How to Begin and End Chapters

21 Oct
Shannon S. Thompson's YA dystopian novel, Take Me Tomorrow, features a clairvoyant drug and an uprising against the oppressive State.

Shannon A. Thompson’s YA dystopian novel, Take Me Tomorrow, features a clairvoyant drug and an uprising against the oppressive State.

Most writers have a sense for how a novel is structured. But what about chapters? We tend to make a few common mistakes, like beginning a chapter with a character waking up and ending it with the character going to bed (or getting knocked unconscious). In other words, the chapter doesn’t know where to begin and when to end, and so as long as the character is awake, the chapter keeps going.

Different kinds of novels handle chapters differently, but it’s usually the case that genre novels contain short chapters. A great example of this kind of chapter—and a great example for how these short chapters are structured—can be found in Shannon A. Thompson’s new Young Adult Dystopian novel, Take Me Tomorrow. You can read the opening chapters here at Smashwords.

How the Novel Works

Let’s look at the first two chapters of the novel, which are quite different in terms of setting and content but which use a similar structure. In the first chapter, the narrator, a teenager named Sophia, meets an unexpected person. The chapter begins with Sophia running through the woods with her dog. She’s checking on her father’s land while he’s away and clearly feeling at home:

Spring was the best season − when everything smelled of moss, alive and wet. But it was August. The muggy air sucked all the life out of the plants, leaving them dry, disheveled, and dead. Today, the forest smelled of burnt grass and dried mud. Among the pivots, the creek bed, and the broken logs, I followed the trail, and my dependable dog ran in front of me.

Then, she runs into a stranger:

a boy whose “tone was sarcastically carefree, his stare was intense, shadowed by the setting sun. I recognized the stillness in his expression. It was a predatory look, the expression of an animal preparing an attack.”

But by the end of the scene, the boy’s tone has shifted:

“‘Am I near the park?’ His quiet tone was rushed. ‘That’s where I meant to go.’ His shoulders slumped in defeat. ‘Really.'”

That tone isn’t the only major shift. The boy hurries away because someone else has arrived, and that arrival causes a change in the narrator:

“My usually goofy friend was a mess. His mop of brown curls sprung into his widened eyes, and he wheezed from the run. His alarmed expression ruined any lasting comfort I maintained. Something was wrong. Seriously wrong.”

One of the smartest things I ever heard about crafting scenes was from writer and screenwriter Owen Egerton. He shared with me the screenwriting tip that scenes should almost always contain a reversal (a “flip” of a situation) or a change in tone. So, if a scene starts out happy, it should end with sadness. Of course, the best scenes will end in ways that don’t change the tone 180 degrees but instead change it in a way that is less predictable. This is precisely what Thompson does in her first chapter. The chapter begins with the character’s confidence in her own knowledge of her surroundings and ends with that confidence disrupted.

The next chapter does something similar. It begins with a risky encounter with the police, who are enforcing a State-mandated curfew. The encounter goes smoothly, according to the expectations of one character:

“Everything is a scare tactic with these people. They don’t check everything.”

The chapter ends with the knowledge that another encounter with the State is coming, and this one will be more serious and more dangerous: “I need you to bring me a bag of food, water, and one of your dad’s knives to school.”

Though the scene ends on a similar note as it began, the stakes have been dramatically increased.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s structure chapters using the novel Take Me Tomorrow by Shannon A. Thompson as a model:

  1. Choose the scene(s) at the heart of the chapter. I’m using the word scene because it’s sometimes a more helpful organizational unit than chapter. Most of us know what a scene is even if we have no idea what a chapter should look like. Scenes also appear in stories, whereas chapters do not. So, start by outlining a scene that you know will appear in the story/novel. There may be passages that come before or after it, but you should focus on the drama that you know will occur.
  2. Identify and clarify the tone or situation at the beginning of the scene(s). You can think about this in two ways. One, what is the situation at the beginning of the scene? Think broadly. What problem is the character facing? What approach is the character using? What is the character’s attitude? What is the balance of power? Two, what is the tone at the beginning of the scene? Is it serious? Comic? Goofy? Casual? Think about the scene as a whole, not necessarily the character’s emotions. For instance, a birthday party is casual, but a waiting room at a hospital is likely serious.
  3. Reverse or shift the tone or situation at the end of the scene(s). When you reverse or change any of these situations, you can go for a full reversal (happy to sad, birthday party to cancer), or you can go for a change in degree. So, if someone has more power, that person’s power could be amplified or reinforced rather than diminished or taken away. When you change the tone, you can keep the setting the same but introduce an element that changes the way we view it. For instance, if an ambulance shows up to a birthday party, the tone has changed from fun and casual to serious and formal. (As a general rule, if a scene contains people in uniform, then it’s probably formal.) You can also produce a change in degree: mildly happy to incredibly happy. For instance, birthday parties are mildly happy, but if you’re given a gift of a lottery ticket, and you scratch it and win a million dollars, the party just got a lot happier.

The key to all of these steps is to identify what you establish at the beginning of a scene. By the end of that scene, at least one of the basic building blocks of the scene should have changed. If you’re trying to decide where to end a chapter or scene, consider picking a moment immediately after something essential has changed.

Good luck!

An Interview with Michael Yang

16 Oct
Michael Yang's story, "Hollywood Bodies Found Headless," tells the story of an aspiring child actress and her mother living in the shadow of a serial killer.

Michael Yang’s story, “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless,” tells the story of an aspiring child actress and her mother living in the shadow of a serial killer.

Michael B. Yang’s stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Michigan Quarterly Review, and The Seattle Review. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he is currently working on a novel.

To read his story “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless” and an exercise on using setting and backdrop to heighten the tension in small, intimate dramas, click here.

Michael Noll

Ron Carlson has said that a story has two parts: the story and the world the story comes into. I usually read that to mean that there’s the dramatic thing that happens and the more mundane context that lends the drama meaning. But you seem to have reversed the roles in this story. The story about the child actress and her struggling mother is, in some ways, more mundane than the background world of a serial killer on the loose. Did you ever play around with making the serial killer more physically present in the story? I’m curious how the story found its eventual form.

Michael Yang

Okay, here’s my confession. I just checked and the first draft of the story was written in 2007. That’s seven years since I began writing it until it got published. Seven years. I don’t know how many drafts there have been in the interim.

Strangely, in all those drafts I don’t think that the serial killer was ever present in the story. This was for a number of reasons. First of all, and this might seem odd, but I thought it would be more realistic. Even if you’re in the same time and place where there is a mass murderer, I think it would be pretty unlikely that you’ll be their victim. It’s more likely that you will run into them by chance and nothing happens. Afterwards, you might say that they were nice people who quiet and kept to themselves (of course), but it’s more likely that you would survive the encounter. Second, I wanted to create a feeling of unease and fear in living in the same city as a serial killer. I imagine the sense of danger would color every interaction, and that was the backdrop I wanted in the story.

Michael Noll

The story is set in Los Angeles, which has been used as a setting countless times and, as a result, brings its own fictional weight to a story. I mean, it’s possible to talk about L.A. stories in a way that you can’t talk about Kansas City stories or El Paso stories. Yet, I really felt that I was seeing the world for the first time. In part, the freshness is likely from the niche that you portray: acting tryouts for children appearing in commercials. The characters also spend time in an apartment, which is something that you, as the writer, can create from scratch, rather than relying on tropes that already exist. Still, was it difficult to set a story in a place that has been written about so many times?

Michael Yang

Michael Yang's story "Hollywood Bodies Found Headless" appeared in Amazon's literary series, "Day One."

Michael Yang’s story “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless” appeared in Amazon’s literary series, “Day One.”

I know, you’re right. The location is very familiar and there was some pressure in writing about a known place. On top of that, it has auditions and struggling actors, not exactly the freshest take on an L.A. story. I do think that in the very first drafts the story might have taken place in another city, but Sara was too ambitious to remain there and I thought it would heighten the stakes if her dreams were in reach, with the reality of failure more palpable.

I’ve always been fascinated by the entire, difficult process of creating movies, but it seemed interesting to write about it from the perspective of someone experiencing the day-to-day grind. And really, the constant failure and rejection of the actors seemed familiar. It reminded me of being a writer. There’s also a grotesque element in the process of child acting and the pursuit of fame, but I wanted to flip it slightly on its head by making the child the propulsive force instead of the stage mother. When I sent out the story, I had a few comments that Sara seemed to act too old for her age, but I think it fit her character. A very ambitious child can seem older and more business-savvy than someone else her age. I hoped it worked out.

Sara is a product of Hollywood, a place where her ambitions have taken her, so the topic defined the location which helped define the characters.

Michael Noll

The story is remarkably tight given how much exists just off the page. For instance, we know that the narrator has left her husband and her home in Texas to take her daughter to Los Angeles, but the husband appears only in the briefest of scenes, and even then, the focus is on the daughter, not him. Texas is referenced in passing. Did those parts of the story ever push themselves onto the page more fully? Did you have to revise them out, or were they always just in the background?

Michael Yang

This is also strange, but in all those drafts I don’t think that I ever wrote the scenes with both parents. I knew what the relationship was like between the mother and the father and why they broke up, but I wanted the story to take place as close to the ending as possible and I really wanted the fun of writing the commercials. By the way, if you have the chance to write a scene with a made-up advertisements for a fictional product, I highly recommend it.

I first drafted the story when I was examining my own writing process. It was around this time that I decided to think and plot less in the first draft. Even though I might have a general idea of the story’s direction, I wanted to follow where my subconscious took me, hoping that the turns would be surprising and make sense as I was typing. There’s a danger to this – where the wheels of the story might fall into familiar ruts, whether into cliches or into my own habits and proclivities – but the flashes of discovery, when they come, can be exciting.

Michael Noll

Robert Boswell, one of the best-known writing teachers in America, argues in The Half-Known World that writers should not know their characters too well.

Robert Boswell, one of the best-known writing teachers in America, argues in The Half-Known World that writers should not know their characters too well.

The story is playing around with the genre of tabloid sensationalism—the title is “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless.” As a result, I found it interesting how you develop the tension in the novel. When Frank appears, and when the narrator tells him off and then when he shows up at her apartment, I (and probably all readers) thought, “Uh oh.” We expected something awful to happen. And it may eventually happen, but not yet, not within the frame of this story. That must have been a difficult temptation to resist—to not fulfill the bloody expectations of the title, even though the way the story does end is a lot more unsettling than murder. How many drafts it took you to find that ending?

Michael Yang

I’m not certain how many drafts it took for me before I came up with the ending, but I’m pretty happy with it. For me, the appearance of the chicken man seems strange and unexpected, and right.

I was inspired by the essay “Narrative Spandrels” by the writer Robert Boswell in his craft book The Half-Known World. In the essay, he talks about how as we write, there can be an unintended image that recur throughout the story. It’s not planned and may seem inessential, a byproduct of our writing the primary scenes, but if we pay attention, it can shape the story, supply a sub-text, or gesture to the heart of our meaning.

As I worked on the many drafts of my story, at some point I noticed how many times chickens made an appearance, from the mother’s distaste of how live chickens look and act (my niece told me a story about how her pet chickens nearly pecked another, injured chicken to death), how they feed her child, how the old jingle from Chicken Tonight was a bonding experience during better days with her daughter. I also realized that the general feeling in the story was the same as touching raw chicken skin, which is a little disgusting and is also the same creeping sensation the mother feels towards L.A.

By the way, my fantastic editors asked me if the chicken man was entirely necessary, and I said, yes, yes he is.

October 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Make Small, Intimate Stories into Page Turners

14 Oct
Michael Yang's story "Hollywood Bodies Found Headless" appeared in Amazon's literary series, "Day One."

Michael Yang’s story “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless” appeared in Amazon’s literary series, “Day One.”

When we think about drama, it’s tempting to believe that bigger is better. A story about a marriage on the rocks is good, but a story with married characters throwing rocks at each other is even better, right? Not necessarily. There’s a reason that some journal editors ban stories about characters who die. It’s important to explore the range of dramatic possibilities that exist between morning coffee and evening murder.

For an example of how domestic dramas can be made exciting, check out Michael Yang’s story, “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless.” The lurid sensationalism of the title draws you in, but the drama that holds you is smaller and more intimate than a tabloid headline. The story was published as part of Amazon’s “Day One” literary series, and you can read the first pages and buy the story for $1 at Amazon.

How the Story Works

I’ve mentioned a number of times on this blog the Ron Carlson quote about a story having two parts: the story and the world that the story enters. Usually, this means that a dramatic plot (ninja fights dragon in cage match) is given depth and resonance by the nuances of the story’s world (ninja can’t pass final ninja qualifying test, can’t get the girl, can’t make his parents happy, can’t get along with his more successful brother and sister). The world, then, gives the story texture.

But what if the opposite is also true? What if small, intimate plots can benefit from exciting worlds? What difference would the world make to a story about two characters working in a restaurant and trying to pay bills—one story is set in Kansas City, and the other is set in Pompeii just before Mt. Vesuvius erupts. Context matters—and that is exactly the truth that Yang uses in his story, “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless.”

The story is about a woman who has moved to Los Angeles so that her 9-year-old can pursue her dream of becoming an actress. It might seem odd to view a Hollywood story as mundane, but Yang sets the story in the grind-it-out world of television commercials: standing in line to audition, dealing with directors and other parents, and eating (and not eating) in order to look the part. Plus, the story isn’t concerned with a make-or-break moment for the girl, Sara. Something happens, of course, and it may or may not determine Sara’s future, but the immediate impact is felt most acutely by her mother. In other words, it’s a domestic story with small, intimate stakes.

So, look what Yang inserts into the story’s world: On the first page, the mother buys a grocery story tabloid magazine with the headline, “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless.” After she feeds her daughter dinner, she reads the article:

I open the glossy pages. The first body was discovered off a Sacramento highway a decade ago, a homeless man. There was hardly any press, only a small article in the back pages, but two years later the second body, a well-known former prostitute for celebrities, lapped up on the shore of the Los Angeles River, wrists and ankles bound. The only connection between the two crimes was the headless nature of their bodies. For a while, the Hollywood Lopper had been an LA secret, because of how infrequently he struck, but the killings ramped up as he began garnering news. The latest murder was a month ago: a ubiquitous character actor who always played the weaselly, cocksure best friend— the one who tries to steal the hero’s girl, only to get humiliated in the end.

After we learn the dramatic, Vesuvius-erupts part of the world, we learn about its personal ramifications:

On TV the news anchors prattle on about a besieged Los Angeles, with celebrities blinking under bright lights, stars turned into martyrs now that the Hollywood Lopper has moved up the entertainment food chain, while we no-names, the real victims, the people on the edges who had been enticed and promised celebrity, toil in obscurity through our ordinary lives.

In short, Yang has taken a small, intimate story and set it against a backdrop of 1) murder and 2) celebrities versus ordinary people. There  is a serial killer on the loose, but no one will care unless he kills someone notable. His murders have ascended the Hollywood social ladder, but there’s no guarantee that he won’t kill an unknown person next, like a certain nine-year-old trying out for commercials—or her mother. What makes the story beautiful is that it keeps the serial killer in the background (as part of the world) and foregrounds the story about a mostly oblivious girl chafing at the limits placed on her by her concerned mother.

That is how you can use a dramatic world to make an intimate story more exciting.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a small, intimate story more exciting by giving it a dramatic world, using “Hollywood Bodies Found Headless” by Michael Yang as a model:

  1. Choose a mundane story. Perhaps it’s one you’ve already written. Or, you could choose one of the many usual domestic plot lines: marriage drama, relationship drama, parent/child drama, money drama, extended-family drama. Regardless, you’re looking for a story that makes you worry that it’s not exciting/dramatic/sexy enough. Setting aside issues of fiction written by men vs women (and the tendency to dismiss domestic stories), this is a worry that most writers have: is our story interesting enough. Why should anyone read our story?
  2. Choose a dramatic backdrop. If you’re writing a short story, this might mean choosing something to exist in the background: noise that’s buzzing in the characters’ heads. It could be something unusual and threatening like a serial killer on the loose. It could be a significant election or a historical moment like the first moon landing. If you’re writing a novel, you might use the larger arc of the story (throw the ring into Mt. Doom, return the painting The Goldfinch) as a backdrop for an intimate moment or minor arc. Even though the action may be small, it’s cast against a much larger story that gives it weight.
  3. Watch for a moment to unite the story and backdrop. Michael Yang does this when he writes that “we no-names, the real victims, the people on the edges who had been enticed and promised celebrity, toil in obscurity through our ordinary lives.” Give your characters a chance to notice the backdrop, just as the mother in Yang’s story reads about celebrities in the tabloid newspaper. That moment can have many emotional angles. In a story set in Pompeii, one character could look out her window while eating dinner with her children and think, “Oh no.” Another character could glance away from her cheating husband, see the smoke, and think, “Thank god.” This moment will likely be brief. It may happen more than once, just as the mother in Yang’s story thinks about the serial killer more than once, but when she does, it’s to refocus our attention on the importance of the intimate drama in front of her.

Good luck!

An Interview with Jess Stoner

9 Oct
Jess Stoner's essay, "Blues on Wheels," about illegal labor practices at the US Post Office has inspired hundreds of postal workers to write her with their stories.

Jess Stoner’s essay, “Blues on Wheels,” about illegal labor practices at the US Post Office has inspired many postal workers to write her with their stories.

Jess Stoner is the author of the novel I Have Blinded Myself Writing This. Her work has been published in The Morning News, The Rumpus, Burnt Orange Report, and Caketrain, among others. She lives in Colorado and previously lived in Austin, where she worked for the United States Postal Service. Stoner wrote about the illegal and abusive labor practices that she experienced as a postal carrier in the essay “Blues on Wheels.”

To read “Blues on Wheels” and an exercise on writing for a hostile audience, click here.

Michael Noll

The essay contains so many stories of abuse and working conditions that are not only unsafe but illegal. How did you know where to begin telling them? When there is so much to tell, how do you figure out what to put in the essay, what to leave out, and how to organize the stories and details that you choose to include?

Jess Stoner

The most important thing I did, for myself, was wait a few months after I quit to even think about putting anything coherent together. I needed some emotional distance, because I knew it had to be bigger than just “The Post Office is the worst! Feel bad for me!”

Once we moved from Texas to Colorado, I had even more breathing room, and I started researching the history of the USPS.  It wasn’t until after I had read hundreds of posts on postal worker forums and a few books, including Mailman, USA, written by a former president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, that I started to truly understand my experience as a part of a larger narrative.

One thing I knew for certain was that no one outside the USPS understands what the job is like—that’s such a lonely space to inhabit seven days a week. In addition, a fantastic editor I worked with at The Morning News, Rosecrans Baldwin, encouraged me to include not just the micro details (like what a typical morning looks like) but the macro (the historical and political) as well.

I was finally ready to finish the essay after telling a friend about the 40,000 words I had written. His response was: “That’s not an essay, that’s a book.” And that simple answer was so freeing. So maybe I wouldn’t talk about how letter carriers see and feel a city changing in unique ways (a house is torn down and three duplexes are built in its space—multiplying by six the amount of mail and packages you have to deliver); but it could still be a chapter in the book.

Michael Noll

The Dallas Morning News reported that "one in three construction workers in Dallas doesn’t get a break during the work day, no matter the time of day or temperature."

The Dallas Morning News reported that “one in three construction workers in Dallas doesn’t get a break during the work day, no matter the time of day or temperature.”

You mention that Texas, where you worked, is a right-to-work state, which means the power of unions is severely limited. Texas is not alone; it’s one of 24 states with right-to-work laws, which is not surprising. Generally speaking, Americans are not particularly sympathetic to issues of worker safety or abuse. Perhaps it’s due to that old Protestant work ethic: work hard, don’t complain. Or perhaps it’s a result of the poor economy; when so many people are out of work or underemployed, they may have little interest in hearing complains from people with jobs. It seemed that you had these attitudes in mind as you wrote. For instance, you mention your work ethic, which was instilled by your lower middle class background. You remind readers that you could have quit if you wanted to; the job wasn’t a matter of avoiding destitution. I’m curious when these passages entered the essay. Where they always present? Did you have the readers’ skepticism in mind from the beginning? Or did you add them later after getting some initial feedback?

Jess Stoner

It wasn’t just the reader’s skepticism I was worried about; I was worried the entire time I worked at the Post Office that my colleagues would think I wasn’t cut out for the job. It meant everything to me to work hard and earn their respect.

And I was even more worried, from the very first day of training, that if my colleagues knew my background, they would think I accepted the position as an experiment, as fodder for something I’d write about later. In reality, I was proud to deliver the mail, and for the first two months or so, I naively hoped that it would be the last job I ever had.

You know, we hear a lot about the dignity of work. Politicians from the left and right, including President Obama, talk about how a job gives you dignity. I call bullshit. The people I worked with at the Post Office were good parents and grandparents; they were veterans; some of them talked about their strong faith—they all have an innate dignity that has nothing to do with how they earn a paycheck. From them, from my own experiences, and from the experiences of my friends who work at chain restaurants or are sales clerks at big box retailers, I have learned an incredibly important lesson: Work is just what millions of Americans do, despite the indignity.

The Texas Tribune's series "Hurting for Work" reveals the injuries and deaths to Texas workers in the midst of the economic growth nicknamed "The Texas Miracle."

The Texas Tribune’s series “Hurting for Work” reveals the injuries and deaths to Texas workers in the midst of the economic growth nicknamed “The Texas Miracle.”

I mean, for Christ’s sake, the Austin City Council had to pass an ordinance requiring employers to give construction workers rest breaks. According to The Dallas Morning News, one out of every three construction workers in Dallas isn’t allowed to take a water break—even when it’s 110 degrees outside. The Texas Tribune did an excellent, and, I think, award-deserving series called “Hurting for Work,” that details the terrible conditions workers face throughout the state. That more people aren’t horrified and publicly demanding change makes me wonder what the hell is wrong with our country.

Michael Noll

At one point, you describe getting bit by a dog (unleashed, unfenced), and your supervisor’s reaction was, “You’re probably going to get fired.” I can only imagine how incensed and upset you must have been at this. How were you able to control those emotions to write about the incident? Was it a matter of letting some time pass? Or did you use some other strategy to direct your anger?

Jess Stoner

In the moment I was blown away—my vision and mind went white—I felt like I had Saramago’s blindness. I had known, mostly only theoretically, of workman’s comp laws, of OSHA rules—they don’t exactly come up in faculty meetings and I hadn’t worked outside of a university, the state government, or a non-profit in years. I assumed that these laws existed and they were respected. Beyond my initial bewilderment and subsequent anger, I felt, more than anything, beaten down and depressed.

For weeks and months after I quit, I felt a strangling guilt over the fact that I had given up, that I could give up, that I abandoned the carriers and CCAs I worked with who had been so kind and supportive. I had to shake that off though. I had the privilege of walking away. Now what was I going to do with it?

Michael Noll

This essay falls into the long tradition of muckraker journalism: from Upton Sinclair’s expose of the meat packing industry to Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed, about the conditions faced by the working poor. As such, it’s making highly critical claims about not only the USPS as a whole but also individual employees who behaved badly. Did you have concerns about legal repercussions of publishing the essay—libel, for instance? I know that you changed the names of the people involved, but I’m curious what other steps you may have taken to protect yourself from lawsuits or other legal retribution.

Jess Stoner

I’m beyond flattered that you consider my essay in concert with Ehrenreich—whose book I, coincidentally, re-read when I was writing the essay—the margins are full of my notes (like that part about why many low-paid workers get real pleasure from their short cigarette breaks: “Work is what you do for others; smoking is what you do for yourself.”). Nickle and Dimed, in so many ways, is even more depressing to read now; since its publication in 2001, workers are barely making more per hour, and, as we approach a divisive midterm election and are heading into 2016, so few are talking about the burden of affordable housing—which is a huge part of the book.

I have heard from a number of supervisors since the essay was published, and I realize that in my book, I need to include their experiences—because they’re under terrible pressure as well. One thing I regret is cutting a few lines about my supervisor. While I couldn’t predict when the day would go bad, we started each day off with a hospitable “Good Morning,” and no matter what happened afterward, I appreciated that. On my last day, when I had to come back early from a route because my back was so messed up I couldn’t breathe, she happened to be in the office, visiting from her new station, and she was phenomenal—didn’t yell at me, recognized that I needed immediate medical attention. I was so grateful she was there and not the district supervisor.

As for libel, while I’m not thinking, “Come at me bro,” everything I wrote was true, and if I were threatened with legal action, I think the USPS might have to deal with the Streisand Effect. Since the article was published, I’ve received hundreds of emails, tweets, and Facebook messages from carriers, clerks, maintenance workers, and even people who work in upper management, who wrote to thank me for sharing my story, because theirs are all too similar. Many have signed their emails, “Too afraid to give my name,” and while I understand why they would do so, it both breaks my heart and encourages me to continue my work.

October 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Reach Out to Hostile Readers

7 Oct
Jess Stoner thought being a postal carrier could be her dream job. It turned out to be a nightmare.

Jess Stoner thought being a postal carrier could be her dream job. It turned out to be a nightmare. She wrote about the experience in “Blues on Wheels.”

Everyone has a story to tell, but sometimes not everyone wants to hear it. What happens when this is your story? How do you get skeptical, or even hostile, readers to pay attention?

Jess Stoner faced this problem in her essay, “Blues On Wheels,” about her experience with illegal and abusive labor practices as a mail carrier for the United States Postal Service. The essay is one of the most powerful and disturbing pieces of writing that I’ve read in a long time. It was published at The Morning News, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Stoner writes about the systematic abuse that she and other carriers faced at the USPS. She was screamed at and threatened, forced to work off the clock, and required to work as many as 12 days in a row without a day off. When she was bitten by a dog (off-leash, unfenced), her supervisor told her she’d likely be fired—because getting bitten was her fault. All of these abuses are unethical, and some of them are illegal. It would seem reasonable to assume that Stoner could tell these things to anyone and find a sympathetic ear. But that isn’t the case.

Stoner was working in Texas, which is a right-to-work state, which means it has laws that reduce the power of labor unions. Unions, of course, are a politically charged topic, but they aren’t the primary reason that some readers may object to Stoner’s story. Instead, the problem for many readers would be that Stoner is telling the story at all. Americans’ resistance to unions is just the beginning of our reluctance to listen to stories about workplace problems. We tend to believe in working hard and not complaining, perhaps because of that old Protestant work ethic and almost certainly because of the recent economic recession. When many people don’t have any job at all, it’s natural to resent someone who complain about the job they do have, no matter how unfair or illegal its practices.

So, in writing this essay, Stoner needed to find a way to convince the reader from walking away. Given that need, watch how she begins the second section of the essay:

I wanted to be a letter carrier because I have always loved checking the mail. It has been one of the highlights of my day since I was a kid, when my favorite aunt, who lived more than 1,000 miles away, would send me letters and packages. I had also been underemployed, temping and volunteering for the last six months. I wanted to work outside, to tire out my body and my mind. I wanted a paycheck.

Everyone I knew was happy for me when I was hired; many said that delivering the mail was their secret dream job. They told me about the letter carriers they grew up with, whose names they knew.

Stoner makes clear that she wanted the job and understood the physical nature of it (“I wanted to work outside, to tire out my body and my mind.”) In other words, she removes the potential objection by readers who may have believed she wasn’t up to the demands of the job in the first place. Stoner also makes clear that she was struggling in the same difficult economy as everyone else (“underemployed, temping and volunteering for the last six months”)—an important distinction for readers who’ve been similarly beaten down and, as a result, are alert to the first whiffs of elitism or privilege.

Stoner continues with these attempts to reach out to the reader, making clear (again) that she’s not afraid of hard work:

I’m a Type-A person who grew up as a member of the lower middle class; I’ve always been driven to work hard, no matter where I was employed: the warehouses, convenience stores and restaurants before and during college, and after graduating, the nonprofits, the universities where I taught.

But Stoner is also careful to note that the job is not a matter of life or death—she won’t starve without it.

I constantly reminded myself: You have chosen to work for the USPS. You can quit…I had the privilege of walking away, something my husband begged me to do on a daily basis. We are a childless couple; we could survive a few months of my unemployment.

Of course, even with these caveats, it’s possible that some readers will dismiss Stoner’s very legitimate complaints as mere whining. You can’t convince those who aren’t willing to listen. But it’s likely that these caveats allow the essay to reach readers who might otherwise have ignored it, which is all that any writer can hope for.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s reach out to hostile readers using “Blues on Wheels” by Jess Stoner as a model:

  1. Identify the hostile readers. In our partisan climate, it’s not difficult to anger some readers even with seemingly innocuous material. But if you’re writing about sex, dating, parenting, healthcare, dietary preferences, entertainment choices (TV, movies, video games, hiking, hunting, target practice), death and dying, cultural mores and idiosyncrasies, inequality, or work, you’re likely to run into objections. In other words, unless you’re writing about your favorite ice cream flavor, there’s likely a partisan perspective on your topic. But we often aren’t aware of these objections because we tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people. So, imagine yourself in a community that isn’t your own. If you were to begin telling your story, what would people say?
  2. Give those readers the benefit of the doubt. It’s easy to demonize people who disagree with you. But it’s not a great rhetorical strategy, no matter how righteous your cause. (Remember how Martin Luther King, Jr. began his letter, written from Birmingham Jail, to the white preachers who criticized his nonviolent actions: “But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.”) In other words, don’t be condescending—or at least hide your condescension the best that you can.
  3. Make your biases clear. We rarely come to an issue with no preconceived notions. Sometimes they’re positive, sometimes they’re negative, and other times they simply exist. Be careful not to reserve expressions of shock for when they’re most warranted. This is, perhaps, why Stoner makes it clear that she always wanted to be a postal carrier. She knew something about the job and valued its importance. In other words, show your familiarity with the subject you’re writing about.
  4. If possible, relate to the readers. If the hostility is a matter of class (real or perceived), try to narrow that distance. Politicians do this with varied success by holding guns and wearing Carhartt jackets. This is easier done if the connections are real. Stoner grew up working class and says so. She was struggling to find full employment and says so. So, ask yourself, “How am I like my hostile readers?”
  5. If necessary, admit your privilege. There are limits to how much you can relate to certain readers—overdo it, and you’ll appear to be insincere. So, be honest. If not everyone can make the choices you’ve made, say so. If your choices or beliefs are influenced by cultural factors that aren’t present everywhere, admit it. If there are many positions one can take on an issue, don’t write as if there are only two (yours and mine). If you once believed differently than you do now, say so and give your reader the chance to make the same philosophical journey as you.

Remember, the goal isn’t to dilute your point but to make it heard by as many people as possible.

Good luck!

An Interview with Donna Johnson

2 Oct
Donna Johnson's memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, "takes you inside a world where God and sin and miracles and deceit and love are so jumbled together you can't tell them apart," according to Jeannete Walls, author of The Glass Castle.

Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, “takes you inside a world where God and sin and miracles and deceit and love are so jumbled together you can’t tell them apart,” according to Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle.

Donna M. Johnson was just three years old when her mother signed on as the organist for the tent revivalist David Terrell. The family became part of the preacher’s inner circle, and Johnson remained part of it until she was left at 17 years old. The experience inspired the memoir Holy Ghost Girl, which was called “enthralling” and “a sure bet” by The New York Times. Johnson has written about religion for The Dallas Morning News and created, wrote, and produced a five-day-a-week radio show called Tech Ranch.  Holy Ghost Girl won the Mayborn Creative Nonfiction Prize for a work in progress. Johnson lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, the author and poet Kirk Wilson.

To read the first pages of Holy Ghost Girl and an exercise on writing setting, click here.

Michael Noll

One of my favorite parts about this book is that you convey the full complexity of David Terrell—not just the juicy stuff like his philandering and not just the effect that he had on people. You really convey the sense of the miraculous that he carried with him. The temptation would have been to reveal the truth behind the miracles he performed (a woman’s tumor vanished from her stomach) and the miracles that happened to him (God called him to give another preacher $100, and, lo and behold, that amount was returned to him manyfold). Did you struggle at all to portray these scenes without saying to the reader, “But, you know, of course, that it was all for show”?

Donna Johnson

I struggled with knowing that people would expect me to debunk the miracles, and that I would lose credibility if I didn’t. I decided to take that risk because in truth, I didn’t see trickery, or perhaps I did, but I didn’t know it. Please understand, I think there must have been some chicanery. But I also think amazing things happened. I experienced a healing in my young adulthood that certainly could have been a mind over matter thing, and I write it about it as such in Holy Ghost Girl. I’m somewhat of a mystic who believes in the rational world and in the possibility of the world of faith. I wanted to write from that perspective.

I now wonder if I should have been more explicit in my exploration of belief and the spell it weaves. The Terrellites saw the world through the lens of faith, and that shaped their conception of reality, and maybe even their actual reality at times. I wrote almost that exact sentence in the book, but readers remember the miracles, not my sideways musings about faith. Like many memoir writers, I hesitated to break the spell of the world I was creating on the page. Maybe I should have been more ruthless in my questioning of what was real and what wasn’t. I don’t know.

Michael Noll

You write quite a few scenes that show Terrell preaching, which presents a significant problem. His services were really long—hours and hours. How did you find the right moments to dramatize? I noticed that you mixed direct quotations with summary. For example, you summarized his reading of the story of Moses (“In a fit of pique, he kills an Egyptian) but then quoted his thoughts on the story (“You can’t outrun God. When God chooses you, you’re chosen for life”). I’m curious how many drafts some of these sermons would go through before you found the right frame or entry point that would allow you to craft a short scene from a great deal of material.

Donna Johnson

Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson portrays the author's experience growing up on the trail of a revivalist preacher who would eventually be sentenced to prison time.

Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson portrays the author’s experience growing up on the trail of revivalist preacher David Terrell.

I thought about the sermons I had heard Terrell preach from the time I was three until I was about sixteen, many of them a variation on a theme, and I chose the ones that seemed to best serve the story and to exemplify his peculiar worldview. I found his voice, his language, still very alive in me, and so I followed it. The phrases and lines quoted in the book are ones he used most often when making a point—and many of those points were made again and again in every sermon. Of course this makes sense only in retrospect. I didn’t have the sense I was choosing what to quote and what to summarize while writing. It felt like I was simply watching and listening to the character and trying to capture it in sentences.

I have no idea how many drafts I wrote of those sermons. I tend to rewrite as I go and move on only when I’m comfortable with a scene. It’s torturous.

Michael Noll

On the subject of that particular sermon, I love that line “In a fit of pique, he kills an Egyptian.” You go on to say, “Chapter three opens with Moses on the lam. God appears to him as a burning bush with a gift for gab and tells him to confront Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of Egypt.” That is just terrific stuff–such a strong voice. I know that you teach a memoir class, and one of the things you focus on is voice. How conscious were you of trying to construct a voice when writing a passage like this?

Donna Johnson

I worked hard to find that voice. I couldn’t get past the prologue until it emerged—and I had the luxury of working a year on the prologue. The voice is a persona constructed from a multiplicity of selves. The scrappy kid I was when traveling with the tent, the irreverent girl I became who said things to shock people, the failed poet, the outcast who longs to return home; they are all there. Mixed in too is a white trash version of Scout Finch. It’s me, and it’s not me of course. I have to work against tossing off the quick, easy line, a habit from years of writing feature story leads and ad copy.

Michael Noll

There are moments in the narrative when you pull back to provide context. For example, in a story about three white men surrounding Terrell and telling him to kick the black people out of his tent, you step back to give a paragraph of context about the attitude toward black people on the sawdust trail, focusing in particular on the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles. Did the need for context like this jump out at you as you were writing? Or was it something you added in revision?

Donna Johnson

Once I finished the prologue, my agent sold the book on proposal. There was no time for revision, and I think the book suffers as a result. I always knew Holy Ghost Girl would include some of the history of Pentecostalism and the sawdust trail. It seemed necessary. Those three white men you mention above were with the KKK and they eventually beat Terrell over his insistence that blacks and whites sit together under his tents. If I had left the story there, Terrell might have seemed too heroic. Pentecostalism was born in Los Angeles on Azusa Street and the worshippers were black and white. The mixed race aspect of the revival ignited indignation among the press and the elites. The tents were one of the few places where blacks and whites gathered as equals in the pre civil rights south. That knowledge places Terrell in a tradition. It seemed important to let readers know he was not utterly unique.

October 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Create Meaningful Spaces in Stories

30 Sep
Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson portrays the author's experience growing up on the trail of a revivalist preacher who would eventually be sentenced to prison time.

Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson portrays the author’s experience growing up as part of the inner circle of a revivalist preacher.

Every writer has heard this piece of advice: Don’t write a scene in a vacuum. Choose a setting that will impact the characters’ decisions. Not all settings are created equal. Force two characters to have an argument in the bathroom, and the result will be different than if they have it at the dinner table.

In theory, this advice should be easy to follow, but I can remember my days as a MFA student when I would spin my wheels for days puzzling out which setting would be best and worrying that I was choosing the wrong one. Like most writing “rules,” the theory is easier than the application. So, how can we create setting without driving ourselves crazy?

Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, was published in 2011 to rave reviews. The New York Times called it “enthralling” and “a sure bet.” The book is about Johnson’s experience growing up in a family that followed a traveling tent revival led by the preacher David Terrell. The sense of place is vividly palpable in the book, as the first pages of the opening chapter make clear. You can read them here.

How the Story Works

One reason that setting often feels difficult to write is that the places we’re considering feel random, as though drawn from a hat of Places to Set a Scene. Sometimes, the solution is to find a place that the characters find meaningful. As real people, we travel through a variety of places every day, but all of us have a handful of places that feel like home, where we are our best or truest selves. Watch how Johnson sets up such a place in the first chapter of the memoir:

The tent waited for us, her canvas wings hovering over a field of stubble that sprouted rusty cans, A&P flyers, bits of glass bottles, and the rolling tatter of trash that migrated through town to settle in an empty lot just beyond the city limits. At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us from a world that told us we were too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did. Society, or at least the respectable chunk of it, saw the tent and those of us who traveled with it as a freak show, a rolling asylum that hit town and stirred the local Holy Rollers, along with a few Baptists, Methodists, and even a Presbyterian or two, into a frenzy.

This passage establishes the tent as special in a couple of ways. First, it stresses how unremarkable the setting is: a field of trash at the edge of town. Yet that trash is appropriate because the people who gather there feel “too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did.” This is an example of characters finding meaning in the things that surround them. Real people do this all the time. They develop attachments to the places they live: small towns, big cities, flat plains, mountains, deserts, rainy places, blue states, and red states. In all likelihood, they didn’t consciously choose the place where they live. They were born there and stayed or arrived there out of some necessity. Yet they often appropriate aspects of the place as statements of personal character—the people who live here are good/hardworking/smart/real/whatever. This is exactly what Johnson is doing in this passage.

Secondly, the passage shows the people creating a space that demonstrates some quality about them: “At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us…” It’s a cliche that you can learn a lot about people by stepping into their homes, and this passage reveals the truth in the cliche.

Once the memoir establishes the importance of the tent, it spends several paragraphs showing how the tent was put up, the effort and mechanics involved. Because the place matters, so does the upkeep of the place, and it’s in these passages that we learn crucial information about the people who gather there:

Local churches sent out volunteers, but most of the work was done by families who followed Brother Terrell from town to town, happy to do the Lord’s work for little more than a blessing and whatever Brother Terrell could afford to pass along to them. When he had extra money, they shared in it. He had a reputation as a generous man who “pinched the buffalo off every nickel” that passed through his hands. He employed only two to four “professional” tent men, a fraction of the number employed by organizations of a similar size. The number of employees remained the same over the years even as the size of the tents grew larger. “World’s largest tent. World smallest tent crew,” was the joke.

Because the tent is so central to the people’s identities, it’s also central to the story. One chapter begins with unwanted visitors to the tent (the Klan). Another chapter offers some children, including Johnson, the opportunity to escape from the tent for a while and swim in a local pool. In both scenes, the tension results from the changes to setting. The rules—the usual way of being—are upended, which produces a story to tell.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a meaningful space using Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson as a model:

  1. Choose a character. It’s tempting to start with the setting itself, but unless you’re writing a story like Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” where setting is the entire point, the place is only as important as the character believes it to be. So, choose a character that you’ve already created, and let’s figure out what that character believes is important about the setting.
  2. Locate the character in his/her surroundings. Start with the general. Where does the character spend his/her time? Think about neighborhood, work, commute, church—the basic settings of our lives.
  3. Identify what is unremarkable about those surroundings. We tend to start with what is remarkable or unusual. But it’s often the case that people become inured to the peculiarities of where they live—they see them every day and take them for granted. Instead, try listing the things that the character sees or notices every day. What are the things that irritate the character about his/her setting?
  4. Let the character appropriate those aspects as personal qualities. Ironically, it’s the little, irritating things in our worlds that we often feel the most attachment to. Johnson writes about how the people who gathered in the tent identified with the trash strewn around them. Try writing a sentence that begins this way: “We were the kind of people” or “They were the kind of people” or “She was the kind of person who…” Can you connect that kind of people they are to those irritating, commonplace parts of their surroundings? Here’s an easy example of this: “We were the kind of people who didn’t need a lot of money.”
  5. Allow the character to create a personal space in those surroundings. In Johnson’s memoir, the worshippers construct a sacred place in the midst of the trash, and that place shines into the darkness. In other words, the place makes manifest the hidden, interior parts of the people who gather in it. People do this all the time. Sometimes we literally build shrines to the things that are closest to our hearts. Other times, we build dens or interior spaces that allow us to be our truest selves: they’re full of books or NFL gear or Precious Moments figurines. What shelter does your character build to protect against the elements—physical, emotional, and spiritual?

Good luck!


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