Archive for March, 2014

Let the Music Play

Posted: March 25, 2014 in Uncategorized
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In my Very Important Literature courses, the ones where we only read the most distinguished work by the most influential writers, we established some rules for fiction.

Rules are important because they help you figure out if what you’re reading is worthy of distinction or if it is destined for the discount rack.

One of the rules is no current-culture references. These references date the work. Even if the work takes place in a prior era and the references would be devices that established that era, good writers do not rely on pop culture to tell time and setting details.

I can see where there’s merit to that rule.

In the only Emily Giffin book I ever read, I took a red pen to all of the designer label references. Okay, I get it, I wanted to shout at her, the character is into the NYC fashion scene. Stop fucking name dropping.

The pop culture references are considered cheap. They’re shortcuts. They keep the writer from doing the hard work of explaining the character fully enough that I can envision her Jimmy Choo heels and Coach bag.

Lay off the Prada perfume, I would say as I smell it wafting by, without having to be told that’s her scent.

In the earliest versions of my novel, I used song lyrics to introduce chapters. The lyrics were meant to provide a frame of mind for the character.

After my Very Important Literature training and my Quality Fiction Analyst Degree, I ripped the song lyrics out. They were a cheap device. I knew that.

Monday’s 360 pages included one section called The Green Velvet Notebook which is the collection of song lyrics that the dead antagonist has left as a sort of suicide note.

What’s worse, throughout the novel the narrator, Brian, continues to name drop the songs on the radio, using them to fill out the scene like a sort of inventory of senses that includes hearing.

I wanted to be sheepish about the references. I wanted to flag them and exchange them, during revision, for quality descriptions of the scene.

I wanted to eschew pop culture in that way I’d been taught.

But I didn’t. I left them there.

Now I have to hope that the committee that reviews the contest entries has grown out of the Very Important Literature rules that refuse pop culture references.

I have to hope they are where I am which is an admission that pop culture is part of our marrow. It feeds our bones. We use it to relate to one another and to remember the eras that formed us. We use it to remind ourselves of things long passed and to ignore the realities we cannot change.

It may be a Generation X thing, and that’s fine. That’s what I want. That’s what I do.

So, on that note, here’s the playlist to give you an idea of the tone of the book:

Those titles with a * were actually included in the book. Brian mentions them or someone else does. One of them is a first dance song to which they all sing along. Yak. I know. What drivel!

The + indicates songs whose lyrics appear in The Green Velvet Notebook section. Tony collected those lyrics, he found they connect with him at some point in some way. They are his memories and since he’s dead when the book opens, they’re all we have of him.

So I broke that rule I learned about pop culture and its inappropriateness in literary fiction. But who cares? It’s only a first novel and it’s only a contest and no one’s really going to know I wrote the thing anyway, right?

Unless it wins.


So I finished the novel I started in 1989 and submitted it to the SC Arts Commission’s First Novel Competition. Related posts forthcoming, this experience has been awesome. But here’s the first post-submission reflection.

Let me explain what happens when you re-join a world you created.

First, you remember the times and reasons you created the world to begin with. In 1989, I was thirteen and had just moved to California from Virginia. It was a tremendously dramatic experience for me, one which if properly psychoanalyzed may reveal itself to be the source of every-terrible-thing-I’ve-ever-done.

It was also tremendously defining for me, not just my personality but my family as well. One of the characteristics born of that experience is my disdain for unmet expectations. This characteristic revealed itself in 2000 when I informed Charlie that I expected an engagement ring for Christmas and if he had no intention of meeting that expectation, he should say so.

In 1989, I was expecting to go to middle school with my best friend from whom I’d been separated at the end of 5th grade because of school re-districting. I also expected to be in school with Brian Craighill, the boy on whom I had my very first crush.

Moving to California crushed those dreams. Crushed them.

The second time I revived the novel our family had moved back to Northern Virginia and new boy, Marc, turned against me in a devastating way and took my friends with him.

The third time, my family had splintered and I was at college trying to figure out what kind of life I had now that my old life was over.

Finally, in 2009, I picked the novel back up and wrote the only version of it that would be recognizable in the final draft completed yesterday. In 2009, I finally realized Brian’s struggles were about an unwillingness to change, to grow up, to admit he was not meeting expectations.

  • From the 1989 story I kept the original characters, with a few new ones and the title.
  • From the 1993 story I kept the secondary conflicts, the love of Brian’s life has betrayed him and his parents don’t understand him.
  • From the 1995 version I kept the primary conflict and it contributes the book’s first two sentences: Tony is dead. He killed himself Monday night. I also kept the narrator, which is Brian in first person.
  • From the 2009 version I kept the scope of the novel, it’s told in six days, and the underlying tension: Brian does not want to go home for Tony’s death because the last time he was home, he’d done something that severed his ties with his friends.

What has not changed is that this story is about Brian Listo and his friends. They are The Crew, an amateur skateboarding “team” of which he is The Captain. Best friends since elementary school though now separated by their college choices. Brothers to one another even though life choices (drugs, girls) have tested their loyalty.