Location: Ventana Ballroom, Memorial Union, 301 E Orange St, Tempe, AZ 85281
Join award winning journalist and author Omar El Akkad for his talk, The Story of the American War, on Thursday, April 18, 2019 at the ASU Memorial Union in the Ventana Ballroom (301 E Orange St, Tempe, AZ 85281) at 6:00 p.m. A Q&A and book signing will follow the talk.
In this talk, El Akkad talks about how he came to write his debut novel – the events that inspired it, the references buried throughout the text and the places he visited to research the book. This lecture covers the writing and editing process, the story of how the book came to be published, and the wildly different reactions it has prompted inside and outside the United States.
While encouraged, RSVPs are purely for the purposes of monitoring attendance, gauging interest, and communicating information about parking, directions, and other aspects of the event. You do not have to register or RSVP to attend this event. This event is open to the public and free.
Presented by the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative at Arizona State University, a partnership between the Center for Science and the Imagination and the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing.
About the Author
Omar El Akkad was born in Cairo, Egypt and grew up in Doha, Qatar before moving to Canada with his family. An award-winning journalist and author, El Akkad has traveled around the world to cover many of the most important news stories of the last decade. His reporting includes dispatches from the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, the military trials in Guantanamo Bay, the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt, and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri. El Akkad is a recipient of Canada’s National Newspaper Award for investigative reporting and the Goff Penny Memorial Prize for Young Canadian Journalists, as well as three National Magazine Award honorable mentions. His critically acclaimed debut American War, published in 2017, is a post-apocalyptic novel set during the second American Civil War in the year 2074. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
About the Book
An audacious and powerful debut novel: a second American Civil War, a devastating plague, and one family caught deep in the middle—a story that asks what might happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself.
Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be. Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike. (Penguin Random House)
Let me clarify something first. My definition of revision:
1. The act of completely revamping a previous version of a story.
2. When God looks down after creating the earth for six days and says, “Nope. Not so much.” And so He erases days two through six and starts again at day one. The general concept of creation wasn’t bad; it was everything that came after that was wrong.
Please understand that when I say revision, I don’t mean small edits. I mean that I trashed my previous story and started with a blank slate. That’s a revision in my world.
So, how many revisions are too many? I have asked myself this question countless times over the last six years. Six years. That number sounds frightening when I stop and realize that I’ve been working on the same story for over half a decade. Okay, so it’s not really the same story. In fact, in many respects it’s completely unrecognizable. But in my heart, it’s the same story.
Here’s how my novel began. It was my final semester of college, and I was on the top of my writing game. I wrote a short story as an assignment for my Advanced Fiction Writing course, and BAM, there it was—my future novel. Set in our world and a fantasy world, it was light-hearted, fun, meant for children, and I loved it. My classmates loved it too. And I thought, “I have the idea; that was the hard part, now to finish it. No problem!”
Two years later, college was long behind me and I hadn’t touched my story since graduation. I had thought about writing. I even broke it out now and then, but never with serious intent. So it sat, dormant but ready to be completed.
Then came NaNoWriMo 2010, and I decided to seriously attempt it. But my story couldn’t stay the same because I wasn’t the same. Suddenly within one month, it transformed from a child’s tale into a young adult novel. It was no longer light-hearted, but dark and complicated. And it was the beginning of a long journey of which I’m still caught in the middle.
Since NaNo 2010, I have revised my story over five times—until settling on an adult urban fantasy novel that’s still in the works. In some cases, my drafts have reached over 100,000 words. But inevitably, with every iteration, I reach a point where I scratch the entire thing. Whether I’m halfway through, a quarter of the way through, or even 75 percent completed, I always get to a chapter, a scene, or a character revelation where I get stuck.
Now, you might be thinking, “So, you get stuck. Figure it out and get back to work.” Well, I would love to do that. Unfortunately, when I get stuck, it’s because I find myself in a corner and even if I can, somehow, write myself out, that corner reveals something to me—that the story is not what I thought it was meant to be. Whenever I reach that point, I take a deep breath, shut my laptop, and make the decision to start over from word one and day one.
The amazing thing is, each time, my story has become better and better—more intricate and better thought out. The unfortunate aspect is, I have wasted so much time and scrapped so many stories. I have enough writing for two, if not three, books sitting on my computer, and yet I still continue to revise. At this point I fear I’ll never have a completed story, but I’m not sure how to fix it.
Can too much pickiness be a bad thing? Should I be more easily satisfied, or have each of my revisions been necessary to find the true story—wherever it is hiding?
I have to admit, there is a lot of frustration involved. I know the story is there, ready and waiting to be told, but where is it and how do I get it on paper?
When writing this blog, I asked myself the same question, “How many revisions are too many?” This is the fifth iteration of my blog, and as I write this sentence, I wonder if I’ll get to the next sentence or the next paragraph and decide, “No, this wasn’t the blog waiting to be told. I need to try again.”
Have you been here and faced these same struggles? How did you finally decide enough was enough, or are you still struggling like me?
For this blog at least, I’ve decided to suck it up and say, “Enough is enough.” I guess, you, my readers, will have to let me know if I made the right decision. And that’s the crux of the matter. At the end of the day, it’s not up to me. I could write the story that I know, I know, is the right story, but I’m the writer, not the reader. When all is said and done, the quality of my story, its effectiveness, and the joy it brings, is not only up to me. It’s up to you.
So be kind, dear reader. We pour our hearts and souls into our work and yet we are never fully satisfied, not until our writing makes it to you. When you read, remember that in your hands you not only hold the story you’re reading, but the endless revisions that helped it take shape. You can tell us if we did enough, if our writing passes muster, and that too many revisions were worth it in the end.
So, what do you think? How many revisions are too many?
One morning about a decade ago, I sat down to recreate a summer day in my adolescence when my brothers and I built a fire to burn the body of a dead cow. Memory, creative energy, and whatever skill I could muster came together, and when I handed the resulting poem to my partner Scott Wiggerman, I felt that I had something. Scott lopped off the first dozen lines, called them a running start, and told me the poem started with line thirteen. I didn’t want to hear this. I was invested in the lines he suggested cutting; I wanted to keep them.
Luckily, though, I had learned to listen, even when I’d rather not. As I read and re-read my draft, I saw a kind of expository tedium in the lines Scott thought I could do without:
The Red Cow lay down beneath a tree
one summer day at noon and couldn’t get
back up again. Boys will be boys: we poked
at her with sticks. But her legs had quit.
For the hours left to her she would not move
from the dusty shade beneath this tree.
She didn’t try to, didn’t flinch . . .
By contrast, I could hear strength and confidence and momentum in the lines Scott said should open the poem:
Even our names for the cows who gave us
calves for sale and slaughter, who gave us milk
and cream and butter, who quit mooing soon enough
when we weaned their calves away from them—
even our names for them were blunt
and uninspired, unmarked by attachments
of the heart. The Red Cow, the Little Cow,
Brindle. We called one of them the New Cow
for fifteen years. And by the summer the Red Cow
lay down beneath the tree at noon and failed
to get back up again to graze among the others,
she was very old . . .
Scott was right: these lines know where they’re going. I cut the first dozen lines and went to work on the rest. The poem’s closing had a bothersome hint of sentimentality; I mused over that until I came to an image that closed the poem more effectively. I gave the poem a title: “Fire at Midsummer.”
Laurie Kutchins, a remarkable poet and my workshop director at the 2003 Taos Summer Writers’ Conference, looked over a packet of my work, singled out the cow poem, and suggested I send it to The Southern Review. I spent weeks selecting and refining four additional poems to go with “Fire at Midsummer” and sent the batch off. The Southern Review took the cow poem. It was published in the summer 2004 issue.
I tell this story here because I know that trusted others are essential to the continuing development of the editor’s eye, that the editor’s eye is as important to a writer as whatever propels each of us to put words on paper to begin with. I have called out Scott by name. Let me mention others: Debra Monroe, Twister Marquiss, Kirk Wilson, Stacy Muszynski, Gary Cooke. Debra was my professor and thesis advisor. Twister is a friend who shares my passion for well-crafted fiction. Kirk, Stacy, and Gary are members of a writing group that has perfect editorial chemistry.
Before I go any further, let me say a few words about trust. I have named the writers named above because their vision of poetry and fiction, as well as their skills as editors, intersect nicely with mine—also because without fail each is the kind of person who can be honest and decent, blunt and positive, all in the same breath. I need that. I think we all do. Cheerleaders are useless to the development of a writer’s skill, as are naysayers. About the former: we learn nothing from unadulterated praise. Personally I don’t trust it. I suspect a cheerleader editor of being insincere, of not doing the hard work of reading like an editor. As for hatchet carriers: do not show them even a line of your writing. The human psyche shuts down under meanness, even disguised as “helpful” criticism.
But what can I learn from trusted others? What can they do for my writing that I can’t do for myself?
My answer is twofold:
1. They help me get out of my own head. They help me see what hypothetical future readers might bring to the page. I confess that I want to see my stories published. I want them read. I want them praised. My trusted others help me see how that might be possible.
2. They refine my internal editor’s eye—so that when I draft a new story, when I plunge into revision, I bring new energy, new skill, new perspective to the process. This takes commitment, of course, but if I pay attention, if I think about what my trusted readers say to me I am rewarded with the invaluable prize of editorial distance from my own words.
I rely on trusted others to know me as a writer, to show me where a poem or story might go, to help me rein in a tendency to wordiness that I will carry with me to my grave. About the word might. Don’t show your work to others unless you have a strong sense of yourself as a writer, a confident vision of whatever you put before them, an understanding that you will weigh the editorial suggestions put before you, that you will decide whether a might becomes a must be.
When Debra Monroe reads one of my stories, for example, she is likely to mark it as would a line editor, placing brackets around words and phrases that might be left out. Debra knows me. She knows that I want to try out the available possibilities for conciseness. She knows I’m not going to chop everything she brackets—because the result would be a stilted mess, reading not like my work or hers but like butchery. That said, recently Debra read a 1900-word story that was near final form. By closely examining her line edits, I was able to shorten the story by 200 words—and improve its momentum, its tension, its music if you will.
Debra is also one of my best readers for hidden potential. Last year, I handed her a story I’d revised several times over several years, each time with the nagging feeling that something was missing. “Agua Dulce” was a very short piece, focusing on a young girl’s first sexual experience in a dry creek bed in South Texas. Other readers had taken the story’s time frame as a given—opening with the protagonist on a bridge in the moonlight, watching the approaching headlights on her boyfriend’s car, and closing the next morning, when she steps out of the creek bed and onto the road by the bridge where the story began. Debra said no, this story isn’t finished. She asked what if the protagonist arrives back at the bridge just as her school bus drives by? What if the bus stops and kids on the bus taunt her? What if, when she arrives home, her boyfriend is there, trying to soften the impact of her overnight absence? These questions lit a fire under me. I wrote both scenes and sent the story out. It won the 2012 Talking Writing Prize for Short Fiction.
This work with trusted others is like dancing. Sometimes it goes smoothly, and sometimes feet get stepped on. A recent story went first to Scott, who suggested only minor edits, then to Kirk, Stacy, and Gary, who identified flaws in characterization, as well as a key plot turn that simply wasn’t credible with them. I revised and sent the story to Debra, who suggested a scene in which the protagonist acts on his attraction to one of the other characters. I wrote that episode, but the explicit sex struck me as cheesy. I handed it to Scott again, and he agreed with me. I’ve since written a near-final version that leaves out the sex but makes the attraction more palpable than in earlier versions. If time allows, the story will go to Twister, who has an amazing ear for repetition, for helping me to hear felicitous—and jarring—echoes in my work.
I have a great deal of fun with this process. Odd word here, fun. But I love revision. I love stories. I love the dance that leads to a good one—the give and take between writer and trusted editors, between the energy that leads me to the page and the inner eye that looks back over it and says you can do better. And the process is reciprocal. Scott and I, Debra and I, Twister and I exchange work. Kirk, Stacy, Gary and I take turns submitting stories. As they read me and I read them, we become better readers of each other’s work and better writers of our own. As Debra said recently, quoting Malebranche, “We are not our own light.”
When you find trusted others for your writing, cultivate them. Editorial relationships have worked out very well for me. Take Scott Wiggerman, the poet who reads my work and asks me to read his. I married him last week. We didn’t write editing into our vows, but I think it was implied.
Editor’s note: David’s story, In the Garden, appears in s[r] Issue 7:
I haven’t been editing fiction for a long time, but even in the time I’ve been a fiction editor here at Superstition Review, some things have come to my attention about the role an author’s decisions play in an editor’s decision process. It’s so simple to say that good writing gets published and that bad writing gets rejected. However, with an acceptance rate of about 4% for fiction (probably higher than the standard acceptance rate) the fact is that a lot of good writing goes back to its author with a rejection notice. While there are a lot of factors that go into the editorial process and some of them are beyond the author’s control, there are some relatively simple things an author can do to increase the odds of getting published. As with everything, these are rules that can sometimes be broken, there only has to be a deliberate point in doing so.
This is a quick one. If there are easy-to-catch editing mistakes (especially doubled-up
words and misspellings) it becomes incredibly easy to send that rejection notice. Make sure that it is clear to your readers just how important your own work is to you.
Nail that Opener
Throughout my time as a writer, I have often been told the importance of the opening line, and of that line’s innate ability to make or break a story. While the first line is not always the most important, there is a great degree of influence in those first couple of paragraphs. Let’s say the first page is not only pivotal in setting up the mood and direction of a short story but it is also the space where the author needs to prove that they are good at what they do. The opening is where the most polished writing needs to be. It may sound harsh, but if you have more than one or two problems in the opening then I am automatically going to assume that those problems prevail throughout the story.
The point of view from which a narrative is told is as important to a story as the writing itself. Most writers seem to understand that the role of first person is to provide the audience with a specific character’s insight and perspective on the world. During this particular submissions period, we received a lot of stories written in second person. We accepted one, but would have to think twice about accepting several. What really seems to be the problem is that writers are forgetting that the second person perspective requires two subjects. The first is the narrator and the second is the person they are addressing. It is when this second character is forgotten or poorly developed that this point of view falls apart.
Dialogue is much more like an iceberg than anything else; there is more going on beneath the surface than above. Also, much like an iceberg, not paying the appropriate amount of attention to it is going to sink you just as surely. I have two suggestions here on ways to improve dialogue. One sounds fairly straightforward, the other much less so. The first is sitting down and reading a couple of plays. Playwrights like McDonagh, Kushner, and Pinter are great examples of playwrights who know the importance of dialogue as well as the importance of what is left unsaid.
My other suggestion is to pick up and read some comics. Now bear with me a second, because I do have a reason for suggesting this. The thing about comics is that their dialogue makes up a majority of the written words on any given page. As such, the dialogue has nothing to hide behind. A bad line is separated from everything else and framed by a black line for all to see. There is no escaping it. Creative writers should do the same thing with their dialogue. Imagine it alone on a page and see if it stands up to that sort of individualized scrutiny.
One more note: dialogue tags (he said, she said) are the absolute worst, even more so when only two characters are present in a scene. Having characters constantly use pronouns in their dialogue is not any better.
It’s one of the first lessons we learn as writers: avoid clichés. Luckily, most writers seem well aware of this fact. However, there are still what I call microcosms of clichés. This is when a specific subject starts to make up an alarmingly large portion of the submissions received by a magazine. This is a difficult thing to avoid and not entirely the fault of the author, but it does have a lot to do with whether or not a piece will be published. As an example, during this submission period Superstition Review received a lot of fiction pieces featuring cancer. Think of this as increasing your competition. Now, not only do you have to be one of the best writers submitting but you also have to have one of the best pieces featuring cancer.
Again, this is not really something the author has complete control over but there are some things one can do to try and avoid it. My first suggestion would be to watch being overly topical in the sense of broad problems that affect everyone. If it’s a subject on every news program and part of the collective mind then it is probably safe to say that it is going to find its way into a lot of creative writing. One way to overcome this is to talk about these subjects in a different way or to come at them from a different angle. Cancer is not the interesting subject, the way in which people deal with it is. In this case, the story need not be about cancer but can be any disease that compromises its host in the same way. Another suggestion is to watch the literary magazines that you are submitting to, if they are already carrying pieces dealing with a specific topic then try shopping a piece with the same topic someplace else.
It is hard to sit down and read something that is all action with no thought given to imagery or voice. Imagery, and the way an author describes the world in which their story exists, is a large part of what makes creative writing so unique and a large part of why people read it. Without it the writing is going to feel stale and lifeless.
There is the opposite of this as well. Though it is less common, the overuse of imagery/voice will kill a story just as quickly as having none at all. These stories are often jumbled and confusing, leaving the reader little frame of reference in which to find their way through a story.
Word choice is another part of this balance equation. It is very easy to miss the repetitious use of a couple of words, but nothing makes me question a writer’s ability quite so quickly. While it is sometimes necessary to repeat a few words, I cannot really think of a justification for doing it more than twice in a paragraph. Really watch out for those pet words.
Again, there is the other side of this as well and that is the thesaurus approach. This is when a writer clearly uses a thesaurus to generate unique words in their story. The words often come off as awkward and create a disjointed sentence. There is nothing wrong in using it occasionally when the right word is escaping you but, ironically, overuse is just going to drain a piece of its feeling of originality.
Lately, I’ve been getting stuck while writing short stories. I’ll be working on a promising idea with a good set-up and characters, and suddenly I’ll hit a wall. I simply won’t know how to make the story work. What do I do with this thing? I’ll think. What happens next?
This is a lonely feeling. After all, if I, the writer, don’t know what happens next in the story, who does?
The Internet is not helpful. Do a search on this topic, and you’ll get advice like, “Try a prompt. Where does your character like to go on vacation?” But this problem I’m having is more than just plotting. It’s about figuring out meaning.
I write first drafts quickly and then take forever editing them. The first draft is a movie in my head, the interplay between the conscious and unconscious mind, and the joy of rampant imagination and wordplay. These drafts, as you might expect, are messy. They may or may not have an ending. They may have gaps with brackets that say [fill in details]. They may start one way, shift point-of-view or tense, and then go in the opposite direction. Editing is a process of finding meaning through untangling the first draft—who are these characters, what are they doing, why did I write that, and what is the point of this story, anyway?
Meaning is tricky. You’ve got to be careful with it. You don’t want to choke the life out of your story by imposing what you think you’re trying to say onto it. That’s a shifting landscape anyway, what you are trying to say. You may not know what you think or what you believe until the fiction shows you. Every time I have tried to write a story about a preconceived moral or the Truth About Life, the story hasn’t cooperated.
Early on, a story’s meaning and rationale seem pretty obvious, but then, as I write it, I realize that I know the meaning/rationale too well, which means that the reader will also know it—and so things have to be ramped up. Einstein said (or, at least, I am always quoting him as having said), “No worthy problem is ever solved within the plane of its original conception.” … These sorts of thematic challenges are, for me, anyway, only answerable via the line-by-line progress through the story. Trying to figure out what happens next, and in what language.
This seems to be the answer to my problem: not prompts, not tricks, not the addition of new characters, but “line-by-line progress through the story.” Some writers love the careful examination that comes with the editing process. For me, editing takes patience and time, and I’m usually short on patience and time. It also faith. You have to hope that something shadowy and mysterious—that part of your brain that knows why you wrote what you wrote—will come to the rescue and redeem this gobbledygook in the form of a worthwhile story.
And of course, sometimes it doesn’t. Stories fail. There’s always risk with writing.
In a recent interview with The Paris Review, EL Doctorow said that writing is “like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” This is true, but man, isn’t that kind of a terrifying drive? No wonder writers get so anxious and despairing. But I, for one, am becoming more comfortable with this particular brand of discomfort. You can get used to almost anything in life, I guess. You just have to put your butt in the driver’s seat and hope that the headlights won’t burn out and that the road will continue to emerge. In fact, don’t think about all the things that can go wrong. Even though you know that sometimes you will drive into a cow pasture and have to turn around and go back to the beginning, and sometimes you will have to turn around multiple times before you’re through, you just have to keep going until you reach the end of your journey and pull into a full, satisfying parking job.
And then, of course, you start down a new road altogether.
One of the difficulties in working on a national literary publication–or any publication, I imagine, is the waiting time. There’s an irregular mixture of passivity and activity in keeping the cogs turning and smoothly running.
For example, submissions. Right now, passively our editors are receiving the flow, flood, or trickle of pieces sent in. Actively, they have sent in solicits to known writers at the beginning of our reading period. Additionally, actively, they’re rejecting and accepting the submitted work. Passively, you are waiting to see who makes the cut.
Deadlines are the thing, you see, that gives it all a sinister bend.
Sometimes, these are easy to meet. When we’ve all got passive work, most likely. Sometimes they charge dauntingly toward us, head on like a game of chicken we can’t afford to lose. As loud as one might scream and as strenuously as one might tug out one’s hair, we’ve really got to take those mad deadlines head on.
I lay awake at night, trying to remember if I’ve managed to pack in all the work I needed to, or if the deadly screaming deadlines won out.
Much like Chuck Norris, Superstition Review doesn’t sleep…it WAITS.