Archive | March, 2014

An Interview with Aliette de Bodard

27 Mar
Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

Aliette de Bodard has won almost every science fiction and fantasy award possible: a Nebula Award, a Locus Award, a BSFA Award, as well as Writers of the Future. She has also been a finalist for the Hugo, Sturgeon, and Tiptree Awards. She is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood; the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting; and many short stories and essays. She lives in Paris.

In this interview, de Bodard discusses mixed points of view, stories as social commentary, and the myth that technology and science are value neutral.

To read “Immersion” and an exercise on writing ideas into fiction, click here.

Michael Noll

Your story, “Immersion” is told from a mixed point of view: second person for the woman who cannot remove her immerser and third person for the woman who scorns the technology. The mix works: second person seems to really fit the dilemma faced by Agnes, and the third-person POV helps avoid confusion between the two narratives. But the mix also probably breaks one of those “rules” that occasionally pop up in writing workshops, something along the lines of “pick a point of view and stick with it.” How did you decide upon this mix? Was Agnes’ POV always told from second-person?

Aliette de Bodard

I’ve never been much of a person for following rules, actually–my motto is more “know why the rules exist so you can break them”. Seriously though, I think rules are very useful when you’re a beginner, mostly in order to leave you time to work on more “simple” things. I think of it as juggling. If you start out learning to juggle with six balls, you’re probably going to get discouraged; an easier way to go about it is to start with one ball, then add another one, etc. until you get to six. Rules are meant to “box” you in a bit, to make stories a little easier to write. But they can become strictures if you keep applying them without thinking on why they exist.

In this particular case, sticking with one POV makes sense in a short story, because you have little space, and shifting POVs too often risks making your story difficult to follow. It’s always been one of the more frustrating rules for me, though, because what you gain in clarify, you lose in subtlety: I think it makes for better, more balanced stories if you combine several points of view–it gives you several different views on the action or on things that characters might not be aware of. In the case of “Immersion”, it makes you understand the plight of Agnes better to see her both from within and from without. The story didn’t start out that way: I originally only had Quy’s point of view, but it wouldn’t gel until I found Agnes’s voice in second person.

Michael Noll

I recently read M. John Harrison’s Light trilogy, which features a character who is addicted to a chemically-induced dream reality. This same idea is present in “Immersion.” Agnes used the immerser to fit in with her husband’s social group but soon began to rely on it until she reached the point that removing it will kill her. Unlike in Harrison’s novels, though, the addiction in your story isn’t complete. The characters, even Agnes, are aware—if dimly—of their altered states. You capture this by showing Agnes half remembering phrases or caught between instincts that are truly remembered and those that are technology-induced. It’s a fine line that you must walk in almost every sentence—capturing warring impulses in a single mind. Did this voice simply come to you one day, or did you have to experiment to find a way to portray this dual state?

Aliette de Bodard

Agnes’s voice was pretty straightforward to write—though I’m not sure if I could sustain it for a full novel, since it’s a bit draining and a bit difficult to write a character like her, who’s not exactly sure which world she inhabits. I’ve always found it easier to write characters with a very large internal life, and she certainly fits the bill.

 Michael Noll

You’ve written some high-powered social commentary in the story. This is probably my favorite line: “It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules.” What I found impressive was how you integrated this commentary into the story. It doesn’t come out of nowhere or feel like the author intruding to tell the reader the moral. Instead, you attach it to the technology that is warping the characters’ lives. The technology, you write, “Takes existing cultural norms, and puts them into a cohesive, satisfying narrative…Just like immersers take a given culture and parcel it out to you in a form you can relate to: language, gestures, customs, the whole package.” I wonder what came first: the commentary or the story it’s embedded within. How do you strike the balance between story and the things you want to say?

Aliette de Bodard

It really depends on the story! “Immersion” started out as mostly commentary: I wrote it after we came back from visiting my maternal family in Vietnam, and I saw firsthand the damages the Western mindset was still doing there. I always knew what I wanted to say with the story; and what took time was working out a setting and characters that would help me do this without seeming overly preachy (though every one has a different idea of what “preachy” means. I felt the story was very direct about postcolonial issues, perhaps too overtly so, but there are a lot of people who didn’t even see that aspect of it!).

Michael Noll

When I read about the immersers, I couldn’t help but think of our current technology, especially smart phones. Just as the immersers “take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms,” so do smart phones take complex processes like navigating space or killing time and flatten them into simple interactions with a screen. I’ve read enough Jaron Lanier to know how much of what we take for granted as “the way we interact with technology” is founded on particular assumptions made by a handful of early programmers and developers, who may or may not have had problematic assumptions about culture. What do you think? Does technology force people and cultures to interact within the paradigm of the technologically dominant culture?

Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard has composed eight "rules" for writing fiction about cultures other than your own. The rules, along with a lot of other great essays and links, are available here at her website.

Aliette de Bodard has composed eight “rules” for writing fiction about cultures other than your own. The rules, along with a lot of other great essays and links, are available here at her website.

I think there is a persistent myth that technology, like science, is value neutral because it simply reflects the way the universe works. The thing is, they’re both tools, and they’re both created in a cultural matrix that makes them what they are (the pursuit of science, and the way science revolutionised the world at the end of the 19th Century, for instance, is inextricably bound up with the rise of massive colonial empires and the plundering of resources from said empires). Perhaps even more so than science, technology is dependent on who created it and how they thought people would interact with it: a very simple example is that, on a lot of webpages and forms, the encoding is ASCII or some variant that doesn’t handle diacritics. That’s because the people who coded it were Anglophones, and didn’t think anyone would have a need for letters like “é”, “è”, etc. So when you have to type in something, you strip it of diacritics rather than have it come out as garbage text. And that’s a very simple example: now imagine this kind of mindset in, say, the use of a GPS, the use of a personal assistant, the coding of an AI. You see that there is something at work there that goes beyond lines of codes and electronics and whatnot; a set of assumptions that remain unquestioned and perpetuate a status quo. So, yes, definitely, there’s a paradigm that gets enforced when dealing with technology; and it’s a self-reinforcing one because people will then reject, say, any smart phone that doesn’t behave “sort of like an iPhone”–unless there’s some massive shift.

I’m not saying we’re locked in this; there are game changers, and there are people providing technology beyond the dominant paradigm and being very successful at it–but just that we have to be aware of this.

March 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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How to Write Ideas into Fiction

25 Mar
Aliette de Bodard's story, "Immersion" appeared in Issue 69 of Clarksworld Magazine.

Aliette de Bodard’s story, “Immersion” appeared in Issue 69 of Clarkesworld and won the Nebula and Locus prizes for Best Short Story.

When I was in an undergraduate fiction workshop at Kansas State University, my teacher told us not to worry about what our stories were about. Focus on the characters and plot, he said, and the rest will sort itself out. This is often good advice—but not always. Some stories are about ideas, and the issue becomes not how to momentarily forget those ideas but, instead, how to attach them to the characters and plot so that they read as story rather than apart from it.

One genre that consistently tackles big ideas is science fiction. And one of the most interesting new science fiction writers is Aliette de Bodard, whose story, “Immersion,” appeared in Clarkesworld and won or was nominated for pretty much every award possible: Nebula, Locus, and Hugo Awards for Best Short Story. You can read “Immersion” at Clarkesworld‘s website.

How the Story Works

The story states its ideas outright. It’s about a piece of technology that allows its user to drop into a world and culture that isn’t their own and still communicate. In the story, de Bodard writes that certain people “believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules.” She also writes that the technology takes “existing cultural norms, and puts them into a cohesive, satisfying narrative.”

These are strong statements about culture and cultural appropriation, and it’s impossible to not read them as sharp critiques of very real technology in our very real world. The risk that any story runs when stating its ideas in this way is that can begin to feel more like an essay than a narrative. Essays are great, of course, but when readers begin a piece of fiction, they often have little patience for tangents that do not advance the forward momentum of plot and character. So how does de Bodard successfully include these statements in her story?

  1. She applies them directly to a single character. Here’s the story’s first sentence: “In the morning, you’re no longer quite sure who you are.” And why is the character not sure? Because she wears a device that produces an avatar that not only produces an external image but also delivers cultural and linguistic cues directly into the character’s brain. Imagine a Fodor’s guidebook mixed with Siri and the information delivery system in The Matrix. In short, de Bodard has created a machine that turns her ideas into tangible objects with consequences for the characters who encounter with them.
  2. She makes the plot hinge on the character’s decision. The story begins by asking the character who she is, and the plot follows an attempt to answer that question. Three of the characters (her husband, Quy, and Quy’s sister) are actively pushing or, at least, tangentially giving her space to answer that question, but the technology (the immerser) is pushing back. It wants to supply its own answer. In a way, the plot is similar to any story about powerful external influence (addiction, cults, relationships with manipulative partners). Because the technology is a character with (almost) a will that it exerts, it makes perfect sense for de Bodard to write that the immerser takes “existing cultural norms, and puts them into a cohesive, satisfying narrative.”

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write ideas into a story using Aliette de Bodard’s story, “Immersion,” as a model:

  1. State your ideas. What is your theory about _____? de Bodard is writing about cultural appropriation, and you can write about something equally large. Or, you can focus on something smaller. To get you started, how would you finish this sentence? The thing about (pick your group of people) is ______. For instance, you’ll sometimes hear people claim that certain men suffer from small-man syndrome; i.e. the guy is short and making up for it. Congressman Paul Ryan recently blamed poverty on inner-city people who don’t know how to work. President (at the time, candidate) Obama once said about Midwesterners that “”it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” (Interestingly, when my Midwestern, religious, gun-owning father heard this, he thought it seemed about right.) All of these statements are basically ideas or theories about human behavior. de Bodard’s ideas are more rigorously academic, but they are still about human behavior. So, what’s your theory about 1) why people act the way they do or 2) the systematic consequences of that behavior?
  2. Create a machine that turns those ideas into things. This can mean a literal machine like the one de Bodard has created. The point of the machine is to put your character into an existential dilemma that is tied to the theory you have developed. So, if you believe in short-man syndrome, you might create a machine that makes tall people short. If you’re a Paul Ryan acolyte, your machine would make people unwilling to work (a city full of unwilling scriveners). Or, if you agree with the president, your machine might make people bitter in order to see what they cling to. But your machine doesn’t need to be an actual machine. I’ve already mentioned that addiction or cult personalities can fulfill many of the same functions. But so can the circumstances you create: if you want to make a character bitter enough to hate foreigners and brandish guns, there are realistic ways to do that. Melville found a way to make Bartleby avoid work. Many stories are filled with characters who suffer illnesses or accidents that change their physical appearance. In short, you can use the world of your story to drive your character into a situation that forces them to act.
  3. Make the plot hinge on the character’s action. How will the physically altered character react, and how will that reaction the ones she loves? If the character refuses to work, even in the face of extreme poverty, will someone eventually step in to help or not? Will the bitter character use the gun you’ve given him against the people he blames for his misfortunes? Turn the plot into a question of the path your character will take? The story can end once the decision has been made. Or, it can proceed from there to show the effects. Either way, you’re turning your initial ideas into a story that may have room for the statement of those ideas.

Good luck!

How to Write a Murder Scene

18 Mar
Claire Vaye Watkins won the prestigious Story Prize for her debut collection of stories, Battleborn. Her story, "The Last Thing We Need," appeared in Granta 111.

Claire Vaye Watkins won the prestigious Story Prize for her debut collection of stories, Battleborn. Her story, “The Last Thing We Need,” appeared in Granta.

American films are full of violence; in fact, the anticipation of death is probably one of the reasons that people go to the movies. There’s a visceral, perverse thrill in seeing someone killed in front of your eyes, and that feeling is harder to create in writing than it is on the screen. It’s difficult to replicate the speed of a gunshot or the blind, chaotic feeling of participating in a fight. Some writers try to copy the techniques of film: a lot of choreography (punches, kicks, and ricocheting bullets). But the best writers use techniques that are only available in written fiction to create powerful scenes of violence.

Claire Vaye Watkins has written such a scene in her story, “The Last Thing We Need.” It was published in Granta, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The scene takes place at a gas station in the Nevada desert. The narrator is a high school kid working the night shift for the station owner, a man who keeps a shotgun under the counter. He’s doing his homework and doesn’t see a car pull up. As you read the scene, pay attention to two things: the choreography (who did what) and the delay (what details are given to slow down the action):

I looked up and the guy was already coming through the door at me. I looked outside and saw the ’66 Chevelle, gleaming under the lights, grasshoppers falling all around it like rain.

I tried to stop him but he muscled back behind the counter. He had a gun, held it like it was his own hand. He said, You see this?

There was a bandanna over his face. But Beatty is a small town and it was even smaller then. I knew who he was. I knew his mother worked as a waitress at the Stagecoach and that his sister had graduated the year before me. The money, he was saying. His name was Frankie. The fucking money, Frankie said.

I’d barely touched a gun before that night. I don’t know how I did it. I only felt my breath go out of me and reached under the counter to where the shotgun was and tried. I shot him in the head.

Afterwards, I called the cops. I did the right thing, they told me, the cops and Bill Hadley in his pyjamas, even my father. They said it over and over again. I sat on the kerb outside the store listening to them inside, their boots squeaking on the tile.

Every time I read this passage, I’m struck by the line, “I shot him in the head.” It’s blunt and direct. The language does not try to convey anything other than the barest of facts. This is important because badly written violence tends to be overwritten. The language tends to tell the readers not only what happened but also how they should feel about it (anxious! afraid! sickened!) and how it occurs (in a flash! suddenly! out of the blue!). So, how does Watkins avoid those mistakes and write a powerful scene? She does two things:

  1.  She uses simple sentence constructions to convey the choreography. By simple, I don’t mean in the grammatical sense—one subject/verb pair—though there are several of those types. For instance, this is a simple sentence: “I only felt my breath go out of me and reached under the counter to where the shotgun was and tried.” The beauty of a simple sentence (in the grammatical sense) is that it’s usually crystal clear. While you never want your readers confused about basic elements in a story, you especially don’t want them confused during the moment of greatest importance. That said, by simple construction, I mean sentences that use as few words as possible, like this one: “I tried to stop him but he muscled back behind the counter.” Imagine how else that sentence could have been written. Stop is a vague word, right? Another writer might have described the exact physical movements used in the attempt to stop the man. It might have worked. Who knows? But it might also have lost the sense of purpose. In all the arm-grabbing and shuffling, the reader might have forgotten the elemental goal of stopping the man with the gun. Who really cares how motions were involved? The same is true of the word muscled. Again, Watkins eschews detailed description and again boils the movement down to its essence: stop and muscled back. She’s conveyed the physical dynamics of the scene (one person is stronger than the other) and also the basic action in only twelve words. Written stories can never approach the speed of film, but they can still move quickly, as Watkins has shown.
  2. She interrupts the action with plain information. Beginning writers tend to try to make each sentence in an action sequence more intense than the previous one. But this is almost always unsustainable. Another strategy is to switch back and forth between intense action and something that isn’t intense. Watkins interjects the actions in the gas station with basic info: “But Beatty is a small town and it was even smaller then. I knew who he was. I knew his mother worked as a waitress at the Stagecoach and that his sister had graduated the year before me.” Imagine if, in advance of reading this scene, someone told you that the best way to write a murder scene is to tell the reader, just before a man is shot and killed, how big the town is. You’d likely think it was terrible advice. But what it does in this scene is heighten the tension. A man with a gun is one thing, but a guy you know with a gun is entirely different. Watkins keeps switching back and forth between action and info: “The money, he was saying. His name was Frankie. The fucking money, Frankie said.” She does the same thing with the narrator, telling the reader that he’d never touched a gun before. These interjections slow the action down but also make us lean into the page in anticipation. What started as “stop and muscled back” becomes “The fucking money, Frankie said and I’d barely touched a gun before.” In other words, the information makes the scene more personal, which, of course, makes it more tense.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a violent scene, using the scene from Claire Vaye Watkins’ story “The Last Thing We Need” as a model:

  1. State what will occur. Know what your destination is. In Watkins’ story, a teenage gas station attendant shoots an armed robber. Don’t worry about crafting a great sentence. You’re just reminding yourself what the endpoint of the action is.
  2. Describe the choreography in simple sentence constructions. Your goal is a sentence like this one: “I tried to stop him but he muscled back behind the counter.” Boil the action down to quick descriptions of purpose. What are the characters trying to do? When the purposes are clear, it becomes easier to introduce complications. So, for instance, you might write, “He grabbed at the money, and I tried to pull it away. The bills  ripped down the middle.” Try to choose words that accomplish two things at once: statement of action and description of how that action occurs. Consider the difference in the scene if muscled was replaced with slipped. It might make the man harder to shoot in the head. He might be too quick, and so the scene would play out in another direction.
  3. Interrupt the action with plain (uncharged) information. By uncharged, I mean that if you read the information out of context, you wouldn’t think twice about it. But you can’t insert just any old info. You need a goal in mind. Are you trying to make the scene more personal for one of the characters, as Watkins does? Are you trying to make the characters more hesitant or eager? Do you want more or less urgency?  Do you want them thinking of ways to safely extricate themselves from the scene, or do you want them escalating the tension? How do you want the characters to feel after the scene is over? Regardless of your goal, the information should be simple. Characters who are about to engage in violence probably don’t have a lot of mental space for abstractions or reflection. The information should be the sort that they would likely be instantly aware of during the moment.
  4. Switch back and forth between action and information. The idea is not so much to keep applying pressure on the reader but to take short breaks from the tension so that the reader wants to know what will happen. One way to do this is to repeat one of the pieces of information that you’ve introduced. Watkins does this by revealing and repeating the identity of the man with the gun: who his mother was, who his sister was, his name, and his name again. The result is that the scene becomes increasingly personal for both characters because they know each other. You can do something similar by taking one piece of information and showing it to the reader in slightly different ways. (Genre writers, especially mystery/detective/crime writers, often do this. At a moment of high tension, the character will notice a refrigerator humming too loudly or a scratch on the floor. Sometimes this fact will get incorporated into the scene somehow, either directly or by causing the character to remember/realize something.)

The key to a scene like this is twofold: use short, clear language that reveals multiple things at once and add moments that step away from the tension to reveal information that is initially uncharged but that becomes important as the scene progresses.

Good luck!

How to Find a Plot (and Humor) with Repetition

11 Mar
Teddy Wayne's humor piece, "On the Internet, Nobody Knows You're a Human Who's Turned Into a Dog," appeared in the Shouts and Murmers Section of the New Yorker. Wayne is the author of two novels and many fictions like this one.

Teddy Wayne’s story, “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Human Who’s Turned Into a Dog,” appeared in “Shouts and Murmurs” in The New Yorker. Wayne is the author of two novels, most recently The Love Song of Jonny Valentine.

When working with plot, we tend to think forward: what happens next? But sometimes that’s the wrong question. Occasionally, we should think of plot as if we’re telling knock-knock jokes to a 4-year-old. You finish one, the kid shouts, “Again, again,” and you ask yourself, “How can I possibly tell another?”

Comedy writers understand this question perhaps better than anyone. Repetition is part of the genre. The challenge often becomes about how long the writer can stay with an idea.

Teddy Wayne uses this kind of repetition in his story, “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Human Who’s Turned Into a Dog.” It appeared in The New Yorker‘s “Shouts and Murmurs” section, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

When we break the story down by its sections, it’s clear how Wayne is repeating and modifying the same idea. Here is each section, summarized:

  1. States the premise (transformed into a dog) and the medium (Facebook).
  2. Introduces a problem with the medium: People “like” things without reading them, forcing the narrator to restate the fact that he’s turned into a dog.
  3. Introduces another problem with the medium (People expect to laugh at Facebook posts), which causes a problem for the narrator because they be laughing while he starves to death.
  4. Introduces another problem with the medium: Facebook moves on without you.
  5. Introduces another problem with the medium: Facebook attachments are weak, and so people will unfriend you if you ask too much of them.
  6. Begins to accept the limitations of the premise: The narrator’s a dog, and he won’t try to fight it.
  7. Accepts the medium: The narrator posts about non-dog topics.
  8. Fully accepts the premise: The narrator becomes a dog in mind as well as body.
  9. The payoff: The narrator finds a way to make dog life work for him and deactivates his Facebook account.

This summary reveals the clothesline that the funny stuff has been hung from. Without this structure, the writer doesn’t have the space to riff.

So, how does this structure work?

While Wayne seems to be writing about a single idea (dog transformation), he’s actually writing about two ideas: dog transformation and Facebook. It’s the latter that turns out to be the most important. If you reread the piece, you’ll see that the narrator repeats the dog premise over and over without many changes. The dog stays in the house. What changes, then, is his reaction to the limitations and problems posed by Facebook. (This is similar to what Will Ferrell does in his famous Saturday Night Live skit about the man grilling at a backyard party and yelling at his kids to get off the shed. The premise doesn’t change: the kids stay on the shed. What changes is Ferrell’s reaction to the medium: his inability to shout loudly or angrily enough to get his kids’ attention.)

As a result, the story is less about a guy turning into a dog than it is about trying—and failing—to communicate something important via Facebook. The story is funny, though, because it’s about a guy who’s turned into a dog. If it was a cry for help from someone with a more realistic problem, the story might become a tragedy, not a comedy.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a structure for a comic story, such as often appears in “Shouts and Murmurs,” that focuses on repetition. We’ll use Teddy Wayne’s story “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Human Who’s Turned Into a Dog” as a model:

  1. Find a premise. Your character discovers something that needs to be communicated. The premise can be absurd (man turned into a dog) or realistic (kids climbing on a forbidden shed). What’s important is making the need to communicate urgent.
  2. Find a medium. You need a method to communicate: phone, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, yelling, cup and string, Morse code, tapping on the prison wall, the “telephone” game of speaking across a chain of people.
  3. Brainstorm the limitations or expectations of the medium. Will Ferrell was limited by the distance between the grill and the shed. Wayne’s dog is limited by the ways that people interact with Facebook. The story’s tension (and humor) are produced by the ways that the medium is ill designed for the premise that must be communicated.
  4. Isolate and challenge those limitations. You can do this in real time (the character tries to communicate but fails) or as a reaction to what happened (character tries again after failing, as Wayne’s dog does). You can introduce new limitations, one after another. Or, you can let the character challenge the same limitation in increasingly strenuous ways (as Ferrell does in his skit). In this case (or, perhaps, both), the tension and humor result from the ways that the attempts to communicate push against ideas of acceptable behavior in the society in which the story takes place.
  5. Undermine or negate the premise. As your character challenges the medium through which he/she is trying to communicate, the tension will rise with each challenge until a logical endpoint appears: the character will ultimately succeed in communicating or fail and suffer the consequences. Once that end presents itself, set it aside. That’s not the ending for you. Instead, you want to surprise the reader. This is often done by undermining the premise. Ferrell wrote many “Get off the shed” skits, and, in most of them, his kids walk up and he realizes that he’s been yelling at the wrong people for no reason. Thus, all of his shouting has accomplished nothing and been for naught—except our entertainment. In Wayne’s story, the dog makes a fortune off of his story and deactivates his Facebook account so that he can get some work done on the film script. Thus, in both examples, what was urgent turns out not to have been so urgent. So, think about your premise: what would make it not urgent? What would make it cease to be a premise? You’ll come up with some obvious answers and some less obvious ones. Play with them to see which is the funniest.

Remember, your goal is to create a structure to riff within. The structure is essential to the humor, but it’s not funny in and of itself. The way that you play within it will be the source of the humor.

Good luck!

An Interview with Diana Lopez

6 Mar
Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, two middle grade novels, and an adult novella. She won the 2012 William Allen White Award.

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, two middle grade novels, and an adult novella. She won the 2012 William Allen White Award.

Diana López is the author of the adult novella, Sofia’s Saints; the middle grade novels, Confetti Girl and Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel; and the young adult novel, Choke. She was featured in the anthologies Hecho en Tejas and You Don’t Have a Clue and appeared as a guest on NPR’s Latino USA. She won the 2004 Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award and the 2012 William Allen White Award. Lopez teaches English and works with the organization, CentroVictoria, at the University of Houston Victoria.

In this interview, Lopez discusses the importance of strong imagery, how to find a contemporary teen voice, and when to explain cultural/regional details to a broader audience.

To read the opening chapters of Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel and an exercise on creating conflict with subtext, click here. For those in Austin, Lopez will be reading at the Westbank Library on March 12.

Michael Noll

One of the more challenging technical aspects of fiction writing is getting characters onto the page for the first time. Your novel does this really effectively. The opening pages use a simple object (bikinis) to introduce four of the major characters (the narrator, her mother, her sister, and her little brother) and also the major conflict (the mother’s breast cancer). All of that happens in about three pages. How did you approach this introduction to character and story? Did the book always begin with the bikinis?

Diana Lopez

Yes. The original title of the novel was “9 Bikinis, 500 Names,” which are now the first and last chapters. I have no idea where the number nine came from, but I knew that I wanted to tackle breast cancer from a daughter’s perspective, a girl who is maturing and who has a lot questions about the body. I wanted her mother to be a strong character with a positive attitude, someone who was going to celebrate her days before the mastectomy by showing off. What better way than to wear bikini tops?

I can’t overstate the importance of strong imagery. The best way to make an okay story into a memorable one is specific imagery. My students often struggle with this. They miss so many opportunities. But consider all the power an image holds. First, it gives the reader a chance to experience via the senses—the bikini colors and patterns, the texture of the fabric, even the hot sun that we associate with them. Second, images hold connotative powers. I don’t have to say that Chia’s mom is fun loving, daring, and sexy. What kind of conclusion would the reader draw if the mother bought oversized T-shirts instead or if she threw away her bras the minute she came home from the doctor? In other words, a good image lets the readers co-create as they arrive at their own conclusions about the characters. Imagine all the assumptions we make about a forty year old woman driving a minivan versus a sixteen-year-old boy.

Michael Noll

There’s a really tender moment in the first chapter between the narrator’s dad and mom:

He pulled out her chair. He could be a real gentleman, but since he pulled out Mom’s chair only at fancy dinners or weddings, this was weird. Mom must have thought so, too, because she hesitated before sitting down.

When the narrator’s little brother demands juice, her dad gets it instead of her mom, which causes her mom to say, “Your father’s treating me like an invalid.” What I love about this moment is its complexity: the father is trying to be kind and considerate—and in most situations, his actions would be seen that way—but because of the situation, the mother interprets these actions as insulting and painful. As a result, the reader is shown something deep and powerful about the characters. Did you try to find scenes that would result in this kind of awkward collision of intention and effect? Or was a scene like this a happy accident? Did it just pop onto the page one day?

Diana Lopez

I am always looking for opportunities to heighten the conflict. It’s what drives a novel just as it drives a good conversation. Imagine how bored you are when your friend is relating the non-eventful details of her day, and then imagine how attentive you are when your friend is talking about someone in trouble. We love conflict.

I spent a lot of time figuring out my characters. I write a lot about each before I put them in scenes. What’s the mom like? Where does she come from and how does she spend her days? How about the dad? Where did they meet? Of course, this doesn’t make it into the final book but it definitely informs the scenes.

So to answer your question about that dinner, I imagined the family at the table and the parents having to deal with the mother’s breast cancer. It made sense for the father to be overprotective, and by then, we already know the mother has an independent streak. So the way she takes offense is natural and logical, given who she is. You could put two different people at the same table with the same looming news and get a completely different scene. In fact, that would be a good writing exercise, wouldn’t it?

Michael Noll

You don’t shy away from featuring technology in the novel. In the first chapter alone, the narrator texts her friend, searches through Google Images, and uses her iPod as a point of comparison for something as important as boys. Was it difficult to write about these things from an 8th grader’s perspective? I ask because my students at Texas State have a far different relationship to cell phones and technology than I do—and certainly different than I had at their age. These same students, however, tend to view their younger siblings as getting far more privileges than even they got. They sometimes sound like old geezers complaining about the kids these days. As a writer, how are you able to bridge the generational gap between you and your characters, especially with technology?

Diana Lopez

Good question and one that brings up a very important aspect of writing for young adults. You have to know your audience. I like writing contemporary books, so they have to take place in the here and now, not decades ago when I was a teen. This can be a challenge, but here’s where research comes in. The best way to bridge that generational gap is spend time with teens. Talk to them. Observe them. “Friend” them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Soon you’ll start hearing that contemporary teen voice and you’ll get a good sense of how they relate to each other and to technology. I teach too, and I’m still writing on the board. Instead of copying the notes, half the class takes a pic with cell phones. Many public schools are doing away with books and distributing iPads to their students. I only know these things because I’m out there paying attention. A good tool for writers is observation and engagement with the people you hope will read your book.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about the audience for this book. It’s about a Latino family living in San Antonio. They use corn tortillas for tacos—not flour—and take a trip to a cuarto de milagros. In other words, they have an intimate relationship with a particular culture and place. As a result, I was interested in this passage about migas:

Migas was our favorite Tex-Mex dish—a mix of corn tortillas, eggs, tomatoes, onions, and cheese. We loved the recipe. Thing was, migas were for breakfast, not dinner.

The description of migas is clearly meant for readers who do not have the same cultural knowledge as the narrator and her family. This seems to point to a tension that is inherent in a novel about characters who do not often appear in national fiction (though this is changing). How do you balance the need to clue in an audience not familiar with things like Tex-Mex food with the equal need for an honest depiction of a narrator who wouldn’t walk around explaining the basic elements of her life? How do you decide what to explain and what to leave to the reader to figure out?

Diana Lopez

Diana Lopez's middle grade novel Confetti Girl won the William Allen White Award and, according to ALA Booklist, "puts at its center a likable girl facing realistic problems on her own terms."

Diana Lopez’s middle grade novel Confetti Girl is featured the week at Latin@’s in Kid Lit.

Excellent question and one I have struggled with. I want my book to be accessible to many readers. That said, I don’t intentionally highlight these details. Seriously, they are part of my world so it doesn’t occur to me to give the recipe for things like migas or to explain the process of making cascarones like I do in Confetti Girl. This is where an editor who lives in New York comes in. We’ll get to this point in the revision process where she has highlighted places with unfamiliar images or words. I remember the first time this happened. I wrote a book set in Corpus and mentioned T-heads, never realizing how unique that term was. The editor had no idea what I was talking about, so I added an appositive phrase for clarification. Ultimately, that’s what I have to determine. Are there enough context clues or should I be little more explicit? The last thing I want is a reader to stop because she’s confused. In that sense, I am very grateful to have an editor who is not from my world and can point out these places—then lets me decide whether or not I should add that recipe or definition.

March 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Create Conflict with Subtext

4 Mar
Diana Lopez's YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel

Diana Lopez’s middle grade novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel has been called an “honest, sometimes uncomfortable, but always hopeful look at how cancer affects family.”

Conflict is essential to fiction, and, of course, the easiest way to create conflict is by pushing characters into a fight or argument. But how do you set the stage for the big confrontation? One way is to establish competing needs or desires (I want my neighbor to cut his grass, and he wants me to keep my opinions to myself). Relying on this strategy too often, though, can lead to predictable scenes. A story needs unexpected arguments. One way to set those up is with good intentions. In fiction, as in real life, we’re often stunned to find out that our good deeds are not always appreciated.

Diana Lopez uses this strategy perfectly in her middle grade novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel. You can read the opening chapters at Hachette’s website. (Look for the maroon tab that says “OpenBook-READ AN EXCERPT.”)

How the Story Works

When setting up scenes, we often choose the most obvious paths toward conflict. One character is upset about something and says so. Another character doesn’t like what’s said and so reacts. Thus, conflict. While this method can work, it also limits the characters to thinking about and acting on whatever is happening directly in front of their faces. In other words, there’s no subtext.

In a conflict that arises out of subtext, the characters are thinking about something that is not happening in front of their faces, and the conflict arises because those thoughts begin to manifest themselves through the character’s actions. As a result, a character’s internal conflict becomes external.

Here’s the scene from Lopez’s novel that illustrates this idea perfectly. The subtext isn’t stated in the scene, but it’s clearly present:

As soon as she saw the table, Mom said, “What’s this?”

“I made dinner,” Dad announced.

“But I could have made dinner,” Mom said. “I was planning to. I always make it, don’t I?”

“Just wanted you to have a day off,” Dad said, all cheery.

He pulled out her chair. He could be a real gentleman, but since he pulled out Mom’s chair only at fancy dinners or weddings, this was weird. Mom must have thought so too, because she hesitated before sitting down. Then Dad went to his seat and told us to dig in. We did. Quietly. For once, Carmen wasn’t acting like a know-it-all and Jimmy wasn’t begging for something to hold. It was a perfectly quiet dinner like Dad had wanted, but it sure wasn’t peaceful.

After some typical dinner-with-kids chaos, this happens:

“So let the rest of us help,” Dad said. “There’s no need for you to do everything.”

“And there’s no need for me to do nothing at all.”

I felt totally confused. Dad was acting super nice, but Mom was acting mad. “What’s going on?” I had to ask.

It’s at this point that the subtext is revealed: the mom has breast cancer. With that knowledge, you can go back through the scene and see how the dad’s and mom’s actions all stem from this subtext. What makes the scene work is that not everyone is acting on the subtext in the same way: The dad has approached the cancer diagnosis differently than the mom, and the kids don’t yet know what’s going on. As a result, the scene involves three different characters (mom, dad, kids) reacting to subtext (conflict that is happening off page) in three different ways.

What’s interesting is that all of the characters have good intentions. No one is the bad guy or antagonist in the scene. Keep this in mind. A good subtext can pit good people against one another simply because they have different, incompatible reactions to the subtext.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a scene whose conflict stems from subtext, using the scene from Diana Lopez’s novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel as a model:

  1. Choose a subtext. Or, decide what the character(s) are thinking about while they’re doing other things. What often works best is a subtext that is shared by more than one character. So, you could consider news or revelations about health, career, relationships, school, or finances. These are big areas, the sort of things that stories are “about.”
  2. Choose characters. Who are they, and what is their relationship to one another? Remember, you’ll be putting these people together in a scene, so you need a reason for them to be together.
  3. Give each character a different approach to the subtext. How does each character feel about the subtext? In Lopez’s example, cancer makes the mom determined to enjoy life and the dad determined to care for the mom, and the kids don’t know about it yet. In your writing, each character should have his/her own personal reaction to the news/revelation and also a need to act on that reaction. In life, some good advice is to never act rashly or in haste—to let news sink in before acting. But in fiction, this is bad advice. People and characters alike have a gut reaction upon learning news, but with people, this reaction is sometimes tempered with time. In fiction, time should actually heighten the reaction. In other words, by the time your characters find themselves in scene with one another, they should be so disturbed or bothered by the subtext that they’re chomping at the bit to act. It might also be helpful to have at least one character who doesn’t know the subtext.
  4. Put the characters into a room together. Lopez uses the occasion of a meal. Many stories use wedding, funerals, and graduations. Jane Smiley, in her brilliant novel A Thousand Acres, has her characters play Monopoly. The point is to put the characters into a confined space that they cannot leave: a car, around a table, a space station (Gravity).
  5. Make one of the characters act first. Lopez has the dad act on his reaction to the subtext first (making dinner, pulling out the chair), and the sequence of events dominoes from those initial acts. The act should stand out in some way. The easiest way is for the character to act out of character, and, often, this kind of act will cause the character to be embarrassed or behave awkwardly. Remember, the character is doing something out of the ordinary, and so he/she likely won’t be very good at it. The small failures in the act can provide openings for other characters to react.
  6. Keep the subtext just beneath the surface. Don’t let it be stated outright. As Lopez makes clear in the first chapter of the novel, once the subtext is revealed, the scene ends. So, the longer you can keep it under the surface, the longer you can keep the scene going.

Good luck!

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