Archive | December, 2014

12 Writing Exercises from 2014

30 Dec

It’s often said that when you learn to read as a writer, you’re no longer able to read for enjoyment. I disagree. I find that the pleasure is doubled. Not only do you enjoy the art for art’s sake, but you’ve also gained the ability to appreciate the craft behind the art. Here are 12 moments of exceptional craft from the stories, novels, and essays featured at Read to Write Stories in 2015.

1. Turn Your Ideas into Story

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

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

It’s tempting, as a writer, to use a story as a platform for your ideas about politics, culture, or whatever. But the risk that any story runs when stating its ideas outright is that it can begin to feel more like a rant than a narrative. Aliette de Bodard demonstrates how to turn ideas into narrative in her story “Immersion”:

It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules. For these girls, things are so much more complex than this; and they will never understand how an immerser works, because they can’t think like a Galactic, they’ll never ever think like that. You can’t think like a Galactic unless you’ve been born in the culture.

Or drugged yourself, senseless, into it, year after year. (From “Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard. Find the entire exercise here.)

2. Choose the Right Plot for Your Character

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

Kiese Laymon published two books in 2014, the novel Long Division and a collection of essays, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” that stunned the writer Roxane Gay “into stillness.”

It’s often said that stories gradually limit the possibilities available to a character, finally reaching the moment where this is only one possibility (and it’s probably not a good one). But when you’re beginning a story or novel, it often seems as though every possible avenue is open. The challenge is to pick the right one for your particular character. Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division shows how to turn find the right plot for your character:

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

3. Set the Mood of Your Story

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Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel, Remember Me Like This, features, according to Esquire, a “driving plot but fully realized characters as well.”

Every story tries to reveal the kind of story it is from the opening page or opening shot, in the case of film and TV. If you were to encounter Breaking Bad, for instance, with no knowledge of it, you’d understand after about five seconds what kind of world and narrative sensibility you’d entered. Novels and stories must set the mood as quickly as any TV show, and a great example is the beginning (or pretty much any chapter) of Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel Remember Me Like This:

Months earlier, the June heat on Mustang Island was gauzy and glomming. The sky hung close, pale as caliche, and the small played-out waves were dragging in the briny, pungent scent of seaweed. On the beach, people tried holding out for a breeze from the Gulf, but when the gusts blew ashore, they were humid and harsh, kicking up sand that stung like wasps. By midday, everyone surrendered. Fishermen cut bait, surfers packed in their boards. Even the notoriously dogged sunbathers shook out their long towels and draped them over the seats in their cars, the leather and vinyl scalding. Lines for the ferry stretched for half an hour, though it could seem days before the dashboard vents were pushing in cool air. Porpoises wheeled in the boats’ wakes, their bellies pink and glistening. (From Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston. Find the entire exercise here.)

4. Build Stories (Genre or Literary) on Logistics

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

A story’s success is determined, in part, by how imaginatively it digs into the practical details of its idea. Ghosts are ghosts, for instance. We’ve seen them countless times in books and movies, and, as a result, we tend to grow accustomed to the rules and conventions of the ghost-story genre. A good ghost story (or any kind of story), then, will play with the practical logistics of those conventions in order to make us see them with fresh eyes. Rahul Kanakia’s ghost story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” does exactly that:

Chris once told me that human beings are hard-wired to feel an “urgent sense of distress” at the crying of a baby. Well, that’s not true. You know how many times I’ve gone down to the Kaiser Hospital over on Howe Street and sucked the ghost of a crying baby out of one of their incubators? Just maybe like two hundred times. Crying babies? That’s a Wednesday for me. (From “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” by Rahul Kanakia. Find the entire exercise here.)

5. Create Conflict with Subtext

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, two middle grade novels, and an adult novella.

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel and the managing editor of the literary journal, Huizache.

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

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

6. Create Villains

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

Jennifer Ziegler’s middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, was so popular that a sequel is already forthcoming.

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 middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls:

“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. (From Revenge of the Flower Girls by Jennifer Ziegler. Find the entire exercise here.)

7. Create Meaningful Spaces

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Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, portrays the author’s experience growing up as part of the inner circle of a revivalist preacher.

Every writer has heard this piece of advice: Don’t write a scene in a vacuum. Choose a setting that will impact the characters’ decisions. Not all settings are created equal. Force two characters to have an argument in the bathroom, and the result will be different than if they have it at the dinner table. In Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, the sense of place is vividly palpable in the book, as the first pages of the opening chapter make clear:

The tent waited for us, her canvas wings hovering over a field of stubble that sprouted rusty cans, A&P flyers, bits of glass bottles, and the rolling tatter of trash that migrated through town to settle in an empty lot just beyond the city limits. At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us from a world that told us we were too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did. Society, or at least the respectable chunk of it, saw the tent and those of us who traveled with it as a freak show, a rolling asylum that hit town and stirred the local Holy Rollers, along with a few Baptists, Methodists, and even a Presbyterian or two, into a frenzy. (From Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson. Find the entire exercise here.)

8. Write Surprising Sentences

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree was the subject of this interview at NPR's Morning Edition.

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree is a collection of linked stories inspired by films from the Criterion Collection such as Bladerunner and Devilfish.

Stories are built out of sentences. Almost everything that happens on a story level (plot twists and reversals, slow-building suspense) also happens at the sentence level. So, it pays to study good sentences and try to imitate them. You won’t find better sentences than those in Our Secret Life in the Movies, a collection of stories by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree:

When she discovered the little bottle of morphine—the secret stash under the kitchen sink that I had lied about throwing away—she was so angry that she took off her blue Nikes and threw them at me, one after the other, the second one clonking off the back of my head and clattering into the unwashed dishes. She unfolded her knife and stabbed the bottle on the counter as if the poor thing were a possessed child’s toy in a horror movie. Then she tried to set fire to it with her Zippo, leaving a mangled and melted heap, while screaming, “Happy Birthday!” It was like watching someone burn down a forest or kill a kitten. (From “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” from Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree. Find the entire exercise here.)

9. Stretch Prose to Include More Than Plot

Jeffrey Renard Allen's latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

Jeffrey Renard Allen’s latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

The Onion once ran the headline, “Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text,” and that may be the reaction of many readers to the first paragraph of Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, which continues for more than two pages. This is an approach to writing that we’re not used to. In fact, as writers, I’m willing to bet that most of us would struggle to write a paragraph that lasts two pages. The present action is stretched so much that we almost forget what is happening and, instead, focus on what is happening around the action:

A clear track, left foot and right, running the circumference of the house, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows, trespassing at the doors. Had she been back in the city, the idea would already have occurred to her that the journalists were to blame, those men of paper determined in their unstoppable quest to unearth the long-lost—three years? four?—”Blind Tom”—Half Man, Half Amazing—to reproduce the person, return him to public consumption, his name new again, a photograph (ideally) to go along with it, the shutter snapping (a thousand words). (From Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen. Find the entire exercise here.)

10. Set Up the Second Half of Your Novel

Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is set in Lima, Peru, during the terrifying years of the Shining Path and tells the story of a marriage-in-crisis that is pushed to the brink by a kidnapping.

One of the inescapable truths of storytelling is that you must get to the story quickly; it’s the reason readers won’t be able to put down your book. This is true for every kind of story, but it’s especially true for a novel that fits into the category thriller. Yet if the novel focuses solely on kicking off the plot, it won’t give itself enough material to keep going once the initial plot mechanism runs its course. This is why many early novel drafts tend to stall out after 70 to 100 pages. The question is how to do two things at once: hook the reader and also plant seeds that will sprout later in the book. An excellent example of planting seeds can be found in Natalia Sylvester’s novel Chasing the Sun:

He sighs, unsure how to explain the less concrete aspects of his business. “Sometimes those kinds of things help the situation along. A man like Manuel wants to know the person he’s about to do business with shares his values. That he’s a good husband, a family guy. That he can be trusted.” (From Chasing the Sun by Natalia Sylvester. Find the entire exercise here.)

11. Use Plot Spoilers

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Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, which “expertly captures the tumultuous lives of youth on the streets of Philadelphia.”

Every writer will likely at some point begin a story with a spoiler—by giving away a major plot point. It’s an effective strategy. The reader wants to know what happened—how did the story get to that point? But it can also be a surprisingly difficult strategy to pull off. You can give away too much, or you can reveal an ending that the reader isn’t interested in. So, how do you make it work? Sean Ennis does an excellent job of using this kind of opening in his story, “Saint Roger of Fox Chase“:

The night Roger was beaten to death, I was out there running, too. For weeks, he had been trying to convince Clip and me to hang out at the Fox Chase playground on Friday nights. The older kids were buying beer and selling cups for a buck. The girls that came were getting wild, dancing to the music blasting out of car stereos, and flashing their chests.

I was skeptical. The guys that hung around the playground at night were not my friends; they got in fights, smoked. I knew some of them from soccer, and we had a tenuous truce because I could play, but I didn’t want to tempt things and didn’t care much about drinking beer. Seventh grade is a tenuous time. (From “St. Roger of Fox Chase” by Sean Ennis. Find the entire exercise here.)

12. How to Write a Story Ending

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.

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 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. One of the migrants he meets is 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 beginning of the story is pretty simple. He’s beaten by thugs, members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, and taken to their leader, who, in turns out, is Saúl’s father. Watch how Martínez ends the story:

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. (From The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trial by Óscar Martínez. Find the entire exercise here.)

An Interview with Jeffrey Renard Allen

26 Dec New JeffAllen1 Author Photo cropped
Jeffrey Renard Allen's latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

Jeffrey Renard Allen’s latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

Jeffrey Renard Allen is the author of two collections of poetry, Stellar Places and Harbors and Spirits, and three works of fiction, including the novel, Rails Under My Back and the story collection Holding Pattern. His latest novel, Song of the Shank, was included on The New York Times‘ list of 100 notable books of 2014. Allen is fiction director for the Norman Mailer Center’s Writers Colony in Provincetown, and he has served as the Program Director for Literature for the Jahazi Literature and Jazz Festival in Zanzibar, East Africa. He currently teaches at the New School in New York City.

To read an excerpt from Song of the Shank and an exercise on stretching present action, click here.

In this interview, Allen discusses the “thick narration” of Song of the Shank, writing characters who are different from the author, and the transforming power of art.

Michael Noll

The most striking thing about the novel is its narration, which feels like stream of consciousness but isn’t, of course, because it’s written in third-person. But there is a definite narrative consciousness at work, one that sees into the characters’ heads with a kind of detached empathy but that also roams where it wants—following, for instance, a group of black Civil War soldiers through the dangerous early months after the war and back home to New York. How did you develop this narrative style?

Jeffrey Renard Allen

In Song of the Shank, I sought to establish a kind of thick narration where various voices seem to slip in and out of what is essentially a limited narration. So the direct thought of a character will pop up at a given moment in the story, along with asides, ideas, song lyrics, biblical verses and other texts, questions and doubts, alternatives, flashbacks and other kinds of voices and materials that may or may not derive from this character. A million embedded stories. At the same time, I wanted the book to feel loose in the way it moves backwards and forwards and sideways in time, although the book novel’s overall structure is carefully orchestrated.

Michael Noll

You can chalk this up to denseness on my part, but I assumed at first that Eliza was black. I caught on, of course, but it took a few pages. Then, in the second section, when I got to Tabbs, who is black, I became aware of the difficulty of the characterization that you accomplish in the novel. It’s not a secret that some, perhaps many, male writers are notoriously bad at writing female characters. And, white writers often create black characters that tend to reflect the writer’s perception of the role filled by black people (The Help) more than the reality that black people actually inhabit. Was it more difficult to write Eliza than Tabbs? Or, to generalize a bit, why do you think it’s so difficult for writers of privilege to imagine the lives of characters who are not like them?

Jeffrey Renard Allen

The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen's novel Song of the Shank,

The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, “the kind of imaginative work only a prodigiously gifted risk-taker could produce.”

It was not any more difficult for me to write Eliza, Perry Oliver, Seven or any of the white characters in the novel than it was for me to write Tabbs, Charity, Ruggles or any of the other black characters. And the reason why is simple: the imagination is a vehicle that carries us to that honest place where we can put ourselves into the bodies of other people. Of course, it requires a lot of hard work to create a convincing character, a person who had the entire emotional and intellectual range of felt life. That said, I might note that I did encounter one great difficulty in this novel in terms of characterization. At first I found it hard to hear my characters, to create dialogue that was both convincing and engaging for people who were alive in New York City in the 1860s.

Any good writer seeks to avoid generalization, which is both an aesthetic and moral dead end. Instead, you must choose to be, to engage the world as it is. The long and short, I don’t think that it is difficult for writers of privilege to imagine the lives of characters who are not like them. Some writers knowingly or unknowingly, simply choose to embrace their privilege, which means that they must create cardboard stereotypes of people who they feel lack any agency and who are therefore in need of sympathetic white saviors.

Michael Noll

One of most fascinating details in the novel is about the Freedmen arriving in the North, the way begin talking faster than they did while in the South: “Their once slow tongues up the pace too, stumbling into strange conjoinings of consonants and vowels, a metamorphosis that Tabbs has heard seen with his own skeptical ears and eyes.” Do you recall where you learned this detail? Or, if not, how sort of things were you reading? What did your research process look w like?

Jeffrey Renard Allen

I was intrigued by the whole process of the Freedmen’s acquisition of language, this matter of freedom and literacy, as some have called it. So I read quite a number of books on this topic, numerous personal testimonials from both former slaves and from the northerners who taught them, along with historical texts. Like with most things in this novel, I tried to find appropriate but striking metaphors that could help turn fact into image, scene, illustration. But language is also a central concern in this novel where language, where words both constrict and liberate, create and destroy. After all, “Blind Tom” begins as a linguistic construction borne out of Perry Oliver’s desire to exploit Tom for financial gain. At the same time, Tom has a kind of mastery of language that knows no bounds, that no one can contain.

Michael Noll

The first paragraph of this novel is several pages long. The plot is minimal. The narration requires slow reading. In other words, this is a novel that asks for (and rewards, I believe) patience on the reader’s part. As a result, it’s a novel whose value will be measured in literary terms rather than sales. So, I’m curious how you see this novel fitting into Big A, Big L American Literature. If it should win some major award (and if you imagine such an event), what do the judges say about it?

Jeffrey Renard Allen

Of course, I have high hopes for my novel. The first thing I would want any reader to say about this novel is that “Jeff Allen gave everything he had when he wrote this book, every bit of himself, on every page, head and heart” because that is true. I really tried hard to get it right. Art might be the only form of perfection available to humans, and creating a work of art might be the only thing in life that we have full control over. So we might ask, How is great measured? Craft is certainly one thing. I also would like to think that certain works of art transform the artist. Indeed, Song of the Shank required a process of personal growth that I could not have expected when I first began writing the book more than a decade ago. I could not have written a better book.

December 2014

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

How to Write an Ending that Doesn’t Resolve Conflict

23 Dec
Owen Egerton's essay about his parents' odd Christmas tradition appeared in Salon last Christmas.

Owen Egerton’s essay, “Jesus never gave Christmas porn,” about his parents’ odd Christmas tradition is heartfelt and excellent.

The best essay about Christmas that I’ve ever read is by Owen Egerton. I don’t make this claim lightly, given that there is no shortage of holiday-themed writing this time of year. The essay is notable for its perspective (Egerton grew up a humanist, became a fundamentalist Christian, and now writes searching novels about faith) but also its content: as a kid, the Egerton children rushed downstairs to find their stockings stuffed with pornographic magazines.

After Egerton experienced a religious epiphany as a teenager, these gifts still appeared, and the essay explores the inevitable tension with his parents. I can’t recommend the essay highly enough, especially its ending, which manages to draw the tension to a close without resolving it. “Jesus never gave Christmas porn” was published at Salon, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay sets up two clear belief systems. The first belongs to Egerton’s parents, especially his father:

My father grew up as the son of a minister in rural England. He never embraced his own father’s faith. Instead he became a practical man of medicine who viewed sex as a pleasant and necessary part of the human life cycle. Sex was never a taboo subject in our house. Sex was something to talk about, laugh about and responsibly explore. Sure, buying your kids pornography might seem at tad unorthodox, but at the heart of the gift was my parents’ desire to instill a healthy view of sex in their children.

This humanistic view of sex was paired with Egerton’s parents’ attitude toward Christianity:

There was another reason my parents felt compelled to give flesh mags. Pornography was a way to simultaneously celebrate the holiday and keep its more religious themes at bay. Christ got no preferential treatment in our house.

The result was stockings filled with Christmas-themed pornography magazines. Like most children, Egerton went along with his parents’ beliefs when young. But as he reached his teens, he began to explore ideas outside of those accepted at home:

The summer of my 16th year, I spent a week at a Christian summer camp and came back home a born-again Christian. The very night I returned, before my bags were unpacked or my new Adventure New Testament was cracked, I opened my bottom desk drawer, removed three years of well-used Christmas pornography and dumped it in the trash. I didn’t even take a final peek.

With one swift act, I replaced my father’s humanistic view of lust for a moralistic, evangelical view. Lust, I now understood, was in itself a sin.

Like any teen with a new idea, Egerton tried to convince his parents of its worth:

I put my parents through laborious conversations and countless clumsy metaphors, trying to get them to see what I saw so clearly. They were patient, nodding at my testimonials and refilling their wine glasses, but they were not to be moved.

This is where the essay reveals its greatness. As readers, we want endings to resolve tension. But how can this tension be resolved? Egerton’s parents weren’t going to change his minds, and he wasn’t going to change his (at least not for several years). He could have ended by fast forwarding to that subsequent conversion, but what would it accomplish? Many people change their minds about things—even about beliefs that, like religious tenants, are often central to our identity. And, of course, most of us make ridiculous claims and arguments when we’re teenagers. So, an ending that resolves the religious conflict avoids, in a way, the basic tension of the essay: when you love someone but don’t agree with them, how do you live together?

As a teen, Egerton handled the conflict by giving his father a rolled-up scroll with a hand-written Bible verse. In the essay, he handles the ending like this:

We sat in our living room on that Christmas morning, he with the scroll of verses and me with an unopened Penthouse, both feeling his gift had not been appreciated, both sure the other just didn’t get it, both believing the other was drifting down a path that led to something like damnation and wanting more than anything to rescue them. I was trying to save my dad and he was trying to save me. And neither of us knew how.

In the end, Egerton doesn’t try to resolve the conflict. Instead, he can only acknowledge the impossibility of resolving it.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s conclude a moment of tension without resolving the underlying conflict, using “Jesus never gave Christmas porn” by Owen Egerton as a model:

  1. Identify the conflicting beliefs or desires. This likely seems like an obvious step, but it’s surprisingly easy to write an entire essay or story without clearly defining this conflict. Or, we’ll define one but fail to put that belief or desire into direct conflict with a competing belief or desire. (A story about someone in love who never makes the feeling known is a story without a conflict.) So, try this exercise with the major characters in your story or essay: Have them say, “I really want_____” or “I really believe_____.” Force them to make explicitly what might presently only be tacitly understood.
  2. Put the beliefs or desire into conflict. Perhaps you have a major conflict in mind (a clear destination for the story), and, if so, that’s great. But you may want to introduce the conflict in a smaller way before the big blowup arrives. In Egerton’s essay, we know that he’ll get porn in his stocking even though he’s become a born-again Christian. But Christmas morning is not the first appearance of the conflict. Instead, he shows public scenes of dinner-table debate and private signs of belief (dumping the old magazines in the trash). These scenes end politely but with the conflict clearly unresolved. How can you introduce the conflict so that everyone behaves well? How can you create the anticipation in the reader of a bigger blow-up to come?
  3. Consider the possibility that the conflict will never be resolved. An ending that resolves the conflict neatly—so that all tension that was created in the beginning is now gone—can be disappointing. To avoid this let down, consider this what-if question: If the conflict cannot be resolved, and the characters cannot permanently separate themselves, what then? This is the conflict that causes so much stress during the holidays. People move away from their families (often a source of conflict) but then are forced to sit at the same table and stay in the same house as them for a few days. Every year, you’ll hear people asking, “How do I get through the holiday?” Let your characters ask this same question. What does it mean to remain close to someone with whom you have an essential conflict? The answer may be your ending.

Good luck and happy holidays!

How to Stretch Present Action

16 Dec The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen's novel Song of the Shank, "the kind of imaginative work only a prodigiously gifted risk-taker could produce."
The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen's novel Song of the Shank,

The New York Times called Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, “the kind of imaginative work only a prodigiously gifted risk-taker could produce.”

Some books come with warnings, a heads-up to readers that the text is demanding and challenging. On one hand, these warnings are necessary to allow readers to brace themselves for what might be slow going. On the other hand, it’s possible that these warnings turn off readers from prose that isn’t difficult so much as new. As a casual or even serious reader, it’s easy to devour the same kinds of books over and over (I’m certainly guilty of this). But when you take time to study a difficult book, the rewards can be enormous.

Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen is one of these books. It was published by Graywolf Press, and the press’ hometown newspaper, the Star Tribune, called the novel “engrossing and demanding.” At first glance, this seems like an accurate description, but spend a few minutes with the prose, and I think you’ll find that not only does it become easy to read, it also creates possibilities that other prose styles don’t allow.

You can read the opening chapter of Song of the Shank at Graywolf’s website.

How the Story Works

The Onion once ran the headline, “Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text,” and that may be the reaction of many readers to the novel’s first paragraph, which continues for more than two pages. This is an approach to writing that we’re not used to. In fact, as writers, I’m willing to bet that most of us would struggle to write a paragraph that lasts two pages. So, how does Allen do it?

Not that much happens in the paragraph. We’re introduced to Eliza, who realizes that Tom is missing and so goes out into the yard to look for him—that’s the extent of the action. The bulk of the paragraph is taken up by Eliza’s thoughts, close description, commentary on her thoughts and the descriptions, and context for those thoughts and the situation in general. The novel is essentially asking us to recalibrate our expectations, to focus on things that we tend to skim over.

Here are two early sentences that show how Allen stretches out the present action. Try to spot the transition between action and context:

A clear track, left foot and right, running the circumference of the house, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows, trespassing at the doors. Had she been back in the city, the idea would already have occurred to her that the journalists were to blame, those men of paper determined in their unstoppable quest to unearth the long-lost—three years? four?—”Blind Tom”—Half Man, Half Amazing—to reproduce the person, return him to public consumption, his name new again, a photograph (ideally) to go along with it, the shutter snapping (a thousand words).

The second sentence begins with a clear marker to the reader: the prose is moving from action (a clear track, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows) to context (Had she been back in the city…).

In these sentences, the prose moves from action to close description:

She turns left, right, her neck at all angles. The house pleasantly still behind her, tall (two stories and an attic) and white, long and wide, a structure that seems neither exalted nor neglected, cheerful disregard, its sun-beaten doll’s house gable and clear-cut timber boards long in need of a thick coat of wash, the veranda sunken forward like an open jaw, the stairs a striped and worn tongue.

The description continues for a few more sentences and then moves into commentary (then, notice how the commentary moves back into description):

Taken altogether it promises plenty, luxury without pretense, prominence without arrogance, privacy and isolation. Inviting. Homey. Lace curtains blowing in at the windows, white tears draining back into a face.

Finally, here is an example of how the prose moves from action to Eliza’s thoughts:

Winded and dizzy, she finds herself right in the middle of the oval turnaround between the house and the long macadam road that divides the lawn. Charming really, her effort, she thinks. In her search just now had she even ventured as far as the straggly bushes, let alone into the woods?

Taken individually, none of these moves out of present action is remarkable. Writers use strategies like these all of the time. But when they’re used together, the effect is powerful. The present action is stretched so much that we almost forget what is happening and, instead, focus on what is happening around the action. This is often where the most interesting parts of any novel lie. The difference is that Allen has found a way to direct our attention to them.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s stretch out present action using Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen as a model:

  1. Introduce context. There are many ways to temporarily broaden the point of view. An easy way is to jump out of the scene’s immediate time and place. Allen does this with the phrase, “Had she been back in the city.” Try letting the character (or the narrator) suggest how things in the scene might be different if the time and place were different. In other words, give context for how the situation dictates the action.
  2. Introduce close description. Every writer at some point describes aspects of the setting or character, but one way to extend the description is to use simile (veranda sunken forward like an open jaw) and metaphor (the stairs a striped and worn tongue). Allen also moves beyond literal description and explains how the place seems (a structure that seems neither exalted nor neglected). He’s able to do this, in part, because of the prose’s pacing. If we’re leaning into the present action, waiting to see what happens next, then we don’t have much patience for extended description. But this prose moves more slowly. So, try to slow down your descriptions by extending them with metaphor and simile and statements of how the places or characters seem.
  3. Introduce commentary. This is really just an extension of that seeming description. A good way to do this is to follow a description with a statement that sums up its individual pieces. You (or your narrator or character) are essentially telling the readers how to view what they’ve just read.
  4. Introduce a character’s thoughts. One way to approach a character’s thoughts is to let them function as commentary. In other words, avoid writing thoughts like this: Oh no! I need to hurry! Instead, let the character observe him or herself doing the present action. In Allen’s case, he lets Eliza gently mock her search for Tom (Charming really, her effort, she thinks). We’re allowed to see her from different angles, which gives a deeper picture of her, one that is multi-faceted. The more facets you show, the slower your prose may move—but, as Allen proves, the more texture and depth you can provide.

Good luck!

An Interview with Rahul Kanakia

11 Dec
Rahul Kanakia is the author of the forthcoming YA novel Enter Title Here and this weird ghost story in Clarkesworld.

Rahul Kanakia is the author of the forthcoming YA novel Enter Title Here and this cool, weird ghost story in Clarkesworld.

Rahul Kanakia’s young adult novel, Enter Title Here (its actual title, not a typo) will be published by Disney-Hyperion in Fall 2015. His stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, The Indiana Review, Apex, and Nature. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and a B.A. in Economics from Stanford, and used to work in the field of international development. Currently, he lives in Oakland, CA, working a freelance writer and content creation consultant.

To read “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” and an exercise on playing with the logistics of genre stories, click here.

In this interview, Kanakia discusses early reactions to his story in a MFA workshop, the source of some of the imagery in the story, and what (if any) connection this supernatural story has on his forthcoming Young Adult novel.

Michael Noll

I love how this story flips some famous tropes from ghost stories. For instance, one of the most darkest sentences is this one: “You know how many times I’ve gone down to the Kaiser Hospital over on Howe Street and sucked the ghost of a crying baby out of one of their incubators?” Capturing ghosts was so funny and great in Ghostbusters, but here it’s horribly sad and a sign of something wrong emotionally with the person who does it. Did you set out to subvert this image, or did you simply happen upon it in writing the story?

Rahul Kanakia

Interesting that you bring this up. I actually only thought of the movie Ghostbusters after the story was completed, but it’s obvious that it had some subconscious influence on the imagery of the story. For instance, the vacuum device that I’ve imagined in this story is definitely reminiscent of the apparatus they used in the movie. Regarding this particular image, I can’t say what I was doing. In its first draft, the story was entitled “Seven Things That Really Don’t Bother Me,” and each section was about one thing that annoyed other people but didn’t annoy the narrator. In this case, I think the idea was that the narrator wasn’t bothered by the sound of crying babies (which is said to be one of the most distressing sounds that a human being can hear). The idea with the story was, I think, that the narrator came off as emotionally disturbed because he didn’t have these basic human responses, but, after a lifetime of grappling with these problems, the narrator had started to rationalize these deficiencies as being a sign of a greater and more inclusive heart (i.e. other people are disturbed by babies, so they refuse to have anything to do with them, whereas, in his eyes, he is so great-hearted that he’s willing to go out and extract them from the incubators so that the hospital’s operations can continue).

Michael Noll

Those babies are also part of the real horror of this horror story. For instance, there is a ghost of a baby whose intestines developed on the outside of its body—and what’s horrifying is that this is something that actually happens. But unless it happens to us—to our baby—we rarely give such possibilities any thought. You do something similar with the ghosts of the men who died of AIDS. Is that one of the goals of horror stories? To remind readers of the very real horror that exists in the world?

Rahul Kanakia

I don’t know. This is probably one of the only horror stories I’ve ever read. In the case of the baby w/ the intestines, that’s a result of a documentary on harlequin babies that I once saw late at night. Horrifying images. The men with AIDS was something I tossed in at the last minute. I realized that a 60+ year old gay man will have some experience with the epidemic, and I wanted to be true to that. The imagery of the AIDS patients was drawn from the descriptions in Randy Shilt’s history of the early years of the epidemic: And The Band Played On.

Michael Noll

Rahul Kanakia's story, "Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)" was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

The title is great—as soon as I saw it, I wanted to read the story. Did you start with this title, which really only begins to introduce the direction the story will go, or did you write the story first and then choose the title?

Rahul Kanakia

As I mentioned above, the original title of the story was “Seven Things That Really Don’t Bother Me,” and it was originally told as a list of seven things. The basic underlying story (a ghostbuster’s roommate has moved out and he’s filled with angst about it) was the same, but the format was very different. However, when I ran it through my MFA workshop, they said the format felt too scattershot, so I decided to tell it as a series of Craigslist house posts. The title is, I think, based on an actual post I saw while looking for housing once. Although, in that case, I believe, the landlord wanted a roommate who wouldn’t drink alcohol.

Michael Noll

You have a young adult novel being published in the next year, so I’m curious how you see this story fitting in with the rest of your writing. Would you give this story to fans of your YA novel? Or are that novel and this story products of separate writing lives that you inhabit?

Rahul Kanakia

My YA novel is very different. Firstly, it doesn’t have any fantastic or science fictional elements. It’s about a high school senior—the valedictorian of her school—who’s very angry with those who she sees as having gotten more recognition than her and who embarks upon all kinds of schemes in order to bring down her enemies. But I do see both this story and that novel as sharing lots of themes. They’re both about people who feel like they’re damaged and outside the mainstream; people who are secretly worried that no one will ever, or could ever, love them. I think the horrifying thing about this story is that in this case, the protagonist is right. He is unloveable. For whatever reason, he’s rendered himself unloveable. My book, though, is not quite as bleak.

December 2014

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

How to Build a Story with Logistics

9 Dec
Rahul Kanakia's story, "Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)" was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Some university creative writing teachers don’t allow their students to write genre fiction: no ghosts, aliens, spaceships, vampires, or zombies unless they’re handled in a literary fashion (whatever that means). This isn’t my policy, but I understand it. Bad genre stories tend to skim the surface of an idea (stun guns, cosmic annihilation) in a cursory way that can be tedious and dull. And yet I’ve found that good genre stories are as much fun to read as any purely literary creation. So what makes a good genre story?

The answer is, in part, how imaginatively the story digs into the practical details of its idea. Ghosts are ghosts, for instance; we’ve seen them countless times in books and movies, and, as a result, we tend to grow accustomed to the rules and conventions of the ghost-story genre. A good ghost story, then, will play with the practical logistics of those conventions in order to make us see them with fresh eyes.

This is precisely what Rahul Kanakia does in his story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley).” He takes the idea of a ghost catcher (a la Ghostbusters) and focuses on the logistics of the profession in order to produce a story that is horrifying, funny, and complex. It was published at Clarkesworld, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Anyone who’s seen Ghostbusters will understand the basic concept of the story. A man captures and stores ghosts for a living. But what does that mean, logistically-speaking? Where are the ghosts found? How are they captured? Where are they stored? These are basic questions, but the answers are crucial to developing the story. Kanakia begins to provide these answers in a single paragraph:

Chris once told me that human beings are hard-wired to feel an “urgent sense of distress” at the crying of a baby. Well, that’s not true. You know how many times I’ve gone down to the Kaiser Hospital over on Howe Street and sucked the ghost of a crying baby out of one of their incubators? Just maybe like two hundred times. Crying babies? That’s a Wednesday for me.

Where are the ghosts found? The usual places (people’s homes, as we learn elsewhere) but also in places that make logical sense and yet are unexpected. Of course you’d find ghosts in hospitals. Of course some of those ghosts would be babies. And, of course, some of those babies would have died in incubators. It makes perfect sense, but I’m willing to bet you’ve never read a story with these kinds of ghosts in it.

How are they captured? The same way they’re captured in Ghostbusters. But, note the verb that Kanakia uses: sucked. It’s not the tone typically used when talking about dead babies, and so it’s shocking.

Where are they stored? We know that from the story’s title: in the narrator’s house.

These answers flesh out the story by creating the world, but they also create the character. The most important question is one that many readers might not think to ask: What kind of person captures and stores ghosts? The answer is someone so callous or emotionally closed that the ghosts of dead babies in incubators doesn’t faze him (“That’s a Wednesday for me”).

By digging into the logistics of how the idea works (capturing ghosts), the story creates a character who must live with those logistics. The rest of the story explores what happens to such a character when he is faced with a problem that connects his supernatural profession to a mundane problem (finding a boarder). That story is impossible without the depth of character revealed in that paragraph about ghost babies.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a character by digging into the logistics of an idea, using Rahul Kanakia’s ghost story as a model:

  1. Identify the idea. If you’re writing a genre story, this should be fairly easy. Which genre element are you using? Ghosts, zombies, werewolves, aliens, etc? But it also applies to literary stories. Is your literary story a love story, revenge story, coming-of-age story, marital affair story, death of a loved one story, or dating (mis)adventure story? There are probably others; the point is that most stories fall into a genre of some kind, which is why my 11th-grade English teacher always claimed that no one had written an original plot since Shakespeare (who also borrowed his plots). Once you know the kind of story you’re writing, you can begin to identify the conventions of that story.
  2. Where does the idea exist? Setting matters. Try to get away from the default, bland world that is often associated with an idea (haunted houses for ghosts, nighttime underworlds for zombies, middle class suburbs for love stories). Where can you put the story that would make it seem original? What setting would make you unsure how the story would proceed? This doesn’t require you to do something extreme (zombies on Mars), only to explore the logical possibilities of the idea. Kanakia realized that ghosts could be babies, and so he took the story, at least for one paragraph, to a place where those ghosts could be found. How can you do this for your idea?
  3. How does the idea occur? What is the basic mechanism of the idea. Kanakia’s character sucks ghosts into bottles which he stores in his small house. On one hand, this is very similar to the most famous version of the idea (Ghostbusters), but, on the other hand, it’s also pretty different. Ghostbusters put the ghosts, which tended to be monstrous-looking, into an opaque vault. But what if you couldn’t afford a vault? And what if the ghosts didn’t look like monsters? By figuring out the mechanical logistics (where and how) of the idea, the story creates a space for a character to inhabit. How can you create a detailed space in your story? What is the where and how?
  4. How does the character feel about the idea? The key is to force the character to interact not with the idea in general but with the idea in its mechanical logistics. Do the logistics tax the character emotionally or physically? Is the character forced to develop a coping mechanism in order to interact with the logistics? Are there certain kinds of character traits that lend themselves to these particular logistics. In Kanakia’s story, an emotionally-open and empathetic character would struggle capture and store the ghosts of dead babies (and also of gay men who’d died of AIDS, as also occurs in the story). But if a character is emotionally closed enough to do this type of work, how does he function in other parts of his life? If you can create a character who learns to function within the idea (whatever your idea is), what happens when the character is taken outside or beyond that idea? Are his or her character traits helpful? Not helpful? Problematic?

Have fun playing around with the logistics of the idea. It’s possible that you’ll begin to see entirely new pathways for the story to travel. Good luck!

An Interview with Steph Post

4 Dec
Steph Post's crime novel, A Tree Born Crooked, is set in the Florida panhandle made infamous by Harry Crews.

Steph Post’s crime novel, A Tree Born Crooked, is set in the Florida panhandle made infamous by Harry Crews.

Steph Post grew up in North Florida, lives in St. Petersburg with her husband and six dogs, and teaches writing at a performing arts high school in Tampa. Her essay, “Blue Diamond,” on the early work of Stephen King was included in the recent anthology, Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics: Reflections on the Modern Master of Horror. Her latest book is the crime novel, A Tree Born Crooked.

To read an excerpt from A Tree Born Crooked and an exercise on writing active character descriptions, click here.

In this interview, Post discusses writing about making the Florida panhandle feel authentic, creating intimate spaces within plot, and working under the influence of Cormac McCarthy.

Michael Noll

This book seems to be as much about its setting in the Florida panhandle as the actual story. On one hand, this seems like a good move as a storyteller since it’s a place full of colorful characters. On the other hand, I’d imagine it could be hard to create characters in this place without running into stereotypes. How did you create this place in a way included drugs, alligators, and poor, uneducated white people without falling into the caricatures so often connected with popular images of those things?

Steph Post

I honestly didn’t even think about the stereotype issue until I was deep into the revision process. I just created a place and a set of characters that were real and true to the people of this area of Florida. Although Crystal Springs is a fictional town, I wanted it to feel authentic for the reader. I didn’t want readers to feel like they were watching a movie or television show with a caricature of a rural Florida town, populated with rednecks and white trash. I mean, how many times has this been done? I wanted readers to feel like they could imagine walking around the town as if it were an actual place. I wanted them to feel all of the hopes, dreams, despairs and complexities of these characters. Just as all people are complex, so to are all characters. It’s the job of the writer not to be lazy when bringing the characters to light.

Michael Noll

A Tree Born Crooked, a crime novel by Steph Post, is set in the Florida panhandle and follows the disaster of a theft gone wrong.

A Tree Born Crooked, a crime novel by Steph Post, is set in the Florida panhandle and follows the disaster of a theft gone wrong.

I’m interested in how you approached plot in the novel. The book starts with James getting a postcard telling him to come home because his father has died. But the plot doesn’t really begin until his brother and cousin commit a crime. How did you bridge the gap between James showing up in town and his getting drawn into the crime? It would seem tempting to make that gap quite large, with James meeting various characters and visiting old haunts. Was it difficult to get the next part of the plot moving?

Steph Post

I won’t lie—developing the plot was the hardest part of writing A Tree Born Crooked. I’m on my third novel now and crafting plot has become a much more fluid process, but it was a bit difficult for me with A Tree Born Crooked. It was tempting to let James play in Crystal Springs a while and to bring out new characters and places, but I wanted to keep the pace accelerated throughout the novel. There’s a definite balance between pushing the action forward and then allowing for pauses where readers can become more intimate with the setting and characters. I had to establish James and his inner conflict before I could focus on the external conflicts of the plot, and from there I had to make sure there were enough peaks and valleys between the two.

Michael Noll

Crime novels tend to have a particular kind of main character, one who has, as your book jacket puts it, “a tough-as-nails exterior and an aching emptiness inside.” But, of course, book jackets are not novels. How did you create a character who fulfills the description in the jacket (and the readers’ expectations for a crime novel) but is also a nuanced character with depth?

Steph Post

I was much more concerned with creating a character with depth. It wasn’t until after the novel was finished that I realized James fit into the role of anti-hero in a crime novel. And, of course, that came from the subliminal effects of researching and writing in this genre. As I was writing, I was focused on developing James as a character who is having to come to terms with events outside of his control. He’s thrust back into a world that he wants no part of and he must decide how he wants to navigate the situation. James’ story is really one of a character peeling, or a times ripping, back layers in a difficult process of self-discovery. He just also happens to be dodging bullets in the process.

Michael Noll

In the blurbs for the novel, you’re compared to Daniel Woodrell and Harry Crews. I’d add another writer: Joe Lansdale, the crime and horror writer from East Texas. I’m curious which writers were in your head as your wrote this novel. Was there a book that you looked to for help? What did you learn or borrow?

Steph Post

A lot of books were influential in getting A Tree Born Crooked started. Novels such as Jim Harrison’s A Good Day to Die, Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone and David Eddings’ High Hunt definitely inspired me to write about underdog characters in an underbelly world. I fully fall prey to Bloom’s “anxiety of influence,” though, and so try to avoid reading fiction when I’m writing the first draft of a novel. However, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men was crucial in helping me to craft dialogue. There’s a scene in the beginning of the novel with Llewellyn sitting in his trailer—what the character doesn’t say is almost more important than what he puts into words. I definitely relied on McCarthy when working to create “negative dialogue” and to utilize the spaces in a scene to their fullest.

December 2014

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

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