An Interview with Christine Grimes

2 Jul
Christine Grimes' story, "The Window," appeared in 2 Bridges Review.

Christine Grimes is a Texas-born writer living in upstate New York. Her story, “The Window,” appeared in 2 Bridges Review.

Christine Grimes teaches at SUNY Jefferson and has led writing workshops and craft seminars for Black River Writers and Fort Drum’s women’s conference. Grimes’ work has been included in From Where You Dream, a collection of craft lectures by Robert Olen Butler. She also hosts the North Country Writers Festival in Watertown, NY, annually, as well as the monthly reading and performance series, First Fridays, in Sackets Harbor, NY. Her stories have been published in journals such as Harpur Palate, Cutthroat, Passages North, and 2 Bridges Review. She is currently at work on a collection of stories and a supernatural thriller set in Sackets Harbor, NY.

To read “The Window” by Christine Grimes and an exercise on structuring a plot around a character’s lack of change, click here. In this interview, Grimes discusses the ten-year road to publication for “The Window,” the problem of where to begin a story, and the legal issues of using real-world references in a fictional story.

Michael Noll

I know that “The Window” has had a long life between first draft and publication (ten years?). How did it change in that time? Or, what revisions finally got it to the final draft?

Christine Grimes

I first drafted this story for a Texas State University MFA workshop in 2004 and it finally found a home when it was published in 2015 with 2 Bridges Review. Remarkably, the story’s structure and who the character was didn’t change drastically during those eleven years. A lot of my stories are rooted in working-class monotony that stretches into the weird and absurd. I wanted to portray a woman who truly believes she’s destined for greatness and is stuck in a dead-end job that moves from unpleasant and slides into a surreal nightmare without her quite realizing that it’s occurring until it does.

Like many MFA students, I revised shortly after workshop and sent it out into the world for rejection. I submitted a couple times a year and when I’d hear back from journals, sometimes there would be an encouraging note, but mainly it was those little scraps of paper (in the days before Duotrope) saying thanks, but no thanks. Every time it came back, I’d read it through again and cut some words, some lines, some paragraphs. I’d rework a passage or two. Then I’d send it out during the next 3-day weekend or block of vacation time I had. I landed a few other stories I’d written for Tim O’Brien’s workshop at journals during those years and that, coupled with the encouraging rejections, was enough to keep me still sending this one. 

When I wrote newer stories, I sent those instead, but something always drew me back to this one, so I kept tinkering. I removed filters, cut some more words, and sent again. When I compare the 2004 draft to the 2015 published version, many of the original lines are still included, but they are cleaner and the chaff has dropped away. I also have added lines to each key scene that either roots it in sensory description, calls back to something else in the story, and/or transitions between ideas. In the final paragraph for instance, the middle of the paragraph was added: “The cloudy smear shrinks as the impression from his hot breath fades until the window is clear.” Before that sentence was added, the paragraph moved too quickly and the beats didn’t effectively root the reader with the narrator in that final, isolated moment. When I look through the story, there are sentences like this throughout, but I doubt I ever would have gotten to those without the cuts that made the space and air for them to arrive.

Michael Noll

I really like the opening scene at the bar, where the narrator gets embarrassed by the guy she met. It’s an interesting scene to begin the story with because it’s set outside of the chip factory, where the entire story is basically set. It also happens outside the time frame of the day that the story is mostly set in. Did the story always begin with this scene? Or, did you add it to achieve a particular effect?

Christine Grimes

The story always included this scene, but it wasn’t until I revised the story several times over that I realized its importance to the narrative. Originally, I’d written it to set her in small town ambiance, show her life outside of work wasn’t much better, and make her late to work. While it did create that effect, I thought of cutting it and starting in the chip factory during revisions. Then I realized that it’s important that she has the man’s attention and hopes for romance until his friends mock him for his interest. It sets up a parallel for the final scene where she is on display and falls at the mercy of several guys together. Although she is able to convince herself the first event doesn’t matter, her willingness to hope for some connection with the final guy who exposes himself leaves her in an even more vulnerable position. Her inability to recognize the reality of a situation repeats throughout the story.

Michael Noll

I also love the daydream about becoming a food critic. I remember this part from all those years ago in workshop. Since this an internal moment for the narrator (as opposed to a present-tense scene), it probably has the ability to move about the story until it finds its right location and size. Was this the case? Or was this daydream always present in the story in basically this same place, in the same way?

Christine Grimes

Christine Grimes' story, The Window, appeared in 2 Bridges Review, Vol. 4.

Christine Grimes’ story, The Window, appeared in 2 Bridges Review, Vol. 4.

Thanks. It was something I had a lot of fun with, particularly because her idea of becoming a food critic is vastly different from what many would imagine. She isn’t cooking up exciting dishes at home and no one is coming to her for restaurant recommendations. The daydream always appeared in this format and was one of the few things I decided not to tinker with in the story.

Surprisingly, one of the most difficult challenges with revision to this story was centered around food. I’d named the factory after a well-known corn chip company and used it throughout. Sometimes it was a benefit I suppose – a kind editor at Carve wrote to tell me the story had made it through the  early rounds for their contest but didn’t make it to the finals, then noted she was a sucker for those chips and any story that featured them. However, ultimately, when I worked with Rita Ciresi at 2 Bridges Review, she accepted the story noting that I’d have to take the name out for the sake of liability. I agreed and immediately brainstormed 15-20 names that conjured up the same type of oily corn chip sound with my favorites at the top.  When I began researching those, I found Mexican restaurants, East and West coast chips companies, vegan chips, and weight loss companies, until I finally landed on Gornitos. While I’d seen different writers debate whether or not to use companies for the sake of verisimilitude, I never expected to have to change it for liability purposes.

Michael Noll

I cringed at the fact that the narrator eats ten bags of chips a day. I mean, I love to eat and I can pretty easily eat way too much food, but that is a lot of chips. It’s an interesting thing for the narrator to know about herself—she seems aware of her own actions yet also unable to change them. That seems like it would be a difficult balance to find. How did you make her aware but not so aware that the reader wouldn’t believe that she was still stuck in a job she felt was beneath her?

Christine Grimes

Two for lunch, two for dinner, a few in the afternoon? Nope, you’re right. That is a ton of chips. One of things that fascinates me about people are the disconnects they are able to have in their own lives. That’s certainly one of the things I wanted to explore with this character. She’s overweight, unhappy, and stuck, but doesn’t see that eating all of these bags, and even logging more tastings than she’s supposed to, could be detrimental. And she’s proud of her work and her work ethic, even though she shows up late and sabotages her boss. So I tried to illustrate her goals and dreams, the reality of her life, and the disconnect between the two. That was something I really wanted to capture – the ways in which we are woefully short of the visions we keep of ourselves. Of course, it’s easier to see in others, particularly people who might seem so different from ourselves.

July 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Structure Plot around Lack of Change

1 Jul
Christine Grimes' story, The Window, appeared in 2 Bridges Review, Vol. 4.

Christine Grimes’ story, “The Window,” appeared in 2 Bridges Review, Vol. 4.

Most stories are about change. A character goes about her business, and then an asteroid, dead body, love interest, child, or zombie shows up and everything changes. As a basic narrative structure, the change story is hard to escape. Politics revolves around game changers. At the coffee shop where I write this, KT Tunstall is singing “Suddenly I See,” which suggests that she didn’t see it before, meaning something has changed.

But what about those people who never really change? The wonderful poet Edna St. Vincent Millay once said, “It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another; it is one damn thing over and over.” If this is true, and if we want to write stories about people trapped in that one damn thing over and over, then we need a new structure.

A story that demonstrates how that structure might look is Christine Grimes’ “The Window.” It was published at 2 Bridges Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story begins in a bar, where the narrator is at a bar, celebrating a birthday:

I flirted with this beer drinking, pool playing, divorced guy, Eddie, who made eyes at me while I played darts. His shaggy brown hair hung in his eyes and when he laughed, his shoulders shook. I maneuvered over to the bar, where he asked my name, then said Gloria sounded pretty. By the end of my darts game, his buddies showed up. I went over to his table to buy him a beer and one of his friends snickered and elbowed him. Couldn’t appreciate the lovin’ a big woman can offer. Eddie just shook his head and said no thanks. I left the beer there anyway. I took a couple shots with Judy, slept on her scratchy old couch, and overslept. So this morning, I borrowed her largest pair of sweat pants and threw on my dirt shirt before driving like an idiot to get to work.

If this was a story about change, then something would happen at work to push the narrator onto a different storyline than she was previously on. And, in fact, this is what happens. Gloria works at a chip factory as a taste tester, assessing chip quality, and on this day her supervisor announces that the factory will begin hosting public tours and Gloria will be featured. In a story about change, this would be an opportunity for something new to happen. Instead, though, the story essentially repeats the structure of the opening scene over and over, with the same result: Gloria gets her hopes up or tries to make the best of a bad situation but eventually gets humiliated. This is how the story ends. So, why isn’t this boring? After all, it’s the same thing over and over. Why does it work?

The answer in how the story makes us buy into the narrator’s point of view. She keeps believing things will be different, and so do we, even at the story’s end. Three boys take the tour and watch Gloria eat chips. Two of the boys make fun of her weight and then walk away. The third boy, one with a crooked nose, doesn’t make fun of her, and we suspect that perhaps he’s different:

His face has a little smile. We make eye contact. He gets me. Maybe he’s interested, maybe impressed, maybe he likes Gornitos. I showboat a little and chew slowly, rubbing the grains against my palate and swallow. The chip’s a little stale, too oily. When I open my mouth for another taste, Crooked Nose unzips his pants and pulls out his limp dick, waving it at me. He sticks out his tongue and licks the glass before he walks out.

The story isn’t about change but, instead, about believing change can happen when it almost certainly will not. This is a key concept to remember. Plot is about confounding a reader’s expectations, not about change.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s structure a story around lack of change, using “The Window” by Christine Grimes as a model:

  1. Write a scene that sums up a character. You’re looking for a moment that makes a character (either the person involved or someone who knows him or her) say “That’s me/him/her in a nutshell.” To write the scene, try thinking about the character in terms of winner or loser. Does the character always succeed? Or not? What is a small moment when the character either gets what she wants or does not get it?
  2. Find new ways to repeat the scene. The key is to think about your character’s motivations. What does he or she want? Don’t worry about what they want most. Instead, just list all of the things they want. Either item on your list offers an opportunity for a scene in which the character will or will not get that desired thing.
  3. Create the expectation that this time is different. The character needs to believe this, of course, but so do the readers. We need to see evidence that something is about to change. Someone is going to give the character the benefit of the doubt or, conversely, not give him what he wants. If you make us believe this time is different, then we’ll be surprised when the scene goes exactly as every other scene has gone.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Katherine Fawcett

25 Jun
Katherine Fawcett's debut story collection, The Little Washer of Sorrows, has been compared to the work of Kelly Link and Donald Barthelme.

Katherine Fawcett’s debut story collection, The Little Washer of Sorrows, has been compared to the work of Kelly Link and Donald Barthelme.

Katherine Fawcett is a Canadian writer living in Pemberton, British Columbia. Her short fiction has been published in Wordworks, Event, Freefall, subTerrain, and Other Voices, and her plays have been performed by several community theatre groups. She teaches music at the Whistler Waldorf School, plays violin with the Sea to Sky Orchestra, and fiddle whenever possible. Her debut story collection, The Little Washer of Sorrows, includes stories about banshees, mermaids, and half-feral boys coming of age.

To read “Dire Consequences” by Katherine Fawcett and an exercise on increasing tension by shifting gears, click here. In this interview, Fawcett discusses writing fables, humor mixed with horror, and Stephen King’s Night Shift.

Michael Noll

When I read the story’s final line, I laughed and gasped at the same time. In a way, the story is structured like a well-told joke. The end is almost like a punchline. How did you find this structure? Did it simply occur to you as you wrote, or did you have the ending in mind when you began the story?

Katherine Fawcett

I’m delighted that the ending made you laugh and gasp. I do enjoy going for goosebumps. I think the horror of inevitability is really powerful. To be funny and devastating at the same time reflects the inescapable reality of being human.

The structure of this particular story did fall into place as I wrote it. I knew it was a fable, and that in telling it the loss of the girl would have to somehow come around again. But no, I didn’t plan the ending in advance. When I neared the ending, I had no choice in how to finish.

Michael Noll

I also love the quick pacing. This is something I’m seeing a lot of lately, in stories by Sheila Heiti, Amelia Gray, and Dina Guidubaldi, to name a few writers. The stories don’t really descend into scene and stay there. Instead, they zoom along over a series of events, as this story does, with the result being a story that feels a bit like a fable. Does this seem like a fair description of the story? What attracts you to this form?

Katherine Fawcett

Daydreams for Angels is the first story collection from Heather O'Neill, the bestselling author of Lullabies for Little Criminals.

Daydreams for Angels is the first story collection from Heather O’Neill, the bestselling author of Lullabies for Little Criminals.

I recently read Heather O’Neill’s collection Daydreams of Angels, another Canadian author whose short stories often trip quickly along with gorgeous images and snapshots of events. I like how this style can feel intense–almost dream-like. I think the short story lends itself to this form very well. I love a story that is organized in such a way that readers feel they are swinging Tarzan-style from vine to vine with every turn of the page.

Michael Noll

This story was originally published as part of a series titled “Thrilling Tales of Torment.” As such, I guess it’s a kind of horror story, which makes sense—after all, two children die. But it’s a peculiar kind of horror story in that it’s funny. (At least, I laughed at the end.) But it’s also a weird kind of humor since the thing that is funny is also horrible, and so as I was laughing, I was also feeling a lot of empathy for the characters, especially the boy. Was this story intended as horror? Is that a genre you’re drawn to?

Katherine Fawcett

To be honest, I didn’t write this as a “Thrilling Tales of Torment” story, but when I was asked to submit a Halloween story, it was the most suitable one I had at the time. It certainly isn’t horror in the traditional sense, but you’re right–a couple of dead kids is a pretty nasty and no one wants to laugh at that, so it’s kind of a blend of bad, distasteful humour and weird, funny horror.

I do like reading horror–although I sometimes find it too disturbing to read at night. The first short story collection I ever read was Stephen King’s Night Shift. I must have been 11 or so–I remember being terrified and thrilled, and sharing the stories around campfires to scare my friends.

Michael Noll

One review of the book uses the term “fabulist” and compares you to Kelly Link, the incomparable giant of the weird stories that seem to now officially fall under that label. What do you think of that term: fabulist? It’s relatively new, and so it seems that the definition of what belongs is a bit fuzzy. Does it seem like an appropriate category for your work?

Katherine Fawcett

I am honored to be spoken of in the same breath as Kelly Link. I’d never defined myself as such before, but if the Link is a fabulist and NPR says I’m following in her tradition, then yup, you can call me a happy fabulist too. The word is appealing because it is like “fantastic” and “beautiful” and “marvelous” going out for drinks together.
But to properly answer your question, I looked it up and found out that fabulist has two meanings:

  1. Someone who recounts fables.
  2. A liar.

I suppose all fiction is lying by definition, but a fable is something that brings to light a truth. So yes, lying to find truth would be a great category for my work.

I read somewhere that fiction is simply a craft that arranges letters and spaces and punctuation in a way that makes us empathize with the fake struggles of pretend people. It seems to me the whole process of categorization (fabulist, magical realist, satirist, sci-fi writer etc) has more to do with marketing than actually sitting down and telling stories–lying to find truth. But if lumping me into a category will pique readers’ interest, lump away.

June 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Switch Gears and Increase Tension

23 Jun
Katherine Fawcett's Little Washer of Sorrows offers funny, unsettling  stories that have drawn comparisons to the stories of Kelly Link.

Katherine Fawcett’s Little Washer of Sorrows offers funny, unsettling stories that have drawn comparisons to the stories of Kelly Link.

One of the easiest mistakes to make as a writer is to write the same thing over and over again. What happens is that we hit on a great idea to start a story (something spooky or funny or weird or sad), and then, when the story hits a lull, we double down on that idea to keep the story going (more spookiness, humor, weirdness, or sorrow). It’s the literary equivalent of saying, “More cowbell.” A better strategy is often to switch up what your story is doing, to step away from your great idea, and that stepping away (or switching gears, depending on your metaphor of choice) can actually increase the story’s tension.

A great example of how switching gears can heighten tension can be found in Katherine Fawcett’s story, “Dire Consequences.” It’s included in her story collection The Little Washer of Sorrows and was first published in Pique, where you can read it now (it’s the third of three stories).

How the Story Works

The story begins with a great idea: a girl doesn’t want to eat her broccoli, and her mother says, “No one’s ever died from eating broccoli.” So the girl eats it. Here is what happens next (it’s the story’s great idea):

“See?” said the mother. “I told you. That wasn’t so bad now, was it?”

The girl didn’t answer. She wiped her mouth on her sleeve, went quietly to the couch, curled up under the afghan, and died.

Awesome, right? At that point, the story comes to a natural pause. The girl is dead. Now what? It’d be tempting, as the writer, to up the ante and find ways to immediately keep the weird cause of death going. But, instead, Fawcett does something different:

From that day on, the boy knew he could get anything he wanted. “If I have to do my homework, I’ll die,” he’d tell his mother, and she’d write a note to his teacher. “I’ll die if I can’t have an ice cream cone,” he’d say and she’d get him a large tiger-tiger in a waffle cone. “I will die right now if I can’t ride in that fire truck,” he’d say and she would have a chat with the fire chief and next thing you know the boy would be sitting in the passenger seat, looking out from under a red plastic fireman’s hat, grinning and waving at all his envious friends.

The story has switched gears, from cause of death to consequences of death. Before long, the story switches gears again:

But like mourning and passion, the novelty of the boy’s threats eventually wore off, and the mother could not bear how spoiled he’d become.

“Hey Mum! Mum! I’ll die unless I can have my birthday party in Disneyland,” he said one day. “With all the kids in my class. Plus a few from soccer.”

Enough was enough.

“Quit using that ‘I will die’ stuff with me,” she said. “You will not die. You’re just manipulating me.”

Neither one of them knew if this was true or not, but deep down the boy was scared that she would test it, so he gradually returned to his obedient ways, and she returned to not being such a pushover.

The story has switched gears again by moving from consequences of death to a kind of acceptance of those consequences.

The story keeps changing gears in this way until the very end. When you read to that ending, you’ll see that the story delivers the sort of payout promised by the great idea at the beginning. And you’ll also see that the story moves in a pretty direct line toward that ending—but, when reading the story, that line doesn’t feel direct. For such a short story, it has many parts and movements, each one ratcheting up the tension and emotional stakes by switching gears.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s increase tension by switching gears, using “Dire Consequences” by Katherine Fawcett as a model:

  1. Find the first pause of your story. When we’re writing, we often feel these moments as they arrive. They have a conclusive quality; we write a sentence and automatically add a space break. These are often moments where we hit writer’s block because they mean starting a new section or part of the story, and any new start means, to some extent, inventing something new rather than extending something that you’ve already created. Fawcett handles her first pause with this phrase: From that day on. It has a natural movement toward consequences or effects: the aftershocks of the big quake that starts the story. So, try starting a new section (after the pause and the space break) with this phrase. If something big happened just before the pause, how can you move forward in time and reveal the fallout from that big happening?
  2. Amplify the consequences. E. M. Forster famously wrote that “The king died and then the queen died” is a story while “The king died and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The difference between the two is a sense of consequence. Imagine if he filled in that second line: “The king died and then the queen wouldn’t leave her room and she wouldn’t eat and wouldn’t drink and wouldn’t get up to use the chamber pot and wouldn’t clean herself up or put on new clothes or swat the flies, which were considerable by the time she died of grief.” The consequences get stacked on top of one another until they become unsustainable. This is exactly what Fawcett does with the son, who demands to have things so that he won’t die. So, try repeating the basic consequence that you’ve invented. How can you break it down into specific actions that can be repeated?
  3. Change the energy level. What happens when the consequences become unsustainable? Once you’ve created an unsustainable situation, you’re going to hit another natural pause: the situation will resolve itself. Then what? Fawcett switches gears again by changing the energy level of the story from frantic to calm. The kid is freaking out, asking for stuff, and the his mom calls his bluff and they settle into a more sustainable routine, which will, of course, get broken (which will be the next opportunity to change gears). So, how can you dramatically increase or decrease the energy level of your story?

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Dina Guidubaldi

18 Jun
Dina Guidubaldi's debut story collection, How Gone We Got, features robots and sea creatures and characters that seem intimately familiar.

Dina Guidubaldi’s debut story collection, How Gone We Got, features robots and sea creatures and characters that seem intimately familiar.

Dina Guidubaldi’s first book, the story collection How Gone We Got, has drawn comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Ninth Letter, the Santa Monica Review, Cup of Fiction, SPIN, the Austin American-Statesman, and Other Voices; she has been an editor for Callaloo and American Short Fiction. A graduate of Texas State’s MFA program, she currently lives in Austin.

To read an exercise on making high-concept stories unpredictable and Guidubaldi’s story “What I Wouldn’t Do,” click here. In this interview, Guidubaldi discusses how to create realistic characters and following your instinct as a writer.

Michael Noll

How did “What I Wouldn’t Do” begin its life? Did you sit down and think, I’m going to write about a guy who builds an actual city for the woman he loves and see how far I can take the idea? Or, were you writing about a relationship when the idea of building a city occurred to you?

Dina Guidubaldi

This was one of those actually “fun” stories to write. I think it started with the idea of the narrator as this kind of obsessive, impractical nut. It also started with me thinking about the concept of “true” love, how there’s something selfish about it. My dad bought me a book when I was little, called The Reward Worth Having, about these brothers (?) who travel a long distance to vie for the hand of this ailing princess. The one who woos her in the end is of course the underdog, who just brings her a bird and a song and no money or promises. The idea was supposed to be “Aw, be yourself and people will see your value,” but I guess what I took out of it was “He doesn’t even know that princess! She could be awful! Why bother? He just wants to be the One who gets her, the One who gets written about.” And so that fuzzy memory sitting somewhere in my head got the ball rolling.

Michael Noll

I love how the story takes phrases that would normally seem sweet (“you were my hours and my half-pasts”) and makes them oppressive and creepy. This is part of what made the story seem strangely realistic to me. It’s a kind of fable or allegory (or something), and the risk with such stories is that they’re too clever for their own good. But this story seems like a real portrait of a relationship that many people have had; in fact, the fantastic-ish elements seem to create the opportunity for the moments that seem most authentic. How did you achieve this balance? In other words, how did you keep the metaphor trained on real emotion?

Dina Guidubaldi

Hm. Right, I think if it does achieve that realness, it’s because this is an honest problem people have—obsession is just selfishness. This guy’s trying his best to make things work, but for what? I also think the female character helps balance things out. She figures things out way before he does, that it’s not about her at all. And again, that fable bit—because it is loosely based on the premise of the knight aiming for the princess, you can get all crazy with the details. Also, he’s rich, and rich people come up with fantastic ways to spend their money, in real life. Or so I like to think.

Michael Noll

I laughed out loud at this line: 

It’s not like you’re a prisoner here, I said. You’re free to walk out of your turret room and down the spiral staircase and through the antechamber and into the foyer and out the front door and past the rosemary and lavender bushes and into the hedge maze and down the cobblestoned circular streets and out into the world. 

It makes me curious about the story’s tone. It’s told in first person, but a line like that seems to reveal a certain amount of self-awareness in the narrator. Was that tone/awareness easy to find, or did you have to write your way into it?

Dina Guidubaldi

Not to sound like a writer jerk, but that’s just the way the character talks, to me. He’s so blustering and headstrong that he almost grasps it—in fact, he does grasp it, I’d say—but he’s heedless, he doesn’t care. He has this little war brewing inside him—Should I keep doing this? Heck, I’ll keep doing it!—and I love that he just quashes any self-doubt before it can get big enough to rise up before him, before his many, many failures catch up to him.

Michael Noll

How did you approach the story’s ending? I can imagine other tempting ways to end it: when the woman leaves or with the narrator’s realization that “I’d been building us your city for me.” But you keep going and end with the great, creepy moment with the microscope. How did you know you’d found the right image or line to end on?

Dina Guidubaldi

I think I kinda like this guy, and I didn’t want him to be sad. I didn’t want him to realize anything much, or to change for very long. I wanted him to keep living blindly and blithely in his world, and the idea of a child—or, for him, a brand new generation of something to love and obsess over—seemed a good way of extending his quest. I also like that he doesn’t care if it’s his child—any one will do. Which kinda circles around the true love idea: is he truly loving or is he truly selfish? And I guess I (inadvertently) revisit this whole idea in a later story in the collection—the “Press Repeat” clone one.

June 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Make High Concept Stories Unpredictable

16 Jun
Dina Guidubaldi's story collection, How Gone We Got, fits neatly on any bookshelf containing George Saunders or Karen Russell.

Dina Guidubaldi’s story collection, How Gone We Got, fits neatly on any bookshelf containing George Saunders or Karen Russell.

It sometimes seems like the fabulists are taking over the literary world: George Saunders, Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Manuel Gonzales, and Amelia Gray, to name a few. When we talk about these writers’ stories, we tend to focus on the fantastic: on the slightly fantastic (something’s a bit amiss or weird) and incredibly fantastic (zombies at the workplace). But I wonder if that focus is misplaced. Maybe the fantastic elements of these stories simply reflect something about the culture and world they’re written within. From a craft and critical perspective, it might be better to focus on something else: many of these stories use high-concept story plots—plots that contain elements that make them easy to summarize, like, say, Vampires in the Lemon Grove.

Here’s one more writer to add to the fabulist canon: Dina Guidubaldi. Her collection How Gone We Got is as good as anything by the writers mentioned above, and her story “What I Wouldn’t Do” offers a great lesson in how to use a high concept plot and avoid the trap of it becoming predictable. You can read the story online at Superstition Review.

How the Story Works

When I use the term high concept, I’m not referring to any particular genre. The term simply means any story whose premise can distilled to a tagline that often serves as a title: CivilWarLand in Bad DeclineThe Faery HandbagJurassic Park, or One Hundred Years of Solitude. The opposite of high concept is low concept, meaning stories that can’t be easily distilled because they’re about character or world development. They might have catchy titles (Freedom) but are still fairly difficult to summarize (Franzen’s thoughts about America); there just isn’t the same immediate recognition about what the story is about.

The problem with high concept stories is that the story may not be as interesting as its title. After the premise is introduced, the story is basically the same thing over and over again (Snakes on a Plane, Bad Teacher, Horrible Bosses). The trick, then, is finding a way to keep the conceit going in surprising ways. This means that the story may repeat itself or follow a predictable path but that it should have moments of surprise built into that path.

This is exactly what Guidubaldi does in “What I Wouldn’t Do.”

The high concept plot is stated succinctly in the story’s first line: “I wanted to love you better so I bought you a city.”

The rest of the first paragraph establishes the tone of the story:

It was small but shaped like your fingerprint, with a mansion for you in the middle of the whorl. It was hard to find, your mansion, but since I’d mapped it, troweled cement for the foundation, chopped logs for the beams, hammered and nailed and sanded until my hands fell off, lugged stones in a canvas sling with my teeth when they did, hung tapestries and draped velvet, since I did all of that, I had a pretty good idea where it was. I landscaped your rose garden and made your maze. I scissorhanded some topiaries for you in the shape of hearts and souls and kept up with their maintenance too; I was on a tight schedule and you were my hours and my half-pasts.

At this point, many readers will have a pretty good idea where this story is headed. The relationship will either grow or it will end (the basic plot lines for all love stories). As the relationship grows or falls apart, the conceit of the story (the city built for the lover) will also grow or fall apart. Once we read those details that move in either direction, we’re going to think, either consciously or not, “Aha.” Then, we may get bored; we know what will happen next. Guidubaldi follows one of these paths but what she does so well is include details that leap out of the conceit and surprise us in some way.

Here is a good example:

When the narrator’s beloved begins to chafe at all that is being built for her and around her, the narrator says this:

It’s not like you’re a prisoner here, I said. You’re free to walk out of your turret room and down the spiral staircase and through the antechamber and into the foyer and out the front door and past the rosemary and lavender bushes and into the hedge maze and down the cobblestoned circular streets and out into the world.

Personally, I think that line is really funny. I laughed out loud when I read it, and the sheer humor of it surprised me, in part because it reflects an awareness in the narrator of what he’s doing. He’s aware of the story’s high concept and its metaphoric qualities.

In another moment, the fairy-tale nature of the story’s conceit (the city build for the woman) is lowered into the grit of real life:

All bundled up, we went out into the city in a sleigh led by horses that I’d had surgically implanted to be unicorns. The one on the left had developed an abscess around the horn and it smelled bad, so I switched you seats.

And, then, a few lines later: “The horse with the inflamed horn scratched it off on a tree and your answer got lost among the resultant blood and gauze.”

Finally, the characters are allowed to sound like real people and not elements that simply arrived with the conceit like the Fisher Price farmer that comes with the plastic barn. For instance, the narrator tries to paint koi to cover up the fungus that is growing on them, and this dialogue ensues:

Jesus, you said, layering thin slices of cucumber on your eyes as if you were a salad now, too. Go order a pizza. Go back to work. Do what you need to do.

I stared at the tiny eyedropper, at the tainted fish, at my reflection in the murk. This is what I need to do, I said. The fish looked nervously skyward.

I suspect that plenty of real people, including, perhaps, the ones reading this, have spoken those lines or had those lines spoken to them. The conceit, in all of its fantastic absurdity, has been brought into the familiar realm of our real lives. As a result, the story continually makes the reader pause to laugh or cringe, and it’s those moments that make it succeed.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s add surprises to a high-concept story using “What I Wouldn’t Do” by Dina Guidubaldi as a model:

  1. Make the story and characters aware of the conceit. If a characters aren’t aware of the conceit, the reader may eventually become impatient with them. For instance, Manuel Gonzales has a story, “Life on Capra II,” about characters who are actually characters in a video game. At a certain point, one of them figures this out. If he didn’t, the story would be simply thin allegory, and we’d think, “Yeah, yeah, I get it” and thumb to the end to see how many pages are left. But when the characters gets it, too, then we wonder what will happen. So, make your characters aware of everything that you, the writer, are aware of. You can do this by simply rereading a passage that you’ve written and asking yourself, “What do I know?” Does your character know that, too? If not, how will that knowledge change how he or she feels or acts? In “What I Wouldn’t Do,” the narrator understands that the world he’s building is oppressive, and so his voice gains a kind of knowing irony.
  2. Lower the conceit into the grit of the real world. This is particularly important for sci-fi and fantasy novels. Think about the original Jurassic Park novel. These are freaking dinosaurs we’re talking about. If they escape their pens, why won’t they eat everyone in the world? The answer that Crichton invented is basic but important: the dinosaurs are on an island. (The latter movies are terrible because the dinosaurs reach the mainland and so the story becomes implausible.) Guidubaldi adds a basic biological detail to her unicorns: they get abscesses. So, take a look around your house or workplace: the places and bodies around you. Choose one or two details that you see and add them to your story, to a particular passage. What difference does it make?
  3. Bring the conceit into the realm of real human interactions. This is the same idea as the previous step, except your focusing on relationships and interactions. Take a look around you. How can you build a conversation or kind of conversation into your story. Guidubaldi does this when the narrator is making the woman feel especially claustrophobic. She says, “Go order a pizza. Go back to work. Do what you need to do.” She’s expressing her irritation in the mundane language of the real-life routine of a relationship. In other words, she’s expressing what she feels without referring to the conceit around her. So, take a look at the dialogue you’ve written. Does it refer to the conceit (zombies, dinosaurs, theme park)? If so, can you remove the reference so that the dialogue only refers to the emotions and feelings at hand?

Good luck.

How to Write from Multiple Points of View

9 Jun
Scott Blackwood's novel See How Small "compassionately examines the fragile psyches of the individuals left behind in the haunting wake of murder," according to a New York Times review.

Scott Blackwood’s novel See How Small “compassionately examines the fragile psyches of the individuals left behind in the haunting wake of murder,” according to a New York Times review.

Anyone writing a novel with multiple points of view probably finds it easy to identify the characters to follow—you simply follow the plot lines and see who’s involved. The tricky part is figuring out how to signal the POV shifts. In his beautiful novel Plainsong, Kent Haruf made the shift at the beginning of each chapter and titled the chapters with a character’s name. The voice or tone of the chapters was basically the same, despite following different characters. This is one way to handle different POVs, but it’s not the only way.

You may want your POV sections to sound different, but it can difficult to create a different voice for each character—let’s face it, it’s hard enough to create one distinctive voice, let alone three or four. Therefore, we need to play with more than voice if we’re going to create distinctive sounding POVs.

No recent novel does as much with POV (or includes as many different perspectives) as Scott Blackwood’s novel See How Small. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

See How Small follows a lot of different characters, and each POV sounds and feels slightly different. However, Blackwood doesn’t accomplish this by trying to mimic the character’s natural voice. Instead, he plays with different storytelling styles. For instance, the novel begins with a chapter that mixes third-person and first-person plural POVs (they and we), but what’s more important is how it focuses on some details and not others. (To understand the scene, you need to know that the novel is about the brutal killing of three girls):

Another remembered the pride she’d felt the day before, riding a horse no one in her family could ride, a horse that had thrown her older sister. He knows your true heart, her father had said. The horse’s shoulders were lathered with sweat. He had a salty, earthy smell she’d thought of as love.

The men with guns did things to us.

The chapter also contains this sentence: “It grew hot, dark, and wet like first things.”

Notice how the details are shape and focused when it comes to the characters’ memories, but the writing becomes fuzzy and impressionistic (even purposefully vague) when describing violence.

The next chapter uses a more traditional third person POV, from the perspective of a girl’s mother. Even though the writing probably feels more familiar, it does play with style:

Then, for some reason, most likely because Kate Ulrich is embellishing, revising even as she imagines it, the parking lot goes dark. Days are shorter now, Kate thinks.

The narration doesn’t rely on strict chronology but is impressionistic, like the first chapter but with a different sensibility since the character is different.

The third chapter follows Jack Dewey and lists his thoughts before a pivotal moment. The chapter is structured as a literal list, with each item focused narrowly on a particular detail:

1. Of his nylon search rope, which is five-sixteenths of an inch in diameter and two hundred feet long and attached to a snap hook on his belt.

The list advances his thoughts on the rope, which gives the chapter a much more narrow focus than the others.

The fourth chapter follows a man, Hollis, who notices something important but is distracted by something else. He’s so engrossed in that thing (a boy prying loose a shell that was glued to Hollis’ car) that he’s not even aware of himself: “Around him, at the other tables, heads swivel. He suspects he’s yelled an obscenity, maybe even a threat.”

Finally, the fifth chapter follows one of the perpetrators of the crime, 17-year-old Michael. As such, he’s inherently unlikable, yet he’s described sympathetically:

“He’d asked if Michael was working on his GED and Michael lied. The older man, whose hair was thinning, laughed ruefully and said, Sure, that’s you. Overachiever.

The contradiction in how we expect to feel about a character versus how he’s describes creates tension and mystery.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s writing from multiple points of view using See How Small by Scott Blackwood as a model:

  1. Write from an impressionistic POV. It’s a cliché that any public moment or interaction will be seen and remembered differently by the different people who are present. But it may be more useful to think about what characters want or don’t want to notice—or what a character can’t help but see or not see, remember or not remember. In other words, much of what people notice is affected by their emotional states, both vague (in a good mood) and specific (mad at someone for a particular reason). Consider what emotional state your character has during the scene and how that state will affect what he or she notices or remembers.
  2. Write from a pointillist POV. Our tendency is to rely on a usual kind of camera view, taking in an entire scene at once. Try zooming the camera in. Focus on a small, particular part of a scene or on a particular thing that a character notices or thinks about. Put blinders on the narration so that it can only see one thing. What is that thing?
  3. Write from a distracted POV. In Pieter Bruegel’s famous painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” the splash of Icarus into the sea is only a small part of the painting. Many of the characters, like the farmer in the foreground, are looking elsewhere. You can do this with your characters (and their POV) as well. If you’ve created a significant event or interaction, the reader will expect to see it. So, defy that expectation and give your character something else to think about. If the significant event or interaction is important enough, it will butt its head into the scene eventually. Until then, what can distract the character? This is a good way to create suspense in the reader and also to develop a character.
  4. Write a sympathetic POV about an unlikable character. Again, this is about defying the reader’s expectations. If a character plays an unlikable or negative role in the novel, how can you show us the character in a sympathetic light? You might think about how the character would defend him or herself. What are some mitigating factors behind the character’s decisions? What would a character witness for your character say in a trial? Try building a chapter around those details. The opposite of this, of course, is to write an unsympathetic POV about a likable character.

Good luck and have fun.

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