Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

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As a writer when you begin a new project you have to deal with the fact that you are going down a rabbit hole and you may very well be down in the self-prescribed trenches for several years. I’ve hemmed and hawed about what I should spend my creative time on after I finished my first novel. I love writing short stories because the form gives me the freedom to dabble with various characters and plots without committing the time required for a novel. And, then you read something like Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and realize that there are no rulebooks for novels and their construction. Mitchell cleverly and artfully dabbled and spun multiple stories set in drastically different settings with characters that couldn’t be more dissimilar from each other and in doing so expanded the canon and certainly my relationship as a writer to alternative structural forms. Oh, but what a rabbit hole Cloud Atlas is for reader and writer alike!

Cloud Atlas is what I consider to be a writer’s novel. I say this because it isn’t the easiest read and at times, I got bogged down and I wished the section I was reading was over. This was true of the chapter or part titled “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An Ev’rythin’ After.” As you can see by the title the dialect is thick. I had to read this section slowly to ensure that I was understanding what I was reading and sometimes I had to reread a sentence to comprehend it at all. That got tiresome. I found myself flipping to the next section and counting the pages until this part was over. That said, this is worth reading and Mitchell has given the writing world something new and original. So, plod through. The collective aspect of this novel is worth stumbling through vernacular extravagances. Plus, the fact that Mitchell can write dialect effectively shows how brilliant a writer he truly is.

I loved not only the shifting points-of-view, but also the manner in which the stories were told. For instance, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An Ev’rythin’ After” is told as if the reader is sitting around a campfire listening to old tales. “An Orison of Somni-451” is told via an interview, or questions and answers prior to Somni’s execution. “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” is in diary form. Mitchell uses the epistolary format in “Letters From Zedelghem.” What I loved was how Mitchell weaved each story into the main story. Robert Frobisher in “Letters From Zedelghem” writes letter to his lover, Sixsmith. Frobisher, a young composer apprenticing under the musical maestro, Arys, discovers part of Adam Ewing’s journal in the maestro’s library. He writes to Sixsmith asking him to obtain the missing part. It’s extraordinary how Mitchell ultimately connects these stories, how the characters intersect. View the image I provided above to better understand how the characters overlapped. I didn’t create this. Good Lord! I’d go nuts attempting to map out Cloud Atlas. You could slip into insanity just looking at this illustration, but feel free to enlarge and dissect. it’s your mental well-being. Another connective element was the shared comet birthmark which suggests, in my opinion, that these characters are reincarnated and there are certainly Buddhist themes throughout the novel. I think it is remarkable how Mitchell not only linked the stories together but that the stories were told in completely different voices, times, settings and at times in different dialects or using invented “futuristic” language or terminology. For more on Mitchell’s wordplay read “The Orison of Somni-451,” an earth ruled by corpocracy where Mitchell pokes fun at Ford and Starbucks. Writing in different point-of-view, tones, settings, and working that into one novel is no small feat.

It’s natural that the reader gravitates to what he or she prefers to read. I mentioned above that I found “Sloosha’s Crossin’ An Ev’rythin’ After” to be a tad tedious, but that does mean it wasn’t well-crafted. Towards the end of that section, I was getting used to the dialect and this narrative is essential to the book’s plot. They all are. When reading colloquial language established by an author, it’s best to relax into it and not skim over and rush through. I imagine other readers thoroughly enjoyed this section and would disagree with me, but not mentioning my struggle would be disingenuous. I simply preferred the voice and storyline of some of the other characters or narrators.

There have been so many reviews—some resembling a thesis—that I really wondered if I had anything new to add here, but there is something that Mitchell did that I’ve only seen one other author do I’d like to address. In “Letters From Zedelghem,” Frobisher is composing his “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” what would become his masterpiece. Mitchell’s uses Frobisher’s “Cloud Atlas Sextet” as a pseudo sustained metaphor for his own masterpiece, his actual Cloud Atlas. Like a sextet, where six parts are combined, there are separate parts for each musician as there are separate parts for each character or narrator in the novel. It is the combination of these parts that form the whole. In this way, Cloud Atlas is a musical score and when the sound imagery, chiefly in the “Letters From Zedelghem,” is added in you can hear literally the music. When Arys is dictating to Frobisher he tells him the following: “Now Frobisher, the clarinet is the concubine, the violas are yew trees in the cemetery, the clavichord is the moon, so….let that east wind blow that A minor chord sixteenth bar onwards” (60). Simply gorgeous imagery. Go to page 442 for another taste of this. What I am trying to say is that not many writers can pull this off. While I was reading the words, I was also hearing the music. Mitchell speaks through his character, Frobisher, to describe the structure of Cloud Atlas. Here, Frobisher writes Sixsmith to discuss the structure of his composition: “Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?” (445). Mitchell is asking the reader to respond about his decision to write his narrative in this manner. I’d have to go with revolutionary and imaginative, imaginative on a scale I do not often experience in modern literature. Well-done, Mitchell! Cloud Atlas is a cleverly woven masterpiece, an undertaking that only the very best at their craft could achieve.

Are Query Letter Critiques Worth the Price?

The Pros & Cons of Query Letter CritiquesQuery Letter Pic:

Are Query Letter Critiques Worth the Price? The answer is yes and no. I recently attended The Atlanta’s Writer Club Conference and signed up for a query letter critique. Prior to doing so, I obviously wrote my query letter and then had three writing friends thoroughly review it. I edited it and rewrote it multiple times. I felt pretty good about my letter. For me, the critique was just the icing on the cake.

First, I want to say two things. One, it is not my intention to disparage the agents, editors, and publishers that were brought down to the AWC conference. Two, always try and walk away with something positive.

Here are my takeaways from my experience with the two New York editors who reviewed my query letter:

Pros: This exercise made me finally finish my query letter. It got me in front of editors so that I could practice. It was an opportunity to get fresh eyes to pick out any items that created questions. The editors pointed out my strongest and weakest paragraphs and/or what they saw as filler. They pointed out that my synopsis didn’t show an arc. That was a big one for me! They loved my bio, agreed with me that it was too long, but was also very good, and suggested that I keep it as is. They were concerned about the tone of each story being drastically different from each other. The reason this came up was because I mentioned that “Nativity” was light-hearted Christmas story, but “The Bystanders” was a coming-of-age story where a boy was exposed to violence at a local gas station. These were all very helpful comments.

Cons: It costs a pretty penny for 15 minutes. Three minutes were reserved for the editors to read and make comments and the rest was to listen and ask question with periods where someone entered the room to keep all of us aware of timing. I felt this was disruptive and would have preferred a kitchen timer, because you kept expecting the door to open at any moment. The editors were visiting a southern market yet were unfamiliar with the term “Grit Lit” and “composite novel.” The composite novel I have had to explain to multiple people so I’m trashing that terminology going forward. They preferred interconnected short stories. However, this bothered me some because it is an actual term and I felt that since they were in the industry, I should not have had to explain it. Not everyone knows the term “Grit Lit,” either. It stands for blue-collar, working class literature based in the South. Their lack of knowledge about this term made wonder if they knew their audience. There were multiple writers I met that day who were writing about the south which included working class folks. I don’t know if those writer used “Grit Lit” in their query letter, or if I was an anomaly.

I thought I’d share the query letter I brought with me to the critique so that items I listed above would make sense to my readers. I have yet to revise it, but that’s on the list and I plan post a before and after query letter.

Dear ———–,

I understand that you are seeking literary fiction with a strong narrative voice that addresses marginalized people. THE BYSTANDERS, a 51,000-word composite novel, linked together by town, character, and theme would appeal structurally to fans of Elizabeth Stout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE or Alice Munro’s THE BEGGAR MAID. In terms of style and tone, the stories run the gamut from the Southern Gothic and Grit Lit to a classic Christmas story with light humor. The title story was inspired by this psychological phenomenon, the bystander effect—a theme that is subtly explored throughout the entire narrative.

The novel begins with the arrival (or invasion) of the Samples family in the small town of Lawrenceton, Missouri. It’s the early 1980s when big hair was big and Madonna’s “Lucky Star” blasts over the airways. The townsfolk of rural Lawrenceton, may have had MTV, but it didn’t mean they watched it. Eddy Bauman and Shannon Lamb-Samples, the two “main” characters, make repeated appearances throughout the novel. Eddy can trace his lineage back to the original settlors. Shannon, with her archetypal misfit stepfather, Dale Samples, and tarot card-reading mother, Wendy Samples, are outliers from Los Angeles who have landed in the middle of nowhere Missouri. The Samples not only carry their belongings with them, but their strange ways and a special type of chaos that leaves behind an altered community when they finally exit Lawrenceton.

THE BYSTANDERS weaves together tales of small-town eccentricities: a boy discovers what it means to be a bystander to violence at the local gas station; a girl comes of age on the top of a Camaro at the annual church picnic; a mother predicts the future and saves her daughter from bullying teenaged girls; a waitress decides that love isn’t worth a road trip from hell on a Greyhound bus to Georgia.

I recently graduated with my MFA in Creative Writing from Reinhardt University. I have a Creative Writing Certificate from Emory Continuing Education and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Kennesaw State University. I also was awarded the Assistant Literary Editorship for the James Dickey Review. Two of the short stories from the collection have been published in literary journals: “The Bystanders” in Sanctuary Journal and “The Annual Picnic” in Sediments Literary -Arts Journal. One story, “Nativity” won the Faculty Choice Award for Excellence in Writing. In addition, I won the Driscoll Award for my creative non-fiction piece, “White Trash.” Other non-fiction may be found in Family Life Publications and I have forthcoming non-fiction work coming out in Five Points and the James Dickey Review. I also blog about my adventures (and misadventures) in writing at http://www.dawnmajor.com.

Thank you in advance for taking the time to read THE BYSTANDERS.

Regards,

Dawn Major

Address

Email

http://www.dawnmajor.com

So, was it worth the price? If you have the cash, the answer is probably an affirmative. I most likely would have figured out what wasn’t working in my query letter, but this exercise saved me some time. Rather than sending it off and wondering if the publisher/agent/editor knew what the term composite novel meant, I now know the answer. SO, you have to gauge how best to spend your valuable money towards your writing career and answer that question for yourself, but hopefully this post offers some insight.

Happy Writing!

 

 

 

Are Query Letter Critiques Worth the Price?

The Pros & Cons of Query Letter CritiquesQuery Letter Pic:

Are Query Letter Critiques Worth the Price? The answer is yes and no. I recently attended The Atlanta’s Writer Club Conference and signed up for a query letter critique. Prior to doing so, I obviously wrote my query letter and then had three writing friends thoroughly review it. I edited it and rewrote it multiple times. I felt pretty good about my letter. For me, the critique was just the icing on the cake.

First, I want to say two things. One, it is not my intention to disparage the agents, editors, and publishers that were brought down to the AWC conference. Two, always try and walk away with something positive.

Here are my takeaways from my experience with the two New York editors who reviewed my query letter:

Pros: This exercise made me finally finish my query letter. It got me in front of editors so that I could practice. It was an opportunity to get fresh eyes to pick out any items that created questions. The editors pointed out my strongest and weakest paragraphs and/or what they saw as filler. They pointed out that my synopsis didn’t show an arc. That was a big one for me! They loved my bio, agreed with me that it was too long, but was also very good, and suggested that I keep it as is. They were concerned about the tone of each story being drastically different from each other. The reason this came up was because I mentioned that “Nativity” was light-hearted Christmas story, but “The Bystanders” was a coming-of-age story where a boy was exposed to violence at a local gas station. These were all very helpful comments.

Cons: It costs a pretty penny for 15 minutes. Three minutes were reserved for the editors to read and make comments and the rest was to listen and ask question with periods where someone entered the room to keep all of us aware of timing. I felt this was disruptive and would have preferred a kitchen timer, because you kept expecting the door to open at any moment. The editors were visiting a southern market yet were unfamiliar with the term “Grit Lit” and “composite novel.” The composite novel I have had to explain to multiple people so I’m trashing that terminology going forward. They preferred interconnected short stories. However, this bothered me some because it is an actual term and I felt that since they were in the industry, I should not have had to explain it. Not everyone knows the term “Grit Lit,” either. It stands for blue-collar, working class literature based in the South. Their lack of knowledge about this term made wonder if they knew their audience. There were multiple writers I met that day who were writing about the south which included working class folks. I don’t know if those writer used “Grit Lit” in their query letter, or if I was an anomaly.

I thought I’d share the query letter I brought with me to the critique so that items I listed above would make sense to my readers. I have yet to revise it, but that’s on the list and I plan post a before and after query letter.

Dear ———–,

I understand that you are seeking literary fiction with a strong narrative voice that addresses marginalized people. THE BYSTANDERS, a 51,000-word composite novel, linked together by town, character, and theme would appeal structurally to fans of Elizabeth Stout’s OLIVE KITTERIDGE or Alice Munro’s THE BEGGAR MAID. In terms of style and tone, the stories run the gamut from the Southern Gothic and Grit Lit to a classic Christmas story with light humor. The title story was inspired by this psychological phenomenon, the bystander effect—a theme that is subtly explored throughout the entire narrative.

The novel begins with the arrival (or invasion) of the Samples family in the small town of Lawrenceton, Missouri. It’s the early 1980s when big hair was big and Madonna’s “Lucky Star” blasts over the airways. The townsfolk of rural Lawrenceton, may have had MTV, but it didn’t mean they watched it. Eddy Bauman and Shannon Lamb-Samples, the two “main” characters, make repeated appearances throughout the novel. Eddy can trace his lineage back to the original settlors. Shannon, with her archetypal misfit stepfather, Dale Samples, and tarot card-reading mother, Wendy Samples, are outliers from Los Angeles who have landed in the middle of nowhere Missouri. The Samples not only carry their belongings with them, but their strange ways and a special type of chaos that leaves behind an altered community when they finally exit Lawrenceton.

THE BYSTANDERS weaves together tales of small-town eccentricities: a boy discovers what it means to be a bystander to violence at the local gas station; a girl comes of age on the top of a Camaro at the annual church picnic; a mother predicts the future and saves her daughter from bullying teenaged girls; a waitress decides that love isn’t worth a road trip from hell on a Greyhound bus to Georgia.

I recently graduated with my MFA in Creative Writing from Reinhardt University. I have a Creative Writing Certificate from Emory Continuing Education and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Kennesaw State University. I also was awarded the Assistant Literary Editorship for the James Dickey Review. Two of the short stories from the collection have been published in literary journals: “The Bystanders” in Sanctuary Journal and “The Annual Picnic” in Sediments Literary -Arts Journal. One story, “Nativity” won the Faculty Choice Award for Excellence in Writing. In addition, I won the Driscoll Award for my creative non-fiction piece, “White Trash.” Other non-fiction may be found in Family Life Publications and I have forthcoming non-fiction work coming out in Five Points and the James Dickey Review. I also blog about my adventures (and misadventures) in writing at http://www.dawnmajor.com.

Thank you in advance for taking the time to read THE BYSTANDERS.

Regards,

Dawn Major

Address

Email

http://www.dawnmajor.com

So, was it worth the price? If you have the cash, the answer is probably an affirmative. I most likely would have figured out what wasn’t working in my query letter, but this exercise saved me some time. Rather than sending it off and wondering if the publisher/agent/editor knew what the term composite novel meant, I now know the answer. SO, you have to gauge how best to spend your valuable money towards your writing career and answer that question for yourself, but hopefully this post offers some insight.

Happy Writing!