How to Use Conflict to Give Your Novel a Sense of Direction

23 Aug
Idea Novey's debut novel, Ways to Disappear, has been called a "tour de force" and "seared to perfection" by reviewers.

Idea Novey’s debut novel, Ways to Disappear, about the search for a vanished Brazilian writer has been called a “tour de force” and “seared to perfection” by reviewers.

Anyone with small kids is familiar with this situation: they argue over (take your pick). One says, “I want it.” The other says, “No, I do.” Or one says, “Let’s do ___,” and the other says, “No, let’s do ___.” As a parent, you can step in, which you often do. But sometimes you don’t. You think, “Let them figure it out.” You tell your partner, “They’ll either figure it out or they won’t.” Then, you listen to the fight continue and wait to see which way it will go. If the argument’s loud enough, you can feel your muscles tense as you wait for it to resolve itself—or not.

This is misery as a parent but a great strategy for fiction writers, and Idra Novey uses it to great effect in her novel Ways to Disappear. You can read the opening of the book here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about a famous Brazilian novelist who vanishes and her American translator who sets out to find her. Early in the novel, we’re introduced to the translator’s conflicted relationship with her boyfriend:

Miles told her she spent too much time fretting over unanswered emails. His preferred subject of late was when they might get married, and whether they had to invite everyone in their Road Runners group. He said he was leaning toward an outside venue regardless.

Emma, on the other hand, was leaning toward never.

She had yet to express this.

In this passage, the conflict is as clear as when kids fight over a toy: he wants to get married and she doesn’t. Either they’ll figure it out (and get married), or they won’t. Not only is the conflict laid out clearly, but so are the possible resolutions. That’s step one: a map that shows the plot’s endpoint.

Novey doesn’t stop there. The passage continues with “She had yet to express this,” which introduces a stop along the way to the end of the plot. This is as important as the conflict itself; a novel needs stages, steps, obstacles (choose your preferred word). It needs stuff to fill out the pages between the beginning and the end, and that’s what Novey has done so concisely in these three short paragraphs: clearly laid out the beginning and end and one part of the middle.

As you read the entire novel, you’ll quickly see that it’s formally inventive, with pages devoted entirely to a single dictionary definition or a single email or a radio dispatch. At one point, a chapter is written in verse. It’s also a heady novel about translation and, as a critic in The New Yorker wrote, “the nature of personal agency in life and fiction.” And it’s a comic novel with real villains and dramatic twists and turns. In short, it’s a novel with a lot going on, and part of the reason that Novey is able to stuff so much into the pages is because of how clearly she lays out the conflict at the beginning.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set up conflict and possible resolution, using Ways to Disappear as a model:

  1. Find a single issue on which two characters disagree. Novey uses marriage. One of her characters wants it, and the other doesn’t. Of course, the issue can be absolutely anything. Whatever you choose, try to state it as clearly as I was able to state the issue in Ways to Disappear: The issue is ___. One character wants ____, and the other character doesn’t or wants ___. You’re also laying out two possible resolutions. It’s a blunt, direct statement, and this may feel odd. As writers, it’s tempting to latch onto subtlety, to want the reader to figure things out. But it’s important to know which things ought to be subtle and which should be direct. Ways to Disappear contains all sorts of smart, subtle lines about translation and agency. But it lays out the plot clearly.
  2. Flesh out each of their stances. Novey does this with Miles in particular, describing his plans and anxieties about the wedding. She doesn’t just say, “Miles wanted to get married.” She shows him wanting it and assuming that it will happen. She does something different with Emma. Rather than showing us her thoughts, we’re shown her voice: leaning toward never. It’s a line that Emma might have said while confiding to a close friend over coffee. The line is understated, not bombastic or intense or meek or whatever. So, try both strategies. Show us one character working on the assumption that his or her stance will win out. For the other character, try writing a line that sounds as if it has been spoken to a confidant. You can even write it as such: She told her friend…
  3. Create an unknown. Novey does this by revealing that Emma hasn’t yet told Miles that she doesn’t want to get married. The unknown, then, has two parts: Miles doesn’t know something, and the reader doesn’t know when he’ll find out. That’s a great way to approach plot: one character knows more than the other, and the plot is built, at least in part, around when the other character finds out or catches up. So, what information might one of your characters keep in reserve? It might be his or her stance on the issue. Or, it could be a plan that is related to that stance. It could be an emotion or memory. In essence, it’s a secret. 

The goal is to chart out a general direction and plot point for your story or novel by introducing a point of conflict, two possible resolutions, and a piece of information that one character knows but the other doesn’t.

Good luck.

An Interview with Aliette de Bodard

18 Aug
Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the speculative fiction novel House of Shattered Wings.

Aliette de Bodard is a half-French, half-Vietnamese computer and history geek who lives in Paris. Her speculative fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, ClarkesworldInterzone and the Year’s Best Science Fiction. Her trilogy Obsidian and Blood is set in Ancient Mexico, and her novel House of Shattered Wings is set in a post-Apocalyptic Paris and features Fallen angels, a washed-out alchemist and a former Vietnamese immortal with a grudge. She has won almost every science fiction and fantasy award possible: a Nebula Award, a Locus Award, a BSFA Award, as well as Writers of the Future.

In this interview, de Bodard discusses mixed points of view, stories as social commentary, and the myth that technology and science are value neutral.

To read de Bodard’s story “Immersion” and an exercise on writing ideas into fiction, click here.

Michael Noll

Your story, “Immersion” is told from a mixed point of view: second person for the woman who cannot remove her immerser and third person for the woman who scorns the technology. The mix works: second person seems to really fit the dilemma faced by Agnes, and the third-person POV helps avoid confusion between the two narratives. But the mix also probably breaks one of those “rules” that occasionally pop up in writing workshops, something along the lines of “pick a point of view and stick with it.” How did you decide upon this mix? Was Agnes’ POV always told from second-person?

Aliette de Bodard

I’ve never been much of a person for following rules, actually—my motto is more “know why the rules exist so you can break them”. Seriously though, I think rules are very useful when you’re a beginner, mostly in order to leave you time to work on more “simple” things. I think of it as juggling. If you start out learning to juggle with six balls, you’re probably going to get discouraged; an easier way to go about it is to start with one ball, then add another one, etc. until you get to six. Rules are meant to “box” you in a bit, to make stories a little easier to write. But they can become strictures if you keep applying them without thinking on why they exist.

In this particular case, sticking with one POV makes sense in a short story, because you have little space, and shifting POVs too often risks making your story difficult to follow. It’s always been one of the more frustrating rules for me, though, because what you gain in clarify, you lose in subtlety: I think it makes for better, more balanced stories if you combine several points of view–it gives you several different views on the action or on things that characters might not be aware of. In the case of “Immersion”, it makes you understand the plight of Agnes better to see her both from within and from without. The story didn’t start out that way: I originally only had Quy’s point of view, but it wouldn’t gel until I found Agnes’s voice in second person.

Michael Noll

I recently read M. John Harrison’s Light trilogy, which features a character who is addicted to a chemically-induced dream reality. This same idea is present in “Immersion.” Agnes used the immerser to fit in with her husband’s social group but soon began to rely on it until she reached the point that removing it will kill her. Unlike in Harrison’s novels, though, the addiction in your story isn’t complete. The characters, even Agnes, are aware—if dimly—of their altered states. You capture this by showing Agnes half remembering phrases or caught between instincts that are truly remembered and those that are technology-induced. It’s a fine line that you must walk in almost every sentence—capturing warring impulses in a single mind. Did this voice simply come to you one day, or did you have to experiment to find a way to portray this dual state?

Aliette de Bodard

Agnes’s voice was pretty straightforward to write—though I’m not sure if I could sustain it for a full novel, since it’s a bit draining and a bit difficult to write a character like her, who’s not exactly sure which world she inhabits. I’ve always found it easier to write characters with a very large internal life, and she certainly fits the bill.

 Michael Noll

You’ve written some high-powered social commentary in the story. This is probably my favorite line: “It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules.” What I found impressive was how you integrated this commentary into the story. It doesn’t come out of nowhere or feel like the author intruding to tell the reader the moral. Instead, you attach it to the technology that is warping the characters’ lives. The technology, you write, “Takes existing cultural norms, and puts them into a cohesive, satisfying narrative…Just like immersers take a given culture and parcel it out to you in a form you can relate to: language, gestures, customs, the whole package.” I wonder what came first: the commentary or the story it’s embedded within. How do you strike the balance between story and the things you want to say?

Aliette de Bodard

It really depends on the story! “Immersion” started out as mostly commentary: I wrote it after we came back from visiting my maternal family in Vietnam, and I saw firsthand the damages the Western mindset was still doing there. I always knew what I wanted to say with the story; and what took time was working out a setting and characters that would help me do this without seeming overly preachy (though every one has a different idea of what “preachy” means. I felt the story was very direct about postcolonial issues, perhaps too overtly so, but there are a lot of people who didn’t even see that aspect of it!).

Michael Noll

When I read about the immersers, I couldn’t help but think of our current technology, especially smart phones. Just as the immersers “take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms,” so do smart phones take complex processes like navigating space or killing time and flatten them into simple interactions with a screen. I’ve read enough Jaron Lanier to know how much of what we take for granted as “the way we interact with technology” is founded on particular assumptions made by a handful of early programmers and developers, who may or may not have had problematic assumptions about culture. What do you think? Does technology force people and cultures to interact within the paradigm of the technologically dominant culture?

Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard has composed eight "rules" for writing fiction about cultures other than your own. The rules, along with a lot of other great essays and links, are available here at her website.

Aliette de Bodard has composed eight “rules” for writing fiction about cultures other than your own. The rules, along with a lot of other great essays and links, are available here at her website.

I think there is a persistent myth that technology, like science, is value neutral because it simply reflects the way the universe works. The thing is, they’re both tools, and they’re both created in a cultural matrix that makes them what they are (the pursuit of science, and the way science revolutionised the world at the end of the 19th Century, for instance, is inextricably bound up with the rise of massive colonial empires and the plundering of resources from said empires). Perhaps even more so than science, technology is dependent on who created it and how they thought people would interact with it: a very simple example is that, on a lot of webpages and forms, the encoding is ASCII or some variant that doesn’t handle diacritics. That’s because the people who coded it were Anglophones, and didn’t think anyone would have a need for letters like “é”, “è”, etc. So when you have to type in something, you strip it of diacritics rather than have it come out as garbage text. And that’s a very simple example: now imagine this kind of mindset in, say, the use of a GPS, the use of a personal assistant, the coding of an AI. You see that there is something at work there that goes beyond lines of codes and electronics and whatnot; a set of assumptions that remain unquestioned and perpetuate a status quo. So, yes, definitely, there’s a paradigm that gets enforced when dealing with technology; and it’s a self-reinforcing one because people will then reject, say, any smart phone that doesn’t behave “sort of like an iPhone”–unless there’s some massive shift.

I’m not saying we’re locked in this; there are game changers, and there are people providing technology beyond the dominant paradigm and being very successful at it–but just that we have to be aware of this.

Originally published in March 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write Ideas into Fiction

16 Aug
Aliette de Bodard's story, "Immersion" appeared in Issue 69 of Clarksworld Magazine.

Aliette de Bodard’s story, “Immersion” appeared in Issue 69 of Clarkesworld and won the Nebula and Locus prizes for Best Short Story.

When I was in an undergraduate fiction workshop, my teacher told us not to worry about what our stories were about. Focus on the characters and plot, he said, and the rest will sort itself out. This is often good advice—but not always. Some stories are about ideas, and the issue becomes not how to momentarily forget those ideas but, instead, how to attach them to the characters and plot so that they read as story rather than apart from it.

One genre that consistently tackles big ideas is science fiction. And one of the most interesting new science fiction writers is Aliette de Bodard, whose story, “Immersion,” appeared in Clarkesworld and won or was nominated for pretty much every award possible: Nebula, Locus, and Hugo Awards for Best Short Story. You can read “Immersion” at Clarkesworld‘s website.

How the Story Works

The story states its ideas outright. It’s about a piece of technology that allows its user to drop into a world and culture that isn’t their own and still communicate. In the story, de Bodard writes that certain people “believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules.” She also writes that the technology takes “existing cultural norms, and puts them into a cohesive, satisfying narrative.”

These are strong statements about culture and cultural appropriation, and it’s impossible to not read them as sharp critiques of very real technology in our very real world. The risk that any story runs when stating its ideas in this way is that can begin to feel more like an essay than a narrative. Essays are great, of course, but when readers begin a piece of fiction, they often have little patience for tangents that do not advance the forward momentum of plot and character. So how does de Bodard successfully include these statements in her story?

  1. She applies them directly to a single character. Here’s the story’s first sentence: “In the morning, you’re no longer quite sure who you are.” And why is the character not sure? Because she wears a device that produces an avatar that not only produces an external image but also delivers cultural and linguistic cues directly into the character’s brain. Imagine a Fodor’s guidebook mixed with Siri and the information delivery system in The Matrix. In short, de Bodard has created a machine that turns her ideas into tangible objects with consequences for the characters who encounter with them.
  2. She makes the plot hinge on the character’s decision. The story begins by asking the character who she is, and the plot follows an attempt to answer that question. Three of the characters (her husband, Quy, and Quy’s sister) are actively pushing or, at least, tangentially giving her space to answer that question, but the technology (the immerser) is pushing back. It wants to supply its own answer. In a way, the plot is similar to any story about powerful external influence (addiction, cults, relationships with manipulative partners). Because the technology is a character with (almost) a will that it exerts, it makes perfect sense for de Bodard to write that the immerser takes “existing cultural norms, and puts them into a cohesive, satisfying narrative.”

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write ideas into a story using Aliette de Bodard’s story, “Immersion,” as a model:

  1. State your ideas. What is your theory about _____? de Bodard is writing about cultural appropriation, and you can write about something equally large. Or, you can focus on something smaller. To get you started, how would you finish this sentence? The thing about (pick your group of people) is ______. For instance, you’ll sometimes hear people claim that certain men suffer from small-man syndrome; i.e. the guy is short and making up for it. Congressman Paul Ryan recently blamed poverty on inner-city people who don’t know how to work. President (at the time, candidate) Obama once said about Midwesterners that “”it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” (Interestingly, when my Midwestern, religious, gun-owning father heard this, he thought it seemed about right.) All of these statements are basically ideas or theories about human behavior. de Bodard’s ideas are more rigorously academic, but they are still about human behavior. So, what’s your theory about 1) why people act the way they do or 2) the systematic consequences of that behavior?
  2. Create a machine that turns those ideas into things. This can mean a literal machine like the one de Bodard has created. The point of the machine is to put your character into an existential dilemma that is tied to the theory you have developed. So, if you believe in short-man syndrome, you might create a machine that makes tall people short. If you’re a Paul Ryan acolyte, your machine would make people unwilling to work (a city full of unwilling scriveners). Or, if you agree with the president, your machine might make people bitter in order to see what they cling to. But your machine doesn’t need to be an actual machine. I’ve already mentioned that addiction or cult personalities can fulfill many of the same functions. But so can the circumstances you create: if you want to make a character bitter enough to hate foreigners and brandish guns, there are realistic ways to do that. Melville found a way to make Bartleby avoid work. Many stories are filled with characters who suffer illnesses or accidents that change their physical appearance. In short, you can use the world of your story to drive your character into a situation that forces them to act.
  3. Make the plot hinge on the character’s action. How will the physically altered character react, and how will that reaction the ones she loves? If the character refuses to work, even in the face of extreme poverty, will someone eventually step in to help or not? Will the bitter character use the gun you’ve given him against the people he blames for his misfortunes? Turn the plot into a question of the path your character will take? The story can end once the decision has been made. Or, it can proceed from there to show the effects. Either way, you’re turning your initial ideas into a story that may have room for the statement of those ideas.

Good luck!

An Interview with Tristan Ahtone

12 Aug
Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound busses across America and wrote about it in a series for Al Jazeera America.

Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound busses across America and wrote about it in the series, America by Bus, for Al Jazeera America.

Tristan Ahtone is an award-winning journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Born in Arizona, raised across the United States, and educated at the Institute of American Indian Arts and the Columbia School of Journalism, he has worked as a door-to-door salesman, delivery driver, telemarketer, and busboy. Since 2008, Ahtone has reported for The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, National Native News, Frontline, Wyoming Public Radio, Vice, the Fronteras Desk, NPR, and Al Jazeera America. He serves as Treasurer for the Native American Journalists Association and lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

To read an exercise about writing character descriptions based on Ahtone’s essay on riding Greyhound busses across America, click here.

In this interview, Ahtone discusses the role of human and technical limitations on writing and choosing what makes the cut in a piece of journalism.

Michael Noll

It seems like something you’re trying to convey in these pieces is the fleeting nature of encounters on a bus. So, for example, your description of Russell Hall focuses on only a few seconds of observation: Hall on the phone, a glance given to him by a woman sitting nearby, a look that he gives to something he set out the window, the condition of the Bible he’s holding. Was it tempting to try to make more of this encounter? Or was the opposite true: was the challenge instead trying to build a vignette out of only a few details?

Tristan Ahtone

Each encounter we had during this story could have been expanded to a feature-length story. The challenge was having so much detail and condensing it into a vignette. However, in Mr. Hall’s case, the simple nature of his story stemmed from a technical error, embarrassingly enough: the recorder we used to interview our subjects decided to become uncooperative, so there were no accurate quotes save for what I caught in my notes when first observing him. It would have been great to get his backstory in—he worked for the Los Angeles public school system as a truancy officer and had been involved in the church for years traveling the country by bus—but when I sat down to write about him, I found that the brief encounter offered more with less dialogue. So in short, Mr. Hall’s story functions as a fleeting encounter but its creation stems from a technical problem and having to make due with good note taking to replace missing quotes.

Michael Noll

I love the dialogue that you capture. In the piece about Hu Li, the dialogue isn’t really conversation so much as different people talking at the same time. You must have overheard or participated in so many conversations. How did you decide which ones to write up?

Tristan Ahtone

There are about half a dozen interviews we did that never made it to the final product and many never even made draft form. In each case my partner Tomo Muscionico and I would strike up conversations with people, feel out whether we wanted to continue the conversation for a story, and eventually asked to mic them up so we could record that interview. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. In the end, a lot of people we took photos of and interviewed didn’t make it in usually because their narrative wasn’t as strong when putting it in short form. For instance, there was a woman named Dianne Whitlock, who showed up briefly in Rosalinda’s vignette – she had a wonderful story and had a great conversation with another gentlemen that had his own vignette that was also eventually cut. The primary reason was because in short form, we couldn’t do them justice. Essentially, we gathered as much material as we could, and when we sat down to write and edit it, a lot of people washed out.

Michael Noll

Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound buses around America and wrote about it for Al Jazeera America.

In his essay on riding Greyhound busses, Tristan Ahtone met a woman named Rosalinda who was traveling from Guatemala to Florida and who spoke neither English nor Spanish.

In the piece about Rosalinda, you write, “She and her baby had matching yellow wristbands, the kind one gets in a hospital or a prison.” This description has two parts: the detail (matching yellow wristbands) and the interpretation (the kind one gets…). How much of your task as a journalist, as a writer, is helping the readers understand the details you show them?

Tristan Ahtone

I’d say most of my job is helping readers understand details. Context is what makes people’s stories real and relevant. One of the nice thing about long-form journalism is that you have the opportunity to see and write about details like that and offer them to the audience. We spent a long time with Rosalinda and ran into her twice: once at the Phoenix bus station and again on a bus we boarded in El Paso. I think I can speak for my partner, Tomo, that we’re not the superstitious types, but we knew we had to write her story when we ran into her again. We had to do something. She was too special and too important to let drive off without trying. That meant we had to get really creative, though: we couldn’t talk to her, nobody could really, so we had to take a lot of pictures and extensive notes so that we could make her a real person to our audience, and that meant keeping an eye to detail and interpreting who she was, where she was going, and what her situation was based on physical information that was available.

Michael Noll

In that same passage about Rosalinda, you have the problem of not being able to communicate with her. So, you approach the description through the other passengers’ eyes and knowledge about her. As a result, the passage becomes not just about Rosalinda but also everyone else on the bus, the community they form. Was that approach a matter of simply using the information available, or had you sketched out a variety of approaches to these passages before the trip?

Tristan Ahtone

The only thing we had sketched out prior to going on the trip is where we would leave from and where we would end up and even that changed mid-way through. Originally, I wanted Rosalinda’s story to be weaved in throughout the entire piece with other passengers narratives. The original structure I sketched out more closely resembled a Robert Altman film with a number of different characters all overlapping at various places. I couldn’t get it to work though, one reason being that while we have rich detail on everyone we spoke with, there wasn’t enough information to support a story that long. It also felt confusing, so we scrapped it. One of the only variations of that idea that remains in the final piece is the interaction between Lonnie Head and Christopher Nyman in Nashville. Had we stuck with the original structure, you likely would have seen a lot more interactions like that between a lot of the people we met. As I mentioned before, Dianne Whitlock makes an appearance in Rosalinda’s vignette: originally she had her own story, which is part of the reason she’s even named at all in this one instead of just identified as another passenger. In the end I really liked how Rosalinda’s story came to embody a greater sense of community. I think that people deride and criticize people who ride busses, but I have to say, I’ve never seen people on a plane act so kindly to each other. In Rosalinda’s case, we observed how people behaved toward her and reported it. If she had been treated poorly, we would have written it that way instead.

Originally posted in January 2016

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

How to Describe a Character from the Perspective of Others

9 Aug
Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound buses around America and wrote about it for Al Jazeera America.

Tristan Ahtone rode Greyhound buses around America and wrote about it for Al Jazeera America‘s project, “The United States of Bus Travel.” Photo credit: Tomas Muscionico, Al Jazeera America

The easiest and most common way to describe a character is directly, like this: She’s tall and loves Adele but believes people who sing along with the music are disrespecting the artist. The first part of that description (she’s tall) can be deduced from observation, and perhaps the second part (loves Adele) can be as well if the music is audible. But the final part (disrespecting the artist) requires knowing her thoughts, which means that she speaks them aloud. For most characters, this isn’t a big deal. But what about characters who can’t or won’t speak?

A good example of using every  available resource to describe a character can be found in a recent series, “The United States of Bus Travel,” from Al Jazeera America. Journalist Tristan Ahtone traveled the United States by Greyhound bus and wrote short vignettes about the people he encountered. You can read the entire project here.

How the Essay Works

The final part of the series, “The Mother,” is about a passenger named Rosalinda who spoke no English. (You can find it by scrolling all the way to the bottom of the page.) Normally Ahtone’s approach was to strike up a conversation, but, in this case, that wasn’t possible because Rosalinda didn’t speak English. Watch how Ahtone builds that inability to communicate into the first part of the description:

Rosalinda had all her possessions in two bags: a trash bag and a giant resealable storage bag with the Homeland Security logo on it. She and her baby had matching yellow wristbands, the kind one gets in a hospital or a prison. She spoke no English and only a touch of Spanish and, from what passengers could gather, had taken a bus from Guatemala to Arizona 13 days before and was now bound for Florida.

Notice how Ahtone starts with what can be observed: what Rosalinda carries with her and the wristbands she shares with her baby. At that point, he’s run out of what can be learned directly, and so he finds a way to learn information indirectly: “from what passengers could gather.” In short, Ahtone is using the impressions and knowledge of the people around Rosalinda as a source of information rather than Rosalinda herself.

The rest of the vignette becomes as much about those people around her as about Rosalinda herself. Here’s the bus driver:

“She’s probably Central American or something,” said the bus driver. “I think she’s going all the way to Miami. That happens all the time on this schedule. We get a lot of Central Americans probably getting sent from one detention area to another, and they’re being processed.”

Through this quote, we learn something about the route and the people who tend to travel it.

Here’s another passenger on the bus:

“I want to get her something to eat when we stop, but I don’t know how to communicate with her,” said Dianne Whitlock as Rosalinda’s baby cried. “She’s not eating.”

And here is how the passage ends:

At the next stop, passengers in her section pooled their resources for water, soda, chips, diapers, baby food and a cheeseburger with a side of fries.

By looking beyond Rosalinda for information about her, the writer has also opened up the vignette to the world around the person he is ostensibly focused on. We learn about her, but we also learn about the kind of route she’s on and the way that a temporary community develops on the bus. All of this is built from statements made about Rosalinda by the other people on the bus.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s describe a character from the perspective of others, using “The United States of Bus Travel” by Tristan Ahtone as a model:

  1. Describe the character using what can be observed. Ahtone describes what Rosalinda is carrying with her and one notable part of her wardrobe: the matching yellow wristbands. The key is to choose details that convey something about the character. It’s actually a good exercise to pretend that you’re viewing your character while riding on a bus. In that situation, it’s natural to draw conclusions about people from what they’re wearing or carrying or from their posture or behavior. So, choose one or two basic details that allow the reader to infer some basic aspects of the character’s life, background, or situation.
  2. State the impediment to knowing more about the character. In Ahtone’s case, he didn’t speak Rosalinda’s language. But language isn’t the only possible impediment. Perhaps a character doesn’t want to talk or cannot talk due to a physical cause or due to the situation (no one or someone isn’t allowed to speak). There are many situations that we encounter where speaking openly or at all isn’t possible or socially acceptable (like on an elevator). Don’t be coy. State clearly the reason the characters cannot talk.
  3. Look for other sources of information. The most obvious, of course, are other people, but in the absence of people, you can study the character’s relationship to her possessions or surroundings. (Think of the Sherlock Holmes line about watching what a woman first rescues from a burning home.) If other people are present, consider the difference in their perspective compared to your own (or your narrator’s). For example, on Ahtone’s bus trip, the other passengers had been riding the bus with Rosalinda for a while, and in that time, they’d observed her acting or not acting in ways that stood out to them. They’d likely tried to talk to her in Spanish and failed at that. Like Ahtone, you can use these different perspectives and levels of knowledge/experience to convey information that is not directly accessible to you or your narrator. What do other people think or see or notice or say?
  4. Look to the setting for information. Ahtone gets a crucial piece of information from the driver, who has seen many passengers like Rosalinda. So, think of your character as being part of a trend or demographic. We draw conclusions about others based on age, gender, dress, race, ethnicity, language, etc, all of the time. What conclusions can/would your characters draw based on their own experience and the setting where the story occurs?
  5. Consider how the other perspectives interact. On the bus, the other passengers worry about Rosalinda and eventually pool their money to buy her food and diapers. Of course, the other perspectives don’t need to react positively. We’re all coming out of the holidays, and so we’ve perhaps been reminded that not all personalities gel or work well together. If a character has drawn many people’s interest, how does that shared interest cause them to behave?

The goal is not only learn about a character who cannot or will not speak but also to learn about the surrounding characters and world.

Good luck.

An Interview with Amy Gentry

4 Aug
Amy Gentry's debut novel, Good as Gone is one of the most anticipated books of the summer.

Amy Gentry’s debut novel, the thriller Good as Gone, is one of the most anticipated books of the summer.

Amy Gentry lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two cats. After graduating in 2011 with a PhD in English from the University of Chicago, she began a freelance writing career, writing book reviews, cultural criticism, and, for one strange and wonderful year, a fashion column. She frequently reviews fiction for the Chicago Tribune Printer’s Row Journal, and her writing has appeared in Salon.com, xoJane, The Rumpus, the Austin Chronicle, the Texas Observer, LA Review of Books, Gastronomica, and the Best Food Writing of 2014. Good as Gone, her first novel, is set in her hometown of Houston, Texas.

To read an exercise on turning information into scene based on Good as Gone, click here.

In this interview, Gentry discusses the importance of POV choices, writing toward what is missing from a story, and layering big ideas within a plot.

Michael Noll

When I started the prologue of the novel, I didn’t know if I’d be able to read it. Perhaps it’s because I’m a parent, but I find stories about bad things happening to children difficult to read. And yet the horror of the opening chapter was both sharp and muted at the same time. Bad things happen, but what we actually see is the prelude to the bad things rather than the bad things themselves. It’s not unlike the novel Room in that way. When we see the worst things in the novel, it’s through a crack in a closet door. Did you experiment with other points of view? Were you consciously trying to balance drawing in the reader with conveying the horror of what was happening in the scene?

Amy Gentry

That Room comparison is so flattering, thank you! I hadn’t thought about it that way, but I think the muting or distancing effect you’re talking about comes not only from the closet-door perspective, but–as in Room–from the child’s perspective. In theory, it’s terrifying to imagine seeing this as a child, so you get the horror on a conceptual level. But on a more literal level, there’s an alienation effect, because nobody reading this novel is actually ten years old (I hope).

The closet scene was among the first I imagined, but I wrote it last, because the point of view presented a huge challenge for me. Jane was not supposed to be a POV character in the novel at all; for a long time, I had Anna describing Jane’s role in witnessing the abduction (“I picture Julie as Jane must have seen her, drifting down the hallway. . .”). But the sense of urgency was completely missing. No matter how beautiful or tragic someone’s thoughts are, they’re still just thoughts, and they are never going to feel as important to a reader as action. Julie’s kidnapping was the central trauma in the book, and it had to feel like a tear in the fabric of this family’s reality. It was too important for exposition. But Jane was literally the only one who could tell the story.

In the end I justified the POV shift by making it a prologue. What I like about that scene now is that Witness Jane is only just past the age where fact and fiction blur; her night terrors have only recently started to fade. She’s a little on the old side for nightmares, but I thought, well, the family has moved recently, they probably started up again when she got her own bedroom. That dreamlike quality helped me reconcile the POV shift, and hopefully adds an element of uncertainty to what Jane really saw.

Michael Noll

The novel has an interesting structure. It’s divided into, basically, two points of view: the mother and the daughter, Julie. The mother’s POV moves chronologically and Julie’s moves in reverse, so that it moves backward in time from the first chapter. This is an interesting way to think about tension, about the desire to know what happens next, because in the daughter’s chapters, next is almost always the revelation of some piece of information. How did you approach Julie’s chapters?

Amy Gentry

When I started writing this novel I felt pretty hopeless about plot. I’d never tried to write something that required this much tension and required so many reveals. Plus I had this character Julie, or better yet “Julie”, whose identity was in question. I knew her POV had to be in the book, but I couldn’t give away her identity. How do you write from her POV without saying who she is? I knew her lies were going to start showing up, one by one, in the present-tense plot. So I got the idea to alternate those little revelations with chapters that peeled back the layers of her identity one by one, starting with the most recent. It bought me time, logistically speaking; plus it rang true with the ideas about trauma and identity formation that were already in the book. Trauma kind of forces everything else in your life to exist in relation to it. It rewrites the whole narrative of your life, even what came before. Trauma does not obey chronology.

When I was actually writing “Julie”, though, I had to do it chronologically. At first I thought I could write those parts in the order they appear, but I quickly found that she was such a liar, I couldn’t really get to the bottom of who she was and what happened to her that way. I didn’t know who she was in the present until I went through all that stuff with her in the order it happened. I approached each episode of her life trying to use what had most recently happened to her as a guide for what she’d do next. Which was tricky, because when you’re reading it in the book, you sometimes don’t understand why she starts a chapter the way she does until you get to the end of the next episode, and by then you may have forgotten. I’m totally fine with that, because her identity is meant to be unsettlingly fractured. But the connections are there.

Michael Noll

Amy Gentry's debut novel GOOD AS GONE "draws our attention to the self that’s forged from sheer survival, and from the clarifying call to vengeance," according to a New York Times review.

Amy Gentry’s debut novel GOOD AS GONE “draws our attention to the self that’s forged from sheer survival, and from the clarifying call to vengeance,” according to a New York Times review.

One of my favorite moments in the book is the scene between Julia and a housekeeper at a hotel. (I won’t say more to avoid giving anything away.) It’s a moment when our perception of Julie changes pretty drastically. Did you always know that scene would be in the novel, or did you find yourself writing it and thinking, “Oh, this is interesting?”

Amy Gentry

That was a scene I had to write because I was reworking the chapters in a late draft and needed one more episode. When I asked myself what was missing, I realized immediately that I had put Maybe-Julie in a lot of very extreme situations–not unrealistic for someone with her story, but I wanted to show her doing something more mundane and boring to survive, just the good old back-breaking labor of cleaning. Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t like it. Most people don’t. I also wanted to add another chance for her to make what most people would call a “good” choice, and have her reject it for reasons of her own. Whether the reader sympathizes with that or not, I hope by that point in the book s/he’s starting to get the idea that Julie’s priorities are survival first, survival second, survival third, fourth, fifth and so on; “good” behavior might be in there somewhere, but it’s pretty close to the bottom. I think that’s a realistic way that agency plays out under conditions of duress, with someone who’s had a lot of trauma. So the more opportunities I had to put that in, and the more I was able to identify with those so-called “bad” choices, the more her character spoke to me.

Michael Noll

One of the characters in the novel is a preacher at a mega-church that meets in the Astrodome, which just so happens to be similar to an actual place with an actual church run by a quite-famous preacher. That said, your preacher looks quite different from the real guy, different enough that it’s clear that they’re not the same person. And yet I wonder if you received any pushback on this.

Amy Gentry

At a certain point in the book, religion started coming out as a theme, and I just heaved a big sigh and thought, “Oh boy, here we go.” Thinking about Houston, it made so much sense to have a mega-church play a big role. When I was growing up in Houston, First Baptist was what we meant by a mega-church. These days the non-denominational mega-church Lakewood is almost twice the size of First Baptist and meets in the former Compaq Center. Because the dates worked out, I got to fantasize about an even bigger mega-church meeting in the former Astrodome, a gargantuan Houston landmark now utterly abandoned.

I was also careful to differentiate my fictional pastor from Lakewood’s real pastor via appearance, mannerisms, and of course motive—I’m not out to impugn Joel Osteen. However, his theology—that I have no problem impugning, especially from the point of view of Anna, who finds it morally repugnant. Anna is not big on religion of any kind. Her religion is the life of the mind, and she believes, rightly or wrongly, that it gives her everything she needs to understand the world. My fictional preacher’s theology, which is only slightly amped up from Osteen’s “prosperity gospel”, really upsets her, because it’s so focused on erasing or denying the bad things that have happened to you and are still happening. There’s no sin, there’s no suffering, and ultimately, there’s no memory—optimism is the only virtue.

In grad school I got interested in the American religious tradition called New Thought, which I think is pretty clearly a part of prosperity gospel, and which started up around the turn of the 20th century. The most recognizable form it takes today is something like The Secret. That stuff is always big in America because we love the individualism of it, the idea that you have control over your destiny. But there’s a dark side to it, because it gives you far too much agency. It puts the blame for bad stuff happening to you on you, because you must have attracted it somehow. And in a book that’s so much about rape culture, that was a message I was very interested in fighting.

The fun part is that I went to the Compaq Center and took notes as if I were Anna, who is even more cynical than I am. As Amy, I could instantly see why that type of church is so popular. It is a gigantic music and laser-light show, totally free, with child care and wall-to-wall programming for every demographic, even financial planning classes. In the absence of a social safety net, these churches offer a ready-made, big-tent community. As Anna, though, I could just revel in how tacky and appalling it all was. She sees Nuremberg, and I don’t entirely disagree with that either.

August 2016

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

How to Turn Information into Scene

2 Aug
Amy Gentry's debut novel GOOD AS GONE "draws our attention to the self that’s forged from sheer survival, and from the clarifying call to vengeance," according to a New York Times review.

Amy Gentry’s debut novel Good as Gone “draws our attention to the self that’s forged from sheer survival, and from the clarifying call to vengeance,” according to a New York Times review.

When I was a MFA student, one of my professors liked to hold up a story and rip out the first three pages. “This is where it ought to begin,” he’d say, and he was almost always right. Our openings tended to be general information and backstory. The story started when the first scene arrived. If this is true, though, it poses a challenge to writers. How can you start in scene and introduce the basics of setting, character, and situation?

Amy Gentry does an excellent job of doing both in her novel Good as Gone. If you haven’t heard of it yet, you soon will. It’s getting a big national marketing campaign and big-time reviews—for good reason. The book is a thriller that is also thoughtful, with well-developed characters. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The story is set in Houston, which is information that must be conveyed quickly—not just the name of the city but the particular details of what the city is like and how it feels to be there. That information and more is introduced in the first paragraph of Chapter 1:

Julie’s been gone for eight years, but she’s been dead much longer—centuries—when I step outside in the steaming air on my way to teach my last class of the spring semester. The middle of May is as hot as human breath in Houston. Before I’ve even locked the door behind me, a damp friction starts up between my skin and clothes; five more paces to the garage, and every hidden place sickens. By the time I get to the car, even my bent knuckles are sweating up the plastic sides of the insulated travel cup, and my grip sips as I climb into the SUV, throwing oily beads of black coffee onto the lid. A few on my hand, too, but I let them burn and turn on the air conditioning.

Here is the information delivered in this paragraph:

  • The situation (“Julie’s been gone for eight years”) and how that absence feels (“dead much longer”)
  • The temperature (steaming)
  • The narrator’s job (college instructor)
  • The month (May)
  • The city (Houston)
  • How the weather feels (“a damp friction”)
  • The exact location of the scene (outside the narrator’s front door and then in her SUV)
  • Something about the narrator’s mindset (“I let them burn”)

This is a tremendous amount of information, and one thing that beginning writers tend to do is dump it onto the page. Such info dumps are almost always tedious and boring—but this paragraph isn’t because it’s in scene. As a result, the passage has a sense of movement. Because it begins with situation, we want to know more about what’s going on. Because the setting is made palpable, we feel the narrator’s discomfort along with her. Because the narrator reacts to a detail in an unexpected way (“I let them burn”), we want to understand what’s going on in her head.

In short, Gentry manages to include an info-dump’s worth of detail and make it feel like story because of how she weaves it into the scene. If Gentry can make such mundane information come alive, you can imagine how exciting the book becomes once she’s working with the twists and turns of a thriller plot.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s turn information into scene, using Good as Gone by Amy Gentry as a model:

  1. Prioritize the basics of setting. For Gentry, this means city, month, and weather, but this is because those details are impossible for her narrator to ignore every time she walks out of her house. So, put your character into motion. Move her from one spot to another and find out what part of the setting affects her most acutely. If your character doesn’t notice the weather, then the weather doesn’t matter. What does the character notice about setting? What is the character’s attitude toward this noticeable detail? It doesn’t matter whether it’s positive or negative, only that it’s charged.
  2. Give the character some necessary task to do. Gentry sends her narrator to work. The job isn’t pressing; it’s not like she’s a fire fighter rushing to a burning building. But it’s necessary for the narrator to go. This tethers the narrator to the world. Too often in drafts, characters are left floating in infinite space, thinking big thoughts. It’s almost always the case that no thought—no matter how deep or well-stated—is interesting if it’s not given context or background. So, before the character thinks, let the character do something she has no choice but to do. This task could be a job, or it could be some other essential task (household, community, family). You’re connecting the character to other characters and institutions, and these connections reveal small, yet important information.
  3. Be specific about setting. Gentry’s scene is set in Houston, but it’s also outside the narrator’s front door. Without that detail, we wouldn’t know if the narrator was leaving an apartment, a doctor’s office, a super-secret spy agency; we’d only know she was outside.
  4. Be aware of your character’s state of mind. Perhaps the best detail in the paragraph is the one about letting the coffee burn her skin. We begin to read into such a detail, making guesses at why the narrator would act that way. Once the readers begins to do that work, they’re hooked. So, put yourself in your character’s head; what is the single most pressing emotion or feeling in it? What is the source of that feeling? We already know that Julie is dead and gone, and so we can begin to connect that piece of information with the unexpected action. You can do the same thing. Let your character’s state of mind affect how she reacts to some small detail.
  5. Introduce the situation. The state of mind and reaction from the last step will make more sense if we know what’s going on. In this case, what’s going on isn’t the narrator going to work but the fact that Julie is gone. The situation is ongoing, not acute. The advantage to clearly stating the situation and how it feels (as Gentry does in the first sentence) is that is quickly orients the reader. Every new piece of information will be read in relation to the situation. I made this the final step because writers often don’t know what the situation is until they’ve gotten into their character’s head and seen the character react to the setting. Then, as writers, we’re like, “Oh, that’s what’s going on.”

The goal is to make basic information about setting and character interesting by putting it into scene.

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