How to Stretch Present Action

16 Dec
The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen's novel Song of the Shank, "the kind of imaginative work only a prodigiously gifted risk-taker could produce."

The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, “the kind of imaginative work only a prodigiously gifted risk-taker could produce.”

Some books come with warnings, a heads-up to readers that the text is demanding and challenging. On one hand, these warnings are necessary to allow readers to brace themselves for what might be slow going. On the other hand, it’s possible that these warnings turn off readers from prose that isn’t difficult so much as new. As a casual or even serious reader, it’s easy to devour the same kinds of books over and over (I’m certainly guilty of this). But when you take time to study a difficult book, the rewards can be enormous.

Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen is one of these books. It was published by Graywolf Press, and the press’ hometown newspaper, the Star Tribune, called the novel “engrossing and demanding.” At first glance, this seems like an accurate description, but spend a few minutes with the prose, and I think you’ll find that not only does it become easy to read, it also creates possibilities that other prose styles don’t allow.

You can read the opening chapter of Song of the Shank at Graywolf’s website.

How the Story Works

The Onion once ran the headline, “Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text,” and that may be the reaction of many readers to the novel’s first paragraph, which continues for more than two pages. This is an approach to writing that we’re not used to. In fact, as writers, I’m willing to bet that most of us would struggle to write a paragraph that lasts two pages. So, how does Allen do it?

Not that much happens in the paragraph. We’re introduced to Eliza, who realizes that Tom is missing and so goes out into the yard to look for him—that’s the extent of the action. The bulk of the paragraph is taken up by Eliza’s thoughts, close description, commentary on her thoughts and the descriptions, and context for those thoughts and the situation in general. The novel is essentially asking us to recalibrate our expectations, to focus on things that we tend to skim over.

Here are two early sentences that show how Allen stretches out the present action. Try to spot the transition between action and context:

A clear track, left foot and right, running the circumference of the house, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows, trespassing at the doors. Had she been back in the city, the idea would already have occurred to her that the journalists were to blame, those men of paper determined in their unstoppable quest to unearth the long-lost—three years? four?—”Blind Tom”—Half Man, Half Amazing—to reproduce the person, return him to public consumption, his name new again, a photograph (ideally) to go along with it, the shutter snapping (a thousand words).

The second sentence begins with a clear marker to the reader: the prose is moving from action (a clear track, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows) to context (Had she been back in the city…).

In these sentences, the prose moves from action to close description:

She turns left, right, her neck at all angles. The house pleasantly still behind her, tall (two stories and an attic) and white, long and wide, a structure that seems neither exalted nor neglected, cheerful disregard, its sun-beaten doll’s house gable and clear-cut timber boards long in need of a thick coat of wash, the veranda sunken forward like an open jaw, the stairs a striped and worn tongue.

The description continues for a few more sentences and then moves into commentary (then, notice how the commentary moves back into description):

Taken altogether it promises plenty, luxury without pretense, prominence without arrogance, privacy and isolation. Inviting. Homey. Lace curtains blowing in at the windows, white tears draining back into a face.

Finally, here is an example of how the prose moves from action to Eliza’s thoughts:

Winded and dizzy, she finds herself right in the middle of the oval turnaround between the house and the long macadam road that divides the lawn. Charming really, her effort, she thinks. In her search just now had she even ventured as far as the straggly bushes, let alone into the woods?

Taken individually, none of these moves out of present action is remarkable. Writers use strategies like these all of the time. But when they’re used together, the effect is powerful. The present action is stretched so much that we almost forget what is happening and, instead, focus on what is happening around the action. This is often where the most interesting parts of any novel lie. The difference is that Allen has found a way to direct our attention to them.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s stretch out present action using Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen as a model:

  1. Introduce context. There are many ways to temporarily broaden the point of view. An easy way is to jump out of the scene’s immediate time and place. Allen does this with the phrase, “Had she been back in the city.” Try letting the character (or the narrator) suggest how things in the scene might be different if the time and place were different. In other words, give context for how the situation dictates the action.
  2. Introduce close description. Every writer at some point describes aspects of the setting or character, but one way to extend the description is to use simile (veranda sunken forward like an open jaw) and metaphor (the stairs a striped and worn tongue). Allen also moves beyond literal description and explains how the place seems (a structure that seems neither exalted nor neglected). He’s able to do this, in part, because of the prose’s pacing. If we’re leaning into the present action, waiting to see what happens next, then we don’t have much patience for extended description. But this prose moves more slowly. So, try to slow down your descriptions by extending them with metaphor and simile and statements of how the places or characters seem.
  3. Introduce commentary. This is really just an extension of that seeming description. A good way to do this is to follow a description with a statement that sums up its individual pieces. You (or your narrator or character) are essentially telling the readers how to view what they’ve just read.
  4. Introduce a character’s thoughts. One way to approach a character’s thoughts is to let them function as commentary. In other words, avoid writing thoughts like this: Oh no! I need to hurry! Instead, let the character observe him or herself doing the present action. In Allen’s case, he lets Eliza gently mock her search for Tom (Charming really, her effort, she thinks). We’re allowed to see her from different angles, which gives a deeper picture of her, one that is multi-faceted. The more facets you show, the slower your prose may move—but, as Allen proves, the more texture and depth you can provide.

Good luck!

An Interview with Rahul Kanakia

11 Dec
Rahul Kanakia is the author of the forthcoming YA novel Enter Title Here and this weird ghost story in Clarkesworld.

Rahul Kanakia is the author of the forthcoming YA novel Enter Title Here and this cool, weird ghost story in Clarkesworld.

Rahul Kanakia’s young adult novel, Enter Title Here (its actual title, not a typo) will be published by Disney-Hyperion in Fall 2015. His stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, The Indiana Review, Apex, and Nature. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and a B.A. in Economics from Stanford, and used to work in the field of international development. Currently, he lives in Oakland, CA, working a freelance writer and content creation consultant.

To read “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” and an exercise on playing with the logistics of genre stories, click here.

In this interview, Kanakia discusses early reactions to his story in a MFA workshop, the source of some of the imagery in the story, and what (if any) connection this supernatural story has on his forthcoming Young Adult novel.

Michael Noll

I love how this story flips some famous tropes from ghost stories. For instance, one of the most darkest sentences is this one: “You know how many times I’ve gone down to the Kaiser Hospital over on Howe Street and sucked the ghost of a crying baby out of one of their incubators?” Capturing ghosts was so funny and great in Ghostbusters, but here it’s horribly sad and a sign of something wrong emotionally with the person who does it. Did you set out to subvert this image, or did you simply happen upon it in writing the story?

Rahul Kanakia

Interesting that you bring this up. I actually only thought of the movie Ghostbusters after the story was completed, but it’s obvious that it had some subconscious influence on the imagery of the story. For instance, the vacuum device that I’ve imagined in this story is definitely reminiscent of the apparatus they used in the movie. Regarding this particular image, I can’t say what I was doing. In its first draft, the story was entitled “Seven Things That Really Don’t Bother Me,” and each section was about one thing that annoyed other people but didn’t annoy the narrator. In this case, I think the idea was that the narrator wasn’t bothered by the sound of crying babies (which is said to be one of the most distressing sounds that a human being can hear). The idea with the story was, I think, that the narrator came off as emotionally disturbed because he didn’t have these basic human responses, but, after a lifetime of grappling with these problems, the narrator had started to rationalize these deficiencies as being a sign of a greater and more inclusive heart (i.e. other people are disturbed by babies, so they refuse to have anything to do with them, whereas, in his eyes, he is so great-hearted that he’s willing to go out and extract them from the incubators so that the hospital’s operations can continue).

Michael Noll

Those babies are also part of the real horror of this horror story. For instance, there is a ghost of a baby whose intestines developed on the outside of its body—and what’s horrifying is that this is something that actually happens. But unless it happens to us—to our baby—we rarely give such possibilities any thought. You do something similar with the ghosts of the men who died of AIDS. Is that one of the goals of horror stories? To remind readers of the very real horror that exists in the world?

Rahul Kanakia

I don’t know. This is probably one of the only horror stories I’ve ever read. In the case of the baby w/ the intestines, that’s a result of a documentary on harlequin babies that I once saw late at night. Horrifying images. The men with AIDS was something I tossed in at the last minute. I realized that a 60+ year old gay man will have some experience with the epidemic, and I wanted to be true to that. The imagery of the AIDS patients was drawn from the descriptions in Randy Shilt’s history of the early years of the epidemic: And The Band Played On.

Michael Noll

Rahul Kanakia's story, "Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)" was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

The title is great—as soon as I saw it, I wanted to read the story. Did you start with this title, which really only begins to introduce the direction the story will go, or did you write the story first and then choose the title?

Rahul Kanakia

As I mentioned above, the original title of the story was “Seven Things That Really Don’t Bother Me,” and it was originally told as a list of seven things. The basic underlying story (a ghostbuster’s roommate has moved out and he’s filled with angst about it) was the same, but the format was very different. However, when I ran it through my MFA workshop, they said the format felt too scattershot, so I decided to tell it as a series of Craigslist house posts. The title is, I think, based on an actual post I saw while looking for housing once. Although, in that case, I believe, the landlord wanted a roommate who wouldn’t drink alcohol.

Michael Noll

You have a young adult novel being published in the next year, so I’m curious how you see this story fitting in with the rest of your writing. Would you give this story to fans of your YA novel? Or are that novel and this story products of separate writing lives that you inhabit?

Rahul Kanakia

My YA novel is very different. Firstly, it doesn’t have any fantastic or science fictional elements. It’s about a high school senior—the valedictorian of her school—who’s very angry with those who she sees as having gotten more recognition than her and who embarks upon all kinds of schemes in order to bring down her enemies. But I do see both this story and that novel as sharing lots of themes. They’re both about people who feel like they’re damaged and outside the mainstream; people who are secretly worried that no one will ever, or could ever, love them. I think the horrifying thing about this story is that in this case, the protagonist is right. He is unloveable. For whatever reason, he’s rendered himself unloveable. My book, though, is not quite as bleak.

December 2014

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

How to Build a Story with Logistics

9 Dec
Rahul Kanakia's story, "Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)" was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Some university creative writing teachers don’t allow their students to write genre fiction: no ghosts, aliens, spaceships, vampires, or zombies unless they’re handled in a literary fashion (whatever that means). This isn’t my policy, but I understand it. Bad genre stories tend to skim the surface of an idea (stun guns, cosmic annihilation) in a cursory way that can be tedious and dull. And yet I’ve found that good genre stories are as much fun to read as any purely literary creation. So what makes a good genre story?

The answer is, in part, how imaginatively the story digs into the practical details of its idea. Ghosts are ghosts, for instance; we’ve seen them countless times in books and movies, and, as a result, we tend to grow accustomed to the rules and conventions of the ghost-story genre. A good ghost story, then, will play with the practical logistics of those conventions in order to make us see them with fresh eyes.

This is precisely what Rahul Kanakia does in his story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley).” He takes the idea of a ghost catcher (a la Ghostbusters) and focuses on the logistics of the profession in order to produce a story that is horrifying, funny, and complex. It was published at Clarkesworld, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Anyone who’s seen Ghostbusters will understand the basic concept of the story. A man captures and stores ghosts for a living. But what does that mean, logistically-speaking? Where are the ghosts found? How are they captured? Where are they stored? These are basic questions, but the answers are crucial to developing the story. Kanakia begins to provide these answers in a single paragraph:

Chris once told me that human beings are hard-wired to feel an “urgent sense of distress” at the crying of a baby. Well, that’s not true. You know how many times I’ve gone down to the Kaiser Hospital over on Howe Street and sucked the ghost of a crying baby out of one of their incubators? Just maybe like two hundred times. Crying babies? That’s a Wednesday for me.

Where are the ghosts found? The usual places (people’s homes, as we learn elsewhere) but also in places that make logical sense and yet are unexpected. Of course you’d find ghosts in hospitals. Of course some of those ghosts would be babies. And, of course, some of those babies would have died in incubators. It makes perfect sense, but I’m willing to bet you’ve never read a story with these kinds of ghosts in it.

How are they captured? The same way they’re captured in Ghostbusters. But, note the verb that Kanakia uses: sucked. It’s not the tone typically used when talking about dead babies, and so it’s shocking.

Where are they stored? We know that from the story’s title: in the narrator’s house.

These answers flesh out the story by creating the world, but they also create the character. The most important question is one that many readers might not think to ask: What kind of person captures and stores ghosts? The answer is someone so callous or emotionally closed that the ghosts of dead babies in incubators doesn’t faze him (“That’s a Wednesday for me”).

By digging into the logistics of how the idea works (capturing ghosts), the story creates a character who must live with those logistics. The rest of the story explores what happens to such a character when he is faced with a problem that connects his supernatural profession to a mundane problem (finding a boarder). That story is impossible without the depth of character revealed in that paragraph about ghost babies.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a character by digging into the logistics of an idea, using Rahul Kanakia’s ghost story as a model:

  1. Identify the idea. If you’re writing a genre story, this should be fairly easy. Which genre element are you using? Ghosts, zombies, werewolves, aliens, etc? But it also applies to literary stories. Is your literary story a love story, revenge story, coming-of-age story, marital affair story, death of a loved one story, or dating (mis)adventure story? There are probably others; the point is that most stories fall into a genre of some kind, which is why my 11th-grade English teacher always claimed that no one had written an original plot since Shakespeare (who also borrowed his plots). Once you know the kind of story you’re writing, you can begin to identify the conventions of that story.
  2. Where does the idea exist? Setting matters. Try to get away from the default, bland world that is often associated with an idea (haunted houses for ghosts, nighttime underworlds for zombies, middle class suburbs for love stories). Where can you put the story that would make it seem original? What setting would make you unsure how the story would proceed? This doesn’t require you to do something extreme (zombies on Mars), only to explore the logical possibilities of the idea. Kanakia realized that ghosts could be babies, and so he took the story, at least for one paragraph, to a place where those ghosts could be found. How can you do this for your idea?
  3. How does the idea occur? What is the basic mechanism of the idea. Kanakia’s character sucks ghosts into bottles which he stores in his small house. On one hand, this is very similar to the most famous version of the idea (Ghostbusters), but, on the other hand, it’s also pretty different. Ghostbusters put the ghosts, which tended to be monstrous-looking, into an opaque vault. But what if you couldn’t afford a vault? And what if the ghosts didn’t look like monsters? By figuring out the mechanical logistics (where and how) of the idea, the story creates a space for a character to inhabit. How can you create a detailed space in your story? What is the where and how?
  4. How does the character feel about the idea? The key is to force the character to interact not with the idea in general but with the idea in its mechanical logistics. Do the logistics tax the character emotionally or physically? Is the character forced to develop a coping mechanism in order to interact with the logistics? Are there certain kinds of character traits that lend themselves to these particular logistics. In Kanakia’s story, an emotionally-open and empathetic character would struggle capture and store the ghosts of dead babies (and also of gay men who’d died of AIDS, as also occurs in the story). But if a character is emotionally closed enough to do this type of work, how does he function in other parts of his life? If you can create a character who learns to function within the idea (whatever your idea is), what happens when the character is taken outside or beyond that idea? Are his or her character traits helpful? Not helpful? Problematic?

Have fun playing around with the logistics of the idea. It’s possible that you’ll begin to see entirely new pathways for the story to travel. Good luck!

An Interview with Steph Post

4 Dec
Steph Post's crime novel, A Tree Born Crooked, is set in the Florida panhandle made infamous by Harry Crews.

Steph Post’s crime novel, A Tree Born Crooked, is set in the Florida panhandle made infamous by Harry Crews.

Steph Post grew up in North Florida, lives in St. Petersburg with her husband and six dogs, and teaches writing at a performing arts high school in Tampa. Her essay, “Blue Diamond,” on the early work of Stephen King was included in the recent anthology, Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics: Reflections on the Modern Master of Horror. Her latest book is the crime novel, A Tree Born Crooked.

To read an excerpt from A Tree Born Crooked and an exercise on writing active character descriptions, click here.

In this interview, Post discusses writing about making the Florida panhandle feel authentic, creating intimate spaces within plot, and working under the influence of Cormac McCarthy.

Michael Noll

This book seems to be as much about its setting in the Florida panhandle as the actual story. On one hand, this seems like a good move as a storyteller since it’s a place full of colorful characters. On the other hand, I’d imagine it could be hard to create characters in this place without running into stereotypes. How did you create this place in a way included drugs, alligators, and poor, uneducated white people without falling into the caricatures so often connected with popular images of those things?

Steph Post

I honestly didn’t even think about the stereotype issue until I was deep into the revision process. I just created a place and a set of characters that were real and true to the people of this area of Florida. Although Crystal Springs is a fictional town, I wanted it to feel authentic for the reader. I didn’t want readers to feel like they were watching a movie or television show with a caricature of a rural Florida town, populated with rednecks and white trash. I mean, how many times has this been done? I wanted readers to feel like they could imagine walking around the town as if it were an actual place. I wanted them to feel all of the hopes, dreams, despairs and complexities of these characters. Just as all people are complex, so to are all characters. It’s the job of the writer not to be lazy when bringing the characters to light.

Michael Noll

A Tree Born Crooked, a crime novel by Steph Post, is set in the Florida panhandle and follows the disaster of a theft gone wrong.

A Tree Born Crooked, a crime novel by Steph Post, is set in the Florida panhandle and follows the disaster of a theft gone wrong.

I’m interested in how you approached plot in the novel. The book starts with James getting a postcard telling him to come home because his father has died. But the plot doesn’t really begin until his brother and cousin commit a crime. How did you bridge the gap between James showing up in town and his getting drawn into the crime? It would seem tempting to make that gap quite large, with James meeting various characters and visiting old haunts. Was it difficult to get the next part of the plot moving?

Steph Post

I won’t lie—developing the plot was the hardest part of writing A Tree Born Crooked. I’m on my third novel now and crafting plot has become a much more fluid process, but it was a bit difficult for me with A Tree Born Crooked. It was tempting to let James play in Crystal Springs a while and to bring out new characters and places, but I wanted to keep the pace accelerated throughout the novel. There’s a definite balance between pushing the action forward and then allowing for pauses where readers can become more intimate with the setting and characters. I had to establish James and his inner conflict before I could focus on the external conflicts of the plot, and from there I had to make sure there were enough peaks and valleys between the two.

Michael Noll

Crime novels tend to have a particular kind of main character, one who has, as your book jacket puts it, “a tough-as-nails exterior and an aching emptiness inside.” But, of course, book jackets are not novels. How did you create a character who fulfills the description in the jacket (and the readers’ expectations for a crime novel) but is also a nuanced character with depth?

Steph Post

I was much more concerned with creating a character with depth. It wasn’t until after the novel was finished that I realized James fit into the role of anti-hero in a crime novel. And, of course, that came from the subliminal effects of researching and writing in this genre. As I was writing, I was focused on developing James as a character who is having to come to terms with events outside of his control. He’s thrust back into a world that he wants no part of and he must decide how he wants to navigate the situation. James’ story is really one of a character peeling, or a times ripping, back layers in a difficult process of self-discovery. He just also happens to be dodging bullets in the process.

Michael Noll

In the blurbs for the novel, you’re compared to Daniel Woodrell and Harry Crews. I’d add another writer: Joe Lansdale, the crime and horror writer from East Texas. I’m curious which writers were in your head as your wrote this novel. Was there a book that you looked to for help? What did you learn or borrow?

Steph Post

A lot of books were influential in getting A Tree Born Crooked started. Novels such as Jim Harrison’s A Good Day to Die, Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone and David Eddings’ High Hunt definitely inspired me to write about underdog characters in an underbelly world. I fully fall prey to Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” though, and so try to avoid reading fiction when I’m writing the first draft of a novel. However, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men was crucial in helping me to craft dialogue. There’s a scene in the beginning of the novel with Llewellyn sitting in his trailer—what the character doesn’t say is almost more important than what he puts into words. I definitely relied on McCarthy when working to create “negative dialogue” and to utilize the spaces in a scene to their fullest.

December 2014

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

How to Write Active Character Descriptions

2 Dec
A Tree Born Crooked, a crime novel by Steph Post, is set in the Florida panhandle and follows the disaster of a theft gone wrong.

A Tree Born Crooked by Steph Post is set in the Florida panhandle and follows a man who tries to save his brother from the consequences of a theft-gone-wrong.

When we first start describing characters, there’s often a tendency to aim for a perfect representation, the equivalent of a photographic portrait. So we state the character’s body type, hair color and style, and clothes. But does even the most exact detail add up to something interesting? It’s often the case that a good character description, rather than being a snapshot, is more like the magical moving photographs that hang on the walls of Hogwarts. They’re active and dramatic.

A great example of this kind of description can be found early in Steph Post’s new crime novel A Tree Born Crooked. You can read the opening pages of the novel here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is set on the Florida panhandle and follows a man who is living in a trailer park when he receives a note that his father has died. So he returns home to the small town where he was born. There, we meet his mother:

Birdie Mae was a fat woman. She wasn’t big enough to be called “obese” or any other such ridiculous medical term. But she wasn’t small enough to be just “large” or “big-boned” either. “I’m fat, dammit. What the hell’s wrong with that?” she would yell at the doctors who tried to use polite euphemisms. She had big hands, with small fingernails that made them look bigger. Her eyes were a pretty blue, but always framed with gunky mascara, and when she worked at the store she wore peach eye shadow up to her eyebrows. Her thin lips usually carried the outline of sticky, pink lipstick. She had to constantly reapply it, as it always ended up smeared on her Virginia Slims. Her hair was long and dishwater blond, but James couldn’t remember ever seeing it down. Birdie wore her hair twisted and piled up on top of her head, sprayed into a motionless nest that didn’t even look good back when she first started doing it in the seventies. Birdie Mae had some delusion that she resembled Farrah Fawcett and running out of Aqua Net was cause for a family crisis. On more than one occasion, Birdie had refused to leave the bathroom until someone went out to the drugstore and brought back a can. She wore the clothes from the Citrus Shop that had defects and couldn’t be sold, so she usually stuffed herself into gaudy T-shirts and culottes. The shirt she was wearing today was hot pink with a silhouette of three palm trees. Above all, Birdie Mae thought she looked good, and that’s how she carried herself.

This description gives a pretty thorough portrait of Birdie Mae: her size and shape, her makeup, her hair, her clothes, and her attitude. What makes them interesting is the way Post makes them active, which she manages in four ways:

  1. The character is allowed to comment about the details. The description doesn’t just say that Birdie Mae is overweight; it lets her talk about being overweight (“I’m fat, dammit”). Without that snippet of dialogue, the character’s weight is static, something the reader sees and forms an opinion about. With the dialogue, though, the weight becomes active, something the character is thinking about. A a result, the reader is forced to deal with Birdie Mae’s opinion about herself. It’s the difference between judging people from a distance and sitting at a table, talking to them. The dialogue puts us at the table with Birdie Mae.
  2. A detail is given and then used to created drama. Post tells us that Birdie Mae uses Aqua Net on her hair. Then, she tells us what happens when the hair product isn’t available (“Birdie had refused to leave the bathroom until someone went to out to the drugstore and brought back a can”). Again, a simple detail is put into action.
  3. A general behavior or tendency is stated and then shown as it happens. We’re told that the character only wears gaudy clothes that she can’t sell at her store, and then we’re given this sentence: “The shirt she was wearing today was hot pink with a silhouette of three palm trees.” The tendency becomes active because it is happening as we speak.
  4. The details are summed up as an attitude. The problem with listing details about a character is that the items on the list often don’t cohere into something that resembles a living, breathing character. Instead, the details seem like the accessories of a Mr. Potato Head, something that can be changed or added at will. One way to make the details cohere is to end with a generalization, from the point of view of the narrator, another character, or the character being described. In this case, Birdie Mae’s point of view is privileged. After this long description, we’re told that “Birdie Mae thought she looked good, and that’s how she carried herself.” In short, we’re given a lens through which to view the details.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a character using A Tree Born Crooked by Steph Post as a model:

  1. Identify the character and make a list of details. You can also use a description that you’ve already written but aren’t happy with. It’s often the case that a description becomes active in revision, not in the first draft, when we’re trying to visualize the most basic aspects of the character.
  2. Let the character comment on a detail. It’s one thing to tell us that a character always wears a Chicago Bulls hat or goes back for a second helping at meals. It’s quite another to learn that and then hear what the character says about it. Is the character ashamed? Proud? Does the character make light of it? Direct our attention elsewhere? Rationalize it? Does the character have good reasons for the detail? State the detail and then let your character talk about it.
  3. Use a detail to create drama. If a character always does something or wears something, what happens when that something isn’t available? Anyone with kids immediately will understand this idea: try to put your kid to bed without their favorite stuffed animal or security blanket, and there’s going to be trouble. What happens when your character’s tendency or routine is thrown out of whack?
  4. Introduce a tendency and then show it in real time. Your character tends to do something, and they’re doing it right now. This is a good way to move the description from a place of timelessness to the immediacy of a scene.
  5. Sum up the details. Make them cohere into a whole that is larger than the pieces. Post does this by stating the character’s attitude about herself. You can also use metaphor and simile. The basic structure (which, once you realize it exists, you’ll see in books and stories everywhere) is this: detail, detail, detail, comparison. The character was this and this and this. She was like/a this. Here’s a bad example: He was always smiling, always laughing, always telling jokes. He was like a circus clown who’d wandered out of the tent and into someone’s home. You can do better than that, but it gives you the idea.

Good luck!

An Interview with Syed Ali Haider

29 Nov
Syed Ali Haider

Syed Ali Haider’s essay about food and religion, “Porkistan,” was published at The Butter.

Syed Ali Haider was born in Pakistan, grew up in Florida, went to college in Minnesota, and finished his degree in Texas. He lives in the Texas Hill Country, where he writes, teaches, and cheers for the Detroit Lions. His work has appeared in Glimmer Train, vandal, and Mary: A Journal of New Writing. His essay about bacon and Islam, “Porkistan,” was published at The Butter.

To read “Porkistan” and an exercise on using sensory details, click here. In this interview, Haider discusses the challenges of describing religious confusion and writing about family and the way that telling a story to a live audience can help shape its written form.

Michael Noll

The descriptions of food in this essay are really great. You capture the essence of bacon. the sound of it cooking in its own fat, the look of it. You write that after you tried it for the first time, you “wanted to lick the greasy paper towel.” You also capture the weird grossness of turkey bacon (“salted rubber tires”). Finally, you make a really interesting statement when talking about the food of South and Central Texas, comparing it to the food of Pakistan: “Carne Guisada Con Papas is Aloo Gosht. Aloo Qeema is Picadillo Mexicano.” Food can sometimes be a difficult thing to describe: our sense of taste doesn’t correspond neatly to adjectives. Was it difficult to put your love of bacon, disgust at turkey bacon, and appreciation for Tex-Mex into words?

Syed Ali Haider

I think it’s difficult for me to put nearly anything into words because I’m such a stickler about precise language. But when it comes to writing about food, I think I have an easier time than with anything else because I think about it so damn much. Seriously, I am nearly always thinking about food, reading about food, talking about food. And when I was growing up, bacon was such a constant obsession of mine, that it was so much fun to write about at length. Earlier drafts of the essay were much more focused on bacon that it read like a cheap David Foster Wallace knockoff. But, yeah, because food occupies so much of my time and thought, it was the easiest part of the essay to write. Everything surrounding food was much more difficult because I had to explain how religious confusion feels. I had to somehow put into words the moment your family is ready to disown you and everything that is going on in your head and your body. Bacon tastes smoky and salty. It has texture. It’s crunchy and chewy and fatty. But how does it feel when your mom tells you she won’t see or speak to you? What does that feel like? That’s much more difficult.

Michael Noll

This essay started out as a story told to a live audience. I’m curious how much you had to change the story to adapt it to a written form. Was there a significant difference between telling and writing this essay?

Syed Ali Haider

I think that because of the way Story Department was framed to me—tell us stories about your mom!—the stakes were lower than when I’m writing. I’m much more comfortable with oral storytelling. Because I can talk for days, and I don’t nitpick and stress about sentence structure and the precision of language and all that. I gave myself permission to just talk. Because I wanted it to sound like a conversation, I wrote a loose outline and allowed room to just freestyle and flesh it out on the spot. This might make some people really nervous, but it removed the possibility of me forgetting lines or anything like that. I rehearsed it four times, and each iteration was drastically different. And when I got up and told it to the audience, it was a whole new beast. Sort of stand-up routine/storytelling. Mike Birbiglia-esque. Telling the story to a live audience sort of activates all these devices we have as natural storytellers. You very quickly get a feel for the room and what sort of things are and aren’t working. When a joke bombs, you feel it. The silence of the room is so awful. You’re standing up there thinking, “I thought that was going to be hilarious.” So you get this instant feedback that you don’t get when you’re writing. When you’re telling somebody a story, you’re forced to cut out all the uninteresting parts that don’t really pertain or aren’t important to what you’re trying to say. Unless you’re just completely ignoring the look on the other person’s face in which case you’re going to miss most of that and tell a really long and boring story and completely lose the person’s attention. I think that’s what live storytelling did for me. Forced me to think about the audience and their attention. How can I tell this story in the best way so that they’ll keep listening to me. And the feedback I got that night was so positive that I wanted to keep that voice and sound in the essay. I wanted it to more or less be as direct an adaptation as I could get. There’re pieces that I culled from an older essay of mine and fit it in, but for the most part I wrote down what I remembered telling at Story Department.

Michael Noll

Syed Ali Haider's essay about food and religion, "Porkistan," appeared at The Butter, the new online journal edited by Roxane Gay.

Syed Ali Haider’s essay about food and religion, “Porkistan,” appeared at The Butter, the new online journal edited by Roxane Gay.

This is a wide-ranging essay. It’s about your relationship with your parents, especially your mother. But it’s also about religious belief, persecution based on religious and ethnic stereotypes, food, and creating a mixed identity—one that is part one thing and part another. I’m curious how long it took for this essay to find its structure. How often did you wade into this material before finding the right way to begin?

Syed Ali Haider

When I wrote the essay two years ago, it was more about me and my love of food. But when I told the story at Story Department, I opened with a story about my mom that is essential to understanding who she is. She’s at JFK and accosts a Delta Airlines lady and is nearly arrested for climbing over the counter. It’s such a bizarre story that all these years later, I’m still baffled that she did that and I wonder if I made it all up. I love telling this story about my mom because she’s so whackadoodle but also equal parts graceful and wonderful. The story comes back toward the end of the essay because I understand her and the story in a whole new way. She’s this totally fierce protector of her kids and is willing to look silly and risk arrest if her kid isn’t allowed on an airplane. In telling this story and focusing on my mom, I realized that her story and my story are so similar, which is why sometimes there’s so much tension between us. She grew up with the same religious confusion that I did except mine was so entirely food-centric. So everything just clicked and I realized that she was the missing piece to the whole thing.

Michael Noll

This is an essay about your religious beliefs, practice and identity, but it’s also about your mother’s conversion to Islam. That conversion is essential to understanding your own, not least because it led to your being born. But, it’s also someone else’s experience, not your own. Relationships with parents can be a touchy subject, especially for writers. Was it difficult to write about this part of your mother’s life? How did you approach telling the story of her conversion?

Syed Ali Haider

Yeah, this was an extremely difficult piece to write. When I told the story, it was a one-off thing, so I didn’t have to worry about my mom reading it, but when I sent it to The Butter, and they published it, it was suddenly out there for anyone to read. The strange thing about this essay is that it pivots on this secret—that I’m not a Muslim or at least that I don’t really know what I am—and the necessity to continue lying to her to maintain our relationship. But I still have this responsibility to tell her story in a way that honors her experience. So in trying to honor her, I asked her a lot about growing up and what that was like, and she was really open about it with me. I’m not sure what her reaction to the essay would be, but I tried very hard to write a piece that respects her and shows her how much I love her because I don’t want people to read it and think she’s a horrible person who disowns her kids. Like yes, that threat was there, but it’s like a fucked up love thing.

November 2014

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

How to Use Sensory Details

26 Nov
Syed Ali Haider's essay about food and religion, "Porkistan," appeared at The Butter, the new online journal edited by Roxane Gay.

Syed Ali Haider’s essay about food and religion, “Porkistan,” appeared at The Butter, the new online journal edited by Roxane Gay.

Beginning in elementary school, we’re taught to use the five senses in descriptive writing. By the time we’re writing as adults, it ought to seem like second nature, right? Too often, though, when we try to use all five senses, the sentences feel forced and unnatural. Some smells are difficult to explain. Or, the smell is easy, but to describe the other senses takes too much room on the page. So, how do we move beyond the descriptions that are easiest, that first come to mind? How do we move to descriptions that are more imaginative and interesting?

A really good example of using sensory details can be found in Syed Ali Haider’s essay, “Porkistan.” The essay combines those essential aspects of the first Thanksgiving: food and religion. It was published at Roxane Gay’s new online magazine, The Butter, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Haider writes about bacon, a food that is impossible to ignore, even if you don’t eat it. Here is how he describes it:

I ate bacon for the first time when I was eleven years old. My best friend Jorge lived a block from my house, and I practically lived at his house during the summer. Bacon was a fixture at breakfast, sizzling in a pan and drying on paper towels. Before I even knew what it was, I wanted it. Bacon is intoxicating. The sound of bacon cooking in its own grease is seductive. Fat popping in a hot pan. It even looks beautiful. Ribbons of red and yellow, tips charred and crispy. The word “bacon” is plump and satisfying.

Haider doesn’t use all five senses, but he does return to one particular sense over and over. He describes the sound of bacon cooking three different ways:

  1. “sizzling in a pan”
  2. “The sound of bacon cooking in its own grease”
  3. “Fat popping in a hot pan.”

Two of those lines (sizzling, popping) are onomatopoeia: words whose sound imitates the thing they are describing. The other line simply states the actual sound (bacon cooking in its own grease). Haider also describes the sight of the bacon: “drying on paper towels” and “Ribbons of red and yellow, tips charred and crispy.” Next, he describes the smell:

Jorge’s mom, doling out servings of bacon, asked me every morning if I wanted some. On one particular morning, I gave in and held out my plate. I wanted to lick the greasy paper towel. That afternoon I went home and ran past my parents, straight to the bathroom, where I brushed my teeth over and over, but the smell was still on my fingers.

I thought I would be found out. It was in my hair, my nails, and sweating through my pores.

Notice that Haider doesn’t try to describe what the smell is like. The smell of bacon is not comparable to anything else. Instead, he describes the way it sticks to everything (which is not helpful if you’re a Muslim, as Haider was, and trying to conceal your bacon consumption).

In two paragraphs, Haider has not only described bacon but attached those descriptions to story: the things he describes make life difficult for him.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a description with sensory details using “Porkistan” by Syed Ali Haider as a model:

  1. Identify the thing to describe. Keep it simple. It’s difficult to describe something that is diffuse or abstract. If possible, name the thing you want to describe.
  2. State what the thing does. Sometimes it’s not necessary to compare the smell or taste to something else. A clear statement of what the thing does (cooking in its own grease) can clearly evoke the thing—and sometimes it can suggest sensory details. So, explain in close detail what the thing does. When and where do you find it? How do you know it’s there? What is it doing? How do people react?
  3. Describe the thing with a few senses. Perhaps you can use more, or even all; if so, great. But, very often, it’s effective to choose one or two senses and explore the different ways to use them. Haider uses two different onomatopoeic words. He twice describes how the smell sticks to different parts of his body. He finds two different visual descriptions of bacon: color and texture. Try choosing a sense and finding different ways that the thing looks, sounds, feels, smells, or tastes.
  4. Connect the senses to story. You’re really just connecting the thing to story, which should be easy; why else would you be describing it in the first place? Think about the effect the thing has on you. How does it affect your behavior? As you consider this, remember the sensory details. The smell of bacon made it difficult for Haider to hide the fact that he’d eaten it. How does one of the sensory details you wrote make the thing difficult to ignore?

Good luck and have fun!

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