Archive | May, 2016

An Interview with Karan Bajaj

26 May
Karan Bajaj is a bestselling novelist in India. The Yoga of Max's Discontent is his most recent book.

Karan Bajaj is a bestselling novelist in India. The Yoga of Max’s Discontent is his most recent book.

Karan Bajaj is a bestselling novelist and striving yogi. Born and raised in India, he has trained as a Hatha Yoga teacher in the Sivananda ashram in South India and learned meditation in the Himalayas. He is the author of the novels Johnny Gone Down and Keep off the Grass, both of which were No. 1 bestsellers in India. His most recent book is The Yoga of Max’s Discontent. He’s been named one of India Today’s Top 35 Under 35. He lives in New York City.

To read an exercise on hooking the reader based on The Yoga of Max’s Discontent, click here.

In this interview, Bajaj discusses why he chose a white American character for a novel based on his own experience, the necessity of an author’s “message” staying out of a story, and the importance of taking a sabbatical.

Michael Noll

You’ve written that parts of The Yoga of Max’s Discontent are based on your own experience studying yoga and Buddhism and hiking in the Himalayas, and so I’m interested in your choice to tell this story from the point of view of a white American. On one hand, I can imagine some publishers preferring a white main character because it fits their idea of what sells. On the other hand, I’ve also had the experience in my own work of not being able to write about something until I distanced myself from it somehow. What went into the creation of Max?

Karan Bajaj

Thanks Michael. I made the choice of an American main character, less due to publishing practicalities, more to approach Max’s experiences in India from the perspective of an outsider. His “otherness”, be it an American in India or a white guy in the Bronx housing projects, is crucial to the core idea in the book of a man stripping off layers of external identity, first, physical, then, spiritual, to come closer to a more permanent reality. If I had an Indian protagonist, he’d have too many pre-conceived notions about concepts like karma, re-birth, yogic powers etc. that he uncovers in his journey.

In terms of creating Max, here’s a small anecdote: I read more than one hundred books and as many articles and papers to research the 1st 30 pages of the book that are set in the Bronx housing projects. Almost none of my research appears in the book but I had to truly understand each day in Max’s childhood to understand why someone would make the extreme decision to quit his job in Wall Street to become a yogi in the Himalayas. The next 270 pages set in India required almost no research at all. I’ve lived Max’s life myself and spent a lot of time in hidden Indian ashrams and remote Himalayan villages.

Michael Noll

Part of Max’s attraction to yoga and meditation is the possibility, learned from a street food vendor, that some yogis can sit in mountain caves in the winter in nothing but loin cloths and walk barefoot in deep snow. As a fictive device, this works well, creating intrigue and suspense in both the main character and the reader. But I also found myself wondering how it connects with the physical and spiritual practices that you’ve studied and that are important to you. Did you feel any conflict between the need to tell a good story and the desire to introduce readers to the very real practice of yoga? (Of course, perhaps some yogis really can walk barefoot in snow and across water!)

Karan Bajaj

The Yoga of Max's Discontent is the latest novel by Karan Bajaj.

The Yoga of Max’s Discontent is the latest novel by Karan Bajaj.

Excellent question, Michael. My idea for this novel was to break the paradigm of spiritual/personal transformation novels as fables thick and heavy with messages. I wanted to write a page-turning adventure through contemporary India in which the reader melts into the story and doesn’t feel the presence of an author communicating any message. However, I didn’t exaggerate or falsely exoticize India for the sake of a good story. Yogis and their physical prowess are well researched and in the novel, I’ve treated it as a spontaneous by-product of a yogis’ journey from the finite to infinite rather than the goal of the practice. Yoga, as I’ve presented in the book, is chitta vritti nirodah, the complete cessation of the thought waves of the mind so that the individual dissolves as it were. Every practice referenced in the book is in service of that idea.

Michael Noll

One of the sources of Max’s discontent is his attachment to material things, and one of the realizations he has during his quest is that he actually requires very little in order to survive and be at peace. I think it’s natural for readers to wonder how the book connects with your own life. You’ve studied yoga, gone on a sabbatical, and meditated in silence for a year, but you also work with large corporations in New York and your personal website is no slouch as a marketing device. Do these roles ever feel like competing forces?

Karan Bajaj

As you get deeper into the book, I think the concept that emerges is one of dharma. The tree grows and bears fruit, the water quenches thirst, in the same way every living being has a dharma, a certain innate tendency. Purifying your actions in accordance with your dharma rather than taking someone else’s dharma serves you best. Max’s dharma was to live in the mountains and serve. My own dharma, I think, is to be in business since I feel a very natural inclination for it. So what I’m trying to do is to purify my life in that context by working without attachment to the results of the work. I slip and fall often but that’s the general idea I try to live by. Right now, for example, I’m focused on marketing the book and getting hundreds of people to read a story I think is pure and transforming, but if that doesn’t happen, I know a large part of me will remain untouched.

That’s why perhaps my 4,1,4 model of working for four years, then taking a year-long sabbatical, then working again for four years works for me. Being in the world starts to take its toll so stepping out of it regularly and doing deep meditation helps me return a little more grounded to it. Yet I do always return because I think my dharma is to be in the world of commerce rather than in teaching yoga and meditation in the Himalayas.

Michael Noll

I know that the idea of sabbatical is important to you and that your own sabbatical fueled your growth as a writer and in yoga. What advice would you give to people interested in taking a sabbatical but who also find it difficult for a variety of reasons: limited income, children, or parents or other family members who depend on them for care? I think a lot of people look at their lives and don’t see how they can extricate themselves from them for any long period of time. Is a sabbatical a possibility for everyone?

Karan Bajaj

It’s never easy for anyone, I think. It was difficult for me to step out of life for a year when I was alone, harder when both my wife and I had to plan it together, and will be harder still now that we have a toddler and an infant! But each time I’ve come back, I’ve transformed in so many dimensions from becoming more spontaneous and creative to a greater stillness in my thoughts that I make it a point to keep taking them. If someone is interested in the idea but struggling to make the time, I’d say start by taking deeper, more meaningful vacations. Rather than going to a beach resort or a comfortable destination like Florida, take vacations that dissolve your sense of self. I highly recommend the 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat, for example or a tough hike like Kilimanjaro or the Grand Canyon where for a period of time, you just take one step, then another, and no other idea exists. Once you take a few such vacations, you start seeing the impact on your life and make the space to take longer and longer sabbaticals. In some ways, this is much easier than the dramatic re-inventions I see in American life. People are always becoming in the U.S.—from lawyer to yoga teacher; from marketing director to life-purpose coach etc. It’s perhaps simpler and more effective to go from point A to nothing at all rather than point A to point B.

May 2016

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


How to Hook a Reader with Cool Stuff

25 May
The Yoga of Max's Discontent is the latest novel by Karan Bajaj.

The Yoga of Max’s Discontentthe latest novel by Karan Bajaj, tells the story of a “quest for answers that bother all of us at some level.”

I recently read a picture book version of The Odyssey to my 4 and 6-year-old sons. We read, of course, about the Cyclops and how Odysseus’ men clung to the bottom of sheep as they trotted out of the blinded monster’s cave. And how Odysseus traveled to the land of the dead, sacrificed two sheep, and let their blood pool because the dead love to drink blood, and how he saw, among the blood-drinkers, the shade of his mother. And how, when Odysseus finally returned to his homeland, only his old, sick dog recognized him—and then the promptly died. My kids were rapt. I could hardly read certain parts without getting choked up.

It’s tempting to forget amid the five-paragraph essays and multiple choice tests that we attach to literature that the reason certain stories stick around for years or millennia is because they’re freaking awesome. But their appeal isn’t based on “literary merit,” whatever that means. Odysseus watched a bunch of shades lap up ram’s blood so that he could get instructions from a dead, blind prophet—and his mother showed up, which meant she’d died in his absence. That’s great storytelling because of the emotion and because it involves dead people drinking blood. Without the latter part—and all the other crazy stuff in The Odyssey—Homer’s work likely doesn’t survive.

Great stories do cool stuff (to use the technical term). A perfect example of the power of cool stuff can be found in Karan Bajaj’s novel The Yoga of Max’s Discontent. You can read an excerpt at Riverhead’s website.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about an American named Max who becomes disillusioned with his Wall Street lifestyle and travels to India to study yoga and meditation and discover other ways of viewing the world and himself. In short, it’s a story that, if you’re interested in spiritual enlightenment, you’ve probably seen before. So, the challenge facing Bajaj is to hook a reader who knows what’s coming. He begins to set the hook when Max buys falafel from a street vendor, who throws in some cool stuff about certain yogis:

“I don’t know, these yogis were superhuman, like God more than men, sir,” he said. “All Indian soldiers selected to go up to the high camps of Siachen had grown up their entire life in the mountains. On top of that, we were put through a year of survival training and a team of psychologists monitored us when we came back. And yet none of us had even a fraction of the yogis’ powers. We walked up and down the ice in our five layers of clothes all day to keep warm. But the yogis just sat in the caves, their eyes closed, meditating, and they would come out once in ten, fifteen days, wearing nothing but a loincloth. They walked barefoot in sixty or seventy inches of snow and we used heavy snowshoes with crampons imported from Russia. Yet their feet were quicker, surer than ours. Like machines their bodies were, not human at all.”

A little later we learn that bears and snow leopards guarded the yogis’ caves. Even if you’re not inclined to read about yoga and meditation, it’s hard not to be tempted by these details. It’s the same reason that, if someone says they saw a ghost—really saw one—you pay attention. You’re probably about to hear something cool and weird. At its heart, that is what stories are often about: the cool and the weird. Richard Ford likes to say that fiction makes the impossible possible, and while he applies that maxim to realism, it’s a natural fit for the sort of stories people have been telling as long as stories have been around.

When in doubt, throw in something that makes the reader go, “What?” At best, you’ll write The Odyssey. At the very least, you’ll keep the reader turning pages.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s add cool stuff to a story, using The Yoga of Max’s Discontent by Karan Bajaj as a model:

  1. Decide what sort of story you’re telling. Homer was telling (literally) a story about gods and men. Bajaj is telling a story about spiritual practice. Both imply a beyond-human element. As a result, it’s not shocking when superhuman and supernatural details crop up. But not all stories are this type. Some are romances. Others are mystery or crime stories. Others are sci-fi/fantasy. Others are dirty realism. All of them are about people doing things. The question is, what sort of things might be expected in this particular world? How do you answer that question for your story?
  2. Find your character’s discontent. It might be the threat of physical disconnect (the alien is going to eat me). Or it might be romantic, philosophical, cultural, economic, familial, or professional. This discontent is often the source of whatever cool stuff you’ll pull out of your sleeve. Rocky Balboa is discontent with his archenemy pounding his face, and so he gets up off the mat and takes it to Ivan Drago (leading to the great line from Drago, similar to Bajaj’s line about machines, “He is not human, he is a piece of iron”). Cool stuff is the stock-in-trade of sports movies: a character gets beaten down (becomes discontent) and then does something awesome. In bro movies (whether it’s Animal House or Fight Club), you know that as soon as things get tough for a character, something crazy is about to happen. What is the nature of your character’s discontent?
  3. What sort of cool would your character perform or seek out? Sports movies are about individual performance. Romances are about passion—and so the passion better be hot. When I saw Titanic in the theater, in a moment when we’re teased with but not given a glimpse of Rose’s nude body, a guy shouted out, “Oh, c’mon!” Shortly after, the handprint-in-steam scene arrived. Regular old literary realism does the same thing. Richard Ford’s collection, Rock Springs, contains stripteases, gunshots, and stolen train tickets. One approach is to ask, “What is the craziest, slightly unbelievable thing that could happen to the character right now?” Ask that question of third graders, and they’ll invariably answer, “Ninjas!” But you’re aiming for slightly unbelievable within the context of the story. We know that Bajaj’s novel contains a quest for spiritual enlightenment in India, and so it’s believable that the cool stuff will revolve around yoga and meditation and slightly unbelievable that it might involve superhuman elements of those practices.

The goal is to get your readers to say, “Oh, c’mon,” after teasing them with the potential for something cool and “Whoa,” when you actually deliver the cool thing.

Good luck.

An Interview with Alexander Chee

20 May
Alexander Chee has been called "incomparable" by Junot Diaz and is the author of the much-anticipated novel, The Queen of the Night.

Alexander Chee has been called “incomparable” by Junot Diaz and is the author of the much-anticipated novel, The Queen of the Night.

Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night. He is a contributing editor at The New Republic and an editor at large at VQR. His essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, Slate, Guernica, NPR and Out, among others. He has received a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in prose and a 2010 MCCA Fellowship, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri and Amtrak. He has taught writing at Wesleyan University, Amherst College, the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College and the University of Texas – Austin. He lives in New York City, where he curates the Dear Reader series at Ace Hotel New York.

To read an exercise on creating character with plot based on The Queen of the Night, click here.

In this interview, Chee discusses growing as a writer to meet the needs of your novel, building character in order to develop plot, and the process of writing a novel with a complex plot and many characters.

Michael Noll

I think a lot of people who read your first novel Edinburgh may have been surprised by this book. The Queen of the Night is big and sweeping, with plot twists galore. As an opening line states, “When it began, it began as an opera would begin…” You and I talked on a panel at Austin’s New Fiction Confab, and I compared this novel to Victor Hugo’s work. But Hugo probably isn’t a writer that many contemporary writers strive to emulate (despite the success of the musical Les Misérables). What drew you to the novel’s operatic style? Is there something that it allowed you to do that a so-called “quieter” style wouldn’t? Or is the novel simply the result of your maturation as a writer? Did your craft advance to the point that you could attempt something big, with a complex plot, without it falling apart?

Alexander Chee

When I began thinking about the things that resulted in the writing of the novel, I was fascinated by opera plots and how seemingly ridiculous they were but also how pleasing. And so I began looking into why opera even existed as an art form and found the poems Orlando Furioso and Orlando Innamorato, poems which are commonly believed to have been the inspiration for most of the classic Italian opera plots. The idea that there was some common source for seemingly disparate works of art fascinated me and then made me wonder, what would it be like to try to make something that could mirror that on the far side? A life composed of opera plots? Or what if, after believing opera plots were inherently unbelievable, your life came to resemble one? Would you believe they were real then? And of course I was fascinated by the idea of people living out a lesson from the Gods, dictated by them, which of course resembles or prefigures authorship.

And then the idea of doing anything like this seemed implausible. But of course that made it all very tantalizing. As did working with the tools of melodrama and the old romans: coincidence, mistaken identity, cliffhanger plot twists, and adventure.

Once I knew I would be writing a novel based on all of this, I decided it had to be very bold. I set out wanting to do something utterly different from both anything I had ever done much less anything anyone would expect me to do. I decided it would be a picaresque, with a woman as the main character and narrator, and initially believed it would be a very small novel, maybe 250 pages. I would work with the tools of escapism but to give the reader a deeper relationship to this question of why we do what we do when we are confronted with a coincidence. What is it in us that makes us believe it is the work of a higher power? What do we do to our lives when we believe that? And: what if it really is a higher power, what then?

I don’t know that the novel was the result of my maturation—I think it’s more that it caused it. I had to grow in order to do this. What you see here, these are all gambles. Finalizing the novel’s plot structure nearly drove me insane. And at every point before it worked, I believed I was closer to failure than success.

Michael Noll

When we talk about plot (and plot-driven novels) as writers, it’s perhaps tempting to think of it as separate from character. This is why we so often quote Chandler’s line about novels that are stuck: the solution is to have a guy with a gun walk in the door. Or we quote Chekhov and his advice that if a gun’s present in the first act, then it had better go off in the third. It’s possible to read both as arguments for deus ex machina plot devices in which characters are tossed about without much control over events. But this isn’t how your novel works. For example, early on, the main character—who will later become a famous opera singer—offends her mother, and so her mother punishes her by covering the girl’s mouth so that she can’t sing in church. It’s a moment that drives the plot forward (readers wonder, what will happen?), but it’s also a moment that reveals character. Something good has been taken from the girl; how will she respond? This is all to ask this: Was it difficult to balance building character with driving the story forward? Or are those challenges one and the same?

Alexander Chee

Alexander Chee's novel THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT is a national bestseller a review in Vogue called "brilliantly extravagant in its twists and turns and its wide-ranging cast of characters."

Alexander Chee’s novel The Queen of the Night is a national bestseller a review in Vogue called “brilliantly extravagant in its twists and turns and its wide-ranging cast of characters.”

Thank you. Yes. This is a common mistake, I think, a fatal separation. Plots have to grow out of your character for them to really succeed. If a gun is present in the first act, I wouldn’t think about how it has to go off in the third. I would think about how the character is the reason the gun is there to begin with. And from there: under what circumstances would that character pick up the gun and fire it?

Building character is building plot, to me. If you don’t know where your story is going, you don’t know your character well enough yet and need to do more to know them.

At each moment you’re asking, as you draft, what is the most likely action for this person with these limitations and these desires in this place at this time, and you just keep asking that, at each moment going forward.

Michael Noll

In the course of the novel, the main character moves from a destitute servant girl to famous opera singer who runs in the most elite circles of Parisian society. As a result, we get to see many different worlds: the American frontier, hippodromes, brothels, secret passages in castles, salons featuring the most famous artists of the time, the opera stage, the French royal court, and scenes of war. On one hand, this variety means that every few chapters or so, the readers gets the thrill of being transported to a new setting. On the other hand, it also means that you had to create not just one world but many. How did you approach the challenge of getting the reader to buy into each new world? Was it difficult to maintain a consistent voice and sensibility throughout the novel?

Alexander Chee

They are one world and they are many, both. Part of my approach was inspired by a Sherlock Holmes story, “A Study in Scarlet”, which begins as a mystery in London and then becomes a Western (I won’t otherwise spoil it). I loved this sense of the two worlds connected by a single fugitive.

But also: I wrote this because I was fascinated by these kinds of women, the orphan who becomes a prostitute who becomes a courtesan who becomes a singer, women who existed in a sort of special social class that was slippier than the others. If you were a courtesan back then, you knew the powerful and the powerless. And you had your own power because of that. You moved between those worlds. So I simply read and researched and followed my imagination. I don’t know that I did anything more special than that. But yes, it meant so many research books. It was a little like preparing to write several novels rather than one. But it was often quite fun, to be honest.

As for her voice, well, I kept favorite sections of the draft printed out to read from before working, so her voice was in my head. Sections where I thought, “Yes, that is her, that is how she sounds.” And I used them to grow more.

Michael Noll

The novel contains so many reversals that I’ve wondered how you were able to keep track of them and hold a single narrative line in your head while writing. Perhaps part of the answer is in the way you tell the reader that certain plot points are bound to happen. For example, the singer learns that her voice is particularly gifted but that it will also inevitably fail her one day–and so we know that moment is coming, but I can also see how it gave you a destination to aim for. How did you keep track of where the novel was going?

Alexander Chee

In some ways, I wrote it without quite knowing where it was going. Or even that the story was building the way it was. It was as if I had to write each of the sections without knowing I was doing that.

I kept a journal devoted to the novel. I wrote in it at the end of every work session, included any questions I had, any frustrations. I read that at the beginning of work the next day. This diary idea came from keeping a blog. I decided to keep one but just for myself—which may sound funny, but which is to say that instead of keeping the diary in a traditional format, I wrote it so the newest entry was always at the top, and the oldest all the way at the end. This way whenever I opened the document the newest entry was the first thing I saw.

I also kept a list of characters and places for the novel where I could see it, and I looked at it whenever I had a question or was stuck. I would say to myself, “What next, what people in what places?” And that helped a great deal. I got the idea for the lists from Janet Frame, who describes it in her autobiography, along with many of her writing habits.

Lastly I kept a file of rejected pages, pages I cut from the novel. I noticed one day that the thing I was calling the novel was about 70 pages and the rejected file had about 300 pages. I had discarded what I thought of as false starts, yet this file was so big, it was like I’d thrown the whole novel away. So I went through it and understood the seemingly random different pieces were all one novel. That all of it was her life. And the twists and turns, I had to invent those as credible connections between the sections.

I always knew the novel was going to be something with false names and secrets and sudden reversals—that it would be a picaresque composed of opera plots, the life of someone overtaken by a curse that was turning her life into a series of operas she had once sung in. And the resulting twists did fit the conventions of the picaresque and of opera. The whole point of the novel was always, “What if opera plots were realism?” What if your life, when described, sounded like an opera? And yet I had to sneak up on myself to write it.

May 2016

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

Develop Character with Plot

17 May
Alexander Chee's novel THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT is a national bestseller a review in Vogue called "brilliantly extravagant in its twists and turns and its wide-ranging cast of characters."

Alexander Chee’s novel The Queen of the Night is a national bestseller and, according to Vogue, “brilliantly extravagant in its twists and turns and its wide-ranging cast of characters.”

For some literary writers, plot is a four-letter word. You’ll be at a party with writers or in class, and someone will say, “I’m just not interested in plot.” Or “I just want to write about a feeling.” These are valid statements and probably indicate one difference between literary and genre writers. Someone who writes classic mystery stories, for example is most likely very interested in plot and its mechanics. But mystery plots are not the only kind of plots, nor are thriller plots or YA dystopian plots. It’s possible to view plot as any device that creates suspense and, as a result, structure. In fact, the feelings or characters that some literary writers want to focus on can be developed most fully by using plot.

A great example of using the mechanics of plot to create character can be found in Alexander Chee’s novel The Queen of the Night. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel follows the rise of an orphan from her humble origins on the American frontier to the heights of art and prestige as an opera singer in the court of French court of Napoleon III. As you might expect, the narrator’s life contains twists and turns that account for much of the basic plot of the novel. But Chee also uses plot in smaller, more subtle ways, as when he introduces the narrator’s life as a young girl in Minnesota and the singing talent that would carry her far from it. Here is an early passage in which the narrator sings in church with her mother:

I loved to go to church with her, but it was only to sing the hymns. This little church was my first theater. When the time came to sing, I was the very picture of an eager Christian, standing first out of the whole congregation, hymnal open, waiting impatiently for the pastor’s wife to pick out the refrain on the church’s piano. But when the singing was over, I’d sit numb for the rest of the service until my mother pulled my sleeve to show we were leaving. As we left, the congregation would come to say to her what a voice I had and wasn’t she so proud of me. And I would glow beside her, beaming at her, waiting for her to be proud of me. She would sometimes reach out and tuck my hair behind my ears if it had come loose.

This is a terrific description of character. We learn not only about the narrator’s gifted voice but also how it fits into the place where she lives. We learn how proud she is of her voice and how much she wants to be praised for it. Here’s the next line:

I loved my mother but I did not love God.

This line is crucial because it turns the character description into story. It creates an untenable situation—at least from the mother’s point of view. Not loving God isn’t an option, and so the mother acts: tying a piece of ribbon and velvet over the narrator’s mouth and forbidding her to sing in church.

“You’ll wear this today and think of how, when you know what you should know as a proper Christian, you can sing in church again.”

A few paragraphs later, the mother says, “There’s no gift like yours without a test.”

That is plot. We want to know what the narrator will do. A raw, prized part of her being has been taken from her; how will she respond? The answer propels the novel forward but also reveals greater depths within the narrator. It’s one thing to say, “She’s the kind of person who ____,” and it’s another to say, “She’s the kind of person who ___, and if you get in her way, she’ll ____.” The first cannot sustain a narrative on its own, and without narrative (however you think of it), there’s no short story or novel. In this case, the narrative is the opening of a novel, and so the narrator’s response suggests how she will respond to future obstacles. When allowed to sing again, she chooses subterfuge:

I made a deliberately thin, weak noise that blended quietly, like the noise of another girl.

The scene has not only developed her character but also a pattern of behavior that will shape the events of the novel. Character has introduced plot, plot has deepened character, and that character development will shape the plot going forward. One is necessary to create the other.


The Writing Exercise

Let’s deepen our understanding of a character using plot, with The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee as a model:

  1. Describe the character through a valued trait. It’s almost always the case that characters are built on only a handful of details—or even a single detail. In this case, it’s the narrator’s singing voice. So, give your character a noticeable trait or talent or vice. It doesn’t matter what it is; what’s important is that the character cares about it. The character should have strong feelings about that trait, talent, or vice. If Wendy, Michael, John, and Peter had said, “We can fly. Meh,” there would be no Peter Pan play or film. Even the most amazing trait falls flat if the characters don’t care. What personal, intrinsic or new thing does your character feel deeply about?
  2. Put the trait in conflict with some other value. Chee does this with rules. In frontier Minnesota, in this particular family, you love God. All actions should serve God. That’s the rule, and, of course, the narrator has broken it. Notice how Chee has introduced the rule through place and other characters. This is why it’s so difficult to write a story with only one character. How can you use the rules of a place, society, or group to create conflict with the trait you’ve just described? A good place to start is to simply list rules and listen for your character’s reaction. When the character gets uncomfortable, you’ve hit on something good.
  3. Challenge the character’s attachment to the trait. As the singer’s mother says, “There’s no gift…without a test.” You’re gauging how much your character values the trait. Unlike most tests, though, this one doesn’t carry the threat of failure, at least for the writer. If a character is easily cowed or quickly gives up on something he or she values, that’s not a bad sign for your story. Instead, it’s revealing something essential about the character that will be important as the story moves forward. What test can you give your character? How can you take away or hobble the trait?
  4. Make the stakes clear. In The Queen of the Night, the stakes are this: humble yourself before God or give up singing. Make one of your characters act like a parent: “Do as I say or else.”
  5. Explore the character’s response. Explore the range of possibilities. Your character can resist publicly or privately, use subterfuge, and give in publicly or privately. The response can be sincere or not. It’s the nature of the response that’s important. You’re testing the character’s mettle and discovering a reaction that could become a pattern of behavior when obstacle after obstacle is introduced.

The goal is to gain a better understanding of your character by introducing plot and then use that understanding to drive the plot forward.

Good luck.

An Interview with Katie Chase

12 May
Katie Chase is the author of Man and Wife, a story collection that Edan Lepucki calls "comic and horrific."

Katie Chase is the author of Man and Wife, a story collection that Edan Lepucki calls “comic and horrific.”

Katie Chase is the author of the story collection, Man and Wife. Her fiction has appeared in Missouri Review, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, Prairie Schooner, Mississippi Review, and the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she was the recipient of a Teaching-Writing Fellowship, a Provost’s Postgraduate Writing Fellowship, and a Michener-Copernicus Award. She has also been a fellow of the MacDowell Colony and the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San José State University. Born and raised outside Detroit, Michigan, she lives currently in Portland, Oregon.

To read an exercise about creating suspense with stand-ins for characters, inspired by Chase’s story “Man and Wife,” click here.

In this interview, Chase discusses the “authority” wielded by a writer in a story, flashback, and differences between stories and novels.

Michael Noll

A word that often gets thrown around by writing students is “authority,” as in “the writer shows such authority; where does it come from?” I thought of this when I read your first line: “They say every girl remembers that special day when everything starts to change.” It’s so in-your-face in its irony—because, of course, we know the narrator isn’t talking about the change that immediately comes to mind  As soon as I read that line, I was hooked. Did the story always begin with this line? Or did you write it in some later draft?

Katie Chase

It’s funny, the first draft of this story is nearly eleven years old, and I couldn’t have told you the answer to this without digging it up. No, the story did not always begin this way. It went through two different openings before landing on this one: the second was similar, but still did not contain that first line, and the first was a version of a paragraph I later moved deeper in, one that gave away what “the change” really was. So, clearly, I realized (or perhaps was told in workshop) that it was better to build up to that revelation. As for “authority,” that too I had to work up to. From conception, I knew this would be an audacious story, but that I didn’t want it to read as audacious or, I suppose, “gimmicky,” and so a level, evenhanded tone would be key to pulling it off. I believe that by the time I was shaping up the story in revision, I had recognized that the point of connection in the story for me was the change that immediately comes to mind, or more generally, the process of having to grow up from a girl into a woman and all the expectations that attend that process. That point of connection was an even bigger key, and perhaps what lent me whatever authority the story may seem to have.

Michael Noll

At the beginning of the story, you use a bit of slick sleight-of-hand. You flash back to a really important scene (the party when the narrator met Mr. Middleton), and you make the leap with a single line of dialogue: “Well, do you remember Mr. Middleton? From Mommy and Daddy’s New Year’s party?” Did that scene always take place in flashback, or did the story ever start earlier so that the party scene appeared in the present moment?

Katie Chase

It did always take place in flashback. I wrote this story just before beginning graduate school, which taught me (among other things) the habit of more fully scrutinizing all of a story’s choices, and I don’t believe that I considered this one very consciously at the time, particularly during early drafting. What I would say now is that the reason for keeping it in flashback is to promote the sense that Mary Ellen, just a child, had not yet faced the inevitable. Her world is the water she swims in, etc., and she takes its qualities for granted, yet it still comes as a surprise when her turn to take part in it comes. She’s in denial, I suppose, if a child even has anything like the psychology an adult has. It feels to me that the story really begins with her opening her eyes to her fate, and as they say, a story that opens too early will feel slow, too late will feel disorienting or, again, gimmicky. Also, if I had added it as a present scene there would be two quite similar party scenes—and the strange bachelorette get-together that occurs in the present and is really for the parents, exists in part as a way to allow that first party onto the page.

Michael Noll

Man and Wife is the debut story collection by Katie Chase. The title story appeared in Missouri Review and Best American Short Stories 2008.

Man and Wife is the debut story collection by Katie Chase.

Perhaps the creepiest scene in the story—and maybe the entire book—is when Mr. Middleton stops by the house unannounced and asks to see the narrator’s Barbies. What I find remarkable is how much foreboding the scene contains and, yet, how little actually happens. He simply asks her to do certain things with her Barbies—and it’s so intensely creepy. What was your approach to this scene? 

Katie Chase

Mr. Middleton and Mary Ellen needed, I thought, to have some time alone, to share a scene that could explore what the dynamics would be like between them in a marriage and show more specifically not only why Mr. Middleton has chosen Mary Ellen, but how she is compelled to go along with him, beyond that she is a child without much choice. As you suggest, the set-up itself is inherently discomforting for the reader: the sheer fact of them being alone, along with the persisting question of whether such an encounter is aboveboard or not. The Barbies, too, as sexualized, anatomically idealized dolls, as vehicles for playing house, are already laden with import. In the scene, I wanted to push the potentialities of those elements, without going what I saw as too far. That inherent tension and anticipation for all that could happen can have more impact than showing any of it actually happen. And although this story presents a society with norms the reader will in all likelihood find repellent, it still has its rules for what is proper, and to even write this story, let alone in a way that was provocative and not merely lurid or sensational, which is what I wanted to do, drawing such lines was necessary. My intention, I won’t deny, was to disturb, but I wanted much of that disruption to be happening in the reader’s mind, and less so on the page.

Michael Noll

So many of your stories feel like they could be the first chapters of novels. This isn’t to say that they don’t feel finished. Instead, I mean that they end with a clear sense of conflicts yet to come. I think a lot of writers struggle with knowing what they’re writing–something short or something longer. How did you know these were stories? Or, to put it another way, what does the story form offer in these narratives that the novel form doesn’t?

Katie Chase

I have never sat down to write something and experienced the phenomenon of it growing, as if of its own will, much beyond the length I thought it was. I have tried to write novels, or turn stories into novels or novellas. Perhaps it is simply that I exercise too much control. But the stories I write, especially those in the book, are often based on certain premises, with certain potentialities, that seem to me to have a limited life span on the page. Any longer, and the premise would start to lose its impact and feel watered down. Often a first line suggests an entire arc to me—not that I already know all of what will happen, but I do know that the narrative will hinge on a shift and that this can be achieved in, say, twenty to thirty pages. For me, stories work by containing all of the fun stuff and none of the belabored. The creation of a world, its borders and its tone, the culling of a situation into a conflict, the “channeling” of a voice and culmination of a character’s potential for growth or revelation—the brick building in a story is faster, sentence by sentence, not chapter by chapter, and it holds together less with mortar than with magic. I suppose I like to end with an opening up, a sense of conflicts to come, in order to achieve that sense that a story is ostensibly just one part of a whole life, and to enlarge that sense a story already has, that in existing only in its pared-down essentials, a lot has been left off the page. Perhaps, again, it is temperament, but more often than not, a story doesn’t continue into its new conflicts because I don’t have the patience or interest in following them step by step. The very point is that shift that initiates a new momentum. I’d rather let those next steps stand as stars do in a constellation, as suggestions, and move on to a new set of constraints. If a writer isn’t into those things, they might be more of a novelist!

May 2016

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

Create Tension by Using Character Stand-ins

10 May
Man and Wife is the debut story collection by Katie Chase. The title story appeared in Missouri Review and Best American Short Stories 2008.

Man and Wife is the debut story collection by Katie Chase. The title story appeared in Missouri Review and Best American Short Stories 2008.

For my money, one of the most intense scenes in any film is the moment in Ridley Scott’s Alien when a character goes into an air duct with the goal of pushing the Alien toward an air lock so it can be sucked out into space. (If you’ve seen the film, you know the scene; it’s everybody’s favorite.) We barely see the Alien. Instead, we track it with a motion sensor which registers both the man in the air duct and the Alien as dots on a grid. One dot draws closer to the other. It’s terrifying—as suspenseful or more than if we saw the actual Alien racing toward the man.

A lot has been written about the scene, in particular how it resulted from Ridley’s small budget. He couldn’t afford crazy special effects. In prose, writers often work under similar restrictions. Every word costs the same, but they aren’t always equally available. So, it’s useful to keep the dots from Alien in mind. A stand-in for the real thing is often as effective or more than the thing itself.

A great example of this approach can be found in Katie Chase’s story “Man and Wife.” It’s included in her new collection, Man and Wife, and was originally published in Missouri Review and Best American Short Stories 2008. You can read it online here.

How the Story Works

The story begins with a bold sentence: “They say every girl remembers that special day when everything starts to change.” You don’t have to read very long before realizing that the change isn’t the one we expect. (If you don’t want details of the story spoiled for you, stop and read it now. You’ll be glad you did.)

We learn that the narrator, Mary Ellen, is remembering the day when she was nine years old and was told that her parents had promised her in marriage to a much, much older man, Mr. Middleton. From this point, we meet the husband-to-be and follow Mary Ellen through the elaborate process that will culminate in their wedding. At all times, we’re aware of the looming prospect of sex. It’s mostly addressed obliquely, as in the wry first line, but there are moments when it’s brought to the forefront of the story. For example, Mary Ellen’s mother hands her a book titled Your Womanly Body and says, “This will tell you some of what you need to know about being a wife. I imagine Mr. Middleton won’t expect much from you at first. After all, you’re still very young.”

Yet the prospect of sex presents a problem for Chase. If shown in detail, such a scene would push away many, if not most, readers. So, we never see any sex. But there is a scene like the one from Alien, and it conveys all of the creepiness and horror that is suggested by the premise.

Chase uses Barbie dolls. Mary Ellen loves to play with them, and one day Mr. Middleton comes over to her house unannounced and asks her to take him to the basement to show him her dolls. We’re shown the dolls in close detail:

Mr. Middleton dropped my hand and approached the Barbies’ houses slowly, as if in awe. The toys sprawled from one corner of the room to the other, threatening to take over even the laundry area; the foldout couch, which I maintained took up valuable space, sometimes served as a mountain to which the Barbies took the camper. There was one real Barbie house, pink and plastic; it had come with an elevator that would stick in the shaft, so I had converted the elevator to a bed. The other Barbie home was made of boxes and old bathroom rugs meant to designate rooms and divisions; this was the one Stacie used for her family. The objects in the houses were a mixture of real Barbie toys and other adapted items: small beads served as food, my mother’s discarded tampon applicators were the legs of a cardboard table. On a Kleenex box my Barbie slept sideways, facing Ken’s back; both were shirtless, her plastic breasts against him.

In Alien, there’s a pause when the Alien’s dot disappears and we’re left to wait breathlessly for it to appear again. The same thing happens here. Mr. Middleton chats with Mary Ellen about the materials used in the construction of the dollhouse—the threat has disappeared. And then, this happens:

Then he leaned down and stroked Barbie’s back with his index finger. “Do they always sleep this way?” he asked.

In Alien, when the Alien’s dot reappears, a character screams at the man in the vent to leave, to get out of there. But he’s not sure what to do or where to go. The same is true of what follows in this scene, except that we’re the ones who are freaked out, even as Mary Ellen stays put. We never see the thing itself, unlike in Alien, but the sight of the dolls standing in for that thing is just as unsettling.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a pivotal scene with character stand-ins, using “Man and Wife” by Katie Chase as a model:

  1. Know what is implied or promised by the premise. A good test for your story is to finish this sentence: “We know the characters are going to ____.” Or finish this one: “I hope that ___ doesn’t/does happen.” As a side note, if these sentences are impossible to finish, it may suggest that your story isn’t building suspense. After all, dread and hope can only exist if it’s possible to imagine what will happen next.
  2. Search for possible stand-ins. In Alien, the stand-in is an element of technology, which makes sense in a film about space ships in the future. In “Man and Wife,” the stand-ins are Barbies, which, again, makes sense for a 9-year-old character. Perhaps both were planned from the beginning, but it’s just as likely that both Ridley Scott and Katie Chase made use of the objects at hand. So, figure out what sort of objects/items/materials are important to your characters. What would they feel attached to or compelled to keep close?
  3. Incorporate the stand-ins into a scene. Both scenes start with the threat of something and then introduce the stand-ins. Mr. Middleton shows up unannounced (creepy!), and then they go into the basement to see the dolls. This order may be important. If he’d shown up while Mary Ellen was playing with her dolls, it might have felt too heavy-handed. Because he arrives first, creating the tension, the introduction of the dolls is unexpected, which further ratchets the tension because we’re not sure what’s coming. In your story, start writing a scene that feels as though it could be important. Then, introduce your stand-ins. You may not be sure which ones you’ll choose. Try several until one feels right.
  4. Focus on the stand-ins, not the rest of the scene. The scene from “Man and Wife” works so well because everything is channeled through the dolls. In Alien, we can’t see the Alien and so we’re forced to look at the dots. Force your characters to use the stand-ins. Give yourself and them constraints. If they must use the stand-ins (if we’re forced to pay attention to the stand-ins), what happens?

The goal is to create tension by showing an expected scene in an unexpected way. You may eventually reveal the thing itself, as in Alien, or you might not, as in “Man and Wife.” Either way, you’re using stand-ins to build suspense.

Good luck.

An Interview with Phaedra Patrick

5 May
Phaedra Patrick is the author of the novel The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper.

Phaedra Patrick is the author of the novel The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper.

Phaedra Patrick studied art and marketing and has worked as a stained glass artist, film festival organizer and communications manager. She is a prize-winning short story writer and now writes full time. She lives in the UK with her husband and son. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is her debut novel.

To read an exercise on setting up happy endings, inspired by The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, click here.

In this interview, Patrick discusses how to set a character off on a quest, happy endings, and using coincidence in a novel.

Michael Noll

The novel begins with the main character, Arthur, deciding to go on a quest. It’s a decision that is part of a long tradition of quest stories that is alive and well as shown by The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry; Eat, Pray, Love, and Wild. The difficulty, I would imagine, in writing such a story is that you need a reason to push the character out the door. Did you always know that Arthur would find the charm bracelet? Or did he begin as a character in search of a reason to go searching?

Phaedra Patrick

The charm bracelet idea came to me first, as I showed my young son my own bracelet. I write short stories too, so I liked the idea that each charm would be like a short story in its own right, then there would be a thread linking them all together, like a bracelet. I then had to find the right character to discover the bracelet and to set off on the journey to find out more about it. I thought it would be interesting if it was an older gentleman, who was rather set in his ways, and who I could take out of his comfort zone to go on this search. One of my favourite exercises is to write down the ten worst things that could happen to your character, then to explore how they’d react if these happened. And that’s what I did with Arthur.

Michael Noll

One question that often comes up in my writing classes—especially with college undergraduates—is “Why must stories be so sad?” The “literary” novels and stories that they’re reading tend to end unhappily. (One caveat: this isn’t really true of the fantasy and science fiction novels they read.) So, I was struck as I read this novel how its emotional arc is pretty much always oriented toward a happy ending—and it’s to the book’s strength. The book jacket even says that it’s a “joyous celebration of life’s infinite possibilities.” What was required—in dreaming up the novel, in its early chapters—to get it moving in a happy, satisfying direction?

Phaedra Patrick

I believe in happy endings! And in order for the story to be happy at the end, it kind of needs to be the opposite (at least in places) at the beginning, so the character can go on his/her transformative journey. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper has been described as a kind of fable and even compared to a fairy story. A lot of fables or fairy tales traditionally start with the character in an unhappy place—Bambi’s mother dies, Cinderella is ill-treated by her step-sisters, etc. So I had to put Arthur in a bad place to make things right for him in the end. It was a fine balance not to make him too self-pitying, but as soon as I introduced his neighbour, Bernadette, then this brought along humour to lift the first couple of chapters.

Michael Noll

I had the pleasure of moderating a recent panel on writing that included Alexander Chee, and he talked about how coincidence is often frowned upon by writers, and so he wanted to write a book with a lot of it (and did, in The Queen of the Night). Your novel is full of coincidence; I suppose these moments (such as the ease with which Arthur finds the people he’s looking for) might be unrealistic, but they’re also hugely entertaining. How do you approach coincidence in your writing? How do you manage to explain a plot point enough for the reader to buy it but not overexploit it until the reader is suspicious?

Phaedra Patrick

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is Phaedra Patrick's first novel, and it's been called "tender, insightful, and surprising."

The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is Phaedra Patrick’s first novel, and it’s been called “tender, insightful, and surprising.”

I think because the book had to link up eight charms then there had to be a rather strong element of coincidence, or else Arthur would just discover the first charm and then get stuck! It’s also a story rather than a real-life account, so it does invite readers to suspend disbelief a little and get swept along with it. For quite a while I pondered on whether readers would believe there was a phone number engraved on the elephant charm, but then I decided that Arthur had to get his first lead from somewhere, and that this was the story I wanted to tell. I also ensured that Arthur found out about the charms in a variety of ways—word of mouth, letter, photo, a receipt, family, etc., and at one point he even gets stuck in his search. I think this helps to make the coincidences more believable. It is a difficult balance though.

Michael Noll

Near the end of the book, Arthur has a conversation with a woman named Sonny Yardley. I don’t want to give anything away to readers, but Sonny’s response to Arthur’s questions is strikingly different from what he’s encountered before. Did you always know the scene would play out like this? Or did you sense that the novel needed a kind of unexpected hard turn to shake the reader a bit?

Phaedra Patrick

We know that Miriam led a secret life before she and Arthur married, so there had to be a rather big reason she kept this from him during 40 years of marriage. And it was unlikely to be a happy reason! So when Arthur finally speaks to Sonny, the conversation is serious and upsetting, as it needs to be considering the subject. I actually didn’t know what Miriam’s secret was until this part of the book, and I found out at the same time as Arthur. I had to have faith in my writing and plough on with the storyline in the hope that Miriam’s secret would reveal itself to me, and thankfully it did.

May 2016

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

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