Archive | October, 2015

An Interview with Caille Millner

29 Oct
Caille Millner is the author of the memoir The Golden Road: Notes on my Gentrification.

Caille Millner is the author of the memoir The Golden Road: Notes on my Gentrification.

Caille Millner is the author of The Golden Road: Notes on my Gentrification and an editorial writer and weekly columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and she has had essays in The Los Angeles Review of Books and A New Literary History of America. Her awards include the Barnes and Noble Emerging Writers Award and the undergraduate Rona Jaffe award for fiction.

To read her story “The Surrogate” and an exercise on subtext, click here.

In this interview, Millner discusses first lines, writing about class, and moments of attempted—and failed—communication.

Michael Noll

Something I’ve found myself stressing lately in writing classes is the need for directness, rather than subtlety, when it comes to plot and situation. So, I was immediately drawn to the opening lines of this story:

“Cecily is six months pregnant with someone else’s child when her husband tells her that he wants a baby of his own. It’s not a complete surprise — if he never grew jealous of all the other babies she’s carried, she’d wonder.”

Did the story always begin with this line, with this directness, or was it something that you discovered through revision?

Caille Millner

It wasn’t part of the first draft, but it came fairly early on. I knew from the beginning that the action of the story would be driven by a simple question—will she choose to have her own baby?—and that all of the tension would arise out of the complexity of her family dynamics and the stark limitations of her opportunities. But since it takes time and detail to create the tension, there’s nothing lost by stating the plot upfront. It’s a way to keep the reader interested enough to stay with me while I unwind the rest of the skein.

Michael Noll

Of course, there’s a great deal of subtlety in the story. For example, huge class distinctions lie in plain sight but are never directly remarked upon. For example, Rebecca can take maternity leave while Cecily’s job is maternity, and Rebecca can afford doctors that Cecily can’t. Did you ever comment directly on these disparities in earlier drafts? Or did you always know that the reader would intuitively see and understand them?

Caille Millner

No, I never made direct comment on these things, for two reasons. The first was that I built tension by building details. This is an unspoken experience in public life, so the emotional toll takes on weight as you, the reader, learn what goes into it.

The second reason I never commented directly was that it felt more realistic to me. In situations where the class aspect underlies the very existence of the transaction, it makes the participants very uncomfortable to talk about it and to think about it.

Rebecca doesn’t want to think about all of the dominoes that had to fall for this moment to be possible for her – she just wants her baby. Cecily’s day to day existence is fraught enough—she just wants her money. Why would either of them rock the boat? The reader is the one who’s granted the right to consideration, to judgment, as the outside observer.

Caille Millner's story,

Caille Millner’s story, “The Surrogate,” appeared in Joyland Magazine.

Michael Noll

My favorite moment in the story is the conversation between Cecily and Rebecca about what it means to know you’re ready for a baby. The characters are talking to each other, but they’re not really talking about the same thing. The subtext for each character is different. Is a scene like this the magical result of writing into a situation? Or was it a scene that you knew, from the beginning, that you would eventually write?

Caille Millner

How interesting that this scene is your favorite moment. It came from the situation. Two women, thrown into intimacy with each other, but an intimacy with strained circumstances and painful limits. They know nothing about each others’ lives. They’re having an idle, tedious moment. It seemed like a chance for one of them to risk an intrusive question.

And of course those moments of trying and failing to communicate with someone, to try and fail to find common ground—those moments are so frequent and frustrating and human.

Michael Noll

I recently interviewed Matthew Salesses, and we talked about something he’s written about: how, in his words, “We need more books where people of color do things white Americans have done in fiction for ages.” I thought of this need as I read “The Surrogate.” We don’t learn that Franco is from Mexico or that Cecily’s mom had returned to Mexico until deep into the story. And, both characters have names that don’t carry regional or ethnic assumptions with them, unlike the name of Franco’s daughter, Marisol. Did you begin the story like this on purpose—focusing on the story (surrogate’s husband wants a baby of their own) first and on the characters’ backgrounds second?

Caille Millner

Franco’s name would’ve been a tip-off to me, but I understand your point. Again, I was conscious of lived experience. Their backgrounds are secondary to the action because they aren’t thinking about their race or their experience as immigrants all the time. On the other hand, it certainly has played a role in their current situation.

October 2015

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


How to Create Moments of Clashing Subtext

27 Oct
Caille Millner's story,

Since Caille Millner’s story, “The Surrogate,” appeared in Joyland Magazine, it has been the subject of several admiring essays, including in The Rumpus.

In high school English classes, students are sometimes introduced to the terms round character and flat character. These same terms occasionally pop up during writing workshops, often accompanied by the statement, “I want to know more about So-and-so.” But as a piece of advice, “I want to know more about…” isn’t very helpful. Let’s assume the writer does as suggested and brainstorms pages and pages of backstory and character description—then what? Knowing more about a character doesn’t automatically result in a better story or even in a rounder character. The more needs something to do. It needs a purpose.

One possibility is to use this information as subtext for a scene. A great example of how this works can be found in Caille Millner’s story, “The Surrogate.” It was published in Joyland Magazine, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The premise of “The Surrogate” is pretty neatly summed up by its title and opening paragraph:

Cecily is six months pregnant with someone else’s child when her husband tells her that he wants a baby of his own. It’s not a complete surprise — if he never grew jealous of all the other babies she’s carried, she’d wonder.

The first thing we’re introduced to is Cecily and her husband’s home:

They live on the dusty edge of a desert city. The neighborhood is small, bleached-out, and quiet. Their house is a bright one-story with a chain-link fence in front and a little patch of yard out back. An arm’s length of space separates the houses on either side.

We’re also introduced to the woman whose baby Cecily is carrying:

Cecily is carrying this baby for Rebecca, a woman who has the most incredible smell. Whenever she sees her, Cecily closes her eyes and inhales deeply, trying to guess what’s in her perfume — is it cedar?

It must be cedar. Franco sometimes smells of it when he comes home after work. On Franco it’s mixed with the smells of sweat and tar, and on Rebecca it’s mixed with smells that are too nice for her to recognize, but she knows cedar when she sniffs it.

The difference in class between Rebecca and Cecily is clear—and the difference matters. Rebekah can take maternity leave from her job, but for Cecily surrogacy is a necessary source of income. Her husband often experiences year-long stretches of unemployment. This class difference is the context for the story—what is happening in the background.

It becomes subtext when it is put into action. This occurs throughout the story, but here is one particularly clear example:

“How’d you know you were ready for a baby?” Cecily blurts out. She’s surprised as soon as the words appear, and stares ahead at them, as if they were cigarette smoke.

Cecily senses Rebecca’s back straightening in the chair beside her.

“That’s a good question, Cecily,” she says, and it sounds to Cecily like she’s never thought about it before.

On the surface, Cecily’s question is pretty simple. If the story was stripped of its context and this bit of dialogue was all that we saw, the scene wouldn’t be very compelling. It’s interesting because of what lies behind the question—what Cecily is thinking about as she asks it. In Rebecca’s response, it’s clear that although she understands at least a little of Cecily’s life and context, she’s thinking about them in a different way—and she’s also thinking about other things, her own context. In the dialogue that follows, you can see the moments where the subtexts collide:

“I guess…it was always something I wanted?” Rebecca says. “Something Derek always wanted? We’d better want it, with everything we’re going through.” She chuckles.

They sit there for a moment.

“But I guess you’re always sort of ready, right?” Rebecca says. “Once you have your life together.”

“Hmm,” Cecily says.

Cecily is thinking about the obstacles that she’ll face to getting pregnant: giving up the income of surrogacy, providing for a child, the effect on her body, and the emotional consequences of a child. Rebecca is thinking about the fact that she’s using a surrogate and her own obstacles that have led her to this moment.

In some ways, the subtexts for each character overlap, and the characters are aware of this. But there isn’t so much overlap (they aren’t thinking about the same thing in the same way) that the tension dies. Conflict often arises out of moments in which character interact with different subtexts (different intentions or thoughts). These characters’ awareness of this difference in subtext–and inability to completely smooth over the resulting awkwardness, despite trying—is partly what makes the scene so compelling.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create an opportunity for a collision of subtext, using “The Surrogate” by Caille Millner as a model:

  1. Identify the different contexts for each character. Choose a scene to create between two or more characters. What is going on in the background for each of them? Think about context like a green screen in a film. What is going on behind the actors affects how they act and how we understand what their actions. So, what is going on in your characters’ lives? What is their situation and backstory?
  2. Turn that context into action. As anyone who’s gone through workshop knows, backstory isn’t the same thing as drama. It needs to be put to work. In “The Surrogate,” Cecily needs money, and so she turns to surrogacy. Rebecca has money but can’t have a child, so she turns to surrogacy. Think about the context you’ve created for the characters. How do they act on it? What does it force them to do?
  3. Create complications from that action. What are the limitations that the action places on a character. For example, Cecily can’t have a child of her own when she’s carrying someone else’s baby. Or, what are the mental effects of the action. For example, Rebecca must accept a weird sort of enlargement of the self: it’s her baby, and so the womb it resides within is, from a particular point of view, also her womb. It’s a potentially uncomfortable relationship dynamic.
  4. Bring the different contexts together. Context becomes subtext when it informs how the character behaves and how we, the readers, understand that behavior. When two characters with different context experience the same moment, the way that subtext informs their reactions will often lead to different responses. So, two characters might see a child carrying a balloon and respond quite differently. Or, if two characters are talking about something, their different subtexts for the conversation can cause them to, essentially, be having two very different experiences. The key is to put two characters with different contexts together.
  5. Give the characters some awareness of what has happened. When the characters interact, and when their different subtexts are revealed, it can be useful to have at least one of the characters aware of this revelation that their contexts/subtexts are quite different. This is what “The Surrogate” does with both Rebecca and Cecily. There’s a sense that each is aware (if only vaguely) of why the other responds the way she does, and it makes the conversation awkward. They try to smooth it over, but the effort is not entirely successful. What happens when one of your characters tries to smooth over the awkwardness from realizing that she has a different context/subtext than the person she’s talking to?

The goal is to create suspense and drama from an encounter between two characters with different subtexts for the moment.

Good luck.

An Interview with Lincoln Michel

22 Oct
Lincoln Michel's debut story collection, Upright Beasts, was described in The New York Times as reading

Lincoln Michel’s debut story collection, Upright Beasts, was described in The New York Times as reading “something like translated Kafka.”

Lincoln Michel is the editor-in-chief of and a founding editor of Gigantic. His fiction has appeared in Granta, Oxford American, Tin House, NOON, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. His essays and criticism have appeared in The Believer, Bookforum, Buzzfeed, Vice, and The Paris Review Daily. He is the co-editor of Gigantic Worlds, an anthology of science flash fiction, and the author of Upright Beasts, a collection of short stories. He was born in Virginia and lives in Brooklyn.

To read his story “Dark Air” and an exercise on merging literary and genre stories, click here.

In this interview, Michel discusses the differences, if any, that exist between literary and genre fiction.

Michael Noll

I was on a panel recently, and the question was posed about the difference between literary and genre fiction. The usual things were said, with the eventual answer being a bit like the Supreme Court justice’s line about obscenity: we know genre or lit fiction when we see it. But when it comes to this particular story (and several in the collection), any distinction between genre/literary seems impossible to find. I can’t remember another story in Granta that was so devoted to genre elements, yet the characters are developed and the language is tight, so it’s easy to see why Granta selected it. You’re part of a large group of writers who are straddling both worlds (Adrian Van Young, Manuel Gonzales, and, obviously, Karen Russell). What do you think? Is any distinction left?

Lincoln Michel

I seem to have a different stance on this question than most people I know in either the genre world or the literary world. I don’t believe that genre distinctions are meaningless, but I also don’t believe that there is anything inherently inferior to genre work. To me, genres are literary traditions and conversations between writers, readers, and critics. Part of the enjoyment of “genre-bending” or genre mashing is seeing the different tropes and styles subverted, complicated, or tweaked in different ways. If we didn’t understand what, say, a hardboiled detective story was or what a Lovecraftian horror story was, then a hardboiled cosmic horror story simply wouldn’t work.

When I write in a genre (or in two or three), I’m both participating in a conversation with other authors in that literary tradition, and I’m working in a form and hoping to subvert/complicate/expand it.

“Literary” is a tougher term, because I think it has a lot of different usages and definitions that frequently contradict each other. (That’s true of “genre” too actually.) To avoid going on a thirty-page rambling rant, I’ll just say that I think of “literary” fiction as fiction that is complex, language-focused, and challenges instead of simply meets readers’ expectations. As such, writing can be simultaneously literary and genre. Le Guin, Delany, Chandler, Atwood… their fiction is as complex, beautifully written, and boundary pushing as anything on the “literary fiction” shelf of a bookstore. (By the same token, fourth-generation Raymond Carver knockoffs are the realist version of genre pulp.)

Lincoln Michel's collection Upright Beasts is a genre-bending debut (O Magazine), full of monstrous surprises and eerie silences (Vanity Fair).

Lincoln Michel’s collection Upright Beasts is a genre-bending debut (O Magazine), full of monstrous surprises and eerie silences (Vanity Fair).

In my book, Upright Beasts, some of the stories use genre elements from science fiction, fairy tales, and horror, but I don’t believe there is any quality distinction between them and the Kafkaesque parables or realist Southern stories. They are just playing with different forms and styles.

So genres exist, but I think you are right that we’re finally tearing down the borders separating the writers who work in them. It used to be that the literary world was separate from the SF world that was separate from the crime world, and so on. As a writer you kind of had to pick one little patch of land to grow your garden in, or maybe two if they were adjacent plots like SF and fantasy. But now Le Guin just got a National Book Award lifetime achievement medal, the Library of America series publishes Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut alongside James Baldwin and Philip Roth, the New Yorker has issues devoted to SF and crime, and authors are feeling increasingly free to write in different genres, to plant lots of different gardens in lots of different plots.

And that’s how it should be. No one wrinkles their nose at the fact that a Kubrick directed the best horror film ever in The Shining AND directed one of the best science fiction films in 2001 AND directed great black comedies, war films, and other films in other genres. Why shouldn’t writers have the same freedom?

Gigantic Worlds is an anthology of 51 science flash fiction stories from writers as varied as Jonathan Lethem, Charles Yu, and Kelly Luce.

Gigantic Worlds is an anthology of 51 science flash fiction stories from writers as varied as Jonathan Lethem, Charles Yu, and Kelly Luce.

I actually just co-edited an anthology of science fiction called Gigantic Worlds that had this ethos, so I’m definitely interested in genre as both a form and as great literature. Gigantic Worlds is a mix of fantastic SF writers (Ted Chiang, Laird Barron, Meghan McCarron, etc.) and great literary writers working in the form of SF (Catherine Lacey, Alissa Nutting, Kyle Minor, etc.). There is no reason those writers shouldn’t be read, enjoyed, or studied side by side.

(Adrian Van Young is also in that anthology, and I’m glad to hear you give him a shout out as he’s a fantastic writer—and one of my best friends—whose work is definitely simultaneously genre and literary.)

That’s what I want for my own writing. I want to write a book in every genre! I want to play with different genres like I play with different structures, different voices, and different POVs. I think you have to do that with a love and understanding of the genres—and I grew up reading Le Guin and Chandler alongside Carver and Calvino—but otherwise, go forth and write whatever you love. Sculpt weird beasts out of the different elements that speak to you. Make them yours.

October 2015

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

How to Merge Literary and Genre Stories

20 Oct
Lincoln Michel's collection Upright Beasts is a genre-bending debut (O Magazine), full of monstrous surprises and eerie silences (Vanity Fair).

Lincoln Michel’s collection Upright Beasts is a “genre-bending debut” (O Magazine), full of “monstrous surprises and eerie silences” (Vanity Fair).

Perhaps the most significant movement in American fiction is the genre-bending mashup. Karen Russell nearly won the Pulitzer Prize for Swamplandia, a novel whose setting (alligator theme park in the Florida Everglades) would have fit perfectly with the campy premises of 1960s sitcoms like The Munsters and The Addams Family or many of today’s reality shows. In a similar way, George Saunders combines speculative fiction with a literary narrator in his story “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” and Kelly Link merges a lush southern landscape with a world of fairies in “The Summer People,” the first story in her latest collection, Get In Trouble. It’s a good bet that almost every writing workshop in the country includes someone writing a monster story or some other genre-inspired piece of literary fiction.

The problem that those beginning writers often encounter, though, is that genres don’t merge easily as you might imagine when reading Link, Saunders, and Russell. As readers, we have expectations for realist fiction, and we have quite different expectations for stories featuring a Weekly World News roster of characters: werewolves, aliens, psychopaths, and alligator wrestlers. A story that begins in one genre tends to begin with a particular tone, a nod to the readers’ expectations, and then when the genre shifts, so must the tone. It’s this shift that gives so many writers fits.

Lincoln Michel demonstrates how to negotiate this shift in his story, “Dark Air,” which is included in his collection Upright Beasts and is almost certainly one of the most genre-bending stories ever to appear in Granta, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is about an alien that infects other creatures, transforming them physically and giving them the telepathic powers. As you might expect, the story includes a fair amount of gore and a few scenes that would fit neatly into a horror film. But none of this is evident in the story’s opening. Here are the first two sentences:

How we ended up in those backwoods hills was Iris said we needed to ‘get a little air,’ and Dolan added, ‘country air!’ and that was that. Iris was my lover, and Dolan was her roommate I’d never liked.

This opening has a sense of foreboding (backwoods hills), but there’s no sense yet that the story will inevitably become a kind of horror story. At this point, it could just as easily become a version of E. B. White’s super-literary essay “Once More to the Lake,” but with some relationship drama thrown in. But that’s not where the story is going, as the next sentence makes clear:

All of us were alive, at that point.

That line telegraphs the general twist the story will take, which is necessary, but the story is attempting to have a foot in both genre and literary. It’s engaged in a balancing act, and so what follows is a nuanced mix of realism and horror. After this death prediction, the story immediately refocuses on non-genre elements:

I had no problem with city air. I figured it was the same air out there as in here, but the decision had been made in my presence without my participation.

‘You know what we mean, goofus,’ Dolan said. ‘The noise. The lights.’

Iris giggled and put her hand on Dolan’s arm. They had their own private definition of humor.

A few hours later we were rolling through the hills. We’d been in a car the whole time and we had the windows up, AC blasting. We hadn’t yet felt the country air.

Into these realist elements, Michel introduces hints of danger, which are amplified given the prediction of death:

The roads up in these mountains were littered with signs. Caution for this, danger about that. Falling rocks, bobcat crossing, dangerous incline. There must have been a dozen ways for us to be crushed or torn apart.

‘You never see green like this in the city,’ Iris was saying. She clicked away with her phone as we rounded a chunk of mountain that had been blown open with dynamite.

Caution signs are, of course, part of the natural setting of the story, but in this passage they’re clearly establishing a tone and setting the stage for less realistic forms of danger. When that danger arrives, it literally break into the midst of a realist moment:

Dolan had his headphones on and Iris was pretending to sleep.

‘Hey, I said –’

I think that’s around when the creature burst from the bushes on the side of the road.

The realist moments don’t vanish at this point in the story, but the genre elements become increasingly visible. The balance between the two is easier to strike because it’s been introduced on the first page.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s merge literary and genre stories, using “Dark Air” by Lincoln Michel as a model:

  1. Identify the expectations of the genre element. Horror stories are, well, horrific. So, a suggestion of imminent danger and the risk of death or pain is needed. Speculative fiction often has a technical focus—the details of the technology or futuristic detail. Detective fiction, crime fiction, romance, and fantasy (classical and otherwise) all carry with them particular expectations. If you’re not sure about what these are, you can open almost any book that is situated firmly in a genre. The first page almost always tells the reader in both clear and nuanced ways what kind of story it is.
  2. Include a clear marker of genre. Michel does this with the sentence, “All of us were alive, at that point.” Speculative or science fiction might include a direct reference to technology. Detective fiction might allude to a crime or mystery. Blunt is good.
  3. Find ways to hint at those expectations (and marker) within realist prose. I keep saying realist because that is the default mode of contemporary American and English-language fiction. It may be different in other countries, cultures, and languages. But since it’s the starting point of most (though not all) American literary fiction, it’s a good place to begin. So, find ways to drop genre hints into that realistic prose. Michel does this with the caution signs on the side of the road and the dynamited mountain. They carry forward the tone set by the marker without directly referring to it. To do this, think about the tone of the marker you’ve used or the usual language and images of the genre. Is there diction from the genre that overlaps with realist diction? Or, vice versa, is there realist diction that carries the same tone or connotation as the language of the genre? You can play with image in the same way. How can you use the realist aspects of the setting (warning signs, dynamited mountain) to convey the same tone that genre-specific images might convey?

The goal is to use images and word choice to set the stage for the shift from realist fiction to genre fiction in order to create a new hybrid. When done well, the inevitably introduction of the genre element won’t feel out-of-place but, rather, something that is part of the natural fabric of the story.

Good luck.

How to Create Depth of Time in Dialogue

13 Oct
A Chicago Tribune review called Debra Monroe's memoir, My Unsentimental Education, a genuine look at how "sometimes you go sideways or down before you go up."

A Chicago Tribune review called Debra Monroe’s memoir, My Unsentimental Education, “a genuine look at how ‘sometimes you go sideways or down before you go up.'”

Good prose isn’t tied to any moment, scene, or place. A passage may be set in a bar on Friday, but the prose can move to a park on Thursday if it wants. It’s this ability to hover and jump that makes a the language of a story or essay seem dynamic. If, at any moment, the writer can take us by the hand and leap, like Dickens’ Christmas ghosts, into another place and time, then we always quiver with just a bit of expectation: what will the writer do next? We’re used to this quality in narration, but skillful writers can achieve the same effect in dialogue.

A good example of dialogue that moves in and out of time can be found in Debra Monroe’s essay, “You’re in Trouble. Am I Right?” You can read it now at Longreads. It’s also included, in slightly longer and different form, in Monroe’s new memoir, My Unsentimental Education.

How the Essay Works

The essay is about Monroe’s experience as a young college student, struggling to find her way in a writing class and with a new boyfriend. At one point, after meeting the boy, she receives a call at the restaurant where she worked:

I was waiting tables one night when my boss, Kristine, called me to the phone. “Debra!” she said, accented, authoritarian. She was German. She’d married an American soldier during the Allied Occupation. She left the receiver uncovered. “It is a phone call from a boy!”

Here is what the boy says (after Monroe has expected to make a date for later in the week). Pay attention to how smoothly the passage moves in and out of time:

Tonight, he said. With Kristine listening I didn’t feel I could say I didn’t get off work until late and had class in the morning. I said I’d call him when I got home. I hung up. Kristine said: “Our poetess has an admirer.” She’d once seen notes I’d scrawled on a napkin. For what class? she’d asked. For a poem, I’d answered, embarrassed. Poetry was a private emission I couldn’t seem to stop. Wonderful, she’d said. And did I know the work of Gottfried Benn? I didn’t.

“Young people are naturally interested in opposite sex,” she said now. “But no more phonings at work.”

A couple of things are immediately noticeable:

  1. Some dialogue is put into quotation marks, and other dialogue is not. There is probably an editor out there with rules about this, but I don’t know them. The rules, if they exist, probably change depending on the circumstances. In this case, the dialogue from the past isn’t put into quotation marks, and the dialogue from the present is, with the exception of when the boy says, “Tonight.” A better way to look at this distinction (quotation marks versus no quote marks) might be this: the dialogue that reveals voice is put into quotation marks, which tend to highlight something, make it stand out. The less distinctive lines are not put set off in the same way.
  2. The present action vanishes. After Kristine says, “Our poetess has an admirer,” there is no attribution or description of scene before she next says, “Young people are naturally interested in opposite sex.” This is a sophisticated piece of craft. Even good writers fall into the tick-tock of dialogue-description: “Blah blah,” he said, scratching his nose. What Monroe does is give a line of dialogue that references something from the past (which we do all the time in conversation, continually referencing past things we’ve said, inside jokes, conversations interrupted, movie quotes). Rather than describe how Kristine says, “Our poetess has an admirer,” Monroe gives the context for the line and even writes dialogue that took place in that contextual moment.
  3. The present action returns, unannounced. Monroe doesn’t write, “Back in the restaurant, Kristine said…” She immediately jumps into what Kristine says, trusting the reader to keep up. The result is a rush through time and context and between exterior action and private revelation (“Poetry was a private emission I couldn’t seem to stop”). This rush is what makes the prose dynamic and interesting. Like a waterbug or Steph Curry, it never moves in a straight line, and so we lean forward, waiting to see what will happen next.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write dialogue that jumps through time, using “You’re in Trouble. Am I Right” by Debra Monroe as a model:

  1. Choose the moment of dialogue. Don’t choose a moment of high suspense, like a dying character’s last words. Choose a moment that is simply part of your narrative, not the last note of a passage but a moment that exists somewhere in the middle. (The more intensely the reader is waiting for something, as at the end of a scene, the harder it is to avoid, or jump away from, that thing they’re waiting for.) Ideally, the dialogue occurs between characters who have a history, long or short, rather than characters who’ve just met.
  2. Write a line of dialogue that references something from the past. As humans, we have a lovely tendency to reference moments from our past, moments of connection between us and the ones we love (or simply the people around us). It’s why you can spend time with a group of friends and learn a great deal about an absent friend: the others can’t help talking about her. It’s also why the new person to a group is often occasionally lost in conversation, unable to understand the references to shared moments that the others make. So, include one of these moments in your dialogue. Let your character reference a past joke, conflict, or conversation. Or let the character make a joke, observation, or reference to something from the past (it can be anything, really). In other words, let the dialogue reveal the history of the relationship between the characters.
  3. Jump into the reference. Your readers are the new members of the group. They don’t understand the reference. So, tell them about it. Jump into the moment being referenced and either explain or show through scene what was being referenced.
  4. Return to the present moment without transition. It’s almost always the case that transitions are unnecessary. The reader, if you’ve set the scene and context clearly enough, will keep up. Plus, transitions are boring. Plus, sharp juxtapositions are interesting. Monroe juxtaposes Gottfried Benn and “Young people are naturally interested in sex,” which is charming and weird, and so we’re drawn into what gets said next.

The goal is to write dialogue that conveys a sense of time. As a side effect, you may also be able to replace a mundane dialogue tag and description with a flashback or reference that must be explained.

Good luck.

How to Know What’s Worth Showing

6 Oct
Dolen Perkins-Valdez's New York Times bestselling novel Balm follows three African-American characters who have moved to Chicago after the Civil War.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s New York Times bestselling novel Balm follows three African-American characters who have moved to Chicago after the Civil War.

When I was a writing student, a teacher in my program was famous for leaning back after a workshop discussion and saying, “Just tell me a story.” As a piece of advice, it’s almost absurdly on point. “Just tell me a story” is what readers across the country are thinking when they pick up a book. They are rarely interested in matters of craft and language. The problem for writers is that short stories and novels are far different from the stories we tell at bars: they’re much longer. Even if you transcribed the tale of that person you know who goes on and on, the result would be much less than 4000 words, the length of a medium-sized story. So what are all those words doing? That’s probably the biggest question that beginning writers ask. The answer is found in learning what information advances the story and what does not.

One of the clearest examples you’ll ever see of the distinction between story-advancing information and details that should be quickly summarized can be found in Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s novel Balm. You can read the opening pages of the New York Times bestseller at the HarperCollins website.

How the Novel Works

Early in the novel, there is a scene in which one of the main characters, Hemp, has moved to Chicago to search for his wife. He’s introduced to Mrs. Jenkins, a woman who takes boarders, and we’re shown their initial conversation:

She narrowed her eyes, wrinkling a scar across her face that had taken some of the bridge of her nose with it. “I don’t allow no riffraff in my house. That include liars and cheats and no counts, the don’t-want and the can’t-do. My husband and me is God-fearing people.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

This dialogue and scene serves two clear purposes. First, it tells the story: how Hemp found a room. But it also shows the reader a character, Mrs. Jenkins, in all her glory. The dialogue is terrific (“I don’t allow no riffraff in my house. That include liars and cheats and no counts, the don’t-want and the can’t-do”) and brings her character to life, so to speak. We can hear her voice. The rest of the scene continues that process of bringing-to-life for both characters:

“I cook once a day. In the morning before you go off to work, you and the mens sit down with my husband. You got to fend for your other eats.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Course I don’t allow for no loafing. You can’t sit round here all day.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Come on eat. It’s some hoecakes left. You look hungry as a mule. Then get yourself on out in them streets and get some work.”

“Yes, thank you,  ma’am.”

“You don’t say much, do you? That’s good. Ain’t room but for one talker round here. Haw!”

The conversation ends with Hemp explaining that he’s looking for his wife and Mrs. Jenkins promising to keep “an ear on it.” As a scene, it makes sense. We’ve been introduced to the characters and given a feel for their personalities; we’ve been drawn into their lives. We’ve also been introduced to the stakes of the story: Will Hemp find his wife? But look at what the novel does next:

Hemp got work loading ship a week later and earned his first wages as a free man. He bought a sack, shoes, pants, but even his first paying job could not help him shake the sadness. He asked everyone he met, but no one knew of a woman fitting Annie’s description. He decided it would be better for him to stay in one place. It did not make sense for both him and Annie to be moving around.

Before the month was out he knew that as nice as Mr. Jenkins was, he could not go on sleeping in that tight, dark room.

While the novel dramatizes and puts in-scene the initial conversation with Mrs. Jenkins, it summarizes a month of conflict: Hemp’s search for a job, his fruitless search for his wife, and his decision to find a new place to live. All of that could have been the subject of engrossing scenes, yet Perkins-Valdez summarized it. Why? The answer could tell us something about what is important in a story. In this case, what was important was establishing the characters, their voices, their desires. Once we understand those things—once we get a feel for the characters—we don’t need to see their every move. We intuitively understand how those summarized scenes might have played out, and we can skip ahead to another pivotal moment.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s dramatize character and voice and summarize action, using Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez as a model:

  1. Choose a pivotal moment in your story. By pivotal, I mean that someone acts, something changes, or a decision gets made. Our usual approach is often to put this moment in scene, but we’re going to try a different approach.
  2. Find or create an interaction that occurs before the pivotal moment. As in Balm, the interaction can be between two characters: a conversation or any moment that requires the characters to work together or against each other or do something at the same time. But the interaction can also be between the character and an object or place: think about Jack London’s famous story “To Build a Fire” and its scene with the man interacting with the wood that he’s trying to burn.
  3. Use that interaction to show off a character. The scene from Balm could easily come with a title: “This is what Mrs. Perkins is like and how newly-arrived Hemp reacts to her.” All of the dialogue and descriptions (“narrowed her eyes, wrinkling a scar”) actively build our sense of Mrs. Perkins. Hemp’s simple dialogue (“Yes, ma’am”) does the same thing. The goal is to give the reader an understanding of who these characters are. Once we have that, we will usually understand their actions. So, choose a moment that allows you, through dialogue or action, to show off the characters, to give the reader a sense for who they are.
  4. Give the scene purpose. In Balm, Hemp is looking for a room and for his wife. He’s not simply shooting the breeze with Mrs. Jenkins. In your scene, something needs to be at stake. The stakes can easily be resolved, as they are in Balm: Hemp gets a room but doesn’t find out anything about his wife. Not every scene needs a pulsing, Hans Zimmer drumbeat in the background. But every scene needs a reason to exist.
  5. After the scene is over, summarize the pivotal moment. Balm summarizes Hemp’s search for a job and his wife and his decision to find a new place to live. After seeing his conversation with Mrs. Jenkins, we can imagine him doing these things, and so it’s not necessary to show them. In the same way, you can dramatize a character-building moment and then trust that the traits you established will be clear enough to make sense during a quick summary of events.

The goal is to build a story that relies more on character and voice (which are inherently interesting) and less on minute-to-minute action (which can become tedious).

Good luck.

An Interview with Rene S. Perez II

1 Oct
Rene S. Perez II won the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award for his story collection, Along These Highways. His latest book is the novel Seeing Off the Johns.

Rene S. Perez II won the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award for his story collection, Along These Highways. His latest book is the novel Seeing Off the Johns.

Rene S. Perez II is the author the story collection, Along These Highways, which won the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award and the 2013 NACCS Tejas Award for Fiction. His newest book is the novel Seeing Off the Johns. Perez was born in Kingsville, Texas, and raised in Corpus Christi. He received an MFA from Texas State University and currently teaches high school in Austin.

To read an exercise about backstory inspired by Seeing Off the Johns, click here.

In this interview, Perez discusses why teens want realistic stories, even if those stories are sad; the formatting challenges of italics in POV shifts, and what happens when the novel you’re writing suddenly disappears from your computer.

Michael Noll

This book is ferociously sad—and not in a gratuitous way, I might add. There’s a kind of firm reality to it that I recognize from my own childhood and hometown, and so I was able to connect with these characters very easily. And yet—whew, that opening is a tear-jerker. Did this make it a difficult novel to pitch and sell? Young Adult novels aren’t strangers to sad topics (John Green, The Fault in Our Stars), but this feels somehow different, if only because it’s a more realistic novel than that one, less of a romantic comedy (even though it has a romance). I’m curious if anyone (publishers, readers, writers) pushed back against the opening.

Rene S. Perez II

I never considered that I was writing a YA book. I think the very fact that I stumbled upon one by virtue of the age of my protagonist while not trying to write one can be both a big help and potentially a detriment. When I finished the first draft of the novel, I thought that I could get at least considered/read by presses and agents. I queried four agents. Three replied back, likely due to the “success” of my first book. Each of those who responded all said the same thing: It’s too sad. They wanted me to highlight the romance, and one even asked, if it were possible, focus less on the deaths at the center of the story.

When I found my eventual publisher, they got what I was going for and were all in. What they did want to change, initially, is the ending. I was hesitant to do so and mentioned that in my first conversation with my editor. When she read through again, she saw why the novel has to end how it does. It’s basically stayed the same, story-wise.

So, in those regards, sure, there was some pushback. I do think, however, that since this is being marketed as a YA book, the fact that I never initially set out to write a YA book but to write a realistic novel about the weight of a tragedy on a town, it will resonate more clearly with young readers. I really do think young readers want to be taken seriously. They want to engage in discourse on the big questions. They appreciate knowing the kiddie gloves have been taken off.

Michael Noll

The POV shifts are fascinating. In the first, we have so much empathy for the Johns and their families. Then we’re introduced to Chon, and we begin to see the Johns, especially John Mejia, in a less empathetic way. We begin to dislike him, just as Chon does. But then this feeling gets complicated by more shifts. This seems like a difficult thing to pull off, to successfully get the reader to reconsider an attitude toward a character. How did you approach this challenge?

Rene S. Perez II

The shifts are from close third-person focus on Chon, our protagonist, to an omniscient third-person narration that zoom out wide to show the tragedy’s effect on the town. With that, we get to see how Chon’s initially low opinion of Mejia is counter to the town’s adulation of him. But as the novel goes on, we see the town shifting—forgetting or divesting from the promise Mejia, and both Johns, had. We see Chon recognize it, and the curve of his feelings toward the Johns, Mejia in particular, and the curve of the town’s feelings intersect. Shifting from Chon to the town, zooming in and out, helped to show Chon change, and it changes the reader too.

Seeing Off the Johns, the debut novel from Rene Perez II, is a BookPage Teen Top Pick and has been called "a searing, mature novel."

Seeing Off the Johns, the debut novel from Rene Perez II, is a BookPage Teen Top Pick and has been called “a searing, mature novel.”

Michael Noll

Still on the subject of POV, how much planning did you do? When you began the novel, did you have a sense for which characters would receive their own POV and where those chapters would appear in the novel? Or was this something you discovered while writing the book?

Rene S. Perez II

As far as planning goes, I knew from the first time I filled the blank page that I would move from the town to Chon and back out. In fact, the original manuscript of Seeing Off the Johns had the town sections in italic typeface. I decided before word one that there would be italic sections and regular sections. Having allowed myself that, within the italic sections, I was able to really stretch out and get comfortable within the omniscience. I am able to jump ahead and back in time. I am able to tell biographical details of people in town or histories of places. I really gave myself license to push that as far as I needed, because I knew that the visual cue of the italics would let the reader know toe expect those shifts.

When Lee Byrd, my editor at Cinco Puntos, gave me her first notes, she did away with the italics. Just like that. It was a lot to get used to for me after having written in so specific a way. But now that I read it without the italics, it makes for a more interesting read. It certainly makes it seem like I was being more daring formally than I really was.

Michael Noll

You’re a high school teacher, and an English teacher to boot, and so I know you’re putting in a lot of hours on planning and grading. Where do you find the time to write? What’s your strategy?

Rene S. Perez II

I wish I would tell you that I have some solid work ethic that I organize my life into being able to write every day. Hell, I can’t even motivate myself to write every day. What I do is make sure to always have access to notes. In various forms ranging from texting myself to notes on my phone to e-mailing myself to always having my notebooks handy, I am always ready to put down ideas for characters or stories or plot points of larger works. Then, as that becomes more fruitful, I pick times when I can sit and either transcribe paragraphs or sentences I’ve handwritten into a larger work or get started on a story.

That’s how I work. I always allow ideas to at least start. I always have a couple stories and, as has been the case for the last 5 years, a novel in progress. That way I can always turn from one project to another. I tell myself I work best on something when I’m stealing time from something else. If I always have something I’m itching to work on, when I am done with school work and the baby’s bathed and in bed, or on weekends when my wife is stepping up so I can sequester myself in one of my writing holes, quality writing happens.

Michael Noll

A few years ago, I heard you say that you’d just lost a novel through a computer failure. Was this novel? What happened? Did you rewrite the entire thing?

Rene S. Perez II

Ah, the lost novel! I started writing Seeing Off the Johns while waiting for the first book to happen. When I finished SotJ, the collection, Along These Highways, was out. I showed SotJ to an editor who gave very thoughtful feedback. She said something was missing. I could feel it too. Now, while waiting to hear back on SotJ, around 2011, I had started to write another novel. It was cool and noir-ish and rolling along quite well. I was almost done with a first draft when I lost it. At that point I knew I only had two options: I could either set about to rewrite the lost novel or I could fix SotJ. I chose to write a play instead. When I finished that, push came to shove. I tore SotJ apart. I felt like a mechanic in a hollowed out car needing to find a faulty plug and put the damn thing back together. I figured it out (in the first draft, I was satisfied with the novel being 3-dimensional because of the POV shifts, but I’d neglected to make Chon fully rounded) and fixed it, and now the Johns is almost out.

A postscript on the lost novel: I’m still chipping away at the rewriting in notes and on the manuscript, but I’ve also started a new novel. We’ll see which happens first.

September 2015

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

%d bloggers like this: