Archive | November, 2013

An Interview with Liz Warren-Pederson

30 Nov
Liz Warren-Pederson's work has appeared in So To Speak, Paper Darts, Cutthroat and Terrain. She is based in Tucson.

Liz Warren-Pederson’s work has appeared in So To Speak, Paper Darts, Cutthroat and Terrain. She is based in Tucson.

Liz Warren-Pederson’s work has appeared in So To Speak, Paper Darts, Cutthroat and Terrain. She is based in Tucson, where she teaches writing and works in marketing at the University of Arizona.

In this interview, Warren-Pederson discusses dialogue, unlikable characters, and the moment when a narrator’s voice pops into your head.

(To read Warren-Pederson’s story “Paper Tiger” and an exercise on speeding up dialogue, click here.)

Michael Noll

Dialogue is normally structured with paragraph breaks every time the speaker changes. But that’s not what this story does. Instead, chunks of quick, back-and-forth dialogue are included in the same paragraph. I’m curious about why you chose this structure. It seems to have a few effect: 1) It makes each piece of the dialogue less important than the banter itself, 2) It makes the dialogue read faster than if it was broken into separate paragraphs and 3) It makes the dialogue (both speakers) part of the narrator’s voice. In other words, it’s not so much dialogue as a story being told by the narrator. Did you play around with different ways of writing this dialogue?

Liz Warren-Pederson

I actually didn’t play around with the structure of the dialogue; it just came out that way. This story emerged over a couple of weeks nearly fully formed – I had a sense of done-ness about it without my usual agonizing rounds of revision. The choice to not use hard returns in the dialogue was deliberate but also instinctive, if that makes sense. I’d been admiring run-together dialogue in other writers’ stories for exactly the effects you mention. I think a lot about how to influence the way the writing sounds to others when they read it, by which I mean, I want them to “hear” it how I am hearing it. I use AP style for my work writing, and have a strong allegiance to stylistic convention, so dialogue like this is about as close as I get to experimentation as a fiction writer, at least structurally. But then, paradoxically, I’m an intuitive grammarian, so I’m more interested in using commas to, say, control speed of reading than correctly manage the joining of dependent clauses or whatever. Gah, it was all I could do to even mention dependent clauses. I try to think of them as little as possible.

Michael Noll

I love this sentence: “Then she went out to the garden in her Holly Hobbie hat and spent five minutes getting down into a kneeling position on this geriatric-looking green foam “gardening aid” I found in a Lillian Vernon catalog one night when I was looking for something, anything to read while I took a dump.” The sentence covers so much ground: hat, gardening aid, catalogue, taking a dump. In terms of structure, it’s not unlike the chunks of dialogue in that it compresses a lot of information into a small, dense package. Does this voice and style come naturally to you, or is it something you achieve through revision?

Liz Warren-Pederson

Check out this terrific interview with Vladimir Nabokov, published at The Paris Review.

Check out this terrific interview with Vladimir Nabokov, published at The Paris Review.

This voice and style came naturally to me for this story in particular. Sometimes I have heard or read writers talking about how their characters “won’t shut up” or practically write the stories themselves, and this has always sounded and seemed like hokum to me. The Paris Review interview with Nabokov had a question about characters taking over, to which he responded that his characters are galley slaves—I love this. …but does it sound like I’m protesting too much? Because truly, one day I was driving home from work and the first line of the story popped into my head and then another line, and I had to kind of chant them to myself until I could get to a place where I could write them down. I think a great deal of writing happens in the subconscious, and when it’s ready to emerge, it will. Sometimes it does all at once, other times in dribs and drabs.

Michael Noll

Some seemingly-crucial information is left out of the story: the characters’ ages, the exact nature of their relationship, the exact nature of Cynthia’s health problems. We can guess some of this–but not all of it. Why did you choose to not make this kind of information explicit?

Liz Warren-Pederson

Those things were not what the story was about to me. I think that someone probably mentioned the omissions to me in workshop, but I was listening for whether my fellow writers got from the story what I intended, and by and large they did. I remember cleaning up a couple points of confusion in a revision, but the particulars you mentioned didn’t matter to me. I mean, it’s not a story about the pathology of a particular disease, you know? In workshop situations, especially when we’re trying to be good and thorough readers, we reflexively point to this type of omission, and pointing it out seems tantamount to calling it a problem. Lack of detail is kind of an impressionistic technique, and if the right impression is conveying, then I don’t think everything needs to be spelled out. I hasten to point out here that I’m probably the worst judge of what can and should be spelled out in my own work; I left those things out of this story because the direction of my workshop validated that decision. If they spent the whole workshop talking about how old the characters were, I’d figure something was seriously amiss.

Michael Noll

This story is about a broke middle-aged man in a relationship with an older, ill woman. In other words, it’s about a character who could be pretty unlikable–but he’s not. But neither is he “likable,” whatever that means. He’s interesting. But as I read, I thought of Claire Messud’s recent comments in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly. The interviewer commented that she wouldn’t want to be friends with one of Messud’s characters, and Messud answered this way:

“If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?”

How did you approach Gerald’s character? It seems like it’d be easy to make him purposefully unlikable and throw that in the reader’s face. Or, you could fill the story with trite, sentimental messages about growing old, dying, living, etc. Did you ever think, “Gee, I’m not sure how to write about this guy?”

Liz Warren-Pederson

Claire Messud’s gotten a lot of crap for having written an angry woman narrator, which I think is weird and limiting. In the same interview you mention, she said: “…it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of an angry woman.” I’ve never had a problem accessing rage as a writer, but that I’ve channeled that rage into the first person narration of a man is telling. What it tells, I’ll let you decide. I really love Gerald. He’s such an asshole. But he kind of has to be, generationally and socially and culturally: he’s boxed into a specific worldview. His defense mechanisms are airtight; he doesn’t even turn off the bravado in his own internal monologue. To turn it off would be to admit how deeply he loves Cynthia and open himself to the pain of not only losing her, but also bearing witness as she wastes away. One of the things I intuited about Gerald from the very beginning, when those first couple lines came out of nowhere when I was driving, was his genuine love for Cynthia and his awareness of how skeptical people would be of it. Knowing that made him an easy character to write.

November 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Make Dialogue Move Faster

26 Nov
X story "Paper Tiger" appeared in Fiddleblack.

Liz Warren-Pederson’s story “Paper Tiger” appeared in Fiddleblack.

Most dialogue is written with paragraph breaks every time the speaker changes. The result is clarity, but the downside is that even a short back-and-forth can fill up half a page. What if you want capture the speed of the conversation?

One way to make dialogue move faster is to write it in chunks that appear in a single paragraph. If you’re writing in first-person, you may find that this technique sends a jolt of electricity into the voice of your narrator.

To see how this works, check out Liz Warren-Pederson’s story “Paper Tiger.” It’s so good that you’ll read the first sentence and think, “That was great,” and then the next sentence will be even better. It was published at Fiddleblack, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Almost everyone has told (or heard) this story: “She said, then I said, then he said, then this total stranger jumped in and said, so I told him…” It’s one of the most natural storytelling methods in the world. It probably predates written language. Yet, it can’t be captured within the constraints of normal formatting rules for dialogue (paragraph breaks for every speaker change).

Here is how Liz Warren-Pederson captures that style of speaking in the first sentence of her story:

“I want to invite the kids for Thanksgiving this year,” Cynthia said, and I said, “What the fuck? Where will I eat,” and she said, “I was hoping you’d eat with me, next to me,” and I said, “What a fucking misery,” and she said, “That’s not what you said last night,” and I said, “Well, we weren’t under a microscope then,” and she said, “You worry too much,” which was so off-base that I didn’t bother to respond.

Imagine if this dialogue had been written in the usual way:

“I want to invite the kids for Thanksgiving this year,” Cynthia said.

“What the fuck? Where will I eat?” I said.

“I was hoping you’d eat with me, next to me.”

“What a fucking misery,” I said.

“That’s not what you said last night.”

“Well, we weren’t under a microscope then.”

“You worry too much,” she said.

That was so off-base that I didn’t bother to respond.

It doesn’t work—at all. In fact, some of the best lines from the original sentence become some of the weakest in the new version. For instance, “What a fucking misery” becomes plodding because it’s just another comeback. And, “You worry too much,” is stripped of all tension, as is the last line. Some things, like punk rocks and tit-for-tats, require speed to operate. Slow them down, and even if all the notes are the same, they fall apart.

The great advantage to chunking this dialogue into one paragraph is that it captures the narrator’s voice. Banter can tell you a lot about both characters and real people:

  • What tone does each person take?
  • What language does each person use?
  • How do they respond to negative (or positive) comments?
  • Who gets the last word?

While these questions can be answered by traditionally-structured dialogue, the compression of Warren-Pederson’s first sentence shoves the characters into a tight space, where they bump into each other. Any time you push characters into each other—in a room, on a street, in a sentence—the tension rises, and you’re bound to learn something about them.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s speed up dialogue by chunking part of a conversation into a single sentence or paragraph. We’ll use the first sentence of Liz Warren-Pederson’s “Paper Tiger” as a model. You can write new dialogue or rewrite dialogue that you’ve already written for a story-in-progress.

  1. Choose a speaker. Even though the dialogue will be between two people, it will be filtered through the perspective of a speaker, the person telling the story of what was said and done.
  2. Choose an argument. We almost always tell a story about a conversation because there was tension present, and an argument is the easiest way to find that tension. The argument can be about something simple: to go out or stay in, what to eat, where to sit, how to spend money, or how to spend the holidays (as in this story). It can be about an ongoing dispute: I always take out the trash, you never load the dishwasher, it’s always up to me to get the car fixed.
  3. Let the speaker relate what was said. Think about the knee-jerk ways that we tend to respond when we feel attacked, slighted, or insulted. It’s those sort of comebacks that make for quick conversation. The characters don’t think, just speak. The result will look something like this: “”She said___, then I said___, then she said___, and that was ___, so I said___, and then ____.” As you come to the end of the sentence, think about how the argument ends. Who ends it? Does it end with a white flag or with a devastating assault?

This is Thanksgiving Week, and you may find that you have plenty of inspiration for this exercise after Thursday’s family dinner. If you find yourself telling any stories about who said what, write them down. You can always find a story for the dialogue later.

Good luck!

An Interview with Charles Baxter

21 Nov
Charles Baxter's most recent book is Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. In her review of the book in The New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates wrote, "Beneath the shadowless equanimity of Norman Rockwell’s America, however, Baxter evokes something like the chilling starkness and human isolation of the work of Edward Hopper

Charles Baxter’s most recent book is Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. In her review of the book in The New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “Beneath the shadowless equanimity of Norman Rockwell’s America, however, Baxter evokes something like the chilling starkness and human isolation of the work of Edward Hopper.”

Charles Baxter is probably as well known for his essays on craft as he is for his novels and stories, which is impressive given that his short story “Gryphon” is required reading for many students and his novel The Feast of Love was a finalist for the National Book Award and adapted as a film starring Morgan Freeman. His essays, though—especially the collection Burning Down the House—are a touchstone for almost everyone who has studied in a MFA program over the past 15 years.

Baxter’s most recent book of fiction is Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, which is now out in paperback.

In this interview, Baxter discusses entering the world of a wrongdoer, stumbling toward the write tone, and “rogue longings.”

(To read Baxter’s story “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb” and an exercise on raising the stakes in a story, click here.)

Michael Noll

The story is about a man who wants to be taken seriously, to be seen as someone with the potential to profoundly affect other people’s lives–essentially, to make his existence known and recognized. So, when he’s accused of being “harmless,” he sets out to prove that he isn’t. Here’s what I find fascinating about this story: The man wants to be recognized, but when he first walks into the police station to report the slip of paper he’s found, he chickens out. He fears that “if he showed what was in his pocket to the police he himself would become a prime suspect and an object of intense scrutiny, all privacy gone.” That’s a pretty serious contradiction. In some ways, it makes what follows seem less like a moral fable. The sequence of events is neatly laid out, but it’s less neat if we believe that the man at the center of it is unpredictable. Was this chickening out always part of the story?

Charles Baxter

Writers can’t always reconstruct what they were thinking while writing a story. Sometimes our thinking is so specific and so contextual and instinctive that we don’t know afterward why we did what we did. Anyway, here goes.

Many people in our society suffer from their own anonymity. This response is likely to occur in a culture built on celebrity, as ours is. Harry’s “harmlessness” is another word for a life that seems inconsequential, unimportant. But if you try to enter the world as a wrongdoer, or even someone who brings in the sign of wrongdoing (a slip of paper), you yourself may be judged, exposed. Think of Ted Kacynski. Notoriety is a double-edged sword. Everybody (or most people) carry around these contradictions in themselves. Fiction needs to point up those contradictions, to be honest to itself and its readers.

Michael Noll

After the man bristles at being called harmless, it’s not surprising that he acts out. But his preferred way to act out is unexpected. And then the scene proceeds through a series of unexpected moments: the kid’s guess at the drawing’s rendered location and the subsequent description of the kid as “slinky and warm, like a cat.” It would be so easy to write this scene toward what is expected, toward cliche: of course the societally-suffocated man is into boys. But in this case, the boy is not what we might expect, and the description is unexpectedly cuddly. Do you have, as you write, a kind of internal compass pointing you toward the unexpected, or do you stumble around a story, searching for the right detail?

Charles Baxter

Oh, I stumble. It’s all stumbling, all the time. But what you’re stumbling toward is a tone, an angle, that takes you by surprise. The slightly ‘wrong’ note in a scene is often the note that brings it to life. I keep listening for that note.

Michael Noll

I love this line of dialogue from the man’s wife: “You’re handsome and stable and you’re my sweetie, and I love you, and what else happened today?” The line clearly sets up the world that the man is acting out against. In other words, it’s a line that a literature teacher would pull out and read to students in order to illustrate the story’s theme, a word that probably makes makes most writers cringe. But it doesn’t seem theme-like on a first read because of the speed. Even on subsequent reads, it makes me laugh. I’m curious how you approached the line. Did you think, I need to have someone state the values of the world that the man is rebelling against–and then revise the line to achieve that speed? Or did it arise more accidentally?

Charles Baxter

I wasn’t thinking of the theme at all. I was just trying to imagine what Harry’s wife would say, in an effort to “normalize” everything within that marriage. Also, I like dialogue that changes direction within the same sentence–does a swerve–as that one did. So the line arose out of a combination of accident and calculation.

Michael Noll

As I write this, Tea Party politicians are shutting down the government and threatening to wreck the world’s economy so that the country will pay attention to them. In other words, they’re acting a bit like Harry Edmonds. The difference is that, unlike him, they’ve found a stage whose size is commensurate with the size of their fear of not being seen and heard. In your novels and stories, things generally don’t end well for these types of characters or for the people around them. Care to make any long-term predictions for our current set of characters? When people like Harry Edmonds begin to act out in order to be noticed–and when that need to be noticed stems from some internal deficit that can’t be filled with any amount of attention–are the only outcomes bad ones?

Charles Baxter

Someone, it may have been Christopher Lasch, once said that narcissists can’t negotiate. They suffer from insecurity and grandiosity simultaneously, a terrible combination. The other side of the Tea Party’s belligerence is fear, particularly a fear that the old world they knew is disappearing, and a world they don’t recognize is here. I didn’t think Harry Edmonds was a dangerous character, but just a guy who wanted to be more consequential than he actually was. Kafka would have recognized him. Standard married middle-class life is not enough for him. He has what I’d call “rogue subjectivity” or “rogue longings”–I think the Germans have a word for this: “sehnsucht.” Such people sometimes do free fall parachute jumping, or they do little protests against the settledness of their lives. You want a story to be “telling”–that is, to tell us about how people live now. And that was what I hoped that story would do.

November 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Raise the Stakes by Challenging a Character’s Identity

19 Nov
Charles Baxter's story, "The Next Building I Plan to Bomb" is included in his latest collection, Gryphon, and was published at The New York Times.

Charles Baxter’s story, “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb” is included in his latest collection, Gryphon, and was published at The New York Times.

One of the most common suggestions for improving a short story is to “raise the stakes.”  The writer Lee K. Abbot apparently once “dismissed a graduate class in less than five minutes by holding up a story, asking “Is there anything at stake in this?,” and upon hearing silence, said they were done with class.” But how does one make something hang in the balance? One option is to dangle a sword over the character’s head as in the Greek tale of Damocles.

Another option is to give your character something to resist or push back against. Most often, this means impugning your characters’ reputations and watching them push back.

A perfect example of this can be found in Charles Baxter’s story, “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb.” It’s included in Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, and you can read it now at The New York Times.

How the Story Works

In John Cheever’s story “The Country Husband,” a man almost dies in a plane crash, but when he comes home, no one wants to talk about it. His wife and children essentially refuse to recognize him as a human being whose experiences and responses to those experiences might not fit into the neatly packaged world they’ve created for themselves. As a result, he begins to act in ways that force people to take notice of him–which is  what Harry Edmonds does in Charles Baxter’s story “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb.” Baxter introduces the one personal slight that Harry cannot bear and so must resist, even at the sake of his own security.

The story raises the stakes by having this personal slight delivered by the person closest to the character, his girlfriend:

“You’ve never committed a crime in your life. You’re a banker, for Chrissake. You’re in the trust department. You’re harmless.”

Harry sat back in his chair and looked at her. “I’m not that harmless.”

“Yes, you are.” She laughed. “You’re quite harmless.”

“Lucia,” he said, “I wish you wouldn’t use that word.”

“‘Harmless’? It’s a compliment.”

“Not in this country, it isn’t,” he said.

This conversation has a direct effect on the character and, by extension, the story’s plot. The story began with Harry stepping into the police station to turn in a possible bomb threat but, at the last minute, turning around and leaving. After this conversation, he returns to the police station. From there, the story takes off, with Harry acting out to prove that he’s not harmless. “in this country,” he eventually tells someone, “if you’re harmless, you get killed and eaten.”

For this character, the stakes are his own self-regard, the sense that he’s a potent actor in the world.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s raise the stakes in a story by giving a character a personal slight to resist or push back against. We’ll use the dialogue from “The Next Building I Plan to Bomb” as a model. (This exercise can be used to create a story from scratch, but it may work best with a set of characters and a story that you’ve been working on for a while.)

  1. Put two characters who are close to one another together in a room. The room should be somewhere intimate, a place where personal things can be said.
  2. Make one character tell the other character everything that he/she is and is not. People do this all the time, often to themselves, saying things like, “I don’t eat muffins. I don’t watch baseball. I don’t do roller coasters.” Or they do it to other people: “He’s such a boy. She’s the kind of person who…” But while people don’t mind labeling themselves, they almost never like being labeled by someone else. So, a great way to create tension in a story (which is a roundabout way of raising the stakes) is by letting one character label another.
  3. Let the other character respond. The character should defend him/herself. “You say I’m X, but I say that I’m not.” Or, “You say that I’m not X, but I am.” If you’ve been in any kind of relationship, then you know that this is how many arguments go. Any time a character’s sense of him/herself is challenged, the stakes are being set.
  4. Make the character prove his point. Once your character’s identity has been challenged, make him or her prove that the challenge is incorrect. The proof could be literal (hitting a home run to show that he’s good at baseball) or more unpredictable (yelling at someone for not returning a grocery cart in order to prove that she’s tough).

Good luck!

An Interview with Ali Simpson

14 Nov
Ali Simpson is a recent graduate of the MFA program at SUNY Southampton and works for X.

Ali Simpson is a recent graduate of the MFA program at SUNY Southampton and is at work on a collection of speculative fiction.

Ali Simpson received her MFA in creative writing and literature from SUNY Stony Brook Southampton. In addition to The Southampton Review, her work has been published or is forthcoming in The First Line and Carrier Pigeon. She is currently working on a collection of speculative fiction, When Meat is Given a Second Chance. She works as a publishing assistant and lives in the forest.

In this interview, Simpson discusses maintaining the sense of enchantment, the heart in the story machine, and why a monster story can be more truthful than realistic fiction.

(To read Simpson’s story “The Monster” and an exercise about how to create that monster, click here.)

Michael Noll

In the story’s first line, you state that there’s a monster in the closet. In the next line, you write, “He shouldn’t have been there—she wasn’t a little girl; she was a grown woman with a full-time job and a roof over her head that she paid for herself with her full-time job.” The rest of the paragraph lists all the reasons why the monster shouldn’t exist, and then the next paragraph begins, “So the monster came at the right time in her life.” It’s a really masterful piece of writing. You’ve let the readers off the hook, telling them, essentially, that, no, monsters can’t exist, but there’s one in this story, and that’s okay. How long did it take you to get that opening paragraph right?

Ali Simpson

I had to look at the paragraph from my first draft and the final version in order to be able to honestly say this: Up until the last line, the paragraph stayed exactly the same. The last line was the only part that is different—mostly a matter of cutting and smoothing out that first draft clunkiness that makes you write things like “she turned her head at a 90 degree angle in puzzlement…” rather than “Confused, she…”

The beginning was easy. It felt like a perfectly natural thing to write. There are all sorts of things out there that shouldn’t exist—but they do all the same. People accept a loved one has cancer, they accept mass shootings, they accept freak accidents, they accept random acts of cruelty. Telling someone, “This shouldn’t happen, but today, it is happening,” is life-stuff (and the beginning of a lot of great stories).The idea of a monster in the closet isn’t so outlandish.

What took a couple of months to get right was the middle and the end. Those were brutal. Maintaining the sense of enchantment even when the reader knows how the trick works is incredibly difficult, I can only think of a few people who have mastered it (Marquez, Atwood).

Michael Noll

In that same paragraph, the story suggests that the monster is, in part, a manifestation of certain monstrous qualities possessed by the character: “She suspected she had a few scary stories lurking inside her and spent the better part of some nights guessing what they might be.” I’m curious if this parallel between the character’s personal issues and the real existence of the monster was always present. In other words, did you begin the story with the monster and discover the character’s issues, or did you have a sense of the character from the start and then discover the monster? As readers, we only get to see the final draft, in which all details seem serendipitously inevitable. But, of course, that’s not how a story begins. What was your process for developing the story?

Ali Simpson

By the way, the line in the question was the one that changed. It was originally this mess of three lines: “Those stories were just the ones outside of herself. Lauren told herself awful stories every night, some sad, some angry, some fretful and some far more humiliating than they should have been. The stories were her past and what she thought her future might be.” Awful, right?

As for the actual questions—I started with wanting to write about a monster in the closet. I like monsters, robots, mutants, apocalypses, utopias, and outer space. These things are fun, and they offer a candy store full of possibility. Unfortunately, the fun is a lie. You can’t get far writing about a monster in the closet without asking questions. Why is it there? Why isn’t the main character afraid of it? Why is she taking it in and caring for it? What sort of person is attracted to repellent things? Monsters, machines, extreme conditions—these are all vehicles for exploring what makes human beings tick. Inevitably, the ride turns scary. I developed the story through reflecting on the above sorts of questions. The monster showed up in this particular woman’s closet for a reason. In hashing out the first draft, I worked to discover that reason. Whenever Laura did something, the monster would have to react and vice versa—until the monster and Laura at last become “inseparable.”

Michael Noll

Your former writing teacher, Susan Merrell, recommended this story at Electric Literature. In explaining why, she wrote that, in this story, you figured out that “a story has to have a reason for being. And if a story’s why is understood by its author, then its how—the means, the mode, the POV, the structure, the characters—will fall into place.” What, would you say, is this story’s reason for being? How did you find out what its reason for being was?

Ali Simpson

Susie was very kind to me in that introduction. She is also a genius.

This story’s reason for being started out as something personal. Someone was very cruel to me a long time ago, and I felt as if I couldn’t do anything about it because, despite everything I had been told, I was a depressed ghost of a person. As I wrote, I understood that the events in the story did not happen to me, but to a woman named Laura, and, in reality, to millions of other people. The story is for other people who feel the same way I felt. Part of growing up and being human is recognizing that your feelings are not necessarily unique to you. Everyone has their monsters. And we all feed our gremlins after midnight.

I like to think of a story’s reason for being as “the heart in the machine.” The machine is all of the cold, moveable, sometimes interchangeable parts. The POV, the structure, the characters. The heart is whatever compelled you to sit down and stare at the blank page, to craft imaginary people who live in made up worlds, to construct emotion, desire, and conflict out of a few scraps of black and white.

You have to have a reason to attempt to do something so stupid. Generally, the reason is love.

Michael Noll

This story falls into a genre of story that is sometimes called “fabulist.” Its practitioners include writers like Manuel Gonzales, Karen Russell, and Kelly Luce. When I featured Kelly’s story “Rooey” on this site, I asked her why this type of story–one in which certain conventions of genre fiction are integrated into the worlds and language of realism–has become not only popular but esteemed. After all, Karen Russell just won a MacArthur, and she nearly won the Pulitzer. Here is what Kelly Luce said: “We all loved reading as kids, and kids’ books are often extremely imaginative. In this age of extended adolescence and “be yourself” messages, maybe those writers who wanted to play a bit more with fantasy/genre/supernatural stuff felt free enough to do so.” (The entire interview can be found here.) How would you explain the prominence of these kinds of stories? What inspired you to write about a literal monster and not a figurative one?

Ali Simpson

I don’t agree with what Luce said above (although I find her complete answer to the question quite interesting!) The whole concept of extended adolescence always seemed a bit silly. I’ve been in the adult world long enough to know that most people are still scared, confused, jealous and a little bit petty. Also, no one buys that “be yourself” crap. Even little kids know that being yourself earns immediate approbation from the group. I don’t think people write fantastical stories based on whimsy or because they enjoy being weird.

If I had to offer a guess, I would say the prominence of these stories dates to the post-modern movement that began in the 60s. Along with the subversion of traditional narratives, writers also worked at reclaiming folklore and fairytale for the purposes of new kinds of storytelling. For the past few decades, I think many writers have felt that that fantasy and fairytales are true because these stories “know” that they are stories, whereas mediocre realism can feel like an illusion that is denying it is an illusion.

For me, writing about fantastical things such as monsters helps me get at the truth of what I’m trying to say. I’ve never been able to manage writing realistic fiction because I find myself slipping into the dishonesty of everyday life. For me, I have to look a monster—something not of this world—in the face in order to understand the world I’m living in.

November 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Create a Monster

12 Nov
Ali Simpson's story

Ali Simpson’s story, “The Monster,” was first published in The Southampton Review and recommended to Electric Literature by Susan Merrell.

Everyone loves a good horror story. But anyone who tries to write such a story quickly discovers that it’s not enough to simply create a monster. You must also create a reason for the monster to exist. Or, to quote the great Albert Camus, who would have turned 100 this year, “A character is never the author who created him. It is quite likely, however, that an author may be all his characters simultaneously.” In all great horror stories, literary or otherwise, the monster is often a manifestation of a character’s inner monstrosity.

Ali Simpson’s story “The Monster” is a terrific example of this kind of character. The story was first published at The Southampton Review and reprinted at Electric Literature, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story introduces the monster in the first line: “Laura was becoming unsure about what to do with the monster in her closet.”

Any reader who finishes that sentence has sentence has two immediate questions:

  1. What kind of world have I entered? (In other words, are there monsters in every closet? Is there some kind of society of closet-monsters?)
  2. What kind of monster is it?

Watch how the story clearly answers this first question in the opening paragraph:

“He shouldn’t have been there—she wasn’t a little girl; she was a grown woman with a full-time job and a roof over her head that she paid for herself with her full-time job. She had food in the fridge, dishes in the drying rack and dress pants pressed. Who had time or inclination to deal with monsters when there was work to be done, friends to have drinks with and love to pursue? Besides, the world was filled with enough scary stories as it was. Robbers, rapists, famines, and wars. Every day on the way to work, she passed people more unfortunate than she, and she knew if she stopped for a second, she would become a part of them, hungry all the time. She suspected she had a few scary stories lurking inside her and spent the better part of some nights guessing what they might be.”

So what kind of world is it? It’s a realistic world full of dirty dishes and jobs and wrinkled clothes. It’s a world with characters who have lives that do not involve monsters. This last part is important because it’s not true of all monster stories. Take the vampires out of Twilight, and the world evaporates. Take Voldemort out of Harry Potter or the gremlins out of Gremlins and you also remove the central conflict—and, to some extent, only conflict—facing the characters. But in this world, the narrator has a life and problems (and so does the rest of the world) that existed before the monster arrives.

Now, watch how the story answers the second question in the next two paragraphs:

So the monster came at the right time in her life. She had just put her dog to sleep because of his eye tumors. She had also recently kicked out her boyfriend because he thought she was his mother. She told him he was mistaken, that she was not his mother, and then she helped him pack his things, fed him lunch and kissed him good-bye. After Bumblebee went to sleep and the boyfriend was sent on his way, her apartment smelled empty and her sheets were cold. She lay around on the couch when she didn’t have to be at work and kept telling herself not to feel sad—she had a lot going for her.

The loneliness made her sick and pale. Nothing made her feel better and she wondered if the loneliness had been there all along but that she had somehow avoided looking it in the face until now.

So, what kind of monster is it? It’s a manifestation of the narrator’s deepest fears. In fact, we’re not yet sure if there really is a monster or if the narrator has simply conjured it out of her fear and doubt. As you read the rest of the story, though, you’ll see how that uncertainty is quickly put to rest.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a monster (real or imagined) using Ali Simpson’s “The Monster” as a model. To do so, we’ll answer the questions, “What kind of world is it?” and “What kind of monster is it?”

  1. Introduce the monster. To do this, you’ll need to state the following: Where is the monster? Who sees it? How does that person feel about the monster? (This last part is perhaps the most important. If the character is terrified for her life in the first sentence, the story will proceed much differently than if the character is amused or irritated.)
  2. What kind of world is it? Do monsters appear all the time? Is the world under siege by monsters? Or is this a regular world with a very personal monster. To answer this question, you’ll also need to figure out your character’s place in the world. If the world is a stage full of roles that people must play, which roles are being played by your character?
  3. What kind of monster is it? Why has the monster appeared to this character at this time? Even less-literary stories, monsters and victims are well matched. So, even in a novel like Twilight, the monster is a manifestation of Bella’s developing sense of her own sexuality. To answer this question, figure out the character’s life, problems, and conflicts that existed before the monster arrived. In a way, you’re adjusting the telescopic lens through which the story views the monster. If you begin by focusing on Conflict A, then Conflict A will always be present in the story (unless you stumble upon a better conflict; in that case, throw out Conflict A and switch to Conflict B). Regardless, if you make the character’s personal conflict part of the story from the beginning, the monster will naturally be viewed as part of that conflict.

Good luck and have fun! You’re writing a monster story. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, if that isn’t nice, then I don’t know what is.

How to Write Plot by Answering the “Why” Question

5 Nov
Tiphanie Yanique's story "How to Escape from a Leper Colony" was first published at Boston Review.

Tiphanie Yanique was born in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and lives in Brooklyn. She was the 2010 recipient of the prestigious Rona Jaffe Prize in Fiction.

When we talk about plot, the focus is often on what happens–setting it up, teasing the reader with what will happen next, creating suspense. Sometimes, though, plot is built upon the question of why things happen.

Tiphanie Yanique’s story “How to Escape from a Leper Colony” perfectly demonstrates how to build plot by answering the why question. The story was first published at Boston Review, where it won the journal’s annual short story contest. It was eventually included in Tiphanie Yanique’s story collection, How to Escape from a Leper Colony (Graywolf Press). It’s as good a story as you’ll ever read. You can find it here at Boston Review.

How the Story Works

The title of the story—”How to Escape from a Leper Colony”—makes clear what will happen in the story:  someone, almost certainly the narrator, will try to escape the island. The question is why. The answer, of course, will be some version of Because they must or Because they have no choice. But that is not enough. The driving impulse to escape must be more than a plot mechanism. It must originate from the characters’ sense of themselves and their world—even if the cause is due to external events.

Here is how Yanique introduces the characters’ attitudes toward what will eventually happen:

“What evil thing Lazaro will do later we will forgive him for, because we know his past and because we know he is one of us.”

That sentence sets up two important ideas:

  1. Something has happened in Lazaro’s past that shapes his sense of the present
  2. He (and the narrator and others) are part of a group—which suggests that there is another group with different ideas about what will happen.

So, what is the belief system or attitude of Lazaro’s group? Much of the story is spent developing the particular way the group members view the world, and in this passage, that attitude comes into sharp focus:

“From my mother I learned that Christians love leprosy. Christians are not so passionate about polio or cholera. But Jesus had touched lepers. Jesus cured lepers. Leprosy gives the pious a chance to be Christ-like. Only lepers hate leprosy. Who wants to be the one in the Bible always getting cured? We want to be the heroes, too. We want to be like Jesus. Or like Shiva. Or like whomever you pray to.”

Because the story so clearly establishes the characters and their attitudes, the events of the story become not simply things that happen but the so-called straw that breaks the camel’s back. In other words, the plot is driven by the characters’ reactions to what happens.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s discover the attitudes of our character(s) using “How to Escape from a Leper Colony” as a model.

  1. Identity the source of the character’s trouble. In high school, many of us learned about literary conflicts: man vs. man, man vs nature, man vs self, man vs. society. While these aren’t particular useful outside of a classroom, they can point us in the right direction. Who or what is your character at odds with?
  2. Identity when the trouble began. You might create a timeline. At the least, you should know if the conflict is old or relatively new. All conflicts warp (or, to put it more positively, conflicts shape) a character’s sense of him/herself in the world. The older the conflict, the stronger the resentment or attitude is likely to be.
  3. Identify the character’s group. All people tend to classify themselves into groups, and those groups often take “an us vs. them” philosophy. The groups can be based on large ideas like class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or politics, or they can be based on behaviors. Try defining the group with a phrase such as “The kind of people who…” or “The kind of person who…” For example, there are the kind of the people who love Neil Diamond and those who do not. There are the kind of people who are kind to everyone and those who are not—the kind of people who like to try new food and those who do not.
  4. Introduce the conflict and let the character comment on it both as a member of the group and as someone with a history with the conflict. Think of the story’s conflict as being like herpes. The root problem–the virus–never goes away, and so the conflict occurs when the symptoms reappear. In many stories and novels, the characters’ problem is chronic, a reoccurrence or new manifestation of something he/she has been dealing with for a long time. Try reintroducing the problem–a new occurrence or manifestation of it–and let the character talk about it as someone experienced with dealing with it. Then, let the character view the conflict through the prism of the group beliefs. If it’s herpes, and the group is defined by people who complain and those who do not complain, you might write this: “There wasn’t any point in whining or moaning about it. You just had to get on with things, and people who couldn’t do that–well, he wasn’t going to hang out with those kind of people.”

Play around with these different steps. Try commenting on the conflict in a variety of ways. Once you find a comment that resonates with your character, you may find that the plot (and the way forward into the story) becomes clearer.

Good luck and have fun.

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