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Reading: Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Celebrated first day of summer: reading by the pool. c Elissa Field, 2014

Celebrated first day of summer: reading by the pool. c Elissa Field, 2014

I’ve been very picky in reading this past spring — literally put down 7 out of 12 books, without finishing. But today I’m motivated to post the first book review I’ve shared on this site, because so bowled over by Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth, Jan. 2013).

And the Winner Is…

I first picked this novel up when it began appearing on lists nominating it for various national and international book awards last year. Constellation won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle’s inaugural John Leonard Prize, the inaugural 2014 Carla Furstenberg Cohen Fiction Award and the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in fiction.  It was also nominated for the National Book Award in Fiction, and appeared on numerous best-reads lists, including the Goodreads Choice list.

anthony marraI was particularly intrigued because I “knew” Anthony from when he participated in a writer’s forum back when he was applying for a Stanford Stegner fellowship, years back. Constellation is Marra’s first novel. I shared this interest here before, when I included link to an interview with Marra by the New School in Friday Links for Writers: 02.21.14.

From this, what I knew of the book in advance was that it was intelligent and stark, with some risks taken in multiple narrative threads.

Stunning and Beautiful

What I found was an intelligent, sometimes poetic, emotionally powerful insight into individual lives of civilians during the wars in Chechnya. The simplest compliment I could give the novel was the point, midway through, when I found myself comparing the narrative impact of the writing to Tolstoy.

Marra’s writing is beautiful, brave, clean and with an unhurried confidence that left a nuanced and authentic portrayal of characters who were altogether new. As the novel opens, a young Chechen girl, Havaa, is watching her house burn, knowing her father has been disappeared. She is quickly spirited away by Akhmed, a close friend of her father’s, who takes on a job (as the worst physician in Chechnya) in Hospital No. 6 in order to convince the head doctor to hide the girl. As three more key characters are introduced, Marra weaves together histories and desires that reveal the personal losses and motivations that populate the lives of civilians in wartime.

Fascinated by Marra’s Narrative Structure

There is an idiosynchratic spirit to Constellations.  I’d heard it described as multiple stories woven together, but what he accomplishes is much more organic and unified than that.

Divisions of the novel are based on time. There are 28 chapters to the novel, grouped into parts that measure the five days after Dokka is disappeared. At the top of each chapter is a timeline band, highlighting the relevant years for that chapter. While the storyline progresses through the events after Dokka is taken, each chapter moves organically through the minds of the main characters and how the past 20 years of memories led each of the characters to the events of these 5 days. The complexity of the structure is pulled off beautifully.

Some risks are taken in the ways that Marra plays with voice, as the narrative fluctuates in varying degrees of 3rd person. The most basic structure is that each chapter begins with close 3rd on one of 5 main characters; line spacing mid-chapter usually then signals a shift to close 3rd from another main character’s pov. Frequently, however — particularly in traumatic encounters with other players in the war, such as arrival in the ER of a man whose leg was blasted apart by a landmine — narrative voice shifts to omniscience for 1-3 lines, revealing inner secrets, thoughts or future outcomes of this side character before returning to the main character’s pov.  The effect of this intrigues me, as it breaks a linear plane to create a wavery effect that is less godly than a shared-awareness that seems fitting in an environment where all predictable rules have dissolved.  What is impressive is Marra’s control, as pov shifts are accomplished without apology or need for awkward segues.  By visiting Havaa’s pov in the opening line, then Akhmed’s within the next line, Marra has effectively signaled that views will shift.

Lasting Impact

The concept of the novel is powerful. I was continually impressed at Marra’s ability to deliver with nuanced subtlety how each individual progresses through the insane or horrifying events of war (or warlike conditions and even torture in supposed peacetime). He manages to present the factual history in a manner that is seamless with the characters’ individual voices and storylines.

What is most powerful are the characters. While it is a novel revealing truisms of war, it is ultimately a novel about love and compassion and the warmly developed lives of characters in this small village. Each character is vivid, intriguing and their stories compelling.

Congrats to Anthony Marra for making my Top Reads of 2014.

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What Are You Reading?

I’m getting ready to post my Summer Reading List for 2014, which has me curious what everyone else is reading.  I’d love to hear your own reading suggestions in the comments.  Let us know the favorite books you’ve read this year or ones on your must-reads list.  If this inspires you to blog your own list, share link to your post so we can come read with you.

Where do the book links take you?

For convenience, you can click the book link to Marra’s book in the opening paragraph, which takes you to Amazon.  Or, you can find it at your favorite indie bookseller through indiebound.org:

Shop Indie Bookstores

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Novel Revision Strategies: Retyping the Novel Draft

At work on novel revisions. c. Elissa Field

At work on novel revisions. c. Elissa Field

 

This week, along with spending time with my boys for their spring break, I am working full days on novel revisions. The first 2 days, I was writing new material and then integrating all new “add ons” into the existing draft, then printing it out. Deep breath. Then, yesterday, I decided to try out a whole new strategy for novel revision.

First off, as with other posts in my Novel Revision series, this is a revision strategy intended for a mid-level revision. That is, at least one complete draft has been accomplished (more about that below). If you want other ideas about novel revision, click this link for a full listing of posts in the series or look for links at the end.

If this novel revision strategy doesn’t work, you’ll hear me cursing. But, so far, I can see merit, so let’s try it out.

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Stage in Revisions

The novel draft I am working on has held together as a novel for at least a year and has gone through several revisions to develop the internal and external conflicts, so that I have my permanent story line in place. The characters are fully developed. It is at the revision stage of working together scenes from multiple revisions, purging out weak portions from early drafts, and working toward smoothing out what will be a final version (prayers skyward).

Where did this approach come from?

Within recent weeks, two writers I follow each shared this piece of advice, here in a tweet by Alexander Chee:

By coincidence, I had just heard the same strategy in this New School interview with Anthony Marra, whose Constellation of Vital Phenomena I’ve been reading (look for link to my review of Constellation below):

At about 7:30 into the interview, Anthony answers a question about how he came upon the narrative style of the award-winning novel, in which there are no minor characters.

Explain the Revision Strategy

In sharing how the style came about, Anthony explains his writing process this way:

I retype everything.  That is sort of my revision method: just retyping and retyping. I’ll print out a draft as soon as I’m finished and put it down in front of the keyboard and go back and retype the whole thing…  This process of retyping, I feel like it’s the way some painters paint the same landscape again and again because… you start seeing it more through your memory than through your eyes…”

Wait, What?

Tell me you didn’t say, “retype the whole thing.”

I know. Isn’t “retype the whole thing” the great nightmare we all have of what would happen if the computer crashed, losing all but that one print copy?

Do the math: Type 30 words a minute? Maybe you’re lucky and type 60 or even 100? Yeah, divide your novel’s word count by that. Starting from scratch on all those finished pages – you’re staring down the long road of WEEKS worth of typing.

As the groan ebbs, the more patient writer inside — the one who genuinely wants excellence — toys with the idea, thinking, “What might I fix more authentically if I were typing this manuscript in from scratch?”

My Manuscript Tests it Out

My novel draft is in a good place for this kind of revision.

  • I want to read the whole thing through.
  • I want to make major revisions to resolve differences in voice that come from working on a novel over a few years’ time.
  • I’m willing to drop any scene or sentence or word that isn’t working.

This is a great point to be recreating the story on a blank page, rather than just tweaking an existing draft.

And I type nearly as fast as I think. It may be faster for me to retype what I like than to mark up a draft and have to go back and implement those changes, knowing they still won’t perfectly fit with neighboring text.

So How’s It Working?

Two days into this approach I’ve typed in 6,993 words (or 19 pages) which is essentially the first chapter (or first chapter and half).

Pros

Retyping has been a great approach for this section of revisions, as 1) I needed this part of the novel perfected to submit as writing sample with a couple applications, and 2) the existing draft was made up of a handful of draft options.

Retyping went very smoothly. I typed in the first 4 pages exactly as they were, as I’ve revised them several times, although I discovered some obvious sentence errors in a couple places. I then cherry-picked 4 old scenes to rescue just key details and wording. Then I typed in, nearly verbatim, a couple recent drafts, which are closest to my intent with the narrative voice.  There was one small chunk that I cheated and used copy-paste to transfer. Sue me.

There were several pages of text I willingly dropped. In particular, it was good to see those “explainy,” psychology-heavy sections from early drafts falling behind on the cutting room floor. This is why I wanted to use this process. I kept only the best wording — only wording that felt strong enough to be worth typing again.

Cons

It does take a bit of time. I did the math but refuse to accept it would really take me 219 days to retype this thing. I’d like to claim faulty division and tell myself I can do it by May. (Update in June: nope, not finished by May. I haven’t given up the approach, but did not have time to devote to it while busy with students the past two months. Getting back to it…)

Have issues with your eyesight? I don’t normally but would empathize with anyone who does, as I injured my eye last month, which has made my vision more sensitive, and it is a little demanding on vision to go back and forth between the print draft and on-screen draft.

Worry about losing one of those darlings you slaughtered? I have a longstanding practice of saving a “cuts” document for anything I delete from a draft, because I can just cut it and paste it there. With this retyping process, I technically still have a record of those lost words as I have the printed draft, but, in order to move quickly, I was not clearly marking the printed text to keep track of words or sections I chose to exclude while typing. Keeping colored highlighters on hand would help with this: highlight one color for deleting and another if you are thinking to move something to another part of the manuscript.

Ah, typos. For anyone who’s already gone through a draft correcting dropped letters, misspellings, capitalizations or dropped words, this is the little nightmare: retyping exposes you to a whole fresh round of typos. I’m sure that writers using the retyping method just address those on the final version, or aim to do their best correct them with each round. < Note the irony of typos in that line? Point made.

Overall

Definitely, I see a value in this revision process, so will keep it in my toolbox, although I don’t know that it will become my one and only process.  I’ll post an update over the coming weeks to see if I stick with this process through the whole draft.

My biggest concern, overall, is that it is very tempting to make drastic revisions when retyping. This could be good — it lets you release those outgrown darlings readily — but that also means that the current revision can only be as good as I am on the day I’m retyping any revisions. Although, just as easily, one could tune out and simply type what’s there without real revision. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Update 6/8/14: I can’t update with a fabulous success story, as I went back into the distractions of teaching for the 2 months since that post, so have not made it far through the manuscript. However, I did finish reading Anthony Marra’s novel (look for link to my review, below), which I praise for its clean narrative and ability to accomplish a complex narrative structure. The strength of his narrative control is a nod in favor of his revision technique. I’ll update again as I move ahead with long revision days now school is done.

Read more about Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena in my June 7, 2014 review.

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How About You?

Are you at work on revision? Have you tried this strategy? Or, what strategies do you recommend? Feel free to share links to your own posts if you’ve written about your own favorite approach.

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Blake and the Irish cow. c. Elissa Field, request permission for use

Blake and the Irish cow. c. Elissa Field, request permission for use

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Friday Links for Writers 01.03.14

Snow lightly drifts onto a favorite summer reading bench. c. Elissa Field.

Snow lightly drifts onto a favorite summer reading bench. c. Elissa Field.

As this post goes live, my boys and I will be watching snow accumulate outside my parents’ 230 year-old house in Fairfield, Connecticut — or perhaps daring to hit I-95 for the long drive back south to Florida.

Being on holiday and then snowed in has been perfect time to luxuriate in long days for reading and writing, lending some great reads to this week’s edition of Friday Links for Writers.

As always, let me know what resonates for you in these links, what you’d like more of, or share your own favorite reads from the week in the comments. Best wishes for a great writing (and reading) week!

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Opportunities for Writers: January and February 2014

This isn’t the first time I’ve included a link to Aerogramme Writer’s Studio, as I think it is a great site that is generous and comprehensive in sharing resources for writers — including their bimonthly listings of submission opportunities.  In addition to checking out the link, find Aerogramme on Twitter @A_WritersStudio.

The Red Roadmaster

I was looking for inspiration and actually went scrolling through Writer Unboxed’s website specifically looking for essays by Donald Maass. His words cut that cleanly to inspiration. I bypassed his most recent post to find this one, on effective backstory.

Anthony Marra on A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

I came across this article in the New York Times while looking for the award Anthony Marra’s novel was nominated for (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was longlisted for the National Book Award) while adding it to my 2014 Winter Reading List yesterday. I “met” Marra years back in an online writers’ forum, and have been thrilled to see the successful reception of his first novel.  This article was interesting as it discusses the connection between research (particularly travel in Chechnya) and the resulting novel.

Giving Up

Okay, obsess much?  Kidding, but yes, this one is also by Anthony Marra — another article I found while looking for info on his current novel. But this article, published at The Rumpus in 2011, may be meaningful inspiration for anyone feeling conflicted about a stagnant project, as Marra shares what he learned by giving up despite years invested on a project.

Learning to Measure Time in Love and Loss

Is this one about writing? Not exactly. But this New York Times essay by Chris Huntington is a beautiful reflection on the relative nature of what matters most in life — perfect timing for anyone beating themselves up over goals not met in 2013 or planning what to prioritize in 2014. (It was my favorite read last week.)

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Conference and Workshop Deadlines

Reviewing the January 22nd registration deadline for the AWP Conference at the end of February reminded me that lots of important spring deadlines are approaching.  If you’re considering attending spring or summer conferences, here is my round up from last spring of contact information on many of the great conferences and workshops, including Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Sewanee and more:  2013 Writing Conferences & Workshops

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Admit it: did you think I was lame for claiming to be “snowed in” with the faint dusting in the picture above? That was yesterday. Today we spent the morning shoveling driveways and walks in shifts.  The snow is beautiful and a great treat before we head back south.  Enjoy your winter weekend, wherever you are!

Bundled up and shoveling out to be ready for the drive home.

Bundled up and shoveling out to be ready for the drive home.

Enjoying the snowfall in Fairfield.

Enjoying the snowfall in Fairfield.

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My Reading List: Winter 2014

Watching for snow - perfect time for a great read. c. Elissa Field

Watching for snow – perfect time for a great read. c. Elissa Field

Snowed in on New Year’s weekend seems the perfect time to curate a reading list for the winter months.  This list includes the books I am reading or plan to read over the coming months, as well as a few other notable recommendations.

Have you been inspired by a recent read or have you compiled a reading list of your own?  We’d love to hear your recommendations (or links) in the comments.  At the bottom, find more links for reading resources.

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Recommended Fiction from 2013

  • Alice McDermott, Someone (September 2013).  Folks, help me lower my expectations as I’m really expecting lots from this one (no, don’t really). McDermott has been one of my favorite authors for her nuanced characters, and an excerpt from Someone was one of my favorite short stories in the New Yorker in recent years. Let’s hope the novel measures up.
  • Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (2013). I can’t tell you my excitement when Marra’s novel was longlisted for the National Book Award, as I “knew” him from an online writer’s forum years back. He is a graduate of Iowa and Stanford, whose writing maturity and complexity have been compared to Jonathan Safran Foer.  I’m really curious to read this novel. From the New York Times, here is an interesting piece on research for the book, and here is a review.
  • Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (October 2013). This one has made it to my “must read” list after feedback from reading friends. My mom was slow to warm, but gripped at the end. Missouri Review editor Michael Nye tweeted me, “It’s a book you want to rush to finish AND don’t want it to end at the same time. That’s rare (for a grouch like me!)”
  • Colum McCann,  Transatlantic (2013). I will get myself to read this… but must confess I’m afraid it might disappoint, which pains me, as he is a favorite of mine. McCann’s writing can feel effortless and powerful (as in Let the Great World Spin or his story/novella collection Everything in This Country Must), but the research level of Transatlantic makes me worry it will have the overwrought weight of Zoli (can anyone convince me to finish reading that one?). Hoping for the best case scenario — I’ll let you know.
  • Amy Greene, Long Man (February 25, 2014).  I am so excited to read this new release by critically-acclaimed writer, Amy Greene (a Southern Living book of the month).
  • Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries (October 2013). This winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize and the Canada Governor General’s Literary Award is described as “a breathtaking feat of storytelling where everything is connected but nothing is as it seems.” I’m in.

Other 2013 Fiction on My Radar

Carried Over From My Summer Reading List

Continuing the Challenge: Reading the Books You Always Meant to Read

Middle Grade & Young Adult Fiction

  • Marcus Zusak, The Book Thief (2007). Well, yes, the opening of the film adaptation in November provoked me to pull this one off my classroom bookshelves, where I’d included it based on a passionate recommendation from a colleague (for 12 & up). I brought it home to buddy-read with my 7th grade son, before seeing the movie.  Random plug for an indie bookseller: this book was included on the weekly bestseller list for Village Books of Bellingham, WA. Click the link if you’d like to buy from them.
  • J.K. Rowling, The Chamber of Secrets (2000). I’m re-enjoying this one as a bedtime read-aloud with my sons.

Nonfiction

  • Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman, How Not to Write a Novel (2008). Not sure if I’ll actually bite on this one, but I’ve heard only great things about this book, which presents writing advice in the negative by sharing “200 classic mistakes and how to avoid them.”
  • Donald Maass, Writing 21st Century Fiction (2012). How to sum this book up? I don’t read it as much as, each time I begin to read, it instantly engages me back in revisions to my novel. I am not big on “how to write” books, but Maass writes amazing prompts to challenge structure, character motivation and more.
  • Margaret Searle, Causes and Cures in the Classroom (November 2013). I’m fascinated to read this one, which draws connections between executive functioning and behavior to optimize learning.

Want more reading recommendations?

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What Are You Reading?

I’d love to hear your own reading suggestions in the comments.  Let us know the favorite books you’ve read this year or ones on your must-reads list.  If this inspires you to blog your own list, share link to your post so we can come read with you.

Where do the book links take you?

For convenience, you can click book titles for their link on Amazon — or find them at your favorite indie bookseller through indiebound.org:

Shop Indie Bookstores

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