Archive | April, 2014

How to Set Up a Power Imbalance

29 Apr
NoViolet Bulawayo's debut novel, We Need New Names, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel, We Need New Names, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.

A common writing tip is to create a power imbalance between characters. There are obvious ways to do this: give one character a gun. Or, create a structural imbalance (teacher/student, coach/player, rich family/servants). But what if these approaches don’t fit comfortably in your story, and you don’t want to shoehorn them in? You need something more nuanced.

NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel We Need New Names contains many rich, complex portraits of her native Zimbabwe, and one of the many things she does well is reveal imbalances of power. A terrific example can be found in this excerpt, “Blak Power,” published at Guernica, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The novel takes place in Zimbabwe during the land redistribution of the 1980s, after the transition to a government led by black, not white, leaders. The excerpt opens with an encounter between some kids, who are picking guavas from a rich neighborhood, and the guard, who has been hired to watch over the gate to one of the houses. The dialogue is funny and menacing. If you haven’t read the excerpt yet—or the novel—these pages of dialogue are worth the time by themselves.

That great dialogue, though, depends on a power imbalance between the guard and kids. Here is how Bulawayo describes the kids seeing the guard for the first time:

“We can tell from his uniform that he is a guard. We haven’t seen any guards in Budapest before so at first we are not so sure what to do with him. He beckons us with his black baton stick, and because we are too close to turn around and run we just walk towards him.”

Already, even though we know very little about the guard or even the kids, we sense the tone of the encounter. A guard ought to convey a sense of authority and power, but the kids are curious more than anything else. They approach him in the spirit of play (“we’re not sure what to do with him”), almost like he’s a caterpillar or some other amusement they’ve happened upon.

Now, watch how Bulawayo describes the guard through the kids’ eyes:

We’re right there with him but he is busy shouting like we are on Mount Everest. He looks us over with his dirty eyes, and we look him back, not answering, just watching him to see what he is all about.

I can’t figure out if he is frowning or it’s his general ugliness. He is tall and his navy uniform looks like it’s just been slapped on him. On his left arm is a discolored white patch with a picture of a gun and the word Security embossed in red letters, and on his breast is a ZCC church badge.

The trousers barely reach the ankles, and his boots are unpolished. He is wearing a black woolen hat and matching gloves, never mind the heat. Everything about him looks like a joke and we know he is a waste of time—if we weren’t this close we’d probably call him names and laugh and throw stones.

Imagine how differently the guard might have been described by someone impressed by or intimidated by his power. For instance, the badge with the picture of a gun might have seemed frightening rather than shabby. But because the kids are not afraid of the guard—because the power imbalance actually runs the other direction, with the kids possessing more than the guard—details that, from the guard’s point of view, are supposed to seem intimidating, are, instead, comical. By the time the narrator says that they’d “probably call him names and laugh and throw stones,” we already understand the power dynamic.

The great dialogue (“Where is your roger-over, can I see it?”) depends on this description to set the stage. (Incidentally, if you read the entire excerpt, you’ll see how the power imbalance plays an important role later on. The kids merely tease the guard, but others will take a more heavy-handed approach.)

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a power imbalance with description, using the passage from NoViolet Bulawayo’s “Blak Power” as a model:

  1. Choose two characters from any story or vignette you’ve written (or are writing). It doesn’t matter which characters so long as they have an opportunity to interact with each other.
  2. Figure out the power balance. There isn’t an interaction that happens anywhere on Earth that doesn’t have some sort of power balance. Even conversations between friends are charged: who gets the last word? Who picks up the tab? Who determines where to meet, when to leave, or what to talk about? When a disagreement is broached, who politely keeps their mouth shut? Who doesn’t? If a character says something stupid, does the other one call him/her on it? The important thing is to think of power in terms of agency, not force. It’s not a question of one character forcing another to act but, rather, one character being more able to fully inhabit his or her agency. The character with less power censors him/herself or waits for permission or instructions before acting.
  3. Choose one character as a lens to view the other. It doesn’t matter if you choose the more or less powerful character. The key is to pick one. You’re trying to write a description that is conscious of the power imbalance.
  4. Describe the other character, charging each detail. The easiest way to do this is to use the phrase “looks like.” Bulawayo uses the phrase when she writes that the guard’s “navy uniform looks like it’s just been slapped on him.” The charge can also be more subtle. In the next sentence, Bulawayo writes, “On his left arm is a discolored white patch with a picture of a gun and the word Security embossed in red letters.” She could have focused on the gun, but she leads with the word “discolored.” As a result, everything that follows is less impressive. We make judgments like this every day. Someone will say, “Isn’t he great?” And we’ll respond, “Yes, but did you notice…” You might even look back at descriptions you’ve already written. What adjective (like “discolored”) could you add to convey the attitude of the character doing the describing?

The power imbalance doesn’t need to be gaping. Even the slightest imbalance can cause an otherwise uncharged scene to become much more interesting.

Good luck!


An Interview with Adrian Van Young

24 Apr
Adrian Van Young is the author of the story collection The Man Who Noticed Everything.

Adrian Van Young’s story collection, The Man Who Noticed Everything, has been called “seedy, even unnatural” and full of “Cthulian horror.”

Adrian Van Young’s story collection, The Man Who Noticed Everything, won the 2011 St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press. His fiction and nonfiction have been published or are forthcoming in LuminaGiganticElectric Literature, The American Reader, Black Warrior ReviewThe Believer and Slate, among other publications. Van Young has taught writing at Boston College, Boston University and Grub Street Writers, in Boston, and writing and literature at the Calhoun School, 826 NYC and the Buckingham, Browne and Nichols School. Currently, he teaches writing at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA, and lives in New Orleans, LA with his wife.

In this interview, Van Young discusses monster creation, mall gothic, and genre-benders like True Detective.

To read “The Skin Thing” and an exercise on writing one-sentence paragraphs, click here.

Michael Noll

I love the monster in the story, the actual The Skin Thing. It’s such a simple concept. There’s no origin story, no technical explanation of its mechanics or motives. It’s just a blob that sometimes eats people and sometimes doesn’t. How did you come up with the monster? Did you start with The Skin Thing and write the story around it? Or did you have a sense for the kind of story you wanted to tell and create a monster to fit?

Adrian Van Young

Thanks! I was happy with the way it turned out. To begin to answer the first part of your question, the story was solicited by Gigantic Worlds, a terrific anthology of flash science fiction forthcoming from Gigantic Books and featuring a great many writers who I slaverously admire such as Brian Evenson, Laird Barron, Meg McCarron, Alissa Nutting and Adam Wilson, to name just a few. So the genre was somewhat decided in advance.

But I knew from the get-go that I wanted to write an alien story and that moreover I wanted the alien itself to be Lovecraftian—a creature that presides terribly over human destiny but from a point beyond human knowing. Of course, when you’re going the Lovecraftian route, you don’t always want to hew to what’s been done, you want to make it new, so I started thinking, as well, about the scariest element of successful horror-inflected science fiction, which in my mind is always the human element. It’s a simple but effective principle. Take the Alien trilogy, for example. In the second film—which also takes place in a ruined space colony on a planet not unlike Oblivia—sure, H.R. Giger’s Xenomorph creature is responsible for a lot of the bloodshed, yet were it not for The Company’s decision to send the colonists and then the space Marines into a potentially dangerous situation or The Company’s decision, via Burke the corporate shill, to harvest a human host for military research, then a lot of what transpires over the course of the story would be moot. Which is a roundabout way of saying that I wanted the true horror in “The Skin Thing” to be not the creature itself but rather—not to belabor the obvious—what the colonists put on the creature and how they react to it in a setting of isolation and privation. Thus came my decision to call the creature The Skin Thing and to have it share with humans the largest and most superficially recognizable human organ: skin. So while the creature is “The Skin Thing” by name, the colonists themselves, whether they want to admit it or not, are doing “the skin thing,” i.e. the human thing— segregation, violence, cruelty, oppression, what have you, which humans have done with remarkable skill since they first crawled out of the ocean, notwithstanding hideous creatures to expedite the process.

So I guess you could say that, yes, I tailored the monster to fit the story, more or less. On another level, though, the look of the monster emerged partly from my obsession with Jim Henson Puppet Factory creatures and the like—the painstaking craft that at one point in time went into fashioning grotesque bodies. Guillermo Del Toro, god bless him, carries on the tradition today in film, Laird Barron and Caitlin R. Kiernan in literature. And somewhere in there must’ve been the sandworms from Dune, combined with a sort of eyeless sloth, combined with a terrestrial bat.  I was—and am!—a super nerdy and monster-obsessed little kid. After watching Star Wars and Dune, or reading The Tommyknockers and At the Mountains of Madness, all I could think of for days were the monsters.

Michael Noll

You write a lot of one-sentence paragraphs in the story. For example, this passage about the people who were sacrificed as a series of one-sentence paragraphs:

McSorls came first. McGaff. McShea. McVanderslice. McGuin. McGreaves…

Colonists total: two-hundred and forty. Colonists fed to the thing: thirty-six. Colonists saved on account of this practice (not to mention the onions): one hundred, at least.

Life was, for an instant, as right as it could be. 

Until the matter of McGrondic.

Is this style simply the way you find yourself writing? Or did you discover this style in an attempt to achieve a certain voice or tone or effect?

Adrian Van Young

The Man Who Noticed Everything has been called, by John Wray, "the secret love-child of so many authors I admire, from Ambrose Bierce to H.P. Lovecraft to Sherwood Anderson to Tobias Wolff."

The Man Who Noticed Everything has been called, by John Wray, “the secret love-child of so many authors I admire, from Ambrose Bierce to H.P. Lovecraft to Sherwood Anderson to Tobias Wolff.”

That’s an interesting question; I’m glad that you asked. Before a couple years ago though, I think you would’ve found that my fiction trafficked in lengthy, solid blocks of text that scrolled endlessly down the page. And unless you’re Thomas Bernhard—who I sometimes wish I was!— that’s not always going to work, especially with the modern reader. I learned from writers like Denis Johnson and Lydia Davis and Peter Carey, to name only a few, the indelible power of a well-placed one-sentence paragraph. It can just slam you, if you do it right. I also think it strengthens the bridge between fiction and poetry—namely, treating fiction as a kind of long-form, narrative poetry that demands equal if not more attention to rhythm, word combination and line-breaks, as it were. When I myself am writing a piece of fiction I always have a rhythm in my head that I want the words to conform to—so much so that at first I end up choosing words irrespective of precision, allusion or inflection and solely based on whether or not they fit rhythmically into the musical scheme of the sentence. That rhythm can be imprisoning. In drafting, of course, I go back and end up recalibrating the music of the sentence to fit the aims of the words but in the first draft, at least, rhythm is everything to me. One-sentence paragraphs further this sense of rhythm because they each signify a clean break from and a full stop after the sentence before. They also speak with a lovely straightforwardness to the writer’s intent—take note of this sentence!—and serve to move the story along in accord with how a reader’s eye moves down the page and how that eye, in turn, translates those words into brain matter, i.e. image, image, scene, image, scene, scene, image, etc. As you can see, my writing is heavily influenced by film, but at this point I’ve seen so many, how could it not be!

 Michael Noll

This story reminds me a lot of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin. (It’s also set in a place not unlike the colony in her novel The Dispossessed.) Both stories are science fiction, of course, and they’re both written in first person plural and formal in tone. Both read like myths, though your story has more narrative (I suppose, in that sense, it’s not unlike Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”). I’m curious what draws you to this style and form. Are you after that mythic sensibility, and science fiction/speculative fiction is a form that allows for it?

Adrian Van Young

Funny you should mention that Le Guin story, because in spite of the fact that several other people had noted a similarity, I’d never actually read it until yesterday when I started answering these questions. It’s a good one—though I think I like other Le Guin better. “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow,” also from The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, is a marvelous space opera that does volumes with characterization and world building in less than 50 pages. Of course, I can see the resemblance between “Omelas” and “The Skin Thing,” though I’d argue that “The Skin Thing” is bleaker. “The Lottery” you’re dead-on with, though. That story was at the forefront of my mind when writing this one. I have always been a tremendous Shirley Jackson fan—We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House rank among my favorite novels—and “The Lottery” is no exception.

But the “mythic sensibility” that you cite in Le Guin is something I’m absolutely drawn to as a writer. That sort of epic, indelible quality to the prose, the themes. The writer’s way of saying: this happened. It was terrible, terrible, and it cannot un-happen. Near as I can recall I first encountered that quality in Edgar Allan Poe in stories like “The Fall of the House of the Usher” and “The Masque of the Red Death”—even though he was very much writing out of the 19th century. And then subsequently people like Angela Carter, Cormac McCarthy, William Gay and Annie Proulx, who all riff on 19th-century-inflected modes of speech and storytelling to manufacture their own modern-day myths. Granted this technique can seem hackneyed and super-imposed, especially if you go about it half-assedly, and so I would argue that the more wholly you give yourself over to the high, operatic quality of this kind of storytelling, the more a reader will be inclined to believe you, to go where you’re taking them. You really have to go full ham, I think. Carter does this extraordinarily well in her stories—“The Lady of the House of Love” from The Bloody Chamber, for instance, which is a feminist retelling of “Sleeping Beauty” with vampires in it, and goes so utterly over-the-top that it works. Which is all by way of saying, yes, I think this tone can be well suited to speculative fiction.

On the other hand though, you have people like Kelly Link, Victor LaValle and George Saunders who strive to incorporate more banal elements alongside more fantastic ones in their fiction, giving rise to something newer and subtler probably than anything I’m capable of producing. Shirley Jackson excelled in this, too, especially in “The Lottery,” which begins: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full summer day…” Or to touch again on Saunders, there is no better descriptor in criticism than the term that’s been used to characterize his early work (CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia): mall gothic.

Michael Noll

Your story collection, The Man Who Noticed Everything, was published by Black Lawrence Press, an imprint of Dzanc. For a long time, the attitude toward small, independent presses like Black Lawrence has been that they publish the writers whose work is too weird or experimental or nontraditional (whatever these terms mean) for the big publishing houses. But I wouldn’t say that’s entirely true anymore. Your work–and the work of writers like Kelly Luce (published by A Strange Object) and Daniel Jose Older (published by Crossed Genres)–is firmly within some very popular genres, most obviously the speculative fiction of Le Guin and horror of Lovecraft but also what’s sometimes called the New Fabulism of George Saunders, Aimee Bender and, now, Karen Russell and Manuel Gonzales. In short, the big houses are publishing some of the same kinds of fiction as the independent presses–“literary” fiction that is incorporating various genre elements. Do think this is a case of the big houses finally catching on to a style that was discovered and promoted by small presses? Or, are presses like Black Lawrence and Dzanc growing large enough that they now exist in the same sphere as the big houses?

Adrian Van Young

Well, given that Black Lawrence recently separated from Dzanc, I guess the last part of that question’s up for debate. Certainly both presses (Dzanc and Black Lawrence) are expanding every day, putting out top-quality fiction, poetry and non-fiction, genre-inflected and not. But I mean, yes, I definitely feel like New Fabulism, as it’s been called, has been inching its way into the mainstream for a couple years now to the point where genre-barriers are breaking down. In my opinion, this is ideal for literature in general. These distinctions between genre fiction and literary fiction, which have been picked over ad infinitum, are essentially meaningless when it comes to quality—and yet they’re incredibly meaningful, too, when it comes to form and tradition insofar as understanding the ways in which various genres work can help one into a greater appreciation for fiction that blurs the lines between them. Ultimately, I think that a more useful distinction exists between commercial and non-commercial, i.e. 50 Shades of Gray vs. The Piano Teacher. But then again, there are some jaw-droppingly adept novels out there that are superficially “commercial”—Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, for instance—and some jaw-droppingly absorbing novels out there that are superficially “non-commercial”—say, Never Let me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I suppose in the end that all of these distinctions are silly, that a really excellent piece of fiction will decimate them forwards and backwards. Yet in the end they’re very human, and they’re useful to us as writers and readers. Distinguishing and discerning between types, after all, is its own form of doing “the skin thing”—it’s just what people do.

In his recent essay at Slate, Van Young argues about the TV series True Detective that "the cosmic-horror genre—rooted, as it is, in humankind’s subprime position in the pecking order of the universe—is deeply entwined with the character of Louisiana’s physical and cultural landscape."

In his recent essay at Slate, Van Young argues about the TV series True Detective that “the cosmic-horror genre—rooted, as it is, in humankind’s subprime position in the pecking order of the universe—is deeply entwined with the character of Louisiana’s physical and cultural landscape.”

And while I wouldn’t group myself in with the so-called New Fabulism school of Aimee Bender and George Saunders—as much as I admire those writers—I do think it’s catching on and I’m glad of that. It was wonderful, for instance, to see Saunders receive so much attention for The 10th of the December, which although accessible in some ways is objectively a very bizarre, eclectic collection of stories. As bizarre and eclectic as any of Saunders.

All the same, though, I don’t think you could realistically say that Black Lawrence and Dzanc, along with Coffee House, Two Dollar Radio and others, are in the same sphere as the big houses—and this is purely from a standpoint of promotional resources, distribution reach, market clout. The sheer ability that the bigger houses have when it comes exposing their authors, getting their books reviewed, getting their books in bookstores. What is interesting to me recently are the larger houses who’ve embraced the indie model as a sideline—say, FSG Originals, who has been publishing work by ostensibly experimental or genre-bending writers like Laura Van Den Berg, Jeff VanderMeer, Amelia Gray. That goes for Riverhead too (a division of Penguin), who published Manuel Gonzales’ collection.

That said, no, I don’t think it’s a case of bigger houses co-opting what was originally promoted by smaller presses. In many ways, I think it just marks a shift in the cultural sensibility at large. Which is to say a shift toward genre-bending, a gleeful sort of category crisis. You see it in TV (True Detective), in film (Let the Right One In, District 9), and now in literature. If the 80’s and 90’s were a time for largely embracing the conventions of genre when it comes to narrative art forms, then maybe the 2000’s have been a time for exploding them. You could chalk this up to post-modernism, blah, blah, blah, but in the end I think it just comes down to the fact that people as artists and consumers of art crave ingenuity, and the surest path to achieving that is through hybridization. Everyone loves a good mash-up.

April 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write a One-Sentence Paragraph

22 Apr
Adrian Van Young's story, "The Skin Thing," was featured on Electric Literature's Recommended Reading blog and will appear in the forthcoming anthology Gigantic Worlds.

Adrian Van Young’s story, “The Skin Thing,” was featured on Electric Literature‘s Recommended Reading blog and will appear in the science flash fiction anthology Gigantic Worlds.

In composition writing classes, we’re usually taught (or we teach students) not to write one-sentence paragraphs. But, in fiction and nonfiction alike, these short paragraphs can pack a tremendous punch if done well.

Adrian Van Young demonstrates this punch in his story, “The Skin Thing,” which will appear in the forthcoming science fiction anthology Gigantic Worlds. You can read it now at Electric Literature‘s Recommended Reading blog.

How the Story Works

Most writers will, at some point, use a one-sentence paragraph to emphasize some point or moment. Van Young’s story is interesting, then, because he uses so many of these constructions, sometimes to conclude a longer paragraph and sometimes as a series of short paragraphs. The sentences can be long, short, and even fragments.

They tend to be used in one of three ways:

Accentuate a change in tone:

This short paragraph concludes a description of the monster’s actions. In terms of subject and style, it’s really part of the paragraph that precedes it, but it’s given its own line because its tone is different (funnier, sort of):

Just one of us, McSorls, held ground. He was seeking, we think, to protect his allotments. It plucked him up inside its mouth, like the mouth of a puppet, and gobbled him down. Or gummed him down. It had no teeth. The leg of his pants dangled out, disappearing.

The Skin Thing ate his onions, too.

Summarize time and events:

These fragments deliver an accounting of the colonists’ battle with the monster:

McSorls came first. McGaff. McShea. McVanderslice. McGuin. McGreaves…

Colonists total: two-hundred and forty.

Colonists fed to the thing: thirty-six.

Colonists saved on account of this practice (not to mention the onions): one hundred, at least.

Illuminate important images

This paragraph is actually a series of short, connected sentences that focus on a different part of the monster’s body:

It was the height of foursome men, and its body behind was a languishing tube, and its head, although eyeless, was snouted, with nostrils that sucked and blew as it grew near.

Here, the sentences adopt a style of repetition common to speeches. The fragments illuminate a character in a moment of time:

There was:

McGondric in the mess, picking over his onions in no special hurry, a relaxed, dewy look to his under-eye skin.

McGondric going through the camp with his harvest of onions arrayed under cheesecloth, and heavens, his basket, the way that he bore it: offertory, slimly poised.

McGondric alongside his daughter, McGale, as they raked up the sands that comprised their allotment, the pink and the clean-muscled arms of them pushing, and pulling back toward them, and pushing once more.

Instead of moments from a long period of time, though, these two paragraphs break a very short amount of time into even shorter flashes of perception:

And there, behind the sandy glass, we saw a crown of human head.

And under it: a hand. A knee.

All of these one-sentence paragraphs are designed to manipulate the reader’s perception of the events and characters in the story. They speed up or slow down time and direct the reader’s eye.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write some one-sentence paragraphs, using the passages from Adrian Van Young’s “The Skin Thing” as a model:

  1. Write a sentence that accentuates a change in tone. One way to do this is to create a series: actions, personality traits, qualities, requirements, events, or whatever appears in your story multiple times or has its differences parsed out. The problem with lists is that they can be boring—just a bunch of stuff. In workshops, the writer Tim O’Brien discourages lists for this reason, but of course his famous story, “The Things They Carried,” contains lists in almost every paragraph. So, after a list of ____, he writes, ______. Van Young uses a shift in tone in his story as well, but rather than interpreting the list, the tonal shift adds to the list: literally, one more thing the monster did, but this thing tells us something about the monster’s intentions that the other things did not. So, in your series, search for entries that sound different. Ask yourself, “What does that difference indicate?” Does it make you uncomfortable? Does it seem to cast the other items in a different light? Try putting it at the end and in a separate paragraph.
  2. Write a sentence that summarizes time and events. People who write press releases do this all the time. They use fragments to highlight the impact or actions of a group over time: X number of units sold, X number of services rendered. Fiction writers can do this as well, as Van Young illustrates. In truth, many of us do this naturally, especially when pressed into an argument. We tally up our actions over time: X meals cooked, X hours worked, X kindness delivered or sacrifices made. To do this in a story, figure out what actions your character takes pride in; then, challenge it. How would the character defend him/herself? Try listing the tally in separate lines.
  3. Write a sentence that illuminates important images. There are a few ways to do this. 1) In a static description of a person, thing, or place, instead of using commas to set off attributes (tall, dark, and handsome), develop each adjective into a sentence or phrase of its own (so handsome that I had to look away). Then, connect the sentences with commas or semicolons. 2) In a description of a person, thing, or place in motion, break the motion down into snapshots (as opposed to a running strip of film). What is happening in each snapshot? 3) In a description of an act of perception (I saw…), do not show the entire thing being perceived. Instead, reveal one part at a time. In each of these three methods, you’re focusing on images that writers and readers alike often zoom past. Devoting an entire sentence or phrase to the image can slow readers down, and then you can slow them down further by placing each sentence into a paragraph of its own.

Good luck!

How to Write a Story Ending

17 Apr
Óscar Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. His essays about the migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

The easiest part of writing any story ought to be finding the beginning, middle, and end. So why is it often so hard? And why does so much ride on making the right choices?

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez has written one of the best story endings I’ve ever read in his nonfiction book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. The essays were originally published as dispatches in the Salvadoran online newspaper, El Faro, and translated in this collection from Verso Books. You can read the first chapter at Dazed.

How the Story Works

Martínez tells stories about many different migrants in the book, and one of them is about a teenager named Saúl, who was born in El Salvador but raised in Los Angeles, where he joined the M18 gang. He was deported after robbing a convenience store. The problem was that he didn’t know anything about El Salvador—hadn’t been there since he was four years old—and so he started walking and searching for the man who was supposed to be his father:

And what happened to him is what happens to any kid who doesn’t know what he’s doing in Central America, who thinks any neighborhood is just any neighborhood. A group of thugs turned out of an alleyway and beat him straight to hell.

So, the beginning of the story is pretty simple. The thugs, members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, take Saúl to their leader, who, in turns out, is his father. Now, watch how Martínez sets up the story’s ending—and how he wraps it up:

“I’m Saúl,” Saúl said, breathless, “I just got deported. And, I swear it, I’m your son.”

The man, as Saúl recounted it to me on top of the hurtling train, opened his eyes as wide as possible. And then he exhaled, long and loud. And then a look of anger swept over his face. “I don’t have any kids, you punk,” his father said.

But in the days following, the man gave Saúl a gift. The only gift Saul would ever receive from his father. He publicly recognized him as his son, and so bestowed to him a single thread of life. “We’re not going to kill this punk,” Guerrero announced in front of Saúl and a few of his gang members. “We’re just going to give him the boot.” And then he turned to Saúl. “If I ever see you in this neighborhood again, you better believe me, I’m going to kill you myself.”

They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood. He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.

In short, a gang member has been captured by a rival gang in a foreign country, and it turns out the rival gang’s leader is his father. What incredible tension, right? And how does Martínez handle that tension? He could have given us a moment-by-moment account of arguments, beatings, and who stared down who. Instead he almost everything that happens: “But in the days following.” Why?

To answer that question, it’s useful to ask what those skipped moments could have added to the story. Saúl has already been beaten “straight to hell.” He’s already had a stunning encounter with his father (go back and look at how well the father’s shifting emotions are handled). Whatever comes next must advance this conflict. The problem is that you can’t advance severe beatings and familial rejection. More violence is just more of the same. So, when Martínez skips to the father’s pronouncement, he’s simply finding the moment where something new and different happens. The father changes his mind and doesn’t kill Saúl.

Sometimes condensing scenes—or a series of scenes—of high action actually increases the story’s tension. This is exactly what happens in that final paragraph, the story’s ending. It’d be tempting to describe what happens to Saúl in that other neighborhood minute-by-minute. But nothing Martínez could have written would have been better than the weird, surreal, stunning way that he summarizes the action: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

When closing out a story, sometimes one conflict-filled sentence is better than several less tense paragraphs.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a story ending by summarizing action and scenes, using the passage from Óscar Martínez’s The Beast as a model:

  1. Summarize the situation and how the character entered it. The point is to get into the story as quickly as possible. The summary should highlight factors that will appear later. If read the entire story from Martínez’s essay, you’ll see how he highlights Saúl’s gang membership and lack of knowledge about El Salvador. Then he skips past everything that happened to Saúl before he ran into the gang members who beat him up. So, you should focus on drawing the shape of the conflict: why your particular person/character is an especially bad match for the situation. (Bad matches in life make for good matches for stories.) Then, find the first significant action that results from that poor match.
  2. Make an outline of everything that happens next. Simply list all of the noteworthy moments from beginning to end. You don’t even need to use complete sentences. It’s an outline.
  3. Mark the moments of highest tension or action. They might be the most tense because of what information is revealed or because of the extremity of what happens.
  4. Are the remaining moments different or similar? Now that you know what your most tense moments are, you can begin carving away at the rest of the moments so that the best ones stand out. To do this, ask yourself if what is left is any different from those tense moments. If not, you can either cut them completely or group them together into a quick summary (a sentence or two) that sets up whatever tense moment comes next.
  5. Offer an escape valve in a sentence or two that restate the conflict. This strategy of summarizing and highlighting can be carried through until the very end. A great way to finish a story is by pivoting sharply. One way to do this is to restate or remind the reader of the conflict that you first presented at the beginning. You can do this with an actual reminder or by finding a moment that distills the conflict (“They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood.”) Then, offer an escape valve, a way to leave the conflict. Releases tend to be quick (think of a needle and a balloon). Once the reader knows an escape will occur, the writer’s work is mostly done. The tension has been broken. As a result, there’s no need to draw the release out. The quickest version is often the most interesting, as Martínez illustrates: “He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane.”

Good luck!

How to Distinguish Fact from Fiction in an Essay

15 Apr
Óscar Martínez's book of essays about migrants, The Beast, was published in English by Verso books and in Spanish by Icaria Editorial.

Photo Credit: Edu Ponces & Toni Toni Arnau                                 Óscar Martínez’s book of essays about migrants, The Beast, was published in English by Verso Books and in Spanish by Icaria Editorial.

Some stories have been told so many times that they become a genre with rules: when a particular thing happens, the character reacts a particular way. But what if those rules are wrong? For some stories, it’s not enough to tell the truth. You must also consciously distinguish the facts from the fiction that your readers expect. What hangs in the balance is often the humanity of the people you’re writing about.

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez is telling this kind of story in his book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. The essays were originally published as dispatches in the Salvadoran online newspaper, El Faro, and collected in an edition published first in Mexico and now, in English, by Verso Books. The original title in Spanish—Los migrantes que no importan (The Migrants Who Don’t Matter)—gives a sense for what is as stake in the essays. You can read the first chapter at Dazed.

How the Story Works

Martínez tells stories about many migrants, and, taken as a summary with only names and basic events, some of these stories begin to sound like a certain kind of fiction. For instance, Martínez interviews three Salvadoran brothers traveling to the U.S. to escape gang violence. The youngest brother is Pitbull, a 17-year-old who watched his friend Juan Carlos get shot in broad daylight. The next day, he found and put on a police uniform and “went to downtown Chalchuapa looking for the murderer’s accomplice who had gotten away. All day he searched through alleyways and makeshift street shops.” He eventually identified the killers to the police, but the killers recognized him, too, and soon threats were made against his life. If you’ve watched any gang movies, you may have an expectation for what comes next, but this is the point where fact and fiction part ways, as Martínez explains:

If he were a character in a movie, of course, Pitbull would have snooped around, hit up his barrio contacts, tried to put a name to the assassins, maybe put on the police uniform again.

But Pitbull lives in the real world. He ’s just an eighteen-year-old kid steeped in the violence of one of the most dangerous countries on the continent.

Once Martínez establishes that this story will depart from the usual story line, he explains why this departure matters:

What’s more, not even the police reports contain many details. When they killed Juan Carlos—January or February, he doesn’t exactly remember – nine other men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five were killed, just in Chalchuapa. And Pitbull doesn’t even know if Juan Carlos was his friend’s real name.

“That’s what he called himself,” Pitbull says. “But he was in a gang and he had problems in some of the other barrios. I heard people call him a lot of different names.”

William, José, Miguel, Carlos, Ronal, Unidentified, any of these could have been Juan Carlos. All of these young men were murdered in Chalchuapa in the same month. And even if one were to know the facts of the murder, I have a hunch that, like the facts of so many other migrant murder cases, the details would be so scarce they’d simply disappear. Evaporate. It’d be as if nothing had ever happened.

The risk of turning “true” stories into a fictional genre is that the real people involved are turned into stock characters. When Martínez distinguishes fact from fiction, then, he is, in a way, giving life to the people in his stories.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try to distinguish fact from fiction, using the passage from Óscar Martínez’s The Beast as a model. This exercise may be most useful as a tool for revision:

  1. Boil a character and story down to a tagline. To do this, choose a character and story (or person and essay) you’ve created and simplify everything about them. What is the quickest version you could tell someone. For help, think of movie posters. They use simple images that show you the essence of the main character and a phrase or short sentence to state the stakes. For instance, the new movie Draft Day has a poster that shows Kevin Costner in a suit and holding a football in front of signs for the NFL draft. The tagline is “The Greatest Victories Don’t Always Happen on the Field.”
  2. State the movie version. Imagine if your character and tagline were put in the hands of a movie producer hoping for a blockbuster—in other words, someone who will likely hew to convention. How would that person pitch your story, especially the conflict? Try to write the pitch as a series of actions in a single sentence. Here’s how Martínez does it: “If he were a character in a movie, of course, Pitbull would have snooped around, hit up his barrio contacts, tried to put a name to the assassins, maybe put on the police uniform again.”
  3. Explain how your character lives in the real world. Keep the explanation short and focused on the nature of the world and how it’s different from the world of movies. You’re basically tweaking the tagline you wrote earlier. Martínez started with barrio contacts and turned them into this: “He ’s just an eighteen-year-old kid steeped in the violence of one of the most dangerous countries on the continent.” How can you sum up your tagline so that it’s not about a character’s individual action but, instead, about the larger forces that operate around that character.
  4. Show how the world impacts the character(s). What choices do the characters make in reaction to the world you’ve just described? In Martínez’s essay, Juan Carlos created aliases to avoid the pockets of violence all around him. These aliases have the effect of making him hard to officially identify by the authorities—or even by the people closest to him. As a result, when he’s found murdered, no one can say for certain who he is. His identify has been spread so thin that he’s rendered almost invisible. Think about the choices your characters make. What are the consequences of these simple, necessary decisions? What impact do they have later on? Or, how do these choices affect the character’s actions once he/she is dropped into the plot or story you’re writing about?

This exercise should work for both fiction and nonfiction. In both, you’re keeping in mind the readers’ expectations about your story due to the previous way it’s been told.

Good luck!

An Interview with Juliana Goodman

10 Apr
Juliana Goodman is a senior English major at Western Illinois University. Her story, "Hot N' Spicy," appeared in BLACKBERRY.

Juliana Goodman is a senior English major at Western Illinois University. Her story, “Hot N’ Spicy,” appeared in BLACKBERRY.

Juliana Goodman is a senior English major at Western Illinois University. She is the recipient of the 2012 and 2013 Cordell Larner Award in fiction, as well as the 2013 Cordell Larner award in poetry and the 2013 Lois C. Bruner award in Nonfiction. Her story, “Hot N’ Spicy,” appeared in Blackberry.

In this interview, Goodman discusses where to start stories, why she writes about characters she knows, and why Mary Gaitskill’s stories are so great.

To read “Hot N’ Spicy” and an exercise on speed in flash fiction, click here.

Michael Noll

This story starts fast. With two words—”This time”—you sum up the entire relationship and jump into the most recent argument. Did you always know to start that way, or did you write about the characters’ history together before figuring out where to begin?

Juliana Goodman

I really just started off in the middle of a relationship that basically runs in a circle. I drew a lot of the background of this couple from some of my own relationships and relationships I’ve seen other people go through. They fight and makeup over the same things over and over again. I usually like to start all of my stories right in the middle of the action to draw readers in and I feel it is even more important to get the ball rolling when it’s flash fiction. Every single word counts and should add to the piece as a whole.

Michael Noll

The story is full of lines that speed up the narrative. Some skip over explanation, like this one: “Will he take the hoodie?” We didn’t know he had one yet, and the story could have explained that he had one, and that it was his favorite, and so on, but it just moves on. Other lines have well-chosen words that convey a lot of information, like this one: “And then he’s gone out into the hot summer night, my heart stuffed in his back pocket with his wallet and a gold condom.” There’s something unexpectedly specific about the word “gold.” But it’s also not too specific. You could have named the condom brand, but you don’t, but we still know, which makes the line funny. That one word tells us a lot about this guy. Does this sort of condensed language happen naturally on the page? What’s your revision process look like? 

Juliana Goodman

I wanted this piece to have a very intimate feel, like a woman writing in her diary.  She doesn’t explain everything because she’s  in the midst of it all. A lot of the language came naturally because I’ve been in similar situations and the feelings she expressed were my own at the time. That’s a big reason why I always write about characters and situations I know because it makes the emotions easier to convey on the page.  My revision process is a little bit different than the traditional one. Rather than writing a rough draft and going back to edit lines, I revise as I write. I may write a paragraph and then go back and reread it to make sure it sounds good before I continue on with the piece. I read the entire piece again when I’ve completed it, but the amount of changes I make at the end is very small since I’ve already looked it over multiple times.

Michael Noll

I sometimes teach undergraduate creative writing workshops, and I’ve found that my students haven’t read a lot of short fiction, neither stories or flash fiction. So, I’m curious who you’ve been reading. I ask in part because the tone of this story is so sure and confident, simultaneously funny and angry. Are you modeling your work after any writers? 

Juliana Goodman

Mary Gaitskill's collection Because They Wanted To

Mary Gaitskill’s collection Because They Wanted To

A couple of my favorite short story collections are by Junot Diaz and Mary Gaitskill. I enjoy Diaz’s work because it’s very honest and incorporates his culture in a way that’s easy to relate to. Gaitskill’s Because They Wanted To, my absolute favorite short story collection, really changed the way I write.  There’s no filter or sugar coating and the emotions are illustrated without cutting any of those embarrassing or shameful feelings that people are sometimes too afraid to write about.  Reading her stories really taught me to write without restraint. If I’m feeling or thinking about something a lot, whatever it is or how humiliating or crazy it may sound, I put it on the page and take it from there.

Michael Noll

Undergraduate students also often don’t know how to submit their work for publication—not the process or where to submit. How did you find Blackberry ? Did some of your writing teachers at Western Illinois point you in its direction, or did you find it on your own? 

Juliana Goodman

One of my creative writing professors at Western Illinois University, Erika Wurth, sent me the link to Blackberry and encouraged me to look into submitting. The process was fairly simple and now I’ve learned to look around for magazines that publish the type of stories I write by browsing the internet and reading past issues of lit magazines.

April 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Create Speed in Flash Fiction

8 Apr
Juliana Goodman's story, "Hot N' Spicy" appeared as an online feature in Blackberry Magazine, a literary magazine featuring black women writers and artists.

Juliana Goodman’s story, “Hot N’ Spicy” appeared as an online feature in BLACKBERRY, a literary magazine featuring black women writers and artists.

Anyone who’s tried to write flash fiction knows how fast it must move. There’s no time for context or explanation. You’re illuminating a few minutes or seconds of a character’s story, and, if it works, the readers feel as though they’ve peered into Borges’ aleph and seen a much larger world.

But how do you create that dizzying sense of speed? Juliana Goodman’s story, “Hot N’ Spicy” does exactly that. It clocks in at just over 250 words yet reveals an intimate portrait of a relationship. “Hot N’ Spicy” was published at BLACKBERRY, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story captures an intimate portrait of a relationship by showing, not telling. If that sounds suspiciously like the workshop cliché, you’re not crazy. But it’s the key to Goodman’s storytelling. She introduces objects without explanation, allowing the reader to figure out why they’re important. Here is a good example:

He pulls on his dark gray jeans, then a black V-neck. Will he take the hoodie? That’s what I want to know.

Notice the difference in the articles: his jeans, a V-neck, the hoodie. In other words, the hoodie is important. There’s obviously an entire history behind that piece of clothing, but it’s never given to us. Instead, Goodman skips directly to the emotional importance of the object:

I watch him grab it off the sofa and drape it over his shoulder. That’s how I know he’s not coming back. Not tonight.

What matters is not so much the object but what it means: he’s not coming back. Part of the reason this story can be complete with so few words is that it continually skips over context and right to meaning. Here’s another example:

“You’re leaving over tacos?” I ask, and then feel stupid because I sound aggressive and he hates that.

Again, the narrator alludes to past arguments and conflicts but does not tell us anything about them. All that matters is the weight of that history and what it means right now, in this moment: if she acts a certain way, he’ll react in a particular way. Sentences like this provide the flash for this piece of fiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write sentences that move fast, using Juliana Goodman’s story, “Hot N’ Spicy,” as a model. This exercise will work as a brainstorming exercise, but it may be most helpful as a tool for revision:

  1.  Refer to, but do not explain, the history of an object. Goodman does this when she writes, “Will he take the hoodie? That’s what I want to know.” One way to do something similar is by finding an object that either contains meaning. The most obvious example is a wedding ring, but it’d be better to find something more personal to the characters. Put yourself in the room with the characters; what objects are with you? Do the characters have sentimental or personal attachments to them? Another way to approach this is with routine. Does a character always sit in a particular chair? Watch a particular show or read a particular magazine? What you’re looking for is an object that indicates some change in emotion or intention. In a few sentences, explain the importance or role of the object. Then, write a sentence in which the change in emotion or intention or action is happening. How much of the previous explanation can you cut? Can you simply use the sentence with the change?
  2. Make a claim about the future. If characters have spent a lot of together, then they’ve been through certain arguments or interactions enough to anticipate each other’s actions or words. An easy way to show this (and, thus, to skip showing all of those previous interactions) is to make a quick prediction. Goodman writes, “That’s how I know he’s not coming back. Not tonight.” You could also write something like this: “Now, he was going to get defensive.” And, then, he gets defensive. Or, “She was going to fill up her water bottle,” and then she does it.
  3. State a change/modification of behavior with little explanation. Your goal is to portray a shift in thinking or action without being forced to spend time explaining why that shift has occurred. Goodman does this by having her narrator state, after some strongly worded dialogue, “I sound aggressive and he hates that.” The key is often to state what a character likes or dislikes (or, to frame in terms of personality, what a character does or does not do), and move on. What matters is not so much why a preference exists as the effect that the preference (like/dislike, do/don’t do) has on another character.

These exercises are designed for flash fiction, but, in truth, all writers are often trying to condense explanation.

Good luck!

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