Archive | Moving through time RSS feed for this section

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!

Advertisements

How to Write a One-Sentence Paragraph

22 Apr
Adrian Van Young's story, "The Skin Thing," was featured on Electric Literature's Recommended Reading blog and will appear in the forthcoming anthology Gigantic Worlds.

Adrian Van Young’s story, “The Skin Thing,” was featured on Electric Literature‘s Recommended Reading blog and will appear in the science flash fiction anthology Gigantic Worlds.

In composition writing classes, we’re usually taught (or we teach students) not to write one-sentence paragraphs. But, in fiction and nonfiction alike, these short paragraphs can pack a tremendous punch if done well.

Adrian Van Young demonstrates this punch in his story, “The Skin Thing,” which will appear in the forthcoming science fiction anthology Gigantic Worlds. You can read it now at Electric Literature‘s Recommended Reading blog.

How the Story Works

Most writers will, at some point, use a one-sentence paragraph to emphasize some point or moment. Van Young’s story is interesting, then, because he uses so many of these constructions, sometimes to conclude a longer paragraph and sometimes as a series of short paragraphs. The sentences can be long, short, and even fragments.

They tend to be used in one of three ways:

Accentuate a change in tone:

This short paragraph concludes a description of the monster’s actions. In terms of subject and style, it’s really part of the paragraph that precedes it, but it’s given its own line because its tone is different (funnier, sort of):

Just one of us, McSorls, held ground. He was seeking, we think, to protect his allotments. It plucked him up inside its mouth, like the mouth of a puppet, and gobbled him down. Or gummed him down. It had no teeth. The leg of his pants dangled out, disappearing.

The Skin Thing ate his onions, too.

Summarize time and events:

These fragments deliver an accounting of the colonists’ battle with the monster:

McSorls came first. McGaff. McShea. McVanderslice. McGuin. McGreaves…

Colonists total: two-hundred and forty.

Colonists fed to the thing: thirty-six.

Colonists saved on account of this practice (not to mention the onions): one hundred, at least.

Illuminate important images

This paragraph is actually a series of short, connected sentences that focus on a different part of the monster’s body:

It was the height of foursome men, and its body behind was a languishing tube, and its head, although eyeless, was snouted, with nostrils that sucked and blew as it grew near.

Here, the sentences adopt a style of repetition common to speeches. The fragments illuminate a character in a moment of time:

There was:

McGondric in the mess, picking over his onions in no special hurry, a relaxed, dewy look to his under-eye skin.

McGondric going through the camp with his harvest of onions arrayed under cheesecloth, and heavens, his basket, the way that he bore it: offertory, slimly poised.

McGondric alongside his daughter, McGale, as they raked up the sands that comprised their allotment, the pink and the clean-muscled arms of them pushing, and pulling back toward them, and pushing once more.

Instead of moments from a long period of time, though, these two paragraphs break a very short amount of time into even shorter flashes of perception:

And there, behind the sandy glass, we saw a crown of human head.

And under it: a hand. A knee.

All of these one-sentence paragraphs are designed to manipulate the reader’s perception of the events and characters in the story. They speed up or slow down time and direct the reader’s eye.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write some one-sentence paragraphs, using the passages from Adrian Van Young’s “The Skin Thing” as a model:

  1. Write a sentence that accentuates a change in tone. One way to do this is to create a series: actions, personality traits, qualities, requirements, events, or whatever appears in your story multiple times or has its differences parsed out. The problem with lists is that they can be boring—just a bunch of stuff. In workshops, the writer Tim O’Brien discourages lists for this reason, but of course his famous story, “The Things They Carried,” contains lists in almost every paragraph. So, after a list of ____, he writes, ______. Van Young uses a shift in tone in his story as well, but rather than interpreting the list, the tonal shift adds to the list: literally, one more thing the monster did, but this thing tells us something about the monster’s intentions that the other things did not. So, in your series, search for entries that sound different. Ask yourself, “What does that difference indicate?” Does it make you uncomfortable? Does it seem to cast the other items in a different light? Try putting it at the end and in a separate paragraph.
  2. Write a sentence that summarizes time and events. People who write press releases do this all the time. They use fragments to highlight the impact or actions of a group over time: X number of units sold, X number of services rendered. Fiction writers can do this as well, as Van Young illustrates. In truth, many of us do this naturally, especially when pressed into an argument. We tally up our actions over time: X meals cooked, X hours worked, X kindness delivered or sacrifices made. To do this in a story, figure out what actions your character takes pride in; then, challenge it. How would the character defend him/herself? Try listing the tally in separate lines.
  3. Write a sentence that illuminates important images. There are a few ways to do this. 1) In a static description of a person, thing, or place, instead of using commas to set off attributes (tall, dark, and handsome), develop each adjective into a sentence or phrase of its own (so handsome that I had to look away). Then, connect the sentences with commas or semicolons. 2) In a description of a person, thing, or place in motion, break the motion down into snapshots (as opposed to a running strip of film). What is happening in each snapshot? 3) In a description of an act of perception (I saw…), do not show the entire thing being perceived. Instead, reveal one part at a time. In each of these three methods, you’re focusing on images that writers and readers alike often zoom past. Devoting an entire sentence or phrase to the image can slow readers down, and then you can slow them down further by placing each sentence into a paragraph of its own.

Good luck!

How to Create Speed in Flash Fiction

8 Apr
Juliana Goodman's story, "Hot N' Spicy" appeared as an online feature in Blackberry Magazine, a literary magazine featuring black women writers and artists.

Juliana Goodman’s story, “Hot N’ Spicy” appeared as an online feature in BLACKBERRY, a literary magazine featuring black women writers and artists.

Anyone who’s tried to write flash fiction knows how fast it must move. There’s no time for context or explanation. You’re illuminating a few minutes or seconds of a character’s story, and, if it works, the readers feel as though they’ve peered into Borges’ aleph and seen a much larger world.

But how do you create that dizzying sense of speed? Juliana Goodman’s story, “Hot N’ Spicy” does exactly that. It clocks in at just over 250 words yet reveals an intimate portrait of a relationship. “Hot N’ Spicy” was published at BLACKBERRY, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story captures an intimate portrait of a relationship by showing, not telling. If that sounds suspiciously like the workshop cliché, you’re not crazy. But it’s the key to Goodman’s storytelling. She introduces objects without explanation, allowing the reader to figure out why they’re important. Here is a good example:

He pulls on his dark gray jeans, then a black V-neck. Will he take the hoodie? That’s what I want to know.

Notice the difference in the articles: his jeans, a V-neck, the hoodie. In other words, the hoodie is important. There’s obviously an entire history behind that piece of clothing, but it’s never given to us. Instead, Goodman skips directly to the emotional importance of the object:

I watch him grab it off the sofa and drape it over his shoulder. That’s how I know he’s not coming back. Not tonight.

What matters is not so much the object but what it means: he’s not coming back. Part of the reason this story can be complete with so few words is that it continually skips over context and right to meaning. Here’s another example:

“You’re leaving over tacos?” I ask, and then feel stupid because I sound aggressive and he hates that.

Again, the narrator alludes to past arguments and conflicts but does not tell us anything about them. All that matters is the weight of that history and what it means right now, in this moment: if she acts a certain way, he’ll react in a particular way. Sentences like this provide the flash for this piece of fiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write sentences that move fast, using Juliana Goodman’s story, “Hot N’ Spicy,” as a model. This exercise will work as a brainstorming exercise, but it may be most helpful as a tool for revision:

  1.  Refer to, but do not explain, the history of an object. Goodman does this when she writes, “Will he take the hoodie? That’s what I want to know.” One way to do something similar is by finding an object that either contains meaning. The most obvious example is a wedding ring, but it’d be better to find something more personal to the characters. Put yourself in the room with the characters; what objects are with you? Do the characters have sentimental or personal attachments to them? Another way to approach this is with routine. Does a character always sit in a particular chair? Watch a particular show or read a particular magazine? What you’re looking for is an object that indicates some change in emotion or intention. In a few sentences, explain the importance or role of the object. Then, write a sentence in which the change in emotion or intention or action is happening. How much of the previous explanation can you cut? Can you simply use the sentence with the change?
  2. Make a claim about the future. If characters have spent a lot of together, then they’ve been through certain arguments or interactions enough to anticipate each other’s actions or words. An easy way to show this (and, thus, to skip showing all of those previous interactions) is to make a quick prediction. Goodman writes, “That’s how I know he’s not coming back. Not tonight.” You could also write something like this: “Now, he was going to get defensive.” And, then, he gets defensive. Or, “She was going to fill up her water bottle,” and then she does it.
  3. State a change/modification of behavior with little explanation. Your goal is to portray a shift in thinking or action without being forced to spend time explaining why that shift has occurred. Goodman does this by having her narrator state, after some strongly worded dialogue, “I sound aggressive and he hates that.” The key is often to state what a character likes or dislikes (or, to frame in terms of personality, what a character does or does not do), and move on. What matters is not so much why a preference exists as the effect that the preference (like/dislike, do/don’t do) has on another character.

These exercises are designed for flash fiction, but, in truth, all writers are often trying to condense explanation.

Good luck!

How to Use Transitions to Move Through Time

7 Jan
Victor Giannini's essay about his father's struggles with PTSD, "His Room's a Jungle," was published at Narratively.

Victor Giannini’s essay about his father’s struggles with PTSD, “His Room’s a Jungle,” was published at Narratively.

Every writer struggles at some point with transitions: how to move from one moment in time or idea to another moment. If the piece spans many years, these transitions become even more important because the writer is clumping together time: a moment here, a moment there, some context here. The transitions between these clumps can be simple (“And then…”), but how do you make them simple and also keeps the reader hooked?

Victor Giannini demonstrates how to use transitions in this beautiful essay about his father’s struggles with PTSD after serving in Vietnam. “His Room’s a Jungle” was published at Narratively, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

There are hundreds of ways to transition from one moment in time to another, but in almost all of them, the transition works like a chain link: the transitional phrase touches upon a phrase or idea that precedes it and also a phrase or idea that follows it.

In “His Room’s a Jungle,” Victor Giannini uses at least three different kinds of chain link:

  • A link between one specific moment in time to another similar moment in time. The essay begins with the writer sitting in his father’s living room, watching a storm through the window. The transition works by directly linking this storm with another storm. Notice how quickly this happens:

I love how the sun showers create black clouds framed in gold, but before I can crack a smile, the rain takes my memory back to another storm. It was just like today, in this very room, just the two of us. He was fifty-three; I was thirteen. The power went out. I cursed life, furious that my video game had been interrupted. Then Dad said, “It’s like I’m back.

  • A link between an attitude/belief and a moment that changes that attitude/belief. The essay is, in part, a bildungsroman—a story about a young person learning some elemental truth that forever changes his life. The following passage demonstrates how to distill the belief that will change and the event that changes it:

When I was a young child in Brooklyn, for me, war had no veterans. War was scrambling around the public park, shouting “Bang! Bang! I got you, you’re dead!” and then fighting with Seth over whether he actually got shot or not.

War was abstract, perhaps scary, but always fun. Then one day, I was rolling around on the carpet, turning a table and couch into a secret mountain base for my army of plastic men, when Ron, my older half-brother, came to visit. He whispered to me, revealing a cool new secret about the father who had left his family and come to live with mine.

  • A link between a particular moment and a new attitude/belief. This link is the opposite of the previous one, and, as a result, the two are often used in tandem, as is the case in “His Room’s a Jungle”:

Ron left smirking. I was left with a weird mix of jealousy, sadness, and awe. My father was never the same again, not in my eyes. From then on, when my friends had sleepovers, watching “G.I. Joe” or a VHS of “Predator” that I stole from Ron, I felt special. I felt better than my friends. My father used to be a soldier. And even better, a special one. A marine!

Transitions become more difficult if you’re not sure what you’re linking: in other words, what is each passage about? The answer should be more than what happened. You’re also developing an idea: this happened, and this is the change that occurred as a result.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try out some transitions, using “His Room’s a Jungle” by Victor Giannini as a model:

  1. Pick a true story to tell. Choose one that has personal importance, one that you’ve thought about a lot, one that gives you the sense that all was not the same after the events occurred.
  2. A link between one specific moment in time to another similar moment in time. In essence, this is the “This reminds me of a time…” link. When do you find yourself thinking about this story? Are there particular triggers? You can choose something timely (something from today’s news) or something routine (walking the dog, watching football, washing dishes). Keep in mind that the thing you remember is more important than the trigger—so just like a real trigger, the mechanics of it should happen quickly. Get the reader into the moment as fast as possible. Giannini does like this: “It was just like today, in this very room, just the two of us.”
  3. A link between an attitude/belief and a moment that changes that attitude/belief. In short, how did you once feel about the thing you are writing about? Which moment really began to change that belief? This is an old storytelling technique—think about the New Testament’s Saul getting knocked off his horse by lightning and becoming the evangelist Paul. Your moment might be less dramatic than a lightning strike, but it should start a chain of events that will lead to a new way of thinking. To make this work, summarize the belief and then transition quickly to the moment. Giannini uses three words: “Then, one day…”
  4. A link between a particular moment and a new attitude/belief. This is your chance to tell the reader how your ideas changed. While this could come at the end of the essay, it’s probably better to put it nearer the beginning. Ideally, the new attitude will complicate matters. Think about it this way: Now that the wool has been pulled away from your eyes, what do you see? It’s probably something a little unsettling. The transitional phrase can be simple. Giannini uses this: “From then on…”

Good luck and have fun!

How to Move Between Past and Present

1 Oct
Erin Pringle's story "The Midwife" appeared in Glint Literary Journal and will be included in Pringle's next collection How the Sun Burns.

Erin Pringle-Toungate’s story “The Midwife” appeared in Glint Literary Journal and will be included in Pringle-Toungate’s next collection How the Sun Burns.

In some stories, the events of the present gain meaning when viewed alongside the character’s past. The writer of a story like that, however, quickly discovers a problem that must be solved: How do you switch between the time periods? Do you block the periods into paragraphs or sections? Or is there a way to make the switch more fluid?

One writer who succeeds in finding a fluid movement through past and present is Erin Pringle-Toungate in her story, “The Midwife.” The story was published at Glint Literary Journal, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The trouble with blocking the past and present into separate chunks, set off by space breaks, is that the structure can begin to feel unwieldy. To avoid that problem, Pringle-Toungate does two things:

  1. Switches between past and present on a sentence-by-sentence level
  2. Does not announce that the switches are occurring.

To illustrate how this works, look at the story’s opening:

“Along the block of mostly abandoned storefronts, the barber turns the sign to Sorry we’re CLOSED Please come back tomorrow, and moves the red plastic arrow to 7 AM. No customers came in today, yesterday, or the day before. But no matter, you keep the same hours every day, said her father when, after her mother’s hysterectomy, he began officially training her for her inheritance.”

The first two sentences are set in the story’s present. They’re also written in present tense, which will serve as a reliable indicator of time. The switch comes with the third sentence, when the story adds the father’s voice, spoken from the past. Notice how we don’t learn that the words, “But no matter, you keep the same hours every day,” are 1) her father’s and 2) from the past until the attribution (“said her father”). In effect, we’ve slid from present to past without knowing it. In a way, this switch is the same used by our minds, which move back and forth in time—between present observation and memory—constantly, often blurring the two.

By introducing this switching strategy immediately, Pringle-Toungate makes it possible for the story to dip into the past at any moment, for as long or briefly as it wants—an unimaginable freedom to someone who has played with a block structure of time. For instance, Pringle-Toungate actually marks the next switch between past and present with a paragraph break, but because of how she introduces time in the first paragraph, this more formal switch seems just as natural:

“She sweeps the floor, cleans the mirror, wipes the counter, changes the disinfectant, ties up the laundry bag of towels, and lets down the blinds. She didn’t have a customer all morning, but she didn’t really expect to.

Work ethic, her father said. Dependability, he insisted. Same hours every day. Reliability is trustworthiness. Trustworthiness earns respect. Respect runs a business and fills our stomachs.”

If this seems impossible to pull off, you can take comfort in the fact that Pringle-Toungate didn’t arrive at this structure immediately, as you’ll learn in her Q&A on Thursday.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s switch between past and present using the first paragraph of “The Midwife” as a model. First, you’ll need to create the two time periods:

  1. Create a character engaged in an ongoing action. In “The Midwife” that action is the deliveries. The action could be anything that is an everyday routine: going to work, picking up kids from school, sitting in church or class, or pulling weeds in the garden. Or, the routine could be something more sinister. Keep in mind Hannah Arendt’s idea of “the banality of evil.” Even awful things can be become routine if you do them enough.
  2. Give the character a voice to listen to. The voice should be from someone in the past. In “The Midwife” the voice belongs to the character’s father. George Saunders uses a similar strategy in “Tenth of December”:

“He was so tired. What a thing. Holy moly. When he used to walk Sasquatch out here they’d do six times around the pond, jog up the hill, tag the boulder on top, sprint back down.

Better get moving, said one of two guys who’d been in discussion in his head all morning.”

Saunders introduces the voice, and soon after the story goes into the character’s past. In other words, the voice creates the doorway to that past.

Now, let’s put your character and the voice into conversation, which is essentially the way that Pringle-Toungate and Saunders both move back and forth in time.

  1. Begin with your character in the midst of the everyday routine. Don’t explain the routine, just describe the actions that the character performs with the thoughtless confidence that comes with having done a thing countless times. This robotic movement sets up the next step.
  2. Let the character think about the voice from his/her past. Don’t use a filter (She thought about So-and-so, who used to say…). Instead, drop the dialogue or voice into the sentence without introduction. The idea is that you’re letting the reader listen to the character’s thoughts as he/she performs the routine.
  3. Now, move back and forth between these two time periods whenever seems most natural. Play with it. Try staying in each period for longer and shorter amounts of sentences. While you’re using the voice as a portal to the past, you can move beyond the voice into more detailed memories

Good luck and have fun.

%d bloggers like this: