Archive | April, 2013

Short, Direct, and with Style

30 Apr
Kelly Luce Exercise

Kelly Luce’s story “Rooey” was first published by The Literary ReviewIt will also appear in her forthcoming collection Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Trail.

I’ve heard it claimed that you can teach writers plot, structure, and character, but you can’t teach them to write well, with style. As evidence, look at Vladimir Nabokov. His unpredictable sentences flash between subjects (picnic, lightning) at the wild speed of genius. They are impossible to imitate, I’ve heard. But I don’t believe it, if only because there are so many great writers crafting astounding sentences.

One of them is Kelly Luce. Her story, “Rooey,” was first published in The Literary Review, and you can read it here.

How the Story Works

Great sentences—and great lines of poetry—often work the same way. They strive for leaps in logic, for the unexpected juxtaposition of images. Readers are expected to keep up, to make the connections without the aid of explanation. Keep this in mind as you read the first paragraph of Kelly Luce’s story:

Since Rooey died, I’m no longer myself. Foods I’ve hated my entire life, I crave. Different things are funny. I’ve stopped wearing a bra. I bet they’re thinking about firing me here at work, but they must feel bad, my brother so recently dead and all. Plus, I’m cheap labor, fresh out of college. And let’s face it, the Sweetwater Weekly doesn’t have the most demanding readership or publishing standards.

The leaps of logic begin in the first sentence. The comma acts as a pivot point. Death we understand, but what does it mean to not be yourself? The first two examples (foods, humor) make sense within our common understanding of grief, but the third (“I’ve stopped wearing a bra”) is strange by almost any measure. The leaps continue: dead brother to cheap labor. By the end of the paragraph, we’ve moved from death and identity crisis to newspaper publishing standards.

The speed of those leaps is what gives the story its style. The sentences are not long or grammatically complex. They do not suggest but, rather, state things outright. Very often, beginning writers believe that good sentences are overwritten and overly subtle. The truth is usually quite the opposite. If you don’t believe me, here is part of the first page of Nabokov’s Lolita.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child.

Though Nabokov is known for his “poetic” style, the sentences are short, direct, and to the point. Their beauty is in the phrasing and the speed at which they move from “four feet ten in one sock” to loving “a certain initial girl-child.” That is fictional style.

The Writing Exercise

To be stylish, you need to know what your story is about. If you don’t know, then your sentences won’t know, either. If that makes you despair, don’t. The search for a story’s about-ness is often also a search for its style. Let’s start searching. We’ll write two paragraphs:

  1. Who is your story about? Why is the story about him or her or them? To answer the first question, begin by describing the person as plainly and directly as possible. Keep the second question in mind. Make it your goal to answer it by the end of the paragraph. So, you’ll likely move from literal description to a statement of causation: Because of her, I… or If it hadn’t been for him, she… (For a model, look at the example from Lolita.)
  2. What event is at the heart of your story? What are the implications or ramifications of that event? What is the story about? To answer the first question, state what happened (Since Rooey died… or When Billy got married…). Then, move onto the ramifications. What happened next? How did this event ripple forward into time? Make it your goal to answer the final question (what the story is about) by the end of the paragraph. So, you’ll move from what happened to why we’re reading the story. (For a model, look at the example from “Rooey.”)

Have fun!


An Interview with Marcus Pactor

25 Apr
Marcus Pactor's debut collection of stories is vs. Death Noises.

Marcus Pactor‘s debut collection of stories, vs. Death Noises, has been called “nothing short of dazzling.”

If some writers would kill for a blurb from a literary icon, then maybe we should keep an eye on Padgett Powell. Here’s how the old Southern master recently answered a question about his pick for the most exciting author writing today: “There is a young twisted fellow from Jacksonville Florida named Marcus Pactor. It’s the best I’ve seen in some time.”

Marcus Pactor‘s debut story collection, vs. Death Noises, won the 2011 Subito Press Prize for Fiction. One review claimed that the book “cuts to the bone like a scalpel in the hands of a master surgeon.” Pactor received his MFA from Texas State University and currently teaches at the University of North Florida.

In this interview, Pactor discusses the development of narrative voice and the gap between our technologically-burdened world and the fiction that represents it.

Michael Noll

In some ways, the story resembles a TV detective drama like CSI. It’s about a search for truth that leads to the haunting last sentence: “Somewhere in this archive he said what he needed me to know.” But this isn’t the only way the story could have been written. Because it involves a dead body, the story could have directly traced the events that led to the death. Why did you choose to focus on the search?

Marcus Pactor

Steve by Marcus Pactor can be found online at this journal and also in his new collection of stories, vs. Death Noises.

Marcus Pactor’s debut collection of stories, vs. Death Noises, won the Subito Press Prize for Fiction.

I never thought of writing more about the events leading up to Steve’s death. I’m never thinking about the big picture of my approach, really, except upon reflection. I’m thinking about the next word, the next sentence. But now you’ve got me thinking about the CSI formula. Henry James insulted a writer by saying that he had treated his subject in a most straightforward manner. I don’t much care for James’ fiction, but I think the idea is solid. Besides, Steve is dead. The current approach works (and we’re stipulating that it does work) because it focuses less on what happened to Steve and more on what is happening to the narrator.

Michael Noll

The narrator is searching through the items left in Steve’s apartment, beginning with personal property but then moving to the ideas explored in his writing. As this shift occurs, the narrator’s voice begins to appear more clearly, even going so far as to address the reader: “You’ve read it before.” Did this shift appear naturally as you wrote the story, or did you discover it in revision?

Marcus Pactor

Naturally. Most people think about voice first—if they don’t have that fully formed voice from the get-go, then they’re sunk. Writers hear this voice that makes them go. The comparison of writer to psychic medium is pretty common. I understand. In general, I agree with it. But in this piece the voice seems to emerge more and more clearly over time. In a way, it seems as though I began to find the voice as I wrote, and the story is almost like a record of that voice’s discovery. That’s one way to read it. The more I think about it, the more I like it.

But I think it’s also true that the emergence of the voice supplements the more clearly emerging relationship between Steve and the narrator. Even the verb “supplements” is inadequate. I think that’s especially true if you like the theory of discovery. In that case, the voice and its development are inseparable from that content.

“Emergence” may also be the wrong term. Another way to read it is that the narrator has been detached from this sibling relationship in all kinds of ways for a lengthy period of time. The voice mirrors that detachment. As the piece builds toward the climax, he feels more and more strongly his regret. In that case, too, the inseparability argument still holds.

Now, this is my third crack at this question. Until you asked, I hadn’t thought about how the voice in particular works in this piece. This means that I might be wrong about all the organic nature of the voice. But I think it’s true of any valuable story: the manner in which it is told is as important as what is told.

Michael Noll

Most writers will, at some point, feel enslaved to the need to move characters through time and space. It’s why Virginia Woolf (I think) once complained that it took her all day to walk a character through a door. But you avoid this problem by focusing on what a character has left behind rather than the actual character. Did this choice of focus feel freeing? Did it open avenues for the narration that would be more challenging within a typical chronological focus?

Marcus Pactor

I’m not entirely sure it was a choice. This is the way the story came out of me. If anything, it was a constraint, a good kind of constraint, the kind of constraint that forced me to create a character in a way that wasn’t comfortable. I couldn’t describe Steve physically. Instead, Steve generally had to be described in a doubly or even triply mediated fashion. The papers and property make up the first mediation. The narrator’s reading of that stuff make up the second mediation. The language is the third mediation.

 Michael Noll

The narrator writes that “we suffer from a surplus of trivial choices. This new suffering cannot be compared to the old. It cannot be expressed by time-honored methods, either.” Do you think this is true? Will each culture’s differences require differently shaped stories—not just different kinds of characters and events but different ways of telling?

Marcus Pactor

The short answer is “yes.” I have been fool enough to mention Henry James. Now I invoke Saul Bellow. The suffering of the average member of modern civilization is different in kind and quality to the suffering anyone has suffered before. I’m not talking about rape and murder suffering here. I’m talking about the suffering imposed upon us by magic phones that do everything but wipe our noses. App upon app, channel upon channel of TV, etc. We have so many ways of wasting time. It is impossible to live the way people lived in the past. I’m okay with that. I certainly don’t want asbestos buildings child labor, segregation, and the rest. But they suffered from asbestos, child labor, segregation, etc. The average person had plenty more to cry about. Crying was an appropriate response to these impositions upon their health and freedom. It expressed a desire for better options. We have those options now. They are hard to deal with, and must be dealt with differently.

But how? The circumstances of our lives are changing must faster than we can change ourselves. Intellectually, I think it is easy to recognize that if the suffering is qualitatively different, then our responses to the suffering must also be qualitatively different. The problem is that we haven’t yet developed those responses. Who knows how long it will take to do so?

Padget Powell, a Southern literary master whose strange, brilliant stories rarely enter the pages of the Best American Short Stories, has called Marcus Pactor the most exciting writer working today.

Padgett Powell, a Southern literary master whose strange, brilliant stories rarely enter the pages of the Best American collections, has called Marcus Pactor the most exciting writer working today.

If you accept all that, it is easy to see that our literature must also be qualitatively different. It’s happening somewhat with the college and other independent presses, but not yet at the mass level I think it needs to happen. Consider that twenty years ago few houses had the internet, satellite TV, or cell phones. Our social relations have changed immensely since then, yet people write stories that hardly reflect the depth and scope of that change. Instead, Obama is named president rather than the first Bush. Characters text one another rather than call. This is just the Mad Libs approach to writing literature. It is, of course, popular, because most people really are conservative. In the midst of change, they hold on to what is comfortable. That explains, in part, the popularity of Best American Short Stories.

There is a significant percentage of people who seem to recognize that those stories, and the methods by which those stories are told, do not reveal anything new about the lives they are living, or maybe that the stories in that anthology can only capture a limited range of feeling and experience, and that range has not been tested or questioned in years. These people are searching around for a new thing. We could say that these people crave “experimental” literature but I hate that term. And, of course, a large amount of what is called experimental is also dreck.

Michael Noll

The ritual of Bar Mitzvah plays a crucial role in the story. On one hand, it’s an ancient introduction of a boy into social and spiritual manhood. On the other hand, it’s a modern celebration of consumerism, with families (in America, at least) battling to have the most ostentatious party and gifts. If the shape of our stories reveals aspects of our culture, do you think this shift in the Bar Mitzvah reveals a change in the way modern (American?) Jews define and encounter God?

Marcus Pactor

It might have occurred with the Jewish parents who came of age during or after World War II. My guess is that those parents found that a big celebration of achievement, replete with gifts, would help make their kids feel both American and secure. It might have been a statement about their own need for security and Americanness. It perhaps divided them from the old worship of God, though I’m guessing it was more a symptom of that division rather than an active element. A need to assimilate was definitely at work, but to me it seems the Bar Mitzvah is just a particular version of everybody’s general need for stuff, and our suffering of it.

Now, at the end, I can reveal my hypocrisy. My Bar Mitzvah was in 1988, and it was a present-fest. I got checks and savings bonds and fifty dollar bills. I received the now-traditional monogrammed pen. Three umbrellas! I can’t say I loved the actual stuff, but I loved to get it.

April 2013

Michael Noll, editor of Read to Write

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

Narrating a Crime Scene Investigation

23 Apr
Steve by Marcus Pactor can be found online at this journal and also in his new collection of stories, vs. Death Noises.

“The Archived Steve” by Marcus Pactor can be read online at Timber and also in his new collection of stories, vs. Death Noises.

Literary fiction could learn a lot from the TV show CSI. If that claim sounds absurd, consider this: The show does not follow a traditional plot structure. No episode can be summed up with the old saws “Stranger Comes to Town” and “Character Goes on a Trip.” Those plot lines are present in the show, but they occur quickly—usually, within the first two minutes—and serve only to introduce the true story: the investigation, which consists almost exclusively of people standing around, talking to one another. Sounds pretty cerebral, right?

The problem with most detective shows is that their investigations have the same emotional impact as piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. The detectives remain untouched by their work. In a literary investigation, however, the characters are forever changed by the information they uncover.

A recent story that illustrates the dramatic potential of an investigation is “The Archived Steve” by Marcus Pactor. It appears in his new collection vs. Death Noises, and you can read it online at Timber.

How the Story Works

Here is the story: Steve is dead, and the narrator is searching through the items left in his apartment. With each discovered item, the narrator begins to piece together the story of Steve’s death. A show like CSI would maintain its focus on this search and puzzle solving. But the focus of “The Archived Steve” shifts away from the corpse and onto the man searching the apartment, a man who will learn that he is partly culpable in Steve’s death. The story, then, becomes about the emotional consequences of his investigation.

So how does the story work? While its premise may seem disconcerting at first—some readers may be thrown off by the matter-of-fact listing of evidence—the story does not plunge into the evidence without purpose. The first paragraph makes clear that the narrator’s goal is to “correct that fool doctor” and his autopsy report.

Aside: I’ve mentioned this idea several times on the blog, and it bears repeating. It’s important to give readers a sense of where the story is going. There are many ways to do this. For more examples, check out these exercise based on Manuel Gonzales’ story “Farewell, Africa,” Owen Egerton’s chapter “Nativity,” and Stacey Swann’s story “Pull.”

Once Marcus Pactor establishes the direction of the story’s investigation, he quickly sets it into motion, offering and explaining evidence. Notice how the type of evidence changes, moving from the concrete (“technological equipment and books”) to the more abstract (“Steve’s Inverted Pyramid of Suffering”). As this shift occurs, the reader requires more explanation from the narrator, which leads the narrator to insert himself more fully into the story. As a result, the pronouns begin to change halfway through the story. The words “we” and “I” appear more frequently as the story becomes the narrator’s, rather than the corpse’s.

What begins as the search through items left in an apartment becomes the story of a man’s growing sense of guilt and failure.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s use “The Archived Steve” as a model. Just as Marcus Pactor’s story focuses on items rather than the dead man who left them behind, let’s create a story from the things that our characters pull in their wakes.

  1. Choose a mysterious premise: someone has disappeared, someone has died from undetermined causes, something has been stolen, something has gone missing.
  2. Put yourself into a room where the person was last seen or where he/she spent a great deal of time—or the room where the item went missing from. What is in the room? Make a list. Be exhaustive.
  3. Now that you’ve created the items, give yourself an investigative goal: to sift through the items in order to find/figure out X.
  4. Begin explaining the relevance of each item to the missing person or the connection to the missing thing. Keep in mind your goal. What clue does each item offer you in your effort to reach the goal?
  5. If you find that explanations of certain items tend to veer unexpectedly or slide into unexpected tangents, that’s great. Follow those tangents. Just as a true crime investigator leaves no stone unturned and follows every tip, you should follow every trail that your subconscious provides. Keep in mind: you’re uncovering a story just as your narrator or character is uncovering a crime. Give yourself permission to explore.

Have fun and good luck.

The Inscrutable Stranger Comes to Town

16 Apr
Kirstin Valdez Quade's story "Nemecia" won first place in Narrative Magazine's Spring 2012 Short Story Contest.

Kirstin Valdez Quade’s story “Nemecia” won first place in Narrative Magazine’s Spring 2012 Short Story Contest.

The writer Charles Baxter once wrote in an interview that he liked “to throw characters together into situations that create stress so that as the story goes forward, something in the situation or the characters is forced to reveal itself.” And yet Baxter has also written, “When all the details fit in perfectly, something is probably wrong with the story.”

This contradiction is faced by all writers. We must seek to understand the motives and meanings of our characters’ actions, but if we understand them too well, the story loses any sense of mystery. As a result, some of the greatest stories—such as “Bartleby the Scrivener”—are those about the search for understanding. In Melville’s story, the narrator nearly drives himself  mad trying to figure out why his employee, and then former employee, Bartleby, responds to all requests with “I would prefer not to.” In the end, though, Bartleby resists explanation. He remains a cypher.

That same inscrutability can be found in Kirsten Valdez Quade’s story “Nemecia.” The story won the Narrative Magazine Spring 2012 Short Story Contest, and you can read it here.

(Note: Registration is required–but it’s free and definitely worth the few seconds required to do so.)

How the Story Works

The story is about Nemecia, an unsettling character who has joined, under chilling circumstances, the narrator’s family. The narrator’s attempt to understand Nemecia’s odd behavior shapes the story. The first section acts as an introduction.  Here are some select lines:

  1. Nemecia had an air of tragedy about her, which she cultivated…At night she stole food from the pantry, handfuls of prunes, beef jerky, pieces of ham…The quick efficient bites, the movement of her jaw, the way the food slid down her throat—it made me sick to think of her body permitting such quantities.
  2. I was afraid of Nemecia because I knew her greatest secret: when she was five, she put her mother in a coma and killed our grandfather.

The next section operates in the same way as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” The narrator’s new knowledge affects her view of the entire community. Here are some select lines:

  1. The next day, the world looked different; every adult I encountered was diminished now, made frail by Nemecia’s secret.
  2. I wondered if they were afraid of what she might do to them. Perhaps the whole town was terrified of my cousin.
  3. At night I stayed awake as long as I could, waiting for Nemecia to come after me in the dark.

A great story can put goosebumps on its readers’ arms, and following that last line, the story leaps into action. With each new awful attack by Nemecia, the narrator tries to understand her nemesis, to comprehend what has made her so cruel. But she repeatedly fails and, by the end, she can only watch as “Nemecia held a wineglass up to the window and turned it. “See how clear?” Shards of light moved across her face.”

Nemecia remains inscrutable.

The Writing Exercise

This story is a fresh version of the age-old tale “Stranger Comes to Town.” Let’s try our own version. As you brainstorm for each step, write quickly. Don’t think too hard. Let your subconscious spit out material. You can edit it later.

1. Pick a town/neighborhood. Describe the main street, the stores, the residential streets, a house. Who lives there? What objects are important in the street, the stores, etc. Be specific.

2. Pick a stranger. Keep in mind that the best strangers have poker faces; they do not give away their thoughts. Some people will consider them sweet, and others will find them menacing. Give the stranger behavior that suggests both views—but that also suggests something isn’t quite right.

3. Pick one of the objects described earlier in Step 1. Make it go missing. Or make it malfunction. Or make it suddenly turn up in the stranger’s possession. In other words, disrupt the world that you created. Regardless of what disruption you choose, the stranger should be implicated.

4. Provide the stranger with a logical excuse—or simply allow the stranger to remain quiet so that others will make the excuse for him/her.

Your goal is to slowly increase the pressure on the town to discover why the stranger has behaved in this way, to understand what is happening. Yet you must also allow the stranger to resist this understanding. When done well, this can produce an incredible tension in your story.

Good luck.

An Interview with TJ Danko

11 Apr
The Dead We Know is a zombie novel in the tradition of epics like The Walking Dead and Stephen King's The Stand

The Dead We Know by T. J. Danko is a zombie novel that follows in the tradition of The Walking Dead.

T. J. Danko’s novel The Dead We Know has been called “a smart twist on the usual zombie lore” and “gripping, tense, creepy, edge of your seat.” The Kindle-published e-book follows a pair of oil-field workers and two teenage girlfriends who set out in an apocalyptic zombie world where they must work together to survive.

In this interview, Danko discusses the tricks of genre fiction: dialogue, the rules of survival in a zombie world, and the reason why zombie stories always begin with the main character waking from a coma. A writing exercise inspired by the opening of the novel—especially how key information is parceled out through dialogue—can be found here.

Michael Noll

I love the dialogue that opens the novel. The banter between Nick and Eduardo is short and snappy and really establishes the dynamics of their friendship. A lot of writers would struggle with this opening scene. They know that something big must happen–a zombie encounter–and that they must somehow set the stage for the encounter. As a result, a lot rides on everything that comes prior to that encounter. How did you approach this scene?

T J Danko

Thanks! There were a few things I wanted to work out in the opening scene, but you’re right, it was a balance between providing what was necessary to establish character and set up the plot without telling too much. The priority of the release of information had to be in the scene itself, knowing there was plenty of time to tell how the epidemic began. Partly it’s a little easier on a zombie book because there’s a familiarity to the scenario.

But the opening scene was also a way to try new things by writing an unfamiliar type of story. In many ways, my zombie book was a reaction to my own dissatisfaction with pieces I’d been working on. When I read stories that could be classified as genre, whether it’s Gone Girl or the Stieg Larsson books, I often found myself compulsively flipping through the pages, eager to get to the next part. When I looked at my own stories, I worried that people wouldn’t read it with the same excitement. There sometimes was a static quality, a lack of forward propulsion, which bothered me. I wanted to study how those writers did it and try it out for myself.

The dialogue was not only to establish character and hopefully be funny, it was a way to put off the zombies, to try to heighten the expectation of their introduction. My thoughts tied into Alfred Hitchcock’s famous idea of suspense versus surprise. He says that the difference can be illustrated by a story. You have two people at a table, talking. A little while passes, we listen in. And suddenly, a bomb goes off under the table. Surprise. Now

Alfred Hitchcock on Mastering Cinematic Tension

Click to watch video of Alfred Hitchcock discussing bombs and tension in an AFI Master Seminar.

if we take the same scene, a couple having a conversation, but this time the camera pans down to show the bomb, or we heard earlier about someone plotting to blow up the coffee shop and how the bomb will go off at 1 PM and we see it’s 12:45, and we show the couple talking about trivial matters, the audience will be watching tensely, waiting for the bomb to explode, wanting to warn them. That’s suspense.

In a similar fashion, I approached the initial dialogue as a way to stretch out the moment before the zombies appear. They’re going to make an appearance; we know that. But if we can extend the scene for as long as possible, there’s hopefully a chance to increase the sense of dread. And also, I thought there might be a chance that the tension would make the dialogue a little funnier by contrast.

Michael Noll

The opening scene also hews pretty closely to horror-story convention: two characters on the road, late at night, and a chance encounter that goes horribly wrong. If this scene was being discussed in workshop, people might advise you to find a less cliche way of entering the novel. But it seems to me that in a work of genre, cliche is important. First, as the writer, you know where to start the story, rather than needing to create a beginning out of the limitless possibilities. Second, the cliche/convention exists in the first place not only because it’s a convenient way to begin the story but also because it rings true to us. Driving at night in the middle of nowhere is a little scary, even under the best circumstances. Walking alone through the woods is scary. As a result, it seems to me that you must begin the novel this way. But, of course, you need to make the convention seem fresh, which you do. How did you choose this opening scenario?

T J Danko

It is a pretty standard scene in a horror movie. I wish I could say that it was some clever idea about fairy tales and how walking in the woods is a subtle message that we’re moving out of our world into something supernatural, or that I was deliberately tweaking the genre. But it was mostly because I had an image of a family of zombies illuminated by headlights on the side of the road, and I wanted it in the opening chapter.

Could I bring up another thought? The fact that Nick and Eduardo were ignorant of the sickness and were driving into a world where the zombie apocalypse was already going full-swing was due to a reluctance to begin with the first diagnoses of the first zombie. The spread of zombie-ism is like an epidemic: a slow rise before it reaches the tipping point and spreads rapidly. If you start at the first incident of the disease, it would take too long for the story to ramp up. I think that’s the reason why The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later begin with their main characters in comas, waking up to a world already overrun with the infected.

How important is a coma to The Walking Dead? Check out this official plot summary from the show's website.

How important is a coma to The Walking Dead? Check out this official plot summary from the show’s website.

For this reason, I tried to side-step this beginning of the epidemic by isolating Nick and Eduardo, having them hear the rumors but not believing them; I could save the spread of the sickness in a later scene through a short flashback. But how to isolate them? I had a news story I’d been holding onto for a long time. Have you ever found research just because it’s interesting and you thought you might be able to use it someday? I have a list of those. A year or so ago, I heard about temporary communities set up in North Dakota for oil drilling. They’re called “Man Camps,” where the workers are paid very well but stay in these sprawling camps, next to the oil fields, populated almost exclusively by men. I’d been holding onto this place, waiting patiently for a story to fit it in. Even though it only appears at the beginning of the book and I’m not sure it’s the most elegant solution in isolating the characters, I was happy to finally find a place for it.

While the cliché of the opening scene wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision, I did want to start in a familiar setting as a jumping off point to the rest of the book. In my mind, my real main character is the teenager Carly, who is introduced in the next chapter. This novel is her story: she’s the protagonist and the one who changes the most, moving from insecurity to the reluctant leader of the group. She turns from someone who is traumatized to a more action-orientated character. But the opening to her story wasn’t going to have the same immediacy or potential cinematic quality as Nick and Eduardo, alone in the woods being attacked by a family of zombies. Also, clichés are often clichés for a reason. They play to our fears, perhaps connect to something familiar that just feels right. My hope is that the opening is specific and individual enough to break out of the cliché.

Michael Noll

I once heard someone claim that horror stories tell us something about the national mood, our insecurities and fears. So, Godzilla came out of our fear of nuclear energy and the classic zombie films were born out of the Cold War. Also, in those early zombie movies, the zombies were always attacking teenagers parked on the edge of town, making out. In a way, the zombies were enforcing our threatened moral code. I often think about this claim whenever some natural disaster arrives, and someone like Jerry Falwell blames the death and destruction on homosexuals. Perhaps it’s in our genetic makeup to view disaster as God’s wrath and punishment. Have you ever thought about horror stories this way? Why did you choose zombie and not vampires, werewolves, witches, or mummies or any of the other standard monsters?

T J Danko

Those are good questions. When I started writing, I was thinking this exact thing, about how many monsters seem to be directly connected to cultural concerns. Zombies seem to have a strange place within the realms of monster stories. Vampires in the Western culture circle around transgression and sexual repression – Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the Twilight series, as far as I’ve heard – and werewolves are about our nature and our own animalism. The George Romero zombies are often used as a metaphor for larger societal issues, where the films tackled themes like racism or consumerism. But somewhere these concerns seemed to change, and now the underlying sub-text behind zombies is the apocalypse and survival. It seems to be a concern for everyone, no matter where you stand in the political spectrum. The world’s warming up. Meteors are crashing into Earth. Survivalists are building bunkers and hoarding supplies. Zombies represent the breakdown of order, the worry about how we would survive when social structures collapse. I don’t think it’s an accident that many modern zombie stories explore the idea that other survivors end up being more dangerous than the zombies.

I did start writing with a sense of dread for the future. But there was another idea for the book. I thought about the rules of survival in the movie Zombieland, not to mention the CDC of all places. I thought this was a clever way of pushing the zombie genre further, but part of me also thought how these lists wouldn’t help you survive, not really, and would probably kill you. You think you know what a disaster will look like, but it will never be exactly as you expect. In other words, when the zombies do come for us (and they will!), the tactics will probably be useless, simply because zombies will not behave like the zombies in movies or TV shows. That was one of the central notions I had when I started the story.

 Michael Noll

You’ve written literary short stories and now a genre novel. Were the experiences completely different, or have you found one feeding or influencing the other?

T J Danko

While really great writers have dabbled in genre work, I sensed they were often winking at the audience. I didn’t want to do that. There’s a real power to genre that shouldn’t be discounted. There were some good lessons that I learned by expanding the scope of my writing.

Still, writing genre is different from literary fiction, especially if you add the self-publishing, e-book aspect into the equation. A literary novel can generally take three years or so, often much longer. The e-book market thrives on quantity. From what I’ve learned, you’re probably not going to sell much or be as able to market yourself if you only have one e-book. In genre, on the Kindle, it’s not atypical to publish two or three books a year, sometimes more. The speed in writing has to mean less time spent agonizing over sentences or worrying over plot and characters. Since I’m neurotic, I found writing in a genre liberating, concerning myself mostly with establishing forward momentum and creating set pieces. That said, it was impossible to let go of the tendency to want to write the best sentence possible, and I really hope my sentences are well-crafted.

In the end, I do think writing both genre and literary stories has enriched my work. I talked about how The Dead We Know gave me a place to explore tension. It also made me think about pacing and my relationship with audience. Readers of the horror genre want to be scared; they want to be entertained. While there is a tendency in a literary book to turn the camera inwards, to search for truths and expand the mysteries, it’s also useful to think about how you can play with the audience, how they can be shocked or surprised, how they can be kept in suspense. And maybe it’s helped me a little in finding new ways to make them turn that page.

April 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

How to Reveal Plot with Dialogue

9 Apr
The Dead We Know is a zombie novel in the tradition of epics like The Walking Dead and Stephen King's The Stand

The Dead We Know is a zombie novel in the tradition of serial epics like The Walking Dead

Can literary writers do genre? Many people think not. A literary writer will get bored with the conventions, they say, and begin experimenting, producing a pulp/literary hybrid.  Recent history shows many examples of this: Michael Chabon won a rash of prizes for his detective novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and New Fabulists like George Saunders, Manuel Gonzales, and Karen Russell embrace and explore the conventions of fantasy and science fiction.

But what about the pure genre novel? Is it really off-limits to literary writers?

T. J. Danko is the pseudonym of a literary writer who has published stories in various journals, but his latest work embraces one of the most popular forms of genre literature—zombies. The Dead We Know is not a Chabon-like crossover or a Saunders-esque ironic treatment. It’s old-fashioned page-turner that keeps you up after your bedtime.  You can read the first chapter of The Dead We Know here.

How the Novel Works

Works of genre, like all novels, deliver pieces of information gradually. One way to accomplish this is through dialogue, and this is where The Dead We Know excels. For instance, look at Nick and Eduardo’ argument about whether the truck window should be rolled up or down:

“I’m freezing. Why aren’t you freezing?”

He closed his eyes and began to drift off. Eduardo punched him.


“What are you doing? You close the window and you go to sleep? Fuck you. You want me to crash or something?”

“Fine. Turn on the radio.”

“Fantastic,” Eduardo said. He switched on the radio, and there was a sharp crackle. He kept turning the dial, but there was only more noise.

“Nothing?” Nick asked.

“The whole trip I get nothing but static.”

Nick yawned loudly. “We’ve been driving in the middle of nowhere.”

“Help me stay awake,” Eduardo complained. “It’s boring driving in the middle of the night.”

The scene’s realism—Nick and Eduardo behave like every road-tripper who’s ever lived—is what heightens the tension. Through a realistic argument, we’re being told, indirectly, everything that will happen. Of course they will crash, and of course the crash will happen in the dark, in the middle of nowhere. This is a zombie novel, after all. It might be tempting, as a writer, to “reinvent” the genre, but the best genre novels stick to conventions. The writer’s skill is in making those conventions seem fresh and new. One way to do this is to avoid giving the reader information directly. Instead, focus on the characters, the ways their personalities clash. Give the characters lives that exist prior to the zombies. In other words, give the characters something to talk about, and then let the story intrude.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s play around with dialogue. For this exercise, write a scene (two pages max) in which you use only dialogue.

  1. Choose a setting (exiting a movie theater, approaching a rope bridge over a lava flow with pterodactyls flying everywhere).
  2. Choose a relationship dynamic (they’re fighting over…, they’re upset because…, they’re relaxed because…).
  3. Choose a goal (character will confess his/her love for the other, character will reveal a hideous secret)
  4. Now write the scene. But here are the rules: The characters cannot state outright the relationship dynamic or the goal. They must allude to or approach the dynamic/goal from an angle or under cover of some other piece of conversation.

These rules may seem difficult, yet you may discover that your scene begins to move in unexpected ways. Try it out.

Good luck.

An Interview with Stacey Swann

4 Apr
Stacey Swann's story "Pull" appeared in Freight Stories.

Stacey Swann’s story “Pull” appeared in Freight Stories.

Stacey Swann has been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and a contestant on Jeopardy!. Her fiction has appeared in Epoch, Memorious, Versal, The Saint Ann’s Review, and The Good Men Project, and she has served as editor of the journal American Short Fiction. She also edited the mixed-art project, The OwlsShe lives in Austin, Texas.

In this interview, Swann discusses her approach to “Pull,” which offers a contemporary Texan take on the age-old subject of unrequited love. A writing exercise inspired by the story—especially the way Swann traps together two incompatible characters—can be found here.

Michael Noll

Did you purposefully pair the characters from “Pull” to highlight their incompatibility? Or did Lou and Jo simply find their way to the page?

Stacey Swann

When it comes to drafting fiction, I always like to say that my subconscious is way smarter than my conscious brain. I didn’t set out to make Jo and Lou incompatible, but I suspect that my subconscious, after so many years of writing, tends to maximize tension when it can. I did intentionally want the relationship to make Jo feel trapped and limited, though. Can a person feel trapped and limited by someone they are essentially compatible with? I’m a pessimist by nature, so I’d probably say yes. I’d have to write another story, though, to figure out whether that scenario would have as much tension!

Michael Noll

The parallel between the human couple and dog couple—the dogs can’t help fighting—is very clear and seems intentional, and yet it’s not at all awkward or forced. Perhaps it’s the old saw about dog owners resembling their dogs, but I never thought, “Oh jeez, give me a break.” In fact, the story seems much richer because of the dogs’ presence. The beautiful final line couldn’t work otherwise. How did you make the parallel, highly literary and artificial by nature, seem so natural?

Stacey Swann

Jo’s dog Spider is actually based closely on my real dog (King) that I had as a child, right down to being shot by a neighbor. Funnily, he’s the only “real” character in the whole story. (Most of my settings are autobiographical in my fiction, but almost none of my characters are.) I’m glad you found the parallel natural! The naturalness probably stems from the fact that I didn’t start out with the dog/people parallel in mind. I started with Spider and this idea of Jo returning home to a depressed ex-boyfriend. I didn’t know yet how the story would end, that Jo’s actions would parallel Spider’s and Lou would suffer like his own dog. If I had, I fear the build-up might have been much more heavy handed.

Michael Noll

The first paragraph of the story is quite clear about how Jo feels about home. You write that Jo “doesn’t like what home turns her into. She’s less herself in the place where she should most be herself—if we are what we come from.” A lot of beginning writers would shy away from defining a characters’ feelings so clearly, yet you do it right away. How did this early, clear definition affect how you wrote the story?

Stacey Swann

The final version of that paragraph is actually not that different from how it came out on the first draft. It’s likely that I was nailing down the character for myself, as the writer, before I let her loose in a scene.  When I look at my short stories as a whole, I tend to think of them as pretty pared down and minimal. I suspect this is because of the short fiction I was reading at the time and the overall atmosphere of my MFA program, where I got my “training” as a short story writer. A lot of what was getting workshopped was dirty realism in the Raymond Carver vein. Always favor showing over telling. Now that I’m working on a novel, I find myself telling all over the place and those tend to be the sentences with the most heat.  Overtly dealing with my characters’ psychology is what I really want to write about, I just used to tamp it down more. I think that opening paragraph is an example of my natural inclinations. Of course, I still worry that once my novel is drafting, I’m going to have to edit down like Lish did to Carver. Maybe my natural inclinations are still wrong inclinations.

But I digress! As to the question of how it affected how I wrote the story, I think that by stating that Jo doesn’t feel like herself at home, it established a tension in the reader that Jo didn’t belong there. This tension is directly at odds with her stated intent to move back home, and so the engine of the story starts moving from that first page. Perhaps opening with “telling” is more effective if what the author is telling feeds straight into the central conflict of the story?

Michael Noll

In the story’s fourth section (the one that begins with “Lou’s depression started after they left for college”), you quickly sum up months and years of their relationship. Again, this is something that beginning writers often struggle with. How do you know what to summarize and what to dramatize?

Stacey Swann

I had a lot of trouble with the backstory in “Pull.” If you compare my earliest drafts to the final product, you’ll find much of the present day story is the same.  However, the backstory wound up changing quite a bit as I tried to make Lou a more sympathetic character. I knew I wanted the story to have two narrative arcs: Jo after she returns home alternating with the story of both their prior relationship and what happened to Spider. I like symmetry, so I wanted to balance those as equally as possible. Because the present day story was pretty short, covering just a day, I had to compress as much as possible of the backstory. I only put things in scene if they were hugely important. I think the key to good summary is still relying on specific details. It can almost trick you into thinking what you’ve read was really in scene. Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t” does this masterfully.

Michael Noll

I’m curious how editing other writers’ work affects your own work. Do you ever read a story and think, “Well, I won’t do that” or “That’s amazing, and I’m going to steal it?” It’s become a cliche that we should keep our editing brains and freewriting brains separate, but it also seems inevitable that the two will affect each other. What do you think?

Stacey Swann

I think my time at American Short Fiction had a huge impact on my learning curve as a writer. I started volunteering as a reader there while I was still in grad school and for the next seven or so years, I read dozens of submissions a month. For some reason, it is so much easier to see the flaws in our own work after we’ve seen them in someone else’s. And I likely picked up the good stuff simply by osmosis. My primary agenda was always whether or not I thought the story would be a good fit for ASF. But subconsciously, I was probably filing away plenty of things to steal.

I tell my writing students that while they are drafting, they should lock their internal critic in the trunk of their car and just drive. I find revision easier and more enjoyable than drafting, and that’s mostly because that internal critic is such a jerk while I draft. If I don’t put him in the damn trunk, he’ll drive me away from the computer. Of course, that also means my first drafts are huge messes, and it can take me multiple revisions to even pin down the basic plot arc. I used to think revision was 100% about the critical brain because that’s the only part I use when editing others. I certainly wouldn’t want to let my freewriting brain loose on someone else’s work, but I’m starting to think there may be room for it when I revise my own.

April 2013

Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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