To Epigraph or not to Epigraph

From a review by Mark Medley in the National Post:

“Call Me Ishmael” may be one of the most famous opening sentences in the history of literature, but it actually comes a dozen-odd pages into Moby-Dick. Herman Melville prefaces his novel with a staggering 80 epigraphs, with references to whales in the Bible (“Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah”), Shakespeare (“Very like a whale,” Polonius says to Hamlet) and Milton (“That sea beast/Leviathan, which God of all his works/Created hugest that swim the ocean stream”), among other sources.

Most writers limit themselves to one or two, and choosing which ones to use is a particular skill, argues Rosemary Ahern in her new book, The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin.

The book sounds wonderful. If you’re planning to self-publish your novel and plan to use an epigraph (but hopefully not eighty of them!), be sure to put the epigraph in the right place.

You want to make sure your epigraph is relevant to the novel’s themes, of course, and that relevance needs to be clear to the reader and not just an inside joke with yourself.

Also, think twice about beginning each chapter of your book with an epigraph. Again quoting the Ahern book referenced above:

Speaking as an editor, Ahern says epigraphs are usually left to the author’s discretion. “I really always felt that was the author’s privilege,” she says. On the other hand, “I think that when you start to have like five, six, seven epigraphs, they start to cancel each other out,” she says. “You can get a little epigraph-happy.”

As is the case with misplaced flashbacks, unrelated subplots, and unnecessary exposition, an epigraph at the start of every chapter makes your reader stop reading your story — and quite possibly put the book down altogether.

Featured image by nitpix via morgueFile

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Literary Weather: Run for the Cellar!

The most famous tornado scene in American literature comes from L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz . Yes, that is the correct title of the original work inspiring the legendary film The Wizard of Oz.

Natural disasters are a big part of life and abound in fictional stories, although I’m guessing thunderstorms and earthquakes are more popular than tornadoes. Continue reading

New Review: The Puddingstone Well

My review of this second novel by a long-time New Jersey journalist is published. It’s a modern-day fantasy-mystery and, you guessed it, the plot revolves around a well made of puddingstones. Excerpt:

Glancing at the cover of this book we know right off the bat something is up with that well. There are too many historical writings about fountains of youth to count, not to mention the legendary island of Avalon and utopian villages such as Shangri-La. In The Puddingstone Well, the second novel from William Westhoven, variations of these myths are indeed relied upon, but with a contemporary spin. In the Prologue to Part One, the phrase “what history does not recall” lets us know this is Westhoven’s tale for the telling.

Read my entire 4.5-star review here.

Related reading: My interview with William Westhoven about his nonfiction book Superstorm Sandy: A Diary in the Dark.

Featured photo “Rockaway Plum Puddingstone (NJ) by Fblockmetal via Creative Commons share on Wikipedia

Concerning Small Presses

Once a novel is finished, the road to publication can feel a bit cold and lonely. Not sure whether to self-publish or maybe try a small press? How does a small press operate, anyway? On the website Lit Reactor, columnist Brandon Tietz outlines Six Shortcomings of Small Presses. The introduction:

When you complete your novel there are a few directions you can go.  There’s the self-publishing route, although more than a few remain firm in their convictions to go “legitimate” in their endeavors.  You can get an agent to query the big publishing houses, but this often proves to be difficult as it yields many rejections.  That’s more or less when the idea of the small press comes up.  You don’t need an agent since you can contact them directly, however, there are some things you might want to keep in mind while shopping.

Brandon makes some fair observations. However, be sure to also read the comments under the piece.

Featured photo by kconnors via morgueFile

Not Exactly A Hanging Offense

Everyone knows what a cattle rustler is, but did you know there were cactus rustlers? I ran across a wonderful column recently about the history of the cactus in the California landscape. A series called Lost L.A. in the archives of the L.A. Times tells how “cactus rustling” was born in the early 1900s. Cactus rustling met with some opposition, with gardeners warned to stay loyal to native California plants. From the article “A thorny history with the cactus”:

Native gardeners delivered their message with moral fervor, convinced that good people raise good plants. But their actions weren’t so high-toned when it came to planting grandma’s cactus patch.

Cactuses were survivors like L.A.’s settlers and reminded Southlanders how far they’d come. Cactus said: “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.” As Southern California developed, new homeowners ordered shaggy pitahaya, yucca, aloe, euphorbia, senecio and agave for bungalow backyards.

Horticulturists working for nurseries and competitive collectors met demand by developing a cactus league of their own. They raided Arizona, Cuba and Guatemala. In 1918, expert Paul Howard prowled along the Texas- Mexico border. …

When Spanish Revival haciendas were fashionable in the 1920s, “cactus rustling” by car became an interstate hobby. Back seats and trunks were ideal for transporting stolen plants back to L.A. for replanting in courtyard pots. Persistent poaching denuded the Mojave and stripped Devil’s Garden along the road from L.A. to Palm Springs.

The full article is quite fascinating, you can read it here.

Featured photo “cactus2” by lisasolonynko courtesy morgueFile