Archive | November, 2015

An Interview with Megan Kruse

28 Nov
Megan Kruse is the author of Call Me Home, which Elizabeth Gilbert called "a most unlikely tale of hardness and hustle, of grace and loss, of painful love and tough breaks."

Megan Kruse is the author of Call Me Home, which Elizabeth Gilbert called “a most unlikely tale of hardness and hustle, of grace and loss, of painful love and tough breaks.”

Megan Kruse grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives in Seattle. She studied creative writing at Oberlin College and earned her MFA at the University of Montana. Her work has appeared widely in journals and anthologies, and her debut novel, Call Me Home, was released from Hawthorne Books in March 2015, with an introduction by Elizabeth Gilbert. She teaches fiction at Eastern Oregon University’s Low-Residency MFA program, Hugo House, and Gotham Writers Workshop. She was one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 for 2015.

To read an exercise about creating internal dialogue, click here.

In this interview, Kruse discusses the larger whole of multiple perspective novels, queer sex scenes, and the importance of rural queer narratives.

Michael Noll

The novel is told from multiple perspectives, and I recently heard an agent say that readers tend to struggle to connect emotionally with characters in multi-perspective novels. I guess this makes sense in a way: just when things get tense for a character, the novel often cuts away to a different character. Was this something you thought about as you worked on the novel?

Megan Kruse

One of the things that I love about multiple perspectives is that the result seems greater than the sum of the parts; the reader gets to connect with the individual characters, and in addition, the reader comes to understand the bigger picture. I’ve always written family stories, and I think often about how in any family or group, there is no one on the inside who can fully see the whole story. So many family sorrows—our slights and misunderstandings and our greater rifts and losses—come back to our inability to see outside ourselves, to take into account all of the different narratives and histories that coexist in a family universe. I wanted to write a novel where the reader has the privilege of knowing the family’s story more fully than any of the individual characters. I understand what you’re saying about the potential for the reader to feel less connected to a single character, but I also think that the task of a successful novelist is to keep those threads feeling alive, to keep the reader tracking all of the characters even as the perspective shifts. My hope for my own fictional family was that their emotional ties to each other, the way that they’re searching and echoing off each other, would keep them present even when they weren’t on the page.

Michael Noll

You write a pretty explicit sex scene between Jackson and Don. In general, sex scenes give writers fits. There’s even an award given out annually for the worst sex writing, and very good writers often end up on the list. What was your approach to that scene?

Megan Kruse

I really loved writing those sex scenes! I wanted to write a queer story, to write characters that are so rarely visible in contemporary fiction. Jackson is coming of age, falling in love for the first time, and I don’t think you can separate that experience from the physicality of it. To be young and queer in a place where you don’t have other queer people to talk to, where you don’t have any models for how to live, means that your experience of sexuality is isolated, speculative, and lonely. The double whammy of emotional and physical connections makes that first love so wrenching and impacting when you finally experience it. Don is also Jackson’s boss, which adds another level of power and fear to the exchange. I loved writing into that murk—to put these two characters in a room together and consider how Jackson might feel, with all of these different elements trembling on the line.

Michael Noll

Megan Kruse's novel Call Me Home left the writer Dan Chaon "astonished by her talent."

Megan Kruse’s novel Call Me Home left the writer Dan Chaon “astonished by her talent.”

I love the dialogue in the novel, especially a scene between Jackson and Honey, when Honey is driving Jackson to see the crew boss. In it, Honey resists understanding. He says, “Bet yer scared, huh?” but when Jackson says, “I’m scared,” Honey answers, “Don’t worry. They’re just probably needing more help on this side.”

“You asked if I was scared.”

“Nah,” Honey said.

It makes no sense that Honey says this, or at least not immediate sense. Was this a lucky accident, the sort of thing that pops up as you write. Or did you have a sense of this character and set out to write dialogue that would reveal that sense?

Megan Kruse

I don’t remember exactly how I put that scene together, but I wanted to show through that exchange how adrift Jackson is in the fictional town of Silver, where he’s working on a construction crew. He’s trying to get his feet in a world where action speaks, where the currency is work and productivity, and so I wanted his interactions to mirror his confusion. He feels like he doesn’t know how to speak “man,” in other words, and so when he tries, he flounders. There’s another scene where he is at a bar in town with the men on his crew and he over-speaks, revealing too much about himself. He doesn’t know the rules of the world he’s in, and I wanted to capture how he is working to navigate that uncertain terrain.

Michael Noll

In an interview at The Rumpus, you talked about the importance of writing queer, rural narratives and how it’s not enough to portray non-urban places as only dangerous. Why do you think that particular narrative has taken hold? It’s true, of course, that some very bad things have happened to gay people in rural places, but I wonder if there isn’t a certain urban bias at work. I think of the scene in the film Milk when a kid calls from Minnesota or somewhere, wanting to come to San Francisco, saying that he’s scared of his father, but then the camera pans out and we see that he’s in a wheelchair. And, the new film Stonewall is about a gay Midwestern boy who moves to New York and finds himself. This is a common storyline in novels, too—that the city is safer and better, not just for queer people but for everyone. Is it inevitable that the rural, queer narrative will become more commonplace now that marriage equality is national law? Or do you think this narrative lags behind reality?

Megan Kruse

The narratives we hear about queerness are so often about departure—about leaving rural places for the city, for urban places with queer communities (San Francisco in Milk, as you mention—that’s a place where there is finally a critical mass, and you can imagine the joy of that). I don’t think that departure is about safety so much as it is about community—which then becomes safety. My experience has been that to find other people who share your experience, other people who want to live and love like you, is what feels most important, beyond physical safety. It feels safer because you have your people. But things are changing, rapidly, and the world feels different now that it did when I was younger. We’re at a moment in time when our narratives of queerness are being heard more than ever, and we need narratives now of queers everywhere, of those who’ve gone to the city and those who have made communities where previously there were none, of queers thriving and creating the worlds they want to live in. There are so many people who haven’t had a chance to tell their stories, or to read stories that speak to them of their experiences. And those are the stories that light the path for the people coming behind us.

November 2015

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

How to Put a Mind into Conversation with Itself

24 Nov
Megan Kruse's novel Call Me Home left the writer Dan Chaon "astonished by her talent."

Megan Kruse’s debut novel Call Me Home left the writer Dan Chaon “astonished by her talent.”

Dialogue involving only one person might seem, on its face, impossible. In plays, a character can talk to no one, and there are terms for this: monologue, soliloquy, or (if the character is talking to the audience) aside. This can be accomplished in prose through narration. After all, first-person narration is really just a series of scenes with bits of soliloquy in between. But that kind of narration still suggests a single speaker, and this isn’t always the case. We have many voices in our heads. Some belong to other people, but others are different versions of ourselves, and these versions can, at times, talk to one another.

A great example of this kind of interior dialogue happens in Megan Kruse’s novel Call Me Home. Kruse was recently named one of the National Book Award’s 5 Under 35, and her book includes an introduction by Eat, Pray, Love‘s Elizabeth Gilbert. You can read an excerpt of the book at The Nervous Breakdown.

How the Novel Works

The novel is organized into three different points of view: a woman who leaves her abusive husband, her daughter who she takes with her, and her son who she leaves. Only the daughter, Lydia’s, sections are told in first-person. There rest of the novel is in third person, except for a short chapter that takes place in a women’s shelter in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The chapter belongs to Lydia, but it’s told in alternating styles: second-person passages in italics and first-person passages in regular font. The passages speak to other each other in different ways.

At times, the italicized passages suggest a plan of action:

First, gather everything. The credit cards and your birth certificate. The bank statements. The social security cards. If they are gone, it’s because he has taken them. This will make things harder, but not impossible.

The passage ends like this: The world is big. It’s best if you keep going.

Here is part of the first-person passage that follows:

We drove for four days to get to New Mexico, through the mountains, the red Utah canyons, the flat sand. I watched the lava fields and they were ghostly as the moon. At the shelter there was a room with a sink and a tall window I couldn’t see out of. We sat for hours in a little room talking to the caseworkers.

The passage ends with the caseworkers talking about the place where the mother and Lydia have come from:

It was a small town, they told us. He knew the car. He might have had surveillance equipment. They told us that it’s different, now.

When the next italicized sections begins, we realize that it’s the voice of the caseworkers as filtered through Lydia’s consciousness. What gets said in the passage is a version of what the caseworkers actually said, but there’s more there, too, as you can see here:

Try not to think of the times when things were not what they seemed: when your mother carried in a bowl of yellow pears that had been eaten to lace by insects, and how you watched her from the kitchen window as she cried, wondering at her despair.

The first-person passage that follows begins like this:

It was as if I went to sleep and woke up in a dry and brittle country, and I was older, with a different name, and I had no brother.

Kruse has created a narrative structure that allows her character to think about what has happened to her, to hold the past and present side by side in her head, and to allow her feelings about one to inform the other. In short, these different parts of her experience (what Lydia has been told by the caseworkers, her mother’s flight from home, and Lydia’s reflection on both) are put into conversation with her. It’s a kind of dialogue of a character’s selves.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a dialogue of a character’s selves, using Call Me Home by Megan Kruse as a model:

  1. Choose an experience for a character to reflect upon. In Kruse’s novel, Lydia is remembering leaving her hometown and escaping to a women’s shelter on the other end of the country. That’s the wide-lens version. She’s also remembering specific moments: the counselors at the shelter talking to her and her mother and moments from her childhood in her hometown. That’s the narrow-lens, intimate version of the “experience.”
  2. Identify the different voices in the passage. In Call Me Home, there is Lydia’s voice and her mother’s voice (through traditional dialogue), and the voice of the counselors. So, decide who is talking and who is doing the reflecting (for instance, the passage would read differently if Lydia’s mother was doing the reflecting rather than Lydia).
  3. Identify the different selves in the conversation. In Call Me Home, there is Lydia’s self as she sits and reflects in Alamogordo, her self as she listens to the counselors, her self on the road away from home, and her self as a young child when her mother carried the bowl of pears. These are not the same selves because the circumstances, ages, emotions, and stakes are so different. We feel this intuitively about ourselves. We compare ourselves now to our selves as kids and think, “I’m a completely different person now.” But we also sometimes think back to our childhood selves and think that we’re basically the same person that we were then. That sense of continuity is what allows us to tell stories that run intelligibly from childhood to adulthood. But that sense that we’ve changed, perhaps often, is what informs much of our reflection. So, consider what moments in your character’s life have caused her to feel that she’s changed a great deal, even completely.
  4. Separate those selves into different sections. Kruse uses italicized, second-person sections and non-italicized, first-person sections. These don’t align neatly with all of the different selves at play in the chapter. The point isn’t to create a neat replica of the character’s consciousness. Instead, the point is to create a structure that puts the character’s selves into conversation, or dialogue, with one another. This may require combining selves or grouping them. Try this: Divide the passage into two parts. In one, a voice in the character’s head (which may be someone else’s voice, like the counselors in the novel) are talking to the character. In the other section, the character is responding to or thinking about what is said.

You may end up using italicized and non-italicized sections. You may switch between types of POV. Or, these different voices may get mixed up into a single paragraph, with no stylistic distinctions between them. Don’t get hung up on trying to faithfully imitate Kruse’s structure. Instead, try to pull together all of your character’s selves, voices, and experiences into a single passage, as Kruse has done.

Good luck.

An Interview with the Editors of Huizache

19 Nov
Diana López

Diana López

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

 

A.J. Ortega

A.J. Ortega

A.J. Ortega is the assistant editor of Huizache. He has lived all over the Lone Star State but calls El Paso his home. His focus as a writer is short fiction, which is inspired by living in the Southwest and the complexities of border culture. He is currently working on his first book, a collection of short stories. He also writes poetry, creative non-fiction, and book reviews. Some of his writing has appeared in The Rio Grande Review, Front Porch Journal, American Book Review, Southwest American Literature, and various newspapers.

To read an exercise about portraying relationships with a single, specific detail based on Michele Serros’ essay “A Bedtime Story” that appeared in Huizache, click here.

In this interview, López and Ortega discuss the mechanics of putting together an issue of a literary journal, why “Honda CRX” is better than “sports car,” and what it means to be publishing Latino literature.

Michael Noll

One of the challenges of running a literary journal is identifying good submissions from okay ones. Obviously, Michele Serros was a known writer, and this essay may have been solicited. That said, it’s easy to read the opening passage that introduces the situation and see how this essay could have leaped out of a slush pile. How soon into reading this essay did you know, yep, this one’s going in the journal?

Diana López

The first issue of Huizache was entirely solicited. We were a new magazine, so it was important to establish our character. In a way, it served as a thematic and stylistic template for the issues to come. Michele’s piece is in our second issue, the first open to unsolicited submissions, and we received some good stories through the slush pile. Dagoberto Gilb, our Executive Director, reached out to Michele to solicit her work for two reasons. One, we were feeling a little panicked because we hadn’t received enough submissions from women, and two, we want our magazine to feature both new and established voices. Including Michele in our sophomore issue helped establish a sense of balance.

She sent Dagoberto two stories, and both were great fits for Huizache. We really deliberated about which to include, but ultimately “A Bedtime Story” felt like a stronger complement to the other works. This was an angry year for readers and writers of Chicano literature because of the Tucson ISD book ban. In many ways the second issue of Huizache is a reaction to that event. It opens with a defiant grito from Lorna Dee Cervantes in “A Chicano Poem,” and it also includes a narrative by El Librotraficante, Tony Diaz, about the caravan that toured the Southwest to establish underground libraries of the banned books. Immediately preceding Michele’s story is a poem about a minuteman tracking immigrants the way a hunter tracks prey.  So you have this dark poem followed by something funny. That’s why Michele’s story is centrally located in the magazine, to provide an emotional counterpoint. One of Michele’s greatest gifts is that she reminds us that we need to laugh, too.

Michael Noll

Tolstoy wrote that happy families are all the same and unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways, but I’ve read enough essays and stories about unhappy marriages to know that the same sort of trouble dooms a lot of relationships. As a result, my eyes tend to glaze at the average divorce/affair story. What about this essay made it stand out from the unhappy crowd?

A.J. Ortega

The second issues of Huizache included Serros' essay, plus a poem by Lorna Dee Cervantes and an essay about smuggling books into Tuscon, AZ, by Tony Diaz.

The second issues of Huizache included Michele Serros’ essay, plus a poem by Lorna Dee Cervantes and an essay about smuggling books into Tuscon, AZ, by Tony Diaz.

Most stories when looked at from a birds-eye view can’t be entirely new or unique in terms of the general premise. But when you zero in, it is the minutia, the little details, that separates it from the pack. While on the surface, Michele’s piece is a breakup/divorce story, it stands out because of Serros’ voice and the specificity in the concrete details. Details like the narrator listening to Howard Stern or the chocolate donuts and goat’s milk at the end make this something more than another breakup story.

My favorite details are in the opening. We are introduced to two older couples: Happily Married 20 Years and Happily Married 38 1/2 Years. They aren’t named. They aren’t described. They are purposely unspecific and vague. But, do you see what is described on that first page? The car. The focus on the car, the Honda CRX, is what makes this story charming, funny, real. The whole punchline is about having sex at the beginning of a relationship, in a car. Readers know the “sex in the car” bit. In fact, it’s overdone. But, in this story, Michele makes sure to specify that she is referring to the front seat of the car. I think you lose something in the story if you say “sports car” or “two-seater” instead of Honda CRX. On top of this, being precise about the make and model places this story in the early 90s. Then you get to the mention of Howard Stern, who has been around forever but was never as polarizing as he was in the early 90s. All of the details, what we get to zoom in on, are deliberate and calculated in this piece.

Michele’s charm as a writer is that she is quite funny. This particular story doesn’t attack the issue of the breakup of a relationship in a sad or overly sentimental way. Instead, the break up is enveloped in humor. Just like readers are familiar with the idea, the act, the ritual of having sex in a car, we also know the ritual of the break up. It’s awful, it hurts, it’s sad, your cry, they cry, you love them, you hate them, they hate you, and on and on and on, and then time passes and it becomes a story, a chapter of your own life.

What’s great in “A Bedtime Story” is that we don’t see the nastiness of the couple at their worst nor do we see their subsequent sadness. What for? Most of us have lived it. In this piece, we don’t see a big blow up of an argument or fight, complete with the crying and snot and dry heaving. Instead we get the mattress-rotating scene. Even if the scene plays out like a comedy routine, I bought it, and I know other readers did too. They aren’t fighting about the mattress. They are fighting about everything else in their relationship, whatever that may be. We never see that on the page, but, the way the story is crafted, it’s there. Sometimes the “real” story is revealed in the ellipses or line breaks.

Michael Noll

Huizache bills itself as “The Magazine of Latino Literature,” and so I’m curious how you view that word, Latino. I live in Austin, and so my sense of the word is Texas-centric, but, of course, if you go to New Mexico or Arizona or California, it’s not really referring to the same group of people, or not exactly, anyway. (As an example, I just heard a story on NPR about the need for translators of indigenous Mexican languages in California because so many of the farm workers don’t speak English or Spanish.) When you focus on Latino literature, what do you mean? Is it a focus on culture? Language? Geography? Some combination of all three?

A.J. Ortega

Rates of English usage among Hispanics, according to Pew Research Center.

Rates of English usage among Hispanics, according to Pew Research Center.

Way to ask the tough questions, Michael. Our magazine focuses on Latinos, those of us from Latin America, or with ancestors from Latin America. I will say, though, that language doesn’t always have to do with identifying as Latino. There are Latinos in the U.S. that speak little or no Spanish. And, as you pointed out, some speak indigenous dialects. You know, I read one of those Pew Research Center things recently that made claim that more Latinos are proficient in English than before. Obviously! At this point, most of us are from here, American. Most of us speak English, and proficiently. This is why a magazine like Huizache has to exist. A lot of people, unfortunately, aren’t aware of these issues. I don’t know how many people are unaware, except that it’s a lot. Enough to warrant a magazine centered on giving Latinos a voice in the world of literature. Huizache aims to focus on Mexican American writing, mostly from the West and Southwest, as that subset makes up 60%-70% of the Latino population, but we are open to all Latinos, and everyone else.

As our country evolves, there are more and more Latinos all over the country. Our numbers are many but our voices, sadly, limited. Sometimes I think the obsession with labels used to describe different authors might be solely to figure out what shelf to put their books. But, it is all more complex than that. People need to understand that when navigating these labels, and how they apply to each individual, they will not be perfect at it. Even I’m confused. Labels are tough. Figuring out who you are is tough. That’s one thing a lot of Latinos have in common. Some of them grow out of one label and into another. Others are headstrong and stick to one. I, for example, don’t like the label Hispanic. The word refers to people from Spanish-speaking countries. However, the label was adopted by the U.S. government, specifically the Nixon administration, in order to count the Spanish-speaking population in the Census. And, as you and I both pointed out, some Hispanics don’t actually speak Spanish. Going further, some people feel that Hispanic also has echoes of the Spanish conquest and colonization in it, since that is how we got to speaking Spanish in the first place. (It also has the word “panic” in it, which is a little irrational but makes me feel weird anyway…especially when you hear it on the news.) I use Latino mostly, but when I can be more specific I prefer to do that. I say I’m Mexican American. The only way I can resolve my own identity, and subsequent identity issues, is by including the two things that have me confused in the first place – having cultural roots from Mexico, with Mexican family, parents, but being born in Houston, growing up in Texas and appreciating that I’m American. But, I’ve also known people who, for some reason, recoil at the uttering of “Mexican” like it is a bad word, and use Hispanic instead because it sounds softer.

I do like the word Latino because it seems to have been sprung from the community itself, rather than imposed by the government like I explained above. As a population of people who have different cultures, with different versions of Spanish, from different places, we at least share some struggles. One of these is the lack of exposure of our brilliant writers. Huizache aims to fill that gap.

Michael Noll

I’m interested in the meaning of Latino especially in terms of Michele Serros. The words Chicana and Chica appear in three of her book titles, and she grew up in California. But she also married a well-known rock musician, and her work inspired both at least three mega-famous bands (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, and Rage Against the Machine). This latter part isn’t the standard Latino biography that we see on TV—and not just with ignorant statements by people like Donald Trump. Latinos don’t seem to appear in the news unless it’s a story about migration. All of this is to ask this: How important was Michele Serros, not just in carving out space for Latino writers but also in broadening a national sense for who Latinos are?

A.J. Ortega

Rage Against the Machine's Zach de la Rocha appeared onstage with Los Tigres del Norte on their song "Somos Más Americanos" for a MTV Unplugged special.

Rage Against the Machine’s Zach de la Rocha appeared onstage with Los Tigres del Norte on their song “Somos Más Americanos” for a MTV Unplugged special. The New Yorker wrote a long feature about the norteño band here.

True that the latter part is not part of image of Latinos that we see on TV…but Latinos know otherwise, especially when it comes to the rockstar part. Mexicans and Mexican Americans love Rage Against the Machine. Zach de la Rocha, the lead singer, is a Chicano and the band was/is a huge success in Mexico. If you check out their Battle of Mexico City concert, you’ll see what I mean. Zach de la Rocha even joined the Los Tigres Del Norte, a norteño group, during their MTV Unplugged rendition of “Somos Mas Americanos,” a song that addresses the complexities of immigration and Mexican heritage. This is exactly the point of a lot of the conversation we’re having.

So, that’s a good segue into discussing how Michele Serros has been a tremendous influence on her own community of Latinos, women, writers, and even rock stars like Zach de la Rocha, Billy Corgan and Flea. I think what we can take away from the impression she had on people like these superstars is that she was able to transcend the label. I heard in an interview that she was once called a “Chicana falsa,” that is, she wasn’t the stereotypical Chicana according to her peers during her adolescence. She made it clear that the label isn’t her entire identity, but only part of it. Her upbringing in SoCal, with the beaches and malls, was part of her identity, thus the skateboarding and surfing. She was a lot of things, not just one. I think that’s a normal pressure that Latino writers have on their shoulders, wondering how you will be viewed, how you will be labeled, and how you will represent your community. Once your work is out there, it’s out there and people will think what they want. Michele, by putting certain words in her titles, took a certain amount of control over that, and that is something to admire. She had agency of her own identity as a Chicana, and even plays with it, challenges it, flips it on its head.

She reminds us that Latinos are a diverse group of people. The more people who realize this the better. Some Latinos are women and they call themselves Latinas. Some Latinas prefer to be called Chicanas. Some Chicanas are skaters. Some Latinos are brown. We also have white Latinos and black Latinos. A lot of Latinos speak English. Some, like me, speak Spanish but with an American accent. Others can’t speak a lick of Spanish. Some Latinos are teachers and some are rockstars. Some Latinos drink at bars, others are bartenders, and some even own the bar. And still, some are writers.

As long as we have authors like Michele Serros (que en paz descanse) to tell our complicated stories that don’t fit the dominant narrative, the people outside of the Latino community, and even those within it, will hopefully begin, or continue, to understand who Latinos really are and, in turn, their value to American literature and the country as a whole. Michele may be gone from this world, but her work and contribution to the literary arts keeps us moving forward.

Thanks for the questions, Michael. Wish you could have communicated with her directly. Your readers can get over to huizachemag.org and order Huizache, including issue two which includes Michele Serros’ work, for their collections. We have five issues now with a long list of award-winning authors, established and new, with attractive covers from Latino artists that’ll look great on their bookshelves. Read them, and enjoy them.

November 2015

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

How to Portray a Relationship with One Well-Chosen Detail

17 Nov
One of the last pieces that Michelle Serros ever published appeared in Huizache, a journal dedicated to Latino Literature.

Michele Serros was a groundbreaking Latina writer from Los Angeles who recently passed away. Her essay, “A Bedtime Story,” appeared in Huizache, a journal dedicated to Latino Literature.

It’s probably not surprising that good writing avoids abstraction. But abstraction doesn’t only mean terms like justice or goodness. For example, take a relationship or a marriage. We talk about these things as if they are as actual and real as, say, a gala apple, but that isn’t quite true. When you see a relationship, you see two people. When the relationship seems to be going well, or when it’s headed south, that judgement is based on various cues that we pick up—and those cues often involve specific behaviors or conversations, not generalizations about the relationship as a whole. As a result, when writing about not-quite-tangible details like a marriage, it’s useful to replace something complex with something simple.

This is exactly what Michelle Serros did in her essay, “A Bedtime Story.” It was published in Huizache, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay gets straight to the point, connecting the relationship to something specific:

A week into our marriage, I insisted to my new husband that we buy a new bed, immediately. Two older couples we both highly respected, Happily Married 20 Years and Happily Married 38 1/2 Years, advised us that there wasn’t just one secret in keeping a marriage happy, but rather two: a good refrigerator and a good bed.

This move immediately makes writing about this marriage much easier. For example, rather than Serros trying to describe the dynamics of her marriage, she can show us how she and her husband felt about this most-important part of their marriage. For example, details that might not mean much suddenly become potentially quite meaningful, like this:

As a newly married couple with individual credit card debt, there was no way my husband and I were going to shell out four digits for a so-called good mattress.

Also, rather than showing all the ways that the marriage begins to deteriorate (which might be many and too complex for an essay), Serros is able to use that single detail to convey the entirety of the marriage’s problems:

Six months later, during the summer solstice rotation, the arguing continued.
“Why do you always give me the heavier side?” I complained.
“The heavier side?” my husband smirked. “There isn’t no heavier side. It’s a mattress. It’s the same all around.”
“You’re not even holding up your end!” I accused him.
“I am totally carrying my side. You’re the one letting it drop. God, you’re so antagonistic!”

In case we’re beginning to grow suspicious of the neatness of the bed-as-metaphor, Serros gives us reason not to worry:

My husband and I slowly discovered that even between each solstice we had many non-mattress rotation issues to argue over.

Serros has managed to write about something as complex as a marriage using an image that anyone can easily see.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s replace an abstraction with a specific detail, using “A Bedtime Story” by Michelle Serros as a model:

  1. Identify the abstraction. While it might be something like peace or anger, it’s more likely to be a relationship. After all, it’s what most stories are about: relationships between couples, between parents and kids, between friends. Figure out which relationship is at the center of the story.
  2. Connect an object to that abstraction. It can be something that is generally associated with that type of relationship. Serros uses a bed to portray a marriage. But the object can be anything as long as it’s important to the characters. The most famous works of literature do this. What is at the heart of Bob Cratchit’s conflict with Ebenezer Scrooge? Low pay? Sure. Miserable working conditions? Long hours? Yes. But the object that we remember is the coal that heats the office and that Scrooge rations so heartlessly.
  3. Develop a conflict around the object. If characters disagree generally, how will they disagree over the object? As most of us know, when we’re feeling disagreeable, we don’t need a reason to argue, only an opportunity. The opposite is also true. If we’re in love or full of happiness, we find joy in everything. How the object you’ve chosen bring the characters together or drive them apart?
  4. Show the world around the object. One of the most important lines of Serros’ essay may be the one where she tells us that she and her husband “had many non-mattress rotation issues to argue over.” Let the reader know that you, the writer, are aware of your own trick and that the object you’ve chosen to focus on is, indeed, a good stand-in for the entire relationship.

The goal is to take the characters’ attitudes and personalities—the nature of their relationship—and make those things concrete with a detail or object. This object, then, can focus those characteristics and relationship in order to create conflict.

Good luck.

How to Keep Your NaNoWriMo Novel Alive

10 Nov

November is National Novel Writing Month, and if you’ve taken the challenge, that means you’ve written approximately one-third of a novel. Since novels tend to follow a three-act structure, this also means you’re entering the second act—otherwise known the place novel manuscripts go to die. Why? First acts are relatively easy: you’ve got a burning idea, and you begin in a rush. At some point, though, that idea is going to run into the mechanical reality of the second act. The story often becomes larger, expanding beyond the original frame of the opening pages. Multiple narrative lines are more important than ever to sustain the tension. If you’re writing a first draft, you may be discovering that you don’t know where to go or what happens next. You’re writing aimless passages.

There is no easy solution to this problem; just ask any novelist. However, there are a few strategies that can give your prose direction until the overall structure of the novel reveals itself.

Here are twelve exercises to help push your novel forward, based on twelve great pieces of published writing.

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. Take a Detour Away from Plot

Homer Hickam is the author of numerous books, including the memoir Rocket Boys, which was adapted into the film October Sky.

Homer Hickam is the author of numerous books, including the memoir Rocket Boys, which was adapted into the film October Sky. He recently published a prequel to that book, the novel, Carrying Albert Home.

When I was a kid, I had a book called Tootle about a train that wanted to play in the meadow but was told, over and over, to stay on the track no matter what. Tootle resisted this advice but was eventually beaten into conformity. As you might expect, the best parts of the book are when Tootle is frolicking in the buttercups with the butterflies. This is good to keep in mind when thinking about plot. We often focus on driving the story forward down the track, which is good for creating suspense but can also become dull. Sometimes a narrative needs to hop off the tracks. Homer Hickam offers a good example for how to temporarily derail a plot in his novel Carrying Albert Home:

Homer was in a strange place. The quick journey he’d planned to carry his wife’s alligator to Florida had come completely undone. The Captain would have probably called it kismet, but if that’s what it was, it didn’t much matter. It seemed the whole world outside the coalfields was crazy. Homer was embarrassed that he hadn’t been up to the challenges and now found himself stranded. He’d considered wiring the Captain with a plea for enough money to get home but his pride wouldn’t allow it. After the two-week deadline had passed for when he was supposed to return to Coalwood, he thought about wiring the Captain about that, too, but he couldn’t bring himself to do that, either. The Captain had a calendar and would surely notice the number of days that he had been gone and would take appropriate action. He required no sniveling telegram from his former assistant foreman to do what had to be done. He’d probably even consider it an insult. No, when Homer returned to Coalwood, he’d come up with the one hundred dollars he owed and he prepared to take his medicine. In the meantime, all he could do was try his best to get back on track. (From Carrying Albert Home by Homer Hickam. Find the entire exercise here.)

How to Escape from a Plot

3 Nov
Homer Hickam is the author of the bestselling memoir Rocket Boys, which became the film October Sky. The novel Carrying Albert Home is a prequel to that memoir.

Homer Hickam is the author of the bestselling memoir Rocket Boys, which became the film October Sky. The novel Carrying Albert Home is a prequel to that memoir.

When I was a kid, I had a book called Tootle about a train that wanted to play in the meadow but was told, over and over, to stay on the track no matter what. Tootle resisted this advice but was eventually beaten into conformity. As you might expect, the best parts of the book are when Tootle is frolicking in the buttercups with the butterflies. This is good to keep in mind when thinking about plot. We often focus on driving the story forward down the track, which is good for creating suspense but can also become dull. Sometimes a narrative needs to hop off the tracks.

A good example of how this works can be found in Homer Hickam’s new novel, Carrying Albert Home. You can read a sample here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is based on stories Hickam heard about his parents. In one of them, his mother was given an alligator for a wedding present by her old beau Buddy Epsen. Eventually, strife between the newlyweds leads to an ultimatum, and so the couple decides to return the alligator to Florida by driving from their home in a West Virginia coal mining town. The plan is to return in two weeks. There are adventures, of course, but the journey keeps chugging along toward Florida. And then this happens:

Homer was in a strange place. The quick journey he’d planned to carry his wife’s alligator to Florida had come completely undone. The Captain would have probably called it kismet, but if that’s what it was, it didn’t much matter. It seemed the whole world outside the coalfields was crazy. Homer was embarrassed that he hadn’t been up to the challenges and now found himself stranded. He’d considered wiring the Captain with a plea for enough money to get home but his pride wouldn’t allow it. After the two-week deadline had passed for when he was supposed to return to Coalwood, he thought about wiring the Captain about that, too, but he couldn’t bring himself to do that, either. The Captain had a calendar and would surely notice the number of days that he had been gone and would take appropriate action. He required no sniveling telegram from his former assistant foreman to do what had to be done. He’d probably even consider it an insult. No, when Homer returned to Coalwood, he’d come up with the one hundred dollars he owed and he prepared to take his medicine. In the meantime, all he could do was try his best to get back on track.

This derailment (the novel even uses the word track) does a couple of key things:

  • It provides a philosophy for the derailment—or some possible philosophies: kismet, the craziness of the world. This is important because it hints to the reader that the novel knows what it’s doing, that it hasn’t simply veered onto a wrong path.
  • It suggests strategies for mitigating the damage for getting derailed: wiring the Captain for money or an excuse. But the novel makes clear that these strategies aren’t an option, at least not for these characters (“he’d probably even consider it an insult”).
  • It promises that the novel will get back on track eventually, but not yet, giving the reader permission to enjoy what comes next and have confidence that the novel hasn’t lost course.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s derail a plot, using Carrying Albert Home by Homer Hickam as a model:

  1. Summarize where the track is headed. Hickam does this at the beginning of the chapter, reminding the reader that the plan was to drive to Florida and return two weeks later. If you struggle to summarize where the plot is headed, that could be an indication that you don’t know—and you may not know precisely where it’s going, but you probably ought to have a general sense. Otherwise, the reader may think you’re lost.
  2. Invent a derailment. What throws the novel off its tracks? It can be something mechanical (running out of gas, a storm), or it can be something within the character (realizing that he doesn’t want to do _____. Try out different possibilities until you find one that feels right.
  3. Provide a philosophy for the derailment. Is it fate? The result of a character’s fatal flaw? How do the characters understand or reconcile what is happening?
  4. Suggest strategies for mitigating the damage. Some strategies may actually work. Others might not. Generally, the worse the potential damage, the higher the stakes, so you probably want to render most of the strategies useless or unworkable, though you may want to allow one of them to work to keep the reader engaged.
  5. Promise the reader that the story will eventually get back on track. Hickam does this by letting his character make an intention to follow through on his plan. This can be enough: the sense that the characters haven’t forgotten where they’re going.

The goal is to create an opportunity for a novel to step out of a pollen and play around in the buttercups, so to speak.

Good luck.

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