in literary magazines like Tin House, The Sun, The Paris Review, etc. Reported essays—an essay that contains a personal narrative with some degree of reporting and statistical analysis—are found in news sources and lifestyle magazines like The Washington Post, Aeon, The Guardian, etc. All other essays, including well-written prose with any degree of literary emphasis, are found in nearly every other print and online publication.
Many places that publish personal essays will state clearly that they are looking for creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is an industry term that includes literary essays along with other creative nonfiction, including travel essays, parenting essays, and pieces of inspired reportage, among other things. Outlets looking to acquire creative nonfiction are advertising, essentially, that they publish personal essays on a variety of topics that contain a large amount of scene development.
The key to well-written creative nonfiction is in the use of scenes to convey the story. Creative nonfiction essays use less narrative and more scene-by-scene storytelling—a technique that pushes the sensory experience for readers. When readers feel the action of an essay, they can make inferences, judgments, and emotional connections. They can experience the events with personal investment. Readers can then examine their own experiences in comparison.
Creative nonfiction is the fastest-growing area of nonfiction, with opportunities for writers in magazines and newspapers across the country. The genre allows for experimentation in a way that appeals to readers of fiction and nonfiction alike. Not every magazine is looking specifically for creative nonfiction, but if that’s the direction your work takes you, know that you will have many opportunities for publication.
Author Susan Pohlman has written creative-nonfiction essays for a variety of print and online outlets. She likens these essays to fiction, in terms of technique: “Creative nonfiction is an umbrella term. It is an easily accessible genre encompassing a multitude of forms such as the personal essay, the profile essay, participatory journalism, memoir, features, travel essays, biography, and inspired reportage on almost any subject. In short, creative nonfiction is the art of applying storytelling techniques to nonfiction prose. They are true stories that read like fiction.”
That’s right—they read like fiction. Don’t let that confuse you. They feel like fiction because they employ such a big dose of scene development, but creative-nonfiction essays are all accurate depictions of people’s lives. They are true stories crafted to elicit an emotional response.
Want to learn more? Grab a copy of Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays, available in bookstores everywhere.
My bio: Windy Lynn Harris is the author of Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays: The Essential Guide to Getting Your Work Published (from Writer’s Digest Books) and the founder of Market Coaching for Creative Writers, a mentoring program that teaches writers how to get their short work published in magazines. She’s a prolific writer, a trusted mentor, and a frequent speaker at literary events. Her long list of short stories and personal essays have been published in literary, trade, and women’s magazines across the U.S. and Canada in places like The Literary Review,The Sunlight Press, and Literary Mama, among many other journals. She is also a developmental editor-for-hire, specializing in short stories and personal essays. She teaches the craft of writing in person and online. More about Windy at her website: www.windylynnharris.com.
Note from Luanne: I posted a review of Windy’s book here: Write Short First. Please direct your comments to Windy as I am entertaining Mom this week!
My name is Marlie Mitchell. That’s me on the cover of Anneli’s book.
Anneli’s friend Jan Brown painted my portrait. She made my hair a bit wilder than it really is, but I do have trouble keeping it tamed. Jan certainly got my eyes right. One shows the hurt I’ve felt, and the other shows my determination to pick myself up and be strong.
You see, I had great plans to teach young children and build a happy life with a husband and maybe a couple of kids of my own. Hah! That dream went down the toilet almost before I got started. Everything in my life seemed to go wrong.
I was the perfect candidate for an escape to a remote teaching post in the Queen Charlotte Islands, now called Haida Gwaii, off the coast of northern British Columbia.
Many of my students lived in poor homes in Haida village, but the children became very dear to me.
I hadn’t expected the islands to be so beautiful. Neither had I expected the lifestyle to be quite so different. In real life, it wasn’t all as romantic or perfect as I’d hoped.
People on the islands help each other even if they don’t know who you are. Unfortunately, I found out that some will just as readily hurt an unsuspecting person. In my first months on the islands, I ran into both kinds. One unfortunate bad choice I made would hang over me for months, and leave me struggling.
But I had the friendship of Skylar, who taught the grade four class next to me. She took me to the beach one day. We had an amazing time, until we came back to her van. We had a frightening experience then that left our legs shaking.
Canada geese spend a lot of time on the islands. I was lucky enough to see some beautiful flocks.
I got to know the islands better when I met a commercial fisherman. He had a love of hunting that I couldn’t immediately share. Maybe he was just a bit too real for me. He was most annoying. And yet … he showed me some scenic parts of the island. He nearly got us killed, but I suppose that’s all part of island life, and I’m still here to tell about it.
He fishes some beautiful places, like near where this sailboat is anchored, but he said it can also get really rough.
Sometimes he couldn’t even see out the windshield for the rain and spray off the water. I’m not sure I’d want to be out there in bad weather. I soon found out what kind of screaming wild winds would visit the islands in the coming winter.
Juggling my problems and feelings about people I met on the islands, I began to wonder if my fresh start was going to work out for me. I had two choices: quit my job and go back to the mess my life used to be, or sort out the new mess I had gotten myself into and figure out a way to survive up here in this beautiful, godforsaken place.
Why don’t you come spend some time with me in Anneli’s book? I could use a good friend right about now. You might even meet some people you’ve met in Anneli’s other books. Remember Jim, Andrea, and Foissy? You would have met them in “The Wind Weeps” and in “Reckoning Tide.”
Anneli loves to write and to do copy-editing for other writers. She spent six years living in the Queen Charlotte Islands. She loves nature, gardening, and photography. Animals, especially birds, are a special interest, and although they are never the main focus, they always find their way into her books in some small way. Anneli lives on Vancouver Island with her husband and two spaniels.
I read John Howell’s adventure novel My GRL a month and a half ago, but was so busy with promo stuff for Kin Types that I didn’t get a chance to do much besides jot down some thoughts about the book. I’m taking a break now to write my review because his book deserves to be read!
Howell created a page-turning thriller. In the midst of the suspense, the most charming aspect of the story is that the protagonist John J. Cannon is an anti-hero. He’s a lawyer who has taken time off to move to a coastal Texas town and, although he knows very little about boating, buys himself a pretty good sized vessel he names My GRL. John is not necessarily the sharpest, most experienced, or courageous hero. But he’s likeable, the sort of guy you’d like to visit on his boat with a six-pack in your hand—if only it were a safe place.
But from the getgo, John and his boat are involved in a dangerous situation with some very shady characters. It’s great fun to follow along for the ride. John gets himself into one hot spot after another, but eventually he’s gotten himself in so deep it doesn’t seem possible that he can escape. Has John become canny enough to vanquish such a mighty opponent? Once I hit the last third of the book, where suspense leads to fast-paced action, I couldn’t put it down.
Reminder: writers not only love reviews, but need them to sell their books. Thank you so very very very much if you left one or more for Kin Types! If you read and enjoyed Kin Types and have not done so, please (Ima begging) swing over to Amazon and leave a review. (and/or Goodreads, Barnes & Noble, and Finishing Line Press).
Verse Daily published one of my Kin Types poems a week ago. I was thrilled, to say the least. They publish one contemporary poem a day. Check them out and be sure to follow them on Twitter!
Perry is still living in his bedroom, but every day he spends several hours in the house with the rest of the cats. I am going very slowly because he loves his room and his privacy, but more importantly for two other reasons. One is that my other cats are old, and he’s very curious and wants to play (or in the case of Felix, to play fight with him), and they can’t handle more than four hours at this point. The biggest reason, though, is that Perry breathes SO heavily when he’s out with the cats. It’s kind of scary. I took him to the vet and had him checked out, paying them buckets of money. She had no answers except that his heart might be slightly enlarged and the next step COULD be an echocardiogram (more buckets). But we don’t have to rush into that at all. However, to be on the safe side, I don’t want him breathing like that all day long . . . .
That’s how Perry treats Felix. He treats the female cats much nicer. When they give him warning growls, he listens.
#amwriting: I’ve written two poems, peeps! Yay me!
Marie of 1WriteWay introduced me to the writer of another book with the word DOLL in the title.
When I started reading Cinthia Ritchie’s novel Dolls Behaving Badly I immediately thought, “Oh, my son’s fiancée will love this book.” Then I thought, “Mom will want to read this book.”
It starts off like fun chick lit. A single mom of a genius 8-year-old son needs to figure out how to pay her bills on her waitress salary and find love and happiness from a trailer in Alaska.
Luckily for me, before I sent a link to them, the dolls entered the book. Just in time, I stayed my hand (I know the phrase doesn’t belong outside the Bible or historical romances, but this is where it gets a little “Biblical”). The protagonist, Carla Richards, is not just a server, but also an artist, and retired Barbie and Ken dolls serve her art. She hacks and appends to them, all for a very “upscale” erotic website.
Although I didn’t send out the link, I kept reading because the last thing this book is is porn. It’s a well-crafted story of how Carla and the “family” she builds around her grow and change with dignity.
Ritchie know how to tell a story that is both accessible and thought-provoking. Sometimes the book stuns me with a lyrical phrase or brilliant notion. She uses some contemporary stylistic experiments quite well. For instance, Carla is writing her diary in tandem with reading the philosophies of an inspirational speaker known as The Oprah Giant. She’s haunted by the ghost of her dead Polish grandmother and is still friends with her ex, a chef. The recipes of both these characters are translated by Carla and the recipes supplied for the reader.
If it were a movie, the book would be called a comedy, maybe even a romantic comedy, but as written word it is much more than that. The book probes and examines our hopes and fears without letting us know that’s what it’s doing. Dolls Behaving Badly is not lightweight or superficial. It accesses the hidden areas of the mind and of the heart.
I still think my mother and future daughter-in-law would love this book, but I can hear the comments (“My mom gave you a book with WHAT kind of dolls?”). Maybe I could send it to them anonymously?
Today’s memoir review focuses on a novel. Huh? I’ll explain.
I’ve been wanting to read a novel by WordPress blogger Anneli Purchase for some time now, and the other day I had a long car trip so I settled into my seat with a copy of Orion’s Gift, Anneli’s 2012 novel.
Before I knew it we had arrived at our destination, and I didn’t want to put the book down. The story is part romance and part adventure, and I became caught up in the budding love story, as well as the dangerous escapades.
In the midst of all that, my memoir-writing brain started clicking away when I read what Anneli does with setting. I realized that I could learn from her about writing setting in memoir.
The story takes place, for the most part, in Baja California. Anneli has traveled and camped that area herself, and her own experiences inform the book with multi-dimensional descriptions of the area. Sometimes the reader is plunged into the natural beauty. Other times, the setting reflects the interior landscape of the characters. Kevin, one of the lovers who is beset with worries, sees the landscape this way:
Rocks, sand, cholla, ocotillo, and cardón cacti, and palo verde trees. Beautiful, yet unending and without distinguishing landmarks, and no ocean in sight. I didn’t like it. Oh, it was scenic enough, but heading out into the unknown, so late in the day, putting all my trust in people I had just met–it didn’t sit right with me.
In addition to using setting as an exterior marker for what is going on with her characters’ thoughts and emotions, Anneli uses setting as a way for her characters to interact. Kevin has helped Sylvia in several ways, including escaping from a bandido and getting her damaged van back on the road again, but Sylvia can teach him a few things, too. When they enter the water, she advises him what to do if he runs into a stingray. Kevin says he will fight back if he has to, but then he realizes that he never fought back in his marriage that just ended–he had let his wife walk all over him.
The setting is integrated as part of the story; it’s not a bonus or addition, but an essential part of what occurs in the book. It has an effect on the plot and on the actions of the characters. The campgrounds and wilderness areas provide a backdrop for the dangers of Mexico, but the towns bring the couple in closer touch with their dangerous pasts. When Sylvia has to learn how to dress properly for the town, there is more at stake than just fitting in.
Orion’s Gift was a relaxing and engaging break from reading memoirs. I’ve already loaned it to my daughter to read.
It’s a perfect addition to your summer reading list.