A Literary Life

The last few weeks as a “literary dude” have offered no end of insight and opportunity.

First, I’m honored to announce that I’ve joined the board of directors of the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters. The GLCL is a non-profit writing center dedicated to encouraging, promoting, and celebrating the craft of writing, the endeavors of writers, and the importance of the literary arts in the communities of the Great Lakes region. Founded in 2013 and headquartered in the heart of beautiful and historic Grand Rapids, Michigan, GLCL offers reading series, craft talks, classes and workshops, Great Lakes author book launches, teen and young adult programming, writing contests, consultations with professional regional writers, and much more.

Second, I recently concluded a trip to Kalamazoo-area bookstores coordinated by Deborah Gang, an author/poet with whom Caffeinated Press has contracted for her novel, The Half Life of Everything. Deborah introduced me to the major indie booksellers in the area–Joanna at Bookbug, John at Kazoo Books and Dean at Michigan News. Each visit brought me a valuable new nugget of wisdom about how publishing works from a retailer’s perspective. Not only did I enjoy the chance to visit new-to-me bookstores, but I also filled a few holes in my thinking about the best way to market new titles.

All of this–on top of the recent release of Brewed Awakenings 2 anthology that I edit, plus the contracting with Wipf and Stock for a short essay in Tushnet’s Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church–makes for a busy but incredibly rewarding fortnight!

Because now we pivot to National Novel Writing Month. Whoa! NaNoWriMo begins on November 1. I’ve already figured out, in broad strokes, what I’m going to do: A literary novel presently titled The Catfish in the Shallows.

The teaser:

Police detectives remain stumped after Noah Thomas is found dead, his mangled body tossed into the Grand River, so the young man’s grandmother hires Jordan Sanders, an effective yet colorful private investigator, to uncover the truth. Sanders takes the case, but the deeper he probes into the intersecting lines of four prominent West Michigan families, the more he discovers that although wealth can obscure a multitude of sins, no family can completely hide all the rot within.

I’m trying something new with this season’s work effort. It’s been my observation through my work as fiction editor of The 3288 Review and series editor of Brewed Awakenings that many authors seem to present stories in a plot-forward way–i.e, they develop a single overarching plot and then build everything else (characters, settings, twists) in service to that major plot. And that’s fine … but it’s not sublime.

With Catfish, I’m aiming for a more baroque experience. The West Michigan setting isn’t intended to be an afterthought, but rather a cultural reality deeply woven into the fabric of the story, with Upper Midwest proclivities shaping the conflict and the logic behind each clue that the main character uncovers. I plan to use lush descriptions and more complex sentence structures (including a Buckleyesque vocabulary) to set the story apart. And although the main plot is a murder mystery, this isn’t a typical detective novel–the search for the killer is, in a sense, a vehicle to advance several deliberately developed subplots that address the animosities that the very rich sometimes feel for one another. The overall feel is intended to be more literary than genre.

We’ll see how this works. As with my previous NaNoWriMo experiences, I use this time to experiment. I learn a lot by doing. I have no idea whether I’ll be satisfied with the output or whether, come December 1, I’ll file it away in the back of the cabinet.

Regardless of the manuscript’s potential legs, the November frenzy will be worth it.

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