Archive | January, 2014

How to Let the Story Speak for Itself

30 Jan
Kiese Laymon's collection of essays, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America" stunned the writer Roxane Gay "into stillness."

Kiese Laymon’s collection of essays, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” stunned the writer Roxane Gay “into stillness.”

If you recall anything about your composition classes in high school or college, it may be the requirement that every example be explained or analyzed. As an instructor for these classes, I feel a professional obligation to say that, yes, this is mostly true. But, on the other hand, sometimes the example or story can speak for itself.

Kiese Laymon’s essay, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance,” illustrates not only that some stories do not need to be explained but also that some efforts to explain add a layer that can, at times, falsify the story itself. As Laymon writes, “I wish I could get my Yoda on right now and surmise all this shit into a clean sociopolitical pull-quote that shows supreme knowledge and absolute emotional transformation, but I don’t want to lie.”

The essay is included in the new collection How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and was originally published at Gawker, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The first paragraph of the essay lays out what will follow:

I’ve had guns pulled on me by four people under Central Mississippi skies — once by a white undercover cop, once by a young brother trying to rob me for the leftovers of a weak work-study check, once by my mother and twice by myself. Not sure how or if I’ve helped many folks say yes to life but I’ve definitely aided in few folks dying slowly in America, all without the aid of a gun.

The bulk of the essay is the stories about these four incidents with guns. There is almost no transition between them except a sentence like, “16 months later, I’m 18, three years older than Edward Evans will be when he is shot in the head behind an abandoned home in Jackson” or “I don’t know what’s wrong with him but a few months later, I have a gun.”

This lack of transition and explanation/analysis accomplishes two things:

  1. It lets the stories pile up against one another. To some extent, the point is not that one of these stories happened but that they all happened. The references to similar stories that made the news make it clear that not only did all of these stories happen to one person, they happen to people like him all of the time.
  2. They keep the reader in the moment with the writer as he experiences these stories. Very often, we’re tempted to add a layer of distance, to write, “Long ago, when I was young, these things happened.” While it’s true that by the time we sit down to write about something, we’ve given it years of thought, it’s also the case that the act of reflection can distort or veil the thing we are reflecting upon. This reflection protects the writer against judgement or scorn (a way of saying to the reader, “Yeah, I was part of something that makes you and me uncomfortable, but see how much smarter I am now?). Sometimes it’s important to cut straight to the memory itself.

Instead of trying to write statements that show “supreme knowledge and absolute emotional transformation,” Laymon saves his moments of analysis and explanation for the points in the essay where his thoughts at the time might not be immediately clear. Here is one example:

I pick up my gun and think about my Grandma. I think not only about what she’d feel if I went back out there with a gun. I think about how if Grandma walked out of that room with a gun in hand, she’d use it. No question.

I am her grandson.

In this instance, Laymon is explaining a thought process that led to a decision. What follows—the effects of the decision—speak for themselves. At the end of the piece, Laymon does step away from the stories to reflect a bit, but his reflection actually points us back to the stories. Here’s a typical line:

I want to say and mean that remembering starts not with predictable punditry, or bullshit blogs, or slick art that really ask nothing of us; I want to say that it starts with all of us willing ourselves to remember, tell and accept those complicated, muffled truths of our lives and deaths and the lives and deaths of folks all around us over and over again.

In a way, Laymon is making the same point as Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried: “A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.” In this essay, by letting the story speak without added explanation, Laymon is aiming for the stomach as much as the head.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try structuring an essay so that no big explanations are needed, using “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others: A Remembrance” by Kiese Laymon as a model:

  1. Let the stories pile up against one another. This kind of structure works best with an essay about a recurring event. Each successive version emphasizes both the similarities (here we go again) and the variations (this time, however, was different). In order to find your stories, it might be helpful to think of them as leaves on a stem. What is the single line of causation? In Laymon’s essay, it’s the experience of being black in Mississippi. This is vague and simplistic, of course, but it’s also a place to begin. One way to advance such a simple idea is to ask a basic question: “What does it mean to be ______?” Then, choose an image that resonates with you on an emotional level. Laymon chose the image of a gun. The successive stories become different perspectives of that image, filtered through the basic question of meaning. Choose the right stories and the right image, and the meaning will make itself clear.
  2. Keep the reader in the story as you, the writer, experience it again. In other words, tell the story straight, in present tense if necessary. Focus any explanation on moments of decision making. This might require leaving the moment and writing something like, “My whole life, I’d been ______, but now I ______.” The goal is to portray the complex processes that our minds quickly distill to a snap decision: “So, I ______.” The next paragraphs will show the reader the events or actions that proceed from that decision and the consequences of those actions. The consequences can be stated simply. Less is sometimes more, as Laymon writes here:

The young brother keeps looking back to the car, unsure what he’s supposed to do. Shonda and her friends are screaming when he takes the gun off my chest and trots goofily back to the car.

I don’t know what’s wrong with him but a few months later, I have a gun.

Sometimes, no explanation is needed. The image, the story, and the decision are enough.

Good luck!


How to Find the Right Plot for Your Character

28 Jan
Long Division by Kiese Laymon has been compared to the novels of Haruki Murakami and called, by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "a little fantasy, a little mystery and a lot hilarious."

Long Division by Kiese Laymon has been compared to the novels of Haruki Murakami and called, by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “a little fantasy, a little mystery and a lot hilarious.”

I was talking to a writer the other day who said that, if it was up to her, she’d write nothing but character development. Her characters would talk to each other and occasionally wind up in interesting circumstances, but not much would happen. Her solution was to create a detailed outline—the kind that takes several weeks to create. This is a terrific idea, even if many writers are initially opposed to it. But what if you can’t find the right plot for the outline?

One of the best novels I’ve read lately also has a plot that perfectly fits its narrator. Long Division by Kiese Laymon is one of the competitors in the The Morning News Tournament of Books, and you can read an excerpt from the novel at Gawker.

How the Story Works

Long Division is about a teenager who gets the opportunity to compete in a national competition. Even from that vague description, it’s clear how the plot fits the character. Teenage kids all over America are dreaming about one day competing in the Super Bowl, World Series, or in March Madness. Almost all of our biggest celebrities are athletes; every two years at the Olympics, athletes from sports that exist on the fringe suddenly become the center of our national attention, setting themselves up for a brief moment of fame and corporate sponsorship. But this kind of competition isn’t confined to sports. It turns academic study into contests of knowledge like Jeopardy! and the Scripts National Spelling Bee. Every high school kid who takes the SAT or ACT is given a score and ranked against the other test takers, and those rankings help feed the competition for spots in select universities.

In short, any plot about a contest provides a good story for a teenage character. The trick is to find a contest that taps into the character’s hopes and fears.

In Long Division, Kiese Laymon has created a character named Citoyen (City) Coldson, a teenage African-American boy from Jackson, Mississippi. Keep that description in mind as you read this paragraph about the contest he faces:

“We’d like to welcome you to the fifth annual Can You Use That Word in a Sentence National Competition,” the voice behind the light said. “We’re so proud to be coming to you from historic Jackson, Mississippi. The state of Mississippi has loomed large in the history of civil rights and the English language. Maybe our next John Grisham, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker Alexander, William Faulkner, or Oprah Winfrey is in this contest. The rules of the contest are simple. I will give the contestant a word and he or she will have two minutes to use that word in a dynamic sentence. All three judges must agree upon the correct usage, appropriateness, and dynamism of the sentence. We guarantee you that this year’s contest will be must-see TV.

The passage immediately conflates “civil rights and the English language.” The competition is about word usage rather than spelling because (as stated earlier in the novel) the Scripts Spelling Bee was deemed racially and geographically biased. In this novel, and in this new competition, race is impossible to avoid. In fact, it’s put at the center of the story and televised to the world.

Watch how the first contestant, Coldson’s best friend, handles the word lascivious:

“If lascivious photographs of Amber Rose were found on Mr. White’s office computer,” LaVander began, “then the odds are higher than the poverty rate in the Mississippi Delta that Mr. Jay White would still keep his job at the college his great-great-grandfather founded.”

Coldson gets the next word:

“Your first word, Citoyen, is…‘niggardly.’”

Without uttering a syllable, I ran back to our dressing room and got my brush. “I just think better with this in my hand,” I told the voice when I got back.

“No problem. ‘Niggardly,’ Citoyen.”

“For real? It’s no problem?” I looked out into the white lights hoping somebody would demand they give me another word—not because I didn’t know how to use it, but because it just didn’t seem right that any kid like me should have to use a word like that, not in front of all those white folks.

“Etymology, please?” I asked him.

“From Old Norse nigla.”

Nigla? That’s funny. Am I pronouncing the word right? ‘Nigga’dly.’ Pronunciation, please.”

“Nig-gard-ly,” he said. “Citoyen, you have 30 more seconds.”

The beauty of this moment is that the contest has been made intensely personal for the character. Broadly speaking, its very existence is meant to serve kids like him. So, he’s already in the spotlight, simply because of who he is. The contest becomes acutely personal, though, when he’s given a word that he doesn’t know. He’s set up to look and feel inadequate. Finally, the broader issues of the contest meet the personal aspects because the word has racial overtones due to its similarity to another word. Given the nature of the contest and the character, it’s the perfect word to create tension and suspense and to force the character to act in ways that not only move the plot forward to reveal depth of character.

If you’re wondering what happens next, you can find out here.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try finding the right plot for a character, using the excerpt from Long Divison by Kiese Laymon as a model:

  1. Choose a general plot vehicle that is appropriate for your character. Describe your character in the vaguest way possible (the way people are described in personal ads or by the police)—40-year-old white male, 16-year-old Hispanic female, middle class mother of three, retired widower living on a pension. What life events does that character typically (or stereotypically) encounter? Common examples that often find their way into stories include contests, marriage, divorce, coming-of-age, starting over, searching for someone (relative, someone to love), caring for elderly parent or child or dog, escaping something bad (war, old friends, neighborhood, family), making the grade, getting the promotion, etc.
  2. Summarize why the plot vehicle is particularly suited (generally speaking) to your character. This is where you begin to tie the plot to a few particulars of character: Getting laid off is particularly painful for a 50-year-old woman because she’s forced to compete for a job with younger people in an age-ist society. Tracking down your birth parents in rural Nevada is particularly difficult for someone who lives in New York and doesn’t have a driver’s license.
  3. Make the plot vehicle acutely personal. This can be done by accentuating the mechanics of the plot. In the excerpt from Long Division, the mechanics of the contest (contestants are given a word to use in a sentence) become accentuated when the character doesn’t know the word. That’s why the novel shows the mechanics of the contest: the back-and-forth between contestant and moderator, the question about etymological origin, the pushing against the rules when City runs to his dressing room to get his brush. Each of these mechanical details about the contest heightens the tension. In my examples, the 50-year-old woman interviewing for a job might be put into a group interview with a room full of recent college graduates. The person tracking down his birth parents in rural Nevada might arrange a ride from a friend-of-a-friend who doesn’t show up, leaving the character stranded.
  4. Connect the personal with the general. The key is to make the plot obstacles reflect or tap into the character’s hopes and fears. In Long Division, the plot taps into City’s complex feelings about race. When he’s given his word, he thinks that “it just didn’t seem right that any kid like me should have to use a word like that, not in front of all those white folks.” For him, it’s one thing to have the limits of his knowledge clearly defined, but it’s another thing entirely to have them defined in front of white people. In my examples, perhaps the 50-year-old job seeker has a college-grad child who wouldn’t fit in with the group interviewers, either. Or maybe the birth-parent seeker feels that he’s  been protected or insulated from certain harsher realities of the world.

As writers, we often resist thinking about character and plot at such a schematic level, but in any story—but especially a novel—this sort of clarity is often required to keep the plot from running out of steam. If you know the mechanics of the plot, you can manipulate them to keep the plot running.

Good luck!

How to Let Characters Reveal Their Feelings

21 Jan
Philadelphia was released in 1993, starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, and was one of the first mainstream films about HIV/AIDS. It won two Academy Awards and nominated for two others, including best screenplay.

Philadelphia, released in 1993 and starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, was one of the first mainstream films about HIV/AIDS. It won two Academy Awards and was nominated for three others, including best screenplay.

Some of the most powerful moments in any story come when a character unexpectedly reveals his or her innermost feelings. In film, these are often the scenes that become famous: Jack Nicholson shouting, “You can’t handle the truth,” in A Few Good Men; in The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland standing beside a pig pen and singing, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” So, as a writer, how do you capture such intension emotion?

The 1993 film Philadelphia contains one such scene. Tom Hanks’ character, Andrew, has been fired from his law firm because he has AIDS, and so he sues the firm. The moment comes when Andrew is conferring with his attorney, Joe, played by Denzel Washington. He turns on the stereo, plays an aria sung by Maria Callas, and translates it, ending with the words “I am love.” The result is a scene that likely was the reason that Hanks won that year’s Oscar for Best Actor.

You can read the script by Ron Nyswaner here (just search for the word aria) or watch the scene (which is slightly different than the screenplay) here.

How the Story Works

As readers and viewers, we crave those moments when characters let down their guard. To the audience, those moments often feel as though they’ve come out of nowhere. We’re stunned when they happen. But, of course, that isn’t the case. It’s important—but not easy—to get the character into a state of mind that allows such statements. In A Few Good Men, Nicholson’s character is trapped by the prosecuting attorney and badgered until he breaks. In The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland’s Dorothy falls into a pig pen and, after being rescued by the farmhands, is alone in black-and-white rural Kansas. It’s no wonder she dreams of escaping.

In both examples, a confrontation leads to the moment when the character reveals his or her truest thoughts. The confrontation can be between people (prosecutor vs defendant) or with a representative of a problem (the pigs are a representative of drab, boring Kansas).

In Philadelphia, the screenwriter Ron Nyswaner sets up a different sort of confrontation. Tom Hanks’ character, Andrew, has just come home from a party. He’s laughing and talking with his attorney, who was at the same party but less comfortable because of his preconceptions about gay people. The attorney begins asking Andrew questions as practice for his testimony at court, but Andrew is distracted. The film has juxtaposed (for Andrew, in a way he cannot ignore) the extremes of his life: his high-spirited social life and the lawsuit that stems from his AIDS diagnosis. He says, “There’s a possibility I won’t be around for the end of this trial.” Then, he asks his attorney if he likes opera, if he wants to hear Andrew’s favorite aria, which Andrew proceeds to play, translating the lyrics. Here’s how the aria and translation end:

"It was during that sorrow that love came to me!

A voice filled with harmony
That said...
Live still, I am Life!"

"I am the god that descends
From the heavens to the earth
To make of the earth
A heaven!"

The camera shifts to the attorney, who looks uncomfortable. Andrew continues translating:

"I am Oblivion!
I am Glory!
I am Love, Love, Love!"

Andrew has essentially said that he doesn’t want to die, that he loves being alive, that he loves the feeling of being in love. It’s as direct and intense a statement as a person can make, and the scene works because the film has given Andrew the ability to speak in this way. Without the setup, the same statement would ring false.

In any story, it’s important to present a character with challenges that force him or her to act, but it’s just as important to give the character a moment to reflect on what is happening. This is what Ron Nyswaner did in the screenplay for Philadelphia.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set the stage to allow a character to reveal his/her innermost feelings, using Ron Nyswaner’s screenplay for Philadelphia as a model:

  1. Identify the extremes of the character’s dilemma. In Philadelphia, the extremes are life and death. In A Few Good Men, the juxtaposition is between honor/duty and justice. The Wizard of Oz juxtaposes the drab familiar with the beautiful unknown. Every story, whether in film or literature, captures this sort of juxtaposition. In short stories, Stuart Dybek’s “We Didn’t” pits sex and death. In Andre Dubus’ “A Father’s Story,” the conflict is between duty to God/law and love for one’s children. What are the sides in your story’s conflict?
  2. Write a back-to-back scenes, each dedicated to one side of the conflict. In Philadelphia, the costume party is followed by practice for the trial. The scenes can be fairly long or short and quick-hitting. The important thing is to  make your character aware of the juxtaposition. For each scene, think about a dramatic action that illustrates each side of the conflict. Don’t be literal (if one of your sides is death, don’t put your character at a funeral). If possible, make the scenes take place outside of the conflict (in other words, in the character’s life). Ask yourself, “Where does the character experience Side X at home, at work, or with family, etc?” Then, ask yourself, “Where does the character experience Side Y at home, at work, or with family, etc?” Let this second dramatic experience impinge on the first. In Philadelphia, Andrew is still basking in his enjoyment of the party when his attorney begins peppering him with questions.
  3. Let the character realize the juxtaposition. In short, let the character think about the conflict. In early drafts, we almost always do this. Our characters talk about what the conflict means to them. The problem is often that they’re talking about it in ways that are too obvious. The key is to ground the conflict in the tangible experiences and actions of the character’s world. The result is that the character is reacting against those tangible things. There’s a huge difference in a character saying, “I am Love, Love, Love,” totally out of the blue and saying it after coming home late from a party. Context is everything, and it is what these scenes aim to provide.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Justin Carroll

16 Jan
Justin Carroll's story, "Darryl Strawberry," appeared in Gulf Coast.

Justin Carroll was born in California but often writes about Montana, where he spent his formative years. His Montana story, “Darryl Strawberry,” appeared in Gulf Coast.

Justin Carroll was born in California, raised in Montana, and now lives in Texas. He has an MFA from Texas State University and is an assistant editor for the Austin-based literary journal Unstuck. His work has been previously published in Juked, Saltgrass, and Brink.

In this interview, Carroll talks about the necessity of palpable detail, the greatness of Andre Dubus, and revising toward what feels organic.

To read an excerpt from “Darryl Strawberry” and an exercise on descriptive passages, click here.

Michael Noll

This is a story about waiting—and as such, it means that much of the story is dominated by characters thinking and talking (or not talking) about the thing they are waiting for. One risk that seems inherent in this kind of story is that there won’t be enough action or forward movement to keep the reader interested. The note that Kidd Fenner finds under his windshield wiper (“I’m sorry. Can you meet me tomorrow at american legion field at six?”) seems to solve that problem by giving the reader something specific to anticipate. Was this note always part of the draft?

Justin Carroll

This story, like most, has seen its fair share of revisions. The first one did have a note, but it was given in passing, as back story. I was given the idea of putting the note into a scene in a workshop with Debra Monroe at Texas State University. It was in that workshop that I realized readers need a break from interior matters. They need something palpable to grip onto, something that breathes new life into the narrative. In Andre Dubus’s “A Father’s Story,” after a few pages of the narrator summarizing his views on faith, Dubus introduces the reader to his narrator’s daughter, who has just left the narrator’s horse ranch after a visit and who, later, become the catalyst for the story’s climax. We need this; without this introduction, the narrator’s views on faith (which, for the record, are wise, interesting, and entertaining) would begin to seem too one-note. Dubus introduces this different aspect of the story at just the right time. Without this break, stories begin to drag. In the beginning, “Darryl Strawberry” was frustratingly slow; the note was able to enliven this story’s step.

Andre Dubus' short story, "A Father's Story," was reprinted in Narrative Magazine, where you can read it bowl

Andre Dubus’ short story, “A Father’s Story,” was reprinted in Narrative Magazine. If you’re not familiar Dubus, you should set aside half an hour and read this.

Michael Noll

The story begins with a scene that isn’t directly related to the conflict between Kidd Fenner and his son, but by the end of the first paragraph, the conflict insinuates itself into the scene (“Wasn’t as good as Henry, but no one in Hamilton was. This, of course, was before the trouble.”) I can imagine writing a story like this and beginning by discussing the conflict directly, laying out its terms for the reader (The kid’s in trouble again, and his parents aren’t sure what to do this time.) Did you ever try such a direct opening?

Justin Carroll

In the first few drafts, Henry’s issues were revealed too clumsily: “This, of course, was before the meth fiasco,” or something equally cringe-worthy. That was too transparent, obviously. Then I erased any obvious hints of the Henry’s problems until Nora goes to the support group meeting. I think I settled with the line after I discovered that “the trouble” was in Fenner’s own language—this is the only way he’d be able to describe Henry’s status (in the beginning of the story, at least). I still got conflicting views on this matter from some of my colleagues, but in the end “the trouble” felt organic.

 Michael Noll

One of my favorite paragraphs is this one:

The radio plays the same songs Fenner’s heard for twenty years or more: Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man,” “Big Shot,” by Billy Joel. He’s parked with his back to Safeway’s brightly-lit parking lot; all he can see are the shadowy outlines of the bleachers, the dugout blocked by clumps of snow, the skeletal cyclone fence that runs parallel with the first base line.

It tells the reader that Fenner is at the baseball field without ever saying, “He’s at the baseball field.” Was this intentional? It certainly made me pay closer attention to the language. If you’d identified the field right away, I probably would have skimmed over the details: bleachers, dugout, cyclone fence.

Justin Carroll

Yes, this emphasis on language was intentional. Fenner needed to experience the baseball field in the emptiness of winter. To see the field in direct contrast to the way he’d seen it when Henry had been in tip-top shape seemed important to me.

Michael Noll

This story is full of details that situate it pretty firmly in a particular place, not just details about snow and landscape but also specific proper nouns: Sapphire Mountains, Daly Mansion, Whitman’s Towing, Ravalli County, Chinook Winds, Chapter One Bookstore, Safeway, Town Pump. The effect is that story feels like it occurs in a real place–but, ironically, those specific details also make it relatable. So, even though I’m from rural Kansas, I found myself recognizing aspects of my own hometown in Hamilton, Montana. I’ve heard other writers say that they try to make the places in their story vague so that it seems as though the story could be anywhere. But that’s not what you do. What’s your philosophy toward specific place details like these?

Justin Carroll

Thanks for the compliment! I think specificity of detail is crucial for this story—for all stories, really. I want to be able to walk down the streets of a story, much like I want to feel a beer bottle in a character’s hand. If I can’t access the place of a story, then I probably won’t remember it fifteen minutes after I read the story. My favorite stories build towns and landscapes I can revisit long after experiencing them for the first time; specificity of detail is responsible for this effect.

January 2014

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

How to Describe a Thing Without Naming It

14 Jan
Justin Carroll's story "Darryl Strawberry" was published in Gulf Coast 26.1. The story is about neither the Mets nor Darryl Strawberry.

Justin Carroll’s story “Darryl Strawberry” was published in Gulf Coast 26.1.

The smartest thing I ever heard in a writing workshop was Tim O’Brien’s exhortation to avoid unintentional repetition: never repeat a word on a page unless you mean to do it. This sounds obvious but can, in fact, be incredibly difficult. It’s not enough to find good synonyms. The solution often involves the complete rethinking of sentences and passages. That may sound intimidating, but it can sometimes be as simple as finding the right place for a character to stand.

A perfect example of the effect of viewpoint on prose style is Justin Carroll’s story, “Darryl Strawberry.” It was published in Gulf Coast, and you can read the first pages here.

How the Story Works

Every story contains a moment of necessary description: of a room, a table, a character. The way we often begin the passage is by identifying the thing being described: kitchen, table, the person’s name. This direct approach has two potential problems, though. First, it can be boring. Second, it aligns with our preconceived ideas of a kitchen, table, or what we already know about the character. Because it’s predictable, the passage can have a tendency to hew to and repeat predictable words. So, to write lively, unexpected prose, we need to find a less direct approach.

The following passage from Justin Carroll’s story “Darryl Strawberry” illustrates this less direct approach. This passage comes after the main character, Kidd Fenner, has found a note from his son that says, “I’m sorry. Can you meet me tomorrow at american legion field at six?” Fenner then gets in the car, and this is the scene that follows: (Notice the important, even necessary, words that Carroll avoids.)

The radio plays the same songs Fenner’s heard for twenty years or more: Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man,” “Big Shot,” by Billy Joel. He’s parked with his back to Safeway’s brightly-lit parking lot; all he can see are the shadowy outlines of the bleachers, the dugout blocked by clumps of snow, the skeletal cyclone fence that runs parallel with the first base line. On nice days, he and Nora picnicked by the fence and gave Henry encouraging fist pumps before he stepped onto the mound. Christ, Fenner wonders, how long since then? No more than two years ago, which might as well have been forever.

The words that he avoids, of course, are baseball and field. In short, Carroll has avoided naming the thing that he is describing. The result of this, at least in my reading, is that I was momentarily disoriented. (Since when does a Safeway parking lot have bleachers? But the details quickly oriented me. Dugout is pretty place-specific.) Because of that initial confusion, I paid closer attention. If Carroll had written baseball field in the first sentence, I would’ve scanned the rest, thinking, “Of course a baseball field has bleachers and a dugout.” An editor might have encouraged Carroll to cut those details and skip right to the line about encouraging fist pumps. If that had happened, what would be lost? Perhaps a sense of intimacy. The details draw us into a small but important moment. If the prose had just barreled onto the field, we might not appreciate or even notice that moment because we wouldn’t be paying attention.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try writing a description that makes the reader pay attention, using “Darryl Strawberry” by Justin Carroll as a model:

  1. Choose the place. It can anywhere: indoors or outdoors, a room in a house or the house itself, a public place such as a store or a particular part of that place such as an aisle or the parking lot.
  2. Write a sentence that names the place. Be direct and simple: “The parking lot was full,” or “The kitchen was warm and full of inviting smells.”
  3. Ban yourself from using any of the words (minus articles and linking verbs) in that sentence. You’ve established the most predictable words that can be used to describe your place. Now, you can find better words.
  4. Decide where your narrator or observer will stand and write a sentence that states this. Even if your novel is in third person, even if it doesn’t privilege the point of view of one character, you can still position the point of origin of the description. If the observer is in the middle of your place, the description will read differently than if the observer is standing at the side or edge or watching from a distance. In “Darryl Strawberry,” the observer, Kidd Fenner, is “parked with his back to Safeway’s brightly-lit parking lot.”
  5. List, with brief descriptions, the most outstanding elements of the place. By outstanding, I mean, literally, the elements that stand out. Choosing those elements will depend on the limits placed on your observer. In “Darryl Strawberry,” the observer is limited by lack of light. But not all limits must be physical. They could also be emotional or mental: in other words, give your observer a pair of rose or other-colored glasses. Don’t dwell too long on any particular element of the description. Keep listing and describing new elements until you feel the urge to comment upon one.
  6. Comment on a description. In “Darryl Strawberry,” after the observer notices the mound, base paths, and fence, he remembers giving his son fist pumps before he pitched. Then, he thinks, “Christ…how long since then?” It’s memories and comments like those that are the description’s entire reason for being. They advance both the story and our understanding of the characters and their conflicts. That advancement can only happen, though, if the prose forces the reader to pay attention.

This same process can be used for describing a person—or anything, in fact. The goal is the same: avoiding predictable sentences in order to write unexpected ones. You may find that you’ve written at least one sentence that surprises you. If it surprises you, it will likely surprise the reader as well.

Good luck!

An Interview with Victor Giannini

9 Jan
Vic G Bio Pic 07

Victor Giannini is the author of Scott Too, which has been compared to “the best speculative fiction of Philip K. Dick, and the magical realism of Jose Saramago” by novelist Kaylie Jones.

Victor Giannini is the author of the novella Scott Too and the forthcoming novel Counselor. His writing has appeared at Carrier Pigeon, The Southampton Review, Narratively, (a)Bonac, and Silverthought Press’ IPPY winning anthologies: Silverthought: Ignition and Thank You Death Robot. His art has been featured by various magazines, clothing companies, and skateboard shops.

In this interview, Giannini talks about finding the right frame for a story, the role of pain in writing a personal essay, and why not all facts are necessary to convey the truth.

To read “His Living Room’s a Jungle” and an exercise on using transitions to move through time, click here.

Michael Noll

“His Living Room’s a Jungle” tells a story that spans your entire lifetime and, really, reaches back before you were born. A story that like presents certain challenges, such as how do you, in terms of pure mechanics, move between and link events that occurred in very different time periods. What was your approach to this problem?

Victor Giannini

My first and only idea was this: My father is the center of the story, and I wanted to approach him through my subjective experience. This allowed me an honesty and self-deprecation that balanced out factual errors or emotional wounds.

So I needed to nail the mechanics before I fleshed out the narrative, and it took a few days of writing in my head to find the right flow, like a song with the verses and chorus in the correct places. Memory was the greatest advantage, because at their core, memories are stories. I could slip in and out of memory to find the thematic thread for this story, but that took a few revisions.

The biggest challenge was how to get to the end, which was already set from the moment I pitched the article. The end became the beginning, so it framed the story as a circular piece with nearly linear sequences broken up by flashes to ‘now’ as transitions. The storms and rain were key, and once I moved that idea up front, it allowed me to continue in a more or less linear fashion with the memories.

Handpicking the most dense and condensed memories, with appropriate transitions, became the final puzzle to solve. My memory is highly evocative, if not perfect, meaning I can remember a moment, relive it, even who I was and how I perceived life at the time.

It’s a funny map in my head…start with a scene that sets theme, jump to a scene establishing my narrative reliability (emotionally honest at best), and then, since I was the lens to see my father, jump to the earliest moment I could remember regarding his time in Vietnam, and then work my way back to the opening scene, revealing far more along the way. Throughout the many revisions, which were based on my editor’s questions and suggestions, the framing remained intact as I wrote, rewrote, rewrote, revised, and then cut, cut, cut, all the while keeping that vital key: the framing device, which I view as the frame of a house. When that is confidently set, then it came time to sit down and fill the rooms, so to speak.

Michael Noll

How did you find this framing device (you and your father watching a storm that happened recently, which reminds you of another storm that happened when you were thirteen years old and discovered something about your father)? On one hand, it works the way that our memories really do work, sliding back and forth between past and present. On the other hand, there were probably other intimate, in-scene moments that you could started with–including the scene that you remember when you learn that storms always bring your father vivid reminders of his time in Vietnam. How did you figure out which opening would work best?

Victor Giannini

From the start, I always knew I’d start “today”, me 30 years old and my father at 70.

The theme of rain and storms, making my father slip back in time, and my knowledge of that, gave me the structure I needed to leap back and forth in time as needed. It was an intuitive thing, one of those ideas that wake you up in the night and you just feel confident in it. That was my initial pitch to Narratively.

Victor Giannini with his father, Joe Giannini.

Victor Giannini with his father, Joe Giannini, a relationship that is the subject of “His Living Room’s a Jungle”

Starting “today”, with the storms as a device to link memories across time to “today”, allowed me to hook the reader in with just a bit of mystery and drama, and then slip into that night of interaction and revelation, and back to “today’s storm”, where there is no overt interaction. Now the reader knew that the main subject, my father, would be seen from a lens that can be factually shaky, but emotionally true.

The transitions between these scenes, past to present, memory to now, back again, are the most vital technical aspect. They needed to work on three levels: Functional to the frame as a whole, factual regarding what needs to be known at that narrative moment, and most importantly, emotionally: the transitions making sense that I would take you from “here” to “today” without breaking the flow. If I couldn’t nail the transitions in a very natural way, one that engaged the reader to continue without becoming a road bump, it’d all fall apart. I began to think of them as the last sentence of each chapter. One that gives closure to the section, and a hook to the next.

The only way to figure those out was revision. Thankfully I had a great editor to look at three of the eight versions I wrote. It took constant revision, keeping the focus on my father while still going back into my own mind, finding the most honest way to weave our lives together in service to the main theme, while maintaining emotional honesty.

 Michael Noll

How long have you been thinking about this essay—either working on it or just thinking about how you’d approach it? It seems like a story you might have been shaping and thinking about for a long time, and I wonder what finally clicked and allowed you to write it.

Victor Giannini

What finally clicked … fear. And pain.

Pain for every “character” in the article became the shared theme in which to view every event: Myself as naïve, selfish, expressive, the aftermath for my father and my family … I knew that I was on the right path when I became afraid to publish it. When I became truly afraid, not for portraying myself as imperfect, but for my father, who I treasure deeply, I knew I’d nailed it. Becoming afraid to accidentally misrepresent us was when I knew this story NEEDED to be told, rather than just me wanting to impress people. I was terrified right up until publication. But it was the right kind of fear. It meant I was honest with my reader, myself … and my father.

Victor Giannini's novella, Scott, Too, "echoes the best speculative fiction of Philip K. Dick and the magical realism of Jose Saramago."

Victor Giannini’s novella, Scott Too, from Silverthoght Press, “echoes the best speculative fiction of Philip K. Dick and the magical realism of Jose Saramago.”

As for how long it took…ever since I started writing at 15, I knew someday some aspect of his story must be told. So this particular essay was written for Narratively, and the editor wanted a “veteran story” that was unlike any he’d seen before. Given the non-fiction genre (I write fiction primarily), the greatest challenge was not what to put in, but rather what content to cut out. So I forgot about word count, took off all the restraints, off and wrote a version that was three times as long.

That allowed me to cut, cut, move, revise, which I believe are the key aspects to writing. Well, at least for me. Just let it all out. Be human. Then become an author, go back and revise everything to embrace the narrative. So the initial idea was always there for over a decade, the structural one was immediate, something from my subconscious, and the task of writing actually writing it took over a month. Actually, the context of it being a public article with a set word count was a great constraint during the entire process, even though I initially broke that constraint. Thankfully, my editor provided helpful questions and comments which led me down the path of what to cut, and what tiny parts to put in that weren’t there.

Michael Noll

Your father is publishing a memoir that will, presumably, cover some of this same material. How did that affect your writing of this essay. You’re using your perspective on your father as the lens for understanding him, and sometimes when writers do this, they worry that the lens is too strong–that they’re, in fact, writing more about themselves than about the other person. Did you ever find yourself checking to see if your memories were accurate? Or did the fact that your father was writing his own story free you up to write yours?

Victor Giannini

Bit of a mixture. Knowing my father was writing his own memoir allowed me to leave many facts, many amazing stories, for him to tell. That memoir is his life, his story. That was a huge burden taken off my shoulders, so I could focus on a subjective view of a veteran rather than a historical view.

I allowed myself to write about myself because, in a way, as long as my thoughts were focused on him, he is the main character, and I remain the narrator. This article is still about him but from my perspective. His own writing fills in all of the things I merely list. In a way they compliment each other, so a massive amount of information about his time in Vietnam was “allowed” to be truncated for me. I knew he’d reveal it all, in his own words. At times I did feel I was writing more about myself, but I waited for the revision process, when I had a break and a clear set of eyes to steer my way back towards him. That often meant cutting any ponderings or flowery prose, however pleased I was, that were merely my reactions to my own memories. Then focus the lens back on him.

As for fact checking … I was afraid to do so until the very final draft. To find out what I was right or wrong about outside my experience would skew my memories and emotions. Much of what I learned from my mother was at the last minute. Things that aren’t in the article, regarding my half-brother, my mother, and so on. But it’d be dishonest to force them into the final draft.

My father knew of the project, but I never showed him it. I was afraid it would taint the embarrassing, brutal, honesty that I’d finally cut the piece down to. New information about the past didn’t enhance the narrative at all. It castrated it, because from my point of view…those things didn’t happen. Knowing my father is writing his own memoir absolutely freed me to write honestly, “right or wrong”. Looking back…I’d say that’s actually the most important aspect. I could never write this article, showing him as both a veteran and a man, without the real life assurance that he’d be showing himself through his own memoirs. A strange case of life impacting art, and art reflecting life. This was a true challenge to write, and I’m happy and grateful that I was given the chance.

January 2014

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

How to Use Transitions to Move Through Time

7 Jan
Victor Giannini's essay about his father's struggles with PTSD, "His Room's a Jungle," was published at Narratively.

Victor Giannini’s essay about his father’s struggles with PTSD, “His Room’s a Jungle,” was published at Narratively.

Every writer struggles at some point with transitions: how to move from one moment in time or idea to another moment. If the piece spans many years, these transitions become even more important because the writer is clumping together time: a moment here, a moment there, some context here. The transitions between these clumps can be simple (“And then…”), but how do you make them simple and also keeps the reader hooked?

Victor Giannini demonstrates how to use transitions in this beautiful essay about his father’s struggles with PTSD after serving in Vietnam. “His Room’s a Jungle” was published at Narratively, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

There are hundreds of ways to transition from one moment in time to another, but in almost all of them, the transition works like a chain link: the transitional phrase touches upon a phrase or idea that precedes it and also a phrase or idea that follows it.

In “His Room’s a Jungle,” Victor Giannini uses at least three different kinds of chain link:

  • A link between one specific moment in time to another similar moment in time. The essay begins with the writer sitting in his father’s living room, watching a storm through the window. The transition works by directly linking this storm with another storm. Notice how quickly this happens:

I love how the sun showers create black clouds framed in gold, but before I can crack a smile, the rain takes my memory back to another storm. It was just like today, in this very room, just the two of us. He was fifty-three; I was thirteen. The power went out. I cursed life, furious that my video game had been interrupted. Then Dad said, “It’s like I’m back.

  • A link between an attitude/belief and a moment that changes that attitude/belief. The essay is, in part, a bildungsroman—a story about a young person learning some elemental truth that forever changes his life. The following passage demonstrates how to distill the belief that will change and the event that changes it:

When I was a young child in Brooklyn, for me, war had no veterans. War was scrambling around the public park, shouting “Bang! Bang! I got you, you’re dead!” and then fighting with Seth over whether he actually got shot or not.

War was abstract, perhaps scary, but always fun. Then one day, I was rolling around on the carpet, turning a table and couch into a secret mountain base for my army of plastic men, when Ron, my older half-brother, came to visit. He whispered to me, revealing a cool new secret about the father who had left his family and come to live with mine.

  • A link between a particular moment and a new attitude/belief. This link is the opposite of the previous one, and, as a result, the two are often used in tandem, as is the case in “His Room’s a Jungle”:

Ron left smirking. I was left with a weird mix of jealousy, sadness, and awe. My father was never the same again, not in my eyes. From then on, when my friends had sleepovers, watching “G.I. Joe” or a VHS of “Predator” that I stole from Ron, I felt special. I felt better than my friends. My father used to be a soldier. And even better, a special one. A marine!

Transitions become more difficult if you’re not sure what you’re linking: in other words, what is each passage about? The answer should be more than what happened. You’re also developing an idea: this happened, and this is the change that occurred as a result.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try out some transitions, using “His Room’s a Jungle” by Victor Giannini as a model:

  1. Pick a true story to tell. Choose one that has personal importance, one that you’ve thought about a lot, one that gives you the sense that all was not the same after the events occurred.
  2. A link between one specific moment in time to another similar moment in time. In essence, this is the “This reminds me of a time…” link. When do you find yourself thinking about this story? Are there particular triggers? You can choose something timely (something from today’s news) or something routine (walking the dog, watching football, washing dishes). Keep in mind that the thing you remember is more important than the trigger—so just like a real trigger, the mechanics of it should happen quickly. Get the reader into the moment as fast as possible. Giannini does like this: “It was just like today, in this very room, just the two of us.”
  3. A link between an attitude/belief and a moment that changes that attitude/belief. In short, how did you once feel about the thing you are writing about? Which moment really began to change that belief? This is an old storytelling technique—think about the New Testament’s Saul getting knocked off his horse by lightning and becoming the evangelist Paul. Your moment might be less dramatic than a lightning strike, but it should start a chain of events that will lead to a new way of thinking. To make this work, summarize the belief and then transition quickly to the moment. Giannini uses three words: “Then, one day…”
  4. A link between a particular moment and a new attitude/belief. This is your chance to tell the reader how your ideas changed. While this could come at the end of the essay, it’s probably better to put it nearer the beginning. Ideally, the new attitude will complicate matters. Think about it this way: Now that the wool has been pulled away from your eyes, what do you see? It’s probably something a little unsettling. The transitional phrase can be simple. Giannini uses this: “From then on…”

Good luck and have fun!

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