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12-09 - M.L. Buchman

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Guest Author: 2010 Golden Heart Finalist Kenneth Zak, The Poet's Secret



Thank you for inviting me to be RTG’s first Guest Blogger. Congrats on the new blog!  I am a novelist and poet.  Yet I also write short fiction (like my recently published A Promise).  I blipped onto the romance radar last year when my debut novel, The Poet’s Secret, was nominated for the 2010 RWA Golden Heart award. And yes, I was the only guy nominated last year.  But now for my dark confession -- at least for purposes of today’s blog, that is.  I’m not sure The Poet’s Secret is a “romance.”  Blasphemy?  Read on . . .

Why Write?

The Webster’s Dictionary cramped into my bookcase defines literature to be “writings having excellent form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.”  The concept of permanent or universal interest captivates me.  Literature documents our very humanity.  Diving into that ocean can be daunting.  One might just drown.  Perhaps it’s madness to even undertake such an effort.  
For me though, there was no choice. It was survival.  If you visit my website: www.kennethzak.com I explain it in more detail,
but a few years back I was sequestered alone, half-way around the world from my home, and recovering from a life, and a relationship, that had left me hollow, or at least I thought at the time. But it turned out words kept flowing out of me, first in raw, chunky verse that faintly resembled poetry and then in images and scenes that bore an even fainter resemblance to a novel.  I had never done anything like that before, but at the time it was the only existence that made any sense.
Now I write not just to survive, but to explore, to celebrate, to heal, to change everything forever, and to dream.  I write to remove the barriers and filters we often place between ourselves, both on the page and off.  Somehow, writing helps me approach my truest self.  When it works, it’s a high akin to surfing the perfect wave.  I would love to hear why you are paddling around in this ocean of literature?  Why do you write?

To Genre or Not to Genre, That is the Question

Now, if that isn’t enough meandering romanticism and you are still with me, a few words about the wonderful world of genres.  I didn’t sit down to write the great romance, or even a great romance, okay, maybe not even a romance. I just started writing, with all my human and writerly imperfections flowing from my fingertips onto the page. 

Folks, may whatever higher power you worship (or not) bless them, eventually took an interest and wanted to know what was in that flotsam I was attempting to launch upon the hallowed sea of literature.  Well, the first lifeboat I clung to was the relatively new-fangled genre “upmarket fiction.”  The Poet’s Secret is somewhere between commercial and literary fiction.  Whew, that was easy, right?  Wrong.  Turns out there are strong romantic elements, magical realism, suspense, mystery, mysticism, poetry, life, death, the afterlife and after-death, Aztec rituals, Cajun cookin’, sea turtles, an El Salvadoran street dog, a bit of voodoo, nickernuts, sunken treasure, and, ultimately, the secret to immortality.  But not one darn vampire or alien.  All painted with the brush of an Impressionist. I guess that’s my genre.  

How about you?  Have you ever felt uncertain about into which neat little box your story fits?  I’d love to hear about it.



27 comments:

Judith Ashley said...

Hi Ken, Thanks for joining us at Romancing The Genres. You are our first male guest blogger and the first Golden Heart Finalist guest blogger. And, thanks for the congrats on the blog. Sarah and I are very pleased (actually closer to ecstatic as we near 3K hits in our first month) with how things are going.
I write because I have a story that insists on being told. When I don't write, it swirls around in my head distracting me from other tasks. It just seems easier to write it down. At least that way it's 'out there' and not 'in here'. Good luck on the Golden Heart...

Paty Jager said...

Hi Ken, Thank you for joining us today. I'm one of those that has stories that doesn't fit the neat and tidy box that editors and agents want it to fit in. My spirit trilogy to me is historical romance. But because I have a spirit element(purely fictitious on my part) the books were put in paranormal and the usual paranormal reader turns their shoulder because they aren't the usual paranormal elements they look for and the historical reader turns their shoulder because it's in the paranormal section. So it's been a slow road to get readers to take a look at it.

Fun post.

Donnell said...

Ken, have I ever wondered what little niche I fit in? Every day of my life. I love what you have to say about writing a romance. Story first, always story. I appreciate where your travels take you. If you go into a tale with preconceived notion, you're already handicapped.

Of course an agent or publisher may not know where you belong, but you know that you've told the most compelling tale within you.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Romance Genres lovely blog!

Tam Linsey said...

Great post, Ken! And I love it that you don't write to a genre. Write it first, then decide where you think it fits. The Poet's Secret sounds very interesting.

Jacqui Nelson said...

Hi Ken, I always love hearing about your writing and your process. Writing's hard, life's even harder. So maybe putting the two together, and getting all that emotion on the page, is the hardest of all. Sounds like you've got a good handle on all of it now - including how to creatively describe your very own genre. Great post!

Helen said...

Hi Ken,
Thank you for sharing your personal life with us and showing us how freeing it is to be a Velveteen Rabbit.
I can see your work comes from a well deep within you. You have dropped all of your life experiences into it, to ponder and settle, then offer it to your thirsty reader's, like a cold glass of lemonade.

Keep using life as stair steps to rise above it.

Blessings,
Helen

Kenneth Zak said...

Judith, your blog site is literally and visually fantastic. The hard work shows and I'm glad it is paying off. As to why you write I couldn't agree more. It's those stories we just cannot shake that end up mattering the most! Best writing to you! KZ

Kenneth Zak said...

Paty,

Thanks for taking the time to comment. Last year The Poet's Secret was an RWA Golden Heart finalist in the "romantic suspense" category. This year, after I entered the same novel in the "Novel with Strong Romantic Elements" category, a category I felt more appropriate given the content and style of the novel, one of the reviewers commented "not a romance" in their review. That remains my favorite comment and just confirmed my suspicion that what is "romantic" is often in the eye of the beholder. Or as one Supreme Court Justice once said of pornography, I know it when I see it. Yet what we all see if different. Viva la difference! Good luck to you and those wonderful spirits! KZ

Kenneth Zak said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kenneth Zak said...

Thanks Donnell, I couldn't agree more. I personally stray from anything formulaic if at all possible. I recall reading an interview with Michael Ondaatje regarding his inspiration/concept for The English Patient. He said something to the effect that he started with two images and let the story bridge the two. It was so good to hear that since The Poet's Secret was conceived in much the same way, as is my current novel in progress. There is hope for us all! Wishing you every inspiration, KZ

Kenneth Zak said...

Thank you Tam, for me that process works best, while I have every respect for folks who write in any capacity or style. I read a short story by Amy Hempel recently that just blew me away, entitled (I think) In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried. In an interview she said something to the affect that she must know the last sentence to write (and this sparks the short story). I loved this because I remember the remarkable moment when I knew what my last sentence in The Poet's Secret would be (it was about half way through my drafting) and I just couldn't stop smiling. She also said something else I love, while a bit off topic: write to be a better writer as opposed to being publishing. Hitting a "genre" on the mark and getting published would be hollow to me if I wasn't ok with my perceived progress on the path of becoming a better writer and trusting my inspiration. It's that angst filled process that drives me. Best to you and your writing, KZ

Kenneth Zak said...

Thanks Jacqui.

Lately I am calling it Upmarket Impressionistic Fiction. You are so right, the frustration of the process (in both writing and life) really can get my goat, so to speak. When I am in process (like now) I am either frustrated because I am struggling to find the time to write or frustrated facing that blank page and wrestling with those demons to express something very near and dear to my core. And then every once in a while, something magnificent happens. As my dear friend and great author Tom Spanbauer once wrote, "Oh the Humanity!" Best to you in that wonderful struggle! KZ

Linda Lovely said...

Thanks for being a guest on our blog today, Ken. I really enjoyed meeting you at last year's Golden Heart festivities. I think more and more of us don't fit neatly into preformed genre baskets. Life is just too messy to be easily catalogued--and that's the crucible for our stories. Great post.

Kenneth Zak said...

Thank you Helen for stopping by and leaving your comment. For me, the goal remains to reveal as much as possible about this great ride we all share. Plus, writing surely compliments my therapy sessions (although on occasion the lines blur). I will count you as one of my blessings. Peace and angst to you, KZ

Kenneth Zak said...

Linda, it was great to meet you last year as well and congrats on all of your writing success! I love the thought of such great diversity, yet still it is those common threads that so often bring us together! Best writing as always, KZ

Vonnie Alto said...

Hi Ken,

My story is a paranormal contemporary romance with paranormal characters who lived during the Regency period. Consequently, my voice is a mix of contemporary and historical. While my book has a contemporary setting, at times, it has a historical sound/flavor. I think that part of that is also due to the fact that I'm probably more of a historical writer than a contemporary one. My task with this novel is to make the historical voice believable for a contemporary story. In this way, I'm probably blending genres and maybe worlds. I won't know for sure until I finish the book.

Sarah Raplee said...

Ken, I enjoyed you post. Thanks for the blog compliments.

In answer to your questions, I write because I have to, and it's more fun than most of the alternatives.

And yes, my stories tend to cross/blend genres. Plus, I use humor to give the reader enough distance that they are willing to examine dark and/or challenging questions about the human condition.

BTW, I adore magical realism, the Impressionists, and talking dogs, so I MUST read The Poet's Secret!

Debby Lee said...

Hi Ken, what a beautifully written article. I can tell by the ebb and flow of your writing that you had to be a poet. Best of luck to you with The Poet's Secret. It sounds like a fabulous book, one I'd dearly love to read.
Sincerely, Debby Lee

Kenneth Zak said...

Thanks Vonnie, I say blend away! Bravo on letting the story lead you (rather than vice versa). Good luck in the process. Best, KZ

Kenneth Zak said...

Sarah, thanks for joining the conversation. I think some of the best writing takes us to places we often don't want to acknowledge in our shared human condition. I applaud your efforts to take us there, via humor or any other mechanism that works for you. I agree you MUST read The Poet's Secret, but of course I am a bit biased. Please join my mailing list at www.kennethzak.com so I can blast you on the eventful day (at least eventful for me -- whenever it happens). Not to give anything away, but so far the dog doesn't talk. Maybe next go round. Woof, KZ

Kenneth Zak said...

Thank you Debby for your kind comments. As an aquatic type I am in a constant state of ebb and flow, writing, swimming, surfing and living. So your review is near and dear to my core. I too would dearly love for you to read The Poet's Secret. I've got a mailing list on my website if you are interested: www.kennethzak.com
Best, KZ

Kimberly said...

Ken,
I think many truly successful books are the ones that don't fit in a specific genre. I've always thought the ones that are different stand out. Many romance books follow a certain formula, and I love when the formula gets all mixed up.
So, I say, mix it up and just write what flows from the heart.
It was a pleasure meeting you last year at the GH reception. Are you coming to Nationals this year?
Kim MacCarron

Kenneth Zak said...

Hello Kim. I couldn't agree more. I won't be at the RWA National Convention this year, instead I will working away on my next novel. It was great meeting you last year as well. Enjoy New York City and give my best to the Unsinkables! Best, KZ

Vonnie Alto said...

Ken,

Thank you for your encouragement. Actually, writing my paranormal story is a lot of work. It necessitates doing a lot of double checking of events, making sure everything proceeds logically in an extraordinary, fantastical world. It's more work than I anticipated. When scenes come together, it's fun.

I also love poetry and I write free verse so the title of your novel immediately captured my interest. It's a memorable title so it should sell well. I zipped on over to your site and signed up for your mailing.

Your books sounds like a mainstream literary romance. I'm curious to know what you think you did successfully to final in the Golden Heart? Is it incorporating magical realisim? The literary aspects? What? And were you a member of RWA?

B. A. Binns said...

Hi Ken, B. A. here. When I was writing Damaged Goods, my 2010 Golden Heart finalist in Romantic Elements, one of my instructors argued that my plot and characters made it a love story, not a romance. At the time I argued with her, now I look at it and agree - althought none of my judges said it wasn't a romance. It really is in the eye of the beholder.

The good news about genre classification is that it helps set reader expectation in advance of opening the pages. The bad news is that a genre can stratify content and keep some people away from some things. Especially because publishers and booksellers have problems about what to do with things that cross genres. I'm working on something now that was supposed to be Romantic Suspence, then I decided it must be Romantic Elements, and now I'm not sure where it would fit or what i would call it to give readers the right clue to what is inside. But like everyone, I keep plugging because I like what I do.

Kenneth Zak said...

Vonnie, The Poet's Secret is my first novel and the RWA Golden Heart was my first entry into any contest ever, so I'm not so sure of the hows and whys of how I got in but was fortunate to final and meet so many fine writers. I did become a member of the RWA. It was quite an interesting process last year being the only male finalist, but my Unsinkable sisters (the other nominees) could not have been more welcoming. Thank you for your support and best in your writing and all the ups and downs that go with it! KZ

Kenneth Zak said...

Bonnie, so true and well said! At the end of the day, it is the process and writing that counts. Thanks for joining the conversation and good writing to you! KZ