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Six Strategies for Writing One Great Sentence

9 Nov

Belly Up, the debut story collection from Rita Bullwinkel, was called “creepy, deadpan” and “emotionally powerful” by the New York Times.

It’s week two of National Novel Writing Month, and maybe you’re plugging along, doing great. Or maybe you’re still waiting for that “one true sentence,” as Hemingway said, that will carry you into the story.

The recent story collection, Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel is chock full of first sentences that are so captivating, yet nonchalant, that you can’t help but want to keep reading. They’re also full of strategies that any writer can borrow in their own work.

How the Sentences Work

There are too many great first sentences in the book to pick just one. So I want to show you several, to demonstrate what is possible with the opening line of a story. Here is the first sentence from “Burn”:

“People kept dying and I was made to sleep in their beds.”

One of the things that Bullwinkel has in spades is a wry, understated tone. That’s a strategy that works best when there is something to understate, which means the story has to be about something grander than a slice of dry-toast life. Clearly, this story has got that. The distance between premise and tone is the first thing the sentence does well (and you’ll see that again and again in the story in Belly Up). 

It also introduces the premise as an ongoing routine. In workshop, we often talk about starting stories in media res, and the bad version of that is something like “So there I am, fighting a wildcat with laser eyes, and I’m thinking, who’s going to have the coffee ready when my stupid husband wakes up.” Such a sentence might start in the middle of the action, but it has a kind of artifice to it that can drag the story down eventually. In real life, nobody tells stories like that. We start at the beginning. The trick is to make the beginning sound as if the story is really about to launch into something good.

I also love how matter-of-fact the sentence is. The temptation in stories that reach beyond the bounds of usual happenstance is that they reach into the realm of the stories that third-graders tell: “And then the ninjas popped out. And the dinosaur ate the school. And aliens landed.” Bullwinkel starts with people dying and then moves to an essential part of any life: sleeping.

The story “What I Would Be If I Wasn’t What I Am” starts like this:

“I had a husband.”

In that sentence, Bullwinkel has managed to create suspense and intrigue out of one of the most boring verbs in the language. In this sentence, have would be unremarkable. But had is weird, a tense nobody would choose. Even if you were divorced or your husband was dead, you probably would say this particular combination of words. As writers, it’s tempting to reach for the fireworks, but anything unusual, no matter how small, can grab a reader’s attention.

The story “Hunker Down” starts this way:

“By the time my daughter came of age, the economy was so bad that it was cheaper to hire someone to hold her breasts up than it was to buy her a bra.”

As with the opening sentence from “Burn,” there’s a level of understatement at work here. But there’s also a razor-sharp wit, something that George Saunders has and Paul Beatty and a whole lot of grandmas and grandpas: the ability to cut someone (often you) down with only a few words. They do it by making it personal. Imagine all the ways a sentence starting, “The economy was so bad that…” could end. It’s like one of those old-school comedian jokes. The challenge is to finish it well, and Bullwinkel does it by moving toward the personal and physical. As Tim O’Brien wrote in “How to Tell a True War Story,” in a good story, the body knows what’s true before the brain does.

In “Decor,” she starts this way:

“There was a period of my life in which my primary source of income came from being a piece of furniture.”

Again, there’s that wry, understated tone. There’s also the joke set up (my primary source of income came from…” and the finish that swerves in a direction you couldn’t have predicted. Again, it implies the physical: what does it mean to be a piece of furniture? And also the mental and moral: what does it mean to be a piece of furniture?

Finally, she starts “Fried Dough” like this:

“A particular type of love story takes place in twenty-four hour donut shops.”

The understated tone, the joke setup and…the sense of place. One of my high school English teachers liked to say (just as yours did, no doubt) that nothing original had been written since Shakespeare; this sentence proves that statement wrong. There are plenty of unexplored places in fiction, places that your readers know so intimately that to be reminded of them is to smell them, to touch parts of them. A 24-hour donut shop is a place that lingers in your brain the way bad smells attach to your skin and clothes. When you find a place like that, stay there. Put the reader there as quickly as you can. And then bring life to that place. There’s no better way to do so than to start a love story.

The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction: “An indispensable book that belongs on every serious writer’s desk.”

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try out some first-sentence strategies, using Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkle as a model:

  1. Play with tone. If you know the sort of story you’re introducing, play around with different styles for a straightforward first sentence. You can be deadpan, witty, angry, or mellow. You can be hiding something from the reader (or yourself) or just throwing it all out there. You can be nervous or bold. What is the narrator’s or main character’s approach to the material? Write a sentence with a style that fits that approach.
  2. Introduce routine. You can use this old standby: “Every day we did the same thing, until one day…” Or you can use a word like kept, which suggests that something is happening despite someone’s best efforts to stop it.
  3. Play with words that might otherwise go unnoticed. Change a noun to a slightly less usual version of that noun. Do the same thing with verbs. This doesn’t necessarily mean substituting canter for walk; don’t be like a freshman composition student pulling out the old thesaurus to impress a teacher. A word doesn’t need to be a novelty to be unexpected.
  4. Treat the sentence like a joke setup. Try these: “X was so Y that I Z’d.” Or “There was a time when I was so X that Y.” Use the reader’s natural inclination to hear out the joke to get them interested in the story.
  5. Make the sentence personal and physical. Even if you start with something weird and abstract, by the end of the sentence, move to the body. Make the readers feel your story on their skin.
  6. Dig into setting. It can be as simple as simply naming an unusual setting and telling us the kind of story that will take place there: a love story in a donut shop. Or, a matter of life and death in a day-old bread store.

The goal is to introduce your story in a way that draws the reader in. We think of shock as a good approach, but shock often pushes readers back. The sentences in Belly Up are unexpected and also inviting.

Good luck.

How to Develop Multiple Pitches for the Same Book

23 Oct

The New York Times Book Review said this about Varian Johnson’s ninth book, The Parker Inheritance: “Powerful…. Johnson writes about the long shadows of the past with such ambition that any reader with a taste for mystery will appreciate the puzzle Candice and Brandon must solve.”

One of the more ambitious books I’ve read in the past year is The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson. It combines a plot any middle-grade reader will find familiar (a puzzle with clues solved by young sleuths) with a backdrop and story focused on the continuing effects of Jim Crow-era racism. It’s like The 39 Clues if the Cahill kids, instead of finding out about the world’s most powerful family and their secret serum, discovered their connection to the first black city manager in a South Carolina town who lost her job under mysterious circumstances.

In pitching the novel, you could easily focus on just the clue-and-caper story. But the novel is also a big, multi-generational historical story, and you could pitch it as such. Or you could combine the elements. It just depends on who you’re talking to.

The Pitch

Here’s the jacket copy from The Parker Inheritance:

When Candice finds a letter in an old attic in Lambert, South Carolina, she isn’t sure she should read it. It’s addressed to her grandmother, who left the town in shame. But the letter describes a young African-American woman named Siobhan Washington. An injustice that happened decades ago. A mystery enfolding its writer. And the fortune that awaits the person who solves the puzzle.
So with the help of Brandon, the quiet boy across the street, she begins to decipher the clues. The challenge will lead them deep into Lambert’s history, full of ugly deeds, forgotten heroes, and one great love; and deeper into their own families, with their own unspoken secrets. Can they find the fortune and fulfill the letter’s promise before the answers slip into the past yet again?
Notice how the first paragraph of the pitch, while it’s specific about place (South Carolina) and character (grandmother), could be a pitch for almost every novel ever written in this genre, including the 39 Clues (which also includes a grandmother, a note, and a treasure).
The next paragraph adds a character (the neighbor boy) and a sense for what the sleuths will discover, in addition to treasure, all of it written in dramatic terms (ugly deeds, forgotten heroes, one great love, unspoken secrets). We also learn the stakes (find the fortune before the answers slip into the past yet again).
This is all good stuff, but it leaves out something crucial: While the pitch identifies one character as African-American, the terms racism, Jim Crow, or segregation are not used even though they’re an essential part of the driving engine of the story. If the kids aren’t black, and without South Carolina’s history of racism, there’s no story to be told. While I don’t know anything about Scholastic’s decision-making for marketing this book, I can make some guesses. Books with clue hunts are enormously, stupendously popular. Books that deal with the gritty realities of race are also popular (as Jason Reynolds has shown and as Daniel José Older shows in his dinosaur/Civil War novel Dactyl Hill Squad). But I suspect that Scholastic decided that the appeal of the clues held more marketing promise.
Of course, anyone who reads The Parker Inheritance is going to quickly be immersed in the history of its world, and that history will likely be the basis of most discussions about the book.
One takeaway, then, is this: Identify multiple narratives in your book. Be able to pitch one or the other or both, depending on what you sense about your audience.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a pitch that identifies multiple narrative threads, using The Parker Inheritance by Varian Johnson as a model:

  1. Pitch your novel as a clear addition to a defined genre. In other words, what is the pure genre stuff? I’ve mentioned this in earlier posts, but it can be a helpful exercise to list some of the common conventions of the genre you’re working in (or, if the word genre bothers you, the type of story you’re writing). If you’re not sure, look at the jacket copy for books like your own. What plot or story elements do they stress? The conventions that The Parker Inheritance stresses can be boiled down to four words: letter, mystery, fortune, puzzle. What are your four words? Write a short paragraph around them.
  2. Identify the bigger drama that the novel will grapple with. In some cases, this is the backdrop or context of the story. (In the case of mega-bestseller The Hate You Give, context and present-day action are impossible to separate.) If you’re not sure what this is for your story, try finishing this sentence “What the book is really about is…” You can identify this drama directly or hint at it. It’s probably a good idea to have both types of descriptions ready to go for when you’re talking to different audiences.
  3. Make the stakes clear–or clear-ish. The pitch for The Parker Inheritance does both, in a way. The sleuths need to find the fortune before they lose their chance and before it’s forgotten. It suggests a ticking clock. But it doesn’t state why the treasure and secrets are at risk of slipping into the past. While this might seem like being coy, it can actually heighten the readers’ interest, making them wonder, why’s it going to slip into the past?

When you pitch the book—either in a query or in person—you can play up or down the backdrop/contest (the bigger drama) as needed.

Good luck!

How to Pitch a Memoir Without a Big, Fat Narrative Hook

18 Sep

Sarah Smarsh’s memoir, Heartland, about growing up poor in Kansas was recently longlisted for the National Book Award.

The challenge of pitching a memoir is often the same as writing one: unlike novels, most lives lack a clear narrative arc with defined turning points. They don’t have a narrative hook big enough to catch a white whale. Instead, many memoirs contain a series of anecdotes held together by a theme (which is often closely associated with a place or situation). They offer the texture of a life and the pleasure of seeing a thing clearly.

This is the case with Sarah Smarsh’s new memoir Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. We can learn a lot from how it is pitched.

The Pitch

Here’s the official jacket copy:

During Sarah Smarsh’s turbulent childhood in the 1980s and 1990s, she moved more than twenty times within the same small patch of Kansas: a trailer, apartments and houses in Wichita, her grandparents’ enduring farm. Born a fifth-generation Kansas wheat farmer on her father’s side and the descendent of generations of teen pregnancy on her mother’s Smarsh grew up in a family of laborers trapped in a cycle of poverty. Whether working the wheat harvest, helping on her dad’s construction sites, or visiting her grandma’s courthouse job, she learned about hard work. She also absorbed painful lessons about economic inequality. By telling the story of her life and the lives of the people she loves, Smarsh challenges us to look more closely at the class divide in our country and at pervasive myths about people thought to be less because they earn less.

In my last post, I introduced nine essential parts of a pitch. I used a novel for a model, but the same parts can be found in pitches for memoirs as well. Here they are for Heartland.

The General Situation: 1980s and 1990s

The Setting: the same small patch of Kansas: a trailer, apartments and houses in Wichita, her grandparents’ enduring farm

The Overarching Conflict: Born a fifth-generation Kansas wheat farmer on her father’s side and the descendent of generations of teen pregnancy on her mother’s Smarsh grew up in a family of laborers trapped in a cycle of poverty.

The Main Character: the author

Why This Story Now: Smarsh challenges us to look more closely at the class divide in our country and at pervasive myths about people thought to be less because they earn less.

The Most Important Secondary Character: mother, father, grandma

How the Story Plays Out: Whether working the wheat harvest, helping on her dad’s construction sites, or visiting her grandma’s courthouse job

The Deeper Conflict: she learned about hard work. She also absorbed painful lessons about economic inequality.

Genre Indicator: By telling the story of her life and the lives of the people she loves,

Not all of these elements are weighted the same. There was a lot going on politically in the rural Midwest during the 80s, and it’s in the book, but she doesn’t mention any of it in the pitch. Perhaps ironically for a memoir, she also doesn’t say a lot about herself. Instead, the focus is on the place she’s from and details about her family and the lessons she drew from her childhood. (Which is why she identifies three secondary characters instead of just one.) Probably because the memoir doesn’t really focus on herself, the big thematic elements of the pitch receive more weight and (literally) more words on the page.

One takeaway from this pitch is that it’s important to understand your story’s takeaways—the things that people will be talking about after they read it. Hit on as many of the basic elements as you can but stress the ones that are most compelling.

Even fairly similar stories can have very different pitches depending on how that story is told. For example, Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle shares some things in common with Heartland. Both narrators grew up poor and moved around a lot. The events in Walls’ childhood, though, are more extreme and unusual than those of Smarsh’s childhood. Here’s that book’s jacket copy:

The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette’s brilliant and charismatic father captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn’t want the responsibility of raising a family.

The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered.

The Glass Castle is truly astonishing—a memoir permeated by the intense love of a peculiar but loyal family.

In Walls’ book, the author’s own particular narrative arc takes precedence. For example, the memoir begins with her recognizing her mother homeless on the street. A clearer arc and more unusual events aren’t necessarily better for a memoir, though. They just make for a different story. Indeed, part of Smarsh’s point is that her story is lived out by millions of people. The pitch for The Glass Castle focuses on the things that happened to Walls while Heartland’s pitch focuses more on the thematic elements. No surprise, then, that meaning-making occupies a more prominent role in Smarsh’s book than Walls’.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a memoir pitch that hits on all of the essential parts, using Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh as a model:

  1. Find the balance in your narrative. Can your individual story carry a lot of weight? Does it have a thematic point it wants to make? On a (very rough) continuum of plot versus meaning, where does your story fall?
  2. Build up the elements that must carry the pitch’s weight. If readers will walk away with lessons, focus on those lessons. If readers will walk away with anecdotes and stories, focus on those. Which details can you add to the pitch and its different elements that hammer home the kind of story you’re telling?
  3. Don’t abandon the other elements. The pitch for Heartland hits every element, giving a lot of detail for some and only a few for others. The pitch for The Glass Castle includes some meaning-making (“a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption”). A complete story (and pitch) does both.

Good luck!

The Essential Parts of Any Book Pitch

13 Sep

Trail of Lightning is the debut novel from Rebecca Roanhorse.

A book pitch, whether it’s in person or printed in a query letter or book jacket, must do two basic things: tell readers what the book is about and make them flip to the first page to read more.

In future posts about book pitches, this blog will dig into the various nuances and styles of pitches, but no matter how you tweak the voice or the structure, every pitch must accomplish those two main tasks. (We’ve probably all seen jacket copy or a movie description that made you think, “Huh?” That’s bad.)

So let’s begin this new blog series by looking at the pitch for what is probably the coolest and most thrilling book I’ve read so far this year: Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse.

The Pitch

If you look this book up online, you’ll see that it actually has two pitches. Here’s the official jacket copy:

While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.

Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer. When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last best hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much more terrifying than anything she could imagine.

Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man, and together they travel the rez, unraveling clues from ancient legends, trading favors with tricksters, and battling dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.

As Maggie discovers the truth behind the killings, she will have to confront her past if she wants to survive.

Welcome to the Sixth World.

Notice how clearly this pitch lays out what the book is about.

The general situation (what’s going on in the world): most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse

The setting: Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation)

The overarching conflict: The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.

The main character: Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer.

Why this story now (what sets the book into motion): When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last best hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much more terrifying than anything she could imagine.

The most important secondary character: Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man

How the story plays out: They travel the rez, unraveling clues from ancient legends, trading favors with tricksters, and battling dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.

The deeper conflict: As Maggie discovers the truth behind the killings, she will have to confront her past if she wants to survive.

A genre indicator: the Sixth World

See how much information is packed into a short passage? Breaking a pitch down this way is a good way to remind yourself that all of these different types of information exist. A lot of not-ready-yet pitches focus too much on the worldbuilding parts and leave out character and story. Or, they leave out situation and setting and focus entirely on how the story plays out.

A couple of things to keep in mind: Don’t name or describe all of your characters. This novel has some amazing minor characters, some of whom are absolutely essential to the plot, but they’re not in the pitch. A pitch isn’t a summary. If you can leave a character out and still convey the main thrust of the story, do it.

Also, situation isn’t the same thing as story; this goes for any genre. Don’t confuse the backdrop for the main action. Notice, too, how the pitch divides the story into “what kicks it into gear” and “the mechanics of what the characters will do in the story.” Both are important.

Read enough jacket copy, and you’ll notice that many pitches end on a larger, deeper sort-of-thematic line (confront the past if she wants to survive). Notice the placement. If you’re going to add this, put it at the end.

Finally, readers need/want to know what sort of book it is. It would be hard to read this pitch and not know that Trail of Lightning is a fantasy novel, but that final line really drives it home. “The Sixth World” is pure fantasy convention.

So, that’s a lot to play with in your pitch. But here’s one more thing to think about: the pitch that actually leads the page at both Amazon and Roanhorse’s publisher, Simon & Schuster:

“Someone please cancel Supernatural already and give us at least five seasons of this badass indigenous monster-hunter and her silver-tongued sidekick.” —The New York Times

The blurb give a comparison title (Supernatural) and a pithy description (“badass indigenous monster-hunter) that is pure adrenaline for a reader’s curiosity. Whenever you can come up with a memorable phrase to do the basic work of a pitch, do it!

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a pitch that hits on all of the essential parts, using Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse as a model:

  1. Break your novel (or your memoir) down into these pieces: the general situation, the setting, the overarching conflict, the main character, why this story now (what kicks the story into motion), the most important secondary character, how the story plays out (the mechanics of what the character do to resolve the problem posed by “why this story now”), the deeper conflict, and a phrase that is clearly a genre convention.
  2. Start cutting. Once you’ve got some sentences (and, perhaps, paragraphs for each of these), distill them down to a single sentence or, even better, a phrase. That’s how concise a pitch has to be.
  3. Have fun with it. The pitch for Trail of Lightning conveys the story, but it also knows which parts of that story sound cool: monsters, gods, legends, tricksters, dark witchcraft. Think like a marketer: what words and phrases can be amped up to catch a reader’s attention (while remaining true to the story)?

Good luck!

What’s Next for Read to Write Stories

12 Sep

For the past six years, I’ve used this blog to explore the nuts and bolts of writing craft. The posts were an extension of what I was doing with students in the classroom, but it was also a form of close study to improve my own writing. I had written a novel, as good a book as I was able to produce at the time. An agent agreed to represent it, and the book received a lot of really flattering passes from editors. I sometimes tell people that the book didn’t sell because it went out at the height of the economic meltdown, when editors were fearful, especially of a genre-bending Kansas novel by an unproven author like myself. That may be true. But it was also true that I needed to become a better writer.

“An indispensable book that belongs on every serious writer’s desk.” (Thanks Amanda Eyre Ward for the awesome blurb!)

The blog led to a book: The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. It’s a collection of all-new exercises (and short memoir pieces about honing my craft as a reader and writer) based on 40 one-page excerpts from recent amazing books. I’m quite proud of the result, and since its publication in late February, I’ve posted less often at this blog. I wasn’t sure what to write about. After around 200 exercises posted here (and 40 more in the book), I began to sense that I had exhausted what I wanted to say about craft. It’s true that, in some ways, craft discussions are inexhaustible. Every writer approaches the eternal problems of story (introducing and developing characters and setting, raising the stakes, advancing the plot, and structuring it all so that it makes sense) in slightly different ways. Yet as I’ve often told my students, once you identify strategies used by a writer, you’ll see them over and over in other books. We are all part of a grand tradition of storytelling that goes back as far as humans have walked the planet.

I’m also much more confident in my own writing. I’ve published stories in journals that, as a MFA student, I read with awe. I had a story included in a big national anthology. I’ve got enough stories for a collection, have written a draft of a middle grade novel, and am halfway through an adult novel that I’m really excited about. I’m still learning my craft, and (no kidding) I use the exercises I’ve posted here. Yet I’m also restless, ready to do something a little different at this blog.

Which brings me to my day job. I’m the Program Director at the Writers’ League of Texas, and one of my responsibilities is talking to writers about the entire writing and publishing process. I help organize an annual Agents & Editors Conference, and in the past three years, I’ve met and talked with more than sixty agents and editors. I work closely with Becka Oliver, the Writers’ League’s Executive Director and a former literary agent. From Becka and the pros who’ve come to Austin from New York and LA and elsewhere, I’ve learned a great deal about how the publishing industry talks about books. I’ve listened to pitches from hundreds of aspiring authors and seen many of them acquire agents and, eventually, book deals.

I never pitched a book as a MFA student, and I can’t remember ever having a single conversation with anyone who had. Learn to write first, we were told—which isn’t bad advice. But one side effect is that pitches and query letters remain a mystery or simply a hoop to jump through. But what I’ve begun to recognize at the conference is how exciting it is to tell someone about your book—and to hear about someone else’s. As readers, we occasionally stumble upon books, but more often, we pick up a book because someone told us about it, and something about their description captured our imagination.

When we tell people about our books, that is the reaction we are hoping for: awe, excitement, and a curiosity that absolutely must be sated.

Just as with books and stories, there is a craft to a good pitch. That is what I want to explore next as this blog. I will be taking jacket copy from recent and new books and teasing out what makes them effective: not just what catches our attention but also how they distill often complex stories into a short paragraph or two.

Studying pitches is not only important to selling a book (and for answering that inevitable question, “So what do you write?”). I’ve also found that problems with pitches often point to problems with the manuscript as a whole.

I’m excited about this, and I hope you will find it helpful and interesting as well.

How to Create Meaningful Spaces in Stories

28 Aug
Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson portrays the author's experience growing up on the trail of a revivalist preacher who would eventually be sentenced to prison time.

Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson portrays the author’s experience growing up as part of the inner circle of a revivalist preacher.

The fall semester has now begun in earnest, which means that, in creative writing workshops, students will soon be turning in their first submissions. Whether they’re writing fiction or creative nonfiction, one of the most difficult aspects of a piece to talk about is setting. In drafts, it’s often boring, dragging down the story. Or it’s nonexistent (the dreaded white room story). Though these problems are common, advice for fixing them can be difficult to give. It’s not enough to say, “Cut some of it” or “You need a setting.”

This exercise, based on the memoir Holy Ghost Girl by Donna M. Johnson, shows how setting can be made meaningful and dramatic in any type of story, true or not. You can read the full excerpt here.

How the Story Works

One reason that setting often feels difficult to write is that the places we’re considering feel random, as though drawn from a hat of Places to Set a Scene. Sometimes, the solution is to find a place that the characters find meaningful. As real people, we travel through a variety of places every day, but all of us have a handful of places that feel like home, where we are our best or truest selves. Watch how Johnson sets up such a place in the first chapter of the memoir:

The tent waited for us, her canvas wings hovering over a field of stubble that sprouted rusty cans, A&P flyers, bits of glass bottles, and the rolling tatter of trash that migrated through town to settle in an empty lot just beyond the city limits. At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us from a world that told us we were too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did. Society, or at least the respectable chunk of it, saw the tent and those of us who traveled with it as a freak show, a rolling asylum that hit town and stirred the local Holy Rollers, along with a few Baptists, Methodists, and even a Presbyterian or two, into a frenzy.

This passage establishes the tent as special in a couple of ways. First, it stresses how unremarkable the setting is: a field of trash at the edge of town. Yet that trash is appropriate because the people who gather there feel “too poor, too white trash, too black, too uneducated, too much of everything that didn’t matter and not enough of anything that did.” This is an example of characters finding meaning in the things that surround them. Real people do this all the time. They develop attachments to the places they live: small towns, big cities, flat plains, mountains, deserts, rainy places, blue states, and red states. In all likelihood, they didn’t consciously choose the place where they live. They were born there and stayed or arrived there out of some necessity. Yet they often appropriate aspects of the place as statements of personal character—the people who live here are good/hardworking/smart/real/whatever. This is exactly what Johnson is doing in this passage.

Secondly, the passage shows the people creating a space that demonstrates some quality about them: “At dusk, the refuse receded, leaving only the tent, lighted from within, a long golden glow stretched out against a darkening sky. She gathered and sheltered us…” It’s a cliché that you can learn a lot about people by stepping into their homes, and this passage reveals the truth in the cliché.

Once the memoir establishes the importance of the tent, it spends several paragraphs showing how the tent was put up, the effort and mechanics involved. Because the place matters, so does the upkeep of the place, and it’s in these passages that we learn crucial information about the people who gather there:

Local churches sent out volunteers, but most of the work was done by families who followed Brother Terrell from town to town, happy to do the Lord’s work for little more than a blessing and whatever Brother Terrell could afford to pass along to them. When he had extra money, they shared in it. He had a reputation as a generous man who “pinched the buffalo off every nickel” that passed through his hands. He employed only two to four “professional” tent men, a fraction of the number employed by organizations of a similar size. The number of employees remained the same over the years even as the size of the tents grew larger. “World’s largest tent. World smallest tent crew,” was the joke.

Because the tent is so central to the people’s identities, it’s also central to the story. One chapter begins with unwanted visitors to the tent (the Klan). Another chapter offers some children, including Johnson, the opportunity to escape from the tent for a while and swim in a local pool. In both scenes, the tension results from the changes to setting. The rules—the usual way of being—are upended, which produces a story to tell.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a meaningful space using Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson as a model:

  1. Choose a character. It’s tempting to start with the setting itself, but unless you’re writing a story like Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” where setting is the entire point, the place is only as important as the character believes it to be. So, choose a character that you’ve already created, and let’s figure out what that character believes is important about the setting.
  2. Locate the character in his/her surroundings. Start with the general. Where does the character spend his/her time? Think about neighborhood, work, commute, church—the basic settings of our lives.
  3. Identify what is unremarkable about those surroundings. We tend to start with what is remarkable or unusual. But it’s often the case that people become inured to the peculiarities of where they live—they see them every day and take them for granted. Instead, try listing the things that the character sees or notices every day. What are the things that irritate the character about his/her setting?
  4. Let the character appropriate those aspects as personal qualities. Ironically, it’s the little, irritating things in our worlds that we often feel the most attachment to. Johnson writes about how the people who gathered in the tent identified with the trash strewn around them. Try writing a sentence that begins this way: “We were the kind of people” or “They were the kind of people” or “She was the kind of person who…” Can you connect that kind of people they are to those irritating, commonplace parts of their surroundings? Here’s an easy example of this: “We were the kind of people who didn’t need a lot of money.”
  5. Allow the character to create a personal space in those surroundings. In Johnson’s memoir, the worshippers construct a sacred place in the midst of the trash, and that place shines into the darkness. In other words, the place makes manifest the hidden, interior parts of the people who gather in it. People do this all the time. Sometimes we literally build shrines to the things that are closest to our hearts. Other times, we build dens or interior spaces that allow us to be our truest selves: they’re full of books or NFL gear or Precious Moments figurines. What shelter does your character build to protect against the elements—physical, emotional, and spiritual?

Good luck!

How to Build a Story with Logistics

21 Aug
Rahul Kanakia's story, "Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)" was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

Rahul Kanakia’s story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” was published in Clarkesworld, which recently won a Hugo Award for best Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine.

The new school year is starting, which means students will sit down to write their first stories of the semester (and perhaps ever) for their creative writing classes. When they do, they’ll encounter a problem that comes up in every workshop in America: ideas are not stories. Ideas can become stories, but there’s some essential work required to make that happen.

A good way to learn the steps involved in turning an idea into story (or for teaching students to do so) is to dig into the logistics of the idea. To that end, here’s an exercise based on a ghost story that appeared a few years ago in the Hugo-winning science fiction and fantasy magazine Clarkesworld.

In “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley),” Rahul Kanakia takes the idea of a ghost catcher (a la Ghostbusters) and focuses on the logistics of the profession in order to produce a story that is horrifying, funny, and complex. It’s also written in the form of a Craigslist ad! You can read the entire story online.

How the Story Works

Anyone who’s seen Ghostbusters will understand the basic concept of the story. A man captures and stores ghosts for a living. But what does that mean, logistically-speaking? Where are the ghosts found? How are they captured? Where are they stored? These are basic questions, but the answers are crucial to developing the story. Kanakia begins to provide these answers in a single paragraph:

Chris once told me that human beings are hard-wired to feel an “urgent sense of distress” at the crying of a baby. Well, that’s not true. You know how many times I’ve gone down to the Kaiser Hospital over on Howe Street and sucked the ghost of a crying baby out of one of their incubators? Just maybe like two hundred times. Crying babies? That’s a Wednesday for me.

Where are the ghosts found? The usual places (people’s homes, as we learn elsewhere) but also in places that make logical sense and yet are unexpected. Of course you’d find ghosts in hospitals. Of course some of those ghosts would be babies. And, of course, some of those babies would have died in incubators. It makes perfect sense, but I’m willing to bet you’ve never read a story with these kinds of ghosts in it.

How are they captured? The same way they’re captured in Ghostbusters. But, note the verb that Kanakia uses: sucked. It’s not the tone typically used when talking about dead babies, and so it’s shocking.

Where are they stored? We know that from the story’s title: in the narrator’s house.

These answers flesh out the story by creating the world, but they also create the character. The most important question is one that many readers might not think to ask: What kind of person captures and stores ghosts? The answer is someone so callous or emotionally closed that the ghosts of dead babies in incubators doesn’t faze him (“That’s a Wednesday for me”).

By digging into the logistics of how the idea works (capturing ghosts), the story creates a character who must live with those logistics. The rest of the story explores what happens to such a character when he is faced with a problem that connects his supernatural profession to a mundane problem (finding a boarder). That story is impossible without the depth of character revealed in that paragraph about ghost babies.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a character by digging into the logistics of an idea, using Rahul Kanakia’s ghost story as a model:

  1. Identify the idea. If you’re writing a genre story, this should be fairly easy. Which genre element are you using? Ghosts, zombies, werewolves, aliens, etc? But it also applies to literary stories. Is your literary story a love story, revenge story, coming-of-age story, marital affair story, death of a loved one story, or dating (mis)adventure story? There are probably others; the point is that most stories fall into a genre of some kind, which is why my 11th-grade English teacher always claimed that no one had written an original plot since Shakespeare (who also borrowed his plots). Once you know the kind of story you’re writing, you can begin to identify the conventions of that story.
  2. Where does the idea exist? Setting matters. Try to get away from the default, bland world that is often associated with an idea (haunted houses for ghosts, nighttime underworlds for zombies, middle class suburbs for love stories). Where can you put the story that would make it seem original? What setting would make you unsure how the story would proceed? This doesn’t require you to do something extreme (zombies on Mars), only to explore the logical possibilities of the idea. Kanakia realized that ghosts could be babies, and so he took the story, at least for one paragraph, to a place where those ghosts could be found. How can you do this for your idea?
  3. How does the idea occur? What is the basic mechanism of the idea. Kanakia’s character sucks ghosts into bottles which he stores in his small house. On one hand, this is very similar to the most famous version of the idea (Ghostbusters), but, on the other hand, it’s also pretty different. Ghostbusters put the ghosts, which tended to be monstrous-looking, into an opaque vault. But what if you couldn’t afford a vault? And what if the ghosts didn’t look like monsters? By figuring out the mechanical logistics (where and how) of the idea, the story creates a space for a character to inhabit. How can you create a detailed space in your story? What is the where and how?
  4. How does the character feel about the idea? The key is to force the character to interact not with the idea in general but with the idea in its mechanical logistics. Do the logistics tax the character emotionally or physically? Is the character forced to develop a coping mechanism in order to interact with the logistics? Are there certain kinds of character traits that lend themselves to these particular logistics. In Kanakia’s story, a character who is emotionally-open and empathetic would struggle to catch and store the ghosts of dead babies (and of gay men who’d died of AIDS, which also occurs in the story). But if a character is emotionally closed enough to do this type of work, how does he function in other parts of his life? If you can create a character who learns to function within the idea (whatever your idea is), what happens when the character is taken outside or beyond that idea? Are his or her character traits helpful? Not helpful? Problematic?

Have fun playing around with the logistics of the idea. It’s possible that you’ll begin to see entirely new pathways for the story to travel. Good luck!

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