Meaningless Symbolism

Reading a novel, there are some elements that stand out more than others. Very vividly created characters, for example, may stay with the reader long after the last page. Immersive scenery depictions may leave a reader wishing they were somewhere else. And sometimes, recurring thoughts or trinkets will haunt the reader in the same way. These recurrences, sometimes metaphorical stand-ins for larger, more complex ideas, are often written in by the author: intentional symbols for the reader to subtly observe and dwell upon. But sometimes, the same symbolism is not intentional, merely a recurring physical object of no importance to the author, but the reader picks it out from the text and attaches a value to it that the author had never intended.

A sixteen-year-old in 1963 sent a series of letters addressing the issue of symbolism to 150 well-known authors, including Ayn Rand, John Kerouac, and Ray Bradbury. He asked them about symbolism in their own work as well as symbolism in others’ works. Of the seventy-five that did respond, the general consensus seemed to be that symbolism is more of a subconscious act, though many acknowledge the deliberate care that some authors, such as Joyce and Dante, clearly took with their symbolism in their writing.

Some of the authors in this questionnaire also expressed their distaste in readers finding symbols they never intended as such. All the same, some indicate their understanding that symbol-making may not necessarily be the role of the writer. “Have you considered the extent to which subconscious symbol-making is part of the process of reading, quite distinct from its part in writing?” wrote Richard Hughes.

This understanding takes some weight off a writer who believes they need to create and implant symbols in a book—readers will naturally find their own, quite independent of the author’s intentions. In one of his responses, Bradbury likens fiction to a Rorschach test. He goes on to say succinctly, “There are other things of greater value in any novel or story…humanity, character analysis, truth on other levels…Good symbolism should be as natural as breathing…and as unobtrusive.”

Read more on the story here.

As a writer, do you consciously choose to use symbolism in your work, or do you just hope it happens naturally? Let us know!

How to Drop Info-Dropping

There is little that makes a reader roll his or her eyes faster and harder than info-dropping.

It happens like this: the story is moving along smoothly, and the main character picks up the phone. It’s her sister; they are very close.

“Hey, Marcie. Are you coming to dinner tomorrow?”

“Oh, you mean our traditional Sunday dinner at our parents’ house? Sure, I’ll be there. Are you bringing Grandma’s pumpkin pie?”

“Yeah, it’s the delicious pumpkin pie Grandma made every Sunday until she died. I’ve made it every weekend for fifteen years.”

“That’s great. Well, see you tomorrow!”

Eye roll. Both sisters already know that “dinner tomorrow” is the traditional Sunday family dinner, and when referencing “Grandma’s pumpkin pie” they clearly both understand the history of said pie. The only reason they are saying any of this is because it’s a quick-and-ugly way for the author to get the info to the reader without actually having to find a proper place for it—and at the same time, it gives much less information to the reader than a paragraph of narration would, and because the dialogue sounds stilted, the characters lose their believability.

The real conversation would go something like this:

“Hey, Liz, you bringing pumpkin pie for dinner tomorrow?”

“It’s in the oven as we speak.”

The end.

Conversely, it doesn’t sound so stilted if a character spouts the same information to someone she recently met at the gym.

“Where are you running off to?”

“Oh, my parents’ house… my family has had dinner together every Sunday for fifteen years.”

“Fifteen years!”

“And I’ve made my grandma’s fabled pumpkin pie every week for fourteen of them.”

Still, though, it’s just an overview—a lot of potential meaning is missing.

While telling certain familiar stories multiple times is common (“Remember that time when Grandma set that pumpkin pie on the windowsill to cool, and a badger crawled in the window, burnt its mouth, and tried to climb up her leg?”), real people rarely rehash everyday information they both already know. It sounds wholly unnatural. The information will often fit better into a narrative musing:

I pull the pumpkin pie out of the oven, and breathe in the warmth and spice. The smell always reminds me of Grandma—her cozy house, her hugs, big family on holidays—and my eyes water a little. Yes, water. I set the pie on the stovetop and wipe my face with my sleeve. It’s 4 pm on Saturday, which means Marcie will be calling me any second, just to double-check that I won’t forget to bring the pie to dinner tomorrow. It’s that strict-older-sister syndrome. Hell, we’ve gotten together for dinner every weekend since Marcie left for college, and in fourteen years I’ve only forgotten the pie once. Well…maybe twice.

But how do you recognize info-dropping in your work, and learn to work around it? We would suggest that it is a separate but intrinsic piece of learning to write good dialogue.

When you’re rereading your dialogue, listening for various dialogue miscues, you should pay attention to the characters’ standard speech patterns. But that’s not the most important part: the most important part is knowing your characters well enough to hear their voices in the back of your mind, and understanding them well enough to recognize what they already know about each other. If your characters are speaking about something they should already be familiar with, but they act like it’s news to them—you are probably guilty of info-dropping. Unless they have amnesia.

Ask yourself: Where can you fit the information into the narration, instead? How can you subtly expand upon the information, so the reader becomes as familiar with it as the characters already are?

Do you find yourselves guilty of info-dropping now and again? Do you see much info-dropping in the books you read? Let us know!

Announcing: William T. Delamar


Shannon & Elm is pleased to announce the signing of William T. Delamar and his historical novel, The Brother Voice.

They fight for their country, they fight for their beliefs, they fight for love. Sel and Hold Danner are identical twins who find themselves on opposite ends of the ideologies that divide the Union, and consequently find themselves on opposite ends of the battlefield.

The Danner twins, who can hear each other’s thoughts, have been inseparable their entire lives. So when the Civil War finally drives them apart, it does more than sever their past friendships and their familial ties—it severs the speechless connection they once had with each other.

Delamar deftly embodies the differing political opinions of the north and the south and grounds them in two soft-spoken young boys in rural, small-town America.

William T. Delamar is originally from Durham, North Carolina, where he grew up in a home full of books, which helped him develop a love for reading. In high school, he worked part time at the Duke University Press, further increasing his insatiability for books. He now resides in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, in a century-old house with wall-to-wall books covering four floors. He is on the board of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, having served five times as president.

What else should we know about the redoubtable Mr. Delamar?

What do you write?

I write fiction primarily, because I believe more people read fiction than nonfiction. However, my fiction is based on reality. The Brother Voice was well researched, so the setting is accurate, down to the streets in Frederick, Maryland where the Battle of the Monocacy took place. Few people know about that significant battle. This battle delayed the Confederate march on Washington, giving the Union time to move back to protect the city.

How do you write?

In general, I get an idea for a story. I write down a short outline and a preliminary list of characters. This includes a few notes about each character. I post the outline, chapter by chapter, on a storyboard. I write from beginning to end on my computer, making changes to the story-board. I frequently revise. I do a lot of rewriting to get the story just right. Even then, I let it sit for awhile and then go through making revisions. My friends call me a perfectionist, but I feel the ring has to be just right to get the message across.

What is a cherished memory from your life you would like to share?

At a party in Pittsburgh, I was introduced to a girl. I made a negative comment about the marching band of the University of Pittsburgh. She didn’t like it and shoved her packages into my arms, then slapped me, and then took back her packages. I had never been that close to a woman before. I called her the next day and asked for a date. She said yes. A year and a half later, we were married.

You can read the rest of Delamar’s interview on his author page—and afterwards, check out some of Shannon & Elm’s other wonderful authors!

The cover art, created by Izaak Moody, will be revealed late this summer. Then be sure to mark your calendars for The Brother Voice, coming this October from Shannon & Elm.

Part Two: Writing Great First Lines

The first line to a novel is undoubtedly the most important. Past the title, it is (usually) the first a reader sees of an author’s writing. The first full sentence, the first complete thought to introduce both the author and whatever strong, often recurring trope the author has chosen to draw attention to. The first line is used to hook the reader and develop an insatiable intrigue so that putting the book down is difficult to do, if not downright impossible.

But what makes a good first line? How does one go about crafting a great opener for the next bestseller? Taking lists of the greatest first lines (all subjective) from the American Book Review, The Telegraph, and The Guardian, among others, here are some recurring traits:

Introduce the Main Character or the Narrator

Probably the most straightforward technique, the aforementioned character needs to be interesting and unique enough to beg such a blunt introduction. “Call me Ishmael” (Moby Dick) says nothing about Ishmael, except that he is casual and straightforward, while “I am an invisible man” tells us very plainly about the condition of the eponymous character. The Old Man and the Sea introduces the protagonist solely as an old man in a skiff on the Gulf Stream who hasn’t caught a fish in eighty-four days. Mark Twain has Huckleberry Finn reference an entire other work (also by Twain) as an introduction to the narrator, and J.D. Salinger sardonically has Holden Caulfied begin with “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born… and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

Introduce the Setting

This often goes hand in hand with introducing the characters, but not always and not explicitly. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit,” writes J.R.R. Tolkien very openly about the abodes in Hobbiton. “Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell… it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” The introduction to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities makes nearly every first line list, and while lengthy, does a comprehensive job (if limited) of introducing the tone of the book and the mood of the time period. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy pinpoints Earth within the “backwaters” of the Milky Way, and The Bell Jar begins by describing “a queer sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs.”

Write About Relevant Universal Generalizations

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” writes Leo Tolstoy at the start of Anna Karenina. Pride and Prejudice, a novel about marital affairs, begins by claiming “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” This is Jane Austen’s best known work, which is commonly accepted as well introduced. For first lines such as this, however, what needs to follow in the rest of the narrative is evidence to support or disprove these “universal truths” as, well, true.

Mention Something Odd or Out of the Ordinary

This creates intrigue, and the reader keeps reading solely to answer the question of “How?” or “Why?” Fahrenheit 451 begins with “It was a pleasure to burn.” What is burning, and why is it so pleasurable? “All children, except one, grow up,” introduces Peter Pan, George Orwell mentions the clocks were striking thirteen in his first line for 1984, and the reader immediately questions why Mr. and Mrs. Dursley so adamantly claim they are “perfectly normal” in J.K. Rowling’s debut children’s novel.

Of course, these good first lines are not limited to these particular parameters, and in fact many of them embody more than one—so use discretion and open your novel with a line deserving of the rest of the narrative.

Maya Angelou: The Passing of a Legend

maya-angelou1Photo courtesy of The 1 Minute Blogger, via G. Paul Bishop, Jr.

The Zharmae Publishing Press was saddened to hear about the death of Maya Angelou, revered author and poet, at 86 years of age. She had been in declining health for some time, and passed away in her North Carolina home on the morning of May 28, 2014. The cause of death is not immediately known.

Angelou is perhaps best known for her 1969 autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and for reciting her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton, becoming only the second poet to read at an American president’s inauguration.

Angelou, nicknamed Maya by her brother, was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri on April 4, 1928. As a child, she moved between St. Louis and segregated Stamps, Arkansas. At the age of seven, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, who was subsequently tried and jailed for only a day. Following his release, he was killed, and she refused to speak for the next five years, believing the power of her voice was what killed him.

After having moved to the Bay Area and shortly after high school, Angelou gave birth to a son, and she shuffled through various occupations to raise her child as a single mother. In 1951, despite the stigma of interracial marriages, she married Tosh Angelos, from whom she derived the latter portion of her pen name. Their marriage ended in 1954, and, for the next ten years, Angelou toured Europe as a singer and dancer, and later traveled to Cairo and Accra, Ghana, where she worked as a freelance writer.

Angelou befriended Malcom X during his trips to Ghana in the 1960’s, and in 1965, shortly before his assassination, he invited her to return to the United States and help him create a new civil rights organization. Angelou was lost and adrift until early 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—also shortly before his assassination, on her fortieth birthday—asked her to organize a civil rights march.

Later that year, Angelou was challenged by Random House editor Robert Loomis to write an autobiography that could be considered a piece of literature. She released I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969 to international acclaim. In it, Angelou flagrantly depicts growing up in the Jim Crow South and is chiefly concerned with overcoming long-lasting, pervasive trauma and resisting racial oppression. In 1971 she published her first book of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, which was nominated for a Pulitzer.

Angelou became an able screenplay writer, composer, and writer of short stories, essays, poetry, TV documentaries, and numerous autobiographies. She was also a notable actor, appearing in both plays and television, and as visiting professor at various universities, including the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2010.

Angelou leaves behind a legacy of unapologetic, nonvindictive growth out of turmoil. She managed to find her voice through the personal pain of her childhood and the imperative struggle for African American civil rights. Angelou’s voice, never limited to the page, is a resounding testimony to the raising of the self over the figurative, though very real, cage of oppression.

She is survived by her son, Guy Johnson.

Announcing: Jeff Dondero


Shannon & Elm is pleased to announce the signing of Jeff Dondero.

The Energy Wise Home: Practical Tips for Sustainable Energy—Shannon & Elm’s first nonfiction work—is a timely look at the myriad ways we can conserve energy and live a greener life in and around our own homes. With its wells of well-dispensed information, The Energy Wise Home is a valuable resource for anyone looking to make a difference by living more sustainably—even one small difference at a time.

Jeff Dondero is a long-time resident of the San Francisco Bay area in California. He attended college in San Francisco, where he studied a customized major consisting of journalism, communications, broadcast arts, and English. One of his first gigs was as a stringer for the San Francisco Examiner, and he worked as a reporter for various suburban newspapers before becoming the entertainment editor for the Marin Independent Journal. He has written and edited many newspapers and magazines, and contributed to a local television station. After a stint with a publisher of trade magazines, he and his partner formed a company that furnishes editorial content and publishes a website for sustainable industries. When he is not writing, he enjoys sailing on the San Francisco Bay.

What else should we know about Mr. Dondero?

Why do you write?

Money would be a good answer, but I once told someone that although ditch digging was a lot like writing, the main difference was that ditch diggers made more money, and get better benefits and more recognition. Truth is I’m a masochist that feels compelled, and I can’t really do anything else, and I’m too chicken to write (according to Elmore Leonard) what can really bring in the big bucks—ransom or “this is a stick up” notes.

What do you have the most fun with during the creative process?

I love to do research, but sometimes it can be frustrating. The most fun is when you kind of upchuck all over several pages and you write some good stuff almost by accident—although it really isn’t.

What is a profound memory from the writing process for The Energy Wise Home?

What I learned about the process and the subject, and the monstrous amount of work it took. But I would not call it profound as in traumatic or an epiphany. Enjoyably exhausting, like after good sex.

You can read the rest of Dondero’s interview on his author page—and then check out some of Shannon & Elm’s other great authors!

Keep your eyes peeled for the cover reveal—coming soon—and then mark your calendars for The Energy Wise Home, coming this August from Shannon & Elm.

First Lines, Part One: The Concept

Sometimes a line of literature sticks with you for years. You’ll be going about your life, and a thought will pop into your head that reminds you of a time in your past, and on the heels of that memory a quote that impacted you pops back into the forefront of your mind: one line that so perfectly casts light on the world and humanity and yourself.

And when one such line is the very first sentence of a book, it sets the ground for the entire book to stick with a reader.

Here are a few of our favorite first sentences, and probably some of yours, too:

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”
—Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…”
—Allen Ginsberg, “Howl”

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
—J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
—Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
—C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

“Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.”
—James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
—Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
—Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

And finally, from [our sister imprint] Shannon & Elm’s own novel:

“Masturbation turned me into a New Yorker.”
—Neal Starkman, Dervishes

So…how does one create a first line that sticks?

  1. The weather is not an acceptable opener. Boycott anything to do with the setting, unless the setting is really important to the story, and the opener is really damn good.
  2. Use small words and short fragments. The first line is the ultimate hook; you have milliseconds to draw the reader in.
  3. It should be short. At least the memorable part of it—see Joyce and the obscenely verbose Dickens above. The sentence can ramble on afterwards, but that first physical line on the page should be all it takes to make the top of your reader’s head come off. (We stole that from Emily Dickinson.) After all, how many people can quote the Dickens line past “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”?
  4. Something about it should be mildly confusing. Something that will make the reader seek an answer in the second line and the rest of the novel. (See the Márquez quote above.)
  5. It should give voice to a universal truth, but not a cliché. Give that truth a personal twist.

A first line without these components can be perfectly acceptable. But will it be remarkable?