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How to Set Up the Second Half of Your Novel

19 Jul
Natalia Sylvester's debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is a literary thriller that has drawn comparisons to Gillian Flynn's blockbuster Gone Girl.

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, tells the story of a kidnapping and its effects on a marriage. A USA Today review called the book “a page turner.”

Almost everyone who tries to write a novel hits a wall roughly a third to halfway through the book. They discover that the plot is played out and the characters have hit dead ends. Why is this?

Part of the problem is often found in the opening pages. 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. The hook is made clear in the front flap: “Andres suspects his wife has left him—again. Then he learns that the unthinkable has happened: she’s been kidnapped. Too much time and too many secrets have come between Andres and Marabela, but now that she’s gone, he’ll do anything to get her back. Or will he?” But you have to read the first chapter to find the seeds that will sprout into the second half of the novel.

How does Sylvester integrate early hints of those secrets into the kidnapping scene that must begin the story? Find out by reading the opening pages here.

How the Story Works

Anyone who’s read the jacket of Chasing the Sun knows that Marabela will be kidnapped. So, the novel has no choice but to begin there. Even if Sylvester had wanted to start earlier, the reader wouldn’t have stood for it. If readers know what happens next, they won’t keep reading for long. So, Marabela disappears in the first chapter. And yet what a difficult place to begin. Once the kidnapping occurs, there are certain steps that must quickly follow: calls from the kidnappers, requests for ransom, negotiations, and wrong steps by everyone involved. These events carry an incredible gravitational field. The reader’s eye will skip over everything else and move straight to the central question: then what? Good luck creating depth of character or culture or place when a woman’s life hangs in the balance. But character and culture and place are the best parts of the story and (from a practical standpoint) the triggers that will propel the plot forward after the initial burst of kidnapping energy has played itself out. As a result, the writer must embed these things, this backstory, into the hook. Sylvester does this in a couple of ways.

First, she creates synchronous events. While Marabela is being kidnapped, her husband Andres is on a business call. Sylvester ties the events together in a few deft sentences, when Andres has to explain why his wife couldn’t come to the meeting:

He’d hoped Marabela would come with him today to help make a good impression.

“She’s so sorry she couldn’t make it. She was really looking forward to seeing you again,” he says.

“Tell her I said hello and that I hope she feels better,” Lara says.

We don’t yet know she’s been kidnapped, but we know something is going to happen (and if we’ve read the jacket, we know exactly what will happen), and so we’re aware of the irony of Lara’s statement. Sylvester doesn’t let it drop there. After the meeting, Andres’ son asks why his mom would come to a business meeting for something that doesn’t directly involve her. Watch how Sylvester uses Andres’ answer to do something crucial to the novel:

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.”

Again, the statement is ironic (“a good husband, a family guy. That he can be trusted”). Sylvester is making a clearcut statement about the man Andres wants to be, and, later in the novel, it will inevitably turn out that he’s not this kind of man. But Sylvester is doing something else as well. She’s beginning to tell the reader the values that Andres holds dear. Just one page later, when Andres and his son are being driven home, his son accidentally rolls down the window at a stoplight:

“Señor, tres paquetes de galletas por un sol.” A young boy, no older than thirteen, pokes his head through the window. Ignacio shakes his head and starts rolling up the window when his father leans forward to stop him.

“Not so fast. You already got his hopes up. Don’t toy with the kid.” He leans over and shouts, “¡Dos paquetes! Go ahead, pay him.” He nudges his son.

“But you’re the one who—” With a stern look from his father, Ignacio stops protesting and fishes two coins out of his pocket.

The scene might seem incidental, but it tells the reader that Andres lives by a particular ethical code. Just as the novel will inevitably challenge Andres’ definition of himself as a good husband, a family guy, and trustworthy, the novel will also inevitably challenge his ethical system, forcing him to act in ways he would have previously believed unacceptable. The scene has also introduced Andres’ relationship to the larger political situation in Lima. The novel is set during the days of the Shining Path, a guerrilla group whose battle against the government cost more than 100,000 lives. It’s not accident, then, that the scene just described involves two people with a hired driver and a poor boy selling cookies. The novel is hinting at the politics that will play a large role in the story.

These seeds will become increasingly important. The kidnapping will be resolved, as it must, and that is when the real story begins—a story that is impossible without these details about Andres that can be turned on their head, a turning that will drive the plot forward again.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s plant some seeds using Chasing the Sun by Natalia Sylvester as a model:

  1. Create a synchronous event. Your novel probably has a Big Event that kicks off the story. At its most basic, it’s likely some version of a stranger arriving in town or a character leaving on a trip. The story hinges on that event, and, as a result, it’s difficult to shoehorn any character development in those scenes. So, carve out a scene that takes place at the same time or within the Big Event. It can be anything. Sylvester’s Big Event is the kidnapping, and her synchronous event is the business meeting. In a way, this is true to life. We’re never doing one thing at a time, and when something big happens, we’re almost always engaged in some other activity. Create that activity. If your character is getting ready to leave on a trip, send her to the bank, the grocery store, the mechanic, to coffee with a friend, or to the person who will take care of the dog while she’s gone. If a stranger is arriving, find out what people are doing as the stranger gets into town; they’re probably not sitting around, waiting for him.
  2. Connect the events. The connection is essential because otherwise the reader may feel like you’ve added an extraneous scene. Obvious ways to connect the events are with glimpses of someone (I saw a figure walk past the window and didn’t think much of it) or with phone calls or text messages (Ready yet?). You can also connect the events with irony (I couldn’t wait for a relaxing evening, or, they seem like they’ll make the perfect married couple). Because any novel’s initial events are given away by the jacket flap, the reader is anticipating whatever Big Event you have in store. So, if you’re dropping hints that the characters have certain expectations that won’t be met, the reader gets a sense of anticipation. Therefore, the connection that you make between events doesn’t need to be direct; it can simply hint at expectations that the Big Event will disrupt.
  3. Use that connection as an opportunity for character definition. Remember, not all character development is created equal. It’s fine to know that a character is vegan, but if you write that a character refuses to sit in an establishment that doesn’t serve vegan options, then you’re creating a scene that the reader can anticipate. A great way to create expectations in the reader is to define the character’s value system (He’s the kind of person who…). Sylvester lets Andres define himself as a good, honest husband and family man. The reason that he defines himself is because he’s thinking about his wife’s absence at the meeting. So, how can you use the connection between events as an opportunity for your characters to define themselves? If your character is leaving on a trip, let her define the kind of traveler she is (I take books and a coffee grinder, but I refuse to answer my email). If it’s a stranger arriving in town, let the character define the kind of place he lives, which will be a reflection of how he sees himself (I thought about hitting the showers but decided to knock out another couple of sets. The guys nodded at me as I came back into the weight room.) You’re setting the stage for the Big Event. Notice that these definitions contain value systems. When you establish a value, it’s a good idea to try to pressure it, even break it, in the story. The reader will be expecting nothing less.

Good luck!

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 Describe a House

15 Jul
Domingo Martinez's memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Domingo Martinez’s memoir, The Boy Kings of Texas, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Describing a house in a story ought to be easy. After all, real estate listings do it every day: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths. For poetic purposes, maybe throw in a window and chair. Of course, more is needed—but is that more simply more detail?

One of the best examples of a house description that I’ve read in a long time comes from the first chapter of The Boy Kings of Texas. Domingo Martinez’s memoir tells the story of his family and growing up in Brownsville, Texas. It was a bestseller and a finalist for the National Book Award. You can read the opening pages at the website of The Diane Rehm Show..

How the Story Works

As a thought experiment, try describing the house or apartment where you live. (Seriously, give it a try.)

What happened? Odds are, you started with the property listings and then got stumped. A good description requires some organizational principle, and until you find it, you’re just listing things.

The house that Martinez describes belonged his father’s stepuncle. The two families did not get along, as Martinez explains here:

Elogio and his four sons clearly felt that Dad and his family did not belong in the Rubio barrio, since Gramma had married into the barrio when Dad was already four years old, a child from another man. Elogio was our Grampa’s usurping younger brother, and he wanted control of the family trucking business that Grampa had built. As Grampa’s stepson, Dad challenged Elogio’s succession. It was a Mexican parody of Shakespeare, in the barrio, with sweat-soaked sombreros and antiquated dump trucks.

That tension is important because it informs the way Martinez describes the Rubios’ house, property, and near-feral dogs:

The Rubios had kept these dogs unfed, unloved, and hostile. Presumably it was to keep burglars away from their prototypical barrio home: a main house, built by farmhands many years before, with subsequent single-room constructions slapped together according to the needs of the coming-of-age males and their knocked-up wetback girlfriends. As such, the houses were consistently in varying stages of construction and deconstruction, because the boys never left home; they just brought their illegitimate children and unhappy wives along for the only ride they knew, the one that headed nowhere.

Notice the word choices: slappedknocked-upwetback, illegitimate, unhappy. They’re all negative.

Now, think about what other words Martinez could have described the house (or the words that a Realtor would use): big, hand-builtramblinghomeycomfortable. But those words would be totally out-of-place in this passage. Because Martinez has clearly defined his feelings toward the inhabitants of the house, the tone of the description is established. Once you’ve got the tone, the actual descriptions tend to present themselves automatically. The trick is to give your brain some guidelines. You’re not asking it to pull up every single detail about a place, just a few. The more clearly (and, usually, more emotionally) you define the guidelines, the easier it is to write the description.

It’s also worth noting that the description of the Rubios’ house is connected inextricably to the people who live in it. The main two sentences about the shape and construction of the house (beginning with Presumably… and As such…) end with the human rationale for the construction decisions (according to the needs… and because the boys never left home). The behavior and the needs of the family shape not only the house but the description of the house as well.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s describe a house or apartment (or wherever you or a character lives) using the passage from The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez as a model:

  1. Choose your narrator or main character. If it’s you—good. If it’s a character in a story—also good. You need a primary perspective, a lens through which to view the house and everything else.
  2. Choose the house and its inhabitants. Who lives there? How are they connected to your narrator or main character?
  3. Identify the emotional angle on the house. How does the narrator or character feel about the house or the people living in it? Don’t think too hard; just brainstorm. Does the character have warm feelings? Is the character bitter, disappointed, angry, nostalgic, sad? Are the first memories or scenes that come to mind funny? Tragic? Tense?
  4. Write a quick scene/anecdote that illustrates that emotion. Focus the scene or story on a character or two and a particular moment in time. Remember, the goal is to tell a story that conveys how you or your character feels about the place.
  5. Generalize about the people who live in the house (or spend time there). This can be as simple as writing a sentence that begins, “They were the kind of people who…”
  6. Generalize how the people used the house. Did they use in a communal way (everyone eating, talking, hanging out together)? Did they isolate themselves into rooms? Did they come and go at odd hours? What sort of activities did they do there? Keep in mind the sort of people you are (previous step). If they’re the sort of people who ____, that means they spent a lot of time _____, which really made me/your character feel ______.
  7. Generalize how the house was a perfect/imperfect fit for these activities and these people. Did the house allow the people to do the activities? Were the people cramped? Did the people modify the house in order to do the things they wanted to do? In what ways did they modify their own behavior to fit the house?
  8. Describe the house. You’ve probably already written a few lines about the house. Now you’re summing them up. You might start with a sentence about the people: They were the kind of people who _____ or They spent a lot of time _____. Or, you can jump straight to the house with a sentence like this: It was the sort of house that _____ or It was a typical _____ house. Your goal is to write a description of the house that focuses on the ways it was used, the ways it fit a type of behavior, or the ways it shaped the inhabitants’ behavior. Keep in mind the cue words and phrases that Martinez uses (according to the needs… and because the boys). How can you describe the house in terms of causality?

As you likely know, people’s houses tend to become manifestations of their personality traits. The goal, then, is to write a description of a house that is as active as the people who live in it.

Good luck!

How to Set Up the Second Half of Your Novel

8 Jul
Natalia Sylvester's debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is a literary thriller that has drawn comparisons to Gillian Flynn's blockbuster Gone Girl.

Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, is a literary thriller that has drawn comparisons to Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster Gone Girl.

Almost everyone who tries to write a novel hits a wall roughly a third to halfway through the book. They discover that the plot is played out and the characters have hit dead ends. Why is this?

Part of the problem is often found in the opening pages. 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. The hook is made clear in the front flap: “Andres suspects his wife has left him—again. Then he learns that the unthinkable has happened: she’s been kidnapped. Too much time and too many secrets have come between Andres and Marabela, but now that she’s gone, he’ll do anything to get her back. Or will he?” But you have to read the first chapter to find the seeds that will sprout into the second half of the novel.

How does Sylvester integrate early hints of those secrets into the kidnapping scene that must begin the story? Find out by reading the opening pages here.

How the Story Works

Anyone who’s read the jacket of Chasing the Sun knows that Marabela will be kidnapped. So, the novel has no choice but to begin there. Even if Sylvester had wanted to start earlier, the reader wouldn’t have stood for it. If readers know what happens next, they won’t keep reading for long. So, Marabela disappears in the first chapter. And yet what a difficult place to begin. Once the kidnapping occurs, there are certain steps that must quickly follow: calls from the kidnappers, requests for ransom, negotiations, and wrong steps by everyone involved. These events carry an incredible gravitational field. The reader’s eye will skip over everything else and move straight to the central question: then what? Good luck creating depth of character or culture or place when a woman’s life hangs in the balance. But character and culture and place are the best parts of the story and (from a practical standpoint) the triggers that will propel the plot forward after the initial burst of kidnapping energy has played itself out. As a result, the writer must imbed these things, this backstory, into the hook. Sylvester does this in a couple of ways.

First, she creates synchronous events. While Marabela is being kidnapped, her husband Andres is on a business call. Sylvester ties the events together in a few deft sentences, when Andres has to explain why his wife couldn’t come to the meeting:

He’d hoped Marabela would come with him today to help make a good impression.

“She’s so sorry she couldn’t make it. She was really looking forward to seeing you again,” he says.

“Tell her I said hello and that I hope she feels better,” Lara says.

We don’t yet know she’s been kidnapped, but we know something is going to happen (and if we’ve read the jacket, we know exactly what will happen), and so we’re aware of the irony of Lara’s statement. Sylvester doesn’t let it drop there. After the meeting, Andres’ son asks why his mom would come to a business meeting for something that doesn’t directly involve her. Watch how Sylvester uses Andres’ answer to do something crucial to the novel:

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.”

Again, the statement is ironic (“a good husband, a family guy. That he can be trusted”). Sylvester is making a clearcut statement about the man Andres wants to be, and, later in the novel, it will inevitably turn out that he’s not this kind of man. But Sylvester is doing something else as well. She’s beginning to tell the reader the values that Andres holds dear. Just one page later, when Andres and his son are being driven home, his son accidentally rolls down the window at a stoplight:

“Señor, tres paquetes de galletas por un sol.” A young boy, no older than thirteen, pokes his head through the window. Ignacio shakes his head and starts rolling up the window when his father leans forward to stop him.

“Not so fast. You already got his hopes up. Don’t toy with the kid.” He leans over and shouts, “¡Dos paquetes! Go ahead, pay him.” He nudges his son.

“But you’re the one who—” With a stern look from his father, Ignacio stops protesting and fishes two coins out of his pocket.

The scene might seem incidental, but it tells the reader that Andres lives by a particular ethical code. Just as the novel will inevitably challenge Andres’ definition of himself as a good husband, a family guy, and trustworthy, the novel will also inevitably challenge his ethical system, forcing him to act in ways he would have previously believed unacceptable. The scene has also introduced Andres’ relationship to the larger political situation in Lima. The novel is set during the days of the Shining Path, a guerrilla group whose battle against the government cost more than 100,000 lives. It’s not accident, then, that the scene just described involves two people with a hired driver and a poor boy selling cookies. The novel is hinting at the politics that will play a large role in the story.

These seeds will become increasingly important. The kidnapping will be resolved, as it must, and that is when the real story begins—a story that is impossible without these details about Andres that can be turned on their head, a turning that will drive the plot forward again.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s plant some seeds using Chasing the Sun by Natalia Sylvester as a model:

  1. Create a synchronous event. Your novel probably has a Big Event that kicks off the story. At its most basic, it’s likely some version of a stranger arriving in town or a character leaving on a trip. The story hinges on that event, and, as a result, it’s difficult to shoehorn any character development in those scenes. So, carve out a scene that takes place at the same time or within the Big Event. It can be anything. Sylvester’s Big Event is the kidnapping, and her synchronous event is the business meeting. In a way, this is true to life. We’re never doing one thing at a time, and when something big happens, we’re almost always engaged in some other activity. Create that activity. If your character is getting ready to leave on a trip, send her to the bank, the grocery store, the mechanic, to coffee with a friend, or to the person who will take care of the dog while she’s gone. If a stranger is arriving, find out what people are doing as the stranger gets into town; they’re probably not sitting around, waiting for him.
  2. Connect the events. The connection is essential because otherwise the reader may feel like you’ve added an extraneous scene. Obvious ways to connect the events are with glimpses of someone (I saw a figure walk past the window and didn’t think much of it) or with phone calls or text messages (Ready yet?). You can also connect the events with irony (I couldn’t wait for a relaxing evening, or, they seem like they’ll make the perfect married couple). Because any novel’s initial events are given away by the jacket flap, the reader is anticipating whatever Big Event you have in store. So, if you’re dropping hints that the characters have certain expectations that won’t be met, the reader gets a sense of anticipation. Therefore, the connection that you make between events doesn’t need to be direct; it can simply hint at expectations that the Big Event will disrupt.
  3. Use that connection as an opportunity for character definition. Remember, not all character development is created equal. It’s fine to know that a character is vegan, but if you write that a character refuses to sit in an establishment that doesn’t serve vegan options, then you’re creating a scene that the reader can anticipate. A great way to create expectations in the reader is to define the character’s value system (He’s the kind of person who…). Sylvester lets Andres define himself as a good, honest husband and family man. The reason that he defines himself is because he’s thinking about his wife’s absence at the meeting. So, how can you use the connection between events as an opportunity for your characters to define themselves? If your character is leaving on a trip, let her define the kind of traveler she is (I take books and a coffee grinder, but I refuse to answer my email). If it’s a stranger arriving in town, let the character define the kind of place he lives, which will be a reflection of how he sees himself (I thought about hitting the showers but decided to knock out another couple of sets. The guys nodded at me as I came back into the weight room.) You’re setting the stage for the Big Event. Notice that these definitions contain value systems. When you establish a value, it’s a good idea to try to pressure it, even break it, in the story. The reader will be expecting nothing less.

Good luck!

How to Carve Out Space for Character Development in a Violent Setting

17 Jun
Benjamin Alire Sáenz won the PEN/Faulkner Prize for Fiction for his collection, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. The stories are set along the border between El Paso and Juarez and center on the Kentucky Club, two blocks south of the Rio Grande.

The stories in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s collection, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, are set along the border between El Paso and Juarez and center on the Kentucky Club, two blocks south of the Rio Grande.

There are places in the world that dictate the type of stories that happen there. Violence exerts an overwhelming gravitational pull, and a story that at first has nothing to do with violence—a love story, or a story about family or business—will eventually get pulled into orbit around the violence that exists in the place. Set a story in Mosul, Iraq, and it will eventually run across militants and dead bodies. The key as the writer is not to avoid the violence at all costs but to resist it for as long as possible—in other words, to allow the story to develop dimensions beyond the inevitable.

An excellent example of this resistance can be found in Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s story, “He Has Gone to Be with the Women.” It was included in his collection, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club, which won the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. You can read it now at Narrative Magazine.

How the Story Works

If you hear a reference to Juarez, Mexico, you automatically prepare yourself to hear a story about violence. For a time, Juarez was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Many of the residents on either side of the border knows real stories of people who have been murdered or kidnapped. From the safe distance of Washington D.C., it’s possible to believe that violence is the only thing happening there. And yet the people who live along the border go about their lives, and so, as a writer, it’s crucial to push back against the readers’ expectations of cartel executions. It’s necessary to find a way to create characters who have lives that exist outside of, or alongside, the violence.

This is exactly what Sáenz does in his story. In it, two men meet at a coffee shop in El Paso. One is American, and the other is Mexican. The border, and it’s associations, are present from the beginning but not at the center of the story, which instead follows the developing romance between the two men. It’s not until a third of the way through the story that violence forces itself onto the page:

Monday morning, I got this text from him: I thought about you when I woke up this morning. I read the text and then reread it. And then reread it again.

I felt like a schoolboy reading a note from a girl. No. A note from a boy.

I didn’t know how to answer his text. I only engaged in the practice because my nephews and nieces demanded it of me. We wrote silly and affectionate things to each other. But this was different. Finally around noon, I texted him back. Stay safe. That’s what I wrote. That’s when it occurred to me that I was afraid. I didn’t like to think of Javier walking the streets of Juárez, doing an errand, going to a store and getting killed, randomly, for no reason. What good does it do to be afraid? He was right. Of course he was right. But so many people had left already. Why couldn’t he leave too? I knew the answer to that question even before I asked it. He wasn’t the leaving kind. He loved his Juárez. I could see that in his eyes, in his unshaven face, in the way he moved and talked. I could almost taste his love for that poor and wretched city in his kisses. It enraged me that Juárez had become so chaotic and violent and capricious. A city hungry for the blood of its own people. How had this happened? I was sick to death of it, sick to death of the body count, sick to death that every killing went unprosecuted and unpunished. You could kill anybody. And what would happen? Nothing. The fucking city no longer cared who was killed. Soon, they would just be stepping over the bodies. Stay safe. Stay safe. Stay safe.

Because Sáenz has created characters with lives and concerns other than avoiding violence, he’s able to make their interactions with the violence personal, as opposed to the generic way that cable news viewers react against stories of border violence.

So, how does Sáenz create these characters without letting them be overwhelmed by the violence that surrounds them? First, he introduces us to them in a place that lies outside of the violence: a coffee shop in El Paso, the safer side of the border. Of course, a coffee shop doesn’t have to be safe. Think about the coffee shop scene in the film Children of Men. When the bomb explodes, the viewer understands that no place in the film is safe. Sáenz could have done that in his story, but if he had, we wouldn’t have gotten a chance to know the characters except as people caught in violence—which is how we know Clive Owen’s character in the film. But the point is to know these characters as more fully developed people. So, Sáenz puts them in a safe place and shows us nuances of their lives:

I always noticed what he was reading: Dostoyevsky, Kazantzakis, Faulkner. He was in love with serious literature. And tragedy. Well, he lived on the border. And on the border you could be in love with tragedy without being tragic.

He drank his coffee black. Not that I knew that.

Sometimes, I could see that he’d just come in from a run, his dark wavy hair wild and half wet with sweat.

He was thin and had to shave twice a day. But he only shaved once. There was always that shadow on his face. Even in the morning light he appeared to be half hidden.

Sáenz develops these details. The two men have conversations about their jobs and families, and when the violence is mentioned, it’s in the contexts of these things. For instance, here’s one of the men, Javier, talking about his uncle, who has cancer and whose care is being managed by Javier:

“He used to love to go out. He would laugh and tell me about how life used to be for him. Now, he won’t go out. He’s afraid. Before, the only thing he was afraid of was my aunt. Now, he’s like a boy. He cries. He reads the newspapers. He thinks he’s living in Juárez. I tell him that we’re in El Paso, that he’s safe. But he doesn’t believe me. He’s afraid to go out. Nos matan, he says. I try to tell him that no one’s going to hurt us. But it’s no use. Every time I go out he tells me to be careful.”

By the end of the story, when the violence cannot be avoided, its inevitable arrival is so much more personal than if it had been directly present all along.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create characters in the midst of some overwhelming situation, using Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s story, “He Has Gone to Be with the Women,” as a model:

  1. Determine the overwhelming situation. As the writer Ron Carlson says, every story has two parts: the story and the world the story comes into. Almost every story, including blockbuster films whose sole purpose of existence is to blow stuff up, spends time developing the characters who will be consumed by the situation. In blockbuster films and many genre novels, though, the character development is as lean and minimal as possible (think of the description of Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code: “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed”). In those stories, the violence or destruction (or aliens, monsters) shows up almost immediately. But in Sáenz’s story, the violence doesn’t really appear until the end. So, decide what situation will eventually consume your characters: violence, family or marriage drama, economic distress, death, disease, or any inescapable deadline.
  2. Determine how that situation will affect the characters. You can be succinct. Someone will die, get sick, get divorced, get shipped off to prison or war or work in some far-off place, or get fired. Know where your story is headed.
  3. Put the characters in a place that is outside of the situation. You likely already know how the characters will behave or respond when the situation presents itself. There are, frankly, only so many ways that people can respond to inescapable deadlines or outcomes. Now, find out how your characters behave when the deadline is out of sight and (mostly) out of mind. Find a location where this is possible, some emotionally neutral or positive place. Put them there and see what they do. What other parts of their lives are revealed?
  4. Choose one of those parts and develop it. Sáenz gives Javier an ailing uncle, and that uncle’s health worsens. Think about the parts of your characters’ lives that you discovered: how can you make those parts dramatic? How can they change or develop (improve or worsen)? How can this change draw other characters into the person’s life? It is this dramatic arc that you’ll focus your story on. The inevitable deadline or outcome will arrive eventually, but if you make the reader forget that it’s there, its arrival will be all the more effective and impactful.

Good luck!

How to Break the Narrative Frame

10 Jun
Murray Farish's story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, includes stories about X, X, and X.

Murray Farish’s story collection, Inappropriate Behavior, was called “the best first collection I have read in years” by Elizabeth McCracken.

As writers, we often find ourselves frustrated at the difference between the story in our heads and what appears on the page. As we often imagine it, the story and its many parts exist all at once, smashed together in our minds. Connections between ideas are immediate. But on the page, these parts are broken into discrete paragraphs that put space and distance between the ideas and images. The best writers are able to eliminate that distance. We recognize such writing when we see it, but how can we create such prose ourselves?

Murray Farish’s story, “Inappropriate Behavior,” contains entire worlds in single paragraphs. The story is the part of the new collection, Inappropriate Behavior, from Milkweed Editions. Read it now at FiveChapters.

How the Story Works

Great narration often breaks the frame that is has set for itself. A paragraph that begins in a particular room, in a particular moment of time, will slide out of that room and moment of time. In this paragraph from “Inappropriate Behavior,” watch how Farish breaks out of the frame that he sets in the first sentence:

Once they finally get Archie to sleep, Miranda goes to bed because she has to work in the morning, and she’s liable to be up with Archie’s nightmares in an hour or two. George checks the ads on Monster, even though LaShonda at the outplacement agency says no one ever gets a job off of Monster. The only way to get a job in this economy is to meet people, LaShonda says. Network, network, network. George looks at Monster. He looks at hockey scores. He jerks off to porn. He e-mails résumés. The Internet costs $24.99 a month. He nurses his grievances. He reads the news. In Washington, Congress has averted a government shutdown. The deal includes another six months of unemployment benefits. Six more months? He can’t imagine what will happen if it’s six more months. Don’t let feelings of worthlessness ever enter your mind, LaShonda says. You are not worthless because you’ve been laid off. There is no stigma attached to losing a job in this economy.

The paragraph begins in George and Miranda’s house in St. Louis, in the moment after their son has fallen asleep. Yet very quickly it starts quoting someone, LaShonda, who is not present. It also reports political news from Washington D.C. When reading this paragraph, it’s possible that you don’t notice these shifts out of the initial frame. They seem like a natural part of the narrative voice. But almost every writer has experienced the frustration of feeling trapped in place and time, as their story’s narration is yoked to whatever is happening immediately in front of its gaze. So, how does Farish move away from the present moment?

He connects the present moment with another moment. Perhaps the most important phrase in the paragraph is “even though LaShonda at the outplacement agency says.” The phrase creates a bridge from the present moment to something that happened earlier and in another place. The next two sentences take place on the other side of that bridge, in the outplacement agency. This bridge is essential to the shifts that take place in the rest of the paragraph. Because the readers have been shown one bridge, they won’t be surprised when others are built—and built more quickly. For instance, the next bridge out of the initial frame contains no transition such as “even though.” Instead, the paragraph leaps from “He reads the news” to “In Washington, Congress has averted a government shutdown.” The shift happens much faster than the first one.

He shifts between moments again and again. A bridge is no good unless you use it. So, Farish stays in the political news for another sentence and then shifts back into George’s head in the present moment and then immediately into LaShonda’s advice from the outplacement agency.

Once the bridge out of the narrative frame has been built, you can jump out of the frame again and again, as many times as you want. It’s this kind of dynamic sense of place and time that makes great narration so wonderful to read. As readers, we’re constantly surprised (pleasantly) by where the prose takes us, by what unexpected bridges have been built.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s shift out of the narrative frame of a paragraph, using the passage from Murray Farish’s story “Inappropriate Behavior” as a model:

  1. Create a frame. Take any paragraph you’ve already written. Or write a new one. It can be about anything. The important thing is to give yourself a defined place and time: your characters are in this place at this moment. Farish’s paragraph is about what two parents do after their son falls asleep. The place is a house, and the time, we know from an earlier paragraph, is about eleven at night.
  2. Create a bridge out of the frame. The easiest way to do this is to connect something about the present place and time with something that is not within that frame. Farish uses a simple transitional phrase: “even though.” It works like this: Character does _____, even though So-and-So says not to. So, to create a bridge, you can make a character do something and then explain what someone else says about that particular behavior. That said, the bridge doesn’t require an action. You can do the same thing with an object: Character picks up a coffee cup, which So-and-So always hated/loved.
  3. Cross the bridge. Once you’ve got the bridge, go over it. Farish leaves George’s house at 11 p.m. and shifts into a placement agency on some previous day. Readers are savvy enough that if you directly mention someone or someone in a paragraph (and I’ve that something or someone an attitude or weight of being), then if you, in the next sentence, write from a POV that is close to that person or thing, the readers will figure out what’s going on. That said, the weight of being is important. It’s more difficult to build a bridge out of a weightless reference. Here’s an example: She listens to Bon Jovi and wonders what she’s going to do about Carl. If the writer suddenly crossed a bridge into Bon Jovi world, the reader would likely figure it out but might also wonder why Bon Jovi matters. The reference is weightless. So, give your reference weight by providing it with an attitude about what is happening or by letting it reflect, like a mirror, the attitudes of others (she always hated the coffee cup).
  4. Cross back to the other side. Very little transitional work is required. If you clearly set up the two sides of the bridge, the reader will understand what side they’re on.

Once you’ve built one bridge and crossed over it and crossed back, you can easily build more bridges. In his short paragraph, Farish creates and crosses over two. The story as a whole has dozens of bridges. As a result, it has set up the reader to perhaps accept an even greater break at the end, which I’ll look at tomorrow.

Good luck!

How to Set the Mood

13 May
Bret Anthony Johnston's debut novel, Remember Me Like This, has, according to Esquire, a "driving plot but fully realized characters as well"

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. The opening shots of any given episode of Breaking Bad, for instance, are pretty different from the opening of any episode of Parks and Recreation. One is almost always foreboding and dark, and the other is light, fast, and witty. Even if you were to encounter these shows with no knowledge of them, 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. The book is set on the Texas coast, in and around Mustang Island, a place that can inspire many emotions. But the novel quickly focuses on a specific mixture of them that hints at the story to come. You can read an excerpt at the Random House website.

How the Story Works

Most writers are probably familiar with John Gardner’s famous exercise for emotion in description: “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.” This is a brilliant exercise—unless you can’t do it. I’ve seen very good writers in workshops tackle this exercise and come up with nothing. Yet, Gardner’s goal of establishing emotion and mood through description is still a valid one; the thing that might be tripping up some writers is the exercise’s focus on an emotion stemming from a specific event: the son’s death. Emotion and mood can also be general, as seen in this paragraph from the first chapter of Remember Me Like This. Pay attention to the word choices Johnston makes, the way they seem to have been pulled from a stream with a pan that lets all but a certain kind of word sift out the bottom:

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.

You may have paused at these words and phrases: gauzy, glomming, close, pale as caliche, played-out, dragging, holding out, humid and harsh, stung like wasps, surrendered, cut bait, dogged, scalding. And, of course, there’s the static image of the cars lined up, waiting for the ferry. Taken together, the words don’t describe a particular emotion so much as a general sense of an end of things. If this was a film, it might be called a tone poem: the mood is unmistakable. As readers, we’re made uneasy.

And then there’s that last line: “Porpoises wheeled in the boats’ wakes, their bellies pink and glistening.” Its tone is markedly different, even the opposite of everything that came before it. It might be tempting, if reading this in a workshop, to suggest cutting the sentence. But, in fact, it might be the most important line in the paragraph. It’s the postcard from Hawaii taped to the bathroom mirror in a Chicago apartment in February—the reminder, good or bad, that there are other ways of being and other perspectives on the world. Placing this bright line in a dreary description makes the dreariness even harder to bear. It also suggests that there are entities in the world that relish conditions that the rest of us find unbearable.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set the mood in a story, using the passage from Bret Anthony Johnston’s novel Remember Me Like This as a model:

  1. Choose the place to describe. Be specific. Johnston shows us a particular spot on the beach. In the prologue, he focuses on the Harbor Bridge in Corpus Christi.
  2. Choose the moment to describe it. Descriptions tend to focus on moments of transition. So, Johnston shows us the beach as the weather is driving the surfers, fishermen, and sunbathers away. The bridge in the prologue is shown at its beginning and then in the moments before and after a group of people walking over discover something terrible. So, think about what often happens in the place you’ve chosen. Or think about an incident that occurs there in your story. Describe the place just before or after that moment has occurred.
  3. Choose the emotion or mood. Unlike your choice of place, specificity is less important here. It might even be easier to think in terms that are tangential to emotions: positive, negative, bright, dark, still, frenetic. Emotions like joy, sorrow, anger, or jealousy can be too pointed and produce obvious personifications: skies shedding tears, happy breezes, etc. Leave room for the language to surprise you. Sometimes you’ll discover lines like this one from Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke: “a child up on its knees on the mattress howled out of a face like a fist.”
  4. Choose a narrative arc. Think of the description as a story, with a beginning, middle, and end. For instance, Johnston begins with the weather conditions, which drive the people away, who then sit in line for the ferry while the porpoises swim. In other words, the end of the description should be different from the beginning: a narrative arc, no matter how small, is a way to ensure this.
  5. Write the description. Keep all of the above in mind: the moment of transition, the arc, the mood. After each phrase or sentence, take a look back at the nouns, verbs, and adjectives in it and ask yourself if they can be changed to fit the mood. Play around with the diction. In Johnston’s paragraph, the difference between “small waves” and “small played-out waves” is small but significant. That difference is the source of much of the pleasure in writing. Challenge yourself to lean toward the mood at every opportunity. If you lean too far, you can always pull back.

It’s possible that these steps may seem overwhelming. You might wonder if Johnston approached the paragraph in this way or if he simply wrote it. The odds are, he just wrote it, and perhaps you will, too. But one drawback to modeling your work after published writing is that you’re trying to achieve the same effect as someone who’s been working for many years. As beginners, we must sometimes parse out the processes that more experienced artists seem to manage naturally, without thinking. So, give yourself permission to scramble these steps, to forget some or focus more heavily on others. Let yourself experiment. You’re giving your imagination room to work.

Good luck!

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