Archive | September, 2017

An Interview with Erika T. Wurth

28 Sep

Erika T. Wurth is the author of four books, most recently the story collection Buckskin Cocaine.

Erika T. Wurth’s published works include a novel, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend, two collections of poetry, Indian Trains and One Thousand Horses Out to Sea and a collection of short stories, Buckskin Cocaine. A writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, she teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and has been a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Boulevard, Drunken Boat, The Writer’s Chronicle, Waxwing and South Dakota Review. She is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and was raised outside of Denver.

To read the story “Mark Wishewas” from Buckskin Cocaine and an exercise on helping readers connect with characters, click here.

In this interview, Wurth discusses narrative arcs in collections of interlinked stories, effective climaxes, and the shape of stories.

Michael Noll

This is a collection of linked stories, and often when I read linked collections, there’s a kind of novelistic sensibility, a sense of growing bigger and broader. But in this collection, I found myself feeling the opposite, almost claustrophobic. This seemed intentional. The characters often seem to feel this way, too, repeatedly referencing the same places and institutions and people with an increasingly intense mixture of frustration and love. How did you think about narrative arc between stories? Was there a particular journey you wanted to take readers on?

Erika T. Wurth

Although I have become increasingly interested in interlinked stories, I feel like there should be a reason why something is a collection of short stories and not a novel. I think that that’s the fault of what agents and big presses think the public wants, which they always think the public wants a novel. That said, I’m really super bored by collections that are ubiquitous in terms of characterization, where the only commonality is in terms of theme and tone (and man, those collections sound the same to me). I ultimately wanted the stories in Buckskin to stand alone –  but still work very well together. All of the personalities are dark –  though sympathetic to a degree, and the journey I wanted people to go on was starting with the darkest personality and the least sympathetic and ending with the most sympathetic (with the novella), resulting in a cumulative feeling of what it is like from the inside in the native film world (though the analogies to the writing world are there). The native film world is so brutal and it’s not talked about. I thought it would be interesting for non-natives to see a dark and sometimes satiric – but more natural version of native life. And for natives to look at that darkness and have something to process it with.

Michael Noll

In several of these stories, the narrators quickly establish traits that make them fairly difficult to be around. Mark Wishewas, for instance, says things like this about his girlfriend: “And I know I keep having sex with her, but it’s just because I’m so used to her by now.” But the reader’s relationship (at least mine) to the characters changes as the stories go along. The characters don’t necessarily change, but we/I find ourselves feeling more warmly toward them. This seems like a different way of thinking about plot and conflict, making it as much about the reader’s relationship to the work as it is about the character’s growth or transformation. Is this something you were aiming for?

Erika T. Wurth

I personally think an effective climax is not one that comes from above. Too many people mistake action for drama, and they have a story that has a series of actions that leads to a revelation that doesn’t seem earned. Personally, I think the most interesting fiction is driven by character. If it’s driven by character, then the decisions they make will be organic and there will eventually be an internal climax, which to me is authentic – and one where the main character has changed. And the main characters in this collection often change by just knowing that they can’t, like in Mark Wishewas. He tells himself that he knows his career is set but he’s smart enough to know that it isn’t – and that he’s fooling himself, and that he will continue to do so.

Michael Noll

The stories in this collection use a lot of different forms. Some are pretty straightforward, but others use repetition, as in the paragraph/stand-alone sentence form of “Gary Hollywood.” Others use a space breaks frequently, and some don’t. At what point in a draft do you begin to sense what shape a story will take?

Erika T. Wurth

I guess I decide on the form in a kind of organic way once I’ve felt the character really rise up. It’s not like I start writing something and then it becomes something, though I’m very led by voice and I don’t like plotting something out deeply beforehand. Ultimately, with this collection I knew that since I hadn’t written a poem in a long time, that part of me was probably gone and so I thought what I’d like to do is take some poetic technique like repetition and the vignette and see what I could do with it in prose. A lot of that was born out of thinking about how people talk about traditional versus experimental/postmodern and how sometimes people use those terms without any concrete definitions – and they seem to use them in order to beat each other up, and I find that really uninteresting. I’ve always thought that form should mirror the content. For example, the first story is written from the POV of somebody who is truly shattered and so that’s why it’s in a series of vignettes, many of them standing for different parts of himself that have nearly split themselves off from the other parts and are holding those other parts hostage.

Michael Noll

Almost all of these stories begin with direct references to Indians or Natives, the narrators placing themselves within that identity. In an interview in The Rumpus, you talked about publishing and said, “It stinks that we have to go outside of our community to be published. But even the Native presses like University of Arizona, University of New Mexico—those are the ones that are left—they kind of repeat the same narrative. Very few Natives are in charge of that.” Were you intentionally pushing against that usual narrative with these stories—or did the characters you created just naturally start pushing against it?

Erika T. Wurth

The characters are native because that’s my world. I think that most people reflect in an imaginative and poetic way, the world that they come from and the world that they’re in. 80% of what I write is still completely made up. What kills me is when white people write racist and two-dimensional characters that’s seen as a really admirable artistic stretch, when most of us do best by writing again, imaginatively and poetically around what we know, even if it’s not autobiographical at all. And I do think that I’ve done some thinking, a lot of thinking over the years about not being a writer who talks overtly about issues and racism, even though obviously those things are in there. I want to write about my world and I feel like I have the same right to do that, that white folks do. Why should my job constantly be educating white people when white people are not sitting around with that same job. I want to write about my tribe in the same way Salinger did about his. Or Richard Wright about his. I want my work to be, and I’m using these words a lot but, an organic and imaginative expression of what I’m interested in and the world that I know. So I think that it seems resistant only because so many native writers are celebrated for centering whiteness by either doing a version of Indian that’s very palatable (defined by their sadness because of whatever experiences they have with racism) or by constantly talking about racism in an overt way, which just centers white people again—it doesn’t allow me the artistic space to write what I want to write about.

September 2017

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

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How to Help Readers Intimately Connect with Characters

26 Sep

Buckskin Cocaine, the new story collection by Erika T. Wurth, tells the complex, gritty stories of eight characters working in the Native American film industry.

When I teach characterization, I often tell people to begin with statements like, “She’s the kind of person who…” as a way to move beyond basic description to attitude, routine, and potential action. But, of course, it’s still a strategy that tends toward generalization, and the characters that stick with us as readers don’t feel generic. They feel fully realized and complex, and, as we read about them, we forget that we’re reading.

That’s the Holy Grail for writers—to create characters who no longer feel created. The difficulty is that they are created and that the creation often starts with generalizations. So how can writers move beyond them? How can characters begin to take on a life of their own?

Erika T. Wurth’s new collection, Buckskin Cocaine, is full of characters that do this. You can find one of them in the story “Mark Wishewas,” first published as “Mason Snap” at Literary Orphans, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

Each of the stories in the collection focuses on a different character who is involved in some way in the Native American film industry. The voice of each character is vastly different from the others, but they do share one commonality in that they tend to begin with a trait or statement that makes them immediately recognizable to the reader. For example, the story “Lucy Bigboca” features a narrator who uses LOL, LMAO, sooooooo, and WHATEV. It’s a voice we recognize as a kind of type. Sometimes the characters also see others as types. In the story “Robert Two Stories,” the narrator starts off talking about Oklahoma and how “the homeless there, the Natives, they were so real.” He’s casting them into types. The story “Mark Wishewas” does something similar in its opening paragraph:

I know I’m smart. And a great filmmaker. Just because I haven’t filmed anything doesn’t mean anything. I know what I’d film would be ten, no one-hundred times better than what those other Indians have done. They don’t even deserve all the attention they’ve gotten. I mean, I’m going to be working with George Bull, and though he acts like he can barely stand me, I know he thinks I’m a genius.

Right away, our unreliable narrator alarm goes off. The narrator is not as great a filmmaker as he thinks he is, and pretty soon we see the disdain that George Bull has for him. It’s a characterization that will feel familiar to anyone who has read Catcher in the Rye or watched the show Eastbound & Down. We have a good idea for where this story is going: the character’s sense of his own worth will run into some immovable object and be thwarted in its quest for greatness. Wurth is terrific at creating voice, and she does a ruthlessly effective job of setting this guy up to fail. But that’s not why I think this character and the others in the collection are great.

Instead, it’s the small details that Wurth introduces that makes these characters feel intimately human. We fall into the character and momentarily forget the direction we’re pretty sure the story will take. In “Mark Wishewas,” for me, that moment comes when the narrator, Mark, encounters George Bull at a bar and buys him and another man shots:

I stand at the long, wooden bar fuming, trying not to face punch the drunk white guy next to me who keeps elbowing my ribs when. the bartender finally pays attention to me. I get myself a beer and order shots of Patrón cause that’s the only thing George will drink. He thinks he’s some kind of Navajo G I guess. I walk back over to them, my heart pounding in my chest the whole way, and hand them their tequila.

The detail that gets me isn’t that he gives serious thought to the best drink to buy but that his heart is pounding in his chest as he carries the shots back to them. So much of this story is built on big talk and humiliation, and both are present in this moment, literally and potentially, but what I love is the brief moment of vulnerability. The narrator is a big talker, and we have a good idea what’s going to happen to him, but for a moment, we see that he’s nervous, and it’s endearing. This is what a great characterization can do: make the premise of a story intimately human.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s build a character with a small, intimate detail, using “Mark Wishewas” by Erika T. Wurth as a model:

  1. Set up the character’s attitude. Try finishing the sentence, “He/she is the kind of person who…” In this case, Mark Wishewas is the kind of person who has an inflated sense of his own self, an attitude that is perhaps a defense mechanism. He anticipates rejection, and so he both builds himself up and tears others down. What does your character anticipate? What attitude does the character bring to that anticipated moment?
  2. Give the character a clear desire. Mark Wishewas wants to make a film and wants to be recognized for it the same as others have been. He wants this so bad that it’s the most prominent thought in his head. What does your character want more than anything else?
  3. The desired object is put within reach. The story is set in a bar where Mark can approach the man who might satisfy his desire. What sort of place offers that potential to your character?
  4. Show the reader how that moment really feels. For most of the story, we’re getting the story that Mark tells himself and the broader audience of the people he imagines want to hear his story. When he carries the shots to the filmmakers, though, that story and his rehearsed way of telling it (“face punch the drunk white guy next to me,” “the bartender finally pays attention to me”) gets dropped and we see into the narrator with his facade removed. We see his heart pounding because he’s nervous. So, think about how your character feels when faced with the opportunity to get whatever is desired—not how the character says he/she feels but some detail that slips out, unfiltered and unvarnished. That is the detail that can fully humanize your character.

The goal is to make readers buy in to your characters by unexpectedly revealing something intimate about them. It can be a small detail, glimpsed briefly, but the results can be huge.

Good luck.

An Interview with Joe Jiménez

21 Sep

Joe Jiménez is the author of the books The Possibilities of Mud and Bloodline and, most recently, the essay, “Cotton.”

Joe Jiménez is the author of The Possibilities of Mud (Korima 2014) and Bloodline (Arte Público 2016) and is the recipient of the 2016 Letras Latinas/ Red Hen Press Poetry Prize.  Jimenez’s essays and poems have recently appeared in Iron Horse, RHINO, Gulf Steam, Waxwing, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and on the PBS NewsHour and Lambda Literary sites.  Jimenez was recently awarded a Lucas Artists Literary Artists Fellowship from 2017-2020. He lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is a member of the Macondo Writing Workshops.  For more information, visit joejimenez.net.

To read an exercise on using misdirection and indirectness, inspired by Jiménez’s essay “Cotton,” click here.

Michael Noll

This essay moves back and forth between first and third person, between “I” and “The man.” I once sat in on a talk with the war correspondent Scott Anderson, and he said that no matter the country he was in or the language the people spoke, as soon as someone switched into second person (you’re walking down the road and…), he knew he was about to hear something bad. The POV shift was a distancing device. Is the shift in this essay is something similar? What was the experience of seeing yourself as an almost fictional character?

Joe Jiménez

Anderson shares an interesting view of the You as a conduit to sharing something “bad.”  I wrote an entire novel in the second-person, Bloodline, a YA retelling of Hamlet, and I agree with Anderson that POV is so much about moving a speaker or narrator closer to or farther away from a reader. In Bloodline, I played with the You as a direct address, an embrace, a reaching out to hold another’s hand.  I’m thinking right now that I really was distancing myself, the writer, from “the man” in the essay “Cotton”—I am not entirely ashamed of that person I was all those years ago, and yet, I’d be lying if I said I don’t cringe every now and again when I consider how I was, not the who, necessarily, but the how of me.  Telling the story of the man, then, for me, in this essay, was all about telling a story of who I used to be, but there’s also a musicality to how “the man” sounds, which I love, and which drives me, perhaps more so than any logical reasoning or thought process that extends beyond the fact that I really just liked how it felt to write about “the man,” how it sounded when I read those lines aloud, or when I put the words inside me and let them do what they did in my mouth and my ears.

Michael Noll

The essay seems to be built upon the story, the one it ends on, the man leaving his old life to start a new one. That story leads to other stories, and I can imagine looking at this in a rough draft and wondering how to juggle and connect these different stories. The cotton seems to be the glue that holds them together. Was it always in the essay, or did it show up later as a way to connect these different parts?

Joe Jiménez

Joe Jiménez’s essay, “Cotton,” appears in the most recent issue of The Adroit Journal.

I started with the idea of cotton.  It’s something I jotted down on a papelito, a scrap paper, I kept in a notebook.  I started the essay when I was in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles, and having just read Joan Didion’s essay “Keeping a Notebook,” and while I was trying to do over my life, I collected these papelitos, and later, I laid out a few of them on a table and said, what can I make?  I was staying in my hometown, then, with my mother and brother, when I recalled my visits to the cotton fields, and I remembered growing up, watching my mother looking in the cupboard some nights, which was frequently empty, and looking at what she would cook, which was a treat for us, since she often did not cook, laying out the cans of beans and maybe a can of corn and tomato sauce, a few weenies from the fridge, a potato, and saying, what can I make out of this?  I did the same with my papelitos one day, spreading them out, saying, what can I make out of this?  Rasquache is the word I would use to describe what I made.  Maybe it’s pastiche, maybe it’s lyrical—when I hold it close to me, the word I hear is mestizaje.

Michael Noll

At one point, you write, “My aunts, my grandmother, people I don’t know can sing of how picking cotton can break the back or the spirit or both—how forced labor and low-wage work demolishes a body. These are not my stories. And so, I pause now to know who I am in relation to other people’s grief.” I was really struck by this line, the way you place your own story within a context of place and people. Writers sometimes get asked who they write for–who they imagine their audience to be–and I wonder, if in that moment, if you were asking yourself that same thing. Did you have an imagined audience for this as you wrote it?

Joe Jiménez

Although I didn’t think of audience at that exact moment, I like the idea and perhaps I should ask this of myself more when I write.  What I wrote with that line was fueled by the question of power—I mean, really, how can a brown man in Texas write about cotton without recognizing its legacy?  The story of cotton in the place I am from cannot be divorced from the pain inflicted by people and institutions who have controlled cotton.  The scholar Dr. Larissa Mercado-Lopez from Fresno State University has written about the role of cotton in the area of South Texas she and I are from—we’re from the same hometown, in fact, Gregory, Texas, and have both published books with Arte Publico Press.  So I can’t write entirely unconsciously about cotton.  I think the history matters, to me it does. And I’ve learned from writing fiction to ask, when writing characters who wield power differently than me:  Am I being fair? What does this portrayal ask of the truth?

Michael Noll

There’s a great passage that begins,”If you have never seen a water tower glimmering with sunrise…” It’s one of a couple of moments where you seem to be explaining the context for your story to people who might lack firsthand experience with it. In part, I ask this because I grew up in  the country, outside a small town a ways from any big city, and so I sometimes find myself feeling the need to say to people, “No, look, here’s what it’s like.” I was talking a while back with another South Texas writer, Rene Perez, and he said that writing about South Texas is like writing science fiction; you’ve got to do a lot of worldbuilding. I thought about this when reading this passage. Do you recall at all what your thinking was as you wrote it?

Joe Jiménez

Perez drives a marvelous point.  Worldbuilding is part of what we do.  I also, and perhaps more immediately to this section of the essay, wanted to speak directly to perils of romanticizing small towns.  As a cisgender man, as a brown man who wears boots and old baseball caps and drives a red truck, my body is often read as straight, heteronormative, and so I am, for the most part, given safety in many small towns in South Texas.  This isn’t the case for everyone.  People I know and love, people I don’t know, have had to leave their hometowns for safer places, for opportunity, for people like them, for a chance at real sustainable joy.  I believe there is power in writing about our blindspots, and to see only the wonder of water towers without acknowledging that small towns, while awesome to me, also echo pain for others.  And like many of us, I’ve become especially aware of the divide between big cities and small towns, of urbanity and rurality, during and after last year’s election.  My partner and I visited Huntington, West Virginia last fall, where I talked about race and class and my YA novel at Marshall University, and while I will never fully understand why poor and working class people vote against our own interests, I do understand what it means to be living without things you need, necessities like jobs and food and health care, and for that reason, to put all your hopes in one basket, one basket that may subvert you, but still, it feels like hope when nothing else feels like hope, and what’s life without hope?  Driving the streets of Huntington, so many of the houses, like several on each street, were for sale, entire neighborhoods, it seemed, were being sold. I saw that despair, and having lived despair of my own, I understood some of it.  Coming from a small town, I have also felt defensive when I’ve listened to others disparage small-town America—like you, I often feel the need to say, “No, look, here’s what it’s like” or “But there’s so much more to it” or “More people from big cities should be interacting with people from small towns.”

September 2017

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

How to Use a Light Touch in Heavy Moments

19 Sep

Joe Jiménez’s essay, “Cotton,” appears in the most recent issue of The Adroit Journal.

One of the most difficult things to learn in prose, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, is how much certain passages ought to weigh. There will be moments that feel heavy, and so we write them heavy: longer, more drawn out, with more forceful words and images. These are the sentences, we tell ourselves, that people are going to quote. And yet when we return to those passages in the revision process, they don’t read right. They feel like they’re trying too hard—or not hard enough. We’re often not sure which, only certain that something is not working.

It’s often the case that less is more in prose, and sometimes the most important moments in a story need the lightest touch. A terrific example of this can be found in Joe Jiménez’s essay, “Cotton.” It was published in The Adroit Journal, where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay moves back and forth between passages about the cotton fields that dominated the landscape where Jiménez grew up and personal stories that lead up to, and away from, a moment where he realized that his life needed to change. Obviously, those personal stories will be doing a lot of narrative work, and yet they occupy a surprisingly small amount of space in the essay—because Jiménez exercises a light touch in some devastatingly effective ways. Here’s one example:

A story: I fell in love with a man with one ear. I was 29. We bought a house. We got dogs. We drove to Missouri. We drove to the coast. We lay on the beach, and we ate green peppers and Roma tomatoes, small sour limes, which we grew in red clay pots in the backyard.  When one of the dogs gave birth, one of the pups died, and we wrapped her in a white cotton towel and buried her beneath a papaya tree. Citlali, we named her. Little star. The papaya tree grew—we liked to believe that little star was growing into a strong tree, into those seeds.  But one winter, that papaya tree froze. It never grew back. Every year, including that one, the man told me he wanted to die.

There are a lot of ways this passage could have been written more directly, dealing with the events and the emotions of the relationship head on. But it doesn’t do that. Instead, it states the premise and a noteworthy detail (“I fell in love with a man with one ear”), sums up some noteworthy points on the timeline of the relationship (“I was 29. We bought a house. We got dogs. We drove to Missouri…”), and then focuses on two things: what they ate on the beach and what happened to one of their puppies.

In part, the focus on things that are not the thing itself (the relationship) is a perfect example of what John Gardner was talking about in his famous barn exercise (describe a barn from the point of view of a farmer whose son has just died in a war, but don’t state what he feels or what happened to his son). Jiménez is moving tangentially, getting at the emotionally heart of a scene through an unexpected entry.

But Jiménez is also doing something else: he’s juxtaposing a short, tangential-seeming story with a statement of absolute clarity and directness (“Every year, including that one, the man told me he wanted to die”). It’s a statement that would get our attention regardless of where it is placed in the essay. But it’s particularly breathtaking because it comes at us from outside our line of vision. We’ve been looking at food and puppies. It’s all connected, of course, but we’ve been temporarily distracted. To go back to the theoretical giants, it’s an example of what Kenneth Burke wrote about the scene in Hamlet where Hamlet is waiting on a platform for his father’s ghost; while he waits he and the audience get distracted by his drunken uncle, and so the thing we suspect is coming arrives out of nowhere.

Jiménez manages this in one short paragraph, and that brevity makes the passage even more effective.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s use misdirection and indirectness, using “Cotton” by Joe Jiménez as a model:

  1. State the premise and a noteworthy detail. In general, premises are simple: somebody loves somebody, somebody hates somebody, somebody wants something and can’t quite get it. They’re built on universal experience and emotion. The noteworthy detail is what makes your universal moment less universal. Not everyone has just one ear. It’s a fairly small detail and not the hinge upon which the entire story turns, but it gets our attention so that we’ll read onto the more important details. So, what is your universal premise and what is a detail that can particularize it?
  2. Sum up some noteworthy points on the story’s timeline. In short, write a montage. This happened, this happened, and this. It can move that fast in your passage. Use short sentences. Be direct. You’re setting the stage for the bigger moment.
  3. Focus on one or two details. Jiménez focuses on food and a puppy. The food is not generic. He and his lover grew it themselves, so it had meaning to them. That’s really the best filter to use when figuring out which details to focus on: what has the most meaning to the characters. It’s often small things that they’re most proud of or most moved by in the moment. The puppy is a great detail because it’s personal to the characters but also because there’s a narrative arc attached to it. That arc creates a story within the story. So, what details are meaningful to you or your characters and which details have narratives attached to them? Describe those details and tell their stories as quickly as possible.
  4. Jump back to the premise. Jiménez jumps to “Every year, including that one, the man told me he wanted to die.” That sentence is one of the big reasons he tells this story in the first place. It’s the next part of the premise: I fell in love with a guy, and every year he said… Write a sentence or two that states, as directly as possible, a fact that makes the story significant to your or your characters.

The goal is to juxtapose that direct statement with the less direct details that precede it, and perhaps you can plan that juxtaposition, but it’s more likely that you’ll come at it from a couple of angles before one feels right. Give yourself the space to keep trying until it all clicks into place.

Good luck.

An Interview with William Jensen

7 Sep

William Jensen is the author of the novel Cities of Men, which has been called “deeply moving and complex.”

William Jensen has been a landscaper, a construction worker, a dishwasher, a groundskeeper, and a teacher.  His short fiction has appeared in various literary journals.  He has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes.  Mr. Jensen is currently the editor of Southwestern American Literatureand Texas Books in Review.

To read an exercise about bridging between scenes in a novel, inspired by Jensen’s Cities of Menclick here.

In this interview, Jensen discusses invisible first lines, the inspiration of Richard Stark and Thomas Harris, and pushing characters into situations where they must act in ways that contradict their tendencies.

Michael Noll

There are moments in the novel when you flash forward into the narrator’s present tense–moments when he’s reflecting back on the events of the novel and in the time between its end and when he tells the story. What was your strategy for these? When did you know when to include them?

William Jensen

There really wasn’t any “strategy.” At least not in the first draft. I relied a lot on instinct to know when to have the narrator reflect. I tend to write a lot in the first person, and when I do this I mentally slip on that character’s skin and think about why this person is even telling the story—why these events are important, what he hopes to express to his audience. I tend to think of everything I write as having an invisible first line that goes, “This is what changed everything.” So I keep that in mind. I’m trying to explore how these incidents, this story, changed the course of life for a particular character or characters. After a while you can really hear your characters, and I listened my protagonist’s voice as he guided me along. There are times to zig and times to zag, times to stay in the scene and times to get deep into a character’s thoughts, so during revision I asked myself if I needed more or less reflection to earn an emotional impact. It’s important for me to have my characters move on after I’ve set the pencil down.

Michael Noll

You and I both attended the MFA program at Texas State and took classes with Tom Grimes, who likes to talk about how stories and novels need a ticking clock. Your book introduces that clock at the end of the first chapter, which ends with the words “my mother disappeared.” Did you always know what the clock (and, therefore, the frame) of the novel would be? How long did it take you to figure it out?

William Jensen

William Jensen’s debut novel, Cities of Men, tells the story of a boy whose mother disappears, leaving him to search for her with a father who may not want to find her.

Honestly, it’s hard for me to remember. Novels take years to write, and I tend to get a little lost along the way and go down rabbit holes and come across subplots that work or have to be entirely cut. I think the clock for me was more in the opening line, “I saw my father get into only two fights.” Since the beginning chapter is about the first fight, the rest of the book is a countdown to the second (and final) rumble. I’m not sure how I actually even came up with that now, I think I just heard the line in my head and wrote it down. By the time I had the first chapter drafted, I knew I had a clock and Tom would be proud. I wonder if he’s read it.

Michael Noll

The search for the mother defines the book, but it’s not a police procedural or really any sort of detective novel. It has some moments where clues lead to investigations, but they happen quickly. I wonder what this novel looked like in its early stages, when you figuring out what direction the story would go and which characters it would focus on. Were you ever tempted to lean more heavily on the conventions of the mystery/thriller genre?

William Jensen

No, I was never that interested in those conventions. Obviously, my characters have a clear and distinct conflict, which is a missing person. And this could have become a thriller if the characters were a little different—a bit harder, darker—or if I was just a different type of writer. I did have some scenes in the first draft that were slightly inspired by Richard Stark’s stuff, but these felt out of place and didn’t ring true—however I admit I love writing those types of scenes. I enjoy mysteries and thrillers. I am a big fan of Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris is excellent. There’s a reason why David Foster Wallace used to teach it. I like the Jesse Stone novels by Robert B. Parker a lot. Jim Thompson’s The Grifters is a total masterpiece. Some of those books are incredibly tight. Though I tend to have crime and violence in my fiction, my first and main concern is writing about devastating moments in the lives of ordinary people.

Michael Noll

There are a few big fights in the novel, and what’s interesting is that those scenes keep going even after the fight ends. The focus becomes less on what the fight was about or who won and more about what happens afterward. I suppose that’s really what the entire novel is about. Did you always intend to write those fight scenes in this way, or was it a case of discovering what you had as you were writing it?

William Jensen

I’d have to say it was a combination of both. Like a lot of guys, I got into my share of scrapes as a boy, luckily nothing serious, but regardless of how it ended—in tears or friendship—it was never like the fights I saw on television or the movies. It was always messier, more chaotic…and a lot more sad. Pain hurts. And pain is scary. I knew from the start that the father figure would get into some fights yet he wasn’t a violent guy, and I wanted to explore that. I’ve always been fascinated by the stories where characters are pushed into situations where they’re forced to act in a contradictory way. The more I wrote about the father, the son, the more I was able to meditate on them and their own views of violence, too. So I knew where things were going, I just didn’t know how it would get there. But that’s writing. Buy the ticket. Take the ride.

September 2017

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

How to Bridge Between Scenes in a Novel

5 Sep

William Jensen’s debut novel, Cities of Men, tells the story of a boy whose mother disappears, leaving him to search for her with a father who may not want to find her.

When you move from writing short stories to writing a novel, you quickly realize that the novel’s length means that one or two hard-hitting scenes can’t carry it. More is needed. Each scene must immediately suggest another scene, again and again, until the end. In a way, it’s the opposite of the famous epiphany ending we all learned when reading Joyce’s “Araby”—the concluding sentence to a scene that makes us all grab our hair and sigh. In a novel, a scene must resist epiphany, even if it’s tone and momentum seem to be taking it toward that sort of ending.

A great example of how to create a bridge to the next scene in a novel can be found in William Jensen’s novel Cities of Men. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel’s opening chapter begins, “I saw my father get into only two fights” and then proceeds to tell us about one of them, a fight in a grocery store parking lot. The father and his wife have bought their son, the novel’s narrator, ice cream, and their father is walking back to the car when he hears an argument between a man and woman in another car. He steps in, and a fight ensues. The scene is well written and clearly memorably for the narrator, who observes not just the fight but the ways it could have played out but did not—and also his mother’s reaction and the weather. He’s beginning to place himself in the universe, the sort of coming-of-age moment that naturally builds to an Araby-like concluding line: “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” But that’s not what Jensen does because Cities of Men is a novel, not a short story.

Instead, the scene ends like this:

I ran to my room. Seeing Dad cry scared me more than the night’s violence. But I couldn’t tell you why. I pulled the sheets up to my collar. I dug my face into my pillow, closed my eyes, and tried not to think.

I saw Dad fight only one other time. And that wouldn’t happen until four years later, shortly after my mother disappeared.

The ending line echoes the first line of the novel, which is no coincidence. I don’t know which one was written first, and it doesn’t matter. At some point, Jensen knew that there would be a second fight and that the mother, who is so present in this opening scene, would leave, and so the scene is written to introduce both of those elements. Naturally, we want to know more. It’s the last two sentences that do the important work, veering away from epiphany to what-happens-next.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a bridge between scenes in a novel, using Cities of Men by William Jensen as a model:

  1.  Write the scene you want to write. It’s the thing that likely drew you to this story, and so don’t give it short shrift. Jensen’s opening chapter, minus the first and last lines, could be a quick short story, almost flash fiction. It has its own narrative arc and emotional impact—which is good. If you have a scene like this in mind, one that you’ve been writing in your head for years or one that you’ve written and don’t know what to do with, let it be itself. Don’t run away from the story you want to tell.
  2. Take away or add something. Play a simple what-if exercise with your scene. What if something essential to the scene was taken away? Or, what if something new and burdensome was added? You’re not subtracting or adding to the scene itself but to what comes next. Jensen takes the mother away at the end, after the scene has wrapped up. It’s a simple move that provides the foundation for the entire novel: establish the emotional relationships in the novel and then mess them up. What can you subtract from or add to your scene in the scene that follows?
  3. Be explicit about the addition or subtraction. I may have said this so many times that I’m beating a dead horse, but there’s nothing wrong with coming out and being direct with your readers—especially if being direct forces you to be direct with yourself about your characters’ motivations. Jensen could not be any more explicit unless he wrote, “Then my mother disappeared.” Actually, that’s basically what he writes, only more artfully. And it’s great. Save your nuance and subtlety for the moments in between big, plot-changing sentences. Make those sentences hard-hitting. Tell the reader what you’ve added or subtracted.

The goal is to turn any scene in a novel into a bridge to the next scene.

Good luck.

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