Archive | March, 2017

How to Create Suspense in Any Story

21 Mar
John Pipkin's second novel, The Blind Astronomer's Daughter, "captures our own awe and sense of puniness as we look at the skies," according to a New York Times review.

John Pipkin’s second novel, The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter, “captures our own awe and sense of puniness as we look at the skies,” according to a New York Times review.

One of those hoary claims about writing that won’t go away is that genre fiction focuses on plot and literary fiction focuses on character and language. I suppose there are bits of truth in that statement, but all you need to do is read John Pipkin’s new novel The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter to realize that the distinction is mostly nonsense.

The novel is the sort of book that shouldn’t be as easy to read as it is. It’s big and ambitious, rich with metaphor and complex characters, and written in the language of its setting: late eighteenth-century Ireland. It’s a book about science and the ways that our understandings of the latest discoveries shape how we understand the people and world all around us. And, in the midst of all that high-literary business, it manages to leap nimbly from page to page because it uses some of the basic elements of creating suspense.

You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is, as you might expect, about a blind astronomer’s daughter. Pretty much every word of that title is complicated, though, since she’s not exactly his daughter, he’s not exactly blind, and not exactly an astronomer since astronomy in Ireland two hundred years ago wasn’t the academic science we know today. So, there’s plenty of intrigue in the book. But much of the page-to-page suspense comes from the sort of mechanical strategies we’re familiar with in genre fiction. For example, early in the book, there’s a scene in which the daughter, Caroline, has finally convinced her father, Arthur, to take her to his rooftop observatory. The scene begins like this:

He insists that she tie herself to him.

The short length of thick-braided hemp is already knotted at his waist when he holds the fretted end toward her in the cramped attic. She words her refusal in terms he will appreciate.

“While there is comfort in having you anchor my steps, if you were to falter, the fall would carry us both.” She considers adding that a larger object will ever hold a small in its sway, but decides that this would overstate the point.

He warns her that even now, in the light of midday, there are still shadows ready to deceive, and that she must heed the sharp angle of the roof and hold fast to the railing with her strong hand.

“And there will be wind,” he says.

Caroline has imagine this moment often—her first visit to the observatory—but it seems odd that her father has chosen to bring her here during the day when there is nothing to be seen but blue sky and white clouds. As usual he wears the patch over his left eye, and when she asks him if it is a hindrance in getting to the roof, he explains that he has grown accustomed to climbing the stairs half-blind, that he has learned to translate two dimensions into three, that preserving the eye for the telescope is worth incurring some unsteadiness in his step.

In this short passage, Pipkin has made something as basic as going onto the roof of a house into a riveting question of “What will happen?” First, he starts with a statement that demands explanation (“He insists that she tie herself to him.”) We don’t yet know what’s happening in the scene, and so we naturally think, “Huh?” Then, she refuses to do it. As a rule, refusal is good for tension (unless acceptance means going along with something we understand to be dangerous). Pipkin introduces several elements of danger: shadows, the sharp angle of the roof, and wind. He also writes the scene into a moment we don’t expect it. Astronomer’s work at night, but this is the middle of the day. Finally, Pipkin gives Arthur an eyepatch (as a rule, eyepatches=awesome) and uses the patch to further throw everything a bit off-kilter. It’s one thing to navigate a dangerous place, but it’s quite another to do it without the full faculty of your senses. It’s a trick that every magician understands: they’ll escape an underwater box or stand in front of knives, but first they’ll tie this blindfold over their eyes.

Each one of these is a strategy used every day by genre writers. The only difference is that Pipkin is using them on a rooftop observatory rather than, say, an intergalactic war.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s create suspense, using The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter by John Pipkin as a model:

  1. Choose the scene you want to write. It doesn’t really matter what scene you choose. It can be one with obvious plot elements or one without. It should contain a kind of set piece: a particular thing happening in a particular place.
  2. Introduce the scene with an unexpected detail. Don’t “set the scene.” Don’t lay out the basic parameters of place and stakes. Instead, focus on one element that, stripped of its context, strikes the reader as unusual. Pipkin ties his characters together with a rope. You want to avoid cheap thrills, of course, and false innuendos. And you can’t do this in every scene. But it’s a great strategy now and then: state something about the characters or place or situation without context, a statement that demands explanation.
  3. Let a character refuse or or accept the premise of the situation. Refusal works because it leads to disagreement, which leads to tension. Acceptance works if the thing being accepted ought to be refused (jumping off that cliff your parents talked about, walking into Mordor). Again, this will require explanation.
  4. Use the explanation as an opportunity to introduce danger. Every scene should contain elements of danger. If there are none, what’s the point of the scene? In this case, the danger is falling off the roof. But the danger might also be saying the wrong word, doing the wrong thing, doing the right thing but getting the wrong reaction, etc. In your scene, what poses a risk to the characters. Let one of the characters enumerate those risks.
  5. Give the scene an element of the unexpected. Pipkin knows we’ll expect the scene to take place at night, so he sets it during the day. There are other ways to play with the basic elements of the scene: something expected that is subtracted or something unexpected that is added. Or, some element is changed: day for night, bedroom for kitchen, outside for inside, work for church, etc.
  6. Impair or heighten one of your characters’ senses. Pipkin makes Arthur wear an eyepatch. He’s used to it, but it’s clear that is increases the risk in the scene. Superhero and comic book movies do this all the time (special powers). War movies and action movies do this in the negative: the hero is always fighting without his weapon or with some grievous wound. How can you impair or heighten your own character’s senses or abilities?

The goal is use these basic strategies for increasing tension in any scene, no matter if the story is literary or genre.

Good luck.

How to Create a Narrative Arc

14 Mar

Susan Muaddi Darrel’s story, “The Journey Home,” is part of her Grace Paley Award-winning collection A Curious Land.

In my MFA program, I learned the term narrative arc and the idea of the narrative triangle, which says that a character must get from point A to point B through a third point. This makes perfect sense. I didn’t understand it at all. My stories suffered as a result. If you can’t create that third point, then you can’t create suspense, which is, at its most basic, the art of making readers anticipate point B and delaying their arrival there. Without a point B, there’s nothing standing in the way of a quick rush to point B and the end of the story.

This way of thinking about narrative arc applies not just to stories but to scenes as well. A great example of this can be found in Susan Muaddi Darraj’s story “The Journey Home,” which is included in her Grace Paley Prize-winning collection A Curious Land. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Story Works

The story is set in Lebanon in 1916, during World War I’s Sinai and Palestine Campaign and follows a group of families as they walk from village to village, looking for food and trying to stay ahead of the armies and the war. It’s also a love story, but for now, we’ll focus on a section of the story that centers on a village where the group decides to set up camp. The village is seemingly abandoned:

“Nothing moved—no sound emerged, as if a jinn had cast a spell and turned the people into stones. They’d come across places like this before, but here she felt frightened, as though someone may jump out from behind a door or a tree and snatch her away.”

Clearly, the stage is set for something bad to happen or for us and the characters to discover something awful. That’s point B. We know where we’re going. Darraj does a really great job of building our anticipation for that destination:

“As she filled the jar with water, she glanced up suspiciously at one house, the one directly opposite the well. Who had lived there? Its small windows looked like seashells, built by alternating dark and pale stones. The door was slightly ajar, and she knew it could swing open easily if she wanted to go inside. That made her feel worse—had the people walked out alive from their own front door, she reasoned, they would surely have bolted it behind them. People who had solid walls, who owned doors, would lock them. Their well was full, the water cold and crisp. She cupped her hand into her jar and sipped it, then used the last few drops to freshen her face.”

Now, we have a much clearer sense of point B: eventually we’re going to walk into one of the houses, through one of those doors left slightly ajar. But what will delay our entry?

The easy answer would be some obstacle or impediment, something that makes entering the houses difficult or undesired. But Darraj smartly does something else. An obstacle could feel contrived. So instead she introduces a diversion, something new to attract our attention away from those doors:

“Only when she looked up, using her scarf to wipe her eyes, only then did she finally see it, where it lay on the other side fo the well. It looked like a sack, and at first her hunger made her imagine that it was a hastily abandoned sack of rice or grain. But then, there is was—a dirty foot jutting out from under one side, and she recoiled, screaming for help.”

The main character, a young woman, thinks the body is dead, but then her father says, “No, he’s breathing.”

Darraj has introduced something concrete to attract our attention. It doesn’t feel like a diversion because it’s a legitimate thing to deal with (as dead or almost-dead bodies always are) and because the characters have such intense reactions to it. The story will eventually take us into one of those doors (and it will be unexpectedly awful), but the horror of it will be compounded by the fact that we’ve been paying attention to something else and have, for a moment, forgotten about the doors.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a narrative arc, using “The Journey Home” by Susan Muaddi Darraj as a model:

  1. Give your characters an inevitability to face. This works on a story or novel level as well as the level of a scene or chapter. Inevitably, Darraj’s characters will figure out where everyone in the village has gone. The word inevitable is key. Don’t try to surprise the readers yet. Let them know where the story is going. You can’t have a narrative arc if no one knows what’s going on or what to expect. In any given scene, ask yourself, “What will my readers anticipate is going to happen? Where do they think this is going?” Set up the scene so that it plays to those expectations.
  2. Make the inevitability specific. Darraj shows us the slightly ajar doors and writes that beautiful passage about what it means that the doors have been left that way. As readers, we know exactly where this part of the story is going: through one of those doors. How can you make your story or scene’s inevitability specific and concrete? How can you show the readers, “This is the place where the inevitable thing will happen?”
  3. Introduce the new thing. Children intuitively understand how this works. In their stories, ninjas storm a school and then they’re attacked by a dragon in a chicken suit. The problem with these stories, as anyone who’s ever taught creative writing to little kids, is that the new things are almost always random. The body in Darraj’s story is not random. We haven’t seen it yet, but we’ve understood that its presence was a distinct possibility. The characters are walking around in a war zone. They’ve entered an empty village. A body is part of the framework created by the setting and situation. What’s surprising is that the body isn’t actually dead. Now we’re paying attention. So, how can you introduce something that is an expected part of the framework of your setting and situation—and then tweak it so that it’s not quite what is expected?

The goal is to build anticipation (what will happen when the inevitable happens) and then introduce an expected element with an unexpected twist, drawing the readers’ attention away from what is inevitable to what is immediately curious and interesting.

Good luck.

An Interview with Alexandra Burt

9 Mar

Alexandra Burt is the author of the bestselling Remember Mia. Her new novel is The Good Daughter.

Alexandra Burt is the author of the novels Remember Mia and The Good Daughter. She was born in Fulda, Germany, a baroque town in the East Hesse Highlands. Days after her college graduation she boarded a flight to the U.S. She ended up in Texas, married, and explored a career in the student loan industry. After the birth of her daughter she became a freelance translator, determined to acknowledge the voice in the back of her head prompting her to break into literary translations.  The union never panned out and she decided to tell her own stories. She currently lives in Central Texas with her husband, her daughter, and two Chocolate Labrador Retrievers.  One day she wants to live on a farm and offer old arthritic dogs a comfy couch to live out their lives. She wouldn’t mind a few rescue goats, chickens, and cats. The more the merrier. She is a member of Sisters In Crime, a nationwide network of women crime writers.

To read an excerpt from Burt’s new novel The Good Daughter and an exercise on moving between exterior action and interiority, click here.

In this interview, Burt discusses prologues, shifting between time periods in a novel, and the lure and importance of setting.

Michael Noll

I really admire the prologue of The Good Daughter, which does the work that so many prologues do: setting up situation, creating suspense. But it also spends time in Dahlia’s head, building her as a character, which can be difficult to do when you’re focused on hooking readers with story. How did you approach this prologue? Was it written early or late in the process?

Alexandra Burt

Prologues shouldn’t be too elusive, after all we don’t care about the characters, haven’t even met them yet. You can reveal character and move the plot along at the same time, like an opening scene in a movie. In The Good Daughter I wanted to create suspense and arouse curiosity regarding plot as well as characters.

The prologue was written early on as a vignette, it was the moment two characters meet; Dahlia as a child doing what she spent the better part of her life doing, going from place to place without really belonging, wondering what’s in store in the next state, the next city. It is a crossroads of sorts for the main character, a metaphor for her life and the beginning of putting down roots in Aurora, Texas. She has an encyclopedia in her lap and if she can’t figure where she’s going, she can at least look up the meanings of words she encounters along her journey. So in a way she does what she’s going to do for the entire novel: figuring out the meaning of her memories, her mother’s stories. The prologue is also chockfull of symbols: the first few pages of the encyclopedia are missing, the number seven (the seeker of truth), Red Vines turning her lips crimson. I play with symbolism a lot, sometimes on purpose, sometimes it’s just the way my scrabble ends up on the page. It is also very concrete in being a scene at a diner, a suspicious meeting by the side of the road. A prologue can do many things, like the opening scene of a movie.

Michael Noll

The novel moves back and forth between Dahlia’s present and past. Moves like this can be a risk in that readers become so engaged in one story line and moment that the shift in time feels like an interruption. That isn’t the case here. Did you move back and forth as you wrote, or did you focus on one and then the other before breaking them into pieces?

Alexandra Burt

Alexandra Burt’s novel The Good Daughter tells the story of a woman uncovering secrets from her childhood that some people don’t want her to answer.

I immensely enjoy novels that move back and forth between present and past—The Weight of Water by Anta Shreve comes to mind—but moving back and forth can be a tricky structure, I agree. Advantages of a dual timeline are a deeper plot and theme and greater character development. Disadvantages are that readers lose interest or get confused and frustrated. One can lose a reader at the drop of a dime unless both storylines are equally captivating.

The characters in The Good Daughter fed off each other and I jumped back and forth as I wrote. I had a plot in mind but I allowed the present and past to feed off each other. There was a tangible connection that I explored as I went along—the past had never died, its symbol the farmhouse that stood untouched for decades. I had to pay close attention to the transitions and really connect the two plots toward the end of the story. In general, there should be a strong relationship between the two plots, geographically, symbolically, or otherwise, and both stories must be strong in their own right.

Michael Noll

The novel is a mystery, but it’s also in many ways a quiet novel about a particular place. I’m curious which of these elements—the mystery or the sense of place—first drew you to these characters and story?

Alexandra Burt

It began as a mystery in a Texas setting: a body in the woods, an olfactory disorder, and a possible serial killer. The original title was Scent of a Crime. At some point I realized that I wanted to add another layer to the novel; I may have constructed a plot-driven mystery but something was amiss. I wanted the setting to be a character in itself and in many ways the story required a kind of Texas that was deeper than tacos and football and rodeos—forgive me for stereotyping—a Texas that could seep into the reader’s pores. I imagined a small town forgotten by time but also a place where secrets don’t die, where buildings sit untouched for decades, where the ghosts of the past remain. Once Aurora came alive, the story changed from plot-driven to a more character-driven novel. There is history wherever you go all over this country, some well-known and documented, but there need not be a historical marker or tourist attraction in order to tell a story about the place and the people. Aurora, though fictional, was such a place; once I imagined it, there was no going back and it took on a life of its own.

Michael Noll

You’re a member of Sisters in Crime, the national network of women crime writers–and I know there’s an active group here in Austin. A lot of writers are familiar with MFA programs and don’t necessarily know about groups like Sisters in Crime. What role has the group played in your development as a writer?

Alexandra Burt

I live about an hour north of Austin and I can’t participate in meetings as much as I want to, unfortunately. As a writer—and writing is a solitary profession—we need to belong and network and support each other. There still is a gender bias when it comes to women writing crime, even though women seem to dominate the headlines ever since Gone Girl hit he shelves. But the numbers speak to a deeper truth: only one third of published authors across all genres are women and therefore, by default, books written by men will be disproportionately reviewed more in the media and consequently men win more awards than women. It is important for women to support each other.

There are local chapters all over the country, even a special chapter, The GUPPIES, with beginning writers who share publishing information and offer critique groups. The organization has been around since 1986 and has been thriving ever since. We are here to stay.

“You write alone, but you are not alone with Sisters,” as they say.

March 2017

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

How to Add Interiority in the Midst of Suspense

7 Mar

Alexandra Burt’s novel The Good Daughter tells the story of a woman uncovering secrets from her childhood that some people don’t want her to answer.

The death note for any work of fiction is just that—a single note. When a novel or story is doing just one thing at a time, readers will get bored and walk away. Good fiction, then, juggles multiple elements at once. There are large-scale ways of doing this (multiple points of view, multiple timeframes), but it’s also possible to juggle elements on a sentence and paragraph level. Even when writers are moving between the big building blocks of POV and time, they’re also doing the same thing in small ways because those small shifts are what keep a reader engaged. After all, readers read pages and chapters one sentence at a time, and so writers must hold their attention on that level.

A good example of juggling elements on this small-scale be found in Alexandra Burt’s new novel The Good Daughter. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is a thriller with a slow-burning fuse, driven as much by mood and eeriness as some of the flashier mystery writing tools. The prologue makes this clear. Instead of, say, a murder, it shows us actions that we seem urgent and weird but that we don’t entirely understand: an unexplained and hurried trip, an encounter with the police that ends in a robbery (and not the other way around), a robbery that doesn’t quite make sense, and identities that are tossed aside and replaced with ease. All of this happens in four pages. But the multiple elements aren’t the things that happen. They’re laid out in chronological order, one thing after the other. Instead, the multiple elements are what is happening and what the main character is thinking: exterior action and interior thought.

Here is an example of how Burt shifts between the two. All we know is that a girl and her mom are driving across the country. Here’s the girl:

She opened a bag of Red Vines, sucked on them and then gently rubbed them over her lips until they turned crimson.

Running her fingers across the cracked spine of her encyclopedia—the first pages were missing and she’d never know what words came before accordion; a box-shaped bellows-driven musical instrument, colloquially referred to as a squeezebox—she concentrated on the sound of the pages rustling like old parchment as she flipped through the tattered book.

Her mother called her Pet. The girl didn’t like the name, especially when her mother introduced her. This is pet, she’d say with a smile. She’s very shy. Then her mother moved on quickly, as if she had told too much already.

Pet, the encyclopedia said, a domestic or tamed animal kept for companionship. Treated with care and affection.

The girl opened the encyclopedia to a random page. She remembered when it was new, how the pages and the spine had not yielded as readily, and she wondered if the pages would eventually shed. She attempted to focus on a word but the movement of the car made her nauseous. Eventually she just left the book cracked open in her lap.

“My feet are cold. Can I get a pair of socks from the trunk?” she asked somewhere after the New Mexico/Texas border.

The passage begins with action (“She opened a bag of red vines”) and continues with more action (“Running her fingers across the cracked spine of her encyclopedia”) but then shifts into the character’s head and what she notices about the encyclopedia (“the first pages were missing and she’d never know what words came before accordion” and “the sound of the pages rustling”).

Then, it moves into background information (“Her mother called her Pet”) that turns into the character’s feelings about the name (“The girl didn’t like the name”) and a memory of her mother saying it.

Next, the passage returns to the encyclopedia’s definition of Pet.

The next paragraph starts with more action (“The girl opened the encyclopedia to a random page”) and moves again into memory (“She remembered when it was new”).

Finally she puts the book down and speaks—back to action.

Of course, one might argue that there isn’t much action in this passage, and it’s true. The action consists of reading a book. But it’s just a small passage situated in a prologue about a mysterious cross-country drive and some inexplicable things that happen along the way. Without this moment of interiority, the novel might have a couple of problems. First, the drive would happen too fast, in two pages instead of four. Second, readers might not care what happens because the characters would be simply pieces moved around by the author. Third, readers might not have a sense of the world and how it feels. Sense (or mood) is often, though not always, built with interiority.

So, to create mood, pacing, character, and a sense of the world, Burt must move back and forth between intriguing action and interiority.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s move back and forth between exterior action and interiority, using The Good Daughter by Alexandra Burt as a model:

  1. Know what is happening—generallyThink in terms of the larger unit (prologue, chapter, section). What is the overall arc? If someone asked your reader, what happened in that part, what would they say? In Burt’s case, the characters seem to be on the run from something. They’re driving. That’s the general happening of the prologue. What is the general happening in the part of your story/book that you’re focusing on?
  2. Zoom in on a smaller piece of action. Within the larger arc, what is happening on the smaller scale. Try phrasing it this way: While they were ____, So-and-so _____. What action fills the second blank? In Burt’s case, it’s the character eating Red Vines and reading the encyclopedia. Notice that she gives her character two things to do. The first action serves as a kind of transition to the second action, taking some of the weight off of it so readers don’t initially read too much into it.
  3. Give the character something to notice while doing this small action. Burt’s character notices something about the page of the book? What does your character notice?
  4. Add information. At a certain point, Burt needs to tell us the character’s name. It’s one of those pieces of information that must be included early in a story/book. Burt chooses one that seems particularly important to the story and drops it in, seemingly out of the blue, but then lets the character react to the information, remember something about the information, and then act based on that information (she looks up Pet in the encyclopedia). So, don’t just add the information. Let it lead back into interiority and then back out again into action.
  5. Zoom back out. Burt moves us out of the character’s head and into less specific action (“The girl opened the encyclopedia to a random page”). Finally she sets the book aside and speaks, and then we’re back into the general action of the drive again.

The goal is adjust narrative pace by creating layers of action and the opportunity to portray a character’s interior state (and also to drop in some basic, unavoidable information).

Good luck.

An Interview with Siân Griffiths

2 Mar
Sian Griffiths

Siân Griffiths directs the creative writing program at Weber State University. Her story, “The Key Bearer’s Parents” was published at American Short Fiction.

Siân Griffiths directs the Creative Writing Program at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. She holds a BA from the University of Idaho and an MA and PhD from the University of Georgia, where she specialized in fiction writing. Her work has appeared in The Georgia ReviewAmerican Short FictionRedividerFifth Wednesday JournalQuarterly West, Ninth Letter, and Baltimore Review, among many other publications. Her poem “Fistful,” first published in Ninth Letter, was included in the 3rd edition of Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing. Her debut novel, Borrowed Horses, a semi-finalist for the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, was inspired, in part, by her work with the U.S. Equestrian Team in 1999-2000. Currently, she reads fiction as part of the editorial team at Barrelhouse and is at work on her second novel.

To read an exercise on grounding a story’s hook, inspired by Griffiths’ story “The Key Bearer’s Parents,” click here.

In this interview, Griffiths discusses her favorite advice about structuring flash fiction, using tense shifts, and the different creative impulses that drive poetry and fiction.

Michael Noll

One of my favorite pieces of writing advice is from Ron Carlson, who says that a story has two parts: the story and the world the story enters. I was struck in “The Key Bearer’s Parents” how clearly you lay out both. The first paragraph introduces the characters (clown parents, resentful son) and then next paragraph shifts gears pretty dramatically, introducing the possibility of nuclear war and the “key bearer plan.” The juxtaposition is unexpected and exciting. Was the story always laid out this way? Or did you have to discover this structure?

Siân Griffiths

It was definitely one I discovered as I drafted. I knew where the story was going before I started writing, which is actually fairly rare for me, but in my first draft, the key bearer plan came in much later, closer to when the son volunteers to fill the position. I’m lucky to have a husband who’s an amazing reader, and he asked if I had considered introducing that element earlier in. As soon as he asked, I knew that was exactly what the story needed, and I realized that Congress would have been debating this for some time, and so the story of the bill’s creation became a story running on a not quite parallel line to the son’s. Each plot line culminates at the moment they intersect.

Michael Noll

I recently heard someone say that flash fiction takes places within a scene, but not this story. It covers decades. Did it start out longer? Did you ever try out different chronological frames?

Siân Griffiths

My favorite advice about structuring flash fiction is something that the writer Pam Houston said, which was that in flash, the conflict doesn’t need to resolve, but the key image must resolve. I think that may be true of this story, though it’s less obviously true for me here than in other flash I’ve written. For this one, I had the ideas that I wanted to put in this story for some months before I figure out how I could weave them together. It was the voice that got me. As soon as I had “We were good parents,” I had all the pieces I needed and wrote it quite quickly (that is, if we’re defining writing as the actual putting into words and not the lengthier conceptualizing part.) I think because it takes that voice–that of parents telling their story–it’s able to jump through years quite quickly. It acts like the kind of story we tell our friends at a party or a bar–or, maybe in this case, sobbing over a coffee. It takes on that kind of relationship to time, where hindsight allows us to see the relevant events that led to the current moment.

Michael Noll

I also love the tense shifts. For example, near the end, the story shifts from past to present tense: “Our son was already filling out the online application. And now that he’s been selected…” This is the sort of thing that writing workshops tend to chew up, but it seems to give you great flexibility in moving through time in the story. Was it difficult to get these tense changes right?

Siân Griffiths

Oh, that’s well spotted! Honestly, I think that move came instinctively, arising out of that voice and the moment of the narration. I wanted to capture the voice of these parents right in the moment where they’re dealing with this new reality, the moment of fear and not knowing what will happen next. For me, that’s the moment of honest emotion. If it’s further ahead in time, when they know whether the son will be safe or not, then I think it would lose its heat.

Michael Noll

You’re a poet in addition to a fiction writer, a not unheard-of combination but also not very common. Are the impulses to write a poem and story similar? Do you sit down to write and discover, as you write, what form the piece will take? Or are the two forms separate in your mind: poetry on Tuesday and fiction on Wednesday, so to speak?

Siân Griffiths

Yes—I’ve never been any good at sticking to a single genre, which was always a bit of an issue in both undergraduate and graduate school, where I was asked to specialize. I tend to write prose most often—essay/memoir or fiction—but poetry has definitely always been an interest and I’ve just drafted my first screenplay, which was a whole new challenge. I feel like each genre offers its own possibilities and limitations. For instance, a poem doesn’t necessarily have the same push for closure as a story, so if I start with an image or bit of language and just want to kind of languish there with it a while, then I tend to write a poem. If I want to explore a character or a situation, then I write a story. If I want to talk about a real life incident I can’t stop thinking about, then I write an essay. Everything starts in my journal as fragments and notes, many of which go nowhere. The once that have heat stay with me and bug me to keep writing about them. Each piece comes with its own impulse, and I tend to know what I’m writing when I start.

“Tend to” is the operative phrase here, though, because I’ve definitely been wrong. For instance, I wrote this poem that I wrote that I really loved, but every time I sent it out, it was rejected. I couldn’t understand it. I was as proud of that poem as I’d been of anything, but I stopped sending it out, deciding I needed to figure out what was wrong. A year or two later, I read a Steve Almond essay suggesting that some failed poems might actually be flash fiction. (For those interested, the essay is called “Getting the Lead Out: How Writing Really Bad Poetry Yields Really Better Short Stories” and it’s in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction.) I pulled out my line breaks, revised a bit, sent it out again, and sure enough, it was quickly picked up by a great journal. And so I learned that sometimes I need to loosen the reins, and that as much as I think I know what I’m writing, I always have to be ready to be wrong and let the piece become something else.

March 2017

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

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