Unlearning the Law: Novel Lessons
by Martha Anne Toll, former lawyer, current novelist
Myriad lawyers transition from litigating to literature. I am no exception: I recently published my debut novel, THREE MUSES. Before that, I attended law school, practiced law, and worked for many years in social justice and the nonprofit world. Each of those jobs involved intensive writing where I had to learn how to present arguments clearly on the page, and to advocate for strategy and policy positions. I sharpened my research and analytic skills as I tried to present the incontrovertible. However, as I was becoming a novelist, I realized I had to unlearn the writing practices I found most useful in my time in the corporate and non-profit world. I have thus identified three rules in fiction that may come in handy for others following a similar path:
My Own Nirvana
by Amy Dupcak
Catholic school, sixth grade, early into ’96. Boxy desks, white-board markers, snowflake decals decorating windows. A piggy bank named Nicholas and pet chameleons in a tank. A classroom of girls and one unfortunate boy, all wearing maroon and gray plaid.
We are sitting at our desks when Christina presses play on the stereo, filling the room with a serrated guitar riff. The singer’s voice sounds frayed, the music lazed, a melody lurking somewhere underwater. Low “hello”s build to a crescendo of screamed vocals and fast-paced drums. I look down at the lyrics Christina photocopied from the liner notes. What does “libido” or “mulatto” mean? Why does the title mention a deodorant that doesn’t appear in the song?
Layers of color streak by as the train rushes north. The gray of the Hudson River lies beneath the greens and browns of the pine trees, all under an orange and lemon sky, all moving in different directions. The water flows south, the trees hold steady, and the sun slips into the evening. Syracuse is still a few hours away, plenty of time to relax, listen to music, and enjoy the ride. I’m going to visit my dad. This will be the first time I see his new room in the memory care unit.
Mary Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
by Courtney Preiss
On a Saturday morning a few summers back, I wore a purple dress so my dead grandmother would recognize me. In the already relentless heat of a Monmouth County July, we awaited the arrival of a medium my mother invited to the house I’d grown up in, a woman who could pull messages from the stratosphere of that great otherworldly realm. “Heaven” was convenient shorthand for the place where, I was told as a child, all my dead relatives had ascended to. I used to imagine them floating around up there, covered in white powder and draped long cloth—like Jacob Marley or Stevie Nicks.
We started playing Rock Band a couple of years ago. My kids and I arrived late one night at my brother’s. We were aiming for eight but landed at eleven. We caught a second wind and Casey asked if we wanted to try Rock Band. Video games make me grumpy for all the stereotypical geezer reasons, but it was late and my defenses were down. Plus, we’d never played the game before. I figured after a song or two we’d run out of gas, but we had a blast. We stayed up past one stumbling through various classic and alt rock songs.
The Enchanted Forest’s Edge
by Brandon Lewis
CHAPTER 1, In which we find ourselves stuck and unstuck.
Once upon a time in pandemic-America, a boy and his dad invent a game called stuck.
It’s easy to play: the grown-up plops a leg down, says, “You’re STUCK,” then gives the kid a small but fair chance of escape. If you are the kid, you’ve probably already lost and may be screaming in pretend agony. You then simply reply, “I’m STUCK.” And when wiggling out, you will be let free, pretend it was easy, and want to play until your grown up gives up.
Make It Real
by Kathe Koja
Hey, boy, welcome to reality – David Bowie
When you write a book about reality, when I wrote this one, you need to consider what reality is, really. Is it tangible, physical? a rapturous hug from the one you love, a tasty cocktail sipped in the sun, a broken thumb, a lit cigarette, a stubborn headache, the view from a balcony? Or is it a metaphysical construct, an art school joke, a philosophical itch, a lone proverbial tree forever falling, falling? Is it emotional vertigo? Is it vertigo? What if reality defines itself? How would we know?
Not long ago, I sat by the ocean and watched the surf break. Each wave brought with it its own sense of drama, crashing against the rocky shore and drenching backwards, spit through teeth. It was like serialized television: I couldn’t look away. Some of the waves were majestic, cresting towards me from far away and exploding up in milky foam, but some were disappointments. These would approach and then die out, shoved backwards by the recession of their predecessors, or else just losing steam. Others still were happy surprises, unassuming until their final curl, at which point they would smash to shore as joyful and furious as headbanging teenagers.