Archive | December, 2013

7 Craft Lessons Every Writer Must Learn

31 Dec

Every writer must, at some point, come to terms with certain aspects of writing craft. Here are lessons drawn from seven excellent stories featured at Read to Write Stories in 2013.

1. Make Setting Do More Than Describe a Place

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Esmé-Michelle Watkins is an attorney based in Los Angeles and co-fiction editor of BLACKBERRY: A Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Boston Review, Word Riot, Voices de la Luna, and 4’33”.

If you’ve ever gotten bored while reading, the parts that you skimmed were probably descriptions of places. It’s not enough, as a writer, to use description to show what a place looks like. Try to convey the narrator’s or character’s attitude toward the thing you are describing. For an example, read this excerpt from Esmé-Michelle Watkins’s story “Xochimilco,” published in Boston Review:

There was nothing to see. Gone were the Stay Away drapes tall as street lights, whose heavy fabric Mammì flew all the way from our house in Pasadena to Nonna’s in Bivona to have custom-made; the Go Sit Down oil fresco of clustered villas hugging crags along a turquoise sea; the Knock You Into Next Tuesday French-legged dining table and high backed chairs, formerly below the Go Ahead and Try It chandelier; the Touch and Lose Your Life crystal bowls, where Mammì kept my favorite Sorrento lemons sweet like oranges, and the Cabinet of Doom wide as two hall closets, which housed the finest of Mammì’s That’s a No-No clique: tableware from Baccarat, Tiffany, and JL Coquet. (From “Xochimilco” by Esmé-Michelle Watkins)

2. Develop a Character’s Interior Life

Kelli Ford's story, "Walking Stick," was published in Drunken Boat.

Kelli Ford has been a Dobie Paisano Fellow and is finishing a collection of short stories.

It may seem obvious, but books are not movies. A reader’s relationship with a character is primarily with the character’s thoughts and feelings, not physical appearance. Yet, a simple description of who a character is and how she looks can be an entry into her interior life. Kelli Ford illustrates this perfectly in her story “Walking Stick,” published at Drunken Boat:

At sixty-seven, Anna Maria did not hurry with much these days. She was still stout and round, but a bone spur on her right ankle forced her foot out at an odd angle. That shoe always wore thin on the inside before the other. She could feel the gravel poking through. (From “Walking Stick” by Kelli Ford)

3. Write a Thrilling Action Sequence

Kevin Grauke's new story collection, Shadows of Men, was published by Queens Ferry Press and has been called X.

Kevin Grauke won the 2013 Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award for Best First Book of Fiction for his short story collection, Shadows of Men.

I grew up reading Hardy Boys mysteries and Louis L’Amour cowboy adventures, which means I read a lot of fight scenes. Yet I’ve found that writing similar scenes–or any action sequence, for that matter–often turns into a boring choreography of movement: hit, punch, kick, grunt, etc. Good fight scenes must do more. The key is to interpret or comment upon the actions. Kevin Grauke shows how in this excerpt from his story “Bullies,” published at FiveChapters:

He grabbed Mr. Shelley’s tie and gave it a quick yank. He meant this only to be a sign, a signal that this was over for now–a period, not an exclamation point–but he pulled harder than he’d meant to, and Mr. Shelley, caught off-guard, stumbled forward, knocking into him. Off balance, Dennis staggered backwards from the low height of the porch, pulling Mr. Shelley with him in an awkward dance, and as they fell together and rolled, he understood that there was no way to turn back now, or to end this peacefully, no matter how clownish and clumsy it had to look. (From “Bullies” by Kevin Grauke)

4. Build Suspense

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Manuel Gonzales is the author of the story collection, The Miniature Wife, and the forthcoming novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack!

In his famous essay “Psychology and Form,” Kenneth Burke explains how suspense is built by giving readers something to desire (“creation of an appetite,” he calls it) and then delaying the satisfaction of that desire. The easiest way to do this is with a distraction, or, as Burke writes, “a temporary set of frustrations.” In other words, promise the readers something and then wave something shiny to make them forget the thing you promised–so that when you finally produce what you originally promise, the readers are surprised. You can find a clear example of this strategy in Manuel Gonzales’ story “Farewell, Africa,” published at Guernica. If you read the entire story, you’ll see how long Gonzales is able to delay showing us what happened to the pool:

No one, apparently, had thought to test the pool before the party to see that it worked. The pool, which was the size of a comfortable Brooklyn or Queens apartment, had been designed by Harold Cornish and had been commissioned as a memorial installation for the Memorial Museum of Continents Lost. It was the centerpiece of the museum as well as the party celebrating the museum’s opening. In the center of the long, wide pool was a large, detailed model of the African continent. According to Cornish, the pool, an infinity pool, would be able to recreate the event of Africa sinking into the sea. “Not entirely accurately,” he told me early into the party, before anyone knew the installation wouldn’t work. “But enough to give a good idea of how it might have looked when it happened.” (From “Farewell, Africa” by Manuel Gonzales)

5. Use Dialogue to Create Conflict

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Rene Perez is the author of Along These Highways, a story collection that won the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation prize.

Close your eyes and listen to people talk, and you’ll quickly realize that they have different speaking styles–their own particular diction and phrasing. Dig a little deeper and I suspect you’ll find that those differences are tied to differences of personality. Our diction and phrasing are integral to our conception of our identity. So, to create conflict in a story, trap together two characters who have different speaking styles. The personality differences will soon emerge. A good example of this can be found in Rene Pérez II’s story, “Lost Days,” published in The Acentos Review:

“I don’t mean to disparage the whole of Corpus as being ‘ghetto,’ because that connotes a certain socioeconomic status,” he said, trying to backpedal as delicately as he could out of a comment he’d made at the dinner table that offended Beto, her husband, his father. He had always spoken that way; Stanford didn’t do that to him. “It’s just that there’s a culture here which is such that one can’t be challenged or even stimulated intellectually. There’s no art, no progress toward it or high culture. It’s a city of… of… philistines.”It would have hurt less if he’d just stuck with calling the place ‘ghetto.’ Rose knew what she did and didn’t have, and that she raised her son where and how she and Beto could afford to. So their neighbors were a little shady. They were still good neighbors. So their neighborhood was down-run and their house a little small. It was still their home. (From “Lost Days” by Rene S. Perez II)

6. Avoid the Chronology Trap

Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is the author of Ayiti and the forthcoming novel An Untamed State.

Stories and novels don’t move through time. Instead, they gather time into chunks, organizing minutes and hours into miniature stories within a story. Think of each paragraph as a stand-alone unit–with its own arc, theme, and organization. This should help avoid those tedious passages that plod minute-by-minute through chronology. To demonstrate how this works, check out this paragraph from Roxane Gay’s story “Contrapasso,” published at Mixed FruitThe story is formatted like a restaurant menu. Each paragraph is a description of a dish. Notice how much time is collapsed into one short passage:

Filet Mignon $51.95 They saw specialists. There were accusations. They tried treatments, all of which failed. They tried adoption but she had a past and they had no future. And then it was just the two of them in their big house straining at the seams with all the things she bought and all the things they would never have. One day she came home. All of it was gone. (From “Contrapasso” by Roxane Gay)

7. Write Short, Stylish Sentences

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Kelly Luce is the author of the story collection, Three Scenarios In Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Trail.

People often claim that a story’s language is poetic. But what does that mean? Sometimes it means that the writer uses lush, lyric descriptions. But not always. 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. Therefore, a stylish sentence often dashes forward. The best writers can do this in two words, as Vladimir Nabokov did in his famous parenthetical aside “(picnic, lightning).” Other writers, like Kelly Luce, leap from one short, direct sentence to the next. For example, here is the opening paragraph from her story “Rooey” in The Literary ReviewNotice how far and fast the story moves using phrases of less than ten words each:

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. (From “Rooey” by Kelly Luce)

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An Interview with Owen Egerton

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

Owen Egerton’s novel Everyone Says That at the End of the World prompted the novelist Charles Yu to write, “People at the coffee shop were actually staring at me—I don’t think they fully believed that a book could make a person laugh that hard.”

Owen Egerton is the author of Everyone Says That at the End of the WorldThe Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God, and the forthcoming story collection How to Avoid Dying, which was recently named by The New York Times as having one of the best book covers of 2013.

In this interview, Egerton talks about theme and variation in fiction, how to write a scene as well-known as a Christmas pageant, and the role of Christianity in literature.

To read the first chapter of The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God and an exercise on the expectations of sequence, click here.

Michael Noll

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

Owen Egerton

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

Michael Noll

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

Owen Egerton

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

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

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

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

 Michael Noll

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

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

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

Owen Egerton

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Noll

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

Owen Egerton

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

First published in February 2013

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Use Theme and Variation in a Story—Christmas Edition

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

The success of a story is often determined by how well it goes off the tracks. In order for that to happen, though, the story must first lay those tracks. A great example of derailing a story can be found in the opening chapter of Owen Egerton’s novel, The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God. You can read that chapter, titled “Nativity,” on Amazon here. (Look inside and read the first pages.)

How the Chapter Works

One of the oldest ways to create suspense in a story is to create a repeating sequence of events. So, in “The Three Little Pigs,” we watch the wolf blow down two houses before going to the third—where his plan goes awry. In a more contemporary example, the film Oceans Eleven, plus every heist movie ever made, first shows the thieves planning the heist and then practicing the heist, and when they finally put their plan into action, something goes wrong. Both of those stories—the fairy tale and the blockbuster film—spend time establishing how events should go so that they can go wrong.

With that strategy in mind, count how many times Egerton shows us the Christmas pageant in “Nativity”:

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

Notice how each telling involves a bit of irregularity: the introduction of the drummer boy, the casting of the narrator as Joseph, the drummer boy mis-delivering his line, angels crying, and finally donkeys pooping. Yet, even though the reader expects an unexpected turn of events, there is no way to foresee what actually happens. The thrill, for the reader, is in waiting for the predicted, yet unpredictable, twist. 

In addition to repeating the pageant, the passage contains words that clearly cue the reader into where things will go wrong. For instance, Egerton writes, “We practiced for two weeks. My part was simple enough.” The word simple is similar to Chekhov’s proverbial “gun on the wall.” If you show a gun in the first act, it must go off by the third. If you use the word simple in the beginning of a story, the story had better complicate that simplicity.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a sequence of events that will repeat itself, using Owen Egerton’s “Nativity” chapter as a model:

  1. Choose a scene that will repeat itself. The scene could be one that involves planning and practice (a wedding, shouting “Surprise!” at a birthday party). Or it could center around someone involved in a routine activity (door-to-door salesman).
  2. People the scene with characters. For instance, a wedding or party will have guests. A door-to-door salesman will visit homeowners.
  3. Tell the reader how the scene will play out. Be detailed. First, X will happen. Then X. Then X. Finally, X. The more detailed steps you provide, the more opportunities you have to make things go wrong.
  4. Show the scene once or twice. In each of the tellings, something should go slightly wrong but not so wrong that the characters can’t deal with it.
  5. Finally, show the scene a final time, adding big, unexpected challenges. Ideally, you’ll let the challenges build on one another. So, something goes wrong in the first step of the sequence, and that problem creates a slightly larger problem in the next step, and so on, until the final step, when the sequence has devolved into chaos.

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

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

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Daniel José Older

19 Dec
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Daniel José Older is the author of Salsa Nocturna, a collection of ghost stories that Publisher’s Weekly called a “delicate mix of horror and humor” that secures Older “a place among the rising stars of the genre.”

Daniel José Older is the author of Salsa Nocturna, a collection of ghost stories. He’s also a composer and paramedic living in Brooklyn, New York. He has facilitated workshops on music and anti-oppression organizing at public schools, religious houses, universities, and prisons all over the east coast. His soul band Ghost Star regularly performs original multimedia theater productions about New York history around the city. His stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Flash Fiction, Crossed Genres, and The Innsmouth Free Press and The Subversion Anthology, among others. He’s been a featured reader in Sheree Renée Thomas’ Black Pot Mojo Reading Series and at The New York Review Of Science Fiction.

In this interview, Older discusses ghosts and stories and why we love to combine the two.

(To read Older’s story “Victory Music” and an exercise on introducing genre elements into literary fiction, click here.)

Michael Noll

This is a ghost story, and it begins appropriately, with the narrator telling a dead person that “you’ve saved my life at least twice. And once was after you died.” But I was still surprised when the ghost actually arrived, not only because it’s not the ghost we expect but because I’d gotten so engaged in the scene with the narrator’s parents that I’d forgotten that there was supposed to be a ghost at all. I was reminded of Kenneth Burke’s essay, “Psychology and Form.” To explain how suspense is created, he uses the scene from Hamlet when Hamlet is waiting for his father’s ghost but then gets distracted by this uncle’s drunken entourage. Hamlet, and the audience, get so wrapped up in his uncle that we forget all about the ghost and so are surprised when it arrives. I wonder if you had this basic idea in mind when you wrote the story: promise something and then delay its arrival.

Daniel José Older

Great question. I’ve always been fascinated by the letters we write and never send, or write in our heads but never put on paper. I think this is one way we interact with the dead without meaning to or realizing it sometimes, that internal dialogue. The idea of the things we never had a change to say to someone is so heartbreaking and so real. So on the process tip, that was my starting point. In this case, I wasn’t thinking of Krys as a foreshadow so much as an emotional center that Wes anchors to for support even after Krys is dead. Memories are powerful, more powerful than ghosts maybe, and the subtext to this story, in my head, is that Krys—who does show up as a ghost in my book Salsa Nocturna—is never actually present in this story; Wes uses the memory of Krys to access a sense of their own power and sense of self.

Michael Noll

Salsa Nocturna is a collection of 13 ghost stories, published by Crossed Genres Publications.

Salsa Nocturna is a collection of 13 ghost stories, published by Crossed Genres Publications.

Your first book, Salsa Nocturna, is a collection of ghost stories. On one hand, when I read the description of the book, I thought, “Oh, that’d be fun to focus every story on ghosts.” But then I realized that you’d have to make each ghost and the approach to each ghost different. To that end, the ghost in this story isn’t really a ghost. He’s someone who can vanish at will–but, he still seems like a ghost. So, to some extent, it seems like you’re expanding the definition of ghost and ghost story. Is that simply out of necessity–there are only so many ghosts?

Daniel José Older

Ha! I really hadn’t thought of it that way. Once the underworld, or parallel world really, of ghosts became clear in my mind, the stories all came very smoothly. In some sense there’s truth in what you say though, as artists we always need to be pushing at the borders of our genre and comfort zones, and with “Victory Music” I was interested in how we are haunted sometimes more by the living than the dead. It’s a concept I’ve played with before, though never quite in these terms, and as I said, the healing power of memory plays a major role here. Niles just showed up in my imagination as is—he was born from the necessity of having an eerie, emotionally resonant conflict for Wes. And the act of disappearing is so rich, so layered when complicated by power and privilege…it’s a natural fit for the story.

Michael Noll

In this interview at the New York Times, Victor LaValle (The Devil in Silver), says, "The best monsters are our anxieties given form. They make sense on the level of a dream, or a nightmare."

In this interview at The New York Times, Victor LaValle (The Devil in Silver), says, “The best monsters are our anxieties given form. They make sense on the level of a dream, or a nightmare.”

The writer Victor LaValle said in a New York Times interview, “The best monsters are our anxieties given form. They make sense on the level of a dream, or a nightmare.” The ghost in your story seems to fit this description. The narrator is concerned with identity–her Sikh-ness, her gender–and then, appropriately enough, here comes a guy who can empty out his identity until he literally vanishes. Do you think about the meaning of your ghosts, the particular anxieties that are manifested in them?

Daniel José Older

Surely—the ghost is a crossroads. Past and present, life and death, healing and destruction all have the potential of meeting in the figure of the ghost. When we spend so much time focusing on the simple concept of ghost as evil spirit, it’s just a profound missed opportunity. Writing Salsa Nocturna really taught me that ghost stories are really about life, not death.

Michael Noll

I know a horror writer, Scott Johnson, who, in his free time, investigates ghosts and has encountered them many, many times. Those encounters have ranged from terrifying to quirky to sweet. I love hearing his stories—and other true ghost stories. Though I’m not sure I “believe” them in the factual sense, I find them utterly compelling. So, while I’m curious whether you believe in ghosts, I’m more interested in your take on ghost stories: Why do we tell them so often? What is the appeal of ghost stories?

Daniel José Older

How we view ghosts is about our connection to our own histories. Do we have something lurking back there, waiting to pounce? Do we lament an idealized day gone by? Have we found balance or are we still at war with our past? On a national sense, there’s so much undealt with baggage in the founding and maintaining of this frail, corrupt democracy and we’ve never really confronted what that means. So the idea of a shadow from history materializing in our modern world and causing havoc resonates, on a level that touches on both anxiety and empowerment.

December 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Introduce Genre Elements into a Literary Story

17 Dec
Daniel José Older's story, "Victory Music" was first published in PANK 8.06 and republished as part of Necessary Fiction's RePrint series.

Daniel José Older’s story, “Victory Music” was first published in PANK 8.06 and republished as part of Necessary Fiction‘s RePrint series.

How do you introduce genre elements into a literary story without also feeling beholden to the genre’s usual structure? For instance, not every story with ghosts is a ghost story. Anyone reading the first lines of a ghost story has certain expectations for what will happen. But if that same person begins a story about a young woman who tells her parents that she’s no longer a girl, the expectations are different. It’s the old genre vs literary divide.

One way to handle this balancing act can be found in Daniel José Older’s story “Victory Music.” It was originally published in PANK 8.06, and was selected as a RePrint by Necessary Fiction Writer-in-Residence Ashley Ford. You can read it now at Necessary Fiction.

How the Story Works

Any story that wants to use genre elements but not genre structure must toe a fine line. If it drops the genre element (in this case, a ghost) into the story out of nowhere, the reader is likely to be confused or thrown for too much of a loop. But if the story introduces the genre element too firmly, the reader is going to expect a genre structure. The trick, then, is to hint at the genre element without settling too firmly into the structure. Let’s look at how Daniel José Older does this in “Victory Music.”

He hints at the genre element (the ghost) by letting the narrator address a dead person named Krys. The opening section ends this way:

I wanted to tell you that you’ve saved my life at least twice. And once was after you died.

Notice how the statement is vague enough to be read several ways, only one of which requires a ghost. But even that lack of specificity might be too much—which is why the story begins with a paragraph that has nothing to do with ghosts:

One of my favorite moments ever was when the boy called me an Arab and you said, “She’s Sikh, fucknut” and then when he said “Oh, like hide and go-“ you broke his nose. I heard music playing, I swear to God, and it was victory music, your music: A dusty, unflinching beat, lowdown and grinding. It didn’t matter that my family’s not even technically Sikh anymore since my parents went born-again and I’m just whatever. I smiled for days after that moment, Krys. Days.

The first section ends with a hint of a ghost but a lot of non-ghost potential conflict. The next section can go two ways: It can develop the “saved my life…after you died” idea or one of the non-ghost ideas from the first paragraph. Older chooses the latter, reintroducing the narrator’s parents:

[M]y dad sent the twins to bed with a growl and then said to me, “What do you mean you’re not a girl?”

Imagine how different the story would be if it began the first section with something ghostly. In order to continue to increase the suspense further, the story would have no choice but to further develop the ghost—and as the possibilities for development narrowed, that is when the story would likely adopt the usual structure of a genre ghost story.

Instead, because the story introduces the conflict around the narrator’s gender identity, the story is given a new conflict to develop—and, in this story, that conflict climaxes with the appearance of a ghost. To some extent, the difference between a story with ghosts and a ghost story is when the ghost appears. The earlier it appears, the more likely it becomes that the story adopts a genre structure. (I’ll admit that there are exceptions to this rule, as shown by this story about a monster.)

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce a genre element into our stories, experimenting with placement, using “Victory Music” as a model:

  1. Choose the genre element. Pick your favorite genre story and borrow something from it: ghosts, zombies, vampires, monsters, detectives, cowboys, aliens, giant squid, playboy millionaires, heiresses with squandered fortunes, wizards, middle-aged women looking for sex in a city, 20-something actors with entourages of hometown friends.
  2. Hint at the genre element. Write a sentence or two that suggests to the reader which genre element is coming. Don’t be too specific (“There were werewolves somewhere in this city.”) Instead, try to hint at the element in a way that lends itself to multiple interpretations. Remember Older’s line from “Victory Music”: “I wanted to tell you that you’ve saved my life at least twice. And once was after you died.”
  3. Lead up to your hint with something unrelated to the element. Keep in mind the writer Ron Carlson’s advice that every story contains two parts: the story and the world that the story enters. Create a character or world that exists independently of the genre element that you’re introducing. Give that character or world the seeds of a conflict(s) that have nothing to do with the genre element.
  4. Figure out the relationship between conflict and genre element. Your story is necessarily going to move between two elements: the character’s original conflict and the genre element. To make this move, it’s helpful to know where each is located. Do they exist in the same space? In Older’s story, the ghosts are in one place and the conflict with the father is in another place.
  5. Develop one of those conflicts. Keep in mind where you’re going. If the genre elements waits elsewhere, the conflict should develop so that the character is required to leave one place and go to another.
  6. Introduce the genre element. Remember that most transitions are not clean breaks. Make the character preoccupied with the conflict he/she just left. That way, when the genre element appears, it will come as a surprise to both the reader and the character.

Good luck!

An Interview with Benjamin Rosenbaum

12 Dec
Benjamin Rosenbaum's story "Feature Development for Social Media" was published at Tor.com. You can find a complete list of his stories here.

Benjamin Rosenbaum’s story “Feature Development for Social Media” was published at Tor.com. You can find a complete list of his stories here.

Benjamin Rosenbaum is the author of The Ant King and Other Stories. His stories have been published in Nature, Harper’s, F&SF, Asimov’s, McSweeney’s, and Strange Horizons, translated into 23 languages, and nominated for Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, Locus, World Fantasy, and Sturgeon Awards. He lives near Basel, Switzerland.

In this interview, Rosenbaum discusses social media in fiction, our ability to grow accustomed to anything (even zombies), the phrase first world problems, and a tabletop roleplaying game about teenage monsters.

(To read Rosenbaum’s story “Feature Development for Social Networking” and an exercise on story tone, click here.)

Michael Noll

I’ve been struck by the absence of social media in new stories and novels. In fact, the only social-media story I can think of is Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box,” which was written as a series of tweets. So, I love the sections of your story that are written as Facebook messages. What were the challenges you faced in using this form? Was it tempting to treat the medium ironically—to exaggerate or spoof the way people communicate via Facebook. Even though the scenario is far-fetched (zombie attack), the way the characters communicate seems authentic and real.

Benjamin Rosenbaum

I feel like there’s a certain amount of use of social media, instant messaging, etc, particularly in YA fiction. M.T. Anderson’s brilliant novel Feed comes to mind (not written exactly in an epistolary style, but in which the equivalent of IM’ing and tweeting is heavily foregrounded and substitutes for much of the dialogue), or Lauren Myracle’s ttyl.

Interestingly, the direction of my revisions was to tone down the realism of the Facebook usage. It’s not so much that I was tempted to exaggerate and spoof, as that my initial draft was very closely emulating real Facebook usage — for instance, the fact that the responses to a comment do not follow the comment immediately, but occur after a certain lag time during which other comments have intervened. In revision I simplified and threw away some of the peculiarities that are part of real Facebook interactions, but which weren’t thematically central and which made it harder to read smoothly as fiction.

I tried to be pretty naturalistic, rather than broad, because I thought the humor would mostly come from the contrast of the realistic, everyday style of discourse and the fantastical situation. I was going to say “familiar style of discourse” and “unfamiliar, dramatic situation”, but of course it’s really two familiarities — the everyday, real-world familiarity of social networking and the pop-culture familiarity of the zombie outbreak.

If anything, in revision, I made the satire sharper and the characters more distinct. Jewell got bubblier and more committed to lower-case abbreviations, Buster more self-serving and insensitive, etc. In that sense it actually became less naturalistic — the characters moved closer to being types, the way Dickens’s or Austen’s minor characters are. There’s always a balance to be struck between naturalistic and stylized.

Michael Noll

The actual zombie action takes place off the page, referenced but never seen directly. Even when the story’s characters see zombies, they don’t describe them with great detail. In a way, this seems to cut across the zombie genre, which almost always shows gore and carnage eventually. For instance, in this exchange between Facebook employees, one of them writes: “Suresh, you should check out the 2nd floor webcam. There’s not a lot of Grief and Loss Counseling going on up there right now. Nor do I recommend a massage.” I love that this detail is delivered as a literal P.S. to an email about the feature development from the story’s title. This particular exchange ends with one character writing, “Let’s not get distracted people!” On one hand, this is funny. On the other hand, it seems like it keeps the zombie-biting-people stuff from taking over the story. Were plot details like this one always dropped into the story so casually? Did they ever occupy a more direct space?

Benjamin Rosenbaum

So partly, I was going for a humorous deflation of the zombie story. If I’m juxtaposing the mundane detail of the everyday with the horrific detail of the apocalypse, and they are described with equal focus, the horrific details are going to take over emotionally.

Blood and gore are sensational: they force the reader to pay attention, demand an emotional reaction. On the other hand, if you demand an emotional reaction when you haven’t really earned one — when the reader isn’t sufficiently invested in the characters and the action — you get sentimentalism or melodrama rather than a real emotional response. The reader pulls back, because you’re rubbing their face into extreme stimuli without having won them over.

Kelly Link's collection of stories, Stranger Things Happen, includes the brilliant story "The Specialist's Hat."

Kelly Link’s collection of stories, Stranger Things Happen, includes the brilliant story “The Specialist’s Hat.”

So in a way, distancing the carnage is a double win: primarily, it’s funnier, because it allows the juxtaposition of mundane and extreme to be a balanced juxtaposition. But also, I think it may actually be scarier too, because the little details of what’s going on sort of slip in to the narrative. Something that’s just offstage is often scarier than something in the center of the screen. The end of the movie Blair Witch Project is far scarier than most horror movies where there’s an onscreen monster, because so much is implied, evoked in your imagination. However good the CGI or the rubber suit is, it’s never going to be as frightening as what your brain can project into the unknown. Kelly Link is an absolute master of this; I think “The Specialist’s Hat” is an exquisitely scary story, for instance, precisely because of what we don’t know.

In writing this, funny was more important to me than scary, but the little bit of scary helps bring the funny into relief, and makes it sharper.

There’s another related thing going on here, too, which is that I wanted to talk about habituation, which I think of as one of the most powerful mechanisms of the human mind. It’s like we can get used to anything. Like, in the first decades of aviation, flying was this incredible, awesome, unbelievably thrilling achievement. Human beings could fly — like birds! We had conquered gravity! To ascend to the heavens in a plane was mindblowing, it was this rush of absolute wonder and power. Now we get on a plane and we’re like, security sucks, my seat is uncomfortable, why do I have to put my tray table up, damnit my laptop battery is down and the inflight magazine is boring, what do they expect me to do, spend my time looking out at the clouds? This is actually hilarious when you think about it. And at the same time, people in horrific situations habituate to them too. I just re-read the Diary of Anne Frank, the new edition where they restored a bunch of stuff that had been cut out for propriety’s sake in the 50s. Anne Frank spends very little time on the Nazis. She occasionally remarks that it sucks that they have to hide, and that she’s worried about her schoolmates who didn’t hide in time, and that they’re following the progress of the war. But 90% of the time she’s pissed off at her mother, and at Peter’s mother, and at the guy she has to share a room with. Somebody’s not peeling enough potatoes and someone else is hogging the radio. That’s what life is composed of, whether you are an internet billionaire or a hidden Jew in occupied Holland during the Holocaust. Occasionally you stick your head up and think “hey, I could buy a small country!” or “hey, I’m probably going to be killed soon!” but most of the time you’re like “goddamnit, these potatoes are too salty” or “omg I think he might like me like me.”

That’s what’s deeply wrong, by the way, with this whole #firstworldproblems meme, you know that one? It’s supposedly an excercise in humility and perspective, but in fact it’s an exercise in arrogance. You know, like “my underwear is itchy #firstworldproblems” or “there’s too much goat cheese in my salad #firstworldproblems” or “I can’t get my favorite show on my cell phone #firstworldproblems”. You think people in Bangladesh don’t complain if their underwear is itchy? You think people in the dystopian industrial sprawl of China don’t bitch about their cell phones? There are 1.2 billion cell phones in China, four times as many as there are in the US, 89 per 100 citizens (in the US it’s 103 per 100 citizens). I just read the graphic novel of Waltz with Bashir — there’s this scene where there’s a firefight on the beach in Beruit, and the locals are coming out onto the balconies of their highrise beachside condo apartments to watch the gunfight like it’s a movie, leaning on their railings, smoking and kibitzing. Humans can get used to anything. Our focus is local. I grew up during the crack and AIDS epidemics, with most experts telling us that global nuclear annihilation was immanent, and I knew all that, but still I was mainly interested in playing D&D and going to 7-11, right? So it seems very clear to me that if there’s a zombie apocalypse, a lot of people are going to feel like that’s security’s job to deal with, and they need to get the next feature out. I mean we are currently dealing with the longest-running war in U.S. history, the irreversible melting of the polar ice caps, antibiotic resistant tuberculosis, and looming government financial default, but we’re still mainly interested in watching videos of cats. Why would zombies change anything?

I went back and looked at an early draft of the story — this dynamic, the foregrounded mundane and the offstage carnage, was in it from the beginning. Mostly what changed in revisions were plot and structure things. The story has a better ending now; it just kind of trailed off in earlier drafts.

Michael Noll

Zombie stories and other monster stories, especially vampire stories, are everywhere you look right now–and have been for a few years. They’re scary and thrilling, of course, but I wonder if their appeal runs deeper than just thrills and goosebumps. More than a few people have pointed out that zombies and vampires tend to reflect our fears as a culture (fear of outsiders, certain kinds of sexuality, fear of death). But I wonder, given the present wars and political violence, if monster stories don’t somehow put mass violence at a remove–in other words, putting our fear of such violence into a form that we can consume without being overwhelmed with fear or terror or grief. What do you think? What’s the power or appeal of zombies?

Benjamin Rosenbaum

I think this is a very good insight. It’s certainly one main job of the fantastic, in general, to put things at a remove where we can deal with them. When we think directly about dangers that really exist, we can get caught up in despair or anxiety, and sink. Adding an element of the impossible is one way of freeing up our minds, so that we relate to the danger with playful creativity. Often, this kind of distancing can make the emotional impact of a story greater. We’re less likely to get overwhelmed and shut down if there’s a balance between the absurd or imaginative and the horrific.

There are other techniques that can do this in realistic narratives. I recently read Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, his memoir of being a child soldier in Sierra Leone. What happened in his life was, he had this relatively idyllic, calm, rural childhood, and then the war came and first he was fleeing and starving as a refugee, and then he was brutalized and drugged and forced to murder people, and then he got out and was rehabilitated. If he told it in strict chronological order, it would start out pleasant and slow, and then descend into just unbearable awfulness, and then level out into a long and difficult and slow, if hopeful, recovery. That would be really hard for the reader to take. When you got to the part with twelve-year olds killing and mutilating people, you wouldn’t be able to go on without checking out emotionally. So what he does is very sophisticated and wise. He starts out chronologically, but as it gets worse — in the part where they are wandering around starving and being chased away from villages and seeing people die — he salts it with flashbacks. You’ll be in some truly horrific scene and he’ll say “oh, and this reminds me of the story my uncle used to tell back in the village” and he’ll give you something whimsical or sweet. And it’s not cheap or gimmicky, because he’s not just doing it to protect you from being overwhelmed. He’s also honoring the village that was lost, he’s sharing with you the whole reality of where he came from, which is not just the horror of the civil war but also the humane, pleasant ordinariness of the lives it intruded into. He’s showing you that Sierra Leone is not just child soldiers killing people, but also uncles telling stories at dinner. And when he gets to the worst part — where he actually becomes a soldier — he gives us very little of it, before skipping ahead to the story of rehabilitation, and then gradually feeds us the horror in small flashbacks, interleaved with things getting better. The treatment of chronology is very deft. He’s protecting the reader, not in order to insulate the reader from what happened so that the reader doesn’t care, but rather so that the reader will care — so that we won’t get overwhelmed and start reading it as just a story of terrible people in some terrible place. He’s resisting being sensationalized, resisting the role of the victim, insisting on constantly putting forward his own and his people’s humanity and agency and ordinariness.

So that’s one thing. Fantastic elements can serve the same kind of purpose, of distancing us enough so we can connect.

Mass violence is one thing zombies can stand for. Pandemics are another — this is definitely a zombie story in the spirit of 28 Days Later, where it’s a grittily real medical catastrophe that’s going on. A related thing that interests me about zombies is that they’re about dehumanization. Someone is infected with something that makes them dangerous and violent — do you see them as a monster, or as a person with an illness? There’s a way in which the apocalypse is often used to grant the characters, and the readers, license to escape a world in which we’re expected to deal responsibly with other people, to tolerate difference, to resolve conflicting needs; if everything falls apart enough, we have permission to just chop off the heads of people who we find difficult. Zombie stories are also about isolation. When I moved to Switzerland the most recent time, and was feeling very disconnected, I found myself having obsessive daydreams about pandemic flu clearing the streets, about having to subsist on what was in my apartment, to bar my door.

Monsterhearts is a roleplaying game where players explore the confusion that comes both from growing up and feeling like a monster.

Monsterhearts is a roleplaying game where players explore the confusion that comes both from growing up and feeling like a monster.

Monsters can stand for a lot of things. There’s a really brilliant tabletop roleplaying game, probably the best-designed roleplaying game I’ve ever played, called Monsterhearts, about the messy lives of teenaged monsters. One thing that’s amazing about it is how the game explicitly instructs you to create fiction that operates on both literal and metaphorical levels, simultaneously. Your Werewolf feels out of control of his body, which is changing without his consent — like every teenager’s, but also like a werewolf. Your Ghost feels invisible and lost, trapped by the past and like no one can even see, much less understand her, plus she actually can walk through walls. Your Vampire is about temptation and emotional manipulation and dangerous desire and also bites people. The game captures the balance that fantastic fiction strikes at it best — the fantastic elements evoke emotionally real things without being reducible to them. It’s not allegory, it’s symbol, which means it doesn’t collapse into a hidden meaning like a code, rather it radiates out meanings, generating echoes of echoes.

December 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Find a Story’s Tone

10 Dec
Benjamin Rosenbaum's story XXX appeared at Tor.com

Benjamin Rosenbaum’s zombie story “Feature Development for Social Networking” appeared at Tor.com. (Illustraton by Scott Bakal)

Some stories have been told countless times. Yet, as writers, we often feel compelled to take another crack at them. So how do we make our stories different? Sometimes the answer is to find an unexpected tone.

Benjamin Rosenbaum does exactly that in his zombie story “Feature Development for Social Networking.” I guarantee that even if you’ve read a thousand zombie stories, you’ve never read one like this. You can read it now at Tor.com.

How the Story Works

Playing with tone in a story is a bit like improvising in music. A simple melody is easier to improvise than one that requires concentration just to play straight. So, when you’re thinking about tone, it’s helpful to make everything else simple. Here’s the opening of “Feature Development for Social Networking.” Notice how simple it is. (If you haven’t read the story yet, it’s written as a series of Facebook posts and comments).

Marsha Shirksy Got bitten . . .

Roland Wu wtf? Are you kidding?

Buster Day that is so not funny

Emily Carter omg Marsha are you serious?

Marsha Shirksy I’m not kidding, you guys! There was a rager at the supermarket. I could tell he was acting weird & I know I was totally stupid not to just drop my stuff and run! I’d just been in line forever & they had this terrific local asparagus on sale. Yes, I may have just sacrificed myself for asparagus.

The first two words of the story (after the character’s name) provide everything the reader needs to know about the plot (“Got bitten…”). Anyone who’s ever read a zombie story knows how this one will end. So, instead of focusing on the plot, Rosenbaum can play with tone. He finds his tone by doing a couple of simple things:

  • He chooses a place with a particular style of communication. In this case, it’s Facebook, with its users’ tendency to exaggerate the emotion in all statements (omg, wtf, exclamation marks galore) in order to not be misunderstood.
  • He gives himself room to play with tone. The first line introduces the plot, but then that plot is not explained or developed in any way until Marsha Shirksy speaks up again. In that lull, there’s space to play with tone. Notice how Roland, Buster, and Emily all say basically the same thing in slightly different ways—but also in ways that reinforce a kind of philosophy toward communication (or tone): informal, intimate, and performative (wtf, omg).
  • He uses the tone to convey an important piece of story information. After the Facebook tone is set, Rosenbaum uses it to tell the story of the zombie attack. Notice how that paragraph uses all of the traits established in the previous three lines: it’s informal (the ampersand, “totally stupid”), intimate (“you guys”), and performative (“Yes, I may have just sacrificed myself for asparagus).

Once the tone is set, the story is off and running. If you read the entire piece, you’ll see how Rosenbaum introduces a second set of characters and a slightly different form of communication goes through this process all over again.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s play with tone, using “Feature Development for Social Networking” as a model:

  1. Choose the oft-told story that you want to tell. Make it as simple as possible: zombie attack, quest, boy/girl falls in love with boy/girl and has to woo him/her, ghostly apparition, relationship goes sour.
  2. Choose a place with a particular style of communication. Think about the places where characters code switch (adapt to a language that is particular to one group): a bar, a workplace, a church, a classroom, or the hallway or space immediately outside the classroom or church or office or bar, a dinner table, a restaurant.
  3. Introduce the plot immediately. I got bit. I had to find the key, document, Easter egg, baby. I had to make him love me. The ghost handed me the shampoo. I used to love her, but now I don’t.
  4. Give yourself room to play with tone. Establish the communication style. You can do this by putting your character into conversation, having him/her tell the story to someone else. Or, you can simply adopt the tone of the place/group and use it in what is essentially a monologue. Think about the language’s phrasings, idioms, approaches to emotion (exaggerated, muted), use or avoidance of literal or figures of speech, directness or roundabout-ness. Think about speed. How fast or slow do the character talk? Play with the voice until you begin to hear it in your head, almost as if the voice is speaking to you.
  5. Use the tone to convey an important piece of information. How I got bit. Why I need to find the key, document, Easter egg, baby. Why it’s not easy to make him love me, or why I love him. What the ghost looks like. Why I don’t love her anymore.

Once you find the tone, you may find that the most enjoyable part of writing the story is the tone itself. Keep playing with it. Drop in a plot clue or reference now and then to keep the story moving forward.

Have fun.

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