How to Write a One-Sentence Paragraph

22 Apr
Adrian Van Young's story, "The Skin Thing," was featured on Electric Literature's Recommended Reading blog and will appear in the forthcoming anthology Gigantic Worlds.

Adrian Van Young’s story, “The Skin Thing,” was featured on Electric Literature‘s Recommended Reading blog and will appear in the science flash fiction anthology Gigantic Worlds.

In composition writing classes, we’re usually taught (or we teach students) not to write one-sentence paragraphs. But, in fiction and nonfiction alike, these short paragraphs can pack a tremendous punch if done well.

Adrian Van Young demonstrates this punch in his story, “The Skin Thing,” which will appear in the forthcoming science fiction anthology Gigantic Worlds. You can read it now at Electric Literature‘s Recommended Reading blog.

How the Story Works

Most writers will, at some point, use a one-sentence paragraph to emphasize some point or moment. Van Young’s story is interesting, then, because he uses so many of these constructions, sometimes to conclude a longer paragraph and sometimes as a series of short paragraphs. The sentences can be long, short, and even fragments.

They tend to be used in one of three ways:

Accentuate a change in tone:

This short paragraph concludes a description of the monster’s actions. In terms of subject and style, it’s really part of the paragraph that precedes it, but it’s given its own line because its tone is different (funnier, sort of):

Just one of us, McSorls, held ground. He was seeking, we think, to protect his allotments. It plucked him up inside its mouth, like the mouth of a puppet, and gobbled him down. Or gummed him down. It had no teeth. The leg of his pants dangled out, disappearing.

The Skin Thing ate his onions, too.

Summarize time and events:

These fragments deliver an accounting of the colonists’ battle with the monster:

McSorls came first. McGaff. McShea. McVanderslice. McGuin. McGreaves…

Colonists total: two-hundred and forty.

Colonists fed to the thing: thirty-six.

Colonists saved on account of this practice (not to mention the onions): one hundred, at least.

Illuminate important images

This paragraph is actually a series of short, connected sentences that focus on a different part of the monster’s body:

It was the height of foursome men, and its body behind was a languishing tube, and its head, although eyeless, was snouted, with nostrils that sucked and blew as it grew near.

Here, the sentences adopt a style of repetition common to speeches. The fragments illuminate a character in a moment of time:

There was:

McGondric in the mess, picking over his onions in no special hurry, a relaxed, dewy look to his under-eye skin.

McGondric going through the camp with his harvest of onions arrayed under cheesecloth, and heavens, his basket, the way that he bore it: offertory, slimly poised.

McGondric alongside his daughter, McGale, as they raked up the sands that comprised their allotment, the pink and the clean-muscled arms of them pushing, and pulling back toward them, and pushing once more.

Instead of moments from a long period of time, though, these two paragraphs break a very short amount of time into even shorter flashes of perception:

And there, behind the sandy glass, we saw a crown of human head.

And under it: a hand. A knee.

All of these one-sentence paragraphs are designed to manipulate the reader’s perception of the events and characters in the story. They speed up or slow down time and direct the reader’s eye.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write some one-sentence paragraphs, using the passages from Adrian Van Young’s “The Skin Thing” as a model:

  1. Write a sentence that accentuates a change in tone. One way to do this is to create a series: actions, personality traits, qualities, requirements, events, or whatever appears in your story multiple times or has its differences parsed out. The problem with lists is that they can be boring—just a bunch of stuff. In workshops, the writer Tim O’Brien discourages lists for this reason, but of course his famous story, “The Things They Carried,” contains lists in almost every paragraph. So, after a list of ____, he writes, ______. Van Young uses a shift in tone in his story as well, but rather than interpreting the list, the tonal shift adds to the list: literally, one more thing the monster did, but this thing tells us something about the monster’s intentions that the other things did not. So, in your series, search for entries that sound different. Ask yourself, “What does that difference indicate?” Does it make you uncomfortable? Does it seem to cast the other items in a different light? Try putting it at the end and in a separate paragraph.
  2. Write a sentence that summarizes time and events. People who write press releases do this all the time. They use fragments to highlight the impact or actions of a group over time: X number of units sold, X number of services rendered. Fiction writers can do this as well, as Van Young illustrates. In truth, many of us do this naturally, especially when pressed into an argument. We tally up our actions over time: X meals cooked, X hours worked, X kindness delivered or sacrifices made. To do this in a story, figure out what actions your character takes pride in; then, challenge it. How would the character defend him/herself? Try listing the tally in separate lines.
  3. Write a sentence that illuminates important images. There are a few ways to do this. 1) In a static description of a person, thing, or place, instead of using commas to set off attributes (tall, dark, and handsome), develop each adjective into a sentence or phrase of its own (so handsome that I had to look away). Then, connect the sentences with commas or semicolons. 2) In a description of a person, thing, or place in motion, break the motion down into snapshots (as opposed to a running strip of film). What is happening in each snapshot? 3) In a description of an act of perception (I saw…), do not show the entire thing being perceived. Instead, reveal one part at a time. In each of these three methods, you’re focusing on images that writers and readers alike often zoom past. Devoting an entire sentence or phrase to the image can slow readers down, and then you can slow them down further by placing each sentence into a paragraph of its own.

Good luck!

How to Write a Story Ending

17 Apr
Óscar Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. His essays about the migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

The easiest part of writing any story ought to be finding the beginning, middle, and end. So why is it often so hard? And why does so much ride on making the right choices?

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez has written one of the best story endings I’ve ever read in his nonfiction book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. The essays were originally published as dispatches in the Salvadoran online newspaper, El Faro, and translated in this collection from Verso Books. You can read the first chapter at Dazed.

How the Story Works

Martínez tells stories about many different migrants in the book, and one of them is about a teenager named Saúl, who was born in El Salvador but raised in Los Angeles, where he joined the M18 gang. He was deported after robbing a convenience store. The problem was that he didn’t know anything about El Salvador—hadn’t been there since he was four years old—and so he started walking and searching for the man who was supposed to be his father:

And what happened to him is what happens to any kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing in Central America, who thinks any neighborhood is just any neighborhood. A group of thugs turned out of an alleyway and beat him straight to hell.

So, the beginning of the story is pretty simple. The thugs, members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, take Saúl to their leader, who, in turns out, is his father. Now, watch how Martínez sets up the story’s ending—and how he wraps it up:

“I’m Saúl,” Saúl said, breathless, “I just got deported. And, I swear it, I’m your son.”

The man, as Saúl recounted it to me on top of the hurtling train, opened his eyes as wide as possible. And then he exhaled, long and loud. And then a look of anger swept over his face. “I don’t have any kids, you punk,” his father said.

But in the days following, the man gave Saúl a gift. The only gift Saul would ever receive from his father. He publicly recognized him as his son, and so bestowed to him a single thread of life. “We’re not going to kill this punk,” Guerrero announced in front of Saúl and a few of his gang members. “We’re just going to give him the boot.” And then he turned to Saúl. “If I ever see you in this neighborhood again, you better believe me, I’m going to kill you myself.”

They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood. He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.

In short, a gang member has been captured by a rival gang in a foreign country, and it turns out the rival gang’s leader is his father. What incredible tension, right? And how does Martínez handle that tension? He could have given us a moment-by-moment account of arguments, beatings, and who stared down who. Instead he almost everything that happens: “But in the days following.” Why?

To answer that question, it’s useful to ask what those skipped moments could have added to the story. Saúl has already been beaten “straight to hell.” He’s already had a stunning encounter with his father (go back and look at how well the father’s shifting emotions are handled). Whatever comes next must advance this conflict. The problem is that you can’t advance severe beatings and familial rejection. More violence is just more of the same. So, when Martínez skips to the father’s pronouncement, he’s simply finding the moment where something new and different happens. The father changes his mind and doesn’t kill Saúl.

Sometimes condensing scenes—or a series of scenes—of high action actually increases the story’s tension. This is exactly what happens in that final paragraph, the story’s ending. It’d be tempting to describe what happens to Saúl in that other neighborhood minute-by-minute. But nothing Martínez could have written would have been better than the weird, surreal, stunning way that he summarizes the action: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

When closing out a story, sometimes one conflict-filled sentence is better than several less tense paragraphs.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a story ending by summarizing action and scenes, using the passage from Óscar Martínez’s The Beast as a model:

  1. Summarize the situation and how the character entered it. The point is to get into the story as quickly as possible. The summary should highlight factors that will appear later. If read the entire story from Martínez’s essay, you’ll see how he highlights Saúl’s gang membership and lack of knowledge about El Salvador. Then he skips past everything that happened to Saúl before he ran into the gang members who beat him up. So, you should focus on drawing the shape of the conflict: why your particular person/character is an especially bad match for the situation. (Bad matches in life make for good matches for stories.) Then, find the first significant action that results from that poor match.
  2. Make an outline of everything that happens next. Simply list all of the noteworthy moments from beginning to end. You don’t even need to use complete sentences. It’s an outline.
  3. Mark the moments of highest tension or action. They might be the most tense because of what information is revealed or because of the extremity of what happens.
  4. Are the remaining moments different or similar? Now that you know what your most tense moments are, you can begin carving away at the rest of the moments so that the best ones stand out. To do this, ask yourself if what is left is any different from those tense moments. If not, you can either cut them completely or group them together into a quick summary (a sentence or two) that sets up whatever tense moment comes next.
  5. Offer an escape valve in a sentence or two that restate the conflict. This strategy of summarizing and highlighting can be carried through until the very end. A great way to finish a story is by pivoting sharply. One way to do this is to restate or remind the reader of the conflict that you first presented at the beginning. You can do this with an actual reminder or by finding a moment that distills the conflict (“They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood.”) Then, offer an escape valve, a way to leave the conflict. Releases tend to be quick (think of a needle and a balloon). Once the reader knows an escape will occur, the writer’s work is mostly done. The tension has been broken. As a result, there’s no need to draw the release out. The quickest version is often the most interesting, as Martínez illustrates: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

Good luck!

How to Distinguish Fact from Fiction in an Essay

15 Apr
Óscar Martínez's book of essays about migrants, The Beast, was published in English by Verso books and in Spanish by Icaria Editorial.

Photo Credit: Edu Ponces & Toni Toni Arnau                                 Óscar Martínez’s book of essays about migrants, The Beast, was published in English by Verso Books and in Spanish by Icaria Editorial.

Some stories have been told so many times that they become a genre with rules: when a particular thing happens, the character reacts a particular way. But what if those rules are wrong? For some stories, it’s not enough to tell the truth. You must also consciously distinguish the facts from the fiction that your readers expect. What hangs in the balance is often the humanity of the people you’re writing about.

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez is telling this kind of story in his book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. The essays were originally published as dispatches in the Salvadoran online newspaper, El Faro, and collected in an edition published first in Mexico and now, in English, by Verso Books. The original title in Spanish—Los migrantes que no importan (The Migrants Who Don’t Matter)—gives a sense for what is as stake in the essays. You can read the first chapter at Dazed.

How the Story Works

Martínez tells stories about many migrants, and, taken as a summary with only names and basic events, some of these stories begin to sound like a certain kind of fiction. For instance, Martínez interviews three Salvadoran brothers traveling to the U.S. to escape gang violence. The youngest brother is Pitbull, a 17-year-old who watched his friend Juan Carlos get shot in broad daylight. The next day, he found and put on a police uniform and “went to downtown Chalchuapa looking for the murderer’s accomplice who had gotten away. All day he searched through alleyways and makeshift street shops.” He eventually identified the killers to the police, but the killers recognized him, too, and soon threats were made against his life. If you’ve watched any gang movies, you may have an expectation for what comes next, but this is the point where fact and fiction part ways, as Martínez explains:

If he were a character in a movie, of course, Pitbull would have snooped around, hit up his barrio contacts, tried to put a name to the assassins, maybe put on the police uniform again.

But Pitbull lives in the real world. He ’s just an eighteen-year-old kid steeped in the violence of one of the most dangerous countries on the continent.

Once Martínez establishes that this story will depart from the usual story line, he explains why this departure matters:

What’s more, not even the police reports contain many details. When they killed Juan Carlos—January or February, he doesn’t exactly remember – nine other men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five were killed, just in Chalchuapa. And Pitbull doesn’t even know if Juan Carlos was his friend’s real name.

“That’s what he called himself,” Pitbull says. “But he was in a gang and he had problems in some of the other barrios. I heard people call him a lot of different names.”

William, José, Miguel, Carlos, Ronal, Unidentified, any of these could have been Juan Carlos. All of these young men were murdered in Chalchuapa in the same month. And even if one were to know the facts of the murder, I have a hunch that, like the facts of so many other migrant murder cases, the details would be so scarce they’d simply disappear. Evaporate. It’d be as if nothing had ever happened.

The risk of turning “true” stories into a fictional genre is that the real people involved are turned into stock characters. When Martínez distinguishes fact from fiction, then, he is, in a way, giving life to the people in his stories.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try to distinguish fact from fiction, using the passage from Óscar Martínez’s The Beast as a model. This exercise may be most useful as a tool for revision:

  1. Boil a character and story down to a tagline. To do this, choose a character and story (or person and essay) you’ve created and simplify everything about them. What is the quickest version you could tell someone. For help, think of movie posters. They use simple images that show you the essence of the main character and a phrase or short sentence to state the stakes. For instance, the new movie Draft Day has a poster that shows Kevin Costner in a suit and holding a football in front of signs for the NFL draft. The tagline is “The Greatest Victories Don’t Always Happen on the Field.”
  2. State the movie version. Imagine if your character and tagline were put in the hands of a movie producer hoping for a blockbuster—in other words, someone who will likely hew to convention. How would that person pitch your story, especially the conflict? Try to write the pitch as a series of actions in a single sentence. Here’s how Martínez does it: “If he were a character in a movie, of course, Pitbull would have snooped around, hit up his barrio contacts, tried to put a name to the assassins, maybe put on the police uniform again.”
  3. Explain how your character lives in the real world. Keep the explanation short and focused on the nature of the world and how it’s different from the world of movies. You’re basically tweaking the tagline you wrote earlier. Martínez started with barrio contacts and turned them into this: “He ’s just an eighteen-year-old kid steeped in the violence of one of the most dangerous countries on the continent.” How can you sum up your tagline so that it’s not about a character’s individual action but, instead, about the larger forces that operate around that character.
  4. Show how the world impacts the character(s). What choices do the characters make in reaction to the world you’ve just described? In Martínez’s essay, Juan Carlos created aliases to avoid the pockets of violence all around him. These aliases have the effect of making him hard to officially identify by the authorities—or even by the people closest to him. As a result, when he’s found murdered, no one can say for certain who he is. His identify has been spread so thin that he’s rendered almost invisible. Think about the choices your characters make. What are the consequences of these simple, necessary decisions? What impact do they have later on? Or, how do these choices affect the character’s actions once he/she is dropped into the plot or story you’re writing about?

This exercise should work for both fiction and nonfiction. In both, you’re keeping in mind the readers’ expectations about your story due to the previous way it’s been told.

Good luck!

An Interview with Juliana Goodman

10 Apr
Juliana Goodman is a senior English major at Western Illinois University. Her story, "Hot N' Spicy," appeared in BLACKBERRY.

Juliana Goodman is a senior English major at Western Illinois University. Her story, “Hot N’ Spicy,” appeared in BLACKBERRY.

Juliana Goodman is a senior English major at Western Illinois University. She is the recipient of the 2012 and 2013 Cordell Larner Award in fiction, as well as the 2013 Cordell Larner award in poetry and the 2013 Lois C. Bruner award in Nonfiction. Her story, “Hot N’ Spicy,” appeared in Blackberry.

In this interview, Goodman discusses where to start stories, why she writes about characters she knows, and why Mary Gaitskill’s stories are so great.

To read “Hot N’ Spicy” and an exercise on speed in flash fiction, click here.

Michael Noll

This story starts fast. With two words—”This time”—you sum up the entire relationship and jump into the most recent argument. Did you always know to start that way, or did you write about the characters’ history together before figuring out where to begin?

Juliana Goodman

I really just started off in the middle of a relationship that basically runs in a circle. I drew a lot of the background of this couple from some of my own relationships and relationships I’ve seen other people go through. They fight and makeup over the same things over and over again. I usually like to start all of my stories right in the middle of the action to draw readers in and I feel it is even more important to get the ball rolling when it’s flash fiction. Every single word counts and should add to the piece as a whole.

Michael Noll

The story is full of lines that speed up the narrative. Some skip over explanation, like this one: “Will he take the hoodie?” We didn’t know he had one yet, and the story could have explained that he had one, and that it was his favorite, and so on, but it just moves on. Other lines have well-chosen words that convey a lot of information, like this one: “And then he’s gone out into the hot summer night, my heart stuffed in his back pocket with his wallet and a gold condom.” There’s something unexpectedly specific about the word “gold.” But it’s also not too specific. You could have named the condom brand, but you don’t, but we still know, which makes the line funny. That one word tells us a lot about this guy. Does this sort of condensed language happen naturally on the page? What’s your revision process look like? 

Juliana Goodman

I wanted this piece to have a very intimate feel, like a woman writing in her diary.  She doesn’t explain everything because she’s  in the midst of it all. A lot of the language came naturally because I’ve been in similar situations and the feelings she expressed were my own at the time. That’s a big reason why I always write about characters and situations I know because it makes the emotions easier to convey on the page.  My revision process is a little bit different than the traditional one. Rather than writing a rough draft and going back to edit lines, I revise as I write. I may write a paragraph and then go back and reread it to make sure it sounds good before I continue on with the piece. I read the entire piece again when I’ve completed it, but the amount of changes I make at the end is very small since I’ve already looked it over multiple times.

Michael Noll

I sometimes teach undergraduate creative writing workshops, and I’ve found that my students haven’t read a lot of short fiction, neither stories or flash fiction. So, I’m curious who you’ve been reading. I ask in part because the tone of this story is so sure and confident, simultaneously funny and angry. Are you modeling your work after any writers? 

Juliana Goodman

Mary Gaitskill's collection Because They Wanted To

Mary Gaitskill’s collection Because They Wanted To

A couple of my favorite short story collections are by Junot Diaz and Mary Gaitskill. I enjoy Diaz’s work because it’s very honest and incorporates his culture in a way that’s easy to relate to. Gaitskill’s Because They Wanted To, my absolute favorite short story collection, really changed the way I write.  There’s no filter or sugar coating and the emotions are illustrated without cutting any of those embarrassing or shameful feelings that people are sometimes too afraid to write about.  Reading her stories really taught me to write without restraint. If I’m feeling or thinking about something a lot, whatever it is or how humiliating or crazy it may sound, I put it on the page and take it from there.

Michael Noll

Undergraduate students also often don’t know how to submit their work for publication—not the process or where to submit. How did you find Blackberry ? Did some of your writing teachers at Western Illinois point you in its direction, or did you find it on your own? 

Juliana Goodman

One of my creative writing professors at Western Illinois University, Erika Wurth, sent me the link to Blackberry and encouraged me to look into submitting. The process was fairly simple and now I’ve learned to look around for magazines that publish the type of stories I write by browsing the internet and reading past issues of lit magazines.

April 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Create Speed in Flash Fiction

8 Apr
Juliana Goodman's story, "Hot N' Spicy" appeared as an online feature in Blackberry Magazine, a literary magazine featuring black women writers and artists.

Juliana Goodman’s story, “Hot N’ Spicy” appeared as an online feature in BLACKBERRY, a literary magazine featuring black women writers and artists.

Anyone who’s tried to write flash fiction knows how fast it must move. There’s no time for context or explanation. You’re illuminating a few minutes or seconds of a character’s story, and, if it works, the readers feel as though they’ve peered into Borges’ aleph and seen a much larger world.

But how do you create that dizzying sense of speed? Juliana Goodman’s story, “Hot N’ Spicy” does exactly that. It clocks in at just over 250 words yet reveals an intimate portrait of a relationship. “Hot N’ Spicy” was published at BLACKBERRY, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story captures an intimate portrait of a relationship by showing, not telling. If that sounds suspiciously like the workshop cliché, you’re not crazy. But it’s the key to Goodman’s storytelling. She introduces objects without explanation, allowing the reader to figure out why they’re important. Here is a good example:

He pulls on his dark gray jeans, then a black V-neck. Will he take the hoodie? That’s what I want to know.

Notice the difference in the articles: his jeans, a V-neck, the hoodie. In other words, the hoodie is important. There’s obviously an entire history behind that piece of clothing, but it’s never given to us. Instead, Goodman skips directly to the emotional importance of the object:

I watch him grab it off the sofa and drape it over his shoulder. That’s how I know he’s not coming back. Not tonight.

What matters is not so much the object but what it means: he’s not coming back. Part of the reason this story can be complete with so few words is that it continually skips over context and right to meaning. Here’s another example:

“You’re leaving over tacos?” I ask, and then feel stupid because I sound aggressive and he hates that.

Again, the narrator alludes to past arguments and conflicts but does not tell us anything about them. All that matters is the weight of that history and what it means right now, in this moment: if she acts a certain way, he’ll react in a particular way. Sentences like this provide the flash for this piece of fiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write sentences that move fast, using Juliana Goodman’s story, “Hot N’ Spicy,” as a model. This exercise will work as a brainstorming exercise, but it may be most helpful as a tool for revision:

  1.  Refer to, but do not explain, the history of an object. Goodman does this when she writes, “Will he take the hoodie? That’s what I want to know.” One way to do something similar by finding an object that either contains meaning. The most obvious example is a wedding ring, but it’d be better to find something more personal to the characters. Put yourself in the room with the characters; what objects are with you? Do the characters have sentimental or personal attachments to them? Another way to approach this is with routine. Does a character always sit in a particular chair? Watch a particular show or read a particular magazine? What you’re looking for is an object that indicates some change in emotion or intention. In a few sentences, explain the importance or role of the object. Then, write a sentence in which the change in emotion or intention or action is happening. How much of the previous explanation can you cut? Can you simply use the sentence with the change?
  2. Make a claim about the future. If characters have spent a lot of together, then they’ve been through certain arguments or interactions enough to anticipate each other’s actions or words. An easy way to show this (and, thus, to skip showing all of those previous interactions) is to make a quick prediction. Goodman writes, “That’s how I know he’s not coming back. Not tonight.” You could also write something like this: “Now, he was going to get defensive.” And, then, he gets defensive. Or, “She was going to fill up her water bottle,” and then she does it.
  3. State a change/modification of behavior with little explanation. Your goal is to portray a shift in thinking or action without being forced to spend time explaining why that shift has occurred. Goodman does this by having her narrator state, after some strongly worded dialogue, “I sound aggressive and he hates that.” The key is often to state what a character likes or dislikes (or, to frame in terms of personality, what a character does or does not do), and move on. What matters is not so much why a preference exists as the effect that the preference (like/dislike, do/don’t do) has on another character.

These exercises are designed for flash fiction, but, in truth, all writers are often trying to condense explanation.

Good luck!

An Interview with Shannon A. Thompson

3 Apr
Shannon A. Thompson's novel Minutes Before Sunset was a Goodreads Book of the Month for July. You can read the first chapter here.

Shannon A. Thompson’s novel Seconds Before Sunrise is the latest in the Timely Death series. You can read the opening chapters here.

Shannon A. Thompson is a recent graduate of the University of Kansas and the author of Timely Death Trilogy, a YA paranormal romance series. The latest novel in the series is Seconds Before Sunrise. The first novel, Minutes Before Sunset, was a Goodreads Book of the Month selection.

In this interview, Thompson discusses choosing Kansas over New York for her novel’s setting, when to write multiple points of view, and how to create a community of readers and writers.

(To read the opening chapters of Seconds Before Sunrise and an exercise based on how Thompson sets up the novel’s love story, click here.)

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the importance of place in the trilogy. It’s set in Hayworth, Kansas, which you’ve said is an amalgam of Hays and Ellsworth. This seems, on the surface, like an unusually specific choice for a paranormal romance. The genre states its interests in its name (paranormal and romance), and so the focus of your novels is obviously on the experience of being a shade and the love story between Eric and Jessica. The genre doesn’t really allow for long, lyric passages about place. But does that mean the trilogy could have been set anywhere, or does place matter? To take other examples, place definitely matters in True Blood and Harry Potter, but the American South and England also have much stronger literary histories than central Kansas. In other words, if you set any novel in the South, the reader will have certain expectations. Kansas is more of a blank page, so to speak. How does it impact or color the novel?

Shannon A. Thompson

Understandable question! In the first draft, The Timely Death Trilogy purposely did not have a set place where everything happened. This was because I wanted it to feel like it could happen anywhere, especially right outside your window. Then, in rewrites, I realized I wanted a place, but I didn’t want the stereotypical cities that many novels take place in right now (New York City, Chicago, etc.) I desire more of a “home” feel, something more people can relate to, so I knew I wanted a smaller town, and then I realized I hadn’t read many YA novels in the Midwest, especially fantasy or paranormal based, so I picked Kansas—more or less—as a tribute to the state I lived in during the time of writing the novel.

Michael Noll

The novel is told from two perspectives: Eric and Jessica. How do you know when to switch between them? Sometimes the chapters switch back and forth between points of view, one after the other, but there are also times when Eric gets a couple of chapters in a row. I’m especially curious about the chapters where they are together. How did you decide who got to narrate those chapters?

Shannon A. Thompson

Shannon Thompson's novel "Minutes Before Sunset" was a Goodreads Book of the Month in July.

Shannon A. Thompson’s novel Minutes Before Sunset was a Goodreads Book of the Month. Thompson discusses her approach to POV in the novel at her website.

I actually wrote about how I choose who was speaking on my blog here: Dual Perspectives: Should Characters Have Equal Time to Speak?

To summarize it, I let the characters dictate when they will speak. Since the first novel revolves around the Dark (shades), Eric spoke more, but the second book is focused on what it is like to be a human. Jessica speaks more because of her human background, but it’s a lot more even than the first novel. The third novel, Death Before Daylight, will expose the Light, but I won’t spoil it by saying who speaks more yet. :D 

Michael Noll

On your website, you give writing tips, and one of them is to avoid inserting technology into fiction—no cell phones, Facebook, Twitter—because it will quickly become obsolete, as flip phones and MySpace have proven. But you also write that excluding technology is a moral choice. You write, “I want young adults to spend more time outside (or reading) and putting an emphasis on social media didn’t sit well with me any longer.” I’m curious how you balance this choice with the fact that social media and technology are becoming integral parts of our lives. Many people (especially teens) cannot use maps, for instance, but instead rely on the GPS apps in their phones. We check our phones constantly (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat) and even sleep with them. We almost certainly do not plan social gatherings or meetings as far ahead as we did when it was possible to go a day or more without talking to someone. Is it possible that at some point in the future, it will be impossible to write about human life without incorporating phones and social media? Will they become like cars–essential parts of a story?

Shannon A. Thompson

You have a very great point! Yes, technology is part of our everyday lives. However, I still think people will eventually turn away from certain aspects—like how the popularity of MySpace eventually went to Facebook—so I see technology as an unknown expiration date when included in novels. That being said, I see nothing wrong with including social media websites—I loved TTYL when I was younger—but it’s not something I will use in this particular trilogy. I might incorporate it into my future works, but I avoid it for now.

Michael Noll

Many writers (new and old, self-published and those working with publishers) tend to focus on their work but not on the business of publishing. What advice would you give about networking? You’ve been quite successful at building a following. Your author website has more than 14,000 followers. How do you find or attract your readers?

Shannon A. Thompson

I think it’s really important to have a website they can go to. Participate on social media, connect all of your sites, and be willing to understand how the social media changes overtime. Blogging has been my most successful platform. If you’re going to blog, I would suggest keeping a regular schedule with a focused topic range, but it’s more important to connect with fellow bloggers by reading and commenting on writers’ blogs like yourself. Networking is the key to finding fun and entertaining relationships with your readers. Overall, be engaging, entertaining, fun, and informative.

For my website, I began it in September of 2012 under the advice of Robin Hoffman, the Get Published Coach. I started reviewing books and movies, but then I slowly began sharing my story—how I got published and what I was planning on doing in the future. This was before I had my contract for my trilogy. I made sure to begin using a lot of SEO terms in my tags, and through the tags, I found blogs that spoke about similar topics. That’s how I found more writers and readers. Once I did that, I followed trends. For instance, I noticed my book reviews weren’t nearly as popular as my writing tips, so I dropped book reviews and did a long series of writing tips. I also started incorporating my contacts into my blog, which I still do today. On my author Facebook, I will ask questions that followers can answer. If I use their answer, I link to their blog. It’s a way to give back while encouraging a communicating and fun environment. It’s win-win. I honestly believe my every other day schedule is a huge factor, because trends slip majorly on the days I do not blog. Keeping everyone up-to-date is really vital to guarantee return. Having my blog connected with all social facets, so it automatically shares across numerous streams helps. My blog automatically posts on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Wattpad, and more.

April 2014


Michael NollMichael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Write a Love Story

1 Apr
Seconds Before Sunrise is second book in the Timely Death series, a Young Adult paranormal series by recent University of Kansas graduate Shannon A. Thompson.

Seconds Before Sunrise is the second book in the Timely Death Young Adult paranormal series by Shannon A. Thompson.

I once heard a critic claim that love stories are more difficult to write today than they were for Shakespeare. The obstacles that Shakespeare depended upon—class, feuding families, the fate of stars—have mostly been removed as possibilities, at least in America.

So, if class isn’t an option, how do we put obstacles between lovers in a story other than “he’s just not that into you?” This is a problem that genre literature, especially genres that deal in fantasy elements, handles well. The new YA paranormal novel from Shannon A. Thompson, Seconds Before Sunrise, perfectly illustrates two great ways to complicate a relationship. You can read the opening chapters here.

How the Story Works

I don’t necessarily believe the critic is right, but the idea that class is no longer relevant is still an interesting one. It’s certainly true that when class conflicts appear in fiction, the battle is often quick and decisive. For example, in the film The Devil Wears Prada, Anne Hathaway’s character questions the importance of choosing between two identical belts (in other words, questioning the industry itself). In response, her boss not only says she’s wrong but also insults her clothes as lumpy and unfashionable, saying that they must come from “some tragic Casual Corner.” After that, the movie never questions the class divide again.

So what are other ways to complicate a relationship? This passage (the beginning of Eric’s chapter on page 10) from Thompson’s novel illustrates her approach to complicating a love story (and the approach of many novels that incorporate fantasy elements):

I shoved my head into my locker and breathed hoarsely. It was the first day of school and sitting next to Jessica was already killing me. I wanted to talk to her, hold her, be with her—anything really—but I couldn’t. If the Light realized who or what we were, she’d be killed, and there was nothing I could do except stay away.

“You okay?” Jonathon asked, his voice squeaking through the slits of my locker.

I leaned back to stare at the blind artist. I wouldn’t believe he was Pierce, a powerful shade, if I hadn’t known his identities myself.

“I’m dealing,” I grumbled, unable to keep eye contact as Jessica passed us.

She flipped her brunette curls as she playfully hit Robb McLain’s arm. Robb McLain, with his sparkling teeth, gelled hair, and playboy personality was the perfect jerk.

The narrator and Jessica are in love, but the powers that be are keeping them apart—in this case, the “powers that be” are actual forces with actual special powers. Jessica’s memory has been wiped (though not completely) and other characters are in disguise. In other words, Thompson has invented an obstacle that does not exist in the real world. But she has also added a more realistic obstacle. Though the plot depends on paranormal activities, it’s grounded with a staple of love stories: the beautiful and charismatic, yet so-wrong-for-her, rival.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce complications to love story, using the passage from Shannon A. Thompson’s novel Seconds Before Sunrise as a model. In order to introduce those complications, we first must do the following:

Choose the relationship. It can be a relationship between lovers, of course, but that isn’t the only option. Every story has pairs of characters who develop a relationship with each other: brothers, siblings, parent/child, friends, co-workers, or teammates. All of these relationships work the same. The story is often driven forward by the forces that push these characters together and then pull them apart.

Choose the force of attraction. The most obvious is love. But characters can also be brought together in other ways: their shared history together, duty to a cause or each other, an event like a funeral, or some external force (boss/teacher forcing them to work together). In stories, this force is often clearly identified: “I could never leave her because _____.” Or, “Now, we had no choice but to work together.” Now, we can introduce the force that will disrupt the relationship. There are many ways to do this. Here are some of them:

Forces that can disrupt a relationship:

  • Forces of Class: These are forces whose power comes from differences in social standing: wealth, race and ethnicity, and position within a power structure. Wealth complications, though less common than in the past, still exist in fiction, especially historical fiction. So, The Notebook initially disrupts its characters’ relationship (just before World War II) by having Allie’s parents call Noah “trash.” Romance novels do this all the time: the tycoon’s son seducing the maid. Complications due to race/ethnicity might seem less common (or, again, confined to historical fiction), but they are still used (as in this beautiful story by Tiphanie Yanique). And, relationships in science fiction and fantasy stories (between different kinds of aliens) often mirror realistic stories of racial/ethnic differences. Complications due to power imbalance might be easier to use: bosses and employees, teacher and student, mentor and mentee, player and fan, soldier and civilian, or legal immigrant versus undocumented immigrant. In short, any policy or tradition that grants one person greater power than another is ripe for use in a story.
  • Forces of evil: It’s often useful to say, in a story, that if two characters get together, the bad guys will kill one of them. This is what Thompson does in Seconds Before Sunrise. It’s also the complication used in most adventure stories, like these two favorites from my childhood: Romancing the Stone and The Princess Bride.
  • Characters in disguise: Shakespeare used this a lot in his comedies. Characters—particularly female characters—would disguise themselves, often as men, and go unrecognized by their beloved. The question you must ask yourself is this: why must the character go into hiding? Are they in danger? Are they balancing multiple roles? Are there parts of their lives that cannot be revealed or discussed? The disguise can come in different forms. They don’t always make a beautiful person less beautiful. The story of Cyrano de Bergerac does the opposite by disguising looks with wit.
  • Irreconcilable differences and incompatible goals: This is used by romantic comedies a lot (she’s too serious, and he jokes all the time; she has a career, and he’s a Playboy). It’s also the basis of many domestic dramas. Answer the question: what would make it difficult for these characters to live together, to stand being around each other?
  • External Events: Many stories use external events that separate the characters (soldier shipped off to war, kid left at home over Christmas). The event can also be more intimate, such as the onset of a disease. The film Away from Her (based on Alice Munro’s story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”) disrupts a relationship with Alzheimer’s, to devastating effect.

Now, you can choose a rival.

Three ways to choose a rival:

  • Pick someone poorly suited as a love interest: This kind of rival is often the complete opposite of the other love interest—beautiful and popular instead of ordinary-looking and nerdy or uncool in some way. Even though the rival’s qualities at first seem appealing, the character who falls in love with him/her eventually realizes the rival’s “true” qualities. This is what Thompson has done: “Robb McLain, with his sparkling teeth, gelled hair, and playboy personality was the perfect jerk.” This kind of rival often creates a plot whose focus is on revealing the rival’s true personality.
  • Pick someone similar to the other love interest: What if the rival isn’t easy to hate? What happens if I love So-and-so, but she falls in love with someone who is just like me, but not me? This kind of rival creates a plot whose focus is on the other person (me) finding ways to distinguish him/herself.
  • Pick a random person. The scary thing about finding your beloved in love with someone else is that it may mean your beloved is far different than you thought. A random rival (someone whose qualities are neither good nor bad, just unexpected) often creates a plot whose focus is revealing the beloved’s true personality. In other words, it shows that the other person (me) has been pursuing someone with whom he/she is poorly matched.

This may seem like a lot of information. In a nutshell, all you need for a love story is an attraction, a disrupting force, and a rival.

Good luck!


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