April 28, 2020 at 8:48 am #111080Daeus Lamb@daeus-lamb
What lessons can we learn from Chris Fabry’s prose? What techniques does he use to turn a phrase so it sings?
For reference, here are some of my favorite lines from the book.
April 29, 2020 at 6:30 pm #111141Isaiah@allertingthbs
- She spoke as if I weren’t there, as if I were an inanimate object without feelings or emotion or appetite. As if my weight prevented me from hearing.
- Mawmaw’s kitchen featured bacon fat that hung as heavy in the air as wet quilts on a clothesline.
Jesse ignored me and told Dickie, “If we do nothing, she’ll bleed to death.” “They call that something, don’t they?” Dickie said. “A catch-22,” I said. “It’s from a book about World War II.” They both stared at me like I was something you’d have to clean out of a barn.
- All your family is good people. You ought to come around more often.” He said it to me, but I could tell he meant it for his own children, who had flown and hadn’t returned.
In the pictures, I had a buzz cut that accentuated my ears and made me look like I could fly with a stiff breeze.
- After a dinner of pork chops, green beans, and sweet corn slathered in butter and as salty as Lot’s wife, I got out my glove and threw a tennis ball against the house.
- Inside, the musty smell of old books and the quiet made something come alive in me. Ceiling fans blew knowledge and dust bunnies around the room.
- She was a thin, older woman whose earrings looked bigger than she was.
- “Jesse made me a promise. And you know she keeps her word. I think it was her way of breaking the family curse and being different than her father.” Earl curled his bottom lip under his overbite and blew air in a sigh. He stared at a spot on the hill like he was searching for a site for a deer stand.
- I think it was then, with Jesse telling her story, that I moved from pity to something deeper. I’d been attracted to her from the moment we met, drawn by her cocksure attitude, her quick wit, her toughness of skin and spirit, and the way she accepted me. Drawn by those blue eyes and the shape of her and the way she moved. There was something primal about the way she processed her life. I couldn’t help being pulled into her orbit, like the moon clinging by gravity to the Earth. Part of me wanted to be Jesse. Part of me knew I never would.
- He was taller than my father and lanky, and his arms hung to his sides like drapes covering unopened windows.
- “You were sweet on her, weren’t you, Matt?” he said, smiling and squinting, the lines in his cheeks like odd- numbered interstates running north and south.
- “You gave them to us a long time ago,” Zenith said, cackling, her double chin moving like a turkey wattle.
- Her hands were next to mine. And I could see the blue-green ocean in her eyes.
- Her face fell and she hovered over her plate as if it were the Last Supper.
- I tried to get more information but it was like trying to get blood from a turnip.
- As I poured syrup and took a bite, the smell and taste sparked something. It’s funny how tastes can turn pages in the mind.
- The smell of ozone was fresh and the earth felt like it was taking a long drink before it went to sleep for winter.
One of the aspects of drawing imagery to describe something is the image itself. You can be as imaginative and passionate as you can but if the reader cannot relate to the picture you’re painting, you’ve effectively lost them. That’s something that Chris Fabry does fairly well is use understandable and often common similes to convey emotion. This also serves to cement the youthfulness of the characters, in a sense. A kid isn’t going to relate to something complex; they will make a quick and easy connection to something on “the tip of their tongue.”
"Only a Sith deals in absolutes"
-Quipmaster 2005April 29, 2020 at 8:32 pm #111152
I consider this the single weakest point of the book.
Fabry is a skilled writer. All the examples you shared, @daeus-lamb, show skill. In a vacuum, they are good, often great writing.
But they don’t work in Jesse Promise.
First, a comparative poetic device is a strong seasoning. It adds flair where it appears. It also draws attention to itself. This can be used to awesome effect in a novel using retrospective shading, as it is here, when it’s used in the appropriate context.
I did something very similar in the story I submitted for the last annual writing contest. My protagonist was narrating about the summer of his youth which changed his life, and doing so from a much older and wiser perspective. When he used a simile or metaphor, it was for the purpose of reminding the reader that the adolescent will one day be a man, that the story they see here and now is not the end.
Fabry uses it very similarly, but I feel he misses the mark. The shading he adds is like someone took the musings of a thirtieth-generation sorghum farmer, passed it through a Marlowe Field, and painted it with two thin coats of John Green. They aren’t the words of even the worldliest 24-year-old, in short.
The peculiar slant of this brooding, philosophical point of view has been a cliche for decades. Even King of the Hill made fun of it in 2004, and, if I remember right, How Not To Write a Novel has an entire chapter dedicated to the broader concept of faux-philosophical musings.
What this teaches me—continues to teach me with every subject we look at in this club—is different readers have wildly different perspectives. Judging by the Goodreads reviews and the fact this thing won an award, most readers enjoy the prose in the same way you do. Maybe it’s less cliche and more trope.
Maybe what I the reader need to learn is to suspend my disbelief a little more often.
@allertingthbs That point about kids reaching for the connection on the tip of the tongue is great. It really draws a contrast between the sort of “tip of the tongue” Jesse and Dickie have versus older-looking-back-Matt.April 29, 2020 at 8:36 pm #111153
Also—This week, we saw the attempted rape scene.
I’m putting a pin in it for now, but want to say that understanding the context this creates surrounding the relationship between Matt, his dad, and Jesse is vital to a useful reading of the rest of the book.
We should think long and hard about at this point, and keep it in our mind for the rest of the discussion.April 30, 2020 at 4:43 pm #111181Daeus Lamb@daeus-lamb
You two are my only regulars. 😆
It sounds like you think the prose shows too much musing and predigestion for Matt’s age, @Taylorclogston? That’s sensible, though I don’t think I agree. Perhaps because I’m just the type of person to over-digest things. I tend to think readers read a little of themselves into every character. At least it’s my newest theory and now one has shot it down yet. 😛May 3, 2020 at 3:18 pm #111321JennytheFaun@jennythefaun
I’m late to this one, too. XD
My one complaint about the prose is that it’s sometimes so direct. Rather than creating a picture in my mind, it creates a mental impression. I wouldn’t call that a bad thing, but I can get tired of it. Other than that, the clever phrases, especially the Biblical references that were so fitting for a pastor’s family, had me laughing out loud in almost every chapter. It’s a very different prose style from what I usually read, so it felt fresh to me even if it is a trope/cliche. And it’s consistent and extremely self-aware, which gives me a sense that the author knows what he’s doing and is doing it on purpose.
Like we talked about in weeks 1 and 3, the concrete, specific details really seem to be the key here–not “like roads” but “like odd numbered interstates running north and south.” That extra work paid off in my opinion, even if it is more effective at getting a laugh than at keeping my attention on what’s being pictured in the scene.
I can completely see why some people enjoy this prose style so much while it rubs others the wrong way, but kudos to Chris Fabry for doing something specific and memorable rather than adopting the bland, featureless prose I’ve seen in most other recent Christian fiction. For this specific story, I can’t really imagine a different style.
"...by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there."May 3, 2020 at 9:46 pm #111339
@daeus-lamb I think the musing was a little much, but it was far more the flavor of the musing than its density that I don’t believe in someone of Matt’s age.
Like I insinuated before, we stereotypically see Matt’s kind of rumination from an old farmer. Maybe it’s funny and clever that it’s coming from a resentment-filled young adult who has a darkly distorted worldview instead of from a contented old patriarch. I don’t know. It didn’t seem germane to the rest of his character. It felt like Fabry wanted to write a sentimental story about old country nostalgia, and also wanted to write a Christian American Gothic, and decided to lump his two stories together without bothering much to make things properly self-contained because, being a very skilled writer, he knew he could get away with a lot in a publishing space hallmarked by a flavor of mediocrity he definitely rises above.
If we’d had an additional narrative layer of old man Matt looking back to young man Matt looking back to kid Matt, I would have bought it.
As for readers reading into characters, I definitely agree with you. Even if readers doesn’t read themselves into characters, they definitely try to. I also have a lot of over-digestion in me, though I guess in a flavor distinct to Matt.
@jennythefaun Thanks for reminding me to give credit to Fabry for strongly characterizing his prose. I’ve been going crazy listening to Jerry B. Jenkins giving advice on how to write the most boring, generic, flavorless prose, and it’s good to remember there are Christian writers who do better than that.
Circling back to earlier in your post, I think the mental impression vs painting a picture is the best tool for this kind of story. I’m a firm believer that retrospective fiction needs a narrator who spends more time in the reflective than the experiential mode. In retrospective fiction, we’re here because the narrator has something important he’s trying to relay about the past, and the relationship we build with the narrator (as close to a real person as a character can get, IMO) is more important than “picturing” events like it is when we have a more neutral narrator in a more conventional PoV.
And yeah, that’s not something everyone wants to read. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯May 13, 2020 at 8:03 pm #112405JennytheFaun@jennythefaun
@taylor-clogston Yeah, I’ll agree with you that it was the necessary choice for this story. My reader brain didn’t have a problem with it. Just my writer/editor brain. XD
"...by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there."
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