Friday, May 15, 2009

Literary Fiction: Highbrow or Raised Eyebrows?

Julie, here, and today I have the pleasure of introducing one of my favorite authors and a dear friend, Patti Lacy. Her debut novel, An Irishwoman's Tale, pretty much blew me away with its beauty and depth of writing. But I have to admit, it is her second novel just recently released, What the Bayou Saw, that has haunted me long after I devoured the last page. And after you read Patti's blog below on "literary fiction," it will be easy to say why I think Patti Lacy is one of the best voices in Women's Fiction today. Without further ado, I give you Patti Lacy:
When an editor mentioned that An Irishwoman’s Tale contained literary elements, I cringed. Should my debut novel be tossed in the recycling bin? Should I hold down the “delete” button until “those elements” disappeared? What were literary elements, anyway? Logic trumped fear, and I busied shaky fingers by turning to Webster’s.

Since the 1970s, scholarly types have thrown paper wads in faculty meetings and fired off verbose barbs when debating this term. According to Judi Clark, literary fiction “…draws you in with language, imagery, character insight, and sense of place.” Joyce Saricks notes that literary fiction is “critically acclaimed, often award-winning fiction…often more character centered than plot oriented.”

Other heavyweight critics dump these ideas in the “reject pile.” B.R. Myers quips, “Many prize-winning contemporary novelists simply use trendy stylistic gimmicks to cover up a lack of talent.” More creatively put, David Lubar calls literary fiction “pompous, dull, plotless, and overly academic. If you're ever in doubt about whether a story is literary,” Lubar says, “there's a simple test. Look in a mirror immediately after reading the last sentence. If your eyebrows are closer together than normal, the answer is yes."

Books labeled literary fiction tend to transcend their genre, whether mystery, women’s fiction, or romance, perhaps by “breaking the rules” of the who-dun-it or letting the heroine not live “happily ever after,” instead focusing on life’s realities, powerful messages, the unique distinction of the writer’s voice.
Whether you set out to write literary fiction or not, use its elements to your advantage. Instead of cold-eyed squints, command the bated breath and quickened pulse of a hooked reader. Here’s how to make literary elements work...with examples taken right off my sagging bookshelves.

1. Work out a tight narrative plot in your usual way.
Use SOP (seat of the pants) (Lynn Austin) or Snowflake (Randy Ingermanson) methods. Agent Nathan Bransford writes, “Sooooooooo much literary fiction I get in the old query inbox is plotless. It's just a character musing about the vagaries and eccentricities of everyday existence. The prose is lush, the character detailed, but one problem -- absolutely nothing is happening and thus it's (forgive me) extremely boring. Good literary fiction has a plot. It starts in one place and ends in another.”

A giant glitch in my first baby’s draft revolved around a lack of plot. Two women went to Ireland to check out the mystical cliffs, perhaps dig into their heritage. “Nothing’s happening,” critique partners kept telling me. “But they’re in Ireland,” I protested. “The country’s beautiful. The people are marvelous. And I really captured the land on paper.” “So what?” someone finally said, slapping me in the face with bluntness—and the truth.

2. You’ve written a new-wineskin-tight draft. How do you move your story out of the “reject” pile and into the “look at this writing, Joe” pile? Elevate your description of the landscape until it becomes a character in the novel.
1940s New Orleans from Mary O’Donnell’s Those Other People: “…Bound together by their balconies, the old houses inhaled and exhaled quietly. A smell of human sleep flowed from them; a smell of dusty rugs and wicker furniture and ash trays. From the gutters rose a smell of uncollected garbage…a smell of urine in a shop doorway, and here and there, the swift sweet scent of night-blooming jasmine leaped over a courtyard wall.”

Wow. O’Donnell’s got me walking with her heroine down a French Quarter alley…or wishing I could.

3. Once that description is elevated, tie it to the character’s thoughts, moods, or emotions.

Tina Forkner’s Ruby Among Us: “I balanced my teacup on my knees and watched the hummingbird dart around us. It paused near my shoulder, its wings buzzing, as if studying the splashes of color on my dress. Was he accusing me? I glanced at Kitty again, but she said nothing, as if it was an expected thing to have a hummingbird fly right up to me on the day of my Ruby’s funeral.”

Camilla Quinn’s WIP: “I thought the prairie my bosom friend that summer until a hot wind kicked up the army worms from some unseen world beneath. They marched into the Indian corn, ravaging the winter profits of my father and other farmers who had purchased quarter-sections of land in hopes of becoming rich. I saw the men writhing in the smoke, black as demons, digging trenches where the fire stampeded the worms and sent them back beneath the earth with towering flames that seemed to me like the great red yawn of hell.

“Like this troubled land, I have felt cleft in two since I was thirteen years old. Everything changed that summer, in the way of land that never knows whether the rain will bring life or whether it will be staid from falling.”

4. Capture “Every Man’s” or “Every Woman’s” dream, fear, or hope in your book. Write a story that tugs at the heart of all generations, regardless of the “target audience” you’ve tagged on your proposal.

In his book The Plot Thickens, agent and author Noah Lukeman uses the term “transcendency.” To achieve this “bigger-than-life” effect, create multidimensional characters, room for interpretation, timelessness.

Cara Putman “transcends” in Canteen Dreams. Hero Willard Johnson itches to make sense of his brother’s death by enlisting in World War II. However, he must stay home and tend to the ranch. Though I’ve never been drafted and am generations removed from Willard, I empathize with his dilemma of duty conflicting with my dreams. Don’t you?

5. Have characters think or say truisms that make readers love—or hate—them.
Colleen Coble’s Abomination: “The harsh sunlight streaming through the open doors threw the pale bones of the woman Bree and Eve had found into stark relief. Was this all a human being was reduced to in the end, this small pile of calcium and phosphorus?”

Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory: “In three days, he told himself, I shall be in Las Casas: I shall have confessed and been absolved. The thought of the child on the rubbish-heap came automatically back to him with painful love. What was the good of confession when you loved the result of your crime?”

Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose: “I have a son who, though we are affectionate with each other, is no more my true son than if he breathed through gills. That is no gap between generations, that is a gulf.”

Julie Lessman’s A Passion Most Pure: “Sisters are overrated, she decided.”

6. Become best friends with Mr. Thesaurus to carefully craft every word on your page. Listen to music or read poetry to create mind pictures. Capture them on paper, then turn off the music and read your sentences aloud. Can you “hear” the mood that you want to create? Perhaps a slow cadence for low-tension times, upbeats for lively moments?

Choose verbs that ping off the page, they’re so active. Adjectives that blush with meaning. Nouns that capture ideas, emotions, scenes. Vivid, fresh metaphors that make us see as well as feel.

Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible: “Vines strangling their own kin in the everlasting wrestle for sunlight…a choir of seedlings arching their necks out of rotted tree stumps, sucking life out of death. This forest eats itself and lives forever.”

I “hear” a slow, solemn death march as I read this description. The mood of decay. Suddenly it’s hard to breathe in my den!

Gayl Jones’ The Healing: “Ever since I seen that movie about the middle passage, though, and they talked about them Africans coming to the New World being packed in them slave ships like sardines in a can…every time I eat sardines, I think of that.”

A snappy jazz tune pulsates through me when I read Jones’ work.
With practiced reading, you will began to pick up “the music” in different voices, music that can influence your own masterpiece!

7. Insert snippets of culture to show the reader your character’s class, status, age, era, personality.

Tosca Lee’s Demon: A Memoir: “His voice reminded me of fine cognac, the Hors d’Age men drink aboard their yachts as they cut their Cohibas.”

Susan Meissner’s The Shape of Mercy: “A classmate, Lira, walked by as I was writing down Abigail’s phone number on a Starbucks receipt I’d found in my backpack.”

8. Discover that image that grabs your mind, jolts you awake at two a.m., and won’t let go, then capture it on paper!

In my second baby, What the Bayou Saw, it was twelve-year-old hands, one dark, one light, reaching through the gaps of a chain link fence in a desperate attempt to bridge segregation. I just had to write about those two precious little girls and what happened to them on the day Kennedy died.

Oh, literary friends (that’s you!), if you haven’t read Kim Edward’s brilliant short story, “Gleaming in the Darkness,” get ahold of a copy now (in Secrets of a Fire King). The image that seizes Kim’s mind is a mysterious, magical jar in Marie Curie’s lab:

“What can I say of what I saw? All the jars upon the table were glowing softly, as if each contained a small star that had fallen, as if shafts of moonlight had been gathered into each. The simple mud she had worked on for so long had become a thing of magic. I fell on my knees as if to pray, but I could not take my eyes from the light caught within those jars. It was so beautiful, so unearthly. I wanted to take one home, keep it in the cupboard…”

9. Weave elements of other humanities genres into your work (music, sculpture, architecture, dance, theater, and painting) to lend credence to your setting.
Charles Martin’s When Crickets Cry: “And while the jukebox is filled with rock-and-roll titles, all the records have been replaced with gospel music. G5 may read “Hells Bells” by AC/DC, but when the quarter’s dropped in and the unsuspecting bar hopper sits back with his beer to combat the writing on the walls with some good old hard rock, he’s greeted by the Atlanta Gospel Choir singing, “Ain’t No Rock Gonna Cry in My Place.”

10. Now that you could pass a pop quiz on Literary Fiction 101, pull out musty old classics and learn from the masters! This will help develop a key element of literary fiction—a distinctive voice that is Eau de Life of every book you’ve read, every emotion you’ve felt, every second you’ve lived! To define voice reminds me of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter’s attempt at defining pornography in 1964: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced…but I shall know it when I see it.” Can you identify a favorite writer by cadence, word choice, and style? Congratulations! You’ve found VOICE! To keep this post from being longer than a Lessman romance, I’ll refrain from arguing whether voice is inborn or can be developed. (Think nature or nurture—it’s gotta be a little of both, don’t it?)

To nurture voice, gobble up classics labeled “literary”—Stegner, Hemingway, Austen, Dickens, Hugo, Dostoevsky, Mann, Cather, et al—and modern writers noted for literary elements—Kingsolver, Edwards, Morrison, Atwood. A few of many Christian novelists who have literary elements itching to be underlined: Mary DeMuth, Charles Martin, Lisa Samson, Penelope Stokes, Athol Dickson. Yes, folks, cover those pages with ink! Ferret out the above-discussed elements and plot the concepts into your WIP. A great plan is to commit an hour a week to reading research, unrelated to your own future plot and setting.

11. Place inanimate objects into powerful positions. “A slam of the door changed his life.” “Never had a smile meant such a nasty thing.”

George Howe Colt, The Big House: “After gorging on summer for three months, the house has gone into hibernation.” Big House is a literary feast!

Silas House, The Coal Tattoo: “I love you so much,” Anneth whispered. Only the leaves heard.

10. Hopefully I’ve given fresh perspectives on literary fiction. Now grumble at author/reviewer Magdalena Ball, who mentions this “single most important distinction between literary and other types of fiction: Rewrite. Work that is timeless takes time. There’s no other way to achieve literary fiction besides rewriting, dozens, and maybe many more, times.”

Reread the above examples and see how often just a few words, like Hors d’Age, Starbucks, sardines, strangling, overrated, gorged, created a literary effect.

Ball continues, “It isn’t glamorous, nor is rewriting dependent on a muse or inspiration like the first draft is. It is just going over and over a work until every word is relevant and integral to the story. This process cannot occur solely in the fingers of the author. Almost every writer of literary fiction requires an ideal reader, a critique group, a mentor, or someone who can provide the kind of objective advice that will transform your inspiration into a stunning creation.”

I’d like to leave you with Automat, a 1927 painting by Edward Hopper. Wow, there’s a definite narrative plot: a well-dressed woman, alone in a clean, well-lighted place. The loneliness of this café becomes a character, a theme in the work. Hopper uses dark and light to create emotions in the woman (we can do the same with our “word painting” of the landscape, friends.) Automat is screaming to us of isolation, perhaps desired, in the midst of so much light, in such a public place. The woman’s clothing and the positioning of her arms on the table were carefully crafted to define the subject by class, style, and status. Yet Hopper leaves room for interpretation in this timeless work. A read-through of Hopper’s biography informs that he studied for years at the New York Institute of Art and Design and that he struggled for years to perfect paintings now considered some of America’s most spine-tingling.

Analyze works you love, whatever the genre, for literary elements; soon you won’t be defining them, you’ll be weaving them seamlessly into your own great stories!


  1. Oh my this is a wonderful post. Thanks so much Patti. It's the encouragement I've needed when I've been torn by what I want to write and what I've felt wasn't acceptable in the current market.

    I had to laugh when you mentioned the thesaurus. Am I the only one who's heard that your words should just be clean and common and not sound like you went to the thesaurus for them? Hurray for the beauty of evocative words. Aren't they the reason we read and write? To be moved?

    I guess it's all about balance and skill and maybe going where your voice wants to go and taking a chance. I admit I haven't gotten around to picking up "An Irishwoman's Tale" though it has long intrigued me. I won't wait any longer.

    Thanks Julie. I got hungry and went ahead with my usual wheat toast and fresh ground PB. I suppose the good stuff will show up soon.

  2. Welcome to Seekerville, Patti. And thank you for this fabulous post! The passages you shared are beautiful and cling to the soul. You've inspired me to add literary elements in my writing.

    I have An Irishwoman's Tale and will read it as soon as I've finished Ms Tippens and Lessman's books. I've heard wonderful things about the book.

    I brought blueberry pancakes and maple syrup this morning. The blueberries are in the cakes and bursting with flavor.


  3. WELCOME TO SEEKERVILLE, Patti, and sooo sorry that I didn't get here before Janet with the breakfast offerings (thanks, Janet ... that'll teach me to sleep in!). I do have peach blintzes and cheese danish -- two of my very favorites, along with hazelnut coffee, so dig in!

    DEBRA, I sooo agree with you -- this is a wonderful post and I, for one, am SO thrilled that Patti chose to write about "literary fiction." I love a good story, but my heart is really engaged when the words that tell it are beautiful and flowing and almost carry you away like poetry.

    I have heard that if the beauty and phrasing of a sentence stops you cold in a novel because you are compelled to just savor its meaning and sound, then that's not a good writer because a good writer will not stop the flow of the story. But I'm sorry, I just don't agree. I love nothing better than when an author stops me in my tracks with a catch of my breath on a sentence or paragraph that awes me with its beauty. For me, it enhances the story, not detracts, elevates it and the author so that the reading experience is just that much better. That is what Patti Lacy does over and over, and, in my humble opinion, what makes her one of my favorite authors out there today.

    Janet, I am sooo glad you are reading my book before Patti's because I SURE wouldn't want to have you read it AFTER !! I'm not THAT confident!:) Trust me, you're gonna love it ...


  4. Debra. Fresh ground PB? We are soulmates!! Have you ever topped your morning sustenance with freshly ground golden flaxseed? Ambrosia, dear writer friend! And thanks for the spiritual manna!

    Janet, thanks for the lovely griddle cakes with Maine's best fruit! Should be a breakfast nutritious enough to fuel lots of "courting!"

    Mrs. Passion and the master of those irritating visceral reactions, my vision has pinpricked to nearly nothing at the wonder of being asked to blog here!!!! (YUK--it's back to the drawing board.)

  5. Patti, you are such a wonderful writer! I praise God daily for your awesome friendship and mentoring. I confess. I haven't time to read this just now as I'm heading out the door for an out-of-town wedding. But when I return, I will. I look forward to hearing your special voice again.

  6. Beautifully put.

    I love literary fiction, and yet it seems like when a person writes all they want you to do it cut, cut, cut, don't use too much description, don't say something over again even though you meant to draw the reader to a deeper place.

    Sometimes they cut so much, the story lacks heart.

    I'm glad there are still those out there who know the beauty of a well turned phrase.

  7. Just a comment from yesterday's post, Congrats to those who pasted the first hurdle in the Genesis contest.

    but alas, my name did not appear on the list.

    I want my 24 hour pity party and my gun and ammo Please.

    Sorry for the preemption,

    We now return to the to the discussion already in progress.


  8. Welcome to Seekerville, Patti. Thanks for all the great information you've given us, especially on a Friday. Now I can go home tonight and have all weekend to incorporate the elements you've broken down for us.

    Literary fiction. The simple concept frightens most people. You've gone an awesome job of taking the mystery out of the classification.

    Time to give literary overtones to my romance novel : )


  9. These were great examples, Patti! Thanks for the reminder of how literary elements can really improve our work!

    I love most literary authors, but there are some that I've read that just made me want to moan. It's when there isn't much plot, and too much description, that they lose me.

    My favorite writer, who is in a class by herself in my opinion, who can actually make me cry, is Kate DiCamillo.

    But then, I've read some contest entries from newbies who thought they were writing literary fiction that also made me cry. Please, please listen to Patti's advice and stick in a plot! And give your characters a name! Please.

  10. Hey Patti! What awesome examples and ideas. Great stuff!! Thanks for sharing them with us. :)

  11. Incredible post!!!!
    I love the cover of What the Bayou Saw too.

    Really great points here and what an interesting painting. You said that about the light and dark and that's when I noticed how pale the woman's skin is, but how dark her eyes. Sad. :-(

    You made me laugh about the length of Julie's romances. LOL

    Thanks so much for posting!

  12. I loved this post, Patti. I like to read character driven stories but many that are considered literary do not have a real plot. Many times the writing is beautiful and poetic. I recently heard the term upmarket fiction. Fiction that doesn't fit into anyone genre but has literary elements with a real plot. Thank you, Julie, for this interview with Patti. I enjoyed An Irishman's Tale. All the best with your latest release.

  13. Eileen, thanks for stopping by this wonderful blog. Tina, you are so right about finding balance. Wish there were an easy formula (maybe our critique partners' Richter Scale of Yawns?!!) Melanie, I soooo appreciate the recommendation of Kate DiCamillo and plan to add her name to my list of to-reads (a great perk of having writer friends).

    Kasey, you are a doll! A quite happy one right now, I think...
    Jessica, I love Hopper's and Magritte's use of light and shade to protray emotion and sometimes try to visualize my scene as their paintings. A little weird, but hey, Writers are...aren't they?

    Pat Jeanne, thanks for teaching me a new term: upmarket fiction. Wish we could've team blogged!

  14. Oh wow! Thank you for this post. You make me almost eager to pick up my rejects and work on them again.

  15. Did anyone see that Eileen Astells Watson finaled in the Genesis??? WOOHOO EILEEN!!! Congratulations!

  16. PATTI ... "Mrs. Passion"??? Ooooo ... I like the sound of that! Thanks, sweetie!

    JESSICA, yeah, I laughed, too, at Patti's "snide" remark ... :)

    You're welcome, PATJEANNE, it was MY pleasure ... Patti is one of my favorite people ... even if she DOES think I'm long-winded!

    And, way to go, EILEEN, for finaling in the Genesis -- WOO-HOO!!


  17. Well said, Patti! Literary fiction gives us stories that people keep coming back to again and again. You can always pull out something new and enlightening, even if you have read it ten times. Your books are prime examples of how literary elements can engage readers and deepen the story.

  18. Oh, to have the time to read all those wonderful books you excerpted.

    Great blog, and some really wonderful passages!

  19. I am running out of day and almsot missed this. I hope to have time yet to study and reread it. SO much help here! Thank you for solid pointers, real info and delightful inspiration!

  20. Sheila, you keep up the faith and write dramatically and deeply for that wonderful Audience of One!
    Melanie, you are always so thoughtful, especially when it comes to Eileen, my favorite Canadian critique partner! Sara, you are a sweetie and SOOOO mature. Pam, don't we all sometimes dream of that lonely desert island and a crate of books? Bookie, you made my day. Thanks!!!!

  21. Patti, great post, and thanks so much for the kind words about Canteen Dreams. It was a kiss from heaven at the end of a long week. Can't wait to dive into What the Bayou Saw!

  22. Amazing post! I talked about my favorite elements that you mentioned on my blogs (Blogger and livejournal) and sent everyone on to this post to learn about ALL the elements you mentioned. =)

  23. the last thing I read I'd call literary is The Time Traveler's Wife. Beautiful writing.

    I think Dean Koonta rises to the level of literary fiction, though I read a book of h is recently so terrifying I am now afraid to read another.

    I suppose solving most of your problems with gunfire doesn't rise to the level of literary fiction, huh?


    Something to aspire to.

  24. I hate that Fridays like this are swallowed by work and I have little time to jump to Seekerville.




    Words fail me.


  25. Oh, Seekerville bloggers, your comments brightened a dreary Midwest day!

    Cara, Canteen Dreams lives in my soul--oops, another category of literary fiction that I failed to discuss!
    Marissa,a cyber bottle of Joy Parfum to you for such a passion to inspire with the written word. See you at your blog!
    Mary, thanks for giving me another book to read! Time Traveler's Wife has popped up in bookie discussions three times now--going once, going twice--sold!
    Ruth, have you considered writing poetry? Gulp. You probably already do. If you haven't picked up a volume of Mary Oliver's work, do so. Check out her poem "Lead;" I believe it's on the internet. If not, e-mail me, and I'll send you a copy.

    Blessings to all! Thank you, Julie, for a wonderful opportunity, for being a good sport...most of all, for being a writer soulmate.

  26. Patti, I was out of town last week and just caught up.

    Thank you so much for your wonderful post! What a treat!

    Eileen, congrats on the Genesis!!


  27. Patti:
    Excellent post! Thank you for the feast.
    I loved "Irishwoman's Tale", and am now loving "Bayou." Two very different stories, both artfully written.
    Stunning, in fact.
    Love you, Jen

  28. Missy, were you gathering new material for an exciting story, having fun, or one of us crazy writers who can multitask in this area?

    Jeanette, thanks for the support! You're a girl's!


  29. I enjoyed reading this post again and can't remember if I have ever responded. I didn't see my name on the comments, so I just thought I would tell you I loved your thoughts. Also, you are a sweetheart for including a line from Ruby Among Us. As you know, I love both of your books.