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10 Exercises for Creating Characters

3 Jan

Happy new year! To celebrate the arrival of 2017, let’s look back at ten exercises on creating, describing, and developing characters from 2016.

1. Introduce Characters through Misdirection

Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman, has been called "auspicious," "complex," and "caustically funny."

Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman.

The introduction of one of the most famous characters in literature happens without the reader’s knowledge. In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway attends a party at Gatsby’s house but nobody’s seen Gatsby. People are trading rumors (“I’ll bet he killed a man”), and so Nick goes searching—into Gatsby’s mansion, into his library—before finding himself outside again, talking to a guy about the army. Someone asks if he’s having a good time, and Nick says, “I haven’t even seen the host.” That’s when the introduction happens: “I’m Gatsby,” the other man says.

This is an important piece of strategy on Fitzgerald’s part because the reader badly wants to see Gatsby. In a way, he’s the entire point of the novel, as the title indicates. But if Fitzgerald had introduced this great character directly, the reader might have been disappointed. No description would have matched the hype. So Fitzgerald snuck him onto the page.

Kaitlyn Greenidge does something similar in her novel We Love You, Charlie Freeman. The novel is named after a character who is surrounded, early on, by intrigue so substantial that any direct description might disappoint. You can read her approach in this exercise.

2. Describe Characters Without Relying On Mirrors

Kelli Jo Ford is a former Dobie Paisano fellow and recent winner of the Elizabeth George Foundation Emerging Artist Grant.

Kelli Jo Ford is a winner of the Elizabeth George Foundation Emerging Artist Grant.

We’ve all written this type of character description: the character walks past a mirror, stops, and examines the face and person it reveals. It’s a simple strategy that allows the story to tell the reader, “Here is what this person looks like.” The problem is that it’s overused. People really do look in mirrors, of course, and sometimes it’s necessary in fiction. I’m not suggesting that mirrors should never appear in our writing. But they shouldn’t be used as a crutch. There are other ways to describe characters, and some of them can feel so active that we don’t even realize a description has occurred.

An excellent example of an active character description can be found in Kelli Jo Ford’s story, “You Will Miss Me When I Burn.” You can read an exercise based on it here.

3. Add Physical Description to Dialogue

Saslow

Eli Saslow is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist for the Washington Post.

A key difference between beginning and experienced writers is the ability to handle the attributions and descriptions within dialogue. As we improve our craft, we work from “he said with glittering eyes” to “he guffawed” to “he said” to “he said, looking hard at her” to, finally, something better. Well-written dialogue uses carefully chosen physical details to push forward or expand the dramatic moment and the reader’s understanding of it.

An excellent example of this skill (and, frankly, an excellent example of pretty much every type of good writing) is “A Survivor’s Life,” Eli Saslow’s article about a 16-year-old girl who survived the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon. It was published in The Washington Post. Find an exercise based on it here.

4. Create an Emotional Backdrop for Characters

Hannah Petard's latest novel, Listen to Me, has

Hannah Pittard’s latest novel is Listen to Me.

Most of us have had this experience: we’re upset about something and chew it over in our minds, over and over, becoming dead certain about the rightness of our feelings and thoughts—and then we share them with someone. Suddenly, we understand how wrong and ugly our thoughts have become, perhaps as soon as they leave our mouths or maybe not until the other person puts us in our place. If we’re lucky, our ugly thoughts are about someone or something not present, and we feel relieved: “Whew, I’m glad I said this here instead of out in public.” If we’re not lucky, our ugly thoughts are directed at the person we’re talking to. In that case, our lives are about to get unpleasant. When it happens in fiction though, the drama is about to get interesting.

This is exactly what Hannah Pittard does in her novel, Listen to Me. Find an exercise based on it here.

5. Give Characters a Frame of Reference

Tom Hart

Tom Hart is the author of the graphic memoir Rosalie Lightning.

When people face tragedy, they rely upon the philosophical framework they’ve built their entire lives. You can hear this framework in the stories they tell, the rituals they follow, and the words of wisdom they recall. Our characters should be no different, yet it’s easy to think only in terms of the questions a character must grapple with in the aftermath of something life-changing: where to live, who to be with, how to cope with what they’re feeling. But all of these questions are answered within a frame of reference. Characters, like us, do not invent every feeling and bit of knowledge or instinct from scratch. Instead, they build their experience of the world hand-in-hand with the books, art, religions, and stories that exist around them.

An excellent—and heartbreakingly beautiful—example of this essential human practice can be found in Tom Hart’s new graphic memoir, Rosalie Lightning. You can read an exercise based on it here.

6. Describe a Character from the Perspective of Others

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Tristan Ahtone is a journalist and Vice President for the Native American Journalists Association.

The easiest and most common way to describe a character is directly, like this: She’s tall and loves Adele but believes people who sing along with the music are disrespecting the artist. The first part of that description (she’s tall) can be deduced from observation, and perhaps the second part (loves Adele) can be as well if the music is audible. But the final part (disrespecting the artist) requires knowing her thoughts, which means that she speaks them aloud. For most characters, this isn’t a big deal. But what about characters who can’t or won’t speak?

A good example of using every  available resource to describe a character can be found in a recent series, “The United States of Bus Travel,” from Al Jazeera America. Journalist Tristan Ahtone traveled the United States by Greyhound bus and wrote short vignettes about the people he encountered. You can find an exercise based on it here.

7. Manipulate Chronology to Build Character

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

Chinelo Okparanta is the author of the novel Under the Udala Trees.

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

An  example of this kind of chronological experiment can be found in Chinelo Okparanta’s novel Under the Udala Trees. You can find an exercise based on it here.

8. Reveal Tension Between Characters Indirectly

Daniel Oppenheimer's book Exit Right has received glowing reviews, like this one from the Washington Post: "This book proves so satisfying precisely because it leaves you wanting much more."

Daniel Oppenheimer is the author of Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century.

One of the most famous writing exercises is John Gardner’s barn assignment from The Art of Fiction: “Describe a barn as seen by a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Do not mention the son, or war, or death.” The goal is to write a passage that does not address its main subject directly, head on. In some ways, the exercise is the ultimate statement about the purpose of craft. In first drafts, we attempt to figure out what we want to write (a man’s son died in the war), but in revision, we find the best way to write it (by describing a barn, with no reference to anything on the man’s mind).

Indirectness isn’t only important in description. The best writers can surprise us at any moment, in any type of passage. A terrific example of artful indirectness can be found in Daniel Oppenheimer’s new book Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. You can find an exercise based on it here.

9. Build Character within Action Scenes

Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, which the New York Times called "rollicking good fun on the surface, action-packed and shiny in all the right places" and also "thoughtful and well considered."

Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Regional Office Is Under Attack!

The most boring prose is often supposed to be the most exciting: action scenes. No matter how exquisitely detailed and choreographed a scene’s punches, kicks, shouts, commands, charges, and retreats, the reader can bear only so much. After more than a few sentences—or perhaps a paragraph or two at most—it simply washes over us, unseen. Our eyes glaze over. So, good writers will mix something into their action sequences, and usually that somethingbuilds character.

One of the best at this strategy is Manuel Gonzales, who does it again and again in his weird and wonderful new novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack! Read an exercise on how he does it here.

10. Create Stand-Ins for Characters

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

Katie Chase is the author of the story collection Man and Wife.

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

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

A great example of this approach can be found in Katie Chase’s story “Man and Wife.” You can read an exercise on how she does it here.

How to Put Setting to Work

15 Nov
Boston-Review-logo


“Xochimilco” by Esme-Michelle Watkins appeared in the Boston Review.

We’re taught from an early age that stories have five parts and setting comes first, which means it’s important. After all, one of the most famous first sentences of all time—”It was a dark and stormy night”—sets the stage for a particular kind of story. Any other kind of night wouldn’t do. So, writing about setting ought to be easy, right? Just pick the perfect first sentence. Yet for some reason, crafting good descriptions of place can often seem impossible. Like the famous sentence suggests, it’s not enough to simply tell the reader what a place looks like. The description must do more. But what?

Here’s a short story that demonstrates clearly the work that setting can perform. “Xochimilco” by Esmé-Michelle Watkins was published in the Boston Review and can be read here.

How the Story Works

Let’s focus on one particular paragraph. Watkins is doing something fairly simple: describing an empty room. Of course, an empty room has nothing to describe except walls and floors, so she tells us what is absent. Most writers would likely approach the task in the same way. But Watkins goes one step further, and here is where we can learn from her:

There was nothing to see. Gone were the Stay Away drapes tall as street lights, whose heavy fabric Mammì flew all the way from our house in Pasadena to Nonna’s in Bivona to have custom-made; the Go Sit Down oil fresco of clustered villas hugging crags along a turquoise sea; the Knock You Into Next Tuesday French-legged dining table and high backed chairs, formerly below the Go Ahead and Try It chandelier; the Touch and Lose Your Life crystal bowls, where Mammì kept my favorite Sorrento lemons sweet like oranges, and the Cabinet of Doom wide as two hall closets, which housed the finest of Mammì’s That’s a No-No clique: tableware from Baccarat, Tiffany, and JL Coquet. A room for outfits and occasions now snatched and deserted, save for a cud-colored footprint kitty-corner to where the cabinet had been. It was an uninvited mark on the place we dared not enter—not even at my first communion, when hidden-pocket-flask Uncle Mel, who liberally invoked the Don’t Touch exception clause between swallows and sips, waved us in.

Now, let’s focus on a single line from that paragraph:

Gone were the Stay Away drapes tall as street lights, whose heavy fabric Mammì flew all the way from our house in Pasadena to Nonna’s in Bivona to have custom-made

Notice how the drapes aren’t simply curtains. We learn their size and style and history, yes, but we also learn something more important. The curtains are our window into both Mammì and the narrator.

  • “Stay Away” gives us Mammi’s voice. The curtains are suddenly embodied with Mammì’s personality and value system. Each item missing from the room will be given a name based on how Mammì warned her kids about using it.
  • The phrase “tall as street lights” gives us a sense of the narrator’s size. Drapes are only as tall as street lights if you’re looking up at them from a distance. Drapes aren’t so tall if you are tall.
  • The “heavy fabric” suggests, perhaps, that the drapes are not cheap, but more certainly the word “heavy” sets up a contrast with their being flown halfway across the world. The drapes must truly be important to Mammì for her to invest them with such care and effort.
  • Finally, “Nonna’s in Bivona” tells us that’s it not just anyone who made the drapes, and “custom-made” suggests opulence and care.

None of the phrases in this sentence (or any of the descriptions in the paragraph) are written only to show the reader how the room used to look. Each phrase and description also reveals the perspective of the narrator and the value system of Mammì. It is these things—perspective and values—that drive the story forward. Without them, the story is left with a kid and an upset mom. With them, the story becomes particular, and the mom’s confusion/anger/loss become overwhelming.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s put setting to work, using “Xochimilco” by Esme-Michelle Watkins as a model:

  1. Choose a room to describe. It can also be a place outdoors. If inventing a place is difficult, choose one you know well. You’ll need to see objects in the place.
  2. Choose a character for whom the place is supremely important. The importance can be highly dramatic (attempted murder) or smaller, more personal in nature. For instance, a child could sit in the living room, watching television, while her parents argue in the other room. The key is to find an emotional connection to the room.
  3. Give the character one or two dominant values or traits. No character can be a blank slate. Watkins makes her narrator mature, an oldest child responsible for her younger brother. In short, she’s the kind of person who listens when someone says to stay away from the drapes. Her mother is no-nonsense, in command, and under a great deal of stress.
  4. Convey those traits through description. Describe the things in the room or the place so that the reader learns not only how the place looks but also values and traits of the character—without ever seeing him or her. Watkins does this by issuing commands for the objects in the room: Stay Away, Go Sit Down, and Go Ahead and Try It. These commands tell us about the person giving them and the person receiving them. There are many ways to create this effect. Keep in mind the lesson from the old Sherlock Holmes story: If a house is on fire, the thing a person grabs first tells you about his or her priorities. Which objects in the room are off limits? Which objects are valued? Which are neglected and dusty? What has been left to rust in the rain?

This exercise can be challenging, but the more you work at it, the easier it gets. You’ll also begin to see it in everything you read. This is how great writers describe place. For example, there’s a famous passage in The Great Gatsby Daisy and Jordan are sitting in Daisy’s living room. The windows are open, the curtains are billowing, the women’s dresses are floating. Then Tom walks in, slams the door, and everything stops. The curtains and dresses sink. Even though we’ve barely been introduced to the characters, the room’s description has shown us the dynamics at work. That is what setting can accomplish.

12 Exercises Inspired by the Best Writing from 2015

22 Dec

The time of resolutions is upon us, and for writers, this usually means re-committing ourselves to projects that have stalled and gathered dust. We sit down at our computers, excited, and then realize that we’re still stuck. We need help. Like kids on swings, we need a push to get started; after that, we can take care of ourselves.

For the past 51 weeks, this blog has shared exercises based on some of the best writing from the most interesting, best-written stories, novels, and essays of the year. Here are twelve of those exercises to give your writing momentum as we enter 2016.

1. Withhold Crucial Plot Information

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Sarah Layden is the author of the novel Trip Through Your Wires.

When I was a kid, I devoured Agatha Christie novels, despite knowing that Christie was not showing me everything I needed to solve the mystery. But instead of getting frustrated, my inability to outwit her detective actually made me love the books more. I was in the hands of someone smarter than me, and I knew that not only would all would become clear by the final page, but it would also be shocking.

As writers, we sometimes want to withhold information, but it’s not easy to do. The readers know we’re messing with them and can see the strings being pulled. In Sarah Layden’s, “Bad Enough With Genghis Khan,” she sets up the surprise with lines like this:

Blushing, I delete the history from my browser but forget to delete it from my secret backup location, in case I want to remember the things we’ve deleted. My husband throws something away and thinks it disappears. Images I can never erase.

Find the entire exercise here.

2. Write from Multiple Points of View

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Scott Blackwood is the author of the novel See How Small.

The challenge in writing from multiple points of view is to make each POV sound different. In Scott Blackwood’s See How Small, he follows a lot of different characters, and each POV sounds and feels slightly different. However, Blackwood doesn’t accomplish this by trying to mimic the character’s natural voice. Instead, he plays with different storytelling styles. For instance, the novel begins with a chapter that mixes third-person and first-person plural POVs (they and we), but what’s more important is how it focuses on some details and not others:

Another remembered the pride she’d felt the day before, riding a horse no one in her family could ride, a horse that had thrown her older sister. He knows your true heart, her father had said. The horse’s shoulders were lathered with sweat. He had a salty, earthy smell she’d thought of as love.

The men with guns did things to us.

Find the entire exercise here.

3. Make the Most of a High Concept

Unknown

Dina Guidubaldi is the author of the story collection How Gone We Got.

The term high concept simply means any story whose premise can distilled to a tagline that often serves as a title, as in George Saunders’ CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Kelly Link’s The Faery Handbag, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The challenge with high concept stories is make the story as interesting as its title, to advance the conceit in surprising ways. This means that the story may repeat itself or follow a predictable path but that it should have moments of surprise built into that path.

This is exactly what Dina Guidubaldi does in her story “What I Wouldn’t Do.”

I wanted to love you better so I bought a city. It was small but shaped like your fingerprint, with a mansion for you in the middle of the whorl. It was hard to find, your mansion, but since I’d mapped it, troweled cement for the foundation, chopped logs for the beams, hammered and nailed and sanded until my hands fell off, lugged stones in a canvas sling with my teeth when they did, hung tapestries and draped velvet, since I did all of that, I had a pretty good idea where it was. I landscaped your rose garden and made your maze. I scissorhanded some topiaries for you in the shape of hearts and souls and kept up with their maintenance too; I was on a tight schedule and you were my hours and my half-pasts.

Find the entire exercise here.

4. Use Scenes to Show the Passage of Time

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Rene S. Perez II is the author of the YA novel Seeing Off the Johns.

Some famous writer once said that stories and novels don’t portray a life but, rather, a glimpse of one part of the life that suggests the entirety of the whole. It’s a true statement that makes you wonder, “Which snapshot is the right one?” or “What part of my life suggests the whole thing? I hope it’s not the part where I forgot to put on deodorant.” It can be an impossible question to answer. A better question might be this: How can a particular scene or moment reveal the constant process of change that is part of any life This is what Rene S. Perez II does in his debut novel, Seeing Off the Johns.

In one scene, the novel uses a dinner as a touchstone for the entire 20-year relationship between two couples. In that history, we learn not just the differences between the couples but how they’ve navigated those differences, and it’s that struggle that reveals the life and makes for interesting drama:

The Mejias had felt a sting of embarrassment when they went to the first of their dinners with the Robisons. They knew the Robisons were well off—Arn was the youngest grandchild and sole remaining Greentonite of Samuel and Wilhelmina Robison, who’d made a small fortune on a ranch outside of town. Arn had inherited money from them. He’d worked hard all his life as a horse doctor and hit big on some investments. But the Mejias weren’t prepared for the kind of food the Robisons were used to.

Find the entire exercise here.

5. Show Things Twice

Nicole Haroutunian

Nicole Haroutunian is the author of the story collection Speed Dreaming.

When working on plot, we tend to think in terms of major scenes: singular moments of tension and drama when significant character traits are revealed. That’s the idea, anyway. When we actually write these moments, we often discover that we’re burdening them with too much expectation. A scene can only do so much work, and that’s why it’s often a good idea to write a scene into your story twice. It gives you twice as much dramatic space to work within and, thus, the potential to reveal a lot more about a character.

A great example of showing a scene twice can be found in Nicole Haroutunian’s story, “Youse.” It is included in her debut collection, Speed Dreaming. In the story, a man catcalls two young women from his car:

“Next time that dude drives by,” Joanna says, “let’s make sure he knows that one of us is a pro.”

Of course, this means we’re expecting the man to drive by again, and, of course, he does (it’d be a tremendous missed opportunity if he didn’t). That scene begins in the same way:

Then the bronze SUV—the same one, it has to be—is slowing down beside them. They hear a familiar voice. “How about youse…” he starts.

Find the entire exercise here.

6. Write a Fast-Starting First Paragraph

Bess Winter

Bess Winter is a Ph.D. student at the fiction program at the University of Cincinnati.

Literary journals receive hundreds, sometimes thousands, of submissions every year. These submissions are read by busy volunteers, making their way through stacks of stories at night and on weekends. As a writer, these are not the ideal conditions for appreciating your carefully crafted manuscript. But this is the world you’re sending your stories into, and so it’s important to consider the audience. What will make your work easier to read? What will catch this busy volunteer’s attention? One answer: a quick-starting opening paragraph. Watch how fast this first paragraph from Bess Winter’s “Are You Running Away?” gets the story moving:

Val says, fuck school. She eats another cracker. Wouldn’t it be great if school were cancelled? And I say, Yeah, it would be great. And she says, I know a way. She scrapes her shoed feet along her parents’ couch. And I say, How? And she says, There are these pipes.

Find the entire exercise here.

7. Create Moments of Intense Emotion

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Antonio Ruiz-Camacho is the author of the story collection Barefoot Dogs.

Robert Olen Butler has a theory that stories are written from a white hot center. Your job as a writer is to find it. But what happens when you do? That center often carries significant emotion, and the challenge is how to dramatize that emotion without verging into sentimentality or melodrama. In other words, you need to hit the note at the right pitch and for the right amount of time. A story that hits that moment just right is Antonio Ruiz-Camacho’s story, “Madrid,” from his collection Barefoot Dogs. The moment comes at the end, in a ghostly encounter with the narrator’s father:

He clears his throat, and my stomach cramps for everything looks and feels so real, his voice, his gestures, his presence around me, that always soothed me, regardless.

Find the entire exercise here.

8. Use Forbidden Acts to Create Plot

M-McFawn

Monica McFawn is the author of the Flannery O’Connor Award-winning story collection Bright Shards of Someplace Else.

Chekhov famously wrote that if a story puts a gun on the wall in the first act, the gun needs to be fired by the third act. In other words, if a story presents something as dangerous, then it must face that thing directly, not avoid it. Of course, not every story needs a gun. The danger can be located in anything—even things that aren’t necessarily dangerous in every circumstance. All you need is for a character to say, “Don’t do that” or “That’s off-limits” or “Be careful” and you’ve got your dangerous element. A good example of using something forbidden to create plot is Monica McFawn’s story, “Out of the Mouths of Babes.” It’s included in her collection, Bright Shards of Someplace Else, which won the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.

The story is about Grace, a woman who is babysitting Andy Henderson, a precocious nine-year-old boy. By the end of the first page, the story introduces something forbidden, through the instructions of Andy’s mother:

“I said, keep him off the phone. He doesn’t need to be on the phone today.”

By the story’s end, this rule will have been broken multiple times, with increasingly high stakes.

Find the entire exercise here.

9. Structure a Story around a Fairy Tale

Kseniya Melnik

Kseniya Melnik is the author of the story collection Snow in May.

Many writers will eventually try to write a story based on a fairy tale or folk tale. There are some powerful examples of such adaptations: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, Aimee Bender’s stories, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. But writing a modern fairy tale can be easier said than done. How do you capture the essence of the original tale while also creating a story that fulfills our sense of a modern story?

Kseniya Melnik’s story, “The Witch,” achieves that balance beautifully. It was included in her collection Snow in May. The story lays out its fairy tale inspiration in the second paragraph. The narrator is being taken to a witch for help with her headaches and, on the way, thinks about the most famous witch she knows:

I kept picturing the fairy-tale Baba Yaga, who lived deep inside a dark forest in a  cabin held up by chicken legs. Her home was surrounded by a fence of bones, on top of which human skulls with glowing eye sockets sat like ghastly lanterns. Baba Yaga flew in a giant iron mortar, driving it with a pestle and sweeping her trail with a broomstick, on the hunt for children to cook in her oven for dinner.

Find the entire exercise here.

10. Write Dialogue that Creates Conflict

laila

Laila Lalami is the author of the novel The Moor’s Account.

In real life, we strive for understanding, but in stories, conflict often works best when characters speak as if they don’t hear one another. A great example of dialogue without understanding can be found in Laila Lalami’s novel The Moor’s Account. The novel re-imagines the expedition of Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish explorer who shipwrecked in Galveston and traveled across Texas, the American Southwest, and Mexico. Lalami tells this story from the perspective of a Moroccan slave who was one of four people to survive the journey

Early in the novel, de Vaca’s expedition claims the land of La Florida for Spain. The expedition is alone on a beach, in the middle of an empty indigenous village. In other words, the only people present are the conquistadors, and yet the notary unrolls a scroll and reads a long declaration claiming the land. The narrator listens and thinks this:

Until Señor Albaniz had arrived at the promises and threats, I had not known that this speech was meant for the Indians. Nor could I understand why it was given here, on this beach, if its intended recipients had already fled their village. How strange, I remember thinking, how utterly strange were the ways of the Castilians—just by saying that something was so, they believed that it was. I know now that these conquerors, like many others before them, and no doubt like others after, gave speeches not to voice the truth, but to create it.

Find the entire exercise here.

11. Use an Omniscient Narrator

Ru Freeman

Ru Freeman is the author of the novel On Sal Mal Lane and the editor of the anthology Extraordinary Rendition: (American) Writers on Palestine.

One of the most tempting points of view for a novel is the omniscient, godlike POV. It’s also, perhaps, the most difficult to pull off. The literary critic James Wood has called it almost impossible. Yet, it’s also the case that certain stories require a narrator who exists on a different plane than the characters, who can focus on a few of them for a while but can also speak authoritatively about very large groups of them (entire countries, even). A novel that both requires and uses an omniscient POV is Ru Freeman’s On Sal Mal Lane.

This omniscient voices takes different forms, sometimes becoming embodied in a kind of we:

God was not responsible for what came to pass. People said it was karma, punishment in this life for past sins, fate. People said that no beauty was permitted in the world without some accompanying darkness to balance it out, and, surely, these children were beautiful. But what people said was unimportant; what befell them befell us all.

Find the entire exercise here.

12. Defamiliarize the Familiar

Sequoia 2

Sequoia Nagamatsu is the author of the forthcoming story collection Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone.

Any discussion of writing horror, sci-fi, or fantasy fiction will inevitably arrive at the phrase “defamiliarize the familiar.” In short, stories aim to make readers pay attention to something they’d normally not give a second glance. For example, the film The Shining transformed a kid on a tricycle into the stuff of nightmares. All writing can do this, not just genre fiction. A creepy example of a straight realism that does this is Sequoia Nagamatsu’s story, “Placentophagy.” By the end of its first line, the familiar has been totally upended:

My doctor always asked how I would prepare it, the placenta.

Find the entire exercise here.

How to Keep Your NaNoWriMo Novel Alive

10 Nov

November is National Novel Writing Month, and if you’ve taken the challenge, that means you’ve written approximately one-third of a novel. Since novels tend to follow a three-act structure, this also means you’re entering the second act—otherwise known the place novel manuscripts go to die. Why? First acts are relatively easy: you’ve got a burning idea, and you begin in a rush. At some point, though, that idea is going to run into the mechanical reality of the second act. The story often becomes larger, expanding beyond the original frame of the opening pages. Multiple narrative lines are more important than ever to sustain the tension. If you’re writing a first draft, you may be discovering that you don’t know where to go or what happens next. You’re writing aimless passages.

There is no easy solution to this problem; just ask any novelist. However, there are a few strategies that can give your prose direction until the overall structure of the novel reveals itself.

Here are twelve exercises to help push your novel forward, based on twelve great pieces of published writing.

1. Turn Your Ideas into Story

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

It’s tempting, as a writer, to use a story as a platform for your ideas about politics, culture, or whatever. But the risk that any story runs when stating its ideas outright is that it can begin to feel more like a rant than a narrative. Aliette de Bodard demonstrates how to turn ideas into narrative in her story “Immersion”:

It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules. For these girls, things are so much more complex than this; and they will never understand how an immerser works, because they can’t think like a Galactic, they’ll never ever think like that. You can’t think like a Galactic unless you’ve been born in the culture.

Or drugged yourself, senseless, into it, year after year. (From “Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard. Find the entire exercise here.)

2. Choose the Right Plot for Your Character

Kiese Laymon's collection of essays, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America" stunned the writer Roxane Gay "into stillness."

Kiese Laymon published two books in 2014, the novel Long Division and a collection of essays, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” that stunned the writer Roxane Gay “into stillness.”

It’s often said that stories gradually limit the possibilities available to a character, finally reaching the moment where this is only one possibility (and it’s probably not a good one). But when you’re beginning a story or novel, it often seems as though every possible avenue is open. The challenge is to pick the right one for your particular character. Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division shows how to turn find the right plot for your character:

“We’d like to welcome you to the fifth annual Can You Use That Word in a Sentence National Competition,” the voice behind the light said. “We’re so proud to be coming to you from historic Jackson, Mississippi. The state of Mississippi has loomed large in the history of civil rights and the English language. Maybe our next John Grisham, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker Alexander, William Faulkner, or Oprah Winfrey is in this contest. The rules of the contest are simple. I will give the contestant a word and he or she will have two minutes to use that word in a dynamic sentence. All three judges must agree upon the correct usage, appropriateness, and dynamism of the sentence. We guarantee you that this year’s contest will be must-see TV. (From Long Division by Kiese Laymon. Find the entire exercise here.)

3. Set the Mood of Your Story

baj-bio-pic

Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel, Remember Me Like This, features, according to Esquire, a “driving plot but fully realized characters as well.”

Every story tries to reveal the kind of story it is from the opening page or opening shot, in the case of film and TV. If you were to encounter Breaking Bad, for instance, with no knowledge of it, you’d understand after about five seconds what kind of world and narrative sensibility you’d entered. Novels and stories must set the mood as quickly as any TV show, and a great example is the beginning (or pretty much any chapter) of Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel Remember Me Like This:

Months earlier, the June heat on Mustang Island was gauzy and glomming. The sky hung close, pale as caliche, and the small played-out waves were dragging in the briny, pungent scent of seaweed. On the beach, people tried holding out for a breeze from the Gulf, but when the gusts blew ashore, they were humid and harsh, kicking up sand that stung like wasps. By midday, everyone surrendered. Fishermen cut bait, surfers packed in their boards. Even the notoriously dogged sunbathers shook out their long towels and draped them over the seats in their cars, the leather and vinyl scalding. Lines for the ferry stretched for half an hour, though it could seem days before the dashboard vents were pushing in cool air. Porpoises wheeled in the boats’ wakes, their bellies pink and glistening. (From Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston. Find the entire exercise here.)

4. Build Stories (Genre or Literary) on Logistics

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.

A story’s success is determined, in part, by how imaginatively it digs into the practical details of its idea. Ghosts are ghosts, for instance. We’ve seen them countless times in books and movies, and, as a result, we tend to grow accustomed to the rules and conventions of the ghost-story genre. A good ghost story (or any kind of story), then, will play with the practical logistics of those conventions in order to make us see them with fresh eyes. Rahul Kanakia’s ghost story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” does exactly that:

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. (From “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” by Rahul Kanakia. Find the entire exercise here.)

5. Create Conflict with Subtext

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, two middle grade novels, and an adult novella.

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel and the managing editor of the literary journal, Huizache.

Conflict is essential to fiction, and, of course, the easiest way to create conflict is by pushing characters into a fight or argument. But how do you set the stage for the big confrontation? One way is to establish competing needs or desires (I want my neighbor to cut his grass, and he wants me to keep my opinions to myself). Relying on this strategy too often, though, can lead to predictable scenes. A story needs unexpected arguments. One way to set those up is with good intentions. In fiction, as in real life, we’re often stunned to find out that our good deeds are not always appreciated. Diana Lopez uses this strategy perfectly in her middle grade novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel:

He pulled out her chair. He could be a real gentleman, but since he pulled out Mom’s chair only at fancy dinners or weddings, this was weird. Mom must have thought so too, because she hesitated before sitting down. Then Dad went to his seat and told us to dig in. We did. Quietly. For once, Carmen wasn’t acting like a know-it-all and Jimmy wasn’t begging for something to hold. It was a perfectly quiet dinner like Dad had wanted, but it sure wasn’t peaceful. (From Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel by Diana Lopez. Find the entire exercise here.)

6. Create Villains

Jennifer Ziegler's new middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, has X

Jennifer Ziegler’s middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, was so popular that a sequel is already forthcoming.

For a reader, one of the most satisfying parts of a novel is the presence of a villain. We want someone to root against—this is true for books as well as films, sports, politics, and often everyday life. And yet as writers (especially literary writers) we’re often reluctant to create characters of pure malicious intent. We have a tendency to attempt to view the situation from the villain’s point of view, if only briefly, if only to make the character a little bit redeemable. In real life, this is probably a virtue. But in fiction, it’s often necessary to behave worse than our real selves. A great example of the appeal of a villain—and how to create one—can be found in Jennifer Ziegler’s middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls:

“Well, then,” said Mrs. Caldwell, dabbing at the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “I think it’s obvious that these meatballs would be best, along with some salmon-topped canapés and bacon sliders.”

“But…Lily doesn’t eat meat. She’s vegetarian,” Darby said, louder and more slowly than when she’d said it before.

“Yes, but Lily isn’t going to be the only person eating at the wedding,” Mrs. Caldwell said.

“Yes, but Lily is the bride,” Delaney said. (From Revenge of the Flower Girls by Jennifer Ziegler. Find the entire exercise here.)

7. Create Meaningful Spaces

donnajohnson_headshot_rgb

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

Every writer has heard this piece of advice: Don’t write a scene in a vacuum. Choose a setting that will impact the characters’ decisions. Not all settings are created equal. Force two characters to have an argument in the bathroom, and the result will be different than if they have it at the dinner table. In Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, the sense of place is vividly palpable in the book, as the first pages of the opening chapter make clear:

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. (From Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson. Find the entire exercise here.)

8. Write Surprising Sentences

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree was the subject of this interview at NPR's Morning Edition.

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree is a collection of linked stories inspired by films from the Criterion Collection such as Bladerunner and Devilfish.

Stories are built out of sentences. Almost everything that happens on a story level (plot twists and reversals, slow-building suspense) also happens at the sentence level. So, it pays to study good sentences and try to imitate them. You won’t find better sentences than those in Our Secret Life in the Movies, a collection of stories by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree:

When she discovered the little bottle of morphine—the secret stash under the kitchen sink that I had lied about throwing away—she was so angry that she took off her blue Nikes and threw them at me, one after the other, the second one clonking off the back of my head and clattering into the unwashed dishes. She unfolded her knife and stabbed the bottle on the counter as if the poor thing were a possessed child’s toy in a horror movie. Then she tried to set fire to it with her Zippo, leaving a mangled and melted heap, while screaming, “Happy Birthday!” It was like watching someone burn down a forest or kill a kitten. (From “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” from Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree. Find the entire exercise here.)

9. Stretch Prose to Include More Than Plot

Jeffrey Renard Allen's latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

Jeffrey Renard Allen’s latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

The Onion once ran the headline, “Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text,” and that may be the reaction of many readers to the first paragraph of Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, which continues for more than two pages. This is an approach to writing that we’re not used to. In fact, as writers, I’m willing to bet that most of us would struggle to write a paragraph that lasts two pages. The present action is stretched so much that we almost forget what is happening and, instead, focus on what is happening around the action:

A clear track, left foot and right, running the circumference of the house, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows, trespassing at the doors. Had she been back in the city, the idea would already have occurred to her that the journalists were to blame, those men of paper determined in their unstoppable quest to unearth the long-lost—three years? four?—”Blind Tom”—Half Man, Half Amazing—to reproduce the person, return him to public consumption, his name new again, a photograph (ideally) to go along with it, the shutter snapping (a thousand words). (From Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen. Find the entire exercise here.)

10. Set Up the Second Half of Your Novel

Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is set in Lima, Peru, during the terrifying years of the Shining Path and tells the story of a marriage-in-crisis that is pushed to the brink by a kidnapping.

One of the inescapable truths of storytelling is that you must get to the story quickly; it’s the reason readers won’t be able to put down your book. This is true for every kind of story, but it’s especially true for a novel that fits into the category thriller. Yet if the novel focuses solely on kicking off the plot, it won’t give itself enough material to keep going once the initial plot mechanism runs its course. This is why many early novel drafts tend to stall out after 70 to 100 pages. The question is how to do two things at once: hook the reader and also plant seeds that will sprout later in the book. An excellent example of planting seeds can be found in Natalia Sylvester’s novel Chasing the Sun:

He sighs, unsure how to explain the less concrete aspects of his business. “Sometimes those kinds of things help the situation along. A man like Manuel wants to know the person he’s about to do business with shares his values. That he’s a good husband, a family guy. That he can be trusted.” (From Chasing the Sun by Natalia Sylvester. Find the entire exercise here.)

11. Use Plot Spoilers

Screen Shot 2014-08-24 at 9.27.10 PM

Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, which “expertly captures the tumultuous lives of youth on the streets of Philadelphia.”

Every writer will likely at some point begin a story with a spoiler—by giving away a major plot point. It’s an effective strategy. The reader wants to know what happened—how did the story get to that point? But it can also be a surprisingly difficult strategy to pull off. You can give away too much, or you can reveal an ending that the reader isn’t interested in. So, how do you make it work? Sean Ennis does an excellent job of using this kind of opening in his story, “Saint Roger of Fox Chase“:

The night Roger was beaten to death, I was out there running, too. For weeks, he had been trying to convince Clip and me to hang out at the Fox Chase playground on Friday nights. The older kids were buying beer and selling cups for a buck. The girls that came were getting wild, dancing to the music blasting out of car stereos, and flashing their chests.

I was skeptical. The guys that hung around the playground at night were not my friends; they got in fights, smoked. I knew some of them from soccer, and we had a tenuous truce because I could play, but I didn’t want to tempt things and didn’t care much about drinking beer. Seventh grade is a tenuous time. (From “St. Roger of Fox Chase” by Sean Ennis. Find the entire exercise here.)

12. Take a Detour Away from Plot

Homer Hickam is the author of numerous books, including the memoir Rocket Boys, which was adapted into the film October Sky.

Homer Hickam is the author of numerous books, including the memoir Rocket Boys, which was adapted into the film October Sky. He recently published a prequel to that book, the novel, Carrying Albert Home.

When I was a kid, I had a book called Tootle about a train that wanted to play in the meadow but was told, over and over, to stay on the track no matter what. Tootle resisted this advice but was eventually beaten into conformity. As you might expect, the best parts of the book are when Tootle is frolicking in the buttercups with the butterflies. This is good to keep in mind when thinking about plot. We often focus on driving the story forward down the track, which is good for creating suspense but can also become dull. Sometimes a narrative needs to hop off the tracks. Homer Hickam offers a good example for how to temporarily derail a plot in his novel Carrying Albert Home:

Homer was in a strange place. The quick journey he’d planned to carry his wife’s alligator to Florida had come completely undone. The Captain would have probably called it kismet, but if that’s what it was, it didn’t much matter. It seemed the whole world outside the coalfields was crazy. Homer was embarrassed that he hadn’t been up to the challenges and now found himself stranded. He’d considered wiring the Captain with a plea for enough money to get home but his pride wouldn’t allow it. After the two-week deadline had passed for when he was supposed to return to Coalwood, he thought about wiring the Captain about that, too, but he couldn’t bring himself to do that, either. The Captain had a calendar and would surely notice the number of days that he had been gone and would take appropriate action. He required no sniveling telegram from his former assistant foreman to do what had to be done. He’d probably even consider it an insult. No, when Homer returned to Coalwood, he’d come up with the one hundred dollars he owed and he prepared to take his medicine. In the meantime, all he could do was try his best to get back on track. (From Carrying Albert Home by Homer Hickam. Find the entire exercise here.)

12 Writing Exercises from 2014

30 Dec

It’s often said that when you learn to read as a writer, you’re no longer able to read for enjoyment. I disagree. I find that the pleasure is doubled. Not only do you enjoy the art for art’s sake, but you’ve also gained the ability to appreciate the craft behind the art. Here are 12 moments of exceptional craft from the stories, novels, and essays featured at Read to Write Stories in 2015.

1. Turn Your Ideas into Story

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

Aliette de Bodard is the author of the Aztec mystery-fantasy series, Obsidian and Blood, and the science fiction novel On a Red Station, Drifting.

It’s tempting, as a writer, to use a story as a platform for your ideas about politics, culture, or whatever. But the risk that any story runs when stating its ideas outright is that it can begin to feel more like a rant than a narrative. Aliette de Bodard demonstrates how to turn ideas into narrative in her story “Immersion”:

It takes a Galactic to believe that you can take a whole culture and reduce it to algorithms; that language and customs can be boiled to just a simple set of rules. For these girls, things are so much more complex than this; and they will never understand how an immerser works, because they can’t think like a Galactic, they’ll never ever think like that. You can’t think like a Galactic unless you’ve been born in the culture.

Or drugged yourself, senseless, into it, year after year. (From “Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard. Find the entire exercise here.)

2. Choose the Right Plot for Your Character

Kiese Laymon's collection of essays, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America" stunned the writer Roxane Gay "into stillness."

Kiese Laymon published two books in 2014, the novel Long Division and a collection of essays, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” that stunned the writer Roxane Gay “into stillness.”

It’s often said that stories gradually limit the possibilities available to a character, finally reaching the moment where this is only one possibility (and it’s probably not a good one). But when you’re beginning a story or novel, it often seems as though every possible avenue is open. The challenge is to pick the right one for your particular character. Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division shows how to turn find the right plot for your character:

“We’d like to welcome you to the fifth annual Can You Use That Word in a Sentence National Competition,” the voice behind the light said. “We’re so proud to be coming to you from historic Jackson, Mississippi. The state of Mississippi has loomed large in the history of civil rights and the English language. Maybe our next John Grisham, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker Alexander, William Faulkner, or Oprah Winfrey is in this contest. The rules of the contest are simple. I will give the contestant a word and he or she will have two minutes to use that word in a dynamic sentence. All three judges must agree upon the correct usage, appropriateness, and dynamism of the sentence. We guarantee you that this year’s contest will be must-see TV. (From Long Division by Kiese Laymon. Find the entire exercise here.)

3. Set the Mood of Your Story

baj-bio-pic

Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel, Remember Me Like This, features, according to Esquire, a “driving plot but fully realized characters as well.”

Every story tries to reveal the kind of story it is from the opening page or opening shot, in the case of film and TV. If you were to encounter Breaking Bad, for instance, with no knowledge of it, you’d understand after about five seconds what kind of world and narrative sensibility you’d entered. Novels and stories must set the mood as quickly as any TV show, and a great example is the beginning (or pretty much any chapter) of Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel Remember Me Like This:

Months earlier, the June heat on Mustang Island was gauzy and glomming. The sky hung close, pale as caliche, and the small played-out waves were dragging in the briny, pungent scent of seaweed. On the beach, people tried holding out for a breeze from the Gulf, but when the gusts blew ashore, they were humid and harsh, kicking up sand that stung like wasps. By midday, everyone surrendered. Fishermen cut bait, surfers packed in their boards. Even the notoriously dogged sunbathers shook out their long towels and draped them over the seats in their cars, the leather and vinyl scalding. Lines for the ferry stretched for half an hour, though it could seem days before the dashboard vents were pushing in cool air. Porpoises wheeled in the boats’ wakes, their bellies pink and glistening. (From Remember Me Like This by Bret Anthony Johnston. Find the entire exercise here.)

4. Build Stories (Genre or Literary) on Logistics

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.

A story’s success is determined, in part, by how imaginatively it digs into the practical details of its idea. Ghosts are ghosts, for instance. We’ve seen them countless times in books and movies, and, as a result, we tend to grow accustomed to the rules and conventions of the ghost-story genre. A good ghost story (or any kind of story), then, will play with the practical logistics of those conventions in order to make us see them with fresh eyes. Rahul Kanakia’s ghost story, “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” does exactly that:

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. (From “Seeking boarder for rm w/ attached bathroom, must be willing to live with ghosts ($500 / Berkeley)” by Rahul Kanakia. Find the entire exercise here.)

5. Create Conflict with Subtext

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel, two middle grade novels, and an adult novella.

Diana Lopez is the author of the YA novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel and the managing editor of the literary journal, Huizache.

Conflict is essential to fiction, and, of course, the easiest way to create conflict is by pushing characters into a fight or argument. But how do you set the stage for the big confrontation? One way is to establish competing needs or desires (I want my neighbor to cut his grass, and he wants me to keep my opinions to myself). Relying on this strategy too often, though, can lead to predictable scenes. A story needs unexpected arguments. One way to set those up is with good intentions. In fiction, as in real life, we’re often stunned to find out that our good deeds are not always appreciated. Diana Lopez uses this strategy perfectly in her middle grade novel Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel:

He pulled out her chair. He could be a real gentleman, but since he pulled out Mom’s chair only at fancy dinners or weddings, this was weird. Mom must have thought so too, because she hesitated before sitting down. Then Dad went to his seat and told us to dig in. We did. Quietly. For once, Carmen wasn’t acting like a know-it-all and Jimmy wasn’t begging for something to hold. It was a perfectly quiet dinner like Dad had wanted, but it sure wasn’t peaceful. (From Ask My Mood Ring How I Feel by Diana Lopez. Find the entire exercise here.)

6. Create Villains

Jennifer Ziegler's new middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, has X

Jennifer Ziegler’s middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls, was so popular that a sequel is already forthcoming.

For a reader, one of the most satisfying parts of a novel is the presence of a villain. We want someone to root against—this is true for books as well as films, sports, politics, and often everyday life. And yet as writers (especially literary writers) we’re often reluctant to create characters of pure malicious intent. We have a tendency to attempt to view the situation from the villain’s point of view, if only briefly, if only to make the character a little bit redeemable. In real life, this is probably a virtue. But in fiction, it’s often necessary to behave worse than our real selves. A great example of the appeal of a villain—and how to create one—can be found in Jennifer Ziegler’s middle-grade novel Revenge of the Flower Girls:

“Well, then,” said Mrs. Caldwell, dabbing at the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “I think it’s obvious that these meatballs would be best, along with some salmon-topped canapés and bacon sliders.”

“But…Lily doesn’t eat meat. She’s vegetarian,” Darby said, louder and more slowly than when she’d said it before.

“Yes, but Lily isn’t going to be the only person eating at the wedding,” Mrs. Caldwell said.

“Yes, but Lily is the bride,” Delaney said. (From Revenge of the Flower Girls by Jennifer Ziegler. Find the entire exercise here.)

7. Create Meaningful Spaces

donnajohnson_headshot_rgb

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

Every writer has heard this piece of advice: Don’t write a scene in a vacuum. Choose a setting that will impact the characters’ decisions. Not all settings are created equal. Force two characters to have an argument in the bathroom, and the result will be different than if they have it at the dinner table. In Donna Johnson’s memoir, Holy Ghost Girl, the sense of place is vividly palpable in the book, as the first pages of the opening chapter make clear:

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. (From Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson. Find the entire exercise here.)

8. Write Surprising Sentences

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree was the subject of this interview at NPR's Morning Edition.

Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree is a collection of linked stories inspired by films from the Criterion Collection such as Bladerunner and Devilfish.

Stories are built out of sentences. Almost everything that happens on a story level (plot twists and reversals, slow-building suspense) also happens at the sentence level. So, it pays to study good sentences and try to imitate them. You won’t find better sentences than those in Our Secret Life in the Movies, a collection of stories by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree:

When she discovered the little bottle of morphine—the secret stash under the kitchen sink that I had lied about throwing away—she was so angry that she took off her blue Nikes and threw them at me, one after the other, the second one clonking off the back of my head and clattering into the unwashed dishes. She unfolded her knife and stabbed the bottle on the counter as if the poor thing were a possessed child’s toy in a horror movie. Then she tried to set fire to it with her Zippo, leaving a mangled and melted heap, while screaming, “Happy Birthday!” It was like watching someone burn down a forest or kill a kitten. (From “Yuri Gagarin Explores Outer Space” from Our Secret Life in the Movies by Michael McGriff and J. M. Tyree. Find the entire exercise here.)

9. Stretch Prose to Include More Than Plot

Jeffrey Renard Allen's latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

Jeffrey Renard Allen’s latest novel, Song of the Shank, about Blind Tom, a former slave and piano prodigy, has been named to a list of best-of lists for 2014.

The Onion once ran the headline, “Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text,” and that may be the reaction of many readers to the first paragraph of Jeffrey Renard Allen’s novel Song of the Shank, which continues for more than two pages. This is an approach to writing that we’re not used to. In fact, as writers, I’m willing to bet that most of us would struggle to write a paragraph that lasts two pages. The present action is stretched so much that we almost forget what is happening and, instead, focus on what is happening around the action:

A clear track, left foot and right, running the circumference of the house, evidence that someone has been spying through the windows, trespassing at the doors. Had she been back in the city, the idea would already have occurred to her that the journalists were to blame, those men of paper determined in their unstoppable quest to unearth the long-lost—three years? four?—”Blind Tom”—Half Man, Half Amazing—to reproduce the person, return him to public consumption, his name new again, a photograph (ideally) to go along with it, the shutter snapping (a thousand words). (From Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen. Find the entire exercise here.)

10. Set Up the Second Half of Your Novel

Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is set in Lima, Peru, during the terrifying years of the Shining Path and tells the story of a marriage-in-crisis that is pushed to the brink by a kidnapping.

One of the inescapable truths of storytelling is that you must get to the story quickly; it’s the reason readers won’t be able to put down your book. This is true for every kind of story, but it’s especially true for a novel that fits into the category thriller. Yet if the novel focuses solely on kicking off the plot, it won’t give itself enough material to keep going once the initial plot mechanism runs its course. This is why many early novel drafts tend to stall out after 70 to 100 pages. The question is how to do two things at once: hook the reader and also plant seeds that will sprout later in the book. An excellent example of planting seeds can be found in Natalia Sylvester’s novel Chasing the Sun:

He sighs, unsure how to explain the less concrete aspects of his business. “Sometimes those kinds of things help the situation along. A man like Manuel wants to know the person he’s about to do business with shares his values. That he’s a good husband, a family guy. That he can be trusted.” (From Chasing the Sun by Natalia Sylvester. Find the entire exercise here.)

11. Use Plot Spoilers

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Sean Ennis is the author of Chase Us, which “expertly captures the tumultuous lives of youth on the streets of Philadelphia.”

Every writer will likely at some point begin a story with a spoiler—by giving away a major plot point. It’s an effective strategy. The reader wants to know what happened—how did the story get to that point? But it can also be a surprisingly difficult strategy to pull off. You can give away too much, or you can reveal an ending that the reader isn’t interested in. So, how do you make it work? Sean Ennis does an excellent job of using this kind of opening in his story, “Saint Roger of Fox Chase“:

The night Roger was beaten to death, I was out there running, too. For weeks, he had been trying to convince Clip and me to hang out at the Fox Chase playground on Friday nights. The older kids were buying beer and selling cups for a buck. The girls that came were getting wild, dancing to the music blasting out of car stereos, and flashing their chests.

I was skeptical. The guys that hung around the playground at night were not my friends; they got in fights, smoked. I knew some of them from soccer, and we had a tenuous truce because I could play, but I didn’t want to tempt things and didn’t care much about drinking beer. Seventh grade is a tenuous time. (From “St. Roger of Fox Chase” by Sean Ennis. Find the entire exercise here.)

12. How to Write a Story Ending

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

Óscar Martínez’s essays about traveling with Central American migrants were published in the Salvadoran online newspaper El Faro and collected in The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrants Trail.

The Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez has written one of the best story endings I’ve ever read in his nonfiction book The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Martínez spent two years traveling with Central American migrants through Mexico on their way to the United States. One of the migrants he meets is a teenager named Saúl, who was born in El Salvador but raised in Los Angeles, where he joined the M18 gang. He was deported after robbing a convenience store. The beginning of the story is pretty simple. He’s beaten by thugs, members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, and taken to their leader, who, in turns out, is Saúl’s father. Watch how Martínez ends the story:

But in the days following, the man gave Saúl a gift. The only gift Saul would ever receive from his father. He publicly recognized him as his son, and so bestowed to him a single thread of life. “We’re not going to kill this punk,” Guerrero announced in front of Saúl and a few of his gang members. “We’re just going to give him the boot.” And then he turned to Saúl. “If I ever see you in this neighborhood again, you better believe me, I’m going to kill you myself.”

They left him in his underwear in another Mara Salvatrucha neighborhood. He only got out alive by covering himself (and the 18 tattooed on his back) in mud and pretending to be insane. (From The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trial by Óscar Martínez. Find the entire exercise here.)

How to Create Space for Digression

22 Jul
Preparing the Ghost: An Essay... tells the story of the obsession that led Moses to photograph the mysterious giant squid.

Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer has been called “a triumph of obsession” by Matt Bell.

For certain kinds of readers and writers, the best part of any book (often literary, though not always) is not a moment of supreme tension or complex gathering of plot strands. It’s an astute observation or unexpected description—some digressive phrase or passage that the writer seemed to pluck out of thin air. Yet when we sit down to write, we’re often overwhelmed with the practical necessities of motivation and plot and momentum and, as a result, find ourselves barreling down a straight line. The problem, we realize, is that we don’t know how to step off that line.

A writer who excels at digression is Matthew Frank. His latest book is Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer. While its subject is exactly what it seems—the mysterious giant squid—the book is a black hole, sucking into its center as many side stories and details as it can hold. You can read an excerpt here at The Nervous Breakdown.

How the Story Works

The trick to writing digressively is knowing when and how to digress. Your goal is to swerve from the main narrative without losing the reader, and to do this, you must prepare the reader for the swerves. One way to do this is to pry open a simple sentence and insert a small digression. Frank does exactly that. The excerpt from Preparing the Ghost focuses on the squid’s photographer as he rode a ship with the carcass of the squid aboard. The scene begins “at the 1874 port of St. John’s, Newfoundland”  as “the fishing boat entered The Narrows, the only entrance to the harbor.” Here is how Frank begins to digress:

The fog that the early sailors believed to be the last remnants of Noah’s flood began to shroud the vessel…

The sentence is simple in construction and subject. Without the digression, it reads this way: “The fog began to shroud the vessel.” To digress, all that Frank has done is add a description of the fog. He could have said it was thick or white, but he instead told us “that the early sailors believed [it] to be the last remnants of Noah’s flood.” On one hand, that tangential fact is simple, just a phrase. But it’s also a huge leap in time and logic. A passage that began in a specific time (1874) has now broadened its frame to include earlier sailors and even Old Testament times.

That digression made, Frank continues it after the sentence’s initial statement (the fog began to shroud the vessel) is finished. Here is the entire sentence:

The fog that the early sailors believed to be the last remnants of Noah’s flood began to shroud the vessel, the vapors pumped from the interior’s forests, commingling with the sea.

Frank has now expanded the geographic frame of the passage, from the port at St. John’s, Newfoundland to the forests that stretch far inland. Now that he’s expanded the frame, watch how he continues to digress. (Remember, he’s writing about a particular ship in 1874.) Here is the entire passage:

The fog that the early sailors believed to be the last remnants of Noah’s flood began to shroud the vessel, the vapors pumped from the interior’s forests, commingling with the sea. The early sailors believed that this fog housed ghosts of fishermen and fish, mermaids that they’d either have to love or decapitate, that the only way to eradicate this terrible fog would be to set a great fire to the forests. At the sea-bed beneath them, the skeletons of two-hundred ships lay unidentified in the soupy mass grave, lifeboats and their corpses embalmed in the deep freeze. The Labrador Current threw at them more and more ice.

Because he has created that initial space in a sentence about fog, Frank is able to make much larger digressions about ghosts, mermaids, and shipwrecks—the sort of details that give his writing energy and that we remember even after we’ve turned the page.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s digress using the passage from Matthew Frank’s Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer as a model:

  1. Choose any sentence that you’ve written to start a paragraph. Or, write a sentence that begins a new paragraph about a particular place and time. Ideally, the sentence will be focused on mechanics: who, when, where. Simplicity is best, even something as rudimentary as “The dog began to bark.”
  2. Find a place to pry the sentence open. A great place to start is after nouns, where we already tend to add descriptive phrases. Instead of a simple adjective, though, add a phrase that expands the dimensions of the sentence (space or time). Try using transition words like that or which or an en dash.  So, “The dog barked” can become “The dog that the neighbor brought home five years ago as a little barking puppy began to bark.” Or, it could become “The dog—which had appeared in the neighbor’s yard five years ago as a little, endlessly yapping puppy—began to bark.” Is it rough? Sure, but it has expanded the sentence’s sense of time.
  3. Continue the digression at the end of the sentence. If, after prying the sentence open, the beginning and end are still clear, it’s easy to simply keep the digression going by replacing the period with a comma. So, “The dog—which had appeared in the neighbor’s yard five years ago as a little, endlessly yapping puppy—began to bark” can become this: “The dog—which had appeared in the neighbor’s yard five years ago as a little, endlessly yapping puppy—began to bark, first at squirrels and then somebody taking out the garbage and then the rustling of leaves in Thailand and in France and finally at the Voyager space probe puttering along somewhere beyond the furthest reaches of the galaxy.” Now, we’ve expanded the sentence’s sense of geography.
  4. Keep digressing. Once you’ve set new boundaries for time and geography, there’s no reason to return to the limits of the original first sentence. Explore the space you’ve created for yourself. Frank picks up on the early sailors that he added and expands on some of their other beliefs. Then, he picks up on the geography of these beliefs (mermaids) and stays underwater, showing us shipwrecks. This kind of literary play is what makes writing fun and not simply the search for the next plot point.

If you read the entire excerpt from Preparing the Ghost, you’ll understand that I’ve simplified Frank’s work a bit. He begins to digress before the sentence about the fog and Noah’s flood. You may even get lost in some of his digressions. He’s a writer who pushes the usual boundaries of narrative—which means he’s a good writer to read because he’ll push your sense of what narrative is capable of. When reading someone like that, though, it’s useful to tease out a single passage for study. Otherwise, it’s like trying to puzzle out the structure of an entire symphony in one listening.

Good luck with your reading, and have fun with your writing!

How to Ground Ecstatic Experience in Human Motivation

27 May
James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time, with its two long essays, in 1963, and its enormous success put Baldwin on the cover of Time Magazine.

James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time in 1963. It contained the long essay, “Down at the Cross,” and a letter to his nephew, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One-Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation.” After the book’s enormous success, Time put Baldwin on its cover.

One of the great regularities of human existence is that many of us, at one time or another, feel as though we’ve become the conduit for some superhuman energy. The source differs: God, the artistic muses, love, sex, drugs, and probably a host of others. When writing about such experiences, our language must necessarily match the intensity of the moment, relying on metaphor and on diction and syntax that transcend the everyday or commonplace. But when the moment is over, when the essay or story must move on, how does the language (and, therefore, the essay/story itself) come back down to regular life?

James Baldwin’s famous essay, “Down at the Cross,” included in the book The Fire Next Time, contains an astounding moment of spiritual ecstasy and then immediately grounds that experience in human desire and motivation. You can’t read the essay online, but you should go find a copy at the library or bookstore. It contains so many quotable passages and great pieces of writing that to discuss them all would mean excerpting the entire essay.

How the Story Works

Baldwin is writing about a conversion experience that he had as a teenager. His best friend had taken him to his church, and after a summer of increasing sexual confusion, Baldwin was suddenly overcome one day during a church service:

“One moment I was on my feet, singing and clapping and, at the same time, working out in my head the plot of a play I was working on then; the next moment, with no transition, no sensation of falling, I was on my back, with the lights beating down into my face and all the vertical saints above me. I did not know what I was doing down so low, or how I had got there. And the anguish that filled me cannot be described. It moved in me like one of those floods that devastate countries, tearing everything down, tearing children from parents and lovers from each other, and making everything an unrecognizable waste. All I really remember is the pain, the unspeakable pain: it was as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me. And if Heaven would not hear me, if love could not descend from Heaven—to wash me, to make me clean—then utter disaster was my portion.”

This is the intense moment of ecstasy that Baldwin experiences, a moment of human relief that he later calls “at once so pagan and so desperate.” He does not understand how, exactly, it happened, and he feels inadequate to the task of describing the sensation of it. So he turns to metaphor: “like one of those floods that devastate countries” and “as though I were yelling up to Heaven and Heaven would not hear me.” It would make sense if this passage came at the end of the essay because how can anyone follow up something so powerful? How can an essay move forward from such a climactic scene?

Here is how Baldwin solves this problem:

“I was saved. But at the same time, out of a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand, I realized immediately that I could not remain in the church merely as another worshipper. I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be to bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue. And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground.”

Baldwin may have experienced the divine, but when he gets up off the floor, he’s still human. He’s still baffled by what is happening to him (“a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand”), but the force is no longer an unearthly one but, instead, intrinsically human.

This shift from the sublimely divine to human motivation is common in many religious texts. It’s in the Book of Exodus when Moses goes up the mountain to receive the commandments. He’s blasted by the presence of God. Then, he comes back down the mountain and into human desire. His reaction to the carrying-on of his people is purely human as well: he smashes the commandments in anger and then has to go get new ones made. This shift is also present more generally in the New Testament, when Saul gets knocked off his horse and blinded on the road to Damascus. He was a zealot for one cause before the incident, and even though he changed his name to Paul, he remained a zealot afterward, only for a different cause. In both cases, the touch of the divine is interpreted and grounded in human motivation and personality.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s ground a moment of ecstasy in specific human motivation, using the passage from James Baldwin’s essay “Down at the Cross” as a model:

  1. Find a moment of ecstasy. You can write a new one, but what may be better is to find one that you’ve already written in an unfinished draft of a story or essay. These types of moments tend to sit uneasily in our writing. We want to convey how it feels to have such an experience, but we’re often not sure how or where to do it. So, think about the drafts sitting in your proverbial drawer, collecting dust. What moment of ecstasy (intense spiritual, mental, or physical experience that transcends normal, everyday life) have you tried to write about? Find that draft or passage.
  2. Sum up the result of the experience. Usually, the change is something along the lines of “I was a changed person.” The question is what kind of change took place. How were you or your character fundamentally different after the experience than before? Baldwin sums up his experience in three words familiar to any American: “I was saved.”
  3. Explain how that change fits in with the person you inescapably are. Any change worth its salt has a real-world impact, and yet the change almost never results in a reversal so complete that it leaves you unrecognizable. So, when Baldwin writes, “I could not remain in the church merely as another worshipper,” he’s not talking about a result of the change but about a character trait that had been present all along, a refusal to blend in. So, identify a trait in you or your character that is present before the experience and explain how that trait directs your behavior after the change. If you’re stumped, try using the same introductory phrase that Baldwin uses: “I realized immediately…” Follow the idea through to its practical conclusion. So, Baldwin writes, “I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be to bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue.” Because he cannot simply go along, because of his active, searching mind, he must engage himself in the change to an exceptional degree. In your piece, think about the ways that you or your character react to the change, in the context of the character trait, in practical and necessary ways.
  4. Explain how the change impacts the dynamics of an existing relationship. While the change might alter the relationship, it might also simply play into the dynamic that exists. So, Baldwin writes, “And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground.” That tension between father and son already existed, and Baldwin’s experience in the church merely gave that dynamic another way to manifest itself.

Remember, the goal is to ground an experience that seems unreal or unearthly in the very earthly and real life you’re portraying (yours or your character’s).

Good luck!

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