Archive | March, 2016

An Interview with Daniel José Older

31 Mar
Daniel José Older is the author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, the Young Adult novel Shadowshaper. His essay, "Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, and Publishing," addresses the institutional bias present in the publishing industry.

Daniel José Older is the author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, the Young Adult novel Shadowshaper. His essay, “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, and Publishing,” addresses the institutional bias of the publishing industry.

Daniel José Older is the author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series and the Young Adult novel Shadowshaper, which was nominated for the Kirkus Prize in Young Readers’ Literature. His first collection of short stories, Salsa Nocturna, and the Locus and World Fantasy-nominated anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, which he co-edited, are available from Crossed Genres Publications.

To read an exercise about becoming a better reader, click here.

In this interview, Older discusses the self-fulfilling prophecy of marketing, why categories in publishing matter, and what meaningful change in terms of diversity would look like.

Michael Noll

You write, “The publishing industry, people often say as if it’s a gigantic revelation, needs to make money and as such, it responds to The Market, and people don’t buy books about characters of color.” You add that this is marketing code for “you people don’t read” and an assumption that “white kids won’t buy a book with a black kid on the cover — or so The Market says, despite millions of music albums that are sold in just that way.”

This seems like the central crux of what you’re writing about: the belief that white people will only read about characters who are like them–or seem like them. And if they do read books about non-white characters, it’s often out of weird impulses of guilt and the need to be vindicated. For example, it seems not surprising that, at least here in Texas, To Kill a Mockingbird is required reading and, say, Invisible Man isn’t. How much of this—at least, thinking about the difference between books and music albums—is due to the age of the consumer? Would it make a difference if “adult” books were marketed to teens?

Daniel José Older

I’m honestly not sure. I’ll say this: Marketing is a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are certain assumptions in play until something comes along that ruptures them. And this applies to all genres. People tend to walk the line. That’s why courage comes into play, the courage to try new things. It’s wide-ranging, and industry-wide issue, not just editors and marketing people.

White writers have been writing to white audiences for decades but it was called being universal, which is a code word for white. Readers of color read white writers—even when they’re writing for write audiences—but the opposite isn’t always true. The industry isn’t representative of its readership. White writers can write for white audiences, and, at the same time, they can write to the industry.

Michael Noll

In the essay, you tell a story about attending a conference where an agent was asked about the industry’s diversity problem, and the agent said this: “I think the change is going to have to come from within those who are affected.” You write, “This is the language of privilege: it’s not the intangible Market that’s to blame, it’s the writers of color, who maybe don’t have what it takes and don’t submit enough anyway.”

What I find really interesting is what you write a bit later: “We’re not writing for editors and agents, we’re writing past them. We’re writing for us, for each other.” I immediately thought of Kiese Laymon, a writer who, as much as anyone I can think of, has said that he’s writing for black audiences and entering a discussion with black writers.

You write about what white people need to do in order to dismantle white supremacy, but is this the opposing response? How do you think about your own readership?

Daniel José Older

I’ve talked to entirely white audiences and audiences that were entirely people of color. The reaction in both has been positive, but it’s different, too. There are different laugh lines. I tell this story: I read once to an all-white audience, and they were into it. Mesmerized is the word. But they didn’t laugh once. It was a horror story, and when I’d written it on a bus in Brooklyn, I’d been cackling. When I read the same story to people of color, they were on the floor. Both audiences were into it. At one point, I was going to stop reading, and it was at a moment of tension, a cliffhanger, and the white audience said, “Don’t stop.” There’s a difference in how different audiences respond.

White people are hungry to talk about race. They don’t necessarily have the language to do it. But when I speak on race, the reception is warm and curious, even if they don’t have the language.

Michael Noll

Daniel José Older's urban fantasy novel Half-Resurrection Blues has been called "Noir for the Now."

Daniel José Older’s urban fantasy novel Half-Resurrection Blues has been called “Noir for the Now.”

You write, “Many of our gifts and challenges won’t be seen or recognized within a white cultural context. Nuances of codeswitching, racial microaggressions, the emotional reality of surviving white supremacy, self-translation – these are all layers of the non-white experience that rarely make it into mainstream literature, even when the characters look like us.”

I thought of this in connection with your urban fantasy novel Half-Resurrection Blues. It’s certainly working within the genre of ghost and paranormal thrillers. But there were moments when the fact that it was written by a writer who wasn’t white—and that it was about characters who weren’t white—was very clear. And those moments were great, at least to my mind, because they elevated the book above other similar books. Other books have cool monsters and cool worlds of the dead, but they don’t always comment on society. Did you set out to write a book about, as you say, “Nuances of codeswitching, racial microaggressions, the emotional reality of surviving white supremacy, self-translation”? Or is this simply an essential part of your work?

Daniel José Older

It feels natural to do it. It’s also what I know to be true. Write what’s true and then try to say something. Ultimately, it’s about asking books to multitask. You’ve got this entire book, and you can do a lot of things in it. When a book demands a lot from you, it asks you to step up to its level.

Michael Noll

Do you think the industry shares your enthusiasm for books that multitask? You sometimes hear about books that operate within multiple genres or are doing multiple things and that agents, editors, and booksellers don’t know how to categorize the book.

Daniel José Older

We have a flawed category system. I write urban fantasy, which is a weird term. Urban is code for characters who are black or brown. Then you throw in fantasy, which is almost entirely white. There are very few fantasy writers of color.

Edward W. Said's book Culture and Imperialism demonstrates that Western imperialism's most effective tools for dominating other cultures have been literary in nature as much as political and economic.

Edward W. Said’s Culture and Imperialism demonstrates that Western imperialism’s most effective tools for dominating other cultures have been literary as much as political and economic.

But there’s probably no way not to have a flawed system. Categories are inherently messy. I’m reading Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said, and he traces the need to categorize back to the nation-state—the idea of borders. And now, of course, we’re talking about walls. With nationalism, we’re talking about how we value life. In a micro way, this is the case in literature: which books are sci-fi, which are high literature even though they have robots in them. All of these are questions about power.

The categories matter. Slavery was invented by white people, but it’s become “black history.” We need to be clear who was doing the enslaving or it gets erased. It’s talked about as a black people problem and is written about in passive voice, without identifying who was doing the enslaving. In the same way, sexual assault is talked about as a woman’s problem. You won’t find it in the men’s section.

Michael Noll

You write, “The question industry professionals need to ask themselves is: How can I use my position to help create a literary world that is diverse, equitable, and doesn’t just represent the same segment of society it always has since its inception? What concrete actions can I take to make actual change and move beyond the tired conversation we’ve been having for decades?” That work, you add, “means taking courageous, real-world steps, not just changing mission statements or submissions guidelines.”

It’s been two years since you published this essay. Have any answers occurred to you? Have you seen this in action?

Daniel José Older

We need to go from a flash-in-the-pan to a sustained movement. The question is how to make even more sustained, not just a buzz word but an actual revolutionary change, not just a new face on the same old shit. A good example of this, in a positive way, is We Need Diverse Books.

All-American Boys tells the story of an act of police violence from the view of the victim and the police officer.

The novel All-American Boys tells the story of an act of police violence from the view of the victim and the police officer.

Because of how publishing works, how long it takes for books to come out, any changes won’t be apparent for a couple of years. One example is All-American Boys, which is about police brutality. That book was rushed—and rushed in a good way. There was a sense that it needed to get out there.

But we need to be on guard against white fatigue, the sense of, well, we’ve had enough diversity. If we’re not careful and precise in these changes, we’ll get something that isn’t good. Diversity doesn’t just mean diverse characters. It means diverse writers as well. If it just amounts to stories about characters of color being told by white authors, that’s not victory. That’s not the point of this movement. There’s a long history of co-option, and it’s especially dangerous. There are quotas in effect—literally. Publishers will say, we already have a black book. But it’s a book by a white person. A black writer is trying to get a book published and can’t because a white person already took that spot.

Michael Noll

So, does that mean creating new imprints and houses? Or changing the existing ones?

Daniel José Older

There’s a new Muslim imprint at Simon & Schuster that looks really interesting, but it can’t be the only answer. There’s no white imprint. It’s mainstream publishing, and that’s what we need to transform.

March 2016

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


How to Become a Better Reader

29 Mar
Daniel José Older wrote about the need to transform publishing his essay, "Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing."

A new anthology of essays on publishing contains Daniel José Older’s excellent essay, “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing.”

A few weeks ago, in a university creative writing class that I teach, I was leading a discussion about a student’s story and someone asked, “Wait, is the narrator a man or a woman?” I realized that I wasn’t sure. I had assumed it was a man, but several students pointed out lines that clearly indicated it was a woman. So I began scanning the text, looking for words or phrases that might have pointed me in the wrong direction. There weren’t any. The language and details were clear. The confusion stemmed from the fact that the narrator slept with girls. Several students correctly pointed out that assuming that this character was a man was an example of heteronormative thinking. (If you’re not familiar with that term, as my spell checking software clearly isn’t, it’s the idea that heterosexuality is the baseline and everything else is different and unusual.) I felt pretty dumb. I had misread the story because of my own inherent bias.

This was a humbling experience and a reminder that I must continually monitor my perceptions. Just because I want to believe that I’m unbiased doesn’t mean that I actually am. And my biases almost certainly aren’t confined to gender.

Daniel José Older addresses such biases directly in his excellent essay “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing.” It was first published at BuzzFeed and included in the timely and necessary anthology from Milkweed Press, Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century.

Why We Need to Become Better Readers

Like most educated people, I like to think that I’m thoughtful and open-minded. As a reader, writer, and teacher, I’ve tried to educate myself about race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. And so my wrong assumption about the workshop story bothered me a lot. I came up with excuses for my mistake, like the fact that the student had turned in the story at the last minute—as a result, I’d read it much more quickly than I normally would. If I’d had more time, I would have caught and corrected my own bias.

But this is life, especially in publishing: from top to bottom, there isn’t enough time. Journal editors are flooded with manuscripts, as are agents and book editors and marketers and booksellers. We believe that our decisions are made based on aesthetics and craft, but, in my case, I’m still a straight white guy from rural Kansas. It’s not at all surprising that I make assumptions that are more grounded in bias than reality—and, for that (for leading a class discussion without understanding that the discussion was slanted based on my own biases), I owe my class an apology. I need to do better, and I’m not alone.

Most people in the publishing industry are, like me, white, and, like me, most probably carry with them unacknowledged bias.

Results from a study on diversity within the publishing industry, by

Results from a study on diversity within the publishing industry by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center.

Recent research by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reveals just how white the industry is: nearly 80%. Whitest of all are book reviewers at nearly 90%. The decisions that these white industry professionals make about books inevitably reflect unacknowledged bias. This is precisely what Older talks about in “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, and Publishing.

Older tells a story about how “a few years ago, someone in the publishing industry crossed out a line I wrote in a novel.” In the scene, “a Latina character feeling uncomfortable in a shnitzy part of Brooklyn because all the other women of color had little white babies and all the white people were looking at her sideways. The note beside the crossout said: ‘Doesn’t happen in this day and age.’”

Older explains that his personal outrage isn’t the point. Instead, he writes, “I want to take a moment to recognize a more unspoken consequence of having a mostly white industry dictate mostly white standards to a mostly white author-base: the stories that won’t get told.”

Some agents and editors get it. But some don’t. Older describes a panel where agents were asked “what they could do to help shift the troubling lack of diversity.” One agent said, “I think the change is going to have to come from within those who are affected,” meaning writers of color. Another, when asked why “less than 1% of her submissions were from people of color,” said, “This seems like a question for an author to answer.”

Older succinctly puts the problem this way: “The question industry professionals need to ask themselves is: ‘How can I use my position to help create a literary world that is diverse, equitable, and doesn’t just represent the same segment of society it always has since its inception? What concrete actions can I take to make actual change and move beyond the tired conversation we’ve been having for decades?’”

It’s a terrific question, with a couple of surprisingly simple answers. First, the industry needs more diversity: in publishing houses, in agencies, in book reviewers and book buyers and marketers. Second, industry professionals (book editors, agents, journal editors, reviewers, and reading series coordinators) must go out and find diverse writers. This is something I’ve tried to do at Read to Write Stories. Early on, I realized that, when I was coming up with writers I wanted to feature, they were mostly white and mostly men. This was partly due to my own bias and partly due to the industry that I relied upon for book suggestions. I was almost certainly excited about authors that I’d been told to get excited about. I needed to be proactive—to search journals for writers and to return to journals, like Boston Review and Guernica, that seemed to be publishing more writers of color.

Does this search take work? Sure. But it’s been some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done. (I say work, but, in truth, it’s a community effort. I’ve discovered many, many terrific authors just by paying attention to what books Roxane Gay and Nina Swamidoss McConigley are talking about on social media). I’ve read authors that I may have otherwise missed—Kiese Laymon, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Michelle Serros, Bae Suah, and Daniel José Older to name just a few—but who I now find myself returning to again and again because of what they have to say and because of their astonishing craft.

As writing teachers and members of writing groups and workshops, we must read more diverse stories. It makes us better readers for our peers in workshop, better members of the literary community, and better writers because we are engaging with terrific work that will inspire and challenge us. Challenge is perhaps the key word. Because I love Kiese Laymon’s work, I teach it often, and the response is often mixed. Some people find the language difficult—or the structure or the plot. Certainly, everyone has different tastes, but it’s also the case that there are many “difficult” writers who have been canonized, not just deceased ones like Faulkner but also living, breathing, award-winning writers like Jennifer Egan, whose great, structurally-challenging novel A Visit from the Goon Squad was deservedly praised. And, of course, not all writers of color are writing “difficult” fiction. Some, like Daniel José Older, are smart, writing terrifically entertaining genre works. His novel Half-Resurrection Blues is a paranormal detective story and has one of the best monsters I’ve read in a long time.

So, start reading. Will it inoculate you from criticism, remove all biases, and make you always correct about matters of diversity? No. I can attest to this personally. But it’s a place to begin.

An Exercise in Better Reading 

Let’s expand our reading, using Daniel José Older’s essay “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing” as a primer:

  1. Find a book written by a person of color, a woman, a disabled person, or someone identifies as LGBTQ. There are many included here at Read to Write Stories. You can also look here: We Need Diverse Books, Lambda Literary, the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Asian American Writers Workshop, The Mixed Experience, Huizache, and Authors of Color. If you’re a teacher or student, consider checking out VONA Voices. If you’re at AWP this week, here’s a panel that speaks to these concerns: Reimagining Literary Spaces.
  2. Read the entire book. Don’t give up, even if the book seems difficult or dull. Personal aesthetics are malleable. Our sense of what is good changes based on what we’ve read. We are, in effect, continually holding whatever we’re reading against the models in our head. So, in order to hone your aesthetic, you must add more models.
  3. Find another book by another writer who isn’t a straight, able-bodied, white man and read it. Don’t stop with just one book. Don’t make an author speak for his or her race/ethnicity/gender/sexuality. Don’t let one writer’s style become The Style for Everyone Who Looks Like Him or Her. Most of us are guilty of this. Whatever book has grabbed the nation’s attention overshadows many other excellent books. Give yourself the opportunity to find them.
  4. Recommend the books to others. Unless a book is getting the gold-standard marketing push from its publisher, its success will depend upon word of mouth. So, tell people about the book. Give it to people to read. Share reviews of the book on Facebook and Twitter. Review the book on Amazon. (Even if you don’t like Amazon’s business model, the presence or lack of reviews on its site affects a book’s sales in all venues.) Books only get read if people know about them, so spread the word.

The goal is to discover the many wonderful books that are being written today. By reading books we might otherwise not find, we become better readers for ourselves and for our fellow writers.

An Interview with Karen Ranney

24 Mar
Karen Ranney is the bestselling author romance novels. Her most recent book is An American in Scotland.

Karen Ranney is the bestselling romance author whose most recent book, An American in Scotlandtakes place during the American Civil War.

Karen Ranney wanted to be a writer from the time she was five years old and filled her Big Chief tablet with stories. People in stories did amazing things and she was too shy to do anything amazing. Years spent in Japan, Paris, and Italy, however, not only fueled her imagination but proved she wasn’t that shy after all. Now a New York Times and USA Today bestseller, she lives in San Antonio, Texas.

To read an exercise on giving characters the opportunity to change and act dramatically and an excerpt from An American in Scotland, click here.

In this interview, Ranney discusses setting as character, the difference between love and sex scenes, and straddling the needs of historical narratives and contemporary readers.

Michael Noll

I want to say up front that Romance isn’t a genre I know very well, and so I was excited to read your novel because I wanted to learn how it works. To that end, I was surprised at how much the novel contained beyond what the cover might suggest: shirtless guy and beautiful woman. Or, to put it another way, the term romance is a lot bigger than I imagined. Setting is as important as love. For lack of a better word, there is something romantic about place, which I guess should make sense given that the title suggests more about place than anything else. What’s your approach to the setting and world of your novels? Are you trying to make readers fall in love with them as much as with the characters?

Karen Ranney

Place is very important to me. In some books it has a greater impact on me than on others. For example, A Scotsman in Love was set in a once deserted manor house that intrigued me. Another example is the MacIain trilogy that revolves around a house outside Edinburgh. In those books the setting was almost another character.

I enjoy placing my books in Victorian Scotland because, to me, it was the era of inventions and scientific achievement.

In An American in Scotland, I had to give readers a flavor of each locale, but I had three major settings, so I couldn’t linger too long in any one place. (Why make it easy on myself when I could visit Scotland, Nassau, and America all in one book?)

Michael Noll

The novel is quite chaste. The prelude to the kiss seems to be much more important than the kiss itself—and it takes up a great many pages. How do you maintain and gradually increase the tension between two characters who we know will eventually fall into each other’s arms?

Karen Ranney

I have always maintained that it’s easier to write a sex scene than it is a love scene. I always try to have the characters fall in love with each other before they actually consummate that love. It seems to me that emotions are more important than physical activity.

Also, putting sex in the context of 19th century mores, even kissing someone was a great moral leap. Each step toward the journey to bed is a form of commitment.

Michael Noll

Along those same lines, I admire the way that the novel draws out its sex scenes. For example, there’s a scene when Rose and Duncan bathe together, which leads toward what such baths tend to lead to, but then something interrupts them—Duncan sees something that distracts him. How do you know how much you can draw out such as scene before readers begin skimming to get to the stuff they know is coming and really want to read?

Karen Ranney

Again, it’s a love scene as opposed to a sex scene—or at least that’s how I hope the reader interprets it. Everything that goes on in that scene is both an act of revelation and one of commitment. The characters give of themselves not just physically but emotionally. Maybe even spiritually if I write it correctly. You can’t skip through the scene because it’s pivotal in the give and take between the characters. It shows why they’re falling in love and how.

Michael Noll

Karen Ranney's novel An American in Scotland follows an American woman who sails through the Union blockade of Charleston in order to pursue a sale and romance in Scotland.

Karen Ranney’s novel An American in Scotland follows an American woman who sails through the Union blockade of Charleston in order to pursue a sale and romance in Scotland.

The novel contains a fair bit of language about sin and virtue, and because it’s set in the mid-1800s, there are some time-appropriate ideas about gender. I bring this up because I heard a review the other day of the Downton Abbey finale, and the reviewer said that historical dramas are always more about the audience than the age and characters they’re portraying. Do you think this is true of your novel as well?

Karen Ranney

If I understand what you’re asking, let me answer this way: Robert Burns wrote poetry in the vernacular Scots. If I wrote a book like that today no one could understand it. Consequently, I interpret Scottish English with an ear/eye toward my readers. They’re 21st century women. Similarly, interpreting the mores of the 19th century means I have to straddle a line. I have to correctly depict the customs/manners/thinking of the day while interjecting some viewpoints that might be more acceptable to a 21st century reader.

For example, in An American in Scotland, Rose does a lot of things that would have horrified her neighbors in New York and scandalized her neighbors in South Carolina. She would probably have been ostracized in both communities for her abolitionist views. Yet we, being 21st century people, wish she went farther to oppose slavery.

A reviewer chided me for writing about mills in Scotland that were pro-slavery. No, they weren’t pro-slavery. It’s that American slavery was “just business”. They might have personally abhorred it, but they tolerated doing business with the American South because they needed their cotton. That review was a case of our 21st century values colliding with history.

March 2016

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

How to Create a Window of Opportunity

22 Mar
Karen Ranney's novel An American in Scotland follows an American woman who sails through the Union blockade of Charleston in order to pursue a sale and romance in Scotland.

Karen Ranney’s novel An American in Scotland follows an American woman with a secret who sails through a Union blockade during the Civil War in order to pursue business and romance in Scotland.

When I was a kid, my dad liked to joke that the devil came out after midnight, which is actually good advice for writers. Crucial moments (positive and negative) in life and in writing often require a window of opportunity. Under normal circumstances, we simply go about our lives; drama occurs only when our routine has been upended. After midnight, in other words, we have the opportunity to make decisions that aren’t open to us at other times.

In stories, whether they’re fiction or nonfiction, we need to find those windows of opportunity when the devil can show his face, when characters can act in ways they otherwise wouldn’t. A great place to study such moments is in romance novels, and there’s no better place to look than in Karen Ranney’s latest novel An American in Scotland. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

An American in Scotland is a romance novel, and like most genre novels, it has a fairly predictable plot when boiled down to basics: two people will fall in love, and that love will eventually be consummated. Before the consummation, though, the characters must overcome obstacles, and it is this overcoming that gives the novel its appeal. (It’s the same with detective and espionage novels and certain kinds of monster novels: the reader knows the basic plot arc before reading a single page, and so it’s the particular obstacles that provide pleasure.) In this case, there are a variety of obstacles that would normally prevent Duncan and Rose from falling into each other’s arms. Or, as the back cover puts it: “Rose MacIain is a beautiful woman with a secret. Desperate and at her wits’ end, she crafts  a fake identity for herself, one that Duncan MacIain will be unable to resist…Duncan is determined to resist the tempting Rose, no matter how much he admires her arresting beauty and headstrong spirit.”

So, it’s clear that, first, Duncan will resist, but then he’ll give in. Then, the secret identity will be revealed and that will drive them apart—until they find a way to be together again. With each major obstacle (resisting, revelation of secret), the characters are set onto tracks that do not converge. Duncan can resist Rose’s charms forever unless something happens to knock him off his routine. In short, he needs a moment when the devil comes out, a window of opportunity to act in ways that he normally would resist.

One of those moments comes aboard a ship. Duncan and Rose are sailing to the Bahamas for a business deal. There’s tension between them, but Duncan tells himself, “She was simply his relative who was accompanying him to Nassau.”  But then the merchant ship gets caught in a storm off the coast of Ireland:

He clamped his hands on the end of the chair arms and stared at the door leading to the stateroom. He hadn’t heard anything from Rose since they separated after dinner. He sincerely hoped he hadn’t agreed to take her to Nassau only to have her drown on the voyage there. Perhaps she would have been safer on a commercial vessel, something designed to handle passengers. No doubt they would have stewards running throughout the ship, reassuring passengers that all was well, they weren’t in danger of plunging to the bottom of the ocean.

He couldn’t reassure anyone right at the moment.

That final line highlights the window of opportunity: He’s been determined to resist her, but now he fears for her safety and fears that he is the one who’s put her in danger. His self-confidence has been shaken. It’s not so different from the half hour before closing time at a bar; people’s usual logic has been diminished, and so they make decisions they normally wouldn’t. Duncan’s logic (I’m in charge, my will is strong) has been diminished.

As a result, he begins thinking dangerous thoughts:

What a pity he hadn’t taken advantage of the moment in the garden when she’d been reading Burns. He could have gently put the book aside, leaned over and kissed her.

As most readers will guess, the kissing isn’t long to come. The window of opportunity has opened, and he’s going to jump through it.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s open a window of opportunity, using An American in Scotland by Karen Ranney as a model:

  1. Create the temptation. In a romance novel like An American in Scotland, the temptation is clear: love and sex. But there are many other temptations available to characters: money, power, attention, security, or any object that offers or symbolizes those things. What drives your character? What occupies your character’s mind while doing other things?
  2. Put the character on a track that leads away from it. The track can simply be a character’s intention, like when I tell myself that I’m not going to eat jelly beans this year. Life is full of such intentions: we’re not going to call that person, go to that place, consume that substance. The track can also be anything that keeps a character otherwise occupied: work, friends, family. Or it can be some convention (sense of propriety, rules) that doesn’t allow certain activities. You can also use geography (the temptation is kept physically distant).
  3. Find the character’s weakness. In An American in Scotland, part of Duncan’s weakness is his sense of his own power and will. Many famous characters contain such weaknesses: Achilles in The Iliad, Sampson in the Old Testament. The weakness doesn’t need to be a fatal flaw, as with Achilles. It only needs to make the character susceptible to the temptation, the way that going outside on a winter day without a hat (according to some) makes you susceptible to catching cold. What weakens your character, even a little?
  4. Create the window of opportunity. Find a set of circumstances that does two things: weakens the character and brings the temptation close. In An American in Scotland, the ship/storm confines the characters together in a limited space and also frightens Duncan, weakening him. Very often, the window of opportunity is a literal disruption: a storm, a power outage, a natural disaster, a flat tire, a missed connection. So, figure out your character’s routine. What would disrupt it? What unexpected delay or interruption would knock the character off his or her track? The disruption can be catastrophic, but it can also be something subtle that doesn’t at first even seem like a problem.
  5. Let your character act. Once the character is weakened and the temptation has been brought near, let the character think about the temptation. And, of course, once the thought enters the character’s head, action is soon to follow.

The goal is to create drama by giving a character the opportunity to do something he or she normally wouldn’t.

Good luck.

An Interview with Chinelo Okparanta

17 Mar
Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the novel Under the Udala Trees and the story collection Happiness, Like Water

Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the novel Under the Udala Trees and the story collection Happiness, Like Water.

Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the story collection Happiness, Like Water and the novel Under the Udala Trees. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, among others, and she was short-listed for the 2013 Caine Prize in African Writing. She won the 2014 O. Henry Award and the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction. She has been awarded fellowships and residencies by Bread Loaf, the Jentel Foundation, the Hermitage Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and Hedgebrook. She was born and raised in Port Harcourt, Nigeria.

To read an exercise on manipulating chronology in order to create character, click here.

In this interview, Okparanta discusses finding the emotional heart of a story, writing within an omnipresent past, and whether a writer’s present location affects her writing.

Michael Noll

The novel has an interesting sentence in its first chapter: “So, the story begins even before the story, on June 23, 1968.” It comes after a quick overview of the war and is accompanied by this sentence: “There is no way to tell the story of what happened with Amina without first telling the story of Mama’s sending me off.” And this: “If I had not met Amina, who knows, there might be no story at all to tell.”

It seems that you’re directly addressing a problem that a lot of writers have with novel drafts: where to begin the story? Were these sentences the result of your own process of finding the story, or were they designed for readers, to help guide them from war in general to a particular story about particular individuals?

Chinelo Okparanta

I already knew where the story would begin, and those sentences were simply a natural aspect of the storytelling. Back in the day when my mother used to tell us folktales, sometimes she grounded the folktales in this sort of language, just a natural set up to the story, and perhaps also a signal for us children to know what we should be listening for (i.e. the emotional heart of the story). In the case of Under the Udala Trees, these sentences do signal to the readers where the emotional heart of the story lies.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about your sense of the novel’s audience and how it affects the story you tell. Obviously, the book was published in the United States, where you live, and in English. Some Igbo words and phrases appear, but they’re often translated, either directly, like this (Chineke bi n’eli! God in Heaven! How can this be?) or through context. How aware are you of audience, that it’s primarily American/Western? Can the novel be separated from this audience? In other words, how different would it be if you were writing for a Nigerian or Igbo audience?

Chinelo Okparanta

While writing the novel, I kept in mind various possible audiences, but my main audience was not American/Western. My main audience was my fellow Nigerians. In some ways it was just incidental that it got published in the West first. The truth is that current physical location is oftentimes irrelevant to the story that a writer tells. I have written about Nigeria from Nigeria. But I have also written about Nigeria from Greece, the Philippines, the USA, France, Italy, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. When I write many of my stories, regardless of where I am, my mind very often is back home in Nigeria.

Chinelo Okparanta's novel Under the Udala Trees tells the story of a young girl displaced by the Nigerian Civil War and the love affair that she begins.

Chinelo Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees tells the story of a young girl displaced by the Nigerian Civil War and the love affair that she begins.

Which is all just to say that the book is exactly what it is—and exactly what it should be—for having been written primarily for a Nigerian audience. We Nigerians speak in a natural mélange/interspersing of our traditional languages and English. This is exactly what the book does. It’s important to keep in mind that Nigeria is a country in which hundreds of languages are spoken. The purpose of the book is to open conversation amongst all ethnic groups within the country, so it would have made no sense for me to write the entire thing in Igbo, with no context clues at all, thereby alienating quite a large segment of the nation’s population. There are also Hausa words in the book, and of course, there is Pidgin. But English is Nigeria’s lingua Franca. As such, it also the novel’s lingua Franca, and the language that best serves the purpose of the book: unity, rather than division.

By extension, because the purpose of the book is to be accessible to all of Nigeria, it also winds up being accessible to Western audiences, and hopefully to audiences all over the world. Sure, I wanted to write a book that invited Nigerians to have this LGBTQ conversation amongst themselves. But of course, it’s a good thing that the book is accessible to non-Nigerians. It’s always a good thing when literature speaks to universal human experiences, but it is an even better thing when the language of the literature facilitates a reader’s engagement with those human experiences.

Michael Noll

The chapters in the novel are fairly short, often a few pages long. It seems that some revolve around particular scenes, but there are many that move through time or move beyond scenes in various ways. What was your approach to chapter structure?

Chinelo Okparanta

I was going through a phase where I enjoyed reading books with shorter and more straightforward chapters. I decided to write the kind of book I enjoyed reading. Maybe for my next project I’ll be enjoying a different kind of book–the kinds with long, sprawling chapters, or those with no chapters at all. If that winds up being the case, I might also write that sort of book.

Michael Noll

The novel begins with the Biafran War, which ended 45 years ago, but now there are new protests in the region, to the point that, at least in the news outlets that I read and listen to, there’s some concern that they might lead to another civil war. Is this something that you thought about as you wrote the novel? Does the past of the novel seem truly past to you? Or were you trying to capture tensions that remain?

Chinelo Okparanta

Look at the United States and its history of slavery. That history haunts all Americans even today–at least, it haunts any socially aware American with an active conscience. Recently in the US, racial tensions have triggered worries of civil unrest. The past always leaves its stamp and oftentimes the stamp is waterproof. Maybe it fades a bit, but it is still there. So, yes, our past is the past, but it is also the present, and it will likely affect the decisions we make for the future. Which is why I’m always thinking about the nation and ways in which to flip our history of colonialism, and ways in which to better deal with the division caused by the British geo-political division of the country. We don’t have to be beholden to the past. We don’t forget—and perhaps we should not forget—but we certainly owe it to ourselves to rise above it. It seems to me that all of us have the power to flip unfortunate aspects of our pasts and use them positively, constructively, to make ourselves stronger. It’s just a matter of how. A united body people who are sincerely in it for the common good. Good leadership. A well thought out and thoroughly outlined plan. Expert organizational skills. These are some of what all healthy nations need.

March 2016

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

How to Manipulate Chronology to Build Character

15 Mar
Chinelo Okparanta's novel Under the Udala Trees tells the story of a young girl displaced by the Nigerian Civil War and the love affair that she begins.

Chinelo Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees tells the story of a young girl displaced by the Nigerian Civil War and the love affair that she begins.

Chronology is something most writers and readers take for granted. Time moves forward, and so does narrative. There are exceptions, of course. Memory isn’t constrained by the inexorable march of time. It can leap backward at will, or against it—and can even get stuck in the past. But we understand memory to be unusual, unlike the rest of our lives, which move forward. This fact highlights the extraordinary achievement of fictions that move differently. Charles Baxter’s novel First Light, for example, starts at the end and moves toward the beginning. And Nicholson Baker’s novel The Mezzanine takes place completely within the time required to ride an escalator. Most writers will never attempt such ambitious structures. But it can be useful to try them in miniature.

An  example of this kind of chronological experiment can be found in Chinelo Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

Then novel is set in Nigeria during its civil war in the late 1960s. It begins with a Star Wars-like summary:

But in 1967, the war barged in and installed itself all over the place. By 1968, the whole of Ojoto had begun pulsing with the ruckus of armored cars and shelling machines, bomber planes and their loud engines sending shock waves through our ears.

By 1968, our men had begun slinging guns across their shoulders and carrying axes and machetes, blades glistening in the sun; and out on the streets, every hour or two in the afternoons and evenings, their chanting could be heard, loud voices pouring out like libations from their mouths: “Biafra, win the war!”

It was that same year, 1968 — the second year of the war — that Mama sent me off.

If this was Star Wars, the story would proceed from that moment—the narrator’s mother sending her away. The novel would zoom in on the narrator leaving her home, and a scene would begin. But that’s not what happens. Instead, the novel reverses its chronology:

There is no way to tell the story of what happened with Amina without first telling the story of Mama’s sending me off. Likewise, there is no way to tell the story of Mama’s sending me off without also telling of Papa’s refusal to go to the bunker.

Then, the passage reverses what it’s just done:

Without his refusal, the sending away might never have occurred, and if the sending away had not occurred, then I might never have met Amina.

Finally, we learn why this zig-zag in chronology matters:

If I had not met Amina, who knows, there might be no story at all to tell.

At this point, the novel really begins—but it does so before the mother sends the narrator away:

So, the story begins even before the story, on June 23, 1968. Ubosi chi ji ehihe jie: the day night fell in the afternoon, as the saying goes. Or as Mama sometimes puts it, the day that night overtook day: the day that Papa took his leave from us.

The novel eventually returns to the moment when the narrator’s mother sends her away, but it takes about 40 pages. So what does this brief reversal of chronology achieve?

There are probably two answers. First, it lets the novel convey some essential information (when, where, what). That information is interesting (war stories have and always will hold our attention), but it’s also general, and as a result it could be a difficult place to begin building an idiosyncratic character. Writing about wars and other societal conflicts can be a bit like wheeling a sofa sleeper down a set of stairs with a hand truck—there’s considerable risk of getting rolled over and flattened. So, rather than beginning the novel with a character who is a kind of refugee (a status that can have a flattening effect), the novel goes back in time to a point when she was simply a character, creating space to give her and the rest of her family a set of developed, complex personalities.

The war is coming, of course, and the narrator will be sent away, but when she is, we’ll have a better appreciation for what it means.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s jump back in time, using Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta as a model:

  1. Decide what information a reader requires to begin the story. This is usually some version of Who, When, Where, and What: the basic elements of setting and situation. Star Wars famously summed up this information at the beginning of each film in the series. Most novels do something similar: showing the place in general (country, state, city, geography) and in particular (this street, house, room). It’s a bit like the wide-panning shots at the start of many films. Write a simple passage that conveys this information, especially the big What. For Okparanta, it’s the war. What is the big conflict (divorce, death, moving) at the heart of your story?
  2. Step the reader back in time. Okparanta does this methodically: “There is no way to tell the story of what happened with ____(1) without first telling the story of _____(2)” and “Likewise, there is no way to tell the story of ____(2) without also telling of ____(3).” The first blank is something that will happen eventually in the story. The next blanks are all points that lead up to that first one. Try using these phrases to step your story back in time from its eventual end point.
  3. Explain why these points matter. Okparanta’s narrator says a version of this: “If ___ hadn’t happened, who knows, there might be no story at all to tell.” You can use this construction to start with. Make it clear that the story hinges upon a particular moment.
  4. Start the story. Again, here’s Okparanta’s narrator: “So, the story begins even before the story, on ____.” She zooms in on a particular moment, a good moment to begin showing and developing the characters. We know where everything is headed, and so the story can take its time (to some extent) in making us care about the people involved. Find a moment for your story to do this, a moment with the big conflict in the background but without the extreme urgency of points further into the story, a moment when the characters can be themselves and not pawns in a conflict.

The goal is to present essential information about setting and situation and also carve out space to create and develop character.

Good luck.

How to Skip Over Implausibility

8 Mar
Keith Lee Morris builds upon the long tradition of haunted hotels with his spooky, unsettling novel Travelers Rest.

Keith Lee Morris builds upon the long tradition of stories about haunted hotels with his spooky, unsettling novel Travelers Rest.

In most writing workshops, someone will eventually say about a story, “I just don’t believe the character would do that.” As a piece of criticism, the statement is almost always true. Most real people would not do the most interesting things characters do in fiction. Of course, someone will also argue, “Well, I know someone who did exactly that.” But that is besides the point. Both statements mistakenly accept the premise that fiction and real life are connected in all ways. They are connected, of course, in that by reading about fictional characters, we often discover things about ourselves that we previously could not put our finger on. Writers have a knack for defining readers’ sense of their own identities. Nonetheless, the plausibility of something in real life isn’t relevant to fiction. All that matters is that readers believe that something is plausible. Richard Ford likes to say that fiction makes the impossible possible. I’d further this notion: in fiction, anything is plausible and possible if the writer wants it to be.

A great example of creating plausibility can be found in Keith Lee Morris’s new novel Travelers Rest. You can read an excerpt here.

How the Novel Works

Anyone who reads Travelers Rest will immediately think, “This is sort of like The Shining.” A family driving from Seattle to Charleston gets caught in a snowstorm and stays the night in a creepy hotel just off the highway in the emptiness of Idaho. A series of increasingly unsettling things occur in the hotel, with no guarantee that the characters will escape. As readers, many of you may be giggling in excitement over this summary, and for good reason: creepy hotels make for awesome stories. But for writers, a supernatural hotel poses a big problem.

Here’s why: Imagine that you’ve pulled off the road and walked into a hotel in utter disrepair, run by a man who looked “as if he’d been stored in a crate of mothballs and tipped up onto his feet just moments before their arrival.” Would you stay? Probably not. And if you found out the hotel had no electricity? You’d be out the door in a flash, right?

That’s real life. Fiction has different goals; it doesn’t want to keep its inhabitants safe.

So, Travelers Rest needs its characters to say, “Sure, we’ll stay in this weird place.” It needs, in other words, for the implausible to occur, for characters to do something most of us wouldn’t do. So, how does the novel make this implausible thing plausible? Here’s the passage where it happens:

While Tonio asked about a room, she got her bearings and surveyed the hotel’s interior. The first impression was one of disorder. In the dim and rather dusty light of the lobby she saw ladders and toolboxes and paint cans and drop cloths and sawhorses—clearly the place was under renovation. Maybe the hotel wasn’t even open, and they wouldn’t be staying here after all. That would be disappointing. Why? She studied the room more closely. An enormous fireplace that, if it contained a roaring fire, would have dispelled every shred of the hotel’s gloom. Beautiful old gas lamps on the walls, tasteful (although awfully faded) wallpaper, elaborate moldings in the corners of the room, a high ceiling with a breathtaking chandelier that spanned almost half the lobby, a grand wooden staircase ascending to a second-floor landing, solid over-stuffed chairs (Dewey was sitting in one of them and wiping dust from the arm), a huge circular ottoman directly beneath the chandelier. It must have been a stunningly opulent place at one time—what could it possibly be doing in this little town?

Several things are going on here. First, the details are peculiar, but they exist within a realm of what might be tolerated. The word murder isn’t spelled backward on the wall, and young twin girls don’t appear and disappear. (Though, of course, these things don’t happen in The Shining right away, either.) The place is very dusty and under construction—weird, by real-world standards, but not clearly supernatural. And yet, something is obviously wrong. The character at the heart of the scene isn’t sure the hotel is even open. She isn’t sure it’s possible to stay the night. In short, she’s voicing the warnings that most of us would heed in real life.

So what makes her stay? The answer is in a buried line: “That would be disappointing.” She considers the possibility of leaving and responds with a desire to stay. She’s intrigued by the place—but note that it doesn’t actually say that. A sentence like this—”She was weirdly excited by the place”—might tip the writer’s hand too much. The character would become a puppet, not a character with (the illusion of) free will. The beauty of “That would be disappointing” is that it slips an implausible character decision past us. By the time we finish the paragraph (which continues on a bit longer), we’re already sold on the hotel. We want to understand what it’s doing out in the middle of nowhere.

The line has given readers permission to do exactly what we want: follow the characters into a place they—and we—should not enter.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s create plausibility, using Travelers Rest by Keith Lee Morris as a model:

  1. Identify the decision that the novel depends upon. If Morris’ characters walk out of the hotel, the novel ceases to exist. It’s true that some novels don’t rely on implausible character decisions. But many—including novels with “realistic” plots—do: characters associate with people they shouldn’t, go places they shouldn’t, get angry when they should know better, and stay a little longer than is wise. From there, the plot takes off. What is that moment in your story? (It happens in stories as well as novels.)
  2. Provide an initial description of the situation. Morris’ character notices the hotel’s sawhorses and drop cloths and her son wiping dust off the chair. These details are odd—but they do not scream, “Run!” How can you describe the situation at the heart of the crucial decision in the same way? Let a character notice details that raise a flag of warning—but make the details within a realm of might be tolerated.
  3. Raise the possibility of making a good choice. Morris’ character wonders if they’ll stay at the hotel, if it’s even open. The door is open for her to leave. If you’ve ever made a poor decision in real life, you probably went into it with eyes wide open (or so you thought). You probably had a moment where you thought, “You know, I probably shouldn’t do this” or “This probably isn’t a good idea.” Give your character a subtle version of that moment.
  4. Make the character want to make a bad choice. This happens all the time in stories about marital affairs. We instinctually understand bad decisions about sex—or alcohol or drugs or money. We also understand on a instinctual level the lure of curiosity, the possibility of adventure. It’s why we buy lottery tickets. So, in other words, readers are primed to accept the implausible as long as you don’t make them think about it too hard. So, sneak the implausible decision past them. Morris does this by suggesting that his character would be disappointed not to stay in the hotel. She hasn’t actually decided anything yet, but her pump has been primed. You can use a version of Morris’ line: When the character considers the door out of the situation, let them respond with “That would be disappointing.”
  5. Describe the situation again in evocative terms. Now that you’ve made your character curious, feed the curiosity. Give details that are intriguing, that deserve to be studied.

The goal is handle implausibility not by dwelling on it but by skipping as quickly over it as possible

Good luck.

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