Archive | February, 2013

An Interview with Owen Egerton

28 Feb
Owen Egerton's novel The Book of Harold has been called...

Owen Egerton’s novel The Book of Harold walks “the fine line between hilarity and heart” according to one reviewer.

Now that Lance Armstrong is disgraced, the title of Most Interesting Person in Austin may belong to Owen Egerton. Here are a few reasons why: His short film, Follow, is debuting at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March, he’s a regular performer in one of the most popular comedy tickets in town, and his book launches are standing-room only. It’s no wonder the Austin Chronicle routinely names him the city’s favorite local writer. With his most recent novel, The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God, and his soon-to-be-released Everyone Says That at the End of the World, the rest of the world is discovering what Austin has known for a long time.

Pick up any of Egerton’s books, and you’ll find the rare combination of humor and spirituality. As a result, The Book of Harold has been called beautifully-crafted, wise, and poignant, but it’s also very funny. The promotional video for the novel even caught the interest of late-night host Jimmy Fallon, who linked to it on his website.

Egerton was kind enough to answer a few questions about this comic-religious novel.

Michael Noll

The chapter shows us the basic events of the Christmas pageant multiple times. It’s almost like you’re using dress rehearsals to make the reader familiar with how the scene will play out–only to surprise them with the actual events. Was this repetition intentional, or did you find that the practice runs through the pageant wrote themselves onto the page?

Owen Egerton

I’m a fan of theme and variation, of establishing what should be and then sharing what is. We see it in jazz, in comedy and in narratives. As Robert McKee likes to say, story is found in the gap between expectation and actuality. Your buddy Jim comes over for dinner every Friday at 7 pm. He always brings a bottle of wine and bag of day old donuts. 6:55 pm on Friday there’s a knock on the door. You open it expecting Jim. Instead a beautiful woman in a long black dress stands with a severely cut hand. There’s a story there. We are more aware of the gap – the space where the story lives – when we have some detail of the expectations.

Michael Noll

Most of your readers have likely seen a Christmas pageant–and perhaps appeared in them–and most of those pageants probably followed a similar storyline. All pageants are basically the same, in other words. That sameness would not seem like a great premise for a story, yet the every element of this novel’s pageant seems fresh and new. How did you approach telling the pageant story so that it escaped our expectations for pageants-past.

Owen Egerton

Point of view and characterization are keys to making the familiar fresh. Every wedding looks the same, basically. But it’s not the same old wedding for the secretly pregnant bride or the jilted lover in the back row or the groom who is in love with bride’s mother.

You can even get away with describing monotony if you allow at least one character to be passionate about the monotony.

It also helps if you hint or tell the reader that this is going somewhere. In my chapter, the narrator shares that the event he’ll be describing led him to believe God was hunting him down like a “pissed off loan shark.” The reader is willing to wait through some of the less fascinating details because they feel it building towards something. We’ve promised a payoff. Now we must deliever.

I’m also eluding to those all too familiar pageants for a reason that touches on the novel as a whole. The novel, like the pageant, is a story they do not know based on a story they do know. I’m retelling the gospel—I even begin with a nativity, but the nativity goes wonderfully astray. Hopefully this tells us that the story we’ll be reading will continue to surprise us. But also that the story we know – that pageant we’ve seen or participated in – is as different from the actual birth of a impoverished baby to unmarried parents in Roman-occupied Israel two thousand years ago as it is from the series of missteps in the story. We think we know the story, but we don’t.

 Michael Noll

In his New York Times essay "Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?" Paul Elie compares Christian belief in American fiction to "a dead language or a hangover."

In his New York Times essay “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” Paul Elie compares Christian belief in American fiction to “a dead language or a hangover.” Owen Egerton disagrees.

In a recent New York Times piece, Paul Elie argued that religion (especially Christianity) no longer plays a role in American literature. In Elie’s words, the role of Christian belief in fiction is “something between a dead language and a hangover…if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature.” Your novel would seem to refute this claim. Do you see questions of Christian or religious belief reflected in much of the literature you read? Is Elie simply reading the wrong books, or does he have a point?

Owen Egerton

I love reading Paul Elie. Amazing insight and warm passion. But I think he is mistaking a change in religious focus for death. Elie correctly recognizes that fewer and fewer “believers” populate modern literature. And that there appear to be fewer writers with Flannery O’Conner’s goal to “make belief believable.” Elie’s conclusion that religion no longer plays a role in American literature is based on the premise that the center of religion is belief. He feels one’s beliefs – not one’s actions or the tradition in which one participates – define one’s religious identity. But a Passover Seder can be impacting even if one doesn’t believe in a literal God sending plagues to ancient Egypt. And the power of the passion and death of Jesus is not limited to only those who believe in a historical, literal resurrection.

What Elie’s sees as a shrinking of religious themes, I see as an expansion past a narrower definition of religious devotion. I’d argue that we’ve lost some interest in the dogmatic discussion and distinctions, which for O’Conner and Percy Walker separated the saved and unsaved. We are less concerned in what a person or character believes and more interested in what they do. The beauty of a Catholic mass and the themes of community, sacrifice, and transcendence are not dependent on the doctrine of transubstantiation. More and more of us recognize this. Many moderns have a religious life free of belief.

And literature is a perfect vehicle for pondering the questions of religion without being moored on the dichotomy of belief and disbelief. We are moved by the characters and story and images of a novel without ever having to declare that we believe the events of the novel to be factually true. In fact, we recognize that our fiction by definition is not fact, but it no way limits the power.

The stories and rituals of faith traditions – whether you hold them to be history, myth, or both – are still often the language we use to wrestle with themes of mortality, morality, and meaning. Whether in James Reich’s dark, poetic 2012 novel I, Judas or the Christ imagery rampant in the final Harry Potter book, religion is still very much a living language.

I am not a believer, but I return again and again to religious themes in my writing. I see the shared power of these stories, the universal appeal to these themes, and perhaps I’m searching – and my readers along with me – for something beyond belief.

Michael Noll

In addition to writing, you’ve built a reputation as an improv-comedy performer. In some ways, improv seems like an imperfect match with writing. One requires spontaneity, and the other favors revision. Do you find that improv has influenced, and perhaps even helped, your writing?

Owen Egerton

Improv and writing are wonderful bedfellows. Long before I revise, I must create! In that place – that hot cauldron of creating, that hunt for self-surprise – the revising mind is an enemy. That part of my mind questioning my choices, correcting my spelling or simply asking “what are you doing here?” – that part must be shut up if I’m to thrill the page. I leave the revising for tomorrow. It’s the same in improv comedy. In improv we train ourselves to say “yes” to the wild, untested, unwritten ideas. We do not stop to ask, is this the best idea? It is the idea! So we play with it, we build upon it. So when I write, I tap into this mode. I splatter my pages with messy ideas and fractured sentences and fantastic surprises! Fire doesn’t think. It burns. Lovers don’t plan. They fuck.

February 2013

Michael Noll edits Read to Write Stories. A writing exercise based on the first chapter of The Book of Harold is available here.


Show It Once, Show It Again

26 Feb

“The Book of Harold” by Owen Egerton is out in paperback from Soft Skull Press. You can read the first chapter here.

Maybe you’ve heard this one: A doctor, a corpse, and a rabbit walk into a bar. The doctor says, “Give me a stiff one.” The corpse says…

Or this one: Three little pigs each built a house. A big, bad wolf knocked on the first pig’s door and said…

Or possibly this one: A man named Ocean gets 11 thieves to break into a casino. First, they plan the heist, then they practice it, and then they do it for real, except…

These three stories share one of the world’s oldest storytelling strategies: put characters in a situation that will be repeated, but each repetition is slightly different—different enough to keep the reader’s attention but also essentially the same. The storyteller allows the reader to develop an expectation for how a situation will play out. But of course, there is a twist in the final repetition; the sequence goes awry. The success of a story is often determined by how well its sequence goes off the tracks.

A great example of this strategy can be found in Owen Egerton’s novel, The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God. The paperback edition of the book was published by Soft Skull Press, and you can read the first chapter, “Nativity,” on Amazon here.

How the Chapter Works

Count how many times Egerton shows us the Christmas pageant:

  1. We’re told that the pageant “was a Christmas tradition for our church.”
  2. Next, we’re shown the casting and introduced to the doll that will play Baby Jesus.
  3. Then, we’re shown the children practicing the pageant, running through the entire show.
  4. Next, we’re given a quick description of the first two nights of the pageant.
  5. Finally, the last performance is upon us. We know the drill by heart, and so do the characters. Notice how they begin to alter the routine: the donkey drop “balls of dung every other step,” a Wise Man slips on the dung, and chaos ensues.

Because the story repeats the pageant five times, the reader develops an expectation for what will occur—and also that something will go wrong. Notice how each telling involves a bit of irregularity: the introduction of the drummer boy, the casting of the narrator as Joseph, the drummer boy mis-delivering his line, angels crying, and finally donkeys pooping. Yet, even though the reader expects an unexpected turn of events, there is no way to foresee what actually happens. The thrill, for the reader, is in waiting for the predicted, yet unpredictable, twist.

The Writing Exercise

  1. Choose a scene that will repeat itself. The scene could be one that involves planning and practice (a wedding, shouting “Surprise!” at a birthday party). Or it could center around someone involved in a routine activity (door-to-door salesman).
  2. People the scene with characters (wedding/party guests, salesman/homeowners).
  3. Tell the reader how the scene will play out, and then show the scene once or twice.
  4. Finally, show the scene a final time, adding unexpected challenges.

It helps if you give the main character a sense that something might go wrong—or if you generally introduce the idea that all might not go according to plan. You can introduce the idea subtly or in an obvious way. The point is to show the sequence of events while hinting at a twist in the sequence.

Be inventive with this exercise. Remember, you want to surprise an expectant reader.

Happy writing.

An Interview with Manuel Gonzales

21 Feb
Manuel Gonzalez's story "Farewell, Africa," was published in Guernica and the inspiration for this writing exercise. His new collection of stories, The Miniature Wife, is being mentioned in the same breath as George Saunders and A.M. Holmes.

Manuel Gonzales’s story “Farewell, Africa,” was published in Guernica and is included in The Miniature Wife, a new collection of stories that has been compared to the work of George Saunders and Aimee Bender.

Manuel Gonzales’s debut collection of stories, The Miniature Wife & Other Stories, has been called “extraordinary” by the LA Times. A review in The New York Times reveled in the stories’ “delightful freakishness.” His writing can also be found weekly on the 1000 Words project, where he writes and posts a weekly story inspired by an image created by the photographer Emily Raw. Gonzales serves as the Executive Director of Austin Bat Cave, a writing & tutoring center for kids located in Austin, Texas.

In this interview with Michael Noll, Gonzales discusses his approach to “Farewell, Africa,” which tells the unexpected story of a pool malfunction set against the backdrop of the destruction of the entire continent of Africa. A writing exercise inspired by the story—especially the immediate suspense created in the first line—can be found here.

Michael Noll

In the first sentence of the story, you introduce a problem (the pool didn’t work), but you don’t reveal what happens until several paragraphs later. Was this an intentional move on your part to create suspense in the reader, or did the opening paragraphs come about gradually, over the course of revision?

Manuel Gonzales

When I write these stories that have a sense of non-fiction to them, I always approach them with this idea in my head that the audience already knows the larger points of the story. So with this, I assumed that the imagined reading audience for this piece would already know that the African continent has sunk into the sea. So the world I created that would contain this essay had to be larger than the essay itself, because otherwise the essay wouldn’t work, and that world included an audience for the essay. And since everyone who was going to read this essay would already know about Africa, the starting point had to be something small and specific, this based on the kind of New Yorker article made popular by Talk of the Town contributors and Malcolm Gladwell that I had in mind as my model. So really, how I started the piece was determined as much by the structure of it as anything else, and the fact that this also developed a sense of tension in the real reading audience was a side-effect—a good one—of the early decisions I made about what kind of story I wanted to write.

Michael Noll

I’ve heard some writers claim that funny stories are impossible to write. But this obviously isn’t true for you. One of the best parts of this story is the weirdly detached tone the characters have toward the sinking of Africa. For instance, the first thing Owen Mitchell says about his famous speech “Farewell, Africa” is that it was fifteen minutes too long. But even the name of the speech itself seems oblivious to any sense of real tragedy. The disconnect works so well. Was it part of the story from the beginning, or did you have to figure out the right tone? Comedy (even black comedy) and the loss of civilizations wouldn’t seem like an obvious starting point for a story.

Manuel Gonzales

The comedy is generally there at the beginning all of my stories. I had this title in my head long before I wrote the story. I’d misread a NY Times headline (Farewell, Africa) as us saying goodbye to the African continent, as if it had gone away, and that made me think of the idea that we would have written a speech to work against the tragedy of the African continent sinking into the sea—because we turn to speeches in almost all times of crisis—and that struck me as sad and absurd and really funny because of the absurdity and futility of it. I think that comedy has to be paired with tragedy in order for both of them to achieve the effects you want them to achieve.

Michael Noll

At your book launch in Austin, you mentioned your love of stories that sound like nonfiction. This story seems to fit that description–journalistic in tone and approach. It’s almost possible to imagine this story appearing as a magazine profile. What draws you to the voice or style of the essay?

Manuel Gonzales

I really like reading essays, the New Yorker profile or a good GQ essay by Wells Tower or Rolling Stone piece by Mark Binelli or the old profiles and essays about New York written by Joseph Mitchell, and I liked the idea of using the techniques of a nonfiction piece in fiction. For one, you can get away with a lot of different things—exposition, for instance. You can load a nonfiction piece with exposition (telling instead of showing) without a lot of consequence, and then you also can use the tone and form to sidestep a number of obstacles that otherwise might gum you up when writing a piece of fiction. The tone gives you a certain kind of pre-set credibility, in fact, in the same way that medical language or legal language or scientific language can. Because when we read something in this tone and style, our expectations become set to ‘nonfiction’ almost subconsciously.

For this story specifically, I tried a few times to write about the guy who wrote the Farewell, Africa speech as a straightforward short story but found every time that the focus would become him and his small and narrow personal investments, and the story never achieved the tone or the largeness I wanted it to, never became the thing I wanted to read. So, after a few false starts, I decided to try writing a Talk of the Town piece about that guy, and that led me to the idea that what I would write about would be a fundraiser party for a museum dedicated to these continents that had sunk into the sea, and from there, everything else fell into place.

The other thing about using this kind of form is that you can break out of it and by breaking out of the form, for just a moment, in the middle of the piece, you create a space that’s a little surprising and potentially more emotional because of how and when it arrives.

Michael Noll

Here’s sort of a weird question: Lots of writers/people apparently send Bill Watterson their work, simply because they loved his comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. They don’t expect a response from him. They’re just happy knowing that he might see their work. If you could send your story or your collection to any writer, living or dead, just in the hope that he or she would read it, who would you send it to?

Manuel Gonzales

Joss Whedon. I could go on and on about his work and how he creates story and how he moves in and out of genres, uses various compelling and fascinating forms, and how he works from a very emotional and very relatable starting point with all of this, which is what makes the stories work the way they do. As a writer, he’s been one of my bigger influences. He was one of the first in television to create season-long story arcs. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files (not a Joss Whedon show but the two overlap a little) you could say led to, ultimately, shows like The Sopranos, Alias, The Wire, and Lost—full of complicated storylines, deeply felt and inhabited characters. He also traffics in a mix of genres. He’s worked in horror and in space westerns and in sci-fi thrillers, but what makes them successful, when they are their most successful, is his investment in character-driven stories. He and his writing staff are great at plotting but the plots serve the characters and their growth, helps complicate our understanding of these people and the worlds they inhabit, which has always struck me as a literary approach to storytelling.

February 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

Make the Reader Want to Know

19 Feb

“Farewell, Africa” by Manuel Gonzales was published in Guernica. You can read the story online here. Or, you can check out the story collection The Miniature Wife.

The writer Ron Carlson once began a story workshop by listing the things that we, as writers, would love to be told—but would never hear—in a workshop. Number one was, “If you stop writing, I’ll die.” The truth is that we’ll never receive the praise we truly want. No one’s life hinges on our work. Our readers won’t die if we hang up our writing shoes.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t make them curious—maybe even make them sweat.

Manuel Gonzales’s new story, “Farewell, Africa,” rivals any potboiler for its ability to create suspense. By the end of the first sentence, we want to know something very badly, and we’ll read until we find it out. “Farewell, Africa” is included in the new story collection The Miniature Wife and was also recently published by Guernica. You can read it here.

How the Story Works

Kenneth Burke, in his essay “Psychology and Form,” explains the relationship between writer and audience. To create suspense in the reader’s mind, Burke claims, requires “the creation of an appetite in the mind of the [reader], and the adequate satisfying of that appetite.” To create the appetite, the writer first dangles a prize in front of the reader—saying, in effect, “You know you want this, reader.” Once the appetite is created, the writer delays handing over the prize as long as possible, introducing, as Burke writes, “a temporary set of frustrations.”

Let’s look at how “Farewell, Africa” creates and then delays the satisfaction of an appetite.

The story begins this way: “No one, apparently, had thought to test the pool before the party to see that it worked.” Immediately the reader wonders what went wrong. Or even, more basically, how can a pool not work? The statement is so unexpected and odd that we naturally want to know more.

But the story withholds the answer for several paragraphs. It shifts gears, explaining the pool’s size and architect and the fact that it “had been commissioned as a memorial installation for the Memorial Museum of Continents Lost.” Now we’re really intrigued. What continents were lost? What is this world we’ve entered? In effect, the story has pulled a bit of sleight of hand, replacing the initial prize that we wanted with something else that we also want. We want to know why the pool didn’t work, but we’re distracted with the sheer strangeness of a world with disappearing continents. When, at the end of Part I, the story finally returns to the pool, it’s with a savage, understated rush that catches us by surprise: “’The damn thing’s not working.’ Then he took a sip of champagne and said, ‘Too bad this didn’t happen with the real Africa.'”

As readers, once we’re hooked so firmly, we’ll follow the story wherever it goes.

The Writing Exercise

  1. Begin a scene by selecting a place (i.e. kitchen) and at least two characters (man, woman).
  2. In the first sentence of the paragraph, tell the reader what will happen in the scene (man will propose, woman will reveal she’s pregnant). There are many different ways to approach this first sentence, but, for now, simply tell the reader the information, either in third person (The man practiced his marriage proposal as he walked into the kitchen) or in first person (I didn’t want to tell him I was pregnant right away, so when he came into the kitchen, I asked if he’d picked up take-out).
  3. In the second sentence, introduce a diversion—or, as Burke calls it, a frustration. The diversion can be anything (take-out or the lack of). The idea is to get the reader interested and distracted by this new piece of information.
  4. Follow the diversion for as long as you can (argument about take-out).
  5. Then, surprise the reader by coming back to the info promised by the first sentence (Oh, by the way, Honey, we’re having a baby).

In short, promise the reader something, delay delivering on the promise for as long as possible, and then deliver. That’s one way to create suspense.

To learn more, look for an interview with Manuel Gonzales on Thursday.

Happy writing.

An Interview with Esme-Michelle Watkins

14 Feb

Esme-Michelle Watkins’ story “Xochimilco” was published in Boston Review and the inspiration for this writing exercise.

Esme-Michelle Watkins is an attorney based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Word Riot, BLACKBERRY: A Magazine, Voices de la Luna, and elsewhere. Her work was recently featured at Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival. Her story, “Xochimilco,” tells the story of two Los Angeles children who wake up one morning and discover that every item in their living room has been taken. A writing exercise inspired by the story—especially the masterful description of the empty room—can be found here.

In this interview with Michael Noll, Watkins discusses her approach to “Xochimilco.”

Michael Noll

I’m interested in the 6th paragraph of the story. You describe what is missing from the room, and in those descriptions we learn so much about the mother through the things that once filled the room. How did you approach this paragraph? Did you begin with the idea in place of giving each item a warning from the mother–Stay Away drapes and Go Ahead and Try It chandelier?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

One of the challenges in writing a story featuring a child narrator is remaining true to her without the intrusion or taint of an adult subconscious. This particular paragraph was with me from the first draft and survived every rewrite. It marked the moment that my visualization of the Don’t Touch Room merged with Aura’s, and in so doing, created an organic space from which to begin the retelling of La Viglia in the next section. Craft-wise, I hoped to accomplish a thoughtful rendering of the relationship Ellis and Aura had with their parents while giving voice to their formative sense of loss, home and identity. We take our cues from adults as children, and begin to see ourselves by way of a societal script passed down to us, often by seminal figures like parents. In writing Xochimilco, in making Aura come to life, I wanted to seam these ideas together within the confines of a short story– somewhat of a tall order! The most authentic and maybe the most efficient way to tackle each of those motivations was to speak about them simply, by way of Aura’s interpretation of the script handed down to her by Mammì and Daddy. Toward the end of the piece we see Aura reject this script in its entirety, and in turn, her evaluation of home, self and loss evolve with this rejection. Through Aura’s eyes we also come to understand certain of Mammì and Daddy’s complexities–as well as the dynamics of their relationship–without ceding the narrative over to their adult subconscious.

Michael Noll

One of the nice things about how the story begins is that we learn about Mammì through the kids’ eyes before we actually see her—and between their view of her and what we see, we get a rich picture of a complex character. In drafts of this story, did the character Mammì always make a late appearance? Or did you move her around into the story, trying out different entrances?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

Very kind, thank you! I definitely flirted with the idea of Mammì making an entrance before the kids ran outside to devise a plan. In the end I decided to preserve the natural order in favor of conveying important information about Daddy and his background prior to Mammì’s introduction. I wanted readers to start processing the enormity of the possibility that Daddy did this to his own family, that the family’s sense of home and permanence were inextricably tied to his actions. From that vantage point, I think it’s much easier to understand a character like Mammì. I also believe the placement of the scene helps us connect with some of her choices as the story progresses. Altering the sequence might have compromised her depth and vulnerability.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the title and the decision to emphasize the importance of the Mexican restaurant. The narrator has an Italian mother and an African-American father, and the story boils down to what it means to be mulatto—not only mixed ethnic heritage but having mixed inherited traits—personality, vices. By the story’s end, the narrator will decide that “none of this was me.” Is the word Xochimilco tied to this idea?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

What a fantastic question. That particular choice is somewhat personal to me. Growing up biracial in the 80s and 90s in Los Angeles was somewhat of a crazy experience that I didn’t fully appreciate until I went away to school, tried my hand at living abroad. I grew up in this interesting tripartite relationship with Los Angeles: on the one hand there was this Hollywood aesthetic and huge emphasis placed on material and surface development; there was also a cartoonish, Disneyesque thing happening, where very serious events (take the 92 riot, for instance) were sort of repackaged and discussed among certain Angelinos through a toyish, fictive lens; finally, I came to know LA as a place deeply steeped in Latino culture and history. I’m certain I developed a sense of self through this tripartite amalgam and likely carry it with me today; it was absolutely critical for me to tell the story of a biracial family under the auspices of this relationship. A Mexican restaurant where an affluent family repackaged its truth (think of Mammì’s interaction with Nonna and Nonno at La Viglia) and sold the story to the reader via a youthful slant felt like the perfect way pay homage. It also gave Aura the creative space to reflect on her sense of permanence and all the ways her family dynamic had changed, and by extension, had change her. Also: Xochimilco happened to be a restaurant I went to with my family as a child and loved very much!

Michael Noll

My wife likes to say that we all have our Terry Gross moment—imagining ourselves interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. When you imagine yourself on that program (if you imagine yourself there), what do you say about this story? What aspect of it do you dwell on now that it’s written and published and new work has taken its place?

Esme-Michelle Watkins

Oh mien gott, your wife is hilarious! Love it! You know, funny thing is, the story was already discussed in brief by Heidi Durrow on NPR! Heidi is a beautiful writer and the co-founder of Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival, an art festival dedicated to the stories of multicultural, multiracial folks. I happened to read Heidi’s first novel, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, and promptly threw it against the wall when I finished because it was so good! In looking for more of her work, I discovered the festival and decided I wanted to become involved. Xochimilco was my first attempt at writing fiction and I passed it along to Heidi for use at the festival. I was subsequently invited to read it in person and decided to the story would be in the best hands possible at Boston Review. I’ve written several short stories since Xochimilco, and am glad to say I’m not finished with Aura and her family. I recently published a flash piece in Word Riot, which focuses on one of Aura’s college experiences and have three forthcoming pieces centered around Aura’s early adulthood. I find myself being pulled back to her voice time and again.

February 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

Put Setting to Work

12 Feb

“Xochimilco” by Esme-Michelle Watkins appeared in the Boston Review.

We’re taught from an early age that stories have five parts and setting comes first, which means it’s important. After all, one of the most famous first sentences of all time—”It was a dark and stormy night”—sets the stage for a particular kind of tale. Any other kind of night wouldn’t do. So, writing about setting ought to be easy, right? Just pick the perfect first sentence. Yet for some reason, crafting good descriptions of place can often seem impossible. Like the famous sentence suggests, it’s not enough to simply tell the reader what a place looks like. The description must do more. But what?

Here’s a short story that demonstrates clearly the work that setting can perform. “Xochimilco” by Esmé-Michelle Watkins was published in the Boston Review and can be read here.

How the Story Works

Let’s focus on one particular paragraph. Watkins is doing something fairly simple: describing an empty room. Of course, an empty room has nothing to describe except walls and floors, so she tells us what is absent. Most writers would likely approach the task in the same way. But Watkins goes one step further, and here is where we can learn from her:

There was nothing to see. Gone were the Stay Away drapes tall as street lights, whose heavy fabric Mammì flew all the way from our house in Pasadena to Nonna’s in Bivona to have custom-made; the Go Sit Down oil fresco of clustered villas hugging crags along a turquoise sea; the Knock You Into Next Tuesday French-legged dining table and high backed chairs, formerly below the Go Ahead and Try It chandelier; the Touch and Lose Your Life crystal bowls, where Mammì kept my favorite Sorrento lemons sweet like oranges, and the Cabinet of Doom wide as two hall closets, which housed the finest of Mammì’s That’s a No-No clique: tableware from Baccarat, Tiffany, and JL Coquet. A room for outfits and occasions now snatched and deserted, save for a cud-colored footprint kitty-corner to where the cabinet had been. It was an uninvited mark on the place we dared not enter—not even at my first communion, when hidden-pocket-flask Uncle Mel, who liberally invoked the Don’t Touch exception clause between swallows and sips, waved us in.

Now, let’s focus on a single line from that paragraph:

Gone were the Stay Away drapes tall as street lights, whose heavy fabric Mammì flew all the way from our house in Pasadena to Nonna’s in Bivona to have custom-made

Notice how the drapes aren’t simply curtains. We learn their size and style and history, yes, but we also learn something more important. The curtains are our window into both Mammì and the narrator.

  • “Stay Away” gives us Mammi’s voice. The curtains are suddenly embodied with Mammì’s personality and value system. Each item missing from the room will be given a name based on how Mammì warned her kids about using it.
  • The phrase “tall as street lights” gives us a sense of the narrator’s size. Drapes are only as tall as street lights if you’re looking up at them from a distance. Drapes aren’t so tall if you are tall.
  • The “heavy fabric” suggests, perhaps, that the drapes are not cheap, but more certainly the word “heavy” sets up a contrast with their being flown halfway across the world. The drapes must truly be important to Mammì for her to invest them with such care and effort.
  • Finally, “Nonna’s in Bivona” tells us that’s it not just anyone who made the drapes, and “custom-made” suggests opulence and care.

None of the phrases in this sentence (or any of the descriptions in the paragraph) are written only to show the reader how the room used to look. Each phrase and description also reveals the perspective of the narrator and the value system of Mammì. It is these things—perspective and values—that drive the story forward. Without them, the story is left with a kid and an upset mom. With them, the story becomes particular, and the mom’s confusion/anger/loss become overwhelming.

The Writing Exercise

  1. Choose a room to describe. It can also be a place outdoors. If inventing a place is difficult, choose one you know well. You’ll need to see objects in the place.
  2. Choose a character for whom the place is supremely important. The importance can be highly dramatic (attempted murder) or smaller, more personal in nature. For instance, a child could sit in the living room, watching television, while her parents argue in the other room. The key is to find an emotional connection to the room.
  3. Give the character one or two dominant values or traits. No character can be a blank slate. Watkins makes her narrator mature, an oldest child responsible for her younger brother. In short, she’s the kind of person who listens when someone says to stay away from the drapes. Her mother is no-nonsense, in command, and under a great deal of stress.
  4. Convey those traits through description. Describe the things in the room or the place so that the reader learns not only how the place looks but also values and traits of the character—without ever seeing him or her. Watkins does this by issuing commands for the objects in the room: Stay Away, Go Sit Down, and Go Ahead and Try It. These commands tell us about the person giving them and the person receiving them. There are many ways to create this effect. Keep in mind the lesson from the old Sherlock Holmes story: If a house is on fire, the thing a person grabs first tells you about his or her priorities. Which objects in the room are off limits? Which objects are valued? Which are neglected and dusty? What has been left to rust in the rain? 

This exercise can be challenging, but the more you work at it, the easier it gets. You’ll also begin to see it in everything you read. This is how great writers describe place. For example, there’s a famous passage in The Great Gatsby Daisy and Jordan are sitting in Daisy’s living room. The windows are open, the curtains are billowing, the women’s dresses are floating. Then Tom walks in, slams the door, and everything stops. The curtains and dresses sink. Even though we’ve barely been introduced to the characters, the room’s description has shown us the dynamics at work. That is what setting can accomplish.

Check back in on Thursday to read an interview with Esme-Michelle Watkins.

Setting Up A Scene

9 Feb
A Memory of Light is the final novel of the bestselling Wheel of Time series.

A Memory of Light is the final novel of the #1 bestselling Wheel of Time series.

Fantasy doesn’t have the greatest reputation among literary writers–despite the efforts of crossover authors like Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, and Ursula K. Le Guin. While it’s true that fantasy novels—and many novels of all genres, including literary—often contain cringe-worthy sentences, that doesn’t mean they’re not well written. Case in point: The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (completed by Brandon Sanderson). The fourteenth and final installment of the series, A Memory of Light, was released in January and spent weeks atop the bestseller lists. Certainly, the series boasts its share of amusing lines. But the latest book also kept me awake long past my bedtime, which was good because, at 909 pages, it took me a while to get through it.

How the Novel Works

Ironically, such a long book requires a great deal of telling. The cliche in writing is “show, don’t tell,” but in a series with hundreds of characters, a map full of countries and armies, and countless scheming factions within factions, showing everything would take a thousand books. Even the most dedicated reader would give up out of boredom. As it is, the novel’s compression of certain facts—the way it tells the reader what is happening—actually heightens the tension.

Here is a passage from A Memory of Light that illustrates effective telling. Notice how quickly the writer sums up a huge amount of information: a battle spread across a huge city:

“If there was human resistance anywhere in the city, it would be the Palace. Unfortunately, fists of Trollocs roved the area between Talmanes’ position and the Palace. They kept running across the monsters and getting drawn into fights.

Talmanes couldn’t find out if, indeed, there was resistance above without getting there. That meant leading his men up toward the Palace, fighting all the way, and leaving himself open to being cut off from behind if one of those roving groups worked around behind him. There was nothing for it, though. He needed to find out what—if anything—remained of the Palace defense. From there, he could strike further into the city and try to get the dragons.”

How does the writer condense a sprawling scene into two short paragraphs?

  • The first sentence sets the stakes. Yes, there’s a battle involving tens of thousands, but it all boils down to a simple statement: If anyone is left to fight back, they’ll be in one particular place, the Palace.
  • The next two sentences locate the Palace within the two sides of the battle, the main character’s men and the monsters.
  • The next paragraph explains the consequences of the previous three sentences: the character’s men will have to fight their way to the Palace, which means likely being surrounded by monsters. The reader has been given something to look forward to: an all-or-nothing race to safety.

Because the huge tapestry of a scene is boiled down so neatly, the writer is able to quickly move in subsequent paragraphs to the particular drama of Talmanes’ quest without constantly reminding the reader of what is going on around him. In other words, the novel gets the requisite info out of the way so that the story can begin.

The Writing Exercise

  1. Choose a scene that you have already written.
  2. Strip the scene of everything but dialogue and action sentences. (You’ll likely want to cut and paste the rest into a separate document so that you don’t lose anything.)
  3. Read what remains on the page and answer this question: What does the reader need to know in order for this scene to move as quickly and effectively as possible? In other words, what would you need to tell the reader up front so that you could avoid slowing down the dialogue and action with detail. Make a list of everything the reader must know.
  4. Write a paragraph or two that will preface the scene. Use the paragraph to tell the readers what they need to know—to set the scene. Be concise. Keep in mind your list and focus every sentence on delivering necessary information.
  5. Now that the scene is set, you can return to the dialogue and action and add in any details necessary to heighten the mood or tension or to adjust the speed of the narrative.

As you work with this exercise, you may find that telling the reader the right information up front makes the scene that follows easier to write.

Good luck.

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