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  • dchallwrites

So many things can leave a mark. Dog bites. Oven racks.

Watching a mother in the park teach her child to be fearful, you might say to yourself, “That’s going to leave a mark.” You realize it’s not what she means to do. A mother raised in poverty, my own mother for example, might prioritize financial security above the physical kind. The marks you cause aren’t always intentional.

As a writer, you can be more purposeful. I’m not talking about setting out to leave a mark on literature in the way that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley did by creating an entire genre.

I have far more modest intentions—initials carved in tree bark. Uncle Dominic, 1954, printed on the back of a photograph.

The primary goal is to create a good story well told. But also, I admit, to leave a trace—to say, I was in this place. I saw this, thought that, felt things that have caused this character to shock even me with her behavior.

The four female characters in my first novel The Balance of Fear have all been marked in one way or another by early trauma. I intended for them to be marked, and both the reader and I can imagine them behaving as they do because of it.

I hope to leave a mark on the reader as well, as I am marked when I read good stories well told. Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. Akin by Emma Donoghue. Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere and Everything I Never Told You. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak. And always, always Sheila Kohler’s The Perfect Place.

I hope you’ll take a look at The Balance of Fear and tell me how you think I’ve done.

  • dchallwrites

Studying English literature as an undergraduate, I was taught that considering a writer’s intentions in analyzing their writing wasn’t only a mistake. It was a logical fallacy important enough to have its own name—the intentional fallacy. During my MFA program in creative writing, I mentioned the intentional fallacy and got glared at.

“Forget the intentional fallacy and everything else you’ve learned,” my creative writing advisor told me after he stopped glaring. “For one thing, you’re not writing literature. And you’ll never write anything without intentions.”

He was right. Intentions are necessary. But if they were sufficient, I’d have a National Book Award in both fiction and non-fiction and at least three Edgar Awards.

You have to allow yourself to be surprised. By a character, who has her own intentions. By the sudden realization that what actually happened was something else entirely.

But after all those initial intentions, surprises, time, and a whole lot of work, you have to edit.

Editing gives the intentional fallacy a whole new meaning. Editing requires you, if not to ignore your own intentions, to ignore them enough to see past them to what you’ve actually written. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, since what you meant to write and what you think you’ve written keeps clouding your vision.

Once you believe your vision is clear and you’ve finally got the manuscript just right, it’s time to hire a professional editor. I’ve hired two.

The first one gave me one hugely helpful suggestion, for which I’m grateful. She also told me that my homeless man sub-plot came out of left field and needed to be cut, which may have been helpful if there had been a homeless man sub-plot, or maybe, possibly, if a homeless man or woman had meandered past one of the actual characters that populated the manuscript. I’m pretty sure it was an oversight, a simple failure to update a template. “Your [fill in the blank] sub-plot came out of left field and needs to be cut.”

It’s really important to find the right editor at the right time. If you go to an editor too soon, you may get one hugely helpful suggestion that goes something like, “maybe take this promising thing over here and start over.”

When your manuscript is actually ready to be professionally reviewed, hopefully you’ll be lucky enough to find an editor like Amie McCracken. If you are so lucky, you’ll get to see your work through the eyes of a knowledgeable and talented reader who is encountering it for the first time and, critically, has the distance from it that you still lack. Yes, you do still lack distance.

I discovered Amie through the Alliance for Independent Authors. ALLi has a vetted list of self-publishing resource providers.

  • dchallwrites

John Irving’s A Son of the Circus. I’ve always been fascinated by the circus—it was the theme of my MFA thesis presentation at the Bennington Writing Seminars. Irving says in an introduction to the novel that A Son of the Circus isn’t about the circus. He’s right of course, but like the best circus performances, Irving’s plot is fearless and messy and bawdy and smelly and flawlessly executed. His plot has three rings. His characters have multiple roles, lead double lives, inhabit more than one gender. The novel may not be about the circus, but it reflects an intimate knowledge and appreciation of the art form and an understanding of its most troubling aspects. One of the novel’s circus rings contains a mystery—complete with a detective and a serial killer. But this is John Irving we’re talking about, and there are two more rings in Irving’s literary circus act. One contains a multi-generational family saga and study on cultural and religious intolerance and gender identity. The other, a comic novel of friendship and social privilege with an aging narrator whose religious conversion comes about as the result of waking from a drunken sleep with a mysteriously bitten toe—the novel is a literary circus, so of course there are clowns. Anyone who knows the circus also knows that the best clown acts reflect the deepest social commentary. I found Irving’s A Son of the Circus after I’d started working on a YA novel in that is set in the circus. Re-reading Irving’s novel is both affirming and intimidating. In short, exactly what I need to inspire my own work.

Sheila Kohler’s The Perfect Place.

Kohler’s deeply flawed unreliable narrator always tugs at my consciousness when I’m struggling with a narrator in my own writing. Kohler shows incredible nerve in allowing her character’s deep trauma, faulty memory, and unrepentant dishonesty to determine what the reader learns and what they don’t.

As a reader, I find Kohler’s nameless narrator very affecting. As a writer, Kohler’s The Perfect Place is a critical reminder of the power of things that remain hidden.

In my own novel, The Balance of Fear, my handling of the character Margaret Palmer was heavily influenced by Sheila Kohler’s use of the unreliable narrator in The Perfect Place.

I was fortunate to attend lectures by Ms. Kohler at the Bennington Writing Seminars where I earned my MFA. Of all the lectures and presentations during my time there, Sheila Kohler’s were the most impactful. I recently read her memoir When We Were Sisters and returned to my notes from her lecture on the role a writer’s personal history can play in inspiring their writing, which is certainly true of The Balance of Fear.

Kojo Laing’s Search Sweet Country.

Ghanaian poet, Kojo Lang’s Search Sweet Country is not a novel in verse, but the figurative language is striking and surprising and funny and undeniably poetic. It’s pure joy for me to read, and it loosens my own writing and gives me permission to play. Laing’s figurative language says more than it reveals. My own YA novel in verse sprang to life shortly after I’d read Search Sweet Country.

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