How to Write Energetic Character Descriptions

24 Mar
Chinua Achebe's novel Things Fall Apart remains a staple of the World Literature canon, though it reads as contemporary as any fiction written today.

Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart remains a staple of the World Literature canon, though it reads as contemporary as any fiction written today.

The great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe died two years ago, but he was given a second passing a few days ago when The New York Times’ Twitter post announcing his death was somehow reposted. A lot of people were fooled, but it was a good opportunity to remember how great a writer Achebe truly was. It’s astounding at how contemporary and fresh the writing in his novel Things Fall Apart remains, despite having been written half a world away and fifty years ago. In particular, the character descriptions have a vitality to them that any writer today would be lucky to emulate.

The American writer James Baldwin felt the same way. Achebe was an admirer of his, and here is Achebe writing about the day they finally met:

What he said about my novel Things Fall Apart was quite extraordinary. He read it in France, he said. It was about people and customs of which he knew nothing. But reading it, he recognized everybody: “That man, Okonkwo, is my father. How he got over, I don’t know, but he did.”

Here the opening chapter of Things Falls Apart.

How the Novel Works

In the following passage, Achebe is describing his main character, Okonkwo, a man who gained fame for a fight with an undefeated fighter nicknamed The Cat. Notice how much time the descriptions spans and how active it is.

Every nerve and every muscle stood out on their arms, on their backs and their thighs, and one almost heard them stretching to breaking point. In the end, Okonkwo threw the Cat. That was many years ago, twenty years or more, and during this time Okonkwo’s fame had grown like a bush-fire in the harmattan. He was tall and huge, and his bushy eyebrows and wide nose gave him a very severe look.

He breathed heavily, and it was said that, when he slept, his wives and children in their houses could hear him breathe. When he walked, his heels hardly touched the ground and he seemed to walk on springs, as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often. He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men. He had had no patience with his father.

It’s startling how much Achebe packs into this description. It starts with a fight, moves to a physical description that focuses on eyebrows, of all things, and then moves to breathing, the way he walked, the way he talked, and his relationship with his father. It’s an incredible jumble of information that makes absolute sense. So, how does Achebe pull it off?

The description depends so much upon the fight, those nerves and muscles stretched to a breaking point. This is a man of not only strength but also intense drive, and those ideas (the high energy of a fighter in action) carry the description forward: bushy eyebrows, heavy breathing, walking on springs, stammering, fighting, and finally lack of patience with people he viewed as lesser than him, especially his father. By establishing Okonkwo’s fighting ability, Achebe created a way to think about every part of the character’s personality and life.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write an active character description using Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe as a model:

  1. Establish the character in action. It’s tempting to describe a character as a portrait, with as much action as a still-life painting of flowers. But people are rarely still, and, in writing as in life, we tend to learn about characters and people by what they do, how they encounter the world and its obstacles. So, choose a moment where your character is struggling with something. It can be another person, as in Okonkwo’s fight, or it can be an inanimate object: a lunch box or a seat belt. Think about how people act when stuck in traffic. Do they bang on the steering wheel? Sit back and sigh? Pull out their phone? Before painting a picture of the character in repose, show us the character in action.
  2. Distill that action to a phrase or image. Okonkwo’s taut and stretched muscles serve as a kind of guiding post for the rest of the description. How can you do something similar with your character? Think of the character stuck in traffic. Is she leaned forward or back? Is her jaw clenched or does she turn on the radio and close on eye? Does she text furiously? Scroll through Twitter casually? Use the adjectives or adverbs as an opportunity for repetition.
  3. Carry the idea of the phrase or image forward. Try to repeat the adjective or adverb without literally repeating it. You’re trying to find other ways to suggest the idea of those adjectives or adverbs. So, it’s no accident that Okonkwo’s eyebrows are bushy. Bushy fits better with the idea of taught muscles than thin. And, it’s no accident that he breathes loudly. It would be weird for him to be exaggerated in one sense and quiet and invisible in another sense (or, it might work, but it would be a contrast that would need to be suggested and created). So, think about every aspect of the character and try to convey the same adjective or adverb that you established in the initial moment of action.

Good luck.

An Interview with D Watkins

19 Mar
D Watkins' debut memoir, Cook Up, about growing up and selling drugs in East Baltimore, will be published by Grand Central Publishing in 2016.

D Watkins’ debut memoir, Cook Up, about growing up in East Baltimore, will be published by Grand Central Publishing in 2016.

D. Watkins is a writer and Baltimore native whose essays about living and growing up in Baltimore have been widely published. His essay for Salon, “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” went viral, and, since then, Watkins has been featured on NPR’s “Monday Morning” and “Tell Me More,” and sold a memoir, Cook Up, to Grand Central Publishing (forthcoming in 2016). Watkins holds a Master’s in Education from John Hopkins University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Baltimore. He is a professor at Coppin State University. To read his essay “Too Poor for Pop Culture” and an exercise on writing complex characters and people, click here. In this interview, Watkins discusses avoiding one-dimensional secondary people in memoir, what it means to write about a community that rarely appears in literary work, and the incredible reception his work has received.

Michael Noll

In some parts of our national discourse, we have a tendency to make symbols out of people—for instance, Chris Kyle, the “American Sniper.” In our hurry to make a point, the real person at the heart of the symbol gets lost. I can imagine that this might have been easy to do with “Too Poor for Pop Culture.” You could have flattened Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head to be only symbols of poverty, but they seem like much more. For one, you allow them to be funny: “Whateva da fuk a selfie is! What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” You also let them show their own awareness of how things are: “Put me on that Obamacare when you can, college boy!” Does the ability to show this complexity come naturally to you because you know these people well? Or, do you have to guard against turning them into symbols for a point?

D Watkins

I think it came natural because these are my friends. I wrote “Too Poor” out of a place of frustration, and the layers that my friends and I share just spilled out. We are funny and hurting and tuff and smart and crafty. Sometimes secondary people in memoir can be one-dimensional and that would never work in my writing because my friends make me and we are all complex in our own special way.

Michael Noll

This essay is a really complex piece of cultural criticism. You’re making an argument about the availability of technology but also about politics and economics. How did you keep your point straight? And, where did this essay begin? With any of the points you make or with the story of drinking vodka with your friends in a housing project?

D Watkins

It’s easy for me to keep my point straight because this story is older than me. Black people have been slighted in America since we jumped off of the boat. And really, “Too Poor” was cut short because I could have added more of the convo—we talk about crooked cops, gentrification and everything else that plagues east Baltimore, most of which never makes the news cycle.

Michael Noll

D Watkins was profiled in a long feature in Johns Hopkins Magazine about his evolution from drug dealer to university lecturer and author.

D Watkins was profiled in a long feature in Johns Hopkins Magazine about his evolution from drug dealer to university lecturer and author.

I read and loved the novel Long Division by Kiese Laymon, and in it, the narrator reads a book called Long Division that is set in the part of Mississippi that he’s from. He says this:

“I just loved and feared so much about the first chapter of that book. For example, I loved that someone with the last name ‘Crump’ was in a book. Sounds dumb, but I knew so many Crumps in Mississippi in my real life, but I had never seen one Crump in anything I’d read.”

I thought of this quote as I read the first sentence of your essay, where you name the people you’re with: Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head (names you created to protect their identities). You go on to write, “Bucket’s no angel, but he’s also not a felon and doesn’t deserve to be excluded from pop culture no more than Miss Sheryl or Dontay.” You’re talking about access to technology and, therefore, access to the pop culture sites and news that most of us take for granted, but it occurs to me that you’re also talking about the absence of people like Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head in the news and sites that we consume. Was this something on your mind as you wrote?

D Watkins

Initially no. I did not read a fraction of the articles that I do now. Now I consume everything from cable news to all of the popular online magazines. I’m also a columnist for Salon, so now it’s my job, and in my journey I learned that the perspectives of people from neighborhoods like mine are always ignored or written about by outsiders. I now feel obligated to be that voice and hopefully inspire others to do the same.

Michael Noll

Parts of the essay strike me as academic in tone. For instance, you write, “The idea of information being class-based as well became evident to me when I watched my friends talk about a weeks-old story as if it happened yesterday.” The first part of that sentence would fit neatly in any article in a scholarly journal. The second part, though, and the first-hand account that you provide in the essay, might not appear in that scholarly article, which makes me curious about your views of academia and the writing that it encourages. You write in the essay about feeling like an outside in academia—”Not the kind of professor that…”—and so I wonder if you feel that, as a writer, the kind of writing you do is valued by the academic world you work in.

D Watkins

My writing is valued in the academic world—since “Too Poor.” I’ve lectured at 20+ universities in graduate and undergraduate programs covering an array of topics that range from creative writing to public health. I think I have a unique opportunity to create a new lane in academia, a lane where street education is respected amongst the tweed coated scholars.

March 2015

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

How to Write Complex Characters

17 Mar
D Watkins' essay, "Too Poor for Pop Culture," examines the reach—or lack of—of popular media into East Baltimore.

D Watkins’ essay, “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” examines the reach—or lack of—of popular media into East Baltimore.

In fiction and essays, it’s tempting to write about characters and people so that they’re merely vehicles for a larger point. The piece begins to feel like an allegory or morality play: See how tragic these poor people’s lives are? See how awful these rich people are? See how mundane these suburban lives are? Categorization is often the enemy of good writing. Think of all the novels and films with smiling, dopey Midwesterners or rude New Yorkers. And, of course, when it comes to race and ethnicity, categorization leads to the flattening effect of the oldest stereotypes in our culture. These caricatures may seem familiar and right to us, but they’re inevitably too simple, and the story or essay, as a whole, suffers. So, how do we write more complex characters?

One answer: give the characters and people in your fiction and essays a chance to be as smart and funny. Don’t let the work become a monologue by you, the author. Instead, let the characters and people speak for themselves. A great example of this strategy is D Watkins’ essay, “Too Poor for Pop Culture.” It was published at Salon, where it became on of the most-read pieces on the Internet in 2014. You can read it here.

How the Story Works

The title of Watkins’ essays sums up its point pretty clearly: some communities do not have access to the media (24-hour news, Twitter, Facebook) that most of us take for granted. It’s an interesting, complex argument that carries with it the risk of oversimplification. The essay’s setting is East Baltimore, a neighborhood made visible to national audience by the HBO series The Wire. In other words, it’s a neighborhood and a community that many of us think we know, either from TV or from general ideas about black, inner-city poverty. Given those expectations, look how the essay begins:

Miss Sheryl, Dontay, Bucket-Head and I compiled our loose change for a fifth of vodka. I’m the only driver, so I went to get it. On the way back I laughed at the local radio stations going on and on and on, still buzzing about Obama taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Who cares?

No really, who? Especially since the funeral was weeks ago.

The dynamics at work are immediately clear: national media trends versus the isolation and segregation of inner-city poverty. See how quickly I’m able to sum up those first sentences? The essay could work at the level of the categories I just created and still make its point. Yet something would be lost, and that something would be the people at the heart of the essay. These people (Miss Sheryl, Dontay, and Bucket-Head) are not characters whose lives stop at the end of the page. They don’t exist just for readers to learn about poverty. If the essay proceeded from the general categories I created, those lives would be reduced. But that’s not what Watkins does. Instead, he moves back and forth between broad categories and the idiosyncratic and personal.

Here is an example of categorization:

Two taps on the door, it opened and the gang was all there — four disenfranchised African-Americans posted up in a 9 x 11 prison-size tenement, one of those spots where you enter the front door, take a half-step and land in the yard. I call us disenfranchised, because Obama’s selfie with some random lady or the whole selfie movement in general is more important than us and the conditions where we dwell.

Note the terms and phrases he uses: “disenfranchised” and “one of those spots.” It’s a language that plays into expectation, that assumes the reader knows something already about these people.

Now, here is how Watkins moves away from the general and toward the personal:

“A yo, Michelle was gonna beat on Barack for taking dat selfie with dat chick at the Mandela wake! Whateva da fuk a selfie is! What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” yelled Dontay from the kitchen, dumping Utz chips into a cracked flowery bowl. I was placing cubes into all of our cups and equally distributing the vodka like, “Some for you and some for you …”

“What the fuck is a selfie?” said Miss Sheryl.

“When a stupid person with a smartphone flicks themselves and looks at it,” I said to the room. She replied with a raised eyebrow, “Oh?”

Imagine how John Steinbeck might have written this scene, the kind of plodding march he would have made toward the thematic conclusion. You can’t miss the point in any of Steinbeck’s writing or in any number of political speeches. And you can’t miss the point here, either. But the essay also allows the people at its heart to participate in the discussion. They aren’t dumb puppets in a morality play. They’re actively engaging with the information they have and seeking out answers. Another writer might have left out the line, “What’s a selfie, some type of bailout?” because it reveals that the speaker, Dontay, a man drinking vodka in a tenement, knows about corporate bailouts. It complicates the characterization of someone who is disenfranchised. These are people with thoughts and opinions of their own—and they aren’t always predictable, as Watkins later reveals:

“Put me on that Obamacare when you can, college boy!” Sheryl says to me as I contemplate the number of books I can make out of my shitty hand. We all laugh. I am the only one in the room with the skill set to figure it out, but we all really see Obamacare as another bill and from what I hear, the website is as broke as we are. We love Barack, Michelle, their lovely daughters and his dog Bo as much as any African-American family, but not like in 2008.

Good writing should hit the mark it aims for. If it has a point, it should make it. But the writing shouldn’t make that point while honoring the complexity of the world it portrays.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create complex characters using “Too Poor for Pop Culture” by D Watkins as a model:

  1. Summarize your point. In a story, this point is usually dramatic: where should the drama/tension stand at the end of the scene? In an essay, this point can be dramatic or thematic. Either way, it’s important to know where you’re headed. Can you sum up the conclusion or how things stand in a phrase as easy to understand as “Too Poor for Pop Culture?”
  2. Categorize the characters or people. You can use the same phrases as Watkins: I/they call us/them _____. One of those places that ______. You’re connecting the characters, and, by extension, the setting, with the knowledge or expectations that the readers bring with them.
  3. Let the characters or people speak. The power of dialogue is that it often defies generalization. People use language in surprising ways. The phrases and diction they use can make us pause, force us to pay attention. In dialogue, people and characters also tend to reveal the inner workings of their minds. We see them from the outside and develop ideas about them, but dialogue has the power to show us what we cannot see or guess at. So, give your characters the opportunity to speak for themselves. Create an opening for them to talk about what is going on, dramatically or thematically. In “Too Poor for Pop Culture,” Watkins doesn’t just show us that his friends don’t know what a selfie is. He lets them talk about how they don’t know what it is. How can you let your characters or the people in your essay talk about the thing at the heart of your writing?

Good luck.

An Interview with Bess Winter

12 Mar
Bess Winter's fiction has been selected for the Pushcart anthology and was most recently published at Covered w/ Fur.

Bess Winter’s fiction has been selected for the Pushcart anthology and was most recently published at Covered w/ Fur.

Bess Winter grew up in Toronto, Canada, and has lived in Kansas City, MO, Victoria, BC, Sackville, NB, Bowling Green, OH, and Cincinnati, OH. Her work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize, illustrated in pen and ink, and adapted into musical numbers. She was Podcast Editor at The Collagist, served as a Guest Fiction Editor for the 2014 Pushcart Prize Anthology, and is currently a PhD-fiction student at University of Cincinnati.

To read her story “Are You Running Away?” and an exercise on writing quick-starting first paragraphs, click here.

In this interview, Winter discusses quick-starting stories, quick characterizations, and writing past epiphanies.

Michael Noll

I love how fast the story opens, moving from “fuck school” to a mysterious possibility for how to get school canceled in one short paragraph. Did the story always begin this quickly? Or did you have to cut and revise your way to this beginning?

Bess Winter

The story always began this quickly. In fact, I’m most comfortable with stories that are on the shorter side, so it takes a lot of coaxing and prodding to get me to write long, well, anything: sentences, paragraphs, etc. I’m envious of writers who can blast out a lot of material and then scale back. Also, because this is a story that’s more about what happens because of, and coincidental to, “the plan,” rather than the plan, itself, it felt best to get the big stuff out of the way A.S.A.P. and move on to the less causal elements of story. Make the most outrageous stuff a given. They’re going to get school canceled. Pipes will be involved.

Michael Noll

The story also quickly establishes characters: Val doesn’t care, and the narrator finds this trait interesting when everyone else finds it grating. Again, I’m curious about your approach to these characterizations. Do you write your way into them? In other words, do the characters take shape on the page, and eventually you’re able to sum them up quickly? Or do you start with a clash of opposites and see what happens?

Bess Winter

Usually I start with a key characteristic that serves the story I want to tell, and get that down on the page early. So you could say it’s more a “clash of opposites” than anything, though Val and the narrator aren’t necessarily opposite to each other. Then I build the character around that characteristic, try to add complexity. In the case of this story, and of many stories, I actually have a specific person in mind—often someone I’ve known in the past, but sometimes even film actors or historical figures—who either physically or emotionally resembles the character.

Michael Noll

The story expands in the middle, adding the perspective of a teacher and jumping out of the present action to past incidents. Then, it moves back and forth between these moments and the present action. Is this a structure that you use often? Or is it particular to this story?

Bess Winter

Bess Winter's story, "Are You Running Away?" appeared in Covered w/ Fur, the new weekly digital magazine from Austin indy press A Strange Object.

Bess Winter’s story, “Are You Running Away?” appeared in Covered w/ Fur, the new weekly digital magazine from Austin indy press A Strange Object.

This is a structure I’ve used a few times over the past few years, particularly because “Are You Running Away?” was intended to be part of a triptych. All three of the stories in the triptych were originally going to be structured this way, jumping through time and using this sort of filmic technique, a braided narrative. But it turned out that the third story in the series just didn’t work. Structurally, it wasn’t quite in line with the other two, and the subject matter was actually too close to the bone to make good fiction.

Recently I’ve started to use a similar, but looser, structure to write stories that deal specifically with the movement of objects in time. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was a big influence on my thinking about this. He doesn’t quite “braid” in that novel so much as “saddle stitch” or loosely join different narratives at touch-points.

Michael Noll

The event at the heart of this story is astonishingly awful. As you were writing it, did you ever consider pulling back or moving in another direction? Or did you always feel pretty certain where the story was headed?

Bess Winter

In terms of actually hacking open the pipes, I knew the story was going in that direction when I sat down to write; the act, and its implications, was the idea that spurred the story, and was loosely based on an event that happened at my own all-girls school when I attended in the late ’90s-early ’00s. Maybe the story could have veered away from the actual hacking open of the pipe, focused more on the dissolution between friends or something else about their relationship. But, honestly, I was so dead set on writing about the pipe incident that it never occurred to me to go another way.

But, in writing the story, I did struggle—not with how far the event would go, as the natural dramatic shape of the fiction, and its style, seemed to demand the worst thing, but with how the characters would deal with it. There’s a point in the story (when she’s sitting on the grass in the park) where the narrator could have had some sort of epiphany, at least tried to make things right. Irony might demand that she try, and fail, to fix things. But when I sat down to write that section in the park—which was actually an addition—the failed epiphany didn’t feel right. I realized, at that point, this character’s flaw is that she’s a teenager—incredibly self-absorbed, melancholy, selfish and, in some ways, as spoiled and tortured as Val. In fact, she’s not very different from Val, at all, and it felt better for her to become more Val-like than heroic in that moment. That’s not to say Val is a horrible person, either, just a confused person—as many teenage girls are. If anything, this story actually helped me empathize with the sort of girl who used to tease and torture me in high school.

March 2015

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

How to Write a Quick-Starting First Paragraph

10 Mar
Bess Winter's story, "Are You Running Away?" appeared in Covered w/ Fur, the new weekly digital magazine from Austin indy press A Strange Object.

Bess Winter’s story, “Are You Running Away?” appeared in Covered w/ Fur, the new weekly digital magazine from Austin indy press A Strange Object.

Literary journals receive hundreds, sometimes thousands, of submissions every year. These submissions are read by volunteers—on the weekend, at night, when they could be reading a favorite novel or, who knows, parasailing. Imagine yourself in these volunteers’ shoes, a tall stack of submissions in front of you and an approaching deadline to complete them. As a writer, these are not the ideal conditions for appreciating your carefully crafted manuscript. But this is the world you’re sending your stories into, and so it’s important to consider the audience. What will make your story easier to read? What will catch this busy volunteer’s attention?

One answer: a quick-starting opening paragraph. One of the quickest and most interesting first paragraphs that I’ve read lately is from Bess Winter’s story, “Are You Running Away?” It was published in Covered w/ Fur, the weekly digital magazine published by Austin’s indy press A Strange Object. You can read the story here.

How the Story Works

Here is the first paragraph. Watch how quickly it kicks into gear:

Val says, fuck school. She eats another cracker. Wouldn’t it be great if school were cancelled? And I say, Yeah, it would be great. And she says, I know a way. She scrapes her shoed feet along her parents’ couch. And I say, How? And she says, There are these pipes.

In just 51 words, the story introduces two characters, a sense of their personalities and relationship, and a mystery: what are the pipes and how will they cancel school. How does the paragraph do this? By beginning with drama, not information. Think about what we’re not told: the characters’ ages, the nature of the situation, the time of day. Rather than set up the drama, the story immediately zooms in on a moment when a choice is made: Wouldn’t it be great it school were canceled? What is said next (Yeah, it would be great) might not seem like a conscious decision, it functions that way, giving Val permission to proceed. In other words, it’s sometimes not enough to simply introduce a mystery. You also need to introduce a decision that leads to that mystery (even if that decision, at the time, seems like no decision at all).

Once that mystery has been set, you can spend time re-introducing the reader to your characters: who they are, their typical behavior.

In the second paragraph of “Are You Running Away?” Winter does exactly that:

She shoves everything aside. Goldenrod, green, purple study notes. Her chem binder clicks open and the sheets slide everywhere, across the Persian rug and the hardwood and into corners of the room and up against Rolph the snoring yellow lab. She steps on the notes, leaves her dirty shoeprints on them. She doesn’t care. I love Val because she doesn’t care about anything. The first time we met, in the changing room before gym, she looked me up and down and said, Those boobs are low. I could have hated her for that, I guess, but instead I was like, who says that? And I said, Thanks! And, from then on, we were friends, even when everyone else pushed her away. Even when they asked Her? Why? and made sour faces. Later, we snuck things from the pockets of the backpacks they looped onto the outside of their lockers when they went to gym: silver bracelets, digital watches, lip gloss.

Though the paragraph is building character, it also deepens the mystery from the story’s opening. If the characters are already stealing things and acting in other socially unacceptable ways, what else will they do? If I’m a reader working my way through a slush pile, my attention has been grabbed before the end of the first page.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s start a story quickly, with drama, using “Are You Running Away?” by Bess Winter as a model:

  1. Introduce a strong desire. In Winter’s story, the desire is the nearly universal desire of so many school stories and real-life students: get out of school. In other words, the desire doesn’t need to be something we’ve never seen before. Most desires are pretty common. Why else would love stories and stories of adultery be among the oldest we possess?
  2. Introduce a plan to satisfy the desire. At the very least, a character could say, “I have a plan.” But you can do better than that. Hint at the nature of the plan. Be sly. In Winter’s story, Val mentions pipes but not what they’re for or how they might be used. If you read the story, you’ll see that the plan is pretty simple—it’s horrible and frightening, but simple, too. You don’t need something convoluted. The important thing is to tease the reader. In this case, Val also teases the narrator, who is allowed to discover the plan along with us.
  3.  Make the plan hinge on someone’s assent. Someone needs to give the plan the go-ahead. The need for this agreement or cooperation forces the character with the plan to be conniving, to try to persuade another character to go along. Without this external approval, the plan may roll out too easily, without encountering opposition or obstacles. In short, you’re making the characters act on different levels from the very beginning, and those different levels will give the story room to grow and develop.

Good luck.

An Interview with Anabel Graff

5 Mar
Anabel Graff's story, "The Prom at the End of the World" won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize.

Anabel Graff’s story, “The Prom at the End of the World” won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize.

Anabel Graff received her B.A. from Vassar College and is currently pursuing an M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Texas State University. She has lived in London, Pittsburgh, Montreal, and New York City. She is the winner of the 2014 Prada Feltrinelli Prize. Her work has appeared in Amazon’s literary journal, Day One, as well as Prada Journal.

To read her story “The Prom at the End of the World” and an exercise on writing human stories in the face of cosmic disaster, click here.

In this interview, Graff discusses getting readers to forget logistics, stealing from writers (especially Ramona Ausubel and Amy Hempel), and why writers write the same story over and over.

Michael Noll

As it’s title suggests, “The Prom at the End of the World” strikes a balance between the normal (prom dates and dresses) and the apocalyptic (asteroid). Mostly the story sticks to the prom, and the asteroid stays in the background, informing the choices that the characters make. It’s the opposite of how the film The Day After Tomorrow operates. Did the story always have that balance, or did the asteroid ever take over in some drafts? In other words, did it ever threaten to turn into The Road or The Walking Dead?

Anabel Graff

It’s funny, but despite the topic, “Prom” was never really concerned the particulars of an apocalypse. I had no interest in writing that story—it’s one we’re almost too familiar with. The circumstances of “Prom” didn’t really feel like that much of a stretch to me. It’s hard not to feel like the world is on the edge of the apocalypse anyway (just turn on the news). Instead, I was fascinated by the emotional territory the apocalypse allowed me to explore: How would we act if we knew the end was near? And how would that reveal what we value? Who we were? Jenny’s answer is connection. That would be my answer, too.

That answer was satisfying to early readers of this story, and I revised “Prom” to strengthen that effect. In many ways, this was a test of narrative authority. I wanted to write a story that felt so emotionally true that people wouldn’t feel the need to ask logistical questions. It will resonate for some readers and not for others. But that’s okay—those are the limitations we must accept when we venture into writing stories that aren’t strictly realism.

Michael Noll

Even though the prom dress and date take center stage, there is a certain amount of general action going on in the background. For instance, two consecutive paragraphs begin this way: “The men bought supplies” and “The women made plans.” Each paragraph tells, generally, about those supplies and plans. This seems like a pretty succinct way to capture the larger commotion caused by the asteroid without getting sucked into the details. I’m curious if this strategy simply occurred to you while writing or if you borrowed it from another writer or story.

Anabel Graff

I wanted to write a new story for the Prada contest, but I had a hard time starting that first sentence. So I turned away from my blank computer screen and dove into the books on my shelf. I read. That’s the best advice I’ve ever received to overcome writer’s block, and I would tell anyone who would listen to do the same. I think I read about ten books the week before I returned to that blank computer screen. When I read fiction, I always pay close attention to how it is made. I look for tricks to steal (I’ve always believed that great writers are great liars and thieves)—this is how I’ve been taught to read like a writer (like you do on your site!). When I finally sat down to write “Prom,” those tricks were at my fingertips. It was quite astounding actually how quickly I wrote this story, especially after being stalled for so long.

A review in The San Francisco Chronicle said that "No One Is Here Except All of Us contains so many achingly beautiful passages, it’s as if language itself is continually striving to be a refuge."

A review in The San Francisco Chronicle said that “No One Is Here Except All of Us contains so many achingly beautiful passages, it’s as if language itself is continually striving to be a refuge.”

One book I read that week was No One is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel. It’s narrated in the third person plural, though the narrative sometimes shifts to a first person. This is done to great effect—the combination makes the narration at once authoritative (the power of the “we”) and personal (the intimacy of the “I”). After I read this book, I was inspired to try this device, and I felt the freedom to play with point of view in this way.

I also immersed myself in Amy Hempel’s short stories. In an interview with the Paris Review, Hempel talks about the notion of moving plot in terms of moment building. And that was another technique I was interested in, in terms of the construction of “Prom.” Hempel also discusses letting white space speak through the story’s transitions. Can I just quote her here? She says:

Transitions are usually not that interesting. I use space breaks instead, and a lot of them. A space break makes a clean segue whereas some segues you try to write sound convenient, contrived. The white space sets off, underscores, the writing presented, and you have to be sure it deserves to be highlighted this way. If used honestly and not as a gimmick, these spaces can signify the way the mind really works, noting moments and assembling them in such a way that a kind of logic or pattern comes forward, until the accretion of moments forms a whole experience, observation, state of being. The connective tissue of a story is often the white space, which is not empty. There’s nothing new here, but what you don’t say can be as important as what you do say.

Much is left unsaid in “Prom,” and that silence speaks volumes. The story, in a weird way, is all about what’s not being said. That thought’s in every line—what people are too scared to say is as important as what they say out loud.

Michael Noll

In his introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, George Saunders writes that every writer has “The Thing This Writer Loves To Do, and Does Naturally” and that the “writer started writing so that he or she could endlessly and effortlessly do this thing and nothing else—be funny, say, or verbally brilliant, or write lush nature vignettes, or detailed descriptions of the interiors of rich people’s houses.” As I read your story, I noticed two things that you seem very good at: inventing wonderful details about teenage sensibility (the term promapocalypse and the last-minute decision to decorate the auditorium like outer space) and also capturing those universal moments of teenage uncertainty that we all experienced and recognize immediately. How much of your writing process is simply finding a plot that will allow you to do these things?

Anabel Graff

Wow, thanks! Well, I first have to credit Jane Hawley from my cohort with the “promapocalypse ” line. A lot of the details I labor over as I build the world of the story never seem to get noticed, and the ones that come easily are the ones that some readers hold onto (like the prom decorations, for example). Debra Monroe, my professor at Texas State, taught me about the importance of specific details in fiction, and she brilliantly explains how they constellate to create the tension of a story and reveal its meaning. So that’s something I always work towards in my writing—how I can be as particular as possible, by using a lot of specific details, to capture the universal, to create meaning.

Which brings me to the second part of your question—I believe that a writer writes the same story until she has answered the question the story poses. All of my stories are about these moments of uncertainty of adulthood—whether my characters are 8, 18, 28, or 88. I don’t ever start writing with a theme in mind—I always start writing with plot. But I am interested in these particular moments because they have both meaning and dramatic potential. Will Jenny find a date for the prom? That is the plot. What does it mean to take a risk to connect? Therein lies the theme.

Michael Noll

The story was written for a specific prompt: “What are the signs of a changing world? And what situations can we envision? Taking a good look at the details might give us the answer.” Did writing for those questions change your process at all? Did you write a story that is unlike your normal subject matter, or did you simply adapt the kind of story you usually write to the prompt?

Anabel Graff

Anabel Graff's story, "The Prom at the End of the World," won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize and was published in Prada Journal.

Anabel Graff’s story, “The Prom at the End of the World,” won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize and was published in Prada Journal.

I think I was the only winner who wrote a new the story for the contest. Since this prompt was inspired by Prada’s latest eyewear line, I always knew that the idea of vision (what we see and what we don’t) would be central to the story. But I was having a hard time finding a plot to lay over that as a backdrop. Sometimes, when I am looking for inspiration, I read weird news sites for ideas. I came across a story about a meteor that was supposed to hit Earth. As soon as I saw that, I knew my story would center on a teenager’s last night on Earth. From there, the prom seemed an obvious setting. It’s a night full of expectation, and these expectations were intensified by the impending apocalypse. But, honestly, this process is similar to how I begin many of my stories—I like the idea of taking two or three ideas, images, thoughts, and figuring out a narrative that weaves them all together to make the fabric of a story. This how I always feel like I’m writing towards something. And it’s how I try to bring richness and texture to my fiction, by finding images that fascinate me, that I can imbue with meaning to function as a central metaphor for each story.

Prompts are a helpful tool we have as writers. It’s a way to explore ideas that may lie outside our regular instincts, thought processes. They provide structure and limitations. For me at least, when I have those kind of limitations, I’m always trying to figure out how I can bend them. And that’s when I’m the most creative.

March 2015

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

How to Write Human Stories amid Cosmic Conflict

3 Mar
Anabel Graff's story, "The Prom at the End of the World," won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize and was published in Prada Journal.

Anabel Graff’s story, “The Prom at the End of the World,” won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize and was published in Prada Journal.

The risk in using high-concept plots for your stories is that your characters may end up as nothing more than dinosaur food. This is what happened in all of the Jurassic Park movies (and books). Who was the star? The T-Rex. The raptors. In that tense scene in the first film, when the kids are hiding from the raptors in a kitchen, the kids exist primarily to highlight the terrible power of the dinosaurs. Almost certainly, the scenes that you remember from the films involve water trembling in a glass and close-ups of inhuman eyeballs. It’s tempting to blame the thin characterizations on Michael Crichton, but the truth is that plots of apocalyptic proportions can challenge even the most literary of writers. How can we possibly pay attention to nuances of human drama when oil field workers are trying to blow up an asteroid?

A story that has figured out this problem is Anabel Graff’s “The Prom at the End of the World.” It recently won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize (which involves a ceremony at, seriously, Prada’s headquarters in Milan) and was published in Prada Journal, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story begins with two things: an asteroid hurtling toward Earth—an event that we’re immediately told will lead to either complete or near destruction—and a high school prom that is scheduled for the same day as the asteroid’s impact. It’s clear, then, what the source of tension will be. Will the story be told from the cosmic level, at the same level as that photograph of Earth taken by the Voyager 1 space probe, in which the planet appears as a small dot in the vastness of space? In other words, will the asteroid win out and dominate the story? Or, will the story be told from the level of prom, an event of pure human invention and meaning? The conflict has both human and storytelling dimensions. In life, imagine how difficult it would be to concentrate on prom as an asteroid barrels toward you. And yet, you wouldn’t cease to be human, either. This story manages to retain that humanity. It starts with a dress. The narrator has the dress but no date—or even any hope for one. And then she’s asked at the last minute:

Martin Hemley, my science partner, had ended up asking me though, a week before the prom, four days before the news announced that the end was near. “Jenny,” he had said mid throat clear, and my name emerged from his mouth coated in phlegm. “Seeing as we both don’t have a date and—

It’s the end of the world, and this is the best that the narrator can hope for. “Pick me up at seven,” she says, but here is her interior reaction:

I read online once that loneliness is physically painful. Just as you have a drive to avoid physical pain, you have a similarly powerful drive to connect with others and seek companionship—in order to avoid the pain of loneliness. I also read that when you blush, the lining of your stomach blushes too.

In that passage, Graff manages to create an impulse—the need to connect and avoid loneliness—that is more immediate and visceral than the approaching asteroid. The power of the passage is such that what comes next—after a space break—is not a reference to the asteroid as you might expect. Instead, it’s this:

Have you ever done this thing where you rub your eyes so much that when you close them you begin to see things?

The passage has dropped us so cleanly into the narrator’s head that it’s natural to stay there. We don’t need to look up at the sky. We will eventually, but our attention has been trained on the interior and not the cosmic. It’s this directing of our attention that makes the story great. Recently I was teaching a class and mentioned how I dislike stories that become such page turners that I’m skimming and skipping ahead. A student said, “But doesn’t that mean the book is good?” I don’t think it does. As a reader, I prefer to read the words as they come. I want to stay in the moment of the story and not race ahead. The way to achieve that, as a writer, is to maintain the reader’s focus on the personal and not whatever plot the personal has been involved in. The plot, if it hovers on the periphery, will provide all the forward momentum the story needs.

The Writing Exercise Let’s focus the reader’s attention on the person amid a cosmic conflict, using “The Prom at the End of the World” by Anabel Graff as a model:

  1. Choose the conflict. Think high concept: asteroid, dinosaurs, time travel, alien robots that turn into cars, zombies, vampires, pandemics, superheroes, mutants, hobbits, dragons, Old Testament floods, or any of the story lines used by the top grossing movies of the past year. Some of the best books of this year use similar plots but keep the focus on the personal and human. Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble features a story about a superhero convention that manages to focus on a girl visiting the hotel. Laura van den Berg’s Find Me manages to keep a pandemic in the background. So, choose whatever story you’re drawn to on the big screen or in beach reads but often find yourself wishing were better than they actually are.
  2. Choose the personal need. Rather than thinking about character in terms of demographic (single white female, old Hispanic male), think about basic human desire: to be loved, to be wanted and valued, to be happy, to be safe and secure, and to make others feel that way, too. Draw from your own life if necessary. When did you feel an acute need for those things? What was the situation? Graff has chosen a prom, which carries with it an almost built-in desire to be wanted. What other common situations are often accompanied by basic desires? Choose one and use it as the focus of your character’s personal conflict.
  3. Introduce the cosmic conflict as a matter of fact. In Graff’s story, an asteroid is coming, and nothing can be done about it. The asteroid simply is, and so it cannot be the primary focus of the story because it’s no more interesting than grass or a wall or other things that exist. It’s interesting because of it’s placement. Like a wall that separates people from one another, the wall instigates the drama but then falls into the background, the way furniture recedes from view in a room. We’re more interested in the people sitting on it. So, introduce the conflict as something that cannot be changed.
  4. State the need. An easy way to do this is to allow the character a moment of reflection, an opportunity to think, “I’m so lonely that…” or “I want to be happy so much that…” Graff does this in a particularly artful way, letting her narrator think about her need as something that exists independently of her. Rather than writing, “I’m so lonely that…” she instead writes, “I read online once that loneliness…” It’s a distancing mechanism. Your character can do something similar. Instead of thinking, “I’m so lonely that…”, let the character think, “I’ve heard that some people are so lonely that…” or “I heard once that loneliness…” Then, when the reflection is over, don’t cut away. Keep our attention focused on the personal. Locate the need in something particular. In Graff’s case, that something is a prom date and the trappings of the night.

Good luck.

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