How to Bring Other Voices into Your Writing

19 Aug
Janet Stickmon's book, Midnight Peaches, Two O'Clock Patience, is a collection of poems, stories, and essays about the creative power of women.

Janet Stickmon’s book, Midnight Peaches, Two O’Clock Patience, is a collection of poems, stories, and essays about the creative power of women.

When creating a narrator’s voice, either for a story or our own voice in an essay, we often struggle to find the right voice. Writers talk about this all the time—they struggled with their work until that moment when they finally discovered their voice. It’s tempting to believe that this voice is a single vein of consciousness and diction and that we’re just hacking away at the rock of our exteriors until we uncover it. But sometimes there is no single consciousness. Sometimes the best or most authentic voice contains different kinds of diction and syntax. If that’s the case, what do you do?

Janet Stickmon demonstrates how to handle multiple voices in her essay, “Blackapina,” about her multiethnic background as an African-American Filipina. The first part of the essay was published as ““Barack Obama: Embracing Multiplicity—Being a Catalyst for Change” in Race, Gender, and the Obama Phenomenon: Toward a More Perfect Union?, co-edited by G. Reginald Daniel and Hettie Williams. It was later incorporated into a larger essay, “Blackapina,” in Stickmon’s book Midnight Peaches, Two O’Clock Patience. You can read it here.

How the Essay Works

In her famous essay, “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan writes about a lecture that she had given many times but never in front of her mother. Only then, with her immigrant mother in the audience, did she realize that it was “a speech filled with carefully wrought grammatical phrases, burdened, it suddenly seemed to me, with nominalized forms, past perfect tenses, conditional phrases, all the forms of standard English that I had learned in school and through books, the forms of English I did not use at home with my mother.”

That is the kind of English that Stickmon uses for this essay. An excerpt was published in a scholarly book. As anyone who’s written an academic, scholarly essay knows, there are expectations for the kind of language that will be used. Here is Stickmon’s first sentence:

People of multiethnic backgrounds are accustomed to existing at the intersections of multiple worlds and multiple identities, holding and juggling those spaces in tension.

This is Stickmon’s academic voice, and it would seem that it leaves no room for the diction and syntax that Stickmon might use outside the classroom or lecture hall—just as the voices we create for any piece of writing often seem narrow (purely serious with no room for humor or too smart or too naive or too whatever to leave room for sentences that contradict the dominant voice). Yet Stickmon manages to include other voices.

She starts by inserting other languages. The first is Filipino:

Momma was from the barangay of Labangon in Cebu and left a clerical job to come to the United States—the country she considered the “land of milk and honey.”

The second is a form of English:

Da’y (Daddy for short) was from Shreveport, LA and hopped freight trains to California—one of approximately six million African-Americans who fled the oppression of the South during what came to be known as the Great Migration.

With those proper names (barangay of Labangon in Cebu) and (Da’y (Daddy for short) was from Shreveport, LA) comes an entire dictionary of words that are rarely found in academic texts:

My biracial experience began with the very basic influences of food and language, eating Momma’s biko and bijon and Da’y’s hoe cakes and hot cakes, hearing Da’y sound “country” and Momma speak Cebuano.

The presence of these new voices has a marked impact on the dominant academic voice. Here’s the next paragraph:

It was 1989 when Momma died and Da’y was put in a convalescent hospital; I was 15 years old. Three years later, Da’y died, and I officially became an orphan, continuing to juggle my dual heritage along with the meaning of life in the absence of parental love. I was tossed around from one social worker to the next, telling my story over and over again, becoming attached to no one. Though the most immediate lifelines to my history were gone, my sense of self was informed by the memories my parents left behind, the Filipino relatives I moved in with, the holidays spent with my African-American relatives, and close high school and college friends.

The language is still addressing the “intersections of multiple worlds and multiple identities” from the essay’s first sentence, but it’s now doing so in language that isn’t necessarily more colloquial but certainly more understandable to non-academic readers (“tossed around from one social worker to the next”).

The essay even begins to gain a sense of humor (something that scholarly writing is not at all known for). Here is an example:

I had to “turn on” my Black side (whatever that meant) and leave behind or downplay my Filipino side; when I was in an all Filipino environment I felt that I had to “turn on” my Filipino-ness (whatever that meant) and downplay my Black side.

Those parenthetical asides—”(whatever that meant)”—almost seem like the commentary of another voice on a sentence that puts turn on in quotation marks. In short, because Stickmon has introduced these different voices in the essay, they begin to form a kind of dialogue with each other—that dialogue, as Chimamanda Adichie has explained in her popular TED talk, is far better than listening to a single, dominant voice.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce and use different voices, using “Blackapina” by Janet Stickmon as a model:

  1. Choose a piece of writing whose voice feels too homogenized. It can be a story or essay sitting in a drawer or in a folder on your computer. Sometimes when we get stuck in a draft, the problem is that we haven’t given ourselves enough to work with. We had an idea that made us begin the story/essay in the first place, and we took it as far as we could. Introducing more voices can provide more grist for our imaginations.
  2. Introduce a piece of information that can’t be told in the dominant voice. This might be something from another culture or language, like the Filipino places and foods referenced by Stickmon. But that other culture/language doesn’t need to from some foreign land. In America, there are particular Englishes for different regions and professions, and with those Englishes come different vocabularies. You can’t talk about tort law or raising hogs or heart surgery or road construction without using the dictions of those fields.
  3. Expand the reference. Stickmon references her parents’ origins in the Phillipines and Louisiana and then builds on those references by talking about everyday experiences (like food) that are associated with them. In your writing, every reference to something outside the frame of the narration is an opportunity to let in other voices—if you’ll let them speak. So, stay with a reference for a paragraph. Give more details about it.
  4. Mesh the reference with the primary voice. We usually reference something because it carries some weight or importance. Use that importance to make the reference a crucial part of the primary narrative. For example, once Stickmon introduces Da’y, she’s able to tell a story about him that connects to the very academic idea of “intersections of multiple worlds and multiple identities.” Because Da’y is from a difference linguistic world that intersections, the language of that story and its analysis becomes a different language that previously existed—not less academic, as some people sometimes argue, but a hybrid of pure academic language (whatever that means) and something non-academic that is essential to the narrative. Another way of looking at this is as a lens. Very often we start a piece of writing by looking through a particular lens. If you change the lens slightly (by adding characters or changing setting), you also change the story and voice.

This can be a fun exercise. Like Amy Tan, you might realize that you’re speaking different languages or forms of a language without knowing it.

Good luck!

An Interview with Kelly Davio

14 Aug

Kelly Davio is the poetry editor of Tahoma Literary Review and the author of the forthcoming novel-in-poems, Jacob Wrestling.

Kelly Davio is the poetry editor of Tahoma Literary Review and the author of the forthcoming novel-in-poems, Jacob Wrestling.

Kelly Davio is the poetry editor for Tahoma Literary Review and the author of the poetry collection, Burn This House, and the forthcoming novel-in-poems, Jacob Wrestling. She is also the associate poetry editor at Fifth Wednesday Journal and a former managing editor at Los Angeles Review. She lives in Seattle and works as an instructor of English as a Second Language. Her essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” was published recently at The Rumpus.

In this interview, Davio discusses the cultural criteria for womanhood, the corporate interests in empowerment, and the lessons of writing poetry for essay writers.

To read Davio’s essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” and an exercise on structure, click here.

Michael Noll

This is such a powerful essay, especially the line, “I was never a curvy woman to begin with, but with each of the more feminine attributes I’ve lost, I’ve become, I am given to understand, less and less of a real woman.” I’m curious how you worked up to this statement. Was it a realization that you’ve had for a while and so part of writing the essay was finding a way to say it? Or did this line only occur to you as you worked on the piece?

Kelly Davio

This idea, that I’m the antithesis of a “real woman,” is something I’ve been circling around for some time, often with amusement and other times with resignation or even bald aggravation. Our culture is strangely invested in telling women what makes them real: having curves, having health, having children, having beauty, having strength, having sexiness. I don’t feel that I meet any of the criteria for being a real woman, so it must stand to reason that I’m an unreal woman. I’ve been writing about this idea in my poetry for a little while, and have developed a character I call The Unreal Woman—she’s part comedic alter-ego and part antihero—whom I use to explore the idea of being left out and left over.

In writing “Strong is the New Sexy,” though, I wanted to take a more straightforward, serious approach to this topic. Cathartic as it is for me to write humorous or wry poems about The Unreal Woman, it was important to me to work up the courage to speak bluntly about body image and disability. I may be hyperaware of how few people write about the disabled body in the literary space, but it’s a topic that feels to me like one of the last literary taboos, and I wanted to, if not break it, at least chip artfully around its corners.

Michael Noll

In the first paragraph, you’re learning to swallow again and watching hang gliders through the window. This contrast between weakness and strength is carried through the entire essay. At one point in the essay, you juxtapose the statements, “Strong is the new sexy” and “grave weakness.” Did you start with this structure or discover it as you put images down on the page?

Kelly Davio

I did begin with the rough structure in mind. I find it amusing that we speak so much about strength as an essential attribute, especially with regard to living with illness, yet the name of the disease I live with–myasthenia gravis–quite literally means “grave weakness.” That seemed like a fruitful contrast to examine.

Beyond that fact, the form almost seemed to give itself to me on a platter with the unlikely scenario of daredevils hang gliding right in view of the hospital complex (I suppose they’re in the right place if anything goes amiss with their sport). I mean, you can’t make this stuff up! Here are these folks who presumably have health enough to spare, dangling themselves on nothing but air currents, and then you have this group of patients shuffling around in our sweatpants. The only things separating our groups were some large windows and a big gap in circumstance. I liked the idea that I could use this contrast between images of health and disability to work up to the view of acceptance that I put forth in the end of the essay.

Michael Noll

The essay is full of short paragraphs that make quick leaps of logic. For instance, you write this about the therapist: “The most important thing, she tells me, is that I don’t quit eating. Sometimes, people just give up, she says. She looks at my chart again, and asks how much weight I’ve lost in the past few months.” The leap from giving up to looking at your chart is striking. I think I actually paused after I read it the first time. The leap happens without any mechanics. You don’t say that she looked at you worriedly or that she advised you to eat more. There are so many ways that this moment could have been expanded, so many other pieces of seemingly pertinent information that could have been added. Such brevity is often difficult for fiction writers, but you’re a poet. What effect do you think your experience with the distillation and density that happens in poems has on your approach to writing an essay?

Kelly Davio

Most of us have probably experienced the phenomenon of trying to get the spirit of an incident on the page, and adding, elaborating, and decorating that incident for fear we haven’t gotten it quite right or communicated it fully. The problem with that impulse to keep renovating the image is that, the more you add, the more you dilute.

Poetry has a wonderful way of teaching the importance of getting the image right rather than piling on additions; when a poem begins to over-explain by even a word or two, the entire piece falls apart. Poetry has taught me to think through everything I put on the page before I put it there, and to approach everything I write slowly and attentively so that I can avoid the impulse to over-elaborate out of fear that the reader won’t grasp my meaning.

I should also note that I think the positions of the body are often more revealing than dialogue tags, and I tend to use body language in lieu of tagging whenever I can. What we say verbally is only a fragment of what we communicate, and when you excise the “he saids” from your writing, you give yourself room enough to suggest many of those subtleties in a small amount of space.

Michael Noll

In her essay, "Strong Is The New Sexy," Kelly Davio argues that shifting the idea image of female beauty from thin to strong still leaves some people feeling like they're not real women.

In her essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” Kelly Davio argues that shifting the idea image of female beauty from thin to strong still leaves some people feeling like they’re not real women.

The essay ends with you watching the gliders. Unlike at the beginning of the essay, you write, “I don’t look away. I have to admit that they are beautiful.” This is a pretty interesting statement given the connections you’ve drawn between the gliders and the ideas of strength and “real” women, which means women with curves. We tend to think in terms of empowerment, the belief that whoever you are, however you look, is good and beautiful. This is especially true with women’s health issues. Cancer survivors compete in triathlons. But that’s not really how this essay ends, and it’s certainly not the advice that you’re given by your doctor. In your case, your body attacks strength and effort. How do you reconcile this paradox: we don’t really have a philosophical place for an illness and a “real” body like yours?

Kelly Davio

Empowerment is a tricky business. Culturally, we have been making some tiny strides toward greater body acceptance for women, but it’s usually a corporate money-maker like Dove’s questionable “Real Beauty” campaign that features nothing but visibly able-bodied women who still fit highly conventional standards of attractiveness. We still have supposedly health-focused television shows that revolve around the entire premise that fat people need to be shamed and monitored into losing weight. And yes, we love to see cancer survivors compete in triathlons! But we sure don’t do much for cancer patients when they’re not “raising awareness”; do we cover our coughs on the bus so that the chemo patient doesn’t catch our germs and become seriously ill? No, unless somebody’s looking inspiring, we have little time for her. We like it when the arc of someone else’s story bends toward us. We like people to look like us, act like us. We have a low tolerance for those people and those bodies that don’t reflect us and underwrite our opinions about the world.

But let me tiptoe off my soapbox and get back to the question at hand. Part of what I wanted to say in this essay is that, over time, I’ve realized that body acceptance is a whole lot more than adopting a sassy attitude as though I’m in a Special K commercial—that’s a cheap imitation of actual acceptance. To me, body acceptance is the choice to allow my body to be as it is and others’ bodies to be as they are. It’s not just about my getting over the embarrassment of walking with a cane when I need to be on my feet for a long time, or coming to terms with all the visible side effects of my medications (though those have been big steps for me). It’s also about stopping the train of envy and judgment; body acceptance means refusing to look at someone else and say “I wish I had your…” or “you’d be so pretty if…”. It’s the radical idea that you and I are both good in and of ourselves, and that no one’s goodness diminishes another’s.

That’s what I mean when I say that I admit the hang gliders are beautiful—I’ve come to a place where I no longer feel envious of their beauty or their health. Just as I can live in this body and call it good, I acknowledge and enjoy their goodness, too.

August 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Use Theme to Create Structure

12 Aug
In her essay, "Strong Is The New Sexy," Kelly Davio argues that shifting the idea image of female beauty from thin to strong still leaves some people feeling like they're not real women.

In her essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” Kelly Davio argues that shifting the image of ideal female beauty from thin to curvy still leaves some women feeling unreal and unfeminine.  Art Credit: Mark Armstrong

For some writers, structure comes naturally. They have an innate compass that allows them to chart a course through the jumble of experiences and memories in their minds, forming a narrative arc from the chaos. Others of us, though, can spend all day writing and still find nothing but a mess on the page. No matter how interesting the individual paragraphs or sentences or story, until those things are placed within some structure, the essay won’t work. The question is this: How do we find that structure?

Kelly Davio’s recent essay, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” offers a primer in giving structure to our experiences and ideas. It appeared in The Rumpus, where you can read it now. 

How the Story Works

The essay plants several flags in the ground and moves back and forth between them. The first flag is found in the title, “Strong Is The New Sexy,” which clearly presents one idea that will recur within the essay: for a woman, being strong is desirable. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to guess that this statement suggests another, different idea: for a woman, being thin is sexy and desirable. Davio makes this connection explicitly:

The product of a generation of girls who grew up with the specter of anorexia stalking our friends and siblings, I was told that “real women have curves” as though it were a mantra.

These two ideas alone are probably enough to fuel an essay. In fact, you’ve probably read an essay like that before. But Davio is interested in moving beyond binary positions of “strong vs skinny” because neither describes her, and she, of course, is a real woman. So she plants a third flag in the ground: “The name of my disease translates directly from the Greek and Latin to ‘grave weakness.'” Due to the nature of this disease, she’s lost the muscle memory required for eating and must relearn it with the help of a physical therapist:

The most important thing, she tells me, is that I don’t quit eating. Sometimes, people just give up, she says. She looks at my chart again, and asks how much weight I’ve lost in the past few months.

Davio has shifted the conversation from “strong vs skinny” to “Strong is the new sexy vs grave weakness.” In other words, what if a woman is thin not because she wants to be but because she has no choice? These are the flags (strong/sexy and grave weakness) that Davio moves between. Each section of the essay is focused on one or the other or on the tension between the two:

  • The first section introduces the image of Davio relearning to eat while looking out the window at hang gliders.
  • The second section introduces a Pinterest image of a curvy woman in a swimsuit and the idea that “being healthy and fit is so much more important than being skinny.”
  • The third section returns to Davio learning how to eat and adds the dimension of unwanted weight loss.
  • The fourth section explains the consequences of losing weight and, as a result, the markers of femininity: Davio feels that is becoming “less and less of a real woman.”
  • The fifth section gives details about the physical effects of the “grave weakness.”
  • The sixth section shows Davio trying to cover up these effects.
  • The next two sections finally make explicit the juxtaposition between strong and weak.
  • The final section returns to the hang gliders, with Davio admitting “that they are beautiful.”

By planting the thematic flags of the essay so clearly, Davio gives her imagination and memory a structure to work within. Everyone has sat in waiting rooms at doctor’s offices; those scenes in this essay could have been generic. But because Davio knows (or her unconscious knows) that she’s writing about strength and grave weakness, she focuses the waiting-room scene on images that touches on those ideas: particular images on her phone, the hang gliders outside the window.

By knowing what the essay is about, Davio also knows which details to use and which to leave out.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create structure with theme using “Strong Is The New Sexy” by Kelly Davio as a model:

  1. Choose your topic. What are you going to write about? It might just be a story or memory that’s been running through your mind. You might not know what it’s about. That’s fine. The important thing is to have something definite in your mind, some concrete experience or detail.
  2. Identify what your essay seems to be about. If you told someone the story/memory/detail, what would they say it’s about? Or, to put it another way, what is the usual version of your essay? What would readers expect it to be about based on the title? Davio’s essay would seem, from the title, to be making a common argument about female body image: that strong/athletic/curvy is better than making oneself skinny through self-deprivation. Even though your essay might not be about this expected thing, it’s useful to know what is expected. It gives you something to react against.
  3. What is the essay really about? Perhaps you’ve had the experience of telling someone you’re story/memory/detail and they say, “Well, here’s what’s going on with you.” If they’re right, it’s enlightening. If they’re wrong, it’s infuriating. The best essays often develop from the need to correct an idea or fill in a missing gap. Davio’s essay is adding necessary dimensions to the strong vs skinny debate. What does your essay want to add to the ideas that readers already have? How can you say to your imaginary reader, “No, no, it’s not about that at all. It’s about this?”
  4. Plant your flags. Identify the different positions/ideas present in your essay (perhaps conflicting in your essay). Do it in a word or two. Davio uses “strong/sexy” and “grave weakness.” How can you distill your argument to a couple of words like that?
  5. Write scenes/sections around each flag. One way to think about structure is as “theme and variation.” How many different perspectives can you offer on the flags that you’ve planted. For strength, Davio 1) shows images of female beauty from her phone, 2) shows people who are healthy and actively flying hang gliders, and 3) gives context (“the specter of anorexia”). She does the same thing with grave weakness, showing various aspects of what that means in physical terms and their mental effect. For each of the flags you’ve planted (the one or two-word phrases that explain what the essay is about), write a scene from a story or build a paragraph using an image or detail. To change metaphors, how can you filter your memories through these phrases to see what comes out?

At some point, you’ll find that you have enough scenes and sections, and your job will be to order them. That will be easier if they share a similar focus and direction.

Good luck!

An Interview with Laura Benedict

7 Aug

Laura Benedict's most recent suspense novel, Bliss House, tells a story of hauntings and murder. Her story, "When I Make Love to the Bug Man," was featured in PANK's Pulp Issue.

Laura Benedict’s most recent suspense novel, Bliss House, tells a story of hauntings and murder. Her story, “When I Make Love to the Bug Man,” was featured in PANK’s Pulp Issue.

Laura Benedict is a suspense writer whose latest novel, Bliss House, was called “eerie, seductive, and suspenseful.” Benedict is also the author of Devil’s Oven, a modern Frankenstein tale, and Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts and Isabella Moon. Her work has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery MagazinePANK, and numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads and Slices of Flesh. She originated and edited the Surreal South Anthology of Short Fiction Series with her husband, Pinckney Benedict, and edited Feeding Kate, a charity anthology, for their press, Gallowstree Press. A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, Laura grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and claims both as hometowns. She currently lives with her family in the southern wilds of a Midwestern state.

In this interview, Benedict discusses writing fiction that disrupts the social constructs we take for granted, not knowing her endings as she writes, and imagining everyday encounters as criminal acts.

To read Benedict’s story, “When I Make Love to the Bug Man,” and an exercise on writing seemingly illogical characters, click here.

Michael Noll

This story is amazingly creepy, even when it’s about very real things. For instance, this is my favorite passage in the story:

Fact: Wolf spiders–the females are the ones you’ll see–look furry, but that’s not fur on their backs. It’s their young. Hundreds of them. Mama carries them around with her as she explores her territory.

I love this passage because it shocks me into seeing something familiar for the first time. Or, to quote the essayist Amy Leach, the passage creates “a place whose dimensions make nonsense of your heretofore extraordinary spatial intelligence.” It takes a special eye to notice such details and transform them into lines of fiction. Many people look at spiders and are creeped out, but you’ve created an entirely new creepiness. Is this a skill that comes naturally to you, or have you trained your eye and imagination to see other dimensions of common things?

Laura Benedict

What a lovely thought. I’m so glad you like that passage. I find that fact about wolf spiders strangely—I don’t know—metaphorical. The passage may contain a lot of energy because I discovered a bizarre kind of empathy for female wolf spiders, even though I fear them with my whole being. What practical and efficient parents they are, yes? How odd it is to feel a connection with an arachnid. Of course I’m anthropomorphizing like mad.

A creepy story about spiders feels almost like cheating to me because I’m able to count heavily on the reader’s own sense of dread. From a craft standpoint, I liked the idea of having the woman recount facts in a straightforward manner, almost as if she’s educating both herself and the reader with useful details about her new world and interests.

Skill or training? That’s always a good question. Once I found my material I realized that I had to be able to immerse the reader in whatever world I wanted them to experience down to the last detail. That did take a lot of practice. Every sentence has to move the story forward in some way, or at least be integral to the scene. And if you break the mood, break the scene with something that doesn’t fit, you risk losing the reader for the rest of the story. I reached this place in my work by giving myself permission to not accept what I saw around me at face value, to pretend, to suppose—to stretch those confines beyond the point that was generally acceptable. It’s good to be a little off. You have to be willing to cross that line. Transgress. You have to walk on the other side just enough to be able to confidently tell your reader what another reality might be like.

Michael Noll

On a craft level, you actually tell the reader the irrational act that will occur in advance of it actually happening on the page. Early on, the narrator says, 

“I fled my cheerful, shiny family for the Bug Man. Fit, grinning children with summer tans, good teeth, and stunning green eyes the color of new grass. Relentlessly healthy children. Blonde, enviable children. They greet each day with terrifying vigor: water guns and war games, barefoot races and soccer tournaments.  Robert and I have raised them in the light. They attack the world, ready to rule it.”

On one hand, I can imagine someone arguing that you’ve given away the story. On the other hand, the passage raises as many questions as it answers: Why does she give up her family? Who is the Bug Man? Why does she describe nice things in such an ugly way? I’m curious how you approach a paragraph like this. How do you know when such a paragraph is necessary and when it actually will give away the story?

Laura Benedict

A horror story can be, but is not necessarily, a mystery story. To me, the most interesting part of “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” is not that she ends up leaving her family for a creepy exterminator. It’s how she gets there, the way she changes along the way, what she’s willing to accept and lose. If I hadn’t put that paragraph in the beginning, it would’ve felt too much like an “aha!” story. And I hope my fiction is more interesting than that. I want the stakes to be higher for the reader, and the journey to the end to be worth his time. If I’ve already told the reader that she leaves her family for the exterminator, then he should expect something even stranger by the end.

I confess that I didn’t know until I was writing the last few pages that the story was going to end the way it did. I had no idea what was in the box or what would show up to feed on its contents until she was in the Bug Man’s bedroom. It was a surprise I very much liked, and I hope the reader likes it, too.

Does the description of her family sound ugly? I have the sense that she sees her family and her daily life in bright, hyperchromatic colors. She’s passionate, but overwhelmed with the reality of it all. Life with the Bug Man is strange, but laconic and muted. It’s like an opposite universe. In his world, she’s fecund but passive. By engaging in the very bold action of abandoning her family, she sinks—finally, fatally—into a kind of inaction.

Michael Noll

You’ve written that you’re paranoid and tend to imagine every possible crime that might happen to you or others. Given that, I’m curious about the genesis of “When I Make Love to the Bug Man.” Yes, it’s sort of a Rosemary’s Baby tale about a woman sleeping with a monster. But it’s also a story about a woman who, for no good reason, gives up a happy marriage and family in order to have an affair with an unattractive stranger. I’ve heard other writers say that the key to fiction is letting your characters say yes when the real-life you would run the other direction. Given your paranoia, I’m curious if you are re-imagining all of your everyday encounters, not just the potentially criminal ones.

Laura Benedict

“I’ve heard other writers say that the key to fiction is letting your characters say yes when the real-life you would run the other direction.” What an interesting quote. Now that I think about it, it does ring rather true for me.

This story did grow out of an encounter with a real exterminator—a man I found a little smarmy and not at all attractive. Our house is surrounded by woods, and when we bought it eight years ago it was badly infested with both spiders and mice (we caught 24 mice in the first 6 weeks!). The battle may never be won with the spiders, but we’re down to a couple of mice per year. When the exterminator came out to give us a price on bombing the house for spiders, he terrified me with his horror stories about other houses. I already knew about the way wolf spiders carry their young on their backs, but he shared that he has a female wolf spider in his house that lives in a closet. His girlfriend doesn’t like it, but he said that the spider is allowed to stay because it has lived there longer then she has. That’s an un-inventable detail. Honestly, I couldn’t make that up.

I’m able to envision just about every adult encounter as a potentially criminal event. Some events—like the visit from the exterminator—feed almost immediately into the part of my brain that processes stories. Usually those events concern my or my family’s physical safety (or lack thereof), or are things I’m already worried about.

Michael Noll

One of the traits of horror/gothic fiction and weird tales is that characters often act on impulses that are monstrous—i.e. they cannot be explained rationally. This goes pretty far back, at least to Poe and Lovecraft. Why, after all, does Poe’s Montresor really bury Fortunato alive? And Lovecraft’s Chthulhu stories are almost entirely about normal people suddenly going insane. This is true of your story as well. There isn’t a rational reason for the narrator to sleep with the Bug Man. It’s an act that can have only bad consequences, yet she does it anyway. I’m curious what draws you to this kind of story. Is there something about irrational acts that particularly draws your imagination–and also is particularly suited to horror fiction?

Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict's most recent novel, Bliss House, is "a novel that works as a mystery, a ghost story, and a touching family drama," according to NY Times Bestseller Jeff Abbot.

Laura Benedict’s most recent novel, Bliss House, is “a novel that works as a mystery, a ghost story, and a touching family drama,” according to NY Times Bestseller Jeff Abbott.

We all live inside a fairly narrow social construct with many, many rules. And those rules don’t have a lot of room for obsessions or strange desires. Our contemporary culture has broken down a lot of the rules/walls, and the notions about what is strange or alien or unacceptable have changed quite a bit. But the constraints are still only a little bit wider and rely heavily on convention. With the exception of the clinically insane, we all crowd around a stable, identifiable center.

So we exist in a constant state of tension. The majority of people are able to handle the tension between their desires and their tribes’ demands for conformity with relative ease: Their desires are either easily satisfied, they’re too busy fulfilling their basic survival needs, or they have found some trade-off that makes the relative sublimation of those desires acceptable. But sometimes the tension is too great and they either suffocate or feel compelled—often quite suddenly it seems to them—to give themselves over fully to their desires, and damn the consequences.

Yes, there is a line that characters in horror and surreal fiction transgress that leads them into places that seem insane to other people. The woman in the story cannot help but sleep with the Bug Man and become his concubine. She no longer recognizes the validity of the choice in front of her: stay with her loving, charming family, or follow her desire for the bug man (no matter how bizarre it seems to us—or even to her) to its unknown consequence. She only understands that this is what she must do. Does she understand why? No, not really. There is, no doubt, something in her psyche that has led her to this place, but is it my responsibility as a writer to lay out the reasons behind her actions for the reader? I don’t think so. If I’ve done my job, the reader has enough information come to her own satisfactory conclusion about why the woman has acted as she has—but she’ll also realize that the reasons are completely irrelevant.  That’s part of the horror of the story.

As to my attraction to irrational acts—honestly, I’m rarely satisfied with reality as it’s presented to me every day. Perhaps that sounds strange or greedy or ungrateful. But irrationality and speculation make things a hell of a lot more interesting.

August 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Set Up Illogical Character Choices

5 Aug
Laura Benedict's story "When I Make Love to the Bug Man" was published in PANK's Pulp Issue.

Laura Benedict’s story “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” was published in PANK’s Pulp Issue.

Almost every writer will have this experience: you’re sitting in workshop, listening to comments about your story, and someone says, “That part where ____? I just don’t get it. Why’d she do that? It makes no sense.” Maybe the workshopper will add, “I don’t know a single person who would do that.” Everyone will nod, some grudgingly. The worst part is that they’re right. Your character’s choice makes no sense. And yet that doesn’t you should revise that choice out of the story. Many great works of fiction are about characters doing things that are totally illogical—but they make sense in the story.

So how do you make an illogical choice make sense or at least keep the reader from thinking it doesn’t make sense? An almost-textbook example of this problem can be found in Laura Benedict’s story, “When I Make Love to the Bug Man.”  The story is creepy and unsettling and great—and it also features a character doing something that doesn’t make sense. Certainly, nobody you know would make the same choice. How does she pull it off? The story was published in PANK’s Pulp Issue, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a woman who has an affair—but not just any affair. She sleeps with the home exterminator, a man described this way:

You wouldn’t call the Bug Man handsome. Hair steely gray, push broom-mustache, mature belly straining confidently against the fifth button of his tidy uniform shirt.

But, of course, marital affairs are often the result of unhappiness in the marriage. In those situations, who knows who you’ll sleep with, right? But this narrator isn’t unhappy. Instead, she fled her “cheerful, shiny family for the Bug Man.” Her children are beautiful, and her husband is a good father and good in bed (“Even our sex was aggressively superior, like an Olympic relay event”). In other words, there is absolutely no reason for her to sleep with the Bug Man. Yet she does. It’s illogical. So why don’t we stop reading?

The reason that readers identify acts or choices as illogical is because they’re applying an agreed-upon logic. For instance, most of us would agree with this statement: Attractive, happy women with attractive children and an attractive, good husband do not sleep with unattractive random strangers. This logic may be problematic (judging people on appearances usually is), but it’s one that we believe on some level. As a result, in order to make the reader accept the illogical act, the story must introduce a new logic.

The most obvious way to introduce this logic would be to use a psychological disorder—if the narrator is a sex addict, for instance, then we change our expectations of her behavior. Another common way to change a story’s logic is to introduce an impactful event from the past. (This is what Aimee Bender did in her novel An Invisible Sign of My Own: after the character’s father becomes ill, she begins quitting things and compulsively knocking on wood.) But Benedict uses neither of these strategies in “When I Make Love to the Bug Man.”

Instead, she introduces an obsession. It begins logically. In fact, it’s not really an obsession at first, only a fact:

It didn’t seem fair that there should be so many spiders in one house. Wolf spiders, jumping spiders, daddy and granddaddy longlegs, cave cricket spiders (sure they’re a kind of cricket, but just take a look at one and tell me you don’t think, that’s the ugliest spider I’ve ever seen), orb spiders, brown recluse spiders. If I turned a lamp on in a dark room, I didn’t have to wait long to notice one fleeing for the threshold, or crouching motionless in the light, playing dead.

Any rationale person could become unnerved by a spider infestation (in Texas, we have cockroaches, and when they scuttle across the wall at night and drop onto your pillow, it’s hard to go back to sleep). Any rationale person might become a bit obsessed:

Oh, yes, I saw them. I heard them, too, as I lay in bed at night beside my husband, Robert. Robert pretended not to hear, but I’m not ashamed to say I heard them knocking softly, messaging each other.

“Are you there?”

“Yes, I am here.”

And when you become obsessed with something that deserves your undivided attention (like spiders), it’s perfectly logical to start focusing on it to an unhealthy degree:

Fact: you are never any farther than three feet from a spider. Fact: Wolf spiders–the females are the ones you’ll see–look furry, but that’s not fur on their backs. It’s their young. Hundreds of them. Mama carries them around with her as she explores her territory. Fact: You’ll rarely see a female brown recluse unless you rip into walls and crevices. They hide like reluctant royalty, hatching their young away from the light. Fact: Those are males crawling out of the guest bedroom pillow or the electric socket. There’s something about cardboard boxes that attracts them too, like perfect camouflage, their compact, angular bodies and bent legs gliding across the boxes’ bone-dry walls as though the walls were made of ice. Fact: Spiders have no capacity for vocal sound. Thus, the knocking. Not many spiders can communicate this way, but some do.

Look at what Benedict has done. She’s introduced a house with a common problem (spider infestation) and changed the logic of the story so that it makes sense to learn minutia about spiders. Once that new logic has been set, it makes sense (or at least seems less illogical) to make a statement like this:

I know these are Facts because the Bug Man whispers them to me when I’m in his embrace.

And this:

I am in love with the Bug Man. I cannot leave him.

It’s a purely illogical statement that the reader has been given freedom to believe. It’s not a case of temporarily setting aside logic (the fictive dream) so much as introducing a new kind of logic. If you read the story, you’ll find out that an even crazier, creepier twist lies in store.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set up an illogical character choice using “When I Make Love to the Bug Man” by Laura Benedict as a model:

  1. Identify the illogical character choice. Odds are, you already know what this is. It’s probably the reason the story has screeched to a halt. Either someone read the draft and said, “Nope. Don’t believe it,” or you read your own story and could not figure out how to make it work. So, make sure you know what illogical thing is happening in your draft.
  2. Explain why it’s illogical. If you do want to make it work (rather than changing the choice the character makes), you need to not only write down the choice but also the reasons why it doesn’t make sense. In Benedict’s case, the narrator’s choice to sleep with an unattractive stranger doesn’t make sense because the narrator has it all: looks, youth, an attractive husband who is a good father, and beautiful kids. It’s possible that in the story you’ll need to come out and state these things outright. Benedict does this after she’s dropped the bomb about loving the Bug Man. The next four paragraphs describe the reasons her choice is crazy, which means that she’s not crazy, or at least it gives the reader permission to keep reading. The old saw about crazy people not knowing they’re crazy basically holds true for fictional characters as well.
  3. Find a way to introduce the choice. You can hint at the illogical choice from the beginning (as Benedict does, as Nabokov did in Lolita: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”). But, to make it believable, you need to also introduce an alternative way of thinking that leads to the choice. Nabokov did this with the line, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” and the story of early love that follows. Benedict does this by introducing the spiders and the very rationale freaking out and obsessing that results. So, find something real and practical to hang your odd thoughts on: spiders, a lover, something that exists in every world. Then, give the character a reason to think about this thing a lot (infestation, love).
  4. Introduce an obsession. After you’ve got a character thinking about something a lot, it’s not hard to put those thoughts into full-blown obsession. You don’t really even need to explain the shift. It can just happen, as it does in Benedict’s story. The narrator moves from hearing spiders to listing a litany of facts about them. So, give your character a chance to demonstrate some specialized knowledge in the subject. We do this with love stories (and real-life love) all of the time; we know every last detail about the object of our affection or the object of our character’s affections. Love, of course, is not unlike obsession. So, treat the object at the center of your character’s obsession as if he/she loves it. Go into loving detail.
  5. Return to, or introduce, the illogical choice. People who are obsessed do not behave rationally. If you can convince the readers of the obsession, it’s only another short step to convince them of the choice. Or, to be more accurate, the choice will flash by them and they won’t notice; it will fit in with the obsession.

You may find that you need to arrange and rearrange these elements of introducing an illogical choice. The thing to remember is that you’re setting up the choice by creating a mindset—and the sneakiest way to create a mindset is to make it initially focused on something logical. Once it becomes obsession, then you push it into the bounds of what is normally illogical.

Good luck and have fun!

An Interview with Mathilde Walter Clark

31 Jul
Mathilde Walter Clark has written five books and starred in a Danish-language television show of her own creation.

Mathilde Walter Clark has written five books and starred in a Danish-language television show of her own creation. Her story, “The Disappearance of Things,” appeared in translation in The Chattahoochee Review.

Mathilde Walter Clark is the Danish-American author of three novels and two story collections. Her most recent book, Patron Wanted, is a work that doesn’t fit neatly into any literary category. The project started with Clark writing letters to rich men whom she thought might fund her writing—who would, essentially, play the role of patron of the artist. Every single person turned her down, and she turned their responses into a kind of literary performance art. Clark eventually won a grant from the National Arts Foundation, and the book was self-published with a foreword from a former Danish Minister of Culture and an afterword by yet another Danish Minister of Culture. Clark has also written the screenplay for and starred in the Danish-language television show, In Seven Minds. Clark lives in Copenhagen.

In this interview, Clark discusses crafting stories around a flaw in logic, her revision strategy (she sometimes doesn’t), and the challenge of translation when only six million people speak your language.

To read Clark’s story, “The Disappearance of Things,” and an exercise on writing plot, click here.

Michael Noll

One of the things I love about this story is that it’s entirely about the character’s mental state. Until the end, almost nothing really takes place. Instead, the focus of the story is on a consciousness in transition, and all of the paragraphs and the details in them are aimed at illustrating that transition from “orderly surroundings make an orderly mind” to the disintegration of both surroundings and mind. In a way, this is a conception of “story” that is different from how we often define the word, with its emphasis on plot and occurrence. Is this a coincidence–in other words, is this simply the way the story arrived on the page–or is it a purposeful choice on your part? Are you trying to write a different kind of story?

Mathilde Walter Clark

First of all: Thank you for asking me to answer these excellent questions and to be part of this great site. This is actually the first story I ever wrote, so I didn’t have much clue what I was doing. What got me started was a very real annoyance over how things sometime disappear, and it occurred to me that this annoyance comes from a belief that things don’t really disappear – they are somewhere, you just can’t find them. But what if they did in fact disappear, go on to non-existence from one moment to the next? It then becomes a matter of acceptance, a mental state. The character in the story is (like most of us) bound up in the logic of classical physics, but perhaps even more so. And so, to make the point of that stuckness, I imagined him a traditionalist, somebody working in a ministry as a public servant, an archiver of sorts, a ring-binder manager.

Michael Noll

The amount of detail in this fairly short story is staggering. For instance, there is an entire paragraph about the type of paper the character prefers. Again, this seems like a different conception of the role of detail. Very often as writers, we try to invent one detail that illustrates some quality of a character, and then we push that quality into a conflict: thus, plot is born. But in this story, you don’t seem satisfied with a few well-chosen details. This emphasis on exploring an exhaustive quantity of details reminds me in a way of the work of David Foster Wallace. He once wrote about his style, “The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” Is this something that you’re aiming for in your fiction? Trying to make the reader see obvious realities in a new light?

Mathilde Walter Clark

Absolutely. It is a trick I use in many of my stories: a world we know, but there is a missing piece somehow, or some logic or law of nature gone awry. Perhaps these disorders of things are what makes us see our world in a clearer light. This story has only one motor. You quickly get the drift: at some point all his stuff will be gone (some of my later stories have other story threads that complicate matters). As I wrote the story it very much became a story of lists and categories that was intended to reveal something about how we – or the character – make sense of the world. A matter of detailing as revelation.

Michael Noll

My favorite moment in the story is when the disappearances escalate from minor things like shoes to large items like a grandfather clock and then, very quickly, to people: his wife. How did you know when to make that escalation? Did you initially write many more mid-level disappearances (more large items like grandfather clocks), or was the escalation always that fast—shoes to wife?

Mathilde Walter Clark

Yes, it always went shoes to wife like that. No mid-level stuff. I thought of it as a reversal of the familiar scheme: a husband pops out to buy cigarettes never to return. In this case the wife disappears as he is out to get tobacco for his pipe. The suddenness of this disappearance. She’s gone, just like that, in one word. It also reveals something about the character, that his wife figures on his detailed lists of belongings alongside – one must suppose – less animated items.

Michael Noll

Nothing about the story should be funny–a man is growing old, losing his sense of self and the things and people around him. But it does have moments of sharp humor. After we learn about the disappearance of his wife, for instance, the very next sentence is this: “Yet it was the shoes that tormented him the most.” He also makes lists of everything that he owns, and then the lists disappear. This is kind of a dark humor, of course, but it’s definitely not the somber tone that one might expect given a story about someone in this situation. Was that humor always present in the story? Or did it arrive through revision?

Mathilde Walter Clark

I didn’t do any revision of this story. I wrote the beginning, and then nothing for a year or so. As I started writing some of the other stories for my first collection Disorder of Things, I finished it. The change of mental state, stretching that to absurdity, until finally the point where he accepts the loss and another state of mind takes over: now he wants to get rid of the last of his pitiful belongings. I saw something almost zen-like in this acceptance and riddance, that maybe, somehow, there is a strange sort of happiness, or at least calmness, involved in that loss. Many of the other stories in that collection center around the themes of language, matter, madness, loss, the possibility of serenity. How dependent we are on language to make sense of things, and what happens to our minds when language somehow fails? To me, the dark humor is inherent in these subjects, not something I can edit forth.

Michael Noll

Mathilde Walter Clark recently published, "Report From the Flatlands of Statistics," essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books on guns and the differences in "gun culture" between Denmark and Texas.

Mathilde Walter Clark recently published, “Report From the Flatlands of Statistics,” an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books on guns and the differences in “gun culture” between Denmark and Texas.

A question about translation: Americans have been justly criticized for not reading much work in translation, and American authors themselves have been criticized for not translating other writers into English. But the opposite is very common: American works are translated into dozens of languages. I’m curious how this particular translation came about. Did the translator, Martin Aitken, contact you? Or did The Chattahoochee Review discover your story in its original Danish and find a translator for it?

Mathilde Walter Clark

Translation is a catch 22. Especially into English – the most exclusive market in the world, and also the most attractive. As the translator is initially paid quite a lot more than the author, it’s too big an investment for the home country’s publisher to have the manuscript translated for the sole purpose of trying to sell it to other markets. But how can foreign publishers judge a manuscript they can’t read? Well, in this case only numbers speak. Most of what gets sold to publication in foreign territory – especially America – are books with impressive sales. Besides bestsellers, Hans Christian Andersen, Kafka and other deceased writers from the literary canon account for most of the meager 2% of foreign literature that finds its way into the US market. That, unfortunately, leaves out a lot of the interesting contemporary literature. As a writer in a language with only six million speakers, it is hard not to feel a little locked up. So for foreign language writers, translators rule. It’s thanks to their interests and passions that literature finds its way into other languages. I’m lucky enough to have had a little more than a handful of my stories translated and published in various American journals. This particular story was translated some years back by one of our best translators, Martin Aitken out of his good heart. He also made the connection with Lydia Ship, the editor on The Chattahoochee Review, and I am extremely grateful for the work he has done.

 

July 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Make and Thwart Plans

29 Jul
Danish writer Mathilde Walter Clark's story, "The Disappearance of Things" appeared in The Chattahoochee review along with works by Roxane Gay and Aimee Bender.

Danish writer Mathilde Walter Clark’s story, “The Disappearance of Things” appeared in The Chattahoochee Review along with works by Roxane Gay and Aimee Bender.

In his poem, “To a Mouse,” the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote the line—now famous as the source of the title of John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men—”The best-laid plans of mice and men/often go awry.” As a piece of advice for story writers, the line is as helpful today as it was in 1785. We often create a draft of a story or novel that has The Big Thing That Will Happen and The Way The Character Feels About It, but we don’t have any middle. In other words, we have no plot. To solve that problem, we can create plans and then let them go awry.

This is exactly what the writer Mathilde Walter Clark does in her story, “The Disappearance of Things.” Clark is Danish, and the story appeared in translation (by Martin Aitken) in The Chattahoochee Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about a man whose possessions have begun to disappear: “a screw lid, a left sock.” It soon becomes clear that this isn’t a case of absent-mindedness. His shoes vanish, and the man realizes that his entire worldview is threatened.

That was not the way matter behaved. It could be obstructive, but it was an obstructiveness that came of existing, of having substance and shape. Of possessing hardness and inthewayness. He was under no illusion that he was a knowledgeable man, but the few things he did know were things to which he attached great importance. He knew, for example, that orderly surroundings make an orderly mind. And he knew that shoes don’t just disappear.

And so the premise is set, and we know how the man feels about it. We also know with some certainty that the disappearances will continue and that this will affect the man’s mental state. The question is now one of plot. The story can’t keep moving in the same way as it began: things disappearing, the man feeling confused. Resistance is needed. The man needs to push back. Something needs to happen. But how?

Here is Clark’s solution:

Following the disappearance of the rissole, he had drawn up a detailed list of all his possessions in order to help him navigate in what were habitually new and chaotic surroundings. The list ran initially to one hundred and forty-eight pages of yellow, lineated A4 paper.

The man creates a plan. He’s going to keep his things in a single room and consult his list to make sure all is accounted for. The temptation, now, would be to immediately thwart the plan. But that’s not what Clark does. Instead, she explains the logic behind the plan (“His possessions were ordered according to the following taxonomy”).

Okay, so now it’s time to thwart the plan, right?

Wrong. Instead, Clark adds to the plan:

He had yet to experience things disappearing in front of his eyes, so if he stayed awake long enough he thought he might be able to reduce his losses. He also took a chamber pot into the living room with him, since a number of his things seemed to be taking the opportunity to disappear during his visits to the bathroom.

This is how plot works. The character encounters a problem and comes up with a plan for dealing with it. The plan has a rationale. It’s personal to the character, and as the character thinks about it, she realizes holes in the plan. Perhaps those holes cause small problems, and so she adapts and closes the holes. Things are under control.

And that’s when you make the plan go awry:

It worked fine for a day or two until the lists disappeared.

Not only does the plan get thwarted, but that act—the disappearance of the list—feels personal:

[T]he leaves of yellow A4 were gone, with the exception of the one itemizing
temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region. On the other hand,
the pile containing temporary possessions belonging in the kitchen region
was also gone, exactly as if matter had decided to play a very serious practical
joke on him.

The story has created a situation in which the character cannot defeat the problem. But the character himself isn’t defeated. And so the story continues. When all hope is lost, what comes next? That’s where plot must go.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create and thwart plans to create plot, using the “The Disappearance of Things” by Mathilde Walter Clark as a model:

  1. Create a problem to be solved. The type of problem will depend on the type of story. Clark is writing (generally speaking) in the style of Fabulism (think of the writers Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, Kelly Luce, or the filmmaker Michael Gondry), and so her problem isn’t realistic so much as a supernatural manifestation of some internal problem. The point is this: all genres create problems. Vampires must be killed, bills must be paid, cancer must be faced, and intergalactic nemeses must be defeated. The important thing is to create problems that can be addressed head on. In other words, the character must possess the power to solve the problem (serfs can’t defeat intergalactic villains, at least not on their own).
  2. Create a solution. Simple solutions tend to be better than complex solutions. In Star Wars, the good guys blow up the Death Star—pretty simple. It’s the complications to enacting the simple solution that make it interesting. In “The Disappearance of Things,” Clark has her character make a list of his possessions so that he can track the ones that go missing—again, a simple solution. The solution also fits his character because he’s detail-oriented. So, identify a trait of your character and ask yourself, “What kind of plan would that kind of person invent?”
  3. Give the solution a rationale. In part, this means to explain how it will work (the way a heist movie has its thieves rehearse the heist before actually enacting it). But it also means giving details about why the character knows the plan will work. The reader of the story or novel (or viewer of the heist movie) has suspicions that they’re being set up, but those suspicions need to be balanced out by the solidity of the plan. Readers need to believe that even if one or two things go wrong, the plan as a whole is solid. This is why Clark explains the taxonomy of the man’s possessions. She’s convincing us that the man is mentally fit and together. Even if one or two of his possessions goes missing, he’s still with it. He’ll be fine. Without this paragraph (this rationale for why his solution of creating a list is a good one), the readers will simply believe they’ve been given another plot point to be easily knocked over.
  4. Tweak the planShow your character in a state of reflection. There’s a scene at the end of Don Delillo’s novel White Noise when the novel’s main character, Jack Gladney, is driving to confront a man. As he drives, he repeats his plan to himself. But also, as he drives, he thinks about the plan and adds details to it. Any character, if they bear any semblance to real-life people, will try to anticipate the future and the things that might occur in it. So, let your character anticipate the ways the plan might go wrong or the obstacles it might encounter. Then, give the character room to adapt the plan to these potential problems. In so doing, the plan becomes more solid, more believable.
  5. Thwart the plan. The plan must go wrong. If something goes according to plan, readers will be disappointed. At the very least, the results must be different than expected (the old “Be careful what you wish for” thing). There are two ways that a plan can go wrong: the expected way (that the writer and character have anticipated) and the unexpected way. I don’t mean that a meteor appears from space. I mean that you can use any of the characters or things or trends that you’ve already established and reintroduce them in unexpected ways. Clark does this by returning to the disappearances that set the story in motion. The expected move would be to make things on the list disappear. The unexpected move is to make the list itself disappear. It’s also a move that renders the plan totally unworkable. As a plot point, this is useful because it forces the character into terrain that he could not (or refused to) anticipate. Once the character is in that situation, that’s when the story really takes off and the reader leans in. That’s when we see something we did not expect to see.

Good luck!

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