Archive | February, 2016

An Interview with Mo Daviau

25 Feb
Mo Daviau's novel Every Anxious Wave has been called a "bittersweet, century-hopping odyssey of love, laced with weird science, music geekery, and heart-wrenching laughs" by NPR.

Mo Daviau’s novel Every Anxious Wave has been called a “bittersweet, century-hopping odyssey of love, laced with weird science, music geekery, and heart-wrenching laughs” by NPR.

Mo Daviau has performed at storytelling shows such as Bedpost Confessions and The Soundtrack Series. She is a graduate of Smith College and the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award. Daviau lives in Portland, Oregon. Every Anxious Wave is her first novel.

To read an exercise about explaining away implausibility, inspired by Every Anxious Wave, click here.

In this interview, Daviau discusses making implausible stories believable, the litmus test for whether personal tastes are shared by readers, and where plot twists come from.

Michael Noll

The novel presents you with a pretty significant problem. The characters need to travel through time. How do you they do it? And how do you explain it? You tackle those exact questions in a couple of paragraphs after the time travel device is discovered. What was your approach to those paragraphs? I love how fast they move, basically telling the reader, “Some stuff with computers happens and–boom. Time travel.” But a quick look at some online reviews reveals that sci-fi purists don’t agree. Of course, this isn’t a sci-fi novel. Was this an issue you faced writing it?

Mo Daviau

This is something I worried about, that I would be displeasing hardcore sci-fi fans by not going hard and deep into the science of the wormhole. There is actual science behind the mechanics of time travel as I’ve written it in the book—it’s based on the theory of the Einstein-Rosen Bridge, which was explained to me by a post-doc in physics at the University of Michigan who I met while I was there doing my MFA. But since the novel is told from the first person perspective of Karl, who has no knowledge or interest in physics, the burden of understanding the wormhole’s mechanics fully is on Wayne and Lena, whose voices we are not privy to. Was this a cheat-out? Maybe, but I never intended the novel to be sci-fi. To me, it’s magical realism. I did not build a new world—I only added one fantastical element to the existing one.

Michael Noll

The premise of the novel (time travel to great concerts) allows you to namedrop a lot of bands and a lot of particular concerts. In terms of reader appeal, this would seem to be on the level of Ready Player One, which was adored by pretty much anyone with a particular pop culture sensibility. Did you think about this (how readers might respond to the bands) as you wrote it? Or did you simply write what you liked?

Mo Daviau

I worried that since I chose to write towards my own musical tastes, and to pay tribute to, and in some cases, satirize, the indie scene of which I was a fan in the late ‘90s, that since the vast majority of readers wouldn’t have heard of those bands, they wouldn’t really connect with the work. No one up my chain of command—agent, editorial staff at St. Martin’s Press—is a fan of the bands I name in the book, or had much knowledge of that particular scene, yet they still connected with the themes in the novel. So that was my litmus test for being able to write a novel around obscure music that bore or alienate the non-indie-fan reader.

Michael Noll

You currently live in Portland, and, before that, you lived in Austin–so, two cities with strong live music sensibilities. Did these cities have any impact on the novel?

Mo Daviau

Mo Daviau's novel Every Anxious Wave follows a bar owner who time travels to historical indie rock concerts.

Mo Daviau’s novel Every Anxious Wave follows a bar owner who time travels to historical indie rock concerts.

The short answer is no. And I feel like a jerk saying that, but it’s true. Portland more than Austin-the novel was mostly finished when I moved to Portland in 2014, and although Portland gets a few mentions, and Austin gets no mentions (there were references to clubs in Austin but they ended up getting cut in the end) I’d say that there is no true sense of place. Every Anxious Wave takes place largely in Chicago, but only in Karl’s bar and in his head. It also takes place in Seattle, though not the Seattle we currently know and love. I was writing more about time than place.

Michael Noll

My favorite thing about this book is the fact that a character accidentally travels to 10th-century Manhattan. This is just so weird and wonderful, a bit like the section in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay when a character spends an entire section in Antarctica. In both cases, the story is doing something totally outside the bounds of what the reader probably expects given the frame of the novel. Did you always know this would happen? Or was this the result of a moment of inspiration?

Mo Daviau

I don’t remember how or why I came up with the idea of Karl leaving the number 1 off his transmission entry sending him back to 980, but that was a pretty early idea that I had in my head, the first problem Karl would face. I’d just read the book Sex at Dawn when I started writing what would become Every Anxious Wave, and the idea that among early hunter/gatherers, there was no concept of personal property and that everything was shared communally was one that I found fascinating. I’ve always enjoyed communal living, something that our society frowns upon once college is over.  When I was trying to figure out under what circumstances Wayne would return to modern times, my personal inner impulse was “I wouldn’t. I would want to stay in hunter/gatherer society.” It’s a mild social commentary, I guess, and maybe one I didn’t punch very hard, looking back on it. But that’s where that idea came from.

February 2016

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


How to Explain Away Implausibility

23 Feb
Mo Daviau's novel Every Anxious Wave follows a bar owner who time travels to historical indie rock concerts.

Mo Daviau’s novel Every Anxious Wave follows a bar owner who time travels to historical indie rock concerts.

All superheroes have origin stories: Superman came from another planet, Spiderman got bitten by a radioactive spider, and Batman saw his parents murdered and so became a vigilante. Such character explanations are expected in comic books, but they are, in fact, part of almost every story with a fantastic plot.

A great example of an origin story can be found in Mo Daviau’s novel Every Anxious Wave. You can read the first pages of the novel at her publisher, St. Martin’s, website.

How the Novel Works

The first line of the novel gives away the plot: “About a year before the time traveling began, before I lost Wayne and found Lena, Wayne DeMint stumbled into my bar for the first time.”

It’s a novel about time travel, which poses a basic problem: How to introduce the mechanism that allows the characters to travel through time. The answer depends on the novel’s genre. A sci-fi novel would likely be interested in the actual science behind time travel and would include a lot of mechanics, explanations, and even, perhaps, equations. An adventure or thriller novel would include much less science. My favorite example of a non-scientific answer is the film Inception, in which characters enter people’s dreams. How do they get into the dreams? There’s a box and some tubes that get connected to the characters and—voila—into the dreams they go. The solution contains zero science. The point is simply to get the characters—and the audience—into the dream as quickly as possible so that the plot can move along.

Mo Daviau does the same thing in Every Anxious Wave.

Karl is crawling around on the floor of his bar when, suddenly, he falls through a hole and lands in another time and place. His friend explains that the hole is a wormhole and then builds a mechanism to control travel through it. Watch how fast that mechanism is explained:

He went home to his fifteen computers and wrote the software program, an astonishing time-bending navigational system that harnesses the directional pulls of the wormhole and allows you to choose when and where you’d like to land. Two laptops, three generators, and a series of wires now occupy the desk next to my closet. On the laptop screen there is a Google map with a grid over it. You type in the coordinates of where you want to go, physically.

How does it work? Some computers and wires and a Google map. As an explanation, it’s roughly similar to Peabody’s Wayback Machine—and that is exactly the point. The book’s interest lies in what happens after time travel is made possible, and so it needs to get there quickly. In case a skeptical reader wants more science, Daviau gives them this:

If pressed to explain his scientific understanding of our portal to the past, Wayne would describe Carl Sagan’s theory of the wormhole: that it is totally possible to travel from point A to point B on an unseen plane C.

Carl Sagan does, in fact, have a theory of wormholes, but this is the fastest possible summary of it. Again, audience is key. If this were a sci-fi book, the explanation (and, indeed, the entire book) would be quite different. But the novel is more of an adventure story, and so a bone is tossed to scientifically-minded readers, and then off we go into the past.

These passages create an origin story for the novel’s time travel. They establish its plausibility and allow the story to move forward.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create an origin story, using Every Anxious Wave by Mo Daviau as a model:

  1. Identify the moment of implausibility. Almost every story has one, not just stories with fantastic premises like superheroes and time travel. Most love stories involve unlikely love; otherwise, they’d be boring. Even that great literary genre, coming-of-age stories, has implausible moments. In The Catcher in the Rye, for example, Holden Caulfield escapes from his boarding school, a difficult challenge in real life. In Every Anxious Wave, the implausibility is time travel for a bar owner. In short, the implausible moment is anything the reader might balk at.
  2. Offer a plausible explanation. This is the origin story, but it doesn’t need to completely and totally explain away all implausibility. It only needs to keep the reader reading. In The Catcher in the Rye, the novel is careful to point out that Holden’s roommate doesn’t wake up and that Holden’s grandmother has recently sent a wad of cash—just enough luck to get him on the train. In Every Anxious Wave, Daviau throws some tech at the reader. Is her explanation actually plausible? Who knows? The point is that it says to the reader, hey, there is an explanation. It’s also short and sweet, like Spiderman’s radioactive spider. If it was too long, the reader might begin to doubt it. So, consider what details can you give the reader to make your story plausible. Try explaining the implausible thing in a single breath—or to someone about to answer a phone call. You have until they pick up their ringing phone. What can you say in that short period of time that will make them say, “Oh, okay, got it. That makes sense?”
  3. Answer the skeptics. If someone were to doubt your explanation, what would they say? On what question would their doubt rest? The best answer is not to give more details. Instead, you can try one of three approaches. First, you can have a character or the narrator ask the same question and someone else answer it. Even if the answer isn’t great, asking the question lets your reader off the hook. Secondly, you can let a character confirm the implausible thing, something like “That sure was crazy, getting bit by that spider.” The more characters who see something, the more plausible it becomes. Finally, you can lean on authority. This is Daviau’s approach: she namedrops Carl Sagan, saying, in effect, that her rationale is supported by a famous scientist, an expert. Your expert could be someone from the outside world, like Sagan, or someone who’s an expert within the world of your novel.
  4. Move on. Once you’ve addressed the plausibility issue, don’t belabor it. Move on with your story. Ideally, this means introducing some problem related to the premise. Daviau’s novel sends one of its characters back to a time the character didn’t expect. As a result, the reader is too busy wondering what will happen next to worry about the plausibility of the wormhole.

The goal is to let your readers off the hook, to let them enjoy your story without worrying about the plausibility of it.

Good luck.

An Interview with Selin Gökçesu

18 Feb
Selin Gökçesu's essay "Under the Aegean Moon" appeared in the Tin House blog "Open Bar."

Selin Gökçesu’s essay “Under the Aegean Moon” appeared in the Tin House blog “The Open Bar.”

Selin Gökçesu is a Brooklyn-based writer with an M.F.A. in Nonfiction from Columbia University. Her work has appeared on the Tin House blog, Asymptote Journal’s Translation Tuesdays and in Gingerbread Literary Magazine.

To read an exercise about creating character amid conflict, inspired by Gökçesu’s essay “Under the Aegean Moon,” click here.

In this interview, Gökçesu discusses the challenge of writing about current events before readers lose interest, not holding back on personal feelings, and knowing how much analysis to provide in an essay.

Michael Noll

I’m fascinated by essays like this one because they’re not really about a story or anecdote—or, the anecdote at the heart of them is very quick. In this case, you honeymooned in Turkey and saw, from a distance, a dinghy full of Syrian refugees. The essay is mostly setup for this moment and a meditation on understanding your experience of it. How soon after your trip did you write this? Did you need to digest the experience for a while, or were you able to quickly organize your thoughts and feelings into this essay?

Selin Gökçesu

I wrote this essay about two months after the trip. Normally, I like to let my experiences sink in longer, but when you are writing about current events, waiting is not always a good strategy. When the topic no longer seems relevant, both the writer and the audience might lose interest in it.

At first, the essay was a chronicle of all my encounters with Syrian refugees in Turkey through the summers of the past few years and my reflections on how people react to the “crisis.” The first draft was more than four times as long as the final essay. As I edited the original version, I found that the moment of watching the boat take off was the highlight of the piece. It was a surreal moment, I liked how I had written it, and I felt that it was symbolic of what I was interested in: separate lives in geographic proximity. After I decided that the essay would build up to that moment, I trimmed everything else.

Michael Noll

The essay achieves something that I think is awfully difficult to do: it captures the moment when something large that is happening in the world overtakes our private experience of day-to-day life. To that end, I’m interested in how you created that private experience. You seem to do it, in part, with a line like this:

“Because I had recently watched a video on Facebook of a plastic straw being pulled out of a turtle’s nose, every time a plastic object flew past me, I begrudgingly left my chaise longue in pursuit of it.”

The refugee crisis was happening, but you were thinking about something quite different. As you wrote the essay, were you conscious of trying to convey that gap between what you thought about versus what was happening around you?

Selin Gökçesu

A personal essay has to start at a private point because that is what the writer understands or can hope to understand. The duality of the personal and non-personal emerges as the narrative shifts from showing to telling—you can only “show” what you have experienced first-hand.

The emotional gap between myself and what was happening around me was the heart of the essay. Emotionally isolating yourself from other people’s tragedy is both a callous way of evading negative emotions and an inevitable human response when your own life is not struck by disaster. Your day-to-day commitments, events that you are personally engaged in gain precedence over events that you are simply witnessing from the outside. I think of the essay as a partial analysis of the factors that contributed to this dissociation.

Michael Noll

You take a risk in the essay. It’s about something awful—the horrible plight of the Syrian refugees—and so I would think it might be tempting to portray yourself as caring deeply about it. And you do that, but you also do something else. For example, you write, “My mind and my body conspired to keep my honeymoon normal, one by being willfully unimaginative and the other by holding back the emotions that it so readily displays at home.” An Internet-troll type of reader might say, “Oh, well, your honeymoon was more important than the refugees.” But I don’t think that’s what saying. Instead, you seem to be writing about the complex way we interact with such news, which is usually safely at a distance. Did you worry about how people might read this essay?

Selin Gökçesu

I don’t think that goody-two-shoes, self-protective personas serve the personal essay very well. Although readers might not pick up on it when a writer fudges facts, emotional and intellectual dishonesty are very easy to detect. When I find that I am holding back in my writing to protect my ego or my privacy, I take it as a sign that I’m not ready to handle that particular topic yet.

I also don’t find predictable responses to events intellectually appealing—“I saw something tragic and I was really sad” is not an interesting premise for an essay. No matter what the topic is, I’m more interested in the unpleasant things that crawl under rocks. Especially when it comes to human nature.

Michael Noll

The essay in intensely personal, except for one paragraph, this one:

When large scale violence strikes, it’s a given that the victims suffer and die where they are; involvement of the nonvictims is usually optional.  The order of the things was disturbed this summer when Syrians fleeing the war in their country spread out into the world and started appearing on the Aegean coast—the affordable and sufficiently exotic vacation spot of choice for many Europeans.

It’s the one moment where you pull back and try to give context to your experience. Was this passage ever longer? Did you have more than you wanted to say (clearly, you’ve given the experience in the essay a great deal of thought), or did you always know how much explanation was needed?

Selin Gökçesu

This passage was longer, and there were more passages like it in the original version of the essay. Having gone through the nonfiction workshop in an MFA program, I know that most readers don’t care for the passages where the narrator steps back and analyzes her experience. So, I’ve learned to self-censor and keep these to a minimum. My strategy in this particular essay was to keep sight of the fact that I was building up to a specific point and eliminate everything that didn’t serve my purpose.

February 2016

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

How to Develop a Character amid Large-Scale Conflict

16 Feb
Selin Gökçesu wrote about her honeymoon in Turkey and the Syrian refugee crisis in her essay, "Under the Aegean Moon." The essay was published at the Tin House blog "The Open Bar."

Selin Gökçesu wrote about her honeymoon in Turkey and the Syrian refugee crisis in her essay, “Under the Aegean Moon.” The essay was published at the Tin House blog “The Open Bar.”

Stories about large-scale conflicts like war can reduce the characters involved to the level of those faceless henchman found in action movies, characters whose only purpose in the film is to get shot and die. Did they have friends? Family? Personalities? Who knows? It’s not important. Yet if a story is to be dramatic and engaging, its characters must have lives and personalities that do more than reflect the conflict around them.

A great example of such characterization can be found in Selin Gökçesu’s essay, “Under the Aegean Moon.” It was published at the Tin House blog “The Open Bar,” where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay is about the author’s honeymoon in Turkey, where her family lives. The trip came amid the Syrian refugee crisis that continues to captivate the world’s attention. If you’ve heard any stories of refugees or seen photos, you’ve probably responded in a very human way: you felt sad, angry, and overwhelmed. As a writer, though, these reactions, though honest and real, don’t make for particularly compelling storytelling. An essay can’t say, “Like you, Reader, I, too, felt sad.” It must do more. (This is not just true of narratives about geopolitical conflict. Any story can exert a seemingly inescapable force of gravity on its characters. You can often identify such stories by the shorthand used for their characters: superheroes, spies, aliens, cops, drug dealers, etc. All of these characters can benefit from more idiosyncratic personality traits.)

For Gökçesu, that more is found by building up herself as a primary actor in the essay—despite not playing an active role in the refugee crisis. She didn’t help anyone enter Turkey or get a visa. She was like most of us, a witness, with the difference that she was witnessing the crisis from Turkey. It may seem odd to write about oneself in the midst of such overwhelming tragedy, but it’s actually a key to the essay’s power.

Here is the beginning of a passage in which Gökçesu describes herself:

In Aspat, we found the makings of a proper—if not perfect—honeymoon. Our bungalow, though too utilitarian to be romantic, was comfortable. We had blue skies, palm trees, and a blazing sun tempered by a cool breeze.

This may not strike you as particularly idiosyncratic. Anyone who’s taken a beach honeymoon has probably found something similar. This is important. Gökçesu is part of multiple stories at once. Yes, she’s witness to the refugee crisis, but she’s also a newlywed, a role that exerts its own gravity.

She does have interests beyond her honeymoon:

Because I had recently watched a video on Facebook of a plastic straw being pulled out of a turtle’s nose, every time a plastic object flew past me, I begrudgingly left my chaise lounge in pursuit of it.

This desire to pick up litter leads to the discovery of a particular kind of item washing up on the shore, typified by this one:

A wallet holding 2500 Syrian pounds, a business card from a health and wellness center in Kobane, a letter, and the driver’s license of a very young man with a round face.

That wallet, and the many other items like it, introduce a conflict. On one hand, Gökçesu knows very well what is going on around her and understands what she is finding. On the other hand, she’s on her honeymoon and very understandably wants to savor this time with her new husband. It’s a conflict she states directly:

The tears that I so readily shed when I watched TV reports on the Syrian refugee’s plight were absent. Even the shame I felt over my indifference was mild. My mind and my body conspired to keep my honeymoon normal, one by being willfully unimaginative and the other by holding back the emotions that it so readily displays at home.

This conflict is never really resolved, though it does come to a head at the end of the essay with two powerful images. The images by themselves are arresting, but their power is accentuated because we see them with fresh eyes; like the writer, we’ve been looking elsewhere.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create character amid conflict, using “Under the Aegean Moon” by Selin Gökçesu as a model:

  1. Identify the major conflict and the gravitational force it exertsAs readers, we are immersed in information, narrative, and news, and we learn to recognize patterns. In a tragedy (earthquake, tsunami, war), the participants will be portrayed in a handful of usual ways. The same is true of all stories. In politics, you can almost predict what the candidates will say before they open their mouths. No story can escape these patterns completely. Instead, it’s important to understand that they exist and identify the ways they inform our own stories. So, what conflict are you writing about? How is it usually portrayed?
  2. Identify the character’s role within that conflict. Within almost every conflict, there is a predictable cast: victims, perpetrators, bystanders, heroes, villains, the innocent, and the guilty. For each character, there is also a predictable emotional response for the readers. We weep for the victims and feel anger toward those responsible. For your characters (or, for an essay, for yourself or whoever you’re profiling), what roles do they play? If their faces were shown on the nightly news, how would you expect the audience to respond? In “Under the Aegean Moon,” Gökçesu plays the role of witness.
  3. Give the character another role or story. It’s not a matter of destroying the character’s role within the conflict (victim, perpetrator, etc). Instead, you’re adding another role. No one is only a victim or only a perpetrator. In the Aegean, after the smugglers make good on their promises, they go home—and then what? For refugees, victimhood often temporarily flattens their hopes and dreams; it’s hard to think about a future career when you’re sitting in a dinghy in rough waves. But the dinghy trip is only a small part of the refugees’ lives, just as the worst or most dangerous moments of anyone’s life are often fleeting. Then comes the rest of their life. What happens then? What does your character hope for, dream about, fear, love, and detest? What does your character seek out during a free moment? If the conflict had never occurred, what path would your character be following? In Turkey, Gökçesu is following the path of a newlywed.
  4. Make that secondary role challenge the first one. In other words, put the major conflict into the background. If you know that readers will respond in a predictable way, there’s little need to dwell on the conflict. As soon as it appears, the readers will respond in the expected way. Instead, focus on the secondary role, the role that is more personal to your character. When this role collides with the conflict, when the character is forced to forget for a moment this personal role, that’s when tension is created. So, how can you summarize your story in terms of this secondary role. Gökçesu might do it this way: I was honeymooning on a beach in Turkey, picking up trash to save the sea turtles—and then I noticed something else.

The goal is to develop character and drama by giving your characters roles that exist independently of the conflict that surrounds them.

Good luck.

How to Reveal Character Interiority through Action

9 Feb
Justin Torres' novel We the Animals has been called "the kind of book that makes a career" in a review in Esquire.

Justin Torres’ novel We the Animals has been called “the kind of book that makes a career” in a review in Esquire.

All characters think and feel, and, as writers, it’s important to convey the texture of those interior worlds. Some stories are, in fact, as much about what happens inside a character’s head as what happens outside of it. The problem, though, is that it’s tempting to describe thoughts and feelings in ways that kill drama and tension. Sentences that begin with “She thought _____” or “He felt ____” risk doing just that. Everyone writes these sentences occasionally, and they undoubtedly appear in great novels. That said, when we search for alternative ways to describe a character’s mindset, we often stretch our prose in surprising, engaging ways.

A perfect example of showing a character’s thoughts without stating them explicitly can be found in Justin Torres’ novel We the Animals. It’s a slim book that was a mega-blockbuster a few years ago, and if you haven’t read it yet, you can check out this excerpt. (If you live in Austin, you can see Torres read this Thursday at Austin Community College.)

How the Novel Works

The novel follows three brothers as they grow and develop into young men. Here’s a paragraph from near the beginning of the book:

We all three sat at the kitchen table in our raincoats, and Joel smashed tomatoes with a small rubber mallet. We had seen it on TV: a man with an untamed mustache and a mallet slaughtering vegetables, and people in clear plastic ponchos soaking up the mess, having the time of their lives. We aimed to smile like that.

The most important sentence, in my view, is the last one: “We aimed to smile like that.” It reveals why they’re smashing tomatoes, and that why is the key to their minds and thoughts. They’ve seen something, and so they’re replicating what they see in order to replicate a feeling. At this point, another writer might be tempted to stick with that aimed to and explain, perhaps, why they wanted to feel that way and why this image was so compelling. Torres could have even given one of the boys’ thoughts, in italics, like this: This place isn’t happy. I’m tired of being worried. I want to cut loose. But that’s not what he does. Here is what comes next:

We felt the pop and smack of tomato guts exploding; the guts dripped down the walls and landed on our cheeks and foreheads and congealed in our hair. When we ran out of tomatoes, we went into the bathroom and pulled out tubes of our mother’s lotions from under the sink. We took off our raincoats and positioned ourselves so that when the mallet slammed down and forced out the white cream, it would get everywhere, the creases of our shut-tight eyes and the folds of our ears.

Those sentences are entirely about action. There is no interiority at all. And yet the action reveals the boys’ mental states as well as any italicized thoughts. The “pop and smack of tomato guts exploding” is what they feel inside as well (not literally guts exploding, which would be worrisome) but figuratively: they’re full of the kinetic energy of exploding fruit.

More importantly the readers feel the exploding fruit and the carefree chaos of the mess it makes. In short, Torres hasn’t told the readers what the characters feel. Instead, he’s made the readers feel the same thing that the characters feel, which is far more effective. It’s the difference between knowing something intellectually and feeling it in your gut. The latter is more powerful and engaging.

Also, the passage is written in first-person plural (we). As a result, it’s very difficult to give just one character’s thoughts. And, of course, it’s implausible to suggest that all characters think exactly the same italicized thought. This is why fiction written in first-person plural tends to be more action oriented and less interior.

Finally, look at the sentence that follows the passage about smashing tomatoes:

Our mother came into the kitchen, pulling her robe shut and rubbing her eyes, saying, “Man oh man, what time is it?” We told her it was eight-fifteen, and she said fuck, still keeping her eyes closed, just rubbing them harder, and then she said fuck again, louder, and picked up the teakettle and slammed it down on the stove and screamed, “Why aren’t you in school?”

The mother is the opposite of her sons: she’s sleepy and angry. Her appearance on the page immediately introduces tension. The room cannot contain these opposing emotions without conflict.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s reveal a character’s thoughts through action, using We the Animals by Justin Torres as a model:

  1. Start with action, not thought. Torres begins with what the boys are doing: wearing raincoats and smashing tomatoes. The action comes first. It’s a version of the in media res strategy. So, choose a moment of strong feeling for your character. That feeling could be an emotion like anger or joy, but it might also be something more difficult to label, something that pulses in the character’s blood. What is the character doing in that moment? State it clearly.
  2. Show what the character sees. Torres tells us that the boys are watching a TV show with a man smashing vegetables (Hooray, Gallagher!). They are imitating what they see. So, show the reader what your character sees or hears and how it informs the action. In this case, the boys are imitating. But that’s not the only approach. Character can respond to something they see in many ways. Imagine if the boys were smashing vegetables while watching another 80s icon, the blissed-out PBS painter Bob Ross. They might still smash the vegetables, but we’d view the action differently.
  3. State what the character wants. Torres tell us that the boys “aimed to smile like that.” He doesn’t name an emotion or spell out a thought in italics. He simplifies whatever the boys are thinking and feeling into a desire. So, state as clearly as possible what your character wants in the midst of doing whatever she’s doing and seeing whatever she’s seeing.
  4. Return to the action. Describe it as viscerally as possible. If the action is upbeat or energetic, choose energetic words. If the action is calm or threatening or despairing, then choose words that convey it. The goal is to affect the reader, to make the reader feel something like what the character feels. Horror stories do this all the time. What is Hannibal Lecter feeling as he eats his victims? Who knows? But when he serves a slice of person with a side of fava beans, we shudder. It’s creepy, and we know that whatever mind thought of such a combination is creepy, too.
  5. Introduce someone with a different emotional state. Torres introduces the sleepy, angry mother. Notice that he reveals her emotional state through action (rubbing her eyes). Ideally, the emotional state of this new character will not be able to co-exist with the emotional state and action of the character you’ve been describing.

The goal is to convey emotion and interiority through action and to create tension by putting together characters with conflicting emotional states.

Good luck.

An Interview with Garth Greenwell

4 Feb
Garth Greenwell is the author of the novel What Belongs to You, a novel of "originality and power" according to the New Yorker's James Wood.

Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You, a novel of “originality and power” according to The New Yorker‘s James Wood.

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, he holds graduate degrees from Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Arts Fellow. His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review and A Public Space. What Belongs to You is his first novel.

To read an exercise on describing a character’s sense of consciousness, inspired by What Belongs to You, click here.

In this interview, Greenwell discusses feeling his way into the novel sentence by sentence, the traffic between the physical world and the abstract realm of consciousness, and why he doesn’t care for the annual award for bad sex writing.

Michael Noll

The book is written in a distinctive style: long paragraphs with nuanced descriptions of glances and other physical details of interactions between characters—and little dialogue. It reminds me, in a way, of Henry James’ novel The Beast in the Jungle, that is if James had been willing or able to use the word cock. It also reminds me a bit of Ben Lerner’s novels, which contain much more dialogue but are similarly interested in the experience of human interactions. I guess this is a long-winded way of asking this: As you wrote the novel, did you feel that you were writing in a style that you were seeing in books that you were reading, or did you feel that you were doing something different—in either a small or significant way?

Garth Greenwell

I think the truest answer is that I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. The first section of the novel was the first fiction I had ever written–before that I had only ever written poetry. That said, James has been a hero of mine since I read The Turn of the Screw in high school. And he has a pretty central place in a tradition of novel writing I’ve always loved, a line that includes Proust and Mann and Woolf and, more recently, Bernhard and Sebald and Marías. I admire Ben Lerner’s work a lot, and I think he’s following some of those same currents in his fiction.

So: none of those writers served as a model, really, but they were all in my head, knocking around with other things. As I wrote I was really feeling my way forward sentence by sentence, working without much idea of the shape it might take. The book begins and ends with place, I think, and I wanted to be true both to my experience of Bulgaria (where I wrote the novel) and to the relationship between the characters. I don’t think I was concerned at all about how what I was doing stylistically or formally might fit into any kind of tradition or field of practice

Michael Noll

One of my favorite sentences in the novel is this one:

“For all his friendliness, as we spoke he had seemed in some mysterious way to withdraw from me; the longer we avoided any erotic proposal the more finally he seemed unattainable, not so much because he was beautiful, although I found him beautiful, as for some still more forbidding quality, a kind of bodily sureness or ease that suggested freedom from doubts and self-gnawing, from any squeamishness about existence.”

It follows a line stating that the conversation between these characters lasted only a few minutes, and yet this sentence makes clear why the conversation occupies so much space in the novel. What I find interesting about the sentence is how much it operates without specific detail. Mitko is well-described, of course, but phrases like “some still more forbidding quality, a kind of bodily sureness or ease” are more about impressions than specific traits. What makes a sentence like this work? Does it depend on details that have come before? Or does the reader simply understand and fill in the spaces around words like beautiful, forbidding, and sureness?

Garth Greenwell

I like literature—in poetry and prose—in which there’s a constant traffic between the physical world and the more abstract realm of consciousness and feeling. I worked hard to make the physical world of the novel as concrete and fully realized as I could, but I also wanted the experience of the book to be the experience of consciousness, of having that reality filtered through the perceptions and ratiocination of the narrator. He tries throughout the book to understand and track his own feeling as carefully as he can, which leads him into rabbit holes of ambivalence and doubt and second-guessing–precisely the sort of thing Mitko’s physical demeanor seems to deny. This sentence does come after a good bit of physical description of the setting and of Mitko, which I hope grounds this more abstract bit of thinking.

Michael Noll

Garth Greenwell's novel What Belongs to You tells the story of a young American man teaching in Bulgaria and his complicated relationship with Mitko, whom he meets in a public restroom.

Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs to You tells the story of a young American man teaching in Bulgaria and his complicated relationship with Mitko, whom he meets in a public restroom.

The opening of the novel contains several sex scenes, and it seems at first that you tend toward the literal and specific in describing them. But then the novel offers this image: “clasping his hips with both my hands like the brim of a cup from which I drank.” That’s a bold image—effective and terrific, of course—but also noteworthy because it’s figurative. Every year, an award is given for bad sex writing, and some of the worst tends to involve metaphor and simile: a body part like ____. Were you nervous at all about writing the sex scenes, about creating images that readers might be inclined to read more closely and critically than a description of, say, eating a hamburger?

Garth Greenwell

For the narrator, sex is endlessly alluring and endlessly frustrating because it’s constantly gesturing toward metaphysics. I’ve always been interested in sex as a writer, in both poetry and prose. I think sex is almost uniquely useful for a novelist because of the opportunity it gives a character to be intensely focused on the experience of another while also thrown back onto his or her own sensations. I’m also interested in the social implications of sex, the ways communities form around it and are disrupted by it—communities like those in the cruising bathroom the novel begins in.

I’m not a huge fan of the bad sex writing award. I think it’s a myth that sex is harder to write well than most other things, and I think it’s a shame to give so much attention to less successful writing when there’s so much extraordinary writing of the sexual body being done right now. Just in the last couple of years, books by Alissa Nutting, Merritt Tierce, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Colm Toibin (in The Empty Family)—just to name a few—have used sex in ways that are revelatory to me for their dramatic and psychological force. I want to talk about and learn from those writers. It seems ungenerous to ridicule a few bad sentences or clumsy metaphors, often in books that are otherwise very fine.

Michael Noll

I believe that this book started out as a novella, and so I’m curious about your process in developing it into a much longer story. Was it a matter of adding complications to the set of characters you had already established? Or did you add characters and broaden the world that you were writing about?

Garth Greenwell

The novel did start out as a novella. When I finished the first section, I didn’t have any idea that it was part of a larger project: I thought the story was done. It wasn’t until I was about half-way through the second section, “A Grave,” that I realized how it was exploring the narrator’s childhood as a way of trying to understand some peculiarities of his character, especially the way he seems both to long for intimacy and hold it at arm’s length. It wasn’t until I was finished with that section that I realized that the narrative of the first section—the relationship between the narrator and Mitko—would continue. And it wasn’t until I finished the whole manuscript and could see certain thematic and structural echoes across sections that I began to trust my feeling that there was a kind of gravity holding the book together. I moved through the whole book sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, section by section, without looking very far ahead. I tricked myself into writing a novel, I guess, without ever really realizing what I was doing.

February 2016

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

How to Describe a Character’s Sense of the World

2 Feb
Garth Greenwell's novel What Belongs to You tells the story of a young American man teaching in Bulgaria and his complicated relationship with Mitko, whom he meets in a public restroom.

Garth Greenwell’s novel What Belongs to You tells the story of a young American man teaching in Bulgaria and his complicated relationship with Mitko, whom he meets in a public restroom.

When I was an undergrad, one of my writing teachers lamented that too many novelists were trying to write books that could easily be filmed. A good novel, she said, moved differently than film; it created a kind of narrative space that could not be captured on a screen. And what filled that space? Human thought.

This isn’t the only view of what constitutes good writing, and it’s probably not even a majority opinion, but it does suggest an interesting question. If a scene that can be filmed—i.e. one with dialogue and action and subtext to inform both—is not the only approach to a scene, then what else is there?

One answer can be found in Garth Greenwell’s new novel What Belongs to You. You can read a long excerpt from the beginning of the novel here.

How the Story Works

In his review of What Belongs to You in The New Yorker, James Wood writes this:

The novel contains no direct dialogue, only reported speech; scenes are remembered by the narrator, not invented by an omniscient author, which means that the writing doesn’t have to involve itself in those feats of startup mimesis that form the grammar, and gamble, of most novels. In an age of the sentence fetish, Greenwell thinks and writes, as Woolf or Sebald do, in larger units of comprehension; so consummate is the pacing and control, it seems as if he understands this section to be a single long sentence.

Wood’s “feats of startup mimesis” are another version of “can be filmed,” or at least “can be filmed in the way we’re accustomed to seeing on-screen.” In place of these feats, he claims, Greenwell inserts “larger units of comprehension.” That’s all a bit vague without an example, and so here is a brief passage (only a small part of a longer paragraph) from What Belongs to You. A bit of setup: the novel’s narrator is a young American man teaching in Bulgaria. In this scene, he’s in the National Palace of Culture, in the restrooms,which are frequented by gay men because they “are well enough hidden and have such a reputation that they’re hardly used for anything else.” The narrator encounters a man there, and that encounter, brief in terms of actual minutes, occupies almost ten pages. Here is why:

I wanted him to stay, even though over the course of our conversation, which moved in such fits and starts and which couldn’t have lasted more than five or ten minutes, it had become difficult to imagine the desire I increasingly felt for him having any prospect of satisfaction. For all his friendliness, as we spoke he had seemed in some mysterious way to withdraw from me; the longer we avoided any erotic proposal the more finally he seemed unattainable, not so much because he was beautiful, although I found him beautiful, as for some still more forbidding quality, a kind of bodily sureness or ease that suggested freedom from doubts and self-gnawing, from any squeamishness about existence. He had about him a sense simply of accepting his right to a measure of the world’s beneficence, even as so clearly it had been withheld him.

The first sentence is pretty straightforward: The narrator desires the man but doubts he will get any such satisfaction.

The second sentence starts in a similarly clear way (“For all his friendliness”) but instead of sticking to what is clear and evident, the narrator begins to suss out what lies behind that friendliness. He identifies it as a “more forbidding quality, a kind of bodily sureness or ease that suggested freedom from doubts and self-gnawing, from any squeamishness about existence.” Earlier, the man has been described in specific detail, but this sense of him is particular to the narrator. Someone else might see nothing like this at all. In short, the prose has jumped from what is to what seems to be to the narrator. The world and the people in it are being viewed, thickly, through the narrator’s consciousness. The final sentence extends this filter and the sense of being that it reveals: “a sense simply of accepting his right to a measure of the world’s beneficence.”

Of course, that filter is present in all novels. In first-person narration, the narrator provides the filter. Everything we see is seen through the narrator’s eyes. In third-person prose (and, really, in all novels), the filter is the author’s. And yet we forget this because most novels work hard to make us forget; they want us to see the world of the novel as clearly as an image in a film.

A review in The New York Times by Aaron Hamburger calls the style used by Greenwell “an ‘all over’ prose style, similar to that of a Jackson Pollock abstract expressionist painting, in which all compositional details seem to be given equal weight,” comparing it to the prose of Ben Lerner’s novels. But that doesn’t seem quite right. Greenwell’s narrator isn’t scattered. He’s pretty focused on the man in front of him and his desire for him, and it’s that focus—the act of seeing and thinking about—that becomes the essential material of the novel.

Lerner does something similar. Here’s a passage from his most recent novel, 10:04, after the narrator has had sex:

I was alarmed by the thoroughness of what I experienced as Alena’s dissimulation, felt almost gaslighted, as if our encounter on the apartment floor had never happened. Here I was, still flush from our coition, my senses and the city vibrating at one frequency, wanting nothing so much as to possess and be possessed by her again, while she looked at me with a detachment so total I felt as if I were the jealous ex she’d wanted to avoid, a bourgeois prude incapable of conceiving of the erotic outside the lexicon of property.

As in Greenwell’s novel, Lerner’s prose is interested in sense and what an awareness of the world feels like: “what I experienced as Alena’s dissimulation, felt almost gaslighted.”

Of course, these are two very different books with very different narrators. Lerner’s narrator spends a lot of time on social media, and so his consciousness actually is scattered at times because it is pinging along with the rapid delivery of information from Facebook and Twitter. He’s also a poet, and so he’s apt to fall into long interior discourses about art and poetics. In other words, the things he thinks about are different, but the general style of the narrator, its general focus on consciousness, is similar.

Of course, any time reviewers start comparing the book at hand to some deceased writer’s work (Wood chooses Woolf and Sebald) or to writers with highly distinctive styles (Hamburger in The New York Times chooses Lerner and Karl Ove Knausgaard), you know that the book is doing something so new that it isn’t easily classifiable. Yet, let me take my own shot: In its focus on a mind actively thinking about the experience it is having, Greenwell’s (and Lerner’s) work resembles the prose of Henry James, particularly The Beast in the Jungle.

That book, like Greenwell’s, begins with a charged encounter, a man and a woman at a party. The woman tells the man they’ve met before and asks if he’s forgotten. Here is what comes next:

He had forgotten, and was even more surprised than ashamed.  But the great thing was that he saw in this no vulgar reminder of any “sweet” speech.  The vanity of women had long memories, but she was making no claim on him of a compliment or a mistake.  With another woman, a totally different one, he might have feared the recall possibly even some imbecile “offer.”  So, in having to say that he had indeed forgotten, he was conscious rather of a loss than of a gain; he already saw an interest in the matter of her mention.

Much about James’ novel is different from What Belongs to You. It’s about inaction, and Greenwell’s isn’t. There is dialogue, and Greenwell writes almost none. Yet to quote Wood, both novelists are interested in “larger units of comprehension,” and those units are filled with character’s sense of what is happening around them.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a character’s sense of an interaction, using What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell as a model:

  1. Choose who will have the interaction. The possibilities, of course, are endless. It can be between lovers, siblings, parents, coworkers, friends, business associates, or enemies, or it can be transactional, like the interaction between store clerk and customer.
  2. Choose which perspective will serve as the filter. In other words, whose eyes are we seeing the scene through? This can work in third-person as well as first-person, as Henry James makes clear in The Beast in the Jungle.
  3. State the desire. Despite the capacious units of comprehension that Greenwell creates for his narrator’s consciousness, certain things are quite clear. Number one would be the narrator’s desire. He wants the man in the restroom. Without that clear desire, the passage that follows might come untethered from the experience it is pondering. The reader needs a reason to wonder what the narrator thinks, and that reason is the possibility that the narrator might get, or not get, what he wants. So, state as clearly as you can what the character wants out of the interaction: money, love, some object, acceptance, permission, refusal, rejection, a chance to fight, a chance to make up, or even a mindless conversation. If no one wants anything in the scene, it’s probably not worth writing. Don’t be subtle. Greenwell’s narrator thinks, “I wanted him to stay.” Be just as direct.
  4. Describe the surface. Greenwell does this elsewhere in the scene and refers to it with the phrase “For all his friendliness.” How does the interaction seem at first glance. If the other character is putting on an act, what is the act? What is intended to be seen?
  5. Peer behind the surface. Greenwell’s narrator finishes the sentence that begins “For all his friendliness” by looking closer and thinking about what lies behind that friendliness. It might be useful to use Greenwell’s actual syntax as a model: “more forbidding quality.” So, you could write a sentence like this: For all his/her ______, there was a more _____ quality.”
  6. Let the character draw conclusions from this sense of things. Once the narrator/character determines that something does, in fact, lie behind the surface, let the character think about it. The desired end of thought is, usually, conclusion, which is what Greenwell’s narrator reaches: “He had about him a sense simply of…” Again, try using that syntax: He/she had about him/her a sense simply of _____.”

The goal is to expand the room your prose offers to its characters consciousness, the narrator’s sense of what is happening. You can make that room an efficiency or a mansion. Either way, the idea is to add a character’s sense of things, something that can be described in prose but not easily portrayed in film.

Good luck.

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