Month: March 2011

This is a totally groovy idea: writer Shelley Jackson, whose bio claims she was “extracted from the bum leg of a water buffalo in 1963 in the Philippines” and whose website features this darling quote (which I love)–

Nature has endowed each one of us with the capacity for kindly feelings; let us not squander them on others.
~~Marquis de Sade

–is publishing her short story Skin in a unique format: tattooed on human skin.  Specifically, she’s looking for 2,095 volunteers to have one word each from the story tattooed somewhere on their person, in accordance with a very specific set of guidelines:

You are free to choose the site of your tattoo, except in the case of words naming specific body parts. These may be anywhere but the parts named, e.g. the word “hand” may be tattooed on your foot, stomach, shoulder blade, etc. but not on your hand. This stipulation does not apply to the word “skin” or any of its synonyms, for obvious reasons. The tattoo need not be in a place that is commonly visible (under your hair would be acceptable, for example) but must remain so long enough to be documented in a photograph.

The tattoo may be any size, so long as it can be read with the naked eye.

Tattoos must be in black ink and a classic book font. Words in fanciful fonts will be expunged from the work. No script, italics, German blackletter, etc; no decorations or embellishments of any kind.

The most fascinating part for me is how she will think of the overall work after it is complete:

From this time on, participants will be known as “words”. They are not understood as carriers or agents of the words they bear, but as their embodiments. As a result, injuries to  the printed text, such as dermabrasion, laser surgery, tattoo cover work or the loss of body parts, will not be considered to alter the work. Only the death of words effaces them from the text. As words die the story will change; when the last word dies the story will also have died. The author will make every effort to attend the funerals of her words.

Here’s the project announcement–and the full submission details.  You can read more about Shelley Jackson’s other work here.  I’m seriously considering taking part.  How ’bout you?  Wanna be a “word”?

photo © kipling swehla

It’s St. Patrick’s Day, at last–and you know what that means!  It’s finally time for our blogfest!!  As always, these little events are a great opportunity to meet other writers and spend a day see what other folks have been working on, so please take some time and take the full tour!

As for me, if you’ve been watching the news lately, you can guess that I’ve been busy–in a number of my job capacities.  I can’t go into the details, but suffice to say I haven’t had much time to devote toward writing or blogging.  In fact, I worked all this last weekend–which put a definite dent in my wordcount.

I’m pretty happy with my progress on the story I’ve been working on for this blogfest, but it’s rather long (~10,000 words or so) for a single post, and not yet finished, so I’m posting up the first 1,000 words or so to give you a taste.  Perhaps, in a week or two when RL has settled into a more regular routine, I can be prevailed upon to post the rest!

So here’s the beginning of my short story, Joyce’s Girl.  Enjoy!

Joyce’s Girl
(c) 2011 Jon Paul

     “A man need look after his responsibilities,” I said. “Any man who doesn’t know that is no use to me.”
     Denny Connelly stood in front of my desk, an out of sorts young man in a borrowed suit and faded white dress shirt. Tall, lanky thin, built ropy and tough like an I-beam with square shoulders, his hands were the size of dinner plates. He looked every bit like the kind of boy worth hiring, but he had a know-it-all glimmer in his eyes, the kind that burned brightest in twenty-two year-old kids who thought they had the world figured out.
     “My father said you’d have a job for me, Mr. Dolan.”
     “I’m well aware of the agreement I made with your father,” I said, chewing the end of an unlit cigar. “I told him I’d see what I could do.”
     Joe Connelly, Denny’s father, was the assistant manager and part owner of the largest building supply wholesaler in Dublin. His handshake was firm, and he was the kind of man who looked you directly in the eye when he spoke. Over the course of the fifteen years we’d done business, Joe and I had become friends. What’s bred in the marrow comes out in the bone, they say, but in Joe’s case, I wasn’t so sure that was true.
     Eyeing Denny carefully, I felt he was too clean cut. Although the hems of his trousers and the cuffs of his borrowed dress coat were frayed, the fabric abraded at the knees and elbows, his shirt was tucked in and his fingernails were fastidiously maintained.
     The boy had a manner about him that I couldn’t put my finger on; not arrogance exactly, but a kind of unrestrained haughtiness in the way he hoisted his shoulders, the way he gazed right through me to the back of my head. He looked high-minded, educated, put together. To top it off, it was clear from the start that he didn’t want to be here, and the last thing I needed was a guy on one of my crews with an attitude problem.
     “How long have you been out of work?” I asked.
     “Eighteen months,” he said without flinching or looking away.
     “Where did you work before?”
     “O’Herlihy’s Book Shop, on St. Marten street.”
     “And why don’t you work there now?”
     A bemused smirk did a jig on Denny’s face. “Mr. O’Herlihy is no longer in need of my services.”
     In truth, Denny had been sacked after a terrible row with Mr. O’Herlihy, or so his father said. Without warning, one weekday afternoon at the beginning of August, the boy had ousted the books from half the bookshelves in the shop and pitched them to the floor in a storm of rage, all the while showering Mr. O’Herlihy, who stood mouth agape during the entire episode, with a steady stream of coarse and unspeakable insults.
     “Are you married?”
     “Yes. A daughter.”
     I waited for the boy to go on, but he remained silent, staring at the blank wall behind my head.
     “I have an opening as a bricklayer. Is that something you’d be interested in?”
     “Not particularly,” the boy said.
     This response surprised me, and I ran my finger along the bridge of my nose, confused.  In those days, Dublin was a working man’s city. On the docks and in the factories, in the pubs come evening, one got used to seeing certain things in men’s faces, particularly in the less well off districts of Dublin. Worry. Fear. Regret. Desperation. A stew of used up emotions born of long threadbare days working fingers to the bone, of being dog-tired, knackered, beaten by the minutes and the hours of days without end. Under those circumstances, men were pebbles in an ocean surf, worn smooth, made featureless and indistinct over time, until they became shapeless ghosts passing without notice on your walk to work each morning.
     Joe told me that he was at his wit’s end with Denny. Even a threat of throwing Denny and his wife and daughter out on the street–they’d been staying under his roof all this time–hadn’t made so much as a dent in the young man’s attitude. With no job and no future, Denny must have understood the tightrope on which he was walking, must have understood where life in Dublin with no job would lead. And like a man who is safe at home in bed who wakes suddenly at midnight to discover a locomotive bearing down on him, I expected to see something akin to the same kind of desperation in Denny Connelly’s face. Instead Denny’s manner was serene, placid even.
     “Bricklaying’s hard work, Mr. Connelly.”
     Denny looked out the window, not saying a word.
     “You’re father tells me you want to be a writer.”
     “An author,” he corrected.
     “An author. I see.” I set my cigar in the marble ashtray on the corner of my desk, pulled open a file of invoices and started to review them. “I think, all things considered, if you want to be an author, then that is where you should concentrate your efforts. I’m afraid we’ve no place for you here at Dolan & Sons, Mr. Connelly. My secretary will show you to the door. Good day.”
     A brief flicker of surprise illuminated Denny’s eyes. His mouth hung open for a minute; however ,it wasn’t long before the same flat gaze returned. I suppose he hadn’t been expecting my answer.
     “Perhaps we can come to some sort of agreement,” he said finally, looking me in the eye. His confidence had been shaken, at least a little bit, but he tried to hide it.
     “I’m afraid not,” I said. “Put yourself in my shoes, Mr. Connelly. Here are the facts: I run a business. My business is bricklaying. I’d much rather hire a man who aspires to be a bricklayer. Does that make sense to you?”
     The word hung in the air. I waited for him to go on but he didn’t. “But what?”
     He looked around the office, searching for words, it seemed. He didn’t want to go on.
     “I haven’t got all day, Mr. Connelly.”
     The boy stood still as a statue in front of my desk. I could tell humility did not come easy to him, that despite the facts in front of him, he felt like he was the one who was being put upon. That’s when I first felt something for him. Though I had no sons, I suppose it was something of a fatherly instinct that prompted me to think: He’s already lost and he just doesn’t know it yet.
     “What’s your daughter’s name?”
     “Moire,” he said after a long pause.
     “How old is she?”
     I scratched my chin and considered this, wondering how Denny thought he was going to survive with no roof over his head, no job and three mouths to feed. High-minded principles rarely put food on the table.
     “I want you to be here tomorrow morning at 8:00 o’clock,” I said. I explained that I’d hire him for two weeks–a probationary period–and we’d see where we stood after that. The boy didn’t even smile at the news. He bid me farewell and left my office without bothering to shake my hand.
     Now we’ve both satisfied our obligations to your father. “And don’t be late,” I yelled after him, wondering what in heck I was getting myself into.


Have a very happy and fun St. Paddy’s Day–and thanks for staying groovy!

First, don’t forget to SIGN UP for the the SECOND ANNUAL Drunk At First Sight Blogfest!  It looks like a little smaller crowd this year, but I know it’ll be a blast!

Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.  😀

Not too long ago, I came across this article–discussing a recently-released book entitled How To Write A Sentence, by literary critic and New York Times online columnist Stanley Fish.  The article really got me thinking.

Now I’ve not read the book so I can’t comment on it as such, but the article lists a number of sentences highlighted as being Professor Fish’s favorites (I’ll let you take a minute to review those if you wish).  Each of these sentences seems finely wrought, elegant even, and (although a little out-of-date for my tastes) certainly well put together.  I’d even go so far as to say that I’ve never written a single sentence that equals any of these, novice writer that I am.

Elegant as this prose is, I struggled to wrap my head around the idea that single sentences can be so important to good fiction. 

In writerly circles, there is much talk of the importance of chapters, scenes, beats, in some cases even paragraphs (what are the elements which make the first paragraph in your novel really hook the reader/agent? for example), but seldom (at least in my experience) do fictionists drop to the level of discussing the importance or impact of individual sentences.

I think there’s a reason for that.  In a well-structured piece of fiction, we hear time and time again that every element–word choice, tense, POV, pacing, etc. etc.–should serve the purposes of the story being told.  Sentences are no exception, IMHO.

This means that scads of poorly constructed sentences (like poorly made bricks in a wall) WILL erode and obscure the story your fiction is trying to tell.  Prose must be like a window: sturdily constructed, transparent and clear.  If it is not, then the story becomes confused, the yearnings of your characters muted and obscured, and your reader may walk.

Therefore, when you, dear fiction writer, build a story–like hand-constructing a machine to tell the tale of the characters involved–you must add parts and pieces with care.  You must write sentences in context to move the story along.  Like any machine, extraneous parts gum up the works or make the the machine stop working.  Poorly constructed parts may cause the machine to bog down or take too long to produce the desired effect.  Each part must be part of the larger whole, and all parts must work together in unison.

Given these realities, I question whether individual sentences are all that critical to good fiction.  Would you walk up to a freshly constructed building and identify a single brick as being key to the building’s functional and aesthetic success?  Or point to a single hue in a painting and state unequivocally that this individual color made all the difference?  See what I mean?

But I know what you’re going to say:  You have a veritable cornucopia of sentences, being your favorites, jotted down in your writer’s journal.  I do too!  And the question before us is why those particular sentences have been chosen.

Where does sentence greatness really lie?  Why are sentences like these–

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. (Hemingway, The Old Man and The Sea)

We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed; hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision. (Ginsberg, Sunflower Sutra)

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’  (Kerouac, On The Road)

–quoted and referred to and pointed at as being greater than your average set of words strung together? (These are some of my favs BTW).

I’m sure there are many theories out there, but this one is mine: it’s all about context.  The reason why these sentences (and many others) speak to us is because they evoke the larger issues/struggles/images/ideas of the work they are a part of.  They feel like a brief, finely wrought distillation of a big idea, a thought or concept which is a fundamental plank of the larger story.

What makes these sentences great is that they are part of a greater work of value.  Would Hemingway’s opening sentence be so powerful if it stood on it’s own, with no story to follow?  Would Kerouac’s bounding and nostalgic prose be so moving if it wasn’t a larger piece of the puzzle?

My feeling is, great as these one-liners are, it is their part in the larger whole, like a single high note in a symphonic movement, rising above the ebb and flow of the rest of the orchestra, held longer than seems possible, stretching, straining, capturing something more than itself, that makes them great.

What do you think?  What makes a sentence great?  What are some of your favorite sentences?