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How to Write about an Unearthly Experience

17 Sep
Jamie Quatro's story collection I Want to Show You More made New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner "laugh and gasp at the same time."

Jamie Quatro’s story collection I Want to Show You More made New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner “laugh and gasp at the same time.” You can read “The Anointing,” a story from the collection, at Guernica.

When writing about religion, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to find language or images that match the intensity of the believer’s experience. The problem is that this language almost always requires comparison and metaphor: “it felt like a strong wind” or “it was like there was a fire in my chest”. Such writing is fine for an audience inclined to believe, but it almost always fails with skeptics.

One writer who succeeds in finding a language to describe religious experience is Jamie Quatro. Her story, “The Anointing,” from her debut collection I Want to Show You More, is a perfect example of a successful description of what can seem like an indescribable miracle. It was published at Guernica, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

In the Bible, most of Jesus’ miracles are described simply. The focus is almost always on the physical items involved, not on the experience. The apostles passed out the handful of loaves and fish, and the food never ran out. The water-from-wine at the wedding in Cannae tasted better than the wine from the original casks.

This is the same strategy used by Quatro in “The Anointing.” In the story, Diane’s husband is so depressed that he refuses to get out of bed. She has begun to fear for his life, and so she requests an anointing from the church elders. Here is how Quatro describes the kind of miracle that Diane has in mind:

“During evening worship—held in a makeshift auditorium beneath a stained canvas tarp—a boy with braces on his legs was brought forward by his mother, his wheelchair leaving tracks in the sawdust. The camp’s pastor removed the braces, knelt in front of the chair, and rubbed oil all over the boy’s white calves as if he were applying sunscreen. The following summer the boy came back to camp still wearing the braces, though now he used crutches with metal cuffs around the wrists.”

Notice the details that Quatro provides: the stained canvas tarp, tracks in the sawdust, oil applied like sunscreen. These are the mundane details of the physical world, not the language of spirituality. The result is that readers are more likely to set aside their natural skepticism.

Here is how Quatro describes the arrival of the church elders, the source of the miracle she hopes for:

“She thought they’d have a small phial, like a test tube—maybe something crystal—but Pastor Murray stepped in carrying a family-sized bottle of Wesson Oil. Diane was startled, not just by the oil (would something from Sam’s Club work?), but by the image of Florence Henderson that popped into her head, wearing padded mittens and frying up a mess of chicken.”

Because of the specific plainness of that description, we are engaged in the scene. We want to see the unearthly miracle that will (or will not) begin with that practical bottle of oil.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write about an unearthly experience using “The Anointing” as a model:

  1. Think of an experience that is either unearthly (a miracle or encounter with something unearthly like God, a ghost, or an alien). Or think of any experience that has a hard-to-explain effect on a character.
  2. List the items involved: the room, the furnishings, the personal items. Be specific in your list: not just oil but “a family-sized bottle of Wesson Oil.”
  3. Now, set the stage for the experience. Assume that your audience is skeptical and ready to dismiss the first inklings of something unearthly. (This is always the assumption made by magicians, and the next few steps you will follow are the same steps they follow as well.)
  4. State what is about to happen (the miracle or unearthly experience).
  5. Show the items that will be involved, both directly and indirectly. (In Quatro’s miracle with the boy in the wheelchair, oil is used directly but the tracks in the sawdust are indirectly involved.) Make the reader believe in the physical reality of the scene. (This is why everyone knows the passage in the Bible where Jesus asks Thomas to probe his wounds with his fingers. We’re struck by the physical reality of the physically impossible.)
  6. State and show someone’s skepticism: the narrator or another character. (In Quatro’s story, Diane sees the oil and wonders if “something from Sam’s Club” will work.)
  7. Draw the curtain. Remove the object of the experience from sight, either literally (the narrator or main character leaves the room) or briefly (the narrator or main character looks away for a moment or becomes distracted). Make the audience forget for even a few seconds what is anticipated.
  8. Show the miracle or unearthly experience. State it simply. If the experience is truly remarkable, no loaded language is necessary.

Good luck and have fun.

How to Write a Dream Sequence

20 Aug
Paul Yoon's novel, Snow Hunters, was published by Simon and Schuster. It follows the travels of Yohan, a Korean who leaves his country after the Korean War to start over in Brazil.

Paul Yoon’s novel, Snow Hunters, follows the travels of Yohan, a man who leaves his country after the Korean War to start over in Brazil. The novel prompted a New York Times reviewer to write, “One of the gratifications of literature is to know a character in a book more completely than we can know people in real life.”

Some writing teachers make a rule for stories submitted in workshop: No dreams. No dream sequences. They make this rule because badly written dreams are all the same. They “show” a character’s inner torments/thoughts rather than artfully imbedding them into the narrative. But if fiction is, in any way, supposed to imitate life, then dreams are fair game. The question is how to write them well.

Paul Yoon has written one of the best dream sequences I’ve ever read in his new novel Snow Hunters. You can read the first chapter here. The dream begins at the bottom of page 16.

How the Story Works

The passage begin with Yohan falling asleep and hearing sounds through the open window:

“the tapping of the rain and voices and a car and then a ship’s horn. A single chime of a church bell. a door opening. A song on the radio. The steady punches of a sewing machine. He heard aircraft and the dust spraying from trucks and the wind against the tents”

We get a short reflection on this noise from Yohan (“it was faint and calm and he did not mind”), and then the dream begins.

“He was riding a bicycle. He felt a hand on the small of his back. Someone familiar spoke to him and he said, —I can go a little longer, and he lifted a shovel and sank it into the earth. A group of children whistled and clapped. And then he was running his hands through a girl’s hair and she took his wrist and they moved through a corridor where rows of dresses hung from the ceiling. Those dresses turned into the sea.”

Then the dream ends. So why does this dream work? First, it has no clear message. It’s not telegraphing crucial information about Yohan’s interior life. At best, the message is mixed: the desire and need to push himself and the desire for friendship and love. The images are not accidental. They reflect encounters and experiences from waking life. Second, the dream does not predict the future. It doesn’t attempt to move the plot forward.  Though dreams sometimes cause us to act (dreaming that someone has an accident and then, upon waking, contacting that person), we tend to be skeptical of someone who claims that valuable information was gained in a dream.

So why does the dream work? Here are four reasons (and lessons to keep in mind):

  1. It’s so beautifully and simply written.
  2. It glides from image to image, never dwelling too long in one place.
  3. It’s short.
  4. The images reflect things we’ve already seen in the novel. The dream feels to us, the readers, the same as it does to Yohan. In other words, the dream feels like a real dream. And that is rare in fiction.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s practice writing a dream sequence, using Paul Yoon’s Snow Hunters as a model:

  1. Choose a character whom you’ve already created and written about.
  2. Bring the character home, to bed, after a long day—not after a life-changing event but simply a day in which things seem to be on the cusp of happening.
  3. When the characters’ eyes are closed, let the sounds of the world drift in. Be specific and precise. You’re describing that odd state in which the mind is both idle and resting and also alert and aware of its surroundings.
  4. Ease into the dream. If you’ve ever heard the voice/sound from the waking world in your dream (a spouse or child talking to you, a professor speaking, the alarm clock), then you know how permeable dreams can be.
  5. Make the dream a reflection of the images of the waking world. Treat the dream’s reflective power like that of an almost-still lake. Remember, the mind is not directing traffic any longer but instead letting images trickle through unfiltered. Move from image to image. End on one that best seems to fit the mood of the day.

Now you have a dream sequence. If it seems inconsequential, that’s good. Beware dreams of great import—unless you’re writing about the Virgin Mary. Let the dream become part of the character’s fabric and, thus, the fabric of the novel.

Good luck and have fun.

How to Set the Rules Your Characters Must Live By

13 Aug
Shannon Thompson's novel "Minutes Before Sunset" was a Goodreads Book of the Month in July.

Shannon A. Thompson’s novel Minutes Before Sunset was a Goodreads Book of the Month in July and tells the story of two young adults trying to balance their supernatural gifts with a desire to live in the human world.

Every story has rules. In comic books, the superheroes have certain powers and not others. In horror stories, monsters can be killed only with silver bullets or certain chants. In romances, the heroine falls for certain kinds of men and not others. Pam Houston wrote a novel titled Cowboys are My Weakness. The rules of the novel are announced before you even open the book. Every story ever written or told must announce the rules it will play by.

The trick, as a writer, is to show those rules without disrupting the narrative. Shannon A. Thompson sets the rules clearly and quickly in her Young Adult/Paranormal novel Minutes Before Sunset. You can read the first chapter here. 

How the Story Works

Once you’re aware of how stories set the rules that their characters must live by, you can’t avoid seeing it’s done. Whether the fiction is genre or literary, the need to impose boundaries and limitations on characters is the same.

Here’s an example from the title story of Ethan Rutherford’s excellent new collection The Peripatetic Coffin. The story’s about the crew of a Confederate submarine trying to break the Union blockade of the port of Charleston:

“On deck, we had an unobstructed view of what Augustus had dubbed our Tableau of Lessening Odds. The Federal blockade was stupefyingly effective. Union canonships patrolled the mouth of the harbor, just out of range, and sank anything we tried to send through with the insouciance of a bull swatting blackflies. At night, they resumed the bombardment of the city. High, arching incendiaries, numbering in the thousands, painted the sky. You felt the concussion in your chest.”

The world is imposing clear boundaries on the characters: literally, a blockade with cannon balls and bombs. At no point in the story will the characters be able to act as if these impediments do not exist.

But the boundaries and rules can be mental as well as physical. To see how, read these two excerpts from Shannon A. Thompson’s novel, Minutes Before Sunset:

“It was Independence Day, and I stood with my family on Willow Tree Mountain. They called it Willow Tree Mountain, but, in reality, it was Willow Tree Hill, and the town denied that reality.”

Here’s the second excerpt:

“I moved my foot closer to the edge of the hill. I wanted to ride the wind down to the crowd. I wanted to dance and smile. I wanted to throw my arms in the air and listen to the exploding fireworks. I wanted to run around in endless circles until I fell down from exhaustion. I wanted to enjoy everything.

But that couldn’t happen. It was impossible.”

In these two passages, we learn the fundamentals of the story: the town has an Ignorance-is-bliss attitude. The narrator would like to join the smiling townspeople, but, for a reason that will be revealed later, he’s prevented from doing so. This mental and physical limitation defines his character and determines how the story will move forward.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s practice setting the rules, using Minutes Before Sunset as a model:

  1. Choose a character and a world for that character to inhabit.
  2. Define the world with a single adjective: happy, sad, fearful, proud, bored, etc.
  3. Free write about that adjective. Your goal is to find an image of the world or the people in it that demonstrates the adjective, if possible without actually stating it. The image will set the rules for the world. Future descriptions of the world should adhere to this early image in some way. So, in Minutes Before Sunset, the town’s denial of the supernatural elements in its midst is suggested by the fact that it calls a hill a mountain. In Gone in 60 Seconds, the stovetop burns out of control to suggest Kip’s lack of control.
  4. Now, free write about the character. How does he/she feel about the image you just created? Try to find an action that suggests the character’s attitude toward the world. For instance, in The Hunger Games, the fact that Katniss sneaks through the fence in order to hunt suggests that she’s willing to break the rules to protect her family. Thus, the big event at the end of the first chapter—volunteering for the Games in place of her sister—feels like a natural extension of her character, of the attitude that we’ve already witnessed.

Good luck and have fun.

How to Introduce Setting

23 Jul
Marc Watkins story "Two Midnights in a Jug" appeared in Boulevard Magazine.

Marc Watkins story “Two Midnights in a Jug” won the 2008 Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writings from Boulevard Magazine. You can read the story here.

A basic element of all fiction is showing the reader where the story takes place. But how? Do you use a wide-angle lens or focus on details? If you zoom from one angle to another, when do you narrow or broaden the focus and how quickly or slowly?

Answers to these questions can be found in one of the most beautiful and well-crafted story openings I’ve read recently. “Two Midnights in a Jug” by Marc Watkins won the 2008 Boulevard Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers, and you can read the story here.

How the Story Works

Let’s focus on the opening paragraph:

“Follow any hollow in the Ozarks and it’ll come to river or stream where soft clay the color of rust covers jagged limestone along the banks. Mountains cut by water dot the horizon, their peaks smoothed over millennia into knolls and greened with trees. In Eminence, MO, folks call trailer courts neighborhoods and hundred year old farm houses with acreage equal to a football field are mansions. There’s one high school, and you’ll get sidelong looks if you finish. People will talk, call you learnt, expect you to work at the mega hog farm as manager with an education. You’ll need a wife, finding her’s easy cause every household’s got at least one daughter ready for marriage, and you won’t meet her at a bar, there’s only a few in town. More likely it’ll be at a church, there’s twenty inside city limits.

Here is where you’re born and here is what you are.”

The passage begins with a wide frame (any hollow in the Ozarks) and gradually zooms in on a particular town (Eminence, MO) and then parts of town (trailer parks, farmhouses, the high school, the mega hog farm). So far, the passage follows the basics of Describing Setting 101. But notice what happens next. The passage moves from physical setting to philosophical setting, i.e. what the people who live in the place think and how they talk. This transition is crucial to the story’s development because it allows the narrative to begin. There’s almost never any story inherent in place. Concrete is merely concrete, and trees don’t care what happens around them. It’s the people who walk on the concrete and sit beneath the trees that give those things meaning.

This transition from place to people happens all of the time in fiction. Look for it in the next story or novel you read. I bet you’ll find it.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s practice writing a description of setting that transitions from place to people.

  1. Choose the place.
  2. Write down the basics of the place’s geography, landscape, and physical features. If you’re describing an interior space, the same ideas still apply except that you’re describing floor plans and architecture rather than landscape. (It’s important to sketch these details out before actually writing the paragraph. Your brain doesn’t always give you details in the best order for prose.)
  3. Now, write about the sense that you have of the place: cultured/backward, beautiful/ugly, freeing/oppressive, spiritual/dead, exciting/dull, etc. Try to explain why you have this sense.
  4. Finally, describe the people who occupy this place: smart/dumb, happy/sad, cosmopolitan/provincial, motivated/depressed, etc. When you think of these people, what actions, habits, or things first come to mind?
  5. At last, let’s write the paragraph.
  6. Start with a wide frame: show us the largest view of the place that makes sense (i.e. the region/city/neighborhood and not the blue speck of planet Earth in the black universe.)
  7. Zoom into the specific place where the story is set. Do this in no more than four sentences.
  8. Transition to the people. Notice how Marc Watkins does this with the phrase “folks call trailer parks…” In the next sentence, he writes, “You’ll need a wife…” And then he moves directly to the people: “People will talk…” He’s transitioning from the Godlike objective view of a satellite looking down on Missouri to the subjective view of the people on the ground.
  9. Drive home the sense that you have of this place with the people’s actions or habits. Marc Watkins does this with details about finding a wife. When you finish this paragraph, you may be ready to write a story. Or at least you’ll have a few good sentences about setting.

Good luck and have fun.

Describe Setting Without Getting Lost in the Details

28 May
The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle is the debut novel from Jedah Mayberry.

The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle is the debut novel from Jedah Mayberry. You can read the opening pages here.

In a story or novel, how do you describe an entire town or geographical area without getting lost in the details?

Many writers have done it, memorably Toni Morrison in Sula and F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. Add to that list Jedah Mayberry, whose debut novel, The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle, begins with a description of a small New England town that demonstrates how to distill history, culture, migration, geography, and demography into a single short passage.

The novel is new out from River Grove Press, and you can read the opening pages here.

How the Story Works

Ernest Hemingway famously claimed that the best writing omitted far more detail than it included–meaning that a story or novel resembles an iceberg, ninety percent of which is underwater. Critics have turned this idea into a theory for art, but, in truth, it merely describes an inevitable problem faced by all writers: if you’re writing what you know, then you know more than can fit into the story. But you can’t simply include and leave out details randomly. You need a method. Mayberry’s method in The Unheralded King of Preston Plains Middle becomes clear in the first sentence:

“The village of Preston is largely defined by the things it is not, by the things its expanse of working farms and decaying historic landmarks serve to divide.”

The novel tells us explicitly how it will organize details about the town. Any that do not fit into the idea of absence or division are left out. The Great Gatsby does something similar in its opening description of East and West Egg:

“I lived at West Egg, the—well, the less fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them.”

In this passage, the writing quickly moves to descriptions of Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan. Those characters stand for the difference between the two places. As a result, the setting helps create character.

So that you can see how common this strategy is, here’s the opening of Sula by Toni Morrison:

“In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom.”

Morrison gives us her organizing principle right away: the way the neighborhood looks now versus the way it looked then. That difference helps introduce the story, which is in part about the relations between the people who once lived in the neighborhood and the ones who have turned it into a golf course.

In all of these examples, the writers clearly identify the way they will organize details about a town or area. A place that is vast and filled with innumerable things is reduced to a single passage in a book. In other words, only the tip of the iceberg is revealed.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s follow the example set by Jedah Mayberry, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Toni Morrison.

  1. Choose a town or area to describe.
  2. Write a definition of the town that creates two groups, a la Fitzgerald and Morrison. For instance: “Everybody there was dumb except for the cops.” Or, “The town had a railroad line running through the middle of it, but the division wasn’t between poor and rich but between people living in rundown shacks and people sleeping on the ground.”
  3. Now, try writing a definition of the town that identifies a broad organizing principle, a la Mayberry. For example: “The town was defined by the opportunities it had missed.” Or, “So many people had ended up in the town by accident that everything about the place seemed ruled by random chance.”
  4. Finally, describe the town. Use the definition as inspiration and as a guide for the details.

In both #2 and #3, you can switch the order around. So, you can write the definition but save it. List the details first and then finish the description with the definition. Either way you use the strategy, you’ll begin seeing it in almost every story and book that you read.

Good luck.

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