A View from Two Sides: Review of Apeirogon by Colum McCann

Review of Apeirogon by Colum McCann in The Writer’s Workshop Book Review.

By Kate Jackson

 

Two fathers, two daughters, Israeli and Palestinian, woven together by two tragedies: this is the substance of Colum McCann’s latest novel.  Published in February 2020, the characters and events are based on actual people and events.  The word, apeirogon, means “a shape with a countably infinite number of sides.”

The novel begins with Rami, an Israeli man on a motorbike, entering Palestinian territory.  His yellow license plate signals his nationality to the border guards.  The reader is immediately brought into the divided world where Palestinians and Israelis live separated by walls, barbed wire, barricades and checkpoints.  Only the many species of birds, occasional characters in the book, have freedom of movement.

Soon we are introduced to Bassam.  He has a distinctive limp as a result of childhood polio.  He has a broken heart as a result of the untimely death of his ten-year-old daughter, Abir.  She was near her school when she was shot in the back of her head with a rubber bullet.

Midway into the novel, Rami and Bassam meet. They join a Parents Circle.  By then, we know their respective stories and the anguish both experienced when their children were taken from them.  Rami’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Smadar, died in an explosion set off by Palestinian suicide bombers near a café ten years before Abir died at the hands of an Israeli soldier.

Both fathers have ample reason for bitterness and enmity but over the course of the narrative, form a strong bond of friendship and support.  Together and separately, they travel outside their borders to tell their daughters’ stories and confront the futility of violence while demonstrating a way towards healing deep wounds.

As the title suggests, this is a multifaceted tale.  It explores the depth of human pain and loss that transcends nationality and time.  It reveals the results of policies set by the rulers over the ruled who have no political voice.  It is a story of ancient cultures so close in proximity and history and so far apart in attitude.  It is the story of two men who found voices to spread messages of peace and hope born out of tragedy.

The book is written with 1,001 sections, some only a sentence or two long and others with many paragraphs.  The narrative travels back and forth in time, place and character.  It seems repetitious at times.  But it is a powerful and unconventional story of and for our times.

The Writer’s Workshop Book Review is published by The Writer’s Workshop. Let us know what you think and if you’d like to contribute a review. We review books of narrative fiction and nonfiction. Please be in touch!

The Perfect Pitch: Story Ideas in Writing Classes

THE PERFECT PITCH: STORY IDEAS  IN WRITING CLASSES

 

Narrative writers organize their books and shorter pieces in terms of a story or chronology, probably the oldest and most compelling way of relating information. In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster speculates that the earliest storytelling took place around a campfire after tired bands of Neanderthal hunters had killed a woolly mammoth. Natural selection favored hunters who told a well-crafted, suspenseful story; those who rambled endlessly or droned on about their personal exploits were hit over the head with a club.

Good story ideas for narrative writing meet the following criteria:

E.M. Forster
E.M. Forster, story ideas for writing classes.

1) BASED ON SCENE – Organized around one or more scenes. Unlike a feature story, these pieces should be composed almost entirely of scenes. There can be passages of narrative summary that provide background information, but these should be incorporated into or around the scene.

2) EMPHASIZE CHARACTER – Elucidation of character lies at heart of these stories. They can convey information, but this should be done through the personalities central to the story.

3) ENCOURAGE CURIOSITY – Writers should appeal to readers’ curiosity, pulling them along with suspenseful storytelling, not letting them go until the end.

4) CONFLICT AND RESOLUTION FORMAT – The story has to be organized around a conflict, whether an external one like climbing a mountain, or an internal one of overcoming stuttering. Most of the best stories have a conflict that embraces both the internal and the external. Example: John has to overcome his fear to climb the mountain. Melissa meets a supportive speech therapist who helps her speak normally.

5) TIMELY – Any trend or event that’s coming up can serve as a timely tie to the story. A timely angle puts your story idea to the top of the editor’s pile.

6) PERSONALLY INTERESTING – Writers usually do their best work on subjects that matter to them. Try to find topics that you are passionate about, as Gerard emphasizes in Creative Nonfiction.

7) PUBLISHABLE – Not every idea that appeals to the writer will gain favor with editors, however. Find ideas that interest you and the editor.

For more on story ideas, please consider signing up for my writing classes.

Take a Journey with a Traveler’s Tale

Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain is an outstanding traveler’s tale which I reference in my Seattle writing classes, online writing classes and travel writing classes.

If you love to travel like I do, you’ve probably found the last six months a challenging time. After canceling my Travel Writing class in Spain and an assignment to ski in Austria, I have hunkered down at home to write, teach, shelter with my family and occasionally venture out to a local cafe. Such is the situation in the world today.

During this time, I’ve found great pleasure in reading travel books, something I’ve done in the past as research. Now it’s become a pleasure in its own right as well as preparation for when I can hit the road again.

I’ve been traveling vicariously with Mark Twain (The Innocents Abroad) Beryl Markham (West with the Night), V.S. Naipaul (Among the Believers), Charles Nichol (The Fruit Palace) and Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods). These are some of the titles I reference in my Seattle writing classes, online writing classes and especially in my travel writing classes. Here’s more on the books below.

The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress is a travel book by Mark Twain published in 1869 which humorously chronicles what Twain called his “Great Pleasure Excursion” on board the chartered vessel Quaker City through Europe and the Holy Land with a group of American travelers in 1867. It was the best-selling of Twain’s works during his lifetime, as well as one of the best-selling travel books of all time.

West with the Night is a 1942 memoir by Beryl Markham, chronicling her experiences growing up in Kenya in the early 1900s, leading to careers as a racehorse trainer and bush pilot there. It is considered a classic of outdoor literature and was included in the U.S.A.’s Armed Services Editions shortly after its publication.

Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey is a book by the Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul. Published in 1981, the book chronicles a six-month journey across Asian after the Iranian Revolution. V.S. Naipaul explores the culture and the explosive situation in countries where Islamic fundamentalism was taking root. His travels start with Iran, on to Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, with a short stop in Pakistan and Iran. Like the best travel books is prescient, indicating what was about to unfold in the region.

The Fruit Palace is a classic travel story by Charles Nicholl, chronicling his quest for ‘The Great Cocaine Story’. The book is set in the eighties in Columbia and describes not only the cocaine trade, but the wonder of everyday life in the country. The Fruit Palace is a little whitewashed café that legally dispenses tropical fruit juices as well as a meeting place for black marketers. It’s here that the story begins.

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail is a 1998 travel book by writer Bill Bryson, describing his attempt to walk the Appalachian Trail with his friend Stephen Katz, a less than competent outdoorsman whose foibles contribute mightily to this entertaining book. It’s a hilarious account of their adventures and misadventures, with Bryson’s trademark humor coming to the fore.

Summer Reads for Tumultuous Times from The Writer’s Workshop

Seabiscuit serves as an outstanding example of narrative in writing classes from The Writer’s Workshop.

In these tumultuous times, it seems hard to imagine how things can return to normal. How can we get through Covid, police brutality, protests, riots, high unemployment and general malaise? One of the best ways to find hope in dark times lies in reading about other challenging periods in our past. Some of the most remarkable achievements took place during similarly perilous moments.

Here are four outstanding books that illuminate how our country negotiated difficult circumstances and emerged stronger from them. In addition, these books serve as great examples of narrative writing, the subject of my writing classes at The Writer’s Workshop. These books provide useful perspective, dazzling form and wonderfully satisfying summer reading:

Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand – The story of Seabiscuit, an American thoroughbred racehorse who became the top money-winning racehorse in the 1940s. High-strung, talented and rebellious, the horse languished until a washed up cowboy and horse whisperer, Tom Smith, became his trainer, won his trust and turned him into a champion, serving as a beacon of hope during the Great Depression.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson – This New York Times bestseller tells the story of the architect who planned the construction of the great Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the serial killer who used the fair as a lure. Erik Larson recounts the tale of the architect and the killer in a spellbinding narrative style, demonstrating how to use scene and characterization to bring a story to life

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown – This nonfiction classic celebrates the 1936 U.S. men’s Olympic eight-oar rowing team—nine working class young men who surprised the elite rowing teams from the East Coast, Oxford and Cambridge, and finally the Nazis as they rowed for gold in front of Adolf Hitler. Set against in the Great Depression, these young men reminded the country of what can be done when everyone quite literally pulls together.

The Autobiography of Frederick Douglas by Frederick Douglass – This outstanding 1845 memoir and treatise on abolition was written by Douglass, a former slave and renowned orator about his time in Lynn, Massachusetts. It’s the most famous example of the slave narrative, a literary form used by many former slaves and which has served as a great inspiration for contemporary black writers such as my former professor and mentor, Charles Johnson. The book is a gripping read, with a strong narrative voice and style that fueled the abolitionist movement in the early 19th century in the U.S.

Not only do these books offer hope in tough times, they serve as great examples of narrative writing and useful models for your own work. If you’d like help in learning how to tell YOUR story, please consider signing up for one of my Seattle writing classes or online writing classes through The Writer’s Workshop. Let me know if I can help you tell your story!

How to Submit Stories to Literary Magazines

Lava, The Writer's Workshop
“The Thin Crust” from The Writer’s Workshop Review.

Literary magazines occupy an important niche in the publishing world. They publish longer, more artistic stories that would make a tough sell in a commercial magazine. Many bestselling memoirs such as Kathleen Norris’ Dakota grew out of shorter stories published in literary magazines. They are one of the few markets that publish short fiction. They pay little or nothing other than extra copies but are prestigious and can serve as an important stepping stone in a literary career. As the publisher/ editor of The Writer’s Workshop Review, which just published its 14th edition, I read a lot of manuscripts and accept only a small percentage of them. Here’s some advice about how to win acceptance at a literary magazine.

FIND A THE RIGHT MAGAZINE:  Duotrope’s Digest is an excellent place to start. For a small monthly fee you get access to a searchable database of over 2000 different literary magazines. You can peruse the magazine rack at a good bookstore like Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company to find a home for your story. Googling the term, literary magazines, will also turn up a lot of potential target publications. As I emphasize in my Seattle writing classes, read the magazine to make sure it’s an appropriate fit for your story. Half of all stories are rejected simply because they are not the right fit for the magazine.

FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES: The magazine will spell out when and how to submit manuscripts. Make sure to follow these guidelines. Your story may never reach the right editor if you don’t follow the guidelines.

FORMAT YOUR WORK: As recommended above, follow the magazine’s guidelines. Sometimes the magazine will want the story cut and pasted into an email message or attached to the email. Some of these magazines will want hard copies. As I say in my Seattle writing classes, make it easy for them.

COVER LETTER: A short cover letter accompanying the story or as part of the email message can help your cause. List previous publications, relevant degrees, etc. These shouldn’t make a difference to an editor but sometimes they do. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. If you have none of these, just send a strong story and it will find a home.

TRACK SUBMISSIONS: Keep a record of what stories are out and where you sent them. Celebrate acceptances. Don’t sweat the rejections; there are all kinds of reasons a magazine will reject a piece. It may be outstanding, but may not fit the publication. Pay attention if an editor takes the time to give you advice about how to improve your manuscript; the editor doesn’t do this casually and may be receptive to future stories from you.

If you want help with this, please consider signing up for one of my Seattle writing classes, online writing classes, or travel writing classes. I look forward to working with you!

How To Write for Magazines

Andrew Waite speaks about breaking into freelance writing at The Writer's Workshop Seattle Writing Classes.
Andrew Waite speaks about breaking into freelance writing at The Writer’s Workshop Seattle Writing Classes.

In my Seattle writing classes, I have experts talk about how to write for magazines, among other topics. Alaska Airlines Magazine associate editor Andrew Waite talked to my summer Seattle writing class about how to write successfully for magazines. He offered excellent advice about working with editors, including making sure to read the publication before pitching.

“If I haven’t worked with the writer before, I like to write out an outline of how I would write it,” he says. “What’s the lead, nut graph, etc. I want this piece to come in as close to being finished as possible. Make sure you’re on the same page up front. If I have the outline I have an idea of what it’s going to look like. It likely won’t need a major rewrite.”

Though the magazine has a number of writers who work for it regularly, it’s always looking for new writers. He says they usually break in with shorter assignments of 300 words or less. “If you do an awesome job on a shorter story, we’ll definitely look at you for another longer story. We’re looking for writers who travel a lot, have good reporting skills, turn in clean, structurally sound copy. We like to take on new writers with fresh voices.”

The magazine considers regular freelancers as part of its staff. Such writers have a sense of what the magazine publishes and how it approaches travel, among other subjects. He suggested looking at the magazine’s editorial calendar to get a sense of what it will cover over the year.

“Pitch three months before the story should come out,” he said. “Pitch what’s unique.”

In putting together an issue, Waite emphasized the care the editors take over the editorial process. “We search for a writer for the ideas,” he said. “Then we get the ideas assigned. When the finished piece comes in, we hope it looks like the original assignment. We usually do a developmental edit for structure, content, and organization. Later, we’ll get into the nitty gritty as well as fact checking.”

He emphasized that breaking into freelance magazine writing is possible, but you have to work hard at it, something I emphasize in my Seattle writing classes. “There’s a lot hustle involved in the freelance game,” he said.

 

How to Outline a Story or Book

J.K. Rowling on outlining, a technique taught in Seattle writing classes.
J.K. Rowling on outlining, a technique taught in Seattle writing classes.

How to Outline a Story or Book

 

Outlining a story or book allows you to chart the emotional peaks and valleys of the story so that you’ll know where you’re heading when you sit down to write. As I explain in my Seattle writing classes and online writing classes, the five short statements below describe the major actions in the story. There is one statement for each major focus. This is not like the outline you wrote in English composition class; these statements highlight the dramatic actions in story. They help you focus on what’s essential to the story. This is a conflict—resolution outline, with the conflict introduced in the first statement, developed in the next three statements, and resolved in the last statement.

1) Complication – Make it simple and active. Have you chosen active verbs to show action? Is the main character included in the statement? How will you illustrate the main action? Do you have the source material for this? Is the action dramatic enough?

2) Development Action – Clear, cogent, related to complication.

3) Development Action – Clear, cogent related to complication, tied to previous development, tied to main character.

4) Development Action — Clear, cogent related to complication, tied to previous development, tied to main character.

5) Resolution – Must fit the complication.

Writing this outline will save you a lot of time. You’ll be able to figure out in advance where the story is going. You can still change it as you go, but at least you’ll have a clear direction when you write the first draft of your story or book chapter. For more on how to do this, please consider signing up for my Seattle Writing Classes or an online writing classes.

Break into Freelance Magazine Writing

Andrew Waite speaks about breaking into freelance writing at The Writer's Workshop Seattle Writing Classes.
Andrew Waite speaks about breaking into freelance writing at The Writer’s Workshop Seattle Writing Classes.

In my Seattle writing classes, I invite experts to talk about their approach to writing and editing. I had the pleasure of having Alaska Airlines Magazine associate editor Andrew Waite talk to my spring Seattle writing class about how to break into freelance writing. He offered excellent advice about approaching magazines, including making sure to  read the publication before pitching.

“The best pitches reveal a sense of who we are and what we do,” he said. “We want your piece to slot in easily to the magazine. I’m looking for pitches that meet our needs, show command of writing and have an engaging hook.”

Though the magazine has a number of writers who work for it regularly, it’s always looking for new writers. He says they usually break in with shorter assignments of 300 words or less. “If you do an awesome job on a shorter story, we’ll definitely look at you for another longer story. We’re looking for writers who travel a lot, have good reporting skills, turn in clean, structurally sound copy. We like to take on new writers with fresh voices.”

The magazine considers regular freelancers as part of its staff. Such writers have a sense of what the magazine publishes and how it approaches travel, among other subjects. He suggested looking at the magazine’s editorial calendar to get a sense of what it will cover over the year.

“Pitch three months before the story should come out,” he said. “Pitch what’s unique.”

In putting together an issue, Waite emphasized the care the editors take over the editorial process. “We search for a writer for the ideas,” he said. “Then we get the ideas assigned. When the finished piece comes in, we hope it looks like the original assignment. We usually do a developmental edit for structure, content, and organization. Later, we’ll get into the nitty gritty as well as fact checking.”

He emphasized that breaking into freelance magazine writing is possible, but you have to work hard at it, something I emphasize in my Seattle writing classes. “There’s a lot hustle involved in the freelance game,” he said.

 

The Art of the Pitch For Freelance Writers

Paulette Perhach speaks to The Writer's Workshop Seattle writing classes.
Paulette Perhach speaks to The Writer’s Workshop Seattle writing classes.

Pitching story ideas to magazines and newspapers is one of the essential skills I teach in my writing classes. Recently I had the pleasure of hosting Paulette Perhach, a Seattle-based freelance writer and author of Welcome to the Writer’s Life, who spoke about her approach to pitching everyone from The New York Times to Salon.

“If you’re in writing, you’re in sales,” she said. “You don’t take no for an answer; you keep the conversation going. I recently sent a letter to Salon and got a really nice rejection letter. I pitched them again and got an assignment.”

She emphasized that networking is key to getting assignments. She watches for editors calling for pitches on Twitter and regularly attends writing conferences such as AWP to meet with editors like those at the Sun.

“Be persistent with a publication,” she said. “I got a handful of assignments from the New York Times, then didn’t get any assignments for two years. I connected with the special sections editor of the New York Times and then got assignments.”

She argues that newspapers and magazines need writers, but writers need to understand the publication and be professional to get steady assignments, an approach I also emphasize in my writing classes for The Writer’s Workshop.

“Editors are you customers,” she said. “Editors need writers to fill their publication, but they want writers who are easy to work with. Read the writers guidelines. Make a list of the requirements for the publication. Be organized. Break up a story into stages: research, interview, and writing. Don’t miss your deadline. Very people do it right, and if you do it, it shows you’re a professional.”

For more on pitching publications and narrative writing, check out her book, Welcome to the Writer’s Life, or consider signing up for my winter class, The Arc of the Story.

How to Write a Dramatic Scene

Dramatic Scenes in Seattle Writing Classes.
Driving makes great material for dramatic scenes in Seattle Writing Classes.

In my Seattle writing classes, I teach how to write a dramatic scene, an especially effective way of organizing stories. In my Seattle writing classes, I explain how to use dramatic scenes to give life and movement to stories, whether fiction on nonfiction. It’s a technique that also helps you as a writer organize the story. You don’t need to go into detail about everything, but rather just the key moments that made the trip memorable.

On a recent trip to England, I used dramatic scene to highlight some of the adventures of the trip. Although travel stories tend to highlight the pleasures of a trip, I also like to write about the challenges and inconveniences. One of the biggest challenges was driving on the LEFT side of the road, with a clutch in my left hand. The whole operation was widely counter intuitive, with lots of honking drivers, speeding motorcyclists and phone-distracted pedestrians thrown into the mix.

As I tell students in my Seattle writing classes, it’s a good idea to always take a notebook with you to record your adventures. I took a reporter’s notebook and filled it with impressions of the trip, especially those involving driving. The hardest part was rewiring my brain to go left, not right, at key moments. This wasn’t so hard on a straightaway, but devilishly difficult on a roundabout. I followed the car in front of me, said a prayer, and plunged through it, occasionally earning a honk or other gesture.

It was a great pleasure to return the rental car to Heathrow airport and have someone else drive into London. Once there, we took the Tube and buses around, very convenient, but not the great material I found through driving on the wrong side of the road.

For more on writing with dramatic scenes, please sign up for my winter Seattle Writing class, The Arc of the Story.