Book Discussion Forum: There are Little Kingdoms by Kevin Barry

17287059I’m opening up this discussion late, but since I’m the only one in the room these days, it was so much easier to procrastinate. It gave me enough time to finish this relatively short collection of stories.

When I made my selections for this book club, I picked books that would not be part of my normal fare. Thus far, each book has challenged me, but for different reasons. The challenge with Kevin Barry’s stories was to stop my eye rolls. I liked his writing – his ability to paint these claustrophobic small town scenes. But I got to the point of sardonically thinking at the end of a story: Well, at least no one died.

I enjoyed the writing, but not most of the stories or characters. It seems like a strange dichotomy – to recognize the stellar writing, but also that you didn’t enjoy reading it. The trend in pop culture is bent towards the anti-hero, those characters that are complex only in that they do awful things and we’re supposed to feel sympathetic or in their corner. In Barry’s stories, there aren’t even anti-heroes. There’s just miserable people. That’s my judgment. Barry himself seems more kindly disposed towards his characters.

What is more interesting is the function of place and setting, which serve as characters in their own right. The scenery painted is always a reflection of the story and people – it feels as if there is no separation from the landscape and the people who inhabit it.

My suspicion is that feeling escapes from people and seeps into the stones of a place.

“Jumping off a Cliff: An Interview with Kevin Barry”, Paris Review, 11/12/13

The dialogue is probably the best part of this short story collection. He does it well and it reflects his philosophy regarding the importance of sound in writing. He has a wry sense of humor and there were sentences and conversation that made me laugh.

Writing for the ear is kind of like being an actor: I approach my characters as though I’m approaching roles to play out. Acting out the work, doing all the voices, and reciting it aloud is a very important part of the process for me. I write a lot of dialogue in my stories and novels. Duologues and monologues tend to be the engines of my projects, and I will rewrite the fuckers endlessly. I will do 100 drafts of a dialogue. I’ll constantly take the red pen to it as I act it out, trying to get closer and closer.

Kevin Barry, “How Fiction Can Survive in a Distracted World” by Joe Fassler, The Atlantic, 12/8/15

The writing means I’ll likely seek out a longer work by him, like City of Bohane. And I will keep this collection of short stories to reference it for dialogue.

Possible Discussion Questions:

Which stories appealed to you and why?

Is there particular imagery that stuck with you?

What are the stylistic or structural techniques used?

How did you feel during and after reading this collection?

What can you take away from this, as a writer?

The August Selection: Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (and Really Getting It) by Janice Hardy

2563843Although I’m still writing to an empty room, I’ve found that it forces me to analyze what I’m reading and I’m learning a lot. On July 15th, the discussion forum for the July Selection, There are Little Kingdoms by Kevin Barry will open up. It’s a short story collection, so a great opportunity for easily digestible summer reading.

I plan on wrapping up the book club in September, if it doesn’t catch fire. If anything, I’m learning how to draw up a writer’s lesson plan. I’ll likely never return to college for an MFA or lit degree, so I’m going with the autodidact program.

I’ve chosen to read out of a variety of genres, but the August selection is special. It’s on a writing book, Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (and Really Getting It) by Janice Hardy. I’ve been mentoring another writer and show, don’t tell is one of those pieces of advice that is easier to explain with direct, written examples. For her benefit and mine, I’ve chosen to delve a little more into the subject.


32453803Selection: Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (and Really Getting It) by Janice Hardy

Discussion Forum: August 15-31, 2018

Synopsis from Goodreads:

“Do you struggle with show, don’t tell? You don’t have to. 

Award-winning author Janice Hardy (and founder of the popular writing site, Fiction University) takes you deep into one of the most frustrating aspects of writing–showing, and not telling. She’ll help you understand what show, don’t tell means, teach you how to spot told prose in your writing, and reveal why common advice on how to fix it doesn’t always work.

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It) looks at what affects told prose and when telling is the right thing to do. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

Her easy-to-understand examples will show you clear before and after text and demonstrate how telling words change the prose. You’ll learn how to find the right balance between description, narrative, and internalization for the strongest impact. These examples will also demonstrate why showing the wrong details can sound just as dull as telling.

This book will help you:

Understand when to tell and when to show
Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
Learn why one single rule doesn’t apply to all books
Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back

Understanding Show, Don’t Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.”

Book Discussion Forum: Afterland by Mai Der Vang

This was my first foray, since high school, into looking analytically at poetry as a writer. 29939104And wow, did I pick a challenging work in Afterland. There were a few issues that became immediately apparent to me: 1) While I had some historical knowledge, I did not know a lot about Hmong culture; 2) I get frustrated with metaphors I don’t understand; and 3) Reading a collection of poetry is similar to listening to a full album. You may like how all the pieces hang together, comprise a story or theme, but you’ll likely end up having some songs/poems you’ll prefer more than others.

I took a couple of different approaches in reading this work. I read through the poems for a general impression. I read some of the poems out loud to hear rhythm and pacing. Then I went methodically through each poem trying to divine meaning. This meant doing some online research to rustle up interviews with Mai Der Vang, general reviews of Afterland, cultural background, and even a few language lessons. I’ve listed the resources at the end of the post.

The question I have about poetry is this: Is it important to be able to completely understand what the poet is referencing, in order to appreciate a poem? I felt like the need to understand meaning interfered with my ability to take the poem in whole. Can one appreciate opera without understanding Italian? Or interpretive dance without knowing the story? I think the answer is unequivocally yes, but it also depends on the person. I kept getting caught up in the research – my need to know became the driving force over my appreciation of word usage.

In an age where we talk a good game about reading diverse writers, there is an unspoken challenge to people like me – that is to say, white people brought up on a standard fare of Western writing. Reading outside the context of one’s own culture likely means our approach to literature is going to be more studied  – we’re less able to breeze in and out of work, and in my case, less able to qualify what I think of a work.

…I wanted to write poems that I felt were missing in American literature, poems that I wish existed when I was in high school, and poems that embodied something about who I was as a Hmong American woman and a child of refugees.

Mai Der Vang with Alex Dueben, The Brooklyn Rail, 06/01/17

For those of you who write and/or have read a lot of poetry, I am curious about the structure of these poems – the rhythm and the literal spacing on the page. Sometimes it felt discomfiting and that, perhaps, was the point. In general, there were a few poems I really liked (mostly because I understood the references) and others that I’d like to return to, after reading more about Hmong culture.

In my pursuit of reading more widely to improve writing, I always ask myself the question: What can I take away from this reading experience, that will help my own writing? This post is to get the discussion going. I will post a follow up forum next week covering specific poems.

Possible Discussion Questions:

Which poems appealed to you and why?

Is there particular imagery that stuck with you?

What are the stylistic or structural techniques used?

How did you feel during and after reading this collection?

What can you take away from this, as a writer?

Online Resources:

Heirs of the Secret Wars in Laos by Mai Der Vang, New York Times, 05/27/15

Petoskey Restaurant Owner Remembers Escape from Laos, Interlochen Public Radio, 12/10/15

Mai Der Vang with Alex Dueben, The Brooklyn Rail, 06/01/17

Mai Der Vang reads “Mother of People without Script”, Poetry Foundation Weekly Podcast, 01/02/17

A Hmong Generation Finds Its Voice in Writing, New York Times, 12/31/11

Beauty Undercut by the Possibility of Terror: Afterland by Mai Der Vang, The Rumpus, 07/07/17

Related Reading:

Inheriting the War: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees, Edited by Laren McClung

Reminder: The July selection is There are Little Kingdoms by Kevin Barry (Short Stories).

The July Selection: There are Little Kingdoms by Kevin Barry


It was a rough start to the online book club. I was essentially alone in the room, but with a good book, so content all the same. Hopefully, things will begin to pick up. Despite flying solo, I learned a lot from reading Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and had the opportunity to attend a lecture by her earlier this month – a pretty good month for reading and writing.

I’m hoping that we can hear from some poets this month, so they can share their insights about Mai Der Vang’s Afterland. The discussion forum will open on June 15th. If you’re a bit of a poetry novice like me, this discussion guide might be helpful.

One of the latest things I’ve been doing as a writer is listening to the podcast First Draft with Mitzi Rapkin on Aspen Public Radio. I love hearing about the writers’ processes and feelings about their work. It may or may not be useful in actually writing, but it keeps me in the writing frame of mind.


2563843Selection: There are Little Kingdoms by Kevin Barry

Discussion Forum: July 15-31, 2018

Discussion Guide: How to analyze a short story

Synopsis from Goodreads:

“Kevin Barry received widespread critical acclaim and the Rooney prize for Irish Literature following the publication of this first book of stories in 2007. His stories have since appeared in The New Yorker and in the Granta Book of the Irish Short Story. His debut novel, City Of Bohane, was published by Jonathan Cape in April 2011. Could easily have been titled These Are Little Masterpieces’. Barry gathers all the bewildered exasperation that Irish playwrights from Tom Murphy to Marina Carr and Enda Walsh have identified, and brings it, most brilliantly, to his dark, blackly hilarious and horrifically realistic narratives.’-Eileen Battersby, The Irish Times”

Book Discussion Forum: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – Literary Devices

If you have not read the book, there will be spoilers – beware!

Discussion forums for this work:

Opening Lines

Plot Development

32920226Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: Literary Devices

The most prominent literary devices engaged by Jesmyn Ward has got to be metaphors and similes. Most of the time I found this to be effective – as long as the comparison seemed like something within the character’s experience.

I am subject to that pulse, helpless as a fisherman in a boat with no engine, no oars, while the tide bears him onward. Richie, End of Chapter 6

This is where I had to look up, once again, the difference between metaphor and simile. Ward uses both.

I squat next to Misty on the concrete block and bum a smoke: the menthol shores me up, stacks sandbags up my spine. I can do this. I wait until the nicotine laps at my insides like a placid lake, and then I go back to the car. Leonie, Chapter 4

What other literary devices do you see in evidence in Sing, Unburied, Sing?

Book Discussion Forum: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – Plot Development

If you have not read the book, this post will be full of spoilers – beware!

Discussion forums for this work:

Opening Lines

Literary Devices

32920226Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: Plot Development

As I begin writing my second novel, I’ve been thinking about how much I struggled with plot on the first one. I had the idea for a story in my head, but figuring out how to pace it, what order things needed to happen in, and if I needed better foreshadowing of plot turns was very difficult. I found that I had to go back a re-write a great deal because the ending was anticlimactic and just fell flat. It was encouraging, when I went to a lecture by Jesmyn Ward earlier this month, that she referred to the first 15 drafts of her book – this speaks to the craft portion of writing!

One of the things that I’ve been doing as I read a novel now is briefly to summarize each chapter and look at what questions make the reader turn to the next chapter?

Sing, Unburied, Sing is comprised of 15 chapters, each from a single character’s point of view. Here is my plot breakdown:

Chapter 1: Jojo

We meet all the main characters on the day of Jojo’s 13th birthday. Pop and Jojo kill and prepare a goat for dinner. We learn Mam is dying. Pop tells part of the story about Richie in their time at Parchman prison. We find out Jojo’s father, Michael, is going to be released from prison. There are two timelines and two stories started in this chapter – the current story of Jojo’s family and the second story of what happened at Parchman prison with Pop and Richie.

Chapter 2: Leonie

We learn that Leonie has a job and a drug habit supported by a coworker. She sees the ghost of her brother, Given, when she gets high and we learn that Given was shot by a white classmate and killed. It was written off as a hunting accident, but it becomes obvious that it was an intentional killing that gets covered up. We learn about Mam’s superstitious beliefs. Leonie tells Pop that she and the kids, Jojo and Kayla, are going up to Parchman to get Michael.

Chapter 3: Jojo

They begin their road trip to Parchman with Misty, Leonie’s coworker. Jojo recounts more of Pop’s telling about Richie and Parchman. They stop at a friend’s home, where they pick up meth to deliver on their way to the prison.

Chapter 4: Leonie

Kayla gets sick on the car trip and we learn what Mam has taught Leonie, as well as about their relationship. We also see, the detachment she has from her children and how they cling to each other.

Chapter 5: Jojo

They spend the night at the home of Al, Michael’s lawyer, to whom Leonie and Misty deliver the drugs. We learn more of Richie and Pop’s story at Parchman. They pick up Michael from prison.

Chapter 6: Richie

From the perspective of Richie, the ghost – it confirms that magical realism is part of the story, because with Leonie’s drug-fueled visions of her brother, Given, the reader isn’t sure this is a reliable narration. Richie tells more of the Parchman story and essentially attaches himself to Jojo.

Chapter 7: Leonie

With Michael back in her orbit, Leonie is distracted and struggles to focus on the children. They stay the night at Al’s before the return trip home. Michael and Leonie get high together after the kids are put down for bed. We learn about Michael and Leonie’s early relationship and first pregnancy.

They begin the trip home, but get pulled over by a police officer. Leonie swallows the drugs they have. They are told to get out, and Michael and Leonie are handcuffed. Jojo, unaware of the danger, reaches in his pocket and the officer draws his gun on him and puts him on the ground. They are released and sent on their way.

Chapter 8: Jojo

Jojo sees Richie huddled up on the floor of the car when they are stopped by the police. We see the experience from Jojo’s perspective. He was reaching into his pocket for the talisman bag Pop had given him before they left, in the hopes that it will give him strength and keep him from crying.

Leonie is on her way to an overdose, after swallowing the drugs. Michael stops at a convenience store for milk and charcoal to help her. We see more of the relationship between Michael and Jojo. Jojo talks to Richie.

Chapter 9: Richie

Richie continues to tell about his life at Parchman while observing Jojo and Kayla on the trip home.

Chapter 10: Leonie

We learn more about the origins of Leonie and Michael’s relationship. They plan to drop the kids off at Mam and Pop’s, but they are not home. Michael insists that they go to his parents’ home. It’s a chilly reception that erupts into a fight between Michael and his father related to his father’s racism. Eventually, they return to Mam and Pop’s, where Mam is near death. Mam asks Leonie to perform a ritual that will end Mam’s suffering and Leonie resists.

Chapter 11: Jojo

Jojo’s relief at being home and seeing Pops is palpable. Richie is making his presence known to Jojo, but is trying to reach Pops, “Riv”, because he has no memory of the end of his life and wants Pops to tell him what happened.  Michael cooks the kids breakfast in the morning and Jojo recalls a time when they went fishing together. Michael loses his temper with Kayla and smacks her. Jojo calms her down, while Richie is persistently insisting he ask Pops to finish the Parchman story. Jojo visits Mam and he asks her what happens when a person dies. She thinks she hears something outside the house, but Jojo brushes it aside, knowing it’s Richie.

Chapter 12: Richie

Richie is basically haunting Jojo and Pops, although Jojo is more conscious of it. Richie stays under the house, making all kinds of noise, not allowing Jojo a moment of peace. He begins to observe Leonie, as she goes to the graveyard to collect stones, fulfilling Mam’s request.

Chapter 13: Jojo

Richie persists and Jojo relents, going to Pops to ask him to tell the rest of the story about Richie and Parchman. It is finally revealed that Pops killed Richie to prevent him from being torn apart by a white mob.

Chapter 14: Leonie

Leonie sees Given, her dead brother, again, thinking it was a remnant of the drugs she last took. Kayla is worked up, talking about the boy and the black bird. It is apparent she has seen Richie as well. Mam is dying and seeing Given. Given and Jojo tell Richie to go, that his story is done. Mam dies and Given is gone. Leonie begs Michael to take her away, desperate to get high and be with him. They leave.

Chapter 15: Jojo

Jojo sleeps in Leonie’s bed after Leonie begins to only be home a couple days of the week. Jojo is still taking care of his little sister, but Pops is there. Jojo sees Richie again in the woods. Richie says he’s with a lot of other people who are stuck – people lost, with bad stories. Richie says Jojo has changed and there’s no need for Richie to come with him anymore.

Possible Discussion Questions:

What did you think of the plot in Sing, Unburied, Sing?

Did it keep you engaged?

There were multiple stories interwoven. Did one peak your interest more than the others?

Do you struggle with plot and pacing while writing?

As a writer, do you consider yourself a planner (knowing the story before starting) or a pantser (letting it emerge as you write)?

Resources for Plotting:


How to Develop a Story: 10 Steps to a Winning Plot

How to Organize and Develop Ideas for Your Novel


Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success by K.M. Weiland

Plot and Structure: Techniquies for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish by James Scott Bell

20 Master Plots and How to Build Them by Ronald B. Tobias

Book Discussion Forum: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward – Opening Lines

If you’re a procrastinator like me, you were/are reading the book right up to the discussion forum.  Here at the TGS Writers’ Book Club, we have a little more flexibility, but don’t put off finishing this month’s selection for too long. The discussion forum for Sing, Unburied, Sing opens today and will remain open until May 30th. Since this is the first time I’ve done this, things might get a little goofy, but we’ll try it out.

canstockphoto31653122That there will be spoilers is, if you have not read the book, a given.

In the next two weeks, I’ll put up more discussion posts. Today’s discussion focuses on opening lines. Following that, we’ll talk about plot, point of view, literary devices, and other elements of writing. Each subsequent discussion will contain links to the other forums related to the work. You can join in whenever you want. The goal is to combine our perspectives as writers and to learn something that will inform our own writing.

June’s reading is a poetry collection called Afterland by Mai Der Vang. I’ve never analyzed poetry from a writing perspective, so I hope we have some poets who can chime in.

Discussion Forums Related to Sing, Unburied, Sing:

Plot Development

Literary Devices

32920226Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: Opening Lines

I like to think I know what death is. I like to think that it’s something I could look at straight.

I’ve read these lines several times, thinking about what it does. As an opener, it establishes the voice and because of its dramatic tone, the reader is immediately in the story. It also serves as a foreshadowing of the event later in the chapter as well as some of the themes in the novel.

A problem I often have as a writer is making the voice seem realistic, especially when it comes from someone young. I wrote from the voice of a 14-year-old in one of the scenes in my novel and the immediate feedback was that he didn’t sound like a 14-year-old. I made him sound too mature. In this novel, the opening voice is Jojo, a 13-year-old boy who assumes some responsibility for the care of his little sister.

When I think of opening lines, one of my favorites is from Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier: Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. This line, in and of itself, creates questions in the reader, already making them want to know what happened at Manderley. By the end of the book, it is a haunting refrain. The more I think about the opening lines to Sing, Unburied, Sing and how they tie into the rest of the novel, I think they might be lines I remember as well.

Possible Discussion Questions:

What did you think of the opening lines to Sing, Unburied, Sing?

What kind of person did you imagine saying them?

What is one of your favorite opening lines?

Do you struggle with opening lines to your novels, stories, or poems?


Resources for Opening Lines:

American Book Review: 100 Best First Lines in Novels

How to Write Strong Opening Lines

7 Keys to Write the Perfect First Line of a Novel