Archive | June, 2014

How to Build a Political Argument around a Personal Story

24 Jun
Domingo Martinez' memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, will soon become a HBO series. His essay about the Affordable Care Act, "Quarantined," appeared in The New Republic.

Domingo Martinez’ memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, will soon become a HBO series. His essay about the Affordable Care Act, “Quarantined,” appeared in The New Republic.

It’s no secret that personal stories can fuel political campaigns. The most successful example is the first campaign run by President Obama, but John Boehner does it as well (from a saloonkeeper’s son to the Senate) and so will/does Hillary Clinton. Watch the next presidential conventions, and you’ll notice that almost every single speaker crafts a political message from his or her life story. Some will be quite compelling, and others will come off as dull at best and crass at worst.

One of the better political/personal essays that I’ve read recently is by Domingo Martinez. His memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award and will soon become a new TV series from HBO. But before the memoir, he wrote “Quarantined,” a short essay that you can read now at The New Republic.

How the Story Works

The essay is about the Affordable Care Act and was published in February, 2012, when the fate of the Act was still in doubt. So, Martinez had a clear goal for the piece: to explain why the ACA should be passed in its strongest possible version. He also knew that, to explain his argument, he wanted to talk about the people he grew up with in South Texas. The problem was how to connect the two without falling back on the usual talking points that every politically-engaged person in America had heard a thousand or more times. His solution is to find a third thing to spend most of the time discussing. Let’s look at how this works.

The essay begins with the author calling his grandmother in South Texas. Like many grandmothers everywhere, she ends up talking about her health. But, unlike most grandmothers, her medical treatment takes an unusual twist:

I tuned out her blessings and her current list of maladies until she told me about her terrible arthritis. I shouldn’t worry, she said, because, between the power of prayer and WD-40, her joints were working fine. I asked her, in my halting Spanish, to repeat what she had just said, especially that bit about the WD-40. “The spray stuff, that we used on the trucks, Gramma?” I asked. “El es-sprayo por los truckos?”

“Yes, that’s the stuff,” she said (en español). “I just say a prayer over it and spray my knees and my elbows, and, in the name of Jesus, the heat from the WD-40 loosens my arthritis.”

The interpretation begins at the end of the essay’s first section:

My grandmother’s not dumb or losing her mind. Like many immigrants faced with problems that demand solutions beyond their resources, she looks inward, and backward, for help—or at least delayed consequences—resorting to superstition, old wives’ tales, or illogical assumptions. Anything, so long as it does not cost money. Seeking medical advice is the last option, akin to giving up hope and faith. This is how poor people have learned to cope in South Texas.Seeking medical advice is the last option, akin to giving up hope and faith. This is how poor people have learned to cope in South Texas.

The essay, then, becomes about poverty and the methods a particular group of people have developed for living without some of the basic necessities that most Americans take for granted. He talks about his grandmother, who acts as a bank for her neighbors, who “hock pistols and rifles for small loans.” He explains the “cultural isolation and fundamental lack of understanding” that make delivery of government services a challenge. Because of those challenges, he explains the attitudes that develop around seeking out help, especially medical help: “If you’re not hemorrhaging or suffering from an embolism, then you don’t get to see a doctor.”

Eventually he zooms out from these fine-grain details:

Cameron County, where my grandmother lives, boasts one of the highest ratios of uninsured in the state; one in three people have no coverage. In Texas as a whole, one in four people live without health insurance, the worst percentage in the country.

He mentions the ACA briefly but then explains the cuts to medical services already made by Texas’ governor, Rick Perry. These cuts have affected his parents and grandmother, and they worry about what future cuts may mean for their health. By this point, Martinez is firmly within a political mode, explaining the necessity of the law. But this is not where he ends the essay. Instead, he returns to his point about the region’s poverty and challenges due to cultural barriers: even if the ACA is passed, will his grandmother take advantage of it? Or will she continue to treat her arthritis with WD-40?

Martinez writes, “Few people who speak their language have the time or inclination to try to persuade them—and even fewer are willing to pick up the phone and call.”

Rather than sticking to the well-worn arguments about expanding health care, he makes a larger argument about the political disenfranchisement of an entire group of people. In this way, by revealing the real issues faced by his family, he honors his personal story rather than simply making political hay with it.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a political argument with a personal story, using Domingo Martinez’s essay, “Quarantined,” as a model:

  1. Choose the general political argument that you want to make. It can be something that, when you hear pundits on TV talk about it, your blood starts to boil. Or it can be a more local issue that is usually ignored by national politicians. If possible, choose an issue that is personal to you. Doing so will help you avoid the typical arguments that everyone has begun to tune out.
  2. Choose the personal story you want to use. It doesn’t have to be a story, per se. A detail or series of details can work as well. Martinez uses the fact that his grandmother treats her arthritis with WD-40 and prayer. In short, you can use a detail or story that stands out to you or that you struggle to wrap your head around. Most of us have details about our childhood or the place where we’re from that we enjoy telling to people in order to get a reaction. Those are good details to use for a political essay because they’re usually rough-edged, whereas most political discourse tends to be polished and generic.
  3. Tell the story. Forget the political angle. Pretend it doesn’t exist. You want to tell your story in a true, authentic form, and that’s not possible if your point is already evident; the reader would become suspicious of your story. Use a basic structure: set the stage (when and where and who), what happened, and how this made you feel at the time and how it makes you feel now.
  4. Analyze the story. Why does this story stand out to you? Why do you still think about it? Martinez expresses disbelief at his mother’s use of WD-40: “The spray stuff, that we used on the trucks, Gramma?” I asked. “El es-sprayo por los trucks?” Then he offers an explanation for why she and others like her do such things: “Like many immigrants faced with problems that demand solutions beyond their resources, she looks inward, and backward, for help—or at least delayed consequences—resorting to superstition, old wives’ tales, or illogical assumptions.” While it’s true that there is an implicit political argument in this sentence (why does the U.S. not provide more assistance to immigrants?), it’s also true that Martinez is simply explaining the way things are. So, spend a few sentences explaining the behavior that you’ve just described.
  5. Analyze the story in greater depth. For Martinez, the paragraph mentioned in the previous step is just the beginning. Because he’s established the behavior and the reasons for it, he can elaborate on other types of the same behavior and other illustrations of the reasons. Try to do the same thing in your essay. Are there other things that people did/do that are like the story you told? Are there other ways to illustrate the reasons you’ve given?
  6. Zoom out from the story. Your story is almost certainly not an anomaly. But can you put numbers to it? Can you write a sentence like Martinez’s: “In Texas as a whole, one in four people live without health insurance, the worst percentage in the country.”
  7. Make your political point. Now that you’ve established the larger trend or picture as well as the personal element of the issue, you can make a suggestion for appropriate political action.
  8. If possible, move beyond the immediate politics. Martinez makes a point about the ACA, but then he makes a larger point about the reason his grandmother uses WD-40 for medical purposes, a point about political disenfranchisement. He’s explaining the deeper issue, the one that creates the need for the ACA law. So, if you can, think about what deeper political problem necessitates the law or action that you’re prescribing. You might not be able to do this, but it’s always worth a try.

Good luck!


How to Carve Out Space for Character Development in a Violent Setting

17 Jun
Benjamin Alire Sáenz won the PEN/Faulkner Prize for Fiction for his collection, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. The stories are set along the border between El Paso and Juarez and center on the Kentucky Club, two blocks south of the Rio Grande.

The stories in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s collection, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, are set along the border between El Paso and Juarez and center on the Kentucky Club, two blocks south of the Rio Grande.

There are places in the world that dictate the type of stories that happen there. Violence exerts an overwhelming gravitational pull, and a story that at first has nothing to do with violence—a love story, or a story about family or business—will eventually get pulled into orbit around the violence that exists in the place. Set a story in Mosul, Iraq, and it will eventually run across militants and dead bodies. The key as the writer is not to avoid the violence at all costs but to resist it for as long as possible—in other words, to allow the story to develop dimensions beyond the inevitable.

An excellent example of this resistance can be found in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s story, “He Has Gone to Be with the Women.” It was included in his collection, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, which won the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. You can read it now at Narrative Magazine.

How the Story Works

If you hear a reference to Juarez, Mexico, you automatically prepare yourself to hear a story about violence. For a time, Juarez was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Many of the residents on either side of the border knows real stories of people who have been murdered or kidnapped. From the safe distance of Washington D.C., it’s possible to believe that violence is the only thing happening there. And yet the people who live along the border go about their lives, and so, as a writer, it’s crucial to push back against the readers’ expectations of cartel executions. It’s necessary to find a way to create characters who have lives that exist outside of, or alongside, the violence.

This is exactly what Sáenz does in his story. In it, two men meet at a coffee shop in El Paso. One is American, and the other is Mexican. The border, and it’s associations, are present from the beginning but not at the center of the story, which instead follows the developing romance between the two men. It’s not until a third of the way through the story that violence forces itself onto the page:

Monday morning, I got this text from him: I thought about you when I woke up this morning. I read the text and then reread it. And then reread it again.

I felt like a schoolboy reading a note from a girl. No. A note from a boy.

I didn’t know how to answer his text. I only engaged in the practice because my nephews and nieces demanded it of me. We wrote silly and affectionate things to each other. But this was different. Finally around noon, I texted him back. Stay safe. That’s what I wrote. That’s when it occurred to me that I was afraid. I didn’t like to think of Javier walking the streets of Juárez, doing an errand, going to a store and getting killed, randomly, for no reason. What good does it do to be afraid? He was right. Of course he was right. But so many people had left already. Why couldn’t he leave too? I knew the answer to that question even before I asked it. He wasn’t the leaving kind. He loved his Juárez. I could see that in his eyes, in his unshaven face, in the way he moved and talked. I could almost taste his love for that poor and wretched city in his kisses. It enraged me that Juárez had become so chaotic and violent and capricious. A city hungry for the blood of its own people. How had this happened? I was sick to death of it, sick to death of the body count, sick to death that every killing went unprosecuted and unpunished. You could kill anybody. And what would happen? Nothing. The fucking city no longer cared who was killed. Soon, they would just be stepping over the bodies. Stay safe. Stay safe. Stay safe.

Because Sáenz has created characters with lives and concerns other than avoiding violence, he’s able to make their interactions with the violence personal, as opposed to the generic way that cable news viewers react against stories of border violence.

So, how does Sáenz create these characters without letting them be overwhelmed by the violence that surrounds them? First, he introduces us to them in a place that lies outside of the violence: a coffee shop in El Paso, the safer side of the border. Of course, a coffee shop doesn’t have to be safe. Think about the coffee shop scene in the film Children of Men. When the bomb explodes, the viewer understands that no place in the film is safe. Sáenz could have done that in his story, but if he had, we wouldn’t have gotten a chance to know the characters except as people caught in violence—which is how we know Clive Owen’s character in the film. But the point is to know these characters as more fully developed people. So, Sáenz puts them in a safe place and shows us nuances of their lives:

I always noticed what he was reading: Dostoyevsky, Kazantzakis, Faulkner. He was in love with serious literature. And tragedy. Well, he lived on the border. And on the border you could be in love with tragedy without being tragic.

He drank his coffee black. Not that I knew that.

Sometimes, I could see that he’d just come in from a run, his dark wavy hair wild and half wet with sweat.

He was thin and had to shave twice a day. But he only shaved once. There was always that shadow on his face. Even in the morning light he appeared to be half hidden.

Sáenz develops these details. The two men have conversations about their jobs and families, and when the violence is mentioned, it’s in the contexts of these things. For instance, here’s one of the men, Javier, talking about his uncle, who has cancer and whose care is being managed by Javier:

“He used to love to go out. He would laugh and tell me about how life used to be for him. Now, he won’t go out. He’s afraid. Before, the only thing he was afraid of was my aunt. Now, he’s like a boy. He cries. He reads the newspapers. He thinks he’s living in Juárez. I tell him that we’re in El Paso, that he’s safe. But he doesn’t believe me. He’s afraid to go out. Nos matan, he says. I try to tell him that no one’s going to hurt us. But it’s no use. Every time I go out he tells me to be careful.”

By the end of the story, when the violence cannot be avoided, its inevitable arrival is so much more personal than if it had been directly present all along.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create characters in the midst of some overwhelming situation, using Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s story, “He Has Gone to Be with the Women,” as a model:

  1. Determine the overwhelming situation. As the writer Ron Carlson says, every story has two parts: the story and the world the story comes into. Almost every story, including blockbuster films whose sole purpose of existence is to blow stuff up, spends time developing the characters who will be consumed by the situation. In blockbuster films and many genre novels, though, the character development is as lean and minimal as possible (think of the description of Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code: “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed”). In those stories, the violence or destruction (or aliens, monsters) shows up almost immediately. But in Sáenz’s story, the violence doesn’t really appear until the end. So, decide what situation will eventually consume your characters: violence, family or marriage drama, economic distress, death, disease, or any inescapable deadline.
  2. Determine how that situation will affect the characters. You can be succinct. Someone will die, get sick, get divorced, get shipped off to prison or war or work in some far-off place, or get fired. Know where your story is headed.
  3. Put the characters in a place that is outside of the situation. You likely already know how the characters will behave or respond when the situation presents itself. There are, frankly, only so many ways that people can respond to inescapable deadlines or outcomes. Now, find out how your characters behave when the deadline is out of sight and (mostly) out of mind. Find a location where this is possible, some emotionally neutral or positive place. Put them there and see what they do. What other parts of their lives are revealed?
  4. Choose one of those parts and develop it. Sáenz gives Javier an ailing uncle, and that uncle’s health worsens. Think about the parts of your characters’ lives that you discovered: how can you make those parts dramatic? How can they change or develop (improve or worsen)? How can this change draw other characters into the person’s life? It is this dramatic arc that you’ll focus your story on. The inevitable deadline or outcome will arrive eventually, but if you make the reader forget that it’s there, its arrival will be all the more effective and impactful.

Good luck!

An Interview with Murray Farish

12 Jun
Murray Farish

Murray Farish’s story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, includes stories about Lee Harvey Oswald and John Hinckley, Jr.

Murray Farish’s debut story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, was called “the best first collection I have read in years” by Elizabeth McCracken. Farish’s short stories have appeared in The Missouri Review, Epoch, Roanoke Review, FiveChapters, and Black Warrior Review, among other publications. His work has been awarded the William Peden Prize, the Phoebe Fiction Prize, and the Donald Barthelme Memorial Fellowship Prize. Farish lives with his wife and two sons in St. Louis, Missouri, where he teaches writing and literature at Webster University.

In this interview, Farish discusses the accretion of American pain, the despair of not finding the right ending, and writing stories in a world in which CEOs make 350 times the salary of their workers.

To read the collection’s title story, “Inappropriate Behavior,” and exercises on breaking narrative rules, click here.

Michael Noll

Early in the story, George and Miranda are discussing their son’s behavior and the problems he’s causing at school, and George says, “I just thank God that he’s healthy.” The conversation that followed really struck me for a couple of reasons. One, I have kids, and I think that I’ve probably said something similar to this. Two, the conversation seems to announce that this story is going to run counter to some basic ideas about propriety. Generally, thanking God for a child’s health wouldn’t be considered morally bankrupt, but that’s exactly what Miranda suggests, and both the reader and George come to realize that she’s right. Did the story always begin this way, or did you write the dialogue to perform a particular function within the story?

Murray Farish

The first thing I wrote that made the cut in the final draft of “Inappropriate Behavior” was a version of a much later scene where Archie is lying on the couch trying to figure out which of his toys he’s taking to heaven when he dies. I have to write a lot of pages and take a lot of false paths before I figure out what a story is about and what I want to do with it. Once I figure that out, I try to orchestrate everything—scene, setting, dialogue, situation, character—around that realization. That orchestration became even more important in this story, which I think of as nearly plotless and almost totally free of character development.

Michael Noll

In several places, you create catalogues of George’s thoughts and snippets of news that he hears. I’ve seen stories make similar moves before but never to the extent that you make them. The catalogues are very long–and so there’s the inevitable risk of losing the narrative thread. But that’s not what happens. The juxtapositions in the catalogues are savage, and the paragraphs contain some of the most gut wrenching lines in the story. This is generally true of the story as a whole. There’s another section about paying bills that isn’t a catalogue but works in a similar way. I can imagine a lot of writers drafting a couple of lines about bills and then moving forward into the story, but you stay with the bills for ten paragraphs. I kept expecting the narrative to stall, but it never did. How did you keep the momentum moving?

Murray Farish

Especially in a story that is plotless and free of character development? I worried about it a lot, until I decided to trust in the orchestration—or if that’s too grand a term to keep repeating—to trust the design of the story. Once I figured out that the story I wanted to write was about the Great Recession and how it was the natural result of four decades of political, legislative, and cultural malpractice and neglect of the commonwealth—of the failure to live up to ideals that we the people are obligated, by ink and by blood, to try to live up to . . . well, you can see the problem, for a fiction writer. But if that’s the story you’ve got to write, that’s the story you’ve got to write, so you’ve got to figure out how to write it. I decided to create this little family and inflict upon them a steady accretion of American pain, and hope to build narrative momentum out of that accretion.

Michael Noll

I have to admit that I felt a thrill at the story’s description of St. Louis: “It feels like exactly what it is: a static, lifeless, dead-water burg, a place that lacked enough imagination to remake itself when people stopped using beaver pelts as currency, and that runs, after a fashion, on the inertia of old money.” And that’s just one sentence in a long paragraph that ends with a line of bitter sarcasm: “Here’s something people say about St. Louis: It’s a great place to raise kids.” I can’t remember the last time I read such a brutal takedown of a place. I’m not sure I’d have the courage to write something like that. Given that you live in St. Louis, do you worry that someone you know will read this story and get upset?

Murray Farish

Well, of course that’s George’s description of St. Louis, and St. Louis is a place he feels victimized by, in a way. All this bad stuff is happening to him and there’s no one around to try to help him out. But however St. Louisans would feel about the description, to the extent that they would find it accurate, we also have to realize how places like St. Louis have themselves been victimized by that same neglect I talked about before. One of the most troubling things I’ve seen in my forty-some years as an American is precisely that lack of imagination, a fearful inability to conceive of how things might be different, might be better. That lack of common vision hits places like St. Louis particularly hard. To the extent that a St. Louisan might find the description inaccurate or unfair, I guess I’d have to plead artistic license.

Michael Noll

By the story’s end, you’ve put the characters in such an intensely difficult situation that it’s natural as a reader to want to look away, to avert our eyes from what we suspect will happen. And that’s exactly what you do–you shift the point of view in a way that’s bound to bother some readers who will expect a neat conclusion. But I actually loved the ending. In a way, it reminded me of what Richard Ford does in Independence Day: His narrator, Frank Bascombe, fails repeatedly to connect and successfully parent his son, and when it seems as if nothing good can happen, Ford knocks the kid out of the novel–literally. The kid gets hit in the head with a baseball and is knocked unconscious. I found that particular move frustrating—a cheat on Ford’s part—because then everything starts going Bascombe’s way again. But in your story, the shift in POV (the looking away) doesn’t change the characters’ fortunes. But it makes them easier to read—not less disturbing or emotional but readable, as if there’s only so much misery readers can take before they walk away. Your ending kept me with the story. That’s a lot of words to ask, how did you approach the ending?

Murray Farish

Finding the ending was as close to real despair as I’ve ever had as a writer. I had worked for months to winnow hundreds of pages down to the final version, up to the scene where George goes for the last meeting at Archie’s school. I knew I loved this story, but the steady accretion of pain had left the Putnams, and me, in a corner where there was no way to write a narratively satisfying and honest ending that would change their fortunes in any way. Do some sort of Horatio Alger bit? Launch an alien invasion or some other cataclysm that renders the economy irrelevant? Have George blow his brains out? I wrote versions of all of these, and many others, including one ending replete with learned footnotes and pie-charts and bar-graphs, which I think you’ll agree with everyone else who read that version that it was a bad idea. Somewhere in the midst of that despair I looked at the school principal’s statement at the end of the last “realistic” scene: “I’m sure you have questions.” So I put the story away and just started making this long list of questions—some from George, some from Miranda, some from American lit and American history, recent and ancient. My notion was not that this catalog of questions would become the ending, but I hoped that some question in there would trigger an ending. Then I saw that those questions could be orchestrated in a way that felt to me very honest and risky and perhaps even resonant, and if I couldn’t do narratively satisfying, I could at least do those things. Jumping out of the third-person, realistic mode also allowed me to return to the Putnams in the voice of Archie and the style of the fairy tale. Archie may be in a lot of trouble, anchored to this sinking family of his, but at least he still has imagination, and he’s not afraid. That’s about the only note of hope I could stand to build into this story, the notion that the future might be better if we don’t lose our courage and our imaginations. But realistically, Archie’s probably screwed.

Michael Noll

A. O. Scott of The New York Times didn't like the way the film Away We Go portrayed red America. You can read his review here.

A. O. Scott of The New York Times didn’t like the way the film Away We Go portrayed “regular” Americans. You can read his review here.

Many stories create unlikable side characters and then reveal some redeeming part of them. But not this story. George thinks this: “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of anything it is very likely to be my good behavior: what demon possessed me that I behaved so well?” Because I think we’re supposed to empathize with George and his point of view, this is a pretty damning indictment of a great swath of the population of St. Louis. It reminds me of the Dave Eggers film, Away We Go, about a couple on the verge of parenthood who travel America trying to find a good place to raise their kids. But everywhere they go, they find people they don’t like. The New York Times critic A. O. Scott angrily criticized the film’s “smug self-regard” and its portrayal of “red state grotesques” and said, “This movie does not like you.” Do you feel any obligation to find the good in every character? Or, to put it in the negative, do you think fiction suffers when it’s too nice and open-minded?

Murray Farish

The quoted question about good behavior is from American lit, one that Thoreau asks in Walden, but of course it applies to George as well, as well as to the overall point that this section and this story is trying to make—what is “inappropriate behavior?” Is it the stuff this goofy kid does to get in trouble at school, or is it unnecessary wars and drone strikes and cutting off people’s unemployment benefits? Is it one little kid hugging some other little kid or is it the Trail of Tears? Is it hyperactivity or the abjuration of our responsibilities to one another? If the fact that CEOs make 350 times the salary of their workers isn’t at the very least inappropriate, I don’t know what is. I think the only obligations fiction writers have are to write the best story they possibly can, and to give the reader something they can’t get from anyone else.

June 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write Break the Contract with Your Reader

11 Jun
Murray Farish's story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, includes stories about X, X, and X.

Murray Farish’s story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, was called “the best first collection I have read in years” by Elizabeth McCracken.

In stories and novels, we occasionally write ourselves into corners of inevitability. The story dictates that a particular thing must come next, but we can’t or don’t want to write that ending. Often this is because the ending is going to be unpleasant for everyone involved: characters, readers, and writer. So what do we do? We can scrap or rewrite the story, or we can find a way to write the inevitable ending in a way that honors the narrative momentum that has been built but also changes the way we think about that narrative. Sometimes, this means breaking the contract with the reader—a big no-no in workshop but sometimes a necessary risk to take.

In his story, “Inappropriate Behavior,” Murray Farish writes an ending that radically shifts point of view and tone. You can read it now at FiveChapters. Tomorrow, Farish will talk about the risks of writing this kind of ending.

How the Story Works

Every story makes a contract with the reader—or, as various quotable writers have said, works of fiction teach their readers how to read them. This means that the first paragraph of stories and novels teaches the reader how the narrative will proceed in terms of point of view, style, and tone. Here is the first paragraph of “Inappropriate Behavior”:

George and Miranda Putnam have been called to another meeting at their son’s school. It’s hard for Miranda to get off work, but she’s going to be there. For George, it’s no problem, and there’s a part of him that’s glad for something to do. There’s a part of him that’s glad to have another grievance to nurse deep into the night. For Miranda, in this economy, this is all a real inconvenience.

The terms of the contract have been set. The story will be told in third person, switching between George and Miranda’s points of view, closer to George’s than Miranda’s. The tone is pretty straightforward—some version of realism. Of course, there is room to move within these terms, but if, for instance, the story shifts into extended first-person narration or if Godzilla rumbles onto the page, the reader might drop the story and walk away. Broken contracts don’t normally bode well for a work of fictions’ relationship with its readers.

Now watch how Farish begins the final section of this story:

Once upon a time, there was a man. He lived with his wife and his son in what he’d always been told was the greatest country in the world. God-loved and manifest. A city upon a hill. Commensurate to his capacity for wonder. The last, best hope of Earth. Then when the man reached what should have been his happiest and safest and most productive years, everything went wrong.

Farish has switched from close third person to a much more distant point of view. George is now “a man.” This change is straining against the bounds of the contract, but nothing has been broken yet. Then, Farish switches the focus of the point of view, from George to his son, Archie:

Their son watched all of this, and he was a smart boy. Everyone thought he was stupid, but he wasn’t. He didn’t understand why everyone thought he was stupid, but it didn’t matter, because he knew he wasn’t. The boy watched his parents. He knew they were scared. But the boy was not scared.

Again, this change is pushing against everything the reader has accepted and known thus far, but it’s a discomfort the reader will likely adapt to. It’s not like Godzilla has appeared on the page:

As soon as the father got in his car, a monster picked up his car and threw it all the way to where the boy couldn’t see. The boy got his sword and Mr. Carrots got his laser, and the boy said the spell to go through the door so they could rescue the apartment complex. Then they killed the monster.

Okay, now the contract is broken. How does Farish pull it off? Some readers will say that he doesn’t. Any narrative risk that a writer takes is bound to alienate some readers, and it’s not because those readers lack sophistication. At a certain point, liking a book isn’t about the book’s quality but about the readers’ taste. Some readers will give a story more leeway to break against expectations. That said, this story tries to set up the reader for the extreme change it has in store. First, as I wrote yesterday, the story continually breaks the frame of its own narration, which makes the reader comfortable with a story that will reach beyond its immediate setting. Second, the story eases into the ending, first tweaking the distance in the third-person POV and then changing the person that the POV follows. When the POV shifts from George to Archie, the tone necessarily changes as well, and it’s not unexpected. We’ve gotten to know Archie pretty well over the course of the story. So, Farish has set up the ending as much as possible.

But why make these changes at all? Why not stick with the terms of the contract? (Spoiler Alert) The story begins with Archie causing trouble at school, George out of work, and the stress taking a toll on George’s relationship with his wife Miranda. By the end, Archie has been removed from the school and placed in an alternative school for children with behavioral problems. George is still unemployed, his relationship with his wife has deteriorated, and they’ve lost their home. They’ve living in a small apartment in a dangerous part of town. Things are bad. Here is the scene that ends the story: George gets a call for an immediate job interview, but he has nowhere to go with Archie, who is at home. So George puts on Mario and tells the boy not to open the door; then he leaves for the interview. In this scene, nothing good can happen. Given the Job-like string of misfortune that has befallen the family, only a misfortune of the very worst kind can happen now. The way that the story must end is clear. And yet, as a reader, I don’t think I could bear it; it’s possible I might not finish the story. I’m not sure Farish, as the writer, could stand the ending, either.

So what is to be done with the story? Farish’s solution is to keep the scene but tell it from a POV that permits the reader to finish the story. It gives the reader enough emotional distance to keep going. In a way, by breaking the contract with the reader, the story works in partnership with the reader to create the ending.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write an ending that breaks the contract with the reader, using the ending from Murray Farish’s story “Inappropriate Behavior” as a model:

  1. Choose a story that you can’t finish. Every writer has unfinished stories stashed in a folder. Read through the story again and ask yourself this question: Given what has occurred in the story, what must happen at the end? Now, ask yourself a second question: Do you want to write that ending? If the answer is yes, then go ahead and write it. Sometimes you just need to look at the ending logically. But if the answer is no, then you need to figure out why. Does the ending feel wrong? In other words, does it not fit your sense of the characters and place and tone? If so, you’ll need to adjust the way you’ve handled the characters, place, and tone (and what happens to them) so that you can get to the ending that is right for the story. You likely took a wrong turn somewhere; you’ll need to go back and find it. But perhaps the ending is right, and the problem is you don’t want to do that to your characters. In that case, you need to find a way to do what needs to be done.
  2. Try out different ways to break the contract with the reader. The most likely way to break the contract is to change the POV. Can you change the amount of distance in the point of view (close to distant third person)? You probably can’t switch from third to first. You might be able to switch from first to third. You can also switch the character at the focus of the POV. If you do this, you will also likely change the tone of the story since the character will have a different sense of the world. Another way to break the contract is to jump forward in time. Or go back in time. This type of break is more common but carries the same level of risk. Whatever type of break you choose, you should choose it intentionally. You can’t sneak a change past the reader.
  3. Ease into the break. What smaller changes can you make to prepare the reader for the big change? Farish first changes the distance of the point of view. Then he changes the focus (man to boy). Finally, he drastically changes the tone. Think about the break that you’ve chosen. What are small ways that you can begin to push against the limits of the contract before finally breaking it? Doing so can prepare the reader for what you’ve got in store.

One final thing to keep in mind. Farish breaks the contract at the very end of a long story. If he had broken it halfway through, all readers probably would have quit. Keep in mind the readers’ psychology. If they see that there is only paragraph or so left in the story, they’re likely to keep reading. Every workshop teacher in the world will preach not breaking contracts with readers, but if you must do so (and sometimes you must), then try to do it in a way that makes it easier on the reader.

Good luck!

How to Break the Narrative Frame

10 Jun
Murray Farish's story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, includes stories about X, X, and X.

Murray Farish’s story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, was called “the best first collection I have read in years” by Elizabeth McCracken.

As writers, we often find ourselves frustrated at the difference between the story in our heads and what appears on the page. As we often imagine it, the story and its many parts exist all at once, smashed together in our minds. Connections between ideas are immediate. But on the page, these parts are broken into discrete paragraphs that put space and distance between the ideas and images. The best writers are able to eliminate that distance. We recognize such writing when we see it, but how can we create such prose ourselves?

Murray Farish’s story, “Inappropriate Behavior,” contains entire worlds in single paragraphs. The story is the part of the new collection, Inappropriate Behavior, from Milkweed Editions. Read it now at FiveChapters.

How the Story Works

Great narration often breaks the frame that is has set for itself. A paragraph that begins in a particular room, in a particular moment of time, will slide out of that room and moment of time. In this paragraph from “Inappropriate Behavior,” watch how Farish breaks out of the frame that he sets in the first sentence:

Once they finally get Archie to sleep, Miranda goes to bed because she has to work in the morning, and she’s liable to be up with Archie’s nightmares in an hour or two. George checks the ads on Monster, even though LaShonda at the outplacement agency says no one ever gets a job off of Monster. The only way to get a job in this economy is to meet people, LaShonda says. Network, network, network. George looks at Monster. He looks at hockey scores. He jerks off to porn. He e-mails résumés. The Internet costs $24.99 a month. He nurses his grievances. He reads the news. In Washington, Congress has averted a government shutdown. The deal includes another six months of unemployment benefits. Six more months? He can’t imagine what will happen if it’s six more months. Don’t let feelings of worthlessness ever enter your mind, LaShonda says. You are not worthless because you’ve been laid off. There is no stigma attached to losing a job in this economy.

The paragraph begins in George and Miranda’s house in St. Louis, in the moment after their son has fallen asleep. Yet very quickly it starts quoting someone, LaShonda, who is not present. It also reports political news from Washington D.C. When reading this paragraph, it’s possible that you don’t notice these shifts out of the initial frame. They seem like a natural part of the narrative voice. But almost every writer has experienced the frustration of feeling trapped in place and time, as their story’s narration is yoked to whatever is happening immediately in front of its gaze. So, how does Farish move away from the present moment?

He connects the present moment with another moment. Perhaps the most important phrase in the paragraph is “even though LaShonda at the outplacement agency says.” The phrase creates a bridge from the present moment to something that happened earlier and in another place. The next two sentences take place on the other side of that bridge, in the outplacement agency. This bridge is essential to the shifts that take place in the rest of the paragraph. Because the readers have been shown one bridge, they won’t be surprised when others are built—and built more quickly. For instance, the next bridge out of the initial frame contains no transition such as “even though.” Instead, the paragraph leaps from “He reads the news” to “In Washington, Congress has averted a government shutdown.” The shift happens much faster than the first one.

He shifts between moments again and again. A bridge is no good unless you use it. So, Farish stays in the political news for another sentence and then shifts back into George’s head in the present moment and then immediately into LaShonda’s advice from the outplacement agency.

Once the bridge out of the narrative frame has been built, you can jump out of the frame again and again, as many times as you want. It’s this kind of dynamic sense of place and time that makes great narration so wonderful to read. As readers, we’re constantly surprised (pleasantly) by where the prose takes us, by what unexpected bridges have been built.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s shift out of the narrative frame of a paragraph, using the passage from Murray Farish’s story “Inappropriate Behavior” as a model:

  1. Create a frame. Take any paragraph you’ve already written. Or write a new one. It can be about anything. The important thing is to give yourself a defined place and time: your characters are in this place at this moment. Farish’s paragraph is about what two parents do after their son falls asleep. The place is a house, and the time, we know from an earlier paragraph, is about eleven at night.
  2. Create a bridge out of the frame. The easiest way to do this is to connect something about the present place and time with something that is not within that frame. Farish uses a simple transitional phrase: “even though.” It works like this: Character does _____, even though So-and-So says not to. So, to create a bridge, you can make a character do something and then explain what someone else says about that particular behavior. That said, the bridge doesn’t require an action. You can do the same thing with an object: Character picks up a coffee cup, which So-and-So always hated/loved.
  3. Cross the bridge. Once you’ve got the bridge, go over it. Farish leaves George’s house at 11 p.m. and shifts into a placement agency on some previous day. Readers are savvy enough that if you directly mention someone or someone in a paragraph (and I’ve that something or someone an attitude or weight of being), then if you, in the next sentence, write from a POV that is close to that person or thing, the readers will figure out what’s going on. That said, the weight of being is important. It’s more difficult to build a bridge out of a weightless reference. Here’s an example: She listens to Bon Jovi and wonders what she’s going to do about Carl. If the writer suddenly crossed a bridge into Bon Jovi world, the reader would likely figure it out but might also wonder why Bon Jovi matters. The reference is weightless. So, give your reference weight by providing it with an attitude about what is happening or by letting it reflect, like a mirror, the attitudes of others (she always hated the coffee cup).
  4. Cross back to the other side. Very little transitional work is required. If you clearly set up the two sides of the bridge, the reader will understand what side they’re on.

Once you’ve built one bridge and crossed over it and crossed back, you can easily build more bridges. In his short paragraph, Farish creates and crosses over two. The story as a whole has dozens of bridges. As a result, it has set up the reader to perhaps accept an even greater break at the end, which I’ll look at tomorrow.

Good luck!

An Interview with Jennifer Ziegler

5 Jun
Jennifer Ziegler's new middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, has X

In Jennifer Ziegler’s new middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, three flowers girls set out to ruin their sister’s wedding.

Jennifer Ziegler’s latest middle-grade novel is Revenge of the Flower Girls. She’s also the author of How Not to Be Popular and Sass & Serendipity. She teaches writing workshops, edits other writers’ work, and creates writing programs for The Writer’s League of Texas. She lives in Austin, TX, with her husband, the writer Chris Barton, and their four children.

In this interview, Ziegler discusses inventing characters, the importance of villains, and her method for keeping the plot straight in her head.

To read an excerpt from Revenge of the Flower Girls and an exercise on creating villains, click here.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in how you invent characters. Some of the characters in the book, especially Mrs. Caldwell, exude a kind of essential Texan-ness. Her last name is even a famous Texas name. But other characters are much more idiosyncratic. For instance, you describe Aunt Jane this way: “She’s tall and strong. She played professional basketball for a while and then taught PE classes here in Blanco County. Now she lives in Boston, where she runs a bar.” What do you draw on to create your characters?

Jennifer Ziegler

The way I invent characters is a mystery even to me. I often feel that characters gestate in my mind for a long time until the right story concept comes along. How they get planted there, I don’t really know. I suspect that they are amalgams of people I know or used to know or observed from afar. They are never close replications of individuals from my life. Even when I’ve tried to put friends or family in my novels the characters based on them morph into their own distinct beings. At times I’m aware that I’m borrowing elements from real people (their mannerisms or looks or habits of speech), but more often I have no idea. There have been instances when I’ve flipped through a published book of mine and suddenly realized who a character was partly based on – subconsciously. That’s always a strange revelation. But I suppose all novelists can at least be partly psychoanalyzed through their fiction.

Michael Noll

There are several instances in the book where the triplets create a plan of action and describe it in detail—and then, of course, the plan goes off the rails. I know that you’re a thorough outliner of plot, and I’m curious how these sorts of plans factor into your outlining. From a reader’s perspective, they’re great at creating suspense. But are they useful to you as a writer as well?

Jennifer Ziegler

Yes very. The triplets’ schemes are integral to the book’s plot. I had to make sure I got everything straight before I started writing because logistics aren’t my strong suit. I like to disappear into the story as I go along and whenever I get yanked out of that world in order to work out the cause and effects, it slows down my momentum. I knew who the triplets were and what they wanted, so it was just a case of figuring out how they would approach this problem and what would be the outcome of each of their plans.

Knowing who they were told me what they would do. Because the girls are big history buffs, it made sense that they would brainstorm complicated operations – that they would be action oriented rather than just mope. But, of course, they are only 11, so their lack of worldly experience translated into somewhat unrealistic schemes. The plans show just how far the girls will go to help their sister, what they’re good at, how they assume the world works, and how they work together – so they also help reveal character.

Michael Noll

The novel features three narrators who are triplets. Each of them takes turns telling the story, which must have presented an enormous challenge to you as the writer: how to distinguish between them. One thing I noticed is that you give the triplets, and all of the characters, tags. For instance, the triplets are history buffs, and so they judge each other and everyone else based on their choice of favorite president of the United States. For instance, Darby mentions that their big sister’s ex-boyfriend liked Thomas Jefferson, and says, “We all respect that.” But the big sister’s fiancé likes Franklin Pierce, and she says that “we all agree that Pierce was not one of the best.” This reminds me of the way George Lucas used motifs in Star Wars: a particular musical phrase that corresponds with each character. Is this technique essential for the kind of story you’re telling, or is it something you use regardless of the story?

Jennifer Ziegler

I use it regardless of the story. It’s showing rather than telling. You, as storyteller, know so much more about the characters with regard to who they are and where they came from. The problem is, you can’t put it all in the book, and you don’t want to interrupt the action with big information dumps. So instead you impart key aspects of character through dialogue, action, description, and these nuggets of revealing information – or tags. The fact that Burton names Franklin Pierce as his favorite president tells the triplets (and the reader) that he either A) doesn’t know his presidential history or care about it or B) is judging by very different, perhaps very superficial, standards. Both possibilities are alarming to the triplets.

Michael Noll

The novel has a very clear villain. At every opportunity, Mrs. Caldwell does something unlikable. For instance, when the wedding menu is being planned, she refuses to include meat-free options for the bride, who is a vegetarian. She says, “Yes, but this wedding also includes a big strong boy who needs nourishment.” And, “Yes, but the meat eaters who will be attending the wedding will far outnumber the vegetarians.” Her lack of empathy or sense of compromise is pretty astonishing. How important is it to create a character like this—and to create moments where she can be bad?

Jennifer Ziegler

In this story it was critical that there be a clear antagonist. For one thing, the title sort of promises it, and for another, the mayhem created by the girls would be excessive and mean-spirited if there wasn’t a clear reason for it. The readers have to believe in their mission, too.

At the earliest concept stages, there was no mother-in-law character and I intended to make the groom the antagonist. But that didn’t work. It didn’t make sense that Lily – even if she was on the rebound – would fall for someone villainous. Burton isn’t a bad guy, he just isn’t the right guy. It’s clear to the sisters, and hopefully to readers, that Lily is about to make an awful mistake. But for them to go to such extremes and be thwarted meant there had to be some equal opposing force. Thus, the pushy Mrs. Caldwell was created. Her son is basically her whole life and she will stop at nothing to get what she wants for him. Plus, she is the type of woman who is used to getting her way. It is gradually revealed that she is meddling in her own fashion as much as the triplets are. The difference is that she’s trying to manipulate her vision of her son’s future regardless of what’s right for everyone involved. The girls, on the other hand, just want to make sure their sister is happy. I liked this juxtaposition.

June 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Create a Villain

3 Jun
Jennifer Ziegler's new middle-grade novel, Revenge of the Flower Girls, is set in the Texas Hill Country and features triplets as narrators.

Jennifer Ziegler’s new middle-grade novel, Revenge of the Flower Girls, is set in the Texas Hill Country and features triplets as narrators.

For a reader, one of the most satisfying parts of a novel is the presence of a villain. We want someone to root against—this is true for books as well as films, sports, politics, and often everyday life. And yet as writers (especially literary writers) we’re often reluctant to create characters of pure malicious intent. We have a tendency to attempt to view the situation from the villain’s point of view, if only briefly, if only to make the character a little bit redeemable. In real life, this is probably a virtue. But in fiction, it’s often necessary to behave worse than our real selves.

A great example of the appeal of a villain—and how to create one—can be found in Jennifer Ziegler’s new middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls. You can read an excerpt from the novel here.

How the Story Works

The problem with creating villains is that the word usually makes us think of characters like Sauron from Lord of the Rings or Darth Vader—i.e. characters whose evil exists on a grand scale. Most stories simply don’t have room for that kind of character. Imagine dropping Darth Vader into the stands of a little league baseball game. In almost every scene I can imagine, the situation overwhelms the character. In other words, Darth Vader will not remain the dark Imperial lord but will instead inevitably become simply another cranky parent. So, the key to creating a villain is to find opportunities for villainy in your story’s particular circumstances.

Ziegler has created an occasion that often brings out a certain kind of villainy—a wedding. But rather than writing a bridezilla, which would be both predictable and understandable (wedding planning being slightly less than relaxing), she creates a character for whom things should be easy—the mother of the groom. In this scene, watch how she gives this character, Mrs. Caldwell, opportunities to play nice, to reach consensus, and then lets the character play the villain instead:

“Well, then,” said Mrs. Caldwell, dabbing at the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “I think it’s obvious that these meatballs would be best, along with some salmon-topped canapés and bacon sliders.”

“But…Lily doesn’t eat meat. She’s vegetarian,” Darby said, louder and more slowly than when she’d said it before.

“Yes, but Lily isn’t going to be the only person eating at the wedding,” Mrs. Caldwell said.

“Yes, but Lily is the bride,” Delaney said.

“Yes, but this wedding also includes a big strong boy who needs nourishment,” Mrs. Caldwell said.

Darby, Delaney, and I exchanged puzzled looks. “What big strong boy,” I asked.

“Why, Burton, of course.”

“Yes, but this is Lily’s house, and she needs nourishment, too,” I pointed out, my voice rising a little. “Burton can eat vegetables, but she can’t eat meat.”

“Yes, but the meat eaters who will be attending the wedding will far outnumber the vegetarians.”

Over and over again, the novel and the other characters give Mrs. Caldwell the opportunity to give in, even slightly, and not only does she refuse to do so but her refusal becomes pointedly selfish. Her villainy may be of a lesser scale than Sauron’s, but it breaks against so many commonly held conventions about civility that the reader roots against her. If a reader is wishing ill toward a character, then it’s probably fair to say that the character is the villain.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a villain and give him/her opportunities to act maliciously, using the passage from Jennifer Ziegler’s novel Revenge of the Flower Girls as a model:

  1. Create an occasion. Though villainy can happen in private (sabotage, vandalism, theft), the most dramatic forms tend to happen in public, in front of an audience. So, create an opportunity for people to come together. You can use an event (wedding, funeral, birthday party, holiday) or something more practical (meeting, dinner, classroom, workplace team). You should also flesh out the people or type of people who will be at the occasion.
  2. Create an opportunity for compromise. You’ve brought your people together. Now, make them come to a mutual decision about something. The decision can be mundane (what to eat, where to go, how to proceed). Anyone who’s ever sat through a meeting knows the frustration of dealing with somebody who obstructs for no good reason.
  3. Create the villain. Approach this from the character’s action, not personality or motive. So, don’t worry about why the character does the malicious thing. Just find the malicious thing and figure out motive later. In truth, motive isn’t that important. For instance, in Othello, we know that Iago is angry at being passed over for a promotion, but that’s really just a way to get the reader on board for the incredible, unexplainable evil that he causes. So, figure out how your character could obstruct the decision that’s being made. What contrary position could the character take? Or, how could the character delay the decision-making process?
  4. Give the villain chances to do right. Notice how Ziegler’s characters give Mrs. Caldwell plenty of rational reasons to abandon her position. They appeal to ethics (“Lily doesn’t eat meat”), authority and privilege (“Lily is the bride”), and finally to necessity (“she needs nourishment, too”). In other words, Mrs. Caldwell is given plenty of opportunity to give in. But she doesn’t. If you keep reading the scene, you’ll see that her mind is changed only by force. So, let the other characters try to persuade the villain to do right or change his/her behavior. Try different approaches: ethics, authority and privilege, necessity. If you’re rhetorically inclined, you can try the pyramid of ethos, pathos, and logos. You can also offer the villain compromises that are continually rejected. This isn’t so different from what parents do with kids, pleading with them in various ways to do some desired thing. And when the kids resist all overtures, they often seem like villains. Your villain can act the same way, resisting all overtures until their behavior becomes so unreasonable that the reader begins to wish him/her ill.

Good luck!

%d bloggers like this: